LETTER from LONDON
BACK IN AMERICA The UNITED STATES--
ONE YEAR LATER
It isn't as bad as before;
Actually it's much worse
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
A year away from the United States is long enough to disorient a returning native. The country changes faster than any other established nation, and let me say at the outset that some of the change is positive.
Last week I became reacquainted with U.S. attitudes and entertainments, visiting my daughters and my new grandson in the comfortable suburbs west of Boston.
The good moments of this visit were the best ever. Beautiful daughters with smart, healthy kids. Just what a grandfather wants to see. In some ways, I was sad to leave.
The negatives, however, left my nerves jangling, and, as I will explain, I was glad to get back to London. Britain under Tony Blair wants to become a junior version--less menacing--of the current United States. That suits me fine. They speak pretty good English here.
Now, for some impressions:
GETTING OUT OF IRAQ--The overriding impression one gets in the United States today is worry, even fear, over what the U.S. occupation of Iraq may lead to. Some want the United Nations abolished, others want it more involved. What is clear is that the longer it takes for us to leave, the more resentful the Iraqis will become.
A CPA I encountered in my hotel was unapologetic. Our talk turned to the damage already done to the U.S. reputation in Europe. Chest swelling, he asserted: Its good that we are feared abroad. Nice will only get you so far. Sure, Americans have their troubles at home, but we always pull together when we have to.
Personally, I saw very little pulling together. The Boston suburbs are hardly a hotbed of liberalism, but I found among the doctors and lawyers and business executives serious signs of apprehension over how and when it will end, and how much it will end up costing individual taxpayers.
The U.S. Administration is surprisingly inept at countering these fears. When a reporter asked Donald Rumsfeld if Iraq was turning into another Vietnam quagmire, he told the reporter to look up the meaning of quagmire. This was remimniscent of Robert McNamaras notoriously glib retort to David Halberstam in Saigon some 35 years ago. Halberstam asked, Is this a bottomless pit? Mcamara responded with a sneer, David, every pit has a bottom.
Douglas Porch, a professor at a Navy school in California, writes in The National Interest that the next spectacle in Iraq may be the flood of American deal-makers out for a buck. A jostling of carpetbagger American businesmen armed with lucrative contracts to rebuild Iraq, backed by a massive military presence, will make Baghdad look like Scarlett OHaras Atlanta.
CAVEAT EMPTOR- My disillusionments started earlier, though, on the American Airlines flight out of Heathrow. When lunch was tossed in front of me by the flying waitress I picked up the thimble of Naturally Fresh oil and vinegar salad dressing. Why did the label carry a long list of ingredients? Because it contained 14 substances, including xanthan gum, dehydrated onion, mono and diglycerides and lemon powder. Yet it can call itself Naturally Fresh because it is made by the EFI company at 1000 Naturally Fresh Boulevard, Atlanta. Doesnt anyone care?
Next I picked up the Crystal Geyser bottled water, relieved to see that it was of Alpine origin. Upon closer inspection, I saw it came from the mountains of Tennessee. Alpine must have a different meaning down yonder.
And then there were some good things. The New England countryside is clean and calm, impressive in its spacious greenery. Speed limit off the Mass Pike, 35 to 40. The young mothers in their big cars are in no hurry. Wellsley and Weston appear as prosperous as ever, and the surrounding towns are sprouting what they call McMansions--huge new houses on sculpted land. Old England is a downtrodden, crowded mess by comparison.
One thing I was certain of was the quality of American steaks and a glass or two of bourbon. But when I was taken to Bugaboo Creek for prime rib I had to beg for a bourbon aperitif. We dont have much call for it here. Most people want beer or lemonade, said the barkeep. Bugaboo Creek, I later learned, is a themed restaurant (the theme: Canada). The talking moose over the bar should have tipped me off.
NEWS JUDGMENT PROBLEMS--On a national scale, the newspapers and television networks are not bad indicators of cultural drift. Once again, I was flummoxed.
* What would prompt the New York Times to devote four magazine pages to the current fad called competitive eating? One proud interviewee says he hears a ping like a basketball when he thwaps his belly after a competition. He managed to gobble up 50 and a half hotdogs without vomiting. The Times is good on detail. This is important because vomiting gets you disqualified.
* My first morning there, NBC ran back-to-back commercials for a sonic gum flosser that also cleans your breath (still an American obsession) and an alien-sounding medication called Zelnorm for an unidentfied disorder called IBS. They could not bring themselves to say irritable bowel syndrome out loud. After those two commercials, I decided to skip breakfast.
* And speaking of unmentionables, when did the breast pump become common currency as a conversation topic? A breathless CBS anchorwoman asked a mother of quintuplets how in the world she was able to feed five of them (implying she was short of access). With no hesitation, mom answered: Oh, we get the breast pump running every two hours and we back it up with formula. Thats more than I really needed to know.
* Columnist Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated also gives us too much information. Kobe Bryant, if found guilty of sexual assualt in Colorado, will face the dreaded plethysmograph, which is just as bad as it sounds. Kobe, he says, will be fitted with an iron jockstrap linked to a computer. As he is shown pornographic pictures of various couplings, the computer will indicate which ones he likes best. Appropriate treatment will follow. The mind boggles.
* A major spread in Sports Illustrated, followed by an endless segment on NBC News, left me speechless. It was an interview with the cryogenics outfit in Arizona where Ted Williams remains are frozen, waiting for medical technology to catch up and bring him back to Fenway Park. His severed head is kept in what they call a "lobster pot" at minus 118 degrees. Asked if this is how Ted would have liked to end up, the CEO says, "If this technology works, you can ask him."
* The CNN news crawl announced last week that more than 1,500 fans were expected at the annual nude volleyball tournament somewhere in Pennsylvania. This is news?
* Life imitates art: For emphasis, anchorpersons now end their items with the three-quarters profile head-cock, just like Kent Brockman.
THE DECLINE OF CIVILIZATION
* Even Dan Rather can no longer be trusted to be paying attention. A CBS informant tells me he was reading an item about North Korea and came to a mention of the leader, Kim Jung Il. Dan boomed it out in his Texas twang, Kim Jung the Second. CBS News had to re-record the item for the West Coast.
* Seven huge SUVs sat in a queue Saturday morning outside a drive-thru bank window. Combined horsepower idling, about 1,000.
* A pickup truck in Waltham, Mass., sports this bumper sticker: Doing my part to piss off the religious right.
* And finally, proof that the nation is going down the toilet comes from the most objectionable website yet to appear: ratemypoo.com, a collection of photos of full toilets. The site is set up to allow the public to rank them 1 to 10. I have tried to find out how many hits they get per day but nobody wants to tell me. Thats okay. I dont really want to know.
I wont even mention the Calfornia recall race. Too obvious.
©2003 by Michael Johnson. The illustration is a composite of images from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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