The Broad is Back!

November 10, 2011

For Veteran’s Day

I haven’t been around in a long time for a myriad of reasons, but I wanted to share an old blog post from the original The Broad Abroad in honor of our veterans and our current service men and women.

Since I’ve been back teaching in NYC, I’ve taught more veterans than I want to think about, young men and women who have served in battle and are now back getting a degree. I read their essays about living in a war zone; I hear their stories of lost friends, broken bodies, alcoholism, and it breaks my heart every time.  I am also teaching some active soldiers, one of whom recently got wounded so badly that he ended up in Germany for surgery. he still managed to be only four days late with his paper.  And he apologized for inconveniencing me.  I don’t mention names, but I tell his story to every student I have now.  He’s my personal hero.

So the thoughts I had in Sweden 10 years ago have only grown deeper.  Thank you all from the bottom of my heart, and not just the recent veterans, but those of you who served in all of America’s wars.  You truly aren’t forgotten. Or unappreciated.

A Shout Out to the Boys

Originally published August 12, 2004

A lot of times in this column, I talk about encountering anti-Americanism. OK, talk is a euphemism. I complain.
And I’ve mentioned how I don’t wear things obviously labeling me as an American because I worry about attracting unwanted attention. It’s the same theory as not wearing my jewelry in the New York City subway–why tempt Fate?

I’m not alone in this approach, of course. Just the other day I was reading that one of the American TV networks has
warned its staff going over to cover the Olympic Games not to wear American flags or even the network insignia when they are out in public in order to avoid being the target of a terrorist attack.

But then I got to thinking about some people who can’t avoid being seen as American: the members of the US Armed
Forces fighting or guarding in different areas. And I really wanted to say something about them, but I was trying to think of a way to avoid all the political implications. It’s not easy. No, I take that back. It’s impossible. Oh, I can write without mentioning politics at all, but I can hear people out there shouting at me because I’m choosing to ignore the political.

But that’s just what those soldiers have to do. They have to ignore the shouting and the politics and just do their
job, and frankly, it’s a pretty crummy job. And for all my sitting in nice, safe Sweden and writing about the image of America abroad, I *am* safe. So I wanted to take a week and give a shout out to the “boys and girls” in the service and say thank you. Thank you for being braver than I could ever be, and thank you for putting your life on the line. Although there has been much made in the press of the bad apples, the good apples get basically ignored, so this is for them.

Just the other day I heard about two Iraqi brothers who have been living in Sweden for 25 years. They just sold
their shops and they are going home for the first time since they left their country. They couldn’t go back because of Saddam Hussein. I might not agree with how it was done, but what’s done is done, and good riddance to him. Saddam, that is. Those two brothers were quite pleased that the US finally got rid of him so that they can go spend their final years at home. And let me tell you, they say thanks to the boys, too.

A kid I used to baby sit is with the Marines in Afghanistan [note from 11/11–he recently got home from another tour over in the Middle East, so some things don’t change much] , and more than one friend has a son in Iraq. Through them, I’ve heard things that give me pause. I complain because I can’t get my favorite cleaning products in the places I’ve lived. These guys can’t get the sand out of their underwear. You know how horrible it is when you’ve got sand in your bathing suit? Well, from what I hear, this is a permanent problem over there. They feel like their underwear and socks are made of sandpaper. Sand gets into everything. One day my friend got frustrated and washed his clothes in a bucket of water. When he hung them out to dry, a sandstorm blew up and sanded themworse than before. I’m told one of the best things they can get in a care
package is a pair of tightey-whiteys (the regulation underwear) as it means no sitting on sandpaper for a day or two.

Sand is a hardship, of course, but then there’s the getting shot at. Of course, that’s an occupational hazard in their
chosen career, but still, I can’t think it can be much fun. How’s that for understatement?

I sometimes get e-mails from the mothers, written late at night when the fears can set in. Those moms are heroes to me. (Dads, too, I guess, but as a mom, I empathize with them more.) I have a hard time sending my son to school where I know there are bullies marking him out. I literally cannot imagine waving my son off, knowing he’s going into battle. Mothers have been doing it for millennia, of course, but hearing my friends voice their fears makes me wonder how they can possibly do it. I know I am no Volumnia, mother to the great Roman soldier Caius Martius, later known as Coriolanus. Thanks to Shakespeare’s version of the story, she’s famous for training her son to be a fierce soldier. In fact, in the play, based on Plutarch’s Lives, Volumnia says that she was happier when her son was first wounded in battle than she was the day
he was born and she was told he was a “man-child”.

Some ancient cultures recognized how difficult it was for women to send their children into battle. So according to
their beliefs, men could attain paradise by dying in battle, but women could attain paradise by giving birth to warriors. I can understand where that belief came from, believe me. Faith got those mothers through. Today, all of my
friends get by on Faith, as well. I’ve heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, there don’t seem to be any among soldiers’ moms, either.

And they get by on the kindness of strangers. Time after time I hear stories of regular people doing things for
the soldiers overseas through their churches, work place or social groups. As I mentioned to one of my soldier-mom friends, one good thing about this awful war is that it has shown us that Americans really do unite and help one another
when they need to.

As I was preparing to write this essay, I found an interesting piece in the New York Times. It was David Brooks’s “Snapping to Attention,” and in it he says that civilians in America have a strange reaction to our military: “Our
attitudes seem bipolar: we’re either at the military’s throat or we’re at its feet.”

“Sometimes,” he says, “the military is regarded as a bizarre, primeval institution dangerously at odds with enlightened
American culture.” But then, “at the flick of a cultural switch, the same people who were watching “Dr. Strangelove,” “M*A*S*H” and “Platoon” are lining up to see “Top Gun,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “We Were Soldiers.” Suddenly the
military is a bastion of the higher virtues – selflessness, duty and honor.”

Burke has a few reasons for this“bipolar disorder”: “I get the feeling these bipolar attitudes arise from a cocktail of ignorance, guilt and envy. First, there are large demographic chunks of the nation in which almost nobody serves….At the same time, they know there’s something unjust in the fact that they get to enjoy America while others sacrifice for it, and sense deep down that there’s something ennobling in military service.”

I think he’s on to something there, but I also think that in its ideal form the military is a “bastion of the higher virtues,” but these virtues he mentions, selflessness, duty and honor, are losing their grip in our society. And not just American society, all of Western society. (I can’t speak for other societies here, because I’m a product of Western liberal humanism, so I’m limiting myself to that.) Honor seems to be a forgotten word in our life, and duty? Well, that just seems laughable to most
people. Think of all the people you know in your own life who shirk duties–work responsibilities, parental responsibilities, marriage responsibilities–because they are too much, too hard.

