Monday, 30 May 2011

Things I miss from Home: The Comics Pages

When I last lived in the States, I passed my days teaching Academic Writing and Developmental English. Developmental English used to be called remedial English. I struggled with reading as a child, and I still struggle to proofread my own writing. I still look up new words. I still find new words in the comics pages.

Often my students told me that they did not see any point in reading. This often meant that they were poor readers or they didn't read material that I might consider important. It usually meant that they'd been told reading the comics pages wasn't real reading. I would tell my students the same thing that I'd once overheard a sage faculty member say to another student. "Read anything and everything that you enjoy. Most importantly, read the comics."

The comics were, ultimately, how I learned to love language and literature. Week days, in much of the US, they cover one side of a newspaper page. On Sundays, they come in color. I still cannot wrap my head around the idea that it would ever be a good idea to tell a faltering reader that this kind of reading has little value.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Why I Choose Here: Why I might Choose There

One of the things you never see in England is forever. Here in Bath, it's difficult to see even a quarter of the way to infinity.  I used to live in Fairbanks, a northern town also made a fortress by the quick rise of the surrounding earth. And so when one of my sisters and I landed in Denver, the first thing we showed her son were America's Great Plains.
My Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, and Great Uncle on the Great Plains

We leaned into him as the plane landed pointing out how the eastern horizon didn't change no matter how low to the ground we got.  He told us about the airplanes and trucks that soon surrounded us on the tarmac. When we deboarded, he didn't want to look out the giant windows or to be lifted onto one of our hips. He wanted to say hello to every person we encountered on the long walk to baggage claim.

My nephew was born in the South. The towns of his two-year life are bordered by masses of water and what remains of once impenetrable forests. For now, he doesn't mind how far his eyes can see. When we turned the rental car west, he didn't notice the Rocky Mountains. He wanted to sing the song we'd taught him about five little ducks. When I was small and singing car songs, I thought the Rockies were the beginning of the world and heaven resided just beyond I-70 somewhere towards Kansas. I had never been to Kansas.

When people ask me, I tell them the half-truths of my own family's diaspora. I say that one June 10th, my parents packed my sister and I into a U-haul and 1975 Dodge Dart. For five days we headed, opposite our western bound ancestors, toward America's bible belt. Eighteen months later my sister left first for Paris and then for college. My mother died and the next year, my father packed up and moved north toward Chicago on the same Friday that I left for college. My grandmother followed him north and the two of them headed south before Dad went north then south again. My sister headed west, then east, and finally southeast. And I came to England via Texas, Florida, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska.

My sister said to her son, "This is where Mommy and Auntie Rachael grew up." Except that too is a half truth. I stayed in our bible-belt state for nine years. It is as much a part of me as the Rocky Mountains, as the Alaska range, as Solsbury Hill. But it is also true, that I learned my values, my sense of place, my desire for fairness and silent fishing and clean air in the Colorado foothills. My desire to go, to travel, to live a thousand possible lives grew up in a tiny rental house just west of Denver. It's where I saw my first red fox, touched a snapping turtle, and ate icecream bars sitting on the stoop. Denver is the last place--the only place--that I remember my family being happy. It is also no longer home.

The narrative of my family's parting is the story of a false diaspora, in part because over seventeen years we've come together and separated in various permutations. It's a half truth I tell. I have two more sisters who remained in Colorado, who are raising their children there, who live very near their own mother with whom they share a huge extended family. They rarely go beyond the point where I-70 meets Kansas.

It took me too many years to realize that we are all half-truths. The academic in me names these selves we present to the world personas, but the culture of calling a thing by another name exists in England as much as it does in Indiana or Oregon or Florida. Being our 'Authentic,' 'Best,' 'Unrevealed Millionaire' selves are all personas (sold for a price too high) behind which we hide our perfect humanness.  It is a mistake to think that the English or the Nigerians or the Americans are somehow more authentic than we each are in our own cultures. If I am more honest than I want to be here, I will acknowledge that in my expatriation I thought I'd find a better, more real people.

But the English are only what they are. The stoicism I so admired in them, and they in me, breaks the human body in the same way that the American propensity for back-breaking work for pay far too low breaks the human spirit. They are silent, like the Americans, when their voices should ring out. They, like the Americans, mistake pride for charity. They, like the Americans, still struggle to see past their own visions of history.

