What’s Your Story?

I attended a wedding about 5 years ago.  It was a wedding for my wife’s cousin Andy.  Andy was my wife’s youngest cousin, and he had just recently completed the “wild oats” portion of his life, where he had earned the nickname “Skip Goodlove.”  One of his fraternity brothers gave him that name because Andy was in the habit of taking odd jobs and working for a while somewhere, then hitting the road and starting over.  If you have seen the film “The Big Chill”, Andy was like the character in the film played by Kevin Costner.  You may be thinking, I don’t recall Costner in that film.  Alas, he was in it.  He played the character that brought the friends all together.  He was the deceased.  Andy was that guy, right down to the suicide, but not yet.  This was Andy’s wedding.

In the film, the various characters talked about their memories of Alex, who had been a brilliant student at University of Michigan, but who had lost his way, and eventually lost connection with the others while they pursued their respective lives.  The story describes the evolution of souls from the idealism of youth to the pragmatism of purpose in middle age.  Similarly, our Andy, “Skip Goodlove”, was a straight “A” student at Miami University in Finance.  He was also the president of his fraternity.  Andy, like Alex, never managed to transition into the world of the “Chill”.  His soul seemed to be more at home on the winds where vagabonds live.  

His father, TJ, my “Uncle MAGA”, had asked me once, a couple of years earlier, “why do you think Andy doesn’t have a girlfriend?”  At that time, “Skip Goodlove” had returned home, and was living with his parents and working construction.  It was amusing for my wife and me, as her aunt Janie, TJ’s wife, and Andy’s mother, gave a tour of one of their homes.  She is a sweet, loving, very Christian woman.  You will never find a kinder, more loving person than Janie.  And as we got the tour of their home, we passed Andy’s bedroom.  Janie described it as “only temporary.”  You may have had to be there for the hilarity of it, but the emphasis placed on this description communicated a great deal.  There was a bit of discomfort in the fact that this baby bird had seemingly failed to launch, and Janie wanted to make sure we did not get the wrong impression of my wife’s cousin.  

We didn’t.  There wasn’t a darned thing wrong with Andy, and we felt no urgency to see him evolve.  TJ and Janie could certainly afford it.  That was part of what was so amusing about it.  Skip Goodlove had just completed a tour of the continental U.S., and sleeping on various friends couches, etc, and had landed back in the lap of luxury in his parent’s home.  He was going to Episcopal services with his parents, and golfing at their club.  Deciding whether or not to attend meals with them at the club, or grazing from the refrigerator over these exquisite meals that Janie made at home.  He was a loving son, and his parents were loving parents.  We saw no problem.  Skip would come around in his own time.

Then, before you could say “Ronald Reagan”, there was a girlfriend.  She was/is beautiful, and pleasant.  They got along great, and their relationship seemed to go from dating, to engagement in a very short time.  Maybe 10 months after the wedding, there was a daughter.  And then there were three.  

We gathered for the wedding on a private island where TJ and Janie had another home.  At the center of this island community is yet another golf course, and yet another club.  Clubs are at the center of TJ and Janie’s life.  That alone may be somewhat misleading, because they are also quite genuinely religious.  Christianity and family are also at the center of their lives.  So, as we gathered for the wedding where Skip Goodlove would permanently become Andy, husband and eventually father, my wife and I were immersed in severals days of Chardonnay, Gin and Tonic, sumptuous meals, and various outings around the island and the mainland communities.  

Time with TJ and me was always easy, although our politics could not be more different.  TJ absolutely unloads with me.  He confides me in like he never has with his sons, Andy, and TJ Jr.  Some  of my favorite times with TJ are when he gets a couple of his favorite Montecristo cigars, and we go to a special room, or porch, and just talk a built the world as it is, or as it should be.  It was one of those times when he asked me why Andy didn’t have a girlfriend.  

At the reception dinner, Amy and I were given a special place at the main table.  TJ was on one side of us, and Janie on the other.  TJ sat next to me, in tears most of the time, unloading various bits and pieces of family history.  Later that day, I became acquainted with TJ’s brother in law, Jim.  Jim is also a wonderful man.  He’s a Republican like TJ and Janie, but definitely not MAGA.  Before long, after talking with Jim, he was also in tears, talking about how good it has been for TJ to talk to me.  Mind you, I never had any sense that I was doing anything for TJ.  I just enjoy him.  But, it was Jim’s view that TJ was able to unburden himself with me, and for some reason, seeing that unburdening was a great relief to him as well.  

When I finally got away from the two old dudes, Amy and I got to spend time with her cousins.  All of us are middle aged.  Andy was the youngest.  This involved mingling around the island home, holding glasses of Chardonnay.  There were also a few bourbons in the room.  Since I only had a few days in this environment, I decided to take advantage by putting a notepad and pen in my shirt pocket, so that I could record any fascinating expression or turn of a phrase, of which I was not familiar.  People had traveled from various parts of the country, and the environment were were in was quite different, so I thought I was bound to find grist for the mill.  

