Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sit Down and Cry: Why Our Favorite Joke is Demeaning

Just a few fleeting moments
left to see this place...
It seems Jake and I have both stumbled into thinking about visitors and how we conceptualize them this week. But whereas Jake wants to rethink what we call folks who come to historic places, I've been stewing over a 'favorite' joke I've heard told by countless interpreter friends at dozens of sites:

A family of visitors walks up to the information desk and smiles at the interpreter. "We have 15 minutes," the father says, "What should we do?"

The interpreter replies with a curt smile: "Sit down and cry."

It sounds like such a flippant remark, it must be imaginary. But it's not. I've seen this exact exchange take place a few times already in my career as an interpreter. I've stood behind an information desk while another interpreter spoke those exact words to a visitor. Unfortunately, once things like that are said they can't be unsaid.

What does it mean, though? A visitor has 15 minutes and wants to find out why this place is important. And you have told them, in essence, that they could never find meaning within your site in such a short time. You have said in a quick moment that there is the 'right' way to see a historic landscape and that that just can't possibly happen in 15 minutes. So, the interpreter says, just give up. Cry because you have no time to truly see this place.

But why can't someone have a meaningful visit to a Civil War landscape in just 15 minutes? What could you say to that visitor to offer them a quick opportunity to understand and feel this place?

Perhaps you could circle Burnside's Bridge on a park map, give them simple directions and tell that man to stand with his family, squint at the bridge and try to imagine hundreds of men charging across and being cut down by rebel bullets.

Or you could show them the quick way to drive into the Lower Town. You could tell them to park in front of the small brick armory fire engine house and imagine what might cause a man to fight and die for another man's freedom. And you could ask them to imagine what they might kill for.

Or you could tell them to head into the museum exhibit and stare at the uniforms and guns hanging there in the cases. Tell them to imagine the sweaty arms that went in those sleeves, the greasy and nervous hands that gripped those rifle barrels. Tell them to look into the dioramas of Jackson's flank attack that have been here since the '60s and try to see the little clay figures moving, see the history come to life.

Or you could tell them to just wander the battlefield near the Angle in the stone wall where the Confederates poured into the Union lines and find a monument, any monument that catches their eye. You could tell them to read it. Tell them to touch it. Tell them they might want to take a family picture in front of it. Then maybe they could find it again when they come back.

There is no 'right' way to visit a special place. There is not a right itinerary or a wrong amount of time to budget for finding meaning in a place. There is only the amount of time a visitor has chosen to spend. It is never an interpreter's job to denigrate them or chastise them with snide comments like, "sit down and cry." It is our job to help them find meaning in these places, no matter how long they have chosen to be our guests.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


John here... We're breaking the pattern today. I'll be posting thoughts today, Jake on Thursday this week.

It has been one year since the birth of this blog. Not one year since our first post. If you run back in our roll, the first post was February 1st 2011. Still, this blog was born on this day one year ago, or at least the ethic which leads me to post week in, week out was. I didn't even realize that fact until a few weeks ago.

I was having a conversation with my Favorite Female Wordslinger about my work on the book on Gettysburg College's Civil War history. I've been plugging away at it for just under a year. I've been a little hurt that each time I finish a chapter and offer it to her to read and give me feedback, she rejects it. "Just give me the full manuscript when it's done." I didn't quite understand. So I broached the subject.

"Well, I thought it was just a phase: one of those things you go through, like all the other projects you started and then lost interest in. I didn't think you were serious about it," she candidly replied. She's right. I have projects which I begin research on, only to find a more salacious thread to follow.

It made me stop and think to myself: why have I been this serious about this book project for so long? Why have I been doggedly fixated on posting at least once every week on this blog?

Larsen in Yosemite.
A year ago today, my friend, mentor and boss Dave Larsen died. He was fifty. His heart gave out. Two in the morning, he stood up from his bed and collapsed on the floor. They tried to save him. It didn't work.

I got the text message at about 8:15 that morning from Melinda Day, the wonderful, talented Harpers Ferry historian and interpreter who introduced me to Larsen: "Urgent please call the house phone."

Mel usually doesn't have urgent news, at least not at 8am on Martin Luther King Day. I called as soon as I saw the text on my phone sitting on the bathroom sink overnight. Standing looking into the mirror, I heard Mel's voice. "I have very sad news to tell you. Dave Larsen died last night."

