The Tourist Pilgrim: A Mount Athos Travelogue, Part II

Originally published on July 15, 2012 on Open Salon.

Part I of my travelogue to Mount Athos concluded with a reference to its complexity. I became aware of the complicated nature of the organization and life on Mount Athos because I had to perpetually recalibrate my expectations. The quotidian services provided at Dafni and Karyes, and that the fifteen minute stroll to the monastery closest to Karyes made it appear to me that everything would be accessible on Mount Athos. I am glad to have made those misconception.

Travelling Athos

After heading back to Karyes, we hoped to take a cab to our destination, and our first monastic lodging, at Pantokratoros. This turned out to be difficult. We first stumbled through some conversations with waiting cabs, without success, just to ascertain that the cabs were going everywhere except where we wanted to go. The best and only option was to walk to our destination. In my estimation, our first hike was manageable because we could see Xeropotamoufrom the port of Dafni. This walk, however, necessitated us to follow complicated, road-side trail descriptions that should guide us to our destination. Such a guide includes instructions such as “turn left at the bronze cross” or “after the grand view of the monastery, avoid what looks like a path on the right—it’s not a path.”

On Mount Athos, moving from point A to point B is just as enjoyable as spending time at the monasteries. If the traveler does only one or the other, then the experience is far from complete. On the way to Pantokratoros we experienced our first incredible views of the actual Mount Athos in the distance, while also taking in and discussing the pop-up monastic communities that we would see in the distance.

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Having the mobility to travel to a desired destination can also be the most trying thing about Mount Athos. On the second day on the peninsula, we attempted to take a speed boat from the port monastery Stavronikita to Esphigmenou, where we would make our way by foot to our second monastic lodging, the Serbian Orthodox monastery Hilandar. However, we realized that the waters on the more unpredictable northern side of the peninsula appeared particularly violent.

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Because these monastic ports aren’t manned by anyone, we called the boat service, just to be informed that, due to weather, the boat never left port in the morning, and would not be make any of its stops on the peninsula. We then had to troubleshoot. We ended up having to take a taxi back to Karyes, only for the same cab to then take us to Dafni, where we caught a pleasant ferry on the southern side of the peninsula that moved us in our desired direction.

Mount Athos is relatively easy to access, but once there the pilgrim is left to his own devices in terms of mobility. Foot is the most rewarding method of travel on Mount Athos, but it is not always possible.

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There are similarities and differences among the monasteries of Mount Athos. I only visited a few, but this, at the very least, was evident to me. What is universal (as far as I know) is that the church in every monastery holds service before dinner, a short service after dinner, and a long service in the morning before dinner. The first service we attended was, in my opinion, the best one. It was a short service between 45 minutes and an hour, and it mostly involved monks singing scripture in voices that ranged from majestic baritone to beautiful tenor. This was not my first experience at an Orthodox church service, so I wasn’t surprised at the voiceless priest whose job involved canvassing the interior of the church with the smell of incense and the sound of bells, making for an experience that appeals to all of the senses—akin to an opera. Dinner followed, and then there was a presentation of the monastery’s relics, which included bones of saints and a piece of the cross. This seemed to be the primary purpose of the service after dinner. Like the other pilgrims, I crossed myself in front of the relic; perhaps unlike most of the others there, I only pretended to kiss the five hundred year old skull relic surrounded by jewels.

While the evening services were a moving experience, the morning services were long and difficult. They demanded far more energy than the most difficult hike on the peninsula. Bells ring in the morning at four o’clock. This is the call to morning prayer. Srdjan and Les, the veteran pilgrims, assured us that we could sleep until five o’clock and join the service late. Our alarms went off then, and we then each took turns brushing our teeth and put on our three times a day, every day best. This service had more oration than singing, which made it far less enjoyable. This morning service on Mount Athos will—I am willing to wager—be the only time in my life when I can say “we didn’t get to church until five thirty, so we missed the first hour and a half; luckily we caught the last two hours.”

Gastronomic Athos

The monks provide the pilgrims with breakfast and dinner on Mount Athos. The nature, quality, and time allotted to the meals differ monastery by monastery. But, there are certain things that are universal. For one, all monks and pilgrims eat in the refractory at the same time  and for the same amount of time,. The meal begins, after a quick prayer, with the ringing of a bell. The abbot, or an ersatz head of the monks, performs this ritual. The first bell tells everyone to begin eating, and it tells one monk to start reading scripture. All monastic meals on Mount Athos are accompanied by scripture. It is always difficult to be in a place where you don’t speak the language. On Mount Athos, this was frustrating in the case of personal communication, but when it came to church liturgy and the biblical ambience of dinner, I was blessedly ignorant of anything being said. One can only drink when the abbot rings the second bell. Sometimes it comes right after the first bell, and sometimes after a few minutes. The drinks provided at the meals are water and wine. The self-produced wine is noticeably high in alcohol content, and is best consumed with one part water. Once the abbot determines that everyone has had enough time to eat, he makes his intention known through more bell ringing and wood knocking. The whole thing lasts between fifteen and twenty minutes; the frequent visitors are identifiable because they can finish everything in five to ten.

We only ate at the two monasteries where we were lodging Pantokratoros and Hilandar. The former was the clear winner when it came to cuisine. On our first evening, we were treated to perfectly spiced fish filets, vegetables, and salad. Breakfast was a delicious mixture of peas, potatoes, garlic and rosemary—a dish that I’ve since attempted to re-create at a dinner party. While the addition of garlic complemented the nicely spiced dish in Pantokratoros, loads of garlic was the only redeeming quality in the soups at Hilandar.

Shades of Monk

A monastery is not a monastery is not a monastery, and a monk is not a monk is not a monk. Three instances exemplify this. As we were leaving a seemingly uninhabited skete on our first day on Athos, I looked back behind us and, in characteristic fashion on this island of monks, I noticed a black garbed and bearded man standing about 150 meters behind us. We stopped and turned around, and I could almost sense his disappointment as we made our way to greet him. Of all the monks we met on our travels, this particular one truly embodied the Athonite ethos of quiet. He spoke barely above a whisper, which naturally caused us to mimic his mode of speech, even amongst ourselves. After showing us the chapel, he offered us water, coffee, and Turkish delights. We accepted his friendly offer, and were guided to what I think was their welcome center. After water and coffee, we were energized. This was a good thing, as the monk told us with blunt quiescence: “drink your water and coffee, and then please hit the road.” He left us there, and we heeded his request.

When we arrived at Pantokratoros, we were greeted by an older monk. Short, with a long grey beard, and a voice pitched somewhere in between a helium induced falsetto and the scratchy reveal of a former smoker. He was one of the friendlier monks we encountered. While we showed him our travel visas, he took a few more seconds on mine and said to me: “You’re not Orthodox?” “No, I’m not,” I replied. With joviality that I didn’t think was possible for a Mount Athos monk, he responded “Oh! That’s OK!” I knew it was, but it was sure nice to hear this affirmation, which put me more at ease as I stumbled my way through unfamiliar Orthodox rituals.

The counter to this meeting of acceptance came the next day. After we made our long journey to the Hilandar monastery, walked to the nearby monastery Esphigmenou. Up to this point, we had been at the very least warmly acknowledged at all places we visited. This monastery, however, was somewhat uninviting. As we walked through the front gates, a curmudgeonly old monk swept the passageway and asked us a one word question, which none of us understood because none of us speak Greek. It turned out he was only interested in whether or not we were there to sleep. We were able to communicate that we were not, but only interested in looking around. He then showed off an English phrase he knew: “No photos!”

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Oddly enough, or perhaps not given the warmly unenthusiastic welcome we received in other places, we were not only greeted with water and coffee here, but also raki (plum brandy). Our next order of business was to try and get into the church. We found our way to the monastery’s key keeper, and he granted our request to see the church without question. After we entered and once more marveled at the beautiful interior—golden chandeliers, silver inlaid icons, and soaring byzantine frescoes—the monk did ask us a question: “Orthodox? All four?” “Absolutely!” we responded. Clearly, it was time to go. We gave some change to light a candle, thanked the monk, and hit the road, this time of our own volition. Our mistake was that we viewed this particular church too much like the presentation of priceless art, and not enough like holy embodiments. Once again I had to recalibrate. One of the best aspects of travel is the element of surprise. Perhaps the biggest surprise I experienced on Mount Athos occurred when I left: I already wanted to go back.

But just as a tourist pilgrim, not a monk.

The Tourist Pilgrim: A Mount Athos Travelogue, Part I

Originally published on July 7, 2012 on Open Salon.

If asked to provide a set of nouns that accurately embody who I am, “pilgrim” would be pretty far down on the list. I would say somewhere between “hot rod enthusiast” and “stamp collector.” However, I recently inhabited the role of the pilgrim, as I and three travel companions—my girlfriend’s brother Mike, her father Srdjan, and his good friend Les—wended our way to one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Orthodox Christians, Mount Athos.

Since the tenth century, Mount Athos (a rocky peninsula in northern Greece) has existed as a collective of Orthodox monasteries. There are currently twenty on the peninsula. One thing in particular makes Mount Athos a unique destination for pilgrims: first, the monks who reside on the mountain maintain a degree of political autonomy. Despite officially being a part of Greece, they are self-governed and own the land on which their monasteries reside, as well as the surrounding areas. This allows them to control the number of visitors to the peninsula. They can also control who visits and separate out who they won’t allow to come. For example, non-Christian men and women are not allowed on the Peninsula, and only 100 pilgrims per day are welcomed in.

