WTF America: Healthcare (Chapter 24)

Healthcare

Raliroaded

Something, something, railway to hell. Not every caption is a winner.

Boy have I not been looking forward to this one. It’s been on the list of prospective topics since the beginning of this work, and I’ve dreaded it. Because this topic is so huge and nebulous. It’s like trying to eat a bowling ball – how the hell are you supposed to get into it, to the fleshy center? How to penetrate this thick skin? Oh well, fortune favours those that attempt to write about the American healthcare system. Let’s start with my personal experience of healthcare.

So by all accounts I’m a relatively healthy and robust individual. I’m overweight, but as far as doctors I’ve talked to are concerned, I’m relatively ok. I no longer smoke (I do vape) I walk to keep my trim 215 pound figure. I drink beer, but hopefully not to excess. I ride a bicycle, and I ride like I’m a vehicle most of the time, so I’m unsure how that shakes out on the scale of exercise vs. exposure to danger. I’ve been eating my veggies, drinking my water, and staying off the crack pipe. I’ve never broken a bone, not that I’m aware of, and aside from occasional vertigo tilt after spending a while in the back of a car on the freeway at night, I haven’t had an run ins with the healthcare system. Never spent a night in hospital, aside from the whole being born in a hospital gig. People say when the chips are down “At least you’ve got your health.” I’ve got a pretty good relationship with my health now that I’ve dropped 60 pounds and started eating better.

I feel like I’m the sort of poster child for someone that doesn’t need insurance. I don’t work in a dangerous job, I’m pretty careful, I’ve got all my fingers and toes. I’ve fallen over a few times, but I’m fairly steady on my feet. Aside from the flu, I’ve got all my shots. I’m housebroken. I’m the full package, ladies. Back during my career as an unemployed dole jockey, there were benefits to consider. One of these benefits was the medical card. The medical card is one of those wonderful products of a welfare state, because it’s a benefit you receive because you’re unemployed. It functioned to reduce costs on the individual. Prescriptions were cheaper, stays in the hospital, trips to the emergency room, routine doctor visits for little things, dental checkups, free eye test every two years, that sort of thing. It meant that you could offset the cost of medicine, and of care, so that people didn’t remain chronically sick, because when you’re unemployed and sick, the last thing you need to do is spend the little amount of money you have on getting better. Can’t get a job when you’re sick, so if you’re broke, let’s make it a little easier. It was a good system.

I encountered a similar system when I was living and attending university in Northern Ireland. They have the NHS there, and if you’re a student you can get a card. Just register with a doctor, and you can get what you need for free. No cash money down. Sure, you pay it in taxes over your lifetime, but that’s how socialist healthcare works. “No money down; new knees today! No waiting!” Well there’s some waiting sometimes. I got a tetanus shot, I had blood tests to check for diabetes. I didn’t avail of the NHS all that much – didn’t have a need of it – but it was very nice to know it was there. I had wisdom teeth pulled on the NHS after being referred by a doctor across the border. I’ve had a few wisdoms pulled, never had to pay money for it, because I was unemployed. If you have non-pressing issues like that you can either pay to get it done now, or go on a waiting list and then you’ll get it done later when you get to the top of the list. The NHS even sorted out my tied tongue, for free. It was a good system.

And then I see this system. First off, the model is insurance based, not government based. So you’d imagine that the system would be stacked in favour of insurance companies, and you’d be right. There exists some terms, that make it deliberately hard to understand your insurance. ‘Deductible,’ ‘copay’ and ‘coinsurance’ and I’ve run across these words because as I type the enrollment for the affordable care act is open again this year. The deductible is the amount of money that you have to pay out of pocket before your insurance begins to cover you. So for the first $10,000 (or less) comes out of your pocket, if I’m understanding this correctly. So you get insurance and then it doesn’t pay for anything unless you have to fork out $10,000 first. Thus far this isn’t sounding like a good system.

Then there’s the copay. This is the amount of money that you must pay after the deductible. So you’ve forked out your ten grand, but to stop you using the insurance you have to pay a little bit out of pocket. I don’t understand why anyone would willingly go to the doctor for no reason, and then receive a prescription for no reason. I’m sure these people exist, but you’ll be paying out of pocket even when the insurance is paying for stuff. Add on top of this the monthly premium you have to pay. There are lifetime limits (I think that’s what they’re called) which mean that you will never pay more in a year than a fixed number regardless of the care that you need, but honestly that’s for people with large and chronic medical conditions and bills. I’m sure that’s a small number of people that have insurance, but being sick in America is expensive as shit.

I cannot for the life of me understand coinsurance. It seems to be another copay that applies after you exceed the deductible. Any healthcare pros out there that are reading, I’d love a better explanation of all three terms. I’m baffled in my attempts to protect myself in case I get sick.

So I’ve bantered on about the boner pills, but there are advertisements for everything. Even medications for really niche medical conditions that people have. They’ll even advertise a new medication for a new condition, and they’ll preface this by scattering symptoms around the commercial. “Do you go to sleep at night, or not, and wake up in the morning, or in the night? Do you toss and turn, or do you sleep soundly but still feel groggy? Then you have (some fucking thing wrong with you) and we just so happen to have a pill for it.” And then there’s a litany of disclosures that this medication might kill you, or turn you into a monster truck that craves human flesh or something. It’s baffling.

I don’t pry into the medical lives of my friends, but I’m wondering just how many people around me are on medications at all times. You hear that people are acting like they’re off their meds, and it makes me wonder if they are. Listen to the TV and you’ll believe that everyone should be on something. Everyone’s sick. But if everyone is sick, wouldn’t the healthcare system be better at curing them, or managing their pain, or defeating their illnesses? Medical companies are routinely among those that make the greatest profits worldwide, so why i anybody still sick?

Well clearly people are still sick, because it’s about money. Buy insurance forever, and keep paying the copays and keep coming in under the deductible and you’ve got the world’s greatest money spinner. I’ve heard that the need of medical care, and especially prescriptions is an “Inelastic demand” which means that if it costs $5 you’ll pay because you need it, and if it costs $100 you’ll pay because you need this if you wish to continue being alive. That’s no system that needs to have profit as its goal. That profit model will kill people.

If you’re like me, and a lot of people are despite the insistence from the TV that we’re sick, and you’re sturdy enough, you’ll figure you don’t need insurance. So people don’t pay in, and premiums go up because there’s a smaller pool of paying customers and a larger (relatively) pool of sick people that are drawing from the insurance. These people aren’t wasters, or fraud kingpins; they’re sick. They need healthcare. Used to be if you had a preexisting condition, insurance companies could deny you coverage. They could do all sorts of shit before the Affordable Care Act became law, now it seems that it’s a little better.

But it’s still baffling and money motivated, far as I can tell. I’m not against doctors earning money, or technology marching forward with the proper funding, but the system couldn’t give a shit about that in the grand scheme. Grind money out of the sick, grind money out of the well. Sell the well vitamins, and scare them with how expensive hospital stays are. Tell the well to stay well or the disease bogeyman will get them. Ebola will get them, so sell them hand sanitizer and gas masks. Americans are terrified of getting sick, and I’m sure it’s because everything is so fucking expensive. Just watch the show Breaking Bad if you want a party realistic look at what people will do when they’re scared of dying. Yeah, I get that it’s fiction, but my point stands. When you’re sick, you’ll do anything to get well. You’ll pay outrageous money, and they know that. So they’ll charge you outrageous money. This isn’t a good system.

Pay more in taxes, subsidise healthcare, create a single payer system, nationalize it, offer tax incentives, spend less on the military, or corn subsidies. Do fucking something to fix this. Because this looks to me like some kind of very slow motion disaster. Sick people should only focus on getting well. That’s how you keep a country happy, by keeping them healthy. I know some healthcare professionals, and they’re incredibly dedicated to keeping people out of hospitals. There are sick people in hospitals, and the carers I know wish to get them the fuck out of there, because if they never see you again they did their job. You’re well now. And these are the people that deserve the damn money, not a bunch of… thieves. Insurance is a form of thievery, and these guys are the best in the world at it.

So far no one in my time here has employed the phrase that I’ve been waiting for; “If you don’t like it, then you can get out.” I’ve seen it, it just wasn’t directed at me. I’m growing very fond of this country and its people. But that doesn’t mean that I’m about to just accept those things I see that are repugnant to me. This is not a good system. Needs fixing. Get somebody on that.

WTF America: Religionish (Chapter 23)

Religionish

Beardy Fucko

First you get the power, then you get the women, then you get the tea scented candles

Ohh what a hum dinger. So we know that your average Yanquai is posessed of great confidence. Those in positions of power hold even more. And those who appoint themselves to positions of power hold the greatest confidence of all. Your neighbourhood watch are of the belief that they are arbiters of decency and community, when really they’re a bunch of lawn gnome dictators at best, and people that stalk the streets as wannabe police officers at worst.

Your common or garden variety nosy parker usually contents themselves with being in your business, perhaps the business of a cul-de-sac, occasionally the business of a whole village. Your next level of asshole feels it necessary to command the peoples of a larger area. For example, these are your city councilors, the country officials, Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It’s not enough to simply hold power, these folk feel the need to command it, to grind it out as much as possible, to continue to turn the screws, to eek out ever more, and ever more, and ever more. At this level of power you begin to see people dictate how others must live. They enact policies petty, paltry, and powerful within a limited area. No standing on street corners after 7pm. No trick or treating, no eating in public parks unless one brings enough to share with all other attendees of said park.

Further echelons of power bring further reach, and often further corruption, but as you grease your way further up this downward facing ladder, you’ll find that the expectation is that the greater the power, the greater the reach. So the people of your town believe that they have an impact on the county. The county people believe that they may as well represent your state or province because it’s basically the same thing. States run countries, countries run coalitions, coalitions run continents, so on and so forth, you get what I’m driving at.

However, no matter how far you go in this particular chain or power, your time is (in theory) limited by term limits, or whims of party support, or you simply become too old to elect. This petty fiddle faddle that you institute can be mostly undone once the next guy comes in, which means your power is fairly limited, fairly short lived, and ultimately you become pretty powerless. Checks and balances are a wonderful thing.

So where else do you go for power, if not in the legislative branches of your particular governments? Well you get involved in homeowners associations, or you become a landlord. You run your way up the land and money ladder. There you get to put the screws to people for money, and you will accumulate more money over time, which begets more money with which to oppress the proletariat, if you get my meaning. Money is a powerful motivator, and if you manage to position yourself as wealthy, you will be given not only the power that your money commands, but you’ll be given vastly more power than you deserve. It boggles my mind when people listen to the likes of Donald Trump, but then I remember he has money, ergo he has power, ergo he can say whatever the fuck he likes and people will listen because he has an abundance of the former, and therefore an undeserved overabundance of the latter. Money is power for sure.

But how fleeting is money, how fleeting is that kind of power? Well, it’s remarkably resilient as it purchases the electoral kind of power. Enough money would make most people willing to do most anything. So say you’re unelectable, and you can’t get your hands on money. You could attain power through force. People do it the world over, by installing themselves as warlords, or they become gang members and leaders, or they join armies either organized or otherwise. This is a popular method of gaining power, if the constant chattering of the blinky box in the corner is to be believed. People get themselves to a position of tyranny, and they’re very hard to remove. The only checks and balances seem to be more, ever increasing violence. But you can only oppress people so long. Look at the soviet revolution in 1917, or the Irish, French, or American wars of independence and times of revolution. People, in great enough irritated numbers, will do most anything to oust those in power once they’ve had enough. Everyone’s got their breaking point.

So what’s left, after you’ve gone through all these institutional power structures. Well, there’s always religion, and this is perhaps the most egregious example of power. It’s unelected, it’s everlasting, and it has a leg up on almost all other forms of power out there institutional or otherwise – it’s in your head. Religion doesn’t have to beat you over the head to make you think their way, they just have to scare you into it. By the way, examples around the world will show you that religion is more than willing to beat you over the head physically, given the right circumstances.

But let’s stick to our main thread here. Religion is a power that people internalize, in that they internalize an external power. They give up their personal power, because religion offers answers, and it allows people to abdicate their responsibility. I’m not talking about the personal experience of religion by the way – you can find a way to your own personal Yahweh all the live long day, but when the institution trumps individual thinking, you’ve given up your free will, which I believe is one of the greatest things a human possesses. Free will makes you stand up and say “Hey… we’re getting fucked here, and I for one am at least a little miffed, I don’t know about you guys.” This sentiment is sometimes followed by the throwing of bricks, but at least we’re sort of on the right track as long as people understand their situations.

So you’ve given up your personal power, and you’re surrendered to the church. Now you are a vessel, waiting to be filled, in the language of some church (probably, I’m sure someone has said it) and you are going to be filled with those things that someone has decided. There are plenty of things to take away from the various religious books around the world, but the thing I keep landing back on is the whole “Love they neighbour” kick. The golden rule is to treat others as you would have others treat you. But that’s not important once the man with the power comes in. And there’s always a man who got some power somewhere.

American religion, the limited amounts of it that I have seen, appears to have a very low barrier to entry. There’s no special clothes, no 7 years in seminary, no magical pointy hats and gold cups. You can pretty much get into a building, and start talking, and you’re a church. Start collecting donations, tax free, and you’re a church. “The seventh lamb of the aching heart of the first christ jesus” on the front of your building probably makes you a church too. American religion also seems to be some sort of nailbomb that went off. Infinite splinters, infinite smaller fissures cracking outwards and downwards from larger fissures forms smaller and more specialized churches. They have this word, ‘Christian’ which baffles a boy that grew up with a catholics vs protestants mentality. I’ve heard that people who declare themselves atheist in Northern Ireland are asked a follow up question; “Yeah… but are you a catholic atheist, or a protestant atheist?” which is one of the most ridiculous questions that exists. There’s no christian sensibility that I’ve found, unless I was talking to born again christians, and let us not talk of them.

Actually, let us do. They’re here, and I’m fairly sure this idea started here. Because the lord is forgiveness, you can repent at any time, and you’re in. When asked about the amount of sins one commits during a lifetime, while still accepting the lord as your saviour, fundamentalists have told me that “You still get into heaven… but God won’t be very happy if you were a sinner.” Saved if you do, and saved if you don’t, it seems.

Why do people ascribe to religion. Having retired from catholicism some 10 years ago, I couldn’t tell you anymore. I guess for some, it provides comfort in a scary world, for many it provides a routine that they set their weekly watch by. Some volunteer for their love of community, some feed the homeless, some travel to other countries to build schools while spreading the word. Which kind of seems like an asshole move; “Sure, we’ll build a library, but you guys have to pray with us while we do.” No free lunches, no free libraries. it seems.

But I’ll wager that a lot of people are in it for the power. You can lead a congregation without qualification, if you talk nicely, and you’ve got the confidence, and if people feel that you’ve got the straight dope on the lord. But that’s kind of it. Once people are in that position, they can say whatever they want. And people will listen, even if they hate your message. Which explains the Westboro Baptist Church. No peace a love among these people. “God hates fags” is their rallying cry, if you hadn’t heard, and I’m sure you have. Ignoring these people diminishes their power, because they do it to get a rise out of people. This is trolling, with a bible.

Speaking of trolling with a bible – the religious protestors in my neighbourhood. I’ve mentioned them before, but they’re an example of this little bit of power mentality. Once they gain even a grain, a modicum, a speck of power, they immediately turn it to the work of oppression. They browbeat people, they shout at people, they display their images and they bring hatred. About 50 yards away from the taco shop. They’ve got this maelstrom of tiny power, confidence, bigotry, and nosy parker syndrome that makes them stand out there to tell people what to do. Combine the little-power that religious leadership brings, with the belief that if you don’t yell at people you’ll go to hell, and add in a dash of “I can’t think for myself” and you’ve got these people.

Kimberlee has a wonderfully calming phrase; “They’re doing the best with the information they have.” And she’s right. They’ve received information, and they believe that it’s the best information out there, and they’re living by it. I live by the best information I can get my hands on. But when you go to organized religion like that, and you abdicate responsibility, are you really doing your best, as a person or a reported child of the lord?

The religion here runs the range from that “Gimme that good old religion” religion, to the new “Fuck the unbelievers, we’re the only true faith” people. And honestly, it doesn’t look like religion to me most of the time. Looks like people with that little-power, that micro tyranny that sits in the minds of followers and punishes them when they have a thought. When you get people to punish themselves before they even act, I guess you’ve gotten your hands on the greatest power you can access.

Enterprising religious assholes.

WTF America: Another planet (Chapter 22)

Another Planet

Partial solar eclipse

Follow me on a journey. You had taken your protein pills, you have put your helmet on. You’ve been blasted into space, and your mission to be the first dude out the door on a new planet. As you travel, you see the place you come from fade behind you, and you travel past star systems, nebulae, and cosmic wonders. Your mind travels as you travel, you consider just what you’ll find when you arrive.

You fly, weightlessly, through clouds of neon and xenon, the atoms crackle against the hull as you are safe inside, shielded from the radioactive malestrom outside. Your new home is far away, and you’ve been briefed on some basic information. You know some landmarks, you’ve been warned about the local plants that you don’t want to eat, and the local animals that you don’t want to poke with a stick.

Your verdant fields of green will be replaced with sparse vegetation, with a lot of rocky outcrops, scattered rocks, and sandy plains. You won’t be able to see the activity of glaciers, because the landing zone wasn’t on as high a latitude as your home country. You were nominated for this great honour by your friends, your romans, your countrymen, and you’ll be the first. Like I said, you’ve been given some scant information, so really you have some soft information. It’s not a hard and crunchy fact. It’s not a truth that you can measure against, it’s a truth you can test again and again.

But you land on the planet, and you find 7-11s, and cadillacs, and some weird version of football that primarily arranged around big men colliding against one another while grabbing an egg shaped ball, with their hands. Little kicking, no sphere. It’s not like the reports at all. Much more to the point, this planet is inhabited by strange aliens. They’re around 6 feet tall, they look similar to you, but not the same, and the say things like “Hi Helen” and “Thanks, Obama!” This was not in the report. So these humanoids consume foods, some of which is similar to the foods you grew up with, but the ingredients can be very different.

So they look humanoid, but you come to the conclusion at some point that this species evolved independently from yours. It’s like when you hear about life on other planets, and there are creatures that somehow figured out how to live on sulfur instead of air, or something. It’s not quite the same. It’s like a mirror world.

Honestly, culture is the big thing that makes this planet different. Sure, you can chalk weather and such down to axial tilt and the rotation around the local star, but the majority of the stumblings blocks in integrating with this society will be cultural. But the plan wasn’t even necessarily to integrate with this culture. The paperwork didn’t tell you that there would even be humanoids, so you’ve got to learn their ways fast. I liken it to the story they tell about the first thanksgiving (More on that in a later chapter) The way I heard it was that the native americans taught the pilgrims to farm during their first year on The Northern American continent, and then they had a big harvest festival to celebrate. Additionally I’ve heard that the pilgrims were a bunch of morons in search of cold, so without native intervention they’d have frozen to death and starved, because it’s hard to eat gold.

As with most human cultures that happen upon an outsider, this culture you’ve stumbled upon took you in. They give you some local food, they give you a funny tasting drink, they dust you off, and they get you out of that silly spacesuit that is too hot for the local climate. They begin to explain, through a series of gestures and some words that you apparently have in common, how this planet functions. They appoint a king every few years, and everyone hates him during his term. They tell you how their interesting food works, and the marvellous processes they’ve derived for making something called ‘Whipped Topping.’ You explain to them your culture, you tell them about your planet, and your journey across the stars, and they seem interested. The more you tell them, the more both parties realize that there are more and more things in common. The present you with a beer like substance, and a cheese like substance, and a tv show like substance. It’s all there, but it’s all slightly different.

