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I went to see “The Artist” the other day as part of my efforts (not very strenuous) to see the Oscar contenders and buzzed-about movies. Occasionally I digress for the purpose of guaranteed mindless big-screen entertainment, as when I went to see “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” (excuse me, is it just me or is Jeremy Renner looking absolutely fabulous?) But I digress…

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the film. I have middle-brow tastes when it comes to movies and I can scarcely be called a film buff. I love to look at color, although I have an appreciation of the beauty and mystery of black and white photography. I also traffic in words and none are spoke in “The Artist,” a love letter to the late twenties and early thirties and the entertainment that preoccupied America.

I loved it; loved the attention to detail; in the curl of a mustache or the arch of an eyebrow. I adored both the overt and sly references to classic movie tropes of the era: the highly choreographed scenes, the grand theatrical acting. Some of the references were out of the time period (defined as 1927-1932): I recognized a bit of Alfred Hitchcock; the lush score brought to mind the work of renowned film composer Bernard Herrmann and the supremely talented Jack Russell terrier put me in mind of Nick and Nora Charles and their beloved dog Asta. Wait: maybe I DO know my film history!

I noticed these oddities but I wasn’t bothered by them: this was a film about a film star and the culture he inhabited during a transitional time in American history. “The Artist” was captivating in every way and the symbolism evinced by the successful actor pushed out of his chosen profession by the advances of technology is certainly a parable for our time.

One thing that struck me was the absolute silence of my fellow viewers. It’s not just that no one spoke; I doubt my smart, sophisticated audience would have put up with that. But we were treated to plenty of cues about how audiences react to silent films via the film itself; we saw them laughing or clapping or gasping or murmuring at various moments during the plot. The silent-movie audience was vocal, not in an effort to impede the flow of the movie but in expression of their appreciation. Watching “The Artist” in a theater that was completely quiet except for the music was odd. No coughing, no crackling of paper; in fact, no laughing out loud, although I caught many smiles. No, we were reverentially still, as attending a concert.

Maybe the difference is in the present-day movie-going experience itself, which doesn’t teach us how to watch a movie without distraction. Maybe it’s the novelty of being several layers removed: a present-day audience watching actors who portray a long-ago audience using the same exaggerated style as the rest of the movie’s characters.

Or maybe, at least in this instance, it was just such a blessed relief to be free of the cacophony that surrounds us every day: to surrender to the music, to watch the action unfold on the screen, to marvel at the comic and dramatic elasticity of the actors and not need to have anything explained, enhanced or interpreted. We sat back and let the rich sounds of (relative) silence guide us.

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I’m into philanthropy. Not big-time, mind you; I’m not in a position to exercise noblesse oblige. But I’m at the age when budgeting for annual charitable

All rights reserved by hpebley3 via flickr.com

contributions, however modest, feels somehow mature. If I’d been a member of a faith-based organization, I might have started this process much earlier, but better late than never.

I’m hit up by the usual suspects: charities who purchased my address from the charity I gave to five years earlier; organizations who got my name through the $25 donation I made to my neighbors’ kids’ car wash to raise money for childhood cancer. I receive heart-rending letters from at least four charities focused on women in third-world countries (not including the one to which I donate). I’m often invited, courtesy of my connected friends, to fancy fundraisers that begin at $750 a plate for the privilege of sitting at a table in the back with people I don’t know and watching the tiny speck that is the famous featured speaker or performer. At least the local versions, which usually come in at a quarter of the cost, remind me that I’m part of a community.

I’m generally careful with my research, although I once gave $40 in cash to a young woman who came door to door, clipboard in hand, with a tale about raising money for blind kids in Africa. I never saw a receipt, or the young woman again; but I learned my lesson. No donations on the fly, in the subway or at my door.

At some point during the G.W. Bush years, I began to donate small sums to political action committees (PACS) and I do mean small. I was never shooting for a night in the Lincoln Room but I did want to throw my two cents into the effort to turn over both Congress and the White House. It was fun hearing from Emily’s List and getting thank you notes from the DNC Chairman. I felt as if I were making a difference.