When we see young people, some just barely 18, fulfilling their very dangerous duties in a highly unpopular war,
how can we not be made aware of our own failings? And it’s easy to take our frustrations about the war out on the young people who are fighting it. Many of them joined the military for a shot at a better life. And they’ll have one if a) they can stay alive, and b) they can resist the temptation to hate. It’s difficult, but hate is what turns them sour inside and makes them into the people who get the negative headlines.

So when I pray for them all over there, and I do, every day, I pray for physical, emotional and spiritual safety. And this is my shout out to you all–thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

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May 1, 2007

Margarette’s Going A-Maying

Filed under: Old Broads,poetry — by maggiec @ 2:42 pm

Originally published May 2003

Unless you’ve sat through an “Intro to British Lit” course, you probably don’t get the reference in the title. It’s to Robert Herrick’s 17th century poem, “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” In the poem, the narrator beseeches Corinna to get up early on May Day (May first) in order to enjoy both the fun of the day and the beautiful flowers. Herrick, an Anglican priest, bids Corinna to hurry through her morning prayers so that she can run out to the fields and bring in the May.

In pagan England, May Day was a special day to celebrate fertility, and even in Herrick’s day, many of the rites associated with the day hark back to that original meaning. Dancing around the maypole, which symbolized, well, you can figure it out, is still done in parts of England and America. In his poem, Herrick’s narrator tells Corinna that while she has been lazy sleeping in, many a couple has become engaged, and many a “green gown” has been given, from rolling in the grass, we can infer. Many a kissing game has been played, and many jokes have already been told of locks being picked this evening!

Bringing in the May meant that the young unmarried men and women went out to the fields and brought back armfuls of blooming whitethorn branches, budding tree branches and masses of flowers. These were then used to decorate all the houses in the village or town so that the fertility of the fields is spread about. Of course, while out in the fields picking those flowers, the young men and women had a brief moment of unchaperoned freedom where kisses could be shared. Not quite the wild sex rites of the pagan days, but better than nothing, which is mostly what 17th century young people managed in the kissing line.

I have dim memories from my now-distant childhood of making construction paper baskets to fill with flowers and then hang on the doorknob on May Day. The practice was dying even then, but perhaps in some remote places, they still bring in the May.

But I’ve been thinking of this poem a lot in the past few days. Being an English teacher, things like that happen to me, but also, I was going to experience my first Swedish May Day. Well, actually, what I was experiencing happened the night before May Day. The last night of April is called Valborgmässoafton, or Walpurgis night.

Walpurgis night was traditionally the night German witches gathered on the Blocksberg, a mountain in Northeastern Germany. Like so much of German culture, this holiday made its way to Sweden (though as some Swedes have told me, it’s the Swedish culture and language that have made their way to Germany, though I can’t find any real authorities who say this!).

But now it’s the night when Swedes greet the coming spring. Now, this being Sweden, there’s no opportunity to bring in masses of flowers and leafy boughs. And it’s certainly far too cold to be playing kissing games in the fields. There are just now some tulips, daffodils and straggling forsythia blooming out there, and almost all of the trees are still bare. But this is the night when we can finally say that there won’t be any more snow! Probably. If we’re lucky.

Swedes celebrate with large bonfires, often with a speech by a local authority and then followed by songs welcoming spring sung by a local men’s choir. The night is topped off with fireworks.

Our local village was having a bonfire at the football field down the road from our house, and the football club would be selling snacks as a fund-raiser. I was game, and to make it even more fun, our neighbors invited us for a traditional “grill party” or barbecue before the fire.

Of course, it rained all week, so people were worried. Then on the 30th it stopped! But it was cold, just above freezing, and there was a fierce wind. Because of this, the grill was moved to the oven, but we had a lovely dinner. Then it was off to the bonfire! The wind had died down, and the temperatures nudged up a bit, but I was still wearing a winter coat. The crowd was amazing. It seemed as if every one of the town’s 1200 or so residents came out for the fire. Some of the kids were having impromptu football games while others goofed off around the bonfire. One of the people who stopped to chat said that this was the only time during the year that they actually saw people from the village, and it was like a huge cocktail party – just circulate and chat.

Cocktail party might be an apt description for the teens. I’m told that this is a day of copious alcohol consumption for people in their older teens and early twenties. There was none of that in our town, mainly because the drinking set would find a bigger, more interesting bonfire to visit.

We were also spared the speech, and we skipped the choir. I was looking forward to one, but our town is too small. At 9:30, when it was finally dark, the fireworks started. I’m not the biggest firework fan, and all I could think while watching is that I’ve seen far too many fireworks displays on CNN over the past few weeks. It made me think of bombing and shelling, and I didn’t like it. No one mentions the war at all anymore, at least not non-media types. I think we’re all burned out, but I seem to have been the only one saddened by the fireworks. After the display ended, we returned to the neighbors’ for a night cap, and then for us old fuddy duddies, Walpurgis night was over.

It was strange when I walked the dog this morning. Things looked different. I don’t know if it was a coincidence or some kind of Walpurgis night magic, but I swear, when we went out this morning, hedges that had been bare twigs yesterday were obviously green this morning. The barren farm fields that surround our village were covered in a green haze; and the trees were suddenly in bud. Coincidence or magic, I don’t care. It finally looks like spring, and I’m thrilled!

The Swiss had a similar rite to bid goodbye to winter, but as they are so much further south, it happened much earlier. Around the equinox in late March, it was time to burn the effigy of old man winter. We got involved through my son’s school. He and his school mates would build a larger than life effigy of old man winter, and then on the appointed day, parents got to join the march to the burning place. Four local schools met with their men, and this being an urban group, they prepared the bonfire in a cement roller-blading pit at a nearby park.

There was singing and a bit of circle dancing around old man winter, then whoosh! Up went the paper-stuffed men. This was followed by bread with jam and butter with a glass of juice for the children and wine for the adults. We thought about it a lot this year, and missed it, but last night’s bonfire was almost as much fun.

Of course, this morning is May Day, a national holiday here in Sweden. As in almost all of Europe, this is Labor Day. This was something new to me when I moved to Switzerland, but seeing as my husband has spent almost his entire adult life in the labor movement, on the local, national and international level, it was something we celebrated.

In Switzerland, we went on huge workers’ marches. Through the streets of Geneva we’d go, ending up at a large park where there was entertainment and food and beer stands. The day ended with sausages and beer, and with that kind of ending, I’m game. It was fun, though, as there would be time to visit with his work friends and always some kind of diversion when a political group decided to make an outrageous statement.

This year, here in Sweden, we are missing that. But in our municipality’s seat, the annual labor movement march run by the Social Democratic Party was being turned into a peace march followed by a speech by the county governor. After the speeches there was a family day planned with a petting zoo, flea market, horse rides, a puppet show and fun stuff like that. We decided to go on the peace march and then have fun.

