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Super Sloppy Double Issue!
My Fellow Shennyer:
Greetings from the Great Plains! N & I are out here for 2 weeks visiting friends and family, the highlight of which is always spending the Fourth at N’s Aunt Joan’s lake house in SW Minnesota. Here’s 2022’s sunset pic from the shore:
N has, at his best count, 95 first cousins. I have 0, my folks both only-children. (See below for the baroque relations I grew up conflating to just ‘aunt’ or ‘cousin’.) Maybe at most 8 or 9 of those cousins spend the Fourth at Joan’s, so it’s not like a family reunion, but days at the lake involve these long, warm sitarounds catching up with a bunch of people I haven’t seen in a year, shooting flies with the Bug-A-Salt, and playing card games I never win at.
I’ll be taking a break from Shenny, and so leave you for the next four weeks with this ‘double issue’ of tips and stories to take to any outdoor summertime fun you have coming up.
Endorsements: Summer Backyard Party Edition
1. Aunt Ghyneth’s Baked Beans
One forgets that baked beans were once a recipe, a process of baking beans in the oven and not just warming up what you opened in a can. No summertime family cookout growing up was absent of Aunt Ghyneth’s baked beans, which have this sweet, tangy, rich depth of flavor, and something of an actual texture to them. Structural baked beans, let’s say.
Aunt Ghyneth's Baked Beans 56oz Campbell's* Pork & Beans 3/4 cup light brown sugar 1 tsp dry mustard 1/2 cup Heinz ketchup 6 slices raw thick-cut bacon, chopped into 1-inch pieces Stir all ingredients in a bowl and dump into a casserole dish. Bake at 325° for 2 hours.
* Aunt Ghyneth (i.e., Mom’s dad’s mom’s cousin’s daughter; the closest thing I have to an aunt) warns off swapping brands. Van Kamps will disappoint you, I promise. When Ghyneth first shared her recipe, Campbell’s sold 28oz cans, but now in America we all get less than we used to. So try Dollar Tree, where I’ve found 19oz cans, and buy 3.
2. Mark Zmarzly’s Beer Margaritas
My old gradschool pal Mark Zmarzly (now a legit Australian) made these for a party he once threw and generously shared the recipe. Imagine a margarita that wasn’t serving so much cunt, one you could enjoy without feeling burned, esophageally. That’s these, as easy to make as they are to drink.
Mark Zmarzly's Beer Margaritas 12 12oz cans lite beer (I like Miller Lite) 3 cans frozen limeade 3 cups (or 1 750ml bottle) tequila Pour everything into your vintage 1950s Arctic Boy cooler/dispenser, stir, and weather the disappointment when partygoers rave about the drink but fail to comment on how awesome the Arctic Boy is.
3. Cracker Barrel Firework
I’m, you’ll learn below, from the sort of state that allowed only gentle fireworks, no showers of sparks higher than 8 feet off the ground. So I’ve got a soft spot for fireworks that just sit and spit fire for a while. Sometimes, that ‘while’ is all of 20 seconds. With the Cracker Barrel, which I really wish had a better name, you get almost 2 minutes of bright, low, crackling sparks. Not the explosive bang of stringed-up firecrackers, but more like crackling fire logs you might worry about if this were happening inside your house. All in one tiny package:
The going rate for these in Sioux Falls, S.D., in the summer of 2022 was around $1.25 or 6 for $5. The best bang (sorry) for your buck at any fireworks palace.
4. Mexican Train Dominoes
It’s occurring to me how imperious and colonialist our summers can be. Let me take your ‘margarita’ and make it with watery beer and sugary lime drink. Let me take your beautiful fireworks, China, and use them to celebrate um, crackers. Let’s kill God’s insects with plastic assault rifles. And now here’s Mexican Train, which one source tells me was so named when 19thC Americans saw Cuban rail workers playing dominoes and assumed they were Mexicans. We are often a rotten people, stealing far more than what the Fourth celebrates our having fought for, so when you play this fun game with family, take a moment to note its Cuban and Chinese origins. The object is to play all your dominoes by matching up pips, and you have your own ‘train’ to build on plus the ‘Mexican train’ everyone gets to build on. You’re going to need a big wide table:
The pleasure of Mexican Train is how, before play, you sort all your dominoes into just a gorgeous train that’ll all fall in place, but then someone plays a double and stops all train building, or they build on your train, and your perfect plans are foiled—curses!—and now you have to regroup. Plus dominoes are sonically and haptically superior to cards.
