Convenience, Childishness, Yard Sales, Marches, and Driving Ranges - America, in other words

Defining one thing makes complete sense only when contrasted to alternatives. For example, a child doesn't realize they belong to a certain nationality or race, or rather they don't appreciate the fact that they are different from others in that sense until they meet people from other nationalities or races. I didn't realize my sense of fashion was poor until I spent time with people who knew how to match their shirt, shorts, and shoes. (Ok, I still didn't realize for a while after that. Years and years. Regardless.)

With that said, yesterday was the 4th of July, and that means a celebration of America and being American. I've traveled a bunch and lived abroad for a decent amount of time. I've noticed some things that, at least in contrast with the places I've been and the people from those places, help define how I and my countrymen act as Americans. Character traits that have both positive and negative aspects, but traits that I think many Americans, those who were born here and those who have come here and adopted the culture, display in their daily behavior.

Herewith I will dispense with three of these traits, and then a brief anecdote about three very American activities I took part in over the past ten days.

The Charm of Convenience - Americans expect things to work.

This may seem as self-evident as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but it is, I think, uniquely American. We expect to find a system in life to which we can conform (or else a system we can outmaneuver and beat), a set of rules that, if followed, affords us a job, a decent life, and ON Demand cable TV. That might be one of the most earthshaking effects of the current economic crisis/limited recovery, the questions that have been raised for that faith, the hint of a new American agnosticism.

But I lose myself in the big picture. It's more on the daily level that our belief in things working manifests itself. We expect that if we need to get a driver's license that we can go to the DMV, fill out a form, stand in line, pass a test or two, pay about $100 (the total cost for permit, road test, and driver's license in Massachusetts), and launch ourselves on the glorious path to SUVs and dads' old minivans. We might complain about this process, but in comparison to most places, we have little grounds for moaning. When I explained this process to a friend of mine who had just immigrated to NYC from Russia, he expressed shock: shock that the process was so orderly, shock there was no one to pay off, and especially shock that the cost was so little - he was used to the idea that he had to pay some guy around $1000 to get a license, and that he had to go to the relatively lawless southern part of the country (the Caucasus in Russia, not Alabama) to take care of all of this.

I can draw on examples from other places. When talking with friend Ben, he of past trips and Madrid residence, about the joys and challenges of life abroad and in the U.S. (the latter from what we can fathom and remember), he mentioned having to accept the slowness of the Spanish bureaucracy. I never wrote about the aborted attempt I made to get citizenship in Israel but it involved many hoops, failed efforts, laws passed just as I was on the verge of handing in all the necessary documents that required a new document, and many opportunities to practice my Hebrew, especially my angry language Hebrew.

These are small examples. I think it would not be hard to find or recall or report others. The end result is that many other cultures adopt a "oh, it'll get done when it gets done" attitude, a blasé approach towards life's minutiae and unpleasantness. Which is healthy to a degree, but also unproductive to a degree. In any case, it's different from the attitude I think most Americans have.

Where there's a Will... - Americans expect there to be answers to most if not all problems. (You'll notice that the three traits I mention are related to one another). There is nothing that can't be reduced, via analysis or gut instinct, into a square peg to be filled, whether quickly or sequentially.

I can't think of any day-to-day life examples to support this statement, but it's easy to draw on Americans' approach to foreign policy and politics in general. We expect any given problem, whether an intractable conflict between two peoples or a trade-off between taxes and government cuts, to have an answer. Increasingly, we feel that the answer will not be found, but we sense that it's there. And why not? For 235 years we've been finding answers, and there should be no reason to think that won't continue to be the case. Again, all of these traits have their positive and negative implications; here, the belief in an answer propels Americans to achieve and to find solutions where otherwise deemed improbable or impossible, but at the same time we shear problems of their intricacy and detail, trimming them into a square peg that might not necessarily fit the needs of the situation.

We're just a bunch of big kids - Americans, on a global scale, are childish.

In some ways, we are too nice to be anything but children. We are, Northeast corridor excepting, more gregarious and polite in public than most other places I've been. We're not necessarily as warm or friendly after the initial layer of an interaction slinks off, but we are generally pleasant at first blush.

(One thing I did notice for the first time on this trip home, however, is that, outside of Christmas season, we don't wish one another happy holidays in commercial interactions the way I've noticed especially in Israel but also elsewhere. Yesterday was the 4th of July, but when going to Market Basket (bison and chicken), the highway to New Hampshire (tolls), and the New Hampshire Liquor Store (Cîroc vodka), I didn't hear one "Happy Holiday" or "Have a good 4th of July" from any of the workers. Now, you could argue they were upset they were working on the holiday - I didn't hear anything while shopping on the 2nd of July either. It's just interesting.)