But the rain that had stayed away yesterday was back. We decided that it wasn’t too bad, so after tying a bright red scarf around the dog’s neck to spiff him up for his first march, we were ready to go. On the way there, the skies opened up. It poured. By the time we reached the gathering spot, it seemed to let up. But as we sat in the car, looking at the brave group of marchers, we realized that no, it was still pretty much pouring. We decided to skip the march and drive to the end spot. It wasn’t a long march planned; the municipality’s seat is really just a small town. Within ten minutes, there were the marchers.

Then came the speech. This is what it sounded like, the condensed version:

Yadda yadda yadda yadda Saddam Hussein. Yadda yadda yadda yadda Saddam Hussein. Yadda yadda yadda yadda. Yadda yadda yadda yadda Dag Hammarskjöld. Yadda yadda yadda yadda certainly, Yadda yadda yadda yadda, Thank you!

Later my husband told me that it basically said that now with the end of the Soviet Union, the balance of power was no longer balanced. The US had too much power. We (the people at the speech, but on a larger scale the Swedes and the rest of the world) could not allow the US to be the world’s police anymore, as that results in perpetual war. Instead, we must allow the UN to be the world’s police, as it should be. The governor also mentioned that it was a member of the Social Democrat party from Sweden who worked alongside America’s President Wilson to encourage the formation of the League of Nations, so Swedes must remember their stake in the project of the UN.

Sometimes I think it’s good that I don’t understand the speeches. I might agree with the governor of some level, but then again, I might just have a few words to say to him!

After the speech, there was coffee and buns in old-fashioned house turned coffee shop and singing by a men’s choir! I was thrilled to hear them. I love a good choir, and there’s something so restful about men’s voices. Maybe it has something to do with the lower pitch, but I enjoyed that part very much. Didn’t understand a word, of course, but with music, it doesn’t matter as much.

After this it was still pouring rain, so we decided to take our sodden dog and go home. It managed to rain all day, as it has for two of the past five May Days that we’ve celebrated in Europe.

Perhaps I didn’t manage a “green gown” or an armful of flowers, but Margarette went a-Maying this year. While the English teacher in me thought of fertility rites, the spectator in me saw a big bonfire that reminded me of burning our high school rivals in effigy before the traditional Brewster-Carmel football games. Not quite the same thing at all!

April 28, 2007

A Shout Out to the Boys and Girls

Filed under: heros,military,Old Broads,soldiers — by maggiec @ 7:59 pm

Originally published August 12, 2004  Note: I don’t want to exclude females, but at the time I wrote it, I was thinking of young men I knew. I have since come to know many brave women who are serving just as selflessly. They face the same privations and dangers.  And sadly, often sexism to boot.

A lot of times in this column, I talk about encountering
anti-Americanism. OK, talk is a euphemism. I complain. And I’ve
mentioned how I don’t wear things obviously labeling me as an American because I worry about attracting unwanted attention. It’s the same theory as not wearing my jewelry in the New York City subway–why tempt Fate?

I’m not alone in this approach, of course. Just the other day I was
reading that one of the American TV networks has warned its staff going over to cover the Olympic Games not to wear American flags or even the network insignia when they are out in public in order to avoid being the target of a terrorist attack.

But then I got to thinking about some people who can’t avoid being seen as American: the members of the US Armed Forces fighting or guarding in different areas. And I really wanted to say something about them, but I was trying to think of a way to avoid all the political implications. It’s not easy. No, I take that back. It’s impossible. Oh, I can write without mentioning politics at all, but I can hear people out there shouting at me because I’m choosing to ignore the political.

But that’s just what those soldiers have to do. They have to ignore the shouting and the politics and just do their job, and frankly, it’s a
pretty crummy job. And for all my sitting in nice, safe Sweden and
writing about the image of America abroad, I *am* safe. So I wanted to take a week and give a shout out to the “boys and girls” in the service and say thank you. Thank you for being braver than I could ever be, and thank you for putting your life on the line. Although there has been much made in the press of the bad apples, the good apples get basically ignored, so this is for them.

Just the other day I heard about two Iraqi brothers who have been living in Sweden for 25 years. They just sold their shops and they are going home for the first time since they left their country. They couldn’t go back because of Saddam Hussein. I might not agree with how it was done, but what’s done is done, and good riddance to him. Saddam, that is. Those two brothers were quite pleased that the US finally got rid of him so that they can go spend their final years at home. And let me tell you, they say thanks to the boys, too.

A kid I used to baby sit is with the Marines in Afghanistan, and more
than one friend has a son in Iraq. Through them, I’ve heard things that
give me pause. I complain because I can’t get my favorite cleaning
products in the places I’ve lived. These guys can’t get the sand out of
their underwear. You know how horrible it is when you’ve got sand in
your bathing suit? Well, from what I hear, this is a permanent problem
over there. They feel like their underwear and socks are made of
sandpaper. Sand gets into everything. One day my friend got frustrated and washed his clothes in a bucket of water. When he hung them out to dry, a sandstorm blew up and sanded them worse than before. I’m told one of the best things they can get in a care package is a pair of tightey-whiteys (the regulation underwear) as it means no sitting on sandpaper for a day or two.

Sand is a hardship, of course, but then there’s the getting shot at. Of
course, that’s an occupational hazard in their chosen career, but still,
I can’t think it can be much fun. How’s that for understatement?

I sometimes get e-mails from the mothers, written late at night when the fears can set in. Those moms are heroes to me. (Dads, too, I guess, but as a mom, I emphathize with them more.) I have a hard time sending my son to school where I know there are bullies marking him out. I literally can not imagine waving my son off, knowing he’s going into battle. Mothers have been doing it for millennia, of course, but hearing my friends voice their fears makes me wonder how they can
possibly do it. I know I am no Volumnia, mother to the great Roman
soldier Caius Martius, later known as Coriolanus. Thanks to
Shakespeare’s version of the story, she’s famous for training her son to
be a fierce soldier. In fact, in the play, based on Plutarch’s /Lives/,
Volumnia says that she was happier when her son was first wounded in
battle than she was the day he was born and she was told he was a
“man-child”.

Some ancient cultures recognized how difficult it was for women to send their children into battle. So according to their beliefs, men could
attain paradise by dying in battle, but women could attain paradise by
giving birth to warriors. I can understand where that belief came from,
believe me. Faith got those mothers through.

Today, all of my friends get by on Faith, as well. I’ve heard it said
that there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, there don’t seem to be
any among soldiers’ moms, either.

