Home » Some of my American Diary, May 2012

Some of my American Diary, May 2012

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This diary was sent to 37 people by email, as it was written. This is an abridged version. See also “American photos” page.

1/5/2012

For those of you who don’t know about my American trip I’m here for a month. I’m visiting Rogerio, a former student of mine from Brazil. He and Claudia live in Miami. Thursday I go to Dallas and then Nacogdoches, Texas. Then to Goshen, Indiana. In Texas I am staying with Ron and Rhonda – Ron I knew in London from 1978-1980, when he was a missionary at the London Mennonite Centre. I will be meeting other people from that time in Indiana. Then the final week in New Jersey with Craig and Sheila, who I knew in the 1960s (we were members of a Baptist church in London). I haven’t seen them since the 1970s. They are worried that I am now an atheist.

2/5/2012

Last entry before I depart. Manchester tomorrow, then Miami Thursday. With a big gap to cross in a metal box in the sky! And then I’ll be on the other side of the world.

3/5/2012

Miami. Saw alligators (nasty) and ate Cuban.

5/5/2012

Today off to the beach and the Spanish mansion Vizcaya.

In the event, didn’t make Vizcaya. But went and touched the Caribbean. And I kept asking Rogerio, “Am I really here?” So we walked along the beach and we walked back past the house owned by Versace, and the one he was killed outside. And I remembered Aggie, who ran the canteen at Anglo World, where I taught Rogerio English, who said, “Bob, what am I going to do? – my designer has been murdered!” They charge a big fee to go in and have a look around, and sell expensive souvenirs. Capitalism turns everything to money, even death. And it was 80 degrees – when have we had 80 degrees in the UK? But I like it! And Claudia is great, with a good sense of humour, but I wouldn’t ever get on the wrong side of her – she is a no-nonsense woman, and Antonio and Francisco understand that very well indeed!

Then we drove through the Jewish area. Then went to eat at an Italian restaurant. Delicious. All the time Rogerio and me talking, talking, talking.

7/5/2012

Went to the south beach. 90 degrees. Not sure I like 90 degrees so much, although there was a breeze off the Caribbean. Clambered up the lighthouse steps (109 of them, apparently). The lighthouse was built not to protect the vessels but to prevent runaway slaves from escaping. Nice. And at the back of the old lighthouse keeper’s house was an old shack called “The Negro’s house”! Went home with hot dogs (Gawd ‘elp me) and then Rogerio and me took the kids round the golf course behind his apartment block, round the vast lake, to tire them out. The mission was a failure – it knackered me instead! The residents of this block seem in constant fear of petty officialdom telling them to mend their blinds (American English: shutters) because otherwise they would lower the tone of the neighbourhood (American English: neighborhood!) And they can only paint their houses certain colours (American English: colors) for the same reason. I said to Rogerio that these were probably the same people who accused the Stalinist states of being monolithic and bureaucratic. He said the next time he had to deal with them he would tell them.

8/5/2012

Went to the Cuban area and had the strongest coffee in the world, a colada, which we had in a Cuban coffee shop at Little Havana, near Coconut Grove. Nobody spoke English. But Rogerio made remarks about me in Spanish!

We talked and talked – what is it between me and him? We covered politics, religion, gay priests, atheism, the peculiarities of the English language, and took photos

9/5/2012

Went out and about in Miami on my own today. Just one comment really. I saw a tiny demonstration of trade unionists against poor pay and conditions where the posters said, “This poster is not to be used to encourage people to cease work.” So I asked one of the leaders of the group what the purpose of the demo was. He said that it was “to make the public aware of what is happening”. “And after that what will happen?” I asked. “Who knows?” he said. “So would you go on strike if necessary?” I asked. “Oh, it’s not about that”, he said, “it’s about public awareness.” “Yes”, I said, “but if nothing changed would you go on strike?” “You misunderstand the situation. It’s about informing the public.” And so on. In the end I gave up and left them marching in a small circle. One of them had a “Support Miami police” T-shirt on. She said it had nothing to do with the demo, and she wasn’t a policewoman, it was just her T-shirt.  I felt a bit sad really.

