Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Meeting Max and Alison

I’m about at the end of my travel stories for a while but I still have 2 small ones left. I decided to combine them then realized they are kind of related. If I leave you with nothing else today I hope I will send you surfing the Internet a bit.

One leg of our trip to Italy included a flight from Atlanta to Boston. As we walked to our seats on the plane I saw that the man in the aisle seat just across from me had a plain blue bound paperback in the pocket in front of him. I’ve done a couple of small publications myself this way so I looked real close and saw that it was the galley copy of a “real” book called “ Overcoming Life’s Disappointments and the name Harold Kushner below it. I love Rabbi Kushner’s books. His first, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is the most famous but he’s written several more and I’ve read them all, savoring each word. Without another thought I blurted out to the man in the seat something like “Oh, has he written a new book?” and we launched into one of the great conversations of my life.

Rabbi Kushner has indeed written a new book and it’s due out in August. It will be based on Moses. I love the way Kushner weaves the bible heroes into his common sense faith stories. I had never seen the galley copy of a new book and was dying to ask the guy if I could see it. My new friend said that he would be writing a promotional blurb for the jacket of the book. That’s the first I realized I wasn’t talking to your average reader. This guy had to be famous enough that his endorsement of a book on life’s disappointments would carry credibility. That’s the first time I took a really good look at the guy and realized he was missing both legs and one arm. I was talking to Max Cleland. I was so surprised that I could talk to someone that long without noticing that he had three limbs missing, because, you know, most people notice stuff like that right away, and it took away a little of the shyness I would normally feel around a national figure like him.

Max Cleland is the former senator from Georgia who lost his legs and an arm in Viet Nam at Khe Sanh in 1968. He served several years in the senate before drawing attention to himself when he defended John Kerry’s military service in the 2004 election. Some blowhard had the gall to criticize Max’s patriotism that caused even more controversy. I think he’s given a couple of big speeches, maybe one at the Democratic National Convention. I know enough about American politics to know he’s a cool dude.

But here’s what I found in the man sitting next to me on the plane: He has one of the most gentle and caring personalities I’ve ever seen. I watched as he listened to a couple of people who came up to his seat to talk to him. A couple of times I noticed while he was reading he would underline something then stop for a while and look into the distance—maybe thinking of what he would say about the book, then write something in the margins of the book. I was in earshot while he made phone calls both before and after our flight ended. (I swear I was not snooping. You know how cramped we are on those planes.) And most of the calls were to check up on his mother who was sick that week. He was so very patient and caring with her that I knew I’d vote for the guy if I ever had the chance.

I haven’t been exposed to a lot of celebrities like Beaven has. He’s met every president since Lyndon Johnson. He's held hands with Oprah for a promotional video. He's sat and shot the breeze with Lee Marvin and Mama Cass and even stood next to John Wayne at the urinal. I think most people will tell you celebrities are not nearly as wonderful as their press says they are. But this guy was the real deal.

Don’t forget the book…..Harold Kushner….Overcoming Life’s Disappointments…. out in August. I’ve already pre-ordered mine from Amazon. Check out what Max says about it. Do it now: www.amazon.com and then come right back.

When we got to London the first thing I wanted to do was visit Trafalgar Square and St Martin in the Fields church. There are across the street from each other and the whole location is one of my favorite places to be. There’s just an aura of peacefulness to the spot but with a small town friendliness to it.

The Square takes up a whole city block. There are four pedestals at each corner with two, yes, two huge fountains in the center and the tallest statue in London. There’s four bronze lions protecting the center –“Nelson’s Column.” Someone told me once that all you had to do in England to get a statue erected in your honor was “beat the French.” Lord Nelson defeated the French in one of the most famous battles ever, in fact, he lost his life in the battle, so his statue atop the column in Trafalgar square is a magnificently large production.

I had never really noticed the four plinths before. Plinth. I just love that word. It’s one of those very British words that makes you sound intelligent and cultured when you casually drop it into a conversation. Plinth. All the word means is “pedestal.”
When Trafalgar Square was built they put down the four plinths and set statues of 19th century military heroes on three of them. Two of the statues are on horses so their plinths are larger. The fourth plinth was planned to hold a statue of King William IV. But poor William was supposed to come up with the money for his statue and he never scrapped it up so his plinth has stood empty ever since. What an embarrassment that must have been. You’d think a king could have afforded a statue of himself.

A few years ago they decided it was time to finish out the square and they set about finding someone to put up there. After a lot of consideration and not being able to agree on one statue they decided to use it for an ongoing series of contemporary works.

Allison Lapper is on there now. Alison Lapper Pregnant is the name of this statue and it’s sculpted by Marc Quinn.

The instant you see the statue you realize it’s different. I couldn’t help falling in love with it if for no other reason than I knew how it must bother the establishment and their sense of order. Where all the other statues are dark and metal, this one is stark white marble. But it’s the woman herself that stops your gaze. At first I thought it was weird modern art then realized this was an accurate sculpture of a real person. She sits there on her plinth stark naked. She has no arms. She has short, underdeveloped legs without knees. She has a man’s haircut. And she’s about nine months pregnant. I stopped dead in my tracks and just looked. Not because she looks different but because she is just so astonishingly beautiful. It reminded me of the Venus de Milo statue—the one who has no arms because they broke off hundreds of years ago. Nobody really knows what the statue would look like with arms but I suspect we would all be disappointed. Venus proves you can be beautiful without arms. Alison reinforces the truth.

This is why I want you to surf the Internet today. Go to www.AlisonLapper.com for the full story and get all soaked up in political correctness and disability awareness. Also you might want to visit www.marcquinn.com What I want you to know today is that the statue is astonishingly beautiful.

The funny thing I realized after I got home and thought about it more, all the great works of art and literature are from the past. We spent the better part of our three week vacation looking at the best art in the world but it was mostly from the 15th century. It takes a certain amount of time for art to prove their worth. Here I was able to see two works of art that I’m certain will find approval and I was there to see them at their beginning. Kind of a neat feeling.

2 comments:

vme said...

This is my favorite of your recent travel stories - meeting Max Cleland would make the whole trip worthwhile if you hadn't done anything else. It infuriated me that he was not only defeated, but defeated in such a dirty, nasty way. So glad you got to visit and learn what a neat guy he really is.

vme said...

Well, Jane, I waited until today (Sunday) to go to the sites you suggested. Alison Lapper is simply amazing, and I am in your debt for introducing me.