Then, at the end of those four years, the test stick turned blue. One boy was born and then another, as if, after all, it wasn’t a matter of deserving, but of grace. The baseball uniforms, the lemonade, the spilled sugar on my hands, the sparklers on pink evenings, I got to have it, in spite of Columbus and my disbelief.
“Two boys,” as Sam used to say when he was three and Hank was one and I was hauling them around on my hips. “Two boys,” I would say back, astonished.
I think that’s why I get up at 5:00 a.m. on the Fourth of July and carry two wooden chairs to the corner of Fifth Street and Orange Avenue in Coronado. No one in my family loves the parade enough to explain the way I sit there at dawn and knit, holding our place, beginning the vigil that lasts until noon. Everyone tires of the horses and the flags and the clowns and the antique cars and the marching bands and the Navy commanders, and they usually leave long before the end of the three-hour parade. But I like to get a good seat. I like to feel, for a little while, the excitement of the believers, who wouldn’t think to sneer at the perpetuation of a battered myth, who can feel unsullied joy at finding themselves in the neighborhood Curious George rides through on his paper route. I sit there in the early-morning mist and knit beneath a sky that seems, for whole minutes at a time, the source of unconditional revelation.
How Do You Sell America to a Cynical 13-Year-Old?
I moved to La Mesa in 2003. For my first four years here, I attended the Flag Day parade that ran down La Mesa Boulevard. Brought the kids, had ’em take their hats off when the flag went by, marveled at the Helix High marching band, reveled in the enduring glories of small-town America, etc. But every year, it seemed as if the parade was a little bit dowdier, a little bit less about the flag and the republic for which it stands, and a little bit more about the local Corvette Club and Jazzercise team. Every year, the tiny band of WWII vets got smaller, while the Vietnam vets inspired conflicting feelings. Brave men who served their country, yes. But the cause?
Eventually, I stopped going, thereby making myself part of the problem. Of course, that’s not how it feels on parade day. On parade day, it feels like this: “How the hell am I supposed to make my kids appreciate all that living in America has done for them? This is the water they swim in; I’m supposed to tell them to be grateful that it’s wet? Hopefully, time and experience will enlighten them, and God knows I’ll keep yammering on about the goods of political and religious liberty. But standing on the sidewalk and watching the mayor roll past in a convertible? How is that going to help? And while I’m on the subject of the mayor…”
But this isn’t about the mayor. It’s about my kids — the Americans of tomorrow. The humorist P.J. O’Rourke once suggested, “If you want to learn the truth about yourself, try telling your wife she’s fat.” There’s another way, less violent but perhaps even more alarming: have children.
My oldest son is 13 now, and his automatic, pervasive cynicism is a little bit heartbreaking. Of course, it’s cheap — he’s 13, how could it be anything else? And of course it’s a cover for emotional insecurity — it’s hard out there for a pubescent dude. But it’s more than that, too: it’s instinctive, and it’s corrosive. The kid is ready for the world to end. The system is that broken; people are that venal; the world is that fallen.
I am forever arguing with him about this — about appreciating the good in others, however imperfectly realized; about improving the world by improving himself, etc., etc. But there are ways in which I’m just like him. Say “America” to me, and my mind slips off to something like this: “Why has government been instituted at all?” asks Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper No. 15. No, it’s not because man is a social animal. It’s not because together we can achieve something greater than we could ever achieve alone, if only we will organize and harmonize our efforts. It’s “because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” Got that? One of the Founding Fathers is explaining that we have government because life is nasty, brutish, and short, and we need a nanny. And looking around, who could argue with him?
Even better: government needs a nanny, too! Take it, Federalist Paper 51: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Amen to that. The American Experiment: better nannying through division of powers.
A few letters later, Hamilton reels off another gem: “Money is, with propriety, considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion.” It’s all about the money, folks! It’s right there in the founding! No wonder we consume 24 percent of the world’s energy with only 5 percent of the population! Let’s have a parade! And oh, look — my son finds civic virtue suspect.
And yet — America has given me so much, the way a parent gives so much. (Pedantic parenthetical: hence, “patriot” from the Latin patria — fatherland.) Like a parent, it has a claim on my love, and on my son’s love, too. I have to help him find a middle way between flag-waving and cynicism. I’m hoping it looks something like this: a month ago, I was driving home from somewhere with my father and my son. As usual, Dad had brought a book along, and along the way, the author mentioned the siege at Waco, Texas. “What’s Waco?” asked my son. Oh, Lordy.