The American Idea, as If You Asked

The Atlantic celebrated its 150th anniversary this month by asking intellectuals and artists to write 300 words or create an image on "the future of the idea of America." The print edition featured, to my count, 47 such short essays and images, with just eight of them written by women. Most contributors, too boot, are hovering around AARP membership age. Ah, America, land of equality and equal representation.

Though I wasn't asked, and James Bennett probably doesn't give a you-know-what about my thoughts, I've decided to tell him (and you) anyway. Tom Wolfe didn't stick to 300 words (shocker), so I'm not either. Defying the rules is certainly one kind of American idea, after all.

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My paternal grandfather had 27 brothers and sisters and grew up above a whorehouse in Iowa. He left home at 14 and spent the rest of his life as a traveling salesman, prone to fantastic successes shortly followed by grand acts of self-sabotage. My grandmother was a writer in her heart, but a bipolar mom in her house. My father, as a result, grew up answering the door for debt collectors and, in fact, took off his own braces with pliers when the money ran out.

He became a bankruptcy lawyer. All he wanted was to provide a sense of security for his family. I, his daughter, grew up with an abundance of security in a suburban Colorado neighborhood of unlocked front doors, bike rodeos, and summer enrichment programs. As soon as I had the chance, I high-tailed it to a big, dangerous city: New York, that is. Then I experienced September 11 from 100 blocks away. I now do little more ardently than argue that security is a delusion. And so it goes...

The American Idea is about generations in reaction and reinvention. It is about me reacting to my father and my country, just as he reacted to his father and his country. It is about daughters and sons, composing lives out of the decomposing traditions, abandoned dreams, and sometimes inspired examples of their parents. It is about border crossing -- national, psychological, generational.

In my paternal family, the border's name is security, and we seem to cross it back and forth with each generation. My grandfather abandoned all hope of being safe and "successful." My father reclaimed the notion with all his might. And I abandoned it once again, this time under different auspices. My grandmother didn't have the support or psyche to fulfill her dream of being a writer and, instead, became agoraphobic who was afraid of everything. Because of my feminist upbringing and my half-changed country, I am fiercely unafraid and have the benefit of having been so many places, learned from so many people. Now I write for her.

An undeniable part of the American Idea is the presence of dreams -- whether fortifying or pacifying. Unlike children in so many countries around the world where hubris and resources are scarce, American children hear early and often that their dreams are their birthright, that they should produce them and pursue them well beyond the point where their parents' dreams dropped them off. In fact, outsizing the dreams of your parents is thought of as fundamentally patriotic. Ambition may not have been invented in this country, but we have certainly trademarked it as our own.

In this way, the American Idea is like an intricate nest and we, its citizens, are the ones painstakingly building. We weave together the delicate threads of our families -- what we've been taught and seen modeled about what matters -- church, mosque, a paycheck, soccer, casserole recipes. We weave in interpretations of God and country. We weave in our worst failures, our most painful wakeup calls, our biggest, fattest dreams.

It is not our hands, but our times, that shape the nest. Social networking sites,, terrorism, reality television, electoral campaigns, sexual politics, the price of oil, and education. That is why each generation's American Idea is made up of the same "stuff" -- love, birth, work, play, taxes, death -- as their parents', but looks so different.

I have driven a Hybrid car the likes of which my grandfather never could have imagined, but I will never know the peace he felt while slowly climbing a mountain road in a boat of a car headed for his next stop on a Maxwell Coffee sales trip. I have had access to political theory courses my grandmother never could have hoped to experience, but I'm starting to believe I will never know what it is like to believe in a politician as wholeheartedly as she did JFK. We have all known the open road. All been fully engaged in the emotional pain and intellectual curiosity of being citizens. It just looks and feels so different in 2007 than it did in 1957.

Generation after generation, Americans strive to be truer or freer or smarter or richer or perhaps just happier than their own parents were. This is why immigration is such a quintessential part of our national character. America is the sum total of millions of children trying to either make their parents proud or prove them wrong, sometimes both. Some of these parents have traveled across great distances to bear or raise their children in a land where they know progeny is expected to progress much further than its source.

The American Idea is seeing what is and wanting more. Sometimes we mistranslate this into "things" -- gadgets, designer labels, vacation homes -- when, in fact, it means more authenticity. More joy. More fulfillment. When a little girl sits at the dinner table and watches her mother force a smile and say, through clenched teeth, "I'm fine," and that little girl decides never to be a domestic martyr in her lifetime, it is at that moment that a true American is born. She may steal away certain mementos from her mother's life -- her way of spraying the perfume and then walking into it, her love of classical music, her tenacity -- but leave behind the rest. She is doing the heavy lifting of aspirational imagination required to build a better life.

The American Idea is remix. It is collage. It is found object sculpture. It is radical love. It is never settling. It is living your mother's compassion but not her anger. It is emulating your father's joy but not his homophobia. It is self-defined faith. It is studying something your uncle would call horse shit. It is working with your hands in a way that your aunt would consider beneath you. It is rebelling and being rebelled against. It is surprise. It is, thank goodness, still mind-blowing potential. Generation after generation.

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