I also found a French cafe and had a (very) large salade nicoise. It later rained like there was no tomorrow, just as I had reached the Martin Luther King Jr Plaza. “Don’t let anyone pull you down so low”, said Martin according to the inscription, “that you hate him.” I will run that past the Mennonites of Texas and Indiana over the next two weeks. I suspect they will have long ago approved.

11 May 2012
Arrived last night in Dallas to be met by Ron. The people who were going to put us up for the night can’t do it. So we’re in a hotel. I’m feeling a bit uneasy today – maybe it’s withdrawal symptoms after Rogerio and Claudia and the kids. They are beautiful. I must go to Miami to see them all again before I die. I want to discuss the world’s problems with Rogerio again and hear his enthusiasms and indignation and feel his warm and genuine love. My unease will pass. All will be well.

It’s unexpectedly chilly today, and even colder indoors – America indoors never seems far from freezing point (Fahrenheit, of course!)


The grassy knoll, adjacent to the road where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, was interesting, and quite a money spinner. The sixth floor of the notorious book depository is a museum to the  assassination, and the road outside is marked with 2 Xs at the car’s positions when the shots were fired. I discussed with Ron whether they would have done this if the attempted Reagan assassination had been successful. I think not. Kennedy represented hope for a better future. It was of course an illusion (it was his youth and his rhetoric that convinced – “the torch has passed to a new generation of Americans”). By November 1963 he’d already blown the torch out. But most of us didn’t realise that and the shooting seemed to be the thing that ended the hope. These buggers are constantly doing that – raising hopes, then bringing them crashing down around our ears. 1997 was Blair. Crash. Then came Obama. Crash. No wonder people become disillusioned and cynical.

12/5/2012

I’m at Ron and Rhonda’s. There’s Ron and Rhonda, Katy, her 6-month-old baby Garrett, Casey, 3 dogs and 2 cats. Katy wants me to talk all the time because “I love your accent”! There is a wonderful patio out the back and a great stretch of garden (American English: yard). Breakfast with the dogs out there, with the sun blazing down and the dogs vying for scraps of my scrambled eggs and ham. And I decided I like Bourbon! Not for breakfast, of course! Katy says that there’s nothing to do in the town of Nacogdoches, but that the upside to that is that there’s even less to do in neighbouring towns!

Went to a high school football match between two girls’ teams (Casey was playing) and there was a boys’ drummer band. The band was good, but American football is crap – they keep stopping for team caucuses to plan the next 10 minutes! And anyway it’s handball – their feet don’t seem to touch the ball at all. Had lunch at a Mexican cafe/store. Ron said that 90% of Americans wouldn’t go there because it’s “foreign”!

Texas is, I think, macho and restrictive and gun-ridden. Many counties are dry (no liquor sold in most stores), so you have to cross the county line to get some – to some extent this is the case across America. One election candidate for sheriff round here in Nacogdoches, Texas, has a slogan, “For God, for public education, for the Second Amendment [the right to bear arms]”. Why does he think God would like the last one?

Just on the perimeter road around this area Ron said he once counted 25 churches. I saw many Baptist churches, a couple of Methodist ones, Catholic, Apostolic, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Episcopal.

On the liquor question, Walmart’s sold it but a check-out assistant had to move out of her seat when she got to our wine item, and give way to an older woman for that one item, because she was under 21 (“She’s just a kid”, said the older woman). So – she was old enough to be exploited as labour on the minimum wage but not old enough to even sell alcohol, let alone drink it.

By the way, some of the men go shopping in cowboy hats!

American officialdom is bossy here too, not just in Miami in Rogerio’s apartments, in the Doral village. Here in Nacogdoches, a notice on a metal fence at the football field shouted “Do not stand close to this fence.” I pointed it out to Ron. “Go stand there”, he said. “No”, I replied, “I know which side my bread’s buttered.” Don’t mess with a cowboy state, that’s my motto!

