Monday, October 29, 2018

The Big Stretch

Note: A version of this piece first appeared in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page in 2002.

The prototype was assembled during a lull in seventh grade shop class. After tying some 15 rubber bands together to make a chain, a collaborator held one end of the silly looking contraption as I stepped back to stretch it out for a test. Aiming as best I could, looking along the taut line of connected rubber bands, I let go.

The whole thing gathered itself and shot past the holder. The released tip struck a target, or maybe it was near it, several feet beyond the holder. It worked! While the satisfaction I felt was a rush, the encouragement from the boys who witnessed that launching was glorious.

Through a pleasant sequence of trial-and-error experiments, it wasn't long before I figured out how to best maximize distance and accuracy. Once guys across the schoolroom were getting popped with the bitter end of my brainchild, dubbed the Stretch, the spitballs that routinely flew around such rooms in 1961 at Albert H. Hill Junior High were strictly old news. The next two days of playing with the new sensation of the seventh grade had the effect of transforming me into the leader of a crew, of a sort.

A couple of days later, uncharacteristically, I appeared on the schoolyard an hour before the first bell. Inside a brown paper bag I had was an updated version of my invention. This one was some 60 links long. Of course, it's name was the Big Stretch.

Only my most trusted henchmen had seen it in its test runs. No one else at school had seen it and naturally, I was only too happy to change that. Once the Big Stretch was mind-boggling range had been demonstrated on the schoolyard, boys were soon shoving one another aside just to act as the holder. With this new version, most of the time I did the shooting.

Occasionally, one of the guys from my inner circle was permitted to be the shooter. As the wonder whizzed by it made such a splendid noise that just standing close by the holder was a thrill, too. On the asphalt playground adjacent to the yellow brick school building an enthusiastic throng cheered each flight.

The Big Stretch went on to make an appearance at an afternoon football game, where its operators established to the delight of the audience that cheerleaders on the sideline could be zapped on their bouncing butts from 25 yards away with impunity. After a couple of days of demonstrations around the neighborhood and at Willow Lawn shopping center, again, I significantly lengthened the chain of rubber bands. But the new version, about 100 rubber bands long, proved too heavy for its own good. It was not as accurate or powerful as the previous model. 

A day or so later, came the morning a couple of beefy ninth-grade football players insisted on taking a single turn as shooter and holder of the new Big Stretch. The they demanded a second turn. I said, "No." Surrounded by seventh-grade devotees of the Big Stretch, I stood my ground. But my fair-weather entourage was useless in a pinch.

Faced with no good options, I fled with my claim-to-fame in hand. In short order I was cornered and pounded until the determined thieves got the loot they wanted. They fooled around for a while trying to hit their buddies with it. Eventually, several rubber bands broke and the Big Stretch was literally pulled to pieces and scattered.

By then my nose had stopped bleeding, so I gathered my dignity and shrugged off the whole affair, as best I could. For whatever reasons, I chose not to make another version of the Big Stretch. A couple of other kids copied it, and showed it off, but nobody seemed to care. Just as abruptly as it had gotten underway, the connected-rubber-band craze simply ran out of gas at Hill School.

It was over.

At that same time the slang meaning of “cool” had an underground cachet that has been stretched all out of it shape in 1961. We’re told the concept of cool, and the term itself, seeped out of the early bebop scene in Manhattan in the ‘40s.

Well, that may be so, but to me the same delightful sense of spontaneity and understated defiance seems abundantly evident in forms of expression that predate the Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk era at Minton’s, on 118th Street.

Wasn’t that Round Table scene at the Algonquin Hotel, back in the ‘20s, something akin to cool? Hey, if Dorothy Parker's writing wasn’t cool, what the hell was? And, in the decades that preceded the advent of bebop jazz, surely modern art -- with its cubism, surrealism, constructivism, and so forth -- was laying down some of the rules for what became known as cool.

Cool’s zenith had probably been passed by 1961, about the time I was becoming enamored with the Beats, via national magazines. Looking back on that time now I have to think that widespread exposure and cool were more or less incompatible. Significantly, cool -- with its ability to be flippant and profound in the same gesture -- rose and fell without the encouragement of the ruling class.

Underdogs invented cool out of thin air. It was a style that was beyond what money could buy. The artful grasping of a moment’s unique truth was cool.

However, just as the one-time-only perfect notes blown in a jam session can’t be duplicated, authentic cool was difficult to harness; even more difficult to mass-produce. By the ‘70s, the mobs of hippies attuned to stadium rock ‘n’ roll shrugged nothing off. Cool was probably too subtle for them to appreciate. The expression subsequently lost its moorings and dissolved into the soup of mainstream vernacular.