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In Fireworks Lie Secret Codes
The Cuckoo had these phases, starting off with two short whistles—like a bird, we imagined. Koo-koo. Then the colorful flames did their quick dance before the finale: a high bright shower of sparks you wish you could stand under and let fall on you like snow. It came as a cardboard tube on a plastic base. Some, like Pink Chrysanthemum, came as squat cardboard boxes no bigger than a pint of milk. Others were even smaller, like the Witch Whistle, which was nothing but a fuse in a yellow plastic testtube held inside a thin cardboard box as tall as a domino. Light the thing and you’d hear a sharp, loud screech with a low white flame. It lasted 3 seconds and was a bore, until someone (Jenny takes credit) discovered you could pull out the tube, set it on the ground, and when you’d light the firework it would shoot 30, 40 yards out into the cul-de-sac, curving airborne in unpredictable vectors that terrified everybody.
The Friendship Pagoda was its own wild thing, a puck that spun on the ground, sparking like Samus doing a screw attack, and once the flames died out, four tiers popped up to make a tower of tiny windows backed with red tissue paper, and the dying flame made the pagoda glow as though a party were happening inside. It inspired a song from our friend Gina:
Friendship pagoda in the cul-de-sac,
Spin so free, spin so fast.
Others behind, Lindsey & Gina below.
Watch the little pagoda on the go!
When are you gonna stop,
When are you gonna pop,
So we can play with you?
For years, the party happened at our house every Fourth of July. My parents were members of the Herndon Jaycees—i.e., the Junior Chamber (of Commerce), a service organization that believed ‘economic justice can best be won by free men through free enterprise.’ One of those free enterprises was a fundraiser selling fireworks each summer at the shopping center on the corner of Elden Street and Alabama Drive, which we in the Madden house called ‘down the bottom of the hill.’
Out of school, Jenny and I would hang around while Jaycee dads worked the plywood stand they reassembled each June in the shopping center’s parking lot. Often they’d let us ‘work’ too, standing on tiptoe to reach over the stand’s display shelf and transact the cash of our fellow Herndonites. Sometimes, men would step up and ask if we had any cherry bombs, M-80s, anything like that, and one of the dads would remind the man those were illegal in the commonwealth of Virginia.
‘Yeah, of course,’ they’d say, ‘but c’mon, you gotta have some back there.’
These men, it was explained to me, worked for the fire department, doing plainclothes inspections to see whether the Jaycees were on the level. All these years later, it surprises me that they were.
On July 4, Dad would come home with grocery bags full of fireworks we’d set off in front of our house that night. Sunset Court and Fall Place formed a kind of trefoil cul-de-sac off the main thoroughfare through the neighborhood, and we lived right at their intersection; our neighbors would walk over with lawn chairs to get a good spot for the show. I remember it taking hours. Jenny remembers the smoky aftermath hanging low to the ground that we kids would lurch through, the smell of sulfur in our noses, going, We’re in Transylvania!
Dad—Jaycee, veteran, government worker—was on the level, but Mr. Klenk at the end of Sunset once brought fireworks he’d scored in Tennessee: bottle rockets, Roman candles, artillery shells. One year, one of the latter toppled over and shot out across the street, catching the Owenses’ easternmost pine on fire. For years there remained a charry absence in its lower half, like a bite from an apple.
Another year, Jaycee dad Gary Broersma brought some M-80s to our fireworks show. Who knows where he got them. Who knows how many beers he’d drunk when, on our back deck, he lit one and tossed it over our house, clearing the roof. It landed on the front yard, maybe four feet from where Jenny stood with her bike, the one with the purple banana seat. She was 8 or 9 years old. She remembers the sudden BANG just behind her, the loudest sound she’d ever heard, and without knowing what happened she ran, crying, looking for our parents.
Gary Broersma’s M-80 blew a crater in our yard a foot in diameter. It’s probably still there. What would’ve happened to Jenny if he’d put a little more muscle behind it? It’s a question, if we asked ourselves, we asked ourselves in private.
Later in life, living in more laissez faire states, I’d watch friends’ dogs cower under beds during their neighborhood’s hours of firecracker mayhem. One Fourth, a friend’s dad was visiting, a Vietnam vet, and he spent the entire evening sitting very close to their TV set with the volume turned up. Anything to shut out the sounds of the world exploding around him.
