If you’re a full-blown alcoholic, the two best days of the year are Fourth of July and St. Patrick’s Day. Super Bowl Sunday is a close second–nachos/half-time show–but a massive beer holiday before a Monday is a terrible combination when you’re someone who doesn’t know you can’t stop drinking once you start. Just a relevant point in case anyone wants to consider Super Bowl Saturday.
Since I got sober, I haven’t celebrated any of these holidays except once I had three people over for hot dogs and a pool party when I lived in Wilmington. That was July 4, 2008. The best Fourth of July I ever had was ten years earlier, in Washington, DC, with my best friends Salem, Martha, and Danny. I was 25 years old and liked to wake up and drink Jack Daniel’s straight from the bottle before figuring out where to have breakfast. That seemed like the right way to acknowledge our formative separation from England. I was so poor I only had one article of clothing in each category, so I put on my one miniskirt and my one V-neck t-shirt, and then we watched This is Spinal Tap over and over until it started to get late enough to head to a rooftop party. It was there that Martha and I realized all the cops would be at the National Mall, and I forget the details, but somehow I ended up with fists-full of lit fireworks climbing over the rooftop railing and singing “God Bless America” while the apartment social committee called security. Then we were running out of the building with some of the husbands/fathers chasing us because at some point we did $500 worth of damage to the roof. We found a cab to take us to a party in Bethesda where we set fire to a life-sized cardboard replica of Hilary Rodham Clinton and where Salem and I may or may not have started making out while wrestling in front of the burning Hilary, which I wouldn’t have noticed except that my ex-boyfriend happened to be hosting the party and there was an argument while we stood in a ditch and all I could think of as a response to the situation was, “Dude, it’s fourth of July and we’re not even dating anymore?”
Then we went back to mine and Danny’s apartment pool for midnight skinny dipping, which would have been fine except Danny and I started doing cannonballs from the lifeguard stand and security came once again and we all fled, clothes bundled in our arms, to our upstairs apartment. I ended the night in my favorite way: drunk, naked, wet, and laughing with just enough guilt from the rooftop damage and hurt feelings so that I couldn’t completely enjoy it. Ah, to be young and American.
Now, I’m pushing 40, and I woke up this morning and drank straight from my facebook newsfeed, which was full of wishes for a Happy July Fourth and the accompanying admonishments to be grateful for my freedom and independence and shout-outs to the soldiers (sidenote: humbly, I note 4th of July isn’t Veteran’s Day, the same way “Raindrops on Roses” is not a Christmas song simply because it references brown paper packages tied up with string.)
Now I’m older. And everything is different.
I’ve been through divorce, recovery, estrangement and reconciliation in my own family, spiritual death and rebirth–both unspeakably painful; loss, bankruptcy, various unpleasant consequences from relationships with the real estate market, cell phone/cable companies, health care conglomerates, and the publishing industry. I’ve taught returning vets from Afghanistan and Iraq, and I’ve seen what’s in their eyes, and if you’ve ever seen it, you sure as hell would try every means necessary before sending boys to war.
I’m really past the point of being sold on myths and advertisements, not because I’m jaded and cynical, but because I’m grown and I’ve studied history.
I see America as our giant family with a dark and disturbed past, a violent nature, but an indomitable spirit that really does want to be good and free; we’re just no good at accepting the truth about ourselves, which, by now, is that we’ve grown too lazy and selfish to be great and we’ve given our “hands-off” government way too much control of our private lives because we’re afraid of being attacked or of having our shit taken.
But, like the woman who thinks she has a good man because he doesn’t beat her, or the brainwashed children of abusive parents who would rather live in denial than face the pain of the truth, so we, as Americans, continue to think about our conditions here. We live in an amazing, gorgeous country, and my experience with every day Americans is that we do want to help each other on an individual basis. We’re good people. We’re willing to meet each other half way. But we have these pesky ideologies that get in the way of moving us productively forward as a society, and we’re forgetting how to think for ourselves, and pushing these American myths ain’t helpful for us anymore, beloveds, and I want to talk about it. I understand that we live in a complicated society with an impressively fucked up history, and I wish we could embrace that more in our celebration of this great nation.
One of the main reasons I love America so much and being an American has nothing to do with freedom and independence, which you guys know we don’t actually have, not in the way Thomas Jefferson, el slave owner, had wanted–check your state legislation, news about the NSA, your taxes, various “service” fees, the equality in your fellow Americans’ human rights, your access to affordable health care, America’s debt record to both China and Saudi Arabia, so on and so forth. I am proud that America still hasn’t fallen to martial law, tribal warfare, or communist dictatorships, and as yet holds (relatively fast) against religious rule. However, our apathy and burning desire to morally regulate people other than ourselves is of some concern.
