Fourth of July: slightly better than you think

So they do the big community fireworks show in our exurb the night before the Fourth of July — that is, today, the third — presumably so they don’t have to compete with the real fireworks shows, the mega-extravaganzas detonated by the nearby big cities. Makes sense. Can you imagine if every town and city shot off their arsenals at the same time on the same night? The skies would be pyro pandemonium. (Would that be so bad?)

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For our country-fair version of neon-blooms and sky-borne booms we’re granted largish park space, hot dog and churros stands and only slightly embarrassing cover bands with names like The Rolling Clones doing their best not to asphyxiate classics by CCR, the Beatles, Journey, Foreigner and scads of other woolly ‘60s-‘70s supergroups. The music and fireworks are free. The hot dogs are not. Parking is combat. There is no alcohol. 

This is not a recipe for delight. The Fourth is kind of a dead-end holiday to begin with. Perfunctory plastic flag-waving and high-school-band parades aside, I don’t think many Americans are actually reflecting on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. You might be, but really you aren’t. It’s all very patriotic, in a face-painty kind of way.  

th-1.jpegThat said, it’s a good summer holiday, sort of the kickoff to the season (which happens to be my least favorite season, just saying), that is strangely rife with hot dogs. They’re all over the joint.

A good holiday, but not the best. That honor goes to, well, just about every other American holiday. Easter, with its gobs of chocolate, is almost better than July Fourth. Thanksgiving is better. Certainly lawless Halloween and the gift-bloated Christmas surpass it. Hell, even my birthday beats out Independence Day, which is kind of like the special little brother of holidays. Sacrilege? Sorry.

But we settle. The Fourth has its fun. Fireworks, especially from the stance of this recovered pyromaniac, are glorious. Even the rinky-dink version in the ‘burbs, with rampant children, grassy blankets, hot dogs, snow-cones and long-in-the-tooth bands belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’” casts a pleasant spell — and gundpowdery smell.

Away from the park, beer flows and barbecues flame. Small gatherings happen in backyards. Kids squeal and peal and dogs slalom around bare legs and sandaled feet. (Those dogs want … hot dogs.) The occasional dancing sparkler is unveiled to the astonished eyes of youngsters.

I have indelible memories of the holiday as a kid on the beaches of Southern California. It was magic: illegal firecrackers, smoke bombs and Roman candles, lit from inside huge sand pits we dug that sat four or five friends. We were there all day until the city’s big fireworks show unfurled in the night sky, over the ocean, popping, bursting, crackling, streaming. And there we were, watching below, aglow in a thousand sizzling colors.

* Update: The local fireworks shebang was rained out on July 3. They rescheduled the big party for, get this, July 13 — a wee late. And it’s Friday the 13th. Isn’t that its own wild holiday?

Death becomes us

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” 

Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death”

For some of us, the above “rumble of terror” is a buckling, earth-cracking tremor felt many times each day, a sort of clockwork bell that tolls every hour, on the hour. It is, of course, death, our unavoidable mortality, crooking a finger, baring its teeth and uttering a horror-movie cackle.

Drama aside, what Becker says is that without a sharp recognition of the reality of your own death you paper over a critical dimension of existence. Without death, paradoxically, a major chunk of life is muted. You reside in the dark.

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The existential denial Becker speaks of amounts to an ignorance as willful as it is mystifying. To mention dying has become taboo. How can the most important stage in life, the great closure, the monumental punctuation mark, be off limits? I don’t want to think about it,” goes a common refrain. “It’s just too horrible.” 

But is it? By being aware of your mortality, knowing you will die, that it is an unstoppable event, you can cultivate a richer, more philosophical, existentially awakened life. The aim of this consciousness, as I’ve written before, is to “put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness.”

Instead, people distract themselves from the big questions and tough realities. Texting, Facebook and binge TV shows are potent diversions. We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

Rubbish.

“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing,” Becker says.

