I worry that all my thoughts have been thought before by someone smarter, and written down in words that are more insightful than mine. If I worry enough about this, I don’t write what I’d like to say. Today, one week into the new year, I’m writing a few things that I k now have been thought and said before but, tant pis, I’m going to say it again.
The first is a word about grief. This thought is plainly second-hand. That is, it came from a dream that wasn’t even mine. It was my daughter’s. In it, as she reported it, I’m with my late husband and – this part is hard to believe – Kobe Bryant. My husband leaves and I say to Kobe, “I don’t want to forget that Paul was here.” “it’s not about forgetting,” says Kobe. “It’s about living your life.”
Really. Kobe Bryant?
I’ve considered the source and decided that it’s my daughter channeling Paul. And he’s right, of course. Grief is not the sole vehicle for remembering. Happiness isn’t premised on forgetting.
Second, there’s the matter of aging. Like grief, aspects of this subject have been the subject of my earlier posts. In fact, it’s inevitably a subject I confront every day, though not always thoughtfully. So, too, do a raft of other people, it seems, and many of them study it and write about it. More studies have surfaced that suggest that friendships and socializing contribute to longevity. Other researchers credit crossword puzzles, walking, non-smoking, red wine, cardiovascular exercise, a Mediterranean diet, learning and a positive attitude. I find all of these studies suspect as they tend to corroborate the expectation that the values of the researchers make for a long and happy life. In my close family, the sole member of the generation before mine is my 97-year-old aunt. She has dementia, aphasia, diabetes, a brain tumor, a towering white blood count and is obese. Twice divorced, she had no children and – how to say this nicely? – was not dearly beloved by her niece (me) and nephews (my brothers). She was always included in family events but didn’t make them happier. Indeed, the stories about my aunt’s snide criticisms and condescension are legion. As she became my responsibility seven years ago, I learned she had some friends from her teaching days and her volunteer ushering at Carnegie Hall. But they are gone now, and her companions are three aides who treat her with love and provide capable care, for which I am deeply grateful.
My aunt’s longevity puzzles me. Her lifestyle matched few of the predictive factors associated with old age (though she apparently was never a smoker and she did enjoy music). As her brother lived to be 98, perhaps there is some genetic component yet to be discovered that overrides all of the more obvious life style factors. Be that as it may, I will continue to avoid red meat, walk my dog, do the New York Times crosswords and cultivate optimism, whether or not validated by experience. These seem inherently good things, so I understand why researchers want them to matter statistically. I do too, as it enables me to believe I have some control in the matter.
Third, a word about my dog, Pippin. He is teaching me dog-speak. This is good not only because it fosters communication between us, but also because it demonstrates that, at 70, I am still in a learning mode. Which promotes longevity (see above). It has taken me three years to learn the language, in part because he’s still perfecting it. However, I understand the following: a whine with a sit means he wants to eat, preferably a treat; a bark, on his four feet, facing me, means “let’s go out.” (The urgency of this bark, understandably, varies.) A bark on the move signals someone or something at the front door. A whine on his feet facing me means “I’d like to sit in your lap.” Scratching on my wastepaper basket tells me it’s time to shut down my computer to play with one of his pitiful toys. This is quite an impressive vocabulary, covering, as it does, most of his life activities, and thus, many of mine. I’m trying to make progress with communication going in reverse. That is, when I say “come,” he should do that. This hasn’t met with great success. “Wait” seems to be meaningful to him and, fortunately, he correctly interprets “no.” He gets that he’s supposed to go up or down the stairs ahead of me when I say “go,” usually accompanied with a sweep of the hand. The rest, well, not so much. He’s quite adorable in his new sweater.
Fifth: family. I was reminded throughout the Christmas-New Year-Hanukah holidays, as we swept away the detritus of meals and gifts, that what remains is a family rich in its variables, experience and love. My extended family is Jewish, Catholic and Lutheran, black and white. We hail from the north and south, east and west of America and find our roots in Ireland, Russia, Hungary, Argentina, Israel, Canada, Germany and Africa. We are vegetarians, pescatarians and omnivores. We are second, third and fourth generations. We are married, single, widowed, divorced and partnered. We are toddlers, teens, middle aged and seniors.
