Moment of Zen at Forest Glen

The Forest Glen Metro station is, as I recently wrote, about one mile from the new location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine. It is a very special Metro station because it’s so deep underground that it only has elevators and an emergency 20-story stairwell (no escalators), and also because I was born in a hospital nearby. Also located in the vicinity is one of the two new locations of the Meditation Museum, whose old location in downtown Silver Spring was one of my Weekly Museum Visits.

When I visited the Meditation Museum in Forest Glen in 2017, I ended up accidentally attending a workshop on “A New Attitude.” It was a Saturday, and I had learned via a flier the previous evening that maintenance people would be in my apartment during the day, so I was trying to stay out all day and fill the hours with museum visits. I intended simply to visit the museum, as I had not seen the new location yet.

Meditation Museum near the Forest Glen Metro

Meditation Museum near the Forest Glen Metro

Upon entering the space (which, like the Silver Spring location, is a cultivation of tranquility inside a rather nondescript building), I was informed that the program was just getting started and I could join. With time to spare, I made my way over and sat down in a chair and began to listen to a talk from Sister Gita.

At some point in the talk, there were the participatory exercises. We were orally given what was described as a “psychological and spiritual test” in which we had to close our eyes and imagine the scenario described to us, which involved traveling along a road and coming upon obstacles like a bear and a river. Sister Gita told us to silently imagine what we did as we encountered each element in the story.

She had everyone share each part of our imaginings: what did the road look like, what did we do when we got to the river. I answered each question by truthfully stating what I had thought of during each part of the exercise. After the others talked about plunging into the river and swimming or walking, or taking a detour around the river, my smart-aleck honest response was that I got the bear to give me a ride across the river on his back.

So maybe I was the only one there who stumbled upon the workshop by accident; maybe I was the only one primarily there because of the word “Museum” rather than “Meditation” in the name of the venue. I felt a bit awkward and out of place (especially when they made us dance!); in this modern museum run by the Brahma Kumaris, I felt the same way I’ve sometimes felt when touring very old houses of worship, wanting a museum experience rather than a religious experience. To what extent can religious sites offer a museum experience? To what extent could my museum experience interfere with another visitor’s religious experience?

From the old location of the Meditation Museum, near the Silver Spring Metro

From the old location of the Meditation Museum, near the Silver Spring Metro

While I ended up in a participatory workshop at the Meditation Museum’s Forest Glen location in 2017, I had the Silver Spring site almost to myself when I visited in 2010. I recognized in Forest Glen some of the objects I’d seen in Silver Spring, including a small exhibit illuminating the symbolism of light in a variety of world religions. Both locations include a small meditation room. There is another current location, near the Greensboro Metro station in Virginia, that I have not yet visited.

Forest Glen is on the Red Line.

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Coloring a Silver Ring and a Silver Wing at Silver Spring

I may have made it my goal to visit every Metro station at least once, but I did not need to make a special trip to the Silver Spring station, where I have spent not a small amount of time. Over the years, I’ve seen restaurants, stores, artworks, cultural offerings, and controversies come and go, while some icons and mainstays have been around as long as I can remember frequenting the area.

Silver Spring station itself is a Red Line station, MARC Train station, and future Purple Line station. (The area I think of as walkable from the Metro will also be served by two additional Purple Line stations: Woodside to the northwest and Silver Spring Library right by the core of Ellsworth Plaza to the east.) There are two exits to the station, north and south: the north exit practically dumping you in front of a Starbucks, and the south exit not too far from a shopping center with another Starbucks inside the Giant.

These two Starbucks locations (plus the one at Ellsworth Plaza) are possibly the least exciting or unique aspect of Silver Spring. Surely the adorable acorn-shaped gazebo, the Sensory Garden outside the Discovery Building, and the penguin murals, to name a few, are more interesting. Nevertheless, Starbucks offers not only hot drinks on these unbearably cold days, but also a curious history of objects in the form of their cups.

Starbucks sold merchandise for kids, including plastic cups, featuring a ladybug named Dot and a turtle named Dash in 2006 – the same year that downtown Silver Spring had four turtle sculptures on display as part of the University of Maryland-College Park’s Fear the Turtle sculpture project. In 2008, the year I traveled to Seattle and visited the first Starbucks, the coffee chain garnered controversy when they celebrated their 35th anniversary by temporarily bringing back the earlier, and more revealing, image of the siren on their cups.

In the last decade or so, the holiday cups at Starbucks and the downtown Silver Spring holiday displays have used some of the same imagery and objects: reindeer, sleds, music, Christmas trees. The ice skaters on a few of the holiday cups could be skating at the ice rink at Silver Spring’s Veterans Plaza.

