Monday, January 18, 2010

An Ex-Pat's View of America

It's my last day in Florida. After days of sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures, the weather finally warmed up, and Florida feels at last like Florida. Mind you, I've been gone for so many years that I wonder if I know what Florida is supposed to feel like. Or any State in the Union, for that matter.

What got me thinking about this was a question posed by one of the resident's of Freedom Plaza, a retirement center for Seniors. This woman - and I suspect that she's near 90, and endowed with a wisdom beyond even her years and an energy and sensitivity that seems much younger - asked me: "Tom, you keep writing about how you find Ireland. Let me ask you: How do you find the United States? What changes do you see? What impresses you? What disappoints?"

Tocqueville, the 19th Century French political thinker and historian, was able to encapsulate his views of America in his treatise, Democracy in America. I am no Tocqueville, but the woman's question intrigued me. Therefore, and for what it's worth, some views from an ex-pat who hasn't lived in this country for 27 years, going on 28:
  • The price of gasoline is higher than it used to be - and folks over here bitch about it. They should be thankful that they're not paying over 5 bucks a gallon. That's what I pay in Ireland for the stuff.
  • Americans are out of work and they like to blame a lot of people - while it's true that many American companies have given away a whole slew of jobs by 'out-sourcing' skills to India, Malaysia, and similar (which makes me fume, by the way), I grow tired of the blame game. Yes, it's horrible when people lose their jobs (I've lost everything more than once). And it's also true that the greed of bankers, consumers, business people, congressional leaders, and regulators are to blame. But at this point - who cares? If someone is out of a job then go get one. If they can't get one, then start a business. I've been out of a job a couple of times. No one offered me much - just an opportunity. And I grabbed that with both hands, started a business, and began writing. I stopped blaming and started doing. I wish that people would stop bitching and do something constructive.
  • America is not falling apart - this is one of my pet peeves: folks I know in both the United States and Europe, citing Rome as an example, seem to take pleasure in stating that the sun is setting on the "American Empire". To that I can only say: "BS". Americans are some of the most industrious in the world. They are innovators, doers (contrary to my point above), reachers of Moon Dust. While it may be true that the United States will no longer be the strongest economic power in the world (China will possibly pass us very soon), the country and its people will be able to hold its head high.
  • Americans are extraordinarily giving - and not only with their money. With the smile of welcome that is on their lips as they greet a stranger; with the generosity of living that is in their hearts; with a recognition of how kindly fortune has smiled on them, and a willingness to give back. That is the America that I know. A kind hearted people firmly rooted to the soil of a great nation, who always seem to extend a giving hand when adversity strikes. That's always been the case. It was when I left and it still is.
  • America has problems, but it will prevail - it is true that this country has its share of problems: a hurting economy; an enormous pile of debt; a racial question that even now does not seem to be completely resolved; high levels of crime; falling disposable income. The list goes on and on. When I left here in 1982, that list of problems was almost exactly the same. While nothing would seem to be solved, so much has also been accomplished. Yet so much remains to be done. I am concerned when I see educational funding fall, knowing that this undermines the country's most important resource: an educated citizenry. I grow desperate when I still see high levels of bigotry: against African Americans, homosexuals, Islam, and anyone else who doesn't quite fit into the 'accepted mould.' I become greatly concerned when I see our values eroded: when this country would even consider taking the word "God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance, I can only wonder what this country has become...
Ask me what I think of this country and I'll tell you: it's not perfect. It still has a long way to go. But its geographic beauty is stunning. Its people rich in intellect, determination, and benefiting from an unique melting pot of cultures.

In the past 27 years, this country has changed. Of course it has. Some changes have been for the better. Some have been for the worse. But my attitude to the United States hasn't changed:

This ex-pat still believes that it's the best country in the world.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Soft Blessings of Ireland

Right now I'm sitting at my father's desk in his apartment at Sun City Center, Florida. He lives in Freedom Plaza, a retirement center for those of a certain age. A glass of wine (a nice Shiraz) sits at my right hand. I think of the day that's just set and think of the people that I've met here and smile. Maybe it's the wine, but I don't think so.

When my father introduces me to his friends, he invariably says, "This is my son. He's the fellow who lives in Ireland." And just as invariably, Dad's friends stare back with a look of bewilderment as they attempt to process the information.

"You live in Ireland?" they ask, not quite comprehending. "Do you like living there?" And often, I'm quite not sure what to say.

As I've mentioned in other entries on this Blog, I'm a self-confessed schizophrenic when it comes to my attitude regarding living in Ireland. On the one hand, I miss my American homeland with all of my heart. I'm proud to be an American, and that feeling gets spun into a web of romantic images of vast plains, and purple mountaintops, and a diverse people that are some of the best in the world.

But I also think of what has happened to me during the past 27 years of living in Ireland; of the gentle journeys that I've taken; of the honest steadfast people there; of the small miracles that I've been blessed to experience...

A number of years ago, I attended a writer's centre in the Beara Peninsula way down in West Cork. That centre, located in Eyeries, attracts writers and other artists from far and wide. Many come because of its setting right on the Atlantic Ocean. Stunning sunsets, amazing moons, the soft warm breeze swept in by the Gulf Stream; all create a mystical landscape that nurtures the creative spirit with a will to live.

I should explain that when I'm working on a project, I tend to write a lot. Twelve to fourteen hour stints are commonplace for me because once I enter the world of a screenplay it's difficult for me to escape. However, there are times when the words simply won't come, no matter how long I stare at the blank laptop screen.

This was one of those times. I had been sitting in front of my laptop for hours on end, but my fried brain simply refused to cooperate. I glanced at my watch: it was 6AM and I had wasted an entire night. I knew that I was blocked and had no idea at all of what to do about it.

I grabbed my camera and walked out of the still-sleeping centre. In the east, the still unseen sun was painting brush strokes of salmon pink on low scudding clouds. I turned toward a beach in the near distance, intent on walking across the sands and to the small village of nearby Eyeries.

However, I soon discovered that a stream blocked my way. I eyed it warily. It fed right into the Atlantic. The tide was high, and its depth was unknown. But its waters were clear and it didn't look too deep. I figured that I could wade across.

I stripped naked. Bundling my clothes together and placing those with my camera atop my head, I took a breath and stepped into the stream ... and immediately found myself out of my depth. I tread water against a stiff current, yelling at the surprise of icy coldness that set my teeth chattering. I pulled myself out as soon as I could, let me tell you.

For a moment I stood at the side of that stream, catching my breath. Then I saw the sun: it glinted above the horizon. Its warmth struck my nakedness, touching my soul with its bright steady fingers.

And I started to laugh. I laughed and laughed, my head full of the image of a naked Yank standing in an Irish morning sun. But I also laughed with the sudden joy of living, of having the good fortune to be in Ireland; of the luck that had made me turn right at a cross-roads in Wales back in 1980 that had led me to this exact spot.

It was as if I had been baptized anew, and that Ireland had given me a gentle blessing with the loving waters that ran through its living veins.

I put my clothes on and walked back to the centre. My writer's block had cleared. I finished that screenplay three days later.

So to answer my Dad's friends' question: "Do I like living in Ireland?" The answer is yes. Quite a bit.

Usually, anyway.

For more stories on one American's journey in Ireland, why not buy A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland, written by Tom Richards.