Ty Beltramo

Ty lives in Oxford, the gravel capital of the world, with his wonderful wife and three children. He reads and writes science fiction, humor, and mysteries, along with the occasional essay. When writing, he tries to emulate the simplicity of Isaac Asimov, the honesty of Hunter Thompson, and the humor of Douglas Adams. When working, he writes software. When playing, Ty enjoys cooking all forms of good food, gaming with the kids, and long distance running.

Montmartre to The Moulin Rouge: Can an Art Scene be Fabricated?

“Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word ‘soul,’ and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion, but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit.”[1] For what is man, if not a soul? With it we consider our world and ourselves, we assess life according to dimensions beyond food and safety. It is the soul that desires more than these. It is the soul that knows the difference between life and the abundant life, between that which is merely material and that which transcends the world to embrace the spiritual. And when the soul turns its eye to the abundant life, it sees beauty. This is the realm of Art. Or, perhaps, it’s the value of Art. For what is the value of Art if not to affect souls?

For some time, however, there has been confusion on this point, and this confusion has been costly in two ways. First, as Thomas Frank of The Baffler explains in his must-read article, “Dead End on Shakin’ Street”, urban leaders and arts foundations waste millions trying to stimulate economies by fabricating neighborhoods into “vibrant art scenes.” Their notion, that importing artists makes a place cool, and that such coolness will somehow create prosperity, is a vacuous will-o’-the-wisp. They have no idea how an art immigration might stabilize an economy or cause growth.

Second, this misunderstanding of the place and purpose of art in life and community distracts us from the profound value an artist does bring to those near him. This value is not prosperity. In the Venn diagram of society, economic growth and abundant life only marginally intersect, as economics is concerned with what people have, while art is concerned with what people are. A prosperous place provides food, safety, and comfort. Art nurtures the soul. Living in an artful place is a spiritual experience because artists of all kinds contribute to the soul of that place. I want a healthy, productive artist population in my village not because it will become cool and mystically prosper, but because I want my town to nurture my soul, helping me to see differently and question differently, helping me to appreciate a color I’d never known or find a musical chord unplayed on the radio. Marcus Aurelius said, “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” The place in which we live is the context of our thoughts. For our soul to thrive there, it needs the rich nutrients of art’s insight and beauty, art’s mirror into our own soul and window into the soul of our neighbor.

For this, we need some artists, living if we can find them, but dead ones are good too.

* * * *

Five or six years ago, my friend Mike and I were in Paris, enjoying a weekend away from our work in Belgium. He had been to Paris several times and was my guide. We toured the Louvre, sat in on a funeral at the Notre Dame, and climbed the Eiffel Tower.[2] The next morning Mike took me up a 400-foot-high hill to visit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, a towering cathedral overlooking Paris from the city’s highest point. As we walked, he described the Basilica and mentioned, casually, that there was also a “small artist colony” nearby. My interest in the cathedral was mostly archaeological. We traveled often together and if there was a castle or cathedral where we were going, we made every effort to see it. But I had never been to an “artist colony” and was excited, for anthropological reasons, to see what a colony of artists looked like.

Later I learned that this “small colony” was the most prolific art scene in the Western World: Paris’s Montmartre. Artists such as Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Langston Hughes, and many others worked there at some point in their lives. Some were very poor, barely able to get by. I don’t know whether Montmartre prospered as a community during their time, but it certainly thrived.

I wasn’t expecting what we found there. As I stood outside the Basilica, the whole neighborhood had a calm economy of beauty: diverse but simple, vigorous while at peace with itself. Art was everywhere, near and far. Paintings and people trickled into the cobblestone streets. Beauty breezed in from every side. To my right rose the old cathedral, white in the morning sun. Below, to the left, the city of Paris—also white, oddly enough—stretched to the horizon, the black Eiffel Tower rose to one side. The place was quiet, but hopping. Shops opened, people swept sidewalks, tables and chairs were arranged on sidewalks and in the square. Maybe it was the jet lag, but I remember how easy it was to breathe there. All was calm, but not sleepy. At a table on the sidewalk in front of a pastry shop sat two people, I don’t remember if they were old or young, sipping morning coffee, smiling at each other. I was struck. The soul of man—ancient, industrial, and modern—came together in that spot as a blanket for that couple.