For this reason, Mount Athos has an air of mystery surrounding it. One of the ways in which I prepared for my visit was to watch a recent 60 Minutes feature about Mount Athos that aired in April of 2011 (part 1 and part 2). The boon for 60 Minutes was that their story was the first time since 1981 that the monks allowed (professional) video equipment into their monasteries and even into their churches. While the 60 Minutes story is informative and revealing in its interviews with a handful of monks on Mt. Athos, it ultimately exaggerates its inaccessibility to the outside world. 60 Minutes provides a surface explanation of Mount Athos as isolated from civilization and “frozen in time.” It also, I suspect, draws most of its conclusions from the production crews’ experience in a handful of monasteries. Myself, I only visited a handful, but it was enough, as I’ll explain, to realize that there is diversity among the monasteries. This is something that is not acknowledged by 60 Minutes, and something that makes the peninsula and its monasteries even more compelling.

In another effort to prepare for my journey, I read one the only recent scholarly works about Mount Athos in English, geographer Veronica della Dora’s Imagining Mount Athos: Visions of a Holy Place from Homer to World War II. Little academic attention has been paid to Mount Athos, which I found surprising. Della Dora’s work is not about Mount Athos per se, and there is very little mention of the actual monks who reside there and their experience with maintenance or change over time. Nevertheless, she provides a compelling narrative of the various ways in which Mount Athos has been framed and reframed over time based on the intellectual environment and political trends in Western Europe. She proposes six different lenses through which Mount Athos has been understood over time—it has been mythic, utopian, iconic, erudite, geopolitical, and scientific. As a woman, della Dora was not even allowed on Mount Athos, which perhaps makes her the perfect scholar to write about how Mount Athos has been imagined over time. Still, the experience of the pilgrim is missing. I think that 60 Minutes provides one perspective about Mount Athos that is rooted in experience, but framed around the imagination of it as completely unchanged and with the intent of providing a journalistic service to their audience. In my travelogue, I want to describe what might be called the “Tourist Pilgrim Athos,” which is also rooted in experience, but also shaped by my perspective and expectations travelling there as a Catholic, non-Orthodox, pilgrim.

Accessing Mount Athos

In order to gain access to Mount Athos, one has to secure a special visa issued by the monks. This should be a relatively easy thing to do with enough advance planning, which is necessary because one must fax the monks all pertinent information. One hundred pilgrims are allowed to enter Athos each day, and of those one hundred only five are allowed to be non-Orthodox. It is easiest to travel to Mount Athos if you are an Orthodox pilgrim, but an alternative to being one is saying that you are one. I was lucky enough to get one of the five non-Orthodox spots; this may have been due to the fact that I was travelling with three Orthodox Christians. My visa indicated that I was a Catholic visitor (which required an additional 5 Euro added on to the Visa fee).

Mount Athos is inaccessible by land, so one has to take a boat from a town called Ouranoupoli in order to get there. In an attempt to cast Mount Athos as more difficult or unpleasant to travel to than it actually is, 60 Minutes calls it a “scruffy little town without an airport and dicey roads.” If I had to characterize Ouranoupoli, I would call it a pleasant resort town with fine Greek restaurants and what appeared to be nice beaches. Scruffiness might reside in the narrow streets that others might designate as charming, and the roads there are ‘dicey’ only insofar as they are a bit windy, but nothing unfamiliar to anyone who has driven on paved mountain roads. It is true that Ouranoupoli doesn’t have an airport, and 60 Minutes took this as an opportunity to embellish the difficult road to Athos by claiming that potential travelers have to make their way there from Athens. While one could fly to Athens and drive seven and a half hours to Ouranoupoli—which admittedly does sound very pilgrimmy—or one could do as my travel companions and I did and fly to Thessaloniki, which is a short hour and a half drive away. More pilgrim points might be collected in the first option, but that wouldn’t impress monks who have been living on a peninsula without women and a bunch of celibate men for dozens of years, so we just did what was most comfortable.

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While the Peninsula is composed mostly of monasteries and monks, that is not all that is there. I was surprised at some of the things I initially found. We took a speed boat to the small port town of Dafni early in the morning. When we arrived, I was taken by the first things I saw on Mount Athos. While I expected my initial encounter to be with monks or a monastery, what I instead saw was a small restaurant (cafeteria style), several gift-shops selling postcards, stores selling dozens of different Orthodox icons, and general stores that sold walking sticks, wine, and beer—businesses manned by non-monks. Dafni is also a popular departure point from the speed boat or ferry because there is bus service to what is essentially the capital city of Mount Athos, Karyes. Because we took the speed boat, we arrived at Dafni a couple of hours before the bus departed for Karyes, which is coordinated with the arrival of the much larger ferry. Rather than waiting for the bus, we decided to start walking toward Karyes, which we determined would be a manageable two hour hike.

We asked for directions to Karyes, and were instructed to follow the dirt road until we saw a hiking trail. Ostensibly, one “couldn’t miss” the trail, which I suppose might be true if you already know where it is or if you’re an expert hiker with experience in finding overgrown walking paths. In any case, we eventually found the trail, which directed us toward our destination. One feels a lot more like a pilgrim walking on a marginally maintained trail than on a wide road, unpaved or not. We made our way up the trail, sweating through our clothes in the 90 degree weather and schlepping our minimally packed backpacks (which, by the way, did not include shorts, as they are discouraged on Mount Athos in general and especially in monasteries and churches). On the way to Karyes, we ran into the first monastery we would see, Xeropotamou, built in the tenth century. Here, I was immediately struck by how such a pristinely maintained and clean monastery could simply appear from dense mountain forest. I was struck by its beauty and grateful for the water fountain. One of the first things I noticed about the monastery other than its minimalistic grandeur (which, as I’ll explain, only exists on building exteriors) was that it appeared to be deserted. I imagined monasteries to be teeming with monks doing monk things—mostly praying, but also tending the abundant plants, fixing architectural imperfections, or healing injured birds. However, there was really nobody to be seen. We took advantage of our moments there to take some photos.

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Srdjan and Les, the veteran pilgrims in our group, attempted to secure access to the monastery’s church. I would only later come to realize the necessity of making every effort to see the church at every monastery we came across, as I will soon explain. Unfortunately, the church was closed to visitors, so after taking in a bit more of the external atmosphere of the monastery, we decided to wait for the bus to take us to Karyes rather than walk the dirt road or take the chance of finding another “can’t miss it” hidden path. As we waited, I realized that up until that point, I hadn’t actually seen a monk yet, which I also found to be somewhat odd, given where we were.

Monks and monasteries on Mount Athos have a tendency to unsuspectingly materialize before your eyes. The most reliable method of travelling from one point to another is to walk, but this is not always possible. As one hikes through the mountains of Mount Athos, which contains twenty monasteries, twelve sketes (independent monastic communities affiliated with one of the monasteries), and numerous churches, it is easy to go hours without seeing any form of architectural habitat or human life. Over the course of several hours of hiking in two and a half days on Mount Athos, we didn’t come across a single other pilgrim on any of the trails. It is always striking, then, when you turn a corner or ascent a seemingly endless incline to be met with the domes, towers, and lush gardens that is an Athos monastic community. For the viewer, it didn’t exist the moment before, but once you see the monastery it seems as if it should be visible from space. Likewise, monks have a tendency to appear and disappear within the monastery walls, like pious ninjas. For example, prior to the evening church service, the monastery appears to be manned by exactly no monks. Once the bells ring calling to the service, there are suddenly a dozen monks making their way to the church. Once the service concludes a dozen monks then multiply to about forty prior to the evening meal, before they all dissipate once again. In the case of both monasteries and monks, the appearance is a surprise and the shared experience a privilege.

The first monk we saw nonchalantly joined us at the bus stop, waiting to get a ride to Karyes. As most monks on Mount Athos, this guy was quiet, only proffering a curt “hello” to us before standing as far away from us at the waiting station as he could. Monks are not the chattiest bunch. As we were waiting for the bus, we had a stroke of good luck, as another monk driving a van (another oddity that I didn’t necessarily expect) stopped to pick up the first monk on his way to Karyes. He waived us into the van, and we followed, happy that we would arrive a bit earlier and in an un-crowded van rather than a bus. What is it like to hitch a ride from a monk, you may ask? First of all, “hitching a ride” is not quite right, as we were charged for the service. I would also mention that the ride was bumpy on the mostly unpaved roads—small paved stretches of road appear and disappear like so many monks. Finally, I was struck by the utter lack of communication between the driver and passenger in the front seat. I have absolutely no idea whether or not they knew each other. There are two thousand monks on Mount Athos, and even if they are able to distinguish the black robed men with either black or grey beards better than I can, I can’t assume that they are all acquaintances. In any case, they had no real reason to speak to one another, as the radio in the van contained monks chanting what I assumed to be scripture or prayers. At one point, the driver changed the station, with striking banality, as if he were tired of hearing the new rendition of “The Sermon on the Mount” that all of the stations have been overplaying.

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My next surprise came when we finally arrived in Karyes. As I said before, I didn’t expect to find a store on Mount Athos selling postcards, which made my urgency to purchase postcards in Ouranoupoli seem over-eager. In Karyes, I was greeted by a post office, which again made my initial thoughts that “at least I can write postcards on Mount Athos” appear completely wrong-headed. “I could purchase, write, and even send them all from here,” I thought. I also saw more general stores, where we secured much needed afternoon fruit and our mandatory daily bottle of Ouzo. Karyes has the feel of a small downtown strip. This feel is confirmed by the government building, flying the flags of Greece and Mount Athos, which is the seat of the monk chosen (from a vote by a representative of all monasteries) every year to represent the Peninsula as a political unit. Karyes also houses what is one of the more popular churches among the pilgrims on the peninsula. In the entire time there, this was the only time we had to wait in line to get into a church. As we were let in by a monk who appeared to be particularly annoyed at the crowd of pilgrims, we walked into and were awed by the beauty of the frescoes, chandeliers, and grandiose icons within the church. This was also my first experience with the crossing and kissing rituals that are second nature to any devout Orthodox Christian, but unfamiliar to someone raised Catholic who even crosses himself incorrectly according to Orthodox convention. After seeing the church, I started to realize the great effort made by my fellow pilgrims to access the church earlier in the day, and their disappointment in being denied.

