Thursday, February 17, 2005

My America: Letters To The World

Letter Two: Growing Up American

Dear World,

It's me again. I thought you might be interest in knowing what it was like to grow up an American.

I think, from the perspective of children, American children are no different than any other child around the world. Or, at least most children. Maybe it's different from children who grow up in places that are constantly at war or in constant poverty. Certainly, there are more risks in a war torn country. There are more risks in a dictatorship of saying the wrong thing and getting yourself or your family in trouble.

But, children, when we are children, don't really think about that much.

I remember growing up as a child and I didn't think anything about politics or wars. What we were interested in was going to school, getting our homework done and then going out to play with the other children in the neighborhood. We would ride bikes or play tag. Sometimes we'd play hide and go seek or we would just look for a new adventure, another place to explore. We would pretend that the old barn in the woods was an abandoned house with hidden treasure to find and it was haunted by ghosts or protected by "bad guys" whoever they were. If we heard a strange sound in the barn, we'd run out, jump on our bicycles and pedal home as fast as we could, finally stopping to congratulate ourselves on "escaping" whatever perceived danger there was. Then we'd set up concrete blocks and pieces of wood propped up to make a ramp to jump our bicycles across.

Sometimes, that didn't turn out so well. I know I had a lot of cuts, bumps, bruises and scrapes from many failed episodes of pretending to be Evel Knivel. If you don't know who he was, he was one of the greatest motorcycle stuntmen of the 1970's. He would jump his motorcycle across 20 busses. He tried to jump the Snake River Canyon in Utah. When you are a child, you don't pay much attention to the fact that Mr. Knivel broke just about every bone in his body doing such tricks. To us, he was bigger than life, daring and unafraid. Maybe looking up to such a man seems shallow to an adult, but, I imagine that children all over the world have just such men as heroes when they are ten.

We wanted to be Sinbad the Sailor, exploring the world and fighting giant monsters. We wanted to be Indiana Jones, exploring the world, fighting the bad guys, finding the treasure and rescuing the heroine. Even as a little girl, I wanted to do all the fun, exciting things that the boys did. I never wanted to be the maiden in distress when we fought the dragon as knights. I always wanted to be one of the knights and ride a horse and vanquish the dragon. We wanted to be Buck Rogers in the 24th century. A space traveling astronaut who was sucked into a time warp and arrived on earth 400 years later to take up the fight against the bad invading aliens. We wanted to be the astronauts that walked on the moon. We wanted to be the captain of a riverboat, the commander of the Lewis and Clark expedition discovering new places and fighting against the elements, the cowboys fighting the Indians, the policeman arresting the bad guys, the fireman rescuing the people burning in buildings, the swashbuckling pirate that raided the treasure from a ship that was really the bad guy, Robin Hood, Sir Galahad, the sheriff in the wild west, facing down the bad guys robbing the bank, you name it, that's what we wanted to be.

We grew up on dreams of being the good guy, saving the people and vanquishing the bad guy, whatever form or shape he took.

If there is something to take from this or wonder why it is that American's, for the most part, become grown ups looking at the world as places where bad guys exist and the good guys should always take the fight to the bad guys and the good guys should always win, this is it. As an adult, we might find that it's not that easy, but as a child, it is just that simple.

As children, nobody wanted to be the bad guy. The bad guy in our games always ended up having to pretend to be dead or was arrested and thrown in jail forever, never to bother the good people again. As adults, we know that doesn't always happen, as children, it was the right way for the game to end.

Maybe that's why some folks in the world look at us and believe that we have an immature world political view, because we grow up and we still believe those things? The world often ascribes totally different ideas to our actions. I've heard tell that we in America are self-absorbed, too blunt, to emotional in our dealings. Maybe we haven't totally lost our naivete yet? That naivete from youth that tells you that the good can and should always win and that most people are good and the good guys always band together to defeat the bad guys.

I understand that this is what gets us into trouble sometimes. We have some big expectations. We are raised with big expectations and we always believe that the rest of the world has these same expectations. I understand also that some folks decry us as acting like the world's policeman, interfering in places the world thinks we shouldn't go. When we were growing up, their was no limits to the places we could go and no limits to the things we could do. Maybe the world is more mature and grown up than Americans in believing that everything can't be fixed or shouldn't be fixed, but, like all children who look at the adults and wonder why they believe that, as an American, I guess I'd rather keep my youthful beliefs and naivete then to become so jaded that I willing except that a bad guy should be walking around, doing whatever he wants to whomever he wants just so there is some strange and unsettliing "stability".

