by Marylaine Block


As American correspondent for a British magazine, I got to explain the oddities and contradictions of American life to the Brits; later, as a columnist for Fox News Online, I explained Americans to Americans instead, telling them why we love self-help books, use our technologies to talk back, and pick up and move more often than any other people on earth.

In this collection, I explain how America has been indelibly shaped by the energies and failings of young men, who believe they can do anything if people and governments will just stay out of their way. I talk about London Bridge plunked down in the middle of an Arizona desert, the Luling Watermelon Thump, and attitude -- "Sez Who? Sez ME!" I ruminate on the meaning of icons like Norman Rockwell, Miss America, and the Field of Dreams, and wonder out loud about our contradictions -- how we worship individualism, but form organizations when we want to accomplish anything, how we encourage our kids to go into safe, boring careers when the people we revere are the impractical dreamers and inventors who gave us Mickey Mouse, music videos, and Windows.

I muse about our secret lives, as told in our personalized license plates, e-mail monikers, and t-shirts (our customizable, wearable philosophies of life). And as a public service, I reveal to men the secret of buying presents for women, and how to understand what women want (it's easy -- just read romance novels).


Chapter One: Who We Are and How We Got That Way

  • Home of the John Wayne Fan Club -- the first Observing US column talks about all our contradictions
  • Land of Why Not -- America is uniquely the country where anybody feels free to embrace ideas of any kind, crackpot or otherwise
  • No Country for Old Men -- American was shaped by the energies and failings of young men with big dreams.
  • Come Together -- on our multitudes of associations
  • Off Our Backs -- do we REALLY want to get government off our backs?
  • Some Accounting for Tastes -- what statistics and market surveys say about us.
  • Not So Wild a Dream -- we want our kids to make practical career choices, but the folks we really admire are artists and dreamers
  • Sez Who? Sez Me! -- we're as good as anyone and maybe a damn site better.
  • Mechanical Fix (Take One) -- give us a complicated, human problem, and we'll see if we can't find a machine to fix it
  • Mechanical Fix (Take Two)
  • Over the River and through the Woods -- we wouldn't have to go home for holidays if we hadn't left in the first place
  • Damn, We're Good -- on how we're making sure there's enough awards and honors for everybody
  • Ten Days to a New You -- we buy all those self-improvement books because we really believe we can change ourselves
  • Talking Back -- Americans use technology to talk back to power.
  • High Wire Act -- Americans are good at dealing with crises, though maybe not so good at keeping them from becoming crises in the first place
  • One of a Kind -- we desperately do not want to live and die anonymously.
  • Light Out -- what Huckleberry Finn reveals about America
  • They've All Come To Look for America -- what books would you give new immigrants to teach them about their new country?

    Chapter Two: The Stories We Live By

  • Mapping History -- we can read our history in the names on our maps.
  • Tales Like These -- on our two guiding American myths: Norman Rockwell and the Marlboro Man.
  • Tales Republicans Tell -- the stories told in speeches at the Republican convention
  • Tales Democrats Tell -- the stories told at the Democratic convention
  • The Way We Were -- who remembers and preserves our history? The Library of Congress
  • The 4th: a Celebration of Ideas -- on being a country founded on words.
  • Stamps of Approval -- on the Post Office's century series of stamps; how do you choose the 15 events and people to commemorate for each decade?
  • Rite of Spring -- on the American love affair with baseball
  • Field of Dreams -- on the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, and on the lovableness of men
  • There She Still Is -- on the Miss America Pageant

    Chapter Three: The Way We Live Now

  • Any Excuse for a Party -- on America's weird and wonderful local celebrations
  • Speed Demon -- the spirit of this time is indeed teaching us speed
  • Dare To Be Dummies -- the Dummies' Guides have freed us to admit that the world is beyond our comprehension
  • Here Comes a Regular -- on our need for a gathering place where everybody knows you
  • To a Tee -- a celebration of the t-shirt
  • Pushing Our Barns -- ruminations about the stuff we fill our lives with.
  • Conventional Wisdom -- on what we can learn by visiting conventions
  • Roses by a Different Name -- where modern proverbs come from.
  • Do Have a Cow, Man! -- the Cows on Parade exhibit and what diversity really means
  • On This Day in... -- the media celebrate the big historic anniversaries, but forget that Barbie dolls and tupperware have changed our lives just as much.
  • And on the Next Day... -- we honor the inventors who came first, but forget about the tinkerers who made the inventions better
  • Safe as Houses -- our houses have changed as our ideas about how we want to live our lives have changed
  • Secret Lives -- we want to be known for who we are, not for our job functions
  • Rights, Wrongs and Manners -- we do have a right to say what we please, and sometimes the good sense not to
  • Ad Lib -- how advertising reflects and shapes our culture
  • Cartoon History -- the past fifty years of American life as viewed in New Yorker cartoons.