As pleasant and festive as it was, it seemed to lack a certain something.  On the surface, everyone was so freakin’ happy.  I sensed no…conflict.  So, I went looking for it.  One by one I peeled one of the three cousins that I knew the least, and asked them, “so, what’s your story”?  The first two were Mary and Dirk.  Mary is Jim’s daughter, and Dirk is her husband.  They are both Amazon executives.  Dirk all by himself is an interesting character.  He looks like a Bond villain, and he drove a yellow Corvette.  And when I say yellow, I mean YELLOW.  It was fun for Amy and me because I think Dirk kept a rag in his pocket and wiped the car off whenever he got out of it.  And, as for the yellow.  You know what it is to see something yellow and recognize the color.  This was more than that.  This car could drive up behind you in the dark, and without turning around you could recognize that it was yellow.  It was that yellow.  Amy and I call that, “Dirk Yellow”.  

So, in one of the rooms where the events of the evening had moved, I slid over to Dirk and asked, “so, what’s your story?  What are you politics?”  Dirk looked at me and turned white.  Whiter than he already was.  He mumbled something about being nervous about the subject because his were different from “the family’s”, principally TJ’s Janie’s and Jim’s.  I also sensed that Dirk thought I was a conservative.  I told him, “dont make any assumptions.  Just tell me.”  So, he told me.  Dirk was a liberal.  So was Mary.  Dirk was also a Navy veteran.  In fact, TJ and Jim were also military veterans, so that made 4 of us.  Two middle aged liberals and two Vietnam era conservatives.  

Dirk and Mary are two brilliant minds, and very successful executives, so, their reticence about showing their philosophical differences confused me.  They could easily hold their own, if it came to that.  They were very well informed.  And while the seeds of intellectual conflict did exist, intellectual debate never sprouted.  A certain establishment view held sway.  I call it the power perspective, The justice perspective didn’t show its face.  There was disagreement within the power perspective.  TJ liked Trump, and Jim thought he was a jackass.  (This was 2015).   

I was disappointed at first.  I really felt like I found no conflict.  It essentially took the next five years, and some thought about what it means to live in America to be able to begin to comprehend what conflict existed within that happy, privilege environment.  Let me say here that while it was a privileged environment, for this context, it is sociological privilege, and not being privileged that I intend to focus on.  Often the discussion of privilege gets conflated with having privileges.  That is a misunderstanding.  Privilege in this context involves a separation from everyday obstacles in the navigation of daily life.  It is not just a worldview, but also a way the world views you.  And while privileges, like having servants at the various events, of which there were several, privilege is more like whether or not life channels you into being a servant, or a corporate executive.  Members at Andy’s wedding had different philosophical orientations, but they drank wine from the same bottles, in the same rooms, at the same clubs.  No conflict to be seen.

Five years later, we are all looking at our nation, and wondering what will become of it.  Most of us managed to get out and vote, in one way or another, to make sure that the country did not continue on the path that it started to take once Donald Trump became president.  Maybe all within the range of my blog page are already voters.  This would be an issue oriented group.  And most of us, if not all, agree that removing Trump from office was what was needed.  Now, eighteen days after the election, we can’t be absolutely certain that the direction we chose will come to fruition.  Trump is trying to achieve his personal ends in defiance of that which we took for granted as the lawful, just principle.  A transition in power is highly likely, but not as certain as we are accustomed to.  And this reality, five years after the gathering for Andy’s wedding, the conflict in America has become painfully clear.

In a Black family, no matter how middle class comfortable, one would not have to search for a social justice debate.  I can recall mention of discussions in my own family of that young loud-mouthed Muhammad Ali, who had abandoned Christianity for Islam, creating a schism among an otherwise homogenous group.  I remember my father being the outlier in that group, claiming that Ali was a promising youngster with a point.  My Aunt Nancy, my Mom’s sister, was the most vocal Christian soldier opposed to Ali’s change of religion, and conduct.  I was more familiar with seeing the boiling pot of controversy, so it was curious to be a party to the Chardonnay silence of my wife’s family.  

But, now, it is becoming clear how “and justice for all” was just poetry, inserted in the pledge more for rhythm than meaning.  This conflict between systems of justice and systems of power exists everywhere there are systems, and power is the orthodoxy.  This last five years has included things which most of us thought we would never see in our country.  This is especially so for this year, 2020.  Conservative or liberal, bigoted or not, we all looked down on other countries, to one degree or another, for what they had to endure.  Look at the poor people.  What a pity.  Look at the political instability.  If only they were more like us.  Loom at the rampant disease.  Don’t they wash?  Look at how they lock up children in cages.  Savages!  

Well, that’s us now.  And when I think, how can they do that, condone that? Some of these conflicts within the Chardonnay party begin to come into view.  We are all making choices regarding how much comfort we want, and how much conflict we can stand.  We are making those choices every day.  I have a harder time these days choosing comfort.  More than ever, I would like to push the accelerator for social justice.  That notion seems to bother 47.5% of the country.  

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