Excursion proves that reality is unavoidable

October 29, 2002|By SUSAN REIMER

IT WAS "the first sniper-free weekend in a month," the goofy radio disc jockey exclaimed, and I cringed as I maneuvered the van onto the highway and headed toward Washington.

He was urging his teen-age listeners to get out and enjoy the beautiful fall weather, as well as stressing the fact that they were no longer in danger of being picked off by a roving gunman.

Sheesh, I thought. What a way to put it.

Nonetheless, that's exactly what I was doing. I had enticed my 16-year-old daughter and her friend into a field trip to the Corcoran Gallery of Art to see Judith Leiber's exotic collection of purses - rhinestone-encrusted designs of startling imagination.

After years of dragging my obstinate husband and children to cultural events because I think it is good for them, I have learned to administer this medicine with a spoonful of sugar. Rather than hogtie them for a performance of Messiah or The Glass Menagerie, I try to fit the art form to the human form.

I took my husband to see Miss Saigon because it had a war in it, and I took my son to see Stomp because the dancing was very male and very muscular. The men didn't admit to liking either performance very much, but I am certain the whining was less than it might have been for Beethoven or Eugene O'Neill.

The last art exhibit I took my daughter to see (with friends - it must always be with friends) was the jewel collection of the Romanovs, the last monarchs of Russia.

There is nothing young girls like better than jewelry, except perhaps purses, so I figured Judith Leiber's couture art would be a hit.

I hadn't counted on the fact that our subway trip and brief walk to the Corcoran, located near the White House, would cause us to intersect with the massive antiwar demonstration that took place Saturday on the Washington Mall.

While the scruffiness of the protesters and the politics in their signs were comfortably familiar to those of us who were students during the Vietnam War, they were weird and confusing to my two young companions.

Our proximity to the demonstration presented the opportunity for a living civics lesson, and the girls listened as I talked them through it, but I could tell by their body language that they were edgy, uneasy with the flocks of police on bicycles and the occasional siren scream and the clusters of people armed with placards.

This wasn't what they expected.

The atmosphere on the street was immediately relieved inside the Corcoran, where it was "family day." There were young children everywhere, painting, drawing, building mobiles and clutching balloon sculptures as part of a kid's-eye view of the painted sculpture of Joan Miro. The first floor of the gallery looked like a kindergarten classroom, and it was a sharp contrast to the gauntlet we had just passed through.

But there remained one more test for our hearty band of culture seekers.

Before we could enter the room where Judith Leiber's handbags were displayed, we had to pass through photographs of Sept. 11.

The girls climbed the gallery's marble steps, turned the corner and, literally, ran smack into row upon row of pictures of the devastation. Clipped to clothesline strung across their path, the photographs were just about nose-high and unavoidable.

There are more than 2,000 photos in the exhibit, Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs, at the Corcoran. It is a grassroots collection, put together after a call went out asking anyone, amateurs and professionals alike, who had pictures of New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., to offer prints to display and sell to benefit the families of those who died.

It is an astonishing record of those terrible events, and the girls were shocked into silence by the magnitude of destruction and suffering that could be seen in the photos.

We went on to view the Leiber exhibit, and the girls laughed with surprise at the whimsical creations, picked out their favorites and amended Leiber's famous quote:

All a girl needs room for in her purse, the artist said, is "a lipstick, a handkerchief and a $100 bill."

"All we need room for is a lip gloss, a cell phone and a $5 bill," the girls countered.

Our cultural field trip was a success, I think. But I was left to wonder what their day might have been like if it had not been bracketed by an antiwar protest and a grim revisiting of 9/11.

If, indeed, their carefree young lives were not bracketed by such things.

I don't think our children are growing up in times more terrible than those that came before them. Our parents had World War II and the Depression and polio. We had The Bomb and the Vietnam War.

And, at 16, my daughter and her friend are old enough to begin the process of sorting through the complexities and unpleasantness of the world around them. To shield them any longer would be to handicap them.

But I have to admit that I wasn't looking for any of those lessons that day, and I was dismayed at how inescapable they seem to be. We were barely out from under the terrifying menace of a roaming sniper, and I was looking for a little whimsy. I was left with the feeling that, for our kids, every poppy field is surrounded by a menacing forest.

Teen-agers have a new favorite adjective these days. Everything is "random." They used it to describe something that is odd, out of place, incongruous, surprising or inexplicable.

Kids overuse it and misuse it, but, when my husband asked, my daughter used it to describe her day in Washington.

"It was random," she said.

My heart sank. Not because it seemed that I had failed to entertain her, but because, buffeted by snipers and talk of war and haunted by the enormous nightmare of 9/11, life must really seem that way to her and to her generation.

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