    Chapter Four: American Genius at Work

  • Peanuts for Everyone -- a tribute to Charles Schulz
  • Getting To Solla Sollew -- a tribute to Dr. Seuss.
  • Oh, Do You Know the Muppet Man? -- on the genius of Jim Henson
  • Better Mousetraps -- on American inventors and crackpots
  • Drawing with a Skewer -- on the American-born art of political cartoons

    On Men and Women

  • Romance for Dummies -- wanna learn to be romantic? Read some romance novels
  • Better Than Roses -- the best present for mom on Mother's Day is to get to know who she really is.
  • Advice for Desperate Men -- on buying presents for women
  • Things Dads Do for Kids -- a Father's Day tribute.
  • Thank Heavens for Little Boys -- and the men they grow up to be.
  • In Praise of Men
  • Survey of Men 101 -- what my male readers told me they want in a woman
  • Take a Good Look -- what people would see if they actually looked at little old ladies.
  • Lighting Out for the Territory -- on men who walk out on their lives.


    You could spend a lifetime trying to make sense of Americans. Because we don't make sense, really - if we were a store you'd have to call us Contradictions 'R' Us. Our only homegrown philosophies are transcendentalism, which is warm, fuzzy, idealistic, and hopelessly vague, and pragmatism, the philosophy of "Does it work, dammit?"

    We love the idea of government by the people, and despise the actual government (especially around April 15), and we organize ourselves equally around our student body presidents and our class clowns.

    We make one out of many, all right, and when we are united, you do NOT want to mess with us (World War II comes to mind). But more often than not, we turn one back into many, which is why in a town of 600 people you can find four churches, each convinced members of the others are pushing the down button on the eternal elevator.

    The bald eagle, with its look of steely strength and purpose, is a good symbol for us when we're united. But when we're charging off in 275 million different directions, a better symbol might be Doctor Dolittle's Pushmepullyou, the donkey-like creature with a head on both ends. The only way the poor animal could ever move at all was for each end to take turns leading, with the other half fighting every step of the way. Then we make a jerky turn and go stumbling off in the opposite direction.

    These warring impulses are the kinds of things that interest me. I got an M.A. in American studies just because I wanted to understand more about our history and literature, our heroes and our crackpots, our myths and memories, our politics and our jokes (which so often are one and the same).

    Making sense of us is a lifelong project for me. A while back I was invited to be the American correspondent for a British online magazine, explaining Americans to the bemused Brits. The O.J. trial was going on then, and their basic question, though expressed ever so politely, was "Are you people crazy?" Now I'm in the business of explaining Americans to Americans.

    That's why I call this column Observing US. I want to talk about who we are, how we got here, and what we could become. It's my lifelong project, and maybe an impossible one - making sense of America the improbable, the natural home of the John Wayne fan club.

    Why me? Like a true American, I say, why not me? We are nothing if not people with the courage of our confusions.


    If you're going to be out on the road this summer, don't just zip along the interstates - not that you'll be able to, given the road construction. Try slowing down and taking the detours on purpose, those old two-lane blacktops, where you can explore the odd things that crop up by the waysides.

    If you do, you'll come to appreciate something special about America, that spirit of "Why not" that makes a man look upon a desert and say thoughtfully, "What this place needs is a bridge," and "Who says London Bridge has to be in London?" Because of that man's vision, you can visit London Bridge today in Lake Havasu, Arizona.

    While you're in a mood for things British, you could also visit Stonehenge. No, not the one in England. You can take your pick, really: there are Stonehenges in Maryville, Washington, and Elberton County, Georgia. There's even one made out of junked cars (Carhenge) in Alliance, Nebraska. Of course, not everybody recognizes genius when they see it. Ungrateful Nebraskans once called it an unsightly nuisance and wanted to fence it in. But now that it draws visitors from all over, stores throughout the state proudly sell Carhenge souvenirs.

