America, Part 2


It’s just another country on our round-the-world tour. Number 20, and we meet it and understand it from the previous 19. Gas, for example, is cheap at $3.90 a gallon after spending upwards of $9 in New Zealand and Australia during the month of May. (I bought white vinegar and Gatorade at a small market yesterday. When the total came to a mere $2.75, I told the checker that she must’ve missed the Gatorade. “Oh no, honey,” she said, “That Gatorade is 2 for $3 but I appreciate you coming in here, so I just rung you up for the one for $1.50.”)


What about quality of air? Think about it: Is your air pure or polluted, or where in between? And how do you know if you haven’t other places for comparison. To me, the quality of air here in California is not so bad as Jaipur, yet akin to Athens and Chiang Mai during the season when rice husks get burned, and certainly far behind the purity of the skies in New Zealand.


How about niceness? Are Americans a nice people, kind and hospitable? That’s our reputation after all, that we’re a loud people of big smiles and a slap on the back. Is it true? Is it equally as true to us familiar faces in town as it is to unknowns, to foreigners? And does fear play into this equation?


What do you think?


I’ll get to the niceness in a moment. But first, a word on fear. In the week I’ve been back I’ve slid into the unhealthy habit of spending too many hours on my iPhone, mainly reading national news from the New York Times and the Huffington Post. There’s been one type of story over and over—killing, either by knife or gun—and a moral to that story: be wary, don’t walk alone, be afraid. A man in New York knifes two little girls in an elevator for no reason; a man in Seattle opens fire on a campus; a young man in Santa Barbara opens fire on a crowded street; two 12-year-old girls knife a friend in a forest as part of an internet fantasy with a creation named Slender. Nearby in Modesto, a woman out for a jog gets a knife pulled on her, dragged into a car, raped.


The Modesto chief of police says, “Run in partners, that’s the best way to protect yourself.” A mother in the Slender story says, “How can I let my daughter even go outside any more.” In the elevator story, a mother says of her children, “They ain’t leaving my sight no more.”


Is it fair to generalize about a country the population of 330 million, with such diverse sub-cultures in every one of the 50 states? Does a murder in Alaska have anything to say about life in Maine?


Maybe not. But still, this is an American narrative—a killing, a self-examination about guns and the mentally ill, a message of fear (especially to women)—that never runs dry. In a country of this size there will always be mayhem and a madman, always, and these are the stories that sell, these are the stories that a sideline reporter with a grim face tells into a camera with the flashing lights and yellow police tape behind. There’s also a voyeur quality to these stories, a sometimes sexual dimension in our repressed, Puritanical society that splashes the sordid tale on Page 1 of a runner getting raped in the back seat of a car. There’s certainly a violent quality to the stories, the fiction on the movie screens played out in the slashing in an elevator, the fiction of an internet character named Slender come to life as an inspiration to drive a knife into your friend’s heart. And there’s a racial quality to these stories: The elevator killer on the wanted poster has skin as black as a cave. The Modesto rapist is a Mexican named Suarez, an ethnicity in Modesto that means trouble. And finally, there’s the story of mental illness in America—with how the mentally ill are treated, and maybe even with the proliferation of mental illness itself. Does our society create an abundance of sick minds? Why are 12-year-old girls on-line so much that Slender comes to life? Gazing onto a screen for a few thousand hours is doing what, is a replacement for what, is what kind of commentary on parenting? The Elevator Killer is now behind bars, reciting Bible verses—which leads me to wonder about the connection between religion and mental illness, between religion and calm, savage acts.


This is what I’m seeing in America after being away for so long. I’m seeing a marketplace for the grisly—myself included. I’m seeing components of our society at work within these atrocities: violence, repressed sexuality, religion fanaticism, disregard for the mentally ill, proliferation of the mentally ill, weapons, racism, the amusements and distractions and perils of the screen that is the internet and that is the media. These are simple stories, easily digested and understood, with clear villains and angels—which is perhaps a testimony to the simplicity of the American mind. And these stories end with a moral as easily packaged as an Aesop’s Fable, and that moral is, Be Afraid. Don’t Run Alone. Don’t Leave Children Alone. Danger is Lurking.


