Modern life

Lest We Forget

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Norwegian Resistance Museum, photo by Jim Eliason

We remember the past in different ways. World War II produced memoirs (Frank, Wiesel, Tregaskis), histories (Churchill, Shirer, Keegan), novels (Mailer, Jones, Heller), and innumerable films and television documentaries. So did the Vietnam War (Dispatches, A Rumor of War, A Bright Shining Lie, The Best and the Brightest, as well as The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon). Of course, there are also built memorials, which form the focus of wreath-layings and commemorative ceremonies, but our memory resides in many places. So I find the present custom of making so-called visitor centers an integral part of memorials odd, not to say redundant. A museum was to be a part of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., but was wisely removed. Less wisely, Congress has approved an underground “education center” next to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, although that project happily appears stalled. The other night, “Sixty Minutes” showed the 9/11 museum under construction at the World Trade Center site. You would have thought that the vast outdoor memorial would have been sufficient commemoration, but we are also to have a vast underground space devoted to the events of that unhappy day. I once visited the Resistance museum in Oslo, the subject of which was the Norwegian resistance to the Nazi occupation during World War II. It is estimated that 40,000 men and women took an active part in the resistance movement. The museum displays included Sten guns, short-wave radios, and miniature tableaux of wartime scenes, with tiny armored cars being sabotaged, and agents parachuting among cotton-batten clouds. It was informative, charming, and low-key in a laid back Scandinavian sort of way. If we must have a 9/11 museum, I wish it were that modest.

An Age of Anxiety

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Every evening I watch the evening news. News may not be exactly the right word. The reports are a combination of speculation about what is about to happen—a presidential speech, a new pope, the Oscars—and spokespeople touting one point of view or another on the issue of the day. Which today is sequestration, or rather “what Washington refers to a sequestration,” as the media insists on calling it, despite the fact that by now it is a term surely familiar to all. But perhaps the most common “news” story is the revelation of a new topic of concern: a previously ignored disease, an unnoticed social condition, an overlooked environmental effect, a looming problem. Journalistic careers are made by discovering the next new trouble: on-line privacy,  bullying, school soccer injuries, cheating on school tests, whatever. Since the evening news insists on being upbeat–at least on PBS– however dire the problem, it can always be fixed, we are told by the earnest experts. Just once, it would be refreshing to hear that a problem was insoluble. “Sorry, nothing can be done about it. It’s just human nature. We’ll have to learn to live with it.”

Nicknames

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I was in Montreal recently and read in the local paper about the first Canadiens hockey game of the season, which was opened by Jean Beliveau (now 82). In his playing days, Beliveau was known as “Le Gros Bill,” after a popular 1949 French Canadian movie of the same name. Many top hockey players had nicknames: Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Bernard “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Emile “Butch” Bouchard. The great Jacques Plante was “Jake the Snake.” Nicknames used to be popular. Actors had them, especially the old Western stars—George “Gabby” Hayes, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Alfred “Lash” LaRue, Edmund “Hoot” Gibson, Charles “Buck” Jones, and Woodward “Tex” Ritter, one of the many singing cowboys. Mainstream Hollywood stars used their full first names—Robert, John, James. Today shortened first names are common: Al Pacino, Johnnie Depp, Matt Damon, Tom Hanks. Are nicknames out of fashion? It would seem so. We haven’t had a president with a nickname since Ike, although we’ve had folksy Jimmy and Bill, and we almost had President Al. The last holdout for using nicknames is the Mafia: Andrew “Mush” Russo, Guiseppe “Pooch” Destefano, Joseph “Junior Lollipops” Carna. Some traditions never die.

Schooldays

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An article in today’s New York Times on classroom chairs reminded me of my schooldays. As far as I remember, we had wooden desks with a built in bench seats, attached to the floor. The desk-top, usually carved with a chronicle of interesting graffiti, was sometimes hinged with a storage space beneath that we never used. We didn’t used the hole in the top, which was made to hold an ink-well, either. The desks were sturdy and not particularly comfortable—they weren’t intended to be. The Times piece is full of fluff about how different classroom chairs might improve learning, although the author allows that New York City’s Model 114 stacking chair has its defenders. “But is some quarters, the chair and others like it are seen as stubborn holdovers from before the age of ergonomics, when American schools’ main job was to turn out upright citizens, and rote learning was the student’s lot.” Since most people agree that American education has declined precipitously since the Age of Rote Learning, I wonder if a “stubborn holdover” is really so bad.

Boiling Water

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Every morning I boil water for making tea or coffee (I alternate). What starts my day is the most perfect kettle I have ever used. It is the work of Sori Yanagi (1915-2011), a Japanese product designer probably best remembered for his molded plywood Butterfly Stool. Yanagi studied architecture, but the kettle is decidedly not architectural—no purist Platonic forms, no postmodern irony, no gimmicky whistles. It is just a kettle: handle, spout, lid. Yet this perfectly balanced and shaped everyday object provides a feeling of well-being every time I use it—or even glance at it. In some ways, the deceptively simple kettle, half a million of which are sold annually in Japan, is a distillation of Yanagi’s design philosophy: he was 79 when he designed it.