Once we saw this church, we walked about ten or fifteen minutes to the closest monastery, Koutloumousiou. The stunning beauty within this church surpassed even the one we had just seen. Unfortunately, the monks generally do not allow photographs to be taken inside of the churches. It is unfortunate, because they are truly breathtaking. It was at this point that I knew that I was really on a unique excursion unlike anything I had experienced before. Yet, I was still bristled by the 60 Minutes cover story that presented Mount Athos as unforgivably difficult to access, that in their words is “not Mars or Venus, but it might as well be.” I still think this is an exaggeration, but the way my visit progressed showed that my initial perception of relatively easy access on the Peninsula was ill-conceived. Mount Athos is difficult to understand and absorb quickly, and it is because of its complexity, not its simplicity.

History on the Street: Postwar Memorials in Cologne

Originally published on May 1, 2012 on Open Salon.

I’m always struck by Germany’s lesser known postwar memorials. Structures of remembrance built on a grand scale, such as Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, have garnered much deserved popular and academic attention. However, there are numerous other memorials, built on a much smaller scale, that dot the landscape of Germany. They also deserve attention.

For the past several weeks I’ve been living in Cologne, the fourth largest German city, and the largest in western Germany’s Rhineland. I’ve come across two creative and poignant memorials that I think deserve attention. The first is a memorial to a single person, but like all memorials, it is about much more. It is in remembrance of Edith Stein. A plaque recounts her life with select information: born in Breslau in 1891, she was the eleventh child of a Jewish family. While a high school and college student, she left Judaism. She studied philosophy, psychology, history, and German studies in Breslau and Göttingen, before pursuing a doctorate degree under famed philosopher Edmund Husserl. It was at this time that she had her first serious encounters with Christianity; she decided to convert to Catholicism after reading from the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. Stein was baptized in 1922 in Bad Bergzabern. She was a teacher and university lecturer in Speyer and Münster; that is, until 1933 when National Socialist legislation that denied Jews the right to hold such positions revoked her professorship. She then entered the Disclaced Carmelite (notably also called the Barefoot Carmelite) monastery in Cologne and took the name Teresia Benedicta a cruce (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). In 1938, she took her eternal vows, but soon after had to flee Germany and ended up in Holland, where she entered a monastery in Echt. On August 7, 1942, she was deported to Auschwitz; she was murdered there on August 9, 1942. In 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified her as a martyr, and in 1998 he canonized her as a saint.

What the plaque tells in words, the sculpture shows in images, and what the plaque cannot tell in words, the sculpture evokes in the way it forces the viewer to see. The photo below depicts the monument from a distance close enough to see the entirety of it, but too far away to notice the details.

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In the following image, you see three women—all of them are Edith.

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Reading the sculpture from right to left, the first representation of Edith shows her leaning on the Star of David. The depiction induces a sense of weighty contemplation, recalling Rodin’s The Thinker. She does not take the rejection of her inherited faith lightly, and that is because she is a woman of conviction, no less while adhering to Judaism than to Catholicism.

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The second likeness of Edith, in the next two photos, represent the period in her life in which she did not have a faith—in between Judaism and Catholicism, she didn’t have direction. It is also a representation of a fundamental division in her identity. From certain perspectives, she appears whole, but from others, she is fragmented.

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The third representation shows Edith dressed in monastic garb, carrying the symbol of martyrdom in front of her. The series does not tell the story of Edith progressing from one identity to another; she was always all three. Or, perhaps she was always divided. Maybe it is the likeness in the middle that both fuses and balances the other two.

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The memorial is much more than the three images of Edith. It invites the viewer to perceive it from multiple angles and see how the rest of her story unfolds; not in representations of the woman, but in her environment and under her circumstances. The monument is elevated, and in front of the third sculpture of Edith there are numerous sets of footprints—some barefoot, others not. All of them are heading in the same direction as Edith, carrying her cross. The footprints lead to a pile of shoes, eliciting images of the footwear taken from inmates of Nazi concentration camps.

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The only thing that keeps the shoes from piling down onto the street are two tablets of stone, the ten commandments—the first is increasingly burdened. Etched next to the footprints are numbers—these represent the tattoos given to inmates at Nazi concentration camps. Not all inmates of Nazi camps, in particular the four other extermination camps in addition to Auschwitz, received tattoos. Killed a mere two days after her deportation, Edith almost certainly did not receive one. The presence of the numbers suggests that the monument is also about survivors.

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The only pair of feet facing Edith rather than moving with her are on a flat stone, as opposed to the rough stone of the rest of the monument. Somewhat displaced, as if it were floating in the middle of the monument, the pierced feet represent Jesus. When one stands on them, she looks directly into Edith’s face, while Edith’s divided self lingers melancholically over her left shoulder.

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From Edith’s perspective, it looks as if the world is coming undone in front of her; a pile of victims’ shoes just to the left of a fractured cross, the crevice of which is hollow, with the exception of a crown of thorns.

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The multiple ways of seeing the various iterations of Edith and the broad context under which she lived, and ultimately died, stays with the viewer. Historically and today, Cologne is one of Germany’s most Catholic cities. It is the home to the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, which in turn is the home of the Archbishop of Germany. The monument to Edith Stein is located in a Catholic institutional center. It is right next to Catholic libraries, offices, and archives. The abundance of Catholic imagery asks the viewer to see Edith as a martyr, even though she was victimized despite her Christianity, not because of it. She was killed because Nazi perpetrators and collaborators only saw the image of her with the Star of David—the second representation of her would have been viewed as an impossibility and the third irrelevant.

While the monument to Edith Stein is about victims, the second I want to address is about people who refused to victimize; and while the form of the Edith Stein monument is unmistakably a monument to a particular person, the Homage to the Soldiers who Refused to Shoot (designed by Ruedi Bauer, Denis Coueignoux, Vera Kockot, and Karim Sabano, and dedicated in 2009) does not stand out in the urban fabric and entreat passersby to pause a moment give their attention. One needs only to stand near the monument for a short period of time to see people pass it by. Or, they stop just long enough to point out to a companion that there are words up there, before moving along.

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This monument is dedicated to soldiers and non-soldiers who refused to participate in Nazi crimes. It stands on six legs, and about ten feet in the air you see a sort of downwards looking, see-through sheet of letters that form words, distinguished by various colors, and those words form sentences. The viewer has to strain her neck to not only make out the words, but also long enough to make sense of the sentences. Imagine reading this blog post projected onto the ceiling.

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The translation from German reads:

Homage to the soldiers who refused to shoot to the soldiers who refused to shoot to the people who refused to kill the people who refused to kill the people who refused to torture the people who refused to torture the people who refused to denounce the people who refused to denounce the people who refused to brutalize the people who refused to brutalize the people who refused to discriminate the people who refused to discriminate the people that refused to laugh the people who refused to discriminate the people who showed solidarity and civil courage as the majority remained silent and followed…

The form—repetitive, without punctuation, and directly above the reader—causes the viewer to interact with the monument in a compelling way. First, I found that it was much easier to keep track of what I was reading by saying it out loud. By doing so, it becomes a benediction more than a poem. This is only reinforced by the repetition. The design forces the viewer to look up, crane her neck, and strain to keep track of the words as they are being read.

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It is clear to me that this is integral to the purpose of the monument. It is uncomfortable to read the monument, both in the literal and figurative sense. Germany’s Nazi past makes it strenuous to recognize deserters and civilian resistors, because once that happens there might be a sense of displacement of focus from the majority (as the monument correctly states) of perpetrators to the minority of resistors. This monument is mindful to not do such a thing, and one of the ways it does that is by making it a task to notice and consume the memorial. Even in the description of the monument, on one of its legs, it states non-emphatically that “their (resistors, seditionists, and consciousness objectors) courage deserves our respect.”

Memorials in Germany are integral tools that shape public memory, and they have the ability to influence public discourse. Recently, German foreign minister Thomas de Maziére proposed (and here) that Germany institute a Veterans Day honoring German soldiers, living and dead. When thinking about such a proposal, it would be good to keep these two memorials in mind. The problem with such a holiday should be obvious: there are too many soldiers like those involved in killing Edith Stein than those who refused to shoot.

Germany hasn’t had anything like a Veteran’s Day since 1945. Since 1991 (during the first Gulf War, which was the first instance of German military action since WWII), about 300,000 German troops have been deployed into a war-zone. I don’t think the holiday is a good idea, but there are alternatives. If de Maziére’s intention is to honor military members who have served since the reinstatement of the (West) German military in 1956, and particularly those who have been deployed, then a monument might be a good alternative to a holiday. I wouldn’t put it in a busy part of a large city like Berlin. I would also avoid Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. The memorial would perhaps be most appropriate near, but not a part of, the newly opened Milistary History Museum in Dresden. I think it would have to be specific and small scale. Attaching it to the museum, or constructing in close by, should defuse any potential controversy. Postwar memorials in Germany are sharp, evocative, and sensitive, and I think it could be done right.

Berlin’s Adequate “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”

Originally published on July 18, 2012 on Open Salon.

Richard Brody recently wrote in The New Yorker online that Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is “inadequate.” I would argue that the Berlin memorial is suitably adequate and that, perhaps, the high point of memorialization can only be adequacy. It’s not that anything more is undesirable, but that it might not be possible. The pursuit of something more risks turning the memorial into something it is not – it risks turning it into a museum.

