Some months ago when a friend and talked about the advantages and drawbacks of being in a pleasant, insulated small town, I realized immediately that I adore my bubble.
For almost seven years I’ve lived in what I’ll call Collegetown USA. It’s a city of approximately 30,000 people (I would call this a town, but it has a mayor and city council, rather than the town meeting form of government a number of New England municipalities still enjoy several hundred years after their founding.) The largest employer is a private, elite women’s college, located near a thriving downtown overflowing with boutiques and coffee shops. Our city has a low crime rate for the middle class (if you lock your vehicle and home), noise ordinances, a high walkability factor, an excellent bike path network, two rivers, abundant farmland, the greatest acceptance and integration of lesbian, gay, and transgender people (we bi’s tend to blend into the woodwork) I’ve seen in a small town, and an education level out of proportion to the United States, although not to the state as a whole. A vegetarian can dine happily in nearly every one of the dozens of downtown restaurants; without even trying I can think of at least three vegetarian cafés on Main Street, and vegans have no problem finding a meal at the college or at many of the eateries within a 2-mile radius.
One might say I’m a walking cliché, because I fit right into this city and could live contentedly in nearly any college town in the nation. I’m a queer vegetarian bicyclist with a master’s degree in creative writing who works full-time for a progressive social-change organization, a bilingual (more or less) Latin Americanist who likes to travel and reads literature and academic social science books for a hobby, an introvert with a lively mind and a number of physical limitations who craves intellectual stimulation more than chocolate. And this is what makes the annual Christmas visit home excruciating: I have to leave my bubble and visit the rest of North America.
My friend and former partner, G., with whom I’ve traveled for the holidays nearly every year since 1998, and I come from, as ze puts it, working-class families trying to get into the middle class. By U.S. standards, they’ve made it: steady employment, and in some cases, remarriages, have resulted in comfortable – if fairly tight – homes and retirement benefits. Even if they have to budget carefully, they have health care benefits, which is more than millions of USians enjoy in their late middle age.
But what drives me most insane most quickly about Planet Mainstream isn’t exclusive to the working- or lower-middle classes. I live on the planet where people read books. Some of us read incessantly, voraciously, in every setting. I devour books in the evening after work to expand my mind and unwind, and I read a number of newspapers because I’m a “journalism junkie,” as my favorite grad school professor used to put it – heck, if I’m stuck in a post office line or on a subway without a newspaper, I read the ads and signs just for something to do.
On the Planet Mainstream, people watch TV. Incessantly, voraciously, in every setting. I grew up when most lower-middle-class people had one television set, in the living room or family room, and people had to negotiate what everyone would watch – one way to learn about taking turns and sharing resources. This was starting to change as small TVs became available and inexpensive; soon families had sets in the kitchen and the bedrooms. But televisions weren’t ubiquitous; they weren’t in every bus and train station, dorm room, restaurant, theater lobby, and outhouse. Every college dining hall and student center didn’t have half a dozen 900-inch HD TV screens yawping incessantly 24-7. Television was just starting to be the problem it is today.
This is not to say that no one in my bubble watches TV. God/dess knows my coworkers at the groovy progressive organization gobble programs as much as anyone in the mainstream, and when they talk about it, I’m just as bored out of my gourd as I get when anyone talks about any mainstream media. My well-paid colleagues in my last couple of workplaces have preferred HBO series, Netflix movies, and the Rachel Maddow Show. In the era of media saturation, we get to pick our poison. I live in such a bubble, I don’t even know, or care about, the zillion cable channels and pay-to-view options out there. I’m too cheap to buy them and too interested in reading to even investigate.
In fact, I was completely immune to TV temptation until two years ago, when I began to study Spanish again. Now I’m just as guilty as anyone: last year, via a Chilean blog, I watched approximately 170 illegally downloaded episodes of a stupid series that aired on Argentine television in the early ’90s. I “liked” TV Pública Argentina on Facebook so I can view the headline news every evening after work. I subscribe to Netflix streaming so I can watch films, many of them dippy sitcoms and romances, from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Spain. The activist filmmaker and TV producer Michael Moore used to make fun of the likes of me: “We don’t watch television,” he’d sniff in imitation of hard-core leftist elitists. “We eat tofu from Cúba.” It was funny and insulting, and I recognized myself immediately.
But my problem with TV is less the vacuous programming, and more the sheer aural barrage. I suffer from noise sensitivity, and contemporary television is an assault on the senses. Commercials are the worst; many of them shout in the mistaken idea that loud and obnoxious sells more product. But most programs aren’t much quieter, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of TV to drive me from the room. I try to be polite when I visit family, but it’s extremely difficult for me to sit through hour after hour of TV. And that’s all they do, night after night after night – some of them spend half their waking hours with the idiot box yammering away. I visit my family members so we can talk with each other, but television kills conversation.
The other assault on G’s and my senses is scented. In the last several decades, U.S. corporations have managed to coat every person, item of clothing, and inanimate object in perfumed chemicals. In Collegetown USA, those of us who are made sick by this glop have been semi-successful, at least in certain places, at getting people to leave the scents at home. Some of us use lightly scented products, but they’re usually made with real herbs and flowers, sometimes home-grown – things like peppermint, cinnamon, oatmeal, and lavender. And of course there’s the clichéd patchouli, which a handful of the hippies in any given college town seem to apply by the bucketful. But my beleaguered sinuses find even the patchouli bath easier to take than the carcinogenic soup in which most USians are swimming these days.
