The Department of Energy is creating a vast monument to scare future trespassers away from radioactive waste sites. Their plan: A granite Stonehenge thing with warnings in Navajo!
Imagine you’re part of an archaeological expedition 6,000 years from today, stomping around the desert in an area known long ago as Yucca Mountain, Nev. You are looking for the remnants of a once flourishing civilization, a nation state that apparently called itself the USA back in 2002. You’re 10 days into your quest, not finding much of anything, when one of your team runs up, all sweaty-faced and panting, insisting that you come see what he’s discovered.
You follow your flushed, jabbering colleague around a rocky outcropping, and there, vividly etched on a granite monolith, is a towering reproduction of Macauley Culkin in “Home Alone,” hands to face, mouth agape; or maybe it’s one of Francis Bacon’s shrieking pope paintings or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
You don’t recognize any of these startling cultural icons from the distant past; you don’t know who made them, or what they symbolize. Hell, you don’t even know that they’re cultural icons, but the whole scene briefly scares the bejesus out of you. Then, like Howard Carter stumbling on the tomb of Tutankhamen, you experience a serious rush of exhilaration, aggravated by a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, as you realize that you’ve just chanced on a history-making breakthrough, a discovery of earthshaking significance.
So, which do you do? 1) Immediately pack up the entire expedition and evacuate the area never to return? 2) Waste no time in commencing a major archaeological dig and cementing your place in history?
Amazingly enough, the folks over at the U.S. Department of Energy are banking on curious humans (or whomever) from future millennia to go for Door No. 1.
As it becomes increasingly likely that, despite Nevada’s protests, President Bush will get his wish for Yucca Mountain to become the nation’s central nuclear waste repository (the House has approved it by a 3-1 margin; the Senate may vote on it as early as next week), the doings of the DOE, which will be charged with building the facility, warrant greater attention.
For the last two decades, it has been the daunting, if not nutty, business of the department to study and design warning monuments for radioactive waste sites, such as Yucca Mountain or the already functioning Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M. When I heard about this eerie undertaking, I called the DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management’s Yucca Mountain Project (YMP) to see what I could learn about the harebrained — I mean, farsighted — scheme.
The YMP has a toll-free line staffed by real people, specifically established to field questions from yo-yos like you and me. When I called, a very nice, patient, soft-spoken woman named Jenny McNeil picked up the phone.
“You know,” McNeil told me, “there has been a lot of research, since the ’80s, in an effort to come up with plans for monuments that would transcend specific cultures and languages.”
Ms. McNeil was a kind soul, and her voice had a definite calming effect, but she wasn’t a fount of information, so I called Sandia National Laboratories where, in 1991, the monument plan was first described in a study produced by the lab for the DOE. I talked to an official there (who asked not to be quoted by name). “Is this something that’s actually going to happen,” I asked him, “or is it a dead subject?”
“Oh, no, no, no,” the Sandia official told me. “It definitely will happen.”
The monuments are intended to last for thousands of years — the waste may stay toxic for as long as 100,000 years. If everything goes as the DOE hopes, an archaeological expedition tens of centuries hence will take one look at these structures and hightail it in the other direction — just like we do now whenever we come across mysterious ancient monuments covered with strange inscriptions and odd images.
What are they thinking?
And they are big thinkers over at the DOE. They’re not talking about slapping up a few signs with a red circle and diagonal line over a mushroom cloud or a glowing mutant, or even something slightly more ambitious like that unnerving black obelisk in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” No, what the DOE has in mind is more on the order of Stonehenge, but with a better class of stone — granite — and magnets.
Magnets? Of course. You need magnets to “give the structure a distinctive magnetic signature.” (I knew that.) But also because they nicely complement the “metal trihedrals” (three-sided pyramids) that will provide that all important “radar-reflective signature.” Very Captain Kirk, and more and more fascinating as you get further into its psychotic science fiction novel aspects.
Anyway, according to a report in the May/June issue of Archaeology magazine, in a reverse archaeology exercise, the DOE brought together “engineers, archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists to design effective warning structures capable of lasting 10,000 years … Using archeological sites as ‘historical analogues.’” A summary analysis of the DOE report on the Environmental Protection Agency Web site explains that “The conceptual design for the PIC (‘Passive Institutional Controls’) markers” includes a berm surrounding the area, 48 granite monoliths, “thousands of small buried markers, randomly spaced and distributed,” an information center located aboveground, and “two buried storage rooms.”
You’ll note there’s no provision for a gift shop or children’s play area, but I suspect those design oversights can be easily corrected at the same time they put in the handicapped ramps.
So, you might ask, “What’s this thing going to run us?” Calm down, taxpayers, it’ll be a pittance. The materials will be cheap, says the EPA, pointing out that “materials of high economic value are less desirable because they may encourage removal and/or destruction of markers.” Good point — that’s where the Egyptians slipped up. No gold facings for us.
Figure the whole job’s going to cost a mere $150 to $200 million. Chickenfeed for those of us who don’t fancy our future relatives looking like phosphorescent iguanas.
To get a closer view of one of these proposed hot zone follies, come, let’s take a walk through, and for god’s sake, don’t touch anything.
According to the EPA document, the “inner core” of the 33-foot-tall berm “will consist of salt.” OK, sure. Salt. Most people turn and run at the sight of salt. This berm surrounding the “repository footprint” (I love wonk-speak) is the first line of defense. The thought, I guess, is that if our year 8002 archaeologists first begin to dig into the berm, they’ll strike the mound of salt. “Salt!” someone will bellow. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” And the expedition leader will try to control the ensuing frenzy. “Better clear out,” he’ll say. “I don’t like the looks of this. Fill the shakers then let’s beat it!”
But if curiousity gets the better of our explorers, and they just walk right over the berm and head for the monuments, they’ll first come across 16 structures that will “consist of two granite monoliths joined by a [5 foot] long tendon, with a buried truncated base, [22 feet] high, including the tendon, and a [25 foot] high right prism that will be [4 feet] square. The upper stone will weigh approximately [40 tons], and the base stone will weigh approximately [65 tons].” And that’s just the first bunch.
Farther in, at the “perimeter of the controlled area,” are 32 more granite monoliths. Altogether, these 48 100-ton puppies alone will cost about $30 million according to the EPA estimate. But given how government contracts go, we can safely triple that and still be under the actual cost. Shipping extra. Seems like a lot until you consider that the price includes engraving.
No, there’ll be no monograms, no floral patterns, but each monument will be inscribed with “messages in seven languages: the six official United Nations languages (English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic) and Navajo.” Navajo? Great. The Hopis are going to be so pissed. With all due respect to the Navajo, a fine people we’ve done everything in our power to drive into extinction (there are about 250,000 now living in the U.S.), please raise your hand if you think our relatives 6,000 years down the pike are likely to be reading Navajo. Heck, why not Sanskrit or Eskimo?
And what are these inscriptions going to say? Will they be your basic banal warnings, the type of thing we paid so much attention to as kids, or maybe something more effective, like the first chapter of “The Bridges of Madison County”?
The DOE plans to separate the messages “into different levels of complexity,” assuming, I suppose, that even 6,000 or 8,000 years from now there will be slow readers who don’t much cotton to subtlety. Always thinking ahead, the DOE plans to road-test the inscriptions to check “the comprehensibility of messages among a cultural cross section of the U.S. population.” Sounds reasonable, but let’s take it a step further. When a Lakota Sioux gentleman doesn’t comprehend a “No Trespassing” sign written in Navajo or Arabic, what’s our next move?
Images, of course! One surface of the polished, four-sided monuments will feature “diagrams.” That’s fine. Pictures are good, and a welcome respite from all the reading, but at the risk of second-guessing the experts, may I suggest a simpler, more surefire alternate plan? A 15-foot-tall reproduction of Lucien Freud’s ghastly-but-true portrait of Queen Elizabeth, or perhaps a collection of stills from “Glitter” starring Mariah Carey, or anything from the brushes of Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light, accompanied by 500 words from Lynn Cheney’s novel, “The Body Politic,” translated into Urdu.
Trust me, there is no conceivable circumstance, now or at any time in the future, under which a sentient being confronted with such a display would not be deeply alarmed and motivated to gallop in the opposite direction. Just a suggestion, free of charge.
Now we get to the good part: the buried storage rooms and information center. To cook up these, the DOE once again turned to the ancients for inspiration. They considered Newgrange, a passage grave in Ireland thought to be more than 5,000 years old; the Great Pyramids at Giza, Egypt, 4,500 years old; rock art done by Australian Aborigines 25,000 to 35,000 years ago; and the Acropolis in Greece, which has been standing for 2,400 years.