We only spent a few hours there, drinking coffee in the early morning, exploring the paintings and stained glass treasures of the Basilica and wandering the streets until lunchtime, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place more “human.” It wasn’t merely the art that gave the place its soul. It was the centuries of people living off the beauty, creating it and being molded by it. By the time I got there, the neighborhood and its art had become one.

Later that day Mike and I wound our way down to the lower city’s 9th arrondissement, at the foot of Montmartre. The tone of the streets changed. The buildings became tall, their faces flat. Plywood paneled the outside of a nightclub. The sidewalks had a greasy sheen to them. Few people were about; it was still daylight.

From a gash in the storefronts rose a red windmill: the Moulin Rouge. I had seen the movie—I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write—but hadn’t known the place was real. It didn’t look anything like the grand circus in the film. It looked like a strip-club. The door was hidden by the shadow of a deep entryway. Had it been open I might have entered, for purely anthropological reasons, of course.

I got the sense that the Moulin Rouge was prosperous. It was quite a spectacle. Red neon scrawling wandered all over its front. And I have no doubt that once the sun set the dark streets would be vibrant indeed with certain performing arts.

The walk from the peak of Montmartre down to the Moulin Rouge is about one kilometer. Both are prosperous, but only one has soul.

 


[1] Marilynne Robinson, When I Was A Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012),  8.

[2] We did this in one day, though I was very sick. Apparently the pharmacists in France are alchemists. Using mostly charades and sign language I was able to acquire a pint of something that fixed me right up.

photo by:

Not Like Me

When I became a father, 19 years ago, I remember helping my wife into the car at the hospital. Next came my son in his carseat. It was heavy– heavier than the seven or so pounds of baby boy. It seemed awkward, picking up a life by a handle.

I slid behind the wheel of that car and my world changed. I can’t recall how many cars I crashed, but by the time I was 17 I had earned the badge “Car Killer.” I rolled my dad’s red Mercury Capri while I was on my learner’s permit. When I was sixteen I hydroplaned through a stoplight and crashed a brand new Ford Escort. My best friend claims his knees ached for years from being driven into the folding dashboard.

Suddenly I had a family to care for and a son to raise. I was almost afraid to drive.

* * *

Yesterday, I sent my two youngest children off to camp for a week, leaving only me, my wife, and my oldest son in the house. It’s odd being just the three of us again. It reminds me of how scary if was then: making it alone, young and poor in far-away Dallas, not knowing how we were going to pay the bills each month, not knowing how I was going to get papers written for school. Not knowing how to raise a child.

We’ve come a long way since then. My oldest is a man.

Walking home after dinner, he asked me why I would be happier for my children to be teachers and writers than to follow in my footsteps and become software developers. I didn’t remember mentioning that to him, but I do think about it.

My ancestors were geeks. My paternal grandfather was a TV repairman when that was advanced technology. My maternal grandfather was an engineer at a broadcast radio station. My father retired from Ford after 32 years of developing software. I design and develop software, but that wasn’t my plan.

When I was young, perhaps nine or ten years old, we had a Dodge conversion van parked perennially in the back yard. It had two fold-out bunks and a dining table. I added a dissection kit full of scalpels and probes, a microscope, and a chemistry set to make it my laboratory. The musty smell of old camper was quickly covered by the scientific odors of rubbing alcohol and sulfur. The pantry shelves filled with specimen bottles containing frogs and crawfish. One sunny day, after several hours of mostly-scientific experiments and microscopic detection, I stepped out of that van and thought, how utterly boring my dad’s job must be—how I couldn’t do what he did. I don’t remember much else, but that conviction, that my life would be different, is still as vivid as the smell of that sulphur.

