You can't capture 'American' in a Tweet
Though we live in a world of sound bites and 140-character-driven
narratives, life is simply more complex than this.
determine if something is well written—be it a book
or movie or even an essay—is if it can be summed
up in one sentence. Gone with the Wind? A love
story set against the Civil War. See? You can do it
in even half a sentence. We're obviously talking top-
I've tried to apply this lesson not only to my career,
but also to my life. Yet lately I'm finding the latter a
bit more difficult, especially when it comes to being
an American. Because no matter how hard I try to
describe my personal definition of citizenship, I'm
never able to trim the words.
Take the way my family spent this summer. Last
month, my 15-year-old, Bridgette, traveled to New
Orleans for a week to work with a youth group
called the NOLA Tree, which, among other projects,
guts and renovates houses left devastated by
Hurricane Katrina. She returned home exhausted
Ohio with her friend Martha. Judging by my daughters' inevitable "How I Spent My
Summer Vacation" reports, does this make our family socialist do-gooders or
animal-oppressing freeloaders? Whatever the answer, my kids are going to need a
lot more than one sentence.
Then there's money. In the last three years, my wife and I have both been
temporarily laid off; we constantly struggle to balance our household budget; and,
like many in America, we're currently refinancing our runaway mortgage. And yet,
somehow, a few weeks ago we scraped together enough dough to finally swap our
old, boxy TV for a 40-inch flat screen (the last on our block to do so, I might add).
Does this fiscal dichotomy make us unfortunate victims of the sagging economy, or
high-living conspicuous consumers? Give me a paragraph, and I'll do my best to
Then in late July, we all traveled to Los Angeles, where relatives from across the
country convened to witness the bat mitzvah of my niece Emily. Among the guests
were Emmy's favorite uncle (my oldest brother, Steve) and godfather, Mark, both of
whom were cited in the day's many speeches—and both of whom are gay. Does
such a diversified (and, by the way, joyous) gathering qualify us as devotees of
family values—or, as some would have it, just the opposite? I can easily answer that
old, tired question, but I'd definitely want to use a boatload of words.
I suppose my inability to define my Americanism in a single, golden phrase would be
a lot easier to take, were it not for the chronic dumbing down of our national
identity. We now live in a culture in which electronic town squares like Twitter
demand that we sum up our thoughts and feelings in 140 characters or less; in
which cable news programs can no longer turn a profit unless they cleave to a
monosyllabic fer-or-agin-'em format; in which politicians boil down their constituents'
complicated needs into terse, feel-good platitudes—when, in fact, reality is a lot
The emergent Tea Party, for example, continues to flaunt its simplified "anti-
government" platform, though I have yet to hear a single Tea Partier reconcile that
conviction with their love of Medicare or Social Security. That would take too many
sentences. The Democrats continue to ride their "hope-and-change" high from
2008, though not many will acknowledge those additional words that have
regrettably cropped up in the ensuing two years—like "disappointment" and
"frustration" and "infighting" and, worst of all, "failure." In fact, it is only the
obstructionist Republicans who have consistently espoused—and successfully
stood by—their single-word mission: "No." You gotta admire their brevity.
I just reread this essay and decided that I'm not only a bad American but,
unfortunately, a pretty lame writer, too. Try as I may, I can't describe my theme in
one sentence. My mentor would be disappointed.
Ordinarily I'd Tweet about that—but, alas, I'd exceed my character count.
(Illustration by Web Bryant, USA TODAY)