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
doesnt yell at you. Thats a marketers version
of America. No
not the dream of America but what America really
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 Americas 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 didnt 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
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. Its
a 20 year old college kid driving the BMW her old man bought her.
Its a standard size trailer with no electricity. Its
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 50s back. America is Timothy OLeary
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
What is America?
He is an Asian American kid in his early 20s 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. Hes 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 its what I want to do. Okay,
so shallow and stupid didnt 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.
Its a pretty cool place.
Seems like a good enough premise from which to start.