Happy Independence Day!

One of the great things about Independence Day is that our primary national holiday celebrates a document and the ideas it contains. The holiday does not commemorate a military victory or the storming of a castle—it commemorates equality and the God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When I was a boy, my parents and I would drive three miles to the county seat to see the Fourth of July parade. The parade included bands, floats, politicians, old cars, fire trucks, horses, and various other elements, following one another in an order that seemed almost random. (They didn’t want two bands competing for attention, so of course they dispersed the other elements between the bands. Beyond that, I don’t think there was too much order to the selections.) The fire trucks blared their sirens and honked their horns, creating a cacophony that was painful to my sensitive ears—they were my least favorite part of the parade. But in general I enjoyed the experience, the sense of celebration that marchers and onlookers shared on that day.

After the parade we would return home, eat lunch, and often pull some weeds from the vegetable garden. Then, after supper, as evening approached, we would return to the county seat for the fireworks. These were at the fairgrounds, only about half as far from home as the downtown parade, so sometimes we would walk to the show instead of driving. (And, given the traffic tie-ups following the show, we probably got home sooner by foot than we would have achieved in the car.) I liked the big candles that splashed color across half the sky; I hated the ones that gave just a white flash of light and a loud bang. Those hurt my ears as badly as the fire truck sirens in the parade. But I never thought of asking to stay home from the fireworks show—it was simply something we did every year, a family tradition for the Fourth of July.

Later this afternoon, I will get out the charcoal grill and get it started. Then I will cook hamburgers and bratwursts for the family. We also have fruit salad, cucumber salad, three-bean salad, corn on the cob, and red-white-and-blue Jello on the menu. As evening approaches, the rest of the family will head downtown to the riverside, where they will hear the orchestra play and watch the fireworks. Me, I’m exercising my freedom to stay home and watch a movie. Crowds and loud noises do not set well with me. A quiet evening at home is more my style.

Tomorrow it’ll be back to work (although a lot of people have managed to create a four-day weekend). We will be just as independent and just as free, but the celebration will have ended. A faint whiff of gunpowder may still linger in the air. I’ll likely have left-over bratwurst and salads packed for lunch. And so it goes, on into the heat of summer. J.

The rockets’ red glare

“So, J., did you enjoy the fireworks last night?”

“Actually, I was pretty tired, so after supper I read for a while and then went to bed early.”

It helps to plead exhaustion (and to say so honestly) rather than trying to explain loud noises, hyperacusis, crowds of people, and anxiety. I haven’t gone to a fireworks show in years, and those are the real reasons for my absence, but last night I was tired, and I really did go to bed early.

I lay there in the dark, hearing distant public fireworks shows in several directions as well as some nearer backyard pyrotechnics. As I drifted toward sleep and back again, my mind began to wander….

I thought about an article I read in the newspaper that morning. It described military veterans battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the struggles some of them face during celebrations that feature fireworks. During their military career, they were trained to react instantly to the sound of gunfire or explosions. In some cases that training saved their lives. Now, even years later, those conditioned responses still exist. Festive fireworks can bring strong and painful memories of combat events. Family members and friends need to be aware of the feelings these veterans face and know how to help them through the experience.

I thought about something I read in a book. A Confederate veteran of the Civil War had enjoyed a successful career after the war involving journalism, investments, and politics. In the summer of 1902 he was staying in a downtown hotel, and he borrowed a handgun from a friend, complaining about cats bothering him outside his window. During the fireworks show the night of July 4, when the sound of a gunshot was least likely to be noticed, he took his own life. He left behind a note mentioning, among other things, the Confederate losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on July 4 almost forty years earlier. On other occasions this man had shown bravery under fire, both during and after the war, but through his successful career he clearly carried a wartime burden of hidden inner pain.

I thought about cannon fire in the Napoleonic wars and the American Civil War. I thought about the Battle of the Somme, being fought one hundred years ago this summer. I thought about German guns approaching Paris in 1940. I thought about watching the rocket’s red glare on television during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. I thought about recent events in Orlando, in the airport in Istanbul, in Bangladesh, and in Bagdad.

Perhaps some year I will be able to attend a fireworks show. It would help if we did not have American soldiers serving in a war zone anywhere in the world that summer. It would help if the world had gone a month without terrorist attacks or other kinds of senseless violence.

I am not suggesting that Americans should cancel fireworks displays until such a summer happens. I don’t understand the violence of boxing; other people feel the same way about American football, which I enjoy watching. We accept our differences, let one another enjoy their entertainment, and leave each other alone. So long as I do not have to go to the show, the cities can keep on shooting off fireworks when and where they choose. Meanwhile, a Happy Independence Day to all my fellow Americans. J.

