Searching for Bob Ross in a Picasso World

So i just returned from a visit to Southern California. Nothing like a road trip to make you appreciate the grandeur and beauty of America, right? Whizzing down the highway, rolling past all those amber waves of grain and whatnot, it’s easy to be soothed by our environs. One almost feels nostalgic, as though, from a distance, everything has that goldenrod, innocent patina found on photographs from the Seventies. The mountains of Southern California are truly awe-inspiring, not in a Rockies kinda way, but in that high desert kinda way, full of reds and oranges and purples. And you think, perhaps uncynically, that maybe things aren’t so bad, maybe there’s still beauty in the world. 

And then you pull off an I-5 off ramp and take a piss in a gas station bathroom so foul that by the time you exit, you’ve caught four STDs and are addicted to meth. You stand in the parking lot of In n’ Out in the dusty, unforgiving sun of Kettleman Hills, California, staring at the vapors coming off the hazardous waste landfill, smelling the fetid cow shit smell of nearby CAFOs (if you don’t know what those are, go look them up), and you watch what has to be a girl no more than 14 get into the cab of a semi at the truck stop next door, and you think “Human beings could have evolved in, literally, an infinite number of ways, and this is where we’ve ended up. This was apparently the best we could do.” 

America is a total Picasso, y’all.

I grew up in the Seventies. I remember the bicentennial being a fucking huge deal. The country was 200 years old and we puffed up our chests and strutted, which probably made us look a little foolish to all those Old World chaps who’d been around for millennia longer than we had. And what I distinctly remember is feeling proud to be an American. I was six and didn’t understand things like nuclear weapons or Watergate, and I just went along with what we were taught in public schools: that we were the best fucking people in the world and everyone goddamn wished they were American. We were the fucking chosen people we were so blessed. I’d venture to say it’s one of the first identities we learn. We are a boy or a girl, we are someone’s daughter or son, we are American. And we are taught, above all else, to take pride in that identity. 

And then, you know, you go to college and learn about shit like the Vietnam War and Nagasaki and Three-Mile Island and the need for a Civil Rights Movement and you think, “Fuck, we kinda suck it.” And maybe you think you’re so smart because from that point on, you think of yourself as a critical thinker; you can no longer see America in the propaganda-bathed light of the public school system. You become cynical and jaded and learn to question. And you tell yourself this is a good thing–to question our government and its actions, to be critical of the policies we have or don’t have in place, to wonder why we don’t behave in ways that are necessarily humane or moral. 

And then maybe, you adopt this attitude about everything. Everything you lay your eyes upon becomes a potential target for derision or mockery, and somehow you are above it all because you have learned to question it or dissect it fully. And then you look up a decade or so later and find that not only are you not able to take things at face value, but also that you’ve lost pride in–like it or not–one of the key things that defines you as a human being. 

When people talk about the word “pride,” it is often with a negative connotation. “Oh that’s just your pride talking” or “he’s stubborn and prideful, you’ll never change his mind” or “you know men and their stupid pride.” Pride often leads us toward acting in stupid or self-injurious ways. Or, if you’re like me, you take it a step further and see people dressed in their American flag T-shirts boasting “these colors don’t bleed” or you hear someone talking about how America is the greatest fucking country on earth, and you make a snap judgement about them–that they’re uneducated hillbillies who clearly don’t ever pick up a paper or watch the news because if they did, how could they say that with a straight face? 

But there’s also positive pride. There’s taking pride in your work or Gay Pride or feeling proud that you didn’t turn into your mother the minute you had a child of your own. There are all kinds of positive associations with the word pride and all kinds of things you can take pride in. 

But, for me anyway, it’s hard for me to find ways to take pride in one of the first things I was taught to have pride in: being American. Like it or not, an American is who I am. And I can either be one of those people blindly trumpeting how great we are or I can continue to educate myself and see the hard evidence that this is often not the case. 

