Episode 16: A Weekend About America

WARNING: This episode contains nudity.

This weekend, I spent some time getting intimate with something Americans love more than anything: Danger. My quest gifted me some great new experiences along with a hearty portion of fear. It also caused me to dig deeper into the America-mania that is our culture and ask: how’d we get here? And where should we go next?

I’ll give you a hint: It has something to do with taking your clothes off, the privatization of our prison system, and really large muffins. Oh, and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. I think.

THIS WEEKEND

We started Saturday morning off with a free tour of the Shelby American.

The tour guide was out sick or something, so the shop manager came in on his day off to give the tour. That proved fruitful, since this guy seemed to know everything about everything.

This place is a shop and a museum all in one.

But don’t be fooled — the reason for this place’s existence is to make fast cars, and to make fast cars faster.

So the museum is really just some of their work on display. And shit, do they have some beautiful cars on display. But Shelby isn’t about beauty; it’s about performance and speed.

For around $150,000, these guys will take your Mustang and get it up to 1,000 horsepower. 1,000 horsepower. What? Imagine 1,000 horses in front of your carriage, and it seems pretty impossible. They’d be stepping on each other and shit. And how would you hold that many reins? But I guess that’s why we leave it up to the experts at Shelby.

These guys just added “America” to the name of their company because, god dammit, they deserve to. There’s nothing more American than Carroll Shelby and the machines he created.

And the world knows it. The very first Shelby Cobra ever made just sold for $13.75M, and yes, that makes it the most expensive car transaction in history.

America is a masculine culture. We champion the athlete over the intellectual. Wolverine over Dr. Who. Meat over veggies.

We are James Dean. Clint Eastwood. Sylvester Stallone.

Powerful cars over wimpy ones.

Americans have had a love affair with fast cars for a hundred years. We love the speed. We love the danger. The power. The smoke. The sound. The zero-to-sixty.

So the bigger and the meaner, the better. It’s exactly what the pilgrims had in mind when they dropped their anchors at Plymouth Rock.

Sky Combat Ace

Sky Combat Ace is this place where you can give some pro pilots some money, and they’ll take you up in the air, do all kinds of aerobatics, flip you all around like death is just something the government made up to scare us, and stir up your intestines like a bowl of spaghetti. God bless America.

Adventure in the air. It comes naturally to us Americans.

We are Amelia Earhart. We are the Blue Angels. We are Howard Hughes.

You sign a waiver that basically says you may die and you must have a good time by law or something. I’m not sure, my eyes were too glossed over with excitement.

Holy shit am I glad I did this. The ride up is actually quite peaceful. The views are spectacular. Upside down, okay, check. Then a barrel roll. Not too bad. Then, oh sweet Jesus, a tumble. I almost lost my lunch. Almost.

There’s this one maneuver — I think it was called the Hammerhead — where you pull up on the yoke until the nose of the plane points straight up into the sky, then kill the engine and let the plane freefall powerlessly backward toward the earth, then finally flip the nose around toward the ground — the direction of death — before turning the engine back on and pulling up. So yeah, expect shit like that.

I anticipated the emotional adrenaline that comes with real danger. But what I didn’t anticipate was the adrenaline from the physical toll it puts on your body.

Like the G-force — the gravitational force put on your body. To put things in perspective, world record drag racers get to 4.4 g’s. Roller coasters top out at around 6. We got to 8.

I literally went blind for a few seconds, as my body goes into emergency mode. The official term for it is ‘tunnel vision’. The next step is GLOC, or g-force induced loss of consciousness.

I recommend this activity for anyone who’s ever thought about it and who isn’t faint of heart. Warning: It’ll mute anything else you do that day.

American Shooters

Maybe it was the aerobatics or maybe the Dirty Harry/Scarface double feature I watched the night before, but next, we decided to shoot guns.

It’s an interesting thing, shooting guns. Death is literally in the hands of all these strangers all around you. I can’t think of a more delicate fabric of societal trust than the inside of a gun range. And I don’t know what was scarier for me at the time: This tiny piece of knowledge, or me holding and shooting a gun.