Ok, I’ll put this tortured metaphor to bed. My point is that there’s a sense of the uncanny for me, a lot of the time. I was out in the desert with some friends, shooting for most of the day, so my brain is full of sound and fury right now, but I’ve been comparing it to last year when we went shooting. I was a new person in this country, and had never really handled a gun before, and I had never encountered this sort of environment before. I didn’t know where the social faux pas were, to the point that when I received a compliment on my good shooting, I was sure that I had done something wrong. When you live on planet America, it kind of resets your expectations of how people are going to act. It’s best to ask if you don’t know, because in my experience people love to talk and they’re more than happy to talk when it comes to a subject they know well. I’ve found this to be pretty universal wherever I’ve been.

Your expectation is that, I guess, people will be much the same and that’s true to an extent. But Americans, because of their differences in culture, are like a different species of people that has evolved in isolation in tandem with yours. You share the same root species, but there was a branching at some point where things diverged. To make a crass point, interbreeding is still possible, but I feel like Americans are a distinct species compared to me and my people. Distinct enough to note differences, and those differences are distinct enough that I felt it necessary to write this book about it.

I’ve gone native on this new planet. Their way of life makes a lot of sense, once you start to swing your perspective around until it lines up with the way they live, and their culture. When surrounded by the abundant food, and the firearms, and the politics, and the ways of thinking, you can feel your brain start to make different connections. I’m sure that there’s no American brain, but I’m fairly certain there’s an American way of thinking. I’m not sure that I’m totally on board with it, but I feel the species gap narrowing, because no matter how great the cultural gap, it can be bridged. I didn’t realize for a long time today that one of my shooting mates was British. She’d lived here for so long that she looked American to me, and she sounded that way too.

I wonder if this is the fate of explorers that come to Planet America. The culture surrounds you, takes you in, you forget that there are other worlds out there, because your thought process extends only as far as the planet you live on. Obviously I’m aware this is planet earth, I’m employing an extended metaphor. But this is how it’s felt to me. And if you’re able to get back to your home planet, what do you tell them? What information do you bring? Like living on the moon and settling down – would the children be so accustomed to the local gravity that they couldn’t possibly live back on old terra? Then the cultural valve suddenly flows in the other direction. They become the explorers, going back to the old world, and they see the difference. But do they see difference, or do they just not see the things they know?

I know when I got here that I was searching for markers of the old planet here. And things may have rhymed, but they were not interchangeable. Maybe that’s how you settle on a new planet – by not attempting to make it like the old one. This new one has it’s own atmosphere, it’s own ecosystem, it’s own humanoids. So plant, sow, explore, tame, observe, understand. You’d be amazed at the things that can grow and flourish here. And they’re all things that weren’t in the mission statement, things that weren’t in the paperwork.

WTF America: Is Arizona Insane? (Chapter 21)

Is Arizona insane?

Christmas in Arizona

Crazy to sell Christmas tress in Arizona? Yes.

So when I moved here there were questions. Many questions. The main question from Americans was; why of all places that you could choose, would you choose Arizona? Well the simple answer, and the answer most representative of the truth is as follows. Kimberlee, my wonderful wife, is from California and she was having a little bit of a tricky time freelancing. It was satisfying work, but it was a lot to handle and the money wasn’t quite where we wanted it to be. So Kim was offered a corporate-ish job in Arizona and she took it. After a year or so of working there the company said she wasn’t a good fit, and she was handed a severance. Then the freelancing started up again, but this time it was in Arizona, not in California. This is the first time Kimberlee has lived outside of California by the way.

The simple answer is that I had planned to move to California. But, as the song goes, My love grows where my Rosemary goes. And nobody knows like me, fellas. So part we waited on the immigration process until Kim moved to Arizona and got settled. One of the reasons she moved was to provide more stability for the immigration process, so you guess you could say that it’s my fault that I ended up in Arizona.

A lot of what I hear from people that live in Arizona – because most moved here, I’ve let a lot less natives than I anticipated – is that they moved here because it’s cheaper than California. They stay because it’s cheaper than California. They settle down, and buy houses, and raise children, and start businesses because it’s cheaper than California. And it is. Moving from there to here upgraded Kimberlee from a one bedroom condo-flat to a 3 bedroom house for the same price. Food is cheaper, utilities are cheaper other than electrical – because you need air conditioning when you live one quarter of a mile from the surface of the sun – living’s cheaper. It’s more close to things than a lot of other places. I’m sure Kansas is a lot cheaper than California, but people don’t migrate there for the cost of living. I’ve heard that Ohio, a midwestern state, has fielded the most astronauts, which makes you wonder; is living in the middle of the country so bad that you have to leave the planet? (Research shows this as false – New York has fielded something like 33, the highest of any individual state)

I’ve thought about the other states. Kim and I have had discussion about places to retire, in time, or places to visit. I’ve got some good friends in the Carolinas and I’ve been told, extant of snowier winters, it’s just like Ireland. I’ve also been told that Washington state, home of Seattle, has the same weather as Ireland. I’ve also heard that immigrants have tended to set up in the places that felt like home, so the Germans and Jewish people are all over the North East, the Northern states like North Dakota and Montana have plenty of Scandinavians, and the Spanish, French, and Portuguese set up down around Florida and the Gulf coast.

So where would I settle, had I not settled in Arizona. First answer would probably be ‘Not Arizona’ but again, love-rosemary-all-that. California had plenty of fun people, and lovely weather all day most every day. I’m tempted by other places, places that get snow occasionally. I’ve lived most of my life clinging to the shore next to the Atlantic ocean, so the salty smell of that vast cold ocean might feel more like home. By the by; the Pacific ocean doesn’t smell right to me. It smells faintly of boiled cabbage, instead of the frigid salty nature of the Atlantic in the fall. It’s odd to enjoy an entire ocean at once, but had I to pick a favourite, it would be the one that surrounded the rock.

So this response from people, this question about Arizona, I puzzled at. And I now know why it is; people think Arizona is insane. So around the world people tell jokes about the country that fields the stupid people. Most often I’ve heard that the stupid nations are Ireland and Poland. But within these countries, who are the stupid people? Well in Ireland it’s people from county Kerry. Having never met a Kerryman, I can’t speak to the validity of this claim. I’m not sure which jokes the Polish tell, but I’m sure they have them too. So where are America’s stupid people?

Florida, mostly. “Florida man…” is the start of many headlines. For example, “Florida man tries to stop chainsaw blade with genitals, discovers that genitals are not fit for purpose.” When you add ‘Florida man’ to a headline, people are ready for this kind of shit. If anybody remembers the ‘bath salts zombies’ stories that the internet was freaking out about, them was Florida fellows. And again, the jokes have regional variants, so Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, and any of the other southern states are often the butt of these jokes.

But Arizona isn’t know for being full of stupid people. As far as I can tell, given reporting and responses from the public, Arizona is crazy. It’s full of people that are insane, they have too many guns, they believe in too little government, they’re trampling on the rights of women, gay people, minorities, white people… the list goes on. From external news media, you’d believe that Arizona was constantly on fire because of the collective mass of fucking crazy people rubbing together. Spontaneous explosion from an excessive buildup of bat-shit. People point to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the nutter that built a tent city in the prisons in his county. He’s suing Obama you know, over a recent move from the president on immigration. He was a leading voice in saying that Obama was a foreign citizen, and thus shouldn’t be president. He’s been accused of racial profiling, he’s behind the law that allows the police to check the immigration status of people that are in the commission of crimes, even if that crime is simple speeding. Note that an immigration officer told me that I was less likely to have a problem with that law, and note that the law is a direct incentive to profile racially.

Arizona’s governor, until recently, was Jan Brewer, and she was in favour of this ‘stop and papers please’ law. Combine that with the jabbering about the border fence, and the contingent of libertarians, and libertarian friendly policies in this state, and outsiders come to the belief that Arizona is not only crazy, but it’s dangerous to its own people, and to the rest of the people in the United States. My perspective is different living here.

I’ve broken bread with these people, in the metaphorical sense. They’ve sheltered me in times of need, they’ve protected me, they’ve taken care of me. They’ve taken care of Kimberlee too. I’m an immigrant, and they’ve been totally inviting, inclusive and very happy to have me around. This is the thing to remember; if it bleeds it leads. The reporting will almost exclusively focus on the worst of what’s happening in the world, and the perspective of a country that’s leaning towards equality for more and more people (Ideally all, in time) Arizona looks bad. There are policies here that people disagree with a lot, and I understand that. Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a prick. From what I’ve read he’s interested in ruling like some Sheriff of old, swinging a big stick and commanding power everywhere the light touches. But I’ve never met Mr. Joe. I live in his county, but the only encounter I’ve had with Maricopa specific services was the local courthouse that issued my marriage certificate. And there’s the key – most people in Arizona do not run-afoul of Joe, or former governor Jan Brewer. Most Americans will never get a chance to give the president a piece of their mind, because these people are by and large figureheads.

The actual representatives that are drafting this backwards legislation are local representatives that come from your area. These assholes are your neighbours, and you might very well have voted for them. The system doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but above a certain point of legislation, you’ll never encounter these people. They might as well be kings and queens for all the impact their lives have on ours. Sure, they come up with laws that we’re supposed to live by, but with the amount of laws that are on the books some things are bound to be unenforceable. We’re locking people up in the prison system for marijuana possession, but Arizona has legal medical marijuana, or it’s supposed to, but that hasn’t stopped street level says. The drug war is unwinnable.

So consider if you will, your outrage. Think about how mad you get about the actions of Arizona. Then ask yourself if you live in the United States. If you do not, be less mad about Arizona. If you do live in the United States, but you do not live in the southwest, be less mad about Arizona. If you live in Arizona, and you can vote and change things, be less mad about Arizona and get that change. If you believe that your district has been gerrymandered to shit, then work on changing that too. People get all too mad about things that do not impact their lives on a daily basis. Most people in Arizona don’t encounter the laws that people go crazy over. I’m not advocating political indolence, and I’m not saying that the law doesn’t matter.

There are assholes here. There are a bunch of catholic fundamentalists that protest, I want to say at least once a week, outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in our community. I never see these people in the neighbourhood aside from when they’re outside with reprehensible signs shouting down a paper megaphone. They pray hard. I’ve never seen people pray HARD, but that’s the best I can tell you about the actions of these people. However, terminating a pregnancy in Ireland is illegal. And however further – there are protesters there involved in the exact same behaviour. My point is – there are assholes everywhere, and there are fucked up laws everywhere. If these fucked up laws bother you, then do what it is you can to change these laws, to make the country, county, town, and village you live in better. Make the world you want to live in. Bitching about a state making a decision you don’t like, when you don’t live there doesn’t do a whole lot to help the place you do live in.

I’m not saying you can’t have an opinion on Arizona, I’m not saying you can’t be mad at it. We live in a global world, and it’s wise to be aware of this world, so you can get a barometer on what can be considered worldwide societal progress. But one crazy person in power half a world away doesn’t make the world darker, not if you’re out there making the world brighter.

So is Arizona mad? Madder than a big bag of spiders? Yeah, I guess it is. But the world’s as mad as a bag of spiders if you keep looking at isolated incidents, laws, places and people. Take your world as a whole. Tame that bag of spiders, one arachnid at a time.

WTF America: The warm fuzzy blanket (Chapter 20)

The Warm Fuzzy Blanket

Cleft in twain

I've never been to the US/Mexico border. This is the best representation or borders I have.

No, not talking about a comforter or a snuggie. The warm blanket that wraps Americans is America itself. Follow me down this thought path. Something like 20 percent of Americans own passports, last I heard this conjecture, so there are plenty of people that will never leave their own country to go to another one. (A small amount of research tells me the number is closer to 46 percent, so maybe take the rest of what I say with many grains of salt)

So Americans go to Mexico, they go to Canada, they go to many island nations in the Caribbean where umbrella drinks are abound. They do leave their country, and there’s a strong representation of military service, so a lot of Americans see the world that way. I wonder if you need a passport to be in the military. I’m sure there are plenty of people in Ireland, the UK and other European countries that never leave their country. But it’s harder back home to stay in one country the whole time. It’s hard to stay in the one town your whole life these days. There are plenty of things that happen in Ireland that will require you to go to Dublin, the capital city. Every Irish person will at some point or another end up in Dublin, without fail. Even if it’s just to go to the airport, because there’s only really one international airport in Ireland, and it’s in Dublin.

European nations live very cheek by jowl. And with the lax border practices between those countries, and various agreements between countries, you can actually walk from one country to another without encountering a checkpoint. No fence. No passport, no wall, no angry man with a gun looking at people funny. You just drive into Germany for the day. You take the train to Amsterdam, or Monaco. I went to college in Northern Ireland – part of the UK, and I spent the weekends across the border in Donegal. You’d have had a hard time doing that 30 or 40 years prior, what with the troubles and all.

Maybe this is one of the main mindset difference between the Irish and the Americans. Irish people have a legacy of emigration. I have it in every living generation of my family, and a couple before that too. My ancestors went to Europe, to England, to America, to Canada. They came to Ireland from Scotland in the first place. I come from a long line of migrators. But people don’t often expatriate from America, and if they do it’s nowhere near the amount that leaves from Ireland as a percentage of the population. Ireland has seen about 1 percent of its population leave every year in the last few years as the young, educated populace found the job market unable to support them. You don’t have to leave America if you’re an American citizen.

There’s so much country here that you’d have a hard time seeing it all in a lifetime. There’s a meme game going around on Facebook at time of writing that has you post a map, and it colours in the states within the US that you’ve visited. All I’ve seen of this country so far is bits of Southern California, bits of the Valley – i.e. the greater Phoenix metropolitan area – and a terminal or two in JFK Airport. Oh, and a bar in the Atlanta airport, and a few gates. That’s not even enough of a representative sample to participate in the meme. Or quiz, whatever you fancy calling it. It’s shown me that most of the Americans I know are at least fairly widely travelled within their own country at least.

The arid deserts that stretch all the way from Mexico to Monument Valley in Utah. The skyscrapers of east coast cities, the urban sprawl of Los Angeles as seen from Griffith Observatory. The wide open plains of Kansas, the rocky mountains, the appalachian mountains, the grand canyon, the mississippi river. New Orleans during Mardi Gras, San Francisco during Pride, Rhode Island in the fall, Seattle in the spring, Alaska under Aurora Borealis. There’s plenty of country to go around, and there’s a mass of diversity to be had among the people, and the places to see. The diversity in food alone is probably worth visiting all 50 states for. Ed Byrne, another Irish comedian, remarked that upon discovering you were Irish, Americans at American tourist destinations would say “I bet you don’t have anything like this back in Ireland.” His response was that we’d have nowhere to put it if we did have a grand canyon, or mount rushmore.

Ireland’s small. I’m sure I’ve said that before. But to make up for its smallness, it’s close to other European nations. And that’s where the diversity in Europe lies – quite close by. You can drive to mainland Europe from Ireland if you wanted to you know. You take your car to Northern Ireland, and get on a ferry to Scotland. Then drive to London and get on the channel tunnel, and bing bang bosh, the train scoots you under the channel and you’re in Paris. From there you can keep driving until you reach China if you have the time and the inclination. America is smaller than that distance, but it’s a more manageable distance. You could visit it all in a lifetime if you dedicated yourself to it. Many do. There’s plenty of retired couples putting their cash into an RV and rolling along the roads to see what there is to be seeing. There’s that open road again.

But how’s the intellectual landscape. Also diverse, but how is the understanding of the world outside these borders? If I’m honest, often confrontational. So a story has been developing here for a while now, and it involves people crossing the Mexico/America border without papers. Right there, I know I’ve probably lost some of you. Because people who cross the border without papers should be deported, and that’s the end of that conversation. But my reading has told me that a lot of the people reaching the border are unaccompanied minor from central America, not from Mexico. So that’s kids. Getting from El Salvador to America, because conditions are so poor there, and because people are being killed. That sounds like the behaviour of refugees to me.

But the rhetoric around the border, especially here in a border state, is so harsh that you’d think that Balrogs, and Tarrasques, and mothertrucking liches riding chaos dragons were all that comes across that border. Build the fence higher, add more barbed wire, send the army down there and start shooting at anyone seen walking in the vicinity Politicians attacked each other a lot in the political ads running up to the election on their border record. I get it, people are scared of terrorists. I saw several mentions that ISIS/ISIL/whatever were coming across the border to strike at the American homeland, so elect governor asshole because his fence is bigger, his fence is longer, his fence has a moat full of electric eels and navy seals. Don’t elect governor jerk because his fence has holes, or isn’t a fence, or his plan is to build some sort of superhighway right into the state, so all the Mexicans will come in and eat all our flags, and work all our guns, and teach all our children. Or some such nonsense.

I’ve heard people casually suggest that we should nuke Syria and Iraq because ISIS/ISIL/whatever are there. Pre-emptive strikes seem to be fairly popular in the rhetoric when it comes to foreign affairs. And being a pinko, commie, socialist pacifist, that doesn’t jive with my pill hugging, tree popping look at the world. I get it, your local media covers what happens here. And I get that most of the time what comes back into the country from overseas is war noise, or conflict noise, because if it bleeds it’s news, and if it’s news from elsewhere it’s probably about war. The six o’clock news here will have a fuzzy bunny story at the end, but it’s always about American fuzzy bunnies.

This leads to the impression that the world outside of the US is dangerous, or because it’s not like America, it’s tyrannical. There was somewhat of a panic caused when “Europe banned Fireball whiskey!” For the uninitiated, Fireball is a whiskey liqueur with cinnamon in it. Atomic fireball style cinnamon. Really hot, burning cinnamon. I don’t understand the desire to make whiskey even more fiery, but whatever tickles your pickles mate. To cut to the chase – ‘Europe’ didn’t ban anything. Norway, Sweden, and Finland recalled Fireball because it had levels of propylene glycol in it that exceeded recommended standards. This was a problem with one batch, it seems, and I’m sure Fireball will be back on shelves in no time. But the myth is out there now, both that Europe banned it, and that there’s anti-freeze in Fireball. There isn’t by the way. Propylene glycol is used in lots of things, like my e-liquid. It’s most likely in your toothpaste or your ice cream. Go check, I’ll wait.

So America can act as a warm fuzzy blanket. It comforts people, because it says that the outside world is scary, but you’re safe here. But in all honesty, the rest of the world isn’t a threat. As much as people outside the US bitch about it, you’d be amazed at the amount of people that would break your arm to get a free plane ticket out of your hand. Americans save us all their lives to visit their homelands in Europe. During the good times in Ireland, people were flying to New York City to do their Christmas shopping. No shit, they’d stay a few days, shop til they dropped, and then they’d fly home because the weak dollar was super good for Europe, and the Irish at the time.

There’s nothing to fear from the border, or the people crossing it. Ok well maybe there’s some stuff to fear, but look at the cuisine of the states next to the border with Mexico vs the Canadian border. Much less boiled meat and heart clogging gravy down here I’d wager. Immigrants are what built this country. I’ll remind you that the only difference between the people that cross the border, and me is paperwork. Nobody has reacted badly to me being an immigrant. People are intrigued, people ask about where I’m from, people are curious about my ways and customs. I’ve gotten tons of people to listen to my stories, because I’m a novelty. But I’m no different.

So how insular is the US? More than it should be, I reckon. The internet is changing things though. People are seeing the world that’s out there, and they’re no longer content to listen to a bunch of people telling them that the fucking Ruskies or whoever is coming over the hill to get them. People are coming over the hill, and you wouldn’t believe how good their food is. Or their music. Or their bullshit stories that everyone seems so interested in.

WTF America: Car Culture (Chapter 19)

Car Culture

Only, you hear.

