Ruth

This is in honor of Ruth Hagstrom.

 

I ran into Ruth at the local farmer’s market on Saturday. It was a gaggle of Hagstrom women—Ruth and her daughter Erika, and Erika’s daughter Anika—all looking fit in a Nordic way. I could easily picture all three strapping on their cross-country skis on a February morning in their log cabin outside Oslo, the snow somewhere up near the roof line, and off they’d go on a trail through the pine forest and across frozen lakes and perhaps onward to the fiords, stopping for a snack of sausages that Ruth made herself, the three of them leaning on their poles, and then back they’d go from fiord to lake to forest, back inside their home with lots of stitching on the walls with Nordic slogans, which would translate into “Good Posture Above All” and “Industry!” and “Get up and Accomplish!” That sort of thing.

 

Where was I?

 

Ruth. Ruth at the market.

 

This is the first I’ve seen Ruth since we’ve returned. She planted a kiss right there on my lips, which I really do love, and with her hands still cupping my face she said, “Ohh, Jimmy, I read that blog of yours every day. And let me tell you that it made me so mad”—oh no, am I in trouble? Have I created another enemy with my rant about missionaries or about insane Republicans?—“when I’d open up the blog and there’d be nothing new there. Like lately, there’s been nothing, nothing at all. Five days, I think. Five days! What are you waiting for?”

 

I needed to hear this, to hear that out there in the ether are a pair of eyes that still want me to write and to write regularly, even though the topic is now just America. I needed a Ruth out there to convince me with her Nordic certitude that this thing is not done, that America as country #20 is a worthwhile experience to capture.

 

“I need you to make me a deal,” I told Ruth. “Since I’m just a pigeon beneath all this beautiful white skin, I need a reward system to keep me going. How about… how about if I submit five new entries over the next eight days, that you bring me a beer on your porch. Deal?”

 

I think she agreed, though in turning away she was conveying to me an impatience with the ways of the Irish. This is not how the Norwegians do it. They see snow to shovel and out the door they go, in no need of a carrot. This is life. Life is work. Life is cold. Go do it today and tomorrow and for all our tomorrows because that’s what these solid jaws know what to do.

 

And so it is to Ruth that I write blog #1 on July 5, and to all the rest of you to recognize that an oral contract is binding in the state of California. 5 blogs in 8 days—Ruth, put that beer on ice, or one of my many lawyers will be contacting you.

 

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As always, there’s so much to report. Yesterday was July 4th, which deserves its own series of books to chronicle. I could write one entire book on the man dressed like Uncle Sam standing on stilts for six hours. When I think of me, and when I think of the opposite of me, the image of an Uncle Sam on stilts for a day comes to mind.

 

I imagine myself one day turning to Dolora and saying, “I can’t put off my dream any longer.”

 

“Your dream?”

 

“I’m quitting my job. Or rather, I already quit my job last week.”

 

“You’re joking.”

 

“This is nothing to joke about. For years I’ve been teaching at the college with a misery burning inside of me.” At this point I take Dolora by both hands and sit her down. “I can’t live one more day with this hypocrisy, it’s eating away at me. What kind of a role model am I to Liam if I live this lie, if I continue as a teacher and bring home a monthly check—”

 

“Monthly check is good, I like the monthly check.”

 

“Well, it’s done, it’s over.” I take a deep inhale. “Beginning this second the real Jim Toner is stepping into the light. Beginning this second”—I can’t help but break out into a beaming smile—“I start my new life as an Uncle Sam on stilts.”

 

“Uncle Sam?”

 

“On stilts, that’s right, and this second you and me are heading off to the fabric store to buy reams of red white and blue silk and then off to the lumber yard.” I pull out a notebook full of sketches. “I’m looking at the six-foot version popular in eastern Europe. What do you think? I want you part of this process.” I squeeze Dolora tight. “I want you part of my dream.”

