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Thrity Umrigar Headshot

We Built It

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So I wrote a column on my admiration for Obama's message of hope and change.

Some people liked it; some people didn't. Some agreed with my sentiments. Others didn't. Some were respectful in their disagreements, others not so much. It was the genius of America at work.

But one reader's comments on my Facebook fan page caught my eye. He introduced himself as the relative of my landlady from a lifetime ago. He went on to say that he was a Republican but he'd enjoyed the column. And he congratulated me for having built a good life and career for myself in America. This is how he put it: "Congrats on all your success as it is obvious that you have 'built that.'"

It was a humorous dig at Obama's infamous "you didn't build that," comment which the GOP has had so much fun gleefully distorting. But my reader was obviously being tongue-in-cheek and in the same spirit of playfulness, I replied, "John, thank you for your kind words but I can't resist pointing out that I didn't 'build that' column alone. It was the education my parents gave me, the schools I went to, the folks who built the Internet etc... you get where I'm going with this. The same point that Obama was trying to make, yes?

To his credit, John wrote back: "Thrity, fair enough. We all are molded by our environment. Family, friends, teachers, co-workers, employees and mentors all play a strong part of helping 'build' our businesses & success."

So why am I rehashing this exchange? Well, for a couple of reasons. One, it felt so great to have a civil, rational, exchange of ideas with someone from the "opposing" side. It made me feel hopeful -- yes, there's that Obamaesque word again -- about the possibility of entering into dialogue with those worldviews are different from mine. Why has the Internet given us permission to act in crude, offensive ways that we'd never act in real life? Yes, yes, it's the anonymity, of course, but really, is this who we are when no one is watching? Is this who we want to be in our secret, private selves? How can we claim to be patriots if we unthinkingly trash the views of half of our citizens?

But two, the exchange really made me reflect on my life and what percentage of my successes I can claim for myself. Yes, I've worked hard but dear God, so do millions of people around the world who perform backbreaking, humiliating, mind-numbing labor, for not a fraction of the rewards that I have earned. No, sorry, if I am to be honest, my life was made possible by the labor and love and sacrifice of family and the hard work, brilliance and kindness of strangers. My mother stayed up nights teaching me grammar and spelling, laying the foundation for my writing career. My aunt got me my first library card and introduced me to books and that's why I became a writer. My dad worked in his business seven days a week and that's what made it possible for me to come to America. This country gave me a million gifts -- a free press, great universities, free libraries, an inclusive, tolerant culture, technological inventions -- that made my life and career possible.

Above all, it gave me friends who fed my stomach and my soul and my brain. Every one of those people is in my books and in my writing. They have all helped "build" them, a thousand invisible hands guiding mine as I click away at my computer.

You know the landlady, John's relative, who I mentioned earlier? Here's how I met her: My first newspaper job out of grad school was in a small mill town in Ohio. I had graduated a week earlier and had very little money. A friend from college drove me to my new hometown to search for an apartment. We saw an ad, called the number, and Dorothy, the landlady said she'd meet us there in half hour.

I liked her immediately. To my eternal gratitude, she apparently liked me, too. The ad had stated that I'd have to pay the first month's rent as security deposit, along with the rent. I said I'd take the apartment and pulled out my check book. And that's when Dorothy said, "How about you only pay the rent? I don't need the deposit. I trust you."

I looked at her confused. So she continued, "My daughter recently got her first job, also. I know how hard it is when you're first starting out."

This was in 1985. I hear these words in my ears all the time. Everything I know and love and cherish about America is in those words.

Dorothy, my landlady, helped build this column. She helped build my literary career and my teaching career. She helped build my life.

John the reader said he'd like to get together the next time he's in Ohio. If we do, we will take a toast to his aunt Dorothy and to the millions like her. These are the ordinary, anonymous people who paid the taxes that built our roads, space shuttles, bridges, schools, airports, stadiums, freeways, and the Internet. The government that Obama was extolling is not some foreign, super-imposed force. It is people like Dorothy. They are the government.

And yes, they helped build this one single life.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of a memoir and five novels, including the bestselling 'The Space Between Us' and 'The World We Found.'