And they get by on the kindness of strangers. Time after time I hear
stories of regular people doing things for the soldiers overseas through
their churches, work place or social groups. As I mentioned to one of
my soldier-mom friends, one good thing about this awful war is that it
has shown us that Americans really do unite and help one another when they need to.

As I was preparing to write this essay, I found an interesting piece in
the /New York Times/. It was David Brooks’s “Snapping to Attention,”
and in it he says that civilians in America have a strange reaction to
our military: “Our attitudes seem bipolar: we’re either at the
military’s throat or we’re at its feet.”

“Sometimes,” he says, “the military is regarded as a bizarre, primeval
institution dangerously at odds with enlightened American culture.” But
then, “at the flick of a cultural switch, the same people who were
watching “Dr. Strangelove,” “M*A*S*H” and “Platoon” are lining up to see “Top Gun,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “We Were Soldiers.” Suddenly the military is a bastion of the higher virtues – selflessness, duty and honor.”

Burke has a few reasons for this “bipolar disorder”: “I get the feeling
these bipolar attitudes arise from a cocktail of ignorance, guilt and
envy. First, there are large demographic chunks of the nation in which
almost nobody serves….At the same time, they know there’s something
unjust in the fact that they get to enjoy America while others sacrifice
for it, and sense deep down that there’s something ennobling in military service.”

(You can find the link to buy the essay at
_http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F30D10F73D580C708CDDA10894DC404482_
It is from the /New York Times/, Late Edition – Final , Section A , Page
19 , Column 1.)

I think he’s on to something there, but I also think that in its ideal
form the military is a “bastion of the higher virtues,” but these
virtues he mentions, selflessness, duty and honor, are losing their grip
in our society. And not just American society, all of Western society.
(I can’t speak for other societies here, because I’m a product of
Western liberal humanism, so I’m limiting myself to that.) Honor seems to be a forgotten word in our life, and duty? Well, that just seems laughable to most people. Think of all the people you know in your own life who shirk duties–work responsibilities, parental responsibilities, marriage responsibilities–because they are too much, too hard.

When we see young people, some just barely 18, fulfilling their very
dangerous duties in a highly unpopular war, how can we not be made aware of our own failings? And it’s easy to take our frustrations about the war out on the young people who are fighting it. Many of them joined the military for a shot at a better life. And they’ll have one if a) they can stay alive, and b) they can resist the temptation to hate.
It’s difficult, but hate is what turns them sour inside and makes them
into the people who get the negative headlines.

So when I pray for them all over there, and I do, every day, I pray for
physical, emotional and spiritual safety. And this is my shout out to
you all–thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Glorious Food, American-Style

Filed under: Old Broads — by maggiec @ 4:18 pm

Originally published Jan 2003

Now, I love Jaime Oliver, the Naked Chef. Think he’s as cute as a bug’s ear. I watch his show whenever I can, which isn’t often, but I think he does a lot to make cooking interesting to young people like my son. And he’s just so refreshing to watch – he gets so enthusiastic, and I love that in a person. The other day, I saw him doing a segment of his show from New York City. A double happiness! Jaime and New York! Bliss!

But then he said some thing along the lines of “Americans always bastardize any good food”. He was joking, really, with his American friend, but all I could think was “Excuse me?” I have two words for you Jaime.

“Curry chips.”

But Jaime Oliver isn’t the only one I’ve heard say this.

Even Dennis Leary, an American comedian I think is great for his no-BS take on the world, had a riff on why of course the French hate us. They gave us the croissant. What did we do? Made a Croissanwich! Well, maybe he’s got a point there, but still, I get tired of the prejudice.

So many people tell me that American cuisine is nothing more than watered down versions of good food from other countries.

“Look at your beer,” they cry.

“Look at your bread!” they add.

Hm, yeah, give me a Sam Adams and a bagel any day. Or a Newman’s Pale Ale and a chewy multi-grain.

Okay, okay, I admit that there are times when American food can be really bad – tasteless, cardboard, unhealthy, and all the rest. And when American food is bad, it can be spectacularly bad. But we’re not the only ones guilty!

You ever have a pizza in Sweden? It’s served with cabbage salad. And they make it with pineapples, bananas and curry sauce if you’d like. That’s the Tutti-Frutti at my local place. Even the relatively normal vegetarian is not something that would be recognized as pizza in Italy. Sure it looks the same, but I still can’t figure out what it tastes like.

How about Chinese food in Geneva? I don’t know how they do it, but they manage to make it taste French. Something about how they make the sauces on the heavier side or something. Many’s the conversation I’ve had with Chinese students, bemoaning the woeful state of Chinese cuisine in Geneva, a place that usually does pretty decent ethnic foods, being the home of the UN and all.

I think my husband’s favorite food oddity was pizza in Taiwan. The options were Pizza Hut or Dominoes, not my idea of pizza to begin with, but if there’s no other game in town….I’d gotten used to the pizza, and thought nothing of it, but when my then-fiancé came to visit and I opened the box to my vegetarian pie, I swear his face blanched.

“It has peas on it,” he said.

“Yeah? So? It’s vegetarian,” I answered.

“But look at it! It’s got peas.”

Now I should explain that my husband absolutely hates peas, but I guess they are rather strange on a pizza, especially when the other vegetables on the vegetarian pizza were onion, corn and carrots. I had just stopped noticing.

Now really, a Swede shouldn’t talk about any other country’s pizza, but he had been living in Geneva, three hours from Italy, so he’d gotten spoiled. And no, American pizza is nothing like anything I’ve ever had in Italy, especially that “pan pizza” junk, which by the way, is called “American pizza” over here. Sigh. But right now I’m ready to give an eye tooth for a good pizza, either Genevan, Italian or American, as in made in New York, New Jersey and certain parts of Philly. (I am a pizza snob, I admit it. Oh I’ll eat it all over the world, but I complain about it, too!)

So, really, when “ethnic” foods are imported, they are often adapted to meet local tastes. Even our local McDonald’s in Taiwan sold corn soup and fried chicken legs because they are big sellers in Taiwan. When we moved to Geneva and tried the McD’s fries there, they were a decided yellow color. And it wasn’t for any nefarious reason. The common potato I saw at the stores was much yellower than our common Idahoes, and that’s what McDonald’s used. And a lot of the super-sized, extra cheese, bacon, BBQ sauce stuff that sells in America doesn’t fly in Europe’s MickeyDs. It’s just too much for local tastes.

So where does that leave America and our “bastardizations”? We don’t really have a “native” cuisine other than Native American foods. But that’s not true, either. There are a lot of foods that are commonly American, and I’ve mentioned them before, things like turkey and cranberries. Hey, World, they’re ours! Remember that, Jaime, next Christmas when you have your “traditional” dinner!

