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Allan Sayle's Comment

Column 14: 10 July 2006.

A Birthday Party in Michigan

230 years old, the USA celebrated July 4th in typical fashion. Cities and towns across the nation held their parades and my local city, of Brighton, Michigan, was no exception. Of course, the usual societies and associations took part, as well as the local fire engine, and all enjoyed themselves proudly and rightly waving their flags. In the evening, several thousand from the surrounding community descended on Kensington Metro Park to witness the annual fireworks display. The park has a somewhat man-made lake as its centerpiece across which fireworks would be hurled skywards and on the banks of which people can sit and marvel at the spectacle. Combining a nice, balmy evening and an exhibition of pyrotechnical wizardry makes for a memorable time.

In true American fashion, this outing becomes a major family occasion. A constant stream of cars, SUVs, trucks and vans gradually arrive at the park disgorging their occupants and enough food and drink to supply an army. Unloaded, too, is the amazing variety of essential stuff that makes a picnic complete, that cornucopia of cheap goods and accoutrements imported from China, purchased from stores that once boasted they would only buy their goods from American manufacturers: coolers, hampers, barbecue grills and tools, chairs, playthings, disposable utensils, cups, plates, tablecloths, tents and similar erectable items. (At least the charcoal for the grills was made in America.)

Children play and explore. Some try their hand at fishing while, between mouthfuls of treats, a few examine the components of lakeside mud and weeds. The overweight or obese many, for whom the fuel-guzzling truck or SUV is an essential transportation device, waddle around until gravity compels them to collapse into and around collapsible picnic chairs, their bellies then forming a suitable platform on which to rest their repast or plastic cup. Tables are prepared in their sight laden with all manner of edible delights and delicacies bought, pre-prepared and donated. Countless barbecues slowly cooking (in some cases, due to distracted attendants, cremating) a variety of meat-based products create a mélange of odors: chicken; sausage; hamburger; steak. As the food is consumed it inevitably moves from odor to ordure. When the evening ends, the excess and partially consumed, and there will plenty of that, will be deposited into the strategically placed trash barrels.

We arrived some three hours before the scheduled start of the display so as to secure a good viewing spot on the bank side. Once settled we had an unavoidable privilege of observing everyone at leisure, their dress code, conduct and table manners. And to inescapably hear their conversations, verbal exchanges and general command of the English language, which latter naturally reflects the state of the American education system. Enough said. Though I attempted to relax and pass time by reading my latest copy of The Economist’s publication, Intelligent Life, partly as reassurance that it still exists, I was sadly defeated in my efforts to escape the distractions and theatrical intrusions of the growing neighborhood assembling around us on the lakeside.

Of the peculiar rites practiced by the offspring members of a family of nine that positioned itself beside us, displacing a quiet soul who had been enjoying some fishing and introspection, was that of inserting a string of licorice up into their nasal passages and retrieving an end through their mouths. Clearly a competition, the object of which seemed to be to compare and admire the amount of mucilaginous marinade deposited onto the licorice when the procedure was completed and then to personally assess its constituency and flavor using their, obviously, highly cultured palates. To record the happy event for posterity, their mother took a number of digital photographs while the father bearing the vacant look of someone from the planet “Duh” and sporting a grubby baseball cap made from what appeared to be an off-cut from the Stars and Stripes flag, presumably his token patriotic acknowledgement towards the significance of the day, sat disinterestedly on top of a large drinks cooler. Was there a winner of the contest? Perhaps the eldest (teenage) boy who took a snorting and expectorating fit after the proceedings were concluded. The entire family seemed to admire his efforts and a couple of the younger children did their best to emulate his sounds and discharge. Jolly stuff indeed!

On the other side of us a Chinese couple arrived, politely greeted us and inquired if they may sit alongside and whether or not this would be of any inconvenience to us. Naturally not, we responded and bid them to stay. Dressed in a smart casual way, they assembled their picnic chairs and modest food hamper. Then the Chinaman carefully erected a tripod onto which was secured a digital camera pointed over the lake in the direction of the fireworks’ launching site. It was all very methodical and orderly. All this being completed two hours beforehand, the couple then quietly awaited the display.

Around us, various other families, couples and personages of all shapes, sizes and verbal volume awaited the event. Impatience gradually took hold and the children became noisier, bored with waiting and with whatever pastime stuff made in China of which their interest was soon exhausted. Family quarrels broke out in a desultory fashion. In some of the groups around the lake, male pride became evident as more and more fireworks were let-off to break the monotony of the wait. Eventually a park ranger hurtled across the water in his patrol boat and being no Stentor, deployed a bullhorn to order “No more fireworks”. The males near us, brave souls and responsible citizens all, adopted the “it weren’t us”, non mea culpa look of feigned innocence, that typifies a society conditioned by lawyers to never admit anything, until the ranger was out of sight, then resumed their mischief muttering to their company how the ranger would be well advised to enjoy personal sexual intercourse (an approximate translation of their actual words). Was this a wonderful example to the children about how to respect authority or just an apt demonstration for Independence Day of personal “rights” and freedom?

Nearby a voluminous lady who would make an admirable “before” model for a weight loss advertisement attempted to retrieve a hotdog she had dropped onto the earth. As she bent over, the telltale whale tail of her once black, but now slightly faded, thong majestically rose into view accompanied by two tattoos that defy description. This public display of these natural works of art adding to the cultural experience of the evening. Hotdog retrieved, dusted and tasted, the grayed and frayed whale tail returned into the shallows of her semi-transparent white Capri trousers, as best it could.

Though their heads occasionally and slowly revolved to take in what was happening around them, our Chinese neighbors continued their quiet vigil while bearing inscrutable smiles.

Michigan is a state in economic flux and employment crisis as its once great and dominant automotive industry disintegrates. Factories are closing and at the time of writing there is now talk that once mighty General Motors may become a member of an international group headed by Renault and Nissan, respectively French and Japanese companies, though France’s Renault is the major holding of the two. As described in an earlier article, Ford Motor Company, too, has problems.

The effects of globalization and outsourcing to China (among other countries) are widely recognized. The so-called “China Price”, demanded by manufacturers of their supply chains is exacting a heavy toll as firms and employees capitulate to what they regard as an unbeatable target. All around the area the number of houses and other assets for sale such as boats, trailers, caravans, Winnebago style recreational vehicles, ski-doos, sea-doos, furniture et al shows the combined effects of rising interest rates and gasoline prices, downsizing and economic restructuring are hitting disposable income. And, there seems to be more “garage sales” this year. When one observes what the locals currently load into their copious shopping trolleys one sees very few durable goods, mostly food supplies and trolleys that are no longer loaded to capacity. The parking lots are not as full. People are cutting back and trying to make ends meet by liquidating whatever assets they can. All this heralds a recession, regardless of what politicians, economists and media may say about the rest of the American economy.

So, one cannot deny the local people having their moment of escape afforded by the arrival of Independence Day celebrations during which they reassure themselves America is still the best, greatest, strongest and so forth. On July 4th, they put aside for a while natural concerns about an unpopular war, rising rents, mortgages, health care and education costs, burgeoning budget and current account deficits etc. And in the park they enjoy a marvelous display of fireworks – a Chinese invention.


© 2006 Allan Sayle Associates. All rights reserved.

Web: www.sayle.com
Email: Publish@SaferPak.com



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