The Pull of the American Planet: Why I Heart the US

A couple of weeks back I watched Jeremy Paxman interview the writer (and famous Atheist) Christopher Hitchens, whom as you may know has cancer. Talking about his feeling that he was “born in the wrong country” Hitchens told Paxman that the question of why he so loved the United States was rather like the question of why he became a writer: it was unanswerable. But he said that from his mid-teens, “I felt the gravitational pull of the American planet,” even though he didn’t know why, as neither he nor any member of his family had even visited there.

I had the same experience, except for me it started a bit sooner, maybe at around nine or ten. I was wearing out a VHS copy of Space Camp and desperately wanted to attend the real thing (and get accidentally launched into space aboard a runaway Space Shuttle, just like little Max – a frightening young Joaquin Phoenix – and his Space Camp friends). Age 11-12: I was reading The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High, and desperately wanted to move to Connecticut and/or California, attend middle school and then high school, and start my own babysitting club and/or be the editor of my school newspaper. Even Point Horrors and Christopher Pike made me long for American soil, despite the fact that it seemed to be rife with murderers, ghosts and boyfriends who turned out to be dead. (This was in the pre-Robert Pattinson days, when vampires were slimy cold creatures who couldn’t help but violently suck your blood.) And during my Dawson’s Creek years, I wanted to be the one who got an Early Decision from an Ivy League because my SAT scores were astronomical and I was SUCH a fantastic cheerleader.

(Well, maybe just the SAT thing.)

Then there were the West Wing years when I wanted to work in the White House – but only for President Bartlett…

Can you play the States Game? Name all 50 states as fast as you can. It isn’t anywhere near as easy as you might think.

Being in America for longer than a holiday is like living on the leading edge of the world. This is especially true of pop culture – my favorite kind. Hollywood and national networks like NBC, ABC and CBS make a lot of TV and most of what we get of it takes time to trickle down into our Sky Digital cables. Movies come out sooner and maybe I’m biased, but nine times out of ten I prefer American book covers. But do you’ve any idea how much you miss out on as a TV, movie or book fan, just because you don’t live in the States? Big Author signings, talks and other events, “enhanced” episodes of LOST and movies that not only will never be released in IRL/UK cinemas, but will never even end up in HMV on DVD. And their magazine collection boggles the mind.

Another thing I love about it is its love of convenience. I’m not talking about drive-thru Starbucks, although I don’t need to tell you how much I love them too. I’m talking about how companies, products and retail outlets compete for your business because they know you have plenty of other options, and you won’t think twice about going to them instead. (As opposed to, say, some waiting staff I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with here in Cork, who throw menus at you, wait half an hour before they check if you’d want anything and then act like you asking them to bring you a coffee is the greatest imposition they’ve ever experienced.) This means better opening hours, loyalty cards, discounts for no reasons, coupons – and I’ll take the lot!

A convenience comparison that really stands out for me happened right after I returned to Ireland, when I needed to print a 450-page Word document. (I didn’t have a printer at the time.) The only option in Cork City seemed to be a place that did printing, photocopying and binding, and it would take them a minimum of three days to print out the document and they’d charge me a small fortune for the pleasure. In Orlando, there were two or three FedEx Kinkos within a twenty minute drive of my apartment – but I didn’t even have to go there if I didn’t want to. I could upload the document I needed to the Kinkos website, pay for it by debit card and have it arrive in my mailbox the next day. When I had to print out some Mousetrapped bits I met Kinkos in the middle, uploading them to the website and then driving over to collect them thirty minutes later.

And yes, these are the things that are important to me. (Maybe if I were truly an American and had to live with their laws, their lobbyists and their Glenn Becks, and I could potentially have to choose between my health and my house, I might feel differently. But I’m not and I don’t. And whatever you might saw about the current state of US politics, you cannot claim that the current Irish crop are any better. We’re bankrupt, remember?)