And there are other foods, as well. We have great seafood, prepared in “traditional” ways on two rather long coasts (and Alaska and Hawaii, too, but everyone always forgets them.) And then there are things like sweet potatoes prepared all sorts of ways, or succotash, a mix of corn and lima beans.

That brings me to corn. That’s a New World, thing, too, and there’s nothing like fresh sweet corn just off the stalk, boiled or roasted and served with butter and salt. Wait, I have to clean the drool off the keyboard before I continue! And I have yet to get anything like it anywhere other than in America. Sure, you can get sweet corn, even on the cob, but it tastes far too starchy. The longer from the picking, the less sweet it is. Here in Sweden our sweet corn on the cob comes from Africa. You can imagine how long it took to get here!

And then there’s all the things we do with corn: corn bread, corn pudding, hush puppies, corn dogs (okay, they aren’t so good, either, but their fans are legion). Hush puppies, for those of you not familiar with American food, are a Southern dish of fried balls of corn meal mush. Hm, that doesn’t sound too good, but believe me, it is. And corn dogs are hot dogs on a stick, dipped in corn bread batter, and fried. These were a traditional fair-ground food, but since I’ve left America they are being sold in supermarkets as well.

The South has a very distinct style of cooking, with its hominy grits for breakfast, biscuits and red-eye gravy, (which is made with coffee), hoppin’ john (a rice and bean dish made with black-eyed peas and often some ham and herbs), greens cooked with bacon and served with pot liquor, pecan pies, hush puppies and so much more.

New England has great stuff, too, originally brought over from England, perhaps, but in the 400 years it’s been American, it’s been perfected – Boston Baked beans, steamed brown bread, boiled dinner. My mouth is watering just thinking of it.

Other regional cooking in America includes the Southwest, which is heavily influenced by Mexican cooking and its reliance on corn, beans, chilies and tomatoes.

And Texan beef. As much as I don’t want to eat meat, there are times when an American sirloin steak just calls my name. Luckily, I’m usually not in America when that happens! But baby, we have good beef. And pork. You wanna die happy, try some barbeque. Each region has it’s own specialty, but it’s never bad. Full of fat and cholesterol, maybe, but honey, what a way to go!

Ah, just thinking of it all is making my stomach growl.

Last weekend we had some neighbors in to dinner. When I cook for Swedes, I like to make something American because I know that when I eat at friends, I like to have things from their home countries. So I wracked my brains, already knowing that I wouldn’t be finding a turkey. I ended up making Cajun.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a Cajun is a Louisianian descended from French-speaking immigrants from Acadia in Canada. According to The Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture, “like the Cajuns themselves, their cuisine derives from a diversity of ethnic influences, including Acadian, French, Spanish, German, Anglo-American, Afro-Caribbean, and American Indian” (http://www.cajunculture.com/Other/foodways.htm). And for me, that pretty sums up good American food. Taking the good things from all over and melding it into something unique and wonderful.

If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, you’ve probably sampled Cajun cooking.

Now as you know, I’ve traveled a lot, and my husband has traveled even more. And we’ve pretty much decided that the best food we’ve ever had, anywhere, was in New Orleans. He almost wept at a tiramisu he had there because it was better than anything he’d ever had in Italy. And we’re talking about a man who is a tiramisu fanatic. Yes, I know it’s Italian, but there is a large Italian influence in New Orleans. And take that Italian love of food and marry it to the Cajun love of food, and I tell you, that’s a marriage made in heaven.

The main dish I prepared was pan-fried spiced chicken with dirty rice, and I think they liked it. People had thirds. But they were amazed as they’d never heard of Cajun food before. The cookbook I was using, bought on vacation in New Orleans, my favorite kind of souvenir, was passed around, and I had to be Ms School Teacher at one point and give a scanty recital on the Cajuns. Thank goodness I read a lot.

By the time we got to the bread pudding with Amaretto sauce, they were finally convinced that American cooking is more than hamburgers. The things I do for my country! Geesh!

So the next time you see Jaime Oliver, tell him what I have to say! If you’re an American, be proud! And think about our great food heritage before you fall back on the junk food that rightly gives us a bad rep.

And if you’re not, please come and visit. Be willing to try new things, and I think our food will surprise you. Sure, you’ll gain some weight, but isn’t that what vacations are for?

I Want my CVS

Filed under: Old Broads — by maggiec @ 4:12 pm

Originally published Nov 21, 2002

It was the middle of the night. I woke up with a throat on fire. Not scratchy; not tickley; not even sore. A flat out fire was raging in there. And I would have killed for a Sucrets. Or a Cepecol.

Coming awake, I I realized that the fire wasn’t the only problem. Stuffy nose, headache, cough, the throat, aches, pains. I felt like the living copy for a cold medicine ad. Where was my Ny-Quil when I needed it? Thousands of miles away in America, that’s where. Along with the Sucrets.

Groaning, I dragged myself out to the kitchen where I doctored myself with my cache of imported Sudafed and added some aspirin for the other problems. A little thyme tea with a dash of cayenne for the throat, and viola, I was as good as I was gonna get. Sitting at the table, sipping my tea, I proceeded to feel sorry for myself (but hey, under the circumstances, I think that’s okay), and think about home.

I had some middle of the night waking dreams of hitting a CVS and having an entire aisle of cold remedies to soothe me. I know they don’t cure colds, but they make the having a lot more comfortable. Then I got the treacherous thought, “If I were home, I could go to the Shop Rite right now! It would still be open!” Even the grocery stores at home offer up a plethora of cold medicine.

Now I don’t mean to malign poor Sweden or even Switzerland. There are cold remedies available here, too. Just not at the grocery store. No, health aids are sold at the drug store, which for the most part sells only health-related objects, or at the very most, health and beauty aids. So no going into the drug store for my Cepecol and also coming out with a book, two magazines, a gallon of milk, anti-freeze for the car, some cat food and a box of cookies, which I have been known to do at my beloved CVS (and Rite Aid and Duane Reed and Fay’s – oh, how I miss them all).

No, over here, a drug store is a drug store. Before I caught my cold, I had just been in one, buying cold medicine for my husband. It was a Saturday, and he was really miserable, so I volunteered to get him something for his cold and cough. That was at noon, and he wasn’t sure I would make it on time. They close early on Saturday. Now in Geneva, our pharmacy had closed at noon on Saturday, but here in Sweden, things are more liberal, so I thought, “no, it couldn’t”. But I drove into town right away, and while they were still open, they were closing at two.

