Thinking Outside the Mall

You don't need to be royalty to enjoy this lawn.

What does your front lawn say about you?

Stay out, or come on in?

In the Big Picture, the National Mall serves as our national red carpet, our welcome mat to the world.

It’s where we gather as a nation to air our grievances and grieve for our errors; where we celebrate our victories and honor our heroes. It’s where we mingle with our countrymen and reweave the fabric of our society. No matter how frayed or stained it may get in the heated battles that come with free speech and the rule of law, at the end of the day, we all value the concepts which launched this bold young nation.

Sometimes we lose sight of those original lofty dreams – the speeches fade from memory. Sometimes we need to be reminded of how we came together and why we’re stronger together than we could hope to be apart. Most of us came here to get away from something – religious persecution, harsh political regimes, unfair social systems, stagnant economies. Some of us were here before the newbies arrived in the 1600s. Others were brought here against their will, but fought to gain the freedoms we all hold dear.

Sometimes we forget that this was, and still is, the land of opportunity.

And that’s where the National Mall comes in.

The Washington Monument points upward for a reason.

Each year more than 25  million  visitors pass through  the National Mall to gaze at the exhibits  and treasures inside the museums which flank the majestic sweep of space surrounding  the Capitol and the adjacent  memorials. The National Parks Service,  which oversees the maintenance and development of the roughly 1,000 acre public  site, is currently working toward another revision of the National Mall’s design.

Although some may resist change,  the dynamic nature of the National Mall reflects the dynamic nature of our country. We’ve changed a bit since 1776. And the National Mall is a great place to get a sense of how far we’ve come, and how much we’re still learning.

Unlike shopping malls, which  leave me with a feeling of being buried alive – like being trapped in an elevator  with a food court – I love the National  Mall. Even when it’s mobbed with tourists. I like to see enthusiasm for education, and that’s really what the National Mall is all about.  No matter what you’re interested in – history, science,  art,  human  nature, music,  or simply fun – the Mall has something for you.

A classic moon gate leads to a tranquil oasis on the Mall.

For me,  the difficulty is in choosing which place to visit. But in the spring time, when the clouds skitter above the Washington Monument and the merry-go-round is filled with laughing children,  I like to stroll through the 180 acres of gardens which  soften the edges of all the impressive architecture.

This  year the American Horticultural Society will honor the Smithsonian’s garden staff  in June with the 2012 Urban Beautification Award. Everywhere you look on the Mall you can see reasons why they deserve  it.

The new National Garden is just beginning to fill in.

Next time you visit D.C., take a break from the wonders inside, and enjoy the gardens that belong to all of us. Sure, our tax dollars pay for all of it, but when you spread it all out it’s pennies a day from each of us. And we don’t have to do the weeding.

A dazzling display of orchids casts enchantment steps from the Capitol.

And that’s a better deal than you can find in any other mall.

The Pirate Principle

There's a little pirate in all of us.

The blizzard’s coming. Are you ready?

Got milk?

Got toilet paper?

Got internet?

Hold on to your routers, ladies and gents. If some members of Congress have their way, the world wide web is about to get squeezed to stop the freeflow of opinions, information and ideas that we here in the big old US of A like to think of as our birthright.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and the Protect I-P Act (PIPA) before the Senate aim to criminalize the sharing of images and music we’ve come to take for granted out here in the real world.

To protest the proposed legislation, internet giants Wikipedia, Google, Craigslist and others will join in a blackout of their services from midnight Eastern time tonight until midnight tomorrow.

President Obama and even some members of Congress have weighed in on the side of internet freedom. Rupert Murdoch, who wears his wallet on his sleeve, wants Google strangled. No surprise there.

As we hunker down and prepare to wait out a rare snowstorm here in Seattle, where internet access is as common as rain, we will watch this particular debate with concern. Some might think that as far as the internet is concerned the genie is out of the bottle and there’s no stuffing him back in. But censorship is a powerful and crippling tool. When government alone can tell people what to think there’s a danger that people may stop thinking for themselves.

Of course it can’t happen here, right?

There’s a reason history repeats itself. We forget the lessons our founding fathers worked so hard to codify.

The snow is getting deeper. The path grows more perilous. It will take more than hope to get through this mess.

