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On Being American

On Being American

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Published by Scott Watson
An essay about what it means to be an American. What is our national identity, if anything? What was Walt Whitman singing about?
An essay about what it means to be an American. What is our national identity, if anything? What was Walt Whitman singing about?

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Published by: Scott Watson on Jun 04, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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On Being AmericanIn a place called a city (Philadelphia), in another place called a state(Pennsylvania), in yet another place called a nation (America) the unsayablecomes to life as me. Upon arrival I know no one; not even myself. Where Icome from there is nothing to know. There has been a visceral experience ofmy mother, from being in her, of her, for a time. That womb world is all thereis.A 1954 cesarean section, removed only after mom had been in labor for a dayand a half, a nurse bundles me away from my mother, puts me in a "preemie,"which is how they call an incubator in which premature babies are kept. Firstsensory details outside her womb are likely that microwave oven-like place, afleshless mechanical isolation with oxygen plentiful. Where was mama? Itwas a no-mama, no-womb, small glass metal room. Although not premature,that is apparently what they did then with cesarean births.My head is pointed, I'm told, from being squeezed in mother
s birth tunnel.She hears later that dad, seeing my conical head, thinks I am deformed andgoes home in tears.If there were no way to do a C-section delivery, would I be in a tiny grave rightnow? Would mom have survived?Mom tells me she was not conscious during delivery. They injected her withsomething that put her under. When she wakes up she is in stitches. I am outand away. She has no chance to hold me first.Being removed from what gives us birth, from a mother or an earth, is what, itseems to me right now, it is to be expatriate. "Exmatriate"? Alienation.Isolation. That's what it is for me from my beginning. Born into it. Born to it.Dissociated. It is true that I shy away and do not plunge into child's play oradult social interaction. Someone has to invite me, coax me, suggest that I join. Otherwise there I am sitting on a curb along a street in front of a housewe just moved into watching boys across the street play basketball in abackyard.
It is a relief when someone comes over to invite me to play. As a newcomerI
m nervous. Acting corny makes a bad impression. Comfortable, entered intothe play there are good times. Sometimes not good.*****Beginning with my mother and father, some years back (2003) in their livingroom in Florida where they live their lives retired from formal work, there isdiscussion--as there often is on my return visits from Japan--about matters inAmerica. Mostly it is my father's views that are aired and at times my mother'sviews are in line with his opinion, though her thoughts are usually softlyexpressed. At times my father and I argue about political things. He likes that;it's a kind of bonding for him I think. My father's views are what I call roughneck tough talk. I remember in my early teens there is something on T.V.news about anti-(Vietnam)-war protests at Columbia University. Dad says“They oughta take 'em out and shoot 'em! We oughta send 'em over toRussia! That's what they'd do to 'em over in Russia, [if] anybody protestsagainst their government!" It is hard for me, 13 or14, to understand what dadmeans. Does he mean that America should be more like the Soviet Union?At home the environment growing up is, looked at from our present stage ofhuman experience, and looking at it through a particular dimension within thisparticular stage, what might be called by some a male-centered household.My grandmother, who lives with us through much of my childhood, and mymother, who works through much of my childhood, prepare dishes my fatherlikes, or that I like, and the way to prepare whatever it is we have to eat is theway “the men” like it. As opposed to what my grandmother or mother like.They cook for the men of the household as do many other women in oursocial class.Sometimes though the scene is "take what you get, like it or not." It becomesmore difficult to write about even so simple a matter as our dining dynamicssince what we eat depends too on what my mother or grandmother can makeand what kitchen technology is available to us. Besides that our financialcircumstances determine what we can buy. At the time, our consumer societyis increasingly presenting us with readymade foods such a frozen T.V.dinners. Our location determines what is available to us at local small town/ suburban markets or supermarkets. The list of variables can go on. So muchgoes into making mashed potatoes. In that sense, to say that what we eat isdetermined by household males is to focus on only one aspect of a complexscene.At any rate cooking is part of what is thought of as serving each other. Myfather, too, besides providing for us all, takes my mother "out," which means
at times to some event he has no real interest in. To a museum, for example,or to a movie, a concert, or a play. He'd rather be watching a ball game, butas a service to my mother he takes her to those events.*****After the gulf war [I purposely did not capitalize a war's name] my father says“we," meaning America, "should've gone in there and taken that sonuvabitchHussein by the balls and put a rope around his neck and dragged him throughthe streets." "Oh my goodness," elderly women visiting from up north wouldrespond.I never know and probably never will know whether he is serious, or if he is just trying to get a reaction from people, to stir things up. Because he likes todo that, it seems, likes conflict. From what my mother tells me, he was raisedin conflict: his mother and father argued at the dinner table every night, and itmay be that he grew attached to it, thought it was “normal.” Or it may be justan act, to get attention. Either way, to my knowledge he has never taken anypersonal initiative to act on his rowdy opinions.There are some who enact their thinking, like those who go to Iraq taking foodor medicine to those who were sick or starving due to economic sanctions. Tomy knowledge dad has never travelled on his own to Iraq and tried to captureor castrate Saddam Hussein. He just stays home and spouts off. Not thatthere's anything wrong with that. Many do just that. Even me at times. It maybe part of our cultural heritage from Scotland or wherever to have these harshopinions at home which we never act on. Or it may be a social rite ofpassage: when we reach a certain age we gain a right to complain about ourcountry or about the world.Too, given how it is we're sort of captives of our own civilizations, boxed in byciv., it might be said that we have nothing better to do and that our culturesoften are geared to producing frustrations and are not supportive of or set upto foster more tranquil ways of being. though now with meds maybe.It's not that there is nothing in our societies teaching us what to do with thisentity we call mind. There is much that is conditioning us. The problem is thatmost of that conditioning is not the kind that might lead us to live morepeacefully. From childhood, in homes and at schools, we seldom connect withour internal flow, with non-resisting ways of being. Usually the scene is amatter of will: a parent's will against a child's, child's against parent's,teacher's against child's, child's against teacher's. Corporate will againstpublic will. Conflict becomes the way of relating. Living becomes a battle ofwills. Opinionated, argumentative people spread over the land. There is muchunpleasantry within which I don't know how anyone can be "happy."

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