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Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Trip: Greed and Galuttony

In the airport, a simple cart to carry our luggage with cost us three dollars. My mother said, "I guess some people would say that's an example of capitalism at its finest." "Of course.", I added, "Capitalism is all about ripping off people for as much money as possible." For the next hour, as we waited for (just like last time I'd been to JFK) the broken luggage conveyor belt to start working and give us our luggage (because who'd pay to fix it?), I pondered that maybe Americans did go quite a bit past practicality. I mean, this cart (which happened to be falling apart) wasn't an ordinary cart. No, this one had a brake system! And for what practical purpose does a $3.00 function like that need to be in a luggage cart? It's not about practicality- it's about grubbing money.

The one kosher restaurant in the center of Washington D.C. cost a sizeable fortune for each meal. Why, when they could charge a reasonable amount? Because they could get that money, being the only kosher restaurant nearby. (It looked like a terrible restaurant, too!) So we had to walk for more than an hour in the scorching heat to find a dinky little museum cafeteria reported to be kosher. Actually, they had only three things on the menu with rabbinic supervision, which were roughly edible. Though it might not have been obscenely expensive, I as a person who had to actually taste this food can say that it was severely overpriced- they should have been paying us. And then they sold me a Good Humor bar which seemed to have been melted and refrozen. Why would they sell trash like that? Why, because they could get our money, of course.

The other side of this greed, naturally, is the reward paid in excess. All the houses we saw were enormous by Israeli standards. The families we stayed by always had several cars, as if one wasn't enough to get you from point A to point B. The digital cable has hundreds of channels, even though there's never anything on any of them. Excess is a way of life there. And I guess that as long as its pursuit for its own sake doesn't become the driving force in life, that's not bad. I don't know if it actually is a driving force- we weren't there that long.

What was a little bit troubling for me is that no one seemed to appreciate any of this. This wasn't amazing architecture, such that the space was needed to make the house feel just right. And it wasn't actually being used. It didn't look lived in, it didn't look wanted, it just looked empty. Like a person would be ashamed to have a house without all that excess space he'd never use in it. It seemed like every house had a piano in it, even though most of these families never played on it. So these musical instruments just sat, often out of tune and sometimes completely broken, just sat and took up space where it would catch people's eyes.

And then... what? Would these people just sit themselves down and start playing, finally serving the purpose the piano was created for? Or would their esteem of the piano's owner increase? Or maybe their eyes would just pass over it without recognition, no matter how well placed it was, because they've seen it so many times before.

I'm not sure whether any of this is good or bad, or even if a value judgement should be made here. But it certainly gave me food for thought.

Now, excess with appreciation- that's something else entirely. All art is excess- it serves no practical purpose. If we lived our lives obsessed with practicality we'd live in huts and eat vegetables all our lives. Bl'bah! And though I didn't notice it at all, my family mentioned that there was a lot of obesity around. So I suppose my association of America as a whole with practicality was way off. Maybe they limit practicality to work. Hm. I guess what I'm saying is I was overwhelmed by all this, and still don't exactly know what to think of it.

There's a lot to like in a money-driven culture, certainly. One of my favorite days of the trip was the very last one, in which we just stopped at a mall and shopped. I never like doing that here, because there's nothing to shop for. But though America doesn't make many good games, they sure sell 'em! On the one hand, there were three game stores in this mall in close proximity to each other, all members of one single game store chain, so two points for excess. But on the other hand, I could actually walk into a store, hand them physical money, and walk out five minutes later with games! I can't tell you how refreshing that was, and I only wish I could have that sort of set-up integrated into my life instead of visiting it once.

Maybe that's really all there is to it- envy. I knew we couldn't really afford this trip- we were outsiders to this whole consumerist lifestyle. And I got to be treated like a king regardless. We stayed at a Hampton Inn, with comfortable beds and free little bottles of shampoo and pretty good TVs, and just a few minutes after Benjy and I came into our room the phone rang. I answered, and it was someone from the hotel staff. He had called just to ask if there was anything we needed. It's such a little thing, but it was so perfect. "No, everything's great!", I answered. "Enjoy your stay in Hampton Inn.", he said. And with a huge grin on my face I joyfully concluded, "Thank you sir!" Okay, so people don't actually live like that and it is meant to be a one-time visit. But do you think inns are like that here?

I was jealous when I practically saw a Dunkin' Donuts on every street. And every time we passed one in the car, I pointed and yelled out excitedly to my family, "Dunkin' Donuts!". I have very fond memories of Dunkin' Donuts from Israel. I used to savor the taste of a Caramel Boston Creme on the very rare occasion I got one. And I imagine the rarity is not a factor which should be overlooked. Anyway, I've got a lot of nostalgia for that doughnut chain, which closed in Israel because no one could afford them on a regular basis. We didn't actually go into one on this trip, though, because my parents said they were rarely kosher. Yep, envy.

The first place we went from JFK airport was my Aunt Shari's house. Her house was not as big as some others, but Oh My! was it luxurious. The key word here was comfort. Rain outside, comfortable furniture, welcoming color schemes in each room. And then there was the basement, where I slept. Wowsers. She has one of those giant high-definition TVs, and let me tell you, it does make a difference. And she has a first-rate 7.1-speaker surround sound system hooked into it, and in the center of this reasonably-sized and cozy room was the most comfortable couch. And I turned the TV to a dreamy music channel, let the sound wash over me, and rested my head back in perfect bliss. And I sighed:

"Ah, money."



That word in the title is pronounced "gah-LOOT-uh-nee".


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