In Praise of America

It’s Friday morning, 9am, and like so many mornings this past year I’m settled into a coffee shop to write about the life before me. In this case, it’s America—in all its glory and ineptitude, in all its hubris and shame. I can barely type fast enough to keep up with these characters and lessons.

 

On the glory side, take what’s going on with Liam at this moment. Here’s my 11-year-old boy up in the air in a six-seat plane, flying from the airport at our small town of Columbia and then banking to the east to fly over Yosemite National Park. Right at this moment my son is peering down onto Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, onto the rock climbers scaling the side of El Capitan. Right at this moment all is perfect for Liam—a perfectly blue sky, a still wind, his friend Simon to his left, our friend Hart at the controls, and the Sierras that are his home splayed out below him in all directions. Plus, he gets to wear a big headset like earmuffs. He likes the headset.

 

How did this come to be?

 

It came to be because of the glorious side of America. This hour-long flight over Yosemite for five (plus the pilot) began many months ago at an auction to raise funds for Sierra Waldorf, Liam’s school. Let’s start there: Give it up to America for having choices for primary education. Some countries we visited provide public schools for children—and that’s it. No charter schools, no home schooling, no religious schools, no Montessoris, no Waldorfs, no schools that specialize in the arts (like Connections Academy here in Sonora). At the same time, countries like Australia and New Zealand not only have a proliferation of Waldorf schools, but the government pays the teachers’ salaries and offers the land rent-free. Hence, their tuition is low, and hence, no need for auctions.

 

But back to the glory. This sensational little school that is Sierra Waldorf exists in America, so a feather in your cap, Uncle Sam—or whomever you are. Then there is the auction, which transforms a cement shell of a fairground into magic—into Paris one year, into India another. Really, if you’re anywhere in this area in early April and want to feel the sensation of your jaw dropping to your knees, pay the piddling sum of $30 for a night of gourmet food, dancing, ambience, and wonder.

 

But I digress.

 

The auction is what happens when a lot of creative parents with a very small budget are unleashed upon a cement fairground. That’s America, too—a place of wild creativity that gives the world such amazing music and movies. Plus, if there’s any one ethos to America, it’s this: Discover your dream and your talent, and then go for it. At a population of 330 million—and with an ease to move from state to state—America is big enough to find you a job that fits your niche. My nephew Danny, for example, is off to college to continue his mastery of… of the cello.

 

The cello!

 

Here’s a white Irish boy in the suburbs of Cleveland whose parents exposed him from childhood to the full range of delights—and it’s the cello that stuck.

 

That’s not the story of the world. That story is maybe to grow up to make cheese like your dad, even if the smell of cheese makes you vomit. That story is to be married at fourteen and pregnant with your third baby at age seventeen because that’s what you do in Nepal. That story is to acquire a hopeless look in your eye because the unemployment rate for young Greeks is over 50%. That story is to do whatever your family needs you to do, marry whomever your parents decide for you, worship the god of your family’s choosing, and so on.

 

In America you can walk your own destiny. Not always, but often enough that an auction springs out of nothing because a whole population of parents have acquired the skills that match their destiny. An electrician, a computer whiz, a florist, a baker, a musician, a painter, an auctioneer with that lightning-fast voice—put them and a hundred others together, and voila, it’s the night of nights in Sonora. Add to that the auction items, which also spring from lives that are fully lived. An organic farmer (and graduate of Waldorf and Stanford) offers a meal for 16 under the stars. A therapist offers six sessions, a published writer offers to read your scribblings, a landscape architect will advise you on your yard, a carpenter will build you a chicken coop, a lawyer will write your will, a knitter offers a sweater, and a pilot offers a flight.

 

A pilot offers a flight.

 

The Hince family bought the flight and this morning that plane took off. There’s glory in there, America. There’s glory in having good friends that offer your child an experience of a lifetime. There’s glory in an old friend named Hart who is so experienced that the child’s parents down below aren’t quaking in fear. Maybe even there’s glory in government oversight that makes sure this plane is ready and this pilot still knows his stuff.. While we’re at it, there’s glory in America’s sense of time and its commitment to an appointment. Elsewhere, ah well the flight might happen today or next month, yeah, why not check back next month and we’ll see how things are lookin’ then. And certainly there’s glory upon glory for Yosemite and the national parks of America, a unique treasure that the rest of the world admires

 

The plane took off, and so did Dolora back home, leaving me to talk with another glory of America, Otis. Like me, Otis is a transplant to California from the Midwest. Like me, Otis comes from a big Catholic family of boys, loves baseball, is liberal in his politics, is sarcastic, has a big laugh, looks you in the eye, asks lots of questions, knows a lot about America’s foreign policy, doesn’t care much about his clothes, admires Toyota pickups that never die, loves to walk.

 

My point is that America lets you find your family. America is so big and so diverse that I can push aside clowns like C. R. and surround myself with golden lights like Otis and Allen and Andrea and dozens more.

 

What’s more, there’s Otis and I for an hour at the airport, dissecting the latest news in America. Erik Cantor loses his Congressional seat to someone even more to the right than he is. In another Congressional race in Oklahoma, one of the candidates “would not stand in the way of legislation to stone gays to death. Now, I’m not saying I’d write such a law, don’t you go putting words in my mouth, I’m just saying I’d support anything that is founded on the truths of the Bible.” Otis and I laughed at the farce that is American democracy, when only 20% of eligible voters hit the polls last week. Otis and I agreed that Dick Cheney ought to be strung up by his thumbs for the chaos he unleashed in Iraq. We talked about the minimum wage in America, about Hillary Clinton, about Egypt, about summer music in the parks, about saddling graduates with debts that could be easily commuted to, say, a 1% interest rate, about the American worker limited to just one or two weeks of paid vacation a year, about the doctors we know who’ve quit the profession, about baseball and what’s wrong with the Dodgers.

 

Give it up to America. In America we can linger for an hour on an airport’s tarmac with a man named Otis, bashing our government and our society in any way we want. Give it up to America for making it possible to know about all these issues. Free press—ever think about it? Let’s just say that Paul Krugman of the NYTimes would be behind bars, or killed, or certainly suppressed, in half the countries we visited. And though our elections are full of problems—low voter turnout, two-party system, winner take all, gerrymandering the congressional districts to favor one party, voting on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday or holiday, antiquated ways of voting like punching chads or blacking out holes, almost a two-year campaign for president, no limit to how much money the Koch Brothers can donate, sound bites vs. lengthy debates, a hardship on minorities to prove their citizenship, women and Jews and atheists and small or overweight people having little chance of winning the presidency—despite all these problems, at least we have elections, and we can feel pretty assured that in these elections, your vote really does count at the end of the day.

 

Soak up the glory, America.

 

I sing the praises of my country with a latte to my left and a breakfast burrito to my right. All hail, America! I sit here writing in the tranquil ambience of the Columbia nursery. Hail, hail! In a little while I’ll post whatever I write on a blog that can be read by anyone out there—hail, I say! Hail!—unless of course ATT provides your Internet, in which case you’ll pay a thief’s ransom for Stone-Age reception.

 

But not today. Ineptitude and adolescence tomorrow, glory today. Today is reserved for the red, white, and blue, baby, so take center stage, America, and take a bow for the things you deserve.

 

Time to go. The Liam has landed.

 

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