The REIfication of America
On this idyllic summer afternoon, my daughter and I went to REI to buy a water bottle. There was quite a selection, next to an even larger selection of camping dishes and camping flatware that would have done perfectly well for semi-formal indoor occasions, and acrylic margharita glasses.
I've never gone camping, though I did once sleep rough in South Dakota while hitch-hiking to visit a friend in Wisconsin--and woke up to see a bobcat staring me in the face. I do like biking thought and checked out a hybrid bike on the clearance rack--price slashed to $999. I said knowingly to Elizabeth, "this is made of one of these alloys and it's probably really light." Lifting it, it weighed like lead. A grand for this?
The store was full of 20-somethings examining leaden mountain bikes and 30-somethings, trailing toddlers, checking out jogging strollers. Where did they get the money for this stuff? When we were their age we shopped at thrift stores, garage sales and, when we were flush, Target. I mashed up leftover scrambled eggs from breakfast with mayonnaise to make egg salad sandwiches for lunch and crocheted together dish cloths to make shirts for the then baby.
REI irritated me. Can one describe a classification of commercial establishments as a "genre"? Nothing else will quite do. There seems to be a genre of overpriced stores and eateries that make their living by presenting a stylized version of hippie businesses c. 1975. In grad school we went to eat at Our Father's Place run by a community of Jesus Freaks who did a good spinach salad and sold chewy home-baked cookies, muffins of every description and little herbal teas. Now there is Starbucks--and endless knock-offs, including the coffee shop at school. The selection of beverages has been expanded and elaborated, but the teas are still there and the muffins are endless.
I have nothing against crass materialism or firms that charge exorbitant prices for fancy stuff. It's this commercialized faux-bohemia, that rubs me up the wrong way: these 2nd generation yuppies hauling mountain bikes, bottled water, gourmet trail mix and high tech camping equipment to the trailhead in their SUVs to spend a weekend roughing it, like Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess in her royal cowshed.
I don't know why it bugs me--maybe it's the fakery and the self-righteous double-bluff elitism that generally goes along with it. "We aren't crass materialists like those people, who take their kids to theme parks and eat fatty processed food: we hike, bike, eat healthy natural foods and live the simple life at three times the price." If I had the bucks these hikers spend on roughing it I'd go to Old Europe, gape at great architecture, walk the streets of cities centuries or millennia old and consume High Culture. I'd head for the historical heartland, the Mediterranean--to the south of France, Province and Langdoc where they spoke the vulgar Latin Language of Hoc, to Rome, Venice and Ravenna where the Empire made its last stand, and fell, to Athens where Our Founder walked, and to Constantinople to see Hagia Sophia. I've been reading A Short History of Byzantium by I forget who and the very names of the waters between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea make me shiver with pleasure: the Bosphorus, the Hellespont, the Sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn.
I suppose the thinking is that this sort of conventional taste is too, too naive. Everyone knows you're supposed to like this stuff: hoi polloi learn what Culture is in school. The truly astute appreciate the stylishly off-beat. Wine snobbery is too, too obvious and even micro-brew snobbery is getting old: exotic vegetables and fancy chocolate are the new frontier. Anyone can learn off the list of Great Classical Music, Great Literature and Great Art you're supposed to like: it's the selective appreciation of pop culture that shows you really have good taste--haven't just learnt the list--and that you are so confident of your social standing that you can brag about liking science fiction and classic rock. I'm still not buying it. I like Bach, Mozart and Haydn (oh, yes, I'm fantasizing side trips to Vienna and Salzburg on the pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia). There's a reason why stuff makes it onto the Great Art list: it's what people naturally like. You can't walk around Bath or listen to Mozart and not like it. Interest in pop culture is an affectation.
I can understand appreciating natural beauty spots and enjoying physical activity. I enjoy biking and I'd rather like to try camping sometime--but not with $3000 worth of equipment. This faux-bohemianism of REI and Starbucks, organic veg, bran muffins and micro-brews, and the self-congratulatory elitism that dare not speak its name, gets up my nose. We got a water bottle for $20 and got out.