If the message is to protect yourself, then the means to that protection is to buy more things. Call it cynical, but this all plays into the beast that is capitalism in America. Buy those guns, all 350 million of them. Buy that bigger house, and those security systems for that house, and that gate. Buy that room-sized car or truck with its security system, and do not buy a scooter and do not get around on a bicycle and do away with a pedestrian-only areas because all of that exposes you to the Danger that is Lurking. ($40 bicycles are everywhere in India; $800 scooters are everywhere in Vietnam; $36,000 cars are everywhere in America.)


Fear as a marketing strategy.




I didn’t see these types of themes elsewhere in the world, these subterranean characteristics that rise to the surface to take on different forms. And before I follow this strand of thought, let me admit the absurdity of what I’m doing—to generalize about an entire culture after a brief visit. 20 hours in Dubai, one week in Budapest, 5 days in Singapore—and still I have the audacity to observe in broad strokes. O what fools these mortals be.


And yet… and yet…


Elsewhere I never got the sense that you were cut adrift like we do in America. In America’s war against anything that smells of socialism, our mantra is, “You’re on your own. We’ll help you only until we can gag the life out of all liberal commie scum.” Hence a health care system that, until Obamacare, wouldn’t insure those with a preexisting condition. You’re on your own. Hence a minimum wage below $8 that made the Australians say to me, “Sorry, mate, I must not have heard you right.” You’re on your own. Hence a higher-education system that burdens graduates with such onerous loans that you turn sharecropper for the banks—as opposed to all those German Ph.Ds we met from a system that so believes in education that individuals pay nothing more than their dedication. You’re on your own. Hence the mentally ill that line the streets of San Francisco and yet are nowhere to be seen in… well, anywhere. You’re on your own. Hence the blessings upon Americans to stockpile your own personal armory of weapons—the single characteristic of America that most bewilders the world. You’re on your own. Baseball over soccer. You’re on your own. Millions of homes foreclosed and the middle class left ravaged. You’re on your own. A resistance to recognizing that our carbon output is altering the world’s climate, a truth that is self-evident to the yak herder in Nepal but is regarded as a fiction by the Republican Party. You’re on your own. An Internet service that works on one plank of my porch but not on the next, and yet it would be Socialism for the government to require ATT to wire up rural residents like we required phone companies to wire up everybody back in the day. You’re on your own.


And on it goes, on small everyday levels and on the big stage of a place like Iraq, a place that Cheney-and-his-ilk ravaged into chaos and then out we go, unleashing more chaos. You’re on your own.




Niceness. Wasn’t I going to write about niceness?


Take yesterday—and in taking yesterday, you’re taking the complexity that is America. Yes to its fear and its maniacal individuality, yes to its adolescent understanding of itself, yes to its cocoon of cars and homes… and yes to…


Yes to the Farmer’s Market.


There it is on Saturday morning in the center of Sonora. In our homesick moments out on the road, far from the edge of the pool that is our home, we’d find comfort in the recollection of this Farmer’s Market.


Sonora has few places to gather. Sonora has few places for idle walking, the kind where you hold your hands behind your back and where you stop to chat with a friend, also walking with hands behind his back. Sonora has no bike paths. Sonora has no parks to speak of—at least not the rambling parks that encourage rambling. In Sonora, you are more apt to wave to a friend while the two of you move slowly in opposite directions in your cars, inching along through traffic.


And then comes the Farmer’s Market to upend all of that isolation.


I love it. I love it the way I love all good things in life. Food and color, loss of time, randomness, freshness and the earth, Chuck on the banjo. A touch of the world, like Bruno the French curmudgeon and the Laotians with the beans. (The fact that my list ends there is a testimony to the homogeneity of Sonora.) A peach and then a chat, take a strawberry from a friend’s basket and move on, chat, move on for a crepe from Sally for $6.25 and chat, chat some more, tell Sal you’ll buy a burrito from him next week, ahhh Dan! Let’s chat….


I love it.


Have I told you that I love it?