Death isn’t on my lips — I rarely broach the subject — but it weighs on my mind like an anvil. I’m not talking about the gruesome, corporeal details of death — the corpse, the medical examiner, the venal funeral industry, the land waste of burial — but the chilly philosophical fact of mortality, of dying. Not how we die, but that we die.

Hans Larwin's amazingly evocative 'Soldat und Tod' ('Soldier and Death') from 1917

It’s confounding that people dodder through life without considering death, as though it’s some vague, distant inconvenience that won’t afflict them — not even when they’re crossing a busy street or speeding down the highway or eating a marbled slab of steak or hauling around 100 pounds of extra body weight. The musty cliché “ignorance is bliss” could not be more fitting.

Accepting our fate now, in the present, dulls the fear factor. The idea of dying — Becker’s “rumble of terror” — is inarguably frightening, and that’s certainly why so many of us keep it at bay. But awareness makes you smarter, more prepared. It eases the angst. “The fear of death follows from the fear of life,” Mark Twain said. “A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

To live fully, says Becker, means to live mindfully, to be cognizant of that lyrical rumble of terror, to embrace one’s fate, or to at least be on cordial terms with it. It is, in fact, consciousness in full bloom.

The dog’s search for meaning

It’s hot outside and the dog gallops up the stairs to the very warm attic, panting with a slashing smile, tongue flapping, teeth bared, eyes wide and wild, tail wagging. He looks “on,” like he’s just hit the stage to burst into a blazing showtune, or just won the lottery. He’s so very jazzed to be here. 

Realizing he’s just exerted that much energy only to run into me at the top, me, ordinary me, who has no food for him, just pets and pats for the good doggie, he quickly calms and collapses on the floor, seals his salivating maw, exhales one huffy breath through his nostrils and resigns himself to the humdruminess of life. Rip-off, he’s certainly thinking.

The dog is not alone in his deflation. The heat rises to the cozy attic and no fan, no matter its wattage, can disperse the vapors. But it’s an existential heat, too, one we all know at some point, here and there. The dog is in the throes of it, stretched out in languid dismay.

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The dog, gazing at me, pondering his existential predicament.

And so am I, to an extent, though I am not physically sprawled out, that would be ridiculous. Still, the dog and I are in moody concert, encased in ennui, a kind of life weariness, if just for this time. Trying to write, I turned to reading my book, “NW” by Zadie Smith, when the dog jogged up to say hello and discovered the groin-punch of nothingness.

Right now, his glass — or his water bowl — is half-empty, to borrow the old metaphorical measure of the optimist vs. the pessimist. He is slowly realizing that life isn’t a continuous (tennis) ball, that letdowns lurk, that existence precedes essence, that not all chew toys are created equal. These are things I learned years ago, that we make our own happiness, shape our own lives, that free will, not divine intervention, reigns, and that disappointments and satisfactions are divvied up about 65/35. The dog doesn’t know all this yet. He is a troubled soul.

In anthropomorphic terms, he’s displaying a glint of neuroses. Somewhere Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre are high-fiving over the notion that psychological and existential angst can be traced in a furry quadruped.

The dog seeks the meaning of life, this is plain from his searching brown eyes, furrowed brows and the alarming way he drags his butt across the carpet. Freud’s pleasure principle manifests itself in his frequent calls for belly rubs. Sartre’s theory, which states that our individual responsibility in defining our own lives is almost debilitating in its enormity, has the dog a little down. Knowledge of his own mortality is something of a buzz kill.

At times like this, a good, jaunty walk won’t cut it. Scooby snacks — nope. A ride in the car? He snickers. But the dog is resilient, and getting his tail wagging is not a demanding task. As with me, these moods of brooding despair and overthinking are intermittent. He’d rather eat a good meal or harass the cats than dwell on the insane, undeniable meaninglessness of his puny little life.

And the next time he does, I plan to start reading to him from Sartre’s daunting opus “Being and Nothingness” or Freud’s “The Future of an Illusion.” And when I myself plummet to pondering the philosophical conundrums, the dog can read to me from — this is an actual book — “Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog.”