In this coming election year, the stakes are at least as high as they were in 2008, if you’re inclined to vote (I am) and if you consider yourself far more likely to vote for one party candidate than the other (I do). Nevertheless, I’m unlikely to respond to any solicitations that involve politics because when it comes to promotion, my team is poised to play as dirty as the other.

 This year, gleeful Democrats are thrilled to be able to point to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney’s shifts in position in order to accommodate, one assumes, his primary voters. Payback for the attacks on John Kerry!  But as FactCheck.org has pointed out (the site should be required reading for anyone planning to vote), the latest DNC extended video “strains the truth to build a case against Romney by including some dubious claims” which it then goes on to list.

FactCheck’s home page demonstrates that Republicans produce far more questionable media pieces than do the Democrats. Grand Old Party operatives have perfected the art of burying a tiny truth within a mountain of innuendos, inferences, torquing contexts and twisting particulars.  Conclusions are supported by a lopsided mix of semi-legitimate observations and an overwhelming number of outright lies. All a party faithful has to do is point to the legitimate sliver of the message and say, “You can’t argue with that.” Hell, our candidates are happy to argue it isn’t absolutely essential, when making a larger point, to stick to the facts.

Meanwhile, political strategists assume we’re simultaneously biased (we already know what we like and don’t like) and inattentive and/or overwhelmed, which is why the credo “keep it simple, stupid” (KISS) is so popular. The problem when playing KISS and tell is that truth often has to leave the room.

Truth-twisting may be necessary to campaigning; it may even be inevitable—I hope not.  But I don’t have to pay for it. When Women for Women International tells me my money is going to sponsor women in war-torn countries, I believe it. When the DNC insists my donation will be used to get the truth out to the American people, I don’t.

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Not So Nice

I’m reading Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our NatureAt 696 pages (before over 100 pages of reference notes), it’s not what you’d call a beach read, even if the weather were warmer. Pinker is a well-known, Harvard-trained psychologist, scientist and linguist who studies and writes about cognition; that is, (to borrow the title of his 2007 book), “the stuff of thought.” An affable, outgoing sort with an accessible writing style and a full head of longish curly hair, Dr. Pinker has his fans. Some of them have been gushing appropriately about Better Angels. In it, Pinker sets out to show that violence is on the decline. He supplements his lecture-like presentation of “six trends, five inner demons, four better angels and five historical forces” with impressive amounts of data with which it is nearly impossible to quibble. The Guardian’s David Runciman viewed it as “an astonishing book” and Nicholas Kristoff devoted an entire column  praising the book’s thesis and calling attention to the “stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries.”

Not every critic loved the book. The New Yorker reviewer Elizabeth Colbert faulted Pinker’s methodology: “Those developments which might seem to fit into his schema are treated in detail. Yet other episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over.” Andrew Brown, also writing in The Guardian, snidely referred to the book as “a comfort blanket for the smug” and followed up with this indictment: “The factual errors in The Better Angels of Our Nature destroy Pinker’s thesis, rendering it no more than a bedtime story.”

Let me stop right here and let you know I won’t be reviewing the book. I don’t feel qualified to judge either the research or the central thesis; I’m not sure I can fairly determine whether Pinker’s conclusions are based on solid science or selective speculation. I will admit that I’m attracted to the notion that on the whole, we’re getting nicer; that may factor into why I find myself reading cautiously and yet with a modicum of hope.

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Besides, Pinker introduces the book with caveats: many readers will find his conclusions hard to accept; we are overrun with oppressive news; a series of unforeseeable events could change everything. Notwithstanding his warnings, certain readers seem mightily put off by anyone’s imagining that we might be turning into good guys and gals. Harsh comments have been left on blogs, at the end of articles and interviews and elsewhere. I have no idea whether these readers have actually read any of the book; or whether they’re simply reacting to their understanding of what Pinker is proposing. The suggestion that mankind is evolving into a kinder, gentler version of itself apparently drives people nuts.

