I was thinking, as I often do these days, about how things used to be. I was thinking about how my dad and my uncles (none of these "uncles" were actually related to me) used to argue just for fun.

One thing they loved to argue about was poker. They would get together and play at our house around the dining room table, which is also where the family folded clothes, ate meals and did homework. One time I remember my sisters, brother, cousin (who wasn't really my cousin) and I got this great idea to spy on the game and write down everything that was said. When we got bored with that we decided to make their words a song and sing it back to them.

The only line I remember is the one that caused all of them to stop smiling at the same time. At one point, Uncle Joe had stood up, thrown down his hand and said, "Well, Bernie, stick that in your bosom and keep it warm!"

Mind you, it used to be that a real man did not use bad language in front of women or children. So although the word "bosom" pales in comparison to today's everyday language, this was a pretty bad slip, and it sounded even worse when it came out of the mouths of happy smiling children. We were told to play upstairs after that. So we played "Sky King" (a game we fashioned from a TV show with the same name) and put the incident behind us.

But despite all the arguing and angry antics during these games, the aggressive nature of the competition and the passion were tempered with respect, civility and humor. This was also true with their favorite thing to argue about - politics.

The room would fill with tension, faces would turn red, and (since they were all Italians) hands would be waving around as they exchanged ideas, laid out their reasoning and countered the opposition. When their opinion was challenged, they listened. They listened out of civility and respect, but also out of interest. Interest in learning what others might know that they did not; in testing their own opinion against different viewpoints; in having their facts checked; in discovering if their own beliefs were sound enough to stand up to contrasting beliefs; in finding if they could bring new insight to others and change someone's mind.

In the end, I don't know how often anyone actually changed anyone else's mind (as I said, they were all Italians). But eventually the dining room table was needed for eating, and although there might have been some residual frustration between debaters, it would soon be lost in the sharing of food, telling of new stories, retelling of old stories, laughter and warmth of love for each other.

Maybe Americans today are still having spirited political discussions in their homes, but I find that outside of the home, people don't want to talk about politics very much. Or if they do, they seem to limit what they say so as not to set off any political-correctness alarms. For better or worse, I'm passionate about my political opinions (go figure) and love to find out what other people are thinking about the things our elected government is up to. And no matter how officials dress it up, they are often up to no good.

Imagine if today's political discourse was approached in the same passionate, intelligent and respectful manner as my dad and uncles had. Just think of what we could accomplish if we came together with interest, honesty and good humor to discuss issues and decide what role, if any, we want our government to play in resolving these issues.

Instead we listen to politicians and media who are working hard to manipulate our thinking so that we can be divided and groomed for indoctrination into narrow-minded voting units easily herded into the election booth, no longer as proud Americans, but as compliant fools.

Sadly, Uncles Bernie, George, Eddie and Hank are gone now. I know how very much dad and Uncle Joe miss them. In honor of these good friends, I implore you: Get out there, start a friendly political discussion and see where it goes. Do it intelligently with interest, respect and civility, and be comforted with the knowledge that if someone tells you to take your opinion and "stick it in your bosom and keep it warm," you can always retreat upstairs, play "Sky King" and put the incident behind you.

Kate Devaney, 58, is a classroom aide at the Atlantic County Special Services School in Mays Landing. She lives in Northfield.

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