Not to bring up an unpleasant subject or be tiresomely pedantic, but given that the stuff we intend to plant at Yucca Mountain may remain seriously nasty for, like, 100,000 years, how does the longevity of any of the above apply to this project? Well, remember that the EPA only requires that the warning monuments last 10,000 years. After that anyone who wants to go nosing around the boondocks is on their own.
Where were we? Oh yes, the buried rooms and info center, cozy granite spaces with no restroom facilities and no seating. The roofless information center will have its walls inscribed with details about “the disposal system and the dangers of the radioactive and toxic waste buried therein.” There is no provision for videos, pets are allowed — granite’s very forgiving when it comes to messes. The center will sit up high to facilitate good drainage — always a plus for rooms without roofs where incontinent pugs may forget themselves.
The two buried storage rooms are another matter. If you liked those old movies about the building of the pyramids as much as I did — humongous blocks sliding hither and thither, hysterical slaves getting sealed into secret chambers — you’re going to love these. The rooms will be constructed of huge granite slabs “joined by fitting the pieces into slots … to eliminate the need for mortar, grouts, or metal fasteners.” This is a good call. The three-year-old grout on my tub is already doing disgusting things, and don’t get me started on zippers.
My favorite part is the entrance to these rooms. It will be a plugged hole, two feet in diameter. Once our archaeologists of the future pull the plug and wriggle into the room, they’ll find “tables, figures, diagrams and maps” engraved on the walls. However, if we look at the current, up-swinging weight statistics for U.S. adults and children and figure that the trend will continue over the next several thousand years, we must assume that we’ll then be looking at a population that resembles overinflated pregnant manatees, and their likelihood of getting through a 2-foot aperture is slim to none. Of course, they did manage to get Winnie the Pooh out of that hole. Maybe we could inscribe that chapter next to the plug.
Then, buried all around the site, will be the “thousands” of small inscribed warning markers, made of “granite, clay and aluminum oxide.” The DOE experts based this idea on the Code of Hammurabi, an inscribed stone slab found in Iraq (don’t tell Dubya it was found in Saddam’s country or we’ll have a replay of the pretzel horror) and Mesopotamian clay tablets. I figure our markers will feature Jewel’s poetry on one side and select excerpts from Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn” on the other.
That’s about it. Your tax dollars at work.
Now, I’m not a scientist, so maybe this whole project makes a lot of sense to someone. A scientist, for example. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be a wet blanket or soft on terrorism. Building these monument thingies sounds like a patriotic hoot. I think they’ll look very cool and be inexpensive to maintain.
I guess we just have to accept that, as with so much our government does, the whole plan’s a little kooky, but in a sweet way. Apparently none of the experts who were consulted suggested that putting up our own Stonehenge might accomplish the same thing that the original Stonehenge (or Newgrange, or the Pyramids) has — endless poking about, drilling and excavating by experts, nonexperts, tourists (and their pets) and freelance goofballs.
In fact, I’m guessing that Yucca Mountain or the Carlsbad site might be selected, a few thousand years down the road, as a perfect spot for some futuristic version of our own Harmonic Convergence celebrations of a few years back. In which case, we might want to tack on a few million for stadium seating and some bathrooms.
Photographer Flor Gardu
Photographer Flor Garduño says that seven out of 10 of the models she worked with on her new book, “Inner Light,” a collection of nudes and still lifes, have gotten pregnant.
“Among my friends,” Garduño tells poet Verónica Volkow, who wrote the introduction, “word started getting around — it was a joke — that if someone wanted to get pregnant, she had to pose for one of Flor Garduño’s photographs … one of the models got pregnant, even though she was using birth control.” Still another woman saw Garduño’s lush black-and-white images and “a short time later she also got pregnant,” the photographer says.
It’s hardly surprising. There is an unmistakable air of fecundity about Garduño’s work and it goes beyond matters of reproduction. Here are pictures with ideas attached — thinking, breathing, feeling photographs. Garduño’s strong, evocative symbolism and her poetic sensibility coupled with a flawless sense of composition make these sensuous, often ethereal images the sort of pictures you can look at over and over; these are photographs worthy of staring at, then closing your eyes and remembering. The funny thing is — given that many of the photos are nudes — when you do stare, you find that you’re not looking where you might expect to.
Making a nude photograph that possesses intellectual weight is a challenging proposition. A photograph — any photo — of a naked person is charged; nine out of 10 of us will have to look at it whether it’s any good or not. Men, who are ostensibly stimulated by visual images more than women are, find nude photos of females all but irresistible. Most photographers who shoot nudes know this, but fail to transcend it even when they try. Yet some, and Garduño is preeminent among them, make pictures that have so much going on that every element of the image integrates with every other and our eyes go wild, looking everywhere. These aren’t merely nudes, they’re novels or perhaps epic poems rendered by a magical realist.
“Holistic” is a dreadfully overused word, but I can’t think of a better one to describe Garduño’s ability to capture not just the sensuality of a woman’s body, but also the sensuality inherent in an entire scene. Who knew that leaves could be sexy? For that matter, since when are pears erotic? Well, since Garduño sliced a wedge from one and propped it against a wall. And don’t get me started on the pomegranate, the one with the seeds wantonly spilling out.
But most of her images — nudes or not — aren’t even specifically about sex. They’re about life and nature and procreation and form and death and funniness and beauty and dreams and whimsy and I take it back — they are about sex. Life, when it’s really full like that — fertile with ideas and emotions, electric with thought and fantasy — is the very quintessence of sex. Good sex, the real thing, cannot be separated from every other aspect of life. That’s why photography that is only about sex is often sexless and boring.
Garduño’s work is in major collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Her earlier book, the critically acclaimed “Witnesses of Time,” is a visual meditation on the sacred and symbolic as reflected in the everyday lives of native Indians in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador who still practice ancient rituals. And, though “Inner Light” is utterly different thematically, you see the ripple effect “Witnesses of Time” has had on some of the images in this book; Garduño is well attuned to the intersection of spirit and matter; the power of the iconic object and how objects become iconic when presented as the keystone in a spiritual story, a narrative we seem to be witnessing as we view her photographs.
Garduño lives in Switzerland and Mexico (her Swiss husband, Adriano Heitman, is also a photographer) and has two children, one of whom, Azul, appears in some of the pictures in “Inner Light.” The photographer seems to have a philosophical kinship with the legendary Manuel Alvarez Bravo, which isn’t surprising: Like Bravo, a native of Mexico, Garduño began her career as his assistant. Some of her photographs even appear to make playful tribute to his, such as “La Nopala,” a seated nude woman looking at the viewer through eye holes cut out below an array of buds on a piece of cactus. “La Nopala” humorously echoes Bravo’s famous “La Buena Fama Durmiendo” (“Good Reputation Sleeping”), a solemn image of a nearly nude woman lying next to four prickly cactus buds. And one of Garduño’s most sensuous images (and most exquisite compositions), “Vestido Elegante” (“Elegant Dress”), a nude female partly visible behind large, swordlike leaves, is vaguely reminiscent of Bravo’s “Fruta Prohibida” (“Forbidden Fruit”), a view of a woman, her shirt open, her breast visible behind long blades of grass.
Garduño, however, though she is clearly influenced by Bravo, possesses her own very distinctive vision and is a gifted picture maker in her own right. For one thing, she’s more prone to frolic than Bravo. Her 1998 photograph “Pez Espada” (“Swordfish”), a nude holding a massive swordfish head on top of her own, is certainly surreal, but it’s also a hoot and something of a challenge. The fish’s giant eye stares out at the camera lens, looks right back at the viewer, and the head dwarfs the woman holding it. It takes a few moments before you even notice that she’s nude. Then you realize that the pose is similar to Rodin’s thinker and it becomes clear that Garduño’s sense of humor sets her work far apart from Bravo’s often (though not always) somber imagery.
But Garduño can be contemplative, too. One of the most exalted nudes in the book is her “Vestido Eterno” (“Eternal Dress”), a madonna-like picture of a young woman, her eyes closed, her head turned slightly upward and a garland of white roses draped across the top of her breasts. It’s a picture you could hang on a wall and never tire of, it is so rich with references to religion, mythology and eroticism. The woman’s subtle expression, suffused with emotion, is simply compelling and seems to change as you gaze at it. If art is the transmission of feeling then Garduño has made a masterwork with “Vestido Eterno.”