Kristoff’s Thanksgiving Day piece praised Pinker’s book, going so far as to give thanks for a world that is, on the whole, improving. His column gave quite a few readers indigestion (“this column’s a turkey,” said one). Other commenters accused Kristoff and Pinker of being dangerously naïve. “What universe are you living in?” asked one. “Maudlin and wishful thinking do not a wise man make,” advised another. And another simply wrote: “This is not true.”

We are, in the view of the commenters, craftier, sneakier, less overt or less inclined to whack someone over the head, perhaps but most definitely not nicer. Anyone suggesting otherwise is dangerously deluded.

Angry, aren’t we?

As a skeptic nevertheless trying to tiptoe towards a version of happiness, always mindful of landmines and booby-traps and the possibility of reversal, I’m both bemused and concerned with our negativism. I’m no fan of blind faith, mindless positivism, or false hope. I don’t know for certain that everything works out for the best; I realize we’re far from perfect–far from it. I detest the xenophobic hucksterism that underlies certain politicians’ insistence on American “exceptionalism”; the word was originally meant to describe a fortuitous combination of history and geography, not the sense of entitlement it currently conveys.

It seems, however, that many people, Americans in particular, may have become stuck in a collective mindset that views gratitude as naive and improvement as unlikely, given the nasty, brutish nature of our fellow travelers. That ticks me off. While I’m aware of the capacity of humankind to inflict suffering upon each other, I also rely on a personal perspective that encompasses more than half a century. I’m not thrilled that in my lifetime, children are threatened, the elderly are swindled, and the rest of us live with a virtually unbreachable income disparity. But I’ve seen things change for the better in my lifetime and so have you, even as the hold-outs object loudly to any changes at all.. It’s neither naive nor unsophisticated to look up from our gloom and doom from time to time and recognize forward momentum for what it is: a type of moral and social evolution that requires our encouragement, not our disdain.

 

 

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Princeton: The name evokes serious scholarly pursuit. Among its alumni are governors, senators, presidents, Supreme Court justices, admirals, rocket scientists, inventors, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, and a few bona fide Hollywood stars.

It stands to reason that a quintessential university town like Princeton would have an independent bookstore. For 26 years, Micawber Books was that store, until the owner decided to close for personal reasons. . Meanwhile, the township built a new library and just outside the town limits, Barnes and Noble had customized a branch to draw the Princeton clientele by including knowledgeable information specialists, a large supply of arcane books and a roster of top-drawing guest speakers. No one was quite sure whether the town would see another independent bookstore.

Enter Labyrinth Books. After making sure Micawber’s owner was truly out of the bookstore business (“We would never have come to a small town and displaced a quality independent store with deep roots in the community,” says Labyrinth owner Dorothea von Moltke), the new store opened in 2006, backed by a partnership with the University and a strong wholesale business. Add to that an ambitious community outreach, and Labyrinth appears to have hit on a winning formula.

The retail establishment is just what you want in an indie book store. Unusual and unexpected books are more likely to grace the windows than are best sellers, although those are also on hand. Nearly every weekend, the bins are placed outside, where they become part of the busy main street culture that attracts many tourists in addition to students and members of the local community. Labyrinth doesn’t have a coffee shop and products like mugs, bookmarks, and calendars are kept to a minimum, especially since they can be found in the University gift shop next door.

Labyrinth and its helpful website are both organized “so you can find what you didn’t know you were looking for.”  True, but the wide variety of categories makes it likely you’ll find what you were hoping to find. The business of book–buying,  browsing, reading and discussing–is what Labyrinth is all about

Dorothea and her husband met in New York; she was finishing her PhD at Columbia University and he was co-owner of the nearby store, BookForum. In the mid-nineties, the couple founded Great Jones Books, which has become nationally recognized as a wholesaler of quality hurts and remainders.

