Having spent a short time in the U.S. my brain has been in conflict. I’m living the American dream but at what cost?
Thanks to Mr G’s permanent job, we’re living in a rental house with four en suite bathrooms (our own with a shower you could party in as well as a jacuzzi bath), a laundry room, garage that opens with the press of a button from inside the seven seater car (so no getting wet if it rains or arguments over who’s going to open the door) and a truly enormous fridge. The beds are huge, there are insect screens on every window and door, ceiling fans in every room as well as air conditioning and three gardeners that arrive every Friday to trim the postage stamp lawn.
I’m no longer a tutor or a gardener, I’ve become a Desperate Housewife.
The sun shines here everyday and even on the odd occasion when the clouds burst and drench us with their thundering monsoon downpours, it’s still very hot.
Shopping is a dream if you have the cash. Malls are full of labelled shops – Vans, Converse, DC and Ralph Lauren, Apple, Samsung and Gap, there are no imitations here – it’s the real thing, it’s inexpensive and it’s impossible not to get caught up in.
And food … Well what do you want? Burgers, sushi, ribs or burritos, frozen yoghurt, salads or smoothies – all are available in drive thru – as are the banks and the pharmacies. The longest walk you’ll ever need to do is around the hypermarkets where the aisles are longer than a GAA pitch.
I’m blown away by the friendliness of everyone I’ve met. From genuinely lovely neighbours to helpful but unassuming shop assistants. America offers the ultimate in politeness. It’s clean, litter free and the people take pride in their surroundings.
Our children have noticed the differences between here and our Irish home, “he called me sir”, “is dammit a curse mammy?” “everyone’s so friendly, it’s nice”. Then there’s the small business’… the sprinkler’s broken “see you at 2pm.” Our air conditioning isn’t working properly,“we’ll be there first thing in the morning ma’am.”
This country knows how to look after you and make you feel like you’re the most important customer they’ve ever seen or heard. It’s a delight to be in.
I’ve no doubt there are millions who aren’t experiencing the kind of luxuries we are. We’ve moved into middle class America, but my, what a contrast to recessionary Ireland. A country where you’re counting your lucky stars to be working, where high streets are starting to look like they have more empty shops than full ones and you daren’t mention you’ve had your kerosene tank filled in case someone comes along and empties the contents.
Maybe I haven’t been inside the ‘real’ America long enough yet. The one you hear about where everyone carries guns, where parents are nervous about sending their kids to high school because they’ll be exposed to drugs they’ve so far been sheltered from. Not the hash or coke touted around in Irish schools, but meth or heroin that totally blot out the harsh realities of the day-to-day consumerist lifestyle that the less fortunate miss out on. I’m not so sure though, talking to family and people we’ve met on our travels, or my husband who’s spent several months here already, my perception isn’t too far off the mark. My reasons for feeling unsettled aren’t too unjustified.
So what’s the problem? Why the conflict? What have I to complain about? Surely my new Wisteria Lane world is a heavenly existence? Why can’t I relax and enjoy every second of this kaleidoscopic bubble?
It’s simple. I see very little green.
I’m not just talking about the emerald greens of home. The multi-shaded hues we’re accustomed to seeing when we step out of our front doors. I’m talking about the environmental green. If it weren’t for twitter I could easily forget that our planet’s in turmoil. Granted, NBC news regularly mentions the drought that’s causing devastation for farmers across central America. Corn and bean crops are wilting under the relentless searing heat that beats down daily. Already food prices have increased with threats of further increases in the U.S. and globally in 2013.
But for all the wildfires, droughts and massive storm cells, I’ve not heard a single word about global warming, climate change or the fact that our actions could be contributing to the planet heating up and causing this extreme weather. There’s no mention that almost all the food we’re eating here has been created genetically or that geoscientists are filling the atmosphere above New Mexico with untested chemical treatments to try to cool the planet. Perhaps when wallets feel the pinch people will start to become more aware of their actions and begin to make changes, who knows. To be honest I can’t see things changing any sooner.
