Calling Fargo

One of the weird things I’ve noticed here is that everybody refers to phone numbers on the Air Guard base by the last three digits. It’s funny, because there are no “extensions” on base in the telecom sense of the word. There’s nowhere on base where a single, seven digit number gets dialed to reach an exchange and further subsets of three or four digit extensions. Everybody has their own phone number. And in America our phone numbers are segmented out into three digits of prefix, a dash, and then four digits of specific number.

A three digit area code may specify what state or county is being dialed in the USA, but the three digit prefix that Hollywood always represents as “555” in a phone number tells the dialer an awful lot about a phone number. What would be gibberish of (123) 456-7890 can be decoded rather quickly to the savvy. Back home in Tucson I could tell from a 298, 730, 295, or 791 prefix if the phone number belonged to D-M Air Force base, a Verizon wireless cell phone, the Air Guard unit by the airport or the city government. I’d be willing to bet major hospitals or the University own their own prefix.

But most importantly, that means that every phone number within a common prefix everywhere I’ve been in the United States has been referred to by the last four digits. Whether it’s been a military base or a city fire station, the numbers after the dash have all been recited.

Need to call so-and-so in that other department? He’s at 5210.

Personnel office? Call 3795.

Sergeant Jones? The supply person? 7413.

So it’s very strange to hear people here refer to a number by just the last three digits. It kind of makes sense, because the base is so small all the phone numbers share the prefix and the first digit of the last four. So every number would be something like 123-4XXX.

The problem is I’ve got 30+ years of phone numbers being in a 3-3-4 format, plus 15+ years of technical understanding the “why” and background to it. I just can’t think the way they do here, so when somebody tells me to call Dave by dialing 237 I wind up just staring at them in a befuddled state. That’s not the way the phones here work. If I just dial a random three digits I get tones and the “call cannot be completed as dialed” message. I still have to dial the prefix, and the first of the four digits that I don’t know because nobody ever bothers to say it aloud. So for all I know, the phone numbers here are (123) 456-X789 and I never know what X is.

It’s frustrating because I feel like an idiot, but it’s also comical because everybody on base is saying phone numbers “wrong” but they all know what they’re talking about. Just another of the dozens (hundreds?) of little bits of culture shock here in the northern prairie…

Ze Germans

This post is attempting to tackle two topics. I am almost positive they will not be intertwined in anything resembling an artful manner. So as you muddle into this ham-fisted essay, Dear Reader, remember I write this for my entertainment and not always yours. I’d say “caveat emptor”, but you’re reading this for free. -Eric

I’m somewhat embarrassed that other book I forgot to list reading in my last post was probably the one I enjoyed most. Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman is a collection of essays much like my introduction to the author, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. These two books in particular are collections of essays, and Klosterman is only six years older than me, so a lot of the Gen-X-ish stuff he writes about really speaks directly to me. That, and I’m a recovering pop culture junkie and Kevin Smith fan. So a former music critic for Spin, Esquire, GQ, etc. that makes a lot of footnotes (have you seen how prolifically I use parenthesis?), hilarious and seemingly random pop culture references, and is also really dang smart and analytical was just irresistible to me.

And yes, the “Gen-X” and “random pop culture references” bits were specifically to say, I understand he may not be for everyone. But since Michael Chrichton is dead, Klosterman just might be my favorite living author.

Granted, I’ve only read two of his books and both are essay collections rather than longer narratives. I get that. But now I’m “stuck” living in Fargo with my job, and as fate would have it another of Klosterman’s books that I want to get now is Fargo Rock City. Fargo is a cute little town, but at least ten years behind the cultural mainstream. The big concert they had last year was Creed, and I was offered free tickets because “I don’t know who these new bands are”.

2012. Creed. “New band.” Let that swim around in your brain a little. There was a pretty quotable joke at Creed’s expense for being lame/passe in Without a Paddle, and that was in 2004.

I understand pop culture is fickle, and this isn’t intended to get off on Creed nor Fargo bashing tangent. No, more than anything I feel like I can identify with Klosterman even more now. But I’m also pretty sure if I continue down a path of “we have so much in common” praise I’ll come across like Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female (poorly re-made as The Roommate in 2011), so I’ll mention here that he’s also a huge sports nut with a couple essays devoted to the topic in both books and I only read them to avoid missing any interesting insights or particularly funny zingers. I just don’t care about sports beyond college football and motorcycle racing, and even those are pushing it.

Anyhow, if essays comparing David Koresh to Curt Cobain, analysis of Saved by the Bell, why Garth Brooks went crazy and tried the Chris Gaines project or the stupidity of sitcom laugh tracks (both of which I’ll touch on later), I recommend either book. Eating the Dinosaur struck me as a little bit shorter and harder to follow, though that may have been because it was on my kindle and footnotes were relegated to a separate section rather than available at the bottom of the printed page, a la my copy of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. The majority of complaints from the minority of low-star ratings on Amazon claim he sounds like a know-it-all. As I’ve said, I think he’s just really dang smart; I suspect these readers didn’t like having their intellects challenged. If it sounds like a personality fit for you, give him a read.

Completely unrelated has been my exposure here while deployed on a NATO installation in Afghanistan to ze German culture. It’s been interesting, because I’m developing first-hand knowledge and experience with a people most Americans know anecdotally. In recent years the Germans have morphed into an almost mythical ideal in my mind because my exposure or knowledge of them has been primarily based on the vehicles, firearms or things they produce. Jony Ive may design some beautiful products for Apple, but his influence was Dieter Rams. I’m unsure if my awareness of design is a product of a more mainstream recognition or just the websites I tend to frequent, but references to Bauhaus have been prevalent for me the past two years. My Lamy pens are from Germany. My SIG P6 was made in West Germany, and Glocks are Austrian (close enough, to an American). I drive a Porsche 987 Boxster and a BMW motorcycle, and these people have autobahns and the N├╝rburgring. I even started listening to techno back in 2009 and loved the somewhat cold, modern functionality of my Volvo 850 Turbo (again, Swedish, but it’ll do for my purposes here). I believe efficiency should be considered a virtue. A people regarded for their precision (Swiss watches, again, close enough) were like gods to me.

