Time Off

Perhaps you’ve noticed it too.  Time away from work has an utterly different feel from time on the job.  Those rare individuals who really love their professions probably feel differently about it, but a timid free spirit since childhood, I’ve always noticed a difference.  And it has become more pronounced as time’s gone on.  Recently I cashed in a vacation day near a national holiday (Memorial Day) so that I could drive across the state to see my mother without feeling utterly wiped out from a twelve-hour drive on a regular weekend.  As I slipped back into work mode on Tuesday the change was palpable.  Time was no longer my own.  I tend to work well over eight hours daily—the telecommuter must prove his/her worth—and something about the quality of the time itself was decidedly unlike that of the previous four days (two of which had been spent driving).

That quality, of which we’re not encouraged to speak, is the feeling of freedom.  More precisely, auto-determination.  Okay, I’ve read enough philosophy to know this is just an illusion, but work with me here.  Few and exceptionally fortunate are those who find careers they love.  What the rest of us love is time off work.  Time when we can decide what to do.  How long to sleep.  When to cut the grass rather than waiting until the bell rings at 5 p.m. and the inevitable afternoon rain begins.  Perhaps best of all is going to bed knowing that the next day you don’t have to get up and report for duty.  I’m not dissing employment here, I’m just noticing something.  What I’m reaching toward is a concept of sacred time.  Unstructured time in which creative types thrive.

Early in life the concept of summer was instilled in my soft and malleable psyche.  It said once May was over you have three months to do whatever before facing regimentation again.  I grew to appreciate this schedule.  To love it, in fact.  It was part of why I decided higher education was the best vocational fit for someone of my particular disposition.  Every year when June rolls around I still feel it, like a migratory bird.  The reality, however, is the quality of time changes on Monday morning.  It slows down and feels more like sandpaper than silk.  I can see there’s a holiday just a month away, if I can only reach it.  And it is, perhaps with a dose of unintentional irony, call Independence Day.

Liberty and Justice

I confess to being a bit vexed. How are we supposed to celebrate Independence Day under the Trump administration? Since January our government has demonstrated over and over and over again that it’s dearest desire is to pick democracy apart, to its own advantage. Making voting more difficult for those who oppose the Republican Party, gerrymandering to ensure local election victories, cutting their healthcare so that they might, well, just die off. Repeated and loud public protests do not impact them at all. When their own party moderates protest, they claim they’re collaborating with the enemy. The American people have become the enemy of the wealthy and privileged who want this country to resemble a country club, not a nation of liberty and justice for all.

How do we celebrate a country like that? Back in high school, my senior year, I won a state-wide essay contest. I got my picture in the paper and everything. I don’t have a copy of the essay, but I do remember that the topic was Americanism. Yes, the “ism” was part of it. Although I didn’t know Shostakovich at the time, it was my attempt at what he did in his fifth symphony. Looking back, it seems strange that a Pennsylvania statewide committee would select an essay so full of irony from a working class boy who was only too well aware of his own inferiority. Yes, there was irony in that essay, and anger. Carefully hidden. It sounded patriotic. The hundred dollar prize didn’t make a dent in my fall tuition bill.

Nearly four decades have come and gone since then. I’ve watch my nation teeter-totter between humane treatment of those left out by the system and offering kick-backs to those who by no definition need or deserve them. Until November of last year I’d never seen a nation stoop to the absolute abyss of cynicism in the election of Trump. Although President Obama had the grace to say that many people were obviously happy with the results, it was as if my essay—now lost and forgotten by all but one—had come true. Make no mistake about it—I’m a poor boy who grew up among the working class. As a teenager I could see, hear, and taste the hypocrisy. I hoped and dreamed that as I grew up so would my nation. It’s the fourth of July. Normally I would be celebrating Independence Day. This year, however, I’m only wondering what went wrong along the road to liberty and justice for all.

Things Remembered

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Freedom. Independence Day is our celebration of liberty. Yesterday I happened to find myself at Bethel Woods, the out-of-the-way location in New York where Woodstock was held. Probably no one in 1969 realized just how formative Woodstock and its message of peace, love, and music would become for American culture. Those of us who came of age in the ‘70s learned about it as recent history (I was only seven at the time and, I’m sure, would’ve found the whole thing somewhat unChristian had I been here then). Much has changed in the intervening years. Not many peaceful events get so much airtime any more. Upwards of 400,000, basically unpoliced, youth, gathered in Bethel, New York, for three days of music, chaos, and peace. The Vietnam War was still draining our nation of its youth and murdering its idealism. Fear of the other, racial inequality, and male superiority were part of the context that led to the need for Woodstock. Freedom was free.

