Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Bombs Bursting in Air

There's a meme in American politics that the more left you are, the more anti-American you are. Perpetuated, of course, by the right, this notion is fueled by a mythological (meaning it never really existed) portrait of an America grounded in highly conservative values. I've never understood how that myth took hold. A simple survey of our history suggests that America has always been more progressive than it is conservative. Progress is ingrained in everything we've done from settling the West to going to the moon to electing the son of an African immigrant to the highest office in the land. Indeed, inherent in our world view as a nation is the fact that we almost exclusively look toward the future and, so, in that way, in my opinion, to be progressive is to be more truly American.

I was thinking about this on the evening of the Fourth of July, as I sat on a hillside on a blanket with a party of my loved ones, surrounded by 500 or so of the most powerful people in the New York art world and local neighbors of the art critic Peter Schjeldahl and his wife Brooke Alderson, who host a picnic and fireworks display every year. Their place is stunningly idyllic (think Giverny of the Catskills), and I don't think I'll ever read a Schjeldahl review again without imagining him writing it from there. Several acres with magical side gardens and a naturally terraced yard that leads down to a winding stream, all backed by a soaring tree-covered mountainside that would later serve as the backdrop for the repeatedly took one's breath away.

The guests ran the gamut in terms of age and how comfortable they looked in the country, with scores and scores of children running around (just to do so) and taking turns floating out on a small square barge into the Schjeldahl-Alderson pond and with the art world's movers-and-shakers and farm-owning families all toasting Independence day and all marveling at the exquisite property and the generosity of our hosts.

As the sun set and darkness crept in from the East, the crowd settled in across the property, most reclining on blankets and cuddling close to combat the chill in the air. Peter and his team of 10 or so then marched down to a clearing behind the stream, carrying all manner of boxes and seemingly homemade launching equipment. Despite the nearly full moon, it was hard to make out what they were doing back there. Slowly though, seven white orbs, scattered across the clearing, began to glow and then grow in size. They grew bigger and bigger as the crowd's gasps grew louder until somewhere in the back, near the house, a man with a big deep voice began to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" accapella. The white orbs revealed themselves to be small hot air balloons that then ever so softly lifted up into the night, gently floating off to the East one by one. Slowly the crowd joined the baritone in the back... a field of 500 men, women, and children quietly, proudly, and here and there with tears softly running down their cheeks, singing their national anthem. "Ain't that America?" I thought to myself.

There were no protests or teabags, no overtones of politics at all, just community and sincere patriotism. As the song ended, the spectacle began in earnest. Peter was once asked in an interview:
What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do?

Pyrotechnician. No kidding. I’ve been doing fireworks each 4th of July for 20 years at our place in the Catskill Mountains. Although it started small, last year there were 500 people, a crew of 18, miles of electric wire; a van-load of stuff gone in 20 minutes – terror and delight.
I misunderestimated what he meant by the terror aspect. Sitting beneath the gorgeously frightening display of rockets exploding far too close above our heads and those booms that were magnified as they echoed back off the mountain, I found myself torn between the impulse to run for my life and being so captivated by the horrible beauty of it all. The group of 15 or so people right next to us had their decision made easy for them, as a dazzling and terrifying display of explosions in the tree right before us all sent white-hot sparks shooting into their blanket. We huddled closer and didn't move, but you could feel everyone in our section shift their weight so as to be able to leap up if necessary.

The entire production was simply sublime. Everyone I talked with afterward (imagine hundreds of people gathered around this massive two-story bonfire, reflecting in the pond with the moon just peeking over the mountain ridge) agreed that it was the most spectacular show Peter's ever put on. The entire evening was magical, but among the memories I took away that I don't think I'll soon forget was how unforced the patriotism of it all was. Flags lined the long driveway up to the house, there were all manner of red, white, and blue cupcakes and cookies and serving bowls, and yet there was a genuine ease to how people individually decided to join in with the man singing in the back. You wanted to, for the simple beauty of the gesture and the moment. This stands in stark contrast to the orchestrated, calculated, and therefore to me highly insincere celebrations I've attended in other locations.

I'm a horrible cynic when it comes to bumber sticker patriotism. How some people use the symbols of our nation as armor or, worse, weapons in their ideological battles has always turned me off. But sitting on the hill, surveying the children running through the gardens, the adults mingling without agenda, and our hosts' phenonemally generous and gorgeous gift to the community, well, patriotism never felt so right or heartbreakingly beautiful to me.

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Blogger jami said...

Imagine, everyone celebrating in harmony, not caring about the next persons party affiliation, at least for one night. Happy 4th to all!

7/06/2009 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

It is most meaningful to me when the 4th wipes away the divisions and everyone comes together as Americans.

The US has always had a great deal of tension between Progressive and Conservative - the Civil War was probably the most difficult national struggle - but even more recently the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's and 70's, Gay Rights in the 70's until now - the Progressivism has always been fraught with conflict and the results uneven (one example is Indian Reservation relocations in the 19th century).

But, it is good to see the veneer of issues-of-the-day stripped aside and see the culture uniting us all. This gives me hope!

7/06/2009 02:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Patriotism is scary.


7/06/2009 04:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Most of the time children experience fireworks before they experience art. At least it was the case for me. And I often wonder if I ever saw art that surpassed the magic of fireworks.

This would be my question to
Peter Schjeldahl.

Cedric C

7/06/2009 04:57:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

The 4th is too sanctimonious for my taste. This helps.

7/06/2009 07:14:00 PM  
Blogger Annie B said...

I love you for this post.

7/06/2009 08:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Have you ever heard "The Star Spangled Banner" read, rather than sung? I recommend it.

7/06/2009 09:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Lisa Schroeder said...


How fortunate was I to get to experience it with you and bambino. Your words really described how profound it really was. This is a year that feels amazingly optimistic and to hear 500 art world liberals singing the star spangled banner gave one the feeling that something truly special has happened.

7/06/2009 11:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


7/07/2009 06:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Cedric C

7/07/2009 08:32:00 AM  
Blogger ish said...

I was there on that hillside too... as someone having the new experience of supporting an actual president (despite his many blunders and a few seeming actual betrayals) your words resonate. It was a beautiful evening.

7/07/2009 10:27:00 AM  

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