In the American westerns we always watched growing up, whenever the good people of town decided that it was better just to leave the bad guy alone and hope that he leaves town so they could get back to their "normal" lives, it always seemed that the bad guy just became more bad and did more terrible things. At least until the good guy came to town with a badge on his shoulder and a belief in doing what was right even if it was hard. What we learned from that, growing up American, is that the bad guy never changes and we would be better off if we confronted the bad guy right away. Then, he wouldn't have been able to hurt the good people so much.

As an adult, I've often heard the term "John Wayne Cowboy" or just plain "Cowboy" used as an epitaph against Americans. I guess I should explain that most of us don't really look at John Wayne or cowboys as bad things to be. We always looked up to them as straight talking, honest men who wouldn't take any guff off a bad guy and was always willing to stand up to the bad guy and his gang no matter how hard it is.

I think that's why, when we grow up, we don't tend to look at things as impossible. We don't see things as hard so we shouldn't do them, we see them as hard things so they should be the things that we want to do even more.

Like climbing trees as children. We didn't go into the garage and get the ladder to help us climb the tree. That would be too easy. Maybe, that would be considered the smart and ingenius thing to do, but climbing a tree without a ladder was a challenge so that's what we did. Some times though, if the tree was a little tougher to climb than others, a friend might give us a boost up to the first limb and then, when we got up there, we would always put our hands out and lift our friends up so they could climb the tree with us. Sitting in a tree alone and thinking was nice some times, but, like most things, it was always more fun when it was shared.

I think you can see that in America today. Not just children helping each other up, but, when we grow up, most of us remember that somebody helped us and we should always be willing to give back. Of course, everyone has their own ideas about what it should be and, some times, no matter how hard you pull on your friend's hands, you can't help them reach that first limb. But, there is always next year. Maybe we all will be taller and able to reach that limb by ourselves? Maybe we can all climb the tree? That's what you think when you are a kid and that is often what drives us when we grow up. We don't like to give up and we're always looking for the next time when we can do it better.

Of course, that's not all we played. We played kick ball, baseball, American football, you name it, we loved to play sports. We always wanted to be the winner, too. I think that's an important part of growing up in America, we learned that it is always better to be the winner than to be the loser. But, we also learned that, when you win a game, it's always right to shake your opponents hand, thank them for playing and wish them better luck next time. Maybe, as adults, some of us have lost that magnanimus character. We don't always remember to shake hands. When you are a kid, you shake hands because usually you are playing with someone you like and you want to be able to play with them in the future.

It's a good reminder for adults, whom ever they are, where ever they are that you might need these folks again and it's always better to leave on good terms.

I think it's obvious that children have a lot to teach us in that respect.

When I was growing up, our friends were from all walks of life and all backgrounds. I can't say what it was like for everybody growing up in America, but I know, when we were kids, we didn't care about the color of somebody's skin or hair or how tall or how short. When you are a child, what you usually care about is can that person catch a ball, ride a wheely (put the front wheel of their bike in the air), run fast, have a good imagination and shares their toys with you. As a child, it's what they bring to the fun that matters, not what they looked like.

I know that in certain parts of the world, people believe that America is full of racists and haters. I don't want to speak for everyone in America, but I think I can speak for most people my age, even younger, when I say that we've mostly outgrown those tendencies. Yes, we had problems with this not so long ago, but that's why children playing usually becomes how they behave as adults.

That's not to say it's perfect, but with every generation, a better understanding happens. More compassion. Still, the one thing that we learn growing up is that things can always be better and they need to be worked on. But, as a child, you don't really notice these things because what we are interested in as children has little to do with skin color, but everything to do with what you bring to the playground in ability, guts and, of course, equipment.