Inadequate memorialization was all too common. A few weeks ago, I visited Rastatt, a small town in Baden-Würrtemberg, with a group of scholars who research German-Jewish culture and society. One of the organized events was tour of the city’s Jewish history. As we approached the building where the city’s synagogue once stood, one of my German colleagues departed slightly from the group and read a affixed placard on the wall; she responded to it with a mixture of cackle, exasperation, and recognition. This is what she read: „Hier stand die Synagoge der Israelitengemeinde Rastatt. Sie wurde am 10. November 1938 unter der Herrschaft der Gewalt und des Unrechts zerstört.“ My German is good, but after quickly reading the placard, I didn’t understand my colleague’s response. If I were asked to convey the meaning of the text, I would have said that this was the location of the Rastatt synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht, the most notorious and violent domestic attack on Germany’s Jews under the Nazi regime prior to World War II. I wouldn’t be wrong, but it would elide the tone of the text. The translation of words and sentiment has a different implication. It reads: “Here stood the synagogue of Rastatt’s Israeli community. It was destroyed on 10 November, 1938 under the dominion of violence and of injustice.”

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This placard hopelessly lacks substance; it is also grounded in the context of lukewarm memorialization in the 1960s. It stands now as a reminder of the insufficiency of memorialization in that decade and for some years after. First, it identifies the Jewish community as the “Israelite community.” This is not as strange as it first appears. Throughout the nineteenth century and the early parts of the twentieth century, it was common for “Jewish” and “Israelite” to be used interchangeably in public discourse and even the state census. However, this was not the case under the Nazi regime, which always referred to the “Jewish” element in society and the population as “Jews.” Additionally, this placard was put up in 1964, when the Israeli state actually existed. By saying “Israelite community” the placard simultaneously avoids using Nazi language while also implying that the violence was directed toward people and an institution with ties to a foreign state, not citizens of Germany. Second, while passive voice is common in German, the effect here completely dismisses any subject or actor. Nobody did the destroying. The possessive language suggests that if there was an actor, it was an abstract regime of violence—not one constituted by actors. Finally, the language of dominion uncomfortably and sarcastically invokes the image of the wrathful god of the Hebrew bible. When I read the text now, it seems to be narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. It might as well also say “And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!” To a contemporary observer, an obvious lack is an updated placard that explains the shortcomings of the other one.

That is what an inadequate memorial looks like. Brody’s approach and criticisms of the Berlin memorial not only highlight the vast difference between the insufficient memorialization of the past in Germany and what has appeared over the last twenty years, but his entire piece speaks to the engagement of the memorial and its fulfillment of purpose. He argues that the title of the memorial is insufficient: Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). He asks: “Which murdered Jews? When? Where?” and follows by asking if the memorial refers to all Jews who have ever been murdered in Europe.

Usually an information plaque is sufficient to explain such questions as when, where, and who? These are rarely, if ever, integral to the design of the memorial as an architectural structure.  In the case of the Memorial in Berlin, there is an information center below the memorial that goes well beyond what any small plaque could convey. I’ll soon comment on what is in the information center, but for right now suffice to say that it is not only a necessary component of the installation, but also easy to access and free.

Brody suggest that, “the title doesn’t say ‘Holocaust’ or ‘Shoah’; in other words, it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why—there’s nothing along the lines of ‘by Germany under Hitler’s regime,’ and the vagueness is disturbing.” The title is not nearly as vague as he makes it seem. In fact, it’s direct and clear. The site is designed to commemorate the Jews (object) of Europe who were murdered (by human subjects). The title is deliberate in its inclusion of victims and perpetrators, and in a memorial the naming of the former group is far more important than the latter.  It doesn’t say the phrases he suggests for a good reason. If it read, “by Germany under Hitler’s regime,” the title would truly suffer from a vague subject. “Germany” simply can’t stand in for party elites, high ranking party members, members of the German military at all levels, passive civilians, and willing collaborators everywhere from France to the Ukraine. Evoking Hitler would put a name to it, but that would de-emphasize the enormity of reach to where the term “perpetrator” applies. I don’t think the memorial needs to use terms like the Holocaust or Shoa to be adequate in its commemoration of murder of European Jews.

In fact, Brody concedes that just about all visitors will bring with them a familiarity of the subject. He argues that “the assumption of this familiarity—the failure to mention it at the country’s main memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust—separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe.” Reiterating his mistake that the title of the memorial is in passive voice—as opposed to the example from Rastatt, which is actually passive—he likens the catastrophe at hand to a natural disaster. I am unsure how he comes to this conclusion, given that the title has “murder” in it, which is almost exclusively associated with human action. In the same vein, Brody makes a fundamental error regarding the goal of the memorial. He states, “the reduction of responsibility to an embarrassing, tacit fact that ‘everybody knows’ is the first step on the road to forgetting.” I disagree. The first step on the road to remembering and reconciling is acknowledging that while everyone may know, few understand; and the pursuit of an acknowledged unreachable understanding is the way to never forget. In lieu of an impossible full understanding of the degree of the crimes, an adequate comprehension must suffice.

Brody’s claim of inadequacy is odd considering he offers one of the most elegant descriptions I have read of a self-reflective response generated by the memorial. It is worth reading in full:

In the shallow corner of the plaza, tourists sit and chat on bench-high stelae,[the columns that compose the memorial]children climb, all enjoy wide-open and thrillingly grand perspectives on the surroundings, including the Tiergarten to the west, and the installation takes on the cast of an austerely modern yet pleasantly welcoming park. But, upon entering the narrow alleys and plunging between higher and higher slabs, perspectives are sliced to a ribbon, other visitors are cut off from view, and an eerie claustrophobia sets in—even as some visitors (not just kids) play little games of hide-and-seek in the rectilinear maze. And the title, striking against the experience, creates sparks of metaphorical extrapolation: The Jews of Europe lived carefree, as in a park, until they wandered into frightening canyons of shadows from which the escape routes were narrow and distant. 

I would add that walking through the memorial becomes increasingly haunting, as other visitors appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. They existed, and then they don’t. The feeling that you are surrounded by ghosts is compounded by the echoes of unfamiliar voices that surround you.

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The names of all known victims of the Holocaust are weightily present at the memorial’s information center. In it, there is a room where each and every known victim’s name is read, along with the information known about the specific background and the location where the victim was murdered. Moreover, if the names of victims are the most appropriate way to memorialize, one needs only to walk in any city, town, or village in Germany and casually glance at the ground, where thousands of Stolpersteinecommemorate victims by name. Berlin is “heavy with history,” and it is a history that can only be conveyed through the interaction of its sites. Two other rooms in the information center explain the geographical extent of murder, answering Brody’s question of “where” with abundant educational detail. The first indicates the estimated number of Jews killed from every country in Europe. It is here that the significant but often unrecognized fact that about half of the victims of the Holocaust, three million, were Polish Jews. In contrast, while almost all of Germany’s Jews were also killed, that number was around 100,000. The other room details where every single concentration camp in Europe was; the exhaustive map might be called a constellation of death if there weren’t far too many dots to connect, rendering it almost illegible.

In what might be a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, Brody offers an alternative to the current memorial: “the restoration of that prominence [of Jewish life in Germany, especially Berlin], in a symbolic form, would make sense—maybe by way of a gigantic Star of David, occupying the entire ground and standing many stories high. That symbol would also be a fitting provocation: if it proved irritating, that feeling of irritation might stand most evocatively for the history in question.” Jewish prominence and presence might have been felt in a place like Berlin, where at its high point Jews composed ten percent of the population. Such an overbearing display would simply reiterate the Nazi myth of Jewish power and influence within Germany’s borders. Additionally, such a prominent presence would only be symbolic, which is the target of most of Brody’s critique. It’s symbolic in that the presence is not there; the Nazis accomplished their goal. The existing memorial more adequately symbolizes what was left behind of Europe’s Jewish population: an unadorned mass grave that will remain sewn into the center of Berlin’s urban fabric.

Ultimately, Brody’s critique of the memorial is rooted in his conflation of the function of a museum and a memorial. While a museum is designed to educate andn inform through various forms of narrative strategies and explanation, a memorial is designed to commemorate and elicit a self-reflective emotional response that might (should, I would argue) change over time for both the individual and society as a whole. Naming the perpetrators in a museum is necessary; naming them at a memorial risks being inappropriate. This is precisely the problem with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York. The faces, names, and motives of the perpetrators have to be there because it is a museum, but what does that mean for the memorialization of the victims? In the end, Brody’s article is the type of engagement (including his radical alternatives) that I think makes the memorial successful. The conversation about the memorial should not stop, just as the conversation of the subject being memorialized should continue. This type of ongoing conversation is the reason why the placards that continue to stand in places like Rastatt are a thing of the past. Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is adequate; more might be too much.

Facebook’s “25 Things” meme, three years later

Originally published on March 4, 2012.

How much erasure, invention, and manipulation of one’s personal history can be seen after an overview of a relatively extensive digital history? I started to think about this while going through my new Facebook Timeline to shape it exactly how I wanted it before launching. While doing so, I came across my ’25 Things about Me’ note from February, 2009. For those of you who either don’t remember this meme or who joined Facebook after it slowly died out, the idea was to note 25 random things about yourself in a Facebook note, then tag 25 friends, and on and on. The whole thing was at times annoying and at other times potentially inspiring, as Robert Lanham argued just days after I published my list.

The Timeline, more than any other Facebook reformat, encourages users to present their Facebook pages as a life narrative. While the assumption is that the narrative will be as close to ‘real life’ as possible, we all censor and shape our Facebook pages in various ways. The 25 Things meme was also a project in self-fashioning because it asked users to name things that would allow other Facebook friends to ‘get to know’ the user. The writer decided what was important.

I thought it would be interesting to go through my list now, three years later. I want to see how well they hold up over time, but the point is not to think about how I’ve changed. Rather, it is about considering how I decided to represent myself through Facebook in 2009.

1) I believe that “The Wire” is the best overall television show, of all time, ever. Early episodes of “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development,” however, are without question the funniest shows in the history of television.

2) I’m sometimes prone to hyperbole. 

3) I read The Onion every day.

