The Breakfast Table

Let Them Eat Context

Dear Liza:

Well, at least the Fraysters will have to admit that you started it. That said, let me turn back into local banter by responding in a way that will confirm all those snarky e-mailed comments about me as the stereotypical alt-press totalitarian hipster, vapidly flaying the good citizens of Squaresville while I sell prostate-massage ads: You can keep that stinkin’ Newseum! The story about how Washington’s mayor and its array of civic worthies have all turned out to hail the museum’s move across the Potomac is humiliating. They all praise it as a sign of D.C.’s comeback. Leaving aside the Newseum’s content; really, is there anything Washington needs less than another museum? I like that there will be condos up above, but what about a whole residential building full of plucky taxpaying, PTA-joining citizens? What about some sort of for-profit business that can actually grow our tax base? Have you ever tried to get a late-night snack in downtown Washington? How about a … Krispy Kreme?

I don’t think I agree with you about the old pictures. I actually love the American-of-the-’70s snapshots. The more famous the person, the better. Some of them, in fact, don’t age badly at all: Think of that hunky young mid-’70s Al Gore, shaggy hair flopping into his earnest, earnest eyes. Now, wouldn’t you rather get asked out by that version of Gore on the Metro than by the three-button-suit-because-that’s-what-focus-groups-like contemporary model?

Moreover, even the pictures that tend more toward the tonsorial errors you mentioned have a certain charm to them. I remember seeing a picture of Michael Dukakis riding a subway, circa 1975, hair puffing up towards the ceiling, sideburns creeping ominously down towards his jaw. Michael Dukakis! It made me like the guy at least 17 percent more. In this age of the sartorially-consulted, image-adjusted modern American politician, its nice to see fashion mistakes made, erroneous vogues followed, something other than the blow-dried JFK-head look. Now imagine how happy you’d be to see snapshots of a goateed Evan Bayh, an Afro’d Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a long-haired John Kasich. Besides, nowadays a glimpse of ‘70s hair would not only seem like a sign that these people’s entire lives weren’t pre-calculated for maximum political viability; it’d also make them look like style mavens. Wait long enough and it all comes back. I was at the D.C. city hall building a little while back and I saw this picture of an old city council, where Marion Barry wore his bushy 1978 do. My first thought wasn’t how terrible it looked. It was how sharp he looked.

But I think it’s not really worth living in a time when you’re not engaging in styles that will seem silly later. And at least someone’s preserving the memories of that era. When the ‘90s ended, what with all the end-of-century and end-of-millennium commentary, I saw almost none of the requisite end-of-decade retrospectives. I gave my youth to that decade!  It’s the least I deserve! About the only one I read was in the alternative Philadelphia Weekly, where they decided that Jennifer Anniston was the decade’s poster girl, and that her absurd Friends lifestyle heralded the shift from slacker slumming to dot-com earning. And someday, will future Newseum-goers down on Pennsylvania Ave. mock old pictures of American women with her haircut? I hope so.

But as we have said a number of times in our conversation, context changes everything. Christians where you grew up want the same micro-powered radio stations that punk rockers and activists want where I grew up. Photo-ops designed to convey informal erasing of past tensions actually create a whole new slew of etiquette questions. Grandpa names are now ironic names given to babies of twentysomethings. And then there’s the Navy recruitment ad in this month’s Rolling Stone. On the deck of a warship are four men who defend our country. And they are photographed because, as the ad copy tells us, they have formed an onboard … rock band. Leaving home to form a rock band was once (erroneously, of course) constructed as an act of rebellion. Now it is a fun side-effect of leaving home to join a big hierarchical organization where you wear uniforms. Are these rockers counterculture? Is joining the Navy rebellious? Could Lars Ulrich download their recordings?

Anchors Aweigh,