Monthly Archives: January 2012

Losing Our Marbles

Washington, D.C. – city of monuments and people who think they are.

And, while largeness of size and scope comes with this package – in the sense of “monumental” – so does the use of “monument” as another way of referring to a tombstone. From the hallowed dead of Arlington National Cemetery, just a short hop from one far end of the Mall, to the brain dead of the Capitol at the other, Washington is like one big graveyard – a place that, while making arguing noises and sounds of life in the political present while determining the potholes and detours of the future, wallows in the deceased past like no other spot and, in all ways, capitalizes on it. In America, one may visit Philadelphia or Boston and see sites emblematic of the country’s history, but Washington is the reliquary: fields of marble markers, buildings full of the collected detritus of important moments in the nation’s development and the self-important tchotchkes of vested interests.

While strolling and, ultimately, stumbling among these monumental memes, as we did recently, one is struck by two realizations; the first being just how influential Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has been to the reshaping and rethinking of what a monument/memorial can and/or should do and be. Once – when monuments meant obelisks, or men in suits or uniforms in poses or on horseback, or rectangular areas with marble Greek columns – the Vietnam memorial was shocking and so unfamiliar a statement, and yet so symbolically perfect: A dark scar gashed in the earth into which one descended and found shiny black walls coated with the names of those who died in the conflict. So simple as to be immensely profound, and emotional. It feels hellish and heavenly, and friends and families ran their hands over the names of their lost ones, as if touching those letters also caressed those faces.

Of course, there were the narrow-minded, the literal-minded and the conservative-minded who reviled this artistic statement of national bereavement, anger and betrayal and felt that the place needed traditional statuary, and so plunked down The Three Soldiers, a bit of Hollywood-ized heroic shlock, at the entrance. If the Lin portion weren’t so strong, this statue could have ruined everything; as it is, this standard sculpture is the thing that suffers and is negligible, and says so little for trying to say it in so pat a manner. 

Now, 30 years after its installation, with the cause of the controversy and the heat of the moment long past, the form of the monument has become the “industry standard.” New monuments, in D.C. and elsewhere, now take the form of long walls with names and places carved in them, and little more. None has the same power as the Lin work, but they acknowledge it as a (no pun intended) groundbreaking work that resonates with honesty and that eliminates the schmaltzy distractions to cut to the chase: the purpose of the piece and nothing more. The monument to Japanese-Americans who were held in detention camps during World War II, the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (notwithstanding its giant representation of the man), the Flight 93 National Memorial, in Western Pennsylvania – each of these, and so many others, attempt to channel the placeness of the Lin by simulating it. None has succeeded so well. It is not just because hers was first – although that helps – but because it is the essential expression, and dovetails with its mission so seamlessly. 

The other thing one notices when one strolls among the monuments of Washington is how we have gone from a nation of action to one of reaction, from pride to explanation. Our memorials used to honor – now they are, it seems, apologies. The internment monument, though perhaps thought of by its creators as honoring those who went through the experience and as a warning to future generations, is in actuality an apology for our having done the deed or having stood by and letting it happen. The more recent war memorials seem less honorific sites than massive “sorry” places or, as in the case of the Korean War Memorial, just plain creepy. Museums, like the one dedicated to the “preservation, study, and exhibition” of all things American Indian, seem as much defensive as illustrative. The King memorial seems thick with atonement and the larger society’s desire to be forgiven for what it did to the man (and to his followers, and ideals) as it does honoring the man and his dream. We seem to be, even in our oversized attempts at defining our greatness, an apologetic nation … perhaps because we have so much to apologize for. One can only imagine what the inevitable Iraq and Afghanistan monuments will be like. 

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Women in White

It is not everyone who watches, in the short span of a weekend, two films that are about groups of women and their roles in society; women whose ultimate goal is love or, at the very least, marriage; sets of female characters who are separated by almost precisely two hundred years and their respective referenced films separated by fifteen. I lay before you statistics that reveal that, oddly, not much has changed in the space of time.

The first is Bridesmaids, a humorous (knowing that humor often derives from pain) look at women in the 21st century: independent, contemporary females who apparently have way more on the ball than the males they are surrounded by – but do want to be surrounded by – and still dress for the ball, at every turn, whether midnight approaches or not – always keeping their eyes on the balls, in every respect. Yes, I laughed my ass off when they behaved in ways that are so counter to acceptable “feminine behavior”; and yet, there they all were still wanting to be feminine – whatever that means. The goals have not changed; perhaps the means have. It is the same fairy-tale dream of crinoline and taffeta and the magic of happily-ever-after-ness. These film characters constitute a group of sisters of one sort: sister-survivors of a still male-dominated world.

