Friday, September 09, 2011

How Do You Define "Open Forum?"

As is my custom, I write pieces on other blogs and then use my own blog to give a "behind-the-scenes" look at what else was going on while I was writing the piece or at the event. Is that wrong? I don't think so. Everything doesn't fit everywhere. There is a time, a place and a blog for everything...and this was precisely the loud debate that was raging while I was trying to take in
Thought-Provoking Art at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

Security staff gathered in the hallway outside the main exhibit room at the museum argued over what kind of comments should be made to supervisors and whether or not open forums were the right place for these comments. The very notion that an argument about who can and should say what and when they should say it would be going on as I viewed the art of a very expressive artist was just too tantalizing to ignore. However, as it wore on, I grew tired of it. Their loud discussion interfered with my enjoyment of the art. I'm all about free speech, freedom of expression and whatnot, but sometimes employees of a place should choose to make their expression quieter or table it for another time. (Though I know this is hard to do when one is all fired up.)

Upon entering, I heard "You're asking me to censor myself. I am not going to be responsible for someone carrying a story on."

"What I'm saying is there is a time and place for everything."

It seemed that there were several issues: the idea that people can overhear things and how responsible you are for what they my mishear and how to make comments to a supervisor.

The first speaker threw down the gauntlet and asked, "How do you define open forum?"

One man was up against several colleagues and he was not backing down. "All fights are to the death. That's my attitude."

"Every fight is not a battle. You have to pick and choose you battles," one of his opponents replied.

"The world needed MLK and Booker T. They both got things done...but who got the most done--the fighter."

For my part, I wanted to tell them to be quiet, and in the 20 minutes or so I spent there, voices were raised and the circular discussion seemed to have no exit point. The desk-gladiator did care that the lions were circling; he was gonna keep swinging until the very end. I don't demand absolute silence, but they were too loud and if museums consider their patrons to be customers, then customers don't need to be exposed to inside politics in that fashion. But this happens everywhere--at stores, restaurants, wherever you go staff argues publicly about the inner workings of a place and you get to hear all about it.

I had arrived tired and wanted the transcendental experience of art to revive me a little. I left just as tired. It was my choice to leave without addressing them directly. Though I left loudly, rolling my eyes and sighing audibly with annoyance in their direction, I guess by the desk-gladiator's rules, I lost the fight. But every fight is not a battle and as always, I left with a story.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Going Postal: There May Not Always Be Work at the Post Office

This morning I woke to the news that the U.S. Postal Service is warning Congress that it may shutdown before the year is over.

I recently ended up at the National Postal Museum as I was trying to get to the Great Migration exhibit at Union Station next door. In a blog for I wrote:
"I had been to this museum once before, years ago when I first arrived in DC and then I thought nothing of it…but now being in a postal museum seems prescient--will a national postal service one day be a thing of the past?"

This was just last week and I'm sure my thoughts were influenced by having read "What we'll lose if we lose the post office" in The Washington Post. Throughout the museum, I saw pictures reminding me that the postal service employed many African Americans, even when other places wouldn't. It wasn't necessarily smooth sailing because employment did not mean there was no discrimination, but still, employment at the post office helped lift families out of poverty.

The ripple effect of the end of postal service would be huge. For years there was talk of cutting Saturday service and there was an outcry against it. I don't know that this would have prevented all of its fiscal woes, but some cuts and being willing to do with less in some capacity may have kept things from getting to this point.

Here is my blog post about my museum visit: A Visit to the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

PHOTO: African American postmen loading bags of mail into U.S. mail trucks (1960s)
Warren K. Lefler, photographer/ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Monday, September 05, 2011

Chasing Julius Caesar

I really persevered to get into the Shakespeare Free For All this year. I didn't make it until the last day and the website was so bogged down, that pages wouldn't load so I could enter the online lottery for tickets. I called to register for the lottery via phone, but I wasn't selected. I kinda gave up, but when I check Facebook on my phone after church, I saw that on their Facebook page the theater was telling people to show up for "standby" passes.

Instead of being in line for hours ahead of the regular giveaway, I got a standby pass, sat down for 1/2 an hour and then got in line to see if I'd make it into the show. I thought of calling it a day because 73 seemed like a high number. I heard a man who was 102 on his cell phone talking about how confident he was that he'd get in and I told myself it'd be better to wait.
So I made it in and I'm glad I waited. I'd never seen Julius Caesar (though I think I read it in high school) and since I really like Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, a free performance was a great way to test out a historical play. Here is what stood out for me:

-->The rhythm of the speech when Cassius tells Brutus that the there is no reason why the name of Caesar should be "sounded" more than Brutus (Act 1, Scene 2) reminded me of the "a rose by any other name"speech in Romeo and Juliet. They are talking about very different things of course, but the questioning nature of it made me think of Juliet.

