When I travel to new countries, I try to do a little research ahead of time about cultural norms and expectations of behavior. Did you know that in Argentina showing up to a party on time is considered bad form? In Japan, it’s customary to decline a gift at least twice before, ultimately, accepting it. You’re not supposed to smile at strangers in Russia. The idea behind it is, “You don’t know me so why are you pretending that we’re friends”? I especially love that one. It fits so nicely with the stern, austere image that I have in my mind about the Russian people.
I find these cultural norms fascinating and, as we travel, I do want to be a good guest. So, I’ll show up late to the party. I’ll shout, “How dare you, sir!” if offered a gift. Twice. And even though I’ve never been forced to live in government housing or waited for hours in the cold for toilet paper and thin soup, you’ll never be able to tell it when you see the cold, steely stare that I have in store for the Russians. I’ve been practicing.
When I was in college, I ran across a quote that I’ve never forgotten, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson. I loved that when I read it, and not just because it had the word “hobgoblin” in it. I loved it because it was clean and clear and powerful and it spoke to what I imagined to be the primary and most debilitating affliction facing the whole of humanity: ritual and habituation. Don’t most of us just sort of repeat our well established patterns of living? Don’t we all have our own private Sisyphus Stone that we’re either too lazy or too scared or too tired to quit rolling? I read that quote and I was certain not only that I’d stumbled upon some universal truth but also that I, myself, was immune to such feeblemindedness. I was young and confident and impulsive and my life was filled with excitement and variation. At any time, I might be skiing or camping or going on a ten day road trip to see a friend or a band or a girl. Why? Because why not. Life was adventure and that’s who I was and who I would always be.
Fast forward almost 25 years and I’ve lived in the same place, L.A., for 15 years. I’m happily married to an amazing, beautiful woman. We have 3 great kids who are mainly, not evil. Mainly. And I’ve been doing the same job that I don’t completely hate for 14 straight years. Do I love the job? No. Do we love L.A.? No. Would we like something new, something more? Yes. And could I accurately characterize our life as, “foolishly consistent?” Absolutely!
I’m fairly certain that most people on the planet would slap us hard across the face if they could see our life and know that we’d asked for something more. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But isn’t that an American cultural norm and expectation of behavior? Our raging gluttony and egomaniacal thirst for more is legendary. Have you heard the old saying, “You can take the man out of America but you can’t take the American out of the man?” No? Well, maybe no one ever said that. But, I’m saying it. I want more. I want a life that’s more spiritually fulfilling. I want more time with my family. I want more spontaneity and adventure. I want more meaning.
I’ve never been to France but I read somewhere that it’s hard to get a cold drink because you’re given little or no ice. And, it’s considered an annoying faux paux to ask for it. When we go there, I don’t want to live up the “Ugly American” stereotype. So, I’ll try not to talk too loudly. I won’t wear my knee-high black socks or my, “Worlds Greatest Dad,” t-shirt. I won’t expect everyone to speak English. But, I do like a nice, cold drink in the summertime. French waiters be damned.