There are three qualities I especially admire in people: wisdom, a sense that they belong to something larger than themselves, and a talent for feeling surprise.
I really like surprise.And this past week we've had a friend from Mexico staying with us who registers surprise as often as he takes a breath. His name's Alejandro Merlo Cabrera. He's 14.
But to everyone at home, he's just "Ale" (AL-ay).
Ale's open-mouth awe first surfaced at a family picnic. My daughter got her ancient Keds so muddy her mother told her to just toss them in the trash.
Ale gave a gasp.
"You wear disposable shoes up here?" he said.
From then on for a week, it was one bombshell after another. For five days his eyes were the size of Oreo cookies. We showed him around town.
"You have whole stores that sell nothing but baseball cards up here?" he asked.
"And you have baseball diamonds next to your cemeteries, and you cut your own lawns and water them and pull your own weeds?"
The United States was "settled" and Mexico was "conquered," and that's made for quite a difference. Americans take a special pride in doing their own manual labor. In Mexico, doing manual labor is what distinguishes the "have nots" from the "haves."
Manual labor, that is, and a sense of good manners. Watching Americans stretch at the dinner table, yawn without covering our mouths and brush against people without a quick "excuse me" surprised the daylights out of Ale. There's a democratic ease, a natural rawness about Americans that we see as positive. We don't believe in class distinctions so don't fret the small stuff. During World War II people in Europe shuddered as American GI's hoisted their feet up on coffee tables and downed sandwiches in two bites.
And where Ale really stood all amazed was at the antics of my three, wildly American stepdaughters.
One reason "The Wizard of Oz" stole American hearts was Dorothy. She was feisty, out-spoken, rough-edged - a classic American girl. When someone threatened her dog, she threatened them back. And when she discovered the Wizard was a fraud, well, she let him have it.
"You're a very bad man!" she scolded. "How could you do this?"
It's hard to imagine England's demure Alice scolding the Queen of Hearts, or picture Wendy from "Peter Pan" tossing a bucket of water on an adult - witch or no witch.
Mexican girls are cut from the Alice and Wendy model.
My daughters are Dorothy all over. They'd run through the house, do a forward roll over a dining room chair, grab the phone and blurt out "Hi there," leaving Ale shaking his head.
After Ale's week of force-fed American culture, we decided he should have something a little easier on the stomach. We took him to the Peach City malt shop for some ice cream.
When the waitress asked his order he told me in Spanish, "Oh, I'll just have what we always have in Mexico - a Coca-Cola float with lemon ice cream."
I gave the order.
"What??" Helena gasped, "you're gonna eat that?"
"You're weird," chipped in Felicia, "and you're gonna get sick."
Ale, my young friend, it seems "surprise" is one custom that's shared by all humanity.