shake that cola drag

The office-block persecution affinity.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

I'm sitting here listening to Elvis Costello cover 'Ring of Fire', and I'm reading some things about global attitudes to the United States. Russell Brown says: "I don't hate America. How could I, when I type this into an American computer, and send it across a network that is the greatest expression of American intellectual vitality in my lifetime? I have friends in America too.

But every time I visit the US I am both thrilled by it and unnerved by the feeling that social mobility has broken down."

I've said I love Russell Brown before, because he usually articulates exactly how I feel without my having to rant about it. But I feel moved to say something which adds to or clarifies that position, so let's see how it comes out. Brent has been telling me things about how Houston feels after a year away - things that I tried to explain to him when we lived there and which I don't think he really understood. I often felt like I was drowning. That sounds really dramatic and perhaps a bit lame, particularly because I loved so much about my time there. But he keeps saying, as he wanders through Target or Best Buy looking at plasma TVs, 'there's nothing to do here but buy shit, and if you stop buying shit and start thinking about *why* you're buying it, it just gets incredibly depressing'. Naturally, he's not in the best of moods right now - it's 98 degrees and the relative he loved most in the world, his mother for all intents and purposes, just died - but of course I see his point. I love to be a conspicuous consumer myself, but he seems to have noted, as I did, that in just one stretch of strip mall hell 'there are literally more stores than there are in *the whole of New Zealand!*' He's probably not exaggerating. And it's not like buying stuff isn't a part of our culture - it certainly is, as those who have witnessed my joyous reaction to my replacement mobile phone can attest - but it's just not the same, seriously. That could just be Houston, of course: it's not exactly the most culturally interesting of cities (although it's better than everyone thinks it is!). But even elsewhere, in other US cities, that feeling of drowning is exacerbated by something which is both great and disturbing in equal parts: that inward-looking, unshakeable faith in themselves that all Americans - even the ostensibly countercultural ones - have. The most obvious example of this is the news (another Brent quote: 'I was watching a PBS interview show and it was a relief to see something that wasn't ACTIVELY retarded. Jesus.'), but it's also obvious in tinier or less tangible ways: the welcomes Americans give you as a foreigner are very warm, but strangely incurious; trying to organise things like bank accounts or money transfers or airline ticket changes from another country hit a brick wall when you get to the US end of the transactions, because their systems just don't understand things like the concept of a four digit zip code; the problems my father had getting his medication on his return to the USA, because New Zealand doctors couldn't possibly have been trained properly in what he needed; the constant, constant confused reactions to our coming back to New Zealand ('but why would you want to do that?'). On many days, basic assumptions I had about what 'sensible' people thought and believed were challenged to the core. 'I'm doing blow with a Jesus freak, and she's snorting a line and then singing me a song about praying. OK, sure.... But hang on, that doesn't even make *sense*!' Sometimes I thought my brain would explode. So this is what you call a welfare system? So this is what you call calm? So this is what you call pretty? So god cares about college football games? So that's all the vacation days you get? At some point, it gets beyond judgement or analysis. Right, right, give me a minute. Let me get my head around that.

My mother, no stranger to feeling like a crazy woman in the South herself, would blame it all on religion. When Gary was here it was thrilling for him to hang around people who actively blamed Christianity for every problem in the USA. (I think perhaps my family are slightly excessive in this regard!) Yet - is it despite, or because of, or both? - all that weird stuff, it was a great place to live for a while. To soak up things, excessive pop-cultural things. To see Jack Black in an allstar jam with Conan O'Brien and Lou Reed. To take part in those giant experiences, baseball, concerts, the general vastness of everything. I do really miss it at times, particularly the unpretentiousness of the people I met. That's why even without Granny, we'll go back to visit and absorb it all again every few years. New Zealand is tiny and slow and in its own way, irritatingly snobby and insular - but the way we approach things from the margins, with a kind of boring but practical perspective, is one of the most valuable things about us. That out-of-the-way-ness is what I was trying to get back to, and I'm glad I found it again.


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