Category Archives: patriotism

What Do You Love About America?


My dad was an extrovert—he would talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. Sometimes it was annoying, sometimes embarrassing, always it was just dad being dad. The rest of us in the family are introverts to varying degrees but I am my father’s son: I, too, will talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. And more than anything else, accents will get me started … though I find myself increasingly inept at identifying them.

And so it was that accents were the opening for a conversation with a couple next to me at a coffee shop recently. Of course, they insisted that I guess where they were from; and of course, I was wrong. Twice. (I started with South Africa, then went to New Zealand, before correctly landing on Australia.)

The iced coffee having been broken, they dove right in: What do you love about America? It was an honest, probing question with no hint of malice toward the nation they were touring for weeks, if not months. (They briefly described an itinerary that had them visiting national parks from the southeast to California and back to the northeast.)

My hesitation in answering was revealing, both to them and to myself. It’s not that I don’t love America; it’s just that there’s so much not to love these days. Tucked between a depressing presidential debate and the nation’s 248th birthday, our deeply honest conversation began with three things I am grateful for as an American: *opportunity, *innovation, and *freedom. Each is a real strength inextricably connected to the others and each demands an asterisk, like a speed record aided by tailwinds or a home run record tainted by performance-enhancing drugs.

*Opportunity. Since long before her birth, America has been known as the land of opportunity. Vast landscapes invite farming and ranching, urban development and exploration. Thirteen years of “free” education for both boys and girls. (Mostly) equal rights, irrespective of gender, race, politics, religion, and so on.

The asterisk here is best summarized with the Orwellian line, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” In spite of the Declaration of Independence’s bold claim that “all men are created equal,” slaves were not counted as equal even for census purposes for the first century of America’s existence. While opportunity in schools, sports, business, politics is theoretically unlimited, any number of factors still raise practical barriers for whole swaths of our citizenry. Clearly we are still a work in progress.

*Innovation. There is some question about who first suggested the idea of “adapt or die,” but it is an appropriate way to describe the endurance of what George Washington once described as a great experiment. Whether in politics or manufacturing, energy or healthcare, when America has faced crisis, her ability to innovate and adapt has ensured her survival. And yet this innovation has been practiced on our foundational rule of law, the Constitution, that has been amended only 17 times since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. It would seem that our Founding Fathers were not only innovative but also wary of excessive innovation; or at least they knew that innovation requires a strong and stable foundation.

The asterisk to innovation is the individualism it breeds. Though our money still declares “in God we trust,” a truer motto would be “in ourselves we trust” or the more common sentiment, “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” Innovation breeds differentiation, which in turn breeds competition, suspicion, division. In the experiment that we call the United States, there is an ongoing tension between “united” and “states.”

*Freedom. America’s greatest strength is undoubtedly her freedom. Not only the specific freedoms enshrined in the Constitution—speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government—but the broader environment of freedom that stems from those. We have the freedom to choose where to live, where to attend college, what type of work to do. We have the freedom to leave when we want and to return when we want. We even have freedom to do things that may not be healthy for us.

The asterisk on freedom is the incredible cost and immense responsibility that come with it. Freedom, of course, is never unlimited. Freedom of speech may include the freedom to lie, but not when the lie causes harm to someone’s reputation (defamation). Freedom of assembly includes anti-government rallies, but not when the rallies turn into riots. Freedom with limits is little more than anarchy.

Freedom may be America’s greatest strength, but it is also her greatest challenge. This is the most frequent theme when I talk with people in or from other nations: the social cost of freedom. On American news they see rampant crime, gun violence, political and religious scandals; they see rising division in our nation and candidates in a presidential debate (I use both terms—presidential and debate—very loosely) who sound more like junior high boys arguing on a playground about who is toughest. I long for the day when our nation finally awakens to the incredible cost—no, the insane cost—of our freedom to “keep and bear arms.”

Is this the best we have?

The second question asked by my new acquaintances from Down Under was phrased more incredulously: in a land of 350 million people, is this really the best you can offer the world? They recognize what so many others both at home and abroad know: for better or worse, America is a world leader. And also for better or worse, the individual we elect to lead our nation will be a de facto world leader. 

