Despite living in the leftist capital of America, I was a little bit sad when I realized that I’d be spending the Fourth of July on an airplane to Canada. No matter how you feel about politics or hamburgers, the pleasure of mixing alcohol, a grill, and fireworks are pretty undeniable.
One of my friends pointed out to me that I’d probably be able to see fireworks all across America as I traveled East, which was a small, but semi-poetic consolation. I tried to convince myself I was looking forward to this display, but then I got distracted with leaving my old job, moving to a new apartment, figuring out how to adhere to the dress code of my new job, and packing for a two-week new employee orientation in Canada (all in the space of three days.)
By the time I landed in the seat of the airplane after nearly missing my flight, all I could think was, “The people who are actually celebrating the Fourth of July should have a drinking game where they get to drink every time I say to myself, ‘Oh my god, I think I might throw up.'”
I’d sort of forgotten about the fireworks until I realized that despite the fact that it was getting later, the sun hadn’t set. My friend was wrong, I thought grumpily, no fireworks.
I closed the shades so that I could focus better on my computer screen, where I immersed myself in white papers, case studies, and other collateral that made me cherish the freedoms afforded me by this great nation.
Then, just as I was thisclose to learning what it takes to triple sales without increasing your workforce, the pilot announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you look out your windows now, you’ll see some fireworks in Milwaukee, and then Chicago.”
I threw the shade open and pressed my nose to the glass. I could see fireworks in multiple locations, as well as some flashing antennas that I sort of mistook for fireworks. In other words, the fireworks were teeny-tiny, or to put it bluntly: lame. And disappointing.
I recalled how one summer, when I was very young, we went all the way downtown to see the Macy’s fireworks and got so close that embers fell on us. I asked my mother the whole time, “Is this the grand finale?” And she kept saying, “No, the grand finale is going to be even bigger than this. When it happens, you’ll know.” But I kept asking. I couldn’t wait.
It was probably one of the most thrilling experiences of my childhood, and I found myself on the plane feeling a longing for that kind of tangible experience – the startling light, the smell of smoke, the sound of an explosion, and most of all, the sense of something that was unfathomably larger than life.
Looking at all the little fireworks stripped away the mystery. It was sad to realize that the fireworks weren’t magical; that the heart-pounding thrill doesn’t come from the intrinsic property of being a firework – it’s an illusion of excitement induced by lights, noise, and smoke (and mirrors.) Plus, they were so common place. When you watch fireworks up close, it seems like your fireworks are the only fireworks in the world. But really, they happen everywhere, to everyone, and they can even happen to you more than once.
It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot lately now that I’m really really really old. How can we have life experiences, collect data, become knowledgeable, and recognize patterns without getting completely cynical? It seems unfair that when you finally find yourself in a position to see something with clarity, it automatically becomes un-special.
So I gave up and went back to the white papers, which delivered everything they promised and even exceeded my expectations. (Corporate life: 1, Intangible mysticism: 0.)
Then, the flight attendant came around to collect garbage. She was older, French, very blond, still beautiful, and smiling largely at me. To get my attention, she gestured her head towards my window. “Can you see you the fireworks?”
I don’t know why she singled me out, but she made me feel like a kid who was flying alone for the first time, instead of a not-at-all kid embarking on a very long business trip. I spun my head around to stare again.
Maybe it was the strange sense of youth she’d sparked in me, but suddenly, I was in awe. The fireworks were a little clearer and bigger, but instead of looking at them and thinking how insufficient each set of fireworks was, I was in awe of the abundance. So many fireworks! Close to the surface of earth, it was a dark night, but above the blackness, the broader sky was still colored by the sunset. The fireworks were not astounding, but my view was epic.
I thought (as only someone briefly possessed by the personality of a 5-year old flying alone for the first time could): “Wow, there is so much out there.”
When I got to my hotel late that night, the girl who I have referred to as my secret twin since I was five-years old gchatted me. (She shares my first name, and apparently my brain.) “I love fireworks,” she wrote. “We should have them everyday, just random bursts throughout the day. Everyone would be happier. Or they’d get really jaded to fireworks, I guess.”
I guess the reality of life is that Getting Jaded Happens. There’s only so many times something can blow up in your face before it stops being exciting. But one has to hope that we can gain knowledge from experience without losing our ability to surrender to an experience. Maturity shouldn’t strip us of our ability to appreciate beauty just because we can no longer jump 10 ft in the air every time we come across it.
Maybe maturing means that we no longer see fireworks as the main event, or the dramatic finale as the destination. That doesn’t mean that fireworks don’t make us happy, it just means they play a different role. What was once an explosion becomes an arresting enhancement on a ever-expanding horizon.