The concrete octopus-fuck junctions always make me awed, and nervous

A V8 engine. The open road. A 1967 Shelby Mustang. A turbocharger kicking on as you ease the needle over 3,000 rpm, or a supercharger whining up to speed like jet engine, barely contained underneath the hood. A pickup truck, a chevrolet el camino, a Ford, a Chrysler, an Oldsmobile. Americans love their cars.

In all truth the car wasn’t invented here, not really, but they credit Henry Ford with bringing the assembly line model across from gun manufacturers, and making the car something that more people could own. The first cars were a bit shit, if we’re honest. They ran on lamp oil, they could go a few miles. It was a carriage with a mechanical horse in it. Interesting that we still measure things in horsepower. I always get a chuckle when I think of a Dodge charger being dragged along by 300 horses.

Whether it’s a restored coupe from the 50’s, or a chop top rat rod, a Nissan Skyline, or a monster truck, I understand the interest in cars. I very much enjoy machinery. I used to watch a lot of those custom motorcycle, and car building shows that were on the Discovery channel on the Irish version of cable. They call it Sky, and it’s a satellite service in case you were interested. I stopped watching that business when it became more about the horseshit manufactured in fighting between the stars. I recall the last one I watched. I had a free hour, so many years after I stopped watching the reality tv with the moustache men in it (And that is what these shows have become. Shouty moustaches)  I flicked on the tv and there was Jesse James. I was pleased – I had liked his specials years before that, and now he had a new show where he had just set up a shop in Texas to get away from some toxic environment that existed at the previous shop. I shall offer you as near I can my exact experience.

So the show opens, and the voice over guy teases that there’s a celebrity guest on the way during this episode. There will be a reveal later, stay and watch, they’ll be here later. I couldn’t give a shit about a celebrity guest, I’m here for motorcycles. So there’s a guy grinding on a bike frame for a few seconds, and then we’re outside. Some deliveries come in, there’s a minor argument, and then we go to advertisements. I’m 15 minutes into this program, and I have yet to see a motorcycle. After the break we are treated to 10 minutes of Jesse James talking about this truck that he’s selling. It’s the last thing tying him to the old shop, because it has the old shop logos on it. So he sells it. More commercials. 20 minutes in, haven’t seen a motorcycle. We come back, and a fight happens. I don’t even recall the reason, but the next ten minutes are spent on this fight between Jesse and some manager that’s done something wrong, but his wife is having a baby tomorrow, so they make up. After commercial, and another reminder about the celebrity, they have another, different fight. 40 minutes in – no motorcycle building. People have always seem to get interrupted with bullshit right as they’re about to make progress on the actual building on motorcycles. The next 20 minutes are threats of firing, threats of quitting, and then as the fucking celebrity is about to walk in, the show ends, and I am told that in the next episode I will know who it was.

Never did find out, because I’d just been subjected to a motorcycle building program that contained 20 minutes of commercials, and 40 minutes of not building any fucking motorcycles. Had to resort to watching Fred Dibnah talk about steam engines to get my mechanisms fix. British television is a lot better about instructing viewers about machinery and it’s impact on society, if you like learning about the impacts of steam power. And I do.

But American culture is strongly focused on everything that came after the model T ford. America did exist before this time – I checked – but it seems that the period 1776-1900 is often skipped over pretty quickly. Independence, then westward expansion, then the civil war, then some more westward expansion, then the turn of the century. I feel that I should look into this time period some more. It seems very formative, and I’m probably missing out on some interesting information.

But the car, the car, the car. No longer did it take 40 years to get from one coast to another. No more pony express, no sir. Now there was loading the whole family into the buick and heading to Florida for the summer. Now there was getting out onto the nice, fairly new, interstate highway system to drive on. Post war America is when the country radically realigns, and it is now stood firmly behind the car. The hells angels were formed during this period, and there’s a bunch of people that are firmly aligned behind the idea of love for the open road.

The open road concept feels very American to me. This idea that the country is huge, and there’s still something to be explored. All you need is a car. A camaro, a ford ranger, a VW van, a pinto, a pontiac. The conveyance isn’t important. What matters is that you can go, you can live, you can be free, because you have a car and all that’s stopping you from going is a quick trip to the gas station. And the country is big from all reports, and it will take some days to cross it if your goal is just coast to coast driving. Historic route 66, that takes you all the way from Chicago (Originally it seems, not sure about now) to Santa Monica California. I can only image what it would be like to make that run now, or at any point in the past. Scraping the ice off your car during a Chicago winter, and deciding that you’ve had enough, and hopping on the 66. America’s highway. A few days later, you’re on the sunny beaches of Santa Monica, a world away. It’s a suitably impressive image that I one day might want to recreate. To see the plains roll away behind you as you approach the Rocky Mountains, and then seeing the coast rise to meet you. Sounds suitably majestic.

The problem with the car culture is another product of postwar America – the suburbs. I’ve bitched about the suburbs before in this text, but I feel that the point needs iterating in a different fashion. Sure, it’s hard to get around without a car, that much is obvious. But… it’s hard to be an American without a car. This country is built not only by Detroit muscle, but it’s built for Detroit muscle. The distance between the houses is often dictated by the amount of space the driveways need. Two car garages are common on most suburban homes, and isn’t that a nice bit of aspirational thinking. You need two cars to fill that garage, so get two. More cars, bigger cars, faster cars. Because the car is the thing that can harness the nebulous freedom that you’re endowed with as an American. Your levis and your coke don’t necessarily mean freedom, despite what the enterprising pricks might tell you. The car does mean freedom.

But as with every positive, there’s the darker sides. One of the biggest killers of people in the US, and Ireland, and most countries with high car ownership rates is the cars themselves. People fear flying, but it’s the safest method of travel when you consider miles covered per passenger. Cars get into wrecks far more often. Obviously medical conditions account for most of the top ten causes of death, but car deaths are right up there. Car accidents are the biggest killer of teens aged 13-19, even if parents are terrified of kidnappers, and smoking, and drinking, and volleyball or whatever else the media told you is coming for your kids this year. Then there’s the pollution, the reliance on gasoline, which causes it’s own problems. But there are other drawbacks.

Do you think that we’re dismissing other technologies and systems, like robust public transport, high speed rail, better city design, and a dozen other really exciting things, because we’re so focused on cars? I know for a fact we are, because I ride a bicycle. Drivers will get mad at you, aggressively mad, because you dare to even ride a bicycle in the roadway. I’ll set you a scene. Kimberlee and I have to get to a bus stop, because we need to go into Phoenix to the social security office to get my number. We need to ride a few blocks before we get to the stop, and part of the journey doesn’t have a sidewalk. So we’re left with two options – either ride as close to the kerb as we can manage and risk getting clipped as somebody drives too close, or we ‘take the lane.’ This involves riding two by two, so that if someone wants to pass, they must change lanes. If we had been a single slow car we would not have provoked such ire.

The kind of rage usually reserved for somebody taking a shit in your breakfast cereal. The rage you’d find spewing from some drunken hooting dickhole at a hockey riot. Riding a mere foot or two behind the bicycles, laying on the horn like it was going out of style. I don’t know if you’ve had two tons of steel and asshole breathing down your neck, but it’s remarkably fucking threatening. Three drivers engaged in this behaviour. Because we tried NAY; DARED to waste precious seconds of your life by making you change lanes. Fuck pirates, the lot of them. I was very agitated, and yelling some unpleasantries at these drivers, because you fucking would be. Drivers act like cyclists shouldn’t be on the road at all. The road’s for cars, don’t you know, so I’ll be an asshole all day because you get around using your legs.

Speaking of assholes, there’s a thing here called ‘Rolling coal.’ There’s a certain crowd here, and it’s the same people that like to put bodykits on their cars back home, and put loud tailpipes on there, and to get their car ‘chipped’ and all sort of other nonsense. The types that like to speed on the backroads in the middle of the night, for the thrill of the race. Well, the thrill right until you wrap your car around a tree or two. There are speed focused gear heads here too, but the coal rollers are of a different ilk. Much as I dare to ride a bicycle, there are some that dare to drive a hybrid. They do it for the gas mileage, they do it to drive a toyota, they do it for the tax breaks, they do it because they care about the planet – whatever, not my business. The coal rollers believe this to be an affront to everything good and proper. So they install some aftermarket systems into their cars which dumps unburned diesel or gas into their tailpipes, and this produces voluminous clouds of choking black smoke. They’ll fire this up in front of a prius, behind a prius, between priuses, outside a prius convention, or anywhere else that’s apparently appropriate. Way to sound like level headed citizens. Public discourse through public pollution. Shite jockeys and fuck knockers, the whole lot of them.

I’m no eco-warrior. I ride a bike because I don’t have a car, nor do I know how to pilot one. I know the basics of making a car move, but I don’t have a drivers licence, nor have I received enough training, formal or informal, to reliably wrangle a single horse power, let alone a few hundred of them. But getting a car has been on my mind since I arrived. Let alone the distance limitations of a bicycle, let alone always making sure you have a ride somewhere and back from somewhere, let alone the hassle you get as a cyclist – you need a car to be a productive and included American. I’ve made some great friends, that are usually happy to go out of their way to pick me and the wife up, but without that lifeline we’d have been some very lonely people.

Imagine the economic impacts of not having a car in a country where the public transport is less than amazing. Can’t drive to job interviews, can’t drive to career open days, can’t drive to get your groceries so you’re limited to what you can carry, can’t drive to parties, can’t drive to vote, can’t drive to much of anything without a fucking car.

Where there are cars, there is car culture. But when America got its hands on the car, it decided to built everything around it. It’s difficult to think outside of this metal box.

WTF America: Homogenity (Chapter 18)

Homogeneity

Precious Cheese.

Limit 4 per customer? I thought this was America

So there’s this widespread apprehension back home that all Americans are the same. People have some popular phrases people employ that highlight this idea, such as “Well you know in America, they (insert nonsense)” or “Them Americans, they’re always (further nonsense)” People seem to be of the belief that Americans are a monoculture. And I can see where they’d come to that conclusion.

Take for example some of the icons of American culture that make it overseas. Americans may be saddened to know that your wonderful food traditions are being represented by McDonalds franchises around the world. McDonalds does a pretty poor job at representing America. Low wages, substandard ingredients, frozen food, quick bullshit over lengthier substantive items. Wait…

Ok, fair point, but McDonalds does represent the American experience of low prices, quick service, and widespread enterprise over cottage industry. They train people that work in McDonalds to make things as much alike one another as possible, and ideally the experience from one McDonalds should not vary by any great degree. There’s no place for individuality within the franchises, lest the brand lose its brand profile. Ask non-Americans to identify American things and you’ll get a lot of answers that include McDonalds, Pepsi, and Coke. Also gun, cars, too much food, and other things that seem indicative of American culture to outsiders. Also action movies. To those outside the US, there’s little room for nuance when identifying American cultural products. Every movie is a Hollywood, Michael Bay crap-fest. While I’m on the subject; fuck Michael Bay. For a lot of reasons. Every burger is a Big Mac, ever record is Taylor Swift, or Katy Perry, every drink is a coke, or a bud light.

Homogenized, mass-market, watered down, flavourless, milquetoast, 2.2 kids, middle of the road, uninspiring, mediocre pap is what filters out of the United States, most of the time. There are gems, like Pacific Rim, or Moon Pies, or Dr. Pepper, but for the most part it’s popular garbage that sets itself in the mind of outsiders, instead of the interesting unknowns that stays within American borders.

Reflections of these interesting relatively unknown things, such as a decent burrito, are copied by outsiders. You would cringe, you would weep for mother Tex-Mex if you saw the paltry offerings that make it across the ocean, that are pretending to be Mexican food. It’s dismal. Nachos aren’t just tortilla chips with melted cheddar cheese on them. If it is not spicy, it is not ‘taco seasoning.’ There’s an Irish cultural artifact that is a shame upon my homeland. They call it a Taco-chip.

Imagine if you will, a heap of french fries. You’re with me so far. Then it’s time to put ‘taco sauce’ on it. That’s the first in a short line of missteps that continue to go unpunished. This taco sauce resembles no Mexican/Tex-Mex cooking you’ve ever seen. It’s usually pink. Upon this congealed heap ground beef is piled, and that ground beef may have been threatened with the idea of proper taco spicing, but it came through the experience remarkably unscathed. Then you pile this not with good queso, or any other decent cheese fit for the purpose, but you put some sharp cheddar on it. This culinary nightmare, this bastard of food, this nonsense of a dish is consumed whole heartedly on Friday and Saturday nights by drunk people, because no other people would consume this had they ever wrapped their chops around a decent burrito, or a real taco.

When you are presented with artifacts of culture that you’ve never experienced, you do the best you can to piece together the experience. It’s like receiving a piece of Ikea furniture, but the instructions are to a very similar but distinctly different piece of furniture. When you realize that it won’t be the same, you fall back on whatever you can guess. You make logical leaps, you insert information where there is none, and very often you get it wrong.

I feel like most cultures have this problem. For example, Americans will refer to it as St. Patty’s day, and this is incorrect. People respond with “It’s St. Paddy’s day, idiots!” but often fail to explain why it is wrong. For those not in the know, when you take a word from another language and convert it to English, the spelling sometimes changes. The original name for Patrick in Irish was Padraig, or Padhraig, or a number of other variants. There’s no T sound in that name. This is why Padraig becomes Paddy, but Patrick does not become Patty. The rules of the Irish language carry over into English, but if you’ve never encountered the Irish language you don’t know these rules.

Irish people don’t know the rules for American food, or most American anything else. It’s a cross cultural lack of exchange. Culture is merely surrounding activities with context, and when you move the artifacts to other cultures, they’ll apply their own context to them in lieu of yours, because they don’t know the source material. This is why the ‘taco-chip’ exists. This is why American pints of Canadian Guinness will never taste the same no matter how much Diageo tries.

So the monoculture. I understand why people believe that other countries exist as a monoculture, because unless you’ve experienced the local nuance, you’ll never imagine that country differently. “The French are assholes” is a popular sentiment from people that have never been to France, and from people that have only visited Paris as a tourist. “All Americans are fat” is an easy statement to make when the only America you’re exposed to on television is reports on obesity in the news, or reality tv shows about people getting stomach staples. Or you see Paula Deen making butter fried butter soup.

The United States is as nuanced as most countries, but most other countries don’t export their cultural products to other countries. You see Chinese restaurants worldwide, but I doubt that you’ve ever been to the Chinese version of McDonalds. If there is such a thing. It’s not really a mark of American cultural imperialism, as so many people seem to fear, it’s more a mark of the American flavour of capitalism. The world is there to be conquered for profit, so enterprising assholes that you wouldn’t speak to if you were related to the pricks, decide to take their brand of mass market, watered down bullshit to the rest of the world. Not because they believe they have a good product, but because they believe that there’s good money to be moneyed as they money money money money money.

America doesn’t have a mass market culture, it just happens to have such a massive marketing arm that everyone appears to have the same thing, at the same time. With faster distribution methods, the internet, and massive advertising budgets, enterprising pricks are unstoppable. Their message will be the message, at all times. So it’s hard to hear about New Orleans cuisine outside of New Orleans, or it’s hard to understand what the fuck a Yooper is, because BUD LIGHT NOW COMES IN AN ALUMINIUM BOTTLE. GET SOME. PARTICIPATE IN AMERICA. WITH BUD LIGHT. NO SERIOUSLY, BUD LIGHT IS TOTALLY GOOD. SURE IT IS.

This keyboard doesn’t have caps lock. I had to hold shift that entire time, just to get you close to American marketing. The big noise drowns out the little music that makes the world better. American craft beer has a wonderful scene, and some amazing seasonal beers, and year round brews that are honestly some of the best beers I’ve ever had. But you hear about Bud light, because they have the marketing money. American food, when mixed in with the traditions and ingredients of immigrants becomes interminably better, but all you hear about is Velveeta fucking imitation bullshit fondue cheese, like it’s the only cheese on the planet. Because if those enterprising pricks had their way, there would only be one product. To their chagrin, there isn’t. There’s a wonderful world of nuance on this American planet, and it’s in between the same shit. Between the Wal-marts, and the Targets, and the Old Navys, and the Wendys and the McDonalds, there’s a world. A world full of wonders, and nuance, and interesting little artifacts of culture, taste, smell and sound.

But you don’t see it, because they don’t market it. But that’s no big deal. You’ve got the internet, and you can search out these little things. I encourage Americans to do the same. Ireland isn’t a mono-culture either. It’s not all potatoes, whiskey, and special potatoes for making special whiskey. We’ve got food that isn’t boiled meat and boiled cabbage. There are beers that aren’t Guinness. There are people that aren’t alcoholics. There are colours other than green. There are phrases other than Slainte.

Any any Americans that happen to be in a position of power – export things that are better. There’s novelty in exporting twinkies, and red vines, and there’s some cross cultural exchange that can be had there, but there’s better stuff to be had. There are things that are integral parts of your culture that are worthy of sending to other people. There are also things that are not worth exporting. Like mountain dew – Satan’s radioactive urine.

Imagine other countries complexity. They’re full of people just like you. Some of them like shitty Mac and Cheese, some of them won’t accept anything other than the very best caviar. There are assholes on both ends of the spectrum, and every gradation between and often these people are the prime target of the enterprising assholes. I’ve noted a fair few people in Donegal putting ice in Coors light, because they realize just how bad Coors light tastes when it’s warm. So to them I say, instead of buying crappy American beer, drink good American beer. Or just drink better beer. Expand your cultural horizons, and then maybe we can get to a point where genuine cultural exchange is happening.

Then maybe we can do away with phrases like “Well, in America…” and “Well Irish people…” We can understand each other better. And please tell me, dear readers, that nobody is of the belief that Velveeta is either good, or actually cheese. Don’t listen to those enterprising assholes.

WTF America: Everything will be OK (Chapter 17)

Everything will be OK

Grin, or grimace?

Even the animal hospital murals are optimistic

When you grow up on an island, a small island made of rock, and covered in grass and more rocks, you gain a certain perspective on the world. Your world is quite small when all you know of it is a dot on a map, clinging to the side of the Atlantic ocean. That same ocean that is cold, and expansive. That ocean that took our loved ones and ancestors in more ways than one. The ocean that extinguishes the sun every night, that brings storms, rain, and fish and whatnot. It feels like the kind of perspective that you’d gain if you stood on the edge of the world, were it flat. You could look off into infinity and see that point where distance blurs and all you see is curvature.

The Irish have never really conquered anything. It’s been said that our style of invasion is more of an infestation, which is why there are so many countries around the world with Irish pubs, and there are more people that can claim Irish ancestry than could ever fit on the island. But we don’t take over things in the way that Spain, or France or England did. We were taken over, assisted, and abandoned by these people are various points in time. We’re not a country that makes world history, we’re a country that world history happens to. I’ll not go so far as to say we’re a footnote, but we’re not on a permanent member on the UN security council.

So when you’re small, and you’re surrounded by infinity, you can get kinda pessimistic. It often feels like the world is just happening around Ireland, and once a year people remember we exist by pinching each other and turning their technicolor yawn green. I don’t recall Irish people celebrating the 4th of July or anything. There’s not an equivalent day where we drape ourselves in American flags and roast marshmallows over burning pickup trucks or anything.

This pessimism is tempered by a really interesting fatalism that I’m not sure other countries understand. The people of the old country will make some really morbid statements, and everyone will laugh, because it’s the appropriate response. “I’m so hungry I’d eat an old man’s ass through a wicker chair” pops to mind. But there are other times where people will rattle off a bunch of stuff about how well, or poorly, their life is going and they’ll remark “Sure but I could be dead. I guess that would be worse/better.” Maybe we’ve never conquered anyone because of this fatalism. “The whole world’s fucked, but hey… you’ve got to laugh. You’d cry if you didn’t” is a prevalent attitude.