Life’s too short for sulking. I know this. However, the dog, whose years are on the seven-year scale, meaning he’s about 21 to 28 in human years, resides on a shorter leash. But this canine savant is swiftly learning one of the essentials, no matter how fur-raising:

Self-realization — it’s a bitch.

The cafe’s human carnival

It is on Saturdays in the teeming cafe that the grasping hodgepodge of humanity is on circusy show, performing a bustling if familiar boogie starring tip-tapping lap-toppers, laughing friends, wailing toddlers, softly groping couples and expert baristas, frenzied, always frenzied, deploying tentacles behind the long curving counter, confecting elaborate beverages for the restive masses. 

It’s not quite as crazed as it sounds — well, it kind of is — yet characters abound, vivid regulars I see several times a week. Like:

The frowzy old codger, pants up to here, who shuffles through the cafe, pacing to and fro, issuing random quack-quacks like a grizzled duck. Or The Wayward Whistler, who sort of bops in, sunglasses on, whistling blithely, lost in his own groovy cosmos, loud and vexing. He’s like the guy strutting with a boom-box on his shoulder, self-awareness at zero, tweetling away through lips like a Cherrio.

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And let’s get her out of the way: one of the most unfortunate stars of the show, a barista I’ll call C. (as in Crazy). She is the worst kind of “funny,” the aggressive kind. She inflicts her humor on you, weaponizes it. She uses her post behind the counter as both launchpad and stage.

C. is loud — screeching jetliner loud. And she weirdly believes that feistily abusing customers and colleagues is a hoot. “Every single last one of you, even my coworkers, gets on my nerves!” she booms in a strangled bray directly at a customer whose icy, confused half-smile makes you want to shrivel up and die. Hilarious!

Another time, C., a squat, stout woman, waddles up to the register and thunders: “DO I HAVE TO RING THEM UP? THEY DRIVE ME CRAZY!” She is pointing at two customers. She is smirking, this distaff Don Rickles. They don’t know what to do. Hysterics!

One day C., a dumpling of ear-shattering zingers, actually starts barking like a dog. “You all right?” a coworker quietly asks, eyebrow cocked, embarrassment flooding the room.

The cafe, much like C., is a frequent shambles, with boxes scattered across the floor, unkempt bathrooms, backed-up orders. That said, many of the baristas are pros: efficient, conscientious, polite and often doting.

Yet it’s the people-ly parade that’s most engaging, the variety of voices, the panoply of personalities that eddy through what is, at its best, an aromatic oasis from the familiarities of home.

It’s the nebbishy white guy with the foot-tall afro of such fluffy resplendence it could be a follicular monument. It’s the pretty, modish woman with the irresistible bangs and regrettable tattoos who consorts with a dubious bearded fellow in too-short skinny jeans.

It’s the gabby, globular ex-cop who wears black and yellow Steelers regalia — cap, jacket, shirt — everyday and clearly doesn’t know what an “inside voice” is. His guffaws are small earthquakes registered as far away as Idaho.

It’s the just-retired mailman who looks roughly 90 and has the ashen, cadaverous facade of a slain vampire, yet is endlessly friendly, despite the fangs. It’s the knots of teenage girls who come in giggling and gabbing, texting the entire time, mad multitaskers who have this smartphone shit down.

Amid all this, the chatty din, the roiling throngs, I read and write. Inconspicuous as I am, head buried in the computer, I’m not quite invisible. A few baristas know my name, including cackling C., who has unleashed her corrosive humor on me to no effect, except my urge to barf.

Yet I lay low, tucked in, watching the human carousel, that merry microcosm, by turns fascinating, alarming and heartening, spin on.

Just a typical day out in Austin, Texas

A long time ago in the hip and happening capital of Texas …

AUSTIN — Motorcycles have their place: soaring over rows of parked trucks; buzzing maniacally inside the Globe of Death; revving on stage at Judas Priest concerts. But they really stank up the city over the weekend, when nearly a billion rumbled in with their owners and the chicks who ride on the back for the annual hog-athon.

