This One Time, In America

The first week I was back in the country, I was determined to make domestic life the same adventure I’d created in the rest of the world. Was I not seeing the US through new eyes?  Didn’t I want to be able to tell stories about home that sounded just like stories I could tell about every other country? This one time, in America…

I made a list of sites unexplored by me prior to my Dallas departure, and took a stab at one: The Bush Library.

The library is situated on the edge of the SMU campus. I followed signage that pointed me in the general direction of the library but not directly to it, or its parking lot, and eventually found what I was looking for. I have navigated the world’s museums and monuments in languages I don’t speak or read, but I literally got lost going from the parking lot to the museum, and accidentally ended up here, where an armed guard redirected me.


I’d feel like my lefty impulses had led me astray, but two guys wearing OU shirts came up right behind me. “Turn around,” I told them. “Follow me.” They proceeded to believe I was a tour guide, until we got here, and I sat on a bench in the sun to wait for my friend Vivian. IMG_6821

I’ve never been to a presidential library, so I have nothing to which to compare this one. I’ve also never voted for a Republican, which I confess by way of saying, I went in with open eyes – been all around the world, seen a lot of things, like to absorb without judging – and this is what I saw, which I’m sure is partly impacted by my political beliefs:

George and Laura love each other – it sounds silly, but it’s true. The pictures of their early life together, the building of their family, may be propaganda, but they seem filled with love. I doubt the Clinton library could make so genuine a montage.

The exhibits start off feeling less than substantive. One big day-care-like room has information on education – No Child Left Behind exhibits and a display of books (Laura Bush is the creator of Texas Book Fest, an annual festival of authors, publishers, agents and books in Austin) aside a tax relief display without a hint of irony that the latter gutted any possibility of the former being successful. But then, we forget all about that, because 9/11 happens. IMG_6825

A narrow entrance pulls you into a circular path around the remnants of an I-beam. Lights are dimmed. The walls are lined with engraved names of the dead from both towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania flight, while televisions play news coverage of the attacks. It is emotionally overwhelming, but visually simple; an impactful, respectful display.

But then, there are the docents. In 15 feet of walking this exhibit, I was twice approached by women who may have been 55 but looked 75. While I was wiping a tear from my cheek, one said to me, “I saw you looking for someone’s name; did you know people in 9/11?” Another one approached me toward the end and said, “were you near New York on 9/11? Do you want to share your experience in our digital visitor book?”

I was tempted to ask, “are you a therapist? That’s so great that the library provides therapy with this exhibit!” Or, alternately, “are you a moron? You have NO IDEA what I could say right now. Are you prepared? Are you ready for me to tell you my mom jumped from the 44th floor? I didn’t think so.”

I just smiled, and moved on to exhibits on terror prevention (or deficit creation) and a beautiful display on action against HIV, with, of course, no hint of irony that the man responsible for re-establishing the global gag rule (and as a result, the loss of donated, HIV-preventing contraceptives by more than 20 developing nations around the world) would also give $15 billion dollars to combat AIDS.

Global AIDS Map

Global AIDS Map

The faces of HIV

The faces of HIV

Though everything pales in comparison to the 9/11 exhibit, the library makes excellent use of technology in Decision Points Theater, an interactive activity on decision making, in which participants get to participate in global diplomacy based on the limited amount of information a president would have had at any given time. Results are based on the majority vote of people in the room – exciting during a classroom visit, not so much when Vivian and I are two of five people in the room.


By the time we had lunch (delicious) and were ready to leave, I was contemplating voting for Laura Bush, should she happen to make a presidential bid – 


and feeling like this gift shop offering was a little redundant. 


Life Skills

Back to School Mug Shots

I woke up yesterday morning to a Facebook feed filled with underage mug shots. Sweet little faces, slightly over-coiffed and equal parts excitement and nerves, proudly holding up home-made signs of their salient details – name, age, date. Then I noticed most of the signs also had the school grade and maybe a teacher name, and I remembered that for many school districts,  Monday was the first day of school.

When I started kindergarten, and first grade (and fourth grade, and Brownies), my mom certainly took pictures. Luckily, I’m nomadic right now, so I’m unable to pull these from storage and provide evidence of their existence. But they never had placards. And the placards I saw yesterday got very specific: some included the height and even weight of the little person holding them.

As a child-free person, I have no emotional connection to your child’s first day of school, so when I saw this mugshot-fest, it reminded me of every conversation I’ve had recently with friends at their wit’s end. Summer is too short for students, but way too long for their parents, who spend the last two weeks of it lamenting the end of camps and day cares and counting down the days until their busy schedules will return to normal and one can get things done without the constant presence and need of a little person. The feeling that one’s children are just little misbehaving criminals-in-the-making is common at this time of year, and maybe that is why they’ve all been paraded around social media mugging as such?

I get it: the first day of school is a big deal for everyone involved, and you want to document it. But to a person without kids, this is a weird montage to wake up with. And as one who watched a Criminal Minds marathon over the weekend, I was certain when I saw these photos that the real purpose of them was to provide current, dated, data to the FBI should a parent’s worst fears come true, and your child fall victim to an abduction. I even called a reliable parent I know to confirm my suspicion, only to learn that I was dead wrong.

And then I remembered what else was happening that day, which actually is a parent’s worst fear – worse than seeing an actual mugshot of their child, or handing over one of these first-day-of-school mugs to the FBI: it was the day that Michael Brown would be memorialized by his family, his friends, and political pundits who never knew him. This was the day some parents bury their child.

Brown’s family didn’t raise a criminal. They didn’t raise a victim. They raised a child. After the focus on Ferguson, and corollary discussions about the things Caucasian moms don’t have to worry about when sending their little people off to school, maybe this parade of little kid mug shots is a reminder that looks can be deceiving, and you can’t determine who is a criminal by the color of his skin, the look on his face, or the badge on his chest.

On a day when we honor the cracking open of new books, we must remember you can’t judge them by their covers.