Monday, October 29, 2007


The man I saw today with no arm,
talking and smiling and gesturing,
was obviously all there.
It was the look on his face
that made me know.

When I was alone again,
I looked at my right arm
swinging from my shoulder
and wondered if it’s something
that belongs to me, that I wear,
but isn’t who I am at all.

If I lost it would I be less whole,
would I still be all there?
What would my face show
when someone looked
and saw me with an empty sleeve?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Being home again after showing my passport to officials in European airports and after wandering for weeks in cities, villages, and highways of several countries, I find myself once again actively wondering what it means to be a citizen of the United States and of the world... to what national/political entity do I owe unqualified allegiance. When I ask myself if I love my country and if I am glad to be an American, the answer is definitely “yes,” but it’s a “yes” followed by a period as end punctuation, not by an exclamation mark. We Americans are expected by our fellow countrymen to subscribe to a motto that includes a commitment to “my country, right or wrong.” I can’t do that.

Last month my neighbor (I should say neighbour) across the narrow lane from the Dairy Cottage where I was staying in Masham, Yorkshire, England, called me “Mr. America,” and I began to wonder what my being American implies to people who don’t carry, and don’t want to carry, American passports. When he addressed a note to me with that salutation, I thought he had forgotten my name, but later it was clear that he had not forgotten. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t call him “Mr. England.” He obviously feels no animosity toward me; as a matter of fact, he makes it clear that he likes my company. He is saying something about his idea of what it means to be an American. But what does it mean to him? And what does it mean to me?

I confess to being incurably fickle. This week my favorite American hero is Al Gore. Next week it may be Bill Gates or Bill Richardson or Bono. Oh, I forgot. Bono is Irish. So there it is. I don’t choose the people whom I most admire from a list of exclusively Americans. Some in my family and some of my neighbors and the governor of my state have actually chosen to be Americans. They began life as citizens of another country. Remember, I stated at the beginning of this writing that I am glad to be an American, but I don’t allow myself to forget that it was an accident of birth that made me an American. I didn’t choose it; I had the good fortune to be born into it. I also don’t allow myself to forget that the person who picked the strawberries I had for breakfast probably was not as fortunate as I and was born somewhere south of the Border, border with a capital B, the border that many of my fellow Americans would like to seal with an impregnable fence.

Borders, like fences between neighbors, are important. In the best of times borders are more symbolic than they are barriers. The border between Canada and the United States, for example, has long been acknowledged by Canadians and Americans to be a political demarcation, not a barrier to separate citizens of one country from those of the other. The border between Mexico and the United States is another matter. Californians identify themselves as Americans, but they don’t think of our neighbors on the other side of our southern border as anything but Mexican, although Mexico is as much a part of North America as is the United States. As a matter of fact, the Canadian part of North America is much larger than the part that is the United States, yet we don’t speak of Canadians as “Americans.”

We Americans move around the world wearing our presumptions on our sleeves. We clearly presume to have better ways of doing all things than other people can do them. We presume our language to be better in every way than other languages, so we expect people in other countries to make the effort to learn English. When we visit Italy, we expect shopkeepers and innkeepers to speak to us in English. We don’t reciprocate. When Italians visit us in California, we expect them to speak to us in English. Any citizen of the U.S. who wants to spend a day or a week in Mexico can simply walk across the border at Tijuana and find that there are two languages of commerce and recreation there: Spanish and English. We don’t reciprocate by allowing Mexicans to walk freely across the border from Tijuana into San Ysidro. A Mexican entering the U.S. is required to present appropriate papers at the border, and appropriate papers are not easy to acquire. Getting appropriate papers is next to impossible for most Mexicans; but when one does come across with visa in hand, we expect our common language to be English.

It comes down to this. I am one of the more than six billion people who live on planet earth. I have no more inherent right to the resources on the planet than a person born in Siberia or Sumatra or Santiago. Closer to home, setting aside my thinking about the other six billion people in the world who are not U.S. citizens, George Bush and I have no more right to opportunity for “a good life” than anyone else in America. One of the most important ideas that shaped American democracy is that nobility in the old European sense is not inherited; we say we believe all of us are born “noble.” Ignoring for a moment the fact that the American nation was created on rich land that was unfairly and cruelly taken away from indigenous people, and setting aside for a moment the fact that the colonies that were pulled together to form the United States had enriched themselves by using slaves kidnapped from their African homeland, and forgetting also for the moment that all women and people of any race other than caucasian were excluded from consideration in the founding documents, the Founding Fathers made an effort to form an egalitarian government. The American idea was that a peanut farmer’s son or a blacksmith’s son could have as much access to opportunity for riches and political influence as the son of a rich merchant or plantation owner. The drafters of the Constitution made the clear distinction between the English system and the new American system. Inequality was hereditary in England. In 1776 a man born in London inherited nobility or lacked nobility depending on who his legitimate father was. In the new American world, inherited nobility was such a distasteful idea to the new nation’s first president that he rejected outright any talk of making him a king. On the other hand, I read recently that when George Washington met with Congress, he insisted on being seated in a special chair with a crimson canopy and that when he addressed the assembly, they should not “talk back” to him. I don’t recall seeing the red canopy in any of the paintings of those occasions. I’ll have to do some research to learn if his regal posture is just another myth like the cherry tree story or if it is true. There are verifiable accounts of Jefferson slopping around the White House in common, casual clothes even on working days. There are no accounts of his having said casually or officially that he was the decider.

We Americans continue to like the idea that we are all created equal; but in spite of our tacit commitment to the idea, the Founding Fathers’ goal of equality may not survive. It won’t survive unless we face honestly the fact that social and economic advancement is keyed to education, and public education is usually woefully inadequate outside the enclaves of wealthier Americans. The American president who steadfastly refuses to sign legislation that would provide health care for poor children touts his “No Child Left Behind” education program as the highlight of his term of office. The title of Bush’s program promises what it cannot deliver and probably was never intended to deliver. The title was composed for maximum political advantage. The actual design of the program is built on the notion that punishing failing schools, like punishing failing children, will cause them to be better. A punishing approach doesn’t address the causes of failure. Nowhere in the program, for example, is there a plan to raise teacher’s salaries to a level that will attract sufficient numbers of good teachers and keep them in schools until retirement. Under the program, good teachers must routinely set aside good teaching practice for days at a time in order to test to see if they and their schools should be punished.

Congress has hoodwinked the American public by promising, and delivering significant tax cuts; but as a matter of fact the tax cuts benefit only the richest citizens. If the trend continues, Congress will do away with federal estate taxes, a move that will guarantee more wealth for those who are already wealthy and will do nothing for average Americans, much less for the poorest Americans. The tax benefit given by Congress and the Bush Administration to people who are wealthy represents real money that cannot be used for the public good, including education. It’s the Robin Hood effect in reverse: take from the poor and give to the rich.

I don’t dispute the argument that people who work hard should be rewarded for their work. I can’t ignore, however, the difference between the earnings of executives and the wages of workers. I can’t ignore the obscene payments by pharmaceutical companies and health care companies to their top executives when I remember the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance. The American idea is at risk.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Wordsworth and Daffodils. In October there are no daffodils by Grasmere Lake where Dorothy pointed out to her brother William that the flowers seem to dance. In the early morning when the winds are still, heather on the mountains above Rydel Water and Grasmere are almost as beautiful as daffodils. Clouds and high hills reflect in the perfect lake mirrors as they did when Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron walked beside them. This is timeless country that belongs to the ages, not just to Britain but to the world.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


A visitor to Leeds who hasn’t been there for the past twenty years will be pleasantly surprised to find that the dark, old Victorian city has disappeared and in its place a generally bright, charming urban center has taken its place. People who haven’t seen Leeds transformed are often discouraged from going there even by the English themselves, who seem to drive around it because it’s still thought of as a grimy industrial city.

The arcades in the center of Leeds are visually perhaps the most satisfying malls anywhere in England, perhaps in the world. These shopping cathedrals are even laid out like churches with vaulting ceilings and often with stained glass. We were fortunate to have Gerald and Jose (Josie) Smith to guide us even to a flatiron building that is at least twenty years older than the one in New York.

Monday, October 01, 2007


Climbing up Sutton Bank into the North York Moors National Park begins from a tiny village with an absolutely appropriate name. Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe nestles in gently rolling patchwork quilt farmland not far from some of England’s most starkly beautiful high country. Of course, with it’s tallest peak reaching a height of only 3200 feet, England doesn’t have any very high country; but on the moors under threatening skies the land seems remote, wild, and distant. The heather isn’t purple in September, but burnt umber and maroon swatches cover the landscape. Clouds seem to rise up out of the land.

In Whitby the North Sea slips into the harbor and at Robin Hood’s Bay seven or eight miles to the south, smashing waves crash against stone houses build at the end of the single narrow street that slips down to the water’s edge. It’s easy to see why the Leed’s photographer Thomas Sutcliffe chose to do most of his work in the Whitby area.