But I’d made it, so I started searching the shelves. In Switzerland, my husband had discovered a cold medicine that one mixes with hot water. It’s got a lemony flavor and has pain killers and decongestants in it. I think we have something similar in the States. So I look on the shelves. Although I don’t speak Swedish, medicines are pretty easy to figure out. Pain killer, pain killer, pain killer, a decongestant. That was it. Not a lot of choice, and not a lot of variety. Hm. I went and asked. Seems that what I thought was one of the pain killers was something to mix with hot water, but it was black currant flavor. And the cough medicine, instead of being a nice soothing syrup, was a pill. I grabbed them both and went home with my booty, augmented by a big bottle of whiskey and some lemons for hot toddies. Be prepared.

My experiences in Switzerland were similar, if not a bit more “out there”. The first time my son got a cold, I went to the pharmacy and asked for something I could give a child. I’m thinking Children’s Tylenol Cold Formula, something like that. The pharmacist hands me a bottle of homeopathic cold tablets and tells me how to use them. Now I’ve used homeopathic stuff before, but there are times I want the “big guns”. What the heck, I figured. I’d try it. And I still had my “brought from home” bottle of children’s Tylenol. And you know what? The homeopathic stuff worked fine. My pediatrician in Switzerland used a combination of traditional and homeopathic remedies, as did all other doctors I’ve met in Switzerland. Like they say, when in Rome, but there are times I psychologically have to have American stuff.

Hence, the suitcase. Every trip to America I bring a suitcase full of gifts. When living in Switzerland, it was always chocolates, of course. Let me tell you, I’m glad I’ve moved, because that stuff is heavy. But I digress. As the chocolates are doled out, they are replaced by my CVS horde. I make frequent stops (not all at once, since I always balance out-going with in-coming stuff) and load up on giant bottles of aspirin, ibuprofin, Tums, Maalox, children’s over the counter stuff, vitamins, minerals and a small assortment of “just in case” stuff – back ache pills, Ben Gay, Bactine, things like that.

Of course we can get aspirin and ibuprofin here, but it comes in boxes of 10 or 20. Can you imagine? I like mine in the hefty 1000 capsule size! And if it were just the small boxes, I could cope. It’s also much more expensive over here than in the US (which is the story for many things). And there are local equivalents for most things, but when I’m sick, I want the tried and true. It’s a comfort thing. If I can’t get Mom and ginger ale, I at least want Sudafed.

Americans don’t know how good they have it when it comes to cold medicines. Much better selection. We can get a drug to fight every cold symptom there is. We have to, since we have to drag our sick butts out of bed and go to work. Over here, though, people take these things called “sick days”. What a concept! I remember once reading an article in an American women’s magazine on what kind of clothes and make-up to wear to not look like you have a cold. All I remember is to avoid eye-liner and wear green as it balances the red. You wouldn’t find that article over here. If you’re sick, go to bed. I have to admit I have a nasty little voice in the back of my head that says “wimps”. But they aren’t. Most people don’t miss much work at all, and of course, many come to work with colds. But when they do take a day to rest in bed, which of course is the sensible and medically recommended thing to do, no one looks at them like they are slackers.

Living in Taiwan was an entirely different situation for me, though. I got lost in the “American style” drug store. Most of the labels were in Chinese, so who wants to search for the few English labels when sick? So I would go to the small drug store across the street from where I taught. I’d tell the pharmacist my symptoms (he’d gone to school in the US, thank God), and he’d make up these little bags of pills, all sorted for me. I just took one envelope at the time he’d written on it. Never knew what I was taking, but I felt good. It’s a Chinese thing to not ask, just take the pills.

Once I had to fly back to Taiwan with a cold, and it did something nasty to my ear. It hurt a lot and I couldn’t hear, so coming home from a night class, I stopped at the local guy at 11 at night. Told him what happened, and here came those magic bags again. Sometimes I miss Taiwan. Things like antibiotics were prescription only, of course, but I could get some great over-the-counter headache pills with codeine. In fact, many of the over the counter drugs I used in Taiwan I discovered were prescription meds in Europe. Had I have known that..

Thing is, who thinks about this stuff before we go overseas? Some super-efficient people, do, I know, but not me. And it’s amazing how homesick having a bad cold can make me. I spent a week in bed reciting cold medicine commercials. Pathetic, I know. I’m better now, and planning my next trip through the aisles of CVS. Hm, maybe I’m not as well as I thought.

Multicultural Children

Filed under: Old Broads — by maggiec @ 4:04 pm

Originally published Oct 11, 2002

When I was living in America, especially when I was teaching in New York City, I heard a lot, and talked a lot, about multiculturalism. It’s very important to pay attention to in a country like America. I believe that. When planning my syllabi, I made sure that I had works in English from all over the world, not just a collection of standards by Dead White Anglo Men. I felt it was important to have as many diverse voices represented as possible in order to give my classroom of mostly immigrants a feeling of belonging. A feeling that they, too, were represented in this land.

Then I moved to Taiwan, and for the first time ever I started teaching a homogenous group, none of whom were white, much less Anglo, but all of whom wanted to learn about American culture. In some classes, I did slip in Chinese-American authors, but for my students, these writers were just as foreign as Poe or Wharton. Just because they were named Huang or Lee didn’t make them Chinese, at least not to the Chinese in my classroom. And I had to ask “why?”

Then, after three years in Taiwan, I went home for a summer, and sitting on the beach with my then seven-year-old son, I realized he wasn’t American, either. Sure, he was born in New York City, and he lived in the States till he was four, but watching him interact with the other kids, I realized that he was Other, and because he looked American (and yes, even if we come in every color of the rainbow, there is an “American look) and he sounded American, his Otherness was throwing off the other kids.

What made me first realize the difference was his sense of personal space. Chinese kids touch constantly. They lean into one another while playing and touch each other’s arms and legs. So did my son, but for American kids this was a violation of their personal space. They couldn’t articulate this, but I saw it in their body language. This boy, they were projecting, is too close.

In conversation, he didn’t get pop culture references, either. He didn’t know the baseball teams, the cool TV catch phrases, the “in” junk food. He knew his Taiwanese junk food, and the TV shows and commericials there, but that wasn’t helping him on the Jersey shore. He even had a different name for McDonald’s!

Looking at him now, years and a couple of countries later, I see that his Otherness is also apparent in his lack of cultural touchstones. It’s my fault, I know, but he doesn’t understand Thanksgiving, as we don’t celebrate. It’s a hard holiday to keep when Thursdays are a school day and a work day. And let me tell you, finding a turkey in Taiwan wasn’t easy. And if I’d found one, I couldn’t have cooked it since I didn’t have an oven. People don’t use them. Living in a sub-tropical country does that to the local cuisine. The first year overseas we tried to celebrate with a take-away Peking Duck with mashed potatoes, but it just wasn’t the same. No pie, no cranberry sauce, and biggest of all, no family. By the time we moved to Switzerland, where turkey is available, we were out of the habit. So that holiday fell by the wayside.

