Tag Archives: American culture

At the Chocolate Shop

In San Francisco. It’s little things like this that remind me why I love this country. You might also like: The Painting Banker SFGMC in SF Pride Funny Sign: Chica Sexy Freakin’ at The Freakers’ Ball

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In San Francisco.

It’s little things like this that remind me why I love this country.

The Lawsuit Society

Americans seem to have a very legalistic approach to life – the polar opposite of Italians’ very relaxed attitudes towards the actual law, let alone life in general. Boarding the CalTrain to go back to San Francisco, I had no idea where to put my big suitcase. On the way down I had put it Read More…

Americans seem to have a very legalistic approach to life – the polar opposite of Italians’ very relaxed attitudes towards the actual law, let alone life in general.

Boarding the CalTrain to go back to San Francisco, I had no idea where to put my big suitcase. On the way down I had put it on a seat, and wondered if that was allowed, but there were many seats free at the time. This train was more crowded. This bag wouldn’t fit under the seats, and there are no overhead racks (I couldn’t have lifted it up there anyway).

The first car was marked as being capable of transporting bicycles, so I got on that one and found a big open space right at the front of the seating area, completely unoccupied. I wondered vaguely if this was where people were supposed to put bikes, but didn’t think too hard about it (it had been a long week, I wasn’t thinking or noticing much at all). I put my suitcase in one corner of that open space, and sat down in a nearby seat where I could keep an eye on it.

An old lady with a wheeled walker got on some time later, and the conductors very solicitously parked it alongside my case as they helped her on board.

Then one of them asked: "Whose luggage is this?"

"Mine."

"Well, ma’am , did you see this sign that says it’s against federal law?" (I hadn’t, though it was a large one – tired, remember?)

"We could get a big fine."

"Where would you like me to put it?" I said this as non-aggressively as I could, though I was thinking: "You could get a fine? That’s just weird."

"There’s a baggage car two cars back."

Unlike the accomodations for bicycles and ‘passengers in need of assistance,’ the fact that there was a car designated for baggage had not been clearly denoted along the platform. I would have had to walk back two cars, dragging the suitcase. The conductors did not insist on this, but I found it amusing – and somewhat irritating – that my wrongdoing was chided in terms of "we could get fined." Why not just say: "If this space is needed for a handicapped passenger, you’ll need to move your suitcase." Which of course I would, gladly and immediately – surely that would be the minimum of civilized behavior?

However, the way the rebuke was phrased made me feel that the assumption was that I would behave like a jerk unless bludgeoned by threat of a fine (though there was an interesting twist: they, the railway employees, would get fined. Was this supposed to engender sympathy?)

America lives by legal threats and lawsuits. An outdoor dinner was given for attendees of another event at the hotel where we were having a conference. One of the guests fell down somehow. A server rushed inside to a lobby phone and called security: "He’s not hurt, but I have to report it." Two security guys in dark suits, with walkie-talkies, converged on the scene, one carrying a clipboard with a questionnaire that he required the guest to answer. I suppose the point was to get an immediate statement and signature, before the guy had time to think about how to turn a minor accident into an opportunity to sue somebody. The Cover-Your-Ass nation: Whatever happens, make sure you can’t be blamed for it.

What do you think? am I reading this all wrong?

Violent America: Why I Don’t Feel Safe in My Own Country

I return to the US, my putative homeland, at least once a year, and even when not there, I (like most of the world) have constant access to American culture via movies, TV shows, and websites. In spite of all this, I feel ever more a stranger when I land there. I can’t put my Read More…

I return to the US, my putative homeland, at least once a year, and even when not there, I (like most of the world) have constant access to American culture via movies, TV shows, and websites. In spite of all this, I feel ever more a stranger when I land there. I can’t put my finger on why. Have I become more European? (Whatever that means.) I don’t feel European, or Italian, but lately I don’t feel particularly American either.

Perhaps I’ve become unaccustomed to some of America’s standard features, such as the plethora of churches – in many states juxtaposed with huge store signs advertising guns.

Guns, yes, that’s a factor. America feels less safe to me than Europe. One big reason is that there are far more guns around in the US, waiting to be snatched up and fired in a moment of rage. I have often thought, at times when I’m almost mad enough to throw dishes, that if there was a gun to hand, I’d be at risk of using it. So I’m glad there aren’t any in our house, and I prefer to stay away from guns altogether – I don’t trust myself with them, let alone anybody else.

Are Americans inherently more violent, with or without guns? On our way back from North Carolina, Susan and I were very irritated, even worried, by a pickup truck that hugged our bumper in fast, heavy highway traffic. I turned around and made a pushing-back motion with my hands, trying to indicate to the driver that he should give us more room. Susan snatched my hands down, saying: “Don’t do that. You never know, here.” (Susan lives in Abu Dhabi, and says it’s the safest place she’s ever lived.) I do exactly this in Italy, and it never occurred to me that anyone might consider it a shooting offense.

Reflect on the recent confrontation, at a children’s baseball game, between all four grandparents and the father of a boy at the center of an ugly custody dispute, reported thus in the local paper:

“[The maternal grandmother], Patricia Noe… may have sparked the confrontation when she said something to Jerry Shands [the father] and pointed an umbrella at him, the district attorney said.

"Then, of course, he says, ‘Get that blankety-blank thing out of my face.’ … And the next thing you hear is pop, pop, pop (from Samuel Noe’s gun)."

Three people dead, one critically injured, and the boy himself a witness. Which begs the question: Who the hell goes armed to a kids’ baseball game? And in how many parts of America is it legal to do so? I don’t want to live in any place where an angry grandpa can just whip out a gun and start shooting – because, god knows, we wouldn’t want to infringe on his right to bear arms and protect his grandson from a bad umpire call!