I haven’t noticed Americans sharing in this attitude. When things are going poorly, people will say that they’re going poorly, and then they’ll ask for help. Or people will spontaneously offer help, and it will be received. Nobody would say “Ah, sure you’re still living. Buck up, and fuck up would ya?”

By the way, I miss telling people to “fuck up” instead of “shut up.” It’s a phrase dripping with ire, masculinity, and the right amount of ridiculous. Also if I was to use the phrase “Ah jaysus; here comes that happy fucker” here, few people would understand why I was angry at someone else for being happy.

Americans are too helpful to let you be miserable for any extended period of time, at least the one’s I’ve met. It’s not that Irish people are unhelpful, they’re just a lot more business-minding going on. And not going on – Irish people have this amazing capacity to know your business before you do, but they’ll never say anything because knowledge is only power if it’s a secret, and you can watch someone walk headlong into a fucking mistake. They’ll tell you afterwards that they knew the whole time, as a method of rubbing salt in the wound. Not all Irish people are like this. This is a book of jokes, and observations. Relax Irish people, I may speak this way for I am one of you. And youse know you’re a right shower of cunts when you want to be.

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires” so the John Steinbeck quote goes. I think this phrase is mostly true because of the embarrassed millionaires part, never mind the socialism bit – there are resources out there, and you’re entitled to them, you just don’t have them yet. As an American you deserve a high standard of living, because you’re an American. Americans deserve a nice car, and a big house, and the other things, by virtue of being born here. There’s the other part of this that says you are only entitled to these things through work, and yeah, but the point stands.

Americans aren’t pessimistic in the way the Irish are, because there’s no belief that they don’t deserve something, should they earn it. Irish people are big on hiding their light under a bushel. You daren’t show that you’ve done well for yourself, because you’ll be pilloried. There will be snide remarks. Fuck ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ this is just bitching about success. When you’re of the belief that you’re economically oppressed, or functionally oppressed, or oppressed as a people, it’s hard to get out of that mindset. A lot of this belief is legitimate, but the Irish carry their cultural suffering around like the cross of Christ. It is heavy, and it is painful, and times were and are miserable, and have I mentioned how much this cross weighs? It’s heavy, you know.

American pessimism is a much more general pessimism. Politicians are not honest, of course pizza isn’t good for you, I’m unlikely to win the lottery. The general stuff that you’re aware of, because it’s stuff you should be pessimistic about. Irish pessimism is largely actioned through the phrase “Sure, what can you do?” There’s a lot you can do. You can get training, you can work harder, you can run for office, you can vote, you can protest, you can start a business, you can write a book, you can paint a painting, you can build a bomb, you can engage with the rest of society in an attempt to better it, or to destroy it. Do anything. Do anything other than saying “Sure, what can you do?” because you’re totally abdicating responsibility for the direction your country takes.

Citizens of the US do no such laurel sitting. They do run for office, even if they have zero qualifications to do so, because they believe. People don’t really tell them no, even if they disagree with them. There’s a belief that something can be done. Aside from the phrase “You can’t fight city hall” which I love for some unknown reason. They protest, they vote (Well, some of them, probably not enough for a truly representative sample) they change things. Because nobody dared tell them they couldn’t.

More often than not if you told an Irish people they couldn’t do something, they’d agree with you. Because that’s the culture. “What would you be doing that for?” Run for office – you’ll lose. Protest – no one will listen. Open a shop – no one will go there. I don’t get why Irish people are always interested in bringing one another down at home. Abroad the Irish will support the hell out of each other. That said, if you haven’t seen the water meter protests that are going on, check those out. Plenty of people are getting the lead out of their ass to make their voice known, and that’s wonderful to see. A democracy functions properly when the citizens are active.

To discuss business ownership, I shall bring you an anecdote from Donegal Town. There were two developers that wanted to build shopping centres. Neither wanted the other to have their shopping centre first (or at all) so they blocked each other. When you submit a planning permission application, people can object to it, which halts construction, and banjaxes the plans. So you have to start over. These bastards did this for something like 11 years. Never mind that both would have made profit, and the consumers of Donegal would have had more than one grocery store, they blocked each other. Couldn’t be letting that other guy have a single thing, was the attitude. They kept up this bickering for years until finally they reached a settlement and they agreed that construction would go ahead, on opposite ends of the town.

Then the housing and construction markets tanked in 2008, and both projects went on the chiller indefinitely. Well done lads. You fucked it for everyone. In the last few years some construction has happened, but it’s nowhere near what it should have been. For years Donegal Town has had no cinema, it didn’t have a shoe store for a long time, for the longest time there was only one men’s clothes shop. This is a small tourist town that shuts down for most of the year, because people couldn’t stop themselves from obstructing one another in case someone made out better than they did. Couldn’t let nobody have nothing. Not one fucking iota of success.

None of that here. You compete or you fucking die. If your business doesn’t gain, and maintain competitiveness, it closes. And nobody thinks this is a bad thing. If you work hard, you can prosper, so the saying goes. And people here really believe that. People start businesses all the time, people don’t take being fired as a life ending upset. The time between jobs here is more hellish than at home, by a long way. But the time between jobs is usually shorter. If you’re skilled, they’ll find work for you. Whereas at home if work can’t be found, well tough. Go wait.

Americans are optimistic, even at the worst of times. This optimism is often of a maniacal nature. Even in the worst of circumstance, there’s the belief that you can make it to the top. You’re a millionaire, you’re just waiting on the check. Through poverty, through unemployment, through natural disaster, through having the entire deck stacked against them institutionally and otherwise. The deck is stacked for some people. There are people out there for various reasons that will never get ahead, will never be millionaires. But that doesn’t stop an American. Never tell him what he can’t do. Never tell him the odds. Never for one minute try to convince an American there’s something that she can’t do. Don’t you dare tell her that she’ll never own a maserati, never have a hot body, because she’ll work bitch, and she’ll prove you wrong. So very very wrong.

I’ve seen Irish people prove other people wrong, but I’ve seen it done more often out of spite. I feel like Americans are less prone to spite, because there’s abundance here. There at least appears to be unlimited resources, so why wouldn’t you go out there and get your slice? You just have to work for it, and you’ll get it. Honest.

There’s this belief that Americans have, some Americans, that they’re exceptional. Sometimes they’re just exceptional because they’re Americans. I’ve rarely seen an Irish person with the belief that they were exceptional. We believe we’re special, especially when we’re overseas, because we become oddly exotic. I’d describe myself as odd, different, noteworthy, and a number of other things, but never exceptional.

From what I’ve seen there’s a general background hum in the US. This hum says “We’re exceptional.” “We’re number one.” “Everything will be ok.” It says these things, regardless if they are true or not. And Americans believe them. Regardless if they’re true or not.

And in the words of Billy Connolly – I’d rather be told to have a nice day by someone who doesn’t mean it, than be told to fuck off by someone who does mean it.

WTF America: Anniversaries (Chapter 16)

Anniversaries

One year ago today

Photo by Jessia Hately, courtesy of www.wetakenicepictures.com

You get reflective around anniversaries. Well I do, and all of my anniversaries happen around the same time. Kimberlee and I met around this time. We started talking one on one around this time. I visited the US around this time, for the first time, in 2009. Kimberlee visited Ireland in 2010 around this time. I moved here around this time a year ago. I got married on this day last year.

When this period of reflection began, this year didn’t feel like a year at all. Interestingly it felt like around 6 weeks, or maybe 3 months. Enough time to pass that you know it wasn’t a week or two ago, but no significant period of time. You’d describe it as a few weeks ago, or the other day. I feel like maybe it’s because I’ve been happy. It’s not like I’ve spent my entire life miserable or anything, but I had a fairly angry teenage period, and was sullen throughout high school, and most of college. And for a few years after college too. Returning from the US was painful, and it made the time thereafter longer. The only thing that punctuated my weeks was the dole pickup. I only had to leave the house once a week, so that’s all I did for a while. I became one with my chair.

That time became long, and slow. It was a grinding period wherein all I was doing was waiting. When you wait for time to happen, it does, but at a pretty excruciating pace. Slower than one second per second it seems. Some infinities are larger or smaller than others, and my personal 2 year infinity felt much like I’ve described it.

But this period of time, between October 31st 2013 and October 31st 2014 was short. Really short. I thought establishing a life would be harder, but it seemed to be pretty easy, honestly, once I had gotten the components together. Social security number, job, apartment, that sort of thing. I guess the time before and after feel so elastic because getting here and getting married was the end of a story. You build it up in your mind that this is the ending, the closing chapter, the end to two years of being so unjustly separated.

But, obviously, it’s the beginning. Of a new life, of a marriage, of a lifetime in another country. But it doesn’t really feel that way. They never go into the happily ever after in fairly tales because the happily ever after isn’t the interesting bit. There’s no drama without conflict, and as much as I’ve tried to serve up heaping dollops of character development, drams, villains and heroes in this book, this year has been very normal. Kimberlee and I worked together to earn our keep in this world. We cooked meals for each other, we shared the house work, we slept in the same bed, we went to parties, we drank beer, and went grocery shopping. Can you imagine Jasmine from Aladdin buying a cabbage? No, because who cares. It’s not all that interesting to most people. Honestly, if I had just moved here from New Jersey I don’t know that this book would exist. Most people in this position would tell you about the long distance relationship, and the challenges the relationship encountered. And then you get on a plane, or you drive to the opposite coast for a few days, and the story is kind of over. In fact, the story would probably end with the phrase “And the rest is history” because it is. It’s just a series of events that occurred after you left the theatre and someone came in to sweep up popcorn.

Because of the nature of social media, I know this year happened. It’s all listed up there, with date stamps, and pictures and people that I’ve met this year clicking like when I’ve said something they find interesting, or adorable, about a man encountering spray cheese for the first time. Which by the way, spray cheese is the American version of marmite. There’s no one that’s indifferent. This is either the worst thing ever, or the finest of American culinary engineering. This year happened. I have proof. This book is proof. But it still doesn’t feel real, because so much of it doesn’t feel new or different any more.

When you move to a new country, I feel like the key to achieving this normality – if that’s what you’re looking for – is not to try and engage with your world like you did with your old country. When I came here in 2011, I was always on the lookout for Irish things, and trying to live in the Irish way. That’s all well and good in the short term, but you’ll end up spending way over the odds on normal items, because now they’re in the ethnic foods section. I was told by a friend that had lived in the US previously that blending in was key, and while I don’t think I’m actively trying to blend in, I think I’m passing very well. My accent has always been pretty mild, but what little accent I had had softened further, as I pick up on the diphthongs of the people around me. A diphthong by the way is the sound that happens when you say two vowel sounds together, and in most cases it forms a consonant sound. This is where accents primarily come from by the way – different cultures have different diphthongs, and that’s where the variance comes from. So you pick it up from them.

You pick up the local habits and mannerisms, you start eating their food, and you start living the way they do, and pretty soon you’ve kinda gone native. I haven’t picked up a lot of American indulgences in the last year. I do now maintain a bottle of ranch dressing in my fridge, because chicken wings, celery, carrots, and pizza crusts are vastly improved by it’s presence as far as I’m concerned. I drink RC cola sometimes. I’m partial to a moon pie, I grab some twinkies on occasion. I spend more time around coffee shops that I do bars.

I’m trying to think about how much this experience has changed me, because usually at this point in a book, you’re starting to learn some lessons. The plot has developed substantially, and now you’re invested in your hero’s journey. You’re in it to the end by this point, hopefully. So around the middle of a book the usual thing is to present the main character with a point of no return. But we did that in chapter two, and I’m already in the US. So I guess I should lay some wisdom on you.

Well I’d like to but I don’t have a whole lot of it. One of the take home facts I can give you is that Americans are normal. Surprising I know, but it’s true. Yeah, they’re a little shinier, and a little happier, and maybe their opinions are louder, and the don’t drink as much and they own too many guns, but they’re normal folk. They put their pants on in the morning, same as you do. I was nervous when I arrived that I wouldn’t fit in with them. I’d be an oddity, there would be too many barriers, and we just wouldn’t get each other. But they’ve been remarkably welcoming as a group. I’ve found several of them that are willing to listen to me wax lyrical about the old country – because I enjoy being an oddity – and it’s fun for me. I like to think that I can facilitate a cross cultural exchange.

People also like to show me off. People will introduce me as “Dave; he’s Irish. As in from Ireland. Like he’s an immigrant. He only got here a year ago!” I’d protest, but I love the attention. It’s fun to be different, even while blending in.

I wish I had great wisdom to bring you on the subject of marriage and living in the US. Mostly it’s just normal. Never go to bed angry, either at your spouse or at America. Always try to have a rational conversation when you’re angry at each other, either your spouse or America. Don’t hold grudges against your spouse or America – they’re both doing their best with what they have, and honestly your spouse and America know that you can be pretty hard to deal with too. Kimberlee and I had waited 5 years to be together, so what’s most important to us now is just spending time together. Those things that are normal, like sitting on the couch together, are special to us. So I guess never take your relationship with your spouse, or America, for granted.

You know what? Pop psychology, and canned advice, goes a long way to telling you what sort of relationship you should have with your country. Nurture your America, care for it, look out for it’s interests. But let it grow and change, let it be itself, allow it the space to understand itself as a young and growing nation. I believe the sequel to this book may have to be a self-help book for constitutional democracies.

So here’s to the United States of America, where I’ve just spent my first full year of marriage. I’ve learned that Americans, mostly, are just normal people. Don’t believe the hype when people tell you Americans are insane, or they’re a bunch of gun toting psychos, or they eat cheesecake instead of brushing their teeth, or whatever other prejudiced nonsense is out there. The Irish have positive stereotypes, and that can do us a dis-service too. It’s normal here. Amazingly normal most of the time. And then sometimes you visit a gun store for the first time, and it behaves like a cathedral. Or you visit the grocery store and there’s religious breakfast cereal. Or the tv sells you boner pills.

Nah, I’m full of shit, it’s really weird here. I mean really. What the fuck is spray cheese.

WTF America: The Mall (Chapter 15)

The Mall

Shopping to be had

In case this is news to you, let me begin by telling you that Americans like to shop. I’m fairly sure it was Americans that invented the term retail therapy – the practice of making yourself feel better through shopping. We’ve all done it from time to time I’m sure. You’re a little down, or you’ve had a hard week and now the paycheck is here. Your interests don’t lie in another meal, or alcohol, and maybe the necessities are already paid for. You’ve got some you money. Some walking around money, a little scratch that no one is demanding from you. So its time to go shopping.

But what deserves your money? And what kind of shopping are you in a mind for? As an answer to this question, the United States provides you with a bewildering array of options. Think of something you’d like. Anything at all, that’s legal. Don’t worry if it’s within the bounds of reason, or affordability, just think of it. Now I shall inform you that you can go a store that stocks this item exists in the United States exists. This may be the case for a lot of major cities around the world – you’ll get most anything. But I’ve never seen so much everything for sale here. Earlier today I went to a gun store. Not a sporting goods store, which is different, not a pawn shop, which is different, but a gun store. And boy did this joint have a lot of guns. A gun for every price bracket, accessories for your guns, ammunition, scopes, magazines for your guns, and there might have been gun magazines, but I couldn’t say for sure. They even had a Barrett 50 Calibre.

This level of specialization isn’t native to just the gun stores, no. There are specialist electronic cigarette stores, specialist grocery stores, specialist retail supply stores. There are stores you can go to if you need to start a store, and most of these are not closed to the public. Some of them are members only, but membership isn’t necessarily that exclusive. If you’ve got the cash, very few people are going to get in your way when it comes to buying it.

This specialization is most on display down at the good old mall. Malls exists outside of the US, but most that I’ve been to are not malls – they’re shopping centres. Someone decided to build a structure to house a number of shops, and then shops rent that space. And malls function in this way too, but it’s not really the same. Strip malls are a lot like shopping centres, in that there’s just a strip of stores with parking out front. They don’t inspire gathering like a traditional mall does. A Wal-mart mega, hyper, or gargantuan centre doesn’t feel at all like malls do. Wal-mart and its ilk; the justly named “Big box stores” are just that. They build a colossal box, and then they fill it with store. Department store to be specific, but this isn’t bespoke at all. It’s just aisle after aisle of stuff. Things. Everythings.

Your typical trip to a big box store has a few things in mind. “We need paper goods, and ice, and plastic cups for the party. And they’ll have all that at the big box store. It’s all under one roof, so we’ll get it all at once” is this thinking. But you’ll never get out of there without extra shit. The prices are too low, or you’ll suddenly decide that you need a bicycle, or a shotgun, or a case of mallomars, or a handle of vodka, or a wheelbarrow or some shit, and you’ll get it. Because “while I’m here. While it’s cheap. While I have the pickup truck with me.” They do everything in one place, and often when you find a shop that works that way, or someone that provides a service like that, you’ll find the service or store lacking a certain directionality. A jack of all trades is a master of none, so the saying goes.

The mall circumvents this by having each store provide a specific service. You’ll get bespoke tailoring and a larger clothing retailer that will do you a cheap pair of jeans. Stores that provide nothing but accessories for your phone – granted I’ve seen these at home, but they didn’t make it the art that Americans have made it. “We just sell replica swords and knives” could easily be the name of your store. “Pretzels, pretzels, pretzels, pretzels, and also some dip for those same pretzels” would be another. Only suits for cats. Only cats. Those notebooks with the custom names embossed on the front, right into the leather with the gold? R’ Us. Custom shaving equipment, custom dancing equipment, “Shoes, shoes, a fuckton of shoes ok?” “Sock town.” Just scary pictures of clowns that grandmothers don’t think are scary, but frighten the bejesus out of children.

You get my point. Malls house the niche pursuits of Americans. I’ve never seen a custom shaving store outside of Dublin. If you want custom shaving shit in Ireland, like old style shave soap, or a cut-throat razor, you’ll probably be going to a major city, which in the case of Ireland most of the time means Dublin. Here, you’ll be able to cater to most of your whims in practically every city. There’s a lot of space here, which leads to a lot of space for niche. You can indulge every passion, and most of the time you can go to a place where you’ll enjoy your weird hobby and you’ll meet other people. If your hobby is particularly popular, like guns in Arizona, you’ll have no shortage of options. Plenty of people have seen these markets that have the potential to generate a lot of revenue, so they have built it. And then people came.

I was in a sporting goods store today, which is different to a gun store, and the building was very much like a cathedral. Well if instead of pews there were racks of flannel, and instead of an altar there was a 40 foot tall waterfall surrounded by taxidermy animals. Why do people build churches and cathedrals? To store the light, because God lives in the light and the evil lives in darkness. God’s house needs to be bright, because it reminds us that there is shining brilliance in the world. For the record I consider myself a retired catholic. I reason that it’s a little like being a retired cop – it never really leaves you, but you get to retire now. But you never really retire, you just stop showing up to walk the beat every day. I’ve laid religion aside. But I still appreciate those places where the light lives, maybe because I grew up with it, or maybe because there’s something to it.

We carve out of marble, because it’s brilliant in the real sense. Americans build cathedrals that are largely made out of glass to let the light in. They put skylights in their malls and their sporting goods stores, because if you let the light in, people want to be there. They’ll congregate, again in the very real sense. We’ve decided that diamonds and gems, and gold, are expensive because they reflect that light, they refract it, they shine. And we want to be associated with things that shine. Look at the palaces around the world, and note that very few are dingy, and with low ceilings. They’re great, they’re massive, they’re.. palatial.

Americans don’t build a lot of palaces. Unless you think about the homes of the super rich, but they’re not kings, they’re just people with money. The American palaces are the shopping palaces, the malls. I came to this realization a while ago, and I don’t really know what it means. Shopping is a method of expression here. To be a shopper can be an identity, and it can define a person. Watch the Kevin Smith movie Mallrats and you’ll see that many, many hours can be spent in the mall even if you’re spending very little. Maybe malls draw people in because they love to shop, or maybe people love to shop because malls are full of light.