And yesterday especially was a lovefest, this reconnection with this small world that is my home when my home is showing its best side. Let’s see, I went from Lahna (big hug, took three of her cherry tomatoes) to the triad of Molly and Dave and Steve (talk of Peru), to Fred and his son (running a 2-mile state championship that night at 9pm in Fresno; we chatted about how to forget about results and to love the honor of running); to the goddess triad of Emily and Deena and Amy; to offensive-lineman Ed whom I have promise will be at the gym next Wednesday night to play basketball (“I’ve picked up some b-ball tricks, Pelfrey,” I lie); to Chuck on the banjo and his wife who’s name is either Janice or Janet, so I say, “Hi, Jannnerrrrrr.” On to Dorlyn (“Be wary of Glenn Beck,” I tell her. “Get your information about Obama’s education plan from somewhere less toxic.”) and up I rise from my chair to hug Dan Vuyovitch, to whom I say, “I like you, Dan Vuyovitch,” and he replies, “I love you, Jim Toner.” A tug on my shirt, and it’s Liam and Dolora for a “hi” and money and off they go. Now it’s Kim who tells me about her first semester teaching at the college, and then it’s Julia Rhodes, whose last name—“Rhodes”—I always thought noble. From there to Hoyt, who tells me of yoga class on Monday at 9, and to his wife Lynn, whose name I remembered for once. Onward, onward to Sal the burrito guy and Sally Arnold who sells scones, and behind Sally her daughter I taught long ago, who puts down her blueberry pie to give me a hug and to tell me about her master’s program in occupational therapy, which I was too embarrassed to ask what that means. Onward to give Bruno a hard time and his wife Sally and that old guy who knows my name and I don’t know his and who always gave me the creeps and still gives me the creeps. Onward, to Dan the guy with the “Free Hugs” sign who is giving no free hugs today because of a cold, Dan with a hoop of a silver earring and perfect toenails painted a perfect lavender with sparkles. Onward to farmer Larry who talks about the drought and the county ending his water supply, then over to his wife Katie who is eating a salad and who chats with me about her graduate program at Berkeley with a strand of lettuce shading her front tooth. Onward to farmer Gaylen whose blond hair is poking straight up through the crown of his straw hat, like a geyser, who tells me about building his own house this past year and whose eyes are so blue that I decide that he’s a handsome man. Onward to a phalanx of others until I intrude on a pod around Dolora that includes Joe, a man I vaguely recall, yet Joe is the man with whom I spend the next hour in conversation right there beneath a tree in the market, talking so long that the venders collapse their tents and back up their trucks and still Joe and I chat about the world—chatting in American English that, for the first time in almost a year, requires no decoding, requires no simplification. This is our language, and in this language we can talk for an hour, can push a thought to places that require the handle on all nuances of a language.


This is my home.


After the market I walk to my truck a street away. I stop into shops along the way and say hey to Mary Anne and then Peter on the next block and then Kapua’s mom with the new herbal shop that’ll never thrive, then into the outdoor shop and chat with Rick who never remembers my name, and it’s there that I buy a replacement pair of the same Tevas that I’ve worn across the globe and that are now held together by black duct tape. As my brother Joe says, “We may be poor…, but we’re not that poor.”


I often say that I have no friends in Sonora—that I have lots of acquaintances yet no friends. Here at Farmer’s Market and on the streets of Sonora, though, it sure felt like these people were friends. Or if they’re just acquaintances, then acquaintances sure feel good.


(Note: On the day before, we spent the afternoon at a lake surrounded by pines and surrounded by acquaintances/friends—or whatever they’re called. There I went from Patricia to Paul to Emily to Ely to Erina to Allen to… well, you get the picture, from human to human, maybe 40 in all—and not one that I wanted to avoid.)


The point: Re-connecting with our world is happening, and it’s nice. For our first two days back we isolated ourselves in Gramma Peggy’s house, as if we were pets in quarantine in a new country. Then we dipped our toes out to a few friends, a few more, and then dove head first into the society that is our son’s school and that is our town. I’ve loved it. And I’ve loved that to these dozens of people I am an Interesting Person. In one breath I can place-drop any number of exotic places—Hanoi, Kathmandu, Istanbul—and can mention in an off-hand way that just last week I was in the southern hemisphere watching penguins and the Southern Cross in the sky at night.