We also like to make everything a competition. Competition as a means for encouraging people to achieve beyond their own limits, or to find solutions for difficult problems? Sure, that's good. Competitive eating? Just sort of childish.

We like our entertainment to be the best in the world, and it is. No other country can, I think, compare to the size and bombast of American movies, TV, music, and so forth. Even within America, there is competition to see who has the most spectacular entertainment, as witnessed by the hosts of the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular reiterating over and over that Boston has the "Premier" celebration in the country. It's quite a claim.

Then there is our nation's citizens mastery of languages, or lack thereof. At some point, many or most Americans will be bilingual Spanish/English speakers and both will be official languages of the country. Until that point, we will be the ones who stick out in the world for our unilingualism (not a word). Never mind the "ugly Americans" idea. I get more hung up on the treatment I receive as someone who does speak a language or two beyond English. Non-Americans will praise me for my language skills in whatever language, especially in an insecure moment where I fish for compliments about my accent. Then I'll remember that they speak, say, Russian/German/English all fluently and could pick up either Hebrew or French easily enough, or else they combine Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English with little effort, or they'll be an African basketball player shrugging off all the stereotypes they might encounter to point out the fact that they speak five languages. That compliment I got for speaking one or two other languages well? Feels like I'm the little boy who gets great applause for playing a Bb major scale on my trombone without dropping the instrument. "And you know the arpeggio at the end too? Wow, good job!"

Lastly, and somewhat more profoundly, is the nation's trauma of a decade ago. I hope to write on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but I can anticipate the date a little bit. I remember several Russians, for example, terming Americans as childish for how we dealt with the aftermath of the two towers falling (namely, launching two wars for a war/tower ratio of 1).This is something of a snooty old world attitude, but it's not altogether wrong: America suffered a large attack of any sort for the first time in 60 years. We stood as the clear power of the world, and while still sundered from most threats by two oceans, our technology and culture were in the process of overtaking the globe. The event could be nothing less than shocking, and America's response was different from other nations' responses to similar events as much because America could do more than other nations, fair or not. 

Still, there came a sense from many of us that this was the only major attack, that America's grief was worse, that there was an outrage attached to our wound. Which is silly of course; without getting into proportions of loss, statistics, or anything else, many countries in the world suffer from war, terrorism, natural disasters, and other unplanned traumas. This was the first time in a while for us, and it could have jolted us out of our childhood. Somehow, I don't think that's quite how it shook out.

Now to the three recent American activities I took part in. The first is...

Yard Sale - I have been to plenty of yard sales. At various times in his life, my dad has been something of a yard sale/flea market connoisseur; I remember looking forward to going to the flea market out by Wellfleet or Truro when we vacationed on Cape Cod every summer in my childhood.

I had never taken part in hosting a yard sale as I did weekend before last in Michigan. What I found interesting and worth sharing was the nature of our clientele. To advertise for the yard sale, we put up two signs on either side of our street and put an ad in the Ludington newspaper. I thought more and earlier signage - we only put up the signs the night before the yard sale - might be needed, but Amy said rest assured, "the people who come to yard sales will be here."

The people who come to yard sales; men and women of all races, ages, and types, though skewing towards the older demographics. Folks who happen to drive by and stop anywhere they see a couple tables set up strewn with clothes, jewelry, and DVDs (many men slowed down as they drove past in their cars, looked at our tables, realized that this was a largely women's oriented yard sale, and sped off). Immigrant families that emerge from large green-striped vans, three generations represented, the children running next door to check out the sports supplies put out, the parents to look at the DVDs and books, grandparents who wonder if there are any pieces of jewelry their spouses might like. Haggard singles, men and ladies, stop by looking for the super cheap stuff, turning down a pair of shorts and a shirt because they didn't come together, meaning it cost $2 not $1.

And then there are the lifers. Two older women stood in front of one table while another woman, more in her 40s than older, noticed them and said hello. (Note: Michigan is in the Midwest.)

First Older Woman: "Oh, hi Maaggie, how are ya?"
Younger Woman: "Hi there Claarice, hi Maary."
Second Older Woman: "Say, did you go to the Jensens' yard sale yet?"
YW: Not yet, I was checking over the sales on Pere Marquette Ave.
FOW: Oh, we saw those, didn't we Maary?
SOW: Good selection of baags at those.
YW: You been over to the one on Haight?
FOW: Over by the lake?
YW: Yeah, the one by the lake. I thought I would've seen you guys there when I went, I went there first.
SOW: We're going there next. I guess we just forgot about that one.
FOW: Oh no, I didn't forget about, just wanted to get to this one first.
YW: Yeah, there's a lawt out here.
SOW: Well, good luck with your shawping.
YW: Thanks, girls, same to you.

