2.11.2007

Sublime Americans?

I went to the Farm Toy Show in Verona today. It's a collection of collectors packed with their merchandise into a high school gymnasium and not limited to farm toys. It's really pretty expansive and includes Hot Wheels, baseball cards, beanie babies, Elvis, and sundry Americana. While it was exciting that my son came in second place for his age bracket in the pedal-tractor pull, I guess I never really critically noticed events like this.

First, it's interesting as a form of play and that has its own merits. However, it occurred to me as I stood there that there was something both alarming and wonderful about the spectacle. I head Snyder's words, "America -- your stupidity. I could almost love you again." Everyone had their own collection of things: big metal 1940s trucks, tiny plastic tractors, tables covered with astro turf and sets of mini-houses and dairy barns. It was as communal as it was individual. Folks cared about their neighbors and talked to us not to make one more sale, but to hear our story or connect with us as people instead of customers. Even the hipsters in Madison -- who have perfected the art of converting chit chat into greenbacks -- have the air of superficial interest. In the gym, though, were those seventy year olds who knew the pleasure of getting to know another human being, sharing together a brief moment of a long life.

Second, the resources: we're on the verge of war with Iran, already at war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and involved in military strategy, skirmishes, support, or occupation in countless other places. Most of this is under the stated goal of "spreading democracy," and it's certainly part of the unstated goal of making the world safe for business. Yet, the plastic, the money, the time people spend looking at *things.* I can imagine their homes: a room or rooms formerly occupied by sons and daughters, the basement loaded with boxes and the table top scenes, living rooms adorned with china hutches and porcelain dolls. This is what people do to occupy their time, to stave off boredom, to connect.

So, the desire here -- the desire to connect, the desire to fight loneliness, the desire to not die alone. The gregarious American -- sublime? pathetic? a menace? Is this even just "American"?
Have we moved away from the frontier American who longed for the open plains, the miles between him and his neighbor, the lover of space? Has the frontiersman taken over the living room and in the name of conquest and commensurability tried to halt the space between him and his family?

7 comments:

k8 said...

I'm going to come back to this later and chat more - this type of thing is part of a part of my life. I helped my dad build the mountains for his model train layout that took up a quarter of a very large basement (some trains were ones he received as presents as a kid, the rest from the same time period). These are very communal activities. Of course, the social aspect of this has meant that on more than one occassion, a part of the 'group' has reminded me that I have the name of two different train lines.

Of course, some of this connecting isn't just with other people today - some of it is to connect with those times past. [ok - disclaimer of sorts - my parents are seriously into antiques, as are some of their friends. I've casually read a ridiculous amount of items about collecting and the things people collect] People frequently collect things they remember fondly - the clock like grandma x's, memorabilia from Roy Rogers' TV show, railroad memorabilia, etc. Or, they collect things they wanted but didn't have - this is especially true of the collector car market [disclaimer #2 - my home town manufactured luxury cars during the 1920s and 1930s, and is now home to some major collector car auctions]. The communities around collectors are fascinating.

Going back to dear old dad, he's also very into amateur radio (can you see the electronics theme here?). This group particularly interests me. Yes, they talk about their towers and bandwidth and models of different types of equipment, but they also have these 'on air' communities that are both local and international. The local group even sets up an hour of each day - they refer to it as 'the net' - where they plan to be on air and chat. And the locals meet for breakfast one Saturday of each month. But even beyond that, when I was younger, I remember that my dad was particularly active with the civilian defense/disaster groups, and his radio skills played an important part in this. This was/is part of civic duty. Maybe that's more generational. Or, the after effects of military school and then the military.

OK, I've rambled on for more than I intended. Maybe I'll come back to this when I feel more coherent. One last thought: my dad always wanted us to learn morse code. Sadly, I was only interested in learning how to 'code' the naughty words, which I would then teach to my friends so that we could tap them out on our desks during school. Yeah, I was popular with the delinquents.

Unknown said...

Cool stuff! The variety and breadth of collectors/ enthusiasts/ hobbyists/ etc. is really fascinating. SO much energy is spent by human beings to set up and run these things as your examples attest. Why? Is the morse code thing tied to cold war fears? How much emphasis can we put on these activities as a way to "survive" both ideologically and physically (through genes, of course, not literally living forever)?

k8 said...

Hey! I just saw your family is mentioned (and quoted) in today's Wisconsin State Journal article about the show - it is in the Local section in case you didn't see it.

As for Morse code - I don't know if it is all about Cold War fears. Most don't use it anymore, but for a long time people had to pass tests on it before they could 'talk'. The 'advantages' in 'disasters' is that even when phone lines and cell towers are down, people can communicate over radio. I imagine that in the early days of telephones, this could be an effective way to communicate across distances.

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