I told the guy I basically have never done it, which isn’t exactly true, and he gave me a 30-second tutorial with a thick Austrialian accent. I’m like, what? You’re just gonna hand me this death machine, and mutter something about how I shouldn’t do such-and-such, yeah, DEFINITELY don’t do that, anyway, have fun out there! Wait, what’d he say?

Guns, guns. Holy shit, America loves guns. Look at all these fuckers! Somewhere out there right now, someone is looking at that AR-15 and thinking, “I need me one of these…” or “I don’t own a camouflage one yet!”

And they’ll get it, too. Because getting a gun in America is easy. Really easy. Our obsession with guns (and decades of the NRA pounding on Washington) has kept it easy. And the easiness has progressed the proliferation of more guns. A virtuous cycle.

And no, I don’t want to take away your guns. I don’t think. At least not while you’re pointing it at me. I’m merely describing an attribute that makes America totally, totally unique. Like unicorn unique.

Afterall, 40% of Americans report keeping a gun in their home, and we estimate there are more guns owned in America than there are Americans.

But this chart does pose the question: All this gun ownership… Are we safer? Or in more danger? I mean, most Americans own guns to protect themselves, right? I mean, only 7% of Americans hunt, so these guns are NOT for hunting. They’re for protection, right?

Let’s just see.

Guns And Gun Violence

Maybe we could look at America alongside our peerset — the developed nations of the world (the chart). America owns guns at an alarmingly higher rate than everyone else. And likewise, we incur gun-related deaths at an equally disproportionate rate to our peerset. If this were a race, we’re Usain Bolt. So… more guns = more gun deaths?

But hey, you might be saying, you’re doing that thing where you make numbers say whatever you want them to say.

Fair enough — that’s at a national level and there’s all sorts of noise that may be mucking up the data. Hmmm… If only someone has addressed this at the individual level, dug through police and hospital records for example, maybe gathered death certificates, done demographic and behavioral surveys to filter out noise, and raked through all this data with the intention of answering one question: Does having a gun in your home increase or decrease your chances of homicide and/or suicide by gun?

If only someone did all that, then published the study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
 Well, it turns out someone did. Here’s their results:

Regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.

Holy shit! Uh oh. More guns DOES = more gun deaths?

Wait, that’s just one study. You should never believe just one study.

It’s been studied a few times, actually. Always the same or similar results.

The CDC agrees. The American Medical Association agrees and calls gun violence “a public health crisis.” Freakonomics agrees. Maybe most importantly, John Oliver agrees.

Geoffrey Canada, author of Fist Stick Knife Gun, might agree. He calls guns “great disruptors of the natural order.” Here’s how that argument goes:

You might think that guns prevent fights, because, hey, if I fight this guy and he’s got a gun, I’m DEAD. Canada offers that instead, guns might actually increase fights, because guns are the great equalizer. Prior to guns, the smaller guy would never need to fight the bigger guy. He knows he loses, so the fight never happens. But anybody with a gun can beat anyone without a gun. And if anybody can win the fight, there can be more fights.

The NRA might even agree. The CDC started studying gun violence in the 1990’s, and started proving out this same correlation. The NRA had a swift and strong response — a new bill that cut millions from the CDC’s funding and pushed the CDC from further research on gun violence. As a result, the CDC hasn’t studied the effects of guns on gun violence for 20 years. Why would the NRA want to keep the CDC from studying it if they didn’t think it might lead to a positive correlation, and thus more gun control laws?

BTW The congress quietly extended that bill in 2015.

Then of course, there’s the mass shootings. A commonplace in America, and something that’s virtually non-existant elsewhere.

Hmm… So it’s really starting to seem like all these guns could be bad for America. Either way, we’ve got a lot of gun violence out there. That’s indisputable.

What should we do?

Step 1: Do more research on the impacts of guns and gun ownership on gun violence. Maybe talk to your congressman about not extending that law next time around.

Step 2: Find effective solutions for reducing gun violence.

Noticed I didn’t say take your guns. I said reduce gun violence.

Now, that’s easier said than done considering that in America, the horse is already out of the barn. The guns are already out there and guns last a long time. We know that gun buy-backs don’t really work. And given the current political climate and the proposals on the table, maybe there’s nothing we can do that will really make a difference.

