Illustration by Ward Sutton
Am I an American? Hell, yeah. Which is to say, kinda.
I mean, for one thing I grossly overpay for health care, just as the Founding Fathers intended. Also, like everyone, I accept fireworks as a fitting commemoration for every occasion from Independence Day to a parent’s funeral. Or how about this for a Yankee Doodle shared value: I can’t be bothered to learn a second language yet am somewhat incredulous when even the humblest service providers of other countries fail to be fluent in mine. And I’m pleased to report that every four years I join all right- and left-thinking, democracy-loving citizens in considering half the electorate ( +/- 2 percent) to be insane idiots for voting for the presidential candidate I didn’t vote for.
But really, that’s just about all I do that nearly all of you, my countrymen and -women, do. Put another way, I’m not a particularly high-functioning American. Not the kind of native son who’s anxious or apt to participate in the traditions and ritual behaviors of this proud (an adjective meant as both a compliment and a criticism) nation, or who’s as-one with the social gestalt. I might even go so far as to describe myself as a domestic expat. Wait! Make that Domestic Expat® (this exceptional land is crawling with an exceptional number of thieves): an American citizen living outside America’s defining cultures while still living within America’s borders.
And what, precisely, are these defining cultures from which I steer clear? Simple: any activity or proclivity that can legitimately fill in the blank in the phrase “America’s _____ culture” (or its fraternal twin, “America’s culture of ______”). A sampling:
America’s drug culture: If you include alcohol (and if you don’t, get in a program), around 70 percent of us are getting buzzed on something or other every week. Me? I abstain from all intoxicants and prescription medications (see the November 2013 installment of this column). Which isn’t to say I’m any better than the imbibing hordes. Unless you consider my being far less likely to puke on your shoes “better.”
America’s fast food culture: A nexus of Golden Arches, pig-tailed redheads, and ground meat monarchs stretches from coast to coast, with 8 out of 10 people eating fast food monthly, and nearly 1 in 2 indulging weekly. A family history of heart disease and personal history with clowns has kept me out of fast food franchises for more than 20 years.
America’s gun culture: This is a country of 300-plus million citizens and nearly 300 million guns. Gun violence here is the highest among all developed and affluent countries in the world, a sobering thought in light of the fact that 70 percent of us aren’t sober. Nevertheless, I choose to remain gunless and will stay that way until the NRA pries my cold, dead hand open and wedges one in.
America’s sports culture: I have no definitive statistics for how many of us (read: you) attend sporting events and/or watch them on television, but consider this: In 2011, it was reported that 64 percent of Americans tune into NFL games during the season. Add MLB, NHL, NCAA, MLS, as well as a dozen other sports and competitions (Olympics, X Games, bowling, etc.), plus event attendance, and it’s hard to imagine the cume as anything less than 75 percent. I am a fan of no team, a spectator of no sport, an owner of no bobblehead.
America’s credit culture: In the U.S., the average credit card debt per household is over $7,000, nearly a trillion dollars in total. My household owes zero. And no, you can’t borrow any money.
America’s Christian culture (some would argue this should be “Judeo-Christian,” but let’s face it, we all know who’s commandeered our ship of state): Only about 20 percent of the U.S. population claims no religious affiliation. I am among them. If you’re a compassionate Christian, you’re liable to pray for me. If you’re a Tea Party Christian, you’re liable to call me a Muslim.
America’s youth culture: Goods, entertainment, advertising—it’s all aimed at kids, the least sophisticated, most facile, lowest attention span, highest consuming group. In a selfless attempt to bring that to an end, I aged and had no kids.
What prompts my noninvolvement in these various pervasive ways of being? Several factors, including but not limited to: childhood trauma (though that term strikes me as redundant; if you think your childhood wasn’t traumatic, you suffered far more trauma than you know), snobbishness, stubbornness, condescension, parsimony, insecurity, spite, fear, dread, sloth, indifference, disinterest, antipathy, moral objection, social objection, political objection, scheduling conflicts, caprice, misinformation, disillusionment, suspicion, scorn, overthinking, and, unless I’m forgetting something, forgetfulness. (Employing the same accretion of influences, Socrates invented philosophy.)
But look, I’m also objective enough to recognize that, to a significant swath of everyday Everymen, rejecting societal conventions may be viewed as dishonest or affected—a way to get attention, feel special, alienate oneself enough that one can grouse about alienation. To which I respond: I know you are but what am I?