Often on this blog I reflect on the sacredness of place. Events that take place in a location leave their impression on the land. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the current administrators of the property, have left the field largely intact. As my wife and I stood at the top of the hill and tried to imagine almost half-a-million people here, it was strangely quiet. The nearby museum had plenty of music playing, but standing where it actually happened, there were only ghosts of an event studied in school and which, even today, kids can generally identify. I couldn’t have named every act that played the concert and, although the music was clearly important, it was the gathering that is most remembered. Self-governing youth getting along in an area so remote that still today you have to drive a couple miles to find even basic necessities, sent a powerful message. It was an event that, I fear, can never be replicated. The snake has spoken.

Nearing fifty years later, we’ve become so paranoid that anyone who looks Middle Eastern is under suspicion. Guns, which children of the sixties shunned, have proliferated and may now be carried, wild-west style, in many states. A fear-mongering candidate bellows fascism before the Grand Old Party. Remember, Nixon was president during Woodstock. I may have lived hundreds of miles from here, occupying myself with the matters that seven-year-olds find so pressing. But Woodstock happened. By the time I got to Woodstock, everybody else had gone. I see others milling about the museum, slightly older than me. Perhaps some of them were here for the event itself. We all seem to be searching for something here. The festival had its problems, for sure, but with a sincere belief in freedom, it makes the pre-seventies United States feel like a strangely foreign county. How do we get back to the garden?

Only Takes a Spark

Fireworks have been the main event for Independence Day celebrations ever since I was a child. The fourth of July is a day for playing with fire. As a child I remember spending the meager allowance I had on sparklers and snakes. I haven’t seen one of those ash snakes for decades now, but the impression they made remains strong. A plug of some kind of carbonish material—you’d light the top with a match and it would flame and hiss and start to grow into a long, twisting exoskeleton of ash. They left a blackened circle on the sidewalk, and when they were cool enough you could try to lift the fragile snake in your hand, but it almost always broke apart before blowing away in the breeze. We also wasted our money on smoke bombs with their multi-colored smoke, but we never had actual firecrackers. Given the trouble we could make with an ordinary roll of caps, that was probably a wise decision on our mother’s part. All of this, however, was just a prelude to the fireworks.

As I sat under a cloudy sky last night wondering why every July fourth seems to rain, it occurred to me that fireworks are a violent form of celebration. Indeed, they are designed to imitate the sounds of battle—before the nuclear age—and we all know the thrill of when the loud, bright burst of pure light sends a shock wave through you. It is like a canon rocking your soul. Like many stirring experiences, fireworks had religious overtones from the beginning. Invented in China, fireworks were used for religious festivals. They were believed to be effective at driving away evil spirits and bring good fortune. Pyrotechnics, however, clearly have military applications as well. It is this strange nexus between religion and violence that makes, I suspect, fireworks displays so compelling.

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The local display here in Somerset County, New Jersey, was impressive for a region without large cities. I couldn’t help pondering the strange aesthetics of contained violence as the colorful explosions took place over my head. Illusions, I know. We always talk afterward about whether some of them are meant to represent anything. Did you see a smiley face, the United States, or even New Jersey? It depends on your angle of view. Is this a religious display or a celebration of violence? Looking around at the amazing diversity of peoples gathered here in this park with me, I feel strangely satisfied. I hear languages I don’t understand, and see people from all over the world here for a good show. Although thousands of us try to get to our cars at the same time, spirits are positive, for the most part, and all go home in a celebratory mood. Maybe the ancient Chinese were right and these pyrotechnics do drive away evil spirits after all.

High Places, NJ

The “high place,” in the Hebrew Bible, was a source of constant vexation to the “orthodox.” Scholars have long puzzled over what was meant by the term, the assumption early on being that they were geographically the highest points around. Although that interpretation no longer holds the sway that it once did, the concept of the high place has remained. I suspect that’s because there’s something mystical about being at the highest point around. July 3 was a rare holiday for everyone in the family, so this year we headed to High Point State Park. High Point is the geographical highest point in the state of New Jersey, up near the New York border. It’s not as high as the mountains you might see in the western part of the country, but at the top there is a panorama that gives unbroken visibility in 360 degrees. Except for the tower.