Maybe America has her fate sealed. But it certainly seems like we should try, doesn’t it?

So how about we get creative? Maybe we could work on changing the behavior of those who are thinking about using guns to kill people — criminals and the mentally ill. Maybe we should start the conversation with the most egregious guns, like assault rifles and automatics. How about taxing bullets? How about heavy punishments in general for illegal gun use, or how about if you commit a crime and you had a gun, like, anywhere near you at the time?

Or maybe we just start with an organization equal and opposite the NRA. You know, introduce some Newtonian equality.

America ♥s Danger

I’m NOT in the camp that thinks gun violence is sparked by the presence and heroizing of guns in Hollywood, on TV, and in video games.

Nope. Instead, I think it’s just the opposite. I think it’s our obsession with guns that drives the popularity of guns in entertainment.

4 out of the top 5 highest grossing video games in 2015 were in a category called ‘shooter.’ Haha am I right? That’s a fucking category. Games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. Again, it’s not so much about what was made as much as it is what was sold. And that’s what Americans bought the most.

And here, I put together this little gun check for you. Again, we voted with our wallets, and the votes are in. Enjoy!

It keeps going. I just got tired of making infographics.

We are Dirty Harry. We are Tony Montana. We are John McClain.

And look at the movies on that list with no guns in them. Lord of the Rings? They have every other freakin’ weapon known to man in that movie. Harry Potter? Their constraint to magic is a plot device. If Voldemort had an AR-15 or a bazooka or something, there wouldn’t have been 8 damn movies.

Bravo, Shrek 2. You achieved the impossible.

So if not the media, then why does America love guns so much? Because we love danger. But I’ll come back to that, I promise.

Trattoria Nakamura-Ya

We had dinner at Trattoria Nakamura-Ya.

What’s more American than a Japanese-inspired Italian restaurant in Chinatown? No, really. What’s more American?

I say that because the cuisine of so many other major cultures around the world is so much more prominent, focused, and established. When you say Mexican, or Italian, or French, or Japanese, I have no doubt in my mind what you’re talking about.

But when you say American food… what is that, exactly? Pizza? Nope, the Italians invented that. Steak? No one really… invented that. Hamburgers? That’s just ground meat and bread. It’s really close to every other sandwich that’s been around forever. Plus… really? Is this the food we want to be remembered for? Is this what we want on our tombstone?

America 1776 - 2138 Liked Hamburgers.

Anyway, if you go to this restaurant, try the uni cream pasta. It was amazing. The uni is really subtle.

The Artifice/Nerdlesque Burlesque

And to round out a weekend of danger: What’s more risky than the risqué?

Thank you to The Artifice and to Nerdlesque for putting on a little display of one of my most favorite of Las Vegas’s cultural traditions — burlesque.

Despite America’s cultural prudity — a topic I’ll save for another episode, (OMG it’s a nipple! ) individual Americans don’t shy from porn consumption, or production for that matter. Perhaps it’s because of that outward prudity that our sexuality exposes itself a little cruder than necessary.

We are Hugh Hefner. Larry Flint. Pamela Anderson.

Especially in a town with every other kind of sex industry available, Burlesque is one of those rare opportunities to be tasteful. To engage in the natural without feeling so unnatural. To introduce art to sexuality, and to be reminded that sexuality is the mother of art.

Land of the… Isolated

And maybe that’s the case because America is an island. Sure, there’s Canada (America North) and Mexico (America South), but beyond that, just thousands of miles of ocean in every direction.

That can yield some cultural traits that aren’t necessarily better or worse, but just different.

  • Most of the rest of the world doesn’t eat cereal for breakfast, but almost 90% of Americans do.
  • American coffee is unique to us. So much so that if you’re in another country and want a cup of Joe that resembles your morning pick-me-up, you might ask for an “Americano.”
  • We play football instead of rugby, and baseball instead of cricket. Oh, and we call the other football “soccer.”
  • We tip more than other countries.
  • We operate under a system of law referred to as Common Law, where basically the entire rest of the world uses a completely different system of law.

And to these things, we are mostly oblivious, because of our geo-isolation. In fact, it tends to give us this we’re-the-center-of-the-universe effect — we don’t give a damn that everyone else uses the metric system.

