It was the 4th of July this past weekend. I love the holiday. (I pretty much love all the holidays.) Growing up, I remember it as something that stood out in the haze of school-free days. I would spend the day swimming with friends, my dad would maybe barbecue some hamburgers. In the evening, everyone in our small town gathered in the local park to watch the fireworks.
I have some vague memories of pathetic attempts by my dad and my brother to set off some of the smaller fireworks in our backyard. (We'd drive outside our city limits and buy them at a stand on the side of the road). They'd spin around and make loud noises. For some reason, we weren’t very successful at actually getting most of them to execute whatever effect they were supposed to create. Perhaps we did it wrong, or perhaps our trusty side-of-the-road supplier wasn’t selling the highest quality merchandise. It didn’t really matter. My brother is four years older than I am, and he and his friends mostly liked that they got to light things on fire.
My fireworks request was always for sparklers because those were my favorite. I loved holding the long wires and watching the sparks burst off of them as I waved them around in the air, spelling out my name, or just twirling—letting the bright light trail behind me. It was a little scary because the sparks would fly all around everyone. But it was thrilling. They felt like magic.
And I get a kick out of red, white and blue food. I can’t help it. I’m a fan of dishes that are cleverly composed of things like strawberries, whipped cream, and blueberries. They add another patriotic flair to the day.
I think that what I love the most about the 4th of July is that it’s one of the few times a year when we focus on our country itself and what it means to us to be American. It’s not a celebration of a particular person or group of people—it’s the whole country. We're celebrating our nation. It’s not the fashion these days to be overtly patriotic, but perhaps because I was adopted and because my family was always politically active, I’ve always felt a deep love for this country. I feel lucky to be American.
It’s not a perfect country.
Believe me, there are times when I wonder what is happening to us as a nation. And there are times when I haven’t been proud of the actions of some of our citizens or our government. But my deep-seeded belief and pride in being an American has never wavered.
When I was 20, I had the opportunity to be a White House Intern. My boyfriend (now husband) and I packed up his old Toyota Corolla and drove across the country from Davis, California to Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. As we drove, it was amazing to see the different landscapes pass by: the salt flats, the mountains, the Mississippi River, the National Parks and lakes, forests, and endless miles of farm land.
By the end of our 2,700 mile journey, seven days later, I felt I understood the country better. I’d seen so many different cities with my own eyes; I'd felt the country's different climates; and I experienced its size—as opposed to just having read about all these things. You don't get the same experience when you get on a plane and arrive in a completely different place a few hours later. You can’t feel how it’s all connected. If you drive or take a train, you see the majesty of the land. It’s beautiful. I truly believe our country, the land, and the spirit, is amazing.
So, in honor of the 4th of July, I thought I would take a moment to think about a few of the things I love and appreciate about America.
History. We’re a relatively young nation. Compared to Europe and Asia, we’re a toddler. But in the short time that the United States has existed, we have accomplished a lot. I think our lack of history, our lack of historical identity, has meant we have evolved quickly. There’s still work to be done. But we keep moving forward. If you look at where we were just 75 years ago, it’s amazing to look around today and see changes that were achieved.
Spunk. The creation of America was sparked by rebellion. Our founding fathers were rebels who believed in their right to govern themselves so strongly that they created a new form of government. That took guts and a fierce determination. It took spunk. And I believe that those qualities are still the driving force behind much of what makes America great today. We are a strong-willed, opinionated, driven group of people who don’t want to be told what we can and can’t do.
Size. We’re massive. I never thought about it much before we spent a year living in London. It was strange to me that it was so easy and quick to hop around to different countries. Most people think of America as racially diverse. And we are. But we are also spatially a huge country, and it means we have a lot of diversity simply because of geography and weather and proximity to sea or mountains.
The American Dream. One of the things that’s unique to Americans because of our history, is the idea that anyone can become anything. It’s the idea that if you work hard enough, you can become anything you want. This idea has, in fact, become so engrained into our culture, that we perhaps have forgotten that we need compassion for those who are less fortunate than we are.
People do find themselves in situations where simply being strong-willed and determined can’t dig them out of a bad situation. But there is the idea of the “American Dream” where anyone can achieve their dreams with hard work and passion. It’s something that was unique in American for a long time. We didn’t have a defined class system. I guess you could argue that we do actually have a class system, but when you visit countries like England or India that have established aristocracy, you can understand why people say we don’t. Our kids aren’t born into a society that pre-determines their future. We all tell our kids, girls, boys, rich or poor, they can be anything they want.
And even as the world gets more cynical, and perhaps the American Dream isn’t the same as it was 100 years ago, I am still proud to be American. I am proud to call this country my home. And while I haven’t traveled to all the states, I have been fortunate to discover many cities I love in all different areas of the country: San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Austin, Denver, New Orleans, and New York just to name a few.
When you were growing up, how did your family celebrate the 4th of July?
Before I answer that, I wanted to mention that some of my best memories of raising you and your brother come from that trek we made to Community Park each year to see the fireworks. We'd spread out a blanket, lie on our backs, and watch the show. Then, in line with what seemed to be a Davis tradition, we'd complain that the fireworks didn't last as long or weren't as good as the year before.
Today, even though I'm in the same house I was then, I stay at home. Sometimes alone, if your dad is out of town. I wait until 9:45 p.m., when the fireworks start, and then turn up the volume on the TV really loud. This is because our dog Scout is terrified of fireworks-type noises. (Thunder is another example.) The SPCA site I consulted said to turn a sound up in the house so it's really loud. It works. She's still uncomfortable because she can hear some "booms" outside the house, but it's not as bad. At least she's shaking in fear as she's been known to do. This is using noise that doesn't bother her to cover up noise that does! It's no big deal to do though.