During our travels I’ve noticed some tentative steps to becoming greener – hotels asking us not to put our towels out for washing everyday (we were in a desert), the odd town mentioning night sky pollution, supermarkets asking us to return the dozens of plastic bags they fill up with our groceries every time we shop, and goods trains with 100 carriages or more, but is it enough in a country with 314 million people?
I should make it clear at this point that I’m not blaming the American population per se for the lack of obvious environmental concern. If we are not informed or encouraged to find out more about the damage we are doing to our environment who can blame us? Who on earth wouldn’t choose to drive a large, comfortable all bells and whistles vehicle given the choice. Never mind that it’s a 3.6 litre V6. When they’re cheap to buy, when there’s no graduated road tax encouraging you to buy something smaller and more economical, when petrol is so cheap you barely blink at the fill of a tank, why would it even enter your mind that you’re contributing to global warming. Running adverts on TV telling us that smaller is better isn’t enough.
It seems the main reason people need their cars is to drive them from one out-of-town shopping outlet to another. It’s nigh on impossible to shop here without a vehicle, there are so few town centres as we know them.
Governments have responsibilities. We might not like their decisions at times, their carbon or plastic bag taxes, their town planning, but without them would we be so quick to change our habits? We shout and we argue but have to admit that large car and bag taxes changed habits quickly in Ireland – they hit our wallets. Would we have made those changes voluntarily? I somehow doubt it. If life is easy why change it and make it harder for ourselves? That’s not something we’d voluntarily do, it’s not in our nature.
The United Stated is a contradiction. It’s “The Land of the Free” but at what cost? It’s a place were you can do almost anything you want, live the life, dream the dream. It’s a place where you can own a gun to make you feel safe but in doing so you’re more likely to get shot because there are more guns in circulation. Benjamin Franklin said:
“The U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.”
For the past 100 years or so we’ve become more and more reliant on money to give us that happiness, it’s how western economies run, but it’s floundering. The other problem with consumer societies in our non perfect world is that they generally pay little heed to the environmental consequences, it’s not in their financial interest. It’s all about the here and now and not about the legacy we’re leaving future generations. But if countries continue to deplete the earth of its resources, if they continue to sell the idea that we all need to buy more products and own more things, apart from the environmental impact how long will it be before we’ve lost our connection with our planet too (some might argue we’ve done that already)?
Within a very short space of time of living here I have found myself wanting to own the RV that tows a jeep, shop till I drop, gallop on a Palomino across the plains, kayak down the Rio Grande, ride a gleaming Harley Davidson along Route 66 and fill my house with handmade crafts. My table is full of shiny labelled bags having visited shops full of things I “need”. I’d love to live this easy, hot sunny life where I’m no longer struggling along in the dreary grey clouds. When I’m here I want to hold my hands over my ears chanting “lalalalala” loudly like my children used to when they didn’t want to listen to something I had to say. I want to pretend I don’t know or care about what’s happening to our planet.
But I can’t.
However much I think I want it, I know this lifestyle isn’t real, it’s an illusion of happiness, a temporary existence that simply isn’t sustainable. Sooner or later human beings will wake up and realise that material possessions have no real meaning, they’re not important.
When we cast our minds back to our most enjoyable memories they’re about the people we spent time with, the places we visited, the simple activities and pleasures we undertook. Bar one or two items that may have particular sentimental value or make our lives immeasurably easier, long-lasting happiness doesn’t come from the things we own.
In my Wisteria Lane life I had to visit a beautiful garden to reconnect, I’ve struggled to find the serenity I was looking for in my perfect home. Although I’ve enjoyed this spoilt lifestyle I’ve felt spiritually disconnected.
Life in Ireland might be a struggle, it’s summers may have turned damp and dull, but it’s greener than many of us realise. Like it or not the recession is doing us a favour, it’s making us re-evaluate what’s important, we’re rediscovering old skills and we talk to our neighbours. It’s making us reconnect with our planet and it’s making life real again.
I like real. Do you?