I think one of the reasons I struggle with unhappiness is that I am bombarded every day with shitty and toxic news about US soldiers willfully killing afghan women and children or drone strikes in Pakistan or some asshole with a semiautomatic mowing down a school of small children or the gang rape of a drunk girl by a high school football team. We’ve gotten so far away from being morally just that I feel deflated and impotent and hopeless. How does one have pride in one of the fundamental qualifiers of oneself when all around us, large and small, America is revealing itself to be pretty sucktastic? 

I mean, the obvious answer is to find some balance, right? To realize that yeah, we are CAFOs and gang rape and Internet trolls, but we’re also still purple mountains majesty and Meals on Wheels and firemen pulling puppies out of flooded rivers and people sending money to Red Cross to help victims of natural disasters. 

I used to just fucking bathe myself in bad news, y’all. I’m a political junkie and it’s easy to fall down that rabbit hole of the hopeless and frustration that is America’s current political landscape. I’d read about how racists, disguised as an offshoot of the Republican Party, have taken the country hostage over the simple concept of making sure every citizen in this country has access to adequate health care, and I’d think “I’m embarrassed to be an American right now.” Or I’d read about the disappearing middle class or the damn one percent or how Walmart is fucking its workers up the ass with sandy Vaseline, and I’d think “We are so far away from that America we were taught about in school, that country that started as a noble experiment where all men were created equal (okay, granted, unless you were black or a woman).” And I’d feel sad or lost or furious, sometimes all at once. 

I want to be informed. I refuse to ostrich myself and pretend this bad stuff doesn’t exist. LALALALALALA! I AM NOT LISTENING TO YOU! WHY ARE YOU STILL TALKING?! But one can only read so many stories about teenagers raping kittens (kittens, fer fuckssake) or stupid bitches screaming at Dunkin Donuts employees before one starts to feel like we, as Americans, have ripped out the still-beating heart of this country, set it on fire, then taken a shit on the ashes.

I’ll be honest, y’all, I still haven’t figured out balance in this dilemma, but I have started trying something small–insignificant maybe–but something that seems to be ameliorating the gutted, soulless feeling I have after 30 minutes spent reading the news. And y’all can make fun of me if you want, because it does seem like an overly simplistic solution to a complex problem, but I added Upworthy to my Facebook feed. For those of you not familiar with this site, it’s a site that features videos, stories, and pictures of people who are actively doing something to make this world a better place. Whether its a video of a 10-year-old kid who appears before the school board meeting to bravely speak out against bullying or a story of a guy in India who uses what little time and money he has to feed and bathe the hundreds of poor on the streets in his town, you really can’t come away from one of the videos without being moved, without being reassured that everyone isn’t a total asshole in it for themselves. Nine times out of ten, I either get chills or tear up at something I watch on their site. And so at the end of my binge news-reading session, I will go and find one or two Upworthy videos to do a cleanse, to let a modicum of hope and joy seep into the folds of my brains, so that I don’t spend the rest of the day wanting to kick people in the taco.

So if you’re a news junkie, or even if you aren’t, I highly recommend giving Upworthy a peek. It’ll be 10 minutes out of your day completely well-spent. Yes, there are million feel-good things you can find on the Internet, but I like this one because it doesn’t sugar coat, and the videos it posts are real videos of people fighting inequality or unjustness on a small level, which is something that personally appeals to me. If that’s not your cup o’ tea, find something similar that is. If it’s spending 10 minutes at work watching a peaceful, impossible-to-be-offensive old Bob Ross episode of him painting happy trees. If it’s watching a video of baby otters frolicking. Whatever it is that makes your inner awwwwww! go off, fucking do it. In the world in which we live, getting that feeling is not a luxury, it’s a fucking mandate. Everywhere you look it’s pollution or global warming or civil unrest or transvaginal probes. Don’t ignore those stories–you need them too–but throw a little sumpin-sumpin in the mix to make your soul sing. It may end up being the only damn bright spot in your day on some days. 

And maybe it will help you regain a little pride in yourself as an American.