We’re living in a pretty backward time here in America. We define our excess by poverty and our poverty by excess. If you saw a tanned, thin man wearing torn clothes and driving an all-terrain vehicle 60 years ago, he was probably a farmer scrabbling to make ends meet. Today, however, there’s a fair chance his tan came from a bottle, his clothes were bought pre-stressed, and his all-terrain vehicle is used solely for making the arduous commute from suburbia to the office.
Meanwhile, his opposite — the overweight man he passes on the sidewalk, the one who’s left the price tags on his clothes to show how new they are — that man is the poorest among us.
It ought to make us scratch our heads: Obesity is a sign of poverty in our country? But we’re so accustomed to these paradoxes, we don’t even realize how convoluted we’ve become. For example, we spend far more money on our educational system than developing nations do, yet many of our students resent school. They view it as work they’re required to do for someone else, rather than a privilege that someone else paid for.
These days, we glorify athletes more but are less athletic ourselves; we spend more time watching cooking shows than actually cooking. We’re connected via cutting-edge telecommunications, yet we’re lonely; we’re tuned in to the 24-hour news cycle, but we’re horribly uninformed.
One of the most striking examples of this inversion involves online video games in which players complete tasks and earn cyber rewards, such as slaying a dragon to get a magic sword. But that’s not the bizarre part. Get this: There are warehouses in China filled with young children playing these games so they can sell the virtual treasures to Americans for actual money. We’re paying them to play our video games for us! We’ve outsourced being entertained.
It’s troubling. I don’t know where American culture is going, and I worry about the country my daughter will grow up in. But I’ve found a way to take the edge off my anxiety. I live in Asheville — a beacon of rainbow light in an often dim world — whose residents still grow stuff, know stuff, brew stuff and do stuff.
At a time when more and more Americans do their socializing online, Ashevilleans are still getting out and about. I ran the Citizen-Times half-marathon in September, and it was less a race than a party. Don’t get me wrong: We were all moving, and moving fast (we’re an extraordinarily fit community), but while we were running, we were also running into people we knew. Friends, co-workers and even that shop owner who didn’t know our names but recognized our faces. We high-fived the police officers who were stopping traffic, thanked the volunteers at the water stations, and smiled at the kind folks who’d made signs to cheer us all on.
This is Asheville, and no, it’s not perfect, but over the last decade — as our country’s mainstream culture has continued to decline — this little mecca has only gotten better. West Asheville used to be little more than a succession of alternating pawnshops and gun stores, with the occasional “gun and pawn” thrown in for integration’s sake. These days it’s a buzzing community of bakeries and bars.
The River Arts District was just a bunch of crumbling warehouses. Yeah, I know: It’s still a bunch of crumbling warehouses, but now there are artists in them painting and sculpting and spinning and throwing, creating beauty that draws folks from all over the country. Meanwhile, thriving local businesses like Malaprop’s continue to dominate downtown. We’ve got farmers markets and breweries coming out of our ears.
If our clothes are torn, it’s because we’ve been working in the garden; if we’re thin, it’s due to our healthy diet, not liposuction or one of those weird-as-hell girdle shirts; and if we’ve got an all-terrain vehicle (most likely a Subaru Outback), it’s because we’re hauling our kayaks upriver.
And at the end of the day, we drink — not because our life is so hard but because our beer is so very, very good.
— Asheville resident Christopher Arbor is the author of the short-story collection Static to Signal.