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When the Chips are Down

There’s a line in the 2005 movie Sin City that sticks with me. “A smoker’s a smoker when the chips are down.”

I used to be a smoker, but years ago I chose life and dropped the vile habit. I now find my thrills by way of Starbucks espresso and sugar-free Jell-O Pudding , like a Boca Raton retiree.

But I often think that if I looked up into the sky or flipped on CNN to see a burning mountain of an asteroid heading toward Earth, I’d run out the nearest corner store and crack open a pack of Camels. When the chips are down, there it is- I’m a smoker.
When the chips are down, I’m also an American.

It’s a heady statement, maybe even ham-fisted. Means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In my case it’s true in several ways, the most obvious being the longitude and latitude of my birth. But it’s more than that, and even a brief visit to one of the dozens of mesmerizing cities that dot the North American continent shows this. Being American is a global idea, or more accurately, a set of ideas. It’s not really tied to nationality. It’s a belief. It’s a dream. It’s a faith. Every skateboarding kid and suited stockbroker are engaged in it on some level, each shining a distinct facet of it, bringing the marvelous gem to life.

14 years ago the chips came down, and they came down hard. It was presented to me then in that stark, inescapable way that solely belongs to the truth– even through the hypocrisy and idiocy that pulses long and hard in this society, I am forever and irrevocably an American.
The globalization generation grew up to see past boundaries. Technology broke down walls and united us in new ways. Intellectuals like to think of themselves as citizens of the world. Being human trumps all.

That’s true, and noble, and even rather kind on some level. There are times in life when your ideas of yourself and the world, your constructs you cling to as a model for how things ought to be, they plow headlong into the immutable forces of reality. Illusions shatter, pleasantries fall away. The core that’s left- that’s you, warts and all.

I’ve seen a good chunk of the world, and for every enriching visit to a foreign capital, every remarkable new vantage brought into view by a conversation with a stranger on some ancient boulevard, I am always filled with an indescribable energy upon returning here. This is home in every sense. The Old World is beautiful and wonderful but I am always acutely reminded as to why so many left it. For the many splendid evils that confront us here in America, there are hundreds more waiting in the rest of the world, except hundreds of years older with stronger tendrils gripped around souls.

This is the place of this time, for better or worse. The modern Atlantis. The anvil where the world comes to forge its hopes and dreams. Like any workshop, it’s messy and often dangerous. But what it produces simply can’t be found anywhere else. It’s not cool or hip or intellectually detached to say so, but the simple fact is I feel nothing but gratitude to be able to call the United States home.

So yes, never forget. How could I? When the chips are down, the reality of where you stand is inescapable.

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