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Made me look: Ben Fry’s All Streets, a US map comprised entirely of the country's roads.

This is the first time I've bought something featuring an image or symbol of my country. I didn't feel much of a connection to the US until I spent a year in Germany. Living as an American in Europe during the Bush administration meant constant interrogation about my country’s every swagger and misstep. Germans were relieved and surprised that I shared many of their leftist politics; that I didn’t know anyone who voted for the President (I’m from RI, remember); that I had a passport; that I‘d never eaten a Big Mac, owned a car, or shot a gun.

My most remarkable American characteristic was fondness for peanut butter. Oh, and mongrel ancestry. When Germans assumed I was French because of my name, I’d explain the Swedish/Irish/English/Ukrainian/French-Canadian breakdown and they’d look at me with ever-widening (usually blue) eyes like a mutant specimen descended from promiscuous bandits. Meanwhile, I was imagining how their grandparents might have categorized someone like me back in the thirties--what they would have thought of dala horses, clover leaves and matroyshka dolls all under one roof. So I guess we’re even on the awkward-thoughts-about-each-others’-ancestors count.

I didn’t identify strongly as an American. I considered myself a descendant of my immigrant European great-grandparents (three-quarters of whom I’d never actually met). To Europeans, of course, identification with your ethnic heritage is considered typically American. They think it’s funny how we describe “what we are” in percentages reflecting countries where we’ve often never set foot. I bristled at the idea of being considered typically American in this or any other way.

Then at some point it clicked: my people had left; theirs had stayed. We’re a country of people (and their descendants) who chose adventure and uncertainty--who had pasts to escape or imagined futures to create. It makes sense that on average we’d be a little more adventurous, a little more optimistic, a little less tolerant of the status quo, a little more willing to leap. And that resonated with me.

I realized that however perverted and misused the notion of “Freedom” has become here, it’s considered (and treated as) a primary ideal to an extent that is unparalleled elsewhere; in Germany, for instance, I’d argue that “Order” holds this top spot. Upon my return I found myself going West, moving to California--which in its optimism, youth, and diversity is arguably the most American place in America--America turned to eleven with its silicon and silicone, palm trees and snow, deserts and oceans, superhighways and supermarkets and farmers’ markets. I realized that I loved my country.

For the record, I’m still embarrassed by all the American stereotypes that are true: our suburban wastelands and swollen waistlines; our hubris; our crowded prisons and capitol punishment; our red states and religious right; our corn subsidies and humvees and subprime mortgages on overlarge houses. I don’t listen to Springsteen; I prefer Neil Young to Lynyrd Skynyrd; I think we have a lot to learn from other places. But I feel a kinship with the pioneers and cowboys and immigrants who built this place. So I bought a map.

Prints of the map available for $30 from Fathom, and they donate half of the proceeds to Kiva.

http://fathom.info/allstreets/
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