New Year’s Eve 2015

The events of New Year’s Eve about a week ago helped to bring the year 2015 to an end in such a way that I was particularly eager to enter a new year, hoping for better things in 2016.

I spent about half the twelve days of Christmas visiting family out of state. On a borrowed laptop I was able to keep up with wordpress, although a few glitches happened here and there. The house was crowded with people, the meal schedule and bedtime schedule were entirely unpredictable, and yet it was good to be with family and to continue the celebration of Christmas which had begun on the 25th of December.

The morning of December 31 began well. The place was quiet as I sat down with a cup of coffee and read from the Bible, as I do every morning. That day’s readings were Psalms 149 and 150 and Revelation 21 and 22. Then I read from Kierkegaard’s writings, as I will do every day for the coming weeks and months. The start of the day was quiet, reverent, and inspiring.

Later that morning I was driving the family van down the highway at 60 miles an hour when I heard a clank and a clunk from under the hood. My first reaction was to shut off the heater and fan. Several times over the last two months, the sound of a slipping belt had briefly come from the engine area. Since no warning lights came on and the van seemed to be operating normally, I assumed that the problem was with the temperature control system, which is why I turned off the heater after those two ominous sounds. Before I made the trip out of state, a mechanic checked the belts of the van, and he had said that they all appeared to be fine.

I continued driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour, wondering if the lack of heat (and of window defrosting) would make the trip home more uncomfortable than usual. As I drove, I began to sense that the steering of the van was different. At first I assured myself that the difference was my imagination: I heard a frightening pair of sounds, part of my anxious mind assumed the worst, and I was prone to think that the van was seriously broken, even though it was still moving down the highway at 60 miles an hour. Only when I had to make a curve of ninety degrees on the highway did I realize that the steering was indeed much different. It felt as if I had no power steering, only manual control of the steering. Carefully I made my way back to the house of my host, and then considered what to do next.

My host knows more about motor vehicles than I do. When he returned from his own trip, he checked the internet for pictures of how the engine of my van should appear; then we opened the hood and examined the engine. The serpentine belt was still there, but it was lying loose in the engine. One of the pulleys meant to keep tension on the belt was completely gone. My host said that in better weather he could replace the pulley, but he would prefer that I take the van to a mechanic. He recommended one not far away, and he assured me that I should be able to drive the van that distance. A longer drive would have been bad news, as the serpentine belt causes the radiator and engine cooling system to work, along with the alternator that recharges the battery, the power steering, and a few other essential items. We made the trip to my host’s favorite neighborhood auto shop. As I drove, I nervously watched the temperature needle on the dashboard climb higher and the alternator needle slip lower. I made it safely to the auto shop. The workers were busy with many customers, but my host told them what was wrong with the van and exactly which parts they would need for the repair. They said they could get it fixed the next day. Then my host brought me back to his house.

The van did get fixed by the end of the next day, and members of the family were remarking how fortunate it was that the van broke down near my host’s house and not half-way between my house and his house. All the same, my usual anxiety was running full steam that afternoon. Driving and mechanical break-downs are triggers for my anxiety, and knowing that the van was going to be fixed, along with knowing that things could have been much worse, did not make my anxiety go away.

Afternoon turned into evening, which then became nighttime. In one room the television was loudly blaring. In another room joyful noises of young people rang loudly as they played a board game. I tried to find a quiet room as far away from the game and the television as possible, but (since the quiet part of the house was reserved for a sleeping baby and her parents), I did not have much luck. Other people meditate to relax; I get the same benefit from reading. Unfortunately, the pleasure reading I had brought for myself involved two books with rather unpleasant main characters: Thomas Covenant in Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, and Philip Casey in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Spending time with these two characters, both of whom are self-centered and whiny and unable to get along with other people, was even worse than spending time with my own family.

Midnight came, greetings and kisses were exchanged, and my host then announced, “Everyone has to come outside.” Some of us put on shoes; others remained barefoot. Some put on coats; others were fine in shirtsleeves. As we stood on the cement slab in front of the house, we saw and heard some distant fireworks. I have never liked fireworks—the noise distresses me far more than the colors entertain me. I was willing to watch distant fireworks for a minute or two, though… until my host began shooting off his own fireworks from his front yard. After the first Roman candle exploded, I quickly darted back inside the house.

By one o’clock I was in bed, trying to fall asleep. Six hours later, I was up again, ready to start a new year. I read Psalms 1 and 2 and Genesis 1-3 while sipping my coffee surrounded by quiet. Then I read some more Kierkegaard. I cannot imagine any better way of starting a new year.

May your new year be happy and bright, with as much calm and quiet as you want and need. J.