It wasn’t until 2015 that the Starbucks holiday cups became an object of contention. The green and white logo against a solid red background was considered by some not to be Christmassy enough (in comparison to depictions from previous years, like a snowman, or a child and dog on a sled).

For what it’s worth, I don’t know of anyone I know saying they had an issue with the solid red cups. The conservative online magazine The Federalist published an article on November 10, 2015 titled “Nobody Is Actually Upset About The Starbucks Cup. Stop Saying Otherwise.” But on the same day, CNN reported one notable exception in Donald Trump’s call for a boycott of Starbucks and proclamation that if elected president, “we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store.” (This dedication to compulsory recognition of Christmas contrasts with Trump’s history of erecting a “holiday tree” at Trump Tower and refusing to let elderly tenants put up a Christmas tree in the apartment building he was deliberately running into the ground.)

The red-cup-gate of 2015 did gain enough traction that evaluating the Christmas-ness of colors and images became a widespread matter for consideration, with the Washington Post calling in an expert to rate different symbols according to their religious meaning. Catholic University theology professor Chad Pecknold gave the highest rating to angels and Nativity scenes, and the lowest to snowmen.

In 2016, the same year that the centerpiece of the downtown Silver Spring holiday display was a tree made of umbrellas to represent “friendship, unity and inclusivity,” Starbucks released a green “unity” cup in November. There was another round of outcry; after a red holiday cup the previous year, the green cup was presumed to be that year’s holiday cup. This assumption was not unreasonable given that red and green are generally considered to be the two main Christmas colors in our society coupled with the fact that stores and restaurants tend to start the Christmas promotions and décor before the jack-o-lanterns of Halloween have begun to rot. However, the Starbucks holiday cups of 2016 were actually a variety of red-and-white cups designed by customers, adorned with designs like candy canes and strings of lights.

Fast forward to 2017, when Starbucks’s holiday cup was a coloring page in cup form. There has been some controversy reported on 2017’s cups due to the belief that a pair of disembodied hands are promoting “the gay agenda,” but it appears that unlike in 2015 when Donald Trump weighed in, the naysayers this year are just a couple of Twitter accounts with around 15 followers each.

Along with the hands, the cups portray birds (reminding me of the giant sculpture of the hand and birds outside Gateway to NOAA in Silver Spring) and stars (reminiscent of an exhibit at the Meditation Museum, formerly located near the Silver Spring Metro, that showed examples of light as a symbol of a variety of religions). The words on the sleeve, GIVE GOOD, along with the words hope, joy, love, and peace on cups of years past, also make me think of a place near the Silver Spring Metro.

Hand and birds outside Gateway to NOAA in Silver Spring, MD

Hand and birds outside Gateway to NOAA in Silver Spring, MD

Coloring is itself an activity not without controversy. I wrote previously about a seemingly fringe view that coloring mandalas “opens the door to demons” and is akin to coloring swastikas, but other detractors question whether coloring is really art or creativity, or mindfulness or meditation, as often claimed.

Wendy Woon, an educator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, argues that coloring books, for both children and adults, “limit the inherent ability to make marks of one’s own, to imagine and express individual possibilities and unique points of view.” MoMA’s gift shop does sell coloring books, but Woon would prefer that visitors explore the creative process through the museum’s ArtLab programs rather than color in the lines.

My colored-in 2017 Starbucks holiday cup

My colored-in 2017 Starbucks holiday cup

An article in Psychology Today proclaimed that coloring books are neither mindfulness nor creative art expression nor art therapy. The American Art Therapy Association, while acknowledging the potential benefits of coloring books for adults, also wants to be clear that coloring books on their own do not count as art therapy. If coloring is an example of mindfulness, it is subject to the question of whether mindfulness is selfish.

Personally, I am skeptical of mindfulness as a trend in inward-focused, self-help soundbites, but I do enjoy coloring as a relaxing activity. During this holiday season, I colored a Starbucks cup that I purchased near the Silver Spring Metro, using a silver colored pencil for the doves’ wings and the ring on one of the disembodied hands.

Silver Spring is on the Red Line.

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Psyche and Soma at Takoma

I have lived near the Takoma Metro for a decade, so there is not much about the area that surprises me. It doesn’t surprise me anytime a new Little Free Library, or a new place to get vegan cheesecake, or a new piece of quirky yard art appears.

It did not surprise me one year ago when several such pieces of quirky yard art, as well as the statue of Roscoe the beloved rooster, donned pink pussyhats. Someone posted on social media that they expected all of Takoma Park to be present at the Women’s March. I wouldn’t be surprised if that prediction came true.