A Not-Irrelevant Flashback
The year: 1982. The British Empire is valiantly defending its sheep’s freedom in the Falklands. The Equal Rights Amendment falls just short of the 38 states necessary to be adopted, rocketing Phyllis Schlafly from obscurity to ignominy. The Weather Channel debuts, swiftly displacing a peek out the window as the preferred method of checking to see if it’s raining. Emoticons are created and become the first new galling addition to written language since dotting one’s “i”s with little hearts.
Most important to this story, however, is that E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is not only setting box office records; people won’t shut their damn mouths about it.
“It’s so-o good.”
“It’s so-o-o cute.”
“It’s so-o-o-o…” well, who can remember, it was 30 years ago. But believe me when I tell you the movie was getting more and better word of mouth than Mother Teresa, who, frankly, could’ve used an agent.
For weeks and weeks, I resisted the raves and recommendations of relatives, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, store clerks, even Roger Ebert, who, in dog form, was haunting my dreams at the time.
“It just doesn’t appeal to me,” I’d demur. If asked why that was, I was able to articulate a handful of cogent reasons based on personal tastes and preferences. Naturally, I was wrong and had to be told so.
“It’s not a typical Spielberg movie,” they’d reply.
“It’s about so much more than aliens from outer space,” they’d rebut.
“You’ll like these special effects,” they’d aver. (Boy, do I hate being averred at. Or is that to?)
All such conversations (a.k.a. alternating monologues) were pointless. But what else are we to do with our lives?
Then deep into the film’s run something changed. I reversed course. Decided to see it. Had to see it. Not because of the heaped praise, the unsolicited endorsements, the unrelenting exhortations per se, but because all of those things, collectively, along with its record-smashing nationwide box office returns, contributed to a separate, far more persuasive argument: To not see E.T. was to be estranged—willingly and isolatingly estranged—from the prevailing culture, from America itself. And what’s the point of being part of a group if one isn’t engaged with the group, isn’t prepared to share their common experiences and interests? (I kept this question to myself to keep from stirring up the averers.)
I didn’t merely tuck my objections aside; I tossed them away. I was determined to see the film without bias or preconceived notions—not to prove myself right or everybody else wrong, but to take part. That weekend, standing in line at the theater, I breathed deep, cleared my head, told myself to sit back, relax, and belong.
Two hours later, shuffling from the theater, flanked by an army of my smiling cinematic compatriots, as I reflected on what we’d just shared, an essential truth welled up in me: The collective consciousness is a sap.
Getting to the Point
The statistics don’t lie. Drugs, debt, guns, et al., surround me. But a friend snorting lines? An acquaintance’s ballooning credit card liability? A neighbor’s Kalashnikov collection? Such things are, overall, private practices and personal effects—and consequently invisible to me. Thank God. (I say that colloquially, not out of actual faith-based, Heaven-directed gratitude.) Because just as much as I don’t want to be part of those activities, I don’t want to know about your part in them, either. In the case of more public popular pursuits, like sports or religion, I carefully manage my risk of exposure. For example, I can circumvent the jock-mad masses by eschewing sports bars and man caves. Likewise by steering clear of churches, seminaries, revivals, bible colleges, televangelists, and the Deep South, I’m far less likely to be importuned by deities and the people who love them or, worse, love to talk them up. Really, we need look no further than the Parable of the E.T. Hype to understand that if people had just kept their enthusing out of my personal space, I’d have dodged that Spielbergian turkey altogether.
Which brings me to the cell phone, the latest ubiquity and darling of damn near everybody. (Empirical proof: According to a Pew Research study, cell phones enjoy a U.S. penetration rate of approximately 90 percent of adults. Anecdotal proof: In a business meeting of 10 people, I’m the only one not reading e-mails, texting, web browsing, checking Facebook, online banking, mapping, app accessing, monitoring RSS feeds, shopping Amazon, or tweeting “Just missed an important meeting.”) That “America’s cell phone culture” is not yet part of the media’s stock phrase bank I can only assume is because it’s more aptly described as a contagion, a telephonic metabubonic plague.
But here’s the rub: Cell phones, unlike a coke habit, a crushing Visa bill, or an erection-challenged gun owner trysting with his automatic weapon in the knotty pine seclusion of a semi-finished basement, are ever-present. In one’s face. Brazenly toted, proudly wielded. A near constant and unavoidable reminder that I’m thisclose to being deported as an illegal nonimmigrant.
