These are crazy days! Russia’s on fire and Pakistan is drowning. This past month of August heat has been hard on many of us. Are these the effects of the dreaded climate change? Nobody knows, but it seems that nature’s shocks simply mirror those that are more clearly man-made. Seems like no one is having a good year except maybe the Chinese, and even they may be exaggerating.
As Americans living abroad what the papers tell us about our own country can be unnerving. When Kay and I visited the U.S. this summer, we half expected to encounter crumbling highways and ruined bridges, shuttered schools and people begging in the streets.
Instead, what we saw as we traveled widely through the eastern half of the country still looked like the land of plenty. The highways and bridges we rolled over would make much of the world green with envy. The towns of single-family, detached homes with well-kept lawns and gardens looked peaceful and, if not wildly prosperous, at least stable. Obviously, most Americans are coping with their hard times. As for begging in the streets, in Istanbul we can see more beggars in a single week than we saw in two months in the U.S. Okay, so we didn’t drive through the urban ghettos or seek out the rural poor. The friends and relations we visited don’t happen to inhabit America’s more desperate corners, so visiting those was not on the itinerary of this year’s North American grand tour.
Instead, we got to attend a destination wedding at a South-Florida resort, and another at Chicago’s History Museum.
The latter, although it didn’t have the aura of “destination” attached to it, was nevertheless, an elegant occasion. Both of these were family affairs. Kay and I were delighted to see our nephew and niece so tastefully and happily married.
As tourists in our own country, it was interesting to note how the expectations around American weddings have been subtly ratcheted upwards. Am I wrong in observing that from what used to be a simpler kind of occasion, even a middle- class wedding today is more likely to have been produced from a designer’s template?
When Kay and I were married 30 years ago, it would never have occurred to us to have sent out save-the-date cards in addition to an invitation. Our wedding’s destination was Detroit’s inner city. We had no wedding planner and never thought we needed one. We also didn’t have a rehearsal dinner, and, now that I think about it, I don’t believe we even had a rehearsal.
If I dwell on these details, it’s because they are part of a long-running trend that was much on my mind as I drove through America this summer. As a kid, when I heard the word industrial, I thought of the factories that I saw around me in my native Chicago.
Later, I made my living producing industrials, films that showed people at work. In earlier days industrial was always a benign word.
Today, though, the word has taken on a darker meaning for me. That’s because what once felt like a diverse world of moderate-sized companies and family-owned businesses serving our daily needs has, through a gradually accelerating process of mergers and acquisitions, become a world dominated by giant industrial corporations. We expect a car or a refrigerator to be made in a factory, but it’s a different matter when the restaurant meals we eat have an industrial sameness.
Drive the major highways of America and it’s nearly impossible to stop and eat at any restaurant that isn’t part of a large chain. The marketing and merchandising efforts of these chains are such that they often cause us to eat things and in ways that are not good for us. The huge portion sizes served in these eating-places might be laughable if it weren’t that somehow we’ve been taught that large portions equal value even when the taste and quality of the food they contain are mediocre. Who can doubt that this kind of eating is a least partly responsible for America’s epidemic of obesity? Industrial food has its place, but when it becomes the only game in town (as it has on the highway and in many smaller American towns) what has been lost is a personal touch and, in a greater sense, the regional differences that once made traveling through America a more rewarding experience.
Yes, it’s a fact that ever-larger corporations dominate virtually every sector of our economy and our lives. Happily, this hasn’t necessarily reduced the choices of products and services available to us. In the United States I can find much more of what I want at a Home Depot than I ever could have in my local hardware store. This is equally true in the supermarkets we shopped in. The range, variety, and quality of what is available were eye-popping; we have no match for it where we live. And America excels when it comes to convenience.
Having an employee bag your purchases in a supermarket may seem like a small amenity until you don’t have it. Large, well-organized lots, with wide parking spaces are almost an American entitlement, one that doesn’t extend to other countries. And all I’ll say about Americans’ driving skills and behavior is that they should serve as models for the rest of the world.
So, our summer visit to the U.S. was a mixed bag. Even though we choose to live abroad, Kay and I are American in our core values and attitudes. Now more than ever we worry about our country’s political and economic well-being. Although many of our long-time friends are either retired or nearly so, the younger generation needs a break. They are educated and work-ready but the jobs they want elude them. Traditional employment opportunities today are fewer than when Kay and I were still working. When I met with former co-workers in New York City, I learned that most of the production companies I used to freelance with have downsized or disappeared entirely. People in my former business may still be working but in different ways and more independently.
Whether we’re visiting America or living at home in Turkey, it’s hard not to think that politically, environmentally, economically, and technologically we’re on the cusp of a very different world. Let us hear what you think.