The Busboys and Poets that opened in 2015 was no surprise; I’d long felt that it would be a perfect fit for Takoma. None of the yard signs are surprising – not the ones that read “Science Is Real” or “We’re Glad You’re Our Neighbor” or even “Just Say No to Yard Signs.”

But life still has its surprises, even in Takoma Park and the Takoma, DC neighborhood. When I first visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine (then located about one mile from the Takoma Metro, and currently located about one mile from the Forest Glen Metro), I was expecting curiosities and Gross Things. I was surprised by the variety of exhibits in the museum as a whole and the poignancy of one exhibit in particular.

I had heard about the hairball collection and the bullet that killed President Lincoln. In addition to these objects, there was an exhibit of microscopes, an installation showing what a trauma bay in Baghdad looks like, and a traveling art exhibition called Wounded in Action featuring artists whose lives had been touched by amputation due to war injuries.

The artists were either themselves members of the armed forces who had lost a limb, family members, or doctors who treated such patients. One piece that was particularly memorable for me was Hands on Freedom by Marty Martinez, showing an American flag being held at its four corners by two hands, one hook, and one prosthetic. Another work, Patience by John Ton (shown on the wall in the photo below), uses spent ammunition cases to depict a human figure walking with a cane.

Wounded in Action exhibit at the former location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

Wounded in Action exhibit at the former location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

I have since visited NMHM in its new location. Although Wounded in Action is no longer on display, the themes of illness and injury in the military are still present in the museum’s content and programs. Today, the museum is hosting another art exhibit, this time of art made in an art therapy program by a wounded warrior. The museum has held talks for the public on topics like PTSD and how different therapeutic tools (from art to therapy dogs) can help.

Mental (psyche) and physical (soma) trauma are ever-present risks in combat, yet stigma persists, especially in relation to challenges to psychological well-being. Is it any surprise that stigma continues, despite all the advances the field of medicine has made in understanding and treating PTSD and other mental illnesses, among troops as well as civilians? No, it doesn’t surprise me – not when anyone with any kind of special need is labeled a snowflake. Not when a man can say “I like people who weren’t captured” in reference to a POW, insult a Gold Star family, mock a disabled reporter, fire someone for being “crazy” despite laws against such discrimination, and still – to everyone’s surprise – be elected president.

Mural at the current location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

Mural at the current location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

Nor should there be any surprise, in this climate, any time someone chooses not to share their struggles with trauma or mental illness, to keep such struggles bottled up.

According to art therapist Melissa Walker, who spoke at NMHM in 2016, one of the benefits of art therapy is that “We see their affects change, as well as their ability to be open with their providers, families, and each other” – that is, improving not only the condition itself but also the ability of opening up about the condition. Some of the masks that service members made as part of the therapy program with Walker were on exhibit at the museum at the time.

At the former location of NMHM, I took a photo of a quote on the wall from Calvin Coolidge (the 30th president of the United States, who died on this day in 1933): “The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.” Though the museum has moved from DC to Maryland, from near Takoma to near Forest Glen, there is (unsurprising) continuity in the themes and content, including exhibits that reflect this quote by highlighting the uphill healing process faced by service members after injury and trauma.

Takoma is on the Red Line.

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Happy Holidays + 2018 Reading Challenge

Whatever you celebrate, I hope that you had a wonderful and peaceful holiday, and that you got lots of socks for gifts.

Today I was thinking about structure and how it can be both limiting and, somehow, liberating. A conversation on Facebook about children picking up on rigid gender roles delved into the negative aspects of categorization. But although humans are very often too complicated to fit neatly into categories, classifying things in the world helps us make sense of it. And that is how we ended up with phyla of animals and schools of art and the Dewey Decimal System.

Structure can provide a framework in a random and dangerous world, and in a chaotic brain like mine. We will celebrate the same holiday with these same traditions at the same time every year. I will visit a new museum every week. I will write blog posts around monthly themes. I will eventually write about every Metro station.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to try a reading challenge for 2018. There are numerous reading challenges out there, with a list of 2018 reading challenges compiled here. I settled on the Monthly Key Word Challenge hosted by My Reader’s Block. Each month has nine words, and I am not a fast enough reader to read 108 books in one year, but I will try to read a couple or a few books each month containing one of the keywords in the title. I’m counting related words (like plurals, past tenses, compound words, etc.), and I’m making an exception if only one book in a trilogy has a keyword so that I can read the whole trilogy together.

