Tag Archives: Tobias Wolff

You say tomato, I say heuristic cultural device

Shopping a la cart.

Shopping a la cart.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

TURNING on a red light.

Slicing ‘toMAYtos’.

Answering ‘cell’ phones.

Rarely seeing, let alone using, public transport.

All things you do in the US, which you don’t in Ireland. And all of which I encountered on a visit this month to my wife’s hometown of Los Angeles.

These differences are usually small curiosities (unless I forget to look before turning on that red).

Like the way I stare blankly at voluminous LA coffee menus, or in wide-eyed wonder at the Whole Foods’ shopping cart escalator.

They’re just tasters to a deeper difference between American and Irish people, which is far more engrained than the rules of the road or in-store trolley conveyance.

In my experience this difference comes by way of a simple question: is the coffee cup half full or half empty?

Americans are often accused of being glibly optimistic, if not naive, in their world view. Many are, I’m sure, and many are not.

But they are considerably less cynical than the Irish, something that is impossible not to notice when you some spend time each year in both countries.

Cultural differences.

Cultural differences.

My other half is the perfect example. A music journalist, she cut her teeth in the first dot-com boom, before launching a catering business, returning to journalism for a number of major US publications and then, in her mid-30s, deciding to leave it all behind and move to Ireland.

At every turn her question was not (as I would have asked) ‘why?’ but ‘why not?’

Where I would seek out flaws in a plan she would see speed-bumps; where I might see regrets for past decisions she sees experience.

This faith in reinvention is not an exclusively American trait, of course. But I’ve seen more of it in citizens of that country than most others.

It’s been fodder for commentators, artists and academics for years. One New Yorker recently tried to explain it to me using, as he put it, ‘heuristic cultural devices’.

Tonias Wolff. Pic: Mark Coggins

Tobias Wolff.
Pic: Mark Coggins

But I’ve come across a simpler description. It is contained in a collection of Tobias Wolff’s short stories, gifted to me by my LA-based father-in-law on my visit earlier this month.

In one of the stories, A Mature Student, a Czech-born immigrant says of her adopted home: “Americans…such faith in the future, where all shall be reconciled. Such compassion toward the past, where all may be forgiven.”*

How much faith do you need, how much compassion can you have? That’s the $64,000 (or €45,000) question.

That, and ‘tomato’ or ‘tomayto’.

_____

*Tobias Wolff, “A Mature Student”, Our Story Begins (Vintage, 2008), p 315

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