Half the reason debates about politics or religion lead nowhere is because those willing to enter into such debates already hold very strong convictions. The other half of the reason is because people end up talking apples and oranges.
My Uncle Pete is a hardcore conservative Republican. He was not born into wealth or privilege. He was the product of my grandmother's first marriage, which was a disaster on many levels. When my grandmother remarried, entering into a union with my future grandfather, he was all but discarded. My grandfather was of the mindset that divorce was an unholy sin and that my grandmother's son, produced from a marriage that was both bizarre and tragic, should not be welcome in their home. Because of this, my uncle was raised by an aunt on Long Island while my grandmother and grandfather started a new life together.
Peter had a reputation as a troublemaker and a less than exemplary student. After high school he joined the Army and served in the Korean War. He went on to the University of Vermont with the assistance of the military and by working whatever jobs he could find. He graduated near the top of his class and became an electrical engineer. He got married and had two children, then set to work on an MBA and involved himself in the sales end of the company he worked for as an engineer. When I first knew my Uncle Pete, he was never anywhere to be found. He was like a ghost. He worked non-stop, attempting to achieve the American dream in all its capitalist glory. My earliest memory of him was in the very early 1970s. We were at his home, with my aunt and two cousins, on Christmas Eve and he did not come home until late that evening. He was like some kind of strange Santa Claus, dropping off presents and then disappearing into the night again. A few years later, Uncle Pete and his first wife were divorced.
Uncle Pete came back into my life several years later. In addition to his work as an engineer and his devotion to business, he took on a weekend job. He became Ronald McDonald, putting on the costume and visiting various McDonald's restaurants in a camper. He did magic shows and comedy. He served as the Ronald McDonald for the Connecticut and Western Massachusetts region for ten years. Peter is a fierce negotiator and a relentless force. He is the only retired Ronald McDonald who convinced the company to let him keep the costume. His key argument related to his baldness. "People seem to like me as a redhead."
My attitude towards Uncle Pete changed in the late 70s. Where there had been a somber and serious man obsessed with work and business, there was now this guy who put on a clown costume on the weekends and performed with energy and enthusiasm to the delight of children. This was a different person than the one I knew as a young boy. He remarried, bought a beautiful house in Glastonbury, Connecticut, and hosted many family gatherings. His second wife, who is now known only as Brand X (he insists a curse will fall upon any in the family who speak her name), was ten years younger than him. My younger brother and I loved spending time with Brand X when she still had a name. She liked to play games and she loved rock and roll music. Her brother worked as the sound engineer for the band Styx when they toured.
During this time, Peter and my grandmother found the time and the words to forgive each other and to start over. My grandfather had died in 1968 and the rift between them needed to be filled. There was only one real problem in their new relationship. My grandmother did not like Brand X. Everyone else loved Brand X. She was friendly, personable, modern and a fantastic hostess. It eventually became another episode of my family's ongoing sit-com, "Grandma is always right." At the time, however, Peter resented his mother's outspokeness. My grandmother, you see, doesn't mince words. She gives you her opinions and states her feelings without sugar coating them. While the rest of us were having an absolute lovefest with Brand X, grandma told us she was arrogant, pompous and controlling. She also came from a very wealthy family and my grandmother does not like people who inherit wealth, a long standing prejudice that dates back to The Great Depression.
Uncle Pete was famous for many things, whether it was his skills at winning people over or the fact that he chain smoked Kools and drank Scotch like water. One night, when I was still in high school, we were sitting out on the screened deck Peter had built. Everyone else had gone to bed, leaving just myself and Uncle Pete sitting and wondering what to talk about. We ended up having the most enlightening political dialogue I've ever experienced.
The Flushing System.
If you thought of it in simple terms, you would expect the night to degenerate into name calling and raised voices. Uncle Pete was as far to the right as I was to the left. The subject of our discussion was trickle down economics and the recent ascension of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the United States of America. I renamed it "The Flushing System," comparing it to a mountain where the wealthiest and most powerful people sit at the top of the mountain. As we travel further down the mountain we find people with less money and privilege until we get to the bottom where those with nothing reside. In effect, everyone on the mountain has a toilet and when they flush that toilet, it flows down the mountain. Those at the top live in well mannered cleanliness. Those at the bottom are waist deep in shit.
It was supposed to be an attack on trickle down economics, but instead of launching return fire, Uncle Pete could not stop laughing. When he regained his composure and fetched himself another Scotch and brought me a beer, he smiled and told me, "You are absolutely right."
For years it would become an inside joke between us. If we were all going out to dinner and we saw a homeless man on the side of the road, Uncle Pete would look at me and we'd both nod and mutter, "The flushing system." It would be the night we bonded. His return to my life had been mostly caused by my relationship with his second wife, Brand X, who enjoyed much of the music I enjoyed and took an active interest in my writing. It would not be until that night that Uncle Pete and I became close. The flushing system was funny because it was so tragic, and yet it reminded us that when it came to politics and society, Uncle Pete talked apples and I talked oranges.