The other thing we learned growing up was that we should always stand up to bullies, whom ever they were, however big they were. We learned that if you don't confront bullies, they just stay being a bully and they will keep picking on you and your friends. We learned that it was our responsibility to protect our younger, smaller or weaker friends and siblings from bullies because they couldn't protect themselves. That's something we generally continue to believe in when we grow up. Some times, that gets us into trouble. Like when we were kids, just because we stood up to the bully doesn't mean we always came out the winner, but we knew we had to do it anyway because, if we didn't, who would? We also learned that if we had all of our friends with us, it made us bigger and stronger than the bully.

We learned that there was power in numbers. Even as children, there were always friends who were your best friends and didn't take much talking to convince them to help you out, but there was always a few of your friends that were reluctant to help because their parents always told them not to get into a fight and that they'd be in trouble if they did. When you're children, it's hard to go against the adults, but, when you are children, some times it is easier to understand when you have to go against the adults and stand up for yourself and your friends.

Not that we didn't get in trouble. When we fought amongst ourselves, my parents always made us sit and stare at each other for however long it took for one of us to admit we were at fault and apologize. Interestingly, this worked pretty well since we all understood that we weren't going to play anytime soon if we didn't get it done. It was also understood that as children, whatever we were fighting over an hour ago, really didn't matter later because we'd always be back to playing again. If only the adult world worked like that. But, of course, for things to work like that, adults would also have to subscribe to all the other things that you believe in as a child: that good guys always stand up to bad guys, that we should aspire to being good and doing great things, that we should always help our friends out and that we are better together than alone.

One other thing we learned when I was growing was that standing together, in the good or the bad times, we could make it through. I recall when my youngest brother broke someting. We all knew he broke it, but nobody would tell even when he wouldn't admit to it. Yes, we all got into trouble, but we understood that to tell on someone wasn't right and that person should be the one that did what was right and make it right. That didn't mean that we didn't do something about it. If the person that did it wouldn't tell on themselves and we all got in trouble, that person would be in for a double dose of trouble when we all got to go outside again.

Of course, that didn't mean we hurt each other, it just meant that we understood that sometimes, justice amongst ourselves was more desirable than justice from the outside. That person would be in for a few hours of cold shoulder at least. Pretty soon, we all learned it was better to say when we did something and take our own lumps that one time than to be known as the coward that didn't say anything and let somebody else take the rap for it. That person usually paid more of a price later if they didn't. Too many episodes like that and nobody wanted to play with them.

Maybe, as an adult, we still look for that in people? Say you were wrong, say you were sorry and get it over with.

These days I hear people telling their children that, if they see something bad happening, like a bully picking on another kid, they shouldn't get involved or they should just go tell an adult. I suppose that last part isn't a bad thing, but I do wonder what we teach our children when we teach them that something is not their responsibility? I think most adults think that they are protecting their children from harm or teaching them not to fight, but I wonder if we haven't taken something away from them? I'm wondering if we are teaching children that it is better to run away or stay quiet, like those towns' people in those old western who are just trying to live and get by hoping the bad guy leaves. If we teach all of our children that their will always be someone else to take care of their problems for them, who will be that person who rides to the rescue? How do they learn to take responsibility?

Maybe, in the world, a lot more people think that it is better to teach children not to be fighters because the world thinks that teaching children to be pacifists will mean that there is less fighting in the world of the future. It would be nice if it worked that way, but it just usually means, whether in the child's world or the adult world, that the bullies still exist and the bullies just keep on keeping on. Some people are going to be the bullies, some people are going to be the victims and somebody will have to be the person that makes them stop. Bullies don't really care to talk to their victims. They don't care that somebody tells them it isn't right. Bullies are just going to laugh, push you around some more and demand that you give them your extra milk money.

When I was growing up in America, it didn't mean that we didn't fight amongst ourselves. We were children after all. Little things seemed very important. We could be mad at our friends and siblings for awhile. Usually, it didn't last very long. When we were children, we learned that it was one thing for us to fight amongst ourselves, but it was another for someone from some place else or outside of our group to pick a fight with one of our own. It usually meant that, what ever our trouble was amongst ourselves, it instantly didn't matter and we were all standing together against the outside provocation.

I wonder if the world has noticed that about Americans? It might be hard for the world to understand that when you see things on television about arguments we are having amongst ourselves. I suppose the world should understand that this is how we grew up. I don't think that the world should take it for granted that a little bickering amongst ourselves means that we will let somebody else hurt one of our own. I think it would behoove the world to understand that if something happens to one of our own, we are much less likely to forget and forgive.

