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.)