America, land of the rules

One thing I noticed upon returning to the United States is that America is a land of rules.

Proving a persistent exception to the rule proposed in a famous song by Missing Persons, I do in fact "walk in LA." I managed to find a place to live where everything I need is, for the most part, within walking distance. Grocery stores (three of them), restaurants on Santa Monica Boulevard, the bars and clubs of Sunset Boulevard, clothes, Russian bakeries, even music stores are all within a few minutes on foot.

I just came back from one of those grocery stores (note: this was written Sunday afternoon), and the attendant asked me whether what I was buying was "take out." Now, I had bananas, three blocks of cheese, a giant loaf of bread, deli meat, a couple bottles of wine, and two big cartons of vanilla-flavored soy milk (I'm hooked on the stuff, can't figure out why). Moved to make a smart-aleck remark I'm sure he'd heard about a thousand times, I responded with "no, I plan to eat it all here."

In all earnestness, he answered, "no, seriously, you're taking it all home, right?" As he wasn't seeing the humor in the situation, I indicated that, yes, the food was going home with me, and he proceeded to scan the rest of my stuff. Figuring there had to be some bureaucratic reason for the exchange, I asked him why it was necessary to ask obvious questions, and he pointed to a plastic card affixed to a pole that described a new tax on all food "eaten in" that REQUIRES checkout stand attendants to ask that question.

There's all sorts of weird stuff like that in California. You see placards on buildings that state "chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer are present here," as if the scientists in other states are neanderthals in white coats, and only California legislators can save us from the barbarians beyond our borders. Doctors are LEGALLY OBLIGATED to include in voice messages "please call 911, you stupid git, if this is a real emergency, as leaving a voice message is not going to magically send ambulances to your apartment to save you from disaster" (okay, they don't have to say "magically"). If you thought rental agreements in other states were bad, they don't hold a candle to the byzantine tomes that accompany rental agreements here.

I've described Los Angeles to my friends as "America on steroids," which has a certain literal resonance, surely, given the sheer number of image-boosting chemicals consumed within the county, but also has a more abstract meaning. America is a land of consumer culture, endless shopping opportunities, restaurants with cuisine from every part of the globe (or fusion of same), and the ever-present automobile, all things present in abundant quantities in Los Angeles. It is also a place governed by an endless array of RULES.

Perhaps I'm a bit rulaphobic after spending two years in Ireland, a country where rules are a tool to make gullible Americans pay more than they should (never, ever pay your last month's rent in Ireland, as they WILL keep your deposit, unless your property is owned by a priest (as my first apartment was), in which case your odds are just better that you'll get it back). Bus schedules? Hah. Bus schedules represent a ballpark estimate as to when the bus will run (though Dublin is an exception), and it all depends on whether the driver has his shopping done, whether a game is on the telly, and whether he feels like driving that damn bus all the way across town. Clocks on Irish buses are never even close to the actual time, because then you'd know how late the bus was running. You don't have to file tax returns in Ireland unless they ask you to do so, and even then, the rules seem somewhat flexible depending on the circumstances.

That's not the way things are done in America. Heck, it's not the way things are done in Switzerland, though at least in Switzerland, you get the impression that the government shows some restraint when it comes to throwing the legal book at Swiss citizens.

In Switzerland, though, the rules were easy. They would throw the book at me if I didn't follow Swiss rules, because I was a foreigner, and rule-breaking foreigners get thrown into Lac Leman with lead weights tied to their ankles. Fortunately, the Swiss made it easy to follow rules. I received notices in the mail telling me when I had to visit the Bureau d'Etrangeres. Swiss taxes were astoundingly easy, and though the rules were rigid, they seemed sensible.

Rules are important. Buses failing to show up drove me crazy, and I almost got denied entry into Ireland because the visa guy at the local Gardai station had a habit of not showing up to work (long story). They are also important in countries that have large immigrant populations. Apparently, 20% of the people who live in Switzerland aren't citizens. Rules help to make all those people work well together, and that certainly applies to the United States, a nation almost entirely composed of immigrants.

Unfortunately, I often don't feel the rules in America are rational, whether it's a tax system that you need to be a specialist to understand, rules that post strange signs all over the place, or make check-out personnel ask you stupid questions. It makes you feel like you're living in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil."

Okay, I came back to America for a reason. Stick me in a room-full of Ameraphobic Europeans, and I will hold forth on all the wonderful things that makes the United States a great country, because I'll be damned if I'll let blind prejudice go unchallenged. Living overseas, though, gives you an unusual perspective on your home, even if you still love the place. Sometimes, that perspective leads to criticism.

Is Europe free of silly rules? Heck no. We do, however, put up with an amazing amount of rules-based inefficiency, a fact that will become abundantly clear to many Americans as they slog through their tax returns.