I remember writing this trio as a way to kill three birds with one stone, as they say. Each subsequent item references the last. These three are an inside joke—mostly with myself.

4) I’m ok with the knowledge that I didn’t exist before I was born, and I’m similarly content with not existing after I die.

5) I’m clearly not religious.

What’s the fun in saying “I’m an atheist”?

6) I love, LOVE, graduate school.

There is a type of graduate student who spends a lot of time complaining about graduate school. Sometimes there’s a point to hyperbole.

7) I haven’t been to the symphony in a long time, but I hope to start going again this semester.

8) Ditto number seven with theater.

If I was trying to be pretentious, I spelled ‘theatre’ wrong.

9) I’ve seen Iron Maiden in concert five times.

And the closest thing to Iron Maiden I’ve seen since writing this has been The Swell Season.

10) I’ve been cooking a lot lately; I never realized how much fun it can be.

Surely I was trying to impress a girl with this one.

11) I’m determined to go to Germany this summer regardless of financial assistance, although the financial assistance would make it much easier (if anyone from the DAAD happens to be reading this, please give me money).

If this had a cosmic result, it was that it worked one time, never to be repeated again.

12) I’ve recently included “Rushmore” in my top five movies of all time; it replaced “Pulp Fiction” (the other four are “The Godfather,” “Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall,'” “Casablanca,” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).

This isn’t likely to change any time soon.

14) I like beer.

15) I like wine.

16) I like beer and wine more than making lists.

I suppose number 16 could be read as the thesis of the list.

18) I hope to travel more this year, and more in 2010 than 2009, and more in 2011 than in 2010, and so on, until I become a true itinerant (read: Cosmopolitan).

Done.

19) I hope to be exiled one day so I can better understand my historical subjects.

This is no longer applicable, although it might be again someday. In order to better understand my historical subjects today, it would require religious/ethnic/cultural intermarriage.

20) I’ve never voted for a Republican.

21) I’m a Democrat

I doubled up again, shoring up my case for number 16 for those who doubted it.

22) In the past three months, I’ve received more ties as gifts than I ever previously owned.

I wanted to flaunt my sartorial evolution. I also have two hats now that are not baseball hats.

24) I want to sell my car; it’s a blue 2001 Dodge Intrepid. I’m just saying.

This might have been the only reason that I wrote this list.

25) I pretend I can read and speak German, and I’m currently learning how to pretend to read French 

“Careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be”

That quote from Kurt Vonnegut sums it up. It can serve as a caution to be conscious of the way we represent ourselves on Facebook and in other internet venues. But it can also be encouraging. In the context of Facebook’s Timeline, I read it as an encouragement to resist fully aligning one’s personal life narrative with an internet one. We ultimately pretend to be things in both contexts, and there is a benefit in keeping them separate.

It is important to go back to internet memes from time to time to see what they tell us about ourselves and the time in which they were popular. One of the more recent Facebook trends is the statement of an identity or place, followed by a series of pictures with captions that present the perception of that identity or place by an outsider. While it was not the only one to say this, the ‘Mormon’ slide had a ‘What society thinks’ caption (the picture referenced polygamy). Such a caption is not only more appropriate for a different blog post, but also a different blogger. My only insight is that it implies self-perception more than anything else and contains the underlying assumption that Mormons (in this example) are outside of ‘society.’ How will we look back at this, and the many other iterations of it, years from now?

Confounding: Are the Rockies Rebuilding?

In the 2014 Hardball Times Baseball Annual, Jeff Moore analyzes six teams undergoing some form of “rebuilding.” He correctly notes that the concept has become a platitude in sports media, but that it still has explanatory value. In order highlight the utility of “rebuilding,” he parses the concept to represent different forms of practice implemented by a variety of organizations. Moore covers the “ignorance” of the Philadelphia Phillies who continue on as if their core of players wasn’t aging and Ryan Howard was ever a reliable contributor; the “recognition” of the New York Mets that they have to be patient for one or two more years before the pieces come together and, they hope, work as well as Matt Harvey’s new elbow should; the “overhauling” of the Houston Astros evident in their fecund farm system and arid big league squad; the “perpetual” rebuilding of the Miami Marlins in a different key from anyone else, most recently using the public extortion and fire sale method; the Kansas City Royals’ “deviation” by trading long-term potential for a short-term possibility; and the “competition” exemplified by the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates as they seemingly put everything together in 2013, though it remains to be seen whether or not they will need to rebuild again sooner rather than later. Although the Colorado Rockies are not on Moore’s radar, I think they fall into an altogether different category. They appear to be in a confoundingly stagnant state of non-rebuilding. The mode of rebuilding can be as stigmatizing as it is clichéd, and it is as if the Rockies are avoiding the appellation at the cost of the foresight it might bring. Or, I don’t know what the hell is going on, and I’m not convinced there is a clear plan.

That might sound unfair. But if we, like Moore, take the definition of rebuilding to essentially mean identifying a future window of opportunity and working towards fielding a competitive team to maximize that opportunity, but with the acceptance of present limitations, then I don’t think I’m far off. General Manager Dan O’Dowd is, inexplicably, the fourth longest tenured general manager in all of baseball, despite overseeing just four winning clubs in 14 full seasons. The only GMs who have held their current job longer are the dissimilarly successful Brian Sabean of the San Francisco Giants, Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees, and Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics. The possible moves that have been rumored suggest that Dan O’Dowd and de facto co-GM Bill Geivett are frozen by anything more than a one-year plan.

Let’s look at some of the possible moves that are garnering notice. Beat writer Troy Renck reports that the Rockies are eyeing first baseman Justin Morneau to replace the retired Todd Helton. Of all of the speculative deals, this one is most likely to happen. But what would this accomplish in the short and long-term? In the short term, it would provide a replacement for Todd Helton and possibly provide a bridge for either Wilin Rosario or prospect Kyle Parker to take over full time at first. The long term-effects are not as easy to identify, as his contract probably wouldn’t exceed two years.

It might sound just fine, until you realize that Morneau would be a “replacement” in more than one sense. Per Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Morneau hasn’t accrued an average major league season since the half-season he played in 2010. Hayden Kane over at Rox Pile notes that he slashed .345/.437/.618 before a concussion ended his 2010 season and most of the next, but those numbers were inflated by a .385 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), over .100 points higher than his career average. He was still well on his way to a successful season, but the effects the concussion had on his productivity cannot be overstated. Morneau accrued 4.9 war in the 81 games he played in 2010, and 0.4 since. Optimistically, if Morneau out-produces his projected line next year (.258/.330/.426, per Steamer projections), which he likely would do playing half of his games in Coors Field (except against lefties, who he can’t hit), he would at best be a league average hitter to go along with his average defense. Sure, it would be an improvement from the lackluster production from first base in 2013, but not enough to build beyond current listlessness.

Fundamentally, I believe that the Rockies do need a bridge before easing Rosario into a defensive position where he is less of a liability or seeing what the team has in Parker. But they already have the link in Michael Cuddyer. While he’s unlikely to reproduce the career year he had in his age 34 season in 2013, having Cuddyer play out his contract sharing time at first seems to be the better allocation of resources in the short-term. In January of 2013, Paul Swydan characterized the Rockies as an organization on a “quest for mediocrity.” Signing Morneau would go a long way toward realizing that goal.

In addition to possible additions via free agency, trade rumors are aren’t helping to clarify where the team is. It has been rumored that the Rockies are interested in trading for Anaheim’s Mark Trumbo, which would also fill the hole at first base that I don’t think actually exists yet. Trumbo, a power hitter, is misleadingly tantalizing. As opposed to Morneau, Trumbo is at least on the right side of 30; similarly though, Trumbo doesn’t get on base enough to provide the offense the boost it needs, especially on the road. He’d be a virtual lock to hit 30+ home runs, but he would also be sure to have an OBP hovering around .300. It’s unclear who would be involved in such a deal, as the Angels wouldn’t be interested in the Rockies’ primary trading piece, Dexter Fowler.

Speaking of Fowler, he’s going to be traded. In an interview with Dave Krieger, O’Dowd said that the organization has given up on him. Not in those words of course—rather, he noted that Fowler lacks “edge,” which is a bullshit baseball “intangible” that doesn’t tell us anything about the player in question, but rather that the front office seeks amorphous traits that can only be identified retrospectively. Reports have the Rockies in talks with Kansas City that would result in the teams swapping Fowler for a couple of relievers, likely two of Aaron CrowTim Collins, and Wade Davis. This, too, would maintain organizational stagnation.

The Rockies are practicing a confounding type of non-rebuilding, wherein veterans are brought in not with the idea that they can be valuable role-players (like Shane VictorinoMike Napoli, and Stephen Drew were for the Boston Red Sox last off-season), but as immediate solutions to problems that should be viewed in the long-term. I’m not as pessimistic as I might sound. The Rockies finished in last place for the second straight season in 2013, but with just two fewer wins than the Padres as Giants, and a true-talent level of about a .500 team. The thing about teams with a win projection of about 80 is that they can reasonably be expected to finish with as much as 90 wins—and as few as 70. If the Rockies are competitive in 2014, it will likely be due to health and a lot of wins in close games. I do, however, think they can be competitive starting in 2015. That’s the rebuilding window of opportunity the team should be looking at. If they are, it won’t be because of who is playing first base or right field, or even an improvement in hitting on the road, but progress in the true source of their problems: run prevention.

