Time has gotten away from me this past week. About a month into my first “real” job, the most difficult aspect is working 8-9 hours a day, and at night I’ve felt like I have no time for myself between making dinner, working out, the drive home, and stealing an hour to watch TV on the couch.
Tonight, I finally managed to work in some reading. I have my usual pile of library books up against the wall, and I’ve turned up my nose at all the books (Aside: deciding not to read a book makes me extremely uncomfortable, especially when I’ve passed on a few in a row… that is, until I find a book that really sucks me into its world, and I realize, if I’m not into a book immediately, it’s not something I’m going to enjoy 50 pages in), but tonight I managed to at least skim Flyover Lives by Diane Johnson.
Read/hear NPR’s interview by clicking book cover above!
I heard about the book either in Entertainment Weekly or on NPR, my two sources for what I might like to read. I was intrigued by Flyover Lives having spent time in France, now living in the flyover state of Ohio, and always being curious about the differences between peoples.
The book begins with Johnson’s assertion that Americans don’t know their past, beyond ancestors taking a boat to get the “Promised Land” (USA! USA! USA!– in another post I need to explain why I’m so fanatical about the USA. Suffice it to say, the grass is not always greener on the other side and not always worth the tradeoffs). Many of us don’t know what the generations before even as recent as our grandparents did or what their lives were like. And this inspired me to continue with this blog. I had been wondering why I’m writing, and it’s definitely more for myself than anyone else (I was burnt out on writing after high school but with a 5 year break, I have started to miss it), but I like the blog format because it’s easier to write with an audience in mind other than myself.
But mainly, what I was thinking about in beginning Flyover Lives, I think it will be really cool to have a record of what I was thinking about at this age (nearly 24). I was always so curious about my grandparents, and I am very lucky to be able to talk with my grandma and grandpa now as an adult about their life and experiences. We don’t have the luxury of intimately knowing the details of an every day life from the past unless that person was thinking to write it down. I must admit, the opening chapter of Flyover Lives didn’t capture me; in fact, Johnson pretty much lost me at “The one thing you, we, as Americans, are not allowed to say is that there is somewhere better than America to live” (p. 4). But I continued reading/skimming because of the promise of reading about history and people’s lives. I’m especially intrigued by what was “normal” in the past, given how much things seem to be changing now with children not memorizing times tables and sight words in school and teenagers obsessing over social media on their smartphones. Will this next generation be completely unrelatable?
In the chapter “Pastimes,” Johnson opens with the line, “What did people do in Moline [her hometown]?” She describes her father’s culture revering football, mocking country club socials, and playing gin rummy with her as a child. Johnson asks,
Do people play cards now the way they used to, now that they have video games and DVDs? (p. 41)
I always did, since the age of 4 when my mom was sick and tired of playing Go FISH! But I really do wonder how much of our lives have changed forever. It’s convenient to relax watching TV for me as there’s no work involved beyond laying down on the couch. But I cringed inside when a college professor asked how many people in our class read books, and I was one of two people to raise my hand. I always brought a library book with me in case I had a few extra minutes. More commonly, people will check their phones. Why can they not unplug for a few seconds of downtime?
Johnson subtly notes the demise of reading, writing,
I wouldn’t say my parents were intellectuals, but they were great readers, even if the adult conversation in our house was mostly about someone’s golf handicap or unexpected conditions on the seventh green. People read more books in those days (p. 49).
I feel like people today are looking for the easiest way out. I have to commend the French on this one; Americans always have to be comfortable and have life convenient. We blast our air conditioners in the summer, we microwave meals and look for the most processed foods, and we throw things out instead of fixing them. Now I can’t speak to whether the French have a better approach to any of these points but
I’m willing to entertain the idea that the French just might value intellect as a result of their knowledge and respect for history and the way things and culture have always been more than Americans.
Perhaps this is Johnson’s point in writing about Americans naivete as a result of our “indifference to history.” Is this the root of our intellectual disconnect? Or is Johnson seeing “la vie en rose”? Perhaps her French friends are more cultured than their American counterparts. However, heck, even in France, frozen meals are threatening the vitality of home cooked ones.
One more point to carefully consider, I believe, is Americans’ attitude towards wealth. In the span of twenty years it seems we have become a nation worshiping not only ease and convenience but also youth and beauty (often inextricably linked) as well as money. How we go about achieving the latter three characteristics even speaks to the unhealthiness of our obsessions. Americans are always looking for a shortcut. We undergo plastic surgery, try diet pills and ridiculous fad diets plus exercise plans to look young and beautiful, if unnatural. Most importantly, however, we look for respect and power in being rich. Perhaps France’s socialist government is good for one thing. The French may not worship a god but they also don’t worship money like we Americans do alongside our God.
Though money was never mentioned, an attitude toward it was implied: it would be somehow tacky to do something you didn’t enjoy just for the money. The corollary was that if you did, the money wouldn’t make you happy. My parents had both come from a whole tradition of making things, which is also a form of play, as the best things are… (p. 45)
Have people really changed so much in just a few short generations? Or has this always been how people have been and we never were able to read enough accounts of the average person’s life to know what he/she was really like? Johnson shares in my skepticism:
You hear nowadays that these small cities and towns in the Midwest are hotbeds of meth labs and speed. Can that be true?
What are we to think? For the record, I’d like to think enough things won’t change to realize what’s still important. For the children being brought up in this strange, ever-changing environment, I hope people teach that you can never have too exceptional of people skills, nor can you ever go wrong having the ability to entertain yourself and others when technology is not around. Here’s to the good (simple) life and turning an eye to the past to see what we can learn.