Some principled pirates may have to lead the way.

Signs and Wonders

Is it a warning or a cry for help?

Things look bad, some say.

Others insist everything’s been done before, it’s all cyclic, we survived the Great Depression we’ll survive this, etc.

For many of us addicted to the 24/7 news feed, the signature tune of this dawning century, it’s hard to find hope. Unless you turn away from your TV, step away from the computer, recycle your newspaper and look to the sky.

There, the clouds roll by, as they have for millennia. The sun rises, shines and sets, as it is wont to do. If you live around here, rain comes with the territory. But never so much rain that we have to flee to higher ground, except for the few who choose to live along the rivers. Sometimes our decisions affect our lives. Other times, our lives take shape due to forces and decisions far removed from our sight or control.

The disturbingly unsettled economic miasma currently oppressing much of the planet came about through the machinations of a tiny portion of the population who, having much already, decided that having more would be even better. For them.

Now, as the rest of us struggle to readjust the balance, it’s important to remember that for a huge segment of the world’s population having almost nothing is the norm. They don’t have Black Friday sales in Uganda, for instance, where an entire country was decimated by the ruinous misrule of a corrupt leader for decades.

War, terrorism and civil unrest are inevitable until we can wipe out hunger on the planet. It’s a huge goal. So huge most of us give up after a few attempts to make a dent in the wall of indifference. But for this very reason, the small successes of determined efforts by various international aid organizations should be celebrated and honored.

Heifer International offers a chance to give a life-changing gift to the poorest people on the planet. As the holiday season bears down upon us here in the land of good and plenty, it’s worth considering. If instead of lining up on the day after Thanksgiving we sat out Black Friday and put just a fraction aside for those far less fortunate than the activists who can afford to wear Gore-Tex while protesting the iniquities of Wall Street, it might signal a turn in the tide.

Sure, it wouldn’t change the whole world overnight. But stranger things have happened from small beginnings.

Let Them Eat Cake

Those clouds aren't made of frosting.

Halloween plays differently in our nation’s capital.

In a city where politics is the dominant industry, wearing masks and acting out in public are commonplace. But even so, the sidewalk palette shifts a bit from the usual red, white and blue to a range more orange and black. The police loom on every corner in Georgetown on the eve of the annual parade and party. It wouldn’t do for any rowdy goblins to disturb the carefree tourists jostling for camera angles in front of Georgetown Cupcakes.

Meanwhile, a few city blocks away in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, the indefatiguable participants in the Occupy DC movement continue to demand justice and jobs for all.

As much as Congress seems to care, they might as well be trick-or-treating.

But it’s too soon to count them out. Big waves grow from small drops, even teardrops if enough people are hurting.

Corporate chains shackle more than office workers.

When the ones being shut out of the political dialogue begin to make some noise, the well-fed folks in the comfy chairs by the fire may eventually feel compelled to respond. Whether they decide to work toward a more equitable society remains to be seen.

For now it seems the fat cats are content to follow in the well-worn path of earlier aristocrats and over-privileged classes. While jobs vanish and the ranks of the poor swell, the number of cupcake businesses shows no sign of decreasing.

On Halloween night, as the sidewalks filled with with carefree young people dressed as psychopaths and pixies, no one seemed concerned about politics. Many Americans worry about terrorists, rare diseases and higher taxes. This seems a bit short-sighted to me. Historically, the big issue has always been hunger. As Bob Marley and many others have pointed out, “A hungry man is an angry man.” And cupcakes just aren’t going to cut it.

No one goes hungry in Cupcake Nation.

Jobs matter. Even if we have to raise taxes to create them.

Revolting Developments

The mood in Fremont.

Back in the day, before people said things like “back in the day,” John Lennon sang a song about revolutions and how “we all want to save the world.” At the time, quite a few of us thought it might really happen. But then Lennon was murdered on his own doorstep by a lunatic, and though a lot has changed since then, the worldwide problems of economic disparity, environmental degradation and escalating violence have continued to grow worse.

At this moment throngs of angry people are massing on the streets in New York, Seattle, and across Europe to demand change.

