Magic, Music, Weirdness and Still Being in Love With America

  1. Last night, as is our custom, my wife and watched the fireworks from East Park from our porch. We could only see the highest of the explosions, the ones that reached above the treeline, but that's enough. Whatever argument I'm having with my government or culture – and I'm usually having one issue or another – I'll admit, I like fireworks, and I like the Fourth of July.
  2. Is that odd? I'll admit, I'm not usually a good judge of what's odd or not. And let's face it, America is a weird country. Having seen rather a lot of it, often from unconventional angles, I feel comfortable speaking to this nation's underlying strangeness. And why wouldn't it be? We all came here at different times for different reasons, many of them painful. The immigrants that came here from the Old World were religious zealots, criminals, slaves, refugees from famine and war, and of course, a handful of adventurers and fortune-hunters, but really fewer than we romanticize. We like to dress up the country's origin story in noble fairy tales of seeking religious freedom and what not, but honestly, most of our antecedents were forced here either by gunpoint or circumstance. Even our native population, which we tend to think of as having homogenous origins, appear now to have arrived here at different times by different methods, presumably from different places and for different reasons.
  3. We are utterly crazy to look for homogeneity in that motley mess, and yet we do. Honestly, I find America's messy humanity far more interesting than the sanitized facade of some mythical small-town America ideal that we keep being told we should aspire to. Admittedly there is something reassuring when you're driving across the country about knowing you can reliably find a Denny's in a reasonable amount of time, but it's not exactly magic. Magic is finding the remnants of an authentic ghost town off the beaten path in Arizona, and then the worst cup of gas station coffee ever a few miles further down the road; or waking up and stepping out of the hotel where you crashed the night before in Colorado to discover you have an absolutely stunning view of the mountains, or even seeing the world's largest thermometer from the highway from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Magic is finding a surprisingly good Middle Eastern restaurant in a strip mall in Canton, Ohio, or stumbling across an amazing vegan soul food restaurant in Philadelphia. Generic consumer culture is convenient, certainly, but it's really antithetical to everything we are, and I think we're starting to figure that out, but our relative affluence as a country makes us impatient, and doesn't incline us toward introspection on any mass scale.
  4. But still, I'm in love with America. I'm not in love with the mythology of America, and I'm more than a little annoyed with its politics and pretty much about half its population at the moment, but I still love it. I wish sometimes I could make people see what I see when I look out the window, but it seems no amount of poetry or journalism will ever do that. I wish I could make people see how utterly ridiculous their xenophobia is in a place where everything is strange, and always has been.
  5. Perhaps British author Neil Gaiman caught that weirdness the best in his novel American Gods, which has recently become a TV show. Writes Gaiman:

    "It's perfectly simple," said Wednesday. "In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or ... well, you get the idea."

    "There are churches all across the States, though," said Shadow.

    "In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists' offices. No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they've never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog, and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”
  6. Simultaneously profoundly satisfied and dissatisfied. That's about as American a state of being as I can imagine. Perhaps we would be more comfortable in our own identity if we stopped trying to link it to some fundamental sameness, and embraced the fact that we're a chaotic mutt of a country. When we acknowledge and honor that, we're capable of amazing things. When we run from it, we're just running from ourselves, and that path leads inevitably to failure.
  7. American Music
  8. A while back, I created a playlist for a column I wrote, trying to illustrate the torrent of American popular music from the early 20th century to present. Blues, jazz, country, folk, rock 'n' roll, hip-hop. It's no startling revelation that most of our popular music originated African-Americans, and even what started with poor, rural whites, such as country, had a lot of common threads and lineage. More than any of the arts, music is the fullest expression of the American character, and that character has been shaped by those who have really built this country: The poor, the marginalized, the often-oppressed. There are folks these days who like to talk about the real America, whatever that is, but it seems to me that anyone who can burn so bright and create such beauty while suffering so many hardships? That's all the realness I need.
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