Everyone—and I mean everyone—is just so bloody nice. It is the stereotype of Americans that we are an effusive lot, that our emotions are right there in bright neon on our faces. We hug. Often we hug with pats on the back, more often we hug as if—BAD SIMILE ALERT! BAD SIMILE ALERT!—as if carrying a heavy bag of peat moss from the trunk to the garage.




This is America.




In the afternoon I took Liam down to Railtown. This is one of our old haunts, a working steam engine from 1897 that’s taken Liam and I on its 5-mile journey through the rolling countryside ever since he was a little boy, standing on my thighs to get a better look out the window. Together we’ve ridden the #3 at least 50 times, but not for a number of years, not with planes taking over Liam’s imagination.


We arrived at 4pm, and the season of niceness continued. The conductor stopped the 4pm train until we two bought our tickets—“No worries, take your time”—and onto the train we stepped, with a volunteer in overalls guiding me upward by the elbow. We found a seat in the back in an open-air car, and off we went, my arm around Liam and with the hope that in some way he’d touch me back.


The docent in our car was Joe. I liked Joe, an older guy retired from a lifetime of teaching 1st graders down in Modesto. “I started way back when to avoid the Vietnam War,” he said, and I thought of these entanglements in America’s history that mangle the lives of our young people; and I flashed to that museum in Hanoi and its photo exhibit on Agent Orange that American men not so lucky as Joe dropped onto the rice fields below, poisoning a people. Joe told us about the train and about gold, about the creek down there and the volcanic formation over there. I told Joe about our bamboo train in Cambodia but Joe wasn’t too interested. This was Joe’s show, and I liked it that way.


Afterwards Liam and I watched engine #3 puff onto a turntable and return to its place in a curved garage. We poked our noses into the garage to see the #3 and its four other brother engines asleep, when Kim the park ranger whom we’ve known for years, said, “Follow me.”


She opened up the gate and into the garage we went, up onto the #3 itself that was still smoking from its stack and still radiating heat from its black body. Liam sat in the engineer’s seat. “Go ahead and pull it,” Kim said to Liam, and down he pulled the rope that emitted a whistle so loud that we winced and covered our ears. Kim told us all about the whistle and the #3, about the repairs and the history and, at my urging, about her life as a park ranger on a rail line.


Now, let’s stand back.


If this had occurred out on the road, if somewhere in Cambodia or Indonesia a native had taken us to special places and devoted an hour of his or her time giving us a lesson on some landmark, I’d devote an entire blog to celebrating our good fortune and to uplifting the person and the culture.


Well: All hail, America.


It wasn’t over. Outside the garage on the lawn was a gathering of people around a stage. It was a competition for the best sounding train whistle, so into the microphone came the contestants whistles that were more shrieks from a horror movie. No matter, I loved the scene, this Americana on a Saturday afternoon. The winner was decided by applause, which irritated the Libra in me who thought Lady in Blinding Red was much better than the Lady in White with Lots of Family in the Audience.


It wasn’t over.


Soon a group of 7 musicians took the makeshift stage. I knew most of them—Brian, who’s called Liam “burrito” ever since infancy; Kristi who is divorcing the barber; that guy on the fiddle who somehow knows my first name; Richard who smiles a perpetual smile that bothers me—which is remarkable in itself, me knowing musicians.


The group is called “Woody’s Wailers,” and their specialty is songs from Woody Guthrie. Songs about the Dust Bowl, songs about the American Plains, songs about riding the rails, songs about Georgia and New York and California—all played with a fiddle and mandolin and stand-up bass and guitars.


American music, American themes, American faces singing in English the history of our country, a history of movement and longing and a quest for justice.


I loved it. And once again, if I’d stumbled upon this little concert in Budapest or Jaipur or Bangkok I’d be out of my mind with enthusiasm, bubbling with the good fortune of dropping into the epicenter of a culture.


This is America. For better or worse, this is my country and my culture, my music and my language, my soil and my heritage.




A snapshot on the streets of Sonora: A young man with tattoos running up both arms and a baseball cap worn sideways, is pushing a baby carriage up the sidewalk. To shield his baby from the sun he has a blanket draped over the top. The blanket has a pattern. The pattern is a Confederate flag.






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