In a handbasket

As I get ready to fly to Las Vegas on Thursday, where I will be staying in that "other" Paris, the one that, sadly, many Americans will happily substitute for the real European city-- the one we visited just last month-- I couldn't help but think about the ever-blurring line between reality and manufactured reality.

There's nothing like staying at Paris Las Vegas, where the facade looks like it's made of foam core and the shops all sell French bric-a-brac, which usually means rooster serving dishes and rooster coasters and rooster pitchers. What is it with the roosters? It's like someone told the Las Vegas folks that French country style is all about roosters and they haven't looked back since. But if it makes people feel more French and if it makes them gamble a bit more, who's really to mind? After all, Las Vegas has always been about fake reality, from the New York skyline to the Venetian canals. Even the lighting in all the shopping areas makes it feel like perpetual dusk.

I'm going to Las Vegas to judge the photojournalism category at the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International conference. And as you can imagine, there are a few wedding photojournalists--just a few--for whom the line between reality and staged is already fairly thin. Those walking-down-the-country-road-and-dipping-the-bride pictures might fool them but they don't fool me. I've shot 450 consecutive weddings and have never seen that happen for real. So maybe Paris Las Vegas, with all those roosters, is the perfect venue. And then again, maybe I'm a good person to ask to judge.

I had already been in this frame of mind, of distinguishing real from fake, after my brother's brilliant op-ed piece in this past Sunday's New York Times. In that column, Daniel discussed the rash of fabricated memoirs that have plagued the publishing world of late, beginning with James Frey "A Million Little Pieces" a few years back, and ending with last week's revelation that the highly touted autobiography of Margaret Jones (in actuality, Margaret Seltzer), "Love and Consequences," is a complete and utter fraud. (She said she was a half-white, half-Native American member of a South Central gang. Turns out she was an all-white valley girl, which, I guess, is close enough for government work, as I like to say.)

As Daniel pointed out, the crimes of these fabulists is not that they've plagiarized work, but rather plagiarized experience. The sadness, the suffering, the horrors of these respective memoirs belong not to them but to other people. Even the genre of Holocaust memoirs has been sullied--a field my brother and I know something about--with the revelation that a bestselling 1997 memoir by a Polish Jew was all made up, right down to the sympathetic wolves.

(In hindsight, one would think that would have been a giveaway. Kindly wolves? It sounds like an after school special. There's a an old Woody Allen stand-up routine I used to listen to when I was a teenager, the one where he's "discovered" at a Klan rally. As Woody tells it, he's at this rally and they ask for donations and when it comes his turn he says, "I pledge fifty dollars." About to be killed, he relates how his whole life flashes before his eyes--growing up in the South, buying gingham for Emmmy Lou--until he realizes that it's the wrong life that's flashing.)

Believe it or not, though it will all seem apropos in a moment, none of this was on my brain this afternoon, when, as I was driving my car on the George Washington Parkway, I realized this country was going to hell in a handbasket faster than a speeding bullet. And it all has to do with more fake reality. Yup, it was right near the Key Bridge, as I listened to a WTOP radio report about a new vest that is being marketed to "hardcore gamers," those people who spend their entire lives waving their arms at their fifty inch LCD televisions, that I knew it was time to hoist the Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter banner.

Why, you ask? What could be so wrong with a vest for video gamers? Well, you see, this particular vest, made by a company called TN Games (I was driving and trying to scribble notes, the horror of which even a video game can't replicate), uses puffs of compressed air into various pockets to simulate the effects of....ready?....being shot or stabbed or even Bazooka'd. So when the cartoon Nazi pulls his trigger, you feel it in the chest.

Well, if that isn't exactly what the youth of this country need right now: a more enhanced, more real simulation of what it feels like to be gunned down. It's not enough that this particular report of WTOP was done during a jovial exchange between reporter and anchor, as each gushed about the coolness of such an accessory. As my mind raced around the recent reports, on the very same radio station, of the deaths of two accomplished young women, both shot, on the campuses of Auburn University and Chapel Hill, I kept waiting for the kicker. Surely, one of these journalists would bring up the issue of the sanity of such a gaming device. Surely one of them would mention Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois or the mall in Omaha. Surely.

