Sunday, August 20, 2006

We the People

We are a nation of individuals, a country that will forever excel at innovation and be the first to give you Silicon Valley and bunker-busting nuclear bombs and those little calculators that are powered by nothing more than the rays of the sun. But while all this is well and good, we will also never fail to fall down during a three-legged race -- you know the type I speak of, where two people have their inside legs tied together and then run as fast as they can. If that event were taken from childrens' birthday and given to the Olympic Games, America would never even come home with the bronze. We'd be passed by the likes of Mozambique and Vietnam and the mighty Latvians. We just don't have three-leggedness in us.

Some examples:

When I was in Ukraine, I saw a doctor. He gave me some medicine. Okay, suppositories, which he called candles. I stopped taking them. Didn't seem to be helping, so I stopped. When I told him this, he gave me what I came to call his KGB look. "Why do you make decisions for yourself?" he said. "You have to stop thinking for yourself," he said. "Take the candles. All of them."

Another time, I refused a professor's help when I was ill with the flu. (God, I'm sounding sickly). But yes, refused it. She wanted to send over two 19-year-old girls -- nineteen-year-old girls, I tell you -- to cook for me and nurse me, and I gallantly said it wasn't necessary, I think the fever's broken and I'm just fine. "Stop being so American," she said. "You have to let people help you."

But we are a nation of self-helpers, a nation that will listen to mother, then turn around and do the exact thing she warned against.

These days, I'm fixated on clothes, the differences in style between here and there. There, I found a very homogenized style. Men: tight jeans, pointed shoes, football jerseys and racing jackets, and flattened, haven't-showered-in-three-days hair. The women -- "very femme," as a girl I know in Berkeley said, before recalling an American friend's time in Moscow, when, despite being very feminine herself, at least by American standards, she reported feeling "very Butch."

In America, of course, there is no such unity (except when it comes to our disunity: you're either for or against the guy who says you're either for or against us). This is wonderful for developing character, of course. If you want to tattoo yourself, pierce yourself, not be restrained by a tie, break out of the Suburban mall-wear you were raised in -- yes, America wil provide you with a huge wardrobe from which to choose. Pick anything! Try it on! Discover who you are!

But it also means that we are a nation of slobs, because at any one time there will be someone wearing pajamas to the store and a baseball cap to the best restaurant in town. In Russia, I'd actually dressed up to go on a three-hour drive to the train station (there was no local connection in Belgorod, so we had to go to Voronezh). Still, even though I'd put on a nice collared shirt and a sleeveless vest, my wife's mother saw that my shirt was untucked and poking out the bottom of the vest. This was my style -- sort of, rumpled school-boy. But it was also a style not seen in my area of Russia/Ukraine, for every time I went out on Sumskaya or Pushkinskaya looking like that, I'd get stares and turned heads. That day we went to the train station, I tucked the shirt in before we got out of the apartment building's elevator, making me presentable for the trip. My mother-in-law had expressed concern. I opted to blend in.

A friend and I got to talking about all this the other night in Berkeley. She'd recently come back from almost a year in Italy, and she was so glad to be back in the take-it-as-it-comes United States. Relaxed. Comfortable. Accomodating. This is how she described my homeland. She would've seen my willingness to conform above as a subtle expression of a system that stymies personal awareness and expression. In other countries, she said, fathers tell Son #1 to be a doctor, Son #2 to be a lawyer, and Son #3 to join the church. It was all tied up together, she seemed to be saying.

And maybe so. But I still hate going out to the store and seeing someone wearing unlaced high-tops and baggy shorts, pajamas and house shoes, or just any old dirty rag.

A few months back, the New York Times's food blogger Frank Bruni addressed the demise of the "jacket required" policy in American restaurants, and in the comments section his readers squared off to defend and attack this paradigm shift.

One reader complained that she and her date had complied with the policy, only to learn that the restaurant would cave if someone else refused to dress up.

One of my most mortifying New York experiences was being sent to Shun Lee Palace on the advice of a classmate for my first business school formal. My fiance (in a tux) and myself (in a floor-length black cocktail dress) had to wait in the lobby with dozens of other guests in jeans, Juicy Couture sweats, etc., and then, 20 minutes after our reservation time, seated in the front room next to a family with two squirming kids in jeans and baseball caps. We maintained our dignity enough to request being reseated, this time in the very back of the restaurant next to a couple with a man in a jacket (but not a tie), which was an improvement, but still humiliating. After that experience, I gave up - no more attempts at dining out on formal night.

I commend those restaurants that are brave enough to stick to a strict jacket policy - it means a lot to the people who DO respect both the rules and the occasions of their fellow diners.

This lady led the opposition:

I’m seven months pregnant and went to a nice restaurant a month ago wearing a fleece sweater and jeans. I just felt too tired to dress up. I was perfectly willing to eat at the bar but the hostess seated us in the main dining room. Maybe it’s like that with those other diners who are dressed inappropriately. They might have cancer or they’re feeling depressed about a death or major life setback and want at least a nice dinner as a pick me up. Stop judging others, one day you’ll be in their shoes (or flip flops) and wish you hadn’t been so harsh.

In other words, Back off, America. Somewhere, at this very moment, someone's dying of cancer, so there are no rules. We must accomodate for the lowest common denominator, we must live, all of us as a culture, as if we are struggling with a life-threatening disease.

What happened to the America that had my barber grandfather walking the streets looking so smart in a pair of slacks and an ironed shirt and a fedora hat? Did dressing up make him feel any better? Or should we all just get comfortable?