This is my second time returning from Africa to the United States. People have asked me what I think will strike me in my return. Before they ask they regale me with their stories of crying in grocery stores and being shocked by the huge disparity in wealth. I respond in my best jaded voice that I’ve already done that. It’s true, I have; I remember the grocery store, the Vons right next to my mom’s house. I have seen the poverty deferential already, I have seen our penchant for stuff that we don’t need, i think I can navigate that with some wisdom. A warming box for baby wipes, specially shaped pillows (ones for your neck on the plane, some for the pregnant belly, others for supporting the baby so he won’t roll over, others with built in speakers, etc.), all the different lotions and potions we have for our faces, hands, bodies, and hair. I could go on for hours.
I think what has caught my attention this time around is the orderliness of our environs. Our traffic patterns are orderly and calm. Our lawns are manicured and in neat little squares, they are lined with trees, and shrubs cut to the same size and shape. Our houses are filled with organizational devices, boxes, drawers, baskets, etc.
We worship time and coddle it like it is the most precious commodity. My mother in law has subscriptions to almost every women’s magazine there is that pertains to making your house a home. I usually eschew these and dodge them like a werewolf would a silver bullet. More accurately, I read them, and then I hate myself and I hate them afterwards. Often they are only full of articles that make me feel guilty, lazy, fat, out of style, and incredibly unorganized. My house is not decorated in the latest colors, I have several drawers of crap that I have not opened in months and could not tell you the contents of, I only own three kitchen knives because that’s all I need, and I will probably not decorate my home for Christmas in only shades of green, or take an entire day making apple danishes from scratch.
One was full of ‘time saving tips,’ such as re-organizing your grocery list so that it is organized in order of how you will walk through the store. You start in the produce aisle, put all the produce first and on and on. I think that would take more time than it will for me to run back and grab the item that I always invariably forget. Actually I would probably organize the list and still have to run back and grab something. Another was to create zones in your kitchen for everyday tasks, such as a baking zone or a lunch making zone. Who has that much space or stuff? Can’t I just pull the knife our of the drawer, doesn’t that take as much time? I remember seeing one tip where you placed boxes in your fridge of all the stuff you needed to make lunches. Can’t I just remember the mustard is in the door? I think we are trying too hard to come up with handy time-saving tips. There was one article with 25 clutter reducing tips, my mind got cluttered reading all of them. Which room am I supposed to use clear glass containers? Which room am I supposed to use lined baskets? How many file folders should I have? Where do I keep them? Who has this much crap?
I know that I am only in my late twenties but I have noticed that these magazines seem to have the same articles over and over again. You can tell what audience they are shooting for by adding ten years to the models featured, and they are wearing versions of the same eye-poppingly priced clothes that no one with a normal life will ever wear. There is the article with the star who talks about how her life is great, usually subscribing to whatever Oprah-ism is of the moment, or talks about rising above her checkered past, still espousing Oprah-isms. There are the articles about how to take care of your hair and skin in whatever season we are in, usually tagged ending in a litany of products that will solve your dry winter skin or your frizzy humidity ravaged summer hair.
This winter they seem to all have ‘helpful’ articles on ‘how not to get sick.’ One lists helpful tips such as: don’t shake hands, we’re all socially isolated as it is, let's not make it worse. I am honestly a little floored at how sanitized we strive to be, we are a nation of germaphobes. There are antibacterial wipes in the front of grocery stores to wipe down your cart handle, my mother-in-law saw a woman wiping down her whole cart. To which we both thought, ‘what are you gonna do, lick it?’ There are warnings on newscasts of what can make you sick, and apparently everything can. Your ‘green’ grocery tote bags will make you sick, because the meat you put in them might leak and get on your other groceries. Apparently there is bacteria everywhere, in your makeup, on the bottom of your purse, in your sheets, in the mints at restaurants, etc. Some of this bacteria means you should replace these items constantly. Like your makeup, every three months it should be replaced. I have had the same bottle of foundation since college (tells you often I wear it), it has never made me sick or given me a zit once. I am also not in the practice of eating off of any of these items, when was the last time you licked your mascara wand? So when I see all these warnings about what can make you sick I think what are really the consequences here? So you get sick? You get the flu, you get a cold, what happens when that happens to you? You miss a few days of work, someone else has to drive the kids to school, you lay about on the couch for a few days. You will probably get rest that no American seems able to afford themselves, we are too busy organizing our crap and re-decorating our homes in the latest colors.
I have also allowed myself to gorge myself on our media while I am here, as evidenced by the magazine reading, and I’ve been allowing myself to watch TV with almost wanton abandon. I haven’t watched TV or read magazines in almost a year and a half and it keeps me occupied while breastfeeding, an activity I find myself doing about two hours a day. I know, shouldn’t I be lovingly gazing at my baby? I do, but that can only keep you occupied so long. I am struck that we are a people obsessed with being ‘cool.’ And what we think is ‘cool’ is ridiculously off the mark. Our sports heroes do ‘cool’ dances when they score in the endzone, we have scads of commercials for new ‘cool’ technology, we have pop stars dancing across the screen in tight leather outfits doing advertisements for these technologies. Here I sit in my shabby clothes that don’t fit anymore, with my newborn child experiencing cross-cultural shock watching all this and feeling remarkably un-‘cool.’ But why? Shouldn’t I feel cool; I just brought life into the world, the one thing that the survival of the species rests on. I live in Africa, how many Americans can say that? We base our standards in people and things that are incredibly shallow and superficial, and maybe even not too smart. Technology is ephemeral and ever-changing, what’s in-style is also ephemeral and ever-changing, not too mention something that is deigned by designers and we are expected to follow and change every year. Kinda makes me feel like a tool.
Of course you can find programs about life changing events like birth, but they are overshadowed by things like ‘Say Yes to the Dress.’ A program focused on the most frivolous part of a life-changing ceremony. We seem to know that our homes are important, yet our media focuses on the walls and closets rather than the people that truly make the house a home. We know that weddings are important, a ceremony that marks the passage of two becoming one, yet we focus on the outfit rather than the two who are making the union. I guess appearances are more entertaining than really examining our lives….