    You could also visit the Pyramids. Your choice: the one in Memphis, formerly the largest on the continent, is now outshone by the Luxor in Las Vegas (and it has a sphinx to go with it).

    Without ever leaving America, you can see the Eiffel Tower (Paris, Texas), tour the Parthenon (Nashville), see a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre (Odessa, Texas), and view the Leaning Tower of Pisa (Niles, Illinois). Tolkien fans may treat themselves to a trip to Hobbiton in Phillipsville, California. And don't forget to see the Garden of Eden. In Lucas, Kansas.

    The same kind of visionary responsible for these wonders, when planning a building says "Who says it has to be shaped like a building?" And lo, the beaches of New Jersey gave rise to Lucy, the elephant-shaped building. There are also buildings shaped like covered wagons, Noah's Ark, pirate ships, milk bottles and shoes.

    There's a special charm about having your morning capuccino in a building shaped like a coffeepot (Bob's Java Jive, Tacoma), and eating at diners and restaurants shaped like Coney Island Hot Dogs (Aspen Park, Colorado), Dairy Queen cones (the Twistee Treat in Jacksonville, Florida), and a Dougnut Hole (La Puente, California). It would be hard to resist the restaurant with the gigantic cow waitress statue beside it, in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania. And what promoter of local produce could match the public relations genius who came up with Castroville, California's giant artichoke, a gift shop attached to a restaurant that specializes in yummy artichoke-based dishes?

    You also have to admire anyone who could conceive and build a house entirely out of beer cans (Houston), or construct not only the world's largest bug, but a hurricane-proof one at that (Providence). Another genius built a 30 foot Paul Bunyan out of old Kaiser automobiles (a legend made out of a legend, as it were), which you can view in Alpena, Michigan. And what kind of mind could come up with a 45 ton talking bull? It was an Iowan. You can tell by how polite the bull is; it says "Please drive carefully."

    Speaking of my home state, the enterprising town fathers of Riverside realized that if Captain James T. Kirk would be born in a small town in Iowa in a couple of hundred years, that town might just as well be Riverside. They exhibit a 20 foot long model of the starship Enterprise in the town park, and host Trekkie conventions.

    Oh, yes, there was also a man named Walt Disney. His original Disneyland was the most grandiose of all the "why nots" , leading bankers to say "You want me to loan you money to build WHAT?"

    But it's by no means the only one. If you've all come to look for America, get off the interstate. The real America, the land of "Why Not?" lies all around you if you're only ready to see it.


    One thing you've gotta notice about Americans is attitude. It comes with democracy, this belief that our own opinions are as good as any other and a damn site better than most. You can read it in the letters to the editor, hear it in the callers on C-SPAN, watch it in the late night comedy routines. Nobody's safe from it, not the President, not Bill Gates, not Alan Greenspan, not even Charlton Heston (and his guys have guns).

    Our attitude toward authority is disrespectful at best, which perhaps explains why when John Mellencamp sings "I fight authority, authority always wins," we are all stomping and singing along with him, whether we are kids or middle-aged librarians. For us, the fact of power has never made it legitimate. In World War II, when American forces were surrounded by Germans and ordered to surrender, the American commander's response was, "Nuts!"

    This is partly the result of the democratic spirit -- I may be serving you cocktails, but I'm as good as you are; you may be the President but you're no better than I am. We react badly to pretention in our leaders; when Nixon wanted to dress his White House guards up in filigreed uniforms like something out of an operetta, he was greeted with laughter and loud boos, and had to back off.

    It also has to do with a kind of cocky self-assurance we have always admired: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead;" "Be sure you're right then go ahead." In the great game of "I'm OK, You're OK," we have played "I'm OK, you're not." We have always joked about the cluelessness of our leaders and our bosses-there is nothing new under the sun, not even Dilbert.

    But it also stems from a distrust of authority that is built into our system. Our Bill of Rights is predicated on the assumption that government can't be trusted not to intrude into our personal lives.

    The level of popular distrust of authority has fluctuated over time, but VietNam and Watergate restored our natural suspicion of government. So too did its failure to solve our big problems. It gave us Civil Rights, but not racial harmony, crime bills, but not safety. It failed to offer us security in an international economy in which we are all just replaceable cogs in the industrial machine.