I wonder sometimes what people that are engaged in retail therapy are doing. Are they killing boredom? Because I’ve killed boredom with shopping. Are they just wasting time, because again I’ve done that. Window shopping is a great way to not actually keep up with the Johnsons, but to keep up with what the Johnsons are keeping up with. Are people shopping their grief away? Are they getting over a bad breakup by replacing the stuff that was previously jointly owned, and is now mostly likely smouldering lightly in a yard somewhere?

Or do they just need a new pair of fucking khakis. Sometimes it’s khakis. Probably most of the time its khakis. I read somewhere that Americans spend an average of two hours a week shopping for things that aren’t food. I don’t believe that I spend that much time shopping, but when I think about, I’m starting to break out in longer and longer bouts of shopping. I’ve got a little tickle in my wallet. I wonder just how much people judge one another, around the world as well as here, based on the amount of stuff they’ve accumulated. I reckon a lot of people feel judged, even if there’s a lot less judging going than one might think. But still there’s this infectious desire to shop, to spend money, to accumulate things, to own, to possess.

Maybe society is becoming more materialistic, but so fucking what. Prior to the desire for material things, what was the societal desire? I don’t think that societies have desires. 316 million people do not easily fit into one single box. It doesn’t mean much to be American, as far as I’ve seen. It also doesn’t mean much to be anything else. Sometimes you’re this nationality or that by accident of birth, by choice, or by dint of perspiration as you battle uphill against the people that control the borders.

I don’t think that ‘I shop therefore I am’ is something that people practice or personify here. But there is a lot of shopping. More shopping than could fill a lifetime. I saw a $69,000 dollar shotgun today. So that’s a thing. I don’t necessarily know if that means anything, but shopping got me thinking.

WTF America: Gotta have that confidence (Chapter 14)

Gotta have that confidence

Is there a God of confidence?

So that I’ve thoroughly alienated probably a large part of my audience, there’s no reason to stop there. One of the main aims of this book is to make sure that nobody ever reaches the end, because that’s where the really insightful stuff is. I only want the most soul-dead and irritated people to rage-read their way to true enlightenment. Well not really. Well… maybe.

So, in case you hadn’t heard, there’s a woman out there called Jenny McCarthy, a former MTV personality, turned anti-vaccine advocate. Before we get too deep into this, I’ll say the following; I believe that vaccines are probably the best advancement that humanity has made in the war against pretty much everything that can kill us. We never seem to be interested in warring against the things we use to kill ourselves, but I digress. For various reasons people can’t take vaccines, either because of adverse reactions, or compromised immune systems  or a number of other reasons I can’t speak to, because I’m not a doctor. My gripe isn’t necessarily with Ms. McCarthy’s insistence that vaccines do, or do not cause autism, or that she is or isn’t anti-vaccine, or any of the other things that cloud an issue that should be relatively straightforward.

My question is why would anyone take medical advice from people that are not medical professionals. I get that there are different ways and means of curing illness, however Irish comedian Dara O’ Briain made the point that we tested alternative medicines and those that passed the test – in that they worked – became ‘medicine,’ and everything else could just be considered a nice bowl of soup and some pot pourri. I don’t doubt that things that are not medicine do tend to work (The placebo effect is very real) and there’s something to be said for things that make you feel better. Because most of the time that’s what you’re after as someone who’s sick or in pain. You feel bad, and want to feel better.

People take all sorts of terrible advice from other people, and there are plenty of people over here that seem very ready to give advice, medical or otherwise, that isn’t grounded in any sort of fact, logic, or often even reason.

We didn’t land on the moon you know. The world is hollow, and there are a race of lizard people that live on the inner skin of what is our comparative outer skin. The bible’s the history of the world you know, line for line, blow for blow, no detail left out. Isis is going to kill you, the reds are coming from your children, the pot will rot your brain, chemtrails, alien invasions, crop circles, freaky DNA, pyramids, ancient magic, white witches, weight loss, weight gain, sweet protein, oxygenate your colon, bring a twinkle to your eye, smoking makes you cooler.

I don’t know if this is an artifact of American confidence, overconfidence, or some sort of zealous and dogged clinging to this information you possess – it’s true. This is truth, there is no other truth. No other truth is even possible, for I have the monopoly on truth. It’s always interested me that almost every religion has said that it is assuredly the one true faith. I will be amused at the stunned faces in the afterlife that had no idea you needed to worship and pay fealty to Ra, the sun god, or some pelt on sticks that was an object of adulation of some prehistoric people. The pelt is the one true god. Read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods by the way, cracking look at religions both ancient and modern.

I’ve never knew it was possible to see so many people that were right in one lifetime. They’re on the television, they’re making movies, they’re writing newspapers, they’re pundits, and talking heads, and jabbering ninnies with some sort of platform. I’ve noticed in my own life, that if you craft a phrase correctly, you can get people to believe you even if you have no idea what you’re talking about. I was having a conversation with some people who opposed transnational oil pipelines, because these pipelines have been leaking a lot. The phrase I employed was “Well, if you know anything about pressure systems, you know it’s beneficial to make the system larger, because then the pressure overall will decrease, meaning that the leaks aren’t so bad” and I was briefly believed until I admitted that I had no idea what I was talking about.

Maybe that’s it. If you speak with conviction, people will believe you, because you believe in yourself. It’s all about self-confidence. All else must be sacrificed on the altar of self-confidence, because that’s all that seems to matter anymore. You just get into a position where people will listen to you, then get them to believe you, even if you’re talking out of your ass, or you’re outright lying. It sounds nice to defer to someone that speaks with authority. They know what they’re talking about after all – he said it so well, and he says he’s an expert. And I suppose that swings us back to our point about Dr. Oz, and our point about media literacy.

I am, by no stretch of the imagination, in any way inferring that Americans are unable to spot a bullshit artist. People aren’t stupid. And I’m sure that if you’ve grown up in this country and in this culture, you’ll see a lot of these people coming before I do. That’s what makes it all the more baffling when people who have no right leading a discussion get into a position where they’re calling the shots as to the direction of the conversation. American politicians are excellent at doing this. I’ve seen Irish politicians fumfer and stutter, they turn red and you can hear the lies in their sweat. You know these are guys that wanted a little power, so they go it, and now suddenly it’s an embarrassment of riches. They very abruptly become aware that they have responsibilities now, and that once the good times go bad, not only are they out of a job, they will be hounded by people everywhere they go for the rest of their lives.

American politicians seem to have no such qualms. American politicians will shut down the entire government if they don’t get their way. Everyone be damned. Because they have a nuclear option, and they’ll deploy it with confidence if they feel the need. They’ll filibuster, and block, and aggravate, and they’ll campaign in the media, and they will totally hang people out to dry because someone sent someone else a picture of their dick. These are the most confident people that have ever walked the face of the earth, and they are the people with least right to be confident. This is probably a high minded notion that never actually applied, but aren’t politicians supposed to be public servants? Aren’t they supposed to be enacting the will of the people for the betterment of those people, and the nation?

George Carlin stated that politicians aren’t beamed down from space, they’re us, and he’s right. He said “Garbage in, garbage out” of the political system, and I don’t totally agree with that one, but he’s kind of right. When the loudest voices, the most confident people, those people THAT ARE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT and will not take no for an answer are the ones leading the debate, we don’t get best results. Confidence will kill us all. I saw a book in the library today that advocated a pre-emptive strike on Iran. The purpose of this strike? To destroy them before they destroy us with nuclear weapons. This is just a guy that wrote a book, he probably doesn’t have a lot of power outside of the pages of that book, but I’m sure he’s very confident in his opinion. There’s no other way around it.

Article one of the American constitution is all about the freedom of speech, and that’s wonderful. It’s probably the smartest thing a government has ever put into place, well except maybe the Magna Carta, but still it’s a good one. People can criticize their government, and they can criticize each other, and they can say whatever they want. Nobody is supposed to be able to bring harm on you just because they don’t like something that you said, outside certain caveats like libel and defamation and things like that. But. And oh what a but, a but that will probably get a lot of people angry.

With every right comes a responsibility. And I don’t see a lot of people here exercising a lot of responsibility in speech. They’re saying anything, and everything, and they’re so confident about it that people are publishing books about bombing Iran, and other people are giving Jenny McCarthy a platform to dispense medical advice. You can say anything you like, and I encourage people to exercise this right. Say anything you damn well please. But how often do you think the confident people stop to check their facts? Or how often will the confident people be persuaded to change their position when presented with new evidence that challenges something that they hold dear. You could call this thing they hold dear a prejudice.

Resistance to change is not native to America. People hate change, and people love change. It just can’t be the wrong kind of change. It can’t be the wrong kind of truth. It can be totally untrue though. Just gotta be confident.

I’ve used the phrase bullshit artist a lot during the writing of this thing, sometimes fondly, sometimes not, but I don’t believe it necessarily applies here. These confident people; fundamentalists, hard-liners, stalwart champions of the cause – they believe. These people are the true believers, and I’ve got to say that I think these people are probably the most dangerous. Because their positions are so often intractable. There’s no force on earth that will persuade them. In a debate between Ken Ham, head of a creationist museum, and Bill Nye, the science guy, they were asked what would persuade them to change their views. Ham answered confidently that nothing would change his mind – he was right and he was confident. Bill Nye was equally confident. His answer I think is a much better answer to the question though. The only thing that would change Bill Nye’s position on evolution;

Evidence.

WTF America: Why do people trust Dr. Oz? (Chapter 13)

Why do people trust Dr. Oz?

It's a god damn miracle drug I tell you

So the idiots lantern, the goggle box, the boob tube, the unblinking eye. This box sits in homes, bars, hotels, airports et. al all around the world and it’s a constant stream of information. Sometimes that information is important, sometimes it’s entertaining, sometimes it’s just a test card, or a fire burning on christmas day, but the television is always there.

Television is not a uniquely American product – I grew up on television. My father watched the moon landing on tv with his father at a neighbour’s house. I grew up on cartoons, same as you, I watched movies months after they came out, just like you, I got my news from it, I learned about the world from it, I watched the twin towers come down. Television has united the world, and divided the world. We may think that the internet has supplanted it as our main source of television, but most people outside of my age group still spend more time watching the flickering, humming window than they do surfing Twitter and checking Facebook. The tv is constant companion to our lives.

It makes sense that people trust it. It’s always been there, throughout their lives. Many have never known a time without it. They grew up on, same as me. But as time goes on, people are diverging from the opinions of the television. People access information outside the main narrative, for good or ill, and they construct the world given information they have sourced themselves. The internet may not have supplanted TV, but the genie is out of the bottle when it comes to everyone thinking in lock step. Used to be that only crackpots had divergent opinions. Now it’s anyone with an internet connection and a curious nature. When you have all the world’s information at your fingertips you are no longer beholden to that one source, that ever present siren in the corner of the living room.

That said, people still trust the TV. I was at a party a few months ago, and someone made some comment about Dr. Oz in conversation with me. I know maybe two or three things about Dr. Oz: first he’s a doctor that appears on TV, and secondly he sells health supplements in commercials. I guess it’s only two things about Dr. Oz. My follow up comment was something along the lines of “Sure, what are you listening to him for?” which I considered to be a fairly innocent dismissal of a TV doctor. I was met with an emotion that was a little more than contempt, and a little less than anger. I dropped the issue swiftly, because nothing sucks the fun out of a party like an argument, but it got me thinking. People trust Dr. Oz. And I can’t help but wonder if they trust him because he’s a doctor, or because he’s on television.

The TV here asks me to trust it all the time. Often it asks me to trust it more than I would trust my own doctor. I’ll explain. I’m watching the 6 o’clock local news because my I’m new to the area, and it’d be nice to know what’s going on in the locality. I’m greeted with stories of murder, and burglary, and shootings, and stealing, and you’d never leave the house if you believed that the world was that bad out there. Most dangerous thing in my neighbourhood, which has been known in the past as “Sin city,” are the frat boy party buildings on the corner. And I’ve no fear of them fellas, they’re only partying. Between the stories of murder, and the closing story about a duck that learned how to love, there are the commercials.

Commercials for boner pills. Now if you’ve lived a sheltered life I’ll fill you in as best I can while being as vulgar as possible. If you have difficulty laying with your wife, in the biblical way, in your twilight years, there are little pills that can help you out. These pills can cause an effect. If this effect lasts longer than four hours, a doctor should be consulted. After watching the local news for a few days I came to the conclusion that I was the only person under the age of 50 watching it, because every commercial was for medication. Heart medication, cholesterol medication, blood pills, and the star of our show – boner pills. The commercials for these things, and all medication, use the phrase “Ask your doctor if blank is right for you.” Come again? Why am I asking my doctor about medication, if I am not currently on these medications? I’m inclined to go to the doctor, and have them offer me advice or prescriptions based on symptoms I describe. I had no idea I had vertigo until I went to a doctor after a prolonged dizzy spell. I’m sure that I wasn’t going to ask my doctor about specific types of medication.

Which brings me back to Dr. Oz. I began floating the idea for this chapter, I mentioned that it might be about Dr. Oz and the fact that, from what I’ve heard, he’s a bullshit artist. I was roundly beaten down, not because Oz isn’t a bullshit artist, but because he is in fact a doctor. I don’t doubt that he’s a doctor, I just wonder how much of his motivation revolves around furthering his TV show, reach, celebrity, and audience, instead of handing out sound medical advice. Recently he called for questions on Twitter, and was met with a wall of people calling him a quack. Seems that my relatively blind distrust of a doctor on TV was partially founded. The New Yorker called him the most trusted doctor in America, and asked if his focus on the TV show was detrimental to the health of his patients, and the American people at large.

This is the first chapter of WTF America that has entailed any research on my part. Most of the rest of the words in this remarkable feat of literary greatness have been lived experiences, things that have happened to me. A subjective tale of life as an immigrant. I had to read some stuff for this one, because the response I kept getting to Dr. Oz was resoundingly positive from people that were aware of his work. I haven’t watched an episode, but he reportedly pulls in 4 million viewers every day, which is a hell of an achievement. However, the focus of this chapter, while it seems to be Dr. Oz, it isn’t. I’m just curious as to why Americans seem to trust the tv.

The standard assumption is that people trust doctors, so they trust Dr. Oz. But when the TV tells you to ask your doctor about pills, when it tells you to request your cholesterol medication by name, to essentially tell your doctor to prescribe you something, then are we to believe that we’re supposed to trust our doctors? Or do people trust Dr. Oz because he’s on the television. People trust the news anchors, so they believe what the news anchors tell them. I used to challenge myself when I was in college to watch Fox News. It was a student of media, journalism, and film, so the challenge was to watch Fox News and fact check in real time. I was trying to analyze claims made, to view agendas, to examine subtext, to derive what the true message was underneath all the coded language, and the ladies with the blond hair and long legs. Watch Fox News some time – note the way that the woman with the blonde hair is always sitting in a way that shows off her legs to their fullest extent. I did the same thing with CNN. It was most fun to run this experiment on live rolling news, because you could see a story break and then you’d see the anchors, pundits, and bullshit artists scramble to fit each new development into a narrative that the producer thought would pull in the greatest number of views.

Rolling news makes people scared. The pattern is to scare you into listening to them, and then each time you’re scared of the world, you’ll seek them out to tell you what the real story is. And then they’ll scare you again. A lot of stuff is objectively scary, like Ebola. But ebola is easily defeated with a little purell, or just soap, water, and not touching dead people. Throughout the election cycle, which wrapped recently, the narrative was border fence. I get that Arizona is on the border, but when every commercial, pro or anti, mentions the border fence with the intent of scaring you into voting for one person or the other, I’m not inclined to trust any of these people.

I’m not inclined to trust people who have their financial well being tied to selling things, or tied to a TV show, or something else along those lines. I get it – bitches gotta eat – but why would I trust the person that’s selling me something to anything other than sell me something. My brief and likely in fact paltry research has led me to the belief that Dr. Oz is a salesman. And that’s all well and good, sell your heart out. Sell those diet pills, and those herbal boner pills, and the shakes, and the nutrition bars, and all the other shit, because that’s what you do. But when you approach the issue as a reported expert, and then you act like you’re doing people a favour by offering them a life solution or a cure, then you’re a bullshit artist. If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s more than likely a salesman selling duck repellant at a discounted price.

What I’m getting at here, is that some people trust the television, and I don’t really get why. If you’re living in a nation besieged by media messaging, branded content, advertising, and agendas slated by profit at every turn, why would you trust anything at all? I’m not saying that the ‘official message’ is horse shit, because sometimes it’s just untwisted truth that’s being passed along. Sometimes you need to just get you some facts so that you can have a better understanding of the world. But take a little time, and look at the other side. You can totally dismiss them as quacks and crackpots if you like, you can let everything you’ve just heard slide out of your head as soon as you’re done reading it. But maybe don’t trust the TV once in a while. I’ve never been of the opinion that TV makes people dumbed, I just think that people put too much stock in it. And when living in a country like this, the TV is everywhere, and perhaps its just safest to just assume that not everything you hear, or read, or listen to is either gospel truth or total bullshit. Get some more vitamins and a little more roughage in your media diet. But not Dr. Oz’s pills.

WTF America: New! And improved? (Chapter 12)

New! And improved?

Holy shit. Bacon bowl

So the ad men, the PT Barnums of this world, the marketeers, and the bullshit artists all want to sell you something. This isn’t surprising, this is their business. But that oft quoted line that PT Barnum probably didn’t actually say – “There’s a sucker born every minute” – has been intriguing me since I began studying the foibles, eccentricities and plain old WTFs of this American planet. And some of the greatest of these WTFs come from the ‘As seen on tv’ products.

Our good friends and progenitors across the sea are not unaware of these concepts. There’s late night tv shopping, where buff assholes with mullets will sell you this year’s flavour of elliptical, cross fit, underwater, on the moon strider that burns fat and guess how many minutes per day you have to use it for? It’s always 6 isn’t it. Why six? And you can watch tv while you use it, or you can knit or read while some electric weight belt shocks the bejesus out of you. We have these things back home too. There’s even a local catalog that comes around, much like the Avon lady, or the Mary Kay, or the Pampered Chef or those other programs. Ours is called the Kleeneze catalog, and it’s chock-full of this shit. Special tupperware that is designed specifically to hold bacon, or a certain type of cracker, or a house coat that you can plug into the wall, or a little metal cat silhouette with marbles for eyes that’s stamped out of metal. You put this cat in your garden. It frightens other animals.

The products that show up in this Kleeneze catalog are largely shit. But their purpose is not to be new, or interesting, their purpose is to solve a problem you didn’t know you had. You didn’t know you had this problem, because it never crossed your mind that you needed to put down slug poison, or to buff wooden tables with the same stuff bartenders use. The simplest answer is that you don’t have these problems. These things are filling a niche in your life that their existence created, and then your mind puts them in that slot because there’s an empty double-wide electric slipper shaped hole in your life now. And this catalog just so happens to have this double wide slipper of your dreams. These products aren’t innovative, they’re just things. Evolutionary dead ends when it comes to product developments.

But that dead end never stopped an American; an ad man, a Barnum, a huckster. At the top of this post there is a picture of a bacon bowl. This isn’t a bowl that looks like bacon, or has a bacon print on it, it’s a bowl MADE OF BACON. Because fuck me lads, “Everything tastes better in a bacon bowl.” Fabricate this shit in the microwave, or the toaster oven, or your real oven if you’re still a philistine that cooks with fire. We’re cooking with rays over here lads, and they can transmogrify bacon into a bleedin’ BOWL. The device itself is a piece of plastic that looks a lot like the old analog lemon juicers. Place bacon on there, microwave, and you’ve got a bacon bowl. It doesn’t even look all that large on the box art.

