Blessed to be a witness

Saturday, 1st October

Too much choice

My sister and her husband both work in the caring professions. He cares for mentally disabled people, while my sister cares for mentally ill. Coinciding with our visit was a weekend festival for those with both physical and mental disabilities, and so we went down into Chattanooga to visit it.

Clearly the city fathers had anticipated larger crowds: an area of the city by the river had been cordoned off, and a large field had a stage with sound system and space for a couple of thousand people to watch the musical acts, surrounded by food stalls, as well as other tents selling money-raising crafts. There were sports and animals for children and disabled to ride.

Sadly, at the time we visited, there were very few people there. I don't know if this is a reflection on the citizenry of Chattanooga, or just over-optimism on the part of the organisers, but at one point there was a performer on stage with a total of eight people watching him. Still, I got a delicious bun full of "barbecue" (the Deep South word for slow-cooked shredded pork in a barbecue sauce) and my little nephew enjoyed himself immensely, getting a ride on a horse and running around a nearby playground and dramatically falling off the swing.

That evening a few friends of my parents came round for drinks. Many Americans have the reputation of knowing diddly about what goes on outside the country's borders unless there's US involvement there, and I was a trifle shocked that, when I showed a video of the tsunami on the laptop to the people there, a retired professor, a very nice guy I've known for many years, when told this was of the Asian tsunami in Thailand, asked "is this when the levee broke?" and proceeded to talk about New Orleans politics. Even my parents, who are very savvy with current affairs, admitted that they hadn't known quite the extent of the disaster based on their viewing of the US news. It was covered, of course, but in nowhere near the depth and scope of other countries' media.

Which brings me to my soapbox thesis: there is such a thing as too much choice. In our relative paucity of European media, it's difficult to get through the day without hearing the news once or twice (though this is changing for the worse), since most people have access only to limited channels, most of which have diverse content. In the US, if you want to watch the news, you have actively to choose to turn to a news channel. Most people don't bother. Since the existing news channels have corporate interests at heart, and raise money through advertising, they are competing against each other for popularity, not quality (though some pay lip-service to the latter while actually largely ignoring it).

What happened to a bunch of Asians and Africans with no connection to Joe Q. American is likely to be way less popular than a rollerblading duck in Idaho, and so the latter story will be chosen to be highlighted. This happens day in and day out. My theory is that it's not education that causes such obviously insular attitude: it's the media. Constant exposure to this ignorance and carelessness about the rest of the world, and exaggerated consideration for the trivia of home, creates an attitude that abroad really isn't too important, not to mention a facile comprehension of foreign cultures and politics and customs - and thus a lack of consideration given to foreign policy when it comes time to vote.

The same overdiversity applies to shopping - for example there are approximately 17,000* different kinds of breakfast cereals on display at your local supermarket. If you find one you like, chances are that, in the melée of commercial natural selection, your favourite brand may disappear after a couple of weeks' existence. But it's not all bad: do you want "a coffee", or do you want a "double mocha-hazelnut skinny tall soya latté"? Personally I like to keep things simple, but I guess it's great to be able to be so specific. All this choice, of course, does stimulate development and quality, but it also generates a hell of a lot of waste and redundancy. Personally I prefer our slightly less cutthroat way of doing things in Europe, but then I would, wouldn't I, being European?

My father has for a while indulged in the hobby of fiddling with GPS machines, and he has been mapping the trails in the nearby hilltop forest, that currently have no map. One morning he and I went to map a couple of trails. We walked in the Tennessee woods with no guidance, since Dad's GPS machine was showing us where we were and where we were headed, though just in case, he never travels without a compass. The mission was a success: we eventually came upon a track that was already mapped by the parks service, and Dad's trail system was linked up. Although geeky in the extreme, it's actually quite cool, and you don't actually have to do anything other than walk; the GPS machine takes a reading every fifty feet and you then load this into the computer, and you can get software to superimpose it on a map of the area.

My jetlag insomnia really kicked in on our last night, and I didn't sleep a wink. I sat out on the deck in the dark, and listened to the sounds of the woods, which, apart from some ominous rustling that I suspect came from the large fox that we had seen a couple of nights before, comprised the really rather noisy dropping of hickory nuts.

So five am came, and we grabbed our stuff and Mum and Dad drove us to the Atlanta airport shuttle, a minibus that took us to the airport. Normally I get a pang when saying goodbye, but this time I knew that we were all going to end up in the same country again in a matter of a few weeks. I managed to sleep on the bus, and on the plane, and awoke as we were landing at La Guardia.

*This may be an exaggeration.

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