Dinner With My Cousins

This is a long-winded story that doesn’t have much of a point, certainly not one that justifies the tale’s length. But I’ve been thinking about it for two days, and decided to record it for posterity (translation: I want to express my view about it). So as always, feel free to ignore what follows, because this truly is a random musing.

I had dinner with my cousins Friday night. No big deal. We get together once year. But on this evening, four days before a major election, an otherwise ordinary annual event became, for me anyway, a lesson in what it means to be an American.

First the participants:

1. Myself and my husband. I’m moderate; center-of-the-road and wishing there were a party for someone like me (although I’m not dumb enough to waste my vote on fringe third parties.) He’s 68 years old. Liberal. A university professor. We vote mostly Democratic. (I’ve never voted a straight ticket in my life and won’t this time, either.) We support Obama.

2. The Iowa Cousins: They are both in their late forties and have high school educations. She used to work in a doctor’s office. Now she’s a stay-at-home mom with her five-year-old son. He has worked for 30 years in a white-collar job for a national trucking company. Started in sales and now manages service teams in four midwestern cities. Spends lots of time traveling from one office to another. They’re middle class and doing okay, but as with everyone else, economic devastation is hitting home. They are conservative. He is, by his own admission, racist. He would never vote for a black man. He also does not think women ought to hold high office. He makes no bones about this. They support McCain. (*1)

3. The California Cousins. Both in their fifties. They live in Orange County, California (Laguna Beach, to be precise) and have the kind of income you’d expect from professionals in southern California. They support Obama. She worked as nurse in her 20s; now publishes one of those weekly advertising tabloids. He is a doctor who specializes in emergency medicine. He was head of ER medicine at a large Orange County hospital and is still on staff there. But several years ago, he and some other ER docs founded a company that specializes in providing efficient ER care. They’re taking the company national. He’s now a company VP and spends much of his time on the road dealing with their partner hospitals. He is devoted to his work and believes fervently that ER medicine needs to improve in costs and efficiency. In his opinion, ER medicine is the point of entry for people who can’t afford “regular" medical care and it needs to be as efficient as possible. Everyone will benefit.

No surprise, Ultra Liberal California Female Cousin and Ultra Conservative Iowa Male Cousin spar about politics. So of course the first hour of dinner, the two of them attacked each other’s candidates. (There was, I should add, much alcohol involved.)

But then -- the evening took a different turn. At some point, we stopped the political jibing and started talking about daily life in these United States.

The most interesting comments came from Iowa Male Cousin. He is on the frontlines of every issue facing the U.S. today. He works for a shipping company, a big one. And of course, when the economy slows down, so do the number of truckloads that need to be delivered. “No one’s job is safe," he said. “No one’s."

Both Male Cousins expressed their aggravation with their younger co-workers. “They just don’t want to work," said Iowa Male Cousin, frustrated by what he sees as laziness. California Male Cousin is also frustrated by younger docs coming up the ranks, who seem to want everything but aren’t willing to work hard to earn it.

Iowa Male Cousin noted that in the past few years, he’s hired lots of “Mexican" workers. This is not a guy who likes foreigners or non-whites, but he praised their willingness to work hard. He also expressed his anger that “Americans" won’t work hard and refuse to work at blue collar jobs. He’s frustrated by the Postville situation.(*2) As far as he’s concerned, the meatpacking plant was a good source of jobs. He’s thinks it’s criminal that the owners resorted to hiring illegal aliens and then cheated them.

And then he related something that happened recently at work: One of his “Mexican" employees came into the office a few weeks ago and told the secretary that he had a new social security number and could she please add it to his file? A new social security number? Iowa Male Cousin said that at first he was baffled. How can anyone get a new social security number?

You can see where this is going: The guy was an illegal alien who had applied for and gotten his job using bogus papers and a bogus social security number. But now he was legal and had a “real" social security number. Iowa Male Cousin had to fire the guy. He was upset that he had to do so. Angry and frustrated and, most important, he felt betrayed. Not by the employee but by the system.

1. First, he’d had to fire a good employee. As he said, good workers are hard to find and now he was short one worker. But it was company policy. The guy had lied about his application.

2. He felt like an idiot that he had not thought to check the guy’s papers. He simply assumed the papers were legal

. 3. He likes the employee and hated to fire anyone, especially in this economy. As my cousin noted, the guy has a family, and now they have less income.

4. He’s angry that the system is this screwed up and that American workers don’t want these kinds of jobs and that the Mexican guy had no choice but to lie. (And, of course, my cousin realizes that the Mexican guy was himself duped. He’d paid for the papers and believed the person who sold him the papers: that yes, this was enough to get him a job and no one would ever find out.)

Anyway --- there’s no real point here except that in this political season, it’s been too easy to forget that there are real human beings and real-life experiences behind every political point of view. Conservatives and liberals alike -- we believe what we believe in large part because of our daily experiences. But those daily experiences are complex and as a result, so are our beliefs. I don’t think anyone on the right or left holds a black-white-no-shades-of-grey point of view. Life’s too complicated.

More important, however, we’re Americans and that unites us more than our beliefs divide us. As the six of us sat around the table, we were, despite the disparity in our incomes, our educations, and our politics, united in our love of country, our frustration by what we confront every day, and our mutual desire not just for change, but for a better America.

As Iowa Male Cousin said: “I don’t even care anymore who gets elected. I just wanted some leadership. We need to start solving these problems."

To which I say: Amen

. _____________________________

*1: I should note that he may be softening on the racism thing. Five years ago, he and his wife adopted a baby boy. Their son’s biological father, whom they met during the adoption process, is a Mexican-American.

*2: Google Postville and meatpacking. There's a ton of news coverage about this.