A Pretty Cool Place
Redondo Beach, California
October 26, 2001

What is America? Not the American Dream…whatever that is. In its current, hackneyed form one thinks of the American Dream as a house in the suburbs, a lot of money, 2 cars, and a boss who doesn’t yell at you. That’s a marketer’s version of America. No…not the dream of America but what America really is.

There is an endless parade of people on the news talking about what America should be now that “the world has changed” since the September 11th attacks. The world has not changed. The world stayed the same but showed up on America’s doorstep with a loud and killing vengeance. The first plane into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 was the alarm going off to shake us out of our national stupor…our national self-absorption. It was like a loud sound woke us up in the middle of the night in a strange hotel room. We didn’t know what had stirred us. We were groggily unsure of where we were. As we stumbled around in the dark we only knew that nothing was where it was supposed to be and something bad happened.

What is the role of America to be? Wrong question because it assumes we know what America is and that, coupled with our new awareness of the rest of the world, allows us to settle into a relatively simple implementation.

But what is America?

There is no simple answer. America is big. America is diverse. America is a place where every hour newcomers with their dreams, cultures, biases, and belongings show up on the doorstep and are relentlessly assimilated. Invisibly both they and America are changed.

America is ridiculously large. America is mind-numbingly rich. America has poverty so galling it makes your teeth hurt. It’s a 20 year old college kid driving the BMW her old man bought her. It’s a standard size trailer with no electricity. It’s a house in the hills overlooking the ocean with so much land attached to it you could move in a small country and not notice it was there. America is six kids, $20,000 per year and a mortgage. America is Robert Mapplethorpe and Rod McKuen. America is Sam Shepard and Neil Simon. America is Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, New Kids on the Block, and Brittney. America is a big old piece of this rock and no two crags look the same.

America is innovation, technology, seers and shamans and a whole mess of people who want the 50’s back. America is Timothy O’Leary and Ronald Reagan, Ru Paul and Jerry Falwell. America is Canada with an edge and England with an economy. America is the Grand Canyon, the Great Plains, the Rockies, the Great Lakes, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. America is Tulsa, Mobile, and Spokane. America is landfills on fire, beach closings, air you can see and miles and miles of untouched space so beautiful you swear you see the hand of God.

America is arrogant, boastful, insecure, muscular, scared, weak, and butt-kickingly bad-assed.

I randomly asked a kid on the beach in Los Angeles the following question…

“What is America?”

He is an Asian American kid in his early 20’s with pretty lashes, a perfect surfer body, and a cloud of women hovering close. This kid was so good looking I wanted to hate him. Then he turned out to be really nice. I liked him but secretly hoped he was stupid and shallow. He graduated from UCLA last year summa cum laude in pre-Med. He’s most likely going to do the med school thing but decided to take a year off to “spend a little time thinking and living and making sure it’s what I want to do”. Okay, so shallow and stupid didn’t work either. He looked around him at all the pretty little beach bunnies, the red cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula as it explodes up out of the ocean, the waves rolling in slow and calm and then lets his eyes walk out along the Golden pathway on the water that leads to the setting sun as it kisses the horizon.

His answer is so perfect I resolve to go out across the country asking people this question. He inspires me to throw the computer, a tent, a sleeping bag and some other things into the back of the truck and go talk to my fellow citizens.

“It’s a pretty cool place”.

Seems like a good enough premise from which to start.

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