Last year, only the Twins and the lowly Astros allowed more runs per game. Despite this, for the first time in a while Rockies’ fans can be optimistic about the engine of run prevention, quality starting pitching. This is an area where the team can build a clear agenda for the future. Tyler Chatwood and Jhoulys Chacin should be reliable starters for the next few years. It’s unclear how many good years Jorge de la Rosa has left in him, and it’s also unclear whether or not Juan Nicasio can be a legitimate starter. But the Rockies have two polished, nearly big league ready pitching prospects in Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler—Rockies’ fans should be really excited about these two—so long as one of them is not one of the “young arms” rumored to be in play for Trumbo. If Gray and Butler can be shepherded to the big leagues in a timely manner and learn to pitch to major leaguers quickly, they could join Chatwood and Chacin for possibly the best rotations in Rockies history. And if the front office really wants to make a big free agent splash, the answers aren’t in the Brian McCanns or Jose Abreus of the world, but in splitter throwing, ground-ball inducing, 25 year old starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. His presence would likely push a rotation in 2015-2016 and possibly beyond from dependable to exceptional. Of course, it won’t happen. The Rockies, if they bid, will be outbid, and it’s precisely starting pitchers in demand tend to stay away from Colorado.

In a sense, every major league team is always in some stage of rebuilding, whether they admit it or not. My point is that I think there can be power in the admittance of it. De-stigmatizing the “rebuilding process” might contribute to the recognition that it’s not necessarily a multiyear process, and that being in the process is not an acknowledgement of failure. Recognition of this, which by itself should provide more foresight, should lead the organization and armchair observers like myself from a state of confusion due to the team’s pursuit of stagnation, to one of encouragement where progress can be visualized.

Also posted here: http://ericgarcia.kinja.com/confounding-are-the-rockies-rebuilding-1474869880?rev=1386003526

and herehttp://www.fangraphs.com/community/confounding-are-the-rockies-rebuilding/

Opening Day: The Nostalgia and Optimism of Baseball

It’s finally April, and nothing excites me more than the beginning of baseball season. The trope about baseball and spring is true: it is the time of the year for unencumbered optimism. For me, it’s always been the time of year with the most possibilities.

While growing up, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. This dream was not hindered by a critical, yet at the time overlooked, road block on the path toward fulfilling this dream: I was a terrible baseball player. Sure, I was pretty good while playing in uncompetitive parks and recreation leagues, where the equivalent of a tryout was the ability to pay the marginal entrance fee; a fee that returned a tee-shirt and a team name.

One of the things I remember most about playing on such teams was my obsession with personal statistics. Before the season, I would make a graph of all the statistics I wanted to keep track of throughout the year. I made sure that after the season was over, I would know among other things my batting average and how many runs I scored and batted in. I even took care to note minor statistics, such as assists. Looking back, it is evident that my attachment to baseball was mostly intermural. I wanted to win and play well, but more than that I wanted to know my numbers. I imagined that I could be ranked against all of my competitors and teammates. If I had spent as much time trying to keep my eyes open while fielding ground balls as making statistical charts for myself, I might have been a better ballplayer. I eventually played one year of competitive baseball as an eighth grader for the Junior Varsity team. I tried out and made the team, due to some good fortune and a gross oversight by the coaching staff. During this year, I didn’t bother much with statistics. After all, it was really easy to keep track of my .000 batting average without the tedium of daily bookkeeping, and I didn’t care to count how many errors I made. I’ve long accepted that I was not only a bad baseball player, but a bad baseball player who thought he was good.

When I think back to the time when I could call myself a ballplayer, I think about how every approaching baseball season was a time of optimism. My blank statistical charts—which I made less with the goal of measuring successes and failures than with the anticipation of being in a position to be successful and to accept failures—suggest this.

Eventually, I fully transferred by passion for baseball into fandom. Keeping track of someone else’s statistics was much easier and more fun than keeping track of my own—and definitely easier than keeping track of fly balls in the sun, a liberal use of eyeblack notwithstanding.

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Baseball is a historically minded game. Before I ever knew that I would become a historian, I became engrossed with the way that the game interacted with its past. Every player and team has a historical measure, and the feats of the contemporary baseball player are more often than not estimated relative to how close a current failure came to reaching a historical success. That is not to say that the unprecedented does not happen in baseball, because it does.

There is little I can say about the upcoming baseball season that hasn’t already been said by the hundreds of quality baseball writers that populate the Internet. Suffice to say that this season I have a “wish-list” of players and teams I want to watch, often with a mind toward thinking about a measure with the history of baseball.

It is not often that teenagers force the baseball world to rethink everything that came before. The first baseball player that I ever loved watching was Ken Griffey Jr., who debuted as a 19 year old. He had the most effortless home-run swing that I’ve ever seen. Junior—the one word signifier that seems to be reserved only for ballplayers that transcend their peers and predecessors—also played the outfield with a swagger and athleticism rarely seen. I didn’t think it likely that I would ever see another player like him, all the while doing the very common thing of looking forward to the next year and waiting for “the next Junior.” Of course, that didn’t happen. Comparisons are fun to make, but no two players are the same, just as the game itself changes from year to year and players adapt. Last year, however, two young outfielders, aged 20 and 19, began their careers and reminded me what it was like to watch Ken Griffey Jr. play for the first time. What might end up being unprecedented (at least in my lifetime) about the careers of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper is that they may end up being two “once-in-a-generation” players with career arcs that almost precisely overlap. Something that probably hasn’t happened since the time of Willie and Mickey.

Not unprecedented, but it would be something comparable only to my intimacy with baseball’s past, and not my own memory. Another comparison for such story-like continuity is not overlapping careers, but a transition: 1963 was recently deceased Stan Musial’s final year as a professional baseball player, and his final hit was a line-drive past rookie second-basemen Pete Rose—that means that from 1941until 1986, two of the greatest hitters to ever play were active. The scientific half of my historian’s mind tells me that it was coincidental, but the story-teller’s half knows that such continuity encapsulates baseball as a game and cultural institution with a fluctuating, yet unbroken, past.

Dominant pitching performances are the closest thing to art anyone is ever likely to find in sports. When I was growing up, baseball’s Rembrandt was Greg Maddux, its Picasso Pedro Martinez, and its Rothko Randy Johnson. The first excelled at precision and subtlety in that his pitches blended into darkness and light to the point that hitters could know what pitch was coming, and still could not turn it into a success. Pedro Martinez, rather, pitched in such a way that the ball may have appeared to change shape as much as speed. Martinez had a vision of the one-on-one competition between pitcher and hitter that exceeded that of most of his competition. Randy Johnson, finally, intimidated and immersed hitters with the illusive simplicity of a flamethrower that left many a hitter seeing red after listlessly swinging and missing not the fastball, but the wipe-out slider. In my mind, there are no contemporary comparisons to these three craftsmen, although the four that come closest are Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw—and I’m going to watch them pitch as many games as possible this year. The oldest of those players is only 30, and I tantalizingly don’t know what I will witness from them in this year and the future.

The excitement of a baseball season would not be complete without looking forward to seeing what my favorite baseball team, the Colorado Rockies, will do in their twenty first season of existence. Last year, the Rockies made their own bit of history by compiling the worst record in team history. That is not to say that my springtime optimism isn’t lost on this team. I’m quite optimistic that their performance this year will not be as bad as last year, if only because it is close to impossible for it to be worse, given the context of the injuries they suffered and the fact that however disastrous last year was, the team underperformed. That is, this year they should progress to the mean. I am also optimistic that the Rockies’ best player, Troy Tulowitzki, who a year ago was widely considered one of the best players in the game, will finally play another full season and remind everyone with a short-term memory that he still is one of the five best position players in all of baseball. Finally, I’m excited to see what some of the younger players can do. Will Josh Rutledge meet or possibly exceed the expectations recently lodged onto him? Will third-basemen of the future Nolan Arenado contribute to the present when he is inevitably called to play for the major league team in June? Can the young starting pitchers Drew Pomeranz, Christian Friedrich, and Tyler Chatwood harness their raw talent into the ability to pitch at the major league level? Beyond them, will younger pitchers such as Chad Bettis and Tyler Anderson live up to the potential that they might contribute to the team beyond 2013? I look forward to finding out, even though I know that not everything will turn out the way I hope at the moment.

Optimism is future-oriented, even in a game that is as historically minded as baseball. In the present, there is reason for optimism about the Rockies, given the blank statistical charts and 0-0 record as of April 1. In any case, the most fun part of the baseball season, beyond what appear to be the known quantities, will be witnessing the unexpected—perhaps even the unprecedented.

When Marriage Makes Sense

Originally posted on Open Salon on November 11, 2012

I don’t believe in marriage—or at least I didn’t. With an oft cited divorce rate of fifty percent in the United States, why would I want to participate? Or anyone else for that matter? To me, it seemed like gambling with fake money. I considered the reasons why people wanted to get married. There is the legal reason—to legitimize the marriage in the eyes of the state, and to sometimes reap the tangible benefits afforded by the law. There were also religious reasons; I recognized that many desired that their relationships be solemnized by a religious authority, but as an atheist this did not appeal to me. On the contrary, marriage was guilty by association. Neither the legal nor the religious reason to marry was particularly compelling. I simply didn’t think it made sense.

Then I started to pay attention to marriage equality. In the last several years, I’ve begun to rethink marriage—not just individually, but as an individual participating in a much broader effort to redefine marriage. I’ve become convinced that while marriage was a failing institution, its current redefinition, represented by same sex marriage, is revitalizing it. One of my most fundamental critiques of marriage was that people did not take it very seriously. Advocates of same sex marriage are working towards the universalization of marriage as a right, and by doing so are most conscious of the need to reinvest its value. “Traditional” marriage had long ago ceased to do this adequately, and it suffers for it. Marriage equality is reinventing the institution in the United States, and that is a good thing.

The odd thing about this redefinition is that it is fundamentally conservative. Recently, Slate published Andrew Sullivan’s classic 1989 article about the conservative argument for same sex marriage. Gay culture in the United States had long disdained marriage as the single greatest representation of heteronormativity. This has altered over the last twenty years, as the marriage equality movement attests. A radical approach to marriage might be the outright rejection of it, and same sex marriage is the opposite of that. While things have changed over the last twenty years what has remained constant is that the commitment that marriage signifies and the desire to raise a family in a dual parent household is the precise definition of conservative, even traditional, marriage.

