It’s that time of year again when people all over America celebrate the Fourth of July and, for the most part, have no idea why. It’s official name is Independence Day, and that should be a clue, but the significance of that name seems largely to have been forgotten by those bent over charcoal grills searing hamburgers and hot dogs and waiting for the fireworks to begin.
Here on the island in Puget Sound where I live there is a fireworks display so spectacular that it rivals the Macy’s show in New York City. Unofficially here we call it “Scare the Bejesus Out of Animals Day.” This is a largely rural island full of animals and they are not avid celebrants of our nation’s Declaration of Independence: Dogs (universally terrified); cats (pay no attention at all); horses (who assume there’s a war going on nearby and fear being pressed into service as of old); sheep (too dumb to notice), goats (too smart to care), cows (who just keep on placidly chewing, though their milk curdles); llamas (who wish they were back in the remote and quiet Andes); chickens (who run around idiotically even when there are no fireworks)…and so on.
The connection between declaring our independence back in 1776 and blowing things up has never been very clear to me, so I looked it up. It turns out this is all the fault of Founding Father John Adams. You have to remember that blowing things up is a revered tradition in England. Rebels and dissidents just like our own tried to blow up the English Parliament only a century and a half earlier.
The declaration was approved on July second but not formally signed until the fourth. In a July third letter to his wife, Abigail, Adams proclaimed that:
"I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
Of course, Adams, who became our second president, had no idea what the rest of the “continent” involved; he only represented thirteen colonies claiming now to be states independent of Britain. Can you imagine the reaction when the many Native tribes occupying the rest of the continent got the email about the declaration and the celebration? They’re sitting around a fire having dinner when the news arrives, and a chief says, “Guys, I don’t think this is good news, you know?”
Much grumbling follows. Another chief says, “Look, these are people who are believers in the Age of Enlightenment—you know, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith. I don’t see a problem.”
“May I repeat, my friend, that these are people who like to seize land and blow things up?”
Memorial Day is, of course, the occasion upon which we honor those who have given their lives to ensure our freedom as a people and protect our independence and strength as a nation.
But it’s not just a remembrance day, as solemn as that is. It is also the official beginning of…
…you thought I’d say summer, right? Well, okay, you’re close, but nope. Memorial Day officially opens the season wherein men can bring their white bucks out of winter shoe hibernation and don them at last without fear of opprobrium. This is a cause for celebration in certain circles.
White bucks may only be worn between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Nobody has ever been able to explain why this season should be bounded by holidays commemorating fallen heroes and the labor movement, but there you are. It’s a mystery, but a mystery assiduously heeded by those of us who actually own white bucks.
Yes, I am one of them. Mine are actually white buck wingtips, with those odd little holes in a pattern on the leather. Very spiffy. They’re sort of “dress bucks.” But they are not just for formal summer occasions—lawn parties, croquet, and the like, for example. Oh no. They’re for everyday enjoyment.
There are a few rules, naturally, for something as significant as this. For example, one does not wear socks with white bucks. Never. Wear them barefoot with old worn bluejeans, or freshly-pressed khakis. But not shorts. Shorts are for schoolboys, not grown men. Wear them with your cream-colored lined suit (any man worth having has one), or even beneath light gray trousers and a double-breasted navy blue blazer. And if you live somewhere between Atlanta and New Orleans (but no further north), a seersucker suit. Texas does not count because in that benighted state, men still wear white patent shoes in summer, with matching white patent belt. With some cow’s head on the buckle. This is one persuasive reason (one of many) to encourage Texas to become an independent nation.
I confess that white bucks are mostly an East Coast passion (I hesitate to say “affectation”). Here in the Pacific Northwest where I now live, white bucks are ill-understood. And for good reason: it rains here a lot, even in summer, and rain splatter would be so unfair to the bucks. You can almost sense them wince if you open the door to showers. They are sun lovers.
So there you have it: the rules for wearing summer white bucks. Gentlemen, take heed. Ladies, slip this missive to your guy. And if you live in the Northwest, tell him to take his muck boots off first!
