The 9/11 Memorial on a typical day in early summer, 2014, nearly 13 years since the tragedy. Visitors from nations around the world gather and snap selfies with smiling faces. Little kids spill ice cream cones to the pavers. Long lines wrap around the museum, a full-scale pat-down for anyone willing to go underground at this sacred site. Many people, only a few of them U.S. citizens, visit the space; like Americans visiting Auschwitz, to gape at the atrocity and to take a stilted, half-smiling/half-smirking family portrait. The twin holes of falling water, roaring like an outdoor public toilet fountain, combines with the utter cacophony of crybaby children and hoarse parents, making it difficult to find silence, nor solace, at this “memorial.” On this day, find a time for silence and reflection. And, proper memorials unforthcoming, say a prayer for the living.

What is American Studies?

I am sitting here at my desk in Laramie staring at the words American and Studies. Parsing them. Easing them into my vocabulary like little squids in a pond full of sturgeon. They’re slippery words. I want to smash them.

What does American really mean? Is it North America, Central, South? Are they just things which evoke the Americas? Hot dog, turkey, fish taco? Statue of Liberty, Superdome, Stanley Park?

At what point does one say, “We are all Americans, now”?

What does it mean, Studies? I can see a roughneck swing dancing down at the local bar, and what needs studying? Like a circus clown trying to balance a stack of boxes on his head while unicycling in a half-pipe, the studier veers this way and that, circling from sociology to literature to classics to religion to art to architecture to journalism and always doubling back to history history and more history.

So what does it mean to be an American Studier, if one is not American? What does it mean to study France, when one is certainly not French? What gives me the right to even pose such questions?

When I think of American Studies, I see a ringmaster pulling ropes from all corners of the big top, some of which are electrified, and so the ringmaster must submit to the risk of being shocked.

I see the truth revealed in American Studies. It is everything that is not taught in school. It is everything that is not talked about in public. It is everything that haunts a man in a lonely fishing shack on a frozen Minnesotan lake. It is everything that you are wondering right now, as you read this blog, about your social position in a digital world. It is everything about everything, too big to contain in words, and yet it must, because it is American Studies.

A pattern emerged over the years. I found out my passion based on what I clicked on. What I liked. What I wrote about. What books I picked up. What articles I read on NYT.com from 5,000 miles away…not current news & events, but longform stories of America in its smallness, in its intimacy, in its underwear. America this. America that.

Why did I choose American Studies?

Who says it did not choose me?

So it’s not a professional degree. I don’t get to drive a Beemer or look busy in a suit. I won’t be making the Big Money. It is not even a means to an end, because like most things in my life, there is no end. Saint Catherine of Siena once said, “All the way to Heaven is Heaven,” and I’m sure she must’ve been a student of American Studies.

But big things will come of this, I’m sure of it.

The stepping stone of a Masters degree is much like stepping on the back of a sea turtle: You may be in up to your neck but at least you’re going somewhere. That is, if the turtle likes you, and you trust the turtle.

So, American Studies is like riding a turtle.

Right?

Detroit Lakes, MN (2014)

cig smoke wafting through the slathered
sun lotion air, knotty trees giving
shade to flabby Scandinavian skin,
boats of all stripes coming and going
from the gently sanded shore, the
crack-pop of a Pabst in the hand of
a tramp-stamped blonde, the idle toil
of oil-soaked hands on Sea-Doo engines
from pot-bellied, slightly balding men,
the breeze stilling the boiling temps
wafting from Fargo, little kids
growing little sunburns
in little lifejackets