What comes through vividly in her photographs is that this is the work of a happy person, which is unfortunately rare in art today. That Garduño has managed to imbue the work with that feeling is testament to her inner resourcefulness, her toughness and vulnerability. There is plenty to be sorrowful about these days, but she’s managed to capture those eternal qualities of nature and humanity that conquer that sorrow. In the introduction, Volkow writes, “Garduño looks at the world with the eyes of a treasure’s caretaker, which are the same as those of a pregnant woman. Every figure glows as if it were fervently embracing a promise, beaming with an overwhelming fullness. Each fruit, each body is like a star: It radiates a beauty that emerges from an overflowing richness. Every form seems to express an innate force; it dawns with the power of its strength. Garduño shares with us a woman’s complicity with the vital force of objects and bodies. Everything here lives from within the miracle of fecundity.”
To which one can only respond: Yes! And thank god for poets — both the ones who use words and those who use cameras.
Painter Laurie Hogin uses the style of Old Masters and a frightening menagerie of beasts to illustrate the nightmares to be found in the American dream.
When artist Laurie Hogin, 39, was a child, she lived in a suburb of New York adjacent to a 600-acre woodland. “It belonged to some old guy who just wasn’t going to sell it,” Hogin says, “so we had these woods to play in — me and my two friends. It was a wonderful, safe place for us. We were all interested in what was then called ecology; we’d see foxes, deer, wild turkey, pheasant, we’d find mushrooms. But it was a ravine with a road above it and occasionally people would dump tires, garbage and 55-gallon drums. This outraged us.”
Hogin expressed her outrage by drawing pictures of the woods with the tires, garbage and barrels scattered about, often giving the drawings to her fourth-grade teacher. “It was sort of an infantile form of protest,” she says. It also was, and continues to be, an organizing metaphor for her life.
The pictures Hogin makes today — startling, provocative, elegant (she calls them “parodies of opulence”) oil paintings, some as large as 8 by 10 feet — still focus on the environment, and on a variety of other cultural and political issues that are both pressing and controversial, which makes her work especially relevant right now. Given the powerful connection between the topics she takes up in her art and the current American dynamic — not just between humans and a disappearing natural world, but between average folks and the corporate world, the ruling elite of capitalism — what Hogin’s doing, or attempting to do, is both important and, in many ways, amazing.
What sets her work apart is that she’s one of the rare artists able to pepper her images with fierce commentary without coming off as strident or didactic — partly because her paintings are often darkly funny, and partly because their appearance is so striking. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, critic Margaret Hawkins explained, “The reason Hogin can get away with her intensely intellectual subject matter is that her paintings are visually irresistible, inspiring a kind of optical gluttony that is then surprised in mid-gorge by the paintings’ weighty subtext.”
What Hogin does, and does brilliantly, is appropriate the seductive language of advertising and dress it in the lush, hyperrealistic style and technique of 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting in order to make scathing visual comment on contemporary consumerism, sexism, the trashing of nature and the inequities of the global economy. She seized on the idea of adopting the exacting style of the 17th century artists in service of her own trenchant, satirical observations because of the strong parallels she saw between their time and the present. The period, she says, “strangely mirrors our own times in [what author Simon Schama has called] its ‘anxieties of superabundance,’ attitudes toward class, citizenship, the family and the peculiar kinds of stuff people strove to acquire.”
Some of Hogin’s larger canvases are packed with a frenzied tangle of vividly rendered deer, dogs, rabbits, tigers, albino alligators, snakes and exotic polychrome birds, with titles such as “Allegory of the Free Market” or “The Effects of Substances in the Environment.” One of the smaller works features a lone white monkey, draped in a blue and gold wizard’s cape like the one Mickey Mouse wore in “Fantasia,” baring its vicious teeth and holding an open lipstick, which it has smeared around its mouth, while it glares directly at the viewer. The text on the painting reads, “Because beauty has something to say.”
They are mordant depictions of a natural world gone wrong — or which has been done wrong — where even the most benign beasts seem outraged; they’re also allegorical portraits of a flourishing civilization that has become overripe and is turning toxic. “I think my most successful work is peculiar, a little bit frightening and also funny,” Hogin says.
In talking about her work, Hogin refers to Schama’s acclaimed book “The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age,” in which he meticulously examined how the Dutch built an empire, became enormously affluent and yet lived in fear of being corrupted by their own happiness and complacency.
“There’s so much they seem to have had in common with us in terms of how they viewed the rest of the world as commodities or resources for their taking, and their reveling in the commodities fetish,” she says. “Also the fact that so many of their social relationships seemed to be through attainment of wealth and markers of wealth.”
One of those markers — the paintings of the period — functioned something like advertising does today, reinforcing the values and views held by the society’s leaders. At the same time, the paintings romanticized the exotic, casting the wonders of the natural world and foreign cultures as commodities to be acquired and controlled.
Those early Dutch paintings “spoke,” as advertising images do now, in a distinct language, a subtle, highly persuasive visual code that can be both seductive and flattering. Today, what Hogin terms the “visual codes of corporate persuasion” are employed by advertisers, she says, to “deliver certain fantasies to consumers that are very resonant at a given time.”
Advertisements for SUVs are a good example of what she’s talking about, Hogin says. “When SUVs first started to become popular,” she recalls, “the seductive code was about transcending an apocalyptic, chaotic landscape” that evoked images of “The Road Warrior.” It’s a trend still apparent in ads for some SUVs, such as the mammoth Hummer, which originated as a military vehicle. What we, the potential buyers, are supposed to come away with when viewing such an ad is that “transcendence in the context of an apocalyptic or dystopian environment becomes fun.”
That advertising approach, Hogin says, “also positions the consumer as heroic, so the fantasy of having a fully coordinated, heroic, perpetually young, perpetually active body, in addition to this almost armored vehicle suggests that the two become one.”
Not coincidentally, among Hogin’s fascinations is the notion of cyborgs; the idea of the body becoming transcendental, mechanical and independent of nature. An associate professor of art at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Hogin teaches a graduate seminar that includes a three-week section on cyborgs. She talks about an advertisement she saw recently for a company that’s working with MIT to develop new military technologies.
“This ad showed soldiers of the future who looked like ‘Star Wars’ storm troopers. Their humanity was completely erased, they looked like cyborgs. They were all powerful, all integrated, and I couldn’t believe how seductive that was.” There is something in us, she says, that finds the completely unnatural, the sterile, hypertidy and efficient very appealing.
“Everything that connects us to nature is sloppy,” Hogin says, and though she doesn’t agree with many of Freud’s views, she grants credence to his belief that we overcome our feelings of powerlessness and lack of individuality by severing our connection with the mother’s body, symbolizing nature. “Another reason,” she continues, “may be the internalization over eons of the threat constituted by nature and by illness — the development of disgust, for example.”
It’s a point that directly relates to one of the recurring themes running through Hogin’s work: mankind’s lack of empathy for, and alienation from, the natural world. As a youngster, she says, “I spent a huge amount of time drawing animals. I don’t really know why, but I think it had to do with questions I had about empathy. Here was a creature whose eyes I could look into and see the evidence that it had an emotional life, perception and consciousness.
“But the only way I could empathize with that was to imagine,” she continues. “And that idea became very important to me, the idea that imagination is the origin of empathy. If you really imagine what it’s like for somebody, or something, you can empathize.”
As an adult, Hogin says, “I’ve gotten my sense of ethics, and my politics — as a citizen and as a consumer — from imagining where I am in this network of economy and production at the global level, and imagining how I want to behave according to my effect on other people’s lives.” Hogin, who’s married to a documentary filmmaker and has a 2-year-old son, continues, “I can imagine what it might be like to be in a place where I don’t get antibiotics for my kid. Or to have been in the [WTC] towers — what it was like for the people who had an hour to think about it.”
It all comes back to the idea that empathy and imagination are linked, she says. “I suppose the eyes and bodies of animals were a huge part of that for me as a kid. Perhaps because animals are inarticulate: They won’t tell you how they feel; they’ll act out their feelings, but they can’t express it.”
Hogin clearly spends a lot of time crafting her animals’ eyes, which seem by turns furious, terrified, frenzied or, at the very least, challenging, many of them gazing straight out of the painting, following the viewer just like those of Uncle Sam on the well-known “I Want You” recruiting poster.
“Animal paintings from the Dutch 17th century really grab me,” she says, “because they are all about exoticism, colonialism and collecting — the ownership of bodies. It’s also about tourism, not so much literal tourism, but the psychological tourism now provided by advertising. For example, the representation of urban authenticity or drug addiction — heroin chic — is often couched as a form of tourism in our culture.”
