Dance with life, fight the bears

The silly season is beginning – but here in the US it could be renamed the serious season. The summer spam that fills the space in lieu of politics and education news is light but not funny. Weekly newspapers in Wyoming report mock-ups of bioterrorism attacks. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would pick on this emptiest state, where fewer than 500,000
people occupy an area bigger than Scotland. Across the wide, grass prairies, hundreds of wagon trains pulling $3m-worth of coal regularly roll and huge road wagons run through to other, busier states.

The main street of Lask sells handmade stetsons and the inhabitants actually wear
them. With no mobile phone reception for hundreds of miles, we have driven for two hours to get here in order to phone the UK – only to find that it’s the last town in the US where everything goes through the operator and she can’t connect international calls. It’s hard to imagine the suicidal terrorists of militant Islam coming here. They might stand out a bit, and the operator has trouble connecting callers to California, let alone a mother in the United Arab Emirates, but you never know. In Colorado, the Daily Camera has advice about how to cope with wild animals in the national parks you might be planning to visit.

If you come across a mountain lion, it says helpfully, do not yell or talk loudly, although talking loudly would not be my first response. Then, try to make yourself look bigger than you are. If you run into a black bear and it attacks you, the paper interestingly recommends fighting back. Perhaps the bears have got wise to the old chestnut of
playing dead. A summer feature in a Wyoming paper tells parents how to check up on playpark furniture to make sure it is working properly.

Americans retain the habit of newspaper reading. In the American Beauty look-a-like suburbs, the delivery man drives along, flinging papers out of the window, each rolled into a bag like a green plastic sock. But they do not rely on them for news, at least not for national news. Without a television it is hard to get information. In one town, asking
for a New York Times or a Washington Post in the library brought a slowly shaken head and the reply: ”You won’t get that in this town, or anywhere nearby.” The style of the newspapers, too, is very different.

The local news they do report is very far from being sensationalised. The lingua franca of British local rags has become, in many cases, a substandard version of tabloidese. On my first day at journalism college in a course specialising in weekly and local journalism, we were given an item to write up about a dog worrying sheep. One produced a story
headlined ”Shoot-to-kill policy declared by farmers”, whereas mine was something like ”Hillside carnage as sheep are massacred by stray dog”. American local papers have evolved very differently, with a kind of soothing, relaxed style which, although it might sometimes seem anodyne, seems to carry a certain authority. A front-page story about
people’s lack of confidence in institutions such as the FBI is written in a chatty style, with the writer concerned that the nation’s healthy scepticism could turn into ”corrosive cynicism”.

In Colorado, the front-page stories about the fires raging in the forest are not sensationalised at all. A resident about to be evacuated is quoted as saying he was ”about
ready for a holiday”. It’s hard to imagine a British paper dealing with that in the same way. The use of irony in that context would be seen as bad taste rather than courageous black humour and would not be found on the news pages. But beneath the calm exterior there is a certain anxiety detectable. This is probably adding to the success of the latest
self-help book to go big. The book is aimed at the new anxious US and it is called How to Quit Worrying and Dance With Life. It’s basic thesis is that life is too full of cares and woe and we need to rise above the clouds and realise that life is precious; the lesson, after all, of 9/11.

Too much is serious in life, it claims, we worry about how much our children will achieve, our careers, the food we eat, and whether it is bad for us. Relax and be happy is its message. It is predicted to be the new must-read, after the Surrendered Single. The Surrendered Single told woman that the best way to get a man was to wear a dress, smile,
and be nice. ”Don’t contradict them or argue with their punitions, and be helpful. How often do you clean out your boyfriend’s apartment? Not good enough.” It built on the success of the Surrendered Wife who hands over financial control to her husband and gets on with the cooking.

Americans love self-help books and they are becoming more and more popular in the UK. I am trying to get a deal for one I think will go big in both countries. It’s called The Surrendered Mom, and the basic thesis is that we spend way too much time fighting with our kids, trying to make them walk on two legs and talk human language when what we should really do is let them grow towards the sun in the way nature intended.

The 10-point plan of The Surrendered Mom will start by saying throw away the rule book. Smile sweetly and let them have the money they were asking for – and don’t ask what they want it for. So what if they want to eat marshmallow-coated cardboard for breakfast when you always insist on porridge. Let them lead. Next time someone says to you in the
supermarket: ”Can’t you control your kids?” Simply answer: ”No. Would you like to try?” Motherhood, instead of being a battlefield, can be a gas if you simply surrender.

The Scottish Herald
June 26th 2002