With apologies in advance, this is probably the most personal post I’ve ever written for MinnPost. And if the first few paragraphs seem embarrassingly personal, I hope you’ll bear with me. I do have a point.
I’m 66 and starting to get forgetful, but not crotchety. In fact, as the years go by I’m getting sweeter and more grateful for the great life I’ve had (and am still having), far beyond my personal deserts.
My dad, Irving Black, would be 100 years old today if he hadn’t shuffled off this mortal coil back in 2001. I decided a while ago that on the centenary of his birth I would explain how he thought about things, which explains a lot about how I also think about things.
Irv wasn’t angry, pretty much ever, about pretty much anything. Like any good dad, he knew how to say no, and mean it. But I don’t remember hearing him yell, or even seriously complain about anything. He was lucky and he knew it — and he acted like he knew it. Believing this made him happy until the day he died.
We disagreed about something and the last thing he said to me was: “My son Eric is coming here later to see me. He’ll straighten you out.” He was happy. By morning, he was gone.
Irv was a first-generation American, the child of Jewish immigrants who grew up in Brooklyn in the apartment over his dad’s tailor shop. Because he was the oldest male child (and because the stereotype of Jews being obsessed with getting their kids educated is often true) he even got to go to college. But he lived at home and commuted to City College of New York on the subway. I think it cost about $25 a semester for New York residents who lived and ate at home. He grew up during the Great Depression, so maybe that helped him later to keep perspective on what tough times really looked like.
He enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor, and his college degree got him into Officer Candidate School. He saw action in the Pacific theater and left the service as a captain. He never talked about the war much, and when he made it back to New York, he met and married the woman of his dreams: my mom, Gladys Black, the warmest, kindest person I’ve ever known. They moved to a suburb of Boston, started a small family and a small family business, a clothing store where I had my first 10 jobs. During the busy season, the whole family was on call to wait on customers. Luckily for me, and maybe for Irv too, Massachusetts had “blue laws” that prevented the store from being open on Sundays.
Irv and Glad didn’t get wealthy, exactly. The word they always used was “comfortable,” if you can really get comfortable operating a family store that was open six days and one night a week (and Irv was pretty much there whenever it was open). I’ve never had to work as hard as he did, but I never heard him gripe about it.
Irv and Gladys put my brother and me through college. After that, I went into journalism. I started in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, then moved to Little Rock, then to Minneapolis. It’s a line of work that has given me immense satisfaction. The joke in my family was that if the kids were happy, then the folks were happy, except it wasn’t really a joke. I remember once asking my dad if he was disappointed that I had never shown any interest in taking over the business he started. He said no, he always hoped I would find something to do that interested me more, which I did, but he also gave me the gift of relieving any possible guilt for not following in his footsteps.
I eventually met and married the love of my life, and we have recently finished putting our two kids through college. They didn’t have to commute on the subway. And if they’re happy, we’re happy.
I’ve had, and am still having, a great life — one I have done relatively little to deserve. Yes, I think I worked fairly hard, though work isn’t so hard when you enjoy what you do. But I know how much of it flowed directly from my brilliant choice of parents and — maybe even more so —from the decision of all four of my grandparents to take the enormous risk of leaving “the old country” and getting this happy family established in a new country. They came here nearly penniless, without knowing the culture nor even the language.
Nothing that I’ve done or will ever do compares with that for courage or enterprise. But I have reaped the benefits from that courage and enterprise, and I was raised to understand and appreciate it. I know I deserve no credit for it.
I recall reading a column years ago, I think it was when Nelson Rockefeller died in the late 1970s. The columnist said of Rocky, the grandson of John D. Rockefeller who went on to become governor of New York and vice president of the United States: “He was dealt a pat hand, and he didn’t blow it.”
That’s mostly how I feel about my own life. We weren’t Rockefellers, but I was dealt a hand good enough that — if I didn’t blow it —I would have a satisfying, comfortable and fulfilling life. And I’ll give myself this much credit: I didn’t blow it. Maybe I could have done more with the opportunities made available to me, but I’ve had a great life.
