This American Life

I’m beginning to feel this blog wind down. I’m beginning to feel that I’ve turned enough of my eye on America and now it’s time to move on. To Brazil? Yes, I ought to be in Brazil, ought to be walking the streets during the World Cup to soak in this gathering of the world. Or Chile. Why didn’t we hop on that plane from Auckland bound for Santiago? Or Cuba? Why not jump on that offer that was emailed to me and visit Cuba in July? I’ll never get any younger, at any moment my knees might turn to dust, the future is now.


You see the monster I’ve created?


In the meantime our return to America has been full of events and parties and friends, a daily whirlwind that has fully returned us to our community. Take one day, for example. Last Saturday began with a morning at the Farmer’s Market, three hours of moving from one old friend and old student to the next. Above all was Ghazaleh, my student for the past three years who came here from Iran to be with her husband Anush. Three years ago she barely spoke English, who staggered out a sentence—“My dream Berkeley to go yes one day me go”—that I thought was sweet and foolish. Three years ago she blushed in my beginning English classes, afraid to speak but compensating by working five times harder than any other student. I helped her, gave her time extensions, recommended a sequence of books that would help her learn English, found time almost every day for her visit to my office. Three years later Ghazaleh is now fluent in English, and three years later Ghazaleh is transferring in the fall to Berkeley. What a story. There at the Farmer’s Market she was in tears with gratitude at all my help.


In a flash she saw her whole journey from shy immigrant to proud scholar, and in a flash I saw some of what is so good about America. It remains a country where education matters, where hard work is rewarded, where you can rise above your station and circumstances to a higher life. America remains a nation of immigrants, and those immigrants can integrate into our schools and into our society. And it remains a country of dreams—dreams that can be attained like Ghazaleh’s big dream.


Give it up to America. Give it up for a system of higher education (at least this one in California) that is affordable and arranged in tiers. I’m the first tier. I’m there at Columbia College teaching Ghazaleh English 1A, and later 1B and Shakespeare and Film Appreciation, all for $46 a credit unit, or about $150 per course. Everyone is accepted. In my class of 25 students sits the class valedictorian at Sonora High and the dropouts. In my class is the young woman who sits up tall in the front seat with her notebook open to a fresh page, and in my class is the vet back from Iraq slouching in his seat with too much death in his eyes. They’re all here, all of life—the brilliant and the dim, the ambitious and the bitter, the Iranian and the Confederate, all accepted into this class regardless of how they did on their high school SATs. And all for $150, or even less for those who qualify for the many scholarships our college offers. Compare that to the tuition of $65,000 per year down the road at Stanford, or better, compare that to other countries where there is no entry-level college available.


Amazing, now that I think of it. Amazing that Ghazaleh can pay $1500 for a full year of courses, work throughout the night on her homework as only immigrants tend to do, get all A’s, then do it again for another year or two, continue to get all A’s, and then slide into Berkeley as a junior because that’s our agreement: Get nearly all A’s at our two-year college, then you’re granted automatic admission into one of the thirteen universities.


I think of her, and I think of Paul and Rachel. Both are parents at Waldorf, and both for years barely scraped by. Both are in their mid-30s, and both entered the nursing program at Columbia a few years ago with the dream of earning a steady salary at a reputable job. Recently I ran into both of them at separate events, and they told me that they completed their courses and are now licensed nurses, and best of all, both got jobs at the local hospital. If only you could’ve seen their smiles—and Ghazaleh’s. If only you could’ve felt the pride radiating off their bodies.


Give it up to America. Give it up to our socialist system that snuck in a highly subsidized system of higher education while the Republicans weren’t looking—or while the Republicans were busy making sure no one touched our guns and no one regulates ATT’s right to rob. It’s one thing for Ghazaleh and Paul and Rachel to dream. It’s another to build a classroom in the pine forests of Columbia as the first step to a lot of steps, all leading to a thing called a job, all leading to a real thing called a salary.


In a few weeks Ghazaleh will have Dolora and me over for dinner, like she’s done four times in the past. Ghazaleh and another Iranian student remain the only students who’ve invited me over for dinner. (When I told this to a class one time, a student later invited me to her house for a lunch of toasted-cheese sandwiches. For some reason I blew it off, which I now regret.) This is another exultation for my America, that I am surrounded with wonderful, enthusiastic, mainly liberal thinking friends—and just enough from different ethnic backgrounds to thrill the traveler in me.