 

Fast forward nine months—nine months of hardship and disbelief, of one broken femur from a practice walk on stilts on wet cobblestones, of poverty (“That money from the college was dirty money! The money of broken dreams!”), of a dozen prototype suits until we get it right—and there I am on July 4th taking my first tentative steps down the center of Columbia. At first I nearly stumble because the tears are so thick in my eyes that I don’t see the toy poodle that I impale beneath one of my stilts. At first I nearly electrocute myself upon the wires that are at eye level. And at first—for the nano-est of nanoseconds—I have such a surge of love for Dolora that I’m nearly compelled to leap down from the stilts and tell her that she’s right, that this is a ridiculous obsession akin to the “Free Hugs” guy and that I need to start earning money, but no, I know deep down that she feels such pride in me, and so does Liam, who—oh, that’s right, Liam is now wearing black in his Goth phase and stays in the corner of his closet all day, sketching me hanging from a cross, or from my stilts, with a dagger in midair heading for my heart. Love that boy! The other day I reached into the closet to mess up his hair and he bit down hard on the webbing of my hand. What a little joker!

 

Back to the 4th. Back to me in the center of old town Columbia. Back to me living the dream.

 

From that high vantage point I could see all that’s beautiful about America. I could see the butt cracks of all those drunk Clampers bent over their flag as they Pledged Allegiance. I could experience our great Freedom of Speech as adult after adult shouted up at me, “You freak! Get outta here and stop scaring my child!” And I could experience the American health care system—the greatest in the world!—when the mob pushed me down and I crushed my skull on the pavement.

 

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Sorry ‘bout that, got a little carried away. But the point remains: That Uncle Sam on stilts is less related to me than a beaver or chard.

 

Who is related to me? What is it, to be an American? You up there on stilts, we share the same blue passport—and yet I’m more akin to the Nepalese family hacking apart a water buffalo.

 

This returns us to that question yet again: What is it to be an American? I open up this week’s New Yorker to an article on the miners in Chile who survived 60 days underground, and there is their picture, 4 Chileans with faces and clothes and expressions that are distinctly from Chile. Those are not Americans—or are they?

 

What is an American, when America is comprised of hundreds of different nationalities? What’s going to be your sample slice? Are you going to sit on my brother Joe’s porch in Lakewood, Ohio, and look around at a neighborhood of white German/Irish faces? Are you going ten miles east of that porch and then stop at West 25th and Lorain, and be surrounded by Puerto Ricans and with store signs in Spanish? Between those two neighborhoods you can find clusters of other groups—Palestinians in the birdtown section of Lakewood, or the Hungarians or the Chinese or the Filipinos or the Greeks. Go three more miles east across the Cuyahoga and you’re in a different America altogether. Now the faces are all black. Now the clothes have more color. Now the car of choice is a Cadillac. Above all, now you’re in a very poor country, with boarded up shops and homeless men asleep on steam vents.

 

And that’s just Cleveland. Come out to San Francisco if you want the entire United Nations played out in front of you. I recall my bewilderment when I first stepped into my classroom at Star of the Sea Academy on 8th and Geary. Every shade of color from deep black to bleached white were in those faces. I mangled the names of the students on my roster. I remember one of those names, Jenny Wing-Sing Yip, a name that made me laugh when I said it. (Go ahead and try it: Jenny Wing-Sing Yip. It’ll make your day.) I often stayed late in my room grading papers, and that’s when I had long conversations with the janitor—a Peruvian man with a barrel chest and straight black hair, and a passport that identified him as American.

 

Who are we? Are we even a we?

 

We need an analogy, and there are analogies aplenty for America. The melting pot. The mixed salad. Here’s another.

 

There’s an art style called pointillism. The master was Georges Seurat, a Frenchman who painted elaborate scenes of a park in Paris on a Sunday afternoon, all rendered in dots of different colors. Bring your nose right up to the canvas and all you see are these points of color, clustered together with points of related color. Only when you step back a few feet do these points become the image. Somewhere, I think, I’ve seen in a museum a similar effect of tiny photographs that become a larger image when you step back—the tiny photographs being the mix of American faces, the larger image being an American flag or a portrait of Lincoln or Martin Luther King.