We come from a nuclear family, an extended family, an adoptive family by acclamation. We are in-laws and, I’m forced to admit, some are outlaws. We are healthy, powerful, frail and failing. We are at the outset of our lives and contemplating the ending. We exasperate and exhilarate each other, we fail, we achieve, we advocate and protest, we leap tall buildings in a single bound, and we stumble. All in the course of a year.
We reach across continents to friends and relatives of four generations in Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Canada and Japan. We discover new friends around the corner in our new neighborhoods and treasure the friends of childhood where we once lived. We multiply faster than our losses. We are downsizing, we are expanding.
We are a family with new roles, new connections, new places we call home. We see ourselves differently than we did 70 years ago when few of us were living, but we repeat the stories of how we came to this country with awe. We reaffirm they are our stories and that this defines our core of courage, ingenuity, loyalty and love. Whether or not I see the torch pass again to the next keepers of our traditions, or recognize them in the next generation, what I see now is good and hopeful, free and alive to change. May the year ahead continue to grow our vision of who we are and extend the embrace of our family, remembering that who we become is a new iteration of who we were.
I hope the reader’s recognition of familiar thoughts and feelings, of gratitude and joyfulness, and perhaps a tinge of sorrow, makes up for the lack of originality. Happy new year.
The nerve-piercing pain of sciatica provokes this question: have you thought about how much time is spent standing around? I’m not counting walking or running or any kind of hopping and skipping. Just standing still, in one place.
Some small part of time thus spent is intentional. Attending a cocktail party or reception, for example. Or participating in a receiving line at a wedding or funeral. While these are some of the least satisfactory forms of social interaction, they are a matter of choice. Indeed, these occasions are all about standing about: it is integral to the nature of the event.
Standing is also intentional when it substitutes for alternative movement – such as standing in the elevator, on the escalator or moving stairway. In those circumstances, we choose to stand rather than to exert energy climbing or walking (which may not, in situations like a 65-floor building, be feasible). That could be said of standing on a bus or subway for that matter. However, though it is a choice, it is a means, not an end. Standing is not the essence of riding the subway. It is a collateral feature. One wouldn’t choose to stand on a motionless bus (though it does happen, in which case the intentionality of standing diminishes by the minute and feels more like coercion). It is only because the bus or train will get you where you’re going more expeditiously that you choose to stand around in its aisles.
When giving a speech or a lecture, standing is standard delivery, though not, strictly speaking, part of the act. (In fact, I’ve found that a request for a tall stool and a lectern will usually be honored.) A solo musician, say, a violinist, likewise appears in the venue, expecting to stand. A cellist, on the other hand, or a harpist, expects to be seated. The size and shape of the instrument dictates whether or not standing is required. Of course, the violinist could be seated (whereas it would be very difficult for the cellist to perform while standing). The violinist is in fact seated when part of an orchestra. But the solo violinist performs standing. It is standard, though not essential to the performance.
Which brings me to normative standing. We are expected to rise and remain standing for many rituals, for example, the opening of the Ark, the entrance of a judge, the singing of a psalm or the pledge of allegiance. Standing in such situations connotes respect. It may be perceived as a non-verbal affirmation of shared values or beliefs. And, though age or infirmity may excuse sitting it out, those who are not so excused but remain seated (or kneeling) typically will be regarded as oppositional or ill-mannered. There is an exception for sitting (or kneeling) as a religious or political statement, which is (usually, though not lately) respected as a form of free speech. This depends, of course, on who’s sitting and who’s standing, and their respective takes on the message conveyed by the conduct. Absent such personal circumstances and principles, however, the words “please rise” are generally met with compliance and we stand until told to be seated. On some occasions, this can be quite a while.
