American dream

January 2nd started off quite nicely when an email from my immigration lawyer announced that my I-140 immigration petition has been approved. This means that the second stage of my green card application is complete, and I have just the third and final stage to go! It could take another year or two, but the end is in sight.

As an adult, I could not have predicted that I would ever be desperate to get permanent legal status in this country. First, no one knew I would meet Lisa Parrish. Second, like many Brits, I was quick to turn up my pointed English nose at American culture and politics in the 80s and 90s. But, if you’d asked me at age 10, the future would have been crystal clear.

In 1978, my grandfather and his second wife were living in California, buying and renovating real estate in Sonoma County, and a former neighbor and his family had relocated from Woodseaves, England to Ontario in the LA suburbs a few years earlier. Although British people were getting used to summer holidays on the Costa Del Sol, America was a far-off and exotic land. But my mother was a travel agent and planned a 3-week life-changing trip for us all.

England in the 1970s was a little drab and very parochial. Meals consisted of meat, two overcooked veg and potatoes, followed by cling peaches from a can. It rained and our stripy 70s pants could not dispel the gloom. There were only three television channels and the programming didn’t begin until the end of the school day. So, our trip was a REALLY BIG DEAL.

The first night we arrived late and went to bed in the dark. The next morning I was woken up by the family’s kids whom I hadn’t seen since we were all toddlers. They looked American and sounded American and they behaved like no other children I’d ever encountered. While the parents were sleeping, we went into the kitchen and they opened the biggest refrigerator in the world. I was already feeling like Alice in Wonderland when they took out the biggest bowl of strawberries in the world. And then I truly felt like I was on drugs (although at age 10 I couldn’t quite identify that feeling) when they started popping strawberries in their mouths very casually…without permission, without counting, and without savoring every soft and juicy mouthful.

Now, strawberries were my most favorite fruit in the world. And in England, they were not cheap and came in punnets that might contain 15-20 small berries if you were lucky. So, in our family of three, any serving would be carefully counted out into the bowls to make sure the distribution was entirely fair. They would be covered in single cream and sprinkled with sugar. To this day, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect pleasure.

But here I was in a strange place dumbstruck by the strawberry munchers. I quickly overcame my shock and apprehension at eating food without parental permission or supervision and joined the fruity Bacchanalia.

This was the first time in my life that I realized that it’s sometimes possible to indulge one’s desires without constraint, punishment, cost, or remorse. And that might be one of the essential differences between the British and our American cousins. You have a constitutional right to pursue happiness; we think happiness is rarely deserved. You openly pursue pleasure; we’re rather embarrassed (but secretly titillated) when people enjoy themselves too much.

The rest of the trip continued in a similar vein with visits to Disneyland, 8oz steaks, avocadoes growing on trees, and the most stunning natural landscape I’d ever seen. Back home I found myself crying in the middle of the night during moments of jet-lagged insomnia. I knew that such indulgence and liberating pleasure was no longer mine.

This moment of Californian corruption lay dormant for many years, but in the late 90s I found myself back in the U.S.A. and damn, if it wasn’t fun. I ultimately moved here for noble and romantic reasons, but I confess I have been completely seduced by this country. Not just seduced, but ruined, because I don’t think I can ever go back to sharing a punnet of strawberries. And, Department of Homeland Security permitting, I won’t have to.


11 responses to “American dream”

  1. ssw says:

    Stella, you have a way of making anything you describe seem desirable. happy friday morning to you :)

  2. Scott Godfrey says:

    I love how (and I’m not saying this cynically), despite the current administration’s troubling positions on so many issues, you still see the US’s allure of personal freedom and joy. As someone who was born here, I so readily see the nation’s flaws.

    Like anything else, perhaps, America benefits from a fresh pair of eyes; I am so glad that they are yours. You deserve the positive aspects of America (strawberries and all) more than just about anyone I can think of,

  3. MarleyFan says:

    Can’t say I really understand, since I grew up in America, and never really dealt with not having having the both the “things” and the mentality of pursuing happiness, almost seems like a right.

    Sounds like you’ve found happiness with Parrish. It made me think of this:

    “It’s the only thing that brings happiness, ever, to anyone. All the other things- victories, achievements, honors, causes-they bring only momentary flashes of pleasure. But binding yourself to another person…, that’s life. And you can’t do it if your life is centered on ambitions. You’ll never be happy. It will never be enough, even if you rule the world.” Mrs Wiggin (Enders mother) in Shadow of the Hegemon by Orson Scott Card.

    Your post does challenge my thinking, in that I’ve always believed that happiness is something we choose.

    Best of luck with both your permanant legal status, Parrish, and your pursuit.

  4. Tim Wager says:


    Congratulations on passing this crucial phase! I love the story of your childhood visit (“fruity Bacchanalia” indeed).

    Perhaps you need to let your inner Californian return your bodily self to the land of milk and honey. It’s all of that and more, I promise you!

  5. Scott Godfrey says:

    Tim, I love you — you know that. But I’m not quite sure what you see in California (other than the people you’ve surrounded yourself with) that is so amazing. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a putdown. I think you’re someone who would find amazement in anywhere you lived, and I think that’s a wonderful quality. I just wish your love of SoCal would rub off on me.

    So, what’s the secret?