That probably worries the world a little, but it shouldn't. Not unless the world thinks that it is going to hurt us. In which case, I can only tell the world that it should remember how we grow up in America.

I guess I'd like to tell the world that this is what it is like to grow up in America. Probably, in places all over the world, children are growing up the same way. Maybe they don't have cowboys to look up to, but they probably dream the same dreams. That's what you think when you are a child. You learn that it isn't so everywhere and when you learn that, you want it to change. That's probably left over from what we learn growing up.

Basically, we learn to dream big dreams. We learn that nothing is impossible, challenges are meant to be overcome, if we don't succeed the first time, we should try again. We learn that there is right and there is wrong. We learn that we should stand together.

I've learned the world doesn't always agree with America. That's okay, we don't have to agree on everything. The world would be pretty boring if we did. Some might say that I'm wasting my time trying to explain America to the world, but, just like when we were children, I can't stop trying.

Remember, that's what I learned growing up in America.

Never back down from a challenge.

K. Henry


Kender said...

Bravo Kat. That is dead on correct. We do grow up here learning to stand together against bullies, strive for more and the good guys always wins.

The world CAN be that way, because there is always going to be another bad guy. Part of the problem, I think, is that alot of the world thinks opposite of this "American Ideal" and has decided that life is in Gods hands and if they live in a bad country under harsh conditions then that is just the way it is.

I have heard that one of the problems that muslims, (radicals) have is hollywood exporting American culture around the world and "ruining" their value system. Perhaps if they paid better attention to that true American value system that you wrote so perfectly about they would quit complaining and make things better.

Brian H said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brian H said...

I think you might like to rethink that insider/outsider harm and fighting a bit. There are a couple of things that occur to me. One is that this tribal protectionist attitude is pretty much universal, and even stronger in the ME, for example. The brother/cousin/government/world quote doesn't need to be repeated. The problem with tribes is that they can be taken over like the island in the Lord of The Flies and become internally very abusive.
The second is that your assurance that Americans don't really wish harm to other Americans is giving too much credit to the anti-liberationists among you. The hot left would probably be quite happy to see more imperialist pigs and minions go down. But it wouldn't be PC to admit it, of course. Or would it?

Kat said...


We are all tribal in some way. it's like something in our genes. Whomever we are with is our tribe. it doesn't have to be predicated on blood or other physical connection. I'm well aware of the issues within the ME but it doesn't mean we don't operate on the same level.

Also, I thought a bit about the far left and anti-war folks when I wrote this message. I don't think that, even if there is 50% people who think we shouldn't have gone to Iraq, it doesn't mean that 50% of the people in this country would be all to happy to throw one of their own to the terrorists.

there is that small group that is verbal about people getting their "just deserts" when it happens, but, even those people, as much as it would pain me, if a jihadist took one of them hostage and cut their head off, I'd be just as pissed and just as ready to do harm, even if the dead person would have preferred it otherwise, on their behalf.

If they were attacked by our enemy, I would defend them even if they protested against me. That is actually how our government works, that is how the military works, and it's how I work. That's why it's "my America" because that is how the people I know work as well.

I don't sit around picking and choosing on any given day who I would or would not defend out of the American population and, I would hazard a guess, that 99% of our population thinks the same way. Okay 95%, but still the overwhelming majority.

I bet, in the towers on Sept 11, there were plenty of pacifists, liberals or others that on a normal day, I wouldn't have really associated with or cared about.

but on that day, all that mattered was that they were humans and they were killed in a most egregious manner and it was done on the soil of the United States.

The same way when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. There were plenty of people around who were claiming that our sanctions caused it and they were right, but we went to war anyway and we protected those people anyway because they were American.

there were plenty of people during the cold war who said that the USSR wasn't that bad and that we should play nice with them, etc, etc. Fortunately for them, those of us who believe even protecting the most foolish amongst us is important prevailed.

That is where I get my inspiration.
Not on the minority that might think otherwise and do otherwise, but on the majority who are my fellow citizens.

I even have a moron younger brother who was against the war in Iraq, but, if some war supporter decided to take a crack at him, deserving or otherwise, I'd defend him because he is my brother. In like manner will I defend even my fellow idiot citizens because they are my fellow citizens.