Then, four or five years later, my dad and I constructed what was essentially a progenitor of the personal computer using the chassis of an old x-ray machine (don’t ask me where he found that) and a million tiny parts from Radio Shack. We wired and soldered and drilled until all the guts were in place and properly connected. Technology was already in my blood. The first time the electricity flowed into our creation, bringing the amber monitor to life, I was hooked.

But I remained resolute. There would be no cubicles or desks in my future. I was determined to teach theology, or perhaps ancient languages. I had learned what John Adams said to Abigail about how his work was to enable his children to do greater things:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine. (John Adams to Abigail Adams, [post 12 May 1780])

Adams envisioned a ladder in the quality of life that could only be climbed between generations. Adams accepted the responsibility of working and sacrificing to ensure his descendants would have the opportunity to invest in ever nobler pursuits. I needed to move beyond technology.

Years later, when my first child was born and my career in computer science was taking off, these words came back to me. Making a better life—this is part of the American Dream and had been since the Founding Fathers. When my son asked me why I would be happier for him to be a teacher or writer than a computer geek like me, I told him that he wouldn’t make as much money, but he would do more. I laid a foundation that he could build on. To rebuild the same foundation might be profitable, but it was not better. Teachers and writers help everyone climb that ladder John Adams kept in the back of his mind as he sacrificed so much for future generations. Teachers and writers shape the next generation and nudge it along Adams’ ladder to a better life: not measured according to a standard of living, but according to the advancement in the quality of life and the impact that life has on society. A life built upon the work of those who came before, leaving it better than they found it.

* * *

Like my ancestors before me, I remain on that rung of Adams’ ladder occupied by geeks. But I’m content. I know I’m a transitional link in the Beltramo family line. My oldest is in college, studying to be a teacher of History. My daughter, only 12, loves art. My middle child, 13 years old, is already a good writer, full of character and stories. My kids are moving up the ladder.

And they don’t want to know a thing about software.

A Fantastico Heritage

Some people are cultured. So are bacteria. From this comes cheese, hundreds of varieties of cheese, some bitter and bold, others putrid and slimy. The nobility of any particular cheese is mostly a matter of personal taste, though serving a slice of American at a wine tasting would be unthinkable. American cheese doesn’t belong in high society. On the other hand, if you were to find yourself before a little silver trailer on 30th Street in Philadelphia and told the cheesesteak guy “hold the Cheez Whiz, pass the Camembert,” you’d be lucky to survive the encounter. There’s no room for fancy cheese on the streets of Philly.

When people are cultured, the results can be as varied as the catalogue of cheeses. So too are the means by which people become cultured.

I was cultured by El Fantastico.

My cousin and six years my senior, El Fantastico died of heart failure at the age of 36. He weighed well over 300 pounds, ate junk food non-stop, smoked pot every day he could, drank liberally, and was as lazy as a hippopotamus on the Nile. He never graduated from high school, never had a high-paying job, and never married.

That was sixteen years ago. I’ve outlived El Fantastico by ten years, have multiple degrees, a well-paying job, a wife of 25 years, and a great family. Still, a day doesn’t go by that something of El Fantastico doesn’t touch my life, or the lives of my three children.

El Fantastico loved everything truly “cultured” in life. When I was ten, he introduced me to music. We’d sit for hours listening to the smooth grooves of Sam & Dave, the psychedelic spasms of Arthur Brown, and the sorrows of the Moody Blues. His record collection was as immense as he was. He listened to everything from Ray Charles to Queen to Aerosmith, all vinyl, hundreds and hundreds of records to be re-catalogued and revisited.