Yet Americans seem to take this potential for violence for granted. Reporting on this week’s “incident” in a Colorado school, the New York Times says: “Gov. Bill Owens, who visited the school and the church Thursday afternoon, said he thought school security improvements made in Bailey after the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in nearby Littleton had probably kept Wednesday’s attack from being worse. The school was built with evacuation fully in mind, including a system that allowed students in adjoining classrooms to escape quickly…”

Huh? Schools are now being built with evacuation in mind? I already knew that in some districts people have to go through metal detectors to get into a school in the first place, but – evacuation? And we’re not talking about al Qaeda here – the danger is from ordinary American citizens, including the schoolkids themselves.

What kind of society is America’s that kids have to spend their school days under the assumption that at any moment they could be rounded up and shot? Is that how we want American children to be growing up? How can such an atmosphere produce psychologically healthy citizens? It’s not videogames that inure kids to violence: it’s what they see every day on the news and in their daily lives!

What could have stopped this week’s tragedy would have been to ensure that some random guy who didn’t even have a home address did NOT HAVE A GUN. How could he have legally bought it if there’s no address to do a background check on him? If he got it illegally, why was that allowed to happen?

What makes America even scarier is that the violence is not on the surface. Everyone we meet in America seems so nice, especially anyone in a customer service position (truly startling when you’re accustomed to the indifferent or downright hostile service culture of most European establishments). Yet, given the number of deaths, you have to wonder: how many of these nice people are ready to explode? And will find a weapon ready to hand when they do?

What are your thoughts?

KidSpace: Public Places Where Kids Can Be Kids

If I believe what I read in the media (and some bloggers), American parents are getting hysterical about MySpace. For those not in the know (if you’re over 25 but don’t have a teenage child, that likely includes you), MySpace is an online community with tens of millions of members, most of them adolescents and Read More…

If I believe what I read in the media (and some bloggers), American parents are getting hysterical about MySpace. For those not in the know (if you’re over 25 but don’t have a teenage child, that likely includes you), MySpace is an online community with tens of millions of members, most of them adolescents and (very) young adults. MySpace allows every member to maintain a personal blog, post photographs and videos, “share” music (only music already on the MySpace system – it works very well as marketing for little-known bands), and be “friends” with anybody who will agree to be listed as your friend.

Young people seem to use MySpace primarily to communicate by leaving photos and comments on each other’s blogs. Bands and, increasingly, filmmakers, use it to promote themselves to the lucrative youth audience.

As is true with almost every Internet community, anyone can join anonymously or under a pseudonym, or even pretend to be someone else. In other words, it’s easy for a 50-year-old pervert to pretend to be a cute teenager (complete with fake photos) in order to pick up innocent young girls or boys. It’s also easy for a 13-year-old to pretend to be 16 (even with real photographs – the way kids are growing these days, who could tell?) and get herself in over her head with an older guy in a way that neither of them intended.

All this is possible, and no doubt happens; with so many members, you’re statistically bound to have a few really bad apples. Does this mean that MySpace is inherently evil and parents should forbid their kids to use it?

danah boyd, a PhD student at Berkeley and social media researcher at Yahoo, studies online phenomena and writes about her observations with wit and wisdom. She vigorously defends MySpace as one of the few public spaces in which American teenagers can hang out (at least virtually) without overt adult supervision.

I didn’t spend my adolescence in the US and am not raising an adolescent there now, so it had not occurred to me that American kids lacked such spaces in the real world. I figured that the Chock’lit Shoppe of the Archie comics had been replaced by fastfood joints, and/or that kids hang out at malls (and spend money – don’t mall merchants love this demographic?).

Apparently I was wrong. Some convenience stores are experimenting with a sonic device which emits a piercing whine that can be heard by adolescent ears but not by duller adult hearing – so it deters the kids from hanging around in front of the store, without disturbing adult customers. Some malls are also apparently breaking up and moving on idle gangs of teens caught just hanging out.

The kids have nowhere to go after school except home, where they remain alone, in contact with other human beings only via the Internet. Hence their need and desire for MySpace.

What a terribly sad picture of adolescent life. Kids need time to get to know each other and themselves in unsupervised contexts. They need to learn how to evaluate situations and people, without the constant presence of a parent telling them what’s good or bad. They need and deserve privacy.

Perhaps part of the reason Italian teenagers seem more mature than American ones is that Italy leaves real public space for them. An advantage of living in a smallish town in Italy is that it’s completely normal for kids 14 and up to hang out downtown, even into the wee hours of the morning (on weekends), and nobody worries about it. In Lecco, the main teen hangout is a pedestrians-only piazza in the heart of downtown, which is also the site of the bar/café favored by many teens.

This piazza is also usually crowded with people of every other age – adults, seniors, tourists, small kids in strollers or on tricycles. There are restaurants and shops and several bars (NB: Italian bars mostly serve coffee). So there’s always someone around to keep an eye on things, including adults who work there or whose homes overlook the piazza. The kids hanging out are not observed by their own parents (eww – that would be gross!), but are loosely in contact with and supervised by older people; the situation is safe for all concerned.

Given the difficulty of duplicating this in an American suburb, I agree with danah – let the kids have their MySpace! It’s sad that that’s all they have, but it’s better than nothing.

Update

May 21, 2006

I was premature in assuming that “the Mosquito” had already been installed in the US – though it soon may be, since the device first came to public attention last November.

I first heard about it from Boing Boing, and here’s an accessible copy of the article they referred to.