He talked about operating within the system and finding ways to climb higher on the mountain. I was talking about levelling the mountain. It wasn't practical to level the mountain, he argued. It wasn't practical to keep the mountain, I countered.
The thing was, we agreed about the mountain. We came to a point where we both admitted we saw the mountain and we knew what it was about. The existence of the mountain, he said, gives us a reason to climb instead of settling on mediocrity. "If I am waist deep in shit, I am climbing to a higher place. What better motivation could there be?" he argued. "There are those who climb, but what about those who are born on the top of the mountain and those who are born at the bottom? All I'm saying is level the field so everyone starts at the same point and let them determine their course from there. Let them build hills of their own, but the mountain is wrong," I countered.
We understood each other's point and agreed we were talking apples and oranges. He believed in working within a system and told me no matter what the system was, he would work to climb the mountain and once there he would do everything in his power not to slide further down the mountain. This was the reality, he explained, and it was the right of those who had climbed the mountain to protect their interests and their position. I did not argue the point, as it is only human nature to take the course he described. My argument was not with Uncle Pete. Everything he had and everything he had done was the result of his hard work and perseverance. What you earn, you keep. I have no issue with that. My issue was with the starting point on the mountain, not with the mountain itself.
Uncle Pete grasped my issue. It was not difficult as an example existed within his own home. Brand X came from a very wealthy family. Although she worked full time as an advertising executive and earned a very comfortable salary, she had never struggled. When she was younger, she knew she could go to any college she chose and it would be paid for by her family without question. There was no need to enlist in the military, fight in a war and work your way through college towards a degree. Everything was handed to Brand X on a silver platter, at least in a financial sense. Her family was worth more than a billion dollars by the early 1980s and she could have quit her job and moved into an apartment in Manhattan and not worked for the rest of her life and been just fine. The thing that amused Uncle Pete was that Brand X and her family were hardcore, lifelong members of the Democratic Party.
When it came to our lengthy discussion about the flushing system, we had no problem agreeing that it existed. It was only in our approach that we differed. Uncle Pete's journey from penniless orphan to the owner of his own very successful business, making shipping containers for delicate instruments, was his benchmark. If he could do it, why couldn't anyone else? This was his argument and I had no place to debate it. People did not deserve handouts and charity. This only detracted from their ability to overcome and persevere. Instead of questioning the ability to rise above, I instead hinted at the sacrifices, bringing me back to my earliest memories of Uncle Pete. Although he had been making a comfortable living as an engineer and was more than capable of supporting his family and living a decent life, he strived for more. In doing so he became estranged from his first wife and two children, working day and night to achieve something more. There were costs involved with climbing the mountain, I said, and perhaps many people would rather just find their little patch of happiness and try to make it last.
We ended up trying to write an article together about the flushing system. It never really went anywhere, aside from appearing in a photocopied "magazine" I was producing at the time with just under a hundred readers. Regardless of what it all meant, that night with Uncle Pete taught me a great deal about political and social discourse. As a result, I've become a rather extreme leftist who has no problem enjoying a discussion with conservative capitalists. That night taught me about the relative importance of apples and oranges.
Strangely enough, Uncle Pete and I experienced a similar trauma as the 1980s came to a close. He discovered Brand X was having extra-marital affairs at the same time I discovered my live-in girlfriend was doing the same. We had both discovered our partners with other men in the living rooms of our own homes at pretty much the same time. Uncle Pete cursed his second wife as they divorced, bringing about the Brand X label. It was born as much from maliciousness as it was about his feeling that her wealth and privilege had left her spoiled and aimless. Two years later he became involved with another woman, who he nearly married. The funny thing about this woman was that she came from a family worth ten times what Brand X's family was worth, having multiple billions as a result of her grandfather having invented fingernail clippers and her family still controlling 80% of the market. Believe it or not, fingernail clippers are big business.
Uncle Pete is one of the most amazingly charming individuals I have ever met. There is perhaps one person within my family who has more charm and power than he does, but this other person is still rather young and is the youngest son of my mother's long-term boyfriend. Chris joined the United States Marine Corps and spent much of his early years in the military teaching generals how to play a better game of golf, which resulted in his receiving rather interesting appointments. The first woman to graduate from advanced helicopter flight training in the Marine Corps happens to be Chris' girlfriend. Uncle Pete just has the amazing ability to look thirty years younger than he actually is and command attention in any setting. Pete used to make the same joke every time we went out to dinner. "I'll have the fish, just for the halibut." I've never known anyone who could make that lame joke work once, but he made it work many times. That alone would qualify Uncle Pete as an amazing character.
Uncle Pete had a problem with women. It wasn't that he could not attract the attention of women. He was very good at that. His strong and charismatic personality could draw anyone into his orbit. His problem was that he was deathly afraid of a woman using him for money and resources, and so he tended towards women who were independently wealthy. Despite his baldness, which he uses effectively in marketing himself, he is graced with the weird Norwegian gene my grandmother carries. Those of us who carry this gene appear to be much younger than we are. After he retired to Fort Meyers, Florida at the age of seventy he went to play a round of golf and was told, "I'm sorry, sir, this is a seniors golf course. You have to be fifty years of age of older to play here." He gets his driver's license out more often than I do.
Then came the day the flushing system returned and I accused Uncle Pete of being a closet socialist. After several years with his extremely wealthy girlfriend, he was growing disenchanted. She always wanted to go out to the finest restaurants and take expensive first class trips. She also expected Peter to pay for everything, as he was the man in the relationship. She was draining his resources, and he complained, "I'm worth six figures and she's worth ten figures. The least she could do is pay for some of these things."
Uncle Pete was no longer at the top of the mountain. He was somewhere on its northwestern slope. He was unable to keep up and unwilling to let a woman carry him through life. It was a strange predicament. A man who had plenty of financial resources being pushed to the point where he could not afford the lifestyle of his mate. It took him years to realize he was undoing all he had done in life. This woman worked a mostly ceremonial job for her family's corporation. She had someone come in weekly to perform manicures, pedicures and do her hair. She embraced luxury and lavished in its graces. She had done less to justify her position in society than Brand X. Eventually, he bailed out. He retired, sold the company he built himself from scratch, and took to living in a retirement community in Florida. She wanted no part of it and for a while they maintained a seasonal relationship. In the summer he would return to Connecticut and live with her. In the winter he would live in his house in Florida.
Some people do not belong at the top of the mountain.
It was frustrating for Uncle Pete after his split with his insanely wealthy girlfriend. On one hand he had taken on his mother's distaste for those who fell into wealth and looked down on those who struggled. On the other hand he resented those who wanted a free ride through life and felt they deserved it. A couple years ago I went down to Fort Meyers along with my mother and her boyfriend Al to see Uncle Pete and his new home. I had never seen Uncle Pete so happy, but at the same time I saw an emptiness in him, one he often took to filling with one more Scotch on the rocks. He reminded me of the flushing system and told me he was done flushing. His life would not go on forever and it was time to stake his claim to the last patch of earth he would occupy. He had become friends with all his neighbors and accompanied them to traditional retirement events. He would just enjoy himself. This was his vision of retirement. No ties, no chains, just a daily vision of enjoying life to the fullest.
It may seem strange that of all the people in my family, I feel I am more like Uncle Pete than any of them. In reality he is only my mother's half-brother, but no one ever says that out loud. His father was seriously mentally ill, something my grandmother found out only after they were married. I don't know if Uncle Pete ever met his father, he does not speak of him ever. I once gave his father a quarter. After the divorce, my grandmother's first husband became homeless and would sit in an alley in Brooklyn begging for change. My grandmother went to see him often, usually bringing me along, never telling me who the man was until many years later. She often brought him food and money without my grandfather's knowledge. It was our little secret for many years. I probably knew Uncle Pete's father better than he did.
Not long after the events of 9/11, Uncle Pete lost most of his money. It was the result of daring stock market investments that came apart. He was heavily invested in Enron, amongst other things, and within a year his financial holdings dwindled to next to nothing. Before this happened, we made our visit to his new home in Fort Meyers. I called him "the widow killer," as now that he was living in a retirement community, every widow in the area had their radar focused on him. Here was a seventy-two year old man who looked like he was forty-eight. He had money, he had charm, he had security.
The first night we visited Uncle Pete in his new surroundings, he took us out to this German-American social club. The strangest thing about it was the collection of very old looking Germans who appeared to be clinging to some kind of Nazi image, wearing eye patches and speaking in heightened German. Beyond that, I could not help noticing this very slight, mousy woman who could not stop watching and listening to Uncle Pete. She had recently been widowed and was living alone. I told Uncle Pete several times that this woman was fixated on him, but in his usual self-effacing style, he made light of the "widow killer" concept and we went home.
They are now married. After many years in which Uncle Pete vowed he would never marry again, turning away many suggestions by his former billionaire girlfriend, he got married to a woman who had nothing in a financial sense. He married someone who was just struggling to stay alive after learning her husband had not provided for her when he passed on. He married someone who needed him for support and stability. He married someone who would care about him, love him and stand beside him. After seventy-five years of life he finally found his patch of green grass.
The flushing system, indeed.