And there were the classics: the seminal zombie films Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, the groundbreaking science fiction of Forbidden Planet and Star Trek, the comedy greats George Carlin and, of course, Monty Python. We’d stay up late to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus on public TV. Once a year, they’d show Monty Python and The Holy Grail on Memorial Day weekend. What would I be today without the Holy Grail?

El Fantastico was also a collector of rare things. His vast comic book collection educated me in everything Marvel. Back then I could tell you the names, alter egos, and origin stories of superheroes most people never heard of. We all know of the Silver Surfer, the Fantastic Four, and Thor. But do you remember Luke Cage Power Man? Or how about the Iron Fist? Galactus and the Watcher? The Brute and Howard the Duck? There were so many. He collected only the best: comics of Marvel and EC, and sometimes Atlas. Never anything so pedestrian as DC. I think it was the art that drew him to comics. He loved the brilliant colors and fantastic poses and immense emotion in those old comic book frames. (Yes, I learned art from El Fantastico. Have you ever seen a Frazetta? No? Check him out. El Fantastico had several, right between his posters of Boris Karloff and Farrah Fawcett.)

When I was eleven or twelve El Fantastico taught me to play chess and Risk. He was a master at anything that involved strategy, especially board games. I don’t think I ever beat him in a serious game. He loved to win, and if he was losing, he loved to cheat. Sometimes I wonder if he enjoyed cheating more than winning. To him that was the best kind of joke. The only time he was serious was when he was lying, and when he grinned without looking at you he was cheating. Honesty wasn’t something I learned from El Fantastico.

Later, we rebuilt the core of his turquoise 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 from the ground up. Since El Fantastico was skillfully lazy, I had the honor of doing most of the work, and learned about motors and transmissions and axles and bearings. When it was running, we’d cruise Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak and have the kind of exalted fun you can only have rumbling down a late-night road in a classic muscle car.

By the time I was fourteen, we were going out more than staying in. That was before cable TV or cheap video tapes. If you wanted to see a movie, and it wasn’t on broadcast TV, you went to the theater. There were Three Stooges Festivals at the Main and sci-fi double-features at the drive-in. Downtown, the Prudential ran The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Friday and Saturday at midnight for years. By sixteen, I’d seen it 29 times. You want culture? Visit a long-running late show of Rocky Horror.

Finally, before we grew apart and I went my own way, El Fantastico became the live-in caregiver for six mentally handicapped adults. He had the entire basement as his apartment, which he filled with all that was El Fantastico: comics, music, art, movies, games, and friends. The large man tenderly cared for his charges, ensuring they were always safe and had everything they needed. More than that he treated them like brothers and sisters, drawing them into the world of El Fantastico, enriching their lives just as he had mine.

I can’t think of much that El Fantastico left that prepared me for success. But, man, he lived. We lived. I wouldn’t trade the years in that cerebrally hedonistic wilderness for anything.

 

The Mass Effect of Gonzo Gaming

Great storytelling isn’t dead. It thrives in a new medium, a cross between story and game enabled by the fusion of technology, well-crafted stories, and game design. A story is no longer merely a story; it’s an experience. It’s an immersion. And that means it can affect people in a way that might surprise you.

I work from home and often have to weave my way through a pack of kids playing Xbox in my living room. Recently, I noticed something strange. Several kids watched while only one played. They were transfixed. I stopped to see what was so fascinating. The on-screen dialogue was crisp and intriguing, so I sat and watched. I asked about the characters. How had they become who they were? What happens to them? Who were the bad guys, really? The kids revealed a backstory with all the elements of a good novel:

A galactic circle of life set spinning by an un-living race of machines threatens the galaxy’s civilizations. Every fifty millennia these machines return to blast every advanced civilization back to the Stone Age. Why? What do these machines have against advancement? Why a cycle? Why not just end it once and for all? Earlier civilizations tried to resist. Now it’s happening again. How is the current cast different? How will they break the cycle and defeat the mysterious and frightening enemy?