The bikes were gorgeous, exotic creatures: fetishistically sculpted chrome and steel, sparkling in the sun, low-slung and high-maintenance. Many appeared like they just vrooomed out of TV’s “American Chopper.” And they were everywhere downtown, rolling in parade formations and shredding the muggy air with hot chainsaw screams and crackling flatulence.

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In other words, they were noisy and they took every single parking space. (One bike per meter? Please. You can stuff four of those things between the painted lines.) Still, I’m glad these hairy, leather-laden compatriots, who seem to believe a well-tied head scarf serves the same protective function as a helmet, enjoyed the weekend fellowship and Austin’s renowned ethos of tolerance. It gives the city that rowdy edge.

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Timothy “Speed” Levitch

I didn’t even mind that the bikes’ symphonic violence (thousands of tubas played in a rain of napalm) sporadically drowned out my conversation with Speed Levitch at Casino El Camino. Through the bar’s ambient chatter, through the jukebox punk and metal, the choppers chopped.

Speed’s the star of the garrulous documentaries “The Cruise” and “Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor.” The movies reveal a young eccentric whorling through funny, far-out reveries, spinning streamers of soliloquy around the neon rave of his own mind. He’s a performance artist, a living one-man show, radiating an internal spotlight. He’s pretty charismatic, if kind of freaky.

Part poet, part gypsy-hippy, Speed has lots of friends in town and performs here often. He came from New York to do his show over the weekend. Saturday night he was merely hanging at one of his favorite local bars to get one of his favorite local dishes, Casino’s eggplant sandwich.

As we wove through flotillas of idling two-wheelers, Speed told how he’s reinvented his famed New York tour-guide shtick into ambulatory sidewalk theater. (Watch the above movies and you’ll understand.) He was inspired by a friend who coached the late Spalding Gray, Speed said. “He told me, ‘Do what you feel and keep a clear communication with your soul, amplify it, and then call it theater.’ ”

Then Speed sped off.

Later, at the city’s premiere arts venue: Some two hundred people attended Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi fugue “Solaris” at the Paramount Theatre.

The turnout surprised me. “Solaris” isn’t action-packed summer adventure. It has more in common with Ingmar Bergman, fog and glaciers than George Lucas, androids and lasers. It’s a challenging, deeply spiritual and very long trip. It’s been called the Soviet answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But Kubrick’s film is “Spaceballs” compared to the abstruse, though fascinating, eye-squinchingly wise “Solaris.”

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Nearly everyone endured all three hours, despite an intermission — an invitation to flee. As the red velvet curtains closed over an elegant “The End” tag, the audience sat in dumbfounded silence. Eventually, murmurs were heard. Blood returned to vital organs.

I’m picturing some of these brave souls walking to their cars in a stun-gun stupor. They drive silently through the dark, the radio off. At home, they strip, lie on their bed in the dark, and softly weep.

Far in the distance, a chopper revs and groans.

Running the Red Light

As we strolled by the famous Theatre Casa Rosso, Amsterdam’s mecca of live sex shows, our Red Light District tour guide, an American expat with an aptly ribald air, offered the small group a couple of tips. 

“I strongly suggest you go to a live sex show, where you see people actually having sex on stage. And I think you should try the nearby peep show, where you can watch various sex acts through a little window at a cost of 2 euros for two minutes. It’s a riot.”

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Red Light District canal lined with lust and live sex shows. The fabled Casa Rosso on the left.

She chuckled at her naughty proposals, but she wasn’t kidding. While others in the tour vacantly snapped photos, she took me aside and stressed what a kick the peep shows are in language I won’t share on this page. 

Of course I took the bait. I was in Amsterdam last week and, as always in my travels, I strive for an immersive experience. I’d already caught one of the live sex shows during a previous visit to the city years ago. (It was one of the least sexy spectacles I’ve ever seen.)

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Perhaps the oldest coffeeshop in Amsterdam, The Bulldog, where pot and hash are sold and smoked. It’s also the most touristy.