Labor Day is celebrated in May in most of Europe, so his touchstones for back to school are different. And he doesn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance, since he doesn’t have to say it every morning at school, nor does he know “America the Beautiful” or the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Luckily, he’s picked up the tune from watching “le J.O,” which is what he calls the Olympic Games. He started really watching them as a francophone. All in all, he’s woefully lacking in American history, because at school, he’s busy learning the history of whatever country we’re living in. Other than the religious holidays we keep, Christmas and Easter, which are also colored by the countries in which we live, he celebrates different holidays that have to do with totally different cultures and traditions.

In his heart and in his head, he’s a proud American. He identifies as an American, tells people he’s an American, and never wants to be anything but an American. But he isn’t one. I’m not quite sure what he is, though. He’s not Swiss or Swedish or Chinese. If I had to hazard a guess I’d say European, whatever that means. And it really doesn’t mean much, as Europeans from Greece are radically different from those from Norway, who are in turn different from those in France. But there is a more “Old World” way of looking at things when compared to a “New World” way. I’m hoping that if we stay here in Sweden for the rest of his schooling he’ll end up predominantly Swedish, but for all intents and purposes, he is the epitome of multicultural. He has so many cultures swirling around in him that he is nothing.

And there’s the rub. He doesn’t fit in anywhere, either. Wherever he goes, he is Other. And you know what? He hates it. When he was young and we lived in Taiwan, he wanted his hair cut very short to get rid of his curls. He thought that with straight hair, he looked Chinese. He didn’t see the physical differences between Caucasian and Asian faces. When we moved to Switzerland, he soon learned French well enough to fit in, and physically he could “pass” as a native. He started to hate being out with me and having me speak French. I’m so bad at it that it let everyone know that I was Other, and that by extension, so was he. Here in Sweden he is still at the sticking out stage, but at least with a Swedish step-parent, he feels more truly a part of here. In fact, he tells people that he’s half Irish-American, half Arabic and half Swedish. And he means it. He also thinks he has a little Chinese and a little Swiss in him, but not as much as the other three. We laugh at his naivete, and his trouble with fractions, but perhaps he’s more right that the adults who find his self-definition “cute.”

So all this gets me thinking about American culture. Many Europeans wags have said that there is no such thing, that it’s an oxymoron like military intelligence and plastic glasses. Or at the very most, it’s nothing but a conglomeration of pop culture – Barbie, Campbell’s Soup and the Brady Bunch. That always burns my biscuits, since America has a great cultural heritage. Yes, much of it was brought over from the Old World, but it melded with the New. The Constitution of the United States is a prime example. It blends the ideals of John Locke, the great British philosopher with the ideals and format of the Constitution of the Iroquois Nation, something that was in place and working even in pre-colonial times.

For an interesting look at the documents important to the culture of our government, and indeed, our culture, I recommend the page maintained by the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law at http://www.law.ou.edu/hist/ There you’ll find links to important documents from the Magna Carta to the 2002 State of the Union Address. And you’ll also find the documents that have blended in to create American culture. There’s the rousing speech Patrick Henry gave in 1775, ending with the famous words, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” There’s the Declaration of Independence that I quoted last week, the writings of Ben Franklin and the Federalist Papers. Perhaps you haven’t read them, but I can assure you, American cultural ideals are well rooted in these writings.

Moving on in history, the page includes links to the short but extremely moving Gettysburg Address. I included the end of it last week, but what American can’t recite its opening lines, “”Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And there are more documents – the Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther’s stirring I Have a Dream speech, even things as seemingly mundane as the lyrics to Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

One of the most moving documents I found there was President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. I highly recommend reading it, for it is as powerful and as timely today as it was on that January morning in 1961. I’m sure you know it by its famous ending: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Heady stuff, all of this. It’s wonderful, stirring rhetoric, and I recommend it. Perhaps it’s not always easy to read, but nothing worthwhile is easy, right? Maybe I’m luckier than most because I get to read it for “work”. I’ve been known to teach Western Civ on occasion and one question I constantly ask myself and ask my students to ask themselves is: “Why am I who I am?” They hate this question, and so do I, really, since it usually gives me a headache, but I find that as a broad abroad, with a kid abroad, it’s something I ask more and more. What makes me the person I am? What cultural references inform the way I see the world?

Most Americans never read all this material, but it’s there in our subconscious. We got highlights in history class and can quote King, Kennedy, Jefferson and Franklin without even stopping to think about it. I didn’t read Ralph Waldo Emerson until I was in graduate school, but as soon as I read his essays on education I understood exactly why American schools are in the mess they are in! (You might guess here that I don’t agree with old Ralph, but nor do I agree with his influence, Jean Jacques Rousseau.)

This brings me back to those Chinese students who saw the Chinese-American authors I stuck in the syllabus as Americans. Those writers were born in America, educated in America. Their identities were formed more by Jefferson and Lincoln than by Confucius and Sun Yat-Sen. Sure, there were some customs that were familiar – a whiff of Confucius – but how these writers saw the world was as Americans. And maybe part of being American is always having some other influence color one’s experience of American culture, but all of us who grew up in the States have more in common each other than we have with people from other countries. Believe me, I know this is true because I see that my own son is not “American”.

I haven’t changed my mind that multiculturalism is good. But my experiences have changed how I look at things. Getting to know the basics of what informs us is important. And the basics are Dead White Men. I also believe that we need to read as much as we can, experience as much as we can to get as full a picture as we can of the past and how it informs the present, but we don’t all have the time or inclination to be scholars. That’s my son’s problem. After a full day of school, how much more history can I slip in there? Oh I do, through classic American novels that we share at bedtime, through little asides slipped into conversation. The “You know, that reminds me of something that happened in American history.”

He may move back to the US someday, and he’ll eventually pick up on pop culture references, and he’ll “pass” as he has done in other countries. But deep down he’ll always be multicultural to the core.

I Saw it on Television, so it Must be True

Filed under: Old Broads — by maggiec @ 3:56 pm

Originally published Sept 26, 2002

One of the things that continually amazes me is the power of Hollywood. Now this is something I’ve been aware of for a long time. There’s always something in the papers or in journals about the effects of television’s negative stereotyping on (fill in the blank). Just concerning myself, I’m aware of stereotypes about blondes (dumb), women (inferior to men), scholars (too damn serious), college professors (stuffy and pompous or busy sleeping with students), and Irish-Americans (drunks, but great at a party or, alternately, IRA supporters).

