Sunday, April 08, 2007


(News-Herald, September 2003)This summer I had the chance to stop in DC. I hadn’t been in quite a few years, and I think everyone should drop in every decade or so. You won’t find a better collection of cool free stuff anywhere else (actually, strictly speaking, it’s not so much free as we taxpayers have already paid our admission price).

The mall was mostly as I remembered it. There was little evidence of security concerns. Museums required a brief check of handbags and backpacks. The Washington Monument was loosely surrounded by concrete highway dividers creating a barrier that would require terrorists to spend an additional ten seconds approaching the spire.

I had my first look at the Vietnam and Korean memorials. Both are moving in their own ways. The Vietnam Memorial was larger than I imagined, moving and elegant. The World War II memorial is under construction, destined to be a subtle but stirring addition to the non-Lincoln end of the reflecting pool.

I stopped mainly to look at the Smithsonian, but ended up devoting more time to the national art galleries.

I didn’t particularly expect to be gripped by the art, but apparently I was in an arty mood. The thing is, the national gallery has so many familiar works. And yet, though you think you’ve seen these works, you haven’t.

Take the Monet cathedral paintings, or Van Gogh’s Roses. I have seen prints of these paintings more times than I can count. But it isn’t the same. No print that I’ve ever seen captures the intensity of the color, and nothing at all captures the actual sight of the brushstrokes, the texture on the canvas. For me, there’s also the realization that I am looking at the exact materials that the painter himself touched and applied a century or so ago.

There was a Dutch work with a moon so bright, light thrown across a dark nightscape that seemed to glow. Rembrandt as an older man, more real and solid than a photograph. A Seurat lighthouse; up close some dots distinct with others carrying the imprint of a tool used to flatten them.

There were plenty of folks in the museum just breezing through, glancing at work after work, nodding at the familiar the same way you acknowledge a hit coming on the radio for the twentieth time. I’ve seen that before and I’ll see it again, their half-attentive glances seemed to say.

It strikes me as one of the most prevalent human mistakes, all summed up in that moment.

I don’t just mean the appreciation of art. I can look at Monet’s work and feel it, like a palpable thump to the heart, a jolt to the center of my chest. But that’s me, my reaction, not necessarily yours.

But the intensity of that moment, standing before that painting and feeling the sight and sense of it—that’s an unrepeatable experience. I can buy a print, download it as a screensaver, even take along a digital camera and snap a picture. But it won’t be the same.

One of the great seductions of technology is the notion that our saved shadows and imitations of experience are as true and powerful as the real thing. We think that if we’ve seen a picture of the painting, we’ve seen the painting. We think if we listen to the cd, we’ve heard the performer. If we watch love or loss on the dvd, then it’s the same as going through the experience.

Well, no, it’s not.

And sadder than our belief about the recording of experiences we’ve never had is our belief that we can capture moments of our own lives.

How many weddings have been commandeered by the videographer capturing the experience on tape? How many children’s performances have been cluttered by parental recorders?

The mistake is in the belief that we can really capture and relive these moments. We can’t. Each moment, each experience comes just once, and if you ignore it the first time because you’re busy “capturing” it on film, you’ve lost something that you won’t ever get back. We miss living it as it happens, thinking we can have the experience later, at our leisure. But what we return to will be the empty shell; the real thing will be gone.

Imitations, reminders, keepsakes of life are all well and good, but it’s no good to miss the real stuff of life on the way. It doesn’t matter if it’s the real Monet on the museum wall or the moment when the sun cuts through the mist below a tree stand on the first day of deer season or the game when you’re perfectly in tune with the ball and the team or the perfect kiss that draws the air right up out of your heart—you’d better pay attention to the moment while it’s there, because no cage known to man can hold it.

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