Sunday, June 24, 2007

T-shirt Nation

Reading an article on the BBC website recently, I was struck by a British journalist's observation of the American T-shirt obsession. I got to thinking, so prepare for a rant, which I hope will be amusing if not edifying.

There is something exquisitely distinctive, and perhaps emblematic, in this humble pillar of our national culture, this unofficial uniform. The T-shirt is, first and foremost, egalitarian. Graciously accomodating all waistlines and pocketbooks, it denies no aspirants to its cottony embrace. It is no less significant that its accessible price tag owes great thanks to subsidized American cotton growers and sweatshop workers in Malaysia; and perhaps one in a hundred will care enough about that contradiction to leave the T-shirt on the rack.

But aside from their price or their provenance, I am fascinated by what the T-shirt is expected and allowed to do. We give it such unmitigated sway in defining our self-image and affiliations, our deepest hurts and gripes, our stupidity and immortality.

Take the following cases in point:

The 4th-grade girl, with the decolletage of a pair of seedless grapes, whose pink, torso-hugging T-shirt pronounces her "Juicy;" the man in the Giant Supermarket that, while standing in front of his clothesrack this morning, made the conscious decision to don the brown T-shirt that proclaims in bold capitals "I'M PROBABLY LYING;" the group of high school kids on a summer missions trip - I was one of those kids - that clump together like raisins, rendered hopelessly cultish and inaccessible by the blistering Bible verses emblazoned on their chests, to say nothing of their blinding royal purple color; the politico who doesn't bother to articulate an argument, but whose T-shirt vehemently shouts "Impeach Bush" as the answer to all questions; the grieving family at the 5th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, whose matching T-shirts declare their love and remembrance that past ages might have set down in a ballad.

Perhaps all these cases (with the exception of the "probably lying" man, who is indefensible, and the "Juicy" pre-pubescent, whose parents have clearly not been parenting) stem from the American notion that our essential values can, and should, be boiled down to a memorable slogan that we can plaster on our car bumpers or on our physical persons. Who, after all, can a remember a single line of the Declaration of Independence except that "inalienable" part about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." If you can't say what's important to you in a few words, you might not get to say it at all, and a snappy slogan (preferably alliterative) is less refutable than a reasoned argument.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

One of Those Days

6:30 pm - Realized that my last paycheck was never credited to my bank account. Am overdrawn. Also, am out of catfood, have not done laundry in five weeks (what have I been wearing?!), have lost metro pass, and the sum total of my pantry is lemon juice, molasses, seaweed, and dried mung beans.

8:30 pm - Lost last pair of contact lenses. Realized I no longer have a valid prescription. Also realized that I have no idea where my glasses are (I'm as blind as a bat, without the ultrasonic radar feature.) Unable to find them because I can't see past my own elbows.

7:30 am - Slept through my alarm by one hour.

8:30 am - Got on the wrong bus, the one that takes me to Pentagon instead of Pentagon City.

8:40 am - Get on train going in the wrong direction. Get off at Arlington Cemetery (nothing as depressing as being surrounded by 50,000 people who died unnatural deaths).

8:55 am - Get on train going in the right direction. Get off at next stop, and have already paid my exit fare by the time I realize that this is Pentagon City, and I want Crystal City.

9:20 am - Have now arrived 50 minutes late for work.

12:45 pm - Cell phone rings really loudly and embarassingly. My ring tone is "Allison Road," so I can't pretend it's not me. After I dig through my purse for fifteen minutes to find it, it's an automated message from an auto shop inviting me to schedule an appointment. I don't have a car.

12:56 pm - I'm going to lunch. If a concert piano doesn't fall on my head from several stories up while I'm gone, I'll be surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

You Know You're in DC When . . .

There is something biologically and inexplicably potent in the body of an infant. Which of the current presidential hopefuls would not love that abilityto hold a roomful of adults in reverent, attentive silence, to catch the glimmer of a smile, the breath of a cry? Watching a baby is like watching the ocean. One can do it forever, and it no longer matter what else happens in the world, so long as that bird-sized ribcage goes on falling and rising, like the ocean breakers of a sea inlet.

Stepping on the red-eye flight on Tuesday night, I had an unexpected sense of pushing against a magnetic field, of confused physical rending. And it was for Isaac, who for a few hours I held and laughed at and admired.

I was happy to jump straight back into work, and into this city which can be so artlessly beguiling.

IJM moved into its new office space a few weeks ago. Our building has 16 floors, but the 13th, instead of being labeled as such, is supersitiuosly called "M" for mezzanine. It might also stand for McCain (or "Mavw=erick"), whose campaign is headquarted there, and whose staffers all ride up and down the elevator with an aura of flustered importance, dressed as if they were going to watch a polo match.

To get home from the office, I walk down Army Navy Drive. I pass the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Air Force Memorial in my mile-long stroll, sites that move me with a blend of dread, pride, confusion, and intertia. I have never been able to quite sort out the honor of that tradition and the contested injustices of current foreign policy, so I leave it alone.

On Friday night, passing the Air Force Memorial on the far side of the street, I heard the living strains of violin music from up the hill. I crossed to the memorial grounds, where the three talons of blistering bright metal, lit from underneath, arch into the sky. The missing man formation. It has always reminded me of claws, or of the arch of the human spine when the head is thrown back in a cry of joy and triumph. An exultant addition to the landscape. When newcomers arrive in the city, I don't tell them I live on Columbia Pike. I tell them I live next to the Claw, about which I feel a sort of neighborhood pride.

