Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gone to look for America


I have a long time love affair with America. It seems to run in parallel with my long time disdain of America. The two somehow coexist in my being, each with a fiercely burning fuel of their own. I have never been able to reconcile these feelings into one coexistent stream. They are opposites that seem equally strong. Attraction and repulsion. Maybe it is these magnetic-like qualities that continually draw me there with such an intense fascination. So flicking through the inflight films from A to Z on my US bound journey, it was with a feeling of rightness that I arrived at the last film in the list and it seemed like nothing could be more perfect. Woodstock. It is the embodiment of what I love about America. And indeed humanity. It is this part of America that I always try to tap into when the side that disgusts me starts to get me down. The love of humanity, generosity, innovation, passion and self-expression. All culminating in music that strongly resonates with my being. From Richie Havens opening set through to Jimi, it is just a three hour celebration of what I love about people and the world. And indeed the US. Optimism, hope and defiance against the expected norm and institutions that aim to control you. I am feeling excited now of my impending trip to look for America and my quest to seek out some people with a like mindset. And really to find a bit of myself to jolt me out of the malaise I’ve been in lately.

“Tori I’m lost,” I said, but I knew she was sleeping. “I’m aching and empty and I don’t know why…”

My father was born in America. Hank the Yank they called him at the various cricket clubs he played at. He was in fact the first American born man to play first grade cricket in Victoria. And also in Western Australia. And again in Tasmania. Baseball had been his game until moving to Melbourne with his mum at the age of 14. The kids at Elwood Central school had apparently laughed at him when he took guard with the cricket bat over his shoulder as the bowler commenced his run up. But being the determined bugger that he was, he had a couple of mates bowl to him through the winter so that when the next season came around he had some element of mastery over the game. He continued on majestically and ultimately counted a number of Australian test and Sheffield Shield cricketers as his teammates. His own aspirations for cricketing heights were cut down by a car accident with a semi-trailer on the Hume Highway that almost cost him his life, but in the end just cost him 90% of the movement in his ankles. He still managed to play the game at a decent level for another forty or so years afterwards. Tough and determined. When I was young he told me all sorts of stories about growing up in New York. Sledding down the hilly iced up streets of the city in winter, hoping that no traffic would come around the corner at a fatally wrong time. Going on a scout camp upstate and having to burn all of his clothes after an encounter with a skunk that ended badly. Fending off and fleeing from a knife wielding kid on the street who decided that he wanted the jacket that he was wearing. He escaped that encounter with a wound down his arm that he was still able to show me some thirty years after the incident. “The kid tried to stab me in the face but I blocked the knife with my arm… here”, he told me while tracing a finger down the long scar. A few fond and not so fond reminisces aside, he had no real romance or love for the country. Times must have been tough over there for he and my grandmother. It was 1947 when she decided to up sticks from the US and emigrated to Australia where her brother Sam and sister Rose were living. It was only two years after the second world war. My Dad’s dad had died more or less broke four years earlier in 1943. Having lost all of his money during the depression, he had scraped to support his family by driving a taxi and running numbers for some local crims. When he died, my grandmother had to somehow create a life for her and her ten-year-old son with no money in the bank. Just after a war in which she’d had six of her brothers and sisters and both of her parents die in the concentration camp back in her birthplace of Riga. I’ve known this my whole life but have never really been able to get my mind around it. Having the bulk of your family systematically murdered, then having your husband die with no money in the bank, back in the days when women never really worked but just stayed home to look after the kids. I guess people do what they need to do, but she must have been one tough lady. In Australia she was able to build a fine life for herself totally from scratch, as so many other post-war migrants did. Dad had the opportunity to go back and live in the states when Nat and I were young kids, but he decided against it. He was a devout Australian by then and didn’t want to bring his kids up in New York. A place that he now viewed as an overcrowded asylum where gangs and hoods ran rampant with knives and guns. In the 1970s that was perhaps a fair assessment. I don’t know, but I couldn’t help but feel an attraction. The inferred danger seemed in some way to appeal to me. I was partly disappointed at the time that my father turned down the opportunity. It seemed exciting to my ten-year-old mind. I knew I had to go there some day.

This must be around my 25th or so trip to the US. Sometimes I come home enlightened. Sometimes I come home disgusted. But one thing I know is that the perspective of America, like anywhere I guess, is always different from within. External views always seem to be caricaturised or sensationalised to a degree. The pervading external view of America is of an out of control beast that is being controlled by greedy corporations and rich individuals who have no regard for anybody or thing other than themselves. It somehow forgets that there are actually 300 million stories going on there. The latest crisis of the shutdown over “affordable healthcare” just makes everybody else in the world’s mind’s boggle. Are these people morons? Are they genuinely so selfish that they couldn’t give a fuck about the people in their own country who can’t afford to see a doctor when they are sick? But in fact, I’ve always found Americans to be incredibly generous and hospitable on a personal level, even as I listen to some of them espouse ideas and beliefs that are completely alien to me. Sometimes I’m shocked to hear such right wing views come out of the mouths of people that seem in every other way to be kind and caring people. I can’t help but feel myself in some way recoil from them even though they have been nice to me. It is difficult for me to reconcile. But then the people of the Woodstock mindset are still there too. They are alive and well in various pockets around the country, in significant numbers. And they are still inspirational to me. They are the ones I cheer for. They represent the best in all of us. They are what I love about America.

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