I’m writing this on Delta’s flight 11 from London Gatwick to Atlanta, where I’ll change planes for New Orleans, returning from a 14-day vacation in England, where I was born, and where I lived until I was 26:
I’m 31, now, still a baby really, they’re playing Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris on the overhead TVs, and I’m sitting next to a bored, nosy woman who has already read the Observer Review over my shoulder. Hopefully she’ll read this, too, and then look away so that we can be alone. That’s better.
I got the notebook out while I was listening to Billy Joel. He’s hardly cutting edge, even for my dad’s generation, but there’s still something about New York State of Mind that moves me, and reminds me of all the optimism I felt when I first moved to the United States in 2006. Who cares if the lyrics are simple, desperate, even? I don’t have any reasons. I left them all behind. These are feelings all of us experience, now and then. And the mood of the song got me thinking.
Being in England was delightful, if confusing. Having just taken American Citizenship I felt more like a foreigner than ever in the country of my birth. And perhaps the most foreign aspect of the English personality, for me these days, is the capacity that my countrymen and women have to disbelieve in themselves.
It’s not just in England, of course. I think something happens to us all, some time in high school, when we go from being told we can achieve anything, that we’re God’s own children, to being discouraged from taking risks, because we might look ridiculous if for some reason we failed. To begin with, perhaps, it’s the voices of our guidance counselors or teachers, well-meaning naysayers who suggest, for example, that a career in the fashion industry might not be as easy as wasting the next 50 years in middle management. Because there’s risk involved, the risk of failure, of humiliation, of shame, rather than the certainty of emotional compromise. The deadness of a life sacrificed for security. For something once called a pension.
It’s ridiculous to even suggest the tradeoff of passion for security in such simple terms. Especially with the state of the stock market today, and so many people having thought that they might be able to retire after many years only to realize it is no longer going to be a reality. But eventually, for many of us, the naysaying voices of those counselors and teachers are still replaced by some of our so-called friends, our families, sometimes, and perhaps most tragically, our own. While Americans are by no means immune from this tendency, the British fetish for modesty and politeness also digs out great reservoirs in the psyche, that seem easily filled with self-loathing.
“I’m no good at anything.”
All of these phrases came out of the mouths of dear friends of mine over the last few weeks. And since I tend to invest significantly in friendships, that is to say I consider those words to have been uttered by some of the most attractive, hilarious, sensitive and energetic people I have ever known. On more than one occasion I felt the need to deliver a short, sharp, shock, a “snap yourself out of it” moment. Or what? Take them all down to the lake in Dirty Dancing and recreate the famous lift scene, one by one? As if to scream: “Believe in yourselves!”
Nobody puts the English in the corner. And yes of course, in that metaphor, I am visualizing myself as Patrick Swayze. Get over it.
Except I am still an insecure Baby, too, sometimes, and perhaps that’s why it drives me so crazy in the folks I love. I have days when I question myself a little, days when I question myself a lot, and days when quite honestly I suppose that I am useless. I just don’t believe it, any more, to my heart’s core, and I have a few things to thank for that, which are mostly to do with having moved to America.
There’s President Barack Obama, for a start, whose election changed my outlook forever. I simply could not believe that this country, with its history, could elect a black man President. And God Bless America for it, even if technically, I believe that God does not exist. I should also thank my ex-wife, who helped rescue me from alcoholism and gave me five, mostly, wonderful years. Then there are my bosses, my colleagues past and present, and there are of course my friends, old and new. Because however much they may do themselves down, their capacity to believe in me has sometimes seemed superhuman, especially in a few specific sets of circumstances.
I’ve had the time of my life!
America is a country that rewards tenacity. It rewards a philosophical attitude to failure, as long as something was learned in the attempt. As my great friend and former colleague Scrappers would say, it is a country that really does encourage its people to “fail harder,” and to not be afraid.
There are countless Americans who have inspired me and countless, too, who terrify me to bits. This is a country that produced Alec Baldwin and Roseanne Barr, and Dennis Rodman, and Paul Simon, and Carrie Fisher, to name a few random ones that occur to me off the top of my head, and who fall into the first category. But it also produced Michelle Bachmann, and Ray Nagin, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose website, even now, says: “stay tuned for my next move.”
This from a man who found himself trying to take charge of the eighth largest economy in the world while concealing a love child, born to his housekeeper, from his wife and legitimate family for 14 years.
So I’m not saying I understand America entirely just yet, or that I’m under any illusion that I ever will. More, that I return to the country this time with a deeper reserve of appreciation and energy than I’ve ever known, and that all the mischief and merriment I may have spread on its soil until now were only laying the groundwork for what’s to come. I keep listening to Sufjan Stevens’ song Chicago lately, in which he repeats the line “I made a lot of mistakes…I made a lot of mistakes,” to tremendous emotional effect. Yet it’s not despairing. It’s uplifting. It makes me feel like you should stay tuned for my next move.
What I’m really saying is this: That I’m returning to America, for better or worse, as a true American. And that while I am not in the market for a pliant housemaid, or considering a run for political office any time in the near future, that I suppose America, and New Orleans in particular, had better watch out for me when I get back. Because I’ll be back. Yes, that’s it: I’ll be back. No…
I am back. And I can’t wait to see you all, soon.