17-18/5/2012

Drove to Goshen, Indiana, to stay 2 nights with Ron’s friends Duayne and Michelle, who have a lot of beer on tap in their basement. Not much memory of the first evening! On the way there, we stopped at Little Rock, Arkansas, where the Little Rock Nine stood up to the racists of the South to get the High School integrated in 1959. They were only kids, but in the end, after being kept out of the school by the Arkansas state military, they got in when President Eisenhower was forced to send in Federal troops to protect them and escort them in. But the school was closed for a year. That’s the best bit of history I’ve learned so far – better than the Kennedy shrine.

19/5/2012

Went to a football match, where Duayne and Michelle’s son Max was playing, and it was interesting sitting and listening to proud American parents cheering on their teenage sons. “C’m on Wayne, never mind talkin’ to your opponents, go get ’em, this is a competition!” Or words to that effect. At an adjacent game there seemed to be another player called Wayne who was getting pressured to be the star of his match too. And the temperature was in the 30s! Players kept falling over and clutching knees, ankles, arms, etc., and getting led off the field. “They’re falling like flies”, said Ron.

No wonder I never liked football; it was for the rough boys.

20/5/2012

I’m now at Ron’s parents’ place (Bob and Dorothy) in Goshen. A great couple, bright and intelligent Mennonites with stories to tell about spending much of their lives in Spanish-speaking countries on development projects of various kinds.

They explained to me the differences between different Amish groups, and different Mennonite groups. They are modern Mennonites, progressive even, and Bob taught Spanish at Goshen College. Later Bob is going to take me to an Amish factory which builds carriages, otherwise known as “buggies”, in which the Amish travel about. They’re generally not allowed to use cars – or have telephones in the house although, for business purposes they can put phones outside the house and use them! I don’t know if I’ll be able to take any photographs at the factory – there are sensitivities here. And no TV in Amish homes. Or computers.

There’s both in this house. And they’ve only recently sold their piano. Dorothy was telling me last night that when she was growing up a piano or any other musical instrument was not allowed because it would be associated with dancing and bars and clubs and other worldly distractions. This reminded me of Eileen at the London Mennonite Centre during the late 1970s, who had given up dancing to marry John. Looking at John (a very traditional Mennonite, and grim) I always wondered whether Eileen had made the wrong choice!

Today I was originally going to Chicago for the day, but some trains are being cancelled because of the demonstrations against NATO and the G8, and passengers are being searched. So I couldn’t go. Bob and Dorothy are nervous, in a very Mennonitish way, about the danger of “violence” at the demonstrations, by which they seem to mean violence on the part of the demonstrators. They think that the Chicago police are using “restraint”. In London, the Mennonites were not against protest in the late 1970s-early 1980s. They were just very nervous of violence, because they are in a pacifist tradition. Ron at that time used to come on demonstrations with me but in general the group cried off.

Well, Bob has taken me to the carriage maker. This will take some telling! I was wrong to call it a factory. David Miller is a craftsman, with his family, and they construct these Amish carriages at his homestead. It’s a home craft industry, I suppose. He is also an Amish minister. His son, around 16, appeared first, to start us off on the tour round the various sheds where the buggy components are made: the welding shop, the shop where they construct the different parts of the carriages. Then the shed where the completed carriages are stored. I asked if I could take some pictures. He explained that, yes, that would be possible, but not to take photos of any of the family because “we don’t pose for pictures.” This is about modesty, and not being tempted into pride or ostentation.

The skill that goes into building these things is amazing, and they cost a few thousand dollars. There are safety measures, like the brake in case the horse wants to move backwards – or I suppose bolt! And they have a heating device, with battery, for the winter but, says David, rather unexpectedly since I had assumed he would be a bit straight-laced, “the young people don’t use them.” “Why not?” I said innocently. “Oh, they use the Armstrong method.” “What’s that?” I asked. “Well”, he said, “a boy and a girl just get into the carriage and hang on like this” – he puts his arm round my shoulder and grins – “they keep warm this way.” And a fine, engaging man he was, with beautiful, expressive eyes. I, of course, pulled myself together.

He went on to show us the horses, one of which was 20 years old and in very good nick (they apparently live to about 15). He also explained the electrical system, which they generate themselves. This is because they think they should have the least possible contact with the “outside world”, and the least possible dependency on it. But, said Bob, David is “on the edge” of the line drawn between Amish culture and the modern world and is no extremist. He has a phone – but it is outside the house – but he doesn’t have a TV. He was quite interested in my iPad though. So I did my enthusiastic-for-iPad performance. But I don’t think he would ever buy one. That would be, I think, to step over the line.