I was raised at the foot of the Rocky Mountains where I tried to say the words of the Pledge of Allegiance with more passion than any of my classmates. I prayed the same way, as though my fervor obliged God and America to make my path of gold. I know a handful of people who still believe that patriotism and religion entitle them to a blessed life. I know many, who like me, believed that heaven could be found by following I-70 east. I kept going turning northeast at the Atlantic.

My mother used to make perfectly outlined grocery lists that began at the door of the supermarket and ended in its very last aisle. In the same way, she attempted to teach me to organize my thoughts into pros and cons, into practical and impractical, into truths and fictions. Once when I was very small, we watched a very young woman marry a prince. Maybe, my mother told me, I grow up to be a princess. My sister tells another story. If I were to say that I am like my mother, it would be half of a fiction.

I could write you a laundry list of England's imperfections. Every item on it would make an academic text of cultural identity. When I teach students to write argumentative papers, I tell them that they are absolutely obliged to challenge the underlying assumptions of their theses. I find it difficult to say that, given the choice, I choose to live out my life in Britain because my underlying assumption just might be a rejection of what America is rather than what I had hoped it would be.

The Tuesday before I flew back to the States, I found a benign growth in my right breast. What I felt was annoyance. I'd been to the GP on the Monday for a referral for knee surgery. I really didn't want to spend another morning at the doctor's office. Despite the fact that I knew from experience what I was feeling, I was aware that as a matter of course the thing needed to be poked, smooshed, and ultrasounded to confirm its status as a non-threat to life. My second reaction was sheer relief that this time I wouldn't not doing this in America.

I do not want to live in a system that does not see good, timely healthcare as a human right. I reject a system which prioritizes share prices above human life. I can live without miles of branded laundry detergent. I, single and without children, want to live in a country that sees the need for a parent to be with a child in its first year. I want to support a system which sees the difficulties caring for a loved one presents and which makes that possible. I want to work in a system which requires me to rest and insists on liveable pay. I want the women who surround me to not worry about estrogen in the food chain. And I want cows and sheep roaming in my countryside. I want my neighbors to see the unfairness of the world in which they live rather than labeling their underemployed brethren as failures. I want a country in which one can do poorly in school and still grow up to be successful. I want to live in a land of opportunity, rather than one of fairy dust. I know too that Britain only almost offers my brand of heaven. I know too that Britain doesn't look like it once did.

My sister tells me that when they returned home, my nephew went to look for me in the spare bedroom. He won't remember this visit. He'll see forever after landing in Denver once or twice a year through his childhood, and he'll look at Paddington Bear each morning from his cot. Everyday that I wake up and still choose to make a life here, I will find it difficult to know that he is the choice that I am not making.


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Things I Miss From Home: What They Have Done

I know that I've promised you a giant BUT for two weeks now. I'm working on it. Really, it may be the longest blog post ever by the time I finish it. In the mean time, I've been thinking about how much the US has changed since my last visit. My last visit was, admittedly, well before the economy took a tumble. It was before the last presidential election cycle was in full swing. In fact, it was before my two youngest nephews were born. It was also before the wide availability of this:

 It's important to note here that the term 'organic' carries different, less stringent, standards in the US than it does in the UK. Nonetheless, I wasn't sure if I should cheer or cry. Nostalgia can be a bitter pill.

There's a new Facebook like button at the top of the page. This is because I have to imitate all of the other bloggers in England; moreover, my friend Jon insists that he's the only one who reads the blog. Would you please help this woman out and click on the like button, or the follow button, or leave me a note to learn what an rss feed is and how to use one? I'm back to writing the BUT post. See you soon.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Perfect English Days

On seeing these men's legs hanging from the scaffolding, I desperately hoped they'd be eating sandwiches.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Things I miss from Home: Oatmeal? Pies

I didn't have any desire to consume these while in the States. I had completely forgotten they existed. Add them to the list of thins I used to miss from home.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Things I Miss From Home: Squeezy Cheese

In the US cheddar is orange. It's uber-pasteurized, and in it's extra-strong (sharp in American terminology) form, it tastes rather less strong than mild English cheddar.  Much of this type of 'cheddar' is a heavy processed cheese, and it is not cheddar as it is defined in Europe. This should be pretty obvious given it's plasticine texture and bland taste. 

I grew up on those over-processed and plasticy cheeses. For a short period my mother worked as a child-minder (in-home daycare), and she served government cheese to the family and children in her care. That cheese tasted like cardboard, but I now have a strong affinity for it as well.