And the open pervasiveness cuts both ways: in a room (country!) full of cell phone users, the non-user (me!) stands out, often provoking a reaction. Over time, as the saturation and sophistication of mobile devices has grown, the tenor of said reactions to my phonelessness has evolved. An attitudinal review: 1992–1999: accepting; 1999–2004: “you’re missing out”; 2005–2011: incredulity; 2011–2013: dismissal alloyed with pity forged in a fire of eye-rolling disgust.
In an effort to avoid the sadly plausible, coming-in-late-2014 Spitting In My Ugly Mug response, I decided it was time to join the always-connected crowd and acquire the device that will henceforth enable me to exclude myself from any and all crowds in perpetuity.
I stopped at one of several kiosks in the mall, a “touchpoint” (retail outlet) for a multinational telecommunications company, one raved about by friends. (Two notes to self: 1. Drop friends who rave about huge multinational telecommunications companies. 2. Reprimand self for using the word “touchpoint.”) All three employees were busy helping other customers, affording me a chance to check out the devices displayed on the countertop.
The quantity and range of brands and choices—from head-of-the-class smart phones to dumb-as-a-stump voice-onlys—was so great one would have to devote a lifetime of research to triangulating the ideal intersection of quality, features, and price. And since it’s common knowledge that today’s ahead-of-the-curve phone is later today’s cutting edge paperweight, such a lifetime of study would ultimately prove to be a fool’s errand. The salesperson, I knew, would have a recommendation; but in today’s retail environment, expediency/minimum wage sloth almost always ensures that it will be the most expensive model. This reduced my purchase decision to little more than a random choice and crossed fingers, the same method I employ when ordering dinner at an Irish restaurant.
Which was when Brad, a corn-fed youth topped with a faux-hawk, appeared in a company-logoed polo shirt (apparently, his presence behind the kiosk’s impregnable 360-degree glass-countered perimeter, beneath a back-lit, bright red, 3-D sign the size of a conference table sporting the multinational’s name, wasn’t enough to convince me of his affiliation).
“What can I do for you today?” he asked.
I confessed to Brad that I was a cell phone virgin. Shared with him my current personal and professional situation, as well as my perceived needs. Wrapped up with a few questions my preliminary online research had raised then failed to answer. Brad very kindly pretended to listen and patiently waited for me to be quiet.
Thus did the shitstorm begin.
With a sales pitch that can only be described as some unholy millennial mash-up of can’t-be-bothered and won’t-shut-up, Brad unleashed a lashing typhoon of jargon-studded verbiage and elliptical phrases (“And then it just, like…” “Way, like, better than the, you know…”) that addressed my specific situation only by virtue of it being part of the universal situation encompassed by the totality of hardware, software, service plans, accessories, life contingencies, and technological eventualities. He was at once clearly and opaquely knowledgeable.
As he spoke, Brad showed me phones he recommended on price, on functional features, on popularity (retail perpetual motion: to sell a lot of a product by telling customers a lot of the product’s been sold). No one phone got top marks on all three criteria. Another consideration: some phones were free with some plans, others free with other plans; phones he wouldn’t recommend were free with all plans and the best phones were not free with any plans. Plan costs were contingent on term of contract, total number of devices, GBs per device, monthly minutes and text volume, plus extras, like GPS and insurance coverage. Cost-wise, if I understood him correctly, I could expect my monthly bill to be unfathomable, never-ending, and irreversible.
Perhaps seeing the disengagement in my eyes, Brad switched gears and
began talking in broader terms, laying out the advantages my new connectedness would bring. I’d have a resource in case of emergency; be able to get e-mail and the Internet anywhere; be more accessible to family, friends, and clients, all at a single number; never miss another call.
He continued. Unnecessarily. I was already sold. I would not be relinquishing the silence I relish. I would not re-classify time alone with my thoughts as intolerable “boredom” in need of immediate eradication. I would not have an emergency on a planet with 6 billion people who carry a phone I can ask to borrow. I would, though, start carrying a handkerchief and accept Spitting In My Ugly Mug as my due.
Turning to go I told Brad, “I’ll think about it.”
This time, quite insightfully, he didn’t even pretend to listen.
In the end, I suppose Mark Twain said it best: “It’s easier to stay out than get out.” But damn if “The collective consciousness is a sap” isn’t a pretty fair runner-up.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue.