Ah, America

Our family was recently in the US for a week and a half of vacation. I love America: I have equal parts fascination and affection for that inimitable nation, and I follow its happenings more closely than is probably healthy. I feel much like Os Guinness, the English social critic and apologist who describes himself as an interested outsider peering in, inspired and at times horrified by what transpires in the world’s premier superpower. I agree with him that as the leading nation, it has outsized influence upon the West (and indeed the entire globe). Therefore anyone concerned with the present and future state of the world will pay close attention to the trends at work in the US of A.

Photo by author.

But my purpose in writing today is not to tease out any of those world-shaping trends or big ideas. Rather, I just want to make some whimsical observations about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of America, something only an outsider can do. What follows is a series of scattered observations by a Canadian travelling through America.

Our trip to and from South Carolina included stops in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) and Washington DC, including many hours on the I-81 and I-95. After so many hours on the interstate system, the whole thing blurs together into a kind of American highway casserole. The McDonalds, Cracker Barrels, and Sheetz gas stations; the rest stops and truck stops; the vehicles abandoned on the side of the road with a shirt fluttering out of the window; and most of all: the billboards. Compared to Canada, America has really turned billboards into its own art form. One might say that first America managed to transform every message it values into billboards, and then the billboard reshaped American culture into its own image.

Where else can you see billboards fighting for the very souls of motorists? Where else are ultimate matters routinely addressed on giant wooden placards as one races down the road towards the dentist, groceries, or vacation? In Canada, motorists are mostly left to decide ultimate matters for themselves, and are instead presented with products to buy or, at times, public announcements. Here are a few examples of the messages presented to motorists in America. “Jesus is the Answer. John 3:16.” “After you die, You will meet God.” And then there are some that are even a little more blunt, if that is possible. One of them features bold red block letters on a plain yellowy-beige background and says, “FORGIVE MY SINS, JESUS, SAVE MY SOUL.”

And then come the counter-billboards, here to set people free from the benighted ignorance of these silly fundamentalists. “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.” “Just skip church. It’s all FAKE NEWS!” Along similar lines are the billboards appealing to our vices. “Adult Fantasy Store, Exit 100!” And when we finally arrived to Exit 100, where the billboards had promised fulfilled fantasies and illicit pleasures, someone had put up a big billboard: “Life is short. Eternity isn’t. – God.”

Only in America.

The billboards waging spiritual war capture something about America: the reign of marketing. Of course we have marketing in Canada too, but in America it feels like everything is marketed. The essence of marketing is the marriage of image and slogan, logo and tagline, meme and hashtag. To market something means to commodify it, to sell it. And some things, sacred things, ought not be treated this way. Am I saying I wish there weren’t billboards calling on people to consider the truths of the Scriptures and trust in Christ? Not quite. I’m not sure how I feel about it. But something about it does make me uneasy. To boil down the message of Christianity to 6 or 8 words on a billboard is to do something to that message, even if I’m not sure how to express the nature of that something. McLuhan’s insight was that the medium is the message. So part of my uneasiness about the Christian billboards is the implication that Christ for your soul is the same kind of thing as Chick-Fil-A for your stomach or the University of Pennsylvania for your education. But one of these things is not like the others, and to treat them more or less the same seems to me a uniquely American phenomenon.

Speaking of billboards, what is the deal with lawyers and billboards? Do the billboard salespeople give lawyers a 50% discount? Are all these lawyers really getting lucrative lawsuits from these kinds of billboards? “Motorcycle Accident? Call FRED!” “Injured in a CAR WRECK? 1-800-GET-PAID.” I even saw one that said “BIRTH DEFECT? AGE 0-21. CALL ME!” This whole idea is foreign to me. I’ve been in a couple of car accidents, one of which was my fault; the other which was not. But never once did it cross my mind that there was anyone to sue. I’m left with myriad questions: Just who is being sued here? The other driver? The car-marker? The transport authority? I haven’t the foggiest. And what kind of accident would warrant a lawsuit? Do people rub their hands together with glee when they get rear-ended in traffic? Maybe if you were driving down the road and the steering wheel suddenly popped off in your hands you could sue your carmaker. Or what if I was driving down the road and was distracted by all the lawyer billboards and went into the ditch, could I sue the lawyers? Is there a lawyer somewhere specializing in suing other lawyers who put up distracting billboards?

