I breezed through my freshman year at Marietta College. I carried five subjects—math, chemistry, physics, English and geology, 18 hours of credit—and ended up with a 4.5 average. Naturally, I emerged from that experience just a little bit too cocky. I also had decided to be a GDI and not pledge. As the next fall rolled around, I acquired a freshman girlfriend; I’ll call her Debbie. I discovered bridge through Debbie, and I went wild. I did love to play cards, but bridge was not a game that came with my family. Those games were canasta, poker, and pinochle, games at which my parents, uncles and aunts were masters. Unfortunately, Debbie went home to the East Coast at the end of her first semester, and I was a contributing factor in that eventuality. Decades later, I would encounter her on TV by chance channel surfing, and I was glad to see that for all appearances, she had made a successful life for herself.
I have loved bridge ever since my sophomore year in college, when my freshman girlfriend and I would get to the student union early in the morning, securing a seat at one of the bridge tables in order to play as long as possible. If you got up, you lost your seat. A couple had more chance of keeping their seat, because one would save the place while the other would run to the bathroom or to get a snack. One time while I was playing bridge all day long, the rising waters of the Ohio River blocked my return home, and my father had to come get me in a rowboat, he, angry and disgusted, I, embarrassed and chagrined. Like, bridge over, troubled waters. Eww. My silly pun has a purpose, though. The game of bridge does have this aspect of drawing people together despite the cares of the world. People of all political and religious persuasions can spend some quality time together in this make-believe, carefree world, and ignore their differences and the crisises that surround them.
It wasn’t long after we moved to a suburban independent living community near St. Louis that Stephen and I started foraging around for a bridge game. We discovered that there were many bridge games going on throughout the week, but only women were participating in these bridge arrangements. While the gals would settle for one of us as subs on desperate occasion, we couldn’t break in as full-timers. Then for a while we played in a men’s foursome that got cobbled together, but the organizer left as quickly as he had appeared. Finally, we settled into a really successful Friday night bridge group organized by one of our near-centenarian neighbors. For the most part, this is a truly remarkable and equal-opportunity group of about 16 people. After an early dinner in the common dining hall, by ones or twos participants in this bridge troupe make their next destination the large meeting room on the 4th floor. For two hours or so, Episcopalians and atheists, Trumpers and Clintonistas, women and men, couples and singles, the well-off and the struggling make nice to share the game they all love.
On the national level, a great battle rages between two opposing poles. Over the last generation we have seen the presidency move back and forth twice between Democrat and Republican, while at the same time we have seen the radicalizaton of the congressional Republican Party. The haves are shrinking in number and growing in strength, the have nots are growing in number and shrinking in strength. This has gone on for a generation now: conservatives hated Clinton, liberals hated Bush, conservatives hated Obama, and now liberals hate Trump. The divide has become more and more severe. You’d never know this by listening to the dining room chatter here in this suburban retirement community, or around the bridge table. Somehow a culture of tolerance has been fostered here.
It hasn’t been easy for me to adapt to this culture of tolerance, which is essentially the culture of polite conversation: never talk about politics, religion, or any other controversial topic. That’s why people talk about sports or the weather so much, about natural catastrophes and murders. Presumably we can either agree or safely disagree on these topics. And here I am, the guy who in 1978, as an assistant professor at a campus in the metropolitan area, single-handedly put together an awareness campaign for gay rights, walking through the campus announcing that I was a gay professor, and even walking into high administrative offices and asked to speak to the person in charge. I am the guy who has been chased around campus by Bible-waving fundies announcing my impending doom and eternally burning soul. How did it happen that I resolved to make peace, not war with my neighbors in my retirement years?
Well, there are contributing factors. Being older for sure decreases your energy for disagreement. But that isn’t the case here, since I have become an activist here for better food service, better room service and better financial management for our charitible organization. The old reformer has not lost his habit in the pasture. And it isn’t entirely that I’m protecting my disabled partner from dissention. The main thing is, I’m actually being true to a principal that I have followed all my life, that I learned at my parents’ knees: every person you meet, without exception, deserves your respect, at least on initial encounter, no matter how different or objectionable they may seem to you.
