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Happy Independence Day

No man is an island, but some are pretty darn fat – R. Monaco

There are many decent songs for commemorating tomorrow’s national holiday, some of them uniquely American and others simply noting the idea of independence. For patriotic pride I’ve always been partial to Ray Charles’ America The Beautiful, which gets it right without laying the bullshit on too thick. He uses the original line “may God thy gold refine” which really gets to the point; we aren’t going to do it ourselves, but on the other hand we did produce Ray Charles. Springsteen’s “Independence Day” isn’t a July 4th tune per se, but it gets to the heart of a fact to which many can attest – you don’t need a tyrannical English king to know the chains of oppression .. sometimes a family will do just fine. But if I had to pick one tune it would be the young Van Morrison’s Almost Independence Day  from 1972’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, a transfixing meditative rant starting in Oregon and working its way down the coast to San Francisco and the Russian River. Personally, I can think of nothing more distinctly American than an acoustic guitar picking the syllables staccato-style to seeing the fireworks “up-and-down the San-Fran-cis-co Bay.” Sometimes it takes a disgruntled Irishman to remind us what this country’s all about.

Getting independence is the easy part, whether it’s as an individual or a group. There’s always that energized push that comes with having made the decision to separate. It’s the space on either side of the push that’s tricky. No matter how appealing the idea of “going it alone” may seem, there’s a reason most wait a long while before pulling the trigger. As much as ‘independent spirit’ is celebrated or idealized, it also carries the risk that you’ll end up like Van Morrison, with your back turned to the crowd, mumbling to yourself over by the microphone stand. And in this idea lies the two prevailing impressions that outsiders have of this country: free-thinking trailblazers or child-like idiots. When I was twenty-four I sat next to a middle-aged Greek guy riding a train to Paris. He shared his bread and wine along with his ideas on what my country was all about. “This is what we like about America .. you are like children .. but filled with spirit.” I guess he thought he was sharing some worldly European insight, but it was kind of insulting. And looking at the state of affairs today, the rest of Europe probably wouldn’t object to Greece declaring its independence.

July Fourth is also marked by Nathan’s hot dog eating contest at Coney Island. I use the word “contest” loosely, as it’s been dominated since 2006 by the Michael Jordan of competitive eating, Northern California’s Joey Chesnut. Chesnut is from San Jose, a place in which I’ve spent little time outside of making deliveries in our company truck when I was a young man. But I like to remind people that Chesnut is from Northern California because I am too, and it’s good to see a homeboy dominate an annual event at perhaps the most iconic of Brooklyn locations. Coney Island is no Monte Carlo, and the contest is no Euro Cup.  Nobody is ever going to tag hot dog eating The Beautiful Game.  It’s remarkably predictable every year, particularly with Chesnut dominating. A skinny guy rules a test of gluttony on a  hot day in New York City. The story is then immediately transferred to the news wires and internet outlets, drawing the same predictable comments: “Only in America could such a reprehensible display be labeled ‘sport‘.” … “Everything that is wrong with this country .. we stuff our faces to the point of self-endangerment while the rest of the world goes hungry.” Personally, I find those making the observations to represent a bigger flaw in our national makeup. The contest is a mercifully short ten minutes and really no more abhorrent than the bulk of the campaigns for our two dominating political parties, the difference being that it’s intentionally tongue in cheek. And it isn’t as though we were going to be shipping crates of Nathan’s hot dogs to Somalia in the first place. I like it because it represents an homage to the dying and increasingly taboo American practice of showing we don’t give a fuck. Sure it’s moderately distasteful, but at least it’s honest. And despite global impressions, historically speaking we haven’t even been gloating that long. Our relative success and dominance occurred so quickly that the shift to self-conscious shame happened almost overnight. If you ask me, I say long live Joey Chesnut. And pass the mustard.

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