On a slightly more serious note, this idea that I might be able to blame someone for an event and then receive significant financial recompense seems subtly insidious. It encourages the weaponization of victimhood. When bad things happen, as a general principle it is not good to fixate on the past and embrace the role of the innocent injured party who is crusading for justice. Of course in egregious cases this is precisely the thing to do, but I’m speaking of your typical accident. It seems to me that the promise of financial reward for being a victim creates incentives to twist the truth, leave out inconvenient facts, and generally misrepresent the case – probably in ways that may not even be obvious to the person doing it. That’s how incentives often work, on a subconscious level.

Speaking of the subconscious, it seems to me that Americans really do love everything to be bigger, especially vehicles. I have been a careful observer of what vehicles are on the road since I was a young teenager obsessed with cars. I worked to memorize every make and model, and thus I have a good sense of what is driving around. My son seems to have caught this bug, and he happily spent much of the drive looking to spot one of the hundred vehicles I put on a list for him (we found all but seven). Car companies typically offer a range of vehicles from most affordable and smallest to most expensive and large. So we have the Toyota Yaris or Corolla at one end and the Avalon or fully loaded Camry at the other; the Hyundai Accent and the Genesis G90; the GMC Terrain and the Yukon. In Canada the ratio is typically something like 15 or 20 most affordable vehicles for every most expensive one. In America, the ratio is more like 5 to 1 – a massive difference. Everyone seems to want the biggest thing available, whatever is on the last page of the brochure. “Fully loaded, top of the line.” “Super size it.” And inevitably the vast majority of the largest SUVs – the Escalades, Range Rovers, Suburbans – are driven by petite women with large sunglasses.

Herein lies another facet of that mysterious American temperament.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of our vacation was visiting the epic architecture of both the Pennsylvania State Capitol as well as DC landmarks, specifically the Capitol building, Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court. My appreciation for architecture has been growing exponentially over the last few years as I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of how our architecture is vitally connected to our ultimate beliefs. So it was with a kind of awestruck stupor that I gazed up at the majestic scope and ornate designs of these buildings. They are beautiful. And more striking still, they explicitly connect their own grandeur and beauty to the loftiness of the ideals which inspired them. Inscribed in marble and written in tiled mosaics were Bible verses and quotes from past luminaries who spoke of the essential natures of justice, liberty, goodness, and truth. Enduring truths etched into stone.

Pennsylvania State Capitol complex.
Photo by Andre Frueh on Unsplash
Inside the Pennsylvania State Legislature. Photo by author.

I know that America has never lived up to its ideals, but it must be said that America, more than any other nation I know of, has most clearly and elegantly elucidated its ideals in its founding documents and core institutions. As my gaze moved from the permanent truths which were encoded into the very beams of those buildings to the politicized bumper stickers adorning some of the congressional offices, and as I thought of the raw partisanship and frothing polemics used by both American political parties, the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy on display among the ranks of each, and the general small-mindedness and incoherence of their political visions, I was left feeling that we are not worthy of this inheritance.

At the back of the Supreme Court building is written, “Justice the Guardian of Liberty.” The front of the building proclaims “Equal Justice Under Law.”

The Supreme Court building on a clear March day. Photo by author.

These buildings, these institutions and ideals, they aspired to something truly noble. Like I said, they never achieved it in full measure, but just like hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, so our failure to live up to the ideals we embrace as a culture are a tribute to the fact that we have set our sights on something lofty. Increasingly it seems like we aren’t sure we have ideals, or if we should even have any. Instead of choosing something to define us, we avoid choosing by choosing to be defined by a hollow diversity. The West has by and large decided that the way to deal with its failure to live up to its ideals is to reject those ideals as well as the Christianity from which those ideals grew.