It’s certainly well-known that throwing people together in an unfamiliar social milieu leads to radical learning experiences for most of those involved. I am learning, day by day, about my neighbors with an open mind and heart. Stephen and I got pretty close to a couple that moved in about a year after us, and these folks do not share our progressive values. I’ll call them “Mike” and “Geraldine.” It started simply enough. I heard Geraldine say that she couldn’t get her printer to work, and since computer function is one of my main preoccupations, I set it up for her. They in turn showed their gratitude by taking us out to dinner at a nice restaurant. Then we started playing bridge together. They are pretty fun to be around, yet somehow we managed not to discuss the elephant and the donkey in the room.
There were warning signals, though, about our political polarities. Once I asked Geraldine innocently about some elephant jewelry that she was wearing, thinking they perhaps went on safari. “Not,” Geraldine replied, “I wear it because I want people to know that I am a Republican.” As we got to know each other better, sometimes the political topic emerged in nascent form. I remember once, when I admitted that I thought Trump was a terrible president, they both looked shocked for a moment. Mike follows the stock market avidly, reads the Wall Street Journal, and is actually a person who likes to think about and discuss ideas with others, but especially about the world of investment. These are subjects on which I am rather green, but I do attempt to follow along.
Though we had been cruising along rather well without political incident, it was only a matter of time before a fan blade struck a brown object. It started innocently enough. We were at Friday night bridge, Mike was my opponent, and my partner was Evelyn, with whom I have never had anything but a casual conversation in passing. Mike watches the commentator, Cramer, on one of his TV shows, and occasionally brings up his ideas. This particular night, he was interested in what I thought about one of Cramer’s ideas: to wit, that the schools should be teaching the science of investment so that people could all prepare for their own retirement without expecting the government to help. So I began to tell him what I thought, which of course, was not flattering to the idea in question. What I said, not too important, but the gist was, schooling wouldn’t be too effective for a variety of reasons, solutions to major racial and poverty problems should take priority, and everyone needed a safety net, life being so capricious on occasion.
Suddently, Evelyn interjected strongly, “That’s never going to work,” referring to my ideas about doing something about poverty and race. I inqured, “Why not?” She stopped, and then said, “You’re just . . .” Pause. “Well, you’re a lot of things.” Pause. “You’re an idiot.” Well, now. I confess that I have never before been labeled “idiot” in a public discussion; it was almost a thrilling, yet disconcerting experience. I maintained my cool, though early in my attempted rebuttal, she repeated that, “Well, you are. You are an idiot.” The diagnosis was definite, certain. One must defend one’s honor, and so I asked her for evidence. One sentence led to another, and she began to tell a story about her past that apparently was the foundation of her opposition to any kind of governmental or other assistance to people who are down and out.
Decades earlier, Evelyn, now close to 90, had been employed in some kind of governmental welfare program. She worked closely with welfare recipients, possibly as a counselor, and she got to observe up close how they managed their benefits. Particularly disgusting, she noted, was the fact that several of the women in the program used their benefits to buy “stupid pink Princess phones,” instead of more obvious life necessities. At this point in the discussion, I had the sinking feeling that no amount of dialog was going to move Evelyn closer to my side of the great divide. So I said to her, “What I’m hearing from you is that you found that decision by some of the women you knew to use their welfare benefits to buy Princess phones to be disgusting.” She nodded quite vigorously. “That is where we basically differ.” I continued. “I look at that decision with compassion. I wasn’t there to see their living quarters, but perhaps a pink Princess phone made a little bright spot in their lives, and gave them something to be a bit proud of, even brag a little about.”
This was weeks ago, and I’m completely over being diagnosed as an idiot. I was told by a resident not to worry, because Evelyn would probably forget our encounter. Tonight was Friday night, and we again assembled for bridge after dinner, 16 strong. As luck would have it we sat with Mike and Geraldine at the very first round, and we really had fun. Evelyn was my opponent on the second round, and our bridge contest came off pleasantly, also. But the third round, well, my partner and I cleaned up, winning two games and the round.
Meanwhile, outside our carefully controlled reality, the waters of dissention, division, and even treason are rising every day. Nowadays, my dad lives in my heart, but whatever rowboat he may have can’t get here to take me home. I’ve decided I can live with the fear and frustration. One thing gives me comfort. If there is someone who can come with a rowboat to take us to safer ground, I won’t feel so alienated from the people on the other side of this great divide that threatens to sever our country in twain. After all, we’re playing bridge with them.