One headline after last week’s debate was telling: one disappointed, one lied and deflected. And in four months, we have to choose between these two? This is the curse of our two-party system and reveals the lie spoken by so many well-meaning parents and pundits, that anyone can be president. If only that were true. If only, come the first Tuesday in November, America could write in anyone other than the two men whose names will be at the top of the ballot.

I know there are many Americans who don’t like our elevated place in the world, or at least don’t like the significant cost of that role to our own nation. But the fact is that we are a world leader and will be a world leader until we either hide ourselves under a rock or continue to behave so ludicrously that we become a laughingstock and a shadow of our once-great nation. And the cost of allowing either of those to happen will be exponentially greater in every way.

So what do I love about America? I love that in four years, we will have two different candidates. I love that—in spite of my profound concerns about what will happen in our nation and the world over those four years—I can still have hope that these United States of America will rise above where we are today. 

Don’t let me down, America. Don’t let me down.

Journey to the Air Force


Forty years ago today, I began my enlistment in the U.S. Air Force. I don’t remember many details of the day I arrived at the Los Angeles MEPS (Military Enlistment Processing Station), but getting there was an interesting and unexpected journey….

As a teen, I had the privilege of living in Bonn, [West] Germany, the postwar capital, where I attended Bonn American High School. My fellow students were the kids of American Embassy staff, military, and, like me, civilian expats; as well as international diplomats and a few local Germans—overall, the upper crust of the international diplomatic community.

I played on the school’s football and soccer teams, wrestled for a year, and was the basketball team’s manager one season. Those teams traveled to countless American and international schools for games—Hahn Air Base, Bremerhaven, three different schools in Brussels, AFCENT in the Netherlands, and more—where I got glimpses of a different life: the enlisted men and women who make up the bulk of the military.

As much as I loved my experience in Bonn, nothing I saw on those bases attracted me. The buildings were boxy and lifeless; the airmen and soldiers no less so. The marching, the olive drab “pickle suits” … nothing called my name and said, “join us.” And nowhere in my family history was I aware of a military heritage. (Only years later would I learn of the Revolutionary War-era Fort Ehl in New York’s Mohawk Valley, or a great uncle(?) who had served in the Army.)

Memories of those bases were in my mind when, during my freshman year of college at Seattle Pacific University, I swore to my roommate that I would never enlist in the military.

But that year at college was hard for me. I loved the experiences and friendships I made on the crew team and I had fun working for the Seattle Repertory Theatre; but I was still lonely and disengaged both academically and spiritually. I had to leave.

After a second summer working at Forest Home, a family camp in the San Bernardino mountains, I decided to stay in Los Angeles to work. I found a job working nights in the photo processing plant of a grocery store chain: I spent eight hours putting stickers over the flaps of self-sealing envelopes with newly-developed photos. Not exactly a career track. (Funny thing, though: when I left after four months, my coworkers gave me a gold Cross pen and pencil set worth probably $50 at the time and over $100 now.)

That fall I rented a room in a house in La Puente. It was in my budget, but that’s about the only good thing about it. The owner’s husband (whom she’d married when she was 15) was a truck driver who’d been in a major accident and was in a rehab facility in Bakersfield. Just to survive, she rented out two of the three bedrooms in the house, forcing her 16-year-old kleptomaniac son to live in the garage. She lived in the master suite … and I mean lived: it was her bedroom, bath, living room, and kitchen. She kept nothing in the kitchen itself, saying that her son had stolen and sold most of the pots and pans for drugs. Her 19-year-old daughter lived elsewhere with her boyfriend.

I think I’d lived and worked there for just a couple months before the loneliness and longing for home got the best of me and I found myself walking into the Air Force recruiter’s office. My experiences during high school had made it easy to choose between the branches, my scores on the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) guaranteed me one of any five career fields I chose, and I would be able to leave for Basic Training not too soon and not too late … forty years ago today. January 27, 1984.

Letter to America


A letter to my homeland, on the occasion of her 246th birthday.

As extended family gathered to celebrate my grandpa’s 80th birthday, with stories and much laughter around the table, my aunt made some snarky comment. I don’t remember what she said, and it doesn’t really matter because of what came after: Grandma, then 83 and quiet, looked over at her daughter and with a demure smile said very softly, “Careful, Barbara Jean. I can still take you out behind the woodshed.” Everyone roared … and everybody believed she would!