There is big action, betrayal, sacrifice, loss, and redemption. There is even a main character named the Illusive Man. How do you get a name like that?

Writers put all this into the story and game developers built the story into a game. Players are thrust into hard decisions and heroic acts, often finding themselves in classic Kobayashi Maru no-win scenarios, choosing which of their comrades to save and which to leave to die. And, of course, what they choose has plenty of unintended consequences.

That’s Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 3 came out a few weeks ago. I won’t play, but I have to find out how it all ends. Why? The story.

"Mass Effect is Gonzo Gaming."

My kids and I aren’t the only ones hooked. Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 combined sold seven million copies. At the end of February, Bioware, the company that makes the Mass Effect games, sent weather balloons into space carrying copies of Mass Effect 3. They launched them from San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, London, and Berlin. People on two continents raced to recover the payloads of the spent balloons to get their copy of the game two weeks early. The popularity of Mass Effect has continued to grow over the years, approaching the status of a cult classic. Why? It’s not the game mechanics, which are common. And it’s not the action, which can’t compete with the pure action games, such as Call of Duty. It’s the story that makes it great.

A generation of players are seeing story from a new angle. Simple characters that can be classified into cliche types fail to satisfy. Plots that don’t lead down a path of discovery and, ultimately, to a resolution that matters, bore. Low stakes are no stakes and that means no player investment. Gamers engage in the story at a level previously only seen with better novels.

So what’s different? Players are now immersed in the story in the same way Hunter Thompson immersed himself in his stories. He created a new kind of journalism where the journalist entered into the lives of the people and into the action of the events he covered. He called this Gonzo Journalism. His goal was to deeply and truthfully experience the emotions that drove people’s actions, to understand the history that led them to that time and to that place, and thereby to uncover and communicate meaning that only comes through the lives of people. To do this he had to become part of the story he was writing, and that meant affecting the story, making it.

Mass Effect is Gonzo Gaming. Players become characters, experiencing the story and making it their own creation. Admittedly, immersion can enhance any game experience, no matter how shallow and cheap the story. But combine immersion with a great story, and you create a connection with your player-character that sticks. It’s this Gonzo connection that is the real payoff. It forms a pipeline of experiences and insight by transporting the player-character into the world of the story. They live in it. They shape it. They care about it.

Isn’t this the very effect so coveted by the best storytellers– to draw their readers into their worlds, introduce them to its inhabitants, and make them care? To entice them to have relationships with people from other worlds, to understand them, and finally to learn from them? To find meaning by living in an alien skin?

Today the pieces are there for all this to happen in a new, technological medium. Today meaning can become an essential part of the game experience. Now, for the first time, the complex interactions of life that thrill, entertain, and educate, that cause us to question and wonder, that show us a shadow of greatness and nobility, that once existed only in good novels and great movies, can be found in the common, yea humble, video game.

Gordon Gekko On My Mind

A scene from the 1987 movie Wall Street has haunted me. I have only watched it once, when I was 21 and new in my own career.

Blue-collar aircraft machinist Bud Fox (Martin Sheen) lies in the hospital, gravely ill. His son, dark-suited Wall Street broker Carl (Charlie Sheen) stands at his bedside clutching his fat

hers hand. Both shake with tears as the prodigal son returns to honor his father’s integrity and wisdom.

That moment stuck with me, but I wasn’t moved so much by the father-son sentimental moment. Rather, it was the hint of a darker conflict that had been resolved between the men that marked me. The nature of that conflict wouldn’t occur to me until much later, when, one day, I realized I was running out of time.

My midlife crisis began at age 39, crested at 41, and was pretty much resolved by the time I hit 43. The estimated damages include four motorcycles, one FJ Cruiser, a decade of my wife’s life (thanks to the motorcycles, mostly), and one career change.

Overall, I think it worked out well.

But mortality has a way of bringing honest scales to any discussion. My life was half over, at least. What did it add up to? It occurred to me that while I was making lots of money and was important, I couldn’t say much about the real worth of my job.

