The United States is a nation of many rooms. On my journey, I’ve spent many good hours in two places I call ‘America’s Living Room’. One is the public library found in most every town. The second is McDonald’s, which is also found in almost every town, and keeps longer hours.
I spend a lot of time in McDonald’s and celebrate its merits. Besides being ubiquitous, McDonald’s are clean, the Wi-Fi is good, the staff is uniformly friendly, and a dollar plus applicable tax, will buy me all the coffee or PowerAde I want while I linger for hours. But what I like most about McDonald’s is the range of people I meet there. Although some may not admit it, everyone goes to McDonald’s: single moms, teenagers, elderly, businessmen, homeless, handicapped, Hispanic, women alone, girls together, birthday partiers, motorcyclists; even bicycle tourists. I’ve met a wide range of people at McDonald’s, and many of them are chatty. Starbucks’ demographic is narrower and glued to their devices. Folks at McDonald’s are more inclined to shoot the breeze.
Following is an actual conversation I overheard between two middle-aged men at the McDonald’s in Sebastopol, CA. It had been going on for some time, in the same vein; before I realized it’s value and began to transcribe:
“What does government mean to you?”
“Government is a wounded word. Government is what produces life. It is a choreography. It is nature’s prerogative.”
“I don’t know what that means, but it feels absolutely right.”
“Each morsel of the universe contains within it the entire knowledge and meaning of the universe.”
“It is all connected. It is all the center and there is no center at all.”
“Ultimately, god is the center and god is the surface.”
“But what is your point of reference? Where is the center of infinity?”
“You are providing me with a point of reference by sitting at the table with me. We provide each other a point of reference. Points of reference are what we give our attention to, what invites our attention, what commands our attention. There’s a difference between inviting attention and demanding it.”
“The point of reference for our lives is America. It is the wedding of everything. It is the wedding that holds us here, that invented us, and that reinvents and reinvents us.”
“It is an expression of nature.”
“Look at how a word finds its way out through our mouth and our ears. The journey a word has taken to arrive here in this morning. How the sounds and the meanings and the feeling have found each other. How those feelings have found each other and put themselvees together to create something that has value.”
“I think value. Value comes before perception. We wouldn’t bring things forward unless we thought they had value. And yet value has perception.”
At that point I stopped eavesdropping and introduced myself to Michael Bridge and his companion, Paul. Paul was finished his coffee and rose to leave, though he called me later to talk more. Michael used to live in Cambridge. “In 2004, when the Red Sox were eleven games out of first place, I made a bet they would win the World Series and break Babe Ruth’s curse. That series confirmed my faith in the impossible.”
Michael’s son Joshua wrote a book, A Book About Life, when he was five years old. It’s only eight pages but it contains a clear and enduring philosophy. Michael sold it to MIT students. Joshua is grown now, a programmer in Oxnard, but his father still carries copies of the book. Michael gave me one. He autographed it ‘Childhood is forever.’
Michael’s also an author. He’s written a pamphlet on the system of six hand signals he created that people can use in conversation to indicate how they are responding to what is being said without verbal disruption. The signals include: inviting, retreat, pause, distress, inner stirring, and urgent inner stirring. He’s also written Pillow Mountain: Notes on Inhabiting a Living Planet, a beautiful book with thoughtful ideas and charming sketches. “I’m starting an earth government. The earth was created as a sphere. Everyone sits at the head and the center. When we get out of the circle our center becomes distorted.”
Eventually Michael left. Lunch rush was on and my coffee empty. As often happens during a McDonald’s break, the people around me proved more interesting than my laptop. I left with two books and the affirmation that a trip to McDonald’s is an adventure. You never know whom you are going to meet in America’s Living Room.
How will we live tomorrow?
“By deepening our relationship with the very question you ask. Let the question arise and let it resolve itself. When we focus on answers rather than questions we lose inquiry and adopt fixed ways of thinking.”