On a very different occasion—far more private and far more serious—my dad verbally took me out behind the woodshed with no more words than his mom had used. (Ironically, as I think about it now, it was around his own 80th birthday.) I’d been complaining about the challenges of a drawn-out job search and had casually suggested he could pull some strings to get me a one-time teaching opportunity. He was quiet for a moment, then said, “Randy, you’ve got a pride problem.” The words were so unexpected and cut so deeply that it was months before I could consider honestly what truth they might hold. (They still hurt, and it’s still hard to search for the truth in them.)

Why do I start this letter to my homeland with these two stories? Because America, it’s about time someone took you out behind the woodshed. It’s about time someone told you the truth about yourself—the truth you’ve stopped seeing, stopped believing, stopped wanting to believe.

Politicians won’t tell you the truth. Their jobs depend more on being popular than truthful.

The media won’t tell you the truth. Their jobs depend more on being first, fantastic, or sensational than on being truthful.

Your opponents won’t tell you the truth. Their jobs depend on you not knowing the truth.

So who can you count on to tell you the truth? A friend. And a friend will speak the truth—even when the truth is hard—precisely because she is a friend.

There is an ancient proverb that says, “faithful are the wounds of a friend.” That is truth. But it doesn’t feel like it. No one likes to hear a friend say, “you messed up there,” or “you were wrong.” It doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it can even break the relationship. But sometimes the truth is so important that it’s worth risking that break. Sometimes it takes that hard truth and that risk to wake a friend to the painful reality they needed to hear.

And that is why I am writing you this letter: to speak the truth, as from a friend. For friend I am.

America, you are not living your best … not for yourself, and not for others. On all sides, voices clamor to preserve democracy and the “American way.” Yet many of those voices, on all sides, are using decidedly undemocratic means, behaving like children and bullies: children who pout and stomp their feet and throw a fit when they don’t get their way, bullies who rely on brute force to subdue any who would oppose them.

This is not the way of democracy, it is not living under the rule of law that has been the bedrock of that democracy, and the preservation of your life for two-and-a-half centuries.

America, you are better than this; it is time to show your better self. Grow up. Learn anew to disagree without division, the art of civil discourse. Learn again the laws and freedoms—and constraints—embedded in your constitution. Learn what it means to adapt centuries-old laws and language to 21st century society, what it is and can be and should be to live under the two jurisdictions of state and nation. Learn the strength and power of living not for yourself, but for others. For only when individuals and nations live for others will our own lives be truly preserved.

A nation divided against itself cannot stand. If the United States of America is to thrive, the states of America must be united against all enemies, foreign and domestic, without and within. Today, as we celebrate our independence, the greatest enemy may be the enemy within.

Why Jan 6 Matters

Not even during the Civil War was the Confederate Flag brought into the U.S. Capitol.
Photo from NBC News. Click on photo for the article.

Recently I’ve read on social media the suggestion that the events of Jan 6, 2021, have less of an impact on our day-to-day lives than the price we are paying for gas (and, by extension, other prices).

May I suggest a longer view? We’ve been through economic slumps before. We’ve experienced “out of control” inflation before. I’m old enough to remember gas prices around $1 a gallon … and lines stretching around the block to buy gas (ironically, those were around the same era). I also remember paying the equivalent of $4-5 a gallon—around the same time (forty years ago)—in West Germany.

You know what? We survived. We survived the energy crisis of the 1970s. We survived the burst of the housing bubble. We survived the “crash” of 2008. We even survived the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. We can survive the current economic challenges (and yes, they are many).

What I don’t remember—because it hasn’t happened, certainly not in my lifetime—is an armed incursion of the U.S. Capitol by not just a few, but hundreds of “Americans” (I use the term loosely). There have been small-scale attacks, including at least two bombs (1971 and 1983). There was, it is believed, an attempted attack on 9/11/2001. But there has been nothing on the scale of what we saw on January 6 last year. In fact, I believe you have to go back to 1814 to find anything comparable—the burning of the Capitol. And that was done by a foreign force, not our nation’s own citizens.

The very survival of the United States of America has never been truly threatened by the price of gas or milk or wheat.

Two world wars did not threaten her survival as a nation. Yes, the Cold War with its nuclear arms race was a legitimate threat—a threat to the entire world, though, not just the US.

The only legitimate threat to our survival as a nation has come from the inside: the Civil War 160 years ago and, a year ago, the incursion into the U.S. Capitol. Regardless of who may have instigated that event—whether grass roots or the very top—the aim of mob was nothing less than the overthrow of democracy, and the assassination of the Vice President. (How else can one understand the chant, “Hang Mike Pence,” while a gallows and a noose were waiting outside?) What’s worse, it was all done in the name of democracy.

I don’t like paying nearly $7 a gallon for gas. But I’ll take that any day if I can live in a truly democratic republic: a nation in which the law rules, and the people—for all our faults and failures and disagreements—get to be part of making, changing, and unmaking that law. Even the laws I don’t like.

Does Jan 6, 2021 matter? More than the short-sighted want to admit.

Inauguration Day 2021—A Day of Peace and Hope


Four years ago today I was substitute teaching in a familiar classroom of fifth graders. After a contentious presidential election campaign, I thought the history lesson of watching the inauguration would be good for my students: they could watch as two very different sides would come together under the banner of unity to celebrate the peaceful transition of power in the world’s oldest democracy. Though personally disappointed in the result of the election, I nonetheless held out a modicum of hope that the new president, through his choices of advisors and cabinet officials, could lead the nation forward. I was wrong on both counts.

As the inauguration preliminaries played out on the big screen, most students quietly did their morning work, largely uninterested in the distant events in our nation’s capital  A few, whose parroted views had been overly enthusiastic (for ten-year-olds) throughout the previous fall, continued their boisterous cheering of their candidate’s victory. Others, more reserved in defeat, sat in silence.

Then I saw her: one normally-bubbly student sitting with head down, unable to focus on the page on her desk, tears streaming down her face. I knelt down beside her and asked what she was thinking.

“I’m afraid my family will be deported,” she replied.

I knew nothing of her background beyond that she was Hispanic. Were her parents illegal immigrants? Had she been born in the U.S. or in Mexico? In that moment, none of that mattered to me. All that mattered was that one of my students, a ten-year-old girl, was not celebrating democracy but fearing for her own security, her family’s security, her future. Far more devastating than an election loss was, for this girl, the prospect of losing her family and likely the only home she had ever known. She was afraid—legitimately, I think—not only because of the words she had heard on the nightly news from the man becoming president, but because those same words were coming from the lips of her fellow students.

As adults, we have learned to distinguish between the bombastic speeches we hear or read and what we can expect in reality. Friends, neighbors, and politicians alike will often speak far more boldly from behind the safe wall of a camera or social media, but never act on their bold speech or thinly-veiled threats. Fifth graders haven’t yet learned to separate that.

As I sought to comfort and give hope to my young student, I was caught in a poignant, agonizing moment that portended what would lay ahead in ways I would never have imagined … or, indeed, feared. Never in my wildest dreams did I consider that just two weeks before the next inauguration, our nation’s capitol building would come under attack not from a foreign enemy, but from within, from Americans fighting for their own distorted view of democracy. Never did I imagine that the president whose inauguration that little girl feared would be accused by long-time allies—members of his own party—of inciting an insurrection against his own capitol. And yet that is precisely what has taken place in the past two weeks.

And so on this Inauguration Day in 2021 I watched with a greater hope as our nation once again celebrated democracy’s greatest tradition: a peaceful transition of power. It was, again, a poignant moment, historic not simply as every inauguration has been historic, but because of the firsts: the first woman, first African-American, first Asian-American vice president (sworn in by the first Latina Supreme Court justice); the oldest first-term president (significant in a myriad of ways!); the first time in more than a century that the outgoing president has been absent from the inauguration. It was a poignant moment because of the pandemic that has gripped our nation and the world for the past ten months. There will be no comparison of crowd sizes this year, but the Capital Mall was resplendent with thousands of flags representing the nation, the states, the territories.

And it was poignant for me because of the hope I feel again: hope that our nation can begin to heal, hope that we can begin to put division and disunity behind us, hope that we can rejoin the nations of the world in working together for peace and prosperity for all. It won’t be easy. Millions still grieve their candidate’s loss; many still mistakenly—or willfully—believe that the election was fraudulent. Many of us—myself included—still have questions about the new administration and its commitment to values we hold. It will take all of us putting aside our differences in order to move forward in unity.

And yet today I am convinced that we can walk through the hard days ahead with hope. And hope is one thing that has been in desperately short supply these past four years.