Hogin usually does her paintings as diptychs, triptychs or series. One of the funniest and most disturbing is her “Bunny Suites,” three series of small portraits of rabbits that have apparently mutated, turning pink or acquiring the fur of some other beast, such as a tiger, the menacing teeth of a predator and, in some cases, the pose of a centerfold model. In fact, she says, they are loosely based on the “odalisques” made famous in the paintings of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, whose early 18th century pictures mythologized the sensuality and eroticism of Turkish harem slaves.
In his pursuit of the erotic, Ingres depicted female bodies that would be deformed in real life. “Those women are literally disabled. They couldn’t walk if they tried to get up,” Hogin says. As many have pointed out, Ingres’ harem slaves would have had to have extra vertebrae to appear in real life as they do in his paintings. “Distortion in service of sexualizing the body becomes an interesting icon of sexist desires and sexist assumptions,” Hogin says.
It’s important to her that the paintings not be seen as geared to an elite audience. Hogin says that “the fact that the art world is so opaque has always bothered me a little bit,” which is why she strives to make her work accessible. Indeed, one needn’t have any deep knowledge of art to appreciate her paintings. They’re extraordinary objects in their own right (she also builds most of her own elaborate frames), and the subtext of meaning is easily discerned.
“It seems to me there is a lot of work out there that just reiterates and emphasizes the class structure in this country by being intentionally opaque and inaccessible,” Hogin says. “While my paintings are supported by people with money, I also find that when they get reproduced in [print] magazines or online that I get a response from a wide variety of people who really do understand them and read into the images.
“Surprisingly,” she adds, ” a lot of art-educated people are the ones that don’t get it, and a lot of bright, interested people who don’t happen to be art-educated do get it. One of the most gratifying things to me is when I hear from those people.”
Despite the precision and degree of detail evident in her work, Hogin is a fast painter. Even one of her most ambitious pieces, the 8-by-10-foot “Allegory of the Free Market,” done in 1999, took just three weeks to complete. It’s one of her more spectacular pictures in which tiger-striped and leopard-spotted deer, some sporting excessive antlers, seem to be rearing up and bucking in hysteria while strange mutant rabbits and monkeys sit below them and a Bambiesque fawn shrieks from its perch on a hill. A banner is tied to one deer’s antler. It reads “Laissez Faire.”
The look of the piece, Hogin says, is loosely based on the over-the-top, heroic style of Napoleonic war painting, a formulaic approach that usually included the same essential ingredients. “There was always a hill and a yellow and black sky with roiling clouds or the smoke from battle fires,” she says. “My painting cannibalizes some of that formula to talk about the romanticizing and idealization of free market theology, which was very prevalent in the ’90s; people all the time talking about markets and how the invisible hand solves problems.
“These creatures in the painting, these deer, have become rampant because of free market policies,” she explains. “Unregulated use of land has resulted in the destruction of predator habitat. One species becomes unbalanced, in a sense, and overruns everything.” Deer overpopulation is a phenomenon that’s quite real in many regions of the U.S., and in Hogin’s hands works as a biting metaphor for the glorification of the free market ideology so prevalent in the 1990s.
Hogin’s next exhibition opens Nov. 1 at the Koplin Gallery in Los Angeles. Her current preoccupation and the subject of the work in that show is, appropriately enough, “orientalism, the history of how we’ve looked east, and how we and the East have looked at each other over this significant cultural divide.” Hogin explains: “We’ve always looked at the orient as mysterious and exotic, and as a series of commodities, but we’ve never understood them and they’ve never understood us. In the history of painting, the Middle East and the way French painters [such as Ingres] looked at the Islamic world is very interesting to me.”
Hogin’s a prolific, ambitious painter and a vital thinker. Her prescience in doing work that takes up greed and its catastrophic results resonates acutely now that many of the corporate elite have been exposed as narcissistic plunderers of the public trust. Her new work, which looks at the West’s view of the East, the relevance of which can be seen in the news every day, promises to be just as provocative. If, as has often been said, the function of an artist in society is much the same as a canary in a coal mine, Hogin’s art is worth watching closely.
A "This American Life" commentator celebrates nerds and explains how to love your country without turning into a boorish, jingoistic, kitsch-crazed lout.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could be a patriot without having to fly the flag from your porch and the antenna of your car every day, if you could skip applauding crappy, gung-ho songs about how great America is, cheering saccharine, saber-rattling speeches about how great America is, and otherwise wallowing in all the lamebrained, jingoistic posturing that now seems required behavior for U.S citizens who wish to demonstrate a commitment to their country? Yes, it would be very nice.
Good news: At least one of us has managed to pull it off. In her third book, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot,” Sarah Vowell does a bang-up job of being a good American without being a terrible bore. A solid thinker with a warm heart and a smart mouth, she loves the U.S. in much the same way that one loves one’s family (or perhaps a favorite flea-bitten old dog) — acutely aware of its many shortcomings, but true-blue to the end. “My ideal picture of citizenship,” Vowell writes, “will always be an argument, not a sing-along.”
Vowell is a patriot for the rest of us; she believes that devotion to one’s country and an unquestioning support of its government are very different notions. She’s not a breath of fresh air; she’s a deep, satisfying toke of pure intellectual oxygen. This collection of essays, two of which were first published in Salon, arrives just in time to remind us that America is at its best when it’s not blustering, preening and patting itself on the back. When a citizen with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of humor exercises her mind without kowtowing to that “my country right or wrong” baloney, the U.S. can really shine, as well as laugh.
“Immediately after the attack” of Sept. 11, Vowell recalls in the book’s title piece, “seeing the flag all over the place was moving, endearing. So when the newspaper I subscribe to published a full-page, full color flag to clip out and hang in the window, how come I couldn’t? It took me a while to figure out why I guiltily slid the flag into the recycling bin instead of taping it up. The meaning had changed; or let’s say it changed back. In the first day or two the flags were plastered everywhere, seeing them was heartening because they indicated that we’re all in this sorrow together. The flags were purely emotional. Once we went to war, once the president announced that we were going to retaliate against the ‘evildoers,’ then the flag started making me nervous. The true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government. Skepticism of the government was actually one of the platforms the current figurehead of the government ran on. How many times in the campaign did President Bush proclaim of his opponent, the then vice president, ‘He trusts the federal government and I trust the people.’? This deep suspicion of Washington is one of the most American emotions an American can have. So by the beginning of October, the ubiquity of the flag came to feel like peer pressure to always stand behind policies one might not necessarily agree with. And, like any normal citizen, I prefer to make up my mind about the issues of the day on a case-by-case basis at 3 a.m. when I wake up from my ‘Nightline’-inspired nightmares.”
In the 19 essays collected in “The Partly Cloudy Patriot,” Vowell writes about her love of Abraham Lincoln’s writing (she calls him “the American Jesus”); “growing up pretentious” in Bozeman, Mont., as a teen cinéaste who doted on the films of Wim Wenders, Werner Fassbinder and Schlöndorff; Teddy Roosevelt; her family; the Salem witch trials and a tour of Salem; the weird lunchroom 750 feet underground at Carlsbad Caverns, and numerous other disparate topics, all of which have to do with the odd character and affectations of this peculiar country and how they resonate in Vowell’s life.
Her grim funniness makes reading her prose addictive, especially if you’ve never quite been able to cram yourself into the American dream. Recalling her own second-grade self in a piece about selling antique maps in San Francisco, she writes, “I think the reason I wasn’t cut out to be a good map seller or a good Californian had something to do with the fact that I dressed up as Wednesday Addams for Halloween that year. ‘The Addams Family’ and ‘The Munsters’ shows, where roses were grown for their thorns and pretty blondes were pitied as monsters, were on TV every afternoon after school when I was a little kid. Throw in three Pentacostal church services a week where they preached that the Antichrist would be a sunny, smooth, all-American charmer, and you have the makings of an insular worldview. Namely, a sneaking suspicion that there’s always a dark side of nice.”
Americans relish contradiction, she says, and she trots out her own quirky interests as an example. We’ve also got an inherent tabloid sensibility, and even on a trip to Paris Vowell’s Yankee attraction for sensational trivia bubbles to the surface in a way that makes you want to take her along on your next trip, or at least buy her a beer. “The French Revolution walking tour I took was mostly a drag,” she writes, “except for a gripping if questionable anecdote about Danton, whose lip was split when he was suckling milk from the teat of a cow and the bull came up and knocked him down and while he was lying there a bunch of pigs trampled his face. Nevertheless, according to the guide, an Englishwoman in a hat, the ladies adored Danton because he was ‘so vital.’”