Why am I talking about this? Because this thing makes “Perfect” bacon bowls. I’m unfamiliar with the disaster that is an imperfect bacon bowl, but this thing typifies a mentality – It’s new, and it’s more than likely improved. But is it though? Is the strider that’s on late night tv any different to the one that was on sale last year? Is this pizza with fritos on top a vast improvement on the concept of a pizza? Honestly, it looks like a large step backwards to me.

Let’s divert into the rats nest that is Apple. Each year the Apple corporation has been putting out the same phone. No bullshit – it makes calls, it receives texts, it takes pictures. Oh but this year it has image stabilisation! Or this year it has a thumbprint scanner. Or this time it’s the size of a gideons bible in a hotel, so it looks like you’re talking into a fuckin’ ham sandwich, if you ever were to make a call on it. And with utter glee, people will point out that the iPhone you buy this year has the features that the Samsung Galaxy had four years ago. That doesn’t make iPhone buyers dumber, and it certainly doesn’t make Samsung buyers smarter. I get being an early adopter, and I get waiting until the technology is refined so that you can get a better version. But the changes have become so incremental as to be barely notable. And it’s very predictable with the phones now. One brand will have the newest features, the other will be the slickest, the others will be cheaper, but by and large I think you’ll find they all get Facebook and they all make phone calls. Not that anyone makes phone calls anymore.

Are the cappuccino lays an improvement on the world of potato chips? Or the chicken and waffles flavour. No, they’re just new. And that’s where the hucksters make their money. Either you’re going to buy a slight modification on an existing product, because of the novelty of it, or you’re going to buy the same thing again because it’s in a different box now.

It’s not like I’m mad at these people for selling this nonsense, I’m just aware that there’s a few things at play here. Probably the most important thing is the concept of built in obsolescence. If you’re unfamiliar, it basically means that products are manufactured to an inferior standard so you’ll need to replace them more frequently. You hear of cast iron pans that have seen three generations of cooking, and then your new (and improve) teflon, ultra nonstick pan that literally (literally I say!) is so nonstick that the food will hover about a 1/4 inch above the heated surface, flakes to shit within a year. Now there’s an argument that this isn’t actually a plan, and they just don’t make them like they used to, because the profit margins are higher, and you’d be right. The profit in a lot of this junk lies in the volume moved, not in the high sticker price. The flip side of that coin is that we can see the planning. The first generation of iPads didn’t have cameras, but the second did. You can probably imagine why. This practice bothers me, because that stuff does have high sticker prices. To probably not quote PT Barnum again “A fool and his money are soon parted.”

Another facet of this business model is that it’s cheaper to replace something than to repair it, largely because the percentage of repair shops has declined to the point that you’ll have difficulty even finding a place that will do maintenance. I don’t really have a general point here. This isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon, there’s plastic crap all over the world. Bottled drinking water, tourist tat, little keepsakes that are kept for the sake of the keeping itself. I just find it magnified here, because there’s a sale to be made. I see it everywhere. In the tv commercials it’s hard to find a genuinely new product, you just find an improved version of the old one. It’s cheaper, it’s faster, it’s prettier, it will revolutionize your life. I have noted it can be handy to have a light on my vacuum cleaner, but it’s hardly like man walking on the moon or discovering fire.

This new steam tight countertop oven cooks a 9 pound chicken in 15 minutes. This electric steam mop can clean anything off anything. These boner pills cause 40 percent less heart attacks that the leading brand! It’s mind boggling to see the audacity of some of this advertising. Companies will take pot shots at rival companies, either directly or indirectly. They’ll go back and forth, reacting to each other’s campaigns. I’ll admit some of these can be kind of clever, but they’re both selling a car. Some of the latest I’ve seen, the newest things in the automobile industry, are in car wifi and a touch sensor on the bumper that you can wave your foot at, and it’ll open the boot on its own. These cars still probably get less than 40 miles to the gallon, they still have 4 wheels, an assortment of seats, probably a steering wheel. Other innovations I’ve seen include a beep that lets you know when you’ve left your lane. And a beep that lets you know when you’re too close, or a beep that tells you something else. Lots of beeps.

Where the fuck are the flying cars. Or the self driving cars. Or the hyperloop, or the floating cities, or even those self-lacing shoes from back to the future. To paraphrase Fight Club – the greatest minds of our generation are pumping gas and waiting tables. It’s not that humanity, and American can’t innovate. American has done amazing things for the advancement of humanity. NASA invented duck tape, for example. CAT scans, MRIs, electric cars, advancements in renewable energy. Today, just a little while before I wrote this, the European Space agency landed the Philae probe on a comet. That’s way more astounding than a bacon bowl, or a car that has a new beep.

I’m not dismissing the creative genius that is putting corn chips on top of a pizza, but surely there’s something better we can do with our time? If we didn’t have to buy a new phone every year, would we have more time and money to concentrate on genuine advancements in technology? Or maybe we’re making plenty of advancements, and the people that spend their 60 hours a week saving the world just want to kick back, and drink a can of bud light clamato, whatever the fuck that is, and eat a fritos pizza. With some dessert topping in a bacon bowl.

I guess it takes all kinds. But come on. Novelty is not a substitute for substance.

WTF America: American as a second language (Chapter 11)

American as a second language

Second languages

So fella there, you’re not as green as you’re cabbage lookin’ are you? You’d know your shit from your shinola wouldn’t you? So come here now you, here to me now, for a pair a minutes til I get talking to you.

If it wasn’t apparent from that opening, it’s not really English that I speak, or think in. I’ve made mention before in this meandering tome that my wife thinks her and I speak different languages and we do. I speak English as a second language, my grammar patterns are completely haywire. When you grow up within a language, or a dialect, it shapes the way you think. I’ve heard anecdotes, which are probably nonsense, that the Chinese have one word for both the concepts of crisis and opportunity, and that in Japanese pictographic writing the symbol for trouble is a combination of two symbols for woman underneath a roof. Differing cultures develop language patterns to reflect the world around them, and as variances in geography happen differences emerge.

Local dialects can be quite baffling. Arizona is so full of migrants itself – of all the people I’ve met very few have been what could be considered Arizona natives – that I haven’t noted any strong influences from one place or the other emerging. But I’ve run into New Yorkers, and New Jersey natives, and people from California and Southerners. Each has their little tweaks of dialect that stop other Americans in their tracks occasionally, but these are minor wrinkles in what is largely the same language. They’re able to puzzle through the descriptions of Kaiser rolls, and other little things pretty quickly, and they all get back to being Americans after a period of time, after this regional variant has subsided.

Calling a sedan car a saloon car grinds conversation to a halt as you must explain to this other species of people what the fuck you’re talking about. I took part in a writing exercise years ago wherein we were given a concept (a cup of tea was mine) and then we had to explain that concept to an alien. Each time you were to introduce a new word, such as cup, tea, plant, hot, water, sugar, milk, you would be asked what that was. The purpose of the exercise was to understand how to convey information swiftly, and to understand that the things you write and the things you say are loaded with cultural significance, and it’s important to not alienate your audience with thought that is too specific, or dense, or culturally loaded.

That’s all well and good, but when you grow up in any culture, you’ll pick up these habits of speech, these cultural touchstones that are shortcuts to feelings that you wish to convey. Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian is a fine example of those that are able to turn regional affectations into broader jokes that everybody seems to be able to access. The first bit that pops to mind is his anecdote about not swearing in front of his children. His trick is to speak loudly and quickly in a pattern that sounds like swearing e.g. “Geh-ta-fuh-ya-basa!” substitutes quite nicely for “Get to fuck, you bastard!” You’ve given the impression of swearing, but it’s guilt free. When you employ these things around your people, these tricks, everyone gets it.

But because these phrases are in the muscle memory of your speech, they persist when you’re somewhere else. Aluminium still exists in my lexicon, and my chops are roundly busted when it comes out. Other things are just weird to explain. It’s hard to make fun of someone for ‘getting their end away’ when what ensues is a 5 minute conversation about what the hell that even means. Other examples of these phrases include several Irish phrases that not only don’t translate well, but they don’t even appear to be words that make sense when written down. ‘While’ and ‘rake’ are fine examples. While away the hours is a phrase you can understand, as is I’ll be a while. But when you say “That’s a while lot of garbage” or he’s “some while big fucker in’he?” you lose people. While is hard to explain, because it exists alone in speech. Most of the time it just means ‘very’ but not always.

You know what a rake is. It rakes leaves. When when there’s a rake of leaves out there, it doesn’t mean there’s exactly one rake-fulls worth of leaves on the lawn. It means there’s a fuckload of leaves out there. More leaves than you’d shake a rake of rakes at. My spellchecker is groaning under the strain of these last few paragraphs by the way. Let’s see if I can’t break it. So, there’s a yoke. This is not in eggs, this is not something used to hitch oxen to a cart. A yoke is simply a thing, and specifically it’s a thing which name escapes you. You know that what you’re looking for is the ceramic lid to the sugar bowl, because you don’t want ants, but the best that comes to mind is “Where’s that fuckin’… yoke. The wee lid yok for the thing. Sugar cage. You know don’t you?” This method of thought and method of speech makes it difficult to find anything at all. Yok is also a smaller yoke by the way, in case that helps at all.

So my father had the best story I’ve heard about yokes. My dad’s a telecoms installer, so when you see those boxes on phone poles that contain the jointing point of two 800 strand cables, he’s the fellow up the pole connecting all of those. As you can imagine this is a job that might need an assistant, since untying yourself from the pole and climbing a ladder twice because you need that one thing you left in the van could get tedious. His South African work mate was standing at the bottom of the ladder awaiting instructions. His first order was “Get me that yellow handled… yoke there. Second toolbox, bottom drawer” and this item was found and passed up the ladder. An hour later a new yoke was required, this one longer, more square shaped like, with the hinge thing in the – yeah there, that’s it. By the end of the day, the van was a yoke, the toolbox was a yoke, and many of the tools were also yokes. This guy had absolutely no fucking idea what a yoke was come 5 o’clock, other than to note that most everything was a yoke. An Irish assistant would have passed no remark, but hearing the previous remark in a South African accent was worth the day of confusion apparently.

What happens when your friends can’t understand you? It’s not that you have a weird hobby they don’t enjoy, it’s not that they don’t like you or don’t want to be around you, but more than once per sitting, party, meeting or lunch, some lump of Irish culture will fall out of my mouth, unbeknownst to me and it will sit as gracefully in the air as a lump of lard on top of a flan. It reminds them, and me, that I’m not from here, I have my own customs, and then they ask to see my crazy passport. It’s not alienating as much as it is cause for pause for thought.

How can you maintain your native culture without your native speech patterns? Video calling home, and it all slips right back within a few minutes. There’s craic to be had, and yarns a plenty, and much arra-Jesusing. But when you’re living in another country and you do, ostensibly speaking what is the same language the temptation becomes to assimilate. It’s not the teasing, I have a lot of fun bantering with people. Our ripping the piss, is your playing the dozens – we have the same culture of ripping on other people, and what you need to do is make the other person laugh before you run out of good natured insults, because that’s how you win. The desire assimilate stems from the yearning to be understood, to speak the same language because language is how we get the thoughts that are inside our heads into the heads of others. Sharing ideas, and passing information back and forth is the purpose of language, and if conversation keeps grinding to a halt, because you wish to know “Cad e sin?” or if you become that hungry that “You’d eat a scabby babies’ ass through a barbed wire fence” or you’re so desirous of the water closet that your back teeth are floating… It can be a tad tiresome. But the desire is not in me to be an American true and blue. Or red. I’m not sure which is the more American colour.

I like being Irish. It’s a nice cultural identity to have. As Tommy Tiernan said, it’s the most fun and the least work as nationalities goes. Irish people are often so proud of their heritage that you’d think they chose it. And you know, I think most Irish people would choose it again, given the option. Most Americans would likely do the same I imagine. I can’t say that I’m necessarily proud of being Irish, given that I did no work to achieve this rank, but I guess I’m proud to call myself Irish, because as an immigrant to America it’s like playing on easy mode. Being a white, (mostly) English speaking immigrant is practically like entering cheat codes for living in the United States undetected, not that I need to. I’ve got my papers, boss. I like to consider myself an ambassador for my people, so I attempt to offer a worldly perspective on things. The language barrier can also be helpful to remind those people around you, these Americans, that not all immigrants came here to paint nails, mow lawns, and speak in languages you don’t understand.

Well, maybe scratch that last part.

WTF America: Electric Six (Chapter 10)

Electric Six

World's. Greatest. Band.

I’ll begin by saying that Electric Six is the best band in the world. There’s no questioning this, as it is an inalienable fact. Ever since 1996 during their formative years as The Wildbunch the band has been a powerhouse of rock and roll and disco, and they have cut a cross cultural swathe across the land that is American, and further afield, spanning oceans and decades. Electric Six have produced fourteen albums, and a number of compilations and the lead singer – Dick Valentine – has released a solo album. The band has gone through tumult and turmoil, losing and gaining members, and splitting up briefly before they reached the first pinnacle in their mainstream success. Electric Six is the hardest working band in the world, and their work has been justified with acclaim, platinum records and staggering wealth.

Or they’re just a working band that does ok. I was introduced to Electric Six by a friend that was also a fan of the band. He gave me what was essentially a mix CD of their personal bests as he saw it. And that mix went onto my MP3 player and became my walking music. The tempo was wonderful, and using this marching music I was able to lose 60 pounds. So yes, put that on the posters – Electric Six; miracle weight loss solution. I think that sentiment might fit on their promo material, because they’re a band that’s at once entirely serious, and not serious at all. Electric Six are kings of bullshit artistry, and that is the highest rank an American band from Detroit can achieve. It’s the highest an American can achieve, aside from used car salesman at 4 AM in Vegas, still humping the American dream at the blackjack tables.

So Electric six is probably most well known for two songs; Danger! High Voltage, and Gay Bar. These songs both appeared on their 2003 breakout album Fire! so named because the band noticed repeated usages of the word and concept of fire after the album had been recorded. These songs were my introduction too – I saw the High Voltage video on Kerrang, a cable music video channel, back around that time. My formative years of music had consisted of Nu-metal (Yeah, whatever, save your stones, I was a teenager at a bad time) and a lot of classic rock and Johnny Cash. Electric Six appeared as a group of weirdos with the strangest message and the hottest sax solo of the year. It wasn’t a good solo, just hot. The whole ethos of the band seems to be this rambunctious presentation of sex as a good thing. This is why they wanted to take you to a gay bar, and spend all your money. Unlike Andrew W.K. who is at time of writing the most party happy agony aunt in history, the emphasis wasn’t simply on the feeling good. The emphasis isn’t exclusively on feeling good, it’s on analyzing what feels good, and learning. That sounds odd, because it is.

So the learning is not your traditional learning. It’s that oblique learning that sneaks up on you. I didn’t listen deeply to the lyrics of that mix CD for years, I just enjoyed the sweet guitar and synth solos and tried to keep time as I felt my body grow stronger. But when you listen to the lyrics of Electric Six you begin to understand it’s not all about the party. It’s about race, and politics, and the spoiled nature of modern society. You being to understand that the band is focused on partying not because partying is inherently good – though it may be – the band is partying and living it up, because we live in a perpetual end of days. Since day one we’ve lived in a perpetual end of days, because none of us really live that long, and we spend so much of our time telling others the way in which they should live their lives, instead of living ours to the fullest.

Electric Six are important, and important to me, because they hold one of the highest and most important positions in society – they are satirists. When you hold a mirror up to society you expose its flaws all the more, especially when it’s a fun house mirror. To satirise effectively you must obliquely tell society its problems, and then one of two things happen. Either you have produced a Swiftian-level satire piece and your point is heard the world around because of its cutting and incisive nature, or people kind of don’t get it. I feel like Electric Six has been creating this satire of American culture for almost two decades now, and they aren’t been lauded as heroes and geniuses by anyone other than a mob of hardcore fans. I’m not saying that I’m clever because “I get it,” I’m just noting that satire is a tricky market to master. The Onion is one of the most well known satire outfits in the world, and it manages to fool some of the people, some of the time (Check LiterallyUnbelievable.org for proof) but most people now a wise person will check the URL of a story to see if it comes from The Onion. Satire loses some of its punch when you know it’s coming.

Take for example a song from the 2006 album Switzerland titled ‘There’s something very wrong with us, so let’s go out tonight.” The song is ostensibly a tale about someone going out for the night. It’s a tale of an outsider in Japan, and they’ve gone out for the night, perhaps with the intent of picking up a Japanese venereal disease. But it’s about globalization. And it’s about being singled out for a privilege denied to many, even when you maybe feel you don’t deserve it  – “The policeman he waves me through; That’s the difference between me and you.”

Then there are the examples of globalisation, which can be scary to many. There’s cross cultural pollination happening all the time, and we don’t understand it, and it pops up in weird places. Like Dutch Hip Hop appearing in Atlanta. Or a Black MC in Tokyo. Or tight new R&B in Estonia. There’s obviously interpretation happening here, and I could be completely talking out of my ass, but we shape the music we listen to because we come to it with a small and singular world that we have experienced.

You know what else shaped my musical landscape? Less Than Jake, another band that’s been active since the 90’s, and still producing albums. They’re a sort of Ska Punk outfit, with the walky basslines, sweet guitars and a brass section that’s very respectable. But their music, as much as I’ve experienced of it, is about something very different. There’s immense hope in the music of Less Than Jake, but the hope doesn’t exist here. Most of their lyrical content is about moving on, getting out, going somewhere else. You can see why this music may have appealed to me when I felt trapped in Ireland, separated from the woman I loved by an ocean and a bureaucracy.

Your music shapes your life as much as your life shapes your music. I saw Electric Six live in Phoenix a couple of months ago, and even though I had to cut out a little early to get the light rail back, I understood the band more than I ever have. This band that I have enjoyed relatively singularly for years was in front of me, and around me were the die hard fans of Phoenix, ready to rock like this was a stadium and the band was Iron Maiden. The band took the stage, and they played like they were Iron Maiden, and this was a stadium. Between songs (and the set was tight as a drum by the way, this is an incredibly professional and well practiced band) Dick Valentine would tell us stories. Stories about this state we lived in, about the band’s kickstarter for their new DVD, about their drummer that spent the first 20 years of his life siphoning gas. Siphoning, and siphoning, and siphoning, siphoning and siphoning again. And now he’s my drummer. There was the White Wolf on Guitar, and Tait Nucleus? on synthesizer.

Why do we need the satirists? And the artists? Well the quote from Queen Victoria (apparently) follows:

 

Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous.

 

The artists occupy that space in society that maybe isn’t well paid, and isn’t always glamorous, and takes a toll on a person. But it’s importance can never be overstated. The lives of all are reflected in art, and we reflect our lives by these things that we as a species create. People weep at songs, and people party. People marvel at paintings, and we burn books. Satire is incredibly important in our art because satire is supposed to be a weapon that cuts deeper and leaves bigger scars than any blade or bludgeon. Think a moment on the legacy of George W. Bush. Will we remember his tax policies, or his war mongering, or medicare part D? The historians will remember, but what will be most prevalent in his legacy is that he was a fool. Everyone made fun of him. The bards can make a mockery of a man, even after his death, they can erase his legacy, they can point out that the king has no clothes and we will realized that we’re being duped, and we’ll feel ashamed for being rubes but we’ll laugh with them.

What does this have to do with WTF America? Simply, Electric Six are the best of American music. They’re political without being preachy, they’re smart without being aloof, they rock without being cliche, they’re disco without the flared trousers and cocaine. They occupy a nether space in culture, one which I enjoy dearly because it often exists in no other capacity. I listen to their albums on loop as I write this book, because the sound and the cadence, the rhythm and the rhyme, the lyric and the lesson are all American as Late Night Obama Food to me. Each listen to each album presents me with new lessons about this land I live in. It’s immersion therapy, and I’m seeing sparkling results.