I suppose if you watch TV all day and night, the ads convince you that humans stink and need to cover ourselves with lily of the valley, spring daisies, tropical breezes – or how about “Cashmere Woods [registered trademark]”? This isn’t really a matter of preference, as advertisers and marketers would have us believe. This stuff is poison. Cleaning products, cosmetics, detergents, dryer sheets, perfumes, soaps, shampoos, and everything else contain unlabeled volatile organic compounds, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors that can cause neurological and respiratory problems. I see it in my family: one of my relatives complains every winter that her asthma is exacerbated by staying inside all the time. Well, gosh, if her house didn’t contain scented things that plug into the electrical outlets and spew chemicals 24 hours a day, perhaps she could breathe more easily. She hasn’t learned that this type of “air freshener” is an oxymoron, that a real air freshener is fruit or spices in a bowl. Our immune systems are being decimated by these poisons, and those of us with chemical sensitivities are the canaries in the coal mines.
Some of our relatives try very hard to be good hosts – they wash the bed sheets in unscented detergent and unplug the “air fresheners.” But their towels are coated in sticky layers of perfume, and the carpets, furniture, and drapes are saturated after years of the goop being in the air. When I return to Collegetown, I have to wash all of my clothes, whether they’re dirty or not, because they’ve been in a perfumed house for several days. My duffel bag, which has sat on the bedroom carpet and become impregnated with the gunk, goes out on the porch until it’s off-gassed. Heck, even the chocolate candy that one relative gave me tasted and smelled like fruit-flavored perfume. (And I don’t have extreme chemical sensitivities; those who do can’t even visit their scented family members.)
The food is also loaded with chemicals and pesticides; we solved that problem years ago by bringing our own ingredients and cooking for G’s family. The women are only too happy to have someone else make their meals for a few days. Although they’ll never be the type to shop at co-ops, we did introduce them to organics, which they purchase occasionally at their chain mega-supermarket, when the price is right.
This is the other pastime in which nearly every USian with any income whatsoever engages: shopping. I enjoy shopping – in my bubble. I like prowling our downtown of independent small businesses, looking for gifts that are handmade, amusing, and/or practical; I enjoy the pre-Christmas hunt for something that isn’t made in a sweatshop by criminally underpaid and overworked people in the so-called Global South. I prefer fair-trade goods that help the artisans and communities in which they’re made, whether it’s the Connecticut River Valley or a village in Bangladesh, and I buy many gifts at yard sales and used bookstores. At the very least, I try to find presents that the recipients aren’t going to see at their nearby chain stores. Unlike certain members of my family, for me shopping is just another domestic chore. I hate malls and avoid them like the plague, and I certainly don’t want to talk about them when I’m on vacation.
My relatives shop the corporate chains for the gifts they give, and now that they’re aging and do more shopping online, they use the Wal-Mart of cyberspace, Amazon. When I was younger, I tried to educate them about why buying sweatshop goods was bad; now that I’m middle-aged, I realize that that’s ill-mannered and simply induces guilt and resentment. I’ve also decided that there’s no polite way to ask them to stop buying me ugly crap I’ll never use. Better to simply bring home three shopping bags full of cat kitsch and donate it to the local thrift shop (where the women volunteers in their 60s and 70s probably exclaim, “Oh, what adorable kittens! I’m going to buy this for my daughter/ stepdaughter/daughter-in-law/niece/granddaughter!”). Besides, I have to admit that I do the same thing to my family members every year – what to get the woman who collects teddy bears but another “collectible” teddy bear she doesn’t need? (But I bought the new-with-tags bear at the thrift shop, so I’m recycling! Yeah, right.)
One more big difference between our suburban parents and us: they grew up during the era of seemingly unlimited fossil fuels, before anyone noticed the planet melting down, so they keep the heat somewhere around 75° F, day and night. In our particular Collegetown region, if you can’t afford to build a LEED-certified house, you’re stuck paying through the nose for home heating oil. (According to the U.S. Green Building Council website, LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, “a voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings.” We have a lot of LEEDers around here.) I’m too cheap to fill the oil tank weekly, and I’d rather freeze than exacerbate global warming, so the thermostat is set at 55° when I’m not home and when I’m sleeping. I wear two pairs of socks and at least three layers of shirts and sweaters all winter, and I sleep cozily under three down comforters.
Everyone in my extended family leaves their lights and televisions on in uninhabited rooms, and when I visit, I have to restrain myself lest I give lectures on wasting energy to senior citizens who once taught me to turn off appliances. Some of my relatives even keep their “Florida room,” an uninsulated porch which used to be used as an extra refrigerator in the winter, at 69° thanks to a space heater – the grossest waste of energy I’ve seen in a home in a long time. But this is the couple that lives in the ’60s equivalent of a McMansion, so I can’t expect sensible use of resources. I realize that older people chill more easily – but it wouldn’t hurt them to put on a pair of soft alpaca socks and a warm sweater, rather than cranking the thermostat up to 90 degrees.
My Collegetown life is no better, more “authentic” or caring than the lives of my family members on Planet Mainstream. Those of us who have enough money choose where to live and we create our surroundings as we prefer. And thanks to my grandparents’ and parents’ hard work, I’ve been afforded a higher education that’s enabled me to become an intellectual administrative assistant. But every visit to their planet makes me realize that if I’d stayed in the ’burbs with them, I’d be totally nuts by now. In fact, if my life had remained television, shopping, driving to get everywhere, and mainstream everything, I would’ve killed myself years ago. After five days of visiting several branches of my family, it’s a weight off my shoulders to get into a car or onto a bus or train and leave, and the world’s most enormous relief to come home, leave the appliances off, and just be.