If we don't adhere to this, what is left? every man for himself?

Brian H said...

I think you make the same psychological/thinking error that almost all of us do: to extrapolate your own mind, emotions, priorities and consciousness to your image of others, on the assumption that they're about the same except for a few particular quirks and confusions, many of which could be cleared up with a good talking-to. It ain't so. The exact same human brain can, e.g., be brought up as a click-talking Bushman or a Parisian dilettante or a Midwestern macho tough guy or a North Korean apparatchuk, etc. There are going to be some inherited stylistic and capacity differences, but the plasticity of human consciousness is far greater than we imagine.

To the point. There are huge segments of any population who understand each other only at the most superficial social levels, and get along through adherence to a minimal set of conventions and so on. That smiling man next to you, to take a simplistic example, might be a sociopath with excellent congeniality-emulation skills, who would only get a mild to moderate thrill out of gutting you in private, given the opportunity and what he considered a reasonable chance of not being discovered.

The sliding scale of differences goes out much further in both directions for any characteristic than we readily can accept or deal with, an has less "kurtosis" (statistical lumping in the center) than we think. So . . . there are many more who would secretly sacrifice fellow Americans to justify their beliefs and emotional fixations than you think, I guarantee it.

Kender said...

Brian H...that last bit is a scary thought.

Kat said...

No offense Brian, but I think that is far too paranoid and I also think that it seems contradictory to your last post.

I'm not worried about the psychopath potentially sitting next to me wanting to gut me. I mean, I do, but not in context of what happens if there is an attack on our general population. He's not whom I'm talking about unless you want to put him in the 5% catagory of whom I would not be counting on in this situation.

I believe that there is still a line of nationalism running around here somewhere. Maybe nationalism gets a bad rap but I think it goes along the lines of tribalism as well. In your tribe you might not agree on everything but it is a whole other story when somebody outside of it tries to interfere.

Maybe, if we really wanted to look at it away from my idealistic approach it would be more like that movie "Red Dawn".

In which case, some cooperated with the attacking power because they wanted their own power. Some cooperated because they believed. Some cooperated because they were forced or felt compelled to on pain of death, coercion against their family or injury. some resisted quietly, acting like they were just ordinary citizens trying to get on and some were active resistance.

I guess I wasn't referring to if we were invaded like that. Still, in either case, I'm not as cynical as you and maybe you're right that there are a lot less people like me than I believe.

On the other hand, I don't really think I'm all that wrong. We were attacked on 9/11. We came together then. Maybe it takes something big like that to make it happen but that's what I'm talking about. We went to war in Afghanistan. sure, there were people, just like people in every war who didn't agree or don't want to go. Hell, I knew we were going and had to on one hand, on the other I was worried sick. That doesn't mean I'd do it differently if given the chance.

There have been anti-war folks all the way back to the revolution, the civil war, WWI, WWII, you name it, they've been there.

While we might have changed a little in demographics, I think there is something about America that lends to being an American, that would make my statement more generally true than not.

If it isn't, then we are failing ourselves in national discourse.

But, I just disagree because you and I are talking today and we know people who have similar thoughts about defending America. I disagree that it would be any quantity of people that would dissuaded from the general idea that, if say China decided they had to go to war with us, I have a feeling that we would have a big resurgence in national pride and unity.

it's just below the surface. nobody thought in WWII so many men would be drafted, but do you know how many men just dropped everything and volunteered?

Maybe you are saying we are far removed from those people. I just don't agree.

I'm not saying that the others don't exist or wouldn't be a pain, I'm just betting on the bigger majority of people that wouldn't lie down while we are being attacked.

If I had to believe as you do that there were so many people willing to sell me down the river than to protect me as I would them, then I guess I'd have to find another country to live in or just give up on the body politic today, shut down my blog and go back to just being some person working and making good for myself and to hell with my fellow citizens and the rest of the world. I'm sure I could turn isolationist very quick like under those circumstances.

Maybe I'm swimming against the tide and one day this place will be every man for himself and to hell with the ideas of this country.

I hope I'm dead then and don't have to see it.

Until then, I guess I'll just think optomistically about what it means to be an American and keep believing in the people.