I knew Connie and Frank Mignone were Catholic the moment I turned up their driveway: all four cars have ‘Catholic’ bumper stickers applied to their rear windshields. We share common ground in that department, as I was raised Catholic and count a number of priests and nuns among my aunts and uncles. Yet I’ve never been in a house quite so Catholic as the Mignone’s. There’s a statue of Mary in the back garden, religious imagery in most rooms, and an actual scale statue of Jesus of the Sacred Heart in the garage. I’m sure that’s not his permanent place, as he must have come from a church.
Connie and Frank have lived on their four-acre plot on the outskirts of Medina, MN for over thirty years, among a small cluster of homes on large lots, each with its own well. Last year, a new subdivision of boxy houses tight to each other was constructed across the mile marker road. Frank shrugs, “That’s what happens with water and sewer come into the area.”
Frank is from New York City, and has the residual accent to prove it. Connie is from a small town in Southern Minnesota. They met in New York, but migrated closer to her home to raise their family. They have three children and are expecting their twelfth grandchild; the refrigerator is plastered with school pictures. Frank spent 35 years in the computer business while Connie has always been a housewife. Their favorite expression is “We are blessed.” They truly appreciate their bounty.
Connie and Frank took up cycling in their forties. They ride locally, ride for charity, and even staged a one-day ‘marathon’ with their 4 to 18 year old grandchildren to ride a 1200 collective miles in one day! The couple cycled the Pacific highway from Vancouver to Mexico in 35 days, and in 2006 spent over two months cycling New Zealand.
We traded cycling stories over dinner, though a few of my experiences revealed the dissonance between people with ‘traditional’ American values of family, faith, and work, and others. I mentioned my visit to the Somali neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis, and they questioned, “Why are they here?” and “Why don’t they assimilate?” When I discussed my visit with the Racine Police Department and their efforts to relieve racial discord, Connie said, “I never felt that tension before. It’s all because of our President.”
At that moment Frank changed the subject. I understood why he did so; Americans accept certain topics as taboo except among closest friends; politics in particular. That is unfortunate. Frank, Connie, and I are all reasonable people, concerned about the welfare of our country. We ought to be able to have reasoned conversation about the big issues of our day. I don’t know why someone thinks President Obama has enflamed racial tension, but I can listen to Connie’s perspective. We need to talk about why Black Americans receive unequal treatment in our judicial system, but we also need to explore why African-Americans are so economically, socially, and educationally disenfranchised. We can question why Somali immigrants don’t assimilate as previous groups did, but we need to acknowledge that Somali’s arrived here under different conditions than previous Minnesota immigrants. When the Federal government bestowed them priority status, what voice did local citizens have?
Frank steered us into an economic discussion. “The only economic worth is manufacturing something. Healthcare adds nothing to the economy. Education doesn’t add anything except another person who knows stuff. I never graduated college. I had a successful career programming Cobalt. It’s nothing more than a trade skill, not unlike being an electrician.”
I asked whether education might lead to innovation. Frank considered that maybe ten percent of education was useful, but real economic worth only comes from manufacturing. “If I make a tractor and sell it to a farmer who improves his yield, that is economic value.”
After pedaling through thousands of miles of a country brimming with ‘stuff’ I asked, “When is enough enough? What is the line between manufacturing what we need and manufacturing because we have the capacity? Must we create demand just to keep the wheels of commerce turning?” I used the example of Pittsburgh’s renaissance, fueled by education, healthcare and research instead of manufacturing. “And what about the experience economy? What is the value of going to Disney world? It doesn’t make anything, except a memory.”
Connie and Frank have been blessed, and they acknowledge that. I believe they know that others are less fortunate through no fault of their own; that life is a mixture of luck and grit, and no two people suffer the same setbacks or enjoy the same rewards.
The key take away from my evening with Connie and Frank is that three people came together, ate, exchanged stories of common ground, and ventured into difficult territory. We did not try to change opinions or about-face years of experience. We simply shared our viewpoints, face-to-face, in a civil way. We had an encounter increasingly rare in this world. Yet, if this world is ever to come to understanding, that is how it will occur. People do not have to agree with each other to respect one another.
How will we live tomorrow?
“In a cave.” Frank says with a laugh. Then, “We’re depending on younger people now. All my life I’ve been accumulating. Every year I’ve been worth more. Now, we’re in spend down mode. It’s good. You can’t leave it all to your kids. You can’t know how they’ll use it.”