Now to confess about the photos. I fumbled about with the iPad camera thingy. One of the problems with it is that you can’t always see clearly on the screen in daylight. So sometimes I wasn’t pointing it at the target at all! And some of them turned into videos because my finger slipped!! I’ll see if I can sort them out later.

Customers for these carriages are offered a choice of “accessories”. Lights and indicators in various styles. And there is one that David makes obligatory: the red sign for “slow-moving vehicle”. But there are some Amish who protest against this because you are supposed to trust God to keep you safe, not human efforts. If you trust in human beings for safety, I think the argument runs, it amounts to pride.

So an interesting morning. But it was unexpectedly cold today (18 degrees), the aftermath of a big storm last night which I heard nothing of – there are advantages to being a deaf old bugger!

So this afternoon, off I go to meet Alan Kreider. I was telling Barb Swartley that the last time we had met in London (1979/80) was at the height of the Mennonite crisis over Chris and Karen, and that we had had a serious row. “So why do you want to meet him again?” she asked. A good question! But I suppose it’s because that whole episode was so long ago that the row doesn’t matter any more. After all, the row was not the only thing that could be said about me and Alan. I told Ron, “At this distance, we can bury the hatchet – but not in each other’s heads!”

Much discussion between Bob, Dorothy and me this morning, comparing the American way of healthcare and the NHS. They’re in favour of having something like the NHS, although they’re OK in terms of the insurance bits and pieces that they have. But many people aren’t, and get zilch. And we talked about the wars our countries have been waging over these years. Bob hates the wars and the death and destruction they have brought, can’t stand Bush or Blair, and makes the connection between paying for war and government spending cuts on the poor, the old and the sick. Bob is 83 and Dorothy is 86, and they are as passionate about these things as anyone half their age and younger. Bob chortled when I told him about the posters that changed Blair’s name to B. liar!

Bob later took me to, first, a Mennonite/Amish history joint, the Menno-hof. Smoothly presented propaganda, but definitely propaganda. Bob was dismissive of it, saying that as an account of history it was “enough to confuse anybody”! He also got one of the guides worried because he knew more than the guide did, and corrected his account at one point. Bob’s father was Amish, and Bob taught at Goshen College, and is a well of knowledge. And at 83 he can get away with being cheeky!

Then on the way back from there he asked, “How’d you like to meet my cousin?” So we go to this big Amish house – actually the “dauty house”, the home built for the grandparents of the family. And there was his cousin, 80, his big, rotund frame lying back in a chair, having his feet massaged by one of his nieces, a rather raddled-looking woman in her forties. His wife was in another chair waiting for her own massage. The old man roared at me, “And what’s your name?” There was much family talk. The place was lit by kerosene lamps, which were all connected up to the kerosene by pipes and tubes running from God knows where. It was all neat and clean and tidy.  No TV, no computer, no laid-on electricity (there was a generator for the spin dryer) and he had 2 carriages in the garage, bought from David Miller’s carriage factory. But the scene actually reminded me of a typical ultra-orthodox Jewish home in Stamford Hill!

I’m now in New Jersey at Craig and Sheila’s near Califon. I’m on their patio and in sight of the sheep. There are also coyotes around them thar trees! There are some nasty fat insects (which I haven’t seen yet) and some even nastier ticks which can have serious neurological effects if you don’t get them off you in 48 hours. Guess who’s not going for a walk in the woods!

Craig is not home from the office yet so I’m sipping coffee and watching the sheep.

26 May

New York yesterday. Well, gobsmacking might be the word! As you drive in from New Jersey, it looks a bit drab. Then slowly you notice the colour, the greenery and finally the people.

We crossed on the ferry to Manhattan Island, grabbed a taxi to the Highline, an old tramline, now a raised walkway, full of plants and bushes and trees, with views on both sides – on the left there is the river, on the right repeated vistas of long streets stretching into the distance and skyscrapers stretching into the clouds – and as there was low cloud yesterday that is no exaggeration.