    Not surprisingly, attitude is at an all-time high these days. A lot of current catch phrases reflect a sort of grim realism about the fact that we're not in control, an acceptance that "life's a bitch and then you die," so, "well, DUH!," "get over it," "get a life," and quit bitching. Since the system stinks, use it, get everything you can out of it, and subvert it. Popular culture offers us splendid opportunities for subversion. Never before have so many class clowns grown up to have such power to shape our culture with their portrayals of teacher caught with his pants down. Cartoonists, late night comics, and radio talk show hosts all rejoice in the silliness of the powerful, and of course their own superiority to them.

    The net offers 'zines like Suck, and personal pages for legions of rebels and Riot Grrls ("all women who are too pissed off, unhappy, tough, geeky, or brainy to do and think what they're told"). It's a great place for sticking your tongue out at authority-my son's music review site is called "33 Rebellions a Minute."

    Middle-aged critics called Seinfeld a show about nothing, because they didn't understand it was a show about attitude, Generation X style. Seinfeld and Riot Grrls and nose rings and purple hair may annoy us older folks. But they're all just a sign that the kids are carrying on the rich American tradition of attitude.

    Sez who? Sez me.


    Some visiting presidential candidates stopped off to play a game of softball at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa the other day, talking not about taxes and ag policy, but about admitting Shoeless Joe to the Hall of Fame.

    The Field of Dreams can do that to you. If you're someone who finds a hot dog unsatisfying without a green field and white diamond in front of it, if you love April because it marks the return of Cardinals, Cubs and Yankees, if you regard the designated hitter rule as mankind's original sin, you too must someday go to the Field of Dreams.

    Perhaps the movie seemed to you impossibly idealized. I am here to tell you that the reality, that baseball field in the middle of tall green cornstalks, is even better.

    It isn't just the movie, though the ghosts of long-dead baseball giants hang heavy in the air and mind there. The magic is in the people who come to the Field of Dreams, not to be photographed against the cornfield backdrop, but to play the game.

    You see, boys and girls come with their bats and oversize gloves. They are all ages, from gawky adolescents who have just found they can throw a fastball, to the littlest tykes who swing at balls that haven't yet been pitched.

    To make it baseball, and not just fathers playing catch with sons, requires a team. And magically, as people come, they are melded into teams. The fathers, who undoubtedly were the ones who insisted on coming here, go out to coach the kids. They take kids who've never met each other before -- big ones and small ones, girls and boys, black, white and brown -- and turn them into teams. Over the course of the day, players come and go, but the teams and the game go on.

    The dads show batters a better stance, instruct pitchers in the nuance of the curve ball, teach the fielders the art of the double play. They explain the rules and make sure everybody's playing fair.

    When the big kids start to show off, throwing hard, deadly pitches that the little kids can't see or hit, the fathers take the pitchers aside, compliment them on their fastball, and warn them that it isn't safe to throw it here and now.

    Sometimes the dads take a turn at bat themselves, taking care not to hit the ball too hard. They play the game fair but at a gentle, loping speed, giving the kids a chance to throw them out at third. The dads might pitch a few innings, with a lazy overhand the kids have a decent chance of hitting.

    It's nothing like Little League, where so often winning is what matters and only the kids who are good at hitting and pitching ever get in the game. Everyone gets a chance to play here on this field in the middle of the corn. It's something they will always remember, even without the endless rolls of film their moms are shooting as they sit on the benches in the hot sun.

    The loveliest thing about the Field of Dreams is how it brings out the little boy inside these men. They are reliving their boyhood love affair with the sun, the grass, and the sport. But they are also passing on to their sons and daughters their romantic attachment to the game. In the tenderness of their teaching, they are showing their children, and maybe their wives, just how fine a man each of them can be.

    The sun's not always shining on the Field of Dreams, and the sky's not always cloudless blue. But you'll remember it that way. Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa -- a place to fall in love again with baseball. But it's also a place to see men at their best, and realize anew why we admire and love their species.

    Politicians could learn something useful there, don't you think?

    * * * * * * * * *
    My resume of previous publications is available at http://marylaine.com/resume2.html. Please send your comments about this proposal to: marylaine at netexpress.net. You can also view the rest of my writing at http://marylaine.com/.