The second film, but chronologically first (and you might feel a whiplash effect here), is Pride & Prejudice, the 1995 BBC version. Some of you may know that its five-hours’ viewing is an annual event in these parts by way of honoring a deceased mother, and the obligation is not a hardship or an unpleasant experience. But having just seen Bridesmaids, this time P&P was viewed in a different light. Or is it different? Okay, so in P&P there is a group of Regency Period women – blood sisters in various combinations – who are unable to earn or even inherit money or property given the unjust laws. Their goals are clear: obtain comfort, have status, protect the future of their families – and some want love, as well. And, yes, in this, too, there are plenty of balls, but they are the type with music and dancing. Plus, in P&P, although women are disadvantaged in their status, they are often (not always) more decisive about what they want or don’t want, and are pretty good at getting it. Lizzie can best any man she encounters and does so, despite her fate of being forced into a life of dependence; she is smart, accomplished, has wisdom that exceeds her years and is not always the best judge of character but, nevertheless, doesn’t allow herself to be used by men.

In Bridesmaids, Annie does let herself be used and seems to suffer from low self-esteem. Others in her group (and let’s mention here that this is an older crowd than the P&P group) are in various relationships, mostly unsatisfying. The most “out there” and fearless character is Megan – and, interestingly, she is the least feminine. Besides being hilarious, she is the one who comments most on female stereotypes – in a kind of butch way. In P&P, it is the sister Mary who steps out of the box in a similar fashion (similar within the context of the times). She is not depicted as being heroic; she is bookish, self-contained, pious and extremist – ridiculously so, even in that era. But she is the most nontraditional female. Her only interest in the opposite sex is a bit of infatuation with the irritably pious Mr. Collins but, of course, the feelings are not mutual. However, Mary does not exhibit signs of low self-esteem. Frustration with her sisters, yes, and society at large, but not with herself. 

Et tu, Megan. In the modern age, Megan gets to act-out what Mary must suppress, so maybe therein lies the difference. However, both characters are depicted as outsiders within the accepted norms. And we get an explanation in Bridesmaids, when Megan gets her moment of truth-telling in revealing her reasons for her tough demeanor, a caring attempt to shake Annie to her senses. Whether it is 2011 or 1813, it still seems to be about women’s idea of self, based on societal expectations. There is a search for Prince Charming in both stories and, yet, in both, the women are the ultimate deciders. It is their choice, their place to determine whether to like themselves, when to make a move, how to present themselves to the world – or, still like little girls, play dress-up – and find ways to catch the man of their dreams or their dreams of a man. The hope is that they catch themselves first.

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Realm of the Coin

Under normal circumstances, standing on a metal grate and looking down into the hard and shadowy depths below would not immediately, or even at all, bring to mind a burbling, spouting fountain in the center court of a suburban mall. But there the mental link made itself plain, in an odd placeness puzzlement.

Let’s backtrack, shall we? A strange quirk of human behavior, one that has been practiced from time immemorial, is the tossing of a coin into a well in order to make a desire come true. Wishing wells are part of many cultures; they show up in everything from ancient fables to convenient romantic or comic devices in motion pictures. Whether the idea behind the coin-tossing action comes from an old superstition in which the “donation” of some money to a spirit dwelling below ground will propitiate that god, who will reciprocate by granting a come-true wish – whether that’s the root of it, it is a harmless relic that has a sweet, innocent, feel-good sort of aura about it. There’s usually the hope of love attached to it – and also, likely, the love of some extra cash experienced by the well owner, who has advertised the special nature of his hole in the ground. 

This magical placeness, all wrapped up in our primal pagan urgings, makes some sense. There are places that feel spiritual; there are places that strike us as supernatural. And, being in one of those places, it has become tradition to sacrifice something in order to get a higher power’s attention and interest. Better a coin than a goat, we say. (And isn’t the church collection plate really just a wishing well of sorts?)

But, something strange has taken place over the past few decades, by our observation. Apparently, a wishing well is no longer required for the purchase of dreams – instead, any body of still water will do. We have been to ponds, to carved basins in sculpture parks, to that aforementioned ersatz-Trevi mall fountain – to lots of shallow repositories of water, and there, glittering, unexpectedly, below the clear surface, were coins. Why would anyone, we wondered, expect a wish to be fulfilled or good luck to be bestowed, by flipping a coin into a mall water feature? Is it a belief that the money will go to charity? Is it a belief that any body of water has magic powers, even one just across from Macy’s and the Cinnabon? Is it not the god of the deep that is responsible for granting the request but, rather, water itself? And is there a true feeling of placeness, of specialness, of communion with unseen forces, in places like this? Frankly, having seen so many coins tossed in so many unlikely patches of water, it surprises us that people haven’t started pitching pennies into public toilets. 