I’m watching reports from my home state, North Carolina, as the new legislature continues to pass laws in regards to no marriage for gays (Amendment One) and women’s reproductive rights (the recent anti-abortion bill). The call for a legal state religion came up this year, and my guess is that it wasn’t Buddhism. But, one of the main reasons I love America is because we ARE this giant, dysfunctional family seemingly in the gothic denoument of its own story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. All the empires fall. That’s life. Might as well eat a hot dog and post pictures of it on facebook. The sun won’t set on McDonald’s long after the American people realize they gave away their democracy, so there’s that. I am just beyond ready for average Americans to come together work out some moderate solutions. I don’t care that we have different perspectives, but I do care when we have no respect for each other. Our biggest freedom is our freedom of mind, and we’re giving it up voluntarily because it takes self-discipline. That much I witnessed first hand from 11 years in education.
I’m so fortunate to have a wide net of friends–my gun-toting, Nazi-flag waving, frog-gigging Everglades rednecks to my overtly fabulous gay couples raising kids in places that don’t want to kill them. No one loves the government’s police tactics or the shenanigans of our media-attention-grabbing elected officials, not my black middle-class friends or my boho artist compatriots in Wilmington. Everybody I know recognizes our political theater is like the World Wrestling Federation of international governance.
Once, I had a Canadian couple on my Everglades tour during the last Presidential election, and they mentioned the Canadian guilty pleasure of watching American politics on TV because it was so highly entertaining. “We don’t understand what you get so worked up about. In Canada, gays can marry, you can get an abortion, we have socialized health care, we don’t have a problem with gun violence. Our politicians would never consider those campaign issues. Those are personal choices. That’s not the job of government.” True. We still have a lot to learn. I think it’s okay for us to finally admit we don’t really know what we’re doing over here, that the Republic of the United States of America was a grand social experiment that we have quite naturally, understandably, and royally fucked up in a lot of ways.
I happen to be the type of American who loves talking about our dirty history, who doesn’t mind acknowledging that the more recent scramble to fight for “family values” needs a national conversation pointing out that it’s only a campaign for “a false family image.” America is a good show, there’s no doubt about that, and I think fireworks are a wonderful metaphor for our history and present circumstances.
In the Everglades, the only Native Americans who never signed a peace accord with the United States government fought for that freedom in three separate wars in that dense and alligator-infested jungle swamp. The Seminoles, the ones who didn’t get pushed to Oklahoma, still live there, so just about every day of my life I have to think about how America was really made, about the truth of how we got the ground under our feet. So, it’s hard for me to commit to a burger and a sparkler anymore, even though I thank God we’re the kind of place whose arms reached out for Albert Einstein and Anne Sullivan’s parents and the hundreds of refugees from Bosnia and Sudan and Haiti. I’m proud to know that I can start a business here tomorrow but pissed off that I have to pay a nondescript government agency to file my annual report. I am like hell yes, world, when I look at our developments in science and technology but like fuck you, greedy corporate douchebags with your highly-paid lobbyists, when I see that technology assembled in China and my college graduates can’t find any jobs in their own city.
But the main reason I love America is not because of the myths or because of the dirty, dysfunctional history. What I love are the every day people. The people like my former student Arnold, who I will write about shortly, who came back from two tours in Iraq, got his degree, and started a non-profit to support veterans with mental health issues–all before turning 30. Or my grandfather, who quit school in 8th grade to start working and had the freedom to build a small empire that supports most of his descendants today. Or Pearl Fryar, a black man in South Carolina who taught himself how to make topiaries because his white neighbors said colored people didn’t know how to keep up their yards.
I love Fourth of July because I’m reminded of how I used to get drunk all the time, especially when I didn’t want to, but at least there were two days of the year when normal people were going to act like me. Today I’m not going to get drunk because of two American men in Ohio who figured out how to stay sober, they taught others, who taught others, and they wrote a book about it so anyone in the world could escape the horrors of alcoholism. And in 2007, one of those people who was taught how to stay sober, taught me. And all of us were fucked up, but we did something good, anyway, to help people who wanted to have better lives. To me, that’s the true spirit of American independence.
Happy Fourth, beloveds. May your celebrations end happily or, at the very least, with you naked and wet and laughing.