The Fourth of July is a pretty big deal across the rural Midwest. While I know that places, like New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C., may put on some impressive shows and get all of the press, but if you really want to celebrate the Fourth, you need to come to the Midwest. The Fourth of July is sort of a perfect storm of holiday festivities in this area. You get to have a cookout during the day, relax with family all evening (typically over several adult beverages), and then watch fireworks in your backyard that night. While these are activities that most everyone likes no matter where they live, in small towns across the Midwest it is on another level. This immense enjoyment stems from the fact that this holiday is right in our regional wheelhouse. Because if there are three things we do well in “Small Town, USA,” they are backyard barbecues, family gatherings, and blowing stuff up. Combining these three components into one holiday, and then adding in the fervor and zeal that comes with celebrating your patriotism, creates a trident of unstoppable holiday spirit that develops into an insanely good time. As you can imagine, many of my favorite Summertime memories occurred during these epic celebrations of American spirit, especially the years when my parents would host a Fourth get together. One of these patriotic parties in particular holds a special place in my heart, not only because of the fun and fireworks and such, but also because of an important lesson that it taught me.
When I was growing up, almost every year my family would host a Fourth of July get together at our home. Other than the fact that the Drotars know how to party, my family would host the gathering because our backyard had a perfect view of the town fireworks display. This was critical for a great Fourth barbecue, as it meant that you could continue to enjoy your adult beverage (the fireworks area is alcohol free) and the explosive show without battling through a crowd of people searching for the “perfect seat.” I do not remember exactly what year it was, but when I was around 10 or 11 years old my folks hosted one of these Fourth of July barbecues. Relatives, family friends, and neighbors came over (comfy, lawn chair in hand), and we ate burgers, played horseshoes, and lit fireworks all day. When it finally got dark enough that night, everyone picked out a spot in the yard, leaned back, and watched the colorful explosions lighting up the sky. I spent the day enjoying the festivities with my childhood best friend (his whole family was there), downing Mountain Dew, lighting firecrackers, and having a great time. As he and I were taking in the fireworks that night, and being every bit the tenacious, pre-adolescent boys that we were, I experienced a fairly trivial event that, has not only stuck with me my entire life, but has ended up having a huge impact on me.
As the town’s fireworks display was about to get going that night, my friend and I picked out a great spot in my yard to watch the show. My younger brother and one of his friends had set up a few feet away from us to get a good view of the colorful combustions to come, and a few adults were nearby too. As the light show in the sky started, my cohort in crime and I overheard my brother and his friend talking about each round of blasts and rating each one on a 10-point scale (1 being a lame, kiddo sparkler and a 10 being air raids over Baghdad explosive power). Being the jerky, adolescents we were, my friend and I decided to poke fun at my younger sibling for getting so much enjoyment out of some town fireworks (because obviously we were way too cool and grown up to like something like that at all of 11 years old). After a few minutes of doing our best to humiliate my little brother, one of the nearby adults stepped in and told us crossly to “leave him alone.” Not being one who misbehaved often (or at least I did not get caught often), getting this gentle scolding made quite the impression on me. In addition to making me straighten up and stop my juvenile behavior, it also impacted me in a much more profound way.
This moment has stuck with me for years. For me, it is one of those memories that you remember in vivid detail, no matter how much time goes by. I think the reason that this fairly uneventful moment from my life has remained such a clear memory is that it reminds me of an important lesson. That night, my friend and I wanted to assert our status as “big, bad teenagers” by making fun of my younger brother for getting so engaged and having so much “childish fun” watching the fireworks display. We wanted so badly to be grown up and treated like adults, that we were not only trying to act like we were not excited about the explosive show in the sky (which we both knew was a lie), but we were also teasing others for enjoying it. As I have thought about this night over the years, I have realized how truly backwards my thinking was at that age. I should not have been trying to solidify myself as an adult, but instead doing everything I could to remain a child for as long as possible. Because while we all have to grow up in terms of our lives and place in society, we do not have to completely let go of the childlike wonder and exuberance that we have when we are young. This moment always helps me remember how important it is to “be a kid” sometimes.
When you are young, you have the ability to get enjoyment out of almost anything. Give a kid a pile of fallen leaves, a big, cardboard box, or even just a pit filled with sand, and they will be entertained for hours in complete bliss. As you grow up though, and this is happening sooner and sooner in our society it seems, you start to lose this youthful creativity and happiness. As we mature, and become jaded by life’s obstacles and burdened with the responsibilities of being a grown up, our capacity to enjoy the simplest parts of life slowly slips away. This would not be so bad, but unfortunately once you lose this childhood gift, it is very difficult to get it back. In most cases, by the time you realize how precious this ability is, it is gone forever. That is why it is so important to recognize how priceless these feelings are, cling to them as much as you can, and appreciate their impact on your life, as you carry them with you into adulthood. I am so thankful that I had this moment to show me the importance of “being a kid,” as well as the maturity to recognize its value at a young age. This has allowed me to maintain some of my youthful exuberance, even though I have had to grow up faster than most, and I am certain that this has made an enormous impact on my overall happiness as an adult.
While I needed a specific moment from my life show me the importance of maintaining some of your childhood innocence and excitement, you can see the powerful effects of these emotions all around you. Think about the happiest people you know, or better yet the people who make you the happiest when you are with them, and then try to describe their personality. More often than not, the happiest people in your life are the ones who exhibit the most childlike wonder and fun. This does not mean that they are any less mature or successful as adults, but more so that they had the vision and mental perspective to recognize the importance of these feelings and maintain them into adulthood. No matter how busy your life is or how much stress and anxiety you have as a grown up, you have to remember that it is ok to “be a kid” sometimes. In fact, it is not only alright, it is recommended. Take the time, at least every few days, to let yourself enjoy the simplest things that make you happy, the way you did as a child. Splash in a mud puddle, go play with puppies at a pet store, or go to the park and sit on a swing. You will be amazed at how great this will make you feel, and if you let your “inner child” out to play often enough, you will find that your adult world is a much happier place.
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