I went to watch the fireworks Thursday night, and came home melancholy.
The crowd was quiet. Too quiet. Disturbingly quiet.
I remember the fireworks of my childhood, growing up in various places around New York State. They were infrequent, much anticipated, and never observed in silence.
I remember the 4th of July "ring of fire" the year I lived on Conesus Lake. Everyone put flares on the shore of their property, and fireworks were launched from a raft in the middle of the lake. The reflection spread out over the water like a second set was being launched sub-marine.
I remember bottle rockets and more smuggled home from friends who traveled south, brought out by dark of night during camping trips. How exciting and dangerous it felt to be that close to them, the illicit scent of their smoke mixing with the campfire.
After high school, I remember a summer of tall ships in my new city's harbor, with a 4th of July sesquicentennial fireworks display that was bigger and more beautiful than anything I'd ever seen.
I remember the summer my 23 year old daughter was born. I was in labor as the Independence Day fireworks started downtown, and my husband urged me to climb on the picnic table in the back yard to try to see them.
When the kids were little, I remember getting in the boat at the cottage each Dominion Day and driving in to town at dusk. We would join the flotilla there with the engine off, floating and watching the Canadian fireworks with blasts of the airhorn and cheers from all sides.
After a while fireworks became a twice a year event, and I recall bundling up after a few cocktails and heading downtown on New Year's eve. The explosions of color and light were reflected in the glass of skyscrapers, and on the water of the river.
These pyrotechnic displays were major events in the calendar of the year, critical pieces in the secular liturgy of the seasons. We didn't take them lightly. If you missed one, you had to wait a whole year for another chance.
They were occasions for wonder. The beauty of the colors and shapes were not things we saw in everyday life. The scale and scope and sound of it all was a rare thing. And so we responded with awe. We would catch our breath when a chrysanthemum blossomed in the dark sky before our eyes. We would giggle as the high-pitched shriekers sailed out in trails of color. We would gasp and flinch when explosive reports percussed our ear drums.
And always, always there would be oohing and ahhing. Corny, trite, predictable, ubiquitous oohing and ahhing.
I myself was a queen of the ooh and ahh. I loved participating in the excitement. I marveled with my family at each display. In the early days, my kids were similarly infected, chattering with me as a favorite shape or style or sound was fired into the night.
That's what fireworks are all about. Or used to be.
Something shifted a few years ago. Firework displays became weekly events in many towns throughout the summer. In my former city, there were fireworks after nearly every minor league baseball game plus a weekly pyrotechnic laser show on the river gorge. I'm not sure what brought about the change. Perhaps the price of fireworks dropped given the trade situation with China. Perhaps cities think spending this kind of cash will increase the tax base enough to justify the cost.
Maybe it even works. I don't know.
Coupled with the increased availability of fireworks displays is the extent to which our faculties are bombarded with sensory input. In the days of my childhood fireworks, movie theaters didn't have surround sound. Special effects were rudimentary. Televisions were small boxes that sat on a table or in a wall unit in the living room. Today they are the focal point of the house and take up entire walls of multiple rooms. Expensive sound systems add 3D audio to the mix so that you don't have to leave the house to feel your ear drums tremble as volcano's erupt, rock bands blare, or fans scream from the grand stand. Special effects and digital animation techniques have taught our eyes that fantastic shapes and colors and ornate patterns are no longer special. They have become mundane. Ordinary. Expected.
When you combine these two things; the frequency and availability of fireworks displays and the constant over stimulation of our senses, the result is ennui. We struggle to generate enthusiasm.
Now crowds of people gather to watch fireworks, hungry for wonder but unable to be impressed. That's what I experienced on a beautiful Thursday evening in my quaint seaside town. Families with children and old people on motor scooters, teenagers and lovers, middle aged fogies like me walking dogs, all gathered in hope of experiencing that old, lost magic. But once the fireworks started, the initial excitement turned into boredom. Quickly.
The worst part is that I was one of them. Partway through the show I began to yawn.
That made me sad. And it made me mad that something precious had been stolen when I wasn't paying attention. And sad that I had somehow cooperated in its loss. And mad that there's very little I can do about it now.
At least the town itself is trying. Unlike several beach towns to the north, mine chose not to have weekly fireworks throughout the summer, despite being a major tourist destination with deep pockets. It limited itself to a single celebration, culminating a week of old fashioned pleasures.
Maybe after I've been here a few years I will be able to watch like I did in the past, with oohs and ahhs instead of yawns.
I hope it's not too late.