Vowell’s book is liberally sprayed with armor-piercing quips, such as this fatal shot from an essay in which she takes exception to people, like Ted Nugent, likening themselves to civil rights icon Rosa Parks. “In his autobiography, ‘God, Guns and Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ [Nugent] refers to himself as ‘Rosa Parks with a loud guitar,’” Vowell writes. “That’s so inaccurate. Everyone knows he’s more like Mary Matalin with a fancy deer rifle.” Whoa, Ted, we better get you to a doctor — that’s no flesh wound!
But there’s more to Vowell than precisely targeted sarcasm. She has a feel for this country and its history that’s as authentic as it is unsentimental. She understands that we’re a bunch of damn goofs and that our system, while it’s a mess, may also be the best there is right now. Vowell also grasps that some of our number have achieved greatness, yet the most visionary of leaders — Lincoln, for example — would never have strutted about declaring themselves visionaries, which became something of a habit for our captains of industry in recent years. That Lincoln wrote his own material and wrote it beautifully moves her to call him “one of my favorite writers.” “My grandest hope for my own hastily written sentences,” Vowell says, “is that they would keep a stranger company on an airplane. Abraham Lincoln could turn a pretty phrase such as ‘I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind’ and put it in the proclamation that freed the slaves. Even Mailer wouldn’t claim to top that.”
Of course Norman Mailer is the perfect reference, as he embodies America with all its flaws, biliousness, poetry and brilliance; our best qualities are often inextricably linked to our worst. Vowell gets this, embraces it even — loves the contradiction. We do best when we keep our self-deprecation quotient high, but when we get puffed up and earnest we’re tedious twits. However, Vowell’s even got good things to say for tedious twits, namely, Al Gore.
In one of the book’s strongest pieces, “The Nerd Voice,” in which she identifies herself as “a civics nerd first and last,” Vowell tells of attending George W. Bush’s inauguration, where the only person on the dais she’s happy to look at is Bob Dole, for whom she’s got a soft spot because “he symbolizes a simpler more innocent time in America when you could lose the presidential election and, like, not actually become president.”
Later in the essay she extols Gore’s nerdiness and goes on to effectively diagram why it worked against him so well in the presidential race — a contest she sees as jock vs. nerd. Vowell quotes a friend who explains, “[Gore] was widely perceived as arrogant. If you know something, you’re not smart. You’re a smarty-pants. It’s annoying. People get annoyed with your knowledge. It goes back to high school, to not doing your homework … ‘There’s something I should know, I don’t know why I should know it but someone knows it and I don’t. So I’m going to have to make fun of him now.’”
Yet Vowell makes a distinction between what she terms jocks, athletes and sports fans. “Great athletes are no different from great artists,” she says, and she respects a “certain kind of statistically minded sports fan that’s an actual subspecies of nerd.” Jocks, on the other hand, are what “writer and hockey fan Dave Bidini once described as ‘dull-witted, chick-baiting dickheads.’” (Specific enough for ya?) She then invokes the behavior of Willow on TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as an object lesson in how Gore might reconstruct himself as likable without deserting his genuine wonky self. “Willow is not a self-hating nerd,” Vowell writes. “She is a self-deprecating nerd. While Gore, like Giles [another "Buffy" character], is the butt of other people’s jokes, Willow, a postmodern nerd, peppers her cerebral monologues with one-liners that make light of her own book learning.”
Vowell calls that combo the nerd voice and insists it’s a winner. “It’s the self-deprecating impulse Gore lacks,” she writes. (Note to Al Gore: Next time you run, hire Vowell as your image consultant, not Naomi Wolff.)
Vowell ends the essay with a long, eloquent paragraph that ought to be carved in stone somewhere on a public thoroughfare in the nation’s capital, or perhaps posted outside every polling place come Election Day. It comprises a litany of the things a presidential candidate should know, ranging from the names of “all the stars” and “kings and queens of Spain …” and the ability to “explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old” to “the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Two Sleepy People’ and ‘You Got the Silver’ by the Rolling Stones.”
It’s a great piece of writing, a sharp example of American goofing, funny and true and fraught with deep contradiction, just like the country. From Mark Twain to Richard Pryor, Americans have often stumbled on the truest truths while snorting with laughter. “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” continues a fine tradition.
The author of two books about coping with sudden death talks about the emotional fallout of losing someone without having had a chance to say goodbye.
In October 1997, a bee stung Brook Noel’s 27-year-old brother, Caleb, a professional athlete. Neither he nor anyone else in his family was aware that he was severely allergic to bee stings. He went into anaphylactic shock and died the same day. In the days that followed, trying to grapple with the trauma of losing her brother, Noel went looking for a book that would help her cope. “There was nothing on sudden death,” she says. “It was all on terminal illness.”
So she wrote a book herself. The publication of “I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One,” coauthored with Pamela D. Blair, led to media attention. Later, five months prior to the 9/11 attacks, Noel was asked to join the 48-member Family Support Team of the National Air Disaster Alliance.
When the planes were hijacked on 9/11, Noel was away from her Milwaukee home, in Chicago on business. “The first call I made was to find out if we were needed, and if so, where,” she says. “Because of the inability to fly from one place to another, they took people [on the NADA support team] who could get there by car.
“I went to work on the phone — calling organizations; faxing informational sheets about how you can help someone who’s grieving; sending free copies of the book, pamphlets and brochures to the Red Cross and all the support centers. Then I started taking calls. I did a lot of shows that broadcast directly to New York — Bloomberg Radio and ABC. That really opened up the network of people who came to me looking for help. I was available 24/7 as a volunteer for as long as I was needed. I also donated all the proceeds from the book to the WTC fund.”
Noel just finished a second book about coping with death, “GriefSteps: 10 Steps for Moving Forward After Loss,” scheduled for release this fall. She’s the founder of Champion Press, which publishes her books among others, and she recently launched the GriefSteps Web site.
“What I wanted to do was bring a free volunteer support network into the home, one that people could access at any time they need it,” she says. “Anyone is welcome. All over the world. We use e-mail [people can write in and receive direct answers to questions], a message board, and we moderate everything. We also do support chats — I host each of those — for anyone that wants to talk.”
Noel’s advice to those who lose someone in a sudden death is to forget anything they may have heard about the right way to grieve and to make a point of finding out everything about that person’s death that they can. After such a tragedy, “our inclination is to give people a time period and insist they should adapt within that period, then go back to their normal functioning. And that can’t happen,” she says. “Normal as they knew it will never happen again.”
Recently I spoke with Noel about 9/11; how men, women and children deal differently with a sudden death; and how media coverage of tragic events affects our ability to come to grips with them.
You’re often one of the first people to talk with someone who’s lost a person close to them due to a sudden death. What’s the first thing you say?
The first thing I say is “You will get through this.” And that’s the most important thing you can say to someone in that situation because they truly don’t believe they can. The second thing I tell them is that this is just as if you’d had triple bypass surgery: You’re going to need time to recover physically and emotionally. Whatever anyone tells you, disregard it: There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s a long road. There’s no timeline. You need to take it slow.
In the case of sudden deaths, and it’s certainly come up with the 9/11 tragedy, some have a hard time understanding the emphasis on finding any remnant no matter how small, whether it’s a wedding ring, a wristwatch, a scrap of clothing — anything like that to return to the families. Why is that so important?
Belief factor. Again, it’s something you’d never thought you’d experience. And until you see it, hold it, feel it, it isn’t real. [People may believe that] the longer you can prevent yourself from having to come into direct contact with the experience, the less it’s going to hurt. We saw that with 9/11. For how many days after we’d hit the point where no one could be alive did they continue looking for survivors? Everybody just kept holding on. To me, that got to be a bit unhealthy. The country was in denial.
What’s the effect of directly witnessing a sudden death? This happened, of course, on 9/11. Have you worked with people who are dealing with that kind of shock?
Yes. Of course, when they witness it, there’s the “Why them, not me?” because they were obviously physically close enough that they were almost there. They experience all those questions, the feelings and values of that moment, much more intensely than a person who was not present.
I believe that the biggest challenge there, of course, is the visual image. To hear about death is one thing; to see death is a whole different thing. And we see this in wars all the time — these people come back that have seen it and have survived and what that does to them psychologically.
