Joe's Road Trip 2011

Road Trip Day 13: The Lazy American

  • Share
  • Read Later

Jonesboro, Arkansas–St Louis, Missouri

“Down deep in my heart, I believe that we’ve peaked as a nation,” said Jim Phillips, the president of the Arkansas Dentists Association. He had gathered a handful of fellow dentists together at the Riverpointe Country Club, in a neighborhood of some of the biggest McMansions ever built by man. “We’re sliding as slow as we can, digging our claws in scrapping, but we’re sliding.”

This was a familiar sentiment on last year’s road trip, and it’s been a constant theme this year–but there’s a difference. Last year, when I asked why we were sliding, people blamed unfair competition from the Chinese, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the growth of the welfare state. This year, we’re blaming ourselves. I have heard the word “lazy” used at nearly every stop.

“It’s like Rome,” said Warren Whitis, who practices dentistry in the Mississippi River town of Osceola. “I’m scared we’re collapsing from within. The drug culture is getting out of hand. I have people who come to me, begging for me to prescribe them pain pills.”

Phillips summoned another fallen empire: “We’re where England was. They got lazy…The thing is, we’ve got everything. We’re a consumer nation. Even the poorest people have air conditioning and television. There’s no reason for people to work so hard anymore, not like our parents.”

Yesterday afternoon, in St. Louis, I met with five male students at Washington University, an excellent school. “I’m worried about the education system. We’re really slipping,” said Sunny Mehta, a political science major from El Paso. “We’re something like 17th in the world now.”

I asked why the group thought that was. “Complacency,” said Viraj Doshi, “I went to a private school near Raleigh, North Carolina. It was a very conservative school and a lot of my classmates just assumed they’d go to college and get a good job and lots of money when they got out, without working very hard. They’d say, ‘Well, everything’s always worked out for my family.'”

“I went to private school in the northeast,” said Harrison Siegel, “and the only kids who really worked hard were the inner city kids who were there on scholarship.”

“I went to Hunter College High School in New York,” said Steve White, who had put the group of students together, claiming that he disagreed with almost everything I write (he didn’t, really–but it was an excellent ploy to get me to stop by). “And a lot of the kids felt they were entitled to go to a good school and get a good job. No one was worried. Now they are.”

I asked if it was the same for women, who tend to graduate from college in greater numbers than men do. “Oh no, girls work much harder,” said Siegel.

“There’s a culture of slacking for boys that girls just don’t have,” said Max Hamilton.

“You go to the library and it’s 75% girls,” said Steve White.

“That’s a really good reason to go to the library,” said Hamilton.

But, I asked, why did they think girls worked so hard? There was a moment of stumped quiet and then I asked, “Do girls play video games as much as boys do?” There was laughter and, “They don’t watch sports on TV as much we do, either,” said Max Hamilton.

“I’d say that half the people who don’t work hard, spend two hours a night on Facebook,” Viraj said. “Maybe if they made some of these social networking sites more educational…”

This morning in St. Louis, I had breakfast with Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL and one the New Greatest Generation of veterans I wrote about in the magazine last month. Greitens runs a terrific program called The Mission Continues, which funnels returning veterans into public service work. “There are three kinds of happiness,” Greitens told me. “The first is the simple enjoyment of consuming fun things–eating an ice cream sundae makes me happy. The second kind is the happiness that comes when you step back and think about all the things you have to be grateful for. The third kind of happiness comes from the suffering and personal sacrifice that come from the pursuit of excellence. Aristotle thought that this was the most profound form of happiness–and when you don’t experience it, you’re not living a balanced life.”

Tomorrow, in Joplin, Missouri, hundreds of people are going to devote a day of public service to continuing the cleanup of the city after the May 22 tornado. All three kinds of happiness will be available–the day will start with a church service (gratitude), and at the end of the day, there will a community picnic, where, I would guess, ice cream will be on the menu. But I imagine that the greatest happiness will come from the satisfaction of doing a good, hard day of work for the greater good. I’ll be there for all of it.

Today’s Playlist: Songs About Today

1. Saturday by Sonia Dada

2.Everyday by Paul Simon

3. Every Morning by Keb Mo

4. Those Three Days by Lucinda Williams

5. What A Day It Was by Talking Heads.