Labyrinth Books opened a retail store in New Haven, close to Yale University more than a decade ago. The owners established strong ties to the faculty and students. But Yale’s administration chose as its official partner the Barnes and Noble branch just around the corner from Labyrinth. “To say that [Yale] did nothing to support the presence of an independent, scholarly and community bookstore in town is, unfortunately, even a bit of an understatement,” notes von Moltke pointedly. The New Haven store closed in May of 2011.

In Princeton, however, Labyrinth has a true collaboration with the University and remains its official source for all required course books as well as important ancillary materials. The bookstore  is next to the University store; both do a brisk trade, especially on weekends.  A new pilot program launched in September offers students 30% off. Discounts are also available to faculty. The University sponsors events at the store; Princeton professors are often guest speakers.

The store’s relationship with the community is one of mutual devotion. Labyrinth’d mission–“keeping reading alive and…reaching across intellectual as well as social divides”—is especially important to the highly educated, culture-loving residents. Program co-sponsors have included the Princeton Public Library (itself a significant cultural presence in the community), the Princeton Research Forum,  Trenton Crisis Ministries, Sustainable Princeton, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Princeton’s well-regarded McCarter Theater, to name a few. Labyrinth has also established, with carbonfund.org, a unique program designed to offset the carbon foot-print of any book purchased from the store for an additional five cents per book, that sum matched by the organization. Von Moltke believes these partnerships enable Labyrinth to “keep questions of social justice as well as the viability of the arts at the forefront of our concerns.”

Princeton is home to a great many writers, some quite well-known and others less so. The store is generous in giving both established and relatively unknown authors time and attention (author’s note: I gave a reading at the store, which carries my book, in 2010).Whereas Barnes and Noble might sniff at a pitch from an author without a national platform or a slot on the best-seller list; Labyrinth will offer a place in its events calendar for a reading/book signing and free publicity through its mailing lists.

Labyrinth’s bread and butter comes from its business as a highly reputable and nationally recognized scholarly book wholesaler. “To be the booksellers we are,” von Moltke says, “we need also to be book-wholesalers; [we are] constantly looking for the best books at the best prices.” GJB buys titles “by the truckload” at auction, keeps what’s best for the store, catalog, and retail website, and sells the rest to bookstores nationally and internationally. GJB has a warehouse not far from Princeton in Pennington, New Jersey that carries more than 50,000+ titles at discounted prices, “more than the largest of chain stores,” according to von Moltke.  The idea is to source books that the ever-churning marketplace has given up on; giving them a longer life by bringing those books back into circulation and selling them at deep discounts. The process is designed to allow both GJB and its retail store to compete with chains and online retailers

Businesses like Amazon present a challenge, von Moltke admits. “Here you have a bookseller for whom books are effectively lost leaders for selling other products such as cosmetics, electronics, and all the rest,” she explains, adding, “Competing with a ubiquitous bookseller who is not looking to make any money on books will always be tricky.”

The future of print material is another question mark in terms of the viability of the Labyrinth model. The owners are already looking ahead: they are hoping to acquire a print-on-demand machine (called the espresso machine), which would allow them to print any book in the public domain as well per-copy self-published books and perhaps even current titles, once publishers warm to the idea.  Says von Moltke with obvious enthusiasm, “This would mean we would never have to say to a customer that we don’t have a book. Instead, we’d tell them: give me 2 minutes.”

The owners seem to have hit upon a way to survive and thrive: the small store is backed by a successful wholesale book business with a huge list and deep discounts. In the end, it’s all about the culture of reading. Labyrinth is devoted to providing its customers with any book, anytime–the ones they need and the ones they didn’t know they wanted. What more could any of us ask from an independent bookstore?