Yes. And so you begin to move into more cases where you’re having the post-traumatic stress disorders and the general anxiety, the clinical mental depression, the major depressive episodes, because just as joyous as it is to see a birth — you know how exciting that is for people — it’s just as intense when someone leaves the world. Just as you’d never forget the birth of your child, you’ll never forget seeing someone die.
That stage is an entire category of grieving. Many times those people who see that — for example, if you take bystanders that were on the street when the WTC buildings collapsed — will tell you that they would have rather been in the building than lived after seeing what they saw.
One of the true gifts of going through the experience is, when you get to the point where you’ve moved through many of the stages of grief — when you’re, say, 18 months out — is that you can see life in a different way than everyone around you. You truly see the value of a moment more than anyone else. That’s probably the greatest gift that you can glean from these experiences, but a lot of people don’t get to that stage.
People reassess their lives, sometimes people make radical changes. Do these changes last, or do they tend to go back to their old ways after a few months?
Normally, the changes are so radical you cannot go back to your old ways. For example, you might move. You might say, “Since I’m not with my husband anymore, I don’t want to be in this house with these memories.” Or you may change jobs.
As for the social element, it depends on the situation. Often when you lose someone, especially a spouse, your entire social status changes. If you were friends with other couples, you may find that they’ll no longer be in your inner circle of friends — primarily because most people are uncomfortable with death and they will not know how to respond to you, and you will often be uncomfortable with them because it reminds you of the fact that, say, you’re there without your husband.
One of the things that is so important [to realize] is that normal does not exist anymore for these people [who've lost someone suddenly]. Normal as they knew it will never happen again. And humans aren’t very good with permanent changes like that and understanding them, so our inclination is to give people a time period and insist they should adapt within that period, then go back to their normal functioning. And that can’t happen.
I call it the “10 days syndrome.” You see it in the media: Something happens, it’s covered intensely for 10 days. It’s just like that with the bereaved. You lose someone, the first 10 days you’ll receive more phone calls, more visitors, more food than you ever thought existed in the world. But during those first 10 days you are fully in shock and will barely remember anything that happened.
Then somewhere around the 11th or 12th day, your body begins to let in some of the facts of what has happened. When you experience this loss you become almost catatonic. Your body shuts down because it can’t accept that information. Then, as you’re ready to assimilate it, once you get to that point, almost everybody else is gone — they’ve moved on. Now you’re ready and you need help and there’s no one there.
And the aloneness really starts to sink in.
Yes. One of the most important things that people can do for someone who goes through this — if they themselves can’t do it, they should find a network or create one; two or three people — is ensure that someone is with them constantly from day one, coming in every three to four hours and just checking on them. That way when they get to the stage where they’re ready to talk about what happened, they have someone who shared it with them.
Are there ways of responding to sudden death and coping with the aftermath that are especially typical of Americans?
Yes, there are probably two things that you see most often. One is you see the active grievers, and these are the people that — like the NYC widows of firefighters group — have lost someone and the next thing they’re doing is building an organization to help the people around them. And it’s very important to actually address that a little bit — that is a healthy way to grieve. For example, myself, I wrote a book. I wanted to take this awful experience and find a way to bring something out of it. The problem with that is if you get overconsumed.
Too much deflection of feeling?
Yes. You begin to use that as a device to not deal with your grief — instead you help everyone else. But you never resolve your own issues.
Have you found that religious conviction makes a difference? Do people who have a deep religious faith find it any easier to deal with this experience?
It’s very divided. Many people who are religious get very angry at God or whatever they believe the higher power is. You have some people that their faith does comfort them; you also have a lot of people who are not religious who find religion through the sudden death of a loved one.
I talked with one of the widows of a fireman from 9/11. She called me and related that her husband had always been religious and she hadn’t been. She told me that based on the things that had happened, the support that had come to her, my book finding her, she was now convinced that there were angels. She had become religious through this experience.
You also find that there are many spiritual things that happen when you lose someone. Some psychologists believe that our mind creates them, and other people believe this is actually a spirit connection. But many people report that they hear footsteps in an empty home. Or it can be a scent they associate with the person they’ve lost. The number of these experiences is incredible. Nine out of ten of the bereaved will experience something to that effect. Then you have to turn to whatever your belief system is for explanation.
How do men and women differ in the way they deal with a sudden death?
It goes along pretty much with all the stereotypes of communication. Men tend to need more space. They tend to want to go off into isolation, scream at the world, and work this through on their own. They often assume a lot of guilt, especially if they’ve lost a child or their wife, feeling that they should have been able to take care of things and they’ve failed to do their job. A lot of times that’s subconscious, but it’s still a driving factor. So they want to go away and try to solve this.
A woman wants support. She wants to talk, and talk, and talk some more. She has to get all this information out in order to assimilate and make sense of it. And of course, in couples — you hear how many couples who lose a child end up divorcing — that’s one of the primary reasons they break up. The way they need support is so different, they can’t offer it to one another.
How does the way children deal with the sudden death of someone close to them differ between a kid who is, say, 6, and a child who is 14 or 15?
A child of 6 really doesn’t understand the concept of death yet. They are familiar with cartoons where a character falls off a cliff, then he’s back on the next episode. So each time someone dies, they come back; when the princess dies, she’s kissed and wakes up. They don’t understand the permanence of death.
One of the challenges there, is that as they move through each phase of childhood — preadolescence, the teenage years — they have to reexperience the situation with their newfound knowledge; same with any major life change, like a divorce. They have to be allowed the space to go through it all again.
Often parents don’t allow the child that space because the parent’s already moved on — “Why do we have to bring all this up again?” But children do need to reexperience it at every age. So I think the thing you’re battling there is, of course, the permanence issue and the child’s egocentric attitude: “This should have been within my control. Somehow I’m to blame.”
Is it especially difficult in the case of a child who’s, say, in the 18-to-22 age group, where they’re right in the midst of making that separation from the parents, and so they’re really starting to feel, “Well, I don’t need my parents. I’m an adult” — then, in fact, they suddenly lose a parent?
Yes, even if you lose your parents in midlife, it’s that final connection; your foundation has been broken. They are not there at the end of the day. And during that [18- to 22-year-old] transition stage, that’s often where you’ve come through all the fights and the arguments and you’ve learned to sometimes listen and respect your parents … And there’s not a person around who will not torture themselves with “If only …”
That’s a really important piece of the process. When you have a major illness there’s a diagnosis, there’s treatment, there’s a failed treatment and there’s a death. There’s a beginning, there’s a middle, and there’s an end. And we think in cyclical ways: We’re born, we go through life, and we die.
We think in narrative fashion. You’re saying that completing the story is a crucial part of the grieving process?
Right. And what you need to do when you lose someone suddenly — you may not have all the answers to their story, how the story played out — you need to find out as much information as you can to form a beginning, a middle and an end. When you do that, you can begin to put away all the if-onlys.
What are some of the more unusual responses people have to a sudden death? Is becoming manic or behaving in some other seemingly inappropriate fashion a more common response than we might assume?
It happens a lot. One of the most difficult things after you lose someone is the first time you laugh. The first time you laugh, you’re just jolted that you could actually laugh. You feel incredible waves of guilt.
The most common response — you hit it right on the head — is becoming manic. You will just run and occupy yourself to stay busy with every little task you can in order not to think.
You get hyper-efficient?
Yes, you overorganize and try to oversolve. These are all things we do to try and make sense of something that’s nonsensical. One of the ways is that you become manic. Another is the exact opposite: You can become incredibly withdrawn to the point of not eating; you’re not coming out; you might stay in bed for two weeks.
And another very common response, which many people don’t realize, is there’s actually a tendency to revert to a very primitive, almost an animal-like, state where you’ll find yourself going outside and being very aggressive and making sounds like howls; it’s a very primitive state. I can only come up with the explanation that because the loss is so deep it penetrates into very different parts of yourself.
On 9/11 there were a lot of people killed at the Pentagon and in the Pennsylvania crash as well, and those events have not gotten anywhere near the coverage of the WTC attack. It would seem that the loved ones of the people lost at those sites must be dealing with a very different set of circumstances, in that there’s so much attention given to the WTC victims and yet their relatives are just as dead also due to a horrific event.
I’ve talked to people from the Pennsylvania crash: relatives and also other people who lost someone at the WTC; widowers who see Lisa Beamer at the Olympics, with the president — and many feel as if she’s a spokesperson, and many others feel as if she’s taking away their room to grieve, too, that it should be all or nothing, their grief is just as important.
