True Grit and More-Whoreness

The Atlantic had a great article last week on how

American News Consumers Have Gained the World but Lost Their Backyards.

The title pretty much sums it up – the Internet gives us information on everything ever invented, said, created and done everywhere in the world throughout all of known and recorded time, and gives it to us more or less instantly, but it’s at the expense of local knowledge.

My first thought was, “who cares?” My local paper growing up wasn’t exactly known for its Pulitzer-quality journalism, and I can’t say I miss the updates on adolescent artists and mediocre athletes.  There are more important, I’ve often found myself thinking as I open up O Golbo or El Pais or Haaretz or Al Jazeera, more weighty things to worry about in this world than the installation of five-dozen parking meters in downtown Ventura.

But you have to concede Connor Friedersdorff’s point: “As a curious person who enjoys learning about the world, the rich store of readily available information about Cyprus thrills me, but it does very little to help me better fulfill my civic obligations.”

A case in this point: a good friend of mine’s mom was running for city council last year, and I asked him in September what he thought her chances were in the upcoming November election, and he looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “That election was in June. She lost.”

“Huh,” I said, and proceeded to talk about Colombian politics and the Portuguese financial crisis.

Friedersdorff’s article was about journalism and civics, but I think it points to something bigger than that, as well:

Rootlessness and more-whoreness.

Which are symptoms of the same affliction.

During a work breakfast last week, I heard John Krist, a longtime journalist and current CEO of the Farm Bureau, give an update on the state of agriculture in Ventura County. There was some milestone news, as the County dipped under 100,000 acres of farmland for the first time in agricultural history; some good news, as prices for major crops (lemons, berries, greens) rose for the third consecutive year; and a whole bunch of depressing news about drought and soil quality and labor shortages and parasites and increased regulations.

Krist brought his prodigious storytelling ability to bear on his presentation, and I was so captivated by the way he talked about “his growers” and “our agricultural history” and “our responsibility to the land” that I felt by the end like we were descendants of the Trasks and Hamiltons, engaged in an epic battle not for land but for the identity of our little corner of the world and the survival of its legacy.

My blood was stirred.

Tom McGuane said in Some Horses that he was determined not to be “one of those writers with soft hands.”

My best friend growing up moved out to an avocado and citrus ranch when we were in eighth grade, and it changed his life. He determined to become a farmer, but I mostly treated his new ranch as my big giant playground. The romance and importance of agriculture wasn’t completely lost on me, but I was much more interested in the surfing/beachtown aspects of my hometown than its agricultural history.

Still, I am a son of the West, and I’ve always been drawn to the Steinbecks and the Londons and the McGuanes of the American literary landscape, and one of the abandoned narrative strands of my novel was from the pov of an avocado farmer, so this resurgence of interest in ag during Krist’s lecture wasn’t exactly out of character.

But coupled with that Atlantic piece, it really made me think. In particular, Krist’s comments about how he spends his days talking to farmers – “that’s what I do, is talk to people,” he said – caused me to daydream about all these farmers’ lives, how interesting their challenges and failures and successes are, what great stories their lives could make. And I thought, you know, I’m missing all this. I care more about Cyprus and Panama and Myanmar and South Africa than I do about where I come from and where I live.

I’m so busy longing for the romance of St. Petersburg and the Loire Valley that I’m overlooking the real human drama of Sherman Oaks and Ventura County.

Jack London was “a better man than any of us,”
says Frank Miller in
Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From.”

And then I thought, no, that’s not entirely true. I try to care about those other, foreign places more, I pretend to care, I think it’s more important that I care about them.

That last’s the thing.

Thinking that something is more interesting simply because it’s happening somewhere else has been the story of my life. It’s led me to travel to some pretty amazing places and do some pretty fun things and meet some really great people, but it’s also been the cornerstone of my discontent.

And I think my discontent is no uncommon thing, but rather a symptom of an underlying national condition. I think our – “our” being “us Americans'” – obsession with information and preference for international news over the local stuff (except for those scensters who are überlocal) is part and parcel of our more-whoreness, our willingness to do anything, sacrifice anything, up to and including our peace of mind, for more. More info. More cool. More interest. More weight. More meaning. More beauty. More money. More history. More books. More respect (read: fame).