Eventually, in targeting self-absorbed baby boomers as a market, Madison Avenue promoted everything under the sun -- including schmaltz, and worse -- as cool. The Disco craze ignored cool. Punk Rockers searched for it in all the wrong places, then caught a buzz and gave up. By the mid-'80s nihilism masqueraded as cool ... then it just stopped mattering. 

Since then, when people say, “ku-wul,” usually it's to express their ordinary approval of routine things. Which underlines the lesson that time usually stretch slang expressions thin as they are assimilated. "Cool" probably had a longer run that most such pop slang. 

The process of becoming cool, then popular, surely pulled the Big Stretch to pieces at Hill School. Once the experimental aspect of it was over it got old, like any worn out joke. Once it began to play as just another showoff gimmick that was something less than cool, even to goofy seventh-graders a long time ago.

Hey, if Dorothy Parker's writing wasn’t 
cool, what the hell was? 

-- Photo of Albert H. Hill Middle School from RVA Schools 
My Dorothy Parker illustration was done in 2013. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Truth and Context

On May 29, 1890, the unveiling of the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee began Monument Avenue's telling of a story. According to published reports, the ceremony drew over 100,000 spectators.

Over the next 39 years four additional memorials honoring heroes of the Confederate States of America were added along Richmond's most celebrated thoroughfare. Since those five monuments were installed their shadows have slyly promoted what has come to be known as the Lost Cause version of history. In our time they also serve the cause of white supremacists.

On June 22, 2017, Richmond's mayor, Levar Stoney, called a press conference to announce the establishment of a new commission to study Monument Avenue's history and make constructive recommendations to deal with the longstanding problems its Confederate memorials have posed and the relatively new ones they invite.

At that presser Stoney stopped short of calling for the consideration of monument-removal. But 51 days later came the shocking riot in Charlottesville, which prompted Stoney to instruct the Monument Avenue Commission to include examining the possibility removing statues. Obviously, after that riot the worries for City Hall had escalated beyond just removing graffiti and coping with occasional noisy but peaceful demonstrations.

Following roughly a year of work, on July, 2, 2018, the MAC issued its 117-page report. Highlights of the report's recommendations included adding contextual signage adjacent to the statues' pedestals. Such displays would offer a viewer an accurate picture of who those men were and how they came to be memorialized. However, the MAC's most attention-getting recommendation called for removing the Jefferson Davis Monument.
Naturally, that suggestion made the headlines. Yet, it must be noted that until some legal hurdles are cleared, actually removing the Davis Monument from its current site remains unlikely, because laws passed by the General Assembly to protect war memorials, statewide, forbid it.

It should also be noted that of the 168 war memorials in Virginia, 136 of them are associated with the Confederacy. So, it's not hard to see what's being protected today by the Republican majority in the General Assembly – a majority that may soon, itself, be history.

Meanwhile, given the news-making recommendations in the MAC report, together with the legal barriers in place, what can we look forward to in the next chapter of the Monument Avenue story?

Here's Mayor Stoney's response to that question: “We know that the Confederate monuments are more than physically symbolic; they represent the manifestation of racism and Jim Crow within almost every aspect of our society. They do not reflect the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity that we are diligently working toward in today’s Richmond. The immediate goal is progress toward an accurate and holistic reinterpretation of the existing monuments. We must continue to move forward, and we will.”

The MAC formally presented its report to City Council on October 1, 2018. Although the Planning Commission still needs to weigh in, it appears contextual signage is probably on the way, unless, of course, politicians would find it safer to just do nothing. Therefore, it's important that Stoney shows the political will to keep the process moving.

Meanwhile, Stoney's mention of "reinterpretation" will surely not please two camps. On one side will be those who will go on insisting that all five of the monuments must be pulled down tomorrow. On the other side will be those who will go on proclaiming that any changes whatsoever to do with Monument Avenue will amount to trampling on sacred turf.

Moreover, those predictable reactions will be consistent with politics, in general, these days. Today so much of the political energy is concentrated in the extremes that instead of the consensus-building politics of the melting pot we have politics of the centrifuge. Ironically, the current political landscape bears some resemblance to the atmosphere leading up to the Civil War, when moderation and compromise were seen as passionless and useless.

By the way, the MAC's information gathering process found that among its participants who responded to poll questions, most want change in some form. Now it will be up to Richmond's elected lawmakers to decide how to answer that call.

Yes, adding the contextual signage recommended by the MAC will be called “incrementalism,” or worse, by some folks clinging to an all-or-nothing approach. Nonetheless, at this desk it's hoped that most Richmonders will see that adding historically accurate contextual signage will be a sensible first step toward real progress.

Maybe best of all, it will be a step out of the shadows cast by untruths. It will be a step toward recognizing that context is integral to the appreciation of the difference between the truth of the whole story and stale propaganda.

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