We don’t know what really happened, and even with the tape and knowing that certain people were primarily involved [in trying to overpower the hijackers], I think it’s important to recognize that probably at the end, everyone, or many people, had a hand in it. I think we can get so focused on the lead characters that we can forget all the other people that were probably supporting them. But that’s only natural: How do you cover a story of 80 families instead of casting one person as the model to represent that tragedy?
Again, it’s our affinity for creating a narrative to help us explain such things to ourselves, and that’s very natural, but at some point we have to be respectful of the fact that we’ve hurt many people by following Lisa Beamer’s story in People magazine — the birth of her baby and everything was wonderful, but what about all the other families? A roundup might have been a better way to be respectful if that’s the media’s concern with the grieving process.
The intense media focus on an event such as the 9/11 attacks results in an extraordinary abundance of tragic images — in magazines, on television, on the Web. In the case of TV and online news coverage, the 9/11 images, some extremely graphic, were seen over and over again. How does repeatedly viewing these images of carnage and death affect our ability to cope with such a tragedy?
I believe it actually assists us. The more information we have, the better we’re going to be able to process it. I think that’s why you see so many people glued to these events.
I think the reason people watch it is that they want to have an opinion, they want to understand it, and to do that they need information. Especially something like 9/11 — the more you understood what happened, the people involved, you saw the faces, the more it gave you the pieces to decide, OK this is what happened and this is how it affects me and this is how I need to feel.
One of the most appropriate media responses to come out of the 9/11 tragedy continues to be the New York Times’ superb series of profiles, “Portraits of Grief.”
Yes, I think that’s an incredible way, a very intelligent and respectful approach to how to cover this story, as well as anyone that’s doing roundup pieces. This didn’t affect one family or three families — let’s look at what really happened here and all the different situations and all the different backgrounds [of the victims and their families].
One of the things that amazed me in the initial reporting was how many of the employees were covered who were from the big firms, the brokerages and so forth. And I wondered, what about the janitorial staff? the dishwashers? Where were they? Why weren’t they showing up in the news?
Band insider Dennis McNally talks about his new 600-page biography of the Grateful Dead, and answers questions about their long, strange trip.
Even the many who have fond recollections (or any recollections at all) of the ’60s have heard just about as much as they can bear about the 20th-century decade that can’t get over itself.
And yet, there is always more — flashbacks, confessions, photos — for those whose appetite for the past might never be satisfied.
Most recently, the era is plumbed in “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead,” a 600-page memoir by the band’s publicist, Dennis McNally. In truth, it’s not just about the ’60s — the book hits 1970 about midway and continues on through half of the ’90s. And McNally does not throw avid fans of the band, or the ’60s, a mere bone. His history of the quintessential psychedelic band, and the strangely intoxicating waves it made, is an entertaining, picaresque, and exhaustive contribution to pop culture anthropology.
Of course McNally, a long-time Deadhead whose first book was “Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America,” might be expected to write the ultimate Dead tome. With a doctorate in American history under his belt, he signed on as the band’s official historian in 1980 and has been the Dead’s publicist since 1984. As a result, he’s had extraordinary access for decades — to band members, crew, staff and hangers-on.
But “A Long Strange Trip” also suffers for McNally’s proximity. He calls up remarkable detail for this biography, but the one thing he can’t provide is distance. “Inside” is the operative word in this history: Some of the story is rendered in extreme close-up, offering tidbits that only diehard Deadheads will be able to fully appreciate. Yet a gloves-off critique of the Dead’s vast, and vastly uneven, creative output will have to wait for another day.
That’s not to say that this fat volume offers little more than a compendium of set lists and solipsistic cooing about the boys in the band. The wealth of anecdotes powering “A Long Strange Trip” is reason enough to take it for a spin. One of the most surreal images comes from McNally’s tale of the day Sens. Patrick Leahy and Barbara Boxer invited the Dead to lunch at the Senate Dining Room: “As the group entered and sat at a table near the door,” he writes, “everyone noted the presence of the 1948 segregationist Dixiecrat candidate for president, South Carolina’s very senior Strom Thurmond. He, of course, noted Senator Leahy’s party, and as he passed the table on his way out, turned to Garcia with the remark, ‘I undastand you’re the leadah of this heah organization.’ Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart shaking hands with Strom Thurmond was something the wildest acid trip could never have included.”
While McNally doesn’t hide his fondness for the band, this is no hagiography — he’s not timid about exposing the Dead’s excesses and calling them on their shortcomings. After all, he says, they’re “human beings, not saints.” And there are several accounts that most anyone would find horrific — Garcia’s sad descent into heroin addiction, for example. As onetime Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux put it, “As a whole, in general, the Grateful Dead is not benign.” To which McNally adds, “Certainly not to its band members. It is a full-range experience, as Garcia was wont to say, with the good and the bad in perhaps equal measure. It is a world of theater and illusion, and there’s plenty of evil around.”
Following Garcia’s death at age 53 in 1995, the remaining founders of the band agreed that the Grateful Dead would never again perform under that name. Good to their word, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman would not appear together in a major concert for seven years, reuniting only this month, renamed the Other Ones, to play for an audience of 35,000 at the Alpine Music Theater in Wisconsin.
I caught up with McNally just a few days after he’d attended that concert. He was in London, promoting “A Long Strange Trip.” When I phoned, he was watching a cricket match on TV.
To write “A Long Strange Trip,” you essentially committed to doing a biography of most of your close friends. That seems like setting yourself up for incredible headaches. Why would you do such a thing?
When I committed to writing the book they weren’t friends. I only got involved with them on a personal level when I began writing. I was already a Deadhead, became one in 1972, but I only met the band members after Jerry invited me to do the book in 1980. I began to meet them in the process of writing and then afterwards became an employee.
The thing about the Grateful Dead is, it’s not the people on the stage. The Grateful Dead is this mysterious entity that is composed of everyone in the room, and instruments and magic and music and all that good stuff. The fact is that the members of the Grateful Dead and the crew and all the people that are personally involved in terms of what I wrote, they have this understanding that the Grateful Dead is something separate, and the only way to honor it is to tell the truth.
I think there’s a consensus that this is not a hagiography, that it’s an honest report. And the people involved are human beings, not saints. The only way to honor what the Grateful Dead is, is to tell the truth. I have yet to get a single critical remark about being too honest from anyone. That’s a little unbelievable, but it’s true.
They were such a strangely successful cultural anomaly, yet they’re very much a part of what’s become mainstream popular culture. The Dead went from being crazy freaks way out on the fringe to being a corporation with one of the country’s most recognizable logos. How has their image of themselves and their place in the culture changed over the decades?
I think they’ve got a wonderful sense of humor about it. The irony is that because they did it their way, and because their way involved ignoring every rule in the book, and because the end result was this remarkable and completely unforeseen success, it’s just the best joke ever. I end one chapter by saying something like, for once the Grateful Dead had the last laugh. And it’s true.
They did things often for completely odd reasons. As an example, taping. They permitted taping for no other reason than that they didn’t want to be cops. They were lousy cops, they were antiauthoritarian to the core, and it was too much work, too much bad vibes, too much everything. And, frankly, they were realistic and said, It’s impossible to stop taping unless you strip-search every member of the audience, which ruins the atmosphere, of course.
But the serendipitous result was that they doubled their audience — from the early ’80s when they started to allow taping to until just before, say, “Touch of Grey,” the audience increased tremendously. Why? Well, one of the reasons was they allowed taping, the audience responded to that by being ever more tightly bound to them because they were trusted. The teeniest percentage violated that trust — the band’s only request was that you don’t charge money for these things. And almost no one did. And the end result was a greater intimacy, a greater trust.
One of the things that was very surprising was to learn that they were together a long time before they started making big money.
Absolutely, which is one of the best things, because that meant there was nothing to squabble about, nothing to divide them and they were all in the boat together. It was not until the mid-1980s that they started getting to the point where every show sold out. After “Touch of Grey” and “In the Dark” made lots of money, from then on they were quite prosperous, although not at a Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney level. They stayed close to their roots right through the mid-’80s.
Did the prosperity have a negative effect on them?
I don’t think it helped any. Money divides. Or, rather than divides, it isolates. As they grew more prosperous, I don’t think it had a particularly wonderful effect in the ’80s and ’90s. But it’s also a function of having families and just having less time for each other. And they were definitely not as receptive to each other as people by the end. But how long do you maintain intimacy on an emotional and social level? They managed to do it for more than 20 years — that alone is quite an achievement.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book were your accounts of how the Dead ran their business — the meetings, the decision-making, such it was, the negotiations with record companies and concert promoters. It was often extraordinarily chaotic, but in the long run, it worked — in spite of itself. I could see some business major doing a thesis on nontraditional business structures and using the Dead as the case study.