So I went for the peep show, because at 2 euros ($2.37) there’s little to lose. The peep show theater is like most of the live sex show venues on the lip of the canal — dark with black walls and a few colorful lights. I walked into a broom-closet-size booth, dropped a coin into the slot, and a small window slid open. The whole thing smelled of disinfectant.

On view was a young woman in a thong bikini writhing on the floor, occasionally shaking her tush at my window, then writhing some more. Immediately bored, a tad nauseated, I lasted about 52 seconds. It was unsexy, unsavory, underwhelming. Moral qualms weren’t at play; aesthetics were. Yet I didn’t feel burned as I left. I didn’t know what to expect, although the tour guide promised miles more than what I saw. Glad I missed it.

Next to the fierce, hands-on-hips prostitutes rapping their glass windows to get my attention, that was the extent of the “sexy” side of the Red Light I endured on this visit. I skipped the ultra-raunchy Sexmuseum Amsterdam (I did that on the last trip; one word: bestiality) and the softer Erotic Museum, and eschewed the glut of tawdry sex shops selling so much rubber, leather and latex, eye-popping erotica so loony it was comical.

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Red-lighted brothel windows where sex workers showoff their merchandise.

Shot through with Instagram-ready canals and curling medieval alleyways, the Red Light District is so iconic it’s practically a cliché. Pot-peddling coffeeshops, bondage and condom stores, coitus and cannabis museums — a cornucopia of no-no’s that happen to be gleefully and legally A-OK. It’s a degenerate’s playground, a voyeur’s wonderland, and an exotic otherworld for the blamelessly curious.

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Oude Kerk

Rinsed of its notorious junky past, the Red Light is safe, clean and aggressively touristy. It can be enigmatic, and incongruities abound: Next to the Princess Juliana Nursery School, where children of sex workers attend, are not only brothels, but also the gothic 14th-century church De Oude Kerk (The Old Church), once Catholic and now a bastion of Dutch Protestantism. It’s the oldest building in Amsterdam. Around the corner is the city’s comparatively staid Chinatown, crackling with ethnic eateries, whole cooked ducks dangling in windows.

While pot-smoky coffeeshops and party-hearty bars lace the neighborhood — see The Bulldog chain — hidden gems are nestled amid the mild mayhem. Just off a canal, tucked in a snug alley, sits the jenever (Dutch gin) tasting tavern Wynand-Fockink, a 17th-century distillery of international renown that packs ‘em into its W.C.-sized room. 

The flavored and unflavored jenevers — scores of varieties line the back wall — are poured liberally in tulip glasses for free tastings. I tried a range of five, settling on a lemon-infused concoction that was as refreshing as lemonade, but with snap. 

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Some of my samples at the jenever tasting at Wynand-Fockink.

Frankly, it had more bite, imagination and personality than the pallid peep show I stumbled out of moments earlier. A good stiff drink is always a powerful antidote to a spirit-sucking sex show.

The Red Light District can’t quite transcend hard-stuck stereotypes. Yet physically it’s startlingly pretty, graced with old, skinny gabled houses, tree-lined canals and cobblestone pathways. It’s one of the city’s homiest hoods. Bicycles asphyxiate streets with a collective smile, wind-blown hair and the musical clangching of tiny bells.

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The District bristles with fast food stalls and it’s prime for the mandatory frites, or fries, drowned in mayo. A mad confusion of tourist shops tout the gamut: T-shirts and postcards, psychedelic mushrooms, pot-infused lollipops, trip-happy Space Cakes, bongs, pipes and papers, condoms and cock rings.

You can’t help smirking at this uninhibited XXX Disneyland, which broadcasts its checkered past in blazing neon and, with equally cheeky pride, trumpets a checkered present aspiring to smutty heights. Yet if it knows no limits, it’s clear that most of its visitors do. (As you’d expect, the later it gets, the rowdier it gets.)

The District is hardly running amok (see these safety measures for sex workers), even if some imaginations do. With few exceptions, the place is shrink-wrapped, condom-coated, safe and, counterintuitively, good, clean fun. It’s naughty, but nice.