Most of the time I tell myself it’s entertainment. Relax, don’t over-analyze everything, I say. Then come the echoes of undergraduate days and I hear, dimly, in the back of my mind, “Everything is political – everything makes a statement.” And then I wonder, should I boycott television? Should I write an academic article that 17 people would read? Should I spout off to my friends and end up sounding either pretentious (see college prof stereotype above) or too serious (ditto scholar)? Shut up and write my own television scripts that are politically correct in all ways? The choices are so depressing that I usually give up and do nothing, hoping that someday things will get better.

But when I moved abroad I realized that the power of Hollywood is far reaching. Imagine this scene: Early in my first semester teaching in Taiwan, I was sitting in front of my composition class while we were discussing differences in cultures and cultural stereotyping based on an essay we’d read on being a “Modern Asian”. One very intelligent and sophisticated student confidently announced, “Americans do not respect their parents.”

“How do you come to this conclusion?” I asked, thinking she’d come up with something based on Confucian precepts being at odds with American ideals of individual independence.

“Americans call their parents by their first names,” she stated firmly.

“Surely not all Americans?” I queried.

“Yes, all of them,” she replied firmly.

The rest of the class started murmuring their assent, and I confess to being a little bewildered at their confidence.

I could tell by the look on her face that bolstered by the support of her classmates, she was sure she had made her point. This was too much for me, so I blurted out the rather poor pedogological statement, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

A chorus of reassurance met my cries. The students were positive they were correct. More flabbergasted than ever, I asked, “But how do you come by this astonishing fact?”

“It’s in all the movies,” stated my student, the look on her face clearly telling me what she thought of the department’s newest teacher.

“And the TV shows, too, Miss,” chorused another in support.

“But that’s Hollywood – you can’t trust Hollywood,” I cried, deeply distressed at this point. The looks I got after this statement showed me they thought I was truly a babe in the woods.

“What about me?” I asked. “You all know I live with my mother and you’ve seen us together. What do I call her?”

After a few moments, someone said, “Mom?”

“Exactly!” I cried, hoping that now all would be made clear.

“But you’re the exception that proves the rule,” piped in one smart aleck, who had evidently been studying his English idioms. Have to say that stumped me, but only for a minute. Then I came up with the perfect answer.

“Okay then – and all Chinese people work for triads, know martial arts, and do well at math.” You should have heard the yells of protest following that statement. After a lively debate, we finally came around to the premise that Hollywood uses stereotypes as a kind of shorthand, and secondarily, that not all Americans call their parents by their first names. (I wonder what they are watching to have come up with the idea in the first place, and I’m still not sure they bought it that we don’t, but I did my best.)

And yes, this really happened. I promise you that I’m not embellishing to make a better story. And what’s more disheartening to me is that I’ve had far too many similar arguments in the years I’ve lived abroad and not just with students.

I know Americans complain about Hollywood not truly depicting America, and that it’s something we’ve debated internally for years and years. But it’s scary to realize that people in other cultures see our movies and TV shows and think that’s the real America.

I tell you, this has changed how I look at TV shows. Some innocuous comedy comes on, and immediately I’m thinking, “These characters are so shallow! So self-absorbed! So sex obsessed! They do not represent me!” I see myself taking a step back and looking at the big picture and thinking, “Yuck! I don’t like these people.” So many of the characters on American television are neurotic or carrying “baggage.” No wonder America’s worldwide reputation is slipping. Aren’t there any regular people out there? I mean, I’m not asking for Ward and June Cleaver, but isn’t there a happy medium that could get exported?

So what shows do we get over here? Lots, really, thanks to cable and satellite. In the past few years I’ve gotten: The X-Files, The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, ER, Ally McBeal, Sex in the City, Just Shoot Me, Friends, Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, and the strangely popular The Young and the Restless. Now I have nothing against these shows, and many of then are very high quality productions. Many of them I watch and enjoy, except for that underlying question that pops unasked into my head, “What is this saying about my society?”

Step back and think about the picture they give of America. Until Six Feet Under started this year (now there’s a nice normal family for you, and I don’t mean because they are funeral directors), The Sopranos was the only show with anything like a family setting, and it has the slogan, “If one family doesn’t kill him . . . the other family will.” Even I have to admit that it’s probably the show that is closest to my own life experiences, though you’d have to take out the Mafia, indiscriminate sex, extreme violence, drugs and incredible cash flow, of course. Other than that, they are a Roman Catholic family on America’s East Coast, just like mine. My brother and his family are even in Jersey. And I have a lot of Italian-American cousins and friends. But no, I don’t think that really counts.

And hey, I was a single woman in NYC, but my life looked nothing like Carrie and company’s. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that I’d want it to, either. And it was nothing like the gang on Friends. How do they afford those apartments? Nor was it close to NYPD Blue, though I did sublet from a cop. The Simpsons are pretty popular, and even though Homer and Bart are buffoons, in many ways they are a pretty typical family. Not the best example of Americans, but then they are cartoon people, so hopefully non-Americans will take that into account.

What scares me even more, though, is that The Jerry Springer Show has been available in two of the countries I’ve lived in, and through reading the snide comments in the international press, I know it’s available in many other European markets. My husband will sometimes watch it for a laugh, but I absolutely cringe with embarrassment when it’s on. That show is scary. Some of the other “talk shows” make it over here, as well, and people think it’s real.

Now I know for a fact that people lie to get on talk shows like that. When I taught in NYC, one of my students and her cousin constructed some fantasy dilemma and were on one of them. When she told me about it, she thought it was a big joke – and an hysterically funny one at that. She got to be on national TV, and she even laughed at how stupid and pathetic the people are who watched her and her, as she put it, “BS.”

Okay, for some of the sad souls on those shows, it is real. But they are a certain segment of the US population, and hopefully a small one. Every country has its idiots, America included. But why do we export ours as entertainment? Or should that be exploit ours?

So what are we gonna do? That’s the question, isn’t it? And no one has the answer, or we wouldn’t still be having all these debates about quality television and programming. And I’m also not saying that it is Hollywood’s fault that the people who watch its products are so gullible. But I think the point that I’m trying to make is that just as we shouldn’t believe the stereotypes were are given by the media about other cultures, we also need to see the big picture and realize that we’re not the only ones who are watching. Television stereotypes are like one of those internal company memos that get leaked. It’s bad enough to have to deal with stupidity in-house, but when it gets broadcast to the world at large, things can get really embarrassing.

“So what?” you ask. “Who cares what other people think of us?” Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Many people from other countries fall into the trap of believing that we’re neurotic, obsessed buffoons with no interest past the ends of our noses. Scary thought, because we’re not. Not all of us. Well, not most of us. And when defending my fellow Americans, I don’t want to ever have to listen to someone yell at me again, as I have in the past, that I didn’t know what I was talking about – I didn’t understand what Americans are like. I still haven’t come up with an answer to that one.

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