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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Fourth of July and the Question of What is America (with some help from Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Choi, and Tom Friedman)

On July 8, 1996, I came home from my time in England, and while it wasn’t by choice, rather by the necessity of avoiding poverty and a life of working crap jobs and the effect it took on my relationship with the British woman that I was with at the time, I knew that in some ways I had to make peace with my idea of what America was if I was ever going to survive and thrive in this change I was about to face.

Prior to going to England with the Air Force, I made the mistake of assuming, as many people are prone to do, that America was the leaders and the institutions that seemed remote, misguided, and elite to me. To make a long story short (and save it for Saturday, which is the 21st anniversary of my time back in America after being away from December 27, 1990, to that July day in 1996 (save a few vacations)), I ended up finding meaning on the highways of America, which led to the Nature, history, and the specific culture of this country. For me, that culture was literature, baseball, music, and the expression of the people. In the end, America is whatever you want it to be since there are so many distinct things that make lots of cultures American.
With that being said, nothing sums up America to me more than John Dos Passos’s quote from his 1919 book (a part of the U.S.A. Trilogy):
“U. S. A. is the slice of a continent. U. S. A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a public-library full of old newspapers and dog-eared history books with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U. S. A. is the world's greatest river valley fringed with mountains and hills, U. S. A. is a set of big-mouthed officials with too many bank accounts. U. S. A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U. S. A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U. S. A. is the speech of the people.
As a tribute to Mr. Dos Passos, here are some images I've seen that reflect America to me. There are many more, but this is a good representation. 

Reflecting on the ideas enclosed within, a task that allows for much more thought than the limited words of a simple paragraph, we get a lot of the things that bring us to the Fourth of July. Be it George and Thomas and Patrick and all of those other Founding Fathers who did what they had to do (while keeping Ben protected enough from himself and his indiscretions not to spill the beans on American revolutionary intentions) to make the day possible in the first place. And speaking of those men, we have Misters Jefferson and Adams dying on the same day (July 4, 1826). There was also the announcement of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 a year after West Point was established. In 1845, Thoreau went to Walden to live deliberately, observe nature, protest the US government’s wartime actions, and write a book of the same name, declaring his independence in an act that mattered a whole lot more to the world after he died. Ten years later, Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1855. In 1863, the battle at Gettysburg ended with the South crushed after Pickett ordered his misguided charge. Several decades later, the Tuskegee Institute was founded in 1881 and Buffalo Bill had his first Wild West Show in 1883. A year later, the U.S. was given the Statue of Liberty. In 1931, the first fireworks display is held in Cleveland (then in 1969, an Ohio fireworks accident killed 18 and destroyed a lot boats on Lake Erie – fireworks safety, guys!). In 1942, America begins a bombing campaign in Europe. Two years later, 1,100 American guns fire a “salute” at German lines and American Marines raise a flag on Iwo Jima. In 1970, Casey Kasem debuts American Top 40. In 1989, Drew Barrymore, at age 14, attempts suicide unsuccessfully (thankfully), and she goes on to make the classic movie The Wedding Singer with Adam Sandler, which really is that good. In 1996, Hotmail becomes a thing. In 2004, the corner of the Freedom Tower was laid. In 2012, the scientists at CERN announced the finding of the Higgs-Boson (God) Particle. And last year, NASA put the spacecraft Juno into Jupiter’s orbit.

Oh yeah, and in 1939, the great Lou Gehrig gave a speech.

On the day after Jimmy Choi, Parkinson’s athlete, completed the first 2 obstacles on the American Ninja Warrior course despite the condition that holds him (and me) in its grasp, thinking about the words of a man who nearly hit .300 the first year of his having ALS is something defining and particularly American. While Gehrig had to retire his second year of having ALS, his speech is an encouragement to all people, not just people with disabilities. The same is true for Mr. Choi, who stood tall as a strong athlete as a role model for all people, not just all Parkisnon's people. If you get a chance, watch the video for the first time or again. You'll be glad you did.

We are a nation of doers. We speak in active voice. Things don’t happen to us. We do them. The world looks to us for innovation and leadership. While we aren’t unique in this, we are exceptional in this. That’s why people the country and world over look at us like “what the heck are you doing?” when our politics and attitudes get so out of line with what’s good for today, tomorrow, and the next day. Simply put, the answer is, "We aren't that guy or the other woman, who we were given as a choice. Hell, the ones that are elected do little to represent us a whole," but that's not us. We are a good lot of people that care about a lot of things. We want a better life for us and those around us (to include our children's children). We don't want to sacrifice what belongs to the collective us for the benefit of others. Isn't that taxation without representation? We fought a war to get rid of kings, queens, and out of touch authority, so for those asking us that question now, nothing has changed except the faces who aren't governing for the people.

On that note, I think of the recent words of one of my favorite authors, Tom Friedman, who writes about international relations and technology for the New York Times (in books like The World is Flat, That Used to Be Us, and Thank You for Being Late). A couple of weeks ago, he said:
"I fear we're seeing the end of 'truth' - that we just can't agree any more on basic facts. And I fear we're becoming Sunnis and Shiites - We call them 'Democrats' and 'Republicans,' but the sectarianism that has destroyed nation states of the Middle East is now infecting us."
After talking about how the extremes of both sides of the coin have gotten out of hand, he ended the article with these thoughts:
"In the long run, the only thing that will save us is if more people - no matter what age, color, gender, or faith - build moral authority in their respective realms and then use it to do big, meaningful things. Use it to run for office, start a company, operate a school, lead a movement, or build a community organization. And in doing so, you can help put the 'we' back in 'we the people.'"
To that end, I felt inclined to give you 2 other versions of the Star Spangled Banner (Hendrix and Jose Feliciano) as well as an old playlist I had of songs that said America to me (from 2011). Both versions of this song caused a stir because they weren't the voice of the people (or something like that with regard to whatever the original intent of the song was theoretically supposed to be). However, I think they're still important, perhaps more so than ever despite being almost 50 years old, so enjoy them.

1. America by Simon and Garfunkel
2. Guaranteed by Eddie Vedder
3. When You Wake up Feeling Old (live) by Jeff Tweedy
4. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
5. Windfall by Son Volt
6. May This Be Love (Waterfall) by Hendrix
7. Stars Fell on Alabama by Jimmy Buffett
8. My Back Pages by The Byrds
9. Mrs. Potter's Lullaby by Counting Crows
10. Freefallin by Tom Petty
11. I Got You by Train
12. Superbad by James Brown
13. The Joker by Steve Miller Band
14. More Than a Feeling by Boston
15. Get off This by Cracker
16. Pink Houses by John Cougar Mellencamp
17. Piano Man by Billy Joel
18. I Can Hear Music by the Beach Boys
19. When You're Smiling by Frank Sinatra
20. Take Me out to the Ball Game by Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.

And since I feel a post thought coming, I'll leave you with this version of "This Land is Your Land" by Bruce Springsteen. Happy 4th of July. May your picnics, fireworks, and days be filled with happiness and joy, today and every day!

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