A new consensus has apparently been built around the standing ovation. The rule seems to be (based on personal observation) if more than 5% of the audience stands to applaud the performance or speakers, then everyone must do so. (On Broadway, standing is the least obnoxious audience behavior when the curtain falls.) Sitting it out, amidst frenzied clapping and stomping, exposes you to the quasi-hostile question: didn’t you like it? Moreover, it is impossible to get that last glimpse of the stage unless you rise with the masses. So, while a standing ovation may have a normative thrust, and increasingly feels ritualistic, it has a strong coercive element.
By far the most standing around we do is incidental: waiting your turn. Standing on line to buy a ticket or obtain a boarding pass. Waiting to clear passport control or security. To use the bathroom or the ATM. To pay for your groceries. Waiting for the light to change to cross the street. Waiting is the most aggravating form of standing around and the mere prospect of it may incite misbehavior, mendacity and rudeness, especially in competitive contexts.
The sight of a long line can provoke a normally fair-minded person to push ahead of scores of passengers waiting to board a train at Penn Station. It may induce a shopper to grab the first place at a newly opened register at Whole Foods, to beat out the half-dozen ahead of him at the one that’s closing. It may lead a bar mitzvah guest to reach in front of an older woman to grab the last pumpernickel bagel. If challenged, the line-breaker will usually respond self-righteously — something on the order of “everyone’s doing it” or “it doesn’t matter” or “I can’t eat sesame seeds.” I’ve heard variants of all of these explanations, fiercely spoken but ultimately feeble attempts to cover up that someone feels her time lost standing around is far more valuable than anyone else’s, or his discomfort is more significant than another’s.
This ill-mannered behavior is fed by a strong competitive element. Angst over the possibility that you’re actually losing ground, that others are gaining on you while you are stuck in place, can make standing around intolerable and create a combustible situation. Southwestern Airlines tries to curb the problem by corralling passengers in numbered lines, thereby mitigating the competition while actually prolonging the standing around (an excellent example of relieving a symptom rather than the condition that produced it).
Even in non-competitive situations, however, standing around to wait your turn may be construed as a waste of time rather than a contribution to social order. That, in turn, triggers high levels of anxiety and foolhardy conduct. It was such an anathema to my father that he’d risk life and limb to tear across Fifth Avenue against the traffic. The terror of seeing him dodge taxis has induced in me a healthy respect for red lights. Which is not to say I’m patient standing around on the street corner, but I have lived long enough to write about it.
It begins in January. I climb on a pony – or ostrich or tiger – listening to the calliope and waiting for the bell. When it rings, the carousel slowly gears up, with rasping effort, to turn. At the start, it turns very slowly, as if it’s pulling out of the grip of the past year. It gathers speed gradually through April until, at last, by summertime, it slips free from the past and acquires a momentum that carries it forward with heightened determination. September arrives, and the acceleration intensifies. I must grasp the pole, even as I lean out to resist the pull. I give in to it and gallop forward, circling faster and faster. Suddenly I sense the momentum dissipating. It is the end of December and the carousel slows to a stop, allowing me time to buy a ticket for another ride. This is how I experience the passage of a year.
Though many researchers have explored the notion that time is perceived to pass more rapidly as we age, that phenomenon has escaped me entirely. The metaphor of my perception of time has remained the same for over 40 years, and its paces haven’t varied. My moods tend to match the turning of the carousel, with the fall being my happiest, most energetic time of year. Why that should be is unclear, but perhaps it dates from my school-going years: I always looked forward to going back to school, from first grade to the beginning of each year of law school. It was the prelude to new possibilities.
When I was in elementary school, I remember the annual ritual of shopping for new clothes with my mother. On the first day of class, I would wear my favorite new outfit, feeling very spiffy. Even that year when the temperature was still in the 90’s, I wore my new red wool pleated skirt and navy blue sweater with a white trimmed collar. It didn’t matter that I was over-dressed for the hot day — I was excited about the newness of the school year and my clothes matched my mood.
More observant Jews might also note that autumn is the sacred time of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Perhaps there is some primeval association in my soul, but I don’t recognize it. The September exhilaration I experience is more tamped down by the High Holy Days. I sense that I’ve been found wanting on the spiritual plane. And, in recent years, the grief evoked by the Yizkor services has become more intense, denting my high autumnal spirit with the remembrance of losses. So, no, I don’t think the Holy Days of the Jewish calendar account for my perception of September’s velocity.
I don’t simply perceive time in an experiential sense, I also visualize it. There is ample research into charts, graphs and symbols that enable a student of most any discipline to grasp change over a specified time period. They may cover millennia, eras, centuries or seconds. Considerable thought has gone into designing a look that conveys the evolution, growth and maturation of our universe, civilizations and bodies. It is challenging to compress time periods that vastly exceed our individual lifetimes into a visual without obliterating the sense of the tempo of change. Many such charts invite us to leap over 100 and 1000 year stretches to understand an historical or geographic phenomenon.
But time is lived hour by hour, day by day, week by week. And this is how I visualize it: I can see the weeks of a year, unfolding accordion-style. The closest weeks are fully open, and the days are individuated. I can infer the degree of their proximity by the clarity of lettering and the detail of hours. The furthest reaches of the calendar are still folded tightly but, as we move forward in time, the closest days drop out of the picture, and the later ones unfold. I can tune into this visualization at any time of the year; although it is grounded in the calendar, it is continuous. It is the foreseeable future.
Both my experience and visualization of time offer comfort. The recurrence of the carousel cycles, and the continuity of the accordion book, reassure me in difficult moments that I will get through them, that time is my most reliable friend. When I was a homesick teenager at a summer boarding school, I could see when I was going home. When a person dear to me died, I understood I would not be stuck in that excruciating moment forever. The carousel would keep turning, pausing and accelerating. The days would unfold spontaneously.
On joyful days, the experience and visualization of time hold out the excitement of the next milestone or occasion — or the exaltation of pure possibility. Their parameters outline the future, giving me confidence that I’m on track, even though the details – people, places, things — that will fill the seasons and the weeks remain to be discovered. I am in motion, moving time and again to a good place before moving forward. I am charmed anew by the exuberance of the carousel’s calliope.
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception,” wrote Aldous Huxley. Perhaps the carousel and the accordion book allow me to pass from the known to the unknown without qualms. Perhaps they substitute for faith.
My intention in reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman was to understand why World War I began in 1914. This has been on my mind since viewing the spectacular display of 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London in August 2014. Each poppy represented a British soldier killed in the war that destroyed a generation. Eighteen million persons in military and civilian life died in that dreadful war; 23 million more were wounded. It seemed to me impossible that such consequences could flow simply from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Serbian terrorist (or patriot, depending on one’s loyalties), but that was all I retained from a world history survey course 50 years ago.
This is not an essay about the causes of World War I. Suffice it to say, that the network of alliances and ententes that crisscrossed borders and continents from 1870 – a somewhat arbitrary starting point – to 1914 is confounding. Ms. Tuchman doesn’t purport to explore all of them, or to mine all of the history of the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans – I should stop there, for the list of all of the nations engulfed in this conflagration is almost the entire world. What she does is dissect the conduct of the first month of battles in August 1914 that set the course for the following four years of death and destruction. I am not the first to observe that it is a brilliant day-by-day reconstruction of the key actors’ strategies, decisions and behavior.
It is difficult to absorb the details of the attacks, counterattacks, retreats and other actions of those 31 days. I found it impossible to master Tuchman’s maps of troop movements (which my Kindle didn’t facilitate). I found myself re-reading sections to be sure I had correctly connected a particular General and his army, and had to do some peripheral research about brigades, corps and divisions to appreciate the significance of some events. I was overwhelmed by detail and can’t recite the chronology with confidence. Even the names of some of the key players at key moments are a bit muddled.
Nevertheless, after finishing the book, from prologue to epilogue, I felt vastly better educated about how it all came about. Further, as I distance myself more from the particular pages, I feel that I’ve learned or been reminded of some important basics about the affairs of men (they were all men at the time, of course). Perhaps I knew some of these things before reading The Guns of August, but I write them down now because I don’t want to lose sight of them again. They are not unique to me or especially profound observations, but they help me find relevance in a time that otherwise feels very distant.
Langfollow’s List of Lessons from The Guns of August
People looking for a fight will find it. And may drag in people who aren’t.
Plans based on how things used to be are doomed.
Human behavior can be worse than imaginable.
People crave inspiration.
People tell barefaced lies to create their own narrative.
Fake news is not new.
Glorious reputations may disguise incompetence.
Knowing when to be flexible is a critical skill of discernment.
Paying close attention avoids mistakes.
People rise above their limits to achieve a goal that matters to them.
That, in short, is both the good news and the bad news from 31 days of August 1914.
My mother privately smashed plates in the basement when she was angry. I knew nothing of this until decades later when she was working on an autobiography. She told me then about the tremendous emotional pain and fear she experienced as a child when her parents fought regularly and furiously with raised voices, and sometimes more. She vowed she would never subject her children to such behavior. Hence the broken dishes.
As parents, we are prone to over-correct, hoping to avoid the mistakes we associate with our own parents. My mother, traumatized by her parents’ rages, didn’t consider the spectrum of expressions of anger or the need to distinguish between self-possession and self-deprecation. It took me years after my mother’s revelation to discern the source of my own aversion to confrontation. I had intuited from her self-restraint that anger shouldn’t be openly displayed. I expanded on this theme to avoid provoking anger as well. The two occasions when I raised my voice as a teen remain sources of remorse to me. Despite the sense that my anger was justified in both instances, I felt that I had threatened my relationship with my mother by lashing out. Confrontation was not just inappropriate, it was risky. Even in my adult career as a litigator, I shrank from one-on-one conflict. This is the context of the conduct of my life and relationships.
Taylor Swift shook me from this false sense of serenity. Her voice is beautiful, strong and inspiring. I’m not thinking of her songs, though they presumably fit that description too. I’ve got in mind her recent testimony about the experience of sexual molestation at the hands, literally, of one David Mueller.
When I was nine years old, a great uncle made a Mueller move on me on the stairs of my very own home. I told no one. I knew it was wrong of him. I knew I didn’t like it. It didn’t occur to me to doubt that I would be believed if I told my parents. But I was embarrassed, and I didn’t want to create family discord, which I implicitly understood it would, so I said nothing. Decades later, I mentioned it to my mother and father, then in their 80’s, when for some reason my great uncle’s name came up. My father reacted fiercely – had he known, he would have killed his uncle, he said, and it didn’t surprise me. He might have come close. A revelation surely would have blown a hole in our family circle. And I would have been responsible, or so I felt at the time. But the uncle and his entire generation were now long dead, and so, with the danger of conflict in the past, I found my voice when it was inconsequential.
I was 15, crushed in a packed Manhattan E Train, when it happened again. This time it was a stranger. I never saw his face. He was wearing leather gloves – I think of them as black gloves, but I never saw them either. I know they were leather though, for I wrestled with his hands as they crept up my inner thigh. “Take your hands off me, you creep,” is what I imagined shouting, but I said nothing. I was shaken by the assault, as my girlfriend noticed, but I kept it a secret from her too. I didn’t doubt that I would be believed, but I knew I would have created a public ruckus that I didn’t want to be the center of. Rather than confront the anonymous miscreant, I’ve kept it a secret for 55 years.
I was 26 and a lawyer in a large law firm the next time. Seated at a dinner, next to the president of a large mid-west chemical company, I felt again, a hand – his hand – creeping under my skirt up my leg, hidden by the tablecloth. Outwardly, he was a model of propriety – didn’t even take a drink. I was appalled and firmly shoved his hand away. But without a word. The dinner continued, uninterrupted.
Remembering these episodes, I feel compassion for the nine-year-old, the fifteen-year-old, and even the 26-year-old that I was. I look at my teenage granddaughters now, running track, climbing walls and silks, playing soccer, dancing and swimming competitively: I haven’t a single doubt that all of them have a sense of physical integrity that has been honed since they were toddlers. Each one knows she is powerful and is unafraid to be her own advocate. They would be shocked, I think, to know that I did not feel that way too, that I, a civil rights advocate of some stature, blinked when it came to my own protection.
There are many consequences of conflict evasion, in many spheres of life. Taylor Swift, by tacking in a different, brave direction, has led me to reflect on them. I’m grateful that she spoke up, that she minced no words, that she called Mueller’s lie what it was, that she made it emphatically clear that grab-ass is not just boyish horseplay, that she didn’t shy away from confrontation. She acted and reacted in a way that she will never second guess.
The Judy Collins Songbook cost $4.95 back in 1969. It includes 55 songs by such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger, whom I will love all my life. A few, along with her Reminiscences, are by Judy Collins herself. The one that I was looking for in the collection yesterday – “Both Sides Now” — is by Joni Mitchell. I last sang the song decades ago and the pages of the 50 year old songbook crackled at their seam.
Ironically, it was Donald Trump’s bombast that triggered my search for this sweet song. I, like millions of others, was horrified by the President’s deference to “both sides” of the conflict in Charlottesville. That he did not, and likely could not, perceive the moral difference between those shouting “Jews will not replace us” and those protesting Nazism and racism was shocking. But it also led me to consider how to differentiate between an issue that has “both sides” open to debate, and a world view that permits no “other-sidedness.” It may be that the world of the First Amendment disallows any such distinction. The Constitution, after all, doesn’t evaluate content; it asserts the freedom to espouse it. But in a moral world, there is a need to recognize that there are philosophies so pernicious that they exist on one plane only.
Joni Mitchell’s lyrics offer a metaphorical guide to this terrain. She looked at clouds “from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.” Mitchell’s insight is that clouds themselves, depending on one’s mood, can be fanciful or weighty. As deeply as we look into clouds, from various angles and mindsets, we may never capture their intrinsic nature. But whatever this suggests about the study of clouds, it is clear that they are not defined by something else.
Sunshine, for example, is not perceived as the “other side” of clouds. Sunshine is its own phenomenon: cleansing, brilliant, brutal and deadly. And so too, darkness is not the “other side” of the sun. One is not simply the absence of the other.
Several writers of music and memoirs have referred to “the other side of darkness.” Their focus is not on the duality of darkness itself, but rather the emergence from a debilitating emotional state of mind. It is, however, a misleading use of the words insofar as it suggests that darkness itself has another side. True, it can be experienced in a variety of ways: somber, peaceful, frightening. It may reveal stars and invite dreams or nightmares. And it may be, as used by these writers, a metaphor for a state of mind. But leaving behind confusion, depression or anger is not to find another “side” of darkness. It is rather to discover something totally different: light, love, and all things that flourish when darkness is dispelled. Each has its own attributes, and it would be simplistic to construe this shorthand to mean that one is the “other side” of something altogether different.
Which takes me back to Charlottesville. There are some (few) like the President and David Duke who insist that the fascist marchers and the protesters were “both sides” of – what? An issue? A debate? A controversy? This desultory analysis ends in what has been described as a false “moral equivalency.”
If neo-Nazism is “controversial,” it is not because this nation accords to its agenda any philosophical or political stature worthy of debate. The controversial aspect concerns only whether and to what extent the First Amendment requires us to tolerate the expression of its vile nature, antithetical to the First Amendment itself. Protesting neo-Nazism is not “the other side” of this evil; it is not one of “both sides” of a reasoned conversation. To declare that the Charlottesville demonstrators and protestors represented “both sides” of an issue is tantamount to pretending that there was a basis for a legitimate difference of opinion between the Warsaw ghetto Jews who rose up against the Nazis and their oppressors. There was not.
So, too, in Charlottesville, there were purveyors of Nazi hate and there were their antagonists, defending the essential moral and political character of our nation. They were not representing or expressing “both sides” of a debatable issue like taxes. They represented and advocated wholly antithetical world views, one of which our country has rejected, fought against and defeated. By casting it otherwise, Donald Trump has again revealed both his feeble-minded ignorance and his depravity.
“Decadent” was a new word to my ten-year-old grandson. It was splashed across the poster for a production of the musical Cabaret that we were attending at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. An odd choice for a fifth grader and his grandmother? Perhaps, but Teddy had performed in and seen the other show then on stage – The King and I – more times than he wished, so we opted for Cabaret. Even so, “decadent” triggered my uneasy attention as we entered.
Together, Teddy and I had read the synopsis of the show so that he would be prepared for the adult themes and dark, raunchy humor. But we hadn’t encountered the word “decadent” in this vetting, so I tried now to define it. “Sleazy” and “raunchy” captured it visually, but missed its essence. “Dissolute” and “degenerate” were no more familiar to him. Google might have helped, but I decided that, in this situation, a picture – or a scene – was worth a thousand words. So I let it go. Suffice it to say that, by the end of the show, Teddy “got” decadent. He also loved the music and worked to master it on my piano. For my part, I heard words and tunes that had eluded me before and squirmed only once during the bawdy rendition of “Two Ladies.” My grandson seemed unfazed.
During his week in DC, Teddy and I also visited memorials to presidents and war veterans. We spent a day at Mount Vernon, wandered through the National Museum of American History and, more purposefully, walked the corridors of the Newseum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Much of what we saw reflected on individual leaders, where they went right and wrong. The FDR Memorial, with its stirring quotations inscribed on the walls, was a big hit – and is my own favorite – but we also saw an exhibit about the internment of Americans of Japanese descent under the same President Roosevelt. We observed that George Washington’s courage underpinned the founding of our country and his humility molded our democracy. Yet, he was a slaveholder. We were moved by the war veterans’ memorials – the faces of the soldiers in Korea were particularly evocative — and the remnants of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 wreckage. We rattled off the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment and focused on the rights to assemble and petition our government. And we watched how, pernicious bit by bit, the erosion of those freedoms by the Nazis created the context for the unchallenged murder of millions.
I tried not to lecture, but to observe and to question. Each time I visit these extraordinary sites – and, with 14 grandchildren, it is often – I observe things anew, often through eyes other than my own. Four years ago, I recall a spirited debate between two twelve-year-old grandsons about which more effectively conveyed its meaning: the abstract Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the representational Korean War Veterans Memorial. There is no right answer, of course, but in the competitive passion of the debate, the two boys examined thoroughly how and why they both evoke such powerful feelings. I have felt those two memorials more deeply ever since.
Oddly enough, in this particular week, it was Cabaret that cobbled together the lessons of many of these exhibits and memorials and heightened their emotional impact for me. The show’s montage of raucous and sweet scenes, moments of celebration and heartbreak, collectively aroused in me an uneasy sense of our vulnerability to the personal consequences of leadership gone egregiously bad. We saw how ordinary people could turn on a dime to become hateful and dangerous. We witnessed beauty morph into hideousness, love into fear, innocence into complicity.
Cabaret viscerally captures the demise of freedom in Nazi Germany, and the potential anywhere for a descent into a moral and political abyss where the educative tension between right and wrong – as at Mount Vernon — is eviscerated by wholesale evil. How lucky we are to be able to examine the history of our nation, and speak aloud of its failings as well as its triumphs; to acknowledge the fallibilities of our founders even as we honor them; to illuminate the values and imperfections of our democracy; simply to be alive in this country, in this time, when we are energized to appreciate and deploy our freedoms.
And how lucky I am that my grandson gave me the occasion to refresh my appreciation that Washington is my home.