Patriotism has reached a fever pitch in this country. The flag design is suddenly chic and can be seen in all the holiday gift guides and sewn into the clothes worn by our Hollywood stars. American flags are everywhere. And the car industry, bless its little heart, is doing its part to get America rolling again by offering 0 percent financing. Gas prices are dropping, and America, like the petroleum junkie it is, mainlines the cheap stuff. But remember, it takes bigger and bigger doses for us to reach the same high, and when prices hit $2 a gallon we’ll be forced to pay it to keep our Chevy Suburbans (the vehicle of choice for members of the retreating Taliban) moving.

I know some folks who read this column see its author as a sniveling, snide little bastard who bathes weekly in oily puddles of sarcasm because that’s easier than writing seriously about difficult matters. But I want it known that I, too, can feel those pangs of patriotism. Allow me to share the moment when I truly felt a surge of love for this country tingle through these otherwise cynical bones. It occurred when my 7-year-old son and I were on vacation in Arizona last month and we decided to visit Hoover Dam. About 30 miles out, we started noticing signs that said no commercial vehicles or vehicles with loads wider than 10 feet would be allowed to travel to the dam. At first I figured there was some kind of highway construction going on. Then, about five miles before the dam, it finally dawned on me: The dam could be a terrorist’s target, and we were about to be subjected to some good, old-fashioned American security. The next sign told us to prepare to stop, and we were detoured off the highway onto a gravel parking lot where two state troopers and two National Guardsmen waited, heavily armed. I joked to my son as we slowed down, “If they ask to search the car, I’m going to say ‘No, no, no, no, no, no!'” He didn’t think that was so funny. I rolled down my window as we pulled up to the troopers. The one who addressed us must have been 6 feet 6 inches tall. He was blond, wore sunglasses and maintained a very serious look on his suntanned face.

“Hello,” he said in a gruff voice. He leaned down and looked past me to my son sitting in the passenger seat. Then he pointed and asked in a no-nonsense baritone, “Is that man behaving?” “Yes sir,” I answered, sounding like a recruit who’d just arrived in boot camp. “Very good,” the trooper said. “You gentlemen carry on then.” And with that, he waved us by with a sharp salute. The National Guard soldiers also saluted as we drove past them. At that moment I realized what a great country this can be. I want to thank those four men for what they were doing and how they handled themselves in these tense times. They could have grabbed old Dad there, yanked him out of the vehicle via the driver’s side window, thrown him on the ground and given him an aggressive strip search. But they didn’t. They were regular guys doing their jobs. And at that moment I was really proud of my country and the people who help make it work.

On Nov. 9 the Senator Theater provided the stage for a classic case of the reverend—or in this case reverends—preaching to the choir when Medea Benjamin, last year’s California Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, Chico State Professor George Wright and Vietnam Vet Gene Curry took the stage and tried to verbally unravel the strange political conundrum this country now finds itself in. About 150 people attended, which is not bad at $10 a head, to hear Wright give his historical analysis of the failed U.S. foreign policy that has brought us to this point in time. No one in attendance—and I would guess most were from the more progressive end of the local political spectrum—shouted him down. Benjamin was a bit more upbeat and urged us to ask questions about government policies and, if we don’t like the answers we get, protest. If this country is going to wage war, she said, why not go after poverty, AIDS and hunger? This was a good community use of the Senator Theater, and local impresario DNA is to be commended for trying to make a go of it.