An American Mess

Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt SignI think it was while we were on Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt in Paris that my father told me that he and my mother wouldn’t be visiting Europe in 2011. We were taking a stroll after visiting an exhibition of Spanish art at the Musée Jacquemart-André; they were going to have a wander, I was headed back to my hotel in order to drop off a jacket which had seemed sensible to wear in the early morning, but was entirely superfluous in the midday sun.

“We’re going to take a cross-country tour,” my father explained. I found out later they were planning to buy a new car, even going so far as visiting a car dealer in London to see if they could find out what precisely “metallic umber” looked like as the purveyor at home didn’t have a sample. Although they haven’t told me the details of the trip yet, I presume it involves travelling to the great cities of Boston and Chicago, swinging south to imbibe the multitude of pleasures in New Orleans, then perhaps proceeding to the Rocky Mountains, and finally touring the vineyards of California. While this is ambitious, it is somewhat less so than trips of previous years. Looking at my father, thankfully healthy, dressed in a blue blazer, perfectly pressed jeans and clean black loafers, I realised he was getting on a bit. My mother is as well. The travels they undertake will likely be less adventurous as the years pass, the soujourns they undertake less far from home. It will be a slow, gradual process, but at some point, they won’t stroll down Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt any longer. If I want to see them, I will have to go to them in their quiet house amidst a leafy New York suburb.

A refrain from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has occurred to me in recent days:

HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
Good night Bill. Good night Lou. Good night May. Good night.
Ta ta. Good night. Good night.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

Graduation was an purging exercise, whereby all my ambitions, hopes and yes, fears, were capped off by the donning of robes. Perhaps it’s time, hurry up, good night. My parents are getting on a bit, and it may be time to leave these shores back for America.

There are other elements to consider. Back in London, I went to visit my parents in their timeshare flat along with my sister and her fiancee. We ate Chinese and Malaysian food out of takeaway boxes and drank fine Rioja. My father turned to my sister and I and said, “I don’t know how you guys do it. Everything is so expensive, how do you survive; the cost of living in the United States is so much lower!” And he’s right: yesterday, I filled up my car and my eyes watered as the digital display ticked over the £30 mark. My wages are stagnant, prices go up, the quality of life gets squeezed. The austerity era policies flowing out of Whitehall mean this will be our fate for half a decade at least.

Hurry up please, it’s time. It’s not like I couldn’t make a success of going back; after all, I have excellent qualifications, a good resume, and international experience which could be quite valuable. My relatives are scattered throughout the United States, so it wouldn’t be like I was without help.

Good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night. Furthermore, I’m selling my car and my house anyway. Debts are being paid and a conclusion of sorts is being reached. If not now, when?

There is a catch to saying “ta ta” and “good night”. I try not to read American newspapers or watch American news these days, because what I’ll find will usually offend me somehow. It’s not just the antics of Glenn Beck, whose programme is too bizarre to be believed, nor is it the dreary monotony of Congress, nor is it even the grinning inanity of American breakfast news programmes. Rather, it is the feeling that there is a pervasive mess in American affairs, a destructive untidiness, which has yet to be resolved. I would draw the reader’s attention to the opening lines of the American Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

However, is the union becoming more perfect or more frayed? Is justice established or increasingly distant? Is there domestic tranqulity or are there tea parties? Is the common defence failing as an offence in Afghanistan? Has the general welfare been promoted as of late? Are the blessings of liberty secure? Or has it all degenerated into a swamp of paperwork and nonsense, as exemplified by Health Care and Finance Reform bills which each exceed 2000 pages?

A former colleague of mine provided a partial answer. She was a Democrat activist who helped draft health care legislation for the state of California. She stated that the Health Care bill was too complex and wouldn’t work. And it doesn’t even now: my father told me that he had to get my mother off Medicare as quickly as she was put on it. As it turned out the additional premiums were the same or higher than if she was off Medicare. So: a government benefit intended to provide health care for those over the age of 65 doesn’t actually provide health care for those over the age of 65, and indeed costs some of those receiving it a great deal of money. The bureaucratic complexity described by my father was also tedious in the extreme. The health care bill doesn’t assist in clarifying matters, rather, it adds to the burdens.

I have encountered similar issues when I’ve filled out my tax returns; even though I don’t earn enough to be of interest to the IRS, in order to be compliant with the law, I have to fill out several forms every year. Even now, I’m not sure if all of them are entirely correct. However, as I’ve received no warnings and I’ve filled out true and faithful returns, I assume all is well. But maybe not. After all, according to the Economist, it is extremely easy to be locked up for a fair amount of time for offenses as inoccuous as not having proper paperwork when importing orchids. Can one be secure in one’s person there?

And indeed, how did this situation come about? My personal theory is that too many politicians have been looking after themselves or rather their congressional districts or states instead of the national interest. Having to satisfy this unbridled greed leads to 2000 page bills with provisions to pay off each Representative and Senator; rather than work for the public good, they serve personal ambition. This leads to bad law which is enforced badly. Republican or Democrat, it makes no difference, it is the quality of the system and the lack of public ethics which has created the problem. Say what you will about Britain, but at least self-serving politicians, as exemplified by those caught up in the expenses scandal, tend to be roasted alive by the press.

And yet, the refrain occurs to me, “hurry up please, it’s time”. Maybe things will get better: America has an enormous capacity for renewal. Maybe I can be part of it. Or maybe America will become a vast version of Italy, in which the government can pass what laws it likes, but the citizenry will become selective about which rules they will obey. I kind of like the latter idea, particularly if it involves fine California wines and the building of vast art and history museums, in which citizens can take pride in the glories of the past while coping with a sordid present. Perhaps the storied boulevards of Chicago and New York will become as laced with tourist sentimentality as Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt; if I go back, no doubt in years to come I will see a Chinese or Indian father tell his son or daughter that this will be their last tour of America for some time. Good night.

I am lucky in that my future is open. I can make a choice whether to stick with Britain or risk America, and reverse the decision if need be. I haven’t yet made up my mind: at this point, I am knocking on all doors to see which ones will open. If indeed it is a portal to the States that unlocks, while I’m realistic about what I’ll find, at the same time, I realise a mess can be glorious too. Yes, it would be a sadness to say farewell to my university, the summers that never quite happen, the rail that never quite works, the comedies on Radio 4. Yet I believe progress sometimes is achieved by reaching for the next horizon, an American sentiment which has never quite let me be.

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