Tuesday, September 6, 2016

"At... This... Tiiiiiiiiiime," and Other Annoying Things

When you've lived outside the U.S. for as long as I did, certain American idiosyncrasies--sociosyncrasies?--that people take for granted or just don't notice tend to jump out and hit you like a punch in the nose. Now that I've been back for over twenty years, I've probably become desensitized myself. In clear moments, however, the sheer lunacy of our society reminds me that America is really just another place rather than the great sanctuary of correct thinking that so many Americans regard it as.

There's that blank, mute look that service workers give you whenever you complain about something, particularly when you genuinely have something legitimate to complain about. It is apparently unique to America, as I've never encountered it in all my travels abroad. Anywhere else, people will either express regrets and assure you that they'll try to do it better next time, or they'll tell you simply to take your business elsewhere if you want to be such an annoying fuddy-duddy. Here in the land of E Pluribus Unum, however, for God's sake don't apologize for fucking up. That might incur l-i-a-b-i-l-i-t-y, which has taken the place of quality as the number one concern of any right-thinking commercial enterprise that deals with the public.

There's the general paranoia of the middle-class suburban population, full of soccer moms who love to call the police any time they see someone unfamiliar walking down the street in their neighborhood. Just try exercising in a public park, actually stretching and running outside instead of driving your SUV to a gym like everybody else and standing in one place on one of those dumb machines (the American obsession with exercising while standing in one place is itself considered bizarre by much of the rest of the human race, BTW). Bend over to stretch your legs, and before you know it someone on the other end of the park is accusing you of mooning them. Spread your arms out, and someone will claim you were making obscene gestures. Really it says more about how the middle-class paranoid thinks than about you, but inevitably and eventually, a couple of cop cars will show up.

When they do, another one of those strange and uniquely American cultural manifestations ensues. Why do cops always ask you whether you live in the area, and whether you have a job? In my case, the answers are "yes" to both, but in the scheme of things what fucking difference does it make?! A public park is just that, paid for by the considerable taxes I get socked with because I make a fair amount of money. What would it matter if I traveled halfway across town to jog in a park that has a nice running surface that I happen to prefer? As far as a job, I have one that makes me sound like a great upstanding pillar of the community, even if I only work at it part-time and have any number of opportunities at mid-week to exercise and such.

Suppose I possess the cleverness to make a good living without getting up at the same time every morning, putting on a uniform or a business suit, and sitting in a traffic jam for three hours a day? Does that make me more likely to be arrested for exercising in a park in the middle of the week? Is it a crime to arrange one's life in a manner that doesn't make one a conformist putz? So, I answer the questions cooperatively, and the cops apologize for wasting my time. I don't bother to ask how many hundreds of dollars of tax money it costs to send out two patrol cars uselessly on a frivolous call by a double-digit IQ soccer mom.

The scary thing is that, when I relate this anecdote to almost anyone, I'm told that that's just the way things are nowadays. Times have changed, and anyone who has kids has to be, in essence, a vigilant, suspicious nervous wreck in order to be considered responsible. Honestly, if that's the expected mentality in this scared shit-less society of ours, I don't see what the upside is to having a couple of rugrats running around in your life anyway.

Of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.  Which brings us to that bizarre late-eighties to early millennium American automotive accessory called "The Club." One day I come back to visit, and this petite female friend I've known since graduate school is lugging a heavy metal bar over her steering wheel every time we park somewhere and leave the car for any length of time. It seemed to be all but proclaiming:

"Abandon all hope of someone not smashing your window and breaking into your car! Once they do though, this handy-dandy device will keep them from disabling the steering column lock and driving away. Recommended by law enforcement, who as we all know are never around when you need them. Is this a great country, or WHAT?!"

However secure or insecure you might feel about life in these United States, it's also hard to avoid reminders of what a traveler's nightmare this country is, particularly for those who don't speak legaleez as their native language. Public facilities seem incapable of providing clear signage with simple-to-follow directions for anything from processing through customs to buying a bus ticket. Loudspeaker announcements are routinely indecipherable, to the point that it's hard to identify what language is being spoken. Service workers mumble at one thousand words per minute. It's virtually impossible to order a meal without answering twenty questions and making twenty instant decisions about things you don't really care about. Legal disclaimers are run through with great boredom; it doesn't really matter if anyone understands what's being said--or even understands English--as long as you can prove you said it.