That was the market. There was Ghazaleh, and then another dozen like her—friends and students moving in for a chat and usually for a bear hug. That bear hug deserves a digression. I’ve been bear-hugging right and left, a distinctly American way of greeting that puts our bigness, our enthusiasm, our loudness, our friendliness in the form of a grand gesture. It is the gesture that arises from a country with a lot of space, with a lot of individuality, with an ease with both genders. In India you reach down to touch the hem or the calf of your elder; in America you crush your elder in your arms. In Dubai and Turkey and Indonesia, men will greet women with eyes cast to the ground; in America I hoist Sarah and Ghazaleh into my arms. In Sri Lanka and Thailand you greet with hands pressed in prayer pose beneath your chin; in America the arms open up and engulf another human.


But maybe I’m going overboard. Being away this long I’ve forgotten the small codes we create with each other, the unwritten and largely subconscious agreements about how to greet, what to touch, how to hug (pat, half embrace, full throttle), whom to kiss, where to kiss. Think about it. It’s complicated, and within every exchange is all the authentic information you need about your true relationship with a person. Hmm, she’s patting my back, guess I’m in the outer circle of her life. Wow, he’s pulling me and holding me tight, never knew I meant that much to him.


Well, for now I’m just loving everybody. For now I’m not recalling the codes and laws of greeting that take years to establish. Take Ghazaleh, for instance. She’s a married Iranian woman student of mine—four qualities, four walls that turn any greeting with her into a formality. At best it’s a lean-in hug, our bodies kept apart while our upper bodies lean in to create a roof. Then come the pats, the  rapid-fire drumbeat that tells the tale of distance.


Yet here I was at the market—ahh, a public place, make that a 5th wall—and I squeezed her tight, so happy was I to see her. I’ve done the same the last two weeks to Gary and John and Andrea and Kevin—Kevin whom I barely know and yet there came my full-bodied squeeze.


I’m unaware of body boundaries in greetings, but where I’ve gotten into trouble is being unaware of those codes that define the borders of the personal. One example happened the other day at a local coffee shop when I ran into two former students, both women and both in my inner circle of golden students who took many classes from me, including a week-long excursion to Ashland, Oregon, to see the Shakespeare festival. I opened my arms to them both. One gave me a heartfelt embrace while the other took a step back and extended a stiff arm toward me for a shake. This took me aback, as did her eyes that never met mine, as did her body language that told me to get lost. Later Dolora interpreted this distance as the result of something I’d written, probably one of my many criticisms of evangelical Christianity, or for that matter of all formal religions. In any case, my enthusiastic and simple-minded love embrace to the world met a spite, met a drama, met all the unspoken messes that can swirl around people. How lovely it was for a year to be away from all those petty grievances, and how unfortunate it is to step back into the field of bitterness and into a society with codes of space.


Space. I’m relearning space, and codes, and the dance of life that has unique steps with each person. On some level this saddens me, that my innocent puppy licks are “inappropriate”—one of the ugliest of all English words. More than anything I’ve erased the chalk board with all those equations of how to behave, with all those calculations of the precise distance to stand with someone down to the exact micron, with calculations on the precise pressure to apply to a back according to a dozen or more factors. Can’t you picture a chalkboard entirely covered in mathematical figures like a board at the end of a physicist’s lecture?


Well, a year away has wiped away the equations. For now I’m just a clumsy Saint Bernard, or an amnesiac, learning all over again how to pee on the newspaper.




But I digress.



I took Liam to basketball camp this morning. I stood next to a few other fathers with the same duty—father as chauffeur—and observed their clothes. Each culture has their distinctive uniform, such as the sari in India and the sarong in Sri Lanka, the close-fitting skirts in Italy and the flip-flops in Indonesia. Do we in America have our distinct way of dress? This is part of the larger question: What is American culture? It’s easy for us to identify Indian culture and Vietnamese culture, but what about America—this place that is everything and nothing at once.


Clothes: Here standing before me was the American male in summertime, a uniform you’ll not see anywhere else in the world. It starts with a baseball cap, always a baseball cap, usually tugged low and tight on the forehead. There is always a logo on the baseball cap. I repeat: In America the male cannot just wear a brimmed hat with color only. No, he must be a walking advertisement for something—which of course taps into the religion of America, which is capitalism. Amazing, really, to think that the consumer has been tricked into being the advertiser—on his ball cap, always on his t-shirt, a swoosh on his shorts, and so on. Ok, back to the cap: the logos are not baseball teams but other products that the man subconsciously hopes says something about him. These men on the basketball court are rugged men. Tools, rifles, Ford Trucks, NRA—that’s the billboard on their heads.


