Chosen Country

Happy 4th of July!

Whenever I take my after-dinner walk through the Burbank hills (I need my exercise if I’m going to live forever!!!), I inevitably pass other neighborhood folks out strolling or dog walking. The cats I come across (and inevitably pet) are out there on their own. I’ve taken to carrying a shoelace in my pocket on my walks to cater to the more playful among them. Ingenious or pathetic? You make the call!

But I digress.

Most of the people I pass answer my smiley hellos with a “hi” which often betrays that English is a new language for them – they’re mostly immigrants who, from what I can discern from the conversations among themselves as they pass me, have come here from Armenia, Russia (or Russian speaking former Soviet republics like Belarus or the Ukraine, if the flags I spot hanging in a couple of houses I pass are any indication), Mexico or Korea. They all came here and have done well enough for themselves to live in a nice neighborhood where you can go for walks at night and even the coyotes wandering down from the hills to rummage through people’s garbage give you a Wile E. smile and trot along unthreateningly.

We always hear how people around the world complain about America and resent us for one reason or another, but those sentiments are far too often the voices of elites in power, whether in politics or the media. Bashing America is like a ticket into the club for them, it’s expected if not required. The ordinary common folk of those societies must feel differently about America if they keep coming here (often risking everything they have) and finding success when they couldn’t manage it at home.

And why is that success more possible here? Notice I didn’t say easier, because busting your ass is a big part of it, as is education, and there are no guarantees – the more work and education you have only improve your odds – but the odds over here are better than where they came from. Those odds might have narrowed since the days when my ancestors got the hell out of shtetls in Russia and got on the boat, but we’ve still got the edge. That’s why they come here, that’s why they stay, and it’s why their second, third and fourth generations will continue to do better, just like my family did.

Whenever I hear the Russian spoken by those passersby, my mind always drifts to my own ancestors, who got on a boat and came to the land of boundless opportunity and shelves piled high with stuff you need and crap you don’t but want anyway – and thank God that they got on that boat when they did.

I just finished reading a brief autobiography my retired physiology professor Uncle wrote up (yeah, there’s certainly an academic gene in the Wagstaff DNA), and he mentioned how my great-grandmother (who I am named after, btw) moved her family and my young grandfather to a tenement on Eldridge Street on New York’s lower east side (No wonder gramps was a New York Giants fan), and by looking at this site dedicated to the history of that area, I got to see what temple they went to AND learned that Ira Gershwin & Eddie Cantor grew up on the same street! Coolsville!

But I bet they didn’t cook up & eat monkfish in white clam sauce over pasta one night, chicken tikka masala the next, followed by Hungarian chicken paprikash the next night, then szechuan tofu… all before their strolls through the neighborhood passing Russian speaking immigrants. I did, a testament to what’s possible in America and how those possibilities only grow and expand endlessly.

Here’s to a Happy 4th of July where we can all enjoy the blessings of our families’ chosen country!

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