Noilly Prattle: Thoughts on Summer in America 2012

Friday, August 31, 2012

Thoughts on Summer in America 2012

Rockport, MA
Referring to my recent 3-week visit to the States in a recent email, a friend of mine asked: “Now that you’ve had time to reflect, what are your impressions after being away for so long?” I chuckled a bit at the “away for so long”. It sounded like a had slept away the last 30 years whereas, in fact, I had visited the States just last summer.

But it is a legitimate question, one that I have been turning over in my own mind and one that I have been hesitant to write about. My overall impression is one of--it is difficult to choose the appropriate words--unease, uncertainty, anxiety, a certain weariness and loss of optimism, some sadness, yet, openhearted hospitality, friendliness--and even lack of same, openness, people doing the best they can in trying socioeconomic and personal circumstances.

My friend's email included an anecdote that seems to corroborate media discussions and statistics on the economic scene, the loss of good paying jobs, high unemployment, the relative decline in the value of higher education:

“For some of us nothing much has changed. For many others, life is much different. I’m on a search committee at work for a simple clerk position for our office….231 applicants passed the Human Resources Dept screening for us to review and most of them have BA’s and even advanced graduate degrees. Also, too many have been out of work for 1-2 yrs. Yet, w/advances in automation I just don’t see many past jobs coming back. I fear we’ll have decades of stagflation just as I understand Japan has been having. How have people there adjusted?”

How are the Americans adjusting? That appears to be the implied question. There is is an uneasy feeling that America is going to repeat the Japanese experience of the last two plus decades. It is already five years since the first rumblings of the current global economic downturn. For me it was somewhat like remembering where you were when you first heard of the JFK assassination. In the case of the bursting of the credit bubble I was in a coffee shop in Vienna and happened to pick up an English language newspaper after my usual vacation moratorium on “news”. After five years, despite the self-serving federal government hoopla about how we are making progress but still have a long way to go, I would put more emphasis on the “long way to go”.

early morning shoppers at Walmart
I was taking an early morning walk and having a cup of coffee and muffin at a Walmart near my brother's home and got into a conversation with one of the workers there. She asked me if I was from "around here" and I responded that no, I was just visiting for a couple weeks. I told her that I was from "here" but now lived in Japan. She thought that I was "lucky" to be able to travel and I asked her about her job and she told me that it was "alright" but that she hoped to get training for a better paying job in another industry. That seemed to be a pretty common refrain--looking for better paying jobs that are harder and harder to find. 

flag in front of home
a fairly common sight
In terms of the current presidential election I'm picking up a lot of wishful thinking and nostalgia from white America suggesting that things were better when “minorities” were safely “in their place” and not an issue in elections. I see a lot of American flags flying on Main Street in higher income, mostly white, towns and in the yards of many people's homes. I had an interesting discussion about how “this country in going to hell” in the backyard patio/pool of one of these be-flagged homes. They acknowledged that “we've got our nose in everybody's business”, i.e., the energy wars in the Middle East and the 800+ military bases the US maintains around the world. Yet, they couldn't see the correlation between “going to hell” and “our nose in everybody's business.” It was hot and not very windy and the flag was rather flaccid that day.

Little League baseball
Little League baseball has an unpleasant go-for-the-throat edge to it. It is highly organized and well coached, but, among the “soccer moms” (baseball moms?) it is a deadly serious business. When I was a kid, back in the antediluvian, we used to pick up sandlot games to while away a summer afternoon and have some fun. This modern Little League baseball seems to be a rehearsal for the major leagues and baseball-star-level incomes. One “baseball mom” stands out vividly in my memory. Her son was pitching (the star pitcher it seemed) and she was standing just behind me issuing instructions on how to breath and how to pitch in a very loud voice (and in my ear) to her hapless son trying his best to pitch a decent game. I doubt this lady realized it, but she she was probably embarrassing her son more than encouraging him.

my compact rental car
Ultimately, you can't really nail down the American experience anymore than you can say such and such and so and so about any place on the planet. If anything characterizes America, though, it is its total reliance on the automobile. The price of gasoline is an emotional issue there. Shortly before I arrived in my hometown in a rental car the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was (I was told) around $3.39. When I returned the car three weeks later it was up to $3.65. That's a significant increase when you're filling a 15-gallon or more tank. Here in Japan, the price of gasoline is much higher (the equivalent of $5.60 per gallon), but we don't rely entirely on cars since the public transportation system is excellent and, besides, we have smaller more fuel efficient cars.

in Lenox, MA for Shakespeare's
The Tempest and King Lear
Still, I am quite “American” in that I enjoy driving when in the States. I dislike the Interstate highways because they are boring, sleep inducing and dangerous, constantly battling high speed semis on their interstate commerce business. But I love driving on the smaller back roads through rural towns, smaller cities and the countryside. That is most relaxing, unless you get a bout of diarrhea, and start squirming looking for a restaurant to stop at and use the rest room before it's too late....

jazz quintet in Rockport, MA
home away from home -
note the dog
An old college friend and I got together for a jazz concert in Rockport and Shakespeare in Lenox--both in Massachusetts, and both requiring long distance driving. My friend rented a small cabin in a campground where I stayed after the jazz concert. “Camping” isn't exactly the right word. The campground was nice enough but most of the “campers” had, snail-like, brought their homes with them in the shape of recreational vehicles that could be extended on the sides and looked just like homes in a woodsy trailer park. I can only imagine the cost of the gasoline required to maintain this life style. Anyway, we saw some cute chipmunks around the picnic table that took a liking to pretzels.

"short tail" the chipmunk
My three weeks came to its inevitable end. I had an early flight scheduled out of Logan Airport so I drove to Boston, returned the rental car and stayed in a hotel the night before my departure. My return flight to Japan turned out to be one of those that you hope won't happen, but did. I blogged about it in an earlier post.


Anonymous said...

Rockport and Lenox are two places of my youth.

Last night, saw Taming of The Shrew at The Plantation…delightful.

Interesting piece, Joe.

Noilly Prattle said...

Thanks. Had been ruminating about it but my friend's email decided me.

Incidentally, Olympia Dukakis played a female version of Prospero (Prospera) in The Tempest. She's a real trouper, but unfortunately not up to a Shakespearean role. She seemed out of her element to me--but a lovely 80-year-old presence on the stage. Very encouraging for a 70-year-old like me. :-)

Anonymous said...

She was playing in The Tempest in Japan and you saw her??

Noilly Prattle said...

No, she played in Lenox, MA, and I saw her there.