Saturday, September 08, 2007

Dr. GiganticBoot Goes to Washington

The problem with the meeting, I've decided, was ego. The people in charge were too interested in appearing important - showing up late, shaking hands, making sure everyone knew how smart and special they were - to actually organize and work in order to plan and execute a conference. It was slapped together and haphazard, yet I've never seen so many beautiful suits in one room. People would come and go, not necessarily because the program was awful. In fact, the speaker list was rather impressive. But most of the men were too brilliant to pare down their remarks to 15 minutes. Therefore, in nearly double their allotted time, they were able to say basically nothing except how important this meeting was and how ground-breaking they found their own work.

After I napped yesterday afternoon, I tucked the necessary items in my camera case and set off to Union Station in order to catch a trolley that would show me the city at night. I procured souvenirs for my nieces and wandered the lovely building snapping pictures as other people shopped and ate until my ankle - strapped securely in it's giant brace - protested. Then I waited until it was time to depart for the tour.

I shall preface these remarks by saying that I love America. While I have been deeply saddened and, I'll admit, embarrassed about some of our decisions throughout history and into the present day, I'm very American and rather enjoy being so. Grandpa fought in WWII and Dad was drafted and served in Vietnam. I pray for our troops each night. We're patriotic, though not rabidly so.

Yet I felt - as I toured DC - much as I did when I first looked upon the strip in Vegas. That is to say that my pragmatic Midwestern head got all confused, looked around at the huge structures all lit up and frowned. While Vegas is clearly over-the-top neon in the desert and Washington was elegant history in New England, I still didn't get it. I kept wondering how much these things cost to build and wondered why the hell someone put them there.

"Did they tell you why the crime rate is so high?" Dad asked at lunch after he, Mom and Little One picked me up at the airport this afternoon.

"No." I said of my tour, then paused. "I will say this though. If I were poor - didn't have enough to eat or air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter, enough clothing, a good job, hope for the future, it would piss me off to look at all those monuments and memorials. I just don't understand putting all those resources into something that I couldn't even identify before taking the $30 tour. I didn't know the White House from the Capitol Building offhand! There was a roundy-topped building that I never would have guessed was the Jefferson Memorial. And when we stopped at the Lincoln Memorial, I was too tired to climb the stairs, but I don't think there's anything in there! It's a big, huge, gorgeous building with a giant statue inside. So I asked my tour buddy about it. And she said she thought the Gettysburg Address was carved on one of the walls. And I wanted to ask what the point was - what that money could have done for regular people with regular lives."

"Like the handles on the Longaberger Basket building." Mom said with a smile.

"I guess." I conceded and ducked my head. "It just seemed excessive to me. A big 'look how important we are and were and will be!' And when someone is that impressed with himself, I immediately decide he's not worthy of much of my attention at all."

Yet I dutifully took pictures that turned out to be unimpressive and blurry. I was tremendously glad when the tour was over and I was able to remove the brace and ice my poor ankle. As I consider it more, there are some things that strike me as important. Museums, learning environments, historical archives. I don't begrudge people their stories and memories of loved ones lost in wars. The only powerful moment I spent last night was staring at the Vietnam Memorial. It was lit gently from a few lights evenly placed in the brick walk.

I aimed my camera toward it and allowed the flash to illuminate the names I wasn't able to read in the meager light. I stepped closer to list a few in a soft whisper, wondering if they - like Dad - had gone because they had to do so. If they regretted the lives they took. What kinds of plans they had when they returned home. What became of the people they were fighting for and against. I noticed the smudges on the black surface and recognized them as fingerprints. Perhaps people had touched names they knew or, like me, gently rested a finger against one at random in some gesture of sorrow or respect.

The distinction is clear for me. Some memorials felt right. Others elicited the opposite response. I think getting credit for good work is important. Yet too much credit - or the drive for accolades - seems counter-productive to the job you've set out to do.

"Think of all that money." Dad said when he clicked through the pictures I downloaded to my laptop. "Electricity to light them up at night, staff to secure and maintain them, water for the plants, then people to weed and mow." He paused, continued to click and handed my laptop back with a frown. "Maybe I'd be pissed off too."

Neither of us is naive enough to think that the crime rate in DC would drop dramatically if the Washington Monument were a bit smaller or the Lincoln Statue a bit less impressive. Nor am I saying all of that history and architecture is unimportant or inappropriate. But I think money and power and ego were all tied together in a web that left me more disturbed than proud. It was not unlike the feeling I got when the president of that society shook my hand before my talk, then raced out of the room before I took the podium.

The goals - whether we're talking national policy or conference objectives - were worthy and I'm more than willing to throw my support behind them. Yet we sometimes get lost when putting them into play. And this - like much of my miserable trip to what really did seem a lovely city - leaves me disappointed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The people in charge were too interested in appearing important - showing up late, shaking hands, making sure everyone knew how smart and special they were - to actually organize and work in order to plan and execute a conference.

oh my goodness, i have been to one of those and they are atrocious. i think room service and sightseeing were wise choices! and i hope you will soon have no need for GiganticBoot.

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