Labyrinth Books
122 Nassau Street
Princeton, NJ 08540
www.labyrinthbooks.com

top image: en.wikipedia.org

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Aren’t we just full of opinions? As a friend of mine wrote in her book: “[While} having  so  many  ways  to  bring  our  opinions  into  public discussion has been, on the whole, a terrific development… not all ideas are equal―equally valid, equally worthy, equally verifiable.” In a related article, she noted:the opportunity to comment doesn’t mean we’re required to put in our two cents, notwithstanding our collective compulsion to do so.” However, she also recognized that the horse is out of the barn (or maybe the train has left the station; you get the drift) when it comes to opinionating—many of us are likely to grab any and every opportunity to opine–the least we can do is make every attempt to make an expressed opinion as informed as possible.

My name is Nikki Stern and I approve this message. Okay, I wrote this message, in my book Because I Say So and in an article called “IMHO I bring this up because I’ve found myself this fall throwing opinions all over the place: on my blog, on Facebook, on the website I publish (Does This Make Sense) and, most recently, in the New York Times.

Opining on the Times website isn’t like opining on AOL. By and large, the commenters are smart, well-read and restrained in their responses (of course the Times screens the comments before publishing them, so perhaps I’m just not seeing the “!%$&@)%(*^*” versions that come into the editors’ inboxes. What this means is that if I have an impulse to comment, I know I’d better make sense. In part, it’s my ego at work: I don’t want appear to be a complete idiot. On the other hand, who’s going to remember commenter #49 on the recent Charles Blow or Frank Bruni op-ed? Exactly: no one. Still, I feel a certain responsibility to sound intelligent—to be intelligent.

Of course I’d like to attract a little attention on behalf of whatever I’m promoting (a book, a blog) before my comment scrolls by and disappears into the ethos. This can be achieved by obtaining “recommendations” which are garnered when the reader hits a little button at the end of the comment and which means said comment may be highlighted on the site. Gad, everything’s a competition these days!

The situation causes me to hesitate before I comment (a good thing), and then, if I decide to post my thoughts, I will write out and carefully proof them before I hit “send” (an even better thing). Sometimes, thanks to the unpredictability of the keyboard and the undeniable fact that my brain works faster than my fingers, I may end up with a typo. But my thoughts are nearly always clear.

I also read other comments on the post where I’ve left my comment but also on other pieces I find provocative (or pieces I don’t understand). If Paul Krugman tells me why the Euro is a terrible idea, I want to read what more knowledgeable people have to say on the subject. Granted, Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and some of the commenters don’t know the difference between a derivative and a derivation but I’m frequently surprised about the level of thought and intelligence that goes into the replies. At the very least, I get more background and more history.

I also read letters to the editor for my favorite magazines. Sometimes I try to read comments and letters in magazines I don’t care for,  like Reason Magazine (I don’t really dislike the magazine, but some of the articles in Reason–which purports to be a libertarian magazine–are pompous in the extreme); or letters in magazines I don’t care about. I love reading the letters section in New York Magazine because they aren’t simply letters but blog postings, tweets, passing comments—all reactions to the often provocative stories within. Like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, the magazine makes a big deal out of noticing and promoting and replying to and arguing with the people who are noticing and replying to and arguing about something they read (which means they’re promoting it, of course).

Everyone has an opinion; no doubt about it. And everyone wants their opinions to count. One way to do that is to use your opinion as a way to start a conversation or encourage a response; to learn something from other opinionators; to practice writing clearly and concisely; to get better at framing an argument; to think, to review your own feelings about a topic, to get in the game. We might not all end up as recommended picks or one step closer to our own op-ed column, but we’ll be smarter commentators. And that means we’ll be smarter citizens.

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There’s something about those boys from New Jersey, right?

A little bit naughty, a little bit wild, and a whole lot of that special something that makes you want to stay close, even though you suspect he’s nothing but trouble. Even when you see where this is all going, even when you recognize how wrong he is and how foolish you are, you can’t let go.

I’m not talking about Bruce or Bon Jovi or even Frank: these are our icons. As for the swaggering beach bums, hot-shot lawyers and wanna-be Manhattan power-brokers, a smart Jersey girl knows what is what.  But then along comes one or two of these fellas, promising the moon–and you believe it. Or at least I did.

