Obvious to some, but not to all, ‘Merika is what many islanders call the mainland. ‘Merika is that different world, that place that works from a foreign set of rules, mores, and attitudes from what’s normal on the island. I’m more specific about it. I think ‘Merika is that urban part of America that thrives on crowds, consumption, and turmoil. Since I’ve moved to the island, I see the difference and I visit ‘Merika less. But, I am also a traveler; so, with more trepidation than I had visiting Scotland, this week I ventured into the warrens of urbania.
Traveling can be done for two reasons: to get away from where you are, or to go see something different. My trips up to Barclay Lake showed me the distinction. Some hikers are in the mountains to be in the mountains. Some are in the mountains to not be at home. Both are valid, but each has its own objective. Sometimes a trip has a bit of both. Scotland was like that for me. So is my yearly ski trip to Silver Star. My trips to Seattle are to visit a culture.
Want to see other cultures and try to understand another aspect of humanity? Traveling to India can do that, but for those of us in the US, there are a lot of cultures to choose from within our borders. Witnessing poverty can make a person appreciate their various types of wealth. Doing that in the third world can even be noble. But is it any less noble to see it in West Virginia or Alabama? Witnessing opulence and extravagance in Monaco is generally more appealing, but we can make fun of it within our borders. Try the Hamptons or Palm Springs. To me jokes are the distinctive sign of another culture. When we make fun of our neighbors we are also recognizing that they are a different culture. I think that makes them worth a visit.
My bicycle ride across the United States spawned a book (Just Keep Pedaling, and now photos too) that I called a cultural essay. Most folks don’t notice the choice of genre, but to me the ride was as much a journey through cultures as it was a bicycle ride. Aspen is not like Arkansas. Salt Lake City is not like Florida. There are plenty of jokes about rich snobs, hillbillies, fundamentalists, and retirees and that’s partly because their lives are distinctive. I enjoyed observing the distinctions.
Now that I live on the island, I like to make fun of ‘Merika too. Of course, I lived there for decades, which is true of most islanders. We are good at the jokes because we are laughing at our former selves.
It is too easy to become cloistered within a culture too, so occasionally I venture across the moat via the ferry and wander through bits of my earlier neighborhoods. Doctor and dentist visits are my usual impetus, but especially around the holidays I will purposely wander through the shops and malls to see if mainstream America has changed. There are always new trends and fads. As an investor I watch the shopping bags and the parking lots to see which businesses are doing well. (Back before I moved to the island such a trip to the mall helped convince me that Starbucks was still a good buy, though that was years ago. No such investing tips this time except to see that the crowds are returning.) As a traveler I watch peoples’ attitudes and styles. Are they dressed up or down? Conforming or rebelling? Or making sure they are rebelling the same way everyone else is?
Exiting the cloister is one reason I’d like to see organizations hold seminars in unusual surroundings. Frugality evangelists meeting in Las Vegas, environmentalists at a truck stop, political conventions in a a hurricane ravaged and flooded city. Dramatic juxtapositions can force insights and break habitual thought patterns. Tree huggers meeting in a forest will have a good time, but tree huggers meeting amidst truckers can bring a reality to the difficulty of their communicating their point of view. Pity that it might require additional security. Who would chaperon tree huggers and truckers? Hmm, my back brain is already playing with that one. Ninjas?
This week I went to the dentist. My teeth look good. Yea! After that I wandered the strip malls and a discount mega-store. There were enough shoppers to keep the clerks busy, but without long lines. The parking lots were busy, but I didn’t have trouble finding a spot. People are buying gifts, which is good for the businesses and their employees, but I was saddened to see that much of the merchandise were trinkets. The grandest displays were for items that would be used once, and maybe couldn’t be used a second time. Their three defining features seemed to be that they were from China, in easy-to-wrap boxes, and that they’d elicit some comment when they were unwrapped. Our recent journey through economic upheaval does not seem to have changed the shopping habits of ‘Merika.
The distinction about ‘Merika’s shopping habits were heightened because the next day I walked though some of the stores on the island. The stores are smaller and can’t waste shelf space. Much of what is for sale is either useful or attractive or both. The closest any item was to being useless was art, and that’s just because the usefulness of beauty is hard to describe. Unfortunately, the stores were emptier. I was glad for the prime parking spot, but would have celebrated having to walk a block or two if there were larger crowds. (Coincidentally, while I was walking through the other galleries, one of my framed pieces was sold to someone from Seattle, so I know that I’m not the only traveler.)
I might make the trip again. Visiting a full size mall on a Saturday before Christmas is a lot like visiting Vegas, lots of people, lights, noise, and money flowing around. It is a startling ceremony that I find more entertaining than the running of the bulls in Spain. I’ll smile and wade through, letting the crowds carry me along. And I’ll laugh at myself because, once upon a time, this was my life too. Back then I didn’t dream of a life lived any other way. Now, I’m glad I took the time back then to travel and visit another culture – even one that was so close to home and so far away. Now, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. (Hey, wait a minute, hadn’t I said something similar before? Hmm . . .)