Getting around to the reason for the title of this entry, imagine Yours Truly parachuting into this strange environment after most of two decades abroad. The gibberish and squiggly writing that most people jokingly associate with public places in Japan constituted useful public information to me. A person can actually figure out how to get something done by reading the directions and/or listening to the public announcements that re-play periodically; you just have to understand Japanese at a rudimentary level. There was none of this presuming that everyone possesses extrasensory perception, or can decipher Byzantine Rube Goldberg written instructions or process what some bored minimum wage worker is mumbling about in the midst of background noise, as every American urban planner seems to believe.

Nothing, however, was so jaw-dropping to an outside observer than the development of feminism and the weird manifestations that grew from it seemingly year by year as I came back to visit my native country from time to time. On one of my early nineties visits home, just before the Internet took off, it seemed like every female in the workplace was photocopying jokes about that Ecuadorian woman who'd cut off her American husband's penis. Their teeth flashed, they cackled and horse laughed, and some of my female friends even tried to get me in on the joy of it. All I could do was stare in wonder. What kind of demented place had my native culture devolved into?

It was actually earlier, in the mid-eighties, that women in management positions started wearing those pads on their shoulders that made them look like gigantesses in Pop Warner uniforms. This was often accompanied with heavy raccoon-like eye liner, which some women themselves referred to as "war paint." To any rational outside observer, it looked like what it was: a ridiculous attempt to appear masculine and ergo strong, and it made about as much sense as female genital mutilation. The fact that it didn't last as a fashion statement just shows how inane an idea it was in the first place.

My particular pet peeve, however, was the expression, "At this time." It appeared sometime during the early to mid-nineties in business contexts, as an all-purpose filler phrase to preface or punctuate just about any declarative sentence. I can find only a single reference to it as a linguistic fad on all the worldwide web, but the way it grated on my nerves soon after moving back to the U.S. makes me feel a duty to call it out.

For the record, I never heard an Alpha Male use the phrase, though it was characteristic of female speech and males who worked as bank clerks or human resources types or such. A plumber or mechanic or sheet metal worker would say something like:

"We don't have the part in stock right now, but I'm ordering it and it should be here around Tuesday next week."

Translated to at-this-time speak, that would come out as something like:

"At this time, we don't have the part in stock, but it is being ordered at this time, and at this time it is anticipated to be here on Tuesday of next week, as far as we can determine at this time. So, at this time I am informing you of that fact."

Before the linguistic insanity took hold, an incompetent employee would be told that his services were no longer needed, Then, out of seemingly nowhere, they were being told that at this time their services were no longer needed. Instead of letting someone know that they were going out to lunch, I'd hear that they were going out for the purpose of having lunch at this time. When I'd answer the phone, instead of someone asking if it were me on the line, they'd ask if they were speaking to me at this time. Every conversation in a business or other office context seemed peppered with this superfluous filler, which among female managers tended to come out as, "At... this... tiiiiiiiiiime, ..."

Between the shoulder pads and that idiotic phrase, I had to consciously search for other redeeming qualities to keep myself from wondering if women in management hadn't somehow been abducted by the Pod People and turned into dedicated followers of fashion with no minds of their own... at least concerning speech patterns and sartorial armor.

Like the shoulder pads, the phrase faded into memory as the New Millennium progressed, and good riddance to it. You'll only occasionally hear it anymore from a very low level first-line supervisor type, usually while discussing something unpleasant. It's a very wonderful thing to be able to discuss a problem with most female managers nowadays without having to hear that at this time, they are researching the matter but have reached no conclusions at this time, although at this time they are planning to come up with a position that at this time is scheduled to be presented around the end of the week. At least, that's the plan...

...at this time.                                          
The average American has no idea how bizarre this looked to
someone who'd never seen such a thing before.

Ditto this.