I don’t relate to so many key things that bind most people I know. Both high and low culture (whatever those designations really mean) tend not to speak to me. Occasionally, I’ll try to watch some widely popular sitcom or some such. I view it as an assignment, like I might have viewed homework during my school days: not what I’d choose to be doing, but there’s a benefit attached. Maybe, if I can get into this show, I’ll have a point of connection with the people who watch it. But most TV shows are too episodic for me: they switch scenes too frequently, which feels unsatisfying and confusing, partly because I’m not familiar with the show’s main characters, and partly because that’s just not how my mind works. I like exploring one issue at a time, in-depth.
Often, the quest to get along with or find a mate becomes central. Since that’s not a concern of mine, I look at it as a foray into other people’s lives, which certainly has potential to be interesting. I feel like many urban Americans might feel when they’re watching, say, a documentary about life in a small rural African village: this is nothing I can relate to, but I can sit back and enjoy expanding my mind towards different possibilities. But, since I never commune with any of the characters, the shows never speak to me, never reach beyond the feel of a documentary I might be watching for homework.
You might think I’d sense more of a kinship with “refined” pieces of culture: fine art, fine literature, fine film (whatever “fine” really means: I have a hard time getting a specific handle on that). But, while I often appreciate it in my own way, my sense for art is honestly very childlike. If I go to a museum with knowledgeable connoisseurs, I’ll relate to their 6-year-old kid who wants to lick the paint to get a full sense of its texture, not my supposed peers who are placing the pieces within their sense of history and their overall impressions of the artists in question.
I’m similar with music. I enjoy some kinds of music a lot, and, occasionally, even dance alone in my living room to songs that inspire me. But I have very little knowledge of music. I just don’t see music the way a mature, refined adult typically would. I might be walking around Harvard Square and hear music from a band playing outside, and feel inspired to listen. The tune might make me happy. But I have little interest in learning more about the band or putting their sound into any kind of larger perspective. I react in an elemental way: “Oooh, nice music. Want to stop and listen. Intoxicating feeling in my head and my body.”
I have never been a fan of any musician or musical group: I just have no interest in codifying music that way. And I wouldn’t spend substantial money on a performance, just to see certain musicians in person. I have never been to a big rock concert, and I don’t feel deprived at all in that sense.
Film is similar for me. I recognize very few actors and actresses. Occasionally I’ll see a movie that brings me pleasure and inspires me to think and engage with various aspects, but I won’t remember who is in it because I never really noticed to begin with. Again, I’m like that 6-year-old who just takes what comes his way, feeling the feels and soaking in the moment. I actually kind of believe that the actors are living their actual lives; I don’t sit back and analyze much at all.
You might suspect I’d see literature differently since I do so much writing, but you’d be mistaken. Many who knew me during high school thought I’d do a college English major, but I realized very quickly that I couldn’t relate to the academic study of literature. I like to read a book, story, poem, essay, or whatever, and simply enjoy it. I’ll think: “Oh, nice sentence: it gave me lots of pleasure.” But I won’t usually feel any drive to put it into any larger analytical context. I won’t ask myself what sort of literary movement a piece might belong in, or how it might fit into larger cultural questions. I’m kind of like that 6-year-old kid, savoring the sound of the words in his book and taking in the characters who feel very real to him.
University literature classes felt almost blasphemous to me. They overrode the pleasure of reading, replacing it with hyper-analysis and criticism. I love reading when the work speaks to me, but I don’t often gravitate towards social activities or conversations focused on literature, because I have my own childlike way of responding to it.
One key in all this: I almost never feel close to people who aren’t part of my real life (which, for me, sometimes includes online friendships when I don’t have access to people in the flesh). I don’t gush over writers just like I don’t gush over musicians or actors. I might treasure one book, pick up another by the same author, and feel unable to get past the first chapter.
For similar reasons, I’m not a sports fan, though I can occasionally enjoy watching gifted athletes show off their amazing skills. When my city seems to be in a frenzy over the Red Sox or the Patriots, I truly don’t understand. I’ll think: “You don’t know the players; why do you want them to win more than the other teams full of players who you also don’t know?”
But I adore something else that tends to excite my city: fireworks. I relish them the way that 6-year-old who wants to lick the painting at the museum might. This past 4th of July, I arrived over 8 hours early, to be sure I’d snag a place right up front by the water. I wanted to see the fireworks reflected in the Charles River, watch them shoot up from the barge and then explode into a multicolored extravaganza. A few groups of friends were meeting, but I avoided them because I wanted an unobstructed view, and I knew they wouldn’t care enough to snag that sort of spot. I didn’t want to take any risk that some tall (for me, that means anyone who is at least 5 ft. 1) person would block my view.
It’s stressful and potentially problematic. I have a weak bladder, and I needed to leave my spot several times to use the restroom. But the people around me were very nice about saving my spot with the small chair I had brought. Whenever I returned to my place, my chair was there, and my new friends nodded at me. I felt like I was one of them. I was a person too, there to see the fireworks along with everyone else. I wasn’t feigning interest, or even feeling real but detached engagement, like I do when I’m watching a show about a romance. I wanted to see those fireworks for the same reasons everyone around me did. They’re visually splendid. The shapes, colors, and textures fill the dark sky, riveting us all. I’m no different from anyone else: we’re all enjoying that thrill when a white line of light travels upwards, then explodes into magic. We’re all just watching and smiling.
There’s no way to be pretentious about fireworks, at least that I’ve seen (though I wouldn’t be surprised if one has developed beyond my purview: some method of examining the semiotics of fireworks, or the signals of privilege embedded within them). Even in the Cambridge crowd surrounding me, I didn’t hear anyone try to place the fireworks into some kind of artistic movement, or show off their knowledge of these fireworks relative to others throughout history or around the world. It was all very elemental. It was wild but simple beauty. It spoke to 6-year-old me… and I haven’t changed much since that age.
I don’t relate to the patriotism aspect of July 4th. The red white and blue and the flags feel a bit silly to me. I’d enjoy this scene just as much anywhere around the world. For me, it’s all about the fireworks. That popping sound, those giant images reflected in the water. The star-like ones, the ones that look like shaggy dogs falling lazily from the sky, the unruly bursts of brilliant color. It would be every bit as fabulous in some other country.
But even I have to admit that this country has been better to my family than any other in remotely recent times…. and that remains true today. After the fireworks, I returned to my apartment, with no fear of a pogrom. The large exodus walking towards Harvard Square after the show did include some drunk college students, but there were no wasted Cossacks waiting to attack me. I pushed myself to engage just a bit with that aspect, because it seemed important. This holiday did have some underlying meaning for me: a powerful one that I could feel in my gut.
Large gatherings like this do have potential for danger: some maniac looking to inflict large-scale casualties. But it was fine. We were all safe. As I headed towards my home, I felt bonded to everyone heading in the same direction. I had enjoyed something with them — truly enjoyed it, with no playacting, nothing professional, nothing beyond the splendor of color and light, processed by a mind seeking no reward beyond beauty and joy. It was a simple form of heaven, and for once, I had achieved that sense while feeling part of the social world.
***Image Credit: “Fireworks” by Colin Knowles, August 4, 2012, on Flickr.com