But what I love most about the United States is a serious thing: it’s a country of incredible possibility. This is the land of the American Dream where hard work is rewarded, all men are equal (and where they’re not, they’re working on it) and the journey from nothing to everything is not only possible but likely. It’s the nation that built the Hoover Dam, carved Mount Rushmore and landed a man on the moon. Its cities are magical movie sets, and its home to Hollywood. Its expanse not only makes for great road trips, but means that in just one country you get tropical beaches, great plains, snow-capped mountains, desert sands, Pacific cliffs and dense rolls of sprawling cities. Most of the fanciful things I (briefly) dreamed of doing when I was younger I could only have done if I was an American citizen (and even then…) because, let’s face it, they just get to do cooler stuff. They accept that failure is a place you have to hit on the way to success – this is why the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley did so well, and continued to try even after the dot com bubble burst. It’s an intoxicating environment in which to pursue your wild and fanciful dreams.

I’ve always felt the gravitational pull of the American planet, and I still do.

So please, America, can’t I just have a Green Card? Pretty please? I promise I’ll be good…

Bono tells a story which beautifully sums up the difference between the country I want to live in, and the in which I do. (Warning: serious paraphrasing.) When an American looks up at the mansion on the hill, he thinks, “Some day, if I work hard enough, I can be just as successful as that guy is.” The Irishman looks up at the same house and says to himself, “Some day…I’m gonna get that bastard.”

10 thoughts on “The Pull of the American Planet: Why I Heart the US

  1. kymie walker says:

    Like you I cant explain why I felt the pull, as a 7 or 8yr old girl in the mid 80’s, only child, no relatives or friends in America, I used to watch every American sitcom I could, persuaded my parents to let me stay up late and watch Hill St Blues and St Elsewhere, and somehow fell in love with American Football!! I had a fascination with Chicago (still do!) and I am very good at passing on the love to my children!! I live in hope *sigh* maybe one day I will get there for more than a 2 week vacation!!!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Chicago is definitely on my To Visit list, although for me that has a lot to do with ER and the Oprah Store which basically sells stuff you can get anywhere (and probably don’t need) but since they’ll be adorned with Oprah logos they morph into “must have” items for me! 😉

      I hope to live there one day too. Maybe not permanently – a vacation condo in Celebration would be do me just fine!

    • Keris says:

      Kymie, that sounds just like me! I used to pack a little bag and pretend I was in America for the weekend, only watching US TV. And I made my parents take me to an American football exhibition game when they were trying to interest us in Gridiron…

      Great post, Catherine.

  2. Andrea "The American Roommate" says:

    I would like to nominate Catherine Ryan Howard for a green card! Ahem, are you listening State Department?

    Too bad it’s not that easy :-/

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thank you. Now if you could just contact your congressman….

      I entered the US lottery AGAIN this year but as you might have seen because I posted it on Eva’s page, they had a record entry this year – 15 million applicants. And only 100,000 will be called for interviews and medical screening, and only 50,000 of them will be offered green cards. So I’m not holding my breath. Plan A is to become a world famous bestselling author who can afford to hire an immigration lawyer to get her an entertainment visa with no expiry. SIMPLES! 🙂

  3. Belinda Kroll says:

    It’s always fascinating to hear what people think about the USA from the outside. My father isn’t from the states, so I hear a lot about pros vs cons. You seem to be all pro, but you’re referencing convenience and pop culture.

    Like any place you live, it’s the daily grind that makes it not so great.

    But I enjoy living here, personally, and think it’s awesome that you read the same books I did growing up!

    P.S. The American book covers are almost always better than the UK ones. What is it with you guys and your cartoon historical romance covers? At the very least, get a photo of some nice fabric and slap the title on it, sheesh! 😛

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Yeah if we were doing an all out comparison, there is a lot I prefer about Europe. Ideally I’d be in one place half the year, the other place the other half! (A girl can dream…)

      American book covers: people are freaking out about them at the moment, because a couple of high profile hardbacks (Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, for instance) had US versions that would make your eyes bleed, but they are absolutely the exception. They are way too many cartoonish pastel jobs on this side of the pond, and all in all I just prefer your books – I love the little hardbacks you have (we only get large, regular hardbacks, if you know what I mean). Oh well… When I REALLY prefer the US cover, I just order from Amazon.com instead of Amazon.co.uk anyway!

  4. JEL says:

    Interesting read especially given that I’m an American but spent several years growing up in Ireland and just *wish* my parents had had the foresight to let me be born there so I could apply for dual citizenship. 🙂

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