Sunday, July 10, 2011

Reflections On The Fourth

I hate the Fourth. But I love fireworks.

Unless you have a place of refuge, a cabin in the woods, an isolated vacation rental near Moclips, or reservations at the Hotel Sube in Saint Tropez, you cannot escape the Fourth. Its noise and imbecility are ubiquitous.

Cretins of all stripe and color are given carte blanche on the Fourth to blow their fingers off, destroy property, and commit general mayhem. This is their day. Their day to plumb the depths of imbecility and blacken the name of prudence with acts of raw insanity.

The use of fireworks is banned in Seattle. The regulation is heartily, meticulously, and emphatically unenforced. I have not seen a single cop fine or arrest anyone for discharging fireworks. Ever.

When I say I love fireworks, I’m not referring to the crap sold outside city limits, M80s, bottle rockets, cherry bombs, and sparklers, I’m referring to the big stuff: aerial shells fired out of mortars buried in sand on a floating platform, usually a barge. The kind that squiggle hundreds of feet in the air like an incendiary spermatozoa and explode into chrysanthemums and showers of crackling rain. The shows are carefully orchestrated and timed. They rarely go on for more than a half hour. Unlike the neighborhood cretins who keep everyone awake until 2:00 in the morning.

Seattle used to have two big fireworks displays, one on Puget Sound, the other on Lake Union. Now we have just the one, provided that enough sponsors step forward to finance it. This year’s display was sponsored primarily by Microsoft and Starbucks.

Roberta and I headed down to Lake Union at about 9:00 p.m. Lake Union is a small lake sandwiched between Puget Sound to the west and Lake Washington to the east and are joined by the Lake Washington Ship Canal. There is very little open shoreline on Lake Union, which is densely populated with marinas, restaurants, businesses, and houseboat neighborhoods.

We found a spot near Signature Yachts, a viewpoint blocked by a high railing. A few other people were lingering there, mostly young couples with their kids. I pondered the possibility of climbing up and sitting on the railing, but it was too high to make that a feasible enterprise. It would be a precarious perch. I gazed at the water below, which was shallow enough to reveal a huge pipe. If I did manage to get my butt ensconced on the top rail, and happened to fall, that’s what I would hit. Not to mention getting soaked. This summer has been the coolest I have known in Seattle. Highs have barely reached 70. Getting soaked was not an idle prospect to be trifled with.

I folded my arms on the railing and rested my head on my arms.
There were three enormous yachts floating in the distance. Each was as large as a three-story building. I pointed to them and told Roberta that’s where our Social Security and Medicare were going. I indulged in a brief fantasy of aiming a bazooka at each and watching as they exploded into splinters and flames.

There was a huge crowd at Gasworks Park on the other side of the lake. We could hear music. I thought at first that there was a live band playing, but as soon as I heard the distinctive chords of Jimi Hendrix’s "Star Spangled Banner," it became obvious the music was taped. Almost all of the songs that were played dated from the 60s and 70s. It occurred to me that that music is now 40 to 45 years old. If, say, in 1968 they had played music that old we would have been listening to “Doin’ The Raccoon” and “When The Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along.”

I can’t remember a time when I felt anything like a patriotic emotion. I remember a time when I felt lucky to have been born in a country that offered such a high quality of life, free and open access to education, colleges where the tuition was so low as to be non-existent to nominal, public schools that encouraged students to think, where learning anything by rote was discouraged as the activity of a crass and vulgar mind, doctors that made house calls and charged a very modest fee, books published for the quality of writing and originality of idea rather than sensationalism or fame, free clinics, free parking, water fountains galore, roads and highways where hitting anything like a pothole or bump only occurred in the most remote and dismal of places, apartments and houses where the rent was so cheap you could get by on a part time job while pursuing a more creative occupation such as painting or writing and have plenty of money left over for food and bills and eating out occasionally, or a lot. Where the idea of a bridge collapsing was as remote as a volcano erupting in midtown Manhattan. Where a single parent doing even a menial job as a janitor or parking attendant could afford a house and raise a family while the other parent stayed home to watch the kids and maintain a clean and orderly house.

That country is long gone. It feels so utterly remote now as to constitute a once mythical utopia, the lost continent of Atlantis or the golden city of El Dorado.

I feel a great admiration for the people who fought against the British in the late 1700s. They put their lives on the line for a cause and the misery of a great injustice. They refused to be exploited. I wish it were that way now. The United States is once again under attack. But this time it is under attack by a tiny cabal of ├╝ber-rich oligarchs. The enemy is insidious. Treacherous. When the President publicly states that he is considering cuts to vital programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, one realizes that one is no longer represented by the people holding power, but threatened. Under attack.

Thoughts of patriotism do not enter my mind on the Fourth. No more than a belief in Santa Claus fuels my enjoyment of Christmas. I just like the fireworks. Those immense explosions. The burst of colors and lights followed seconds later by a loud report. Thud. Bang. Boom. It’s exhilarating. Like watching the universe burst into life out of the void. Out of nothingness.

The United States, as a political entity, fills me with shame and revulsion. It murders, pillages, oppresses and tortures using national security as the flimsiest of excuses for such flagrant immorality. But the United States as a culture in which people such as Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau and Janis Joplin and Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan and Billy Holiday and Mark Twain and Martin Luther King have been shaped is something else. It’s like a subterranean United States. It’s not the United States that is seen on television or babbled about on right wing radio shows. That United States is monstrous. Despicable and evil. The other United States, the one in which people find means to resist and lead lives of joyful energy and creativity, that one I can live in. That one doesn’t give me a bad conscience, or fill me with fear and loathing. That one isn’t called The United States. It doesn’t have a high falutin’ title. It’s the weird old America of Wild Bill Hickok and Sitting Bull. Vikings roasting a goat. Arapaho naming a mountain peak. Choctaw inventing verbs for sewing and talking and riding a horse to the moon.

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