 

America itself is such a canvas. Bring your eyes in close and there are fifty points, and get even closer to see that each of those fifty points is comprised of hundreds of other points. Sit yourself on a bench in Columbus Park in New York City and marvel at all the points that pass by. That’s the most extreme, New York City, but in one form or another it’s everywhere. Take Texas and the last two editions of the New Yorker. This week there’s a profile of Ted Cruz, the senator with the Tea Party view of America: seal the borders to immigrants, prevent gays from marrying, lower taxes, all hail coal and gas, bring your handgun into bars and campuses, beware them Muslims, praise Jesus. The week before, there’s a profile on the film director Richard Linklater, who chooses to live in Austin, Texas, because of its liberal, artistic culture. Go figure. Or just look at the breakdown of the U. S. Supreme Court, in which just about every decision is 5-4, 5-4, 5-4. On one side are the 4 male justices (Alito, Thomas, Roberts, Scalia) with stern, conservative, troglodyte views, and on the other are the 3 female justices (Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Kagan) plus Stephen Bryer who rule every time on the liberal, progressive side. And then there’s Kennedy in the middle who usually votes conservative but you never know.

 

5-4, 5-4, 5-4.

 

Welcome to America.

 

Still, can’t we take that step back from all those points—314 million at last count—and draw any conclusions?

 

Ok, Americans use toilet paper. That’s a start. There’s no spray nozzle next to the toilet for you to wash away your messes. And the toilet is a seat, not a basin with two footprints flush with the ground.

 

Now we’re getting somewhere.

 

There are no white cows roaming the streets, eating from piles of garbage. Can we agree on that?

 

Our working hours are generally from 8:30 to 5. Sound about right?

 

English. English seems to be the language around here.

 

Most people have cars. Most people have credit cards. Most people owe money on those credit cards.

 

In general our rivers are not clogged with litter.

 

Our sewers are pipes underground that carry refuse to treatment plants, or for those off the grid, septic tanks. It’s unlikely that in America you’ll find an open gutter of waste running through the streets, and even more unlikely to find a pig resting in one of those clogged-up gutters with a monkey on its back.

 

Okay, I’m starting to feel like we’re getting a handle on America.

 

Advertising. That’s American, right, to have advertising come at you from every direction. And related to advertising is the glut of choices in a supermarket. The cereal aisle in America is a thing of beauty.

 

Baseball. Baseball’s big in America, while soccer has some enthusiasm among those who want to appear international. Soccer is not in the American bloodstream. It just won’t happen in America, to shoot a player for scoring a goal into his own net (as in Colombia, 1994).

 

It’s more possible in America than elsewhere to turn your dreams and talents and destiny into a career. Right? We’re a big place with easy flow from state to state, so you space engineers can move to Houston and you Microsoft whizzes can move to Seattle and you who want to tap maple trees for their syrup, knock yourselves out in Vermont. The message in America is this: You don’t have to do what your daddy does, or your daddy’s daddy. Break out on your own. Be an individual. If you’re my old friend Theresa, somehow find your way from Lakewood to the United Nations. If you’re Jan whom I met yesterday morning at the farmer’s market, move from Minnesota to California and take a woodworking class that eventually leads to you building this magnificent rocking chair on which I am now sitting. The choices in America are as many as those tiny points in the painting. For Olivia, go to Hollywood and dress the stars for a living. For Jonathan next door, turn that barren hillside into an organic farm. For Peter, go make electronic music in Brooklyn. For the other Peter, cut hair your whole life and gossip with your clients. For the other Peter, make a living turning the clay of the earth into world-class sculptures. For the other Peter, turn your two years in the Peace Corps in China into a writing gig for the New Yorker.

 

 

America is choice: Choice of your career, choice of your wife, choice of your cereal.  Even this isn’t so clean cut, though. For career (and destiny and talent), the road may be blocked because your school is underfunded. Or you might stay locked in one place because of the horrible health-care arrangement that ties coverage to your employer. (Reason #1,216 to grab the lapels of your nearest Republican and to say, “Really?”)

 

Still, for the most part we are the United States of Choice. (Now, keep in mind that this might not be a good thing. “The Tyranny of Choice,” is how my Sri Lankan friend Kapala put it.)

 

Speaking of choice, I am now choosing to end this blog for the day. I’m going to post it on the website so that Ruth—lovely Ruth who is just now preparing space in her fridge for the beer she’ll owe me in a week—will see that I am hard at work fulfilling my end of the bet. In fact, since this blog is now running 6 pages of single space, I’m going to make yet another choice: this blog now counts as two blogs—meaning that I am now 2/5ths of the way toward triumph. That means I have a full 7 days to complete 3 more blogs, a task so simple that I’m now going to up the ante: Ruth, if I go beyond my allotment for this week, I expect chips and salsa to go with my beer.

 

America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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