It is a very old, very lame joke you will remember (sadly) from elementary school: “If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?” (Answer: Pilgrims!) I know. Stupid, but cute.
But “May flowers” hold a very specific and wonderful memory for me.
A little over a decade ago, I went out for a walk. In England. It took three and a half months and I covered between 1200 to 1400 miles, solo. It was magical and it changed me forever. But that’s not the point of this story.
One day, about a week into my walk, I was loping along a footpath beaten into the top of the Berkshire Downs high above the valley of the River Thames. It is called “The Ridgeway” because that is exactly what it is: a footpath that runs for hundreds of miles along the ridge of a limestone escarpment that runs almost to England’s east coast. It has been in continuous use by walkers for more than 5,000 years. Why? Because, being high, it was safer and easier to navigate than the thickly-choked wooded valleys below.
It was mid-May as I traversed the Ridgeway. And May in England is a special month (I shall refrain from relating the pagan origins of “dancing around the May pole…”): it is the month the “May tree” blooms. “May tree?” I’d never heard of it. What is it? It is the lowly hawthorn. The trees and, of course, those wonderfully green hedgerows dividing English fields (hawthorn is the principal component shrub) burst every May into frothy and incredibly fragrant white blossoms so abundant you feel like you are walking down a flower-strewn church aisle and about to be married.
So I was striding through this lovely scene when, suddenly and right above me, a bird began to sing. And the song was so melodic and so complex that I was transfixed. I stood stock still, turned on my little pocket recorder, and taped it for minutes on end. I’m not a “birder,” but I had never before heard this song. I never saw the bird; it was deep in the blossoms. But I never forgot it.
Then, just a week ago, while driving and listening to the radio, I heard the bird again…at the end of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.” And that’s what it was. The English blackbird, unlike the American version, is a prolific singer. And it loves hawthorn hedges. Oh, by the way, McCartney has often said that the song and the word—“blackbird”—refers to black women fighting for justice in America in the 1960s…
Here’s the real song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=997RTKzc39c
May spring bring you birdsong…
“April is the cruelest month…”
That would be my kid sister quoting T.S. Eliot in between her curses this spring. She lives north of New York City and received eight inches of snow on Easter Sunday. And that was after three epic snowstorms in a row. Talk about cruel… Of course Easter also coincided with April Fool’s Day this year, so it might just have been some sort of cosmic joke.
And speaking of jokes, I was born on Good Friday. I am not making this up because, all in all, this has not been a good thing. Good Friday, you may remember from Sunday School, was the day Jesus was crucified. I don’t mean to be sacrilegious or anything, but I’m guessing Jesus didn’t think it was a particularly Good Day. I’m not so sure that my first day was a good day, either. Unlike Jesus, however, I didn’t suffer way back then, as near as I can recall…which is not “near” at all because, you know, I was only just born. But I have been suffering ever since (get out your hankies). My sainted mother took some sort of strange pride in reminding me often that that was the day I was born. She also raised me to be a gentleman. This, it seems to me now, was a sort of double whammy of a curse: Good Friday plus gentleman. It is, pardon the expression, a heavy cross to bear.
Seriously, what good does being good actually get you? This has been a mystery to me. For example, back in high school the good girls always fell for the bad boys, like it was somehow ordained. It just didn’t seem fair. My childhood sweetheart (the first woman I got in trouble with, having been caught kissing her behind the tropical fish tank in kindergarten when it was supposed to be nap time) fell for a bad boy in high school. Well of course she did. He was, after all, handsome and sleekly Italian while I was almost six and a half feet tall and so skinny I could turn sideways and disappear. I’ve tried to put that all behind me (and she and I have been lifelong dear friends), but as I recall they were the King and the Queen of the Senior Prom (happily, years later, she married the most hopelessly good guy I’ve ever known and they’ve lived happily ever after).
So here we are today, many decades later, and the curse persists. See, if you still feel compelled to be a “good boy,” you tend to DO things for people. It’s like a reflex. It doesn’t even rise to conscious thought. But it is problematic. If, for example, you grew up in a New York apartment building with a building superintendent who got all the broken stuff fixed, you developed absolutely no useful skills of your own. None. So DOING things for others, especially women you may be trying to impress, almost always ends in humiliation. Fall off a ladder with a full can of paint in one hand while trying to look useful and you’ll know what I mean. Hopeless.