Nope, no such luck. Just a fun exchange about the latest gotta-have-it gadget from the gaming industry. As the anchors and reporter finished their banter, one of them did raise the issue of whether a vest like this could lead to "desensitizing" people to the effects of gun violence. The reporter assured said anchor that he had been told by the manufacturer that the vest could actually be a good tool towards "sensitizing" people to violence.

Well, there's logic for you. It's not just a vest which heightens a video gamer's sense of violence, it's a teaching tool. Heck, why not bring it around to elementary schools, so all youngsters in America can have an early simulation of what it feels like to be murdered in the cafeteria.

Look, I know I'm supposed to write fluffy pieces about weddings but tonight's not one of them. We are a culture that is losing it's grip. Our children already spend so much time playing their Xbox 360's and their PlayStation's that stories abound of overweight kids who go to a real tennis court and find they can't hit a ball like their televisions promised they could. (Just last week The Onion featured a headline that read, "Federer shows up to Grand Slam event with Wii controller.")

Add to this the fact that so many of these video games are not about tennis and golf and baseball, but rather murder and car theft and war. Does anyone really believe that the images these kids are seeing--game after game after game--are not leaving an indelible mark? Well, if not, they now have the simulated indelible mark, thanks to the folks at TN Games.

Pathetic. Truly pathetic.


I want to switch gears completely here and give a little holler to my friends Stephanie and Stewart Brown. I shot their wedding some nine or so years ago--I can't even remember anymore--in an adorable little church in Maryland. It was one of the earlier weddings I photographed, come to think of it, but I still remember, all these years later, cursing the microphone that was coming out of Stephanie's head.

We've stayed friends through all these years, and they have two great boys. In fact, Stewart and Stephanie know another couple whose wedding I photographed, Diane Halpin and Kevin Cordell, and we all went to dinner at Blacksalt a few years back. (Diane Halpin is the world's greatest pediatrician, by the way, so we see each other every time Alexandra has a cough.)

Stewart had a little medical issue come up last week and he was incredibly brave and
tough through a very, very long surgery. So was Stephanie. And I'm sure the boys as well! So I just wanted to say, hang in there, Stewart, beer is on the way. Well, maybe not this week but soon enough. Get well soon.


And one last tidbit:

The other morning, the Washington Post ran a big story about the state of our national Mall. In a word, it's a disgrace, and I applaud the Post's Marc Fisher for taking the time to write about it. What began as a celebration of our nation through parks and monuments, cherry trees and statues, has turned into an endless sea of jersey barricades, chain link fencing and permanently parked construction and police vehicles. Security bollards are placed without thought, public areas are cordoned off, and snow fencing has replaced manicured walkways. (The scenes below were all taken within twenty feet of the actual White House border. The White House!)

September 11 was in 2001. It is now 2008 and someone needs to take charge. I'm not in favor of more government, but we need an aesthetics czar and fast. For years I've shaken my head as construction equipment is left encircled by chain link fence on the Ellipse. For years, I've sighed heavily as I've watched tourists have to photograph the White House as they're surrounded by chain link. And ever since 9/11 I've desperately hoped for some consistency with regard to the placement of those stubby things called "bollards." (In front of the Federal Reserve they are the wrong color and placed so close to the original steps that they create a visual claustrophobia. In front of the Senate offices they don't match the right architectural style.)

I know it's not fashionable to speak highly of the French, but that's just nonsense. We should look to Paris for guidance here. The notion that the French would allow their beautiful city to be so cluttered with Jersey barricades is laughable. Take a stroll through les Jardins du Luxembourg and see how much chain link you see. This past winter, there was story about a new tradition started by the National Park Service, the lighting of tremendous "yule" logs in a pit on the Ellipse. It seemed like a fun idea--people gathering around a huge fire pit before the holidays, singing carols and sipping hot chocolate. Then I saw the photo that accompanied the story: the pit was surrounded by chain link fence. Currier and Ives just rolled over in their graves.

According to the Post story, Chip Akridge, a big developer and avid runner, wants to do something about the uglification of this once beautiful part of our nation's capital. He's created the Trust for National Mall and hopefully some of these issues can finally get the hearing they deserve.


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