WTF America: You capitalist swine [working title] (Chapter 9)

You capitalist swine (working title)

Bringing it home

Let’s get this out of the way nice and early.

 

WTF America is a comedic take on American culture as viewed by an outsider. Remain calm.

 

So, for large parts of my life, not that my life covers any great deal of ground in terms of time, I have been both out of work, and a filthy socialist. I say this, not because I have any die hard position, I’ve just try to benchmark my political affiliation to what I consider to be the most compassionate way to live. Another point is that I spent 5 years on the dole. So to travel back to the heady days of 2005, I was a 17 year old idealist that was ready to go to college, and I did. The celtic tiger was in full swing, and there was plenty of money to be made for those that were willing to work in Ireland. My dad, as he has done for most of his life, was working outside of Ireland and making fantastic middle class money as an electrician, and telecoms fitter, as he had done most of his life. He had a very specialized skill set and with all the money that was flooding the economies of the world during the 2000’s he was able to pay my way through University. University tuition in Ireland and the UK was not that expensive, so don’t think that he was making millions.

I did well in University, but my degree was in Media studies and film studies. I fell into various journalism courses because the field intrigued me, so I was very interested in the news, politics and government. So throughout 2007 and 2008 it became apparent that there was a falling apart of everything on the way. I graduated in the summer of 2008 and I signed onto the dole, as there was little work going. The economy always seems aware that there’s a downturn coming before the people in charge do, and the whole thing went to shit in the Autumn. They called it the financial crisis, then the housing crisis, then the credit crunch, and lately I’ve heard the remarkably bullshit phrase – consecutive quarters of “Negative growth.” Negative growth is shrinkage. It was a recession in all but name. I signed on to the dole, and caught a little break in November when I was able to work for 11 days as an extra in a horror film.

And that was it for 5 years. I graduated from University debt free, so I got off easier than most but when you’re over qualified for every position and nobody wants to hire, you good luck getting a job. In rural Ireland, in a town that is sustained largely by tourism, you’re fucked. At it’s worst the unemployment rate in my county in my age bracket was 40 percent. That’s not an environment that allows you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Boots are a distant dream to the rural unemployed. As the economy contracted businesses closed, meaning fewer jobs were available, and the negative cycle continued and deepened for years.

Now to the socialism part. I received 212 euros a week for the first year or so, but as the government tightened its belt the christmas bonus went away, and then we were dropped down to 188, and those under 24 started to drop down lower and lower, until those trying to enter the workforce at the age of 18 would be expected to survive on 50 euros a week. That means you will be living with your parents, which is not something that helps them, or you, or your personal growth or job prospects. The negative cycle continues.

Without that 188 euros a week, my friends and I wouldn’t have been able to rent a house together and live there for two years, independent from our parents. Every penny we received went back into the economy, and the local economy at that. When the region is depressed, high welfare payments help immensely, because it at least lets businesses keep the lights on, and it keeps those people with jobs employed.

Economic migration is not just something that’s native to the Irish psyche, it’s necessary. Rural areas are hit doubly, because young people without prospects either move to towns and cities, or they leave the country entirely. I, one of many with a degree, left the country but not for economic reasons. I left for love, but every few weeks my sister was attending going-away parties. She’s had dozens of friends leave for Australia, New Zealand, Europe, England, and she had even considered moving to Canada at one time. Irish emigration seems to plague every generation. Most of my father’s bracket of the family, and there were 8 of them, had emigrated. My family has been spread as far apart as Queens in New York, and Eastern Europe. My grandparents left the country for work. Their parents left the country for work. A lot of this is because when times become tough, during recessions and crunches and negative growth, successive governments have taken the same conservative policies. I don’t say ‘conservative’ to invoke the US GOP, but policies that cut spending and raise taxes. These policies in Ireland have served to squeeze poorer people, and instead of spreading their money around it comes in, and immediately goes out again.

I’ve identified as socialist because of what I’ve seen in Ireland. I’ve seen wages shrink, and welfare payments shrink, and I’ve seen the rich and powerful continue to be rich and powerful as the rest of us get offered training in industries that can’t support us, or we’re offered work-fare. And work-fare it certainly is. 40 hour jobs have been turned into ‘internships’ that pay 50 euros a week. From experience – that 50 is eaten just in the commission of the job, so you lose out if you take one of these internships, and a lot of the time, no job materialized from this internship.

So how does that compare to here? Well, I see conservative policies at work, and I see low welfare payments, and I see low wages in certain industries, and I see the government and the people get mad at the poor for being poor when the deck is so clearly stacked against them. But I’m a filthy pinko, so that’s likely tainting my world view. Most of what my University degree taught me was to analyze and pick apart the information that is presented to me through the media and the news. And I see the same reams of bullshit being presented time and again, election cycle after election cycle, and the poor and middle class never seem to get ahead because the messages tell them variously to be afraid of each other, or envious of each other.

When I consider it, I’ve been poor most of my life. I haven’t been destitute, I’ve never been clothed in rags, I’ve always been fed. But sometimes I’ve been very very close to not being fed. Food insecurity, heat insecurity, housing insecurity, transport insecurity – these things are the new poverty and they impact very heavily on your decision making. For about a week at one point after I moved here, we were tight for food and making do with food that we’d received from a food bank. It’s hard to work when you’re hungry. If you analyze riots around the world, look how often they occur around massive food insecurity. If you can’t eat, you have fuck all left to lose, and you do get angry. Being hungry in America highlights class inequality, and you become aware of it. And then you hear people sigh when someone produces an EBT card (Electronic benefits transfer – food stamps now come on plastic, to those that didn’t know) and it’s bullshit. People are mad at other people for being poor.

Back to the bootstraps. I work now, and I’ve been working for a year. Is it totally unreasonable for me to assume that I’ll get along just fine without working? Kind of, but kind of not. The difference here is that I was able to find a job here. I’ve been ghostwriting; and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. My income pays the combined rent and utilities for our apartment (Because rent and utilities are already combined) and it’s such a gratifying feeling. It feels fantastic to be able to care for yourself, and your partner. And for a while, your step-son. Providing for your loved ones is a great feeling. Watching your income not match your expenses is not a great feeling. Working 3 jobs between 2 people to make ends meet does odd things to my little commie heart. I want to rail and rage against the inequality, but sometimes the system just is the way it is, and you need to adjust.

I can be a agitating red-or-dead oik, or I can work and then eat and have a roof over my head. One wonders what impact this has on the general population when it comes voting and civic engagement. Many people are just happy to not be starving. I’m happy to not be starving.

When I lived under the horrifying socialist Irish system, I was happy but stagnant. You gained a little, you lost a little. There was no work, but you wouldn’t starve. You might have to live with your parents, but you had money with which to do things. That weekly check helped you, helped your community, helped your local businesses, helped your country. Here my paycheck does a similar thing, but it only really helps me, my wife, and my landlord. It was difficult to grow and gain ground under the socialist system, but it’s difficult to grow here if you’re battling food insecurity. (By the way Ma – relax, I’m eating just fine. Better than ever. Don’t be worrying about me. Or be sending me food, I’m not going to starve. Keep the tea coming though, these people are savages when it comes to tea)

In this first year of (pretty much) gainful employment I’ve gained the perspective of work. I’d heard that working is satisfying, and that people go insane without working and I’m with them now. Not working, getting that payment from the government every week, that’s pretty crushing. You take it because you need it, but it can drive the fire out of you pretty quickly. After 5 years of collecting that money, you’re ready to run for the damn hills. You want to do something, you want to do anything, you want to earn a paycheck just to know how it feels. Being unemployed is depressing. The work that I’ve been doing isn’t depressing. I’ve realized lately that I enjoy my work. I get paid well for relatively few hours of work, I’m stimulated creatively, and this is what I went to University for – I’m using my degree, and I’ve got to say I think I’m pretty damn good at my job.

But my internal commie bristles at the injustices I see here. But it bristled at the injustices I saw and still see back in Ireland. All around the world your average working stiff still hasn’t recovered. The stock markets have more than recovered. Stock brokers aren’t losing too much sleep these days, but I know that there are people all across the world right now that are deciding between heat and food. People who are deciding between bills and rent. Deciding between their children getting books and buying new clothes that they’ve needed for the last 5 years. They say the economy has recovered: well, bully for the economy. Doesn’t help most of us, most of the time.

So do I prefer socialism or capitalism? Well I’ve never lived completely under one or the other. Ireland and the US both have a somewhat mixed system, it’s just that the US leans more towards capitalism and Ireland leaned more towards socialism. The leaning never seems to lean towards the benefit of the common man, the working stiff, the unemployed youth. Me. My dad.

But we continue, because that’s all we really can do. We do the best to love our jobs, we do our best to work hard to provide for our loved ones. We work within the systems we find ourselves surrounded by and we do the best we can.

This chapter has been quite dense and relatively comedy free, so let’s close with a joke shall we?

A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a pub, and approach the bar. The bartender turns around and says “The fuck is this? Some kind of joke?”

WTF America: Cities on fire, it’s a billion degrees (Chapter 8)

Cities on Fire: It’s a billion degrees.

Monsoon adjacent

The weather in Ireland is a constant topic of discussion, largely because it’s continually happening to people. The wind buffets you, the rain soaks you, the frost chills your bones, the snow coats your car and makes everything quiet. Even the heat at home is different – the humidity makes the comparatively mild summer temperatures inflated to the point that people think it’s hot. An Irish summer doesn’t hit 100 degrees fahrenheit. It might hit 90 degrees for a few hours, once per decade, during which hours everyone will take themselves outside and burn themselves to a crisp, because hot sunny weather is a total anomaly.

The heat is not an anomaly here – it’s what will make your life hell all summer. And I say summer… Arizona is a desert, which means there’s a local climate which only has 2 seasons – cold, and summer. The cold feels colder than it is, because of the lack of humidity, which makes the winter wonderful for me. Everyone else brings blankets with them in addition to their layers, and hand warmers, and all sorts of other solutions. I just grab a hat and maybe a coat, or usually a decent hoody. Winter is not hard here, which is precisely why a certain subset of people called ‘Snowbirds’ live here. A friend of mine saw his first snowbirds on the tram the other day. These are wealthier, older people that just do not enjoy spending winters in the northern states of the US, so they come here. I’ve been told they drive slowly and they enjoy early bird specials in restaurants, however I have not met any.

I arrived here on October 31st of 2013, and the weather was nice. It was downright lovely for my body which had been preparing for the onslaught of another winter that had snow in it. I experienced a few days of rain in several months, and temperatures were cool, but I spent a great deal of the winter sitting outdoors in a hoody drinking beer. It’s warm here, even when it’s cold. Well… the desert drops down to some very chilly temperatures during the night, but most of the time there’s not a bother on you if your plan is spending time outside. Some of the mildest winter I’ve experienced in my life so far, so I can see why these birds of old-leather flock themselves together.

Spring is dry here. There’s a little rain, and it can get muggy and humid, but it’s not really hot. People brighten, and everyone gets happier as the temperatures climb up again. 80 to 85 degrees, your average hottest day of Irish summers, is a wonderful temperature out here. When that temperature presents itself in springtime, you get to wear a short sleeved shirt or shorts for the first time in the year, if it presents in winter time you’ll be glad of the warmth, in autumn it means that the back of summer has been broken and it won’t be so hot anymore.

85 degrees does not appear in summer. Well it does, but only in some very specific circumstances. The first bullshit place that it appears is at 4am. That’s can be the lowest the temperature reaches for weeks at a time, and it’s a kick in the teeth. This temperature was your favourite just months beforehand, but summer in the valley to unlivable. Oh people live here, and they run their air conditioning around the clock, and they invest in ice blended coffee drinks, and sun screen, but the whole thing is a farce – without electricity the valley would be empty within a week. People can’t live here without massive human intervention. The water works alone must be astronomical, and they are. There are fake lakes, and real canals all over the place, there are water conservation efforts, there’s bottled water, and somehow the whole things keeps humming along as a reasonable pace, and I don’t understand it. Everyone pretends that they don’t live in a desert, as much as is possible anyway.

But it’s a thin veneer that starts to crack once the summers get to punishing status. My personal highest temperature day was at least 107 F ( 41.66 C, repeating of course) at least that’s what official sources told me. It may as well be 120 if it’s going to be 107, because it’s at that point you become convinced that the sun is, in fact, trying to kill you. Man consistently demonstrates this hubris, this belief that he can outfox the sun every single year, for 4 months of the year through the use of popsicles, pool parties and alcoholic soda pop. It’s all nonsense of course. People get mad when it’s hot, and this is not behaviour I had experienced when it got cold. When it’s cold people get quiet, introspective, they draw in as the season, year and nights draw in with them. Winter makes you small. A desert summer is just trying to kill you.

It’s not trying to inflict an existential crisis upon you, it’s trying to cook the skin off you, to turn you into a mummy, to steal the moisture from your cells and make you a pile of scabby ashes within a few hours. And it can do this even to the wary, and to the conscientious. I spent maybe 90 minutes in the pool in May, and I got the worst sunburn of my life. This greatly tinged my view on summer as I spent several weeks in shadow, shade and indoors cursing the day-star. The problem is that Phoenix is apparently located about a three hour drive from the surface of the sun. The sun is an intimate neighbour, an oppressive overlord, and the most ever present reminder of the hubris of man.

We’ve decided as a species that we can live here, on this sun blazed land, because AND I QUOTE “It’s cheaper than California” and “You never have to shovel sunshine.” These may be perfectly valid reasons, but for 4 months of the year, you become a cave dweller, pressing the most moist parts of yourself against air outlets and pretending that this is somehow better than some other nebulous option. And nobody who lives here is willing to soft soap you on this fact – Summer sucks. Nobody will tell you “It’s not so bad,” or “Everyone’s exaggerating.” They will tell you exactly how horrible it is, in great detail. Perhaps not as much detail as I’m going into, but there’s a 4-5 minute conversation with every person you inform of your newness to the valley. Estimates vary, but you don’t become accustomed to summers here until you have endured anywhere between 1 and 5 of them. Having endured 1 of them so far, I can say that it’s possible, but it is in no way comfortable. If you’re interested in spending any time outside within four months – say you need to walk from your car to the store, and back with groceries, or you want to sit on the patio of a bar, you’ll be hot.

Many pubs, and outdoor malls, and other venues provider misters – a series of mist generating sprinkler heads that do exactly what you think they would do. When the mist hits your skin, and it evaporates, it does cool the skin. But this is another cheat against the elements. You’ll be hot. Uncomfortably hot. And you’ll be 20-30 degrees hotter than you would want to be, and you’ll be that hot for months. I can’t stress this enough, and neither can most people I’ve met.

But we’re still here. Because it is cheaper than California, and there’s no snow. It almost doesn’t rain here at all. I said that you only see 85 in summer under some bullshit circumstances. Those other circumstances include dust storms and rain. When it does rain here, it’s monsoon rain, and that’s not a joke – it doesn’t drizzle. It doesn’t pitter patter, it pours. Absolutely pours down for maybe a few hours and then nothing. For weeks. When it does rain, or it’s overcast, or a dust storm blows through the temperature plummets. And the brief respite is glorious. You will bask for an hour after the weather happens, when the air smells both like dust and no dust – the rain knocks the dust from the air, and puts it on the ground, so it smells like petrichor, and it also smells clean.

My first real dust storm scared me. I don’t necessarily scare easy, but I don’t expose myself to scares if I can help it. You see a dust storm coming by the way. It’s a wall of dust that rolls over itself like a wave as it steams towards town, and it does move quickly. I was watching its progress, watching the visibility drop, and then I retreated into the house, as the wind picked up. When the storm is above you, it becomes dark quickly. Not pitch black, but dark, and the air is suddenly made of fast moving sand and dust. Dry-as-matchwood trees lose branches, palm trees lose fronds, power may begin to drop out, roofs will lose loose shingles. Anything lose will move. But when the storm passes it’s quiet, everything is filthy, and everyone ventures outside because it’s a little cooler now.

People have no business living here, at least not during the summer. But here we are, drinking beer, maintaining huge electricity bills, and gritting our teeth, because it’ll be over soon. Temperature drops below 100 in September. August usually gets a lot of rain, so we’ll have cool periods. July is when monsoon season starts properly, so it won’t be too bad. June is usually gloomy, the overcast days are quite nice. Only 4 more months of lying to ourselves until summer’s over.

WTF America: Everything’s Bigger In Texas (Chapter 7)

Everything’s bigger in Texas

Food warehouse

Outside the US the phrase is “Everything’s bigger in America,” but within these states, everything’s bigger in Texas. And though I haven’t been to Texas, I can attest to the accuracy of the first statement. Everything is bigger here. Coming from a small island, with I’ve got to say some fairly small people – average height for men is 5” 7’ and women is 5” 4’ – it’s pretty astounding to see this country. When your first flight takes over 12 hours, you realize just how far it is. You watch the little map pop up every so often and you’ve gone practically nowhere after an hour of flight you realize that there’s a lot of distance to cover. They call those states between New York and Los Angeles the ‘flyover states’ and not the drive-through states for a reason. Flying in the only reasonable way to transverse this country, unless you really like driving and are willing to spend the better part of a week doing it.

I was explaining to friends at home how far Arizona is from California. You can look at maps and you’ll see that they’re adjacent, but that doesn’t tell any of the story. To drive from Phoenix – where most of Arizona lives – to the southern California coast, takes around 6 hours and you need to make good time, with few stops. To bring some context to this scale for Irish people; there isn’t really anywhere you can’t be in Ireland in 6 hours if you have a car. My country is, from what I’ve heard, about the size of the state of Indiana, which and I’m sure you could travel between any two points in the state of Indiana inside of 6 hours.

My oldest friend, Adam, has a phrase and he’s told me where he picked it up a dozen times, but I never remember – To an American 100 years is a long time, and to an Englishman 100 miles is a long distance, and this phrase perfectly sums up the split between the peoples. People here think 50 years is an age. 100 years is an eternity which simply cannot be fathomed. But back home, when there’s buildings kicking around that have been there since the stone age you get a better perspective on time. But when you can drive coast to coast in 2 hours and 45 minutes if you floor it, you get a pretty poor perspective on far away.

American’s a country built around the car, and never is this so apparent when you are without one. Kimberlee and I are primarily bicycle commuters, so there’s a range of about 15 miles she could reach, and a range of 10 that I could reach if I pushed myself. That would be a totally reasonable distance at home, you could probably travel between two or three towns at that pace. But here, if you’re stuck out in the suburbs like we were, you’re screwed. Houses are built on developments, and those developments are in neighbourhoods, and those neighbourhoods cover half a dozen miles in a stroke. Everything is massively far apart.

The cluster of cities that is the greater Phoenix Metropolitan Area is often referred to as the valley, and from one side to the other could easily take an hour. That doesn’t seem bad at all, but you’re able to make that journey because you’re in a car going 80 miles an hour across perfectly paved 8-12 lane roads. ‘It’s about 20 minutes away” means it’s about 20 minutes away, if you drive at 80 miles an hour on the freeway. “It’s 20 minutes away” in Ireland means that you could probably get there in 20 minutes if you walked. You wouldn’t even have to walk all that fast. I’ve heard tell of people cycling from Dublin to Galway in an afternoon.

