The Fourth of July makes me absurdly happy. One of my earliest memories is of holding my parents’ hands as we walked to the football stadium at the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, for the Fourth of July fireworks. I recall reaching upward for their hands and making them swing me repeatedly, as toddlers do. While we “walked,” they told me that for my third birthday—which comes in July, the very best month in which to be born—I was getting a baby brother or sister. I was beyond thrilled. This was at the tail end of the baby boom, and every other kid in that graduate student housing complex had a little brother or sister; of course I wanted one too.
My parents must also have told me that the fireworks were for my birthday, because I love the July fireworks beyond words. Every year, they make mine the biggest and best birthday party in the world (and no, I am not going to tell you which day in July is my birthday). Every year since I was three, it feels as if the entire world is celebrating with me, whether I'm sitting in high-school football stadium stands in exurban Ohio—or jammed among half a million others along Boston's Memorial Drive, sitting on guardrails and watching the spectacular display over the Charles River. Although I generally dislike crowds, I love the Fourth of July gathering’s generous feeling of civic belonging: families spread out on blankets; teenage girls and boys slouching by in aggressively skimpy or baggy shorts; women in hijab pushing strollers; and accents of every kind floating past, encompassing at least six different languages and English of many stripes, not only wicked deep Boston (“pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd”). Even the Fourth's incessant hucksterism—the glow bracelets, ice-cream sticks, soda, and plastic hats—somehow makes me feel happily American. What’s more American than selling a moment of pleasure for a small profit? I know: being stuck grouchily in a traffic jam afterwards, sunburnt from the morning’s outdoor chores, while the young’un dozes in the backseat, exhausted from staying up late for the ooh-aah-oooooh display.
I know that our national anthem is a celebration of war. I know that if our Founding Fathers hadn’t revolted, today we’d probably be part of Canada, where health care for all gets cheers (and, better yet, Arizona would be part of Mexico). But so what? I love the Fourth of July because we gather, all of us, in our astounding variety, to celebrate by doing as little as possible. Families (of blood or friendship or both) get together for a party that requires very little effort. During the Fourth of July, standing outside in the lightened night, it seems as if the winter's dreaded darkness will never come again.
My father, a Korean war vet who went to graduate school on the GI bil—that socialist investment in an entire generation—used to put up the flag every year for the Fourth. He loved the country he had fought for, even when he voted for McGovern and Mondale and Gore and Kerry and the rest of the country kept lurching steadily more rightward. And I love it, for my own sake, and in his memory. The Fourth of July is a capacious birthday celebration for a country so ridiculously vast (California alone is more populous than Canada) that we can never agree on anything. That makes us like any big family. Tomorrow, I’ll get back to parsing our gendered politics. But today, as long as the fireworks are sparking upwards, God bless America.
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