Okay, so there was their bizarre fascination with David Hasselhoff and they always play the villains in movies, but whatever.

So actually being here and interacting with so many of them has been educational. I’ve only spent 24 hours in Germany before on a long layover. It was a beautiful country and they make my favorite beer in the world, but they’re still just people. It’s odd now to think “less” of a people than before yet still not think poorly of them. I haven’t met a German yet that can’t also speak English, and they pretty much ignore the speed limit they impose on everybody else when driving on base. They walk out into the street either oblivious or rudely demanding the right of way from vehicles, which is behavior completely unlike I expected. ArnieRaveThey play some really goofy music, like “Barbie Girl” in the gym (as opposed to American gyms playing rock almost exclusively), and can listen to Abba or disco without the slightest hint of giggling, mockery, sneering, irony, or embarrassment at a guilty pleasure. My wife even mailed me a cyalume glow stick so I could mock rave with them when they blast their music in our shared hangar.

But the thing that really cracks me up as a veteran of the American military is the ze Germans obviously have no dress code regulations on grooming/haircuts. Here’s a comically bad drawing I’ve done to illustrate.


That’s supposed to be a really long mohawk, slicked back like something out of Mad Men, worn with muttonchops. I’ve seen that particular hair cut minus the facial hair on more than one guy. I’ve seen otherwise attractive women with long hair, but either the left or right side of their head shaved. I’ve seen way too many guys rocking a chin curtain beard. (Very few people can actually pull this off, despite its wild popularity in the Fargo area. I think we’re being invaded by the Amish.) The only thing I haven’t seen in skull hair sculpting is a soul patch. I inelegantly recall Chuck Klosterman to quote why:

In the ten-thousand-year history of facial hair, no one has ever looked nonidiotic with a soul patch. In fact, the zenith of the soul patch’s legacy was Matt Dillon in Singles; Dillon grew a soul patch specifically because he was portraying an alt-rock d-bag.

Despite my concern over the chin curtain beard’s prevalence, even ze Germans have shown they have limits to their silliness.

Of course, this is really all just a difference of culture, what’s considered normal, and our general inability to see the really bizarre things we all do within our own societies. The example I offer up is polite laughter.

Klosterman’s essay on sitcom laugh tracks essentially asserts that we’ve all been subconsciously programmed to laugh at things that aren’t really very funny. (He uses a great breakdown of a Friends scene to illustrate.) But if you think about it, it makes sense in a way. How often do we type “haha” or “LOL” when we’ve uttered nothing of the sort? We don’t laugh out loud, but we claim to have in text messages all the time- all while thinking that guy on the bus who does laugh to himself at seemingly nothing is completely bonkers. And yet so much of our “laughter” is purely conditioned out of politeness, or for filler during impersonal conversations.

The Germans don’t fake laugh. To them, we all look like the crazy guy sitting on the bus. Klosterman writes, “This is not the only reason Germans think Americans are retarded, but it’s definitely one of them.”

Keeping that in mind has helped me stop calling people “weird” quite so freely and helped me experience foreign cultures better. Because apparently we’re all a little crazy, and we don’t even realize it. :)

Flyover Country

While researching a brand of wristwatch yesterday I chanced upon an article where the term “flyover country” was levied most certainly as a pejorative.

I’ve been guilty of this myself a few times. It’s no secret that I don’t see eye-to-eye with the local culture/way of doing things in Fargo, ND where I currently reside at my employer’s pleasure. I only volunteered for the Fargo posting because nobody else wants to go there and I was sucking up to curry favor with management for my plan to request Italy, Germany, or England in another year or two. It became very apparent to me that I’m just not a midwest personality. I ache to be out west again, in mountain country and to have a city large enough to support a Cheesecake Factory within an hour’s drive. My wife heard an old man from Bismarck say they couldn’t live with the “hustle and bustle” of Fargo. We cracked up laughing, not derisively, but in amusement at our own culture shock. How two different people observe the same subject but see two different things. He sees “hustle and bustle” where we see a quaint, small town.

But as miserable as Fargo sometimes makes us (Arizona natives in a Fargo winter are a pretty bad match) and as firm as we are in our plans to leave when possible, one thought keeps shouting at me from the back of my mind.

These people that big-city folk like to call “hicks” grow and provide all our food.

Let that sink in a minute. I might really enjoy big city life, but you tell me what metropolis in America isn’t a net importer of everything that sustains living? Millions upon millions of people in America would starve if it wasn’t for those “hicks” or “bumpkins”. Think California or New York could feed their own state’s population if they had to? Not on your life. Texas could probably feed Dallas/Ft. Worth. The pacific northwest (where my wife and I dream of moving) would be fine. I don’t know how well Arizona could support Phoenix and Tucson.

My point is this: I don’t like living in the midwest or the way they do things here, but I also don’t grow my own food and wasn’t raised as a hunter. My food comes from the grocery store. So now I do my very best to keep my mouth shut and be grateful, because my well-paying job doesn’t actually make me self-sustaining.

Believe me, this is flyover country and there is little if anything noteworthy here. But for the sake of manners, consider what you eat for a month and then consider being nice.