American firsts (Adult stuff)

Cover of the song "Land of Hope and Glory...I arrived in American wet behind the ears, but I’m quickly catching up with the rest of the grown-ups in terms of quality American life experiences.

Sadly, many of the classic episodes in American life –  e.g. visit to the Emergency Room, car accident, opened bank account, pulled over by police officer, listen to an American politician speak, and buying a car –  already completed those in my previous American incarnations.

But there was still plenty of new stuff up for grabs when I got here:

High School graduation

Except it’s called commencement, which is confusing. Though not as confusing as playing Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” at the start. Was it just for me? Apparently not.

Not my High School graduation, of course. A friend of a friends. I sat between my wife and my mother-in-law, so little opportunity for heckling.

There were two police officers in attendance, which was perhaps meant to reassure but only made me think, what happened at the last one?

I could color myself unimpressed by the curious mixture of pomp and showbiz. It was just high school. I remember celebrating my final school results in a Glasgow phonebox after my mother opened the envelope. Celebrating by thinking, Oh thank God my grades are good enough to get into university because really, what else am I possibly good for?

But hey, it’s 2011. Times are hard. This might just be the biggest high-five most of these kids get, so I won’t pick holes. And of course I never attended an American high school, maybe it’s much harder to survive than the British equivalent. Certainly was in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Attend a funeral

Despite (or perhaps because of) being the smartest, most energetic, winningest, most No.1-ish people on Earth, Americans die, just like the rest of us.

I attended my first American funeral this year. It was the funeral of someone  not close to me but close to my American life, if that makes any sense. The event was only a little slicker than what I was used to. Only a little more obvious where the money was. But aside from the almost seismic difference of an open casket, it was the same.The days before it were filled with hard work and surprises and boredom and self-judgement. It was a funeral of anxiety and hard feelings and grief and gossip.  There was positioning and game playing and genuine tears. So yes, it was pretty much the same as a Scottish one, except hotter and with complimentary bottles of water.

Complete a W-2 form

I’d worked in the US before but never had to worry about taxes. The visa people had taken care of that for me. This time, I’m like a real worker person. I currently find the paperwork baffling. I may have to join a support group because there’s no-one else I know who has the slightest problem with it.

Picking the kids up from school

I don’t often feel grateful to my nieces. There was one occasion when I was reading a book, and the three-year-old and seven-year-old both came inside and decided they would read books as well. It lasted barely five minutes, but they were golden.

Another time was the result of a perfect storm of parental absence and my having access to a car; I was tasked with picking up two nieces from their private elementary school. (A school that provides the kind of education that provokes lines like “Of course I know what stars are. They’re stories from God. My teacher said so.” Also a school where you can walk the halls and enjoy learning which allergies the children have by the signs posted on the classroom door – I’m surprised instead of screening for weapons that American schools don’t spend more time checking for the unauthorised entry of peanut butter and dairy products).

There is something undeniably grown-up about collecting children from school. And my decency currency was entirely dependent on the two girls. So my gratitude stemmed not only from navigating the pick-up lane without mowing down any children but also from my nieces actually agreeing to leaving the school in my care. In fact, they seemed pleased to see me. I am not a favorite uncle, but it’s good to know I’m not the abominable snowman. Although, there’s the possibility those girls would go with anyone to get out of school.

Driving test  

First I had to pass the computer test, something I prepared for as if it were the civil service entrance exam. Flash cards? Mnenomics? You betcha.

I’m told, like everything, that the test will be easy, that it will be common sense.  Common sense like how many grams of methamphetamine you can have in your car without losing your licence.  And yes, common sense like true or false, when your feet get tired you should drive with a brick on the gas pedal.

Much anxiety, especially given I took the test immediately after they tried to take my British licence away from me. I had to explain, this is my British licence. That’s not a state, it’s a different country. I need my British licence for driving in Britain. You don’t get to take it from me.

You know when you get one wrong in the computer test; instant gratification/devastation as you go through the test. I got 3 wrong and walked up to the counter, crushed, only to find that I could have gotten 6 wrong and still pass.

The practical part of the American driving test, which I took a week later, also belongs in the “you’re not allowed to fail” category. Everyone told me I would pass, which for some people would take away the thrill of passing.

Me too.Unliked my British driving test, where the examiner only spoke to issue instructions, my American driving examiner used my test to tell me the story of his British honeymoon, peppered with helpful test-related advice like:

  • Just so you know, the speed limit’s 35 through here.
  • You can use the turning lane.
  • He’s coming in pretty quick, see.

This might seem like coddling, but I was so distracted by the honeymoon story (and what’s with all you Americans taking vacations in the UK? Really? Is that the best you can do? Every other country in Europe is a better destination than the UK. Is it the language thing?) that it was the least he could do. Like all Americans, the examiner had another job to do when he wasn’t doing this one, but Rebecca, taking her test directly after mine, got to hear all about that.

So I passed, and everyone said “Of course you did!”

No fireworks, no I felt sickly relieved that I wouldn’t have to walk everywhere after all. ‘Cause that’s hard when there’s no sidewalks.

The official who gave me my license said “Be careful”.Hey,  I try to be.



  1. You had trouble with the W2? Ha. Wait till you have to do your tax forms B4 April 15. It is a Kafkaesque scenario that turns everyone into liars, and you spend more time losing sleep over it than the whole process took. And of course you will have that fear that they are watching you. Be prepared as you evolve into an American taxpayer.

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