This scale change from Ireland to the US has been tricky to say the least. All time becomes relative to a totally new metric, which is largely based on freeway time, and the ability to drive. “Peoria’s only half an hour away” is a fine phrase, but when you inform those friends in Peoria that you don’t have a vehicle to carry you during that half an hour, then everyone starts to make calculations that either end up with the phrases “We’ll call around, see if you can carpool” or “Oh…” Because commuters in the Valley who drive cars can’t fathom getting around it without one. And the city planners didn’t have that in mind either. The whole area is set on a grid, where the major cross streets are one mile apart. So unless you happen to live on a block that hosts everything that you need and fancy, you’ll be riding quite a way.

Take the case of our electricity box when we lived in Gilbert, Arizona. Gilbert, along with Mesa, are the two cities out on the edge of the main metro area, so it’s urban sprawl that butts up against farmland. When you’re building a suburb, you put in your parks, and your little streets and you slap up your housing developments. And you note when you move into one of these developments that almost every house has a two car garage. Kimberlee did have a car for a period, but some bullshit happened there that I won’t go into.

The electricity box that we had was from SRP – the local power provider – and it housed a rechargeable card, so you could prepay your electricity. I thought this was a great solution until I found out that the nearest recharging station for this card was three miles away. A snap if you have a car – no distance at all. Now consider the last time that you walked three miles, or you rode a bike three miles. I had spent the two years previous to moving here living a sedentary life. So sedentary that I’m amazed that I didn’t turn into sediment. I guess I did, I gained 50 pounds. Anyway, getting on a bike after not riding one in a long time, and then riding 3 miles there, just to put a card into an ATM style device and feed a 20 to the same and then ride 3 miles back is frustrating. It’s tiring. And as the heat increases you wonder if you really need power all that badly.

You do. A warm spring in Arizona necessitates air conditioning. Waking up in the morning and having the absence of electricity tell you that you’re dealing with poor city planning for 6 miles is bothersome. At least I had bike lanes the whole way. That was nice. But the point still stands – this is not just a matter of car culture, or a matter of car first thinking, it’s a matter of car-only thinking. From what I’ve been told, and what I’ve seen, the Phoenix metro area is modernizing and increasing the prevalence of public transportation. When we moved to Tempe from GIlbert, the main things we were looking for was proximity. Town planners here, if any do exist (I haven’t seen a ton of evidence that indicates they do) seem to cluster shopping together, and it tends to reside at the perimeter of the city blocks, particularly the corners, and the housing is in the middle. And the housing is big, and the stores are big, and there are giant capitalist food warehouses wherein you can buy more food than I’ve ever seen.

Going for the bigger option seems to be the default option. Supersizing doesn’t really seem necessary – the large sizes of food are enormous. An American medium is typically the Irish large. You’d think that things would scale in a linear or logarithmic pattern, but it’s often exponential. The pick up trucks are gigantic, the small cars are the size of regular cars, the portions cross the line from generous to insultingly large. It’s like the establishment is challenging you to eat what they put in front of you. Often they are – several restaurants will have some sort of “eat it all and it’s free.” Or sometimes all you win is a t-shirt that says “I survived the jalapeno explosion overflowing trough challenge.” See the television show Man vs food for further research material.

I’d say that it was an atmosphere of conspicuous consumption, but it kind of isn’t. There’s no exterior or objective scale. If you grew up here your whole life the portion size is reasonable. It’s what you’re used to. The huge cars are just the size of cars, and if you ventured elsewhere, the cars would be small. Everything’s bigger here because it has to match the scale of the things that exist here. The land is enormous, and planes and cars are the only way to navigate it efficiently. I’m all for a more robust public transportation system though. The country is the width of a continent. That fact always seems to surprise me. Back before the car, it took decades to venture westward. It’s been said that you’d be with a whole new group of people when you got to the other side, and you would after 40 years. You’d be of a completely different set of ideas when you arrived at the far side too.

As America expanded westwards they just kept finding space. Practically endless space. Deserts, and mountain ranges, and the great lakes, and the billiard table states between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains. The space might drive a man mad, if you didn’t fill it with affordable tract housing, strip malls and little towns every 50-100 miles.

Aside from the things, and the land, I feel like the ideas are bigger here. There’s a fairly relentless pessimism among the people of Ireland, and I feel like we point it at one another and this stifles our ability to create and grow as a people. But Americans just kept expanding west into the space that they kept finding, and along with the highways and railroads that were installed to traverse the space, the mind had to fill up that space too – the ideological vacuum that the mind finds in empty space. I’m not saying that they didn’t expand into a space where people already lived – they did. I’m more discussing the individual experience of finding what the mind considers to be empty space. An empty house begs to be furnished, and an empty land begs either settlement or development. If only it had been developed a little closer together.

WTF America: Nice Shootin’ (Chapter 6)

Nice Shootin’

Break action .44

Image courtesy of Holly Stockton

I considered that this would be inevitable – the subject of guns would came up, both in the book and in my tenure in the United States. And there are all sorts of positions and I have no opinion on any of them.

Yeah right. As if I’m going to get away from this subject that easily. Let’s start with all my gun experience outside the US. In Ireland, there aren’t a lot of guns, because after the civil war of 1922-23 the government decided that maybe we should stop shooting each other. Firearms do still exist and are in limited circulation. To quote a passage from GunPolicy.Org you need a proper reason to own a firearm in Ireland:

 

Applicants must prove ‘good reason’ for ownership of the firearm applied for, and the Garda must be satisfied that the applicant can be permitted to possess, use and carry the firearms ‘without danger to the public safety or security or the peace.

 

Often a farmer, especially a livestock farmer will own a shotgun, because occasionally you need to put down animals, or to kill pest animals, or wild dogs, that sort of thing. Farmers have a ‘good reason.’ Rural business owners, such as pub owners often will own a shotgun because if you close at 1am, and the nearest bank and police station are 20 miles or more away, you may need to use a gun in the case of a break in. Generally though, most people will never apply to own a firearm. There doesn’t seem to be all that much need for it, and it never really crosses the minds of most people. Sure, what would you be doing that for?

I had handled an unloaded firearm before. I was visiting a military base for a while, and I got to look around. The Irish army, by the way, has access to fully automatic machine guns, Steyr AUGs, 40mm grenade launches, and a lot of what looks like old soviet armoured personnel carriers. I believe that the army and the reserves share storage facilities and resources, but I believe what I saw was the property of the reserves. In addition to these munitions, there’s an officer on base at all times, and that officer will have a Browning HP35 pistol, or rather the Fabrique Nationale version thereof. I was presented this gun, without ammunition, and was instructed on how to take it apart. I doubt I beat any speed records for assembly, or reassembly.

I like the machinery of guns. Revolvers seem to simple, and so intuitive to me. There’s an elegant simplicity to their workings, and I love a good machine. However, I was politically opposed to guns for many years though. They may be cool and everything but if we’re flatly honest, their purpose is firing bullets, and bullets have been known to kill people, in certain circumstances. I think I’m safe in saying that with the advent of widespread gun use in war, casualties went up. Their workings and mechanisms may intrigue me from an engineering standpoint, but my view on them was that the widespread possession and carrying of firearms was a bad idea.

But I had never fired a gun. And I didn’t feel that I could be genuine in my belief if I had never experienced that. Which has become my current take on life – it’s very difficult to form a well rounded opinion on a subject, if I’m only considering one perspective. It made logical sense that guns were bad – guns make it easy to kill people, most people I know don’t have guns, and I come from a country were not even the police carry guns. Guns turn arguments, or fist fights into lethal standoffs. When a gun is introduced into a situation it doesn’t generally calm that situation, especially not if tensions were already high.

Now, here comes the massive however. HOWEVER… I fired some guns while I was here, and it was fun. I was aware that this was a dangerous object, and bad things could have happened, but after a safety briefing I walked up to the line with a 44 calibre break-action single shot rifle. So you slip the stock up on your shoulder, put your cheek down on the pad, and line the scope up with that metal plate that somebody placed down range about 40 yards away. You breathe steady and squeeze the trigger, not pull the trigger. Through the foam ear protection you hear the crack, and you feel the pushback, and then very quickly thereafter there’s a ding.

Bullets do make those noises you hear in the movies by the way. They’re not quite as loud as in the Sergio Leone movies, but the skip off rocks and they whizz, and whine and wheel off up the hill, producing the exact amount of dust you’d expect if you were trying to shoot someone’s hat out of their reach after you’d shot if off their head. Guns are fun. I’m sure this isn’t true for everyone, but neither is that above paragraph about guns being bad. They’re objects that are loaded with massive cultural significance, and depending on your geographic location, or your cultural background, or your religion, or any number of other complicating factors you’ll have an opinion that’s hard line, soft or sometimes entirely non-existent.

Guns are still dangerous whether I like them or not. I’m not going to add the caveat ‘in the wrong hands’ because sometimes even in the right hands they can produce some pretty poor results. Regardless of your position on them, guns still exist as tools that fire bullets, and bullets are known to kill people under certain circumstances. So how do you reconcile the benefits with the costs? You look at the issues that you can find, or that you happen to find, or sometimes you just rely on good old fashioned prejudice, and you fall somewhere on the spectrum. I’ve made friends that own guns, and they are perfectly well adjusted people that have this hobby, habit, or conviction as part of their lifestyle. I have a friend that carries a handgun every day, I have a friend that carries one occasionally, and I have a friend that just likes to shoot at targets.

These people aren’t magically changed into monsters because they have guns, nor are they changed into meek lambs because they don’t have their gun on them at the time. They remain the same people with and without the weapon. I wasn’t changed into a power crazed man-killer when I got my hands on a .45 peacemaker, I just discovered that it’s fun to point that thing down range and hear a metal plate go ding. It’s satisfying, like popping bubble wrap. Or finishing a ship in a bottle, or getting your rebuildable atomizer set up just the way you like it just as your favourite eliquid is ready to be put into it.

How do you explain to people that something that they believe is evil, is fun for you? I guess sometimes you just say ‘Fuck ‘em’ and you don’t explain it. Other times you write something like this so people realize that sometimes people who like guns aren’t a bunch of bunker building, anti-government, psycho-killers. I’m currently looking into buying a gun, because this green card, along with some pretty liberal gun laws in the state of Arizona say that I can buy as many as I can afford. There’s no waiting period, I believe there’s a federal background check, but aside from that, I’m pretty sure I could walk into a gun store any day I wanted and pick up a gun of my choosing, very few questions asked.

Why do I want a gun? I very much would like to go to a special building every so often and punch holes in paper at some very high speeds. The machinery fascinates me, the act of shooting is fun, and I love spending time with friends indulging in hobbies. I’m not buying a gun so I can prevent a tyrannical government from crushing my freedoms, I’m not going to start carrying it around because I fear for my personal safety. I want to make metal plates dings, I want to make copper jackets sing, I want to skip rocks from 100 yards away, I want to hold power at arms length and then tame it. I’ll be totally honest – firing a gun makes me feel powerful.

I am a pacifist, to some extent. I can’t envision myself firing a gun at another human being, or maybe not even at at animal. I don’t agree with war on any level, and it saddens me to see human being shooting at each other every day, for a thousand reasons that eventually boil down to some flavour of bullshit about land, or money, or honour, or privilege, or safety, or something else.

Am I in favour of regulation? Yeah. Maybe a waiting period? Universal background checks would perhaps stop some of the crazies from getting their hands on guns. Would it be the worst thing in the world if guns were registered in some sort of database? Maybe if you have a history of domestic abuse, or you murdered someone, or you’ve been known to get drunk and shoot at your tv, maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun. But what do I know, I’m just some guy from some place far away.

I didn’t come to this country to tell people how to live. I only really came to this country because I wanted to marry one of it’s citizens, and I thought maybe it’d be cool to live here. And it is very cool to live here, not least of all because I’ve gotten to fire some guns. Culture is what defines perceptions on guns, I think, and from what I’ve seen of American culture guns are very difficult to tease away from the American experience. In California in 2011 I didn’t fire guns, because either I didn’t run into any gun owners that wanted to take me shooting, or I didn’t run into gun owners. In Arizona I’ve made friends with gun owners, and they’ve been glad to take me shooting. So it’s not a universal part of the whole culture, but I feel there’s enough of it to say that it’s a key part of the culture.

 

I feel like this is an ideal spot to bring up the disclaimer that I inserted into some of the original WTF America posts after some people started taking things personally:

WTF America is a comedic take on American culture as viewed by an outsider. Remain calm.

WTF America: Venice Beach Freakshow (Chapter 5)

Venice Beach Freakshow

Freakshow

Not everything in this book has occurred since I moved here in 2013. I have been here before, both times to visit Kimberlee. The first was in 2009, and aside from confirming that I loved the woman that would become my wife, it was pretty uneventful. Nothing too crazy happened. Living as a tourist for a few weeks takes a lot of pressure off the experience of being here.

It was the second trip before I started to notice the crazies. I’m lived in some pretty small towns throughout my life, and the crazies are pretty easy to spot. When you’re in these little towns, everyone knows everyone else’s business so knowledge of new or old crazies get passed around, to keep everyone alert. Or you just get used to spotting the nutters, or rather the general behavior of Irish nutters.

I can’t spot an American nutter, because most of you look alike. You mostly look like Americans, and my assumption is that you’re not all a bunch of whack jobs. The media might tell me a little different, and if Facebook is to be believed every single person that your friends encounters is sick in the head, and apparently trying to destroy them. I’ve been accosted by two crazy people since I’ve been here and the experience isn’t pleasant, not because it’s inconvenient but because you’re facing off with mental illness even if briefly.

Situation the first: I’ve gone to the gas station to buy a couple of beers, for that is what my heart desires this particular evening. I lock up my bike, and go inside, past a woman having a very animated conversation on a payphone. The payphone isn’t the crazy part of this story. When I go back out and begin unlocking my bike, I hear a statement from the woman at the payphone and I genuinely can not figure out if this was intended for the phone or me. “If you see someone, like, trying to rape me, call the cops or something. Be a human being, and call them instead of just standing there.” Having dealt with the occasional Irish nutter, I remain silent and go about my day. The phone hangs up, she proceeds to her car, which is a white honda accord stuffed to the gills with what I assume is this woman’s entire life.

“This is why this whole place is going up like Sodom and Gomorrah” she says to me, as I catch her glance. Never antagonize a nutter. So I nod and say “yeah” and go about my day. This woman still sticks with me to this day, because she’s become this odd touchstone for me in relation to how I encounter and deal with the world. I doubt that I was in a position to help her, or make her life better that day, though I certainly would have done her the favour of complying her request if the situation called for it. I remember her, because you can’t really inhabit the mind of another person, so you kind of need to do your best to imagine yourself in that position. I brushed her off as a crazy, because that’s the easy thing for me to do, instead of recognizing her as a person like me, with problems like me. Not that her problems sounded similar to mine – I just lacked beer – but I feel like the best way to engage with humanity is to imagine other people as complexly as possible, to quote John Green.

The second crazy was also in 2011 in Huntington Beach, and she caused an existential crisis. She was wandering around a parking lot, weeping openly and shouting that her bike had been stolen. Standard protocol says avoid eye contact, head down, keep moving. It was as I rode past her on my bike that I was accused by her, of the strangest thing. “Do you even have a face?!” she says. Which is not what you want to hear when you’re an immigrant in a new land, who’s struggling with losing an identity as they adjust to a world they’ve never lived in. It’s a pretty cruel thing to say to anybody, to accuse them of being some faceless non-person.

The usual response to this kind of behaviour from most is silence or violence. Shouting back or ignoring people. I went to an Electric Six concert this year, and on the walk from the gig to the tram, I passed several sleeping homeless people in the city center. The homeless, the mentally ill, the down on their luck, the freaks – the crazies – never seem to get a fair shake. It pains us more as a reportedly civilized society to recognize the existence of these people that it pains our society that the circumstances that put them there exist. This is not a problem unique to the United States – few countries really take care of their crazies and their freaks properly.

In the city of Venice in California there’s the Venice beach boardwalk, and it houses the Venice Beach Freakshow. Kimberlee and I went in there, to see the three headed turtle, and the mermaid skeleton, and the electric lady. All that good stuff. I don’t watch it, but people are terrifying themselves with American Horror Story: freakshow this year. On this level we’re happy to engage with the things we’ve sanitized before we’ve encountered them. Behind the glass the cyclops skull isn’t so scary, but when there’s no glass between you and the guy on the train that’s calling fellow passengers baby-killers, that’s where humans are uncomfortable.

Is this an indictment of US government policy? Yes and no. I don’t believe that America breeds more crazies than anywhere else. By and large I’ve found Americans more polite than a fair amount of Irish people I’ve had the displeasure of running into. Back home, there’s your nutters, there’s your genuinely dangerous people that you’d always give a wide berth, and then there’s a contingent of drunk people you’ll probably have to deal with if you leave the house on the weekend. Here though, there are different breeds. There’s those religious fundamentalists that protest at the planned parenthood clinic in my neighbourhood. There are open carry people that really need to go to WalMart with their AR-15 rifle. There’s that asshole that rode behind Kimberlee and I in his truck honking for almost a full minute, because we dared to be in the street on bicycles when he was clearly a righteous road user that could dictate that we shouldn’t be there. Some of the same Irish crazies are here, but there’s a whole other subset of unique ones.

This internal debate of mine, over the lack of compassion for the freaks and crazies, never really reaches any resolution. In any immediate situation where you’re faced with these sort of people, most people shut down and don’t engage, because the first thought is for personal safety. And when personal safety is the first thing in your mind, people make a lot of terrible and shitty decisions that cause terrible things to happen to their fellow man, by action or inaction. I try to find the best in everyone, I try to help whenever I can, but I like most just stay quiet. When the crazies intrude on this quiet civil society of ours we’re confronted with the mistakes we’ve made as a society – the people aren’t the mistakes by the way, it’s the policies we’ve made as governments and as people. We decide to cut funding to mental health programs, either because we voted for something else, or because we made healthcare too expensive, or because we allowed greed to propagate in some way that made casting people out the most economical thing to do.

Or maybe we choose to ignore people will mental illness because we do see them as human. They’re us. And we’re terrified when we see that our reflection is so fun-house mirror, because we know that maybe a quirk of mental chemistry could put us out on the street, screaming at cyclists.

To lighten the tone, there are another group of freaks that I’ve run into. People that shout things out of car windows. There are a lot of cars here, and I have never before been subject to so many high speed, dopplered opinions. I’ve taken to waving at these jackasses as they bray from passenger side windows, or as they hurl giant iced slush cups at me. Or as they declare “Fags!” while driving past my wife and I. You can’t imagine these are the most observant fellows. What is it about surrounding people in armour – amour that’s capable of travelling at 100 miles an hour, has air conditioning, political talk radio, and can separate them from everyone else – that turns them into assholes?

Maybe everyone’s crazy people it’s in the constitution. You can say the most insane shit you like, and it’s totally covered. Nobody is even really allowed to stop you from saying it. Nor are they allowed to take away that gun. The counterbalance is that nobody really has to listen to them. You’re free to ignore your fellow countrymen if you disagree with them. And I do roundly disagree with parking lot lady – I do have a face.

Are Americans crazy? Nah. They’re polite, they’re welcoming, they’ve got a decent handle on things. I’d say they appear crazy because the culture is different. You don’t have the cultural touchstones that are, say, growing up hunting, so carrying a weapon around seems insane to people that have never handled a gun. Yelling at someone from a car is pretty much always insane though. Don’t be doing it.

I don’t really have a solution for these problems. I’m just attempting to observe, and perhaps catalog the world around me for future reference. Reference for me, and reference for you. We could behave more compassionately around one another, both in the immediate area, and in the abstract. Vote for the candidates that you think will do the most good for the most people, maybe? Perhaps talk to your friends that seem to be presenting symptoms of mental illness, so they don’t slip through the cracks before they can get help? Give to those charities that will get people back on their feet?

All the world over, people will have their nutters. Americans are normal. Their crazies seem crazier to outsiders though.

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