Mel sounded so strong, so resolute. This woman who had worked with Larsen in the National Park Service for decades, who grew up beside him as together with their friends they hashed out what interpretation was and what it could be, was calm. I didn't know how she did it, I still don't. There was an unwavering strength in her tone that morning.

I shattered.

In the days and weeks after the funeral, I realized that Dave had crafted an amazing legacy. His book Meaningful Interpretation is on the shelf of every interpreter worth their salt in America. When he died, the hearts of a good deal of the interpretive world collapsed.

Dave Larsen didn't die a year ago. In some sense, he lives on through the words he wrote, through the ideas he forged, through the way he changed the craft. He changed how we think about what we do.

Dave and I had conversations, long rambling free-form discussions on how interpretation works, when it doesn't work and how it could work someday. I guess to some extent that's what my posts over the last year have been. My sparring partner is gone. So now I try to mull over the ideas myself. I try to roll them around in my brain and see if anything of value shakes out. I don't know if it has or not. I hope so.

Doggedly posting each week, doggedly working on my book? Part of it is trying to have the same sort of impact on the world that Dave did. But part of it is about keeping him alive, too.

On my phone, I saved the last text message I ever got from Larsen. It's simple: "Back in a few."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I Like Ike's Memorial: Who Owns a Legacy?

In 1963, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke in the cemetery at Gettysburg to help celebrate the centennial of Lincoln's Address. His own speech was somewhat lackluster, largely skirting the issue of the war's legacy in the racially charged aftermath of freedom summer.

Was this the Ike that Ike saw
in the mirror each morning?
More importantly, do we care?
When Eisenhower was introduced, he was billed not as "President Eisenhower" or as "Gettysburg citizen Eisenhower," but as he preferred to be introduced: "General Eisenhower." This quirk of naming seems quite insignificant, but offers a deep look into how Eisenhower viewed himself. Dwight Eisenhower saw his own greatest achievement as his career leading the allied forces to victory against Adolph Hitler's impenetrable Fortress Europe.

But who really cares what Ike thought?

Seriously. Who decides what gets remembered of a person's legacy? Does that person have a dictatorship over what their life meant? Does their family? With a public person like Dwight Eisenhower, who gets to decide what his life meant?

The Eisenhower family has lodged a formal objection with the commission planning a monument to honor Eisenhower and his meaning in America. Their chief beef is, according to Ike's Granddaughter Anne, that architect Frank Gehry, "has missed the message here." Honor to Eisenhower, "is not being done in this current design. Or … it is being done in such a small scale in relation to the memorial that it is dwarfed."

Gehry explains his memorial to David and Anne
Eisenhower, two of the President's grandchildren.
The memorial will emphasize Eisenhower's humble roots in Abilene, Kansas, with a statue of the future President as a boy, marveling at his deeds yet to come. The concept is intriguing, asking the viewer to contemplate that Ike was not always the towering image of president or general, but rode a bike and camped with his friends like many young boys do still today. The memorial will also include, according to the AP, "additional sculpture elements [which] depict Eisenhower as general and president."

But a lack of focus on what his family sees as the essence of his life is not the sole complaint. Susan Eisenhower, another of the President's grandchildren, takes umbrage with contemporary architect Gehry's entire design. According to the AP's account, Susan admitted that her grandfather was, "bewildered by modern art."

Who is a memorial made for? Is it built to be aesthetically pleasing to its subject, to reflect their view of their own legacy? Would Lincoln feel at home in the colossal marble palace which bears his likeness? How would Washington react to the one minute interpretive moment in the elevator of his giant pinnacle? Would FDR appreciate the subtle story told through water that is his memorial along the tidal basin?

Memorials are not built for the dead. The dead cannot walk around them to enjoy them and learn from them. But likewise they aren't created to resonate with the future. Memorials are distinctly products of the present, and should be designed to resonate with the people of the present. A memorial helps today's men and women understand, feel, appreciate and contemplate. But what the Eisenhower family appears to desire is not a monument reflecting that which might resonate with a modern audience, but instead that which would have resonated with the General himself and the people of his generation. Instead of Gehry's design, focused on the raw humanity of Eisenhower, the President's descendents seem to be looking for something akin to a majestic bronze statue astride a horse (or Sherman tank). But majesty doesn't necessarily resonate with a modern audience. Today, Americans crave humanity in our historical figures, seeing the dark and light, the right and wrong, the human and the godlike.