I guess that’s how these guys get elected.

Governor McGreevey–Jim–was a real charmer, with his ebullient manner and boyish grin. He’s just gotten married to a striking but reserved woman; had a baby daughter, and then,there he was: the young new governor of New Jersey. I was an emotionally roiled widow trying to keep busy. Jim offered me the opportunity by making me the Governor’s liaison to the 9/11 families.

Jim and I were once close

Sure, the pay was low, the hours were long and the clientele was demanding. But the perks turned my head: breakfast at the governor’s mansion, calls from his private cell phone, rides in the state limousine—once I was driven from a meeting in Manhattan to one in central New Jersey by state troopers slashing through rush-hour traffic at 100 mph, lights flashing and siren wailing. Turns out our state troopers liked to put the pedal to the metal.

I suspected Jim had a secret life, but I didn’t think it involved massively poor judgment until I learned that it did: he’d hired his male lover at an impressive salary to serve as director of security although the man had little experience save one mandatory stint in the Israeli Army. I watched the press conference, in which he announced he was a “gay American” and ignored the question of public salaries for unqualified friends, with sadness. I wanted him to call. Not long after his press conference, he separated from his wife, Dina. They wrote books, hers and his mortifyingly entitled The Confessionhe moved in with a new friend and studied to be an Episcopalian priest.

He never called again…and that hurt most of all.

Then there was the Senator who would be governor. Jon radiated quiet stability and good intentions.When he decided to run for governor, I was there, squirming at the obscene amounts of money going into the election (could several poor nations be sustained for that kind of cash?), but ever faithful. I was also there for his inaugural, and for  the fancy dress ball, during which time I got another big hug and a whispered admonition to “call and schedule a meeting,” and at his straightforward State of the State address, where he was applauded for his honesty.

Jon could be animated

Jon’s administration, including his communications department, was as closed as Jim’s had been open.  But I still believed in him—for a time.  I still accepted the hugs and got a little tingly when he reminded me that we were going to meet to talk about my working in his administration (I never reminded him that his people were stonewalling me). But I tried not to take it to heart: I knew it was never going to happen. Not that he didn’t need help: his public persona was taking a beating. Not that he didn’t need help: his public persona was taking a beating. He was accused of being indifferent, weak, out of touch and prone to making bad decision. Meanwhile his seatbelt-free accident (another hard-driving state trooper) and his post-divorce relationship with Carla, a powerful union leader and prototype Jersey Girl, were the kinds of incidents that were getting him press.

Carla, #1 Jersey Girl 

I ran into him just before he was soundly defeated in our last election. He seemed resigned to the possibility he might lose and talked about working as an Ambassador. He wanted, he said, to stay in public service.

Speaking of resignation: Jon left public life to return to the private sector that had earned him millions, although apparently not much of a reputation as a smart leader. Last week, following a scandal about missing money at  MF Global, the firm he headed for several years, Jon resigned, forgoing the 12 million dollar golden parachute. Although he is not suspected of misappropriating any funds, he stands accused in business circles of making supremely bad decisions.  Maybe we all did.

Jim, Jon…and don’t get me started on Bob, AKA “The Torch.”  These boys make it so hard to be a Democrat in New Jersey. You know what I’m sayin’.

Maybe that’s why I had my eye on Chris. I was careful; we came from different backgrounds, after all. Still, I warmed to his outgoing nature, I admired his spunk, I was willing to cut the guy some slack and see how he applied his independent spirit and can-do attitude to governing our troubled state. I was, for a brief moment, almost proud of a Jersey boy.

Christie-2Chris  finger-pointing

Shades of Rudy Giuliani! Turns out Chris is more pig-headed than tough; a bully, in fact, who enjoys talking tough and favors a sledgehammer where a paring knife might do. Although he began as a moderate, he’s been side-stepping to the right, more than willing to pander to his national party’s fringes to gain a platform. He also likes to flirt long and hard before letting his supporters down, but by the time he nearly ran as a Presidential primary candidate, I was so over him.