Aren’t fireworks stupid? Aren’t they dangerous? What criteria should we use to answer this? 75% more people are injured by grills than by fireworks each year, which makes sense given use rates of the former. But no one died in 2021 while grilling, as far as I can tell, whereas fireworks killed 9 people that year. The death stat hovers around there each year—but in 2020, with civic displays all COVID-canceled, fireworks killed 20 people.
Is that a lot or a little, given that guns killed 19,350 people in 2020? Then again, isn’t anyone’s dying a cause for concern? One thing that makes fireworks seem especially dangerous, like drunk driving, is how one person’s risk can become another’s misfortune. Gary and Jenny. Mr. Klenk and the Owenses. Me and N’s cousins, who one year sat 25 feet from where I lit an artillery shell, and something in my approach or the board the mortar stood on wasn’t right. (Or both; I’d been drinking all day.) The first blast toppled the mortar on its side, and the second blast fired directly into the spectating crowd of his family. Two of them got badly burned: one on the chest and the other on the thigh.
For some reason they didn’t blame me, chalked it up to an accident. When I think about the injuries caused by fireworks, which are rising year after year, I can try to speculate why they happen, where the fault lies, but I’m more interested in what for. What do we do this unsafe thing for?
The first and worst answer I come to is Freedom: on the day we declared our independence, we set off fireworks because we can. Most self-described patriots’ talk of freedom conveniently focuses on their own freedom-to without getting into others’ freedom-from, and so talk of freedom here seems like a zero-sum argument.
But Freedom and its bellicose associations are obviously a part of it. Just witness the names of products for sale: Lady Liberty, Stars and Stripes, Total Rebellion, Laying Down the Law, American Assault, American Glory, and (ambiguously) American Envy. Lots to bemoan here, sure, but online griping about fireworks tends to get quickly classist: it’s not one’s neighbors who are the problem, but one’s ‘redneck neighbors’, lighting off fireworks 3 or 4 nights in a row, long past midnight, because they can.
That freedom to make a lot of noise sometimes—particularly from those who feel they have little voice elsewhere—is a pleasure I’ve understood ever since Lisa Kudrow’s underrated turn on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt:
But it’s not a pleasure I personally want, so next I come to Tradition: we set off fireworks because we always have. Given how regularly I think back on my cul-de-sac Fourths every Fourth, tradition must be a part of it. But fireworks’ meanings, effects, and even shapes have changed so much since I was a child that resurrecting the same tradition each year seems short-sighted.
The conservatism of America, its puritanism even on the Fourth, is likely keeping me from the simplest answer to what we light fireworks for: Pleasure. Every instinct in me wants to write this off. How can I think about pleasure when around a dozen people are killed each year? Don’t I see that one person’s pleasure is another person’s pain?
I do. I see that every time a person on the bus scrolls through TikTok without earbuds. Hell, Sartre said, is other people, and on the Fourth we celebrate the beginnings of a country just lousy with them.
Sartre was talking about feeling trapped inside other people; hell is the prison of presumptions we make about others’ judgements of us. In this sense, fireworks deliver us from each other, turning our gazes flameward, skyward. Those bursts of color that spread across the dark night, then fall and ghost away. Those riots of sound and spark bursting from a tube made of paper and powder.
In a time when nearly every human experience gets framed, filtered, and posted, it’s a joy that fireworks are so resistant to capture. It’s ancient technology that still manages to wow us, together, giving us private moments to consider what we’re all letting go of as we expire our communal Oooh!
When I was ten, Dad was 42 and had aged out of the Jaycees; he could no longer vote on stuff, but could still do projects. One day, he took me down the bottom of the hill to help sell fireworks for an afternoon. Guys younger than Dad had joined up by then and taken charge of the fundraiser, and when I stepped inside the booth one said I couldn’t be there. I was too young.
‘He’s been doing it for years,’ Dad said, but the dudes in charge held firm. Dad, as he puts it, said screw it. ‘I said, “See you later”.’ He never sold fireworks for the Jaycees again.
I take back what I said about fireworks delivering us from each other.
This week’s natatorium is the lap pool at the Midco Aquatic Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., where I’ll be trying to get in a swim or two this week. This foreshortened shot from the diving board doesn’t do justice to the size of the place: