Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Victuals of Liberty: Why I Love America

 I was so touched by The Didactic Pirate's patriotic testicles that I had to write this.




***

I had a bad case of writer's block in the fourth grade.  It was our country's bicentennial anniversary, and there had been a spate of patriotic assemblies and events at school in honor of the auspicious occasion.  I remember singing "America the Beautiful" on the school stage, and then later, on the swingset, the older boys repeating the performance with some of the lyrics revised to "God shed his shit on thee."  I may have joined in a little bit.

I also remember a peppy number we sang as Mrs. Daniels, the music teacher, kept time and mesmerized us with the undulating flesh of her upper arms:

I like the U-nited STATES of A-ME-rica
I like the THINGS that we SAY and we DO there
I like to VOTE for my CHOICE, speak my MIND, raise my VOICE
?
I can't remember the last line of the quatrain, which is odd because I remember pretty much every word of every song I paid any attention to between second and tenth grade. 

I looked up the lyrics to that song (composer unknown) just now, and there are a few variations.  The missing line, which is also the title of the song, appears to be "I like it here."  Maybe that's why I couldn't remember it.  I vaguely recall Mrs. Daniels modifying it a bit.  In fact, knowing what an obnoxious little pedant I was, I suspect she did so on my behalf.  Because while all of us in the fourth grade were expected to sing about our pride and love for our country, "I like it there" would have been more accurate, since we were not actually here.

Thus the writer's block.  In addition to the patriotic singing, we had been assigned an essay in which we were to discuss the things we loved about the good ol' U.S. of A.  The problem was that we lived in the good old B.R.D (Bundesrepublik Deutschland, a.k.a. West Germany), and some of us, like me, had lived there almost half of our short lives.  


Me in first or second grade

I was barely six years old when we moved to the tiny army base in the idyllic alpine hamlet of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, so what did I know about America?  

During my first five years of life, we had lived in four different states in the U.S.  I liked digging holes in our backyard in Kansas, and fishing for crawdads in Oklahoma.  I kind of remembered the smell of the ocean in California, and the amber glow from a Tiffany light fixture in my Grandma's house in Montana.  I guess I could have spun that into an essay, but I couldn't figure out how to use my hazy recollections to address the grand themes of American nationhood.
 
On my love of Germany, however, I could have written volumes: Wienerschnitzel, skiing, running wild in the forest with my friends,  Gummi-anything, oom-pah bands, Wienerschnitzel, castles, WWII artifacts just off the manicured hiking trails, wurst, lederhosen.  Did I mention Wienerschnitzel?  There was very little I lacked.  Or that I was conscious of lacking.  

So, like the lyrics of "I Like It Here," the prompt for the assignment was modified for the benefit of those of us who had gone native.  The new assignment was to write about what we would ask for if we could have had anything we wanted shipped to us from the States. 

Well, I really liked Fruit Stripe gum at the time, and we couldn't get it in Garmisch.  My grandparents would send us care packages every once in a while, and I would sit in my room, staring out the window in a sugar trance, chewing all of the Fruit Stripe gum, three pieces at a time, until the whole ten-pack was gone.  So I mentioned that.

My other request makes my cringe even now, thirty-some years later.  In addition to being pedantic when it allowed me to aggravate both my peers and elders, I was a precocious smart alec.  And a misogynistic wannabe playboy.  I guess perceptions of seventies masculinity knew no political or geographical boundaries.  The men I looked up to were the G.I.s who worked as ski patrols at the American resort, hip young officers who wore aviator glasses and drove Porsches, World Cup skiers, and Formula One drivers.  Pair that with easy access to the Chopper magazines my friend's dad had lying around the house, and the Playboys we sometimes scored while dumpster-diving, and you have the makings of a 10-year-old Lothario in lederhosen. 

So in my patriotic essay, in addition to gum, I included a request for "a bunch of good-looking girls from Kansas" and made a crude drawing of young ladies in a packing crate.  Apparently, the current crop of fourth-graders at Garmisch Elementary was not up to my standards.   

Fourth grade field trip.  My wardrobe, like my taste in ladies, had become much more sophisticated.

***

I don't know what ever became of  my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Keller (she was a liberated woman, thus the Ms.), but I'm sure she would offer me an opportunity to redo my essay.  Given my decades of intervening experience, I am even willing to revert to the original prompt.

Why I Love America

What is a country anyway?  Is it simply a rhetorical construction, encoded in a constitution and a system of laws, that tenuously bonds a group of heterogeneous individuals who live within arbitrary geographical boundaries?  Yes, that's precisely what it is.
Is it the words that define a country that make it great?  Or is it the inconsistent, often capricious actions that it takes ostensibly in defense of its rhetorical identity that distinguishes a great nation from a mediocre or a bad one?  It is neither.  What makes a nation great is its people.  And what, fundamentally, are people?   They are what they eat.

America has the best food in the world.  Any Frenchies or Mexicans have anything to say about that?  I WILL FIGHT YOU!  I've had better bouillabaisse in Yountville than Paris and better mole in San Diego than Oaxaca.  Germany?  Please.  I've got nothing but love for schnitzel and wurst, but--c'mon--a fresh vegetable here and there wouldn't kill you.  Argentina?  I have to give it to you--your steaks are the best I have ever tasted.  But what else have you got? (Oh, yeah--empanadas.  But besides that?)  Vietnam?  That's tough.  I spent three weeks there and the only bad meals I had were "French" or "Italian."  But that's what makes our country great.  I can get cheap, delicious Vietnamese food down the street.  Or Ethiopian, Lebanese, Filipino, etc., etc.  And our national cuisine (hamburgers) happens to be the most delightful iteration of the meat/bread union on the planet.  Where else can you get all that and free-market democracy too?

So, Ms. Keller, when I made the comment (and drawing) about shipping girls across the Atlantic like so much chattel or delicious chewing gum with variegated zebra stripes, what I really meant to say was that I love this country (this one I'm in right now, in the narrative present--you know--the U.S.A., not B.R.D) because it is a nation of many identities.  The "bunch of good-looking girls from Kansas" was simply a trope that I had not taken the time to fully flesh out (I should have spent less time on the drawing, which probably did not help emphasize its figurative intention).  What I meant by "crate full of girls" was a random sample of unique Americans whose collective identity represents our national ethos.  Why from Kansas?  Because I wanted to make the point that diversity was not restricted to the urban centers and coasts of this great nation, but could be found also in its very heart.

I love my country, Ms. Keller, not only for its reasonably priced and delicious culinary options, but also for the people that brought those traditions here with them or kept them alive through the generations since their ancestors landed on our shores.  And for the people who consume these dishes without prejudice, ingesting the essence of our variegated culture.  Becoming an American is a process that takes a lifetime, and it involves above all embracing our differences.  And when we present our face to other nations, whether in the form of a diplomatic mission, a military force, or a "bunch of good-looking girls," we must be sure that face is well-stuffed with the victuals of liberty.          


11 comments:

  1. Ms. Keller will undoubtedly forgive you after that. My testicles are humbled by your articulate discourse about America.

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  2. Bravo! You should find her and mail her a copy.

    I loved this. Very funny. I guess I can join in the praise...even if I don't have any testicles.

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  3. fruit stripe gum!!!!!!!

    and i'd have to go with cheeseburger over hamburger - because what i need is the best iteration of the meat/cheese/bread union. you can't forget the cheese. that's why we have wisconsin.

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  4. I once shot a film in Israel for two months, and the entire American cast ended up becoming regulars at a place called the Stagecoach Inn, an American west themed restaurant/bar filled with tacky wagonwheel/saloon decor, which served shots of Israeli tequila. On it's menu of "American" food was...Wienerschnitzel. We never figured out why, but just went with it because it was a hell of a lot better than their "barbecue".

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  5. Nice save... almost enough to regain your feminist street cred. Unfortunately, the cut-off for absolution of the youthful follies of misogyny is actually THIRD grade, so you're pretty much fucked and/or Mel Gibson.

    The Trucknutz would look awesome on your Nissan.

    ReplyDelete
  6. @DiPi,
    It occurs to me that "articulate discourse" vs. "star-spangled trucknutz" really is a concise way to think about the social/political rift in our country.

    @OTO,
    No need to have testicles to be a great American. You have a boat, right? I think you can buy a pair that bolt onto the motor.

    @Gretchen,
    Schnitzel, like meaty pies, is a universal dish. Every culture has it's fried, breaded cutlets. The Israeli Chuck Wagon should have just called it "chicken fried veal." I love hyper-American themed stuff in other countries. It's great to see what they think of us. Germans are *obsessed* with cowboys. Weird.

    @L-sq,
    Crap. Is there some other penance I can do to get my fem-cred back? Those Trucknutz would look awesome next to my "No on Prop 8" bumper sticker.

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  7. I love the way you went from the sort of idealism of rhetorical construction to the materialism of being what we eat! Another great post, Andy!!

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  8. You touched Didactic Pirate's testicles? Nothing gay about that.

    -Eric Massa

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  9. @Eric,

    I know, right? It was in the context of an all-American tickle fight.

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  10. "Lothario in lederhosen"...bwahhahhahhah!

    Oh, the awkwardness of our youth, and why can't we forget it?

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  11. What year was this?

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Don't hold back.

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