Of course, radical approaches to marriage exist, but they are generally in opposition to the traditional view of marriage advanced by conservatives and marriage equality proponents alike. Laurie Shrage recently wrote in the New York Times that there is a cadre of political and legal theorists that argue marriage should be completely privatized. That is, what were previously deemed marriages would then be categorized as “civil unions.” People could still get married, but only by a private institution, and the union would not be recognized by the state unless registered as a civil union. While certainly more radical than same sex marriage, such an approach is not as novel as it seems. At least right now, it doesn’t appear to be a viable option. For one, while the proposal appears to further separate church from state, essentially giving private religious institutions total authority over the regulation of marriage would surely result in discrimination, which in turn would necessitate intervention from the state. Additionally, some religious institutions would probably advise congregants to avoid state registration as a “civil union,” again with the likely result of legal and political quagmires, especially in the event of children and divorce. The final reason that such a proposal would prove infeasible is that marriage equality is currently validating and legitimizing marriage in such a way that makes the protection of it more pressing. It certainly is elevating it to the point where if the state abjured marriage, there would be a diverse coalition of voices demanding that it remain an institution legitimized by the state. The argument Schrage writes about is a radical challenge to marriage, while same sex marriage is adaptation. Both forms indicate that the current iteration of marriage has to change with society, because it won’t happen the other way around, and stasis would signal its eventual end.

Everyone knows that marriage is being redefined, but everyone should also realize that it is not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last. Marriage is not a natural institution, but a constructed one that has changed in the course of history. This does not mean that marriage is without social or personal value, but only that such value cannot be derived from an idealistic form of marriage that never existed. We need to be aware that marriage will evolve in the future, just as it has changed over time. I read and write about marriage almost every single day. Not in the context of the contemporary United States, but historically and in Germany. I’m writing a dissertation on intermarriage among Jews, Catholics, and Protestants in Germany from 1875 until 1935. I start in 1875 because it was the date that obligatory civil marriage was introduced—which meant that all marriages had to first be registered at a local civil office before a religious solemnization could take place (which was optional). Such a law opened up new paths for possible marriages that had previously been regulated by religious authorities and subject to strict conditions. In Germany at the time, inter-religious marriages were problematic unions and were often perceived as morally transgressive. The state, at least insofar as state functionaries could be detached from their religious belonging, did not view the union of two people from different religions as terribly suspect. Nevertheless, myriad arguments were made, mostly by religious authorities, that the intermarriages were fundamentally immoral: spiritual alignment was viewed as the single most important matter in a marriage, and ignoring such a unity condemned the marriage to sure failure, and the family to inevitable discord. The innocent victims of the marriages were, of course, the children, who grew up in divided houses. They observed and internalized conflicting ideals from the parents. They were left hopelessly confused as to the right path to follow, and would most likely end up adhering to no religion at all. This to the detriment of society. Such a line of argument should feel familiar. Religious elites made this argument for a long time; some probably continue to make it today. However, such opinions do not get a lot of press because the problematic marriages they condemned have been normalized. So it happens in the evolution of marriage, and it is happening today. My dissertation ends in 1935, when Nazi Germany introduced the Nuremburg Laws. If anyone thinks that marriage cannot be leveraged for discriminatory purposes, the provision outlawing marriage between Jews and “Germans” should quickly dispel that illusion.

The struggle to define marriage has a different focus today. The movement for equal marriage rights has not only tempered my critique against it, but it has also caused me to want to be a part of the institution. On November, 6, Maryland, Maine, and Washington voted to legalize same sex marriage in their respective states (Minnesota’s vote was less a vote for gay marriage than it was against codified inequality), joining Iowa, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington D.C. as states that recognize marriage equality. The three most recent additions to the list were the first to reach it through popular vote. These states should be commended for voting for equality, but it is not enough to wait for all fifty states to pass measures providing for parity. In order to normalize marriage equality, a constitutional amendment needs to define marriage as the agreed upon partnership between two consenting adults, with all attendant rights and responsibilities that come with a marriage contract in its current form.

My partner and I had discussed waiting to get married until the Constitution extended the right to all U.S. citizens. While we both think that it will happen sooner rather than later, and certainly within our lifetimes, we decided that aging in solidarity with the marriage equality movement would not catalyze constitutional action.  So, we did the next best thing: we got married in a state that recognizes marriage equality. On a recent trip to New York City, we were married at the Marriage Bureau in lower Manhattan on the same day as an array of other couples, both gay and straight. We wouldn’t have had it any other way. While waiting at the marriage bureau, our witness spoke to a family member on the phone. “I’m at the Marriage Bureau,” he said, prompting his relative to exclaim, “are you getting married!?”  He replied nonchalantly, “No, I haven’t met the right person.” I was heartened to know that I was in a place where, if he did meet the right man, he could have gotten married on that day with us.

Alternative Museums in the Former Yugoslavia: Everyday Narratives of the Past, Present, and Future

This post was co-authored with Jovana Babovic

Museums are aimed at educating the general public about history; they are the everyday historian in society. But they also create narratives—national ones, colonial ones, cultural ones—that are too often the province of linear histories and retroactive significance. Scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Tony Bennett have long argued that museums are sites where state and institutional power manifests and is created dialectically with its audience. So while most museums can be criticized, we should also take care to notice alternative approaches to telling public history. Living and traveling through former Yugoslavia has revealed a particularly vibrant presence of museums with alternative narratives. It’s not accidental. Twenty years after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, competing narratives of the past and present run rampant as successor states struggle to define their identities in a world where their collective past no longer makes sense. More importantly, the aftermath of the 1990s wars has left a veritable historical vacuum, and most of the former Yugoslav states now face the challenge of coming to terms with the wars, as well as their social, economic, and cultural aftermath. Although more traditional museums remain conspicuously silent on the post-war decades, alternative museums have made great strides in prioritizing the topics that have remained marginalized. Belgrade’s Museum of Violence (MoV), Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships (MBR), and street art in the two cities embody the necessity, possibilities, and limitations of non-normative museums. Rather than creating narratives, they provide a platform for the public to contribute their voice as donors and curators; they point toward reconciliation with recent history and allow individuals to become agents of their own past and present.

In Belgrade, alternative museums are a necessity. Visitors and residents have not had the opportunity to experience Serbia’s state-funded museums in the last two decades; the National Museum has been closed for renovations so long that locals can hardly remember its permanent collection, and the Contemporary Art Museum operates several satellites throughout the city while its central location is closed and in disrepair. In their place, private galleries and pop-up museums funded by NGOs, foreign cultural organizations, and small state stipends have taken the lead in telling the stories of Serbian history. Better yet, they have given individuals a public platform to tell their own stories.

In early February 2013, The Museum of Violence opened in the Belgrade Cultural Center’s Podroom gallery. The museum exhibits medical reports, police reports, x-rays, and photographs as tangible documentation of physical violence that individuals have anonymously donated. At times, a first-person narrative details the circumstances of the attack(s), while most documents are fragments that hint at untold stories. The museum classifies violence into five broad categories: domestic violence, xenophobia, LGBT violence, peer violence (mostly bullying), and institutional violence. MoV is commendable for taking a bold step toward heightening awareness of violence in contemporary Serbia and drawing attention to the prevalence of violence in everyday life without relying on voyeuristic imagery. But there is room for improvement. First, while the medical reports are intended to speak for themselves, medical jargon and x-ray images are not contextualized and remain mostly illegible to non-specialists. For visitors who do not speak the local language, the illegibility of the exhibit extends to the medical and police reports that are presented only in Serbian. Second, the personal narratives are the key link between the physical manifestation of violence and its meaning to the victim—the difference between a broken arm and a hate crime. However, when no narrative is present, little explanation is given about the categorization of violent acts; that is, how does an x-ray suggest the injury was inflicted by xenophobia rather than peer violence? More importantly, these categories implicitly give agency to the aggressor without ascribing accountability. Although it is debatable to what degree the attacker should be present in a museum dedicated to victims, MoV overlooks that the underpinning goal of most acts of violence is to create fear. By reducing violence to medical imagery, the museum does not account for the emotional and psychological effects of physical violence.

Although unfortunately located cities apart, the exhibit at the MoV can be read in dialogue with Igor Grubić’s two-channel video “East Side Story” (2008) displayed at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Grubić pits two streams simultaneously against one another on perpendicular walls: one shows documentary footage of violence during Gay Pride parades in Belgrade in 2001 and Zagreb in 2002, while the other channel plays a modern dance re-interpretation of these events. The footage shows protestors, mobs, and—most pertinently—individual violence against parade participants, bystanders, and the police. At the same time, it is difficult to decipher who is attacking who, and why, leaving us to further question MoV’s typology; for example, how do we categorize the violence against the police or vandalism of the city? In the other projection, dancers are dressed in street clothes as they perform in the urban locations where the violence occurred—while in the background, urban life goes on without interruption. Although they are shown in a continuous sequence of individual performance for the majority of the film, they come together at the end to enact their movements together. This is the first time that the choreographed dance appears violent, not unlike the documentary footage—the solitary dances become volatile in a group setting.

How do these two exhibits function in the post-Yugoslav space? In “East Side Story,” we see the violence—the victims, the aggressors, the setting, and the act—in contrast to an emotional reinterpretation. Grubić’s project reminds us that the psychological effects of violence in the early 2000s linger on the city streets a decade later. However, “East Side Story” also elicits a visceral reaction, but may end up being more voyeuristic than educational (it is hard to look away). Additionally, the projection is nestled in a large art museum far from Zagreb’s center—its relative inaccessibility and lack of contextualization is disarming. Belgrade’s MoV, on the other hand, appears in a downtown location on the Republic Square, meters from the closed National Museum; it is accessible and free. The MoV prioritizes the theme of violence and lends individual victims a platform to share their experience. Yet, by reducing violence to its physical manifestation, the museum leaves the visitor with many unanswered questions. These two different approaches to coming to terms with violence are positive steps toward nurturing civil society in the former Yugoslavia, and they should be viewed side by side. Both hold that violence is foremost a violation of human rights; both aim to promote violence awareness and prevention; both are critical of local society. And both aim to make them better.

Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships contends with a similar agenda of individual voice in a cultural space where it has been generally devalued. This museum is built around objects contributed by donors who remain mostly anonymous. The exhibits are intended to tell the story of “failed relationships and their ruins” through everyday objects that mark their legacy—from clothing and letters, to gifts and seemingly mundane trinkets endowed with personal meaning. Loose categories like distance, death, and elusive foundations organize the collection thematically, while the objects are paired with the narratives of the donors, some short and some detailed, sometimes witty and at other times tragic vignettes about the relationship’s failure. Although the museum claims to offer its contributors “a chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation,” many voices point rather to the persistence of cumbersome emotions, unresolved endings, and a distinct lack of closure. Broken relationships, after all, continue to shape individual action, for better or for worse, and likely also inaugurate future relationships. A second critique is that the museum accepts a simple definition of a relationship, one between two heterosexual people and based on either love or lust. MBR could certainly move beyond its novelty if it approached relationships as more diverse, as well as dynamic in their afterlife. Finally, for a museum that was developed in the former Yugoslavia and deals with failed relationships, it is noticeable that the exhibit makes little point to consider the weightier issues of inter-cultural, inter-national, or inter-religious relationships that remain the defining traits of Yugoslav history. The legacy of the broken state, likewise, haunts some of the donated objects, but Yugoslavia remains the elephant in the room.

Beyond the walls of museums and galleries, the streets of both Belgrade and Zagreb can be considered alternative platforms for critical individual voice. In Belgrade, the living gallery spans the city and the suburbs, while in Zagreb it is localized on the walls of the downtown train yard. The lively presence of street art like graffiti, murals, and stencils is emblematic of societies where the voice of the individual remains marginalized and where alternative expression is allowed little room. In both cities, the streets constitute the last resort for individuals and sometimes communities, and serve as a testament that traditional museums and galleries are not yet equipped to serve as a mouthpiece of diversity in post-war societies. It is on the streets of former Yugoslav cities that residents voice political discontent, point out social paradoxes, splash color on the otherwise gray-scape buildings, and effectively integrate themselves into the urban texture. Artists preserve the agency to curate their own work—they choose the location, the medium, the theme. More importantly, street art is visible, accessible, and active: it invites the passerby to look, to photograph, to engage, and to alter. Although it remains largely unsanctioned, the very presence of street art in Belgrade and Zagreb is a living alternative museum of societies-in-crisis, but also proof that they are becoming increasingly more integral, aware, and engaged communities.

In making the case for the powerful role of non-traditional museums, it is not our intent to undermine the place of traditional museums. Rather, we argue that alternative museums play a critical function in filling the post-war political power vacuum in the former Yugoslavia. Where traditional museums are struggling to re-retell the narrative of the state and nation, they continue to overlook the individual voice in societies that remain burdened by the dissolution and its effects. The Museum of Violence and the Museum of Broken Relationships, much like the streets of Belgrade and Zagreb, are important new spaces for coming to terms with the past—of the failed Yugoslav relationship, as much as the 1990s wars and their consequences—but also for building new civil societies and endowing citizens as agents of their own futures.

Beale Street: No Fun Zone

Originally posted on Open Salon on May 28, 2012, this post was co-authored by Eric Garcia and Jovana Babovic. 

Memphis’s Beale Street has a place in America’s popular history as ground zero of the blues, and later rock’n’roll.  In the latter half of the nineteenth century, travelling musicians began to perform in the neighborhood, and by the turn of the century, Beale Street began to flourish as an entertainment district. Many legends of blues crossed paths—and many stayed on Beale Street in the 1920s and 1930s—when the neighborhood’s heyday rang in the style dubbed the “Memphis blues.” However, by the 1960s, two of the densest blocks were sectioned off as a National Historic Landmark in an effort to halt the spread of urban decay that was afflicting the region. Beale Street was designated for investment and re-building, but the urban renewal was not successful until the 1980s. It is now billed as one of the central tourist attractions in Memphis; as visitors to the city in 2011, we were eager to see how Beale Street was integrated into the urban fabric. In an unexpected twist, we didn’t have fun on Beale Street.

In a recent article, Will Doig wrote about “blocks where no one has fun.” These portions of a city, he argues, are products of a single visionary (usually a billionaire) or a developer who attempts to impose a particular function onto urban space. They are “swath[es] of cityscape whose character has been pre-ordained by a city council vote and is now identified by brightly colored banners affixed to lampposts.” Using Dallas’Arts Districts the case par excellence of a block where no one has fun, he then contrasts it to places such as Water Street in Milwaukee. According to Doig, the latter developed with governmental assistance and represents an example in which art and culture might develop organically in urban spaces that already have (or had) a place in the city’s fabric. The “blocks were no one has fun” moniker does not fit Memphis’ Beale Street. Beale Street is neither hyper-planned, nor is it an organically developing center of culture; it’s in between. It is a place that is supposed to be fun because history attests to it having been fun. Yet, the joy feels manufactured, much like the history of Beale Street, and it is therefore no fun at all. Beale Street becomes more akin to a Disneyland of Blues, where you purchase your fun at an inflated price: cover charge at every bar, $12 pints, and garage parks by the hour. These costs are circularly justified—after all, it is Beale Street.

Unlike Dallas’ Arts District, the problem with Beale Street is not its inauthenticity, but its insistent authenticity. Its revitalization meant new venues and businesses that fit within a clearly demarcated idea of what Beale Street meant historically and ostensibly also what it should mean today. The “authentic” experience one now gets on Beale Street is something that had never existed before. It does not have the problem of unused spaces, which plagues Dallas’ Arts District, but contemporary Beale Street has a similar problem. Doig argues that Dallas’ empty spaces create a “vacuum [that] has made the district itself a museum of sorts, something impressive to observe but strangely inert.” Beale Street has also become a museum, but it is not because it is abandoned or empty. Instead, it is something akin to a reanimated historical relic and a lived museum of blues history. Beale Street is crowded, and it’s evident that the majority of its patrons are tourists: college kids, families, and older couples. People come to Beale Street because of its past. Yet, the street is inert precisely because of this: in the attempts to capture history—a zeitgeist—Beale Street only captures the tourist market.

The legacy of Beale Street, but also its contemporary reiteration, was one of the things that attracted us, too, to Memphis. And, indeed, you hear blues’ standards on Beale Street. However, it’s difficult to hear anything else; the commodification of Beale Street into the historical blues epicenter of the country has excluded all other genres from the area. The music remains good—whether a singer-songwriter in third-floor lounge or an energetic five-man band pumping out Sam & Dave covers—but it’s hardly possible to enjoy it on Beale Street. Crowds of inebriated tourists snake in and out of bars seemingly unaware of the different performers, families with unhappy toddlers sit down for dinner at B.B. King’s, and the flashes of cameras are frequent enough to induce blindness. Everywhere we looked, people were racing to “experience” Beale Street—to drink in the zoned off street (an additional novelty), to eat fries, and to document all the fun they had while the blues played in the background. But, just steps outside the marked Beale Street area, Memphis becomes a ghost town.

In order to take in more music, we tried off Beale Street venues. In Cooper Young, we were met with a local band rendering Radiohead-esque interpretations of the blues. But, unlike Beale Street, the audience at this show was so scant that the band delayed their set several times, apparently hoping that more patrons would arrive. Despite the fantastic performance, we were disheartened by the lack of an audience. On another evening, we walked on empty streets and under a highway overpass for the specific purpose of listening to a local performer who came highly recommended, only to be disappointed that the show—at another small and empty venue doubling as a pizza parlor—had been cancelled.

On and off Beale Street, music was hard to enjoy in Memphis. Part of the problem is the demand. Because Beale Street is essentially a tourist destination—a historical site of the blues—it’s trapped in commercialization. Other sites of music in Memphis, such as Graceland and Stax Studios (now theStax Museum of American Soul Music), have been transformed into museums where the experience is geared towards learning about the history of music, rather than participating in it. Yet, unlike Graceland and Stax, Beale Street professes to be a space where the blues can be experienced live, not where it is memorialized or historicized. This feeds into the other part of the problem—supply. Beal Street has an official website, a Facebook page, and daily tours. It is branded as “the home of the blues” and “the birthplace of rock’n’roll,” while an unselfconscious advertisement professes that “Beale Street was built on memories.”

But Beale Street was not built on memories. It was built by the energy of the Delta blues, the communities of musicians who jammed together, and the intersections of American history. It might be better said that Beale Street today is being built on commercial aspiration. Here is where Beale Street, like the Dallas Arts District, falls into a similar trap Doig outlines. Why didn’t we have fun on Beale Street? As a place of tourism, Beale Street comes at a high price. As a place of history, Beale Street capitalizes on an undisclosed, yet static, moment in blues history. And, as a place of entertainment, Beale Street hardly makes an effort to veil its mass-consumption fun. We didn’t have fun on Beale Street because fun entailed participation in commercial consumption, and hardly had anything to do with history, and much less music.

How could Memphis’s Beale Street be transformed into a music district that lives up to its promises of being “the home of the blues?” An obvious suggestion is to make the area more affordable, and thus more attractive as a lived neighborhood for local residents and local musicians. Another consequence of Beale Street’s commercialization is that it has excluded music incompatible with the “blues” label; the city would do well to open a more inclusive repertoire that might promote an organic development of a new Memphis sound. And, finally, instead of cordoning off music into several blocks, Memphis might benefit from supporting music outside the Beale Street limits—its visitors surely would.