From November 30, 2005: What makes America move? (When you think about it, even the advanced apes probably had gas)

On the John

What makes America move?

When You Think About It, Even the Advanced Apes Probably Had Gas

Originally published in NUVO Newsweekly on November 30, 2005

Amen. (cartoon from
Amen. (cartoon from

I love America. Love everything about it. Love the people. Love the freedom. Love the excess, love the access, love everything that makes us American. And while there is bad in America—too much poverty and too little education, which highlight our biggest national problem, excessive indifference—the overall legacy of America is one of progress, a progress that, while significantly tainted by hypocrisy and lots and lots of murder, makes America move.

But getting back to progress, and what makes America move, let’s talk about airplanes.

As most of us know, airplanes are pretty much nothing more than big, flying cars that depart every fifteen minutes or so depending on a few mitigating factors, namely weather and the staff’s overall stick-to-itiveness. I flew to Atlanta recently, and the experience really opened my eyes. It was American all the way.

But getting back to American stick-to-itiveness, let’s talk about airports.

I love airports. Love the way they represent America fully and completely. If a foreigner had just one day to visit just one place to get a feel for what our country is about, I would definitely direct him to a strip club, and failing that, an airport. Here we all come now! We, the people who live in this wonderful mess of a country, coming together to share the joys of American progress. Granted, this progress includes a McDonalds with a five dollar hamburger, but that’s not the point. The point is the hamburger. No, the point is that we’re moving forward, and even with a few bumps along the way, we should still be happy that we have the opportunity to come together as a nation and eat fatty foods.

But getting back to the gassy side-effects of McDonalds, let’s talk about being crammed into seat 18B between two strangers while I’m trying to hold it in.

No, actually, let’s talk about the magic of flying. As we discussed earlier, airplanes are pretty much big flying cars, and while we wait for American progress and stick-to-itiveness to give us the actual flying car, we overlook the fact that airplanes are already really cool. I mean, this is a machine that actually flies, and yet nobody on board seemed to notice. Had that plane been hijacked by terrorists or George Bush or somebody, these strangers would have been the last people I ever saw. With that in mind, I observed them closely, knowing that survival would mean creating a close yet subtle bond with a quiet hero trying to return home to his family for the holidays before circumstances beyond his control brought out his highly attuned military skills nobody knew he possessed. I didn’t find this mystery man, but in my observations it was clear to me that no one was impressed by the fact that we were all zooming around in what amounted to some kind of giant, metal box. Everyone seemed indifferent, apathetic. To my left was an airline employee “catching some z’s.” To my right, an old yet physically fit man casually reading a thick book. He seemed ordinary, but I astutely observed that he was eating a pack of Lifesavers candy. Perhaps this was a visual metaphor carefully inserted by the director to create an effect. Nevertheless, I was struck by the carefree indifference of my fellow passengers as we flew over our great country. It’s not like I’ve never been on a plane before, but come on! We’re flying here! This was truly incredible.

And the progress didn’t end at flying. As I looked at the clouds beneath us, I suddenly smelled what could only be categorized as human gas. Someone, perhaps having eaten a five dollar hamburger, had farted. There we were, all jammed together on a plane, and we all smelled fart. Once again, American progress prevailed. Did we yell? Did we hold our collective noses? Did we uncover the culprit, the man who “let it out,” and then once someone made an accusation did we then accuse that person based on the theory that whoever smelt it dealt it? No. We sat in silence as the smell circled around us, letting it evaporate. We had all progressed into polite, cowardly adults, people who didn’t want to embarrass a public farter. Even the silent yet clearly valiant hero remained conveniently aloof as he ate his Lifesavers. Perhaps he knew something we didn’t, that the fart was a terrorist plot. Whatever it was, one thing was clear. We, the American public, were being polite.

So, what was this? Was it progress, because we had evolved into flying adults who politely ignore farts? Or was it failure, because we didn’t have the guts to speak out against something we knew was wrong? I wasn’t sure. Whatever it was though, I was glad to be a part of it. It was a true American moment, one filled with progress and possibility and ambiguity over social situations, and as I walked off that plane, I was proud to be American, a member of this great country.

Copyright 2005, jm silverstein


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