We went to Craig’s office in the World Financial Center. From his office window I saw the two holes in the ground where the Twin Towers were destroyed, now turned into sort of lakes, surrounded by the construction site.

The mosque that was going to be built there is instead further down the road (American: a few blocks away), and Craig said that to have it on the site would have been too “in your face”. But actually you could only argue that if you could say in some sense that Muslims had attacked the towers. They didn’t. It was done by (to adapt Harold Wilson’s phrase in the 1960s) “a tightly knit group of politically and religiously motivated men”. To blame Muslims as a whole for it would be like blaming the entire Christian community for the misdeeds of Ian Paisley! Quite apart, of course, from the need to relate the whole business of 9/11 to the recent history of American imperialism.

We went to the Museum of Modern Art (not bad) and had lunch there (very good). During lunch Craig and I talked about capitalism, socialism and Christianity. In his office he had said, “You are now visiting the bowels of the capitalist beast.” So the discussion was interesting. He’s pretty high up in, and is totally committed to, the investment firm he works for, and Sheila said they had met Blair at a dinner for “VIPs”. So that’s where they are. But I’ll continue that later, because I think Craig is calling me for breakfast!

Later

Breakfast outside. Discussed where we get morality from. Craig thinks that without God no morality is valid, it’s all made up and relative. We can’t, he says, have morality without God to lay it down, and that’s what makes it objective, and without that we can’t be sure of anything, in fact anything goes.

I said that morality is made up. We get our ideas and values from the society we’re in, and from ourselves. He said I was an existentialist. On that basis there could be no meaning or purpose. I said that while I was a bit of an existentialist I disagreed with Sartre, for example, because he was too individualistic and in his early days discounted society as a factor. I think we absorb the ideas of the society we’re in and that’s part of the way we develop our values and our ideas. And we judge things for ourselves too, in a kind of dialogue between ourselves and the surrounding society, although I don’t think I put it quite like that – it was breakfast time, after all! But what I had in mind were, on the one hand, the mainstream ideas that are more or less imposed on us and, on the other hand, the ideas we develop due to our position in society, ideas of class and struggle. And although I didn’t put it exactly like that, Craig said, “You’re brainwashed!” I said, “No, I’m de-brainwashed.” And he just repeated, “You’re brainwashed.”

Then he said, “You talk with the assurance that comes from having an ideology.” I said, “The accusation that I am simply reproducing an ideology is a bit rich, coming from you!” – referring, of course, to his evangelical views.

He then talked about the problems of society not coming from capitalism but from human sin and greed. I said that the problems came from the nature of capitalism itself not human nature, and in any case the 2008 crisis was about the greed of the people at the top of society. He said that much of it came from people taking out loans they could never afford to pay. “Pressurised into doing so by rich bankers”, I said. “But haven’t the people themselves got a responsibility to think through their decisions?” he said. I said he was blaming the victims for the plight the bankers had got them into. And that many argued after the subprime crisis that capitalists had only been following the dictates of the market and if there were casualties arising from that, too bad.

We then went on to less contentious issues.

We’re going to the pictures this afternoon.

The film (sorry, the movie) was good – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Well worth seeing.

Dinner in the garden of Craig and Sheila’s neighbours, James and his family. This, too, will take some telling. James’s parents, now in their 80s, were visiting on a trip from the Algarve, where they live. James’s grandfather had been the last governor of Rhodesia – Sir Humphrey Gibbs. (I thought about asking if grandad had known Hugh Foot, but I thought that would have been an unnecessary diversion, and cats among pigeons crossed my mind, and I hadn’t had my first gin and tonic yet!). Much talk of the negotiations between Rhodesia’s prime minister Ian Smith and Harold Wilson on HMS Tiger and some other boat, and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). After the crisis was over and after Rhodesia had become Zimbabwe the Gibbses moved back to Zimbabwe, where they had several acres of farmland, and in fact Sir Humphrey died there. A Church of England cleric wrote a biography of Sir Humphrey, and the Foreword was written by Robert Mugabe!

