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May 6, 2009

Panis et circenses

I don’t like crowds. I don’t think anybody does, really. That behavior isn’t natural.

Our instinctive, animal nature will put us on edge when we are unsure about our surroundings, and being surrounded by strangers makes people anxious. On the other hand, we are socialized to trust our neighbors, and in certain circumstances we are inclined to assign neighbor status to those strangers around us. Such is Thunder Over Louisville.

I’m not a fan of Thunder; I think the pyrotechnical display is environmentally irresponsible. I always joke that we should just set some cars on fire. That anyone is willing to engage the hours of slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic for the privilege of joining that crowd boggles my mind. It just seems so sad.

Meanwhile, most of us have forgotten that Thunder was originally intended as a celebration of our military victory in the first Iraq War, not as a kick-off for Derby. Like the intermingling of church and state, the blending of these cultures demeans both; Derby is not about military strength, and our military really shouldn’t be employed as a starter pistol for a feeding frenzy of local commerce and binge drinking.

On the other hand, I have some friends who host a really great annual party for Thunder. It has a beautiful view of the city’s skyline. It’s family-friendly; there are lots of kids, and it’s in walking (or biking) distance of my house. Best of all, even though I don’t know everybody there, I always feel comfortable among these friends of friends, and I don’t have to worry that my son will find trouble if he escapes my view for an instant.

I think that goes to the heart of what is missing in our approach to community. Every year, the official story is the same. We get an analysis of the attendance figures, the estimated economic boost that local businesses experienced, and, as a community, we feel pride if a new record is set. But these events aren’t designed to build community.

What’s the point? Is this the only way that we can separate the fools from their monies? Hunter S. Thompson, our lionized delinquent son, notoriously wrote that “the Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” He was right, and that was clearly an instance of the pot calling the kettle black, a matter of takes one to know one. But that was almost 40 years ago, before we turned the Derby into a two-week pain-in-the-ass with a month-long wind-up.

On the other hand, I did see some friends at that Thunder party. I mended a fence, as they say, and I met some new people; I felt like the luckiest man in the county, like I’d been struck by lightning, and I guess none of that would have happened if it hadn’t been for Thunder. How funny.

On a recent episode of “The Unusuals,” that quirky new cop dramedy (10 p.m. Wednesday, after “Lost” on ABC), Detective Eric Delahoy (played by Adam Goldberg) ran across a dog-eared copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” while investigating a missing person’s case. Like the person he was looking for, Goldberg’s character is suffering from a brain tumor that has been diagnosed as terminal. (What is it with terminal medical conditions popping up in serial dramedies? And what is it with words like “dramedy”? Can’t we come up with a better term for these things? Who’s responsible for coining words around here? Bono?)

So Goldberg steals the book, and later in the episode, he gives a mini-analysis of its contents, (paraphrasing) “It seems to be about the end of the world, but it ends up being more about how we define family as those people we choose to be close to.” I’m not quite ready to give the show a wholehearted endorsement, but hearing a message like this, in the form of some supposedly amateur literary criticism, coming from network television entertainment was stunning, like maybe something was moving in the right direction in spite of the otherwise inexorable approach of global destruction.

And then on Tuesday, April 28, Bob Dylan released Together Through Life, an album of crazy love songs that echo the feelings I had been having of finding myself beyond the fringe of mortality, behind the curtain peaking out at the pageant of strange misery and epic endurance that the most ordinary among us take for granted. It made me feel big and small, joyful and doomed, incredulously thankful for the beautiful mess that could inspire such an exquisite moment.

For further consideration: Eat a strawberry.