I’ve realized for quite some time that I can either long for something I’m unlikely to experience and that, were I to actually experience it, would very likely be far from what I’d built up and expected, or I can look for the interest and (dare I say) wonder in what’s going on in my backyard.

But that’s not always so easy to practice.

“If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”
Said Steinbeck this one time.

I’ve been fed that more-whoreness from a Matrix-like feeding tube for so many years I don’t even recognize it as contagion. Of course I want something different and more interesting and more exciting that costs more money and that’s gonna give me more satisfaction. I’m American, goddamnit, I deserve the best. I’m also hopelessly romantic and relatively privileged, which has all but done away with any semblance of the true grit that used to go along with American exceptionalism and compensate for the arrogance of that good ole I-want-it-I’ma-take-it-ism.

So what do you do?

Bring the focus in from an epic sweeping shot of the world to something a little closer. Not quite as close as the navel – though lord knows I gaze at that often enough (in these pages no less!) – but maybe down to street view.

And as in writing, so in life.

I’ve had some big life changes recently (more on it next time, les prometo) and have been able to put in a lot of hours at the writing desk and those two things remind me to quit dreaming ridiculous dreams and realize that I’m living a pretty amazing life and that I already have everything I need.

That not only am I finding the roots I have, but growing new ones.

That I AM DOING what I always wanted to do.

That it’s enough.

And that enough is the new  black.

.

What’s your local scene?

How do you balance staying-local-growing-roots and your desire for EVERYTHING-IN-THE-WORLD-AT-ONCE?  

LemonSigns

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4 thoughts on “True Grit and More-Whoreness

  1. Laura says:

    Great post. I wholeheartedly agree and have to remind myself of the same all the time. It’s like people who travel to Haiti to do missionary work, but won’t drop a dime in the cup of the homeless dude that lives on their street and votes against programs that help low-income mothers take care of their kids. There’s just something more glamorous-seeming about doing service work in Haiti or in Africa or in Cambodia, but it blinds us to what’s happening on our own front stoops.

    • ianprichard says:

      Right. And that takes a lot of practice or mind/attitude-changing work, too, to learn how to feel as good about feeding the hungry poor kids in the next neighborhood over, when the most glamorous people in the world (e.g., Angie & Brad) are “saving” kids from everywhere else but their own backyards and making that look sexy as hell. Because whether it’s “right” or not, feeling good motivates a lot of altruistic behavior. So how do we make low-income-single-mom support programs sexy? How do we make helping the homeless dude feel as good as, say, fixing cleft Cambodian lips? That’s the question, my friend.

  2. In my younger days I wanted to travel over the world, to be a peace person, to make a difference. I’ve learned the I do that all right where I am. I’ve spent most of the past five years living in two Indian nations, Navajo and Hopi. Parts of Hopi look like South American slums – but they continue to practice their traditional ceremonies they’ve practiced for hundreds of years. Yes, I’ve often found myself almost angry with people traveling to China to adopt children when we have thousands here in the USA. But, I can’t be angry now. I do do my best to be a positive influence here, now, working as a school nurse at a Hopi Elementary school, and at the same time, trying to empower the Hopi women too. Our comments and realizations are flowing out into universal consciousness and may strike the mind of a couple wanting to adopt – and now – with the economy the way it is – they may say where can be adopt American children? And we can continue to support the legislators and programs for women’s health and education to help those single moms. And I, as one blogger said, have become a happy world traveler from my chair, through the blogosphere.

    • ianprichard says:

      Good on you for the work you’re doing, Ringzen. What a meaningful way to give back. It’s so easy for us Americans to fall into the trap of thinking we are these great world saviors – it’s the lie we’re told every time something regrettable happens overseas, every time we go see a Die Hard or Captain America movie, every time we turn on the major media news channels – and because it’s a lot easier to get through each day thinking you’re part of something good just by dint of being American.

      I’m by no means against people adopting from other countries, and I’m all for people being proud to be American, but I think both things need to be well thought out and honestly and intentionally investigated, not just reactions that make us feel better.

      I don’t know. It’s hugely complicated, isn’t it? But I think you’re absolutely right – maybe all we can do is avoid anger, and do whatever good we can with whatever is at our disposal, and support others doing good. Which is no small thing.

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