When I was growing up, the big treat of the cheese world for me was squirty cheese. Usually, it appeared in the crevasses of celery stalks at family holiday gatherings. I made it back to the UK with thee cans. I fully expected to think it was the most disgusting thing on planet. Instead, I've eaten it all.

Monday, 16 May 2011

The Secret to Creating Drooling Glassy-Eyed Americans

 Happy Home Maker UK asked me to take pictures of Target. For those of you in the UK, this may look like just another giant box store on an industrial estate. It is a giant box store on an industrial estate. More importantly, it is a microcosm (macrocosm) of American culture. Interesting fact: there are Target stores in Australia. they share the Target logo, a giant red target, and look rather like American target stores. The two companies are otherwise unrelated.

 I think it must be virtually impossible to be an expert in one's own culture. I wandered through the store knowing that there was something different, something American, about the store, but I still cannot articulate what that difference was. Perhaps you British, Canadian, French, and Australian Americanists can enlighten me. Certainly, there is more space in between the rails (racks) and the shelves are lower than in a typical UK discounter.

 There were of course the obvious differences. Hundreds of cheese poofs (cheese balls) for less than a British fiver. For that matter, there were animal crackers and animal crackers in bulk. You can see them at the very top of the above photograph.

 There wasn't just soup. There were sixty kinds of Campbell's soup. The soup aisle was twice as long as my local baked bean aisle. It was all a bit overwhelming, so I skipped canned soup all together.

 And the pickle aisle contained mostly olive and pickled gherkins. If you look closely you may be able to spot some things that are more at home on a British store shelf

 No matter how many times I tell myself that streaky bacon is the same as American bacon, I still know that it isn't true. I remember when I left America that I thought bacon was terribly expensive. It wasn't. I think it is even cheaper now. I'm grateful to my family and friends for feeding me rashers and rashers of crispy bacon and letting me have more than my share of the maple syrup.

 I have spent many a happy hour looking at the ink pens in Target's aisles, but it is very rare to find a fountain pen in such American aisles. Sarah metioned that she sensed a giant 'but' coming. There is indeed a giant 'but' coming, but there are a few more joyful things I'd like to share first. Slugs on the Refrigerator shared her own 'but' today. It's worth a read. My thoughts are wandering that way too.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Transatlantic Home

I'm home now.

I was greeted by cartoon clouds, and traffic traveling on the left side of the road.

I'm settling in nicely; though, the jet lag is still slowing me down.

I have a lot to show you and to tell you just as soon as I get  caught up. Here's a wee bit of a hint.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Fabulous Things About America: Mother's Day

This is the seventeenth Mother's Day that I have spent without my mother.

 And it is the first that my father has spent without his mother.

It is hard to imagine a greater priveledge than spending Mother's Day with my three sisters, who are now mothers themselves.

Friday, 6 May 2011

One Thursday in May

Gram (1932-2010) and Grandpa Joe (1933-1990).

We interred Gram today.We laughed and told stories just as she'd wanted us too. Sweet dreams, Gram. I will carry you with me.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Fabulous Things About America: Part 2

True Dimensions of an American Fridge

Among the surprising things I've learned this week is that I don't miss having an American sized refrigerator. Jet lag is confusing enough without the added bonus of having to dig for milk while trying to remember what milk looks like. The milk is in the two square containers on the top, right hand side. To give you a general idea of exactly how big the refrigerator is, each of those containers holds 3.78 liters of milk. The bottom two drawers are as big as my entire refrigerator back in the UK, and the fridge is two feet deep. I've seen bigger 'American refrigerators in England.

This particular fridge held all kinds of little miracles for me, not the least of which were pickles. The English most certainly do pickles.But cucumber tends to be called gherkin, and when pickled, it tends to be preserved in just vinegar. I'd forgotten exactly how much I love pickles. On spotting them, my legs did a fine impression of my nephew's legs when he is overcome with excitement.


On the other hand, I'd still pay a lot more in rent for an American freezer. The white box o the left hand side contains ice. Yum, ice. I've been her a week now, and I've yet to use the ice. It's been very warm here, yet it hasn't occurred to me to start popping ice cubes into every available drink. I may have a go in the morning just to see if I really missed them or if their lack in the UK is just one more faint reminder of where I come from.

I'm leaving the American South for the American West tomorrow, where I'll meet up with the rest of the extended family and continue eating my way through America.  I wonder what will strike me as strange or new or simply fantastic when I get there. America isn't home any longer, but it remains where I am from.
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