Pattis-Norm
Norm Pattis ()

Over the many years I’ve written this column – I think it is now 14, but who is counting? – I’ve taken pride in never missing a week. (Except for the couple of months years back when I impetuously quit, and then returned.) Only once has a column been spiked, or not used by the editor, and that was a wise call as I had more than the usual intemperance when it came to describing a certain clerk of the Superior Court.

But weekly opinion writing takes its toll. Some weeks the well is dry, especially when, as now, I am in the midst of a long summer vacation, idling time away at the Cape with my wife, my kids, my dogs and a pile of books. I could yield my space, and invite the publisher to find another voice, but that might be my undoing. This is, after all, my bully pulpit — I’m not yielding an inch.

So let me do what so many opinion writers do when the holidays tumble along. I will write about the Fourth of July, engage in what Edmund Wilson once called a little “patriotic gore.”

Ready?

I’m not.

I confess, the holiday falls flat on my ear, and does not move my soul. Even re-reading the Declaration of Independence leaves me flat. I know I should jump up and down, and wave a flag in the name of liberty, but really? All of Jefferson’s fine lines about liberty while his slaves worked his plantation? The Declaration is rhetoric of the first order, but it is dishonest rhetoric, not really believed at the time it was written, and having only a hortatory quality now.

I recall lessons in school as a child, reading about the Pilgrims, about the Founding Fathers, about Betsy Ross. One of the nifty educational tricks of the time was that reading about these folks encouraged me to think that their history was my history, too. It wasn’t until adulthood that I connected some of life’s larger dots: my forebears were nowhere near Plymouth centuries ago. Indeed, my father did not arrive in this county until he snuck across the border from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit many years ago. He had arrived in Canada from his native Crete. He died an illegal immigrant, living for many decades in the United States on forged papers.

That’s the America I know.

It’s most people’s America.

It’s a land of opportunity, all right, but the chances people take here are defined more by hard luck, determination and pure grit than by participation in some broader civic dream of a City on a Hill.

I say all this with a touch of bad faith. Not long ago, I wandered into the tail end of an immigration ceremony in the courtroom of Magistrate Judge Holly Fitzsimmons. She’d minted a batch of new citizens, and they all milled about the courtroom, many holding flags, some posing for pictures with the judge. They were celebrating something I take for granted, something I apparently do not value enough. Do they read the early history of this continent and make the tales of others their very own?

I’m open to the possibility that I’ve grown jaded over time. I’ve stood next to so many outcasts in one court or another that I, too, now feel like an outcast. Or perhaps I’m drawn to the wild side of the aisle because I was born an outcast, an outsider looking in.

Such are the imponderable thoughts of a man for whom patriotism is suspect. I think I’ll head back to the couch, grab a book, and lose myself in some other world. That’s what vacations are all about, and the gods know I need this one.•