(Note: that was slightly paraphrased. Ahh, Michigan.)

That seemed to me to be a uniquely American experience. After the yard sale, I joined Amy's father for a bit of...

Up, right, in the ground, totally missed, one time straight, but especially right - ...hitting golf balls at a driving range. I had never done this before. I've always been skeptical of golf. Despite going to (essentially) a rich man's high school and a rich man's college, or perhaps because of these things, I always viewed golf as a rich man's game. Amy's father is far from a rich man, and so I figured if he golfs a lot, it can't be so bad. I, in my eagerness, offered to go play 18 with him some day. He, in his wisdom, suggested we go to the driving range first.

Imagining it proper to swing with a big backswing, full hip gyration, and good power - in other words, all the lessons one takes from playing Mario Golf, my only education in golf beyond mini golf - I began taking healthy cuts. Amy's father stood aside and suggested some alterations and downsizes in my swing so as to help me hit the ball properly. While each of his shots went more or less straight and 200 yards long, my shots rarely if ever touched the 100 yard mark. Further, I peppered the wall of trees to the right of the range, to the point where the game was really to see if I would hit one of the tall pines on the fly or on the hop.

Those pushed slices to the right were when I hit the ball well. When I didn't hit the ball well, I think I ran through every possible bad drive possible. I aimed to hit the ball left to compensate for pushing it right...and still pushed it right. I duffed the ball (hit the grass under or before the tee instead of the ball flush). I popped the ball almost straight up in the air a few times. I hit on top of the ball, knocking it in a straight line or into the ground. Most embarrassingly, I swung at the ball and missed. Several times. Like four. In a row.

And then, as if provided for a story, on my last shot, making adjustments I in no way can recall or replicate, I managed, while aiming straight, to hit the ball roughly 100 yards right down the middle. A decent golf shot to end on for the first time on the range. I left not exactly hooked, but definitely appreciative of why people play, and interested in going again. And I guess I'm over the rich man's game idea. Or else rich.

If you think driving golf balls does not qualify as significantly American, allow me to add that we drove to the range in a souped-up convertible Ford Mustang. Pretty damn American, if you ask me.

Marching for a March in July - Lastly, yesterday, for the 4th of July, Ben and I visited our friend Jack in New Hampshire. There we swam in the pool, hid from the thunderstorms, ate meat and smores, and watched the aforementioned Fireworks Spectacular on TV. And to that Spectacular, at the right time, we marched.

Jack's family has a special tradition for the 4th of July. When the Boston Pops finally plays John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever", usually right after the "1812 Overture" that celebrates America's liberation from Napoleon or something (note to future employers: I'm kidding! I taught history a couple months ago! I know America threw off Napoleon's reign in 1803 with a bunch of money!), though last night "SaSF" came later, but to return to the initial dependent clause, when this song finally airs on TV, the family marches through their living room holding American flags (or American flag napkins). I was familiar with this tradition, having done this two years ago with Jack and family and another friend. This time around, once the national broadcast rolled over to the Sousa festivities around 10:30, we lined up, prepared for the final triumphal coda to the song, and then marched around the living room, onto the balcony, and into each other, a two-generational group of Americans (and a dog named Liberty) celebrating an important holiday in silly, American fashion.

Which, at the end of the day, is perfectly OK with me, as childish, convenient, poorly hit, regularly sold, and inevitably answered as the occasion is.

(And since this would make three straight posts without a photo, I now post a photo from the 4th of July at Jack's two years ago, or rather the 5th of July, the morning after, when I got a little cosy with ol' Liberty.)


Traveling through our 20s, right before the crash

(Technically, this post has little to do with travel. More like time travel. I'll explain.)

As an introduction, I offer two lists to sum up the last year of my life, from say 12th June 2010 to 11th June 2011.

List 1: Israel (Tel Aviv, Even Yehuda, Herzliya), New England (Burlington, Boston, Nantucket, Cape Cod, Hampton Beach), Michigan (Ludington), Israel (Tel Aviv, Herzliya), Europe (Amsterdam, Hamburg, Denmark), Israel (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem), Africa (Rwanda), the broader U.S. (Burlington, New York, DC, Durham, Nashville, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco), the North American North (Ludington, Grand Blanc, Sarnia, Toronto), Massachusetts (Burlington, Boston), the Midwest (Chicago, Ludington), Massachusetts (Burlington, the Berkshires), New Orleans, Burlington, Michigan (Ludington, Ann Arbor), Israel (Herzliya, Even Yehuda), the Midwest (Ludington, Charlevoix, Petoskey, Chicago), Israel (Herzliya, Even Yehuda, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv), Michigan (Ludington).

