Monday, July 5, 2010

Happy 4th of July

Robyn and I went to Clinton Lake yesterday for the 4th of July, which is about a 45 minute drive from Champaign. We were cordially invited by our roommate, B-, and his girlfriend. We were also joined there by an assortment of graduate students from UIllinois, from a variety of departments; literature, gender studies, biology. By the time we all convened by the lakeside, our party consisted of a Frenchmen, an Austrian, a Serb, and two Poles. In fact, Robyn and I were the only two Americans.

The first thing that we did when we got to the lake was set up a BBQ and picnic in the designated area. We were maybe 50 yards from a much larger party - maybe even some kind of family reunion, or possibly just several different families celebrating the 4th together. Their party included a whole mess of tow-headed youths, and at least two larger gentlemen sporting shirts and shorts emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes.

I have written in the past about why I think that Independence Day is one of our most overrated of holidays, but spending it with such a cosmopolitan group may have changed my mind a little bit about that. As a kid, I remember loving the 4th of July, when we got to set off our fireworks on the front patio before going out to watch the city fireworks. But it became harder to celebrate after Bush became president, and after my country started doing all of these terrible things around the world that made me profoundly ashamed of being an American. (Of course, this may have more to do with the fact that I became more aware of the terrible things that we had been doing... reading Paul Farmer's book is hard :-( .....)

But getting to spend the holiday with our foreign friends and talking with them about it may have changed my mind. It's an interesting thing to have to isolate and identify those things that I like about my country, and then defend those to others. I like baseball.* I like how Americans tend to be friendly people, who are good at reserving judgment. I like the 5th Amendment. Probably my favorite amendment. But more interesting than even this was talking with our friends about how they celebrate their countries. Poland, for example, celebrates it's "independence day" on November 11th, which is Armistice Day**, marking the beginning of the process that would create the modern Polish nation-state between Russia and Germany. But this celebrating is a somber one, they said, more about meditating on how one's country comes about through the deaths of individual human beings than celebrating abstract concepts like freedom or patriotism. Even France's Bastille day, July 14th, which is in many ways modeled on America's Independence Day, still is a reflection on how it was profound suffering that gave way to the birth of a new nation, and that it is the deaths of thousands of prisoners and peasants that provided the foundation for the French Republic.

The drive back from Clinton Lake goes through old corn farming country, and the route is dotted with one barn after another, varying in color from red to gray to brown, and in maintenance as well, and in age, until it links up with I-57, which will take you to Chicago or to Memphis.

*That is a topic for another blogpost. B- has been living in the U.S. for over two years now, but he still maintains that baseball is the most boring sport ever. And he enjoys tennis.

**Kurt Vonnegut has convinced me to stop celebrating Veteran's Day in the U.S., and to recognize only Armistice Day, the day that "God talked to man."

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