I don’t go in for patriotism. The flags, the cannons, the sentences that combine “proud” and “American?” I don’t give a toss for Betsy Ross. I think the 4th of July is a real downer of a holiday. Look for me at a cookout and find me complaining about fireworks, rolling my eyes at the national anthem, complaining that the Pledge of Allegiance feels kind of fascist, and trying to explain to a bunch of hot-dog stuffed, historically inept, gunpowder junkies that the so-called American Revolution wasn’t actually all that revolutionary. Blame it on the misfortune of being born in a bicentennial year and forced to grow up surrounded by its already-dated kitsch in the 80s. Blame it on coming from people who have been in this country so long, no one can remember why we came or what we hoped to find there (best theory: “Dude, you can totally get rich planting tobacco in the New World! And Jim says it rains less in Virginia, so BONUS!”). Blame it on a childhood spent believing (inaccurately) that my alienation and inability to fit in were almost entirely the result of being born on the wrong continent.
I believed I would grow up to be an expat so deeply that, at eleven, I used to get emotional considering my own incipient homesickness, as I would invariably spend, say, Thanksgiving sipping coffee at a crowded Parisian café, feeling a particular trans-Atlantic ennui, as I considered the turkey I was missing, as I signaled the waiter for fresh crusty bread, perhaps a selection of fine cheeses, and perhaps, une bouteille de vin rouge, s’il vous plaît.
Obviously, none of this came to pass. More than three decades later, I’ve made it exactly 221 miles east from the hometown where I once imagined my seemingly inevitable lovely, moody, continental self-exile. And though the locals jokingly refer to this place as Paris of the Piedmont, no one would mistake it for anything other than it is: a friendly, southern, small town in the United States.
I’m not exactly disappointed about it. In fact, when on a good day, I might even tell you that I love it here when I’m sure no one else is listening. And though I still may personally think the United States is the national equivalent of a spoiled, stubborn, delayed adolescent long since aged out of it’s cute, precocious phase and settled into its messy, arrogant, entitled young adult asshole phase, it is MY messy, arrogant, entitled young adult asshole of a country. I’m inexorably bound to it by birth, character and, God forgive us all, ancestry. I am an enormous fan of much of the art and food and culture (even with all the implied complications and contradictions) a truly shocking number of its people and some notion of its baseline philosophy (even when it’s kinda bankrupt). Or as I literally wrote in an email circa 2017: “Our nation is a infuriating, embarrassing, horrifying place, currently (and frequently) hijacked by the zealots, bigots, psychopaths and brazen opportunists, but on the other hand, the First Amendment. On the other hand, Beyonce.”
Of course saying something like that belies a fundamental truth. To wit: that being a famously contrarian, pretentious, pinko sympathizing, “I’m-blowing-this-star-spangled-popcicle-stand” wannabe expat cynic ironically demands some degree of faith that the US is not a failed state, but a place that will improve and survive and (even if slowly and begrudgingly) figure its shit out so it can continue steamrolling, mostly unscathed, through the 21st century, high on optimism, Big Ideas, and a nearly complete lack of self-awareness.
These days, however, I’m menaced by the thought that it is falling apart, that it maybe all the things I naively thought couldn’t fail will, and no one will stop it without the kind of reckoning I’m not sure any of us, including/especially the true-blue flag-wavers can truly imagine. Everyone seems to have a lot of big ideas—we love Big Ideas—but no one seems to be doing anything. It’s like we’re all waiting for someone else to fix it. Who? No one seems to know, but everyone seems kinda confident that it will happen as days go on and nothing happens, except that more Americans get sick and more people refused to take responsibility for the over hundred thousand dead and the millions unemployed and the twenty million or so who will lose their unemployment benefits this week alone in a nation that is still mostly shut down for all but the most essential or reckless, and we’re all increasingly stressed, isolated, scared, hopeless, and depressed.
It’s enough to make anyone wave the white flag, pack a suitcase and Irish goodbye before the neighbors even notice you’re gone. But that’s the other thing, right? We can’t go anywhere now. As of last week, only fourteen other countries (mostly in the Caribbean, but for now anyway–with a 14-day-quarantine–our tragically Brexited former colonial overlords) would allow Americans to enter, our freedom to be loud and obnoxious globally having been briskly curtailed when we failed to grow up, act like an adult, for like, five minutes, and take responsibility in the face of (I hate this word too now, so forgive me) unprecedented crisis.
Being shut out of other countries was a defensive move made by the governments of the other couple hundred other nations of the world who seem more concerned about keeping its citizens alive than we do right now. But it a feels (a little) like getting authoritatively cut off by the parents after that last illicit kegger ended with the house burning down. It feels like we’re on our own for real, with only ourselves to blame, and absolutely no way out unless we fix it.
I am, by nature, an intensely claustrophobic person, But I don’t mind spending the rest of my life in the US, here in the Paris of the Piedmont even, so long as I know we’re going somewhere, and or even more to the point, there’s something to go. I mean, I could bound myself in a nutshell and count myself the queen of infinite space so long as I could believe I might see the Mediterranean at twilight (or hell, enjoy a relaxing, easy, week at a Lowcountry beach one state away, without the constant worry that I might get sick and die or I might make someone else sick and they might die) again any time soon.
The United States is a country founded by people that abandoned the places they couldn’t change. We tend to throw stuff away when it breaks. We leave town when it gets boring. It’s maybe not in our DNA to stay put and rebuild from the ground up, which is maybe why people are still spending time and money trying to figure out if we could live on Mars instead of investing their time and money trying to clean up the mess we’ve made right here.
That’s the most American thing about me, you know. It is the reason why I spent my young life, dreaming myself Elsewhere, because I always had the hubris to believe that I could go anywhere, whenever I wanted, and I literally lacked the imagination to envision what it would take to make the place I felt trapped a place worth calling home.
I’m not actually ready to give up on the United States. I haven’t yet. I have some sense of civic responsibility. I have a that tiny, persistent flicker of FOMO and undiminished idealism, common to both entitled, hopelessly delayed adolescents and the nations they resemble. And that flicker has flared up brighter over the last months, even as circumstances have turned objectively darker. I don’t want to sink into such bitter disappointment and resignation that I quit, because I truly have nowhere else to go, and, for most of you reading this, neither do you.
So now what?
Picture today is of the People’s Parade, here in the Paris of the Piedmont, back in the salad days of 2013.
As of this writing, 8,991,175 people have recovered from Covid.
(I swear to God, I’ll lighten up on the next one of these. I used to be funny. Remember when I was funny?)