Now I normally don’t seek philosophical answers by watching the Discovery Channel. But I was surprised to realize that Dirty Jobs, one of my family’s favorite shows, was speaking on this very issue.

Mike Rowe, the host, travels the country and stands shoulder to shoulder with people doing the dirtiest, nastiest jobs imaginable. It makes great reality TV, but Mike has a deeper purpose for the show: he wants America to see that there is worth and a certain nobility in dirty, hard work. This worth is not based on social standing or big paychecks, but on the fact that the work needs to be done and it’s dirty and it’s hard and people just do it. It is the labor of those people he

introduces each week that “makes it possible for the rest of us to live the way we do.”

The eighteenth century economist Adam Smith, on the other hand, probably never did a dirty job beyond scraping the horse manure from his English boots (actually, I’m sure he had someone do that for him), but in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the 

Wealth of Nations he explains how wealth and worth are created. For Smith, wealth is defined as the worth of goods and services produced by a population’s labor (what they make or improve by their work). The relative amount of wealth a country produces is most dependent on the level of “skill, dexterity, and judgment” the workers apply in their work. The smarter, more skilled workers generate more wealth. (See the Industrial Revolution.)

Now the key to understanding the importance of Smith’s message to me in my mid-life crisis is the distinction he makes between creating wealth and accumulating wealth. Accumulating wealth is simply the transfer of one person’s wealth to another (a redistribution, if you will). For wealth to be created, something has to be made or improved, and this requires labor (skilled or not). The labor of the farmer produces crops. The plumber makes the toilet work. The truck driver moves something from where it can’t be used to a place where it can. All this labor creates wealth by making something new or by making something better.

Any labor that fails to make or improve something creates no wealth. Stock traders who labor to buy low and sell high successfully transfer wealth, but they create none. Speculators in commodities (such as grain, oil, etc.) and real estate accumulate vast wealth, but they create none.

Now, looking back, I understand why Wall Street was on my mind. The relationship between Bud Fox, Carl Fox, and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is that dark conflict that had became mine.

In a pair of scenes the polar opposites Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko attempt to persua

de the young Carl Fox concerning the nature of wealth. In the first scene, Bud exhorts his son to “stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.”

Meanwhile, the evil Gordon Gekko whispers into Carl’s ear, “The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own.”

The work of Gordon Gekko may be morally acceptable in our society, but it lacks nobility and worth. His kind don’t create wealth, they just redistribute it.

But what about the executive, the guy like me during my crisis, who directs the creative efforts of others toward an objective? Do we create wealth? Are we Gekkos or Buds? Adam Smith would say that to the extent that we enable laborers to use greater “skill, dexterity, and judgment” in their work, we are creators of wealth. But I’m skeptical that this can be measured, at least not in the same way I can measure the worth of the work of a motorcycle mechanic, or that it amounts to much. I wasn’t satisfied with not knowing. I had to make sure.

That’s what I needed to turn the corner into the second half of my life: certainty that my work had worth, that I was a creator of wealth, not merely an accumulator of it. So I stopped telling people how to make software. I stopped being merely an approver of the creative efforts of others and retooled myself. I create every day and judge the worth of my work. And I approach my creative labor with the eye of a craftsman, content with an iPhone application well-built, solid, with a little art thrown in there where, perhaps, only another craftsman might notice.

 

Of My America

As a six-year-old you generally swallow whatever grown-ups are serving. Cynicism and skepticism have yet to develop to protect your child-brain, so you take in what you’re told, then reach for a toy.

I have fond memories of elementary school. In spite of the thin, high-collared women who towered disapprovingly over our desks, demanding conformity and encouraging uniformity, kindergarten through fifth grade were good years. We had frequent recesses, big playgrounds, and a comfortable routine. We said the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag in the classroom every morning. I was proud to be an American — mostly because I was told that my country was the best. That’s what kids dig: being the best. My earliest memory of being genuinely proud of my country is of sitting on the carpeted floor in the living room watching a black and white transmission from space as American men walked on the moon. Yep, the best.

