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The No. 1 Thing to Love About America: The Dream

At age 10, I drew a sketch of my slumbering mutt Pal and wrote an ode to him, which revealed a stronger affection for him than for my two brothers. My mother read the essay and said, "Brent, you'll be a writer someday."

Thus was born my American dream. True, in my mid-20s, I abandoned reveries about producing the great American novel and submitted to my fate as the chronicler of small-town school-board meetings and basketball games. Yet, by perseverance and dumb luck, I stumbled fitfully up the ladder of my craft until I beheld with astonishment my name atop stories in our nation's two greatest newspapers and on the covers of four books.

Have I achieved fame? No, though I did manage to cadge a couple of autographed baseball cards from a former Major League left fielder, also named Brent Bowers, by sending him my signed business card and asking him to reciprocate.

If glory has eluded me, I have nevertheless achieved my modest version of the American dream, as all of us can in this country as in no other. A dash of ambition, a sprinkling of hustle, a yearning for making a mark on the world "that is really all it takes. Besides, to rework a clich, the journey is more fun than the destination.

Or maybe not. Even at 66, I have plans for triumphs to come. Stay tuned.

Now, about 1,000 Things to Love About America, the book I coauthored with my wife Barbara and our friends Henry and Agnes Hooper Gottlieb: It not only celebrates but ranks, in order of importance, the reasons we're proud to call the U.S.A. home. It starts with No. 1,000, "The Third Millennium: The call of destiny," and winds its way down to No. 1, "Pursuing the American Dream: Yours, mine, and ours."

Note the verb "pursuing." The American dream takes on meaning only in the quest for it. To quote our own prose, "The to-do lists are long and as varied as the country's races, regions, classes, cultures, incomes and political leanings."

In other words, Americans have the freedom to seek whatever future beckons them, whether it be the presidency (No. 275, The White House: A home to vie for), overnight riches (No. 52,Poker: America in miniature,"in which we assert that "Every game is a new beginning, every shuffle of the deck a second chance"), or just goofing off under your boss's nose (No. 993, which we quote in full: Napping at the Office: Mental health moments. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Wha? Huh? Oh? No, I was just thinking with my eyes closed).

America is a magnet not for sluggards, but for strivers. Chasing after dreams takes hard work. Thus we rate "Entrepreneurship: The secret to America's economic miracle"at No. 20, "Rugged Individualism: Going it alone" at 287 and, as a counterpoint,"Gone Fishing: The big escape"(from our workaholic ways) at 200.

Our book isn't so much a compendium of ideas, however, as a guide to the tangible wonders of this great land. Let's start with food.

Increasingly, food is seizing a bigger slice of the American-dream pie, so to speak. Think about all the famous chefs, TV personalities, restaurant owners, recipe-book writers and all their kindred spirits who are aiming to take their place in the constellation of culinary achievers. We claim a perch in that space in enumerating scores of American delectables, from "Sweet Potatoes: AKA yams" to "Corn on the Cob: Dream food that dribbles," in our book.

Dreams don't have to be visions of celebrity. They can be as simple as wanderlust, a longing that untold millions of over-50 folk are fulfilling every year. You can think of our book as a guide to the God-given and man-made wonders of our land because it ranks the must-visits, from "Redwoods: Seeing is disbelieving" to "The Outer Banks: The Wright stuff."

Naturally, we hope to trigger debate and even controversy in our choices. We've profiled animals from dogs to the bald eagle, clothing from blue jeans to cowboy boots, geographic locations from New York City to Hawaii, cultural treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan to small-town orchestras ("Giving Bach to the community") and manifestations of our economic vitality from Wall Street to family farms. We've taken a shot at rating America's greatest engineering marvels, most valuable natural resources, best companies, most alluring national traits, grandest achievements, most meaningful holidays, top hotels and restaurants and on and on.

Here's the rub: Singing praises to 1,000 things to love about America excludes the other 1 million or so. We're confident we'l hear from many of you about how we goofed. Thanks in advance; your indignation will be grist for a follow-up book, the next episode of our American dream.

A former reporter and editor at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Brent Bowers writes for the Times and is the author of several books.

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