On top of that, America is built up an socioeconomic island as well. WWII left much of developed world devastated. But America’s shores weren’t remotely as tarnished. We were poised for the economic growth that followed. We became the world’s largest economy. We exported. Our biggest export today: weapons. Our most important: culture.

Modern imperialism doesn’t involve flags and government declarations. It involves information and ideals. America exports more movies, television, and music than basically all of Europe. The world knows us. They know our 90’s hit sitcom Friends. They know Transformers. They know Beyoncé. And we know it. It all helps feed into our America-in-the-Center pathology.

Hell, we’ll even put our country smack in the middle of a map of the world, even though the whole world has agreed there’s an “Eastern” and “Western” Hemisphere, and we’re on the left. Hello, the planet actually has this really convenient break-point called the Pacific Ocean which makes a really great edge to a map.

Nope, nobody puts America in a corner, even if we have to cut a god-damn continent in half.

So far, all this stuff is pretty harmless though, right?

And being just a couple hundred years old, it’s easy to write off our differences off as cultural immaturity. After all, we have the fascination with sex and violence of an adolescent boy. We are Rainman. We are Peter Griffin. We are Billy Madison.

But I think there’s more to it.

The other impact of our isolation? You know how if you’re married, you have someone in your life that keeps you in check? Letting you know when your shirt is untucked, or when you said some dumb shit at the party, or that you chew too loud? Yeah, America doesn’t have that. Because of America’s isolation, we don’t have checks and balances on some of our most prominent traits. As a result, they run wild.

Don’t get me wrong — these traits are super important. Our adventurous, free spirits have created three personality traits that make us sooo great, while simultaneously threatening our greatness. Let’s call them: Adventure, Excelsior, and Independence.

America ♥s Danger, Revisited

I told you I’d come back to it.

Disclaimer: Maybe our thirst for risk and adventure is just some biological vestige. Society has improved so fast that biology can’t keep up. Our outdated bags of bones still request shit that was much more useful for us back in the Serengeti.

So they have an itch with no scratch. So they go scratch it. For example:

  • There isn’t enough fear in some people’s lives, so they watch “Horror Movies.” How weird is that?
  • So many of our lives have become so unnaturally sedentary that we’ve invented this thing called “exercise” and we go to the “gym” to perform it.
  • Maybe Americans just don’t get their fill of danger and adventure, so we invent danger.

Maybe. But I blame something else:

Because We’re Immigrants

No, I’m not saying all immigrants are dangerous. I’m not going all Trump on you. Stay with me.

My family came to America in the last 100 years. No one (except the Native Americans) is from here. We’re a country of immigrants.

With all of us being from a different place with a different identity, Americans may feel like we don’t have a national identity. But I would say that is our national identity. We are all the lineage of the adventurous. It’s what unites us.

We are Christopher Columbus. We are Albert Einstein. We are Ang Lee. We are The Most Interesting Man In The World.

Something about leaving your home and all your friends and family and taking a risk. And maybe it was because of a famine or a war, but we all came for the same reason (with some obvious exceptions): to find a better life.

And that’s what we want. Bigger, badder, better.

There’s a certain affinity for risk that comes with doing that. Leaving what you know to travel to somewhere that might speak a different language, practice a different religion, drive on the other side of the road. To be an outsider. It’s a challenge. Maybe the biggest challenge one can embark on.

Remember a couple of episodes back, where I spent some time thinking about when, what, and how much you should try to change yourself for the better? How if you’re doing things that hurt you or those around you, you should address those things?

I think that applies to societies as well. Keep in mind I say this not because I hate America. But because I love it, and it’s my home, and so I believe we should try fixing anything that needs fixing.

Let’s allow danger/guns be the poster child for what could bring improvement to America. Danger/adventure is the first thing that may be good for us, but if we let it run wild, could hurt us.

So, back to the three things:

#1. Keep Danger In Its Place

Our pursuit of adventure and exploration has created an inventive and resourceful society.

We are Neil Armstrong. John Goddard. Lewis and Clark. We are Carroll Shelby.

But. (See above, gun stuff.)

#2. Excelsior In Its Place

We came here with a pursuit of constant improvement toward excellence, and that pursuit has helped to create the largest economy in the world.