Photo by flickr user aa7ae.

Now I’m 45 and I don’t give my allegiance so easily. Since the 1971 moon walk I’ve seen some things and learned some. I have another memory, on the same spot on that same carpeted floor watching that same TV. This time my mom was standing behind me, watching too. It was 1974 and a man named Nixon was quitting his job. I didn’t get it, but my mom seemed disturbed. Today, hardly a week goes by without some Congressman using the term patriot, traitor, or treason. Small, cheap words.

I can still say the Pledge of Allegiance. The words start a little staccato, but come back quickly. Warmth fills me when I say it; I like saying it. At first I resist, thinking that this warmth is deceptive, a sign of childhood indoctrination. But then my adult, rational brain reminds me of all that I’ve learned about my America since I was six. It stands for something. The stones that form the foundation of my America are still there, though they’re hard to see through the fog created by modern media and myopic leaders. History cannot be altered, only twisted.

Powerful words still echo from ancient Philadelphia — the words of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and their kin: Liberty, Equality, Justice, Self-determination, Self-government, Toleration, and Freedom of Religion. Even a cursory reading of the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights will show that these are the ideas laid to oppose tyranny and establish the basis of the American Way.

It was this stake driven into the sand that became a torch, a beacon that drew millions as wave after wave of immigrants crossed the oceans hoping to raise their children in this land of opportunity.

As a six-year-old I did crafts depicting the American Melting Pot, under the instruction that America was better for being made of many different peoples becoming one — E Pluribus Unum and all that. I remember colored paper cut-outs of the Statue of Liberty, and hearing the teacher recite some words carved on a bronze plaque in the Statue’s base:

“‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she

With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'”

Now, at 45, I understand that these immigrants, my genetic ancestors, have made this country strong and fascinating. It was they who fueled the engines of industrialization and westward expansion, without which the Civil War and World Wars might have ended differently. They lived lives of determination, ingenuity, perseverance, and bravery as they pushed the frontier all the way back to the Pacific and into the ocean. They built railroads, ships, and factories. They turned wild prairie land into farms that feed the world. They were explorers, conquerors, and settlers. But they began as homeless and tempest-tost.

Today we have razor-wire to keep out the wretched refuse.

It’s time for Thanksgiving. As a child I learned that our ancestors were Pilgrims, fleeing hate and intolerance literally to the end of the earth. Almost 400 years ago, in 1620, a few harried souls rode the Mayflower across the Atlantic to find a place where they would be free to worship. They struggled and nearly starved. But the native Americans welcomed them and helped them survive. Those natives are also our ancestors, though we weren’t taught to consider them so. The fruit of the land was abundant. There was hardship, but harmony. A spiritual gulf separated the Pilgrims from the natives, but there was tolerance. And they were thankful.

One hundred and fifty years later, tolerance of diverse beliefs was the very first thing the Founding Fathers put into the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ”

Today we profile the pilgrims.

Can we be patriots, having hidden the torch of liberty and covered the founding stones with baked bricks of national security, capitalism, and so many other -isms? Can a patriot be divorced from his heritage? Can we forget and still be us?

Kids still say the Pledge of Allegiance through fourth grade here. I don’t mind. I don’t mind because they will go on to learn of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin. Of Liberty, Equality, Justice, Self-determination, Self-government, Toleration, and Freedom of Religion. They will read in our Declaration of Independence that unalienable rights extend to all people, not just citizens. They will understand the value of immigration and how the immigrants are us. They will be proud of the rugged, fiercely independent spirits that forsook all to make their way here and build something new, something that still stands as a beacon of hope to huddled masses. They will see the stones. Then, my America will become their America, and they will pledge their allegiance.