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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.

—Laura McNeal

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.

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Comments

Altius July 2, 2010 @ 3:19 p.m.

I loved this compilation -- so many great takes on America, from a rock-and-roll road trip, to bubble booties, to thoughtful treatises on the ups and downs of patriotism.

Thank you Laura McNeal for explaining the depth of the anit-Americanism, anti-Westernism, and guilt-peddling nihilism that goes on at the average American university. The irony is, all the tax payer money that's given to universities makes it government-sponsored anti-Americanism.

I feel for Patrick Daugherty in his disillusionment, and for Matthew Lickona trying to explain to his son why America is admirable. I think Barbarella's Dad and Mary Grimm's parents are onto the answer: America, despite her faults and mistakes, is admirable because the freedom to study, work hard, and practice one's faith and one sees fit is guaranteed here. That's something to be proud of. Even Melissa Wiley's take on parks points to the benevolence of America. You may not have a yard in Queens, but there's a park you can take advantage of. And people from all over the country and world congregate there. It's a microcosm of our country.

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Jay Allen Sanford July 2, 2010 @ 11:17 p.m.

I love these "multi-contributor" features, where various staffers and local writers are invited to create short essays around a central theme. They usually revolve around holidays, but I'd like to see multicontrib overviews on, say, hot-button social issues, or more local-centric compilations like last year's "What I Drink and Where I Drink It" cover story --

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Kenneth July 3, 2010 @ 8:21 p.m.

I thought the first piece by Laura McNeal was very well-written.

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normofsoutheuclid July 4, 2010 @ 9:31 p.m.

Patrick Daugherty speaks for me! Author/historian Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" is the benchmark for a coherent version of American History. I recommend it to all.

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Radical Uterus July 4, 2010 @ 10:16 p.m.

Patricks book is a must read for everyone. American history from the perspective of the men, women, and children who died for the industrial revolution. Sadly, as much as our technology has changed, our understanding of justice for all has not kept pace.

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Robert Johnston July 15, 2010 @ 3:31 p.m.

It used to be "Let A Smile Be Your Guide." Now it's "Let A Sneer Be Your Guide."

The only person who looked halfway decent sneering was Billy Idol in his music videos!

Pity!

But, this is what our society has become!

Hubris ante nemesis! (Hubris breeds nemesis!)

--LPR

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philosopher3000 July 17, 2010 @ 5:29 a.m.

It strikes me that this compilation of stories comes from true Americans, I can see myself in all their stories. I especially like Melissa Wiley's playground peace, and Patrick Daugherty, you are not alone.

But where are the stories of those who drop bombs from 30,000 feet via predator drones, or get million dollar bonuses for shot-selling derivatives? Where are the Americans who lobby for no-bid government contracts and submit corporate patents on DNA, or perform the duty of political representation via campaign contribution, and the public relations men of Wall Street who spin the media? These are the most successful Americans, where are they? How come they don't write their guilty little patriot lies and expound upon the good old days? Why don't we read their comments here? The silent inferiority of their lives betrays them.

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