Ugly & Beautiful

Happy Birthday, Old Girl.

Today, as we all know, is America’s birthday—happy birthday, old girl!—an occasion we mark with fireworks and parades and outdoor drinking (if we can stand the heat). For our family, it has become tradition to drive to my in-laws’ house in Billings, Montana, and celebrate the fourth with them. Despite the fact that it’s twenty or thirty degrees cooler back home, or the fact that we live in a stretch of unincorporated county where it’s legal to set off fireworks while in the city of Billings it is not, or the fact that this part of America feels quite different from our part of America.

Yesterday, we attended a parade in a small town called Red Lodge, where our kids got to see some fantastic trucks and buses, an array of beautiful horses and four befuddled llamas marching down the main drag. Just about every float came armed with candy, which was flung at excited kiddos who ran here and there collecting Tootsie Rolls like treasure. It was a fun afternoon and the kids wore themselves out in that wonderful way only children can. But while the rodeo beauty queens and kids in chaps and spurs passed by, I couldn’t help considering the different images we have in our minds of “Americans.” Especially when the float emblazoned “MONTANA IS REPUBLICAN COUNTRY” with images of Ronald Reagan and Abe Lincoln (whose “Republican” views were quite different from much of the Republican agenda today, as the parties have morphed nearly to the point of switching ideologies since our country’s birth) rode by, its driver looking solemn, as if (and maybe I’m stretching here, but maybe not) to make the point on this most American of holidays that non-Republicans need not name themselves “American”—at least, not in Montana.

Now, I have my views and you have yours—and it seems to me that it’s human nature for us to section ourselves off, to form groups, to view those who think differently as enemies. There is anger in all of us and it rises up when we don’t get our own way. And as humans, it can be a struggle to see beyond ourselves and our own needs—especially in a global, tech-connected world where it’s harder than it used to be to forget that anyone beyond our personal bubble exists. Many of us struggle to stay in those bubbles, to shut ourselves off from people and things whose existence would make us somehow uncomfortable. I try not to be this way, but I will admit I have mostly stopped reading the news. I live in an area where I feel comfortable with the people around me and the general culture, where I can flow with many of the social and political norms. I don’t think about the bubble I live in until I visit someone else’s bubble.

I haven’t visited a lot of America. I was born in California, moved to Washington for college. I’ve spent time in Oregon—mostly Portland, which I doubt is representative of the state. For a while I lived on the border of Idaho, next to the most artsy/liberal town in the entire state, and spent a fair amount of time there, occasionally traveling through other parts of the state. I’ve been to a few cities in Montana, the Yellowstone portion of Wyoming, small sections of Arizona. Las Vegas. I’ve driven through Utah without stopping except for the sojourn at the mechanic’s when my car experienced vapor lock. South Dakota, for the badlands and Mount Rushmore. Orlando, Florida—but really just Disney World. New York City. Nebraska, to visit my aunt, and Illinois, to visit Dad’s family, and the long drive through Iowa in between. And airports—so many airports. Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh—places I’d love to visit but so far have only seen from the tarmac.

I’ve actually been to more foreign countries than I have American states. And in those foreign countries, I’ve encountered a lot of negative opinion of “Americans.” Americans are rude. They’re loud. They’re pushy and entitled. They’re too perky. They’re all fat. They all have Southern accents. They’re all New Yorkers. They’re rude to servers. They expect free plastic bags at the grocery store. They don’t speak the Queen’s English. They don’t know foreign languages and do a terrible job if they try to learn them. They expect soda with ice in it and free water everywhere. They think everyone in the world should speak their language. They pretend to be Canadians to avoid being hit with these stereotypes but they always give themselves away.

I have always rankled against these stereotypes, though I have been thrown off when I wasn’t given a bag for my groceries at Tesco and I’ve spent an outrageous amount of time in a German convenience store looking for a bottle of flat drinking water, eventually settling for one “mit gaz” and then trying to let the gas out of it, the bitter carbonation leaving me thirsty as ever. I’ve laughed too loudly in a Parisian restaurant, only to feel sheepish and exposed. But I’ve also chatted with a French woman about her adorable dog for several minutes, and smiled at the look of shock on her face when she discovered I was not from the south of France as she assumed, but from America. I’ve bought candy from Austrian shops, saying “danke” and “bitte” in all the right places, without a whiff of America on me. I have been polite and done my best to blend in with the culture around me. And though the cultures in foreign countries are more obviously different than my own—especially when there’s a language barrier—I try to do the same here in America.

Sure, I didn’t wave at the guys on the Republican parade float, but I didn’t say or do anything negative either. And though I don’t enjoy country music, I delighted in my daughter’s dancing as it flowed from the speakers along the parade route. And though cowboy hats and boots are not part of my daily life, I respect them as more than mere costumes, because farming and ranching are parts of our national economy and though I understand the negative environmental impact of our national obsession with beef, I do enjoy the occasional steak or hamburger. But on holidays such as this—and maybe it’s just because I spend the fourth in Montana—I see a tendency to push certain traits and stereotypes forward as being more American than others. But the fact is, the cowboy riding down main street, even the veterans smiling gently from their parade float (whom I respect and appreciate, by the way, regardless of any political differences between us)—they’re no more American than the rainbowed crowd parading through Seattle last month, or the guy selling beads on the beach in Venice, California, or the guy wrapped in a sleeping bag on the sand a few feet away, or the Manhattan native who eats at five star restaurants like I eat at Red Robin, or the server who has to take three trains and a bus to get into the city to serve her. We’re such a huge nation, with so many cultures and microcultures, so many belief systems, so many problems and so many strengths. I often marvel that we’ve managed to stick together so long when there are so many lines along which we could fracture. My inner peacemaker dismays to know that we will never really hold hands across America, all of us smiling, all of us getting along, but my inner logician knows that in order to sustain the complicated organism of our country, we need the brain and the heart and the nerves and the skin—all the different parts that cannot be expected to look or behave similarly to each other, because they are all necessary for different functions. And perhaps, within this metaphor, different groups might jump to call themselves the heart or the lungs and allocate those they don’t like as the earlobes or appendix—but if our national organism is a human being, it has evolved and/or was created with all these features, so no matter how trivial you might consider leg hair or the pinky toe, it’s all important, or has been important, or will be important in the future.

Which is a long-winded way of saying, Happy Fourth of July to every single American, with the hope that we can appreciate each other for what we are, and remember that even when we don’t realize it, we’re all working together.

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