American Views Abroad

Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Forty years to the day while the men were still on the moon, a single 22 year old New Yorker flew to Europe to escape the madness of the late sixties, to experience something different culturally, to test her ability to land somewhere in a language she barely knew and survive. It wasn't meant to be a life-long experiment. The plan was for a year or two abroad and then back to the hometown for graduate work in education or city planning.

1969 was a strange year. Passivity was in the air in New York. They passed a law there exempting men from the draft if they had a teaching position. Suddenly men with no training in education were seeking teaching jobs (a very female domain in those days). Not that most of these men had ever actively demonstrated against the war. Just the opposite. They were on track to keep their heads down and play their cards right for future jobs. The media portrays the 68 generation as either politically active as in students for McCarthy, or high on Woodstock and the images it brings forth. The truth was that most of that generation was apathetic and non-political, except, of course, for the right wingers on campus. Young Americans for Freedom and some Cuban exiles managed to make life exceedingly difficult for those on the progressive front. One was mistaken back then to think the US was going liberal or left. Just the opposite. It was laying the groundwork and veering very much to the right.

So much has been written about the men on the moon and the billions it cost to get there first. No point rehashing the arguments. It is the memories from that time that causes concern. Somehow citizens were jolted into thinking if we weren't first there, the world as we knew it would end. It was in the seventh grade at a Brooklyn Catholic school at the end of the fifties when suddenly the day no longer started with religion. Prayers were quickly said and then it was math, math and more math. Overnight the agenda was radically changed by the nuns. Math all morning; grammar all afternoon. We were in training for the moon landing. Public High School brought no relief. If you were in the so-called honors program, you got little to no physical ed, music or art, but a long day, at times minus lunch hour, in the core courses of math, sciences, language, literature and grammar. College was actually a let-down.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill is the novel made for a week like this one. It's post 9/11 New York with grand intimate descriptions of the outer boroughs which are so often ignored in fiction and a cast of characters coming from the outside, looking inward. One thing, though, shows how little has changed. The main character, Hans, is politically very passive when it comes to our present wars. His attitude is more like a waiting game. Just waiting for the outcome.

Hans in Netherland: 'We didn't really talk about politics,' I say. ....The decisive item, if I'm going to be honest about this, was that Chuck was making a go of things. The sushi, the mistress, the marriage, the real estate dealing, and, almost inconceivably, Bald Eagle Field: it was all happening in front of my eyes. While the country floundered in Iraq, Chuck was running. That was political enough for me, a man having trouble putting one foot in front of the other.'

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