I love America, that land of searing contrasts, that paragon of both freedom and folly, liberty and license, virtue and vice.

IKEA – It’s Just Not the Same

It was the worst heat wave of the summer and our new house had no air conditioning. The air was dense and humid. We had been wilting at home for days, trying to find excuses to head out to air conditioned stores. The slightest pretext was sufficient. “Oh it looks like someone ate our banana. Better head to the store and buy another one.” Or: “I think I’d like to go look at the bandsaws again, see if they have any new models since last Wednesday.” We’d all pile into the van, all six of us, and relish the cool air conditioned drive and the cool air conditioned store for whatever amount of time we could. Having done a number of these short-distance, brief-duration trips, we needed something more.

That is how we came upon the idea of going to that megalithic monument of the modern world, the pride of Sweden, that den of suspiciously inexpensive meatballs: IKEA.

Going to IKEA used to be a blast for families with a bunch of kids. But now their free kid daycare, Småland, is shut down indefinitely because of the pandemic. Our little Emma, now 5 years old, waited for years to be tall enough to be allowed in with her older brother and sister. She got to go just one time before the gates were shut. But has anyone thought about the serious repercussions of this policy? Where are our kids going to get their immune systems boosted by being exposed to every pathogen known to man? How now will they get to watch Kung Fu Panda 7 (by far the best of the series) standing slack-jawed and silent? When will they ever get to play in that giant pit filled with plastic balls and feel the excitement of being buried alive in them? By the time they reopen this magical land of germs and mediocre supervision, Emma will probably have children of her own! Maladjusted and melancholic children to be sure, what with a mother whose childhood was so bleak and miserable as to have only gone to Småland one time.

Yes, IKEA is a store that, more than any other, thinks intentionally about appealing to families with kids. I suspect that they may even have sat down a couple of such families and had them answer questions on a clipboard. How do I know this? Well for one thing they put complimentary diapers in the family washrooms in case you forget one or run out. Brilliant. By going there every day on my way home from work, I didn’t have to buy diapers for two years! (Just kidding – I only stopped once a week.)

Aside from the diapers, they always have little stools for the kids to use in the bathrooms so they can wash their hands for a change. Not only that, there are also specially-furnished, dimly-lit rooms for nursing mothers. Whether the mothers nurse their babies in there or just lay down for naps or play scrabble, who can know? But at least they have a room to do it in. The food is pretty affordable too. Eating out when you’re a crew of six can be a financially traumatic experience requiring months of free online therapy and DIY acupuncture. So an affordable family meal is always nice. Sure, it is more like eating at a strange cafeteria, and you often get that regret-filled indigestion first pioneered by McDonalds, but in the moment it is always a nice option to have.

Well all of that is gone, my friends. Chalk it up as another casualty of this pandemic we’ve all been stumbling through. IKEA – it’s just not the same.

To return to our ill-fated plan that very hot day, we parked the van in the closest available parking spot and stepped out into the angry blaze of the summer sun in all its fury. You know what it’s like when the humidity is 100% and the temperature is approaching the melting point of human flesh, it feels like as soon as you step out of the air conditioning someone drops a heavy wet towel on your head and points three hair dryers at you. If you have glasses, as I do, you get treated to instant fog on your lenses, adding temporary blindness to the experience. After an approximately 14-kilometer walk, we reach the front door, where we realize one of our children has forgotten their mask. That is a tough moment, when you realize you have no choice but to abandon your child to its cruel fate. Just kidding – I went back with the child and got the mask. After making that walk three times, that first blast of air conditioning on my skin was a rapturous experience, let me tell you.

But far from the joyous raucous scene that usually greets us when entering IKEA, with the little screams and squeals of children playing and chasing each other and sharing communicable diseases, we came upon a scene more reminiscent of your favorite post-apocalyptic zombie movie. This grim aura was maintained throughout our wandering, for that is what you do when you go to IKEA.

