Conspiracy theorist self: Holidays are power-written histories on the palimpsest of social memory—“Christmas” to cover for the solstice and “Easter” for the equinox, “Thanksgiving” to cover for smallpox, and “Memorial Day” for Mayday since the latter is so awfully dangerous.
Practical self: Ease up already. None of these “meanings” is inherent. Commemorate what you will.
The specifics of this life and the commitments I make with it take up most of my days. Given a break in the action, well, I’m going to create my own ritual out of it any way that I can. So I mourn this lifetaking warmaking entity and the red it’s spilt in the soil, even as I see I’m part of the red in its veins. There’s nothing for me to add to the national symbolic moment, which is pitch-perfect: GWB taking sweet old Pootie-poot for rides in daddy’s blue and white speedboat, pardoning the highest of criminals while they tool around the summer waters.
So that’s already perfect without me. I’ll make this day about a historical memory less symbolic and abstract—not of a country, but of one small coming-of-age inside it. For me, the Fourth is the watermark of every given summer, the arbitrary date I use to mark off the year in the little bedpost of this individual human history. Here’s the arc of the last 15 of 30, so I’ll have them for my own archives.
1992:EstesPark vicinity, Colorado. I make Grandpa mad when I use the campground bathroom to curl my hair. Waste of time and electricity! The six of us eat tacos in our little egg-shaped fiberglass Scamper. Off to fireworks in Granby.
1993:Colorado Springs, top of Fillmore Hill. Mom asks me to go up alone to watch the fireworks, and gives a desperate lecture against my Mormon boyfriend, TB. Then we are quiet. She doesn’t ask if I am drinking (TB is president of SADD—and the fact that this keeps me from driving drunk while my skills are at their least developed is a blessing she’ll never know, outweighing the Mormon tincture that will always be on my soul). For once in the face of efforts to control my sexuality, I don’t talk back. Because she is desperate, and there is something different in her voice. She knows her control is running out. I’m no longer oppositional, taking her guidelines as a point of departure. Rather, I’m turning independent; and this is boundless and awful. That night together is quiet and still and full of misunderstanding, as we sit on the hill where my dad used to dig up arrowheads as a boy.
1994:Laurel, MT, with J. Sit in her old red Subaru wagon, in which I used to lift up the gearshift-cover and watch the road go by beneath, and drink. Best place to watch the show is from the edge of the cemetery atop the hill outside of town. It’s close enough to hear the drunken emcee on the PA system out on the high school baseball field, announcing which local business donated each individual pyrotechnic. For the finale, financed by Exxon (whose local refinery is the most polluting in the country, because MT has effectively no environmental regulations), they blare Born in the USA and everyone in town sings their hearts out.
1995:Laurel, MT, this time with TL. Same spot on the cemetery. Same emcee. Twenty feet away, the QB and one of the super-athletic farmboys are parked in a Ford F-350, drinking and repeatedly playing “What’s Going On?” by 4 Non Blondes. TL (my second straightedge boyfriend) in his mail-order skate shoes and oversize clothes from the back pages of Thrasher, and his tricked-out Civic that nobody in town understands, grits his teeth and wants to hit them. If they only knew how ripped he is under all those strange clothes.
1996:Laurel, MT, now with G and R, right before I leave for Costa Rica. Again the cemetery. This year, singing the finale, I think I finally know what kind of song Born in the USA really is.
1997:Dillingham, AK. Skinnydipping with the fish-house crew in some warm shallow lake that goes for miles into the moraine. Then I stay up all night with TM, the swarthy auto-didact cold-storage foreman who would hold the ground until Editor had other ideas. The Pozos family (migrants from Guadalajara to Umatilla, and the heart of the fish-house operation) set off fireworks when the sun dips below the horizon for 30 minutes around 3 am. “How ‘bout them fireworks?”
1998:Washington, DC. The National Mall with M and a crowd of her Pakistani intellectual friends. We lie out under the obelisk with thousands of other interns. Metro back home to Falls Church is as packed as any third-world transit I’ve ever ridden. O, humanity!
1999:Portland and the Valley. Go to the party at the Rummel House, then met L on the Portland waterfront for fireworks. Sleep a bit in S’s empty apartment, then drive my Hyundai the 17 hours back to MT before boarding an airplane with a year’s-supply of malaria pills. Between Tri-Cities and Ritzville, Ray Suarez is doing a special episode of TOTN, on the history of the Hot Dog. When it finally fades to static, I think about how much I am going to miss Ray when I leave the country, and drive across the Hanford-radiated high desert writing out the utopia where my beloved Ray gets elected President of the United States. Later that year, they’d make him anchor of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Take what you can get.
2000: Just back from the tropics and staying with inlaws-to-be in the stunningly tacky, yet rich, consumeropolis of Beaverton. Drink good WillametteValley wine in their jacuzzi adjacent the neighborhood park, listening to adolescent boys with firecrackers out in the cul-de-sac.
2001: Bellingham with A, K and R. Lie out in the grass in some idyllic park in the hills above a lake. Everyone speaking Spanish. Then to a party at a waterfront house in Bellingham—mom and pop professors are out of town. See the fireworks rising above Anacortes on the drive back home to Seattle.
2002:Granada, Espana. Perfect echo of ‘98, there in the seat of a previous empire. Walk all over the Albacyn, and watch a huge red sun set over the mountains to the northwest. Read about Ferdinand and Isabella, eating peaches and pears.
2003: K, G, R, and I walk all over the LA Marina looking for our friends. Pre-cellphone days. Set up on the beach south of the canals and picnic among the crowds anyway. Head full of sand after lying back to watch the show.
2004: Koreatown Rooftop. Ten or twelve stories up for a “white trash” event whose Evite title is “They Hate Our Freedom.” We celebrate accordingly with wine coolers (Coors would be going too far) amazing vegan beans ‘n’ franks, and my not-so-vegan (but artistic) flag Jell-o. Later I feel like a jerk for satirizing the Born in the USA scene with a bunch of people who graduated from Amherst and Smith. Talk about anemic hipster cynicism. The fireworks panorama—from Compton on the south to the Hollywood Hills on the north, the Marina on the west to Echo Park on the east… and more importantly from half the rooftops in Koreatown—makes up for it.
2005: Hungover from the Marina mixup and “They Hate Our Freedom,” R and I leave town ISO something rootsier. Picnic according to habit in the park above Ventura, and then stumble on the last bits of the annual 4th of July Ventura Street Fair downtown. Pledge to return.
2006: Just off a week of noble silence at Spirit Rock, I stay four days in somebody’s beautiful house on Portrero Hill. Their office is mine for the writing as long as they’re off in Chicago; and after the joy and peace of retreat I’m not ready to leave the Bay. On the morning of the 4th, I ease off the ambient soundtrack and let Dangermouse take me to practice downtown, then spend the day alternately writing and walking the dead streets of Portrero, to listen to the hollers of the World Cup watchers waft out from the row-houses. The only flags are those of the soccer teams in the running, and not so much as a bottle rocket flies through the dead-quiet, post-game night.