Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Day of Independence

I have long had mixed feelings about the fourth of July. As a little kid I just thought it was fun, except when I came down with a nasty case of the chicken pox on the fourth, and was only allowed to go see the fireworks because under cover of dark no one could see the spots covering every inch of my skin. (Or me scratching them, despite all admonitions to the contrary.) But as soon as I was old enough to 1. think for myself and 2. arrange my own social engagements, I started to question this most American of holidays.

I don't remember when I first thought about the meaning of fireworks. I had loved them growing up, and I still think they can be quite pretty. Now when I see them, though, I can't help but think about what it is they represent - the bombs of warfare. "The rockets' red glare" and "the bombs bursting in air" are all about people trying to blow each other up, folks, and fireworks are exactly the same thing. I try to forget this and just enjoy the show whenever I can, but this year - with a war that still hasn't ended and is closely tied to an ever growing fuel crisis (and economic downturn) - it seemed hard to set that aside. So it was with maybe equal parts pleasure and discomfort that I watched the fireworks over the trees in several directions from the front porch of my friend's house. I'd like to be able to just ooh and ahh with everyone else, but just couldn't avoid the nagging thought that "if we were on 'the other side' we'd still be sitting around listening to things exploding...but we wouldn't be blasé about it, we'd be afraid." Overly dramatic? Perhaps. True? If not in letter, then in spirit, I think.

I do remember one moment when I really began to think about what the fourth of July is all about. I lived in Ireland the summer I was 18, and we used to hang out at what we called 'the IRA pub.' (I have no way of judging whether that cognomen was remotely accurate, but we were convinced at the time.) We went there on the fourth of July and, like the bunch of American kids we were, had our own party despite being 3000 miles from home. As we drank Guinness and had a grand old time, we got to talking with one of the bartenders who launched into a very earnest rant about how someday Ireland would be celebrating an Independence Day of its own. We were a bit taken aback by the vehemence of this speech, and eventually wandered off to a distant table where we could be loud and obnoxious in peace. That bartender has stuck with me, though (obviously). Fourths of July since then usually find me recalling that scene at some point in the day, and thinking about how far removed we are from the days when our independence really meant something; when it was freshly won, hard-earned, and extremely valuable in a very immediate way. Today it's hard to not take it for granted if you've grown up in this country and not spent time in certain parts of the world. July fourth really meant something, once upon a time, and not just barbecues and beer. I don't know how much it matters whether we ignore all the history and meaning on the day itself and just party, but I think it's important to not forget what the party is all about, especially in light of the direction our country seems to be headed these days. (But more on that in another blog - this one's plenty long as it is.)

My other beef with the fourth of July is far less noble, and really is just that it's supposed to be one big party but usually I find myself hanging around with nothing to do. And, as with New Year's Eve, our society likes to make people with nothing to do on the fourth of July feel inadequate. Thank you, society. I actually find plenty of other opportunities to feel inadequate without your help, so let's leave this one alone, shall we? And so I usually protest by staying home and watching fireworks on TV, even when friends have invited me to join them at picnics and barbecues where I probably wouldn't know anyone else, and when I could've made some plans of my own if I'd really wanted to. I guess I'd rather stay home and have my own private protest against societal expectations. (And be cranky and eat a lot of ice cream.) This year, however, I did not stay home. I did not allow myself to be dragged along to a backyard party where I wouldn't know anyone, including the owner of the backyard. This year I actually spent the day with friends, and friends' friends, and - shocking, I know - I had a really good time. It was an excellent blend of people I knew and people I didn't, not too many people but not too few, oodles of tasty food, just enough beer to keep everyone happy, and hours of general merriment. Turns out the fourth of July can be a lot of fun after all. Who knew?

So one of my gripes might have fizzled this year, since apparently
I've finally learned how to have fun. But at the same time, the whole premise for the partying just seems ... not flawed, exactly, but not widely appreciated or understood, and the most popular means of celebrating (fireworks) just seems misguided. (Don't get me wrong, I love blowing things up. But context and historical reference are important.)

I don't know what this means, practically speaking. I'm not advocating boycotting the fourth or fireworks, or suggesting that historical reenactment and heavy philosophical debate on freedom are the only appropriate ways to spend the day. I do think that a little more thought could be given to what the whole thing is about, even if it's just in the back of your head as you sit on the porch with your friends watching the fireworks over the trees.

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