Will it happen as a result of these demonstrations? Or will the corporate giants whose behind-the-scenes control mechanisms dictate how news is spun, how elections turn, and who profits from the suffering of the powerless win again?

Aging flower child that I am, I’d like to believe that this time, at this particular moment in history, things will be different. And if this turns out to be the case I believe it will be almost entirely due to the global shift in the way communication takes place. But I could be wrong again. Here in Seattle it’s easy to fall into the assumption that everyone in the world is connected to the internet, that everyone is literate and rational and conscientious. It’s easy to overlook the vast gulf between the connected and the disconnected, whose sources of information remain as choked as their sources for material income.

Last week, for example, I heard a first-person account by an American citizen who had been imprisoned in a Chinese holding cell for months while awaiting sentencing for a minor public disturbance. His descriptions of the conditions in the cell were appalling, but even more disturbing to me was his discovery of the disbelief shared by all of his Asian cellmates who completely rejected the idea that the U.S. had ever put a man on the moon. They all considered this a blatant falsehood propagated by the U.S.

When lies replace truth in the common understanding, great injustices grow powerful.

Perhaps in the U.S. we have placed too much trust in our capitalist system, expecting it to be self-correcting. It’s natural to distrust big government, but an economic system without strong government oversight runs the risk of capsizing from the greed of a few unprincipled individuals.

Another headline grabbing image in the papers this week ran alongside the scenes of crowds in the streets: a giant freighter, its load of containers a-tilt in a rough sea.

As such accidents grow more common, we become numb to the damage. But the long-term costs of ignoring our common problems could sink us all.

The Upside of Downsizing

One of the reasons we moved out of our last house in Virginia was that, although it was gorgeous, beautifully sited, and roomy as all get out, it was just too roomy for us once our children grew up and left. But although our children had left home, a lot of their stuff remained, and when we were packing to move across country I kept having to make decisions about the  boxes of Lego, Breyer horses, soccer trophies, old report cards, baby clothes, bureaus, fencing gear, fabric, jigsaw puzzles, board games, and tons of books. All of this stuff, to take or not to take. That was the question.

It should be easy to throw old stuff away, but sometimes stuff is not just stuff. It’s stuff with a past, and when you toss it, a little bit of your past goes with it. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But sometimes, you wonder. I mean, consider stuffed animals. Every parent buys these for their kids at some point. And other people give them to your kids. Before long you have closets full of the things – and you can’t get rid of them. In these germaphobic days almost nobody wants a used stuffed animal. Yet to toss these once-beloved toys in the trash seems wrong in so many ways.

However, once the moving process picks up speed, you run out of time to linger over sentimental attachments. You just have to throw stuff out or stuff stuff in boxes and hope you can remember where the important stuff is once you get to your destination.

Stuff. It’s everywhere. It’s everything. But some stuff is more important than other stuff.

Recently, we’ve been trying to clear space in our small house and I’ve been going through some of those hastily filled boxes which made the trip west with us. I still have trouble letting go of old letters, photos and some books. But as I’ve been learning to let go of more stuff, I’ve become interested in the fate of all stuff, and the mystery of how we came to acquire so much. When my husband and I started out together we could fit everything we owned in a Dodge van, with room for our dog too.

In 1807 the poet William Wordsworth wrote “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” describing the trap of materialistic consumerism long before the word consumer was commonplace. The getting and purging of stuff has become such a fundamental activity in this country that few people remember how they spent their time and money before there were credit cards and online shopping 24/7.

Annie Leonard hopes to change that. Leonard launched The Story of Stuff Project ( in 2009 to help educate people on the true costs and consequences of the ravenous consumer cycle in which the modern world is trapped. In her 20-minute video overview Leonard gives a lucid analysis of the complex problems which arise from the current system, and she also offers some hope for solutions.

It’s not too late. There’s stuff we need, and stuff we can live without. The Earth is not a huge planet, but if we can get back to concentrating on the right stuff, it could still be roomy enough for all of us to share the good stuff.

Lend Me Your Ears

Where does enchantment lie?

Some say the eyes. Some say the lips. Still others succumb to the seductive spell of great hair.

