What It Means to Be American »

At Just 19 Years Old, the Marquis de LaFayette Traded Versailles for Valley Forge

By | November 21, 2016

The 19-year-old Marquis de Lafayette had met only a handful of Americans when he signed up to join General George Washington’s army, but he felt certain that the people of the United States were as honorable as the cause of freedom for which they fought. Their idealism was intoxicating, and its hold on Lafayette reminds us of a time when the young United States seemed …

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Why Canoes Are the Quintessential Vehicle for Escape

By | November 21, 2016

A canoe is like a banjo—it makes everyone happy. Propelled with paddles, sleek, long, narrow, lightweight—mostly open—and fast: Every canoe I’ve owned makes me smile at its memory. I remember my oldest daughter, at age 10, mimicking the cry of a loon, and the loon crying back, while on a Boundary Waters trip. Or that one big fish that one time in that one hole …

What It Means to Be American »

How My Americana Childhood in 1950s Rialto Turned Me Into a Protestor

By | November 20, 2016

If you want a classic portrait of middle Americana in the middle of the 20th century, you had to look no farther than my hometown of Rialto, in inland Southern California, 50 miles east of Los Angeles.
My youth on King and North Verde streets was about American kid stuff—baseball, bugs, riding my bike, my crush on a grammar school classmate named Katherine, playing John F. …

What It Means to Be American »

Inside the Coney Island ‘Freak Show’, a Forgotten Human Zoo

By | November 17, 2016

A day trip to Coney Island, once the largest amusement park in the United States, led me to the photograph. In the black-and-white image, a group of tribesmen, women, and children squats around a campfire. They’re barefoot and dressed in G-strings and tribal blankets. Several are looking at the camera and laughing. One man is pointing. Another is holding up a rock, as if he …

What It Means to Be American »

American Culture’s Unlikely Debt to A British Scientist

By | November 16, 2016

In 1835, through an unlikely turn of events, the young United States became the beneficiary of the estate of one James Smithson, a British scientist of considerable means who had never set foot on American soil. The gift of $500,000 (about $12 million today) carried the stipulation that it be used to create an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
How amazing—and baffling—this …

What It Means to Be American »

Why Campaign Buttons Will Survive the Digital Age

By | November 7, 2016

On April 30, 1789, enthusiastic onlookers filled the streets, dangled out of windows, and perched on rooftops to catch a glimpse of George Washington as he made his way through the streets of New York to Federal Hall to assume the new office of President of the United States.
As at many political events that would follow, there were vendors along the procession route busily …

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The Institution of Multiple Presidential Nom Meetings Might Seem Tired—But It’s Actually New

By | November 4, 2016

Today, presidential debates between candidates are considered fixtures of our political scene. Though they generate the occasional dust-up—like Donald Trump complaining that some of this year’s debates conflict with high-profile sporting events, or third-party candidates demanding places on the stage—it’s hard to imagine election season without them.
But I can attest from personal experience that not long ago our presidential debates were fragile. During the 1988 …

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The Monster That Stoked Americans’ Devotion to Faith Over Science

By | November 1, 2016

One Sunday afternoon in October of 1869, Stubb Newell, a farmer in upstate New York, invited his neighbors over to view the remarkable discovery he made while digging a well on his Cardiff farm. When they arrived, he showed them the body of a ten-foot-tall “petrified” man, lying at the bottom of a shallow pit where Newell had instructed workmen to dig.
The giant was a …

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Growing Up in Los Angeles, But Speaking New Orleans as a Second Language

By | October 15, 2016

For a time, most likely between the ages of 5 and 8, I floated around with a secret: a dogged yet utterly erroneous notion that my family spoke a second language—on my mother’s side at least.
The assumption arrived out of nowhere, planted itself, and for a while, took root. I let it bloom. Quietly, I kept a list in my head. My mother would refer …

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Garage Parties in Hawaii Aren’t Just Any Party

By | October 14, 2016

Growing up in Hawaii in the 1970s, my family and our neighbors spent New Year’s Eve roasting a pig in our driveway. We set up the spit and used corrugated tin metal sheets to block the wind and contain the fire. The ancient Hawaiians prepared much of their cooked foods in an imu, or underground oven, but we lived on one of the ridgelines overlooking …