The words are:

January: white, ice, year, baby, hat, dance, top, road, if

February: pink, snow, heart, arrow, point, right, holiday, walk, and

March: green, luck, great, shout, hope, wrong, rope, carry, into

April: clear, rain, lily, basket, out, gather, valley, all, cross

May: pearl, flower, clasp, pale, mountain, one, never, dog, around

June: bell, bird, town, live, river, none, some, bride, when

July: blue, water, desert, apple, many, wood/s, stay, cabin, between

August: yellow, sun, beach, boat, house, few, help, camera, above

September: always, fall, sleep, school, teach, call, leave, chase, below

October: black, mask, ghost, witch, castle, moon, night, haunt, mystery

November: brown, thanks, food, family, table, dream, laugh, town, over

December: red, present, Christmas, party, give, tree, sing, bell, under

Recommendations containing a key word in the title are welcome!


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The Promised Follow-Up Post

I recently wrote about the now-notorious seven “banned” terms at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reportedly handed down by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). After asking, “Is this real life?”, I stated, “I’ll stay tuned to what more [HHS, or for that matter, CDC] might say, and if this is not, in fact, real life, I’ll write a follow-up post.”

Based on what’s being reported now, it is real life, but real life is not quite as dire or absurd as the initial story sounded. Officials at CDC and HHS have pushed back on the claims that any words were banned. CDC and HHS have not provided much elaboration on their claims, but Vox spoke to a former CDC official and reports:

To try to make sense of it all, we called up a former CDC official, who was privy to the budget processes during the Obama administration. (The former employee spoke to Vox on the condition of anonymity.) The ex-official felt the [Washington] Post had overstated the significance of what are common political maneuvers during budget negotiations — and that the report confused those financial conversations with the science that’s happening at the agency.

Some discussion about the best language to use is perfectly reasonable. Haven’t we all been there, trying to decide what word to use to promote our cause or argue a point in a paper for school or develop materials at work or write a blog post? Words do matter.

And knowing one’s audience is important, too, whether you’re creating a learning experience at a museum or requesting funds from the agencies that might fund your work (in CDC’s case, Congress). It appears that the CDC officials were given advice on what words to use in their budget proposals in order to be persuasive to Congress, with the laudable goal of obtaining money for preventing and curing diseases.

Nevertheless, many people are concerned, including scientists, public health advocates, and laypeople like me. For one thing, while securing funds is necessary for carrying out an entity’s mission, it becomes a problem when finances grow more important than the mission itself. (Prioritizing funds over mission can cause people to lose sight of the mission and how best to carry it out, and will fill your holiday season with high stress and low morale.)

Then there is the fact that knowing one’s audience does not stop with knowing how to persuade the people reading a budget proposal. There’s also knowing one’s audience in the sense of knowing who is being served. CDC should be concerned with serving everyone – including the full diversity of the population, with initiatives that consider the most vulnerable, such as people who are transgender. If these words are erased, what happens to the people to whom these words refer? And how can CDC study Zika and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome without using the word fetus?

Finally, what happens to science and evidence when science-based and evidence-based are among the words being discouraged? Discussing what language to utilize in order to be convincing in a budget proposal is understandable; the particular suggestion that science-based and evidence-based are unpersuasive terms for a scientific body to use is worrisome. In the era of “alternative facts,” science and evidence are as important as ever.

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The Sencer Museum Has Been Censored

Did you know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a museum? It’s located in Atlanta, it’s called the David J. Sencer CDC Museum, and admission is free. This weekend I decided to spend some time exploring the CDC’s museum website and the agency’s general website, learning about past exhibits and the work of the CDC.

In fall 2013/spring 2014, the museum showed the exhibit Health Is a Human Right: Race and Place in America. A photograph on the exhibit’s website has a caption referring to “San Francisco’s racial and ethnic diversity” in 1947. The museum also hosts a “Disease Detective” camp that introduces teens to “the diversity of public health and CDC’s work.”

(It’s 2017, almost 2018, and I’m writing about seven words that the CDC has been forbidden from using. Is this real life?)

In 2016, the exhibit Where Children Sleep: Photographs by James Mollison used photography to show visitors “the vulnerability of all children, and their need for safe, stable and nurturing environments.”

(“Vulnerable” is on the list of forbidden words; does that mean that “vulnerability” is disallowed too? Someone will have to hash this out, just like if they were singing songs in a game of Encore.)

The exhibit Cells: The Universe Inside Us, from fall 2012, included a time-lapse movie showing the development of a human fetus.

(One year ago, I was worried about so many things that could happen under a Trump presidency, many of which