Ears rarely enter into it. Yet, in the vast canon of fictional heroes, one character alone ranks above all others in the ear category. Mr. Spock’s greenish skin, slanting eyebrows, and air of self-control helped set him apart from the rest of the crew of the original Star Trek when the show began in 1966. But it was Spock’s pointy ears that caught the public eye and won their hearts.

Next week, on April 2, one of those legendary ears will be auctioned off in Los Angeles. Bids are already rolling in, and experts predict the ear will go for at least one thousand dollars. Detached from Leonard Nimoy’s stately head, the silicone latex prosthetic attachment looks like a broken half of a fortune cookie, and hardly more valuable. But of course, the value of memorabilia is in the mind of the beholder.

Spock’s ear symbolizes the triumph of reason over emotion, wisdom over folly, sanity over the other thing. The sort of calm clear-headedness Spock’s character embodied remains an elusive goal for most of us ordinary humans. As a general rule, we can maintain calm, reasoned thought for only so long. Inevitably life’s slings and arrows poke us just once too often and off we go, flying into the irrational emotional tailspin represented on the original Star Trek in the all-too-human characters of Captain Jim Kirk (William Shatner’s defining role) and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Mr. Spock’s iconic ears resonate beyond the generation that grew up when Star Trek was new because succeeding generations still cling to the idea that brains can trump brawn, in spite of the continual evidence that it is by no means a sure thing. Perhaps that’s why we’ll pay a thousand bucks for a limp fake ear. Because, as James T. Kirk was fond of saying, we humans need to believe in the possibility of the impossible. We need belief. In ourselves, in our friends, in our nations, and in our dreams.

Another famous symbolic prop emerged in the golden era of Hollywood film when Dorothy donned the legendary ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Of course, there were several pairs created by the props  department, and over the years a few have been auctioned off. At the first auction by MGM in 1970, the red slippers went for $15,000. At the most recent sale in May 2000 they sold for $666,000. And they’re not even real rubies.

Of course, it’s not simply the shoes that people want. It’s the evocative power of their back-story, and the line that will forever be connected to them: “There’s no place like home.” That one goes deep into the well of human longing. E.T. longing. Thomas Wolfe longing. Eden.

On the face of it, Spock’s greenish pointy ears might not seem as embedded with significance, unless you step back, way back, lunar probe distance, and take a long look. From that perspective you can see, “There’s no place like space.” The final frontier. And it could be, if we don’t stop poisoning this planet.

The current unfolding nightmare in Japan should be enough to alert any rational human to the dangers of creating massive amounts of toxic waste for which we have no clean-up solutions. Yet the starry-eyed nuclear energy advocates insist we’ll figure out a way to deal with it eventually. It’s been more than sixty years since we started spreading radioactive waste around, and there is still no “solution” in sight.

Rational voices fall on deaf ears of corporate and political powers focused only on short-term profits at the expense of long-term planetary suicide. Perhaps the nuclear advocates sincerely believe that Science will somehow find a way to rewrite the laws of physics and biology, or, failing that, when we completely contaminate this planet, we can start over on another fresh planet.

Our continuing investment in nuclear energy is like a balloon mortgage on our planet. When it comes due, there’ll be hell to pay.

Where is Spock when we need him? Obama’s got prominent ears. If only they were a little more pointed.

Rant Cant

Peace lovers placed this statue of Sri Chinmoy beside Lake Union.

I chanced to see Network again last night and was riveted by the impression that what passed for satire 35 years ago has become business as usual today.

In 1976, when the film won four Oscars and was nominated for another handful, Paddy Chayefsky’s sharp skewering of the corporate struggle for media domination offered a fresh take on what was going on behind the curtain in Oz.

But now, with “reality” programming smearing the line between truth and fiction, aided and abetted by the constant streaming of opinion and rumor on “social” media such as Twitter and Facebook, the distinction between satire and real reality has become harder to detect.

Watching Peter Finch as the outraged news broadcaster on a struggling television network deliver the classic rant, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,”  I couldn’t help wondering if that rabble rousing cry didn’t somehow lodge in the subconscious of an entire generation of budding talk show hosts. We’ve all heard their names. I prefer not to add one more twig to the bonfire of their vanities. But as the daily news continually illustrates, rabble rousing is a risky business. Mobs aren’t known for clear thinking. And regimes confronted by mobs can’t be expected to behave rationally either.