Aside from the few insiders and veterans who have memorized or learned to decipher the maps in that labyrinthian place, every poor soul who enters the front door will not be able to find the exit until they have walked a total of 17 kilometers. It is not unusual to see the older folks laying down for a nap in the bedding section or to see people with the soles of their shoes completely worn away desperately strapping pillows to their feet with hair elastics just to have a chance at reaching the exit. One time, a wide-eyed customer, weak with dehydration and leg cramps, offered me $500 and a Billy bookcase if I’d let him clamber into my cart and push him to the exit.

This is a real map.

And so we wander through the endless kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and offices – hour upon hour, mile after mile. While the air conditioning is lovely, the fact that we have three masked children and a fussy baby catches up with us approximately 10% of the way through the maze. By the time we reach the checkout, everyone is on edge. If we don’t figure something out, this shopping trip might turn out as badly as that time we went to Target.

It seems like a good idea to get ice cream cones as we prepare to return to the inferno. My wife has the cart – yes that special IKEA cart with the four wheels that spin and is therefore about as easy to steer as an ocean liner – and I have two ice cream cones: mine and hers. Each child has one ice cream cone, with a thin napkin wrapped around the cone. You’ll see in a minute why I’m setting the scene so carefully here.

As we are about to head out the door, my daughter Emma announces that she needed to go potty. We quickly devise a plan: I will take her to the washroom while my wife and the two older kids set off for the van. This will give her a head start on starting the van and loading up our goods. What could go wrong? In fact, it does not escape my calculating mind that this will mean I have to eat a bit of my wife’s ice cream in order to keep it from dripping. Oh but if only I had known.

After Emma is done in the washroom, we step through the exterior doors, are hit by a furnace blast, and set out at a good clip towards the van. Approximately ten seconds after leaving the cool air, I feel what seems like a raindrop on my hand. I glance up but the sky is clear and blue and the sun is blazing. I glance down and see to my shock and dismay that rivulets of ice cream are pouring down over the cone and onto my hands. Even considering the heat, this is not normal ice cream behavior. It dawns on me in that instant that this is not actually ice cream — it is ice cream’s ugly step-brother frozen yogurt, which apparently can’t keep itself together nearly as well when the heat is on. With a cone in each hand, I start frantically licking the drips to try and avert a complete meltdown. I glance over at Emma and notice that her hand is covered in white rivers of frozen yogurt as drops freely fall to the pavement.

“Emma! Lick your ice cream!”

But she’s useless. I mean, I love her, but she’s useless. She makes every rookie mistake in the book: she licks one side while the other drips, or she licks the very top but the part below that, just above the cone, is collapsing and flowing right down over her hand. By this point the drips are coming so fast from her cone that an uninterrupted stream of frozen yogurt threatens to connect her cone to the pavement like a tornado about to touch down. Unable to watch this train wreck any longer, I hand her one of my cones and grab hers to give it a proper cleanup.

With all of this drama, I’ve lost track of my position in the parking lot, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island. I look around, trying to find my bearings. Suddenly I see in the distance a silver colored van like ours with the back open. It might be ours, or it might not be – how can I tell? If Emma and I walk all the way there and we end up being wrong, we could be lost for days. That is when – like the captain of a lost ship sighting the beacon of a lighthouse or the pilot of a stalled airplane spotting the bright runway lights below – I notice on the pavement two clear lines of wet liquid going from our very position to that silver van: the frozen yogurt road of hope. I feel a wave of relief wash over me: we’re going to make it.

A few minutes later, with everyone safely in the van and the air conditioning turned to ultra maximum, we pass out baby wipes for everyone to start wiping down their hands and forearms and elbows and legs. We all solemnly agree on three things:

1. We’ll wait for the pandemic to be over before making another family trip to IKEA.

2. We don’t like frozen yogurt.

3. We’re buying an air conditioner tomorrow.

And that’s exactly what we did.