-->The audience laughed when Caska said "it was Greek to me" and I wondered if audiences in Shakespeare's day would have had the same reaction. The line wasn't really played for laughs, but the recognition of that phrase was amusing in a way that other familiar phrases ("dogs of war" "Friends, Romans, Countrymen) were not.

-->The idea Brutus has for the conspirators to run out into the streets with bloody hands and daggers and crying "Peace! Liberty! Freedom!" to allay any fears the people might have after Caesar is assassinated (Act 3 Scene 1) seemed appalling to me…but then I thought of modern political maneuvers that fit into that mold. It is more graphic to run in the streets with blood on your hands but washing your hands first before you cry peace doesn't make it better.

-->Speaking of blood…this production was very bloody, but that is the point of the story. Seeing murder onstage and knowing they are using fake blood capsules doesn't make it less unsettling. People all around (including me at times) were on the edge of their seats.

-->The "Friends, Romans" phrase and "Et tu, Brute" are the parts of the play that I hear most often in popular culture so I was caught unaware by the masterful manipulation of Mark Antony. The woman next to me and I discussed it at intermission. He was cold.

-->Mark Antony's speech and the way he had the people on puppet strings, plus tragedy that befell a man in the wrong place at the wrong time who had the same name as one of the conspirators made me think about Brutus speech about "a tide in the affairs of men."

Full of hubris, Caesar got killed, but he overshadowed Rome and its people for years to come. He isn't even alive past intermission in the play and he has been long gone, but we still talk about him because he worked to ensure that his legacy would live on.

-->With all the blood and political intrigue, I'm surprised Julius Caesar is not modernized more often. The production I saw was quite riveting.

On a lighter note, Caska was played by Geoffrey Owens, who also played Elvin on The Cosby Show. And before now, I'd only seen bits of Julius Caesar acted out on The Cosby Show.

Theo and Cockroach rap version of Mark Antony's speech

Visiting professors and Grandpa Huxtable recite passages of Julius Caesar for the family

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Great Migration: In which I teach a sweet old lady how to use Google

The Great Migration-a period of time when African-Americans left the South for the North (and West) in the hopes of better lives-is something I obsess about a little. I was at Union Station looking for the Great Migration exhibit that I read about and couldn't seem to find it. When I asked someone who worked there, she said it wasn't there and that people had been asking her about it for over a week. That seemed strange to me…things are misreported all the time, but the article I had read had been so specific.

So I went over the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum so I could still get my exhibit-on. In one of those "I just have to try" moments, I asked the woman at the front desk if she knew anything about the exhibit that was supposed to be at Union Station. She didn't. But she offered to look it up for me online.

As it turns out she was offering to look it up within the Smithsonian website that was the homepage on her computer. She seemed to be a very sweet old lady. For a moment, I thought I'd just let her look it up there, not find it because this exhibit had nothing to do with the Smithsonian, and then I'd be on my way…

But rather than stand there and wait and be polite while she painstakingly and slowly tried to type in the info ("How do you spell migration?" she asked.), I told her to type the words into the Google search bar.

By the time we got to the original article, I had shown her how to search for things on Google (typing in 'Great Migration' only would yield all kinds of unrelated info, but typing in "Great Migration Union Station DC' actually lead to an article about the exhibit), and how to scroll down to see more than a few results.

It was a great exchange--I got info on the exact location of the exhibit and got to hear her reminisce about how she remembered her mother talking to her the experience of migrating to the North. She learned about the exhibit next door at Union Station and did her first search on Google.

As for the exhibit itself, there was not a lot to it. It was sponsored by Amtrak and set up near one of the gates people use when they board trains. Really, it was some very large banners that were informative, but not worth a special trip. The Great Migration lasted for decades, waxing and waning at different points from 1915 to 1970, but they confined to a much shorter time period.

And now of course, we have the reverse Great Migration, which is no less interesting than the Great Migration and something in which I have taken part. I'm not in the deep South, but I have left (what I consider to be) the North. In a discussion with my North Carolina cousins, they declared DC to still be North. That's fine. I just remember my father telling me that an old deacon at my church back home in Buffalo could not understand why young people wanted to move to Georgia. His attitude was that he left and was certainly not going back. I feel the same way about Buffalo, so if I have children who trek up there in a future where that make sense, I'd wonder at them too.