But not in fiction! In fiction, see, good guys sometimes win. Not often, I’ll grant you, but sometimes. I’ve received any number of letters from female readers of my more romantic novels that claim my male lead characters are “too good.” They pitch in when there is a problem or a crisis. They don’t give up. They take risks for love. They can be depended upon. And to be honest, I feel sorry for these readers, because there are real men out there you can count on. Maybe not a lot; I don’t know. But they’re genuine. Sometimes you have to look under a rock.
Ah, but there is a curse within the curse, and here I want to be serious for just a moment. This is important. What I’ve learned…and it’s taken a very long time…is that if you are a chronic helper, the guy who rides in on the white horse, what it really does is weaken, not save, the person you most want to help, often the person you most love. You are effectively sending a signal that the other person is somehow unable to get it done, or get it done right. Ultimately, this is crippling in a relationship.
So I am still hoping for someone to give me bad boy lessons…
You can blame the following on my late mother. Her name was Hazel, by the way. On the anniversary of her birthday this year, I bought a sports car that only she would have understood and appreciated. And coveted.
The car I bought is the quintessential “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” It looks like a normal German hatchback on the outside, but that is just an illusion. It is a roaring lion. Beneath its unobtrusive shell, it is a track-ready race car. I like to think we share certain common characteristics: we are not what we seem.
But why my mother? I’m glad you asked. Growing up, my mother was the driver in our family. She’d been driving since her early teens. To her, driving was a high art and if you did not know it, please just get the hell out of her way. When my sister and I were little, mom drove only cars with the biggest and most powerful engines available, typically Buicks. Later, I got her into German cars. Her favorite was a limited edition, two-seater, supercharged, Volkswagen Corrado. It was a little rocket. Young and very stupid men would tail the little old gray-haired lady in front of them on the twisty roads where she lived, thinking they could intimidate her to pull over. She would just smile, lean on the accelerator, whip the car through the tightest turns without braking, and watch in the rear view mirror as her pursuer sailed off into the shrubbery. My mother did not suffer fools.
When I got my driver's license, the first thing she did was take me out to a complicated parking lot and demand I drive through it…backwards. Her point? It takes far more skill to control a car going backward than forward. When it snowed, she taught me how to control power slides. Or she’d ask, “What’s behind you?” to teach me to be alert on all sides. Or, “When you enter a sharp curve, don’t brake, accelerate, the car will follow.”
When you were her passenger, there were any number of things she’d mutter or shout at the drivers ahead of her: “This guy is so slow he must be being paid by the hour!” Or, “It’s the long pedal on the right, idiot!” She was not a patient driver; she was a professional. She did not tolerate amateurs.
Long ago and far away, I owned a top of the line BMW 735 luxury car. It was powerful but, honestly, not very nimble. It was totaled from the rear one day. I took the settlement and bought two cars: a VW Golf for my mother and a VW GTI for myself. My mother immediately became a VW Golf fan; you can’t buy a car that’s more fun to drive than one of these hot hatchbacks.
The hottest of the line, however, was the VW GTI, voted every year since its debut decades ago as one of the top ten cars in the world. It looks so innocent under its Golf shell, but it is a monster. I had my first one (fire engine red) for—I am not kidding—twenty-seven flawless years, until some idiot pulled out in front of it and my baby (her name was “Gigi”) was totaled. I mourned her for five years. I bought a more placid and allegedly environmentally clean VW turbo diesel, which turned out to be a polluter. VW bought it back and now I have a brand new VW GTI and I am like a child in a toy store. You probably have to be a serious driver to understand, and I don’t expect you to if you’re not, but can you imagine the pure joy of throwing your sports car into a ninety degree curve, flooring the accelerator, and being completely incapable of breaking the rear end loose? No, probably not. You are a sane person.
But my mom would understand. My sister insists I name the new car “Hazel.”