There are few experiences more humbling than speaking at a naturalization service for 1,586 new Americans from 110 countries.
Naturalized citizens have to work at being Americans: that is, get visas and green cards, live here legally for up to five years, pass a test on American government, and submit to an interview in English if they're under 55 of age and show they can write some English.
"We want to make sure they've undergone the transformation from being a citizen of another country to being an American," explained the Immigration and Customs Enforcement official who pressed me into speaking at a Jan. 20 naturalization ceremony at Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco.
All that I had to do to become an American was to be born. I can't match the two-boat Irish Saunders, who crossed the seas, first to Canada and later to Massachusetts, to forge a life in a distant land, or (on my mother's side) the seafaring Pattons, who settled in New England.
As I struggled over what to say to my new countrymen and women, my brother Jim told me, "I don't think there's anything more American than becoming a citizen."
But all I could think of was "Starship Troopers" -- the kitschy, 1997 sci-fi flick about a planet of giant bugs attempting to colonize Earth. In the movie, based on the book by Robert Heinlein, citizenship must be earned through military service. While I wouldn't want my country to adopt that rule, I see that often citizenship given is undervalued, while citizenship earned is held in esteem.
Hence, the revoltingly low, and still declining, voter turnout. In 1960, 63.06 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot in the presidential election. In 2000, 51.3 percent of that population voted. Pitiful.
As it happened -- was it a coincidence or a ripple in the time-space continuum? -- Ed Neumeier, who wrote the screenplay for "Starship Troopers," and Phil Tippett, who was the movie's master of special effects, were in the audience at the naturalization ceremony. They had come to watch Phil's wife, Jules Roman Tippett, become a U.S. citizen. They, too, had been thinking about citizenship a la "Starship Troopers."
Neumeier noted that while he hadn't agreed with all of Heinlein's ideas, he appreciated how natural citizenship is often undervalued. Neumeier, who grew up in San Anselmo "before George Lucas," said he knows Marin parents who, like the civilian parents of "Troopers'' character Johnny Rico, tried to stop their son from enlisting, as they saw military service as "a little blue-collar, a little-declasse."
They "probably felt that since they made their money, they didn't need to put themselves at risk," said Neumeier.
And, he added, "Are we acting spoiled? And do we not participate because we don't think we have to? Do we think we're too good for that?"
For her part, Jules Roman Tippett has lived here for 25 years, given birth to two American children and built up a Berkeley company that employs 230 workers. While her Polish-born father was proud to become a British citizen, Jules says she procrastinated on becoming a citizen of her new home. Now, she says, a huge weight has been lifted from her.
Jules already has registered to vote, and unlike many Americans, she's excited about it. "Otherwise, you end up with a government that doesn't represent you," she said.
Colin McDonald of Kenwood told a similar story. He was on the 88th floor of the World Trade Center during the first terrorist bombing in 1993 that killed six people. On Sept. 11, 2001, he told me, "We realized how fortunate we had been in '93 and that unless pro-active measures were taken, these events were bound to be repeated but on a more horrific scale."
That realization eventually led McDonald to the Masonic Auditorium Jan. 20 to take his citizenship oath. He, too, had lived in the States since the '70s, married an American and fathered two American kids, one of whom serves in the Navy at Guantanamo Bay.
Neighbors, he said, were "frantic, almost rude" at the notion his son would serve in the military.
But, McDonald noted, military service "is everyone's responsibility, as far as we're concerned."