And a possibly less obnoxious list.

List 2: Library Aide, Model United Nations co-coordinator, M.A. Student, online journalist, tourist, volunteer with genocide survivors, Greyhound bus customer, job-seeker, construction volunteer, job-seeker, cat-sitter, long-term substitute teacher.

The former list includes all the places I either spent significant time in (a full day) or slept a night in over the aforementioned timeline. The latter provides an order of the various positions I filled over that year. It's been some year.

While finishing my time in the final role, as long-term substitute teacher, I had the privilege (read: obligation) to attend a high school graduation. As the bright and hopeful valedictorian and salutatorian read fine speeches about the future and all the possibilities that awaited them in this ever-changing world, I sat staring into the flat chicken fields that served as a staging for the ceremony, wondering whether we are ever presented limitless opportunity, and wondering if that limitless opportunity evaporates at some point, whether that window closes, and lastly wondering whether I have taken advantage of that opportunity or squandered it, and whether that window remains open for me.

Excuse the excessive wondering and pondering and spiritual blundering. 26 is not old. I'm not sure what 26 is. I'm not sure what the normal position for someone of my age is, nor how I measure up, which makes it excessively difficult for an eternally competitive person (if one developing a sense of Buddhistic-esque acceptance) like me to assess my life and whether it is on the rails or wandering in the wilderness that are the 20s. I know that, coming from a pedigree of top high school and top college, my circle of acquaintances and friends, as it were, is successful and forming themselves into what they want to be. Perhaps that's why I'm not so close to most of them, the lucky bastards.

I should clarify. In the new economy or the 21st century or whatever excuse there is to tag onto our condition, working immediately after college is not a foregone conclusion, and finding out who you want to be takes longer than it might have 20 or 30 years ago, or in other countries like the Soviet Union my parents grew up in. We are faced with the paradox of choice, where more options impede our decision-making and ultimately make us less happy because we can weigh many more alternatives to the life we chose. This is related to the concept discussed in one of my undergrad economics classes, the idea that Person X is happier making $70K a year when his neighbor (or co-worker or brother or whoever he compares himself with) makes $70K as well than when Person X is making $75K a year and Comparison X is making $80K a year.

Here stands I, a competitive person but one who, I'd like to think, has never begrudged my friend his/her due. One of my favorite parables comes from the New Testament of the Bible:

Matthew 20.1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 20.2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 20.3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 20.4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. 20.5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. 20.6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? 20.7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. 20.8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. 20.9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 20.10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. 20.11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 20.12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. 20.13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 20.14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 20.15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 20.16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

The essence of the parable is that one should honor their agreements, but even more that one who has reached satisfaction in some way should not allow that satisfaction to be tarnished by viewing others' conditions as a sign of what one could achieve instead. In other words, I am not only a jerk for comparing myself constantly to others, but failing at life and at happiness by not staying in my lane and worrying about how I can do right by myself and those who matter, rather than other people. Or as a friend puts it (and I swear I've quoted it here before, but I can't find it), one should win at life based on the rules of their own game; and as I amend it, one should not judge others by the rules of their own game. If eating peanut butter daily is what makes me happy and successful, that shouldn't mean that you are failing because you don't eat peanut butter daily. (Though you are. I mean, come on.)

This is a long way of saying that this whole essay rests on treacherous ground: the art of finding out where one (read: I) should be at the age of 26, and what is the appropriate path to lead to this point and to extend from this point. The answer of course, is that there is little or no exact answer to those queries, and looking at other people's paths will only add misery and doubt to the pondering process. And yet, here I go.

Last fall on my road trip through much of the continental U.S.A., I visited many of my friends from high school and college. Most of those friends were in my age category, i.e. second half of their 20s. I did not do some sort of list-check to compare the pros of cons of their lives vs. my life, no matter how much I enjoy making lists (very much), but I did listen with interest to the plight of the mid-20 something.

Again, I come from a privileged background and am mostly friends with similarly privileged types. I met few friends who were in dire circumstances: one had the misfortune of moving cross-country to follow a girl who promptly broke up with him upon his arrival; another told me about her parents' struggles to achieve a tenable retiree status due to pension cuts and disqualifications after a lifetime of working as educators; a couple either just had or would shortly thereafter break up with reasonably long-term girlfriends at times where they were, while independent, thrashing about for a direction or a mission in life. Not even the National can spin real sob stories out of those situations. (Well, maybe...)

What impressed me about my visiting and traveling was the number of peers who had undertaken the process of consolidating their self-definition and had launched themselves on a path towards who they wanted to be. 26 is apparently the age for grad school - the number of friends or acquaintances I know in law school, business school, PhD programs, or other MA programs (if not MD programs) has increased tremendously. Even further, I saw friends pursuing dreams with a passion and a focus that thrilled me; two had gone, on separate paths, to LA to pursue Hollywood style dreams; two were invested in their research and academic goals; my brother was in his favorite place of the world and doing all he could to achieve his dreams of making music or movies, whichever came first. And then those who weren't necessarily pursuing dreams were still making life work on their terms: one was a cop and happy about it; another had the next four years of his life planned out and still managed to sound like the same wild-eyed kid who used to try to get lost driving in his hometown in high school.

There are caveats to this pursuit of dreams or this acceptance of the now, of course, in either direction. One of the Hollywood success seekers ended up getting screwed over by his boss, a Mr. Paulie Shore. The cop is on the verge of (if not already having been) getting laid off. Hearts, or at least relationships, have been broken. So the 20-something world turns.

On the one hand, I can 'fess up to feeling pretty good about who I am at 26, amidst the whirlwind observation I have taken of my peers on that trip and otherwise, constantly. I came away from college realizing that I love music, reading, writing, and traveling. I would say my efforts in three of those four fields have been very successful, and I'm still figuring out how and why and in what form I should be writing to feel best about it - I don't think I've achieved the "success" I want as a writer, but I haven't failed either. I have long thought it would be cool to be multilingual, and now I can set a reasonable goal of knowing six languages with decent proficiency and four fluently by the age of 30. Further, I think I continue to plumb the process of becoming the person I want to be, and beyond that I've been blessed to find the person I want to undertake that process with. Shed no tears for me, in other words, and worry not about my whining.

There are sacrifices and tradeoffs everyone makes when blazing through life, one way or the other. For example, as part of sharing in that process of becoming, I will find myself a month from now in Luxembourg. I'm sure Luxembourg will be great. Under no condition, however, would I be choose to live in Luxembourg, a place largely unsuitable to any of my ambitions, whether career-oriented or artistic or otherwise. C'est la vie, as they'll say there, and perhaps the strictures and sacrifices will create new opportunities.

But in contrast to my friends who are carving out a relatively clearer path, who are pursuing dreams, who are having "career" success, I still haven't really figured out what I want to do, never mind how to get there. Another thing I picked up, among the few, in my economics education was the idea that people must feel useful to feel fulfilled. Yes, like most of the useful things I learned in economics, it is a bit of common sense backed with some theory and empirical evidence. Still, it sheds light on the reason I beach on the shore of confusion, of wondering, of the need to defend myself, and not just at home (though, not coincidentally, I'm finally putting this together while sitting in my father's house. Hmm...).

While hardly claiming all trades, I've become a jack of many things, and it's very true that it's hard to do many things well. The idea of a renaissance man is nice, but in practice the well-rounded ideal means many of one's edges are blunted. My resume boasts of a nice variety of positions, but I'm not sure any are strong enough to get a decent job, to get my foot in the door somewhere, to get me on any sort of path. And then there's the problem that I'm not sure I want to be on a path - there's a liberating sensation to not being tied down to a career, to existing as more than a worker. Liberty does little to pay for a room in the hot Luxembourg real estate market, though.

What is 26? Has all this dithering brought us anywhere?

Let's argue that the essay you are now reading is mimetic. That it models itself on the process of living through one's 27th year in the year 2011. The process wanders, it strikes upon a few general themes, it pushes forward in some directions or for some "users" quickly, and in other users' hands and other directions aimlessly. And here we stand, wondering what the point is.

I'm left to make two cultural references that I believe bring this feeling all together. The first is to Calvin & Hobbes. There's a Sunday strip where Calvin goads Hobbes into taking off on his wagon, where they aim to go so fast they will eclipse the speed of light and travel through time. They race past various obstacles, discuss the theory and what they might see in the future, and ultimately crash-land. Upon arrival, dusty and bruised but still enthused, they find that they've moved forward two minutes from the time they took off. That's what 26 is.

Or there's this: "And here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice."

Bob Dylan said that. He was 25 at the time. He's 70 now. I'm 26. I'm still figuring out what I have to say.