Gins and tonics over, we gathered round the table next to the swimming pool in the garden. Alison, Old Gibbs’s daughter-in-law, she’s pushing 80 I think, took to me and asked me “Tell me, what have you worked at during your life?” I mentioned teaching English, proofreading, and then Craig said, “He’s being too modest – he’s got a PhD.” “Oh really, and in what subject?” and when I told her she launched into a story about how badly the family’s former maid (“We stayed in touch, you know, she’s so lovely, and she’s – er – black, can one say that, I mean, you know?) – about how badly she was treated by the British recently when she applied for asylum. “So”, she continued, “I can see what you mean when you say they are treated badly and sent back to places where they might be killed. How terrible.” Which was such an unexpected response that I nearly choked on the lobster!

We talked about lots of other things and then, as it began to get dark, James, our host, said, “Bob, I hear you were a minister.” I pointed across the table to Craig and said, “Craig, you’ve been talking about me!” “Well”, said James, “he was quite nervous about your arrival here.” Anyway, the discussion went on and it turned out that James was once a Church of Christ minister (his description made it sound like a weird sect) but he is now, he says, in the wilderness. So it was quite interesting. As we left at the end of the evening, Alison’s husband, also about 80, who had asked me all sorts of questions about faith and non-faith, said, “I don’t agree with you, but at least you’ve thought about it. I’m lazy. I never really think at all.” James said that his son, also James (he had been there earlier but had gone indoors), was going to Durham University in September for a year, doing history. “You’re in the north of England, so maybe you can meet up. He needs to have different influences on him,” Someone said, “Good influences.” (I’m not sure if there was any implication that my influence might be bad!) “Different influences”, said James, “as many as possible.”

So an interesting time. We then put the sheep to bed, and then ourselves.

29/5/2012

New York again. Went to the Metropolitan Museum, Central Park, drove along Riverside Drive, past Brooklyn, crossed on the ferry from Manhattan Island to meet Sheila and have our evening meal in a nice restaurant with a camp waiter. A very good day.

Craig says his job is dealing with “human capital”, investing the funds of his multinational company in, say, India which, he says, encourages development. He airbrushes out of his talk the fact that as soon as the company finds it can’t make a profit out of such investments it will stop investing. For the last 40 years, direct foreign investment by multinationals has been overwhelmingly in the already-developed world, where fat profits can be made. The Third World has been exploited by them and marginalised by them. Their purpose is profit, not philanthropy. But I think, for him, the faults of capitalism are down to the individual not the system itself, which I think he sees as the only way to run the world.

He is not an unreconstructed evangelical (he sees the need for social action). I went to a Presbyterian/charismatic-type church with them on Sunday. The service and preaching was an interesting mix of spirituality and down-to-earth social concern. But the people there would also say their church was “not political”. Unfortunately, the day I went to the church was during memorial weekend across America. And during the service there was a video (government-sponsored) about the “wars for our freedom” that American soldiers had fought. They ran from the First World War, the Second World War, through Korea, Vietnam, and all the rest, including Iraq and Afghanistan. “You might as well have a national church like the C of E”, I said to Craig. “That was sheer propaganda. And how can the church show a video that tells us, for example, that in Vietnam American youth fought and died for America’s freedom? For one thing, America lost that war. And Iraq – it was based on a lie. There was no threat to America.” “Well, yes”, he said. (Sheila had earlier said, “We were uncomfortable with the Iraq war.”) I said that even Britain’s state church had not gone all the way with Thatcher over the Falklands: during the service to mark the end of that war, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Runcie, I think) had prayed for the Argentinian dead as well as the British, much to Thatcher’s fury. In this Presbyterian corner of New Jersey there had been no mention of any dead except Americans.

Enough. It was good to meet Craig and Sheila again after 40 years, and they were so kind to me and hospitable. As for his politics, I wish he had stayed with the early Bob Dylan whose songs he sang in the 1960s. I wish Bob Dylan had. For comfort, I think of Tony Benn: “The older I get, the further left I go.” So, even as the bones begin to creak and the arteries begin to harden, we still needn’t move to the right. Or, as Craig advised me in an email yesterday, “Keep the faith, or at least the red flag flying!”

I will, Craig, I will.

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