  6. Tim Wager says:

    I don’t want to start up an East-Midwest-West debate (or NorCal-SoCal). As much as Ruben would like that, I don’t think those kinds of discussions ever go anywhere interesting, really. Speaking as someone who has lived in a lot of different places in this great and flawed country of ours, on both coasts and in the middle (two cheers for the US of A), I like SoCal the best.

    Generally, I’m opposed to dismissing debate by saying, “This is my view, and that’s yours; there’s no right or wrong.” However, this may be one of those things like being an “Odyssey” person or an “Iliad” person (substitute Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins if you like). One may be more of an LA person or a NY person or a Chicago(land) person and that’s that. There are those, such as our own WW, who live bicoastal lives, but I think that if forced to choose (really forced), there would be no question as to which they would favor, in a kind of visceral, instinctual way.

    Here are a few things that I love about SoCal, that I mourned not having when I didn’t live here: high-blue skies with a pervading orangey-yellow light the day after it rains and everything has been washed clean; oranges, lemons, limes, pomegranates, avocados, plums and much more, simply and commonly growing in people’s yards, fruit just lying on the ground for the taking; other flora, especially sage and lavender, growing wild or with little tending; the liberty to move in and out of doors freely without ever having to bundle up, along with occasionally having to remind myself of what month of the year it is . . . I could go on and on. I know the negative aspects of this place too – strip mall hell, phony movie people, blah blah blah – but see them as the price I have to pay for my blue heaven.

  7. Scott Godfrey says:

    You’re awesome Wager. This is exactly the kind of answer I was hoping for.

    I don’t know if I could ever move back to my beloved homeland, but I do love to visit. The reaction I get when ever I walk into Ralph’s is always priceless: “Hey Scott, you still in California?” Even better is when I explain that I miss New Jersey and Gus shoots back: “What the fuck do you miss ’bout this place?”

    Yes, Wager, you have the true, American pioneer spirit. I love it.

  8. Lisa Tremain says:

    As an honorary home grown Southern Californian (not 20 minutes from Ontario, Stella!), I must agree with Tim that we get a bad rap. The worst thing about L.A., I tell people who ask, is that it’s really difficult to meet people and establish your family of friends since everything’s so spread out. And, yes, there are all the fakey-fakey Paris Hiltons and the absolutely impossible public trans, but I was allowed to grow up running around in acres of orange groves– and we grew our own strawberries (and corn, tomatoes, etc.) right in our suburban back yard. So, I love it here, yes.

    In full disclosure, I have never lived where it snows regularly…and have only seen about one-third of the fifty states, so this opinion is limited. New York City, Portland and New Orleans, I’ve got to say, are most magical places. I wouldn’t call SoCal magical…just beautiful and eassssy-going.

    Anyway, Stella, your post reminded me (again) of all the things I take for granted, including the garden my dad still perenially tends. Thank you. Today is one of those post-rain crazy-clear days where, if you’re positioned correctly, you can get a 360 view of mountains, city, and ocean. You come on out and I’ll make you some fresh-squeezed juice.

  9. MF says:

    I have to chime a few bells for SoCal, too. I grew up in southern Utah. My mom was from Orange County, so we used to drive several times a year to visit my grandparents. They had a big house with a swimming pool a few miles from Huntington Beach. We ate amazingly delicious fruit, played with our cousins (outside during winter!!!) and went to amusement parks. As a teenager I lived there for a year and liked it even more.

    I hate the traffic, but that’s, for me, the only really big downside.

    Thanks for your post Stella. It’s nice to be reminded of the good fortune we have here.

  10. Beth W. says:

    I could stay in line with the most recent comments and give my two cents about living in sunny Southern California but I was intrigued by the idea of the right to pursue happiness.

    When I was about fifteen I visited Washington, DC and London in the same year. After visiting both the White House and Buckingham palace, I was struck by a feeling of pride in our humble capitol. Visiting DC I felt like it was my capitol. That I posessed some sort of collective ownership of this simple, stately building. When visiting Buckingham Palace I felt a rather protestant distaste for the opulence of that private residence. Couldn’t some of that wealth invested in fancy stuff be better used helping the people of the country?

    Without a doubt the United States has a lot of problems at all levels of government but, there always seems to be a glimmer of hope that things can be changed, that we have the right to demand change and justice because the country belongs to us too.

  11. […] How much of your identity is rooted in geography? I’m from California, a place with a mythology so strong that reality can’t struggle its way into mattering, and it has a profound connection my own identity, whether I will it to or not. Stella’s recent posts about the United States, and Tim’s subsequent comments about California as the sort of extremest version of that, have got me thinking about my relationship to the state–why it is that though I’ve lived here for almost all of my memorable life, I’m still susceptible to the myth of it, the “blue heaven” of fruits and sunshine and surf and cliffs. That’s partially because that all really exists—but. It exists alongside endless dreary strip malls, cinderblock-walled wide-lane roads, lumbering “off-road vehicles” that never leave the asphalt, words like “Inland Empire” and “Southland,” dreary cinderblock walls along the roadways, people with fake boobs and way too much money who have never heard the word “no”–you know all these clichés, and they too are truer than you’d ever believe. So why do I balk at the idea of living in any other state, even though I feel deep envy for the residents of Seattle and Manhattan, Portland and Brooklyn, London and Barcelona and Berlin? What is it about this here place that all these years of critical observation have still blinded me to? […]