We are The Wright Brothers. We are Wal-mart. We are Silicon Valley.

Americans work hard for what we believe in. In fact, we work more hours a week than most of Western Europe.

As a result, everything can be done on the go. Coffee. Dinner. TV. Even weddings. We live in cars and in subways and on busses. Convenience above all else.

In America, you can get cheese in a can.

And a personality that believes in working hard to earn their share — a society so driven by meritocracy, also believes in reaping the fruits of their labor.

In short, we work hard, and we play hard.

So we also top the charts of TV consumption.

Everything’s bigger, in fact: Cars, houses, refrigerators, soft drinks, breasts, grocery stores.

Mega churches, mega muffins. What happened to muffins?

Hell, even our expressions are bigger. “Go big or go home.” “World’s largest…” “The Big Kahuna.”

As a result, we’re also the world’s largest people.

According to the National Institute of Health, being overweight is linked to a bunch of health issues including increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar), high blood pressure, certain cancers, and other chronic conditions.

#3. Declaration of [Moderating Our] Independence

Lastly, maybe the one we hold most dear.

That personality we all share … that feeling what it means to be American at its core… when it comes to government, of ‘Leave me alone… Don’t tell me what to do.’
David Cross

Our Constitution is a thoughtfully crafted document which meticulously lays out the ways in which the government will check and balance itself to ensure the liberty of its people. Not more than a decade following its signing, we were already amending it to add more liberties — more independence for its people.

Those amendments are now known as the Bill of Rights, and contain such gems as the freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, the protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, and the right to a trial by a jury of your peers. (Fresh off a war, our founding fathers were a bit paranoid.)

Being an American is very much about being independent. Just ask us.

Red = Highly Independent

We put freedom and independence above all else, often to our own peril.

We are George Washington. John Adams. Benjamin Franklin.

But these days, we’re perhaps a little overzealous when it comes to deregulation and over privatization.

How can that be a bad thing? How can we be too independent?

For one, over-independence left unchecked can become narcissism, like that map of the world we saw earlier. Narcissism causes us to not question what we believe; to not wonder if other folk’s beliefs might be better. Did you know a third of Americans still think man lived alongside the dinosaurs?

Secondly, corporations can get more than their share. While we’re busy working and watching TV and eating muffins apparently baked for giants, private companies are leaning on our government to represent them disproportionately.

The system that was built by our founding fathers in a time when there was more balance. When “corporations” were Joe the Blacksmith and Suzy the Prostitute. But today, there is imbalance. The result: Deregulation.

One great example of too much de-regulation? The housing crisis of 2009.

Another example, since we’ve privatized jails, let’s just say attendance has gone up.

An imbalance might also lead to a strangling of our government’s own pocketbooks.

One place where we might feel that is our education system. And that’s extra scary because the effect takes a long time to see play out, and the result is a workforce that’s not as well educated as the rest of the world.

Or how about public media? Isn’t this something we all want? A non-biased source for really great journalism. A place that’s reporting on the stuff we need to know to make our society better? A place that doesn’t have to worry about ratings, and so they don’t have to waste our time on sensational stories, entertainment-based stories, mongering, party-based pontification, talking heads, and Kardashian butts?

European public radio is funded by a required fee for every household. And museums are free (mostly).

Museums and public television may seem harmless, but there are some examples that certainly aren’t. Healthcare, for example.

Again, I’m not gonna broach that topic here, but needless to say, it’s another area where America stands out. Shouldn’t we view it as a right of the people to all have access to the best healthcare system on the world? Wouldn’t that make us proud?

Did you know America is the only country where it’s legal to advertise pharmaceutical drugs direct to the consumer?

Well, Is America Great Again Yet?

I didn’t necessarily offer a lot of advice in there, but I guess what I’m trying to say is to be aware of these natural tendencies we have. When we find ourselves thinking about one of these things a particular way, stop and ask yourself, ‘Am I letting my American run wild? Where’s the line? How much is too much?’

Because there is such a thing.

For every episode of Make The Weekend, visit maketheweekend.com.

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Originally published at www.maketheweekend.com on August 29, 2016.

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