I’ve never liked hearing the sound of my own voice on recordings. I apparently suffer from an affliction whereby I mistake high and nasally for gravitas. I’ve been told that my condition is far from unique and stems from the fact that I experience my own voice within the unique acoustics of my own large head — which can apparently make Madonna sound like Barry White.
Living abroad has its own variation of this conundrum. While living in the US I was definitely aware of the quirks of our society, but the awareness came in the form of the few cups of water I pulled from the giant wave of data that crashed over me every day. There was no escape from someone else’s idea of news as it was forced on me everywhere I went, including the screen of the gas pump. The sheer volume of data muted any reaction.
Now that we live abroad I’m treated to a condensed version of current events in the US each day. These highlights, often via the prism of a foreign news feed, put a new, unsettling perspective on things.
Are race relations really this bad in the US? Do people really still care about the Kardashians? Is there really no solution for the great gun debate? Out of the 300+ million possible candidates for the leadership of the free world we came up with these two?
I gave the US the benefit of the doubt for the better part of the last year. Perhaps there is a large group of people that truly care about the dating habits of Caitlyn Jenner (and hopefully none of these folks are registered voters).
I recently took this optimism with me for an extended tour of the West Coast. In Portland we were treated to this ever-so-slightly-vandalized sign. First and foremost, there’s something funny about a sign advertising seesaws, particularly since we were in the middle of a giant park (there were no corresponding signs for the slides, the swings or anything else).
#2 pointed at the goofy sticker that someone had placed on the sign and laughed.
“Daddy, why did they put that sticker on the sign?”
I answered honestly (not always my inclination), “I don’t know.”
“Is it wrong to mess up a sign?”
“Yeah, probably. But that one’s kinda funny.”
We both studied it further and then giggled some more as we made our way to the seesaws, which are off limits to me unless I wish to send the kid on the other side into a low-trajectory orbit.
A couple of days later we were parked at a quaint little motel on the coast and #1 son stopped me and pointed out the stickers on the back of the SUV next to us. “Daddy, why does that car have gun stickers all over it?”
I studied it for a second and noticed that in addition to the rifles at the top there were also two somber stickers referencing the importance of the 2nd amendment on either side.
“I think the owner of that car wants everyone to know that he doesn’t want anyone taking away his guns.”
#1 thought about that for a moment. “But why would he put these stickers on his car? Are the guns in his car?”
I snapped a quick picture for posterity and hustled everyone along. “I don’t know buddy. He just wants everyone to know he feels strongly about his guns.”
A few more questions followed and I confirmed that I have indeed shot guns and have a number of good friends who also care a lot about guns — though not to the bumper sticker level.
Another day or so later we took a wrong turn and had to turn around in front of a yard that sported a monster truck as well as a 3″ thick slice of a tree trunk that was tilted up to face the road. In crude, black spray-paint the homeowner had emblazoned the growth rings on the trunk with, “Hug this!”
I didn’t take a picture of that one and tried to hustle along before our sons would notice this latest curiosity and ask me about it. I failed.
“Daddy, why does that say hug this? Why would you hug it?”
I scrolled through my mental rolodex of potentially non-problematic responses that would also discourage follow-up questions. “Some people call people who care a lot about trees tree-huggers. This guy wants everyone to know that he doesn’t have a problem cutting down trees.”
“But we like trees!”
“Sure, but we also live in a house mostly made out of wood.”
Silence descended for a moment as I let them ponder that idea.
“Don’t you like trees Daddy?”
“Absolutely. I love trees. It’s just not that easy. We use wood for lot of things, and we need trees for the wood.”
“But why does that guy have a piece of tree saying “hug this” in his yard. That seems kind of mean.”
I didn’t have a good answer for this anymore than I could explain the gun guy’s rear window or why someone took the time to put a sticker on a seesaw sign. I’ve cut down a lot of trees myself over the years and planted quite a few others but never felt the need to put any of that in someone else’s face.
We’ve been back in Costa Rica for a few days and over that short span I’ve tried to come up with how I feel about my extended time back in the US. After much pondering I think the seesaw sign represents the US I still hear in my own head: irreverent, potentially offensive but generally good natured and likely open to dialogue. The gun sticker and the “hug this” folks unfortunately seem to reflect a more realistic version of the state of debate in the U.S. where civility is scarce, healthy debate is non-existent and anger simmers just beneath the surface.
Everything sounds a little bit nicer in my head.