From there we go to the sunglasses on their faces, even though we’re indoors. From there to their t-shirts, which of course has some product emblazoned across the front. No t-shirt of color only; not a button in sight; not a fashion molecule in sight.


From there to their shorts—all cargo shorts with lots of pockets and lots of wrinkles. Hark, no logos on the shorts! Revolutionaries, these men! Unpatriotic European socialists, these thugs!


Down to their bare white legs from just above the knee down to their calves, where all are wearing white socks. I repeat: All are wearing white socks, pulled up high. And to complete the uniform, all are wearing white sneakers with laces that are loosely tied.


The American male.


The American male is not the Italian male, who regards his body as a canvas and his clothes as paints. Color, design, beauty—these are the concerns of the Italian male. Conformity, adolescence, utilitarianism, tough image, advertising—these are the concerns of the American male.




There are a lot of police lurking in America. Aside from the phalanx of riot police in Istanbul and aside from border towns, I’ve seen more police in my two weeks in tiny Sonora than in all the world. What do you make of that?




It surprises me that anyone is reading this blog—except for Dolora’s mother, Peggy, whose duty is to follow Liam’s every movement. Yet in the past two days I’ve met two strangers who told me they’ve been following this blog nearly every day. Adam, the tech guru who’s kept this blog running, reports that about 3500 people have logged onto this blog at least once in the past year.




Liam made a woven cotton bracelet for me last year and tied it around my wrist on the day we left California. That bracelet accompanied me across 19 countries and two hemispheres, swam with me in a water park in Dubai and in an infinity pool in Thailand and a natural hot spring in New Zealand. Along the way I acquired other cotton bracelets—one from Amit in India, another from that funny monk in Sri Lanka, another from Nepal and a fourth from Indonesia and a fifth from Angkor Wat in Cambodia. One by one they disintegrated until only Liam’s and the funny monk’s remained. And then on the very first morning back on my porch, back in America with my son safely asleep in his own bed upstairs, it was Liam’s bracelet that fell apart in my fingers. Amazing, that this bracelet began the trip and ended the trip, as if it contained an internal clock like our baby teeth that know just when to fall out.




It’s a shallow reason, I know, but I’m not sure I could live without American sports. Baseball especially, and basketball and football, do more than just entertain me and distract me (and dull me) for a full year. With these sports come great writers and commentators that turn the sport scene into a literary event. Joe Posnanski, Roger Angell, Bill Simmons, Zac Lowe, Rany Jazerli—hardly a day passes without my reading their blogs and listening to their podcasts. Plus, to listen to John Miller broadcast the Giants and Tom Hamilton for the Tribe is to listen to the great orators of our time.


Compare that variety to… cricket in India. Rugby in New Zealand. Soccer in most of the world. One sport, one country, and from my vantage point, one mighty yawn.




In the next few days I’ll begin to reread this blog from the very beginning. That’s a lot of pages, probably close to 500 that I’ve written over the course of 11 months. Out of that marathon read I hope to write a few blogs about what it all means—if it means anything at all. And who knows, maybe there’s a book in here somewhere, which I’d love to write just to live within this trip a while longer.


Ok, enough for now. Off to pick up Liam at fiddle lesson,…. Hark! One last thing. I’ve decided to take violin/fiddle lessons for the next two months of the summer and to write about it, maybe even film it. I begin with the premise that I cannot learn this instrument, so let’s see what happens when a musical buffoon picks up an impossible instrument and tries to learn a single song: The Ashokan Farewell.


Off I go. Off to fetch child, off to weed-whack yard, off to live this lovely American life.






  1. Kristi Robinson

    If my husband ever wears cargo shorts with white socks pulled up out of loosely tide tennis shoes…..I’ll kill him. Just kidding, I’d simply ask him to change his uniform before going to the game.

    Loved this entry, and I love your honest style. It makes me smile.

    Warmly (Bear Hug),


    P.S. Go Giants 😉

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      Hah, good luck turning your husband into an Italian. I’m sure he looks like a strapping Sonora man in his cargo shorts and white socks. Thanks for reading the blog, Kristi. I hope I can continue it for a while longer, observing America just like any of the other 19 countries. And yes, go Giants (and go Indians–I’m a baseball bigamist.)

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