There have been a number of case studies — by the Harvard Business School and others not so well known. And they all end up with the same conclusion: the Dead have very old-fashioned business values, which are: no hype; offer a product based on paying maximum attention to the important thing — the sound system — and a legitimate and honest concern for the audience. You don’t do anything that isn’t necessary. You do what’s important and you do it well.
I know that sounds terribly old-fashioned, like Smith Barney: “We do it the old fashioned way, we earn it.” Well, the Dead earned it — they worked, they cared, they offered integrity. I know that sounds almost naive in this day and age, especially in the last month in America. Nobody ever cooked the books in the Grateful Dead, though of course we aren’t a public stock.
The point is that they did very old-fashioned things in a very old-fashioned way, and it worked. It was a point of pride to sell tickets at a lower rate than everybody else was doing. I’m sorry, but I think — and other people in the organization agree; I’m not alone — the notion of selling the front row for $250 is disturbing and it doesn’t feel right. The day that the Grateful Dead had to charge $30 a ticket, mostly because we had an extremely expensive sound system, but also — this was on a summer tour — we were paying the so-called opening act a great deal of money, people were upset. It’s for real, because that’s part of caring for your audience — you offer value for the money.
Over the years, did you often find yourself getting just entirely fed up with all the confusion, the actual process of getting things done? Your accounts of some of the Dead’s business meetings make them sound just chaotic as all hell.
Of course, about once a week. The whole point is, if you want a crisp organization, try a leader-dominated, vertically integrated setup, but that’s not the way the Dead worked. Every band member undoubtedly felt the same way at one time or another, except maybe Jerry, ’cause Jerry set that tone. He did not want it to be organized. He wanted to trust that anarchy — no given leader, whoever felt strongest would lead at a given moment — he wanted to trust that that could work, and it did work. He said once in an interview, “It’s not like G.E., but it works and we have a lot more fun.”
You refer to the band members as emotional cowards. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Well, you know, again, Jerry set a certain tone. He did not want to be responsible for running things. And when you run things in a business organization, which, among other things, the Grateful Dead was, that generally means that you hire and you fire. And while hiring is fun — that’s welcoming in — firing is very painful.
There were times — looked at objectively and from the outside — perhaps there were people who should have been removed long before they were. There were a couple of moments when the Grateful Dead finally made a decision that so-and-so just wasn’t working anymore. And, you know, they said, “OK,” and they turned to the manager and said, “You do it.” That’s what I’m talking about. They deflected. They didn’t want to cope with that. But the band members read every word of this book and they saw that account and I didn’t hear any argument from them.
They took a lot of drugs, especially LSD. You don’t hide that fact in the book.
You know, we live in an era in which all drugs are equally evil, and that’s not so. At the very least let’s make intelligent distinctions. If you can find me somebody who’s died from marijuana, if you find someone who’s become addicted to LSD, show me that person. It’s not appropriate to describe it in those terms. I’ve seen as much drug abuse and drug damage as anybody needs to. I don’t advocate them, but I do wish that we’d stop the bullshit of seeing them all as being equally evil, and start talking about them intelligently.
To what degree do you think taking acid spurred the Dead’s creativity and to what degree was it a drain on their energies, both intellectual and emotional?
As far as LSD goes, I don’t know about any drain during their period of intense LSD use, which was primarily very early on in their career — we’re talking about a few years in the ’60s; it’s not like Jerry Garcia, or anybody, was taking LSD in the ’90s. It’s a physically depleting thing. It’s definitely an intensification of your reality and as such it’s definitely got a physical consequence to it. As a result, people don’t take acid night after night; it won’t work night after night that way.
What it did for them most remarkably and most importantly — in the Acid Test period, which, by the way, was two months — was redirect their notion of what they were up to, and it made them understand that the audience was not separate from them, but was part of their experience, that they were partners. And that, in fact, the Grateful Dead was not six guys on stage, but everybody in the room and the instruments and the sound system.
You think it strengthened their emphasis on inclusiveness?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, if I can generalize, and it’s dangerous about LSD because everybody experiences it differently, but one of the common conclusions people come to is a sense of the oneness of all life. That’s a fairly common reaction … It worked in a performance setting because it destroyed the notion that “We’re the band, we entertain, we stand up here, and you are cows with wallets and you absorb what we give you as musicians.”
And what they decided was that there was loop of energy — it starts from the string and goes through the sound system and out into the audience and comes back — which is why they were notoriously a wonderful band live, frequently magical live, but in the studio without that feedback they were so-so. To quote Mickey Hart, “We’re not in the entertainment business, we’re in the transportation business: we move minds.” It’s a good line and it’s accurate.
You delve into the psychology and emotional life of Jerry Garcia considerably more than you do any of the other band members. Would you have done that if he were still alive?
That’s a good question. Possibly not. The point is that Jerry Garcia was the largest personality on that stage. If you had somebody from Mars come down and walk into the room where all the Grateful Dead were sitting, they would see that Garcia was a slightly larger-than-life personality and he was charismatic. He refused to lead, but by some peculiar gravitational example.
But in the end, yes, you’re probably right. Because he died, that did end the Grateful Dead, the Grateful Dead as a touring band. And that obviously had a consequence to my writing.
It seems that the Dead’s greatest shortcoming may have been that they — an exceptionally close-knit group of people — utterly failed to save the central personality in their group, Garcia, whom you’ve described as the Dead’s “emotional center.” How could that happen? How did he lose his way so irreversibly?
Well, I can only refer you to the book and say, Look at the personality that develops in the 1950s.
He was a man who harbored a lot of pain that he never dealt with, it seems.
Right, he didn’t deal with it. And unfortunately he ended up with self-esteem issues; he did not choose to take care of himself. Saying, “Well, the band should have saved its leading personality”: Well, they tried, they did try. He had to save himself. And, as I say in the book, along with his incredible intelligence came an incredible ability to refuse to listen to anybody else if he didn’t want to. And you have to want to be accessible to that sort of advice and to be able to change.
In the end, remember, he made the decision to be clean, to step toward the light if I may be a little poetic, and then his body said, “Well, thank you, good decision, we’re leaving now.” And that’s what happened, he died of a heart attack.
The afternoon of his death, I looked at the manager and we said, “You know, he made that commitment [to get clean and sober], so it doesn’t feel as awful as it could.” Because, you know, we sweated and worried and freaked about him for years, extremely painful. Again, drugs were like a side effect. It was simply neglecting his body.
He had a raft of physical problems.
Right, which he completely refused to deal with, refused to see a doctor, to do all that bourgeois stuff that most of us want to do because most of us want to live to a healthier age. If it hadn’t required a lot of effort, he probably would have, too, but he wasn’t ready to make that choice. And that comes out of deeply rooted personal issues that no one in the Grateful Dead could reach no matter how hard they tried.
You just saw the Other Ones, a band that includes the remaining original members of the Dead. Do you get the sense the musicians are still able to revisit that place of communal fun or have the rigors of the last few decades made that kind of abandon a thing of the past?
On the Sunday night they played two shows. They played a really brilliant second show. They’d rehearsed for three weeks, then they’d been out with other bands. And, really, the first night was almost a rehearsal in some ways, though brilliantly played.
I sensed a whole other level by the second night. And I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like on this tour … When they finished on Sunday night they lined up, put their arms around each other, took a bow. The audience wouldn’t let them go. The band went into a little circular huddle and they began pogoing — 50- and 60-year-old men, along with a couple of younger accomplices, were pogoing. It was pure joy. But no, I think it took seven years, an interestingly mystical number, to recover from the pain that they felt from watching Garcia slip away from them, no matter how hard they tried. But the fun’s still there, very much.
Chapter 49 of “A Long Strange Trip” is a list of various band members and others answering the question, “What is the Grateful Dead?” I’d like to put that question to you, “What was the Grateful Dead?”
The Grateful Dead was a mythical beast that made a whole lot of people happy, including its musicians, but also millions of people in the audience. And that gave a lot of people the belief — and not just the people who lived in tie-dye in the parking lot, but also a whole lot of people ranging from Al Gore and Sen. Pat Leahy to Owen Chamberlain, the Nobel laureate, who used to sit between the two drummers because he said it gave him interesting ideas — that, to [paraphrase] Dylan, you can live outside the law, be honest and get away with it. Or, to quote Phil Lesh, when the Dead were welcomed into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, “Sometimes you don’t merely have to endure, you can prevail.”
Page 1 of 16 in Douglas Cruickshank