Tuesday, November 02, 2010
fat, vulgar and ugly
I have long thought that the United States had a hole in its center where its soul once was. I'm not old enough to have experienced more than a quarter of the last century but I have lived in this country long enough to experience many of the major life events typical in our culture. During that time I developed a nagging suspicion that we were a society in decline. Nothing confirms such a suspicion like traveling abroad.
I am just back from almost two weeks during which I traveled throughout Switzerland and Italy and had a fabulous time at Terra Madre and Salone Del Gusto with my wife. What struck me, upon returning, like an openhanded slap across my mouth was just how fat, vulgar and ugly America really has become. I didn't include loud did I? Yes siting in the Newark airport, wishing we could take a European train back to North Carolina instead of another cramped, uncomfortable flight sure to come complete with absurd security pat downs (I swear to god next time I fly I'm showing up at the airport in a Speedo) my wife and I couldn't help but notice that the Dick Clark/American Bandstand-themed, in-airport burger shack in which we ate was inhabited by exactly 5 other people. Four of them were on there cell phones yakking away loudly. All four of them were overweight, eating shitty food sure to make that problem even worse. The fifth woman, svelte and eating sans cell phone turnout to be French. Sigh. Welcome home.
I'm sure at least one person reading this will think, "Well if you think Europe is so great you should move there. Love it or leave it pal!" Being American I know how to appropriately respond. "F#@! you," I say, "I can do whatever I want!" After all, being a way for a few weeks, I didn't forget how to talk like an American. Wink.
I know other cultures, including the Swiss and the Italians have their warts. Some of them were on display during our travels. It was just so striking to take in after a few weeks out of the U.S. to come home- blinding really- like walking outside after having your eyes dilated and suddenly being that much more aware of the sun.
We are uber thankful that we are a household without broadcast or cable television and therefore didn't have to return to what I understand are a whole new species of negative campaign ads in the run up to a mostly meaningless election in which we will, "throw the bums out," the latest set of bums hardly indistinguishable from the last set. Thank you Supreme Court for confirming that corporations are in fact as important- possibly more important- than people in our culture. At least we can be legally honest about what we've come to believe. Thank you mass media for covering this election cycle with an absurd attention that confirms its stupidity and reinforces my intuition that it is in fact meaningless. The Circus aspect of our 'Bread and Circus' circumstance is blatantly on display. Double Sigh.
It is clear that the United States has a hole in its center where its soul once was. It's a collective hole to which we all contribute with the missing part of each of us that would historically be filled by a daily pattern of living that didn't focus on trading away our time on useless tasks for money to purchase stuff with which to try to fill in the hole. Noticeably absent are the regular interactions with other people in coordination with daily activities given meaning by attention and thoughtful participation.
I hope I haven't talked any of you out of traveling to Europe, just be sure to wear your special glasses for a few weeks upon return. We had a fabulous time complete with a trip-extending passport pickpocketing event! The food really was great and the people were interesting. The spaces, the urban fabric of the countries we visited was fun to experience. At Terra Madre there were people from 188 other countries, all engaged in local food efforts simultaneously similar and yet somewhat different from each other. A special thank you to Riccardo for your hospitality.
The thing is, my wife won't move. It's not at all an unreasonable position given our stage in life (two small children). Our families are here in the place where we grew up and where we have some friends, not to mention knowing where everything is and understanding the language. She concedes we can never have Papa John's shitty pizza again, but frankly that change should have been formalized a long time ago. She will never eat a pizza as good as the one in that hole-in-the-wall in Milan and so I can hold out hope.
Personally I could convince myself to move, to stop trying so hard to make changes in my particular sphere of influence (the local food system) in a country whose culture has degraded so significantly that regular menu items include sandwiches consisting of chicken breasts for bread and bacon not only dangerous to eat but with so much less flavor than possible had it just been crafted by someone who cared.
Maybe that is what bothers me so much about our culture- that none of us give a shit about it, that it has become a culture not worth caring about because of how we spend our time. I include myself as I too am often unable to devote attention to important everyday tasks because of the background noise that stands in for real relationships with our people, our places and our work.
I am obviously in a pessimistic mood. No need to send hopeful comments or cards. Que sara sara. Perhaps our current dose of madness will inspire change. I feel certain it won't happen all across America though. In fact I'm guessing we're in for far worse as continued economic decline leads to increased political and social instability. How's that for ending on a happy note! I guess today the best I can do is suggest that other Americans find ways of ripping back their time from the machine of a culture that has stolen it and then spend some of it with me.