Friday, September 14, 2007

FIREWORKS

Camp Stahlman Fireworks Crew, 2002

Every so often, something will happen that makes your heart beat so hard and fast that you feel it up in your throat and it makes you shiver. It's not nervousness or fear, but the sheer thrill of pure anticipation, knowing that the most awesome thing in the world is just around the corner. Off the top of my head, I can think of three; when you clearly have the drop on someone while playing paintball, and you are moments away from unloading on them in a ping-ping-ping symphony of personal victory, when a girl you're making out with for the first time asks you to get a condom, with exposed breasts and exciting new pheremones heavy in the air, and when you first see those huge, roadside tents underneath a hand-painted sign reading "FIREWORKS" in big, bold letters.

Growing up in the rural South meant that fireworks season was a long, beloved stretch of weeks, filled with multiple trips to the Tents, bottle-rocket fights, smoke-bombs, M-80s taped together in lethal clumps, and of course, the Fourth of July. (This is, as we all know, the High Holy Day when one celebrates emancipation from the yoke of British Monarchy by blowing shit up. Nothing says "freedom" more than aiming a Roman Candle like a sniper rifle, and shooting bursts of colorful flames at your friends.)

Hot summer days were filled with that distinct, acrid gunpowder odor and an ever-present white fog, sprinkled with paper ash and adrenaline. Seeing fireworks actually explode was almost secondary to the hedonistic ritual of perusing the folding tables full of cardboard tubes, and wondering what kind of horrific mushroom cloud lived at the bottom of each one.

We always heard rumors of states that had banned fireworks, and refused to believe that such places existed. Madness! Not only were fireworks readily available all over the Tennessee Valley (and parts beyond), but they could be sold to anyone, of any age! If you had a bike and a handful of cash, access to deadly and brightly-colored implements of destruction was easy. If, between watching massive, booming displays and shooting each other with scorching flame, we had stopped to think about our peers in other states (whose elected officials were keeping them from firework glory), we would have felt terrible for them.

One of the great triumphs of firework season was working on Scout Camp Staff, and being in charge of the Fourth of July display. My friend Andy and I would go to the Camp Director, who would then hand us a wad of bills, and say "No more than four-hundred bucks worth." We would then drive to the nearest roadside stand, and tell the guy "Hey, we're with the Boy Scout Camp down the road... maybe you can cut us a deal? You know, for the kids." He would then proceed to load us up with box after box of massive, military grade explosives. Close to a thousand dollars worth of sparkling death packed into the trunk of a compact car. We could barely conceal our desperate glee.

On the Big Night, as the sun was setting, we would soak handkerchiefs in water, so as not to asphyxiate on the smoke-clouds to come. We would find goggles, and fire up cigars to use as wick lighters. The fireworks were laid out in a specific progression on the back of a soaked-wet wooden trailer. The music cues were readied in the outdoor amphitheater. And then, when the Scouts arrived and were seated, fiery chaos would be brought down upon us like the coming of Yog Sothoth. Mere yards above us, screaming detonations dazzled and terrified delighted troops of awe-struck kids, while we scampered like maniacs, lighting fuses and laughing madly.

When all was said and done, and the smoke had settled and the dust had cleared, we were covered in perspiration and ash and mostly deaf, but it was worth it. Bits of colored paper would drift in the breeze, our eyes would sting, and our hands were covered with bruises and black steaks. We stank of sweat and gunpowder, but most of all, we reeked of exasperated satisfaction. Emerging from the white sheet of concentrated smoke around the charred husks of blown stacks, we could only smile.

Nights like that are few and far between. Fireworks are Awesome.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

SELF-LOATHING

The best thing that happened to me last week was when I found pudding cups on sale at the local grocery store.

This was the highlight of my week. I actually called my girlfriend to tell her.

Many people will tell you that self-loathing is a bad thing, a destructive thing, a negative state of mind that is dangerous and unhealthy. But I'm here to say that self-loathing is a natural human condition, and when applied properly to an examined life, it is an anchor that keeps your perspective in check. Otherwise you would be so happy with yourself that you might explode in a cloud of rainbows and puppy glitter. Or your ego will get so out of control you'll end up like one of these people. (That's a worst case scenario)

I met a very friendly person at my job the other day, and they were talking about how great it must be to read comics all day. I'm young, they said, and I own a great store, and it must be awesome, and they were all smiles and high-fives the whole time. Then I bummed them out by shrugging my shoulders and looking despondent. I suppose my reaction wasn't as ecstatic as it should have been, but the truth is that the stress and anxiety of running a new, small business is so overwhelming that the good bits barely balance the bad. Of course, it's all better than the alternative, which would be unemployment, working at a job I really truly hate, or myriad other options too gruesome to contemplate.

You see, my natural self-loathing kept my perspective balanced, or else I might have pooped myself with joy when someone mentioned how great my life must be. I did not explode with happiness, but rather kept my cool and remained level-headed about my state of affairs, and then I was awarded One Hundred Dollars for not flipping out with joy and soiling myself. That's a true story.

Life is a series of re-evaluated expectations. Does anyone end up doing what they hoped they'd be doing when they were twelve? With everything working out for them along the way? And if so, are they insufferable pricks about it? (Answers: Usually not, Sometimes, and most of the time.) The fact is, when you're twelve, sometimes your goals are really stupid, and there's a world of difference between "I want to be a journalist" and "I want to make seven figures a year and have ripped abs until I'm fifty five". Some jerk who wants an UES apartment, wife with fake boobs, and a VP position at a hedge fund is going to be really, really smug about it when they get their way. Having to settle for a disappointments could do wonders for these guys, who most likely shit all over everyone to get what they wanted.

As we grow and change and turn from idealistic young punks into broken, disappointed adults, self-loathing is the the only honest reaction. It's nigh impossible to have any legitimate respect for yourself when your days are filled with frustrated compromises, irritated bowels, inane e-mails, litter boxes, overwhelming debt, and all the other elements of a well-fulfilled life. Yet, without all that shit, you're Candide, or Pollyanna, walking with a charmed gait through other people's misery! Who wants to be that asshole? Self-loathing means that you have achieved something, some sort of meaning, no matter how far removed from what you might have hoped, and even if it all makes you want to cry like a girl-baby, it's still something, and you have the ulcer to show for it.

This is it people. This is as good as it gets. I encourage you to look at your life, with all the miserable priorities and the misplaced aspirations. The lost loves, and the dreams that got eroded like teeth in a glass of Coke. Come to terms with Self-Loathing, and shake hands with that grim spectre of reality dawning in the mirror. Self-Loathing will keep you centered, lest you become one of those people with the blank stare, the fake tan, and the plastic cup of beer. You learn to appreciate the stupid crap that you would have scoffed at in the height of adolescence.

And suddenly, that sale on pudding cups is actually worth getting excited about.