As I crossed onto the grounds, where signs bade me not to walk on the closely manicured strips of grass, I saw twenty violinits in Air Force uniform, instruments in hand, playing out song after song to a delighted crowd. I sat on a block of marble to hear them move from tango to strathspey to jig. The Capitol dome and the Washington monument lay in the distance. The first fireflies of summer winked like lazy green eyes against the deepening sky. A traffic policeman, in a bright orange reflector vest, abandoned the crosswalk where he was on duty to move closer to the music. First he tapped his foot, then he began to move his whole body, wielding his orange baton to play an imaginary fiddle. Then, as if regaining control of his limbs, he forced his arms to fold and contented himself with the most enthusiastic foot-tapping. When the music ended, the band took a profound obeisance, and I wandered the last block homeward in the darkness, now complete.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Journey's End

On the night Isaac David was born, my grandmother and Carol picked me up at the San Francisco airport. After three days of pre-term labor, Emilee was finally ready to go to the Alta Bates birthing center. Waiting for the signal, we lounged, eating cherries in the California gloaming. She left, streaming tears, with her husband and our mother, while the rest of us kept waiting to join them later.

We were seven left behind: Chad, my oldest cousin, in ripped cutoffs massacred by seven different colors of paint, with just a few silver hairs laced into his surfer mane, Breeanne, Madeline, Madeline's friend Julie, my grandmother Phyllis, and her long-time travelling companion and general sidekick, Carol. Carol and Nanny went to go sleep at the condo. Chad, Bree, Madeline, and Julie went to go avail themselves of the nearest Coldstone Creamery, as the culimination of three days of anxious waiting and eating. I fell asleep on the couch, fully clothed, with a copy of Ivanhoe.

The call came just after midnight, or 3 am for me. We struggled to figure out who would drive. No one seemed to have and gas in their car. Madeline did, but she couldn't find her keys. In the end, flustered and fearing to miss a moment, Julie whipped us around the 580 curves, through the Caldecott Tunnel, into the seedy Berkeley blackness. We tried to park at Whole Foods, but we were afraid to be towed, so we parked in the garage across the street from the hospital. As soon as we drove past the attendant, Julie lost the parking stub to the inside of her air conditioning system, so Madeline hopped out for some pained negotiations to get us another ticket.

All of the frenzy, of course, ended with more waiting in the stale hospital waiting room. But at 12:41, we heard, my sister delivered Isaac David Morehead, all 8 adorable, cone-headed lbs, 6 oz of him, standing at the foot of the bed with the help of a midwife. When the bedlam had been cleaned up, we were allowed to go in and visit them one at a time.

The sacred intimacy of that room was like walking into the Westminster Church in Minneapolis, thick with the aura of love-hallowed pain swallowed up in this quiet joy. At Emily's side, Justin looked three years younger than when I last saw him, boyish and awed. He was there for the whole thing. And Isaac, sweet Isaac, fitted to perfectly to his mother's arms, with his fuzzy forehead peaking out from his swaddling, begging to be kissed.

We left them to the rest after the travail of delivery, back out of the garage where the parking attendant had fall sound asleep and we had to bang on the partition to wake him up. Madeline and Julie, quite thoroughly hippies, listened to Peter, Paul, and Mary on the stereo, crooning about where all the flowers have gone, young girls have picked them every one. A young ivory moon, slung low in the early morning sky, marked the road homeward, as we went up and down that hills that still mark my journeys' end.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Going Melanistic

When I lived on 38th Street, in the Burleith neighborhood of Georgetown, my quiet street butted up against an overgrown park. A squirrel scolded me on my way to my 8:45 class - the same one -- and I always knew which one it was. That's because this squirrel wasn't a mottled grey or a brassy red, it was jet black, with a white little tuft at the end of its question-mark tail.

I had never seen a black squirrel before I become a DC transplant. I spotted my first one as it scampered across Copley Lawn on a bright September afternoon. I thought I was losing my mind, but there it was, clear as day and dark as midnight, surveying the lawn with its marble eyes for scraps of dropped food. After that first one, I started to see black squirrels everywhere. I was fascinated. I started asking other students where they came from.

Theories abounded. Someone said that they were just a stage in the annual cycle of the regular grey squirrel, but they seemed to black all year round. Jandro, a self-assured New Jersey boy, declared that they were the result of a genetic experiment at Princeton, and that the released animals had been steadily multiplying and spreading southward. Someone else said they were Russian squirrels that carried transponders and miniature recording devices to send intelligence from DC to the Kremlin. The squirrels did somehow carry an aura of conspiracy. To discover a mammal that no one had ever had ever told me existed! Besides, the black squirrels were inarguably more aggressive than their shabbier grey cousins. I felt I was watching the forward troops of an invading rodent army of roguish black squirrel knights.

I've finally done my homework, and most sources agree that the black squirrels are natives of Ontario. Their ancestors were humble grey squirrels, and their unusual coloring is referred to be scientists as a "melanistic divergence." In 1902, Ontario decided to give them as a gift to the National Zoo here in DC. Some escaped, and they've been fulfilling the first commandment (be fruitful and multiply) with joyful abandon ever since. Perhap they are Canadian spies, not Russian.