This week, I’ll be interviewing my local Congressman for Does This Make Sense. Rush is smart, compassionate, loyal and progressive.  Everyone around these parts loves him. I’m approaching cuatiously nonetheless. I can’t afford more heartbreak at the hands of another Jersey Boy.

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October 17, 2011 seemed like a fine day to head downtown and see the memorial I’d avoided up to and just after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was another stunning autumn morning, with another cerulean sky visible through towers, half built with aspirations to touch the clouds that floated by. Hundreds of people going about their business were amplified by thousands more whose presence makes this, if not a world trade center, than the world’s visiting center.

I also planned to stop by another, much smaller site I remembered well: a 3300 square foot slip of green my husband would eat in on pleasant days when he wished to escape the long shadows of the World Trade Center. Then, it was called Liberty Plaza Park; now it is Zuccotti Park, renamed after the chairman of the reality company that provided for its restoration after the September 11th attacks devastated it. For several years, Zuccotti Park hosted the annual 9/11 anniversary commemorations. Currently, it’s hosting Occupy Wall Street.

Symbolism is important in making a statement, whether it involves words, notes, or physical space. So is context. The 16 acres known as ground zero was and is sacred ground to some; to others, a historically significant site. For me, ground zero is about the lives that were lost but also the resilience that was found, however temporarily, to go on, to make something better, to be better. Although I was part of a group that lobbied (unsuccessfully) for the addition of a cultural/educational component at the site–living monuments to a possible future and to the important freedoms the attacks didn’t take away—we lost. It helps to have a Visitors’ Center to supply some context, more of which the museum will also provide. Unfortunately, right now it’s possible to bypass the Center and most people do.

As a family member, I was directed around the absurdly long lines to enter the space, which consists of two massive waterfalls conforming to the footprints of the original towers and ringed with low granite walls bearing the names of the nearly 3,000 people.

MemorialName

Using the guide I’d been handed, I made my way to the far side of the north pool and located my  husband’s name. I touched the engraved stone and whispered “Well, here you are.” And waited. But the rush of emotions I anticipated– grief perhaps; but also reverence, awe, inspiration, a telescoping of past, present and future—never came. It was all very lovely but somehow…static.

As I walked over to Zuccotti Park, I was struck by the number of tourists; it seemed as if there were more of them than there were protesters. The park initially gave the appearance of being a mess but it really wasn’t; bedding was neatly stacked, except when someone was still sleeping. An older gent did a pretty good rendition of “God Bless America” on the bagpipes. I made my way tentatively into the trees, where people were talking or texting or reading. I saw several meetings taking place, conducted in relatively quiet tones, since neither megaphones nor sound equipment is allowed.

Zuccotti2I couldn’t hear what was being said; I’ve read elsewhere that a dedicated corps of occupiers is meeting to try and devise a set of demands. Sure there are some goof-offs, but the few protesters I encountered in my all-too-brief sojourn both wanted a change to a skewed system and felt frustrated that they were characterized as slackers or whiners, or insufficiently prepared to take on the entire system by which banks and businesses that don’t create jobs and CEOs who don’t produce dividends are nevertheless rewarded.

On the way home, I thought about how alive that little slip of green had felt and how…not so much dead as not alive the memorial had felt to me. Of course, that’s not the function of memorials; they are erected to remember the past and to honor the dead. The best of them, it must be said, can also deliver the message: never again.

As for the park formerly known as Liberty, it is teeming with good intentions and honest efforts and a target that its location should not obscure: not so much Wall Street as an economic system that accrues wealth for a disproportionate few; yet fights to keep at arms’ length any regulation that accrues to the common good. It’s the job of the protestors in a free democracy to draw attention to the system’s failings; it’s not their job to fix it. If we and our representatives allow the novelty of a group of people camping out overnight to distract from agreeing on and implementing solutions, then we will have robbed OWS of its important symbolic message: no more.

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