And yet: I know people who appear to have had similar advantages — some a little more, some a little less — but are angry. Angry about how high their taxes are. Angry about that one bad break or bad investment if not for which they would be richer. I have trouble grasping how they can be so angry when they have been so fortunate. And I’m pretty sure that being angry and ignoring one’s blessings doesn’t contribute much to a happy life.
Because of my parents, if I do start to get annoyed over any small setback or challenge, I generally circle back to the fortunate circumstances of my birth, the great life I’m having, the friends and family I get to surround myself with. The annoyance blows over pretty quickly, kinda like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Can’t get much cornier than that.
Forgive me for boring you with my life story, because now I’ll circle back to my usual topic: politics. Let me state what regular readers of this space surely know, that I’m some kind of knee-jerk bleeding-heart liberal. I don’t particularly think of it, most of the time, as “knee-jerk,” or “bleeding heart” but you get the idea. I’m pretty supportive of efforts to tax the rich (including me) to help the poor and others with difficult life challenges in various ways.
All of which goes to explain why the Trump thing drives me pretty crazy. Here’s a rich guy, born so rich he can’t reasonably think it’s something he earned. (I’m not saying he doesn’t think it, I’m just saying he can’t reasonably think it.) But his domestic agenda seems to be mostly about things like reducing the number of Americans who are covered by health insurance, and trying to kick people out of the country because they weren’t born here or prevent others from coming here for a shot at the American dream.
And, to the degree that he won the election (despite losing the popular vote and possibly benefiting from foreign interference), he seems to have won it by harnessing a lot of pent-up anger in the electorate, perhaps especially among white working-class males. Many of these people, we are told, feel very aggrieved by their life circumstances and believe that their grievances are rooted in special unearned advantages that have been doled out to non-white, non-male, non-American-born cheaters and freeloaders who are somehow stealing the life to which the white working-class males who fit this category feel entitled.
Forgive me for the ridiculously broad brush with which I have just painted a group of people who I’m sure have much more complicated thoughts and feelings about such things. It’s not my place to tell anyone else what grievances they are allowed to have, or what they should do about them. But I do believe that counting blessings makes one happier than nursing grievances.
I’m sure every country enforces its borders more or less. I accept that every country is entitled to set some criteria regarding who is entitled to the benefits of residency and citizenship. I accept that many live here without full legal status, and I’m not endorsing lawlessness.
But my concern about those who live here without proper status is tempered by my knowledge that I didn’t do anything heroic to acquire the benefits of my own status. My grandparents did something along those lines. I don’t really know whether they may have cheated in any way, but in their day the path to citizenship pretty much consisted of a boat to America. So while I can understand the argument for tightening up the borders, I want the whole discussion to be salted heavily with compassion for the aspirations of everyone to have a better life.
Then there’s health care. I don’t believe I’ve ever gone a minute without being covered by health insurance, although I’ve done little to really deserve it. Irv and Glad had insurance that covered me when I was young. Then I had a series of jobs that included health insurance as a benefit, which, by the way, is the result of government policy that provides an incentive through the tax code for employers to offer it. Now, unbelievably, I’m old enough for Medicare, which was only created in 1965, thanks to big government liberalism. I’ve been pretty healthy, too, but having health insurance relieved me of what otherwise would have been a lifelong worry.
So when I think about health care policy issues, I judge each idea on the basis of whether it extends insurance to more people and, hopefully, eventually, to our whole society. I’d like to think this is rational and maybe moral. But maybe it’s really just how liberals generally look at things.
I could (don’t worry, I won’t) go issue by issue, but you get my basic approach. Humbled by the knowledge that I didn’t do much to qualify for the good life in America, I can’t bring myself to devote top priority to denying the same opportunities to others. My blessings are large, and my grievances small — mostly thanks to my folks, Irv and Gladys Black, of blessed memory.