Back to your question. When I was a child, the Fourth of July was one of my favorite days. Fireworks weren't allowed in the Los Angeles city limits where we lived, but my parents had good friends in L.A. County who were outside the city limits, and they could buy fireworks. They'd buy the fanciest, most high quality stuff they could find, and we'd set them off in their backyard as soon as it got dark. It was a pretty spectacular display. So that was my 4th of July growing up.
I do have to say that though that, like you, my favorite thing was always the sparklers. I wish I had one in my hand right now.
How much of the U.S. have you seen?
Well, thinking about this, I think it would be easier if I told you what parts of the US I haven't seen. Your dad and I did a lot of cross-country driving when we were in our teens and twenties. So here are the states I've never been to: Florida, Alaska, Alabama, Mississippi. Michigan, and Wisconsin. So I've been to all the states but six. Alabama and Mississippi are next to each other and so are Michigan and Wisconsin, so I guess I could say that I never got to those small areas of the south and the north. Still, I've seen most of the country. Much of its natural beauty is spectacular.
Do you have a favorite region?
I love New England, but I can't handle the humidity. Davis gets hot, but it's dry. New England can be 80 degrees with humidity so high it feels hard to breathe. I'm sure that people who live there get used to it. At least I hope so! Oh, and there are a lot of bugs. Bugs that bite.
I'd have to say Yellowstone Park is my favorite part of the country. It has such a diverse landscape that it seems as if there are several different Yellowstones. There's Yellowstone Lake, there are forests and there are plains, often with rivers running through them. And, of course, there are all the geysers. The last time I was at Yellowstone was with you and your dad, soon after a devastating fire. It was sad to drive through. I hope it's recovered well.
Besides Davis, what are your favorite cities?
I have a soft spot for Los Angeles because I grew up there and you live there now. But I can't say it's one of my favorite cities because it's so spread out. I think of it as a lot of different cities, some of which I do love, like the beach communities. But it's not a favorite city for me.
If I consider big cities, not my little "hamlet" of Davis, my favorite cities are San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York.
I spent a lot of time in San Francisco when I was younger. In Northern California, we call it The City. Your dad grew up in The City and his parents lived there for many years after we got married, so we went there a lot. Your dad would drive around so I could see everything. My favorite place was Fort Point where you can stand under the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge. That is the most beautiful bridge I've ever seen (second to the Brooklyn Bridge). And I love the summer fog that can cover the whole city. We used to watch it roll up Portola Drive from the ocean until it covered the house your dad grew up in and we couldn't see a thing outside the windows. And I love how San Francisco is really just a small peninsula of land.
I also love New Orleans. I've been there twice, both times with you in high school as part of Jazz Choir you were in. One year I was in charge of the choir and another year I was just one of several adult chaperones. Even though we were in charge of the kids, we had time to explore the city. I had a blast. I loved the music. I loved the architecture. I loved the food. I loved strolling through the funky stores at the far end of the French Quarter.
I have a favorite story from one of those trips. One night after the choir was (supposed to be) in bed, five of us parents decided explore the French Quarter. As we were walking around, we passed a bar that had terrific sounds of rhythm and blues coming from inside. So we went in.
We ordered drinks and were enjoying the music when someone came onstage and said they had a treat for one of the musicians because it was his birthday. Then, he brought a stripper on stage and she stripped! It was pretty awkward at our table because we were just a group of parents who didn't know each other very well. But there we were, watching a woman strip in front of us!
That story is typical of my experience in New Orleans. Almost everything I did turned out to be an unexpected adventure. It's why it's a favorite city of mine.
I then I'd say New York City, specifically Manhattan. I would never want to live there. And, if you go, be prepared for loud noise no matter what time of day or night. It's noisy and crowded, but unique among all the cities I've gone to. I remember the joy of simply gazing up at the marquees with the names of Broadway shows on them. I loved wandering around—Times Square, Central Park, Greenwich Village. And there are so many fabulous museums. NYC just holds a magic for me.
Have you gone other places than the U.S. and, if so, did it make you appreciate this country more?
I've gone some other places, but in truth I haven't had the experience of coming home and saying, "Whoa, am I glad I'm an American and this is where I live." But I do know a lot of people who have had that experience.
Maybe I haven't because the only places I've been outside of the U.S., bear quite a resemblance to the us. I've been to Canada—lived there for five years, in fact— and to England and Paris. That's it. So, after being these places, I didn't come home and feel relieved to be back in this country. But, I know a lot of people who travelled extensively and they've told me that when they fly back to the United States, as they get off the plane, they feel incredibly grateful to be living here.
And I agree. We're fortunate to live where we do—our freedoms, the diversity, the natural beauty. I must point out, though, that there are people in this country who aren't able to enjoy it like many of us can. For many people, life is about getting by day-to-day—trying to keep food on the table for their families or figuring out how to pay for health care. We have a lot of work to do before we live up to the ideals expressed in documents such as The Declaration of Independence and many of the amendments to the Constitution over the years, first and foremost, The Bill of Rights.
***So, if you live in the U.S., how do you celebrate the 4th of July? Do you have a favorite American city? If you’re not from the United States, how do you celebrate the national holiday in honor of your home country?