So far, it looks like we got lucky in Egypt. The people who got mad as hell were allowed to vent and the response was measured, not as violent as it could have been, and the hope for peaceful progress remains alive. However, it remains to be seen whether the domino effect in the region will lead to greater peace and freedom or worsening oppression.

Network ends on a cynical note of violence that was too shocking to be taken seriously in its time. But these days, when everyday violence seems as inevitable as the dandelions in the lawn, it’s harder to believe that peaceful solutions can succeed. Perhaps that’s why the jubilation in Egypt, however short-lived it may be, offers a breath of hope in a dark world.

Here in Seattle there are plenty of people who enjoy a good rant. The topics run the spectrum, from the economy to  civil liberties or lack of same, to the vast conspiracy theories burning endlessly, pilot lights on the fires of contention.

But peaceniks still carry on, lighting candles, saying prayers, offering flowers. You might say that we’re dreamers. But we’re not the only ones.


Some don’t like his voice. Some can’t stand his music. Some never forgave him for going electric back in the ’60s.

But for me, Bob is the One.

I like his voice. I love his music. There’s nothing to forgive.

He’s given me more solace, more pleasure, more soul satisfaction than any of the multitude of blandly pleasant popular crooners whose forgettable tunes rise and fall on the charts with as little lasting impact as the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

The best of Bob’s music is the stuff of poetry, with its wild free-wheeling imagery and close to the bone insight. Even his few mediocre recordings in the course of a career enduring more than forty years have a lyrical integrity that eludes most others. But  little of his vast output is radio-friendly. I suspect that to kids today Bob is known almost exclusively as the creator of “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,”  and to a slightly lesser extent, for “Like A Rolling Stone.” And of course, in the case of the first two, the covers by The Byrds and Peter, Paul, and Mary, respectively, have enjoyed more airtime than Bob’s original recordings.

But those of us who light candles in the Church of Bob tend to favor works less widely known.  “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” still casts a spell that takes me back to a time when many of my generation thought music could change the world. I no longer believe that any one song has that power. But “Visions of Johanna” takes my breath away. And “Dear Landlord” still hits the mark. The anti-war anthem “With God on Our Side” is as powerful and relevant today as it was in 1964.

So, yeah. When I hear people talk about what kind of music they like these days, and they rave about whoever it is, be it Taylor Swift or Kanye West or any of the thousands of bright young bands mixing and mashing up musical styles for the great buffet of modern musical tastes, I nod and hold my tongue. Unto each generation is born a new roster of talent. Some got it. Some don’t. As Bob himself once sang, “Time will tell who has fell, and who’s been left been behind.”

My guess is, it won’t be Bob.

Just Another Word

This past week, as the shock waves from the latest senseless shooting reverberated across the country, I was in the middle of reading Jonathan Franzen’s remarkable novel, Freedom, and day after day, as the media went through its usual rapid response analysis and pointless speculating, I was struck by how the novel was eerily relevant to the mood of the nation.

In Freedom, as in his earlier knockout novel, The Corrections, Franzen’s complex plot is rooted in a complex marriage, a marriage which shows no sign of having been made in heaven. The story of Patty and Walter Berglund and their struggle to live with each other and raise their children in a world where the moral compass seems hopelessly compromised by modern economic and political imperatives reveals a lot of what is wrong, and right, about the world today, when the clarity of simpler times is so muddied by the brute force of pop culture and the current penchant for hair-trigger communication that the concepts of honesty and fairness seem almost quaint.

But as Franzen’s acute sensibility and brilliant characterization reveals the  long-suffering Berglunds, it becomes apparent that his great theme is, indeed, no less than freedom itself, the price we pay for it, the immeasurable value of it, and the great mystery of how true freedom never comes without the acceptance of some measure of responsibility. There’s a price for everything.

And that’s what Franzen asks us to consider. As Walter Berglund says late in the novel: “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want.”

Reading these words in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, I couldn’t help but feel that Franzen had put his finger on the throbbing pulse of the problem of violence in America. People without hope do desperate things. Anyone can be a target. It’s not the politics, it’s the poverty that infects the human spirit, and locks it in the dark.

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.