If Eisenhower wandered around the model of his memorial with Frank Gehry, he might be befuddled. The modern art might not resonate with his soul and his heart. But his soul and heart are long gone. Gehry is setting out to help a different generation, a modern generation, resonate with Eisenhower's different meanings.

All monuments are cultural products, produced at a moment in time to speak to the self-same moment in time. Once you master that idiosyncrasy of meaning, the hidden code inside every pillar of granite and bronze slowly unfolds itself. Monuments don't always lie per say, but they do only tell the stories that are needed at the moment they're erected.

See more images of Gehry's proposed monument design at the Eisenhower Memorial Commission's website.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

"...of shadow and substance, of things and ideas": Finding Inspiration in The Twilight Zone

"Tonight's story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique, and calls for a different kind of introduction. This, as you may recognize, is a map of the United States..."

The title sequence from seasons 4 & 5,
the one everybody recognizes...
Go on; Press Play.
Of all of the consummate storytellers of the 20th century, no other holds a candle to Rod Serling. In a half-hour, Serling and his corps of writers, directors and actors could weave a small tale into an epic. Serling could strike at the heart of the human soul. He could incisively cut to the core of social and political quandaries, injecting deep meaning through simple stories and fantastic everyday occurrences.

But Serling interpreted. His stories were not dictatorial. They were moments for the viewer to undertake introspection, to investigate the meanings of something and find themselves within the story. One of the oft repeated quotes from The Twilight Zone, "submitted for your approval," which Serling used at least three times in his opening narrations over the course of the series, leaves the viewer with the final say whether they will incorporate the lessons learned into their personal lexicon.

Suburbanites batter the door of "The Shelter."
No place does this demand on Serling's part that the audience try to find themselves within the tale sound more clearly than in the closing narration for Serling's episodes "The Shelter" (1963) and "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" (1960). Both episodes follow a similar theme. In "The Shelter," a CONELRAD warning of imminent nuclear war turns a group of neighbors into utter monsters as they desperately claw and batter at the door of one of their fellow's fallout shelter. Serling intones as the star field appears at the episode's end:

No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight's very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.

Likewise, in "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street," when the lights mysteriously are doused on a suburban street, paranoia reigns. Eventually, the residents of Maple Street turn on one another, leading to rioting and an accidental murder. As the episode ends, Serling sums up the scene for the audience:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own - for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.

In both cases, Rod Serling ingeniously implies the unasked question, "are you capable of such horrors?" He begs the audience to think about whether they can see themselves within the story.

In a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace on ABC television, Rod Serling claimed that he was entering the science-fiction arena because he was weary of the fight to tell real, meaningful stories in the face of the censor. "I'm just acting the role of a tired non-conformist," he told Wallace, "and I don't want to fight any more." Serling had resolved that he didn't, "want to have to compromise all the time, which in essence is what the television writer does if he wants to put on controversial things."

Instead, he would undertake The Twilight Zone, he explained to Wallace, "a half-hour show, which cannot probe like a [Playhouse] 90, which doesn't use scripts as vehicles of social criticism." Serling went on to claim that, "because they deal in the areas of fantasy and imagination and science fiction and all of those things, there's no opportunity to cop a plea or chop an axe or anything."

But what Serling was doing was not dropping his keen eye for social criticism. Instead, he was finding a way to talk about the pressing social issues of the day in a way that would resonate with the audience while still eeking by the censors. With aliens, ventriloquist dummies and robots as villains instead of racists, bigots and warmongers, Serling could start to approach the most important questions facing America in the early 1960s. He encouraged his audiences to find themselves and their society within his stories, and through that helped to push forward America's progress.

"I think it's criminal," Serling told Wallace in 1959, "that we're not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils as they exist, of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society." Serling just found another way to make his world better. He interpreted to the audience of the present, helping them find deep modern meaning in the fantastic and unbelievable.

And what's more fantastic and unbelievable than the world of the past? Can't we help everyone find themselves within that world too?

The Twilight Zone is a bottomless well of inspiration for the interpreter. Be assured, I'll be dipping the bucket in that well often over the next year or so. Rod Serling was perhaps the greatest interpreter of the 20th century, because he knew not simply how to weave a tapestry but to help each member of his audience find their thread within that grand loom-work. What can we learn from him? Well, after all...

...the threads of history are woven tightly and the skein of events cannot be undone, but on the other hand, there are small fragments of tapestry that can be altered. Tonight's thesis to be taken as you will, in the Twilight Zone.