End of America, Book 5 continued
What I value about America is that little spongy pad not much bigger than the tip of a finger which falls off a space craft, a failure costing several hundred million dollars and causing several experienced astronauts to spend hours replacing it because otherwise they’ll never return to earth.
And I value those friends who can’t keep a secret and when you’re involved romantically with somebody new always wants to tell that person about all the other people you were involved with.
What I value about America is liking my friends and not liking other people’s friends, or else it’s not liking my friends and liking the friends of others.
What I value about America is spicy jalapenos.
What I value about America is salmonella warnings.
What I value about America is that the snake with one hundred heads jumps right out of the treasure chest.
What I value about America is pirate movies.
What I value about America is car dealerships.
And RV and SUV and motorcycle and pretty much every other kind of dealership.
What I value about America is my girlfriend.
I value photographs of Mom and Dad, Pappy and Grandma, Uncle Joe, and the dog.
I’m not sure about Uncle Joe though. What I value about America is a story that someone once told me about their Uncle Joe: “One time when we had a pool party of friends, neighbors, and relatives at my house. Joe disappeared for awhile with one of the neighborhood boys, and later that afternoon several people saw the boy run home crying. I barely noticed at the time and never thought about it again until years later when my brother, who had a long history of alcohol problems, drug abuse and difficulty holding jobs, called me drunk and crying and accused Joe of having molested him and several other neighborhood boys when they were children. He said my parents had known but refused to admit it. My brother never mentioned it again and since both my parents had died, I never found out what was true.”
What I value about America is family secrets.
I value, in America, the guy who says that says insurance salesmen have the kinds of values that make for great fathers and the guy who responds to him by saying his own father was an insurance salesman and a drunken lout who ruined his mother’s life.
And I value the 50th anniversary of Bob and Jeanette Smith, married in Kansas City, Missouri at the age of 18 and who still live just outside it, and who for their golden wedding party were greeted by their five living children (Steve, the sixth, had died in a car wreck), thirteen grandchildren and two great great grandchildren, as well as numerous friends, and who all weekend hugged heartily and laughed heartily and felt gratified and loved, and who looked forward to attending the wedding of their grandson Jeremy later that summer.
And I value the way, in America, when families like that appear in the news they’re always white families even though there are also Latino and black and Asian and Indian and Pacific Islander and Arab families who might be described a similar way.
What I value about America is how it seems impossible to include, even if only in a brief mention, all the different kinds of cultural backgrounds that people in America have.
What I value about America is how many Americans talk about the value of family while simultaneously seeing their families as little as possible, sometimes only on holidays during which a lot of depression, anxiety, and outrage is directed by Americans at other members of their families.
So when you ask me what I value about America, I’m going to have to say I value conflictedness.
What I value about America is warm July breezes off the ocean.
What I value about America is poets criticizing each other endlessly and harshly.
What I value about America is conventional standards of beauty, which make it easier to decide whether people are attractive before you even know them.
What I value about America is the cult of the baby.
What I value about America is the CPUSA, SWP, the AFL-CIO, the US American labor movement, and the SEIU (even their actions at the 2008 Labor Notes conference in Detroit), and all the work these movements have done to better the lives of working people and all the problems they’ve sometimes caused by supporting questionable positions in maneuvering for power and by disagreeing among themselves and with each other about how to better people’s lives and by not always being sure what the best ends might be.
What I value about America is exhaustion and feelings of emptiness.
What I value about America is starting over.
What I value about America is my right not to try.
What I value about America is that instant of knowing it’s not going to work, whatever it is, even though I’ve spent hours or days or weeks trying to make it work, but it’s not going to, it never is, and I’ve been fighting it for awhile and then the instant of knowing arrives and it’s devastating, like nothing is going to work ever again, and I’m right about that, nothing is going to work ever again, and I have to set it aside and not think about it but it’s all I can think about because what else is there to think about if nothing is going to work ever again, which it isn’t, yet eventually I forget about it and start up again at something else, whatever it is, that may work or may not work but probably won’t because nothing ever does, and so the instant of knowing is the instant of going on, the instant of forgetting and repeating and knowing what won’t work but then being unable later to remember even the most obvious and unavoidable facts.
What I value about America is the obvious and unavoidable facts and our ability to know them and forget them.
So don’t ask me what I value about America because I’m going to have to tell you and then we’ll both have to know.
What I value about America is all the flimsy appliances I use that are made in other countries under work conditions I never have to see or know anything about.
What I value about America is slang.
What I value about America is the right not to understand anything anyone is trying to say.
What I value about America is instructional films about car wrecks designed to scare teenagers into driving more carefully.
What I value about America is the death wish.
What I value about America is property and privacy.
What I value about America is slogans.
What I value about America is good people doing bad things.
What I value about America is perpetual war.
What I value about America is Justin from the trailer park, or Manuel from the barrio, or Reggie from the ‘hood, or Rochelle or Debbie from their apartments with their mothers, or Francisco the son of an insurance salesman or Elbert whose brothers work the docks, all of whom or any of whom sign up with the Marines because they need something or are looking for something or want to contribute something or protect something or are angry enough to take something out on someone, and who after a few weeks or months of training in “You Are Your Rifle” and how to do what they’re told and use a few pieces of electronic equipment and humiliate each other for stepping out of line or for having different cultural backgrounds or just for existing, find themselves on a street in Iraq where children wave to them or hide and adults come up, loud and friendly because they want to make sure that no one thinks they mean any harm to the young Americans with the weapons, and this goes on for awhile and it’s more than one hundred degrees every day and there’s nothing to do and they’ve been trained to fight, not just to sit and watch, and one day under the leadership of a man who has developed a nervous blink and who uses “fuck” and “raghead” in the same phrases over and over, they’re asked to clear a neighborhood where a few hidden people are firing rounds at them, and then Justin, or Manuel, or whichever one of them because it could be any, turns a corner and is startled by movement from behind and screams and shoots and more or less tears apart a woman who had thought she had heard something, one of her children maybe, and stepped out only half-intentionally into the alley, and then Elbert or Reggie, or whoever it is, knows instantly that he’s killed someone’s mother and that he, not anyone else, is the person who doesn’t belong here and never should have been here, and then several months later, exhausted and unable to sleep, he takes his rifle out one night and shoots himself, becoming one of the many suicide casualties of the war.
And what I value about America is the poets who argue that none of this should have happened, that Debbie or Francisco or Justin or Elbert or Rochelle should have known better or should have been able to go somewhere where people would have told them not to become Marines, that people have an ethical obligation to understand that you shouldn’t confuse future opportunities with signing up to murder people in distant parts of the world, and the poets, some of whom have no real potential soldiers to tell these things to, argue with each other about them or march in protests or learn the history of labor unions and social alternatives, and meanwhile future Justins and Manuels stop joining the armed forces so much, at least for the moment, because almost everyone has figured out by now that there’s no sense in going to Iraq, except of course for those so-called leaders who either still think that there’s something to be gained or, more likely, realize that they’d lose their jobs if they change their minds and they’d rather have someone else die than lose their jobs.
So if you value America like I do, you’re going to have to value a lot of people and ideas and events that are difficult to value, and you’re going to have to understand that saying you value something doesn’t mean you know how you value it, and how you value it is the question that you’re trying every day to answer.
What I value about America is the three baby hawks in the courtyard who have now gotten older and who play and fight with each other in the grass, picking up sticks in their talons as a way of learning to hunt.