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Towers are just as biblical as high places. They are very human and always contain at least a small element of hubris. Nature may have said thus far and no further, but we can go higher. And those of us with the inexorable will to climb, must go up. The view from the top isn’t very good since the windows are steamy and the mildew makes you a little leery of getting too close, but the climb is intensive, even for those used to stairs. Nevertheless, a kind of light-headed giddiness attends standing at a point higher than which you cannot go. I pulled out my altimeter to discover we were 1690 feet above sea level. In New Jersey you can’t get any higher. Were there angels up here? How close to Heaven were we? Towers are irresistible as the mythical builders of mythical Babel knew. And although we couldn’t see Manhattan from here, I knew that just across the river taller towers stand.

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One World Trade Center stands at a symbolic 1776 feet, higher than we were at the moment. It was, after all, the requisite holiday to celebrate independence that brought us here in the first place. The vistas that we could see, however, were relatively undeveloped, a rarity for the state of New Jersey. If we had the time, we might have been able to get out into nature itself instead of these structures that humans build to mask the fact of our own limitations. Maybe that’s what high places were all about in the first place. Every day I walk past the Empire State Building on my way to work. I can see it if I find an office with windows. Over my head up here, on the very top of New Jersey, I see a bird soaring. I think of Melville, and Ahab, and Manhattan. Slowly I begin my walk down to lower places.

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Freedom Trail

The machine gun on the bow of the National Guard boat would’ve impressed me as a boy. Now it kind of scares me. The helicopters overhead pass frequently. Police on jet skis chase girls in a canoe away from the shore of the Charles as if they were piloting a landing craft on D-Day. A whole blessed platoon of chartreuse-garbed police on bicycles pedal by, some clearly out of shape, creating a presence. It has been a quarter century since I’ve been in Boston to celebrate our freedom. I wonder where it’s gone. To get onto the Esplanade you have to be brushed with a metal detector. Although the web site said backpacks would be searched, the guy at the gate claims it said they were not allowed at all. “You can empty it out”, he said, “and put the contents in a plastic bag,” but the empty cloth must stay here under a tree like a naughty dog. “Happy Independence Day,” he says. I wonder if he’s aware of the irony.

Big Brother

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We have become the most skittish home of the brave I know. We are being watched, we are told, for our own good. The watcher is not some enemy nation, but our own “leaders.” Lead us not, I pray, into temptation. I wonder when we considered chasing girls in a canoe away from the shore a matter of national security. In 1985 I called Boston home. When my wife and I came to the Fireworks Concert as a young engaged couple, we lazily wandered down to the Esplanade, plopped on a free bit of grass and saw maybe an officer or two the entire day. Now everyone on this grassy strip is treated as if they’re on a grassy knoll. Armed police on boats cruise the shore to make sure we’re minding our manners. After dark that helicopter spotlight can’t help but to make you feel guilty of something. There’s a hurricane coming, and three tons of fireworks are sitting anxiously on the barges in the river. The concert begins, but soon so does lightning. They skip right to the fireworks, forget the 1812 Overture. I wonder about my evil backpack under the tree.

The woman behind me is talking to her companion about how illogical the backpack rule is. “If the bag is empty, why can’t you take it in?” she asks. I’m not one to talk to strangers, but I have to turn around to agree. We exchange horror stories about being screened at the airport. Doesn’t anybody see how offended our revolutionary forebears would’ve been by such a military presence in peacetime? What if some crazed national decided to do something insane? Would that wicked machine gun hit me and my family, right on the waterfront, while trying to get the perpetrator? Are we collateral damage on the trail to freedom? Or is freedom even in the picture any more? We can’t let the terrorists win. Every time we face a backpack full of homemade explosives with hundreds and hundreds of chunky guys on bicycles and hovering our heads with deadly force, I can’t help but think it’s no contest. There’s a hurricane coming. They rush through the fireworks and I join the other owners of dispossessed backpacks looking for my luggage. Then the fattest raindrops I have even felt begin to fall.