And, then, here we are, in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C., in a room dedicated to all things electrical – from small appliances to giant generators – and, dominating the room, is a gigantically tall pillar: a huge piston, towering many feet above any head. As one approaches it, one becomes aware of a metal grate in the concrete floor just in front of this massive, gleaming monolith of American ingenuity. Looking down, through the grate openings, one can see that the towering piston is only the tip of the iceberg – as much or more of it extends below, into a small sub-basement. It is impressive. But then the eye is caught by something else: Scattered over that sub-flooring, a story or two below where we are standing, are little glistening dots, shining in the light. And it becomes suddenly clear: People have been throwing coins through the grate to the chamber below … for what? Does this place, this hole in the ground in front of a science exhibit, resonate with them as a magical locale where wishes will come true? In what way, other than depth, is this analogous to a wishing-well experience? When they were standing on this grate, in front of this big cylindrical hunk of metal, what was it that made them reach into their pockets for a coin? Are things so bad in this country at the moment that we will toss a hope-linked sacrifice into just about anything that will contain it, just on the off-chance that it will work? From where, exactly, does such an act derive, and where and what is the sense of placeness that provokes it?

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Clueless Holidays

With the frenzied festive winter season behind us, I am pondering the idea of holiday gatherings and what the placeness factor of them might be. I mean, the point of such events appears to be to foster a sense of placeness; of having a place in the world (or the myths and rituals of a particular world), or having a traditional place in a family unit, or, by extension, a tiny place in a larger group with shared experience. The odd thing is, that whenever there is inclusion among humans, it often results in exclusion and the sad feelings of left-out-ness that many people experience around these winter celebrations. I am all for humans feeling happy, truly happy; not with false expectation or a hyped happiness that causes people to spend more than they have. Nor do I want people, out of some sense of obligatory duty, to seethe with an emotional resentment for what they perceive they have to present or perform that will go unappreciated for, yet, another annum.

I am not, here, referring to myself. But I think about my mother at times like this, and all the other mothers and others who have tried to make occasions special for everyone but themselves, somehow thinking that it will rub off on them, as well – the endless preparations made in offering up a stage for all the players and, in the end, the producer being left spent and let down.

And, too, I think about all the hosts and hostesses who put together parties, wanting to stimulate good cheer, but also approaching the events as investments of sorts, hoping against hope that their efforts will be reciprocated. Maybe next year.

Part of the problem seems to be the overinflated sense of what constitutes a good time. Can it be measured? Must it include lavish expense? Is the event, in all its glory, substituting for what people seem unable to share, like meaningful conversation and intimacy? New Year’s celebrations are so fraught with expectations, of … what? That some artificially designated night must either determine your fate, or else alter it? Are you with the right someone at the magical stroke of midnight, or, on this night, is being dateless the most horrifying predictor of a lonely future? In our collective DNA, these holiday observances and the thoughts surrounding them are often no further evolved than they were when our primitive ancestors sacrificed something out of fear and dread – resolving nothing except for having fear, dread and death inflicted on some poor other creature. And is it mandatory to consume large quantities of alcohol in order to enjoy oneself?

My significant other and I were trying, this year, to remember some of the highlights of New Years past. It’s funny how there were not that many that were memorable (and there have been many), very few depositing any sense of placeness in our hearts. There were now-laughably silly ones and plenty of uneventful ones, and even the occasional elegant ones. All were pretty much forgettable. But one that has stayed with us both is the one that we spent in Seattle in 1981-82. We were living there for a six-month period, and while one of us was working, the other was taking a class in stained-glass making. It was an intense but fun class with a good group of people from varied backgrounds – all with a common purpose. One of the classmates was a man named Kenji who was a graphic designer but who had a desire to try a different craft. Kenji had a winning personality and seemingly boundless energy, and could have been teaching the class, but he was there to learn. The term was due to end in mid-December and as the finale approached, all of us felt like the time had gone too quickly. Sometimes you can have, in a classroom setting, a nice mix of people and you hate to see the dynamics end. Kenji, being the most gregarious, invited us all to his house for New Year’s Eve. It was sort of impromptu. No expectations except prolonging our friendships.

Most of the classmates came with their others, if they had them. Kenji had a beautiful design-y apartment that had a placeness to it already. There were edibles brought by everyone, and drinks, but the food was not the main event. We were adults but we played the game Clue all night. Part of the magic was that we all felt like children enjoying ourselves, and not because we were tanked and out of control. We were very much present, in the moment. We all generated a creative energy in the room. There was a glowing fireplace, and the company was at that perfect cusp of knowing each other a bit but not so much that we annoyed one another. We had wonderful, sometimes meaningful conversations over the game board, and we laughed easily and together. It was the right mix, the right time, the right casual nature of the party. No roles, no pretense. We all felt at home in a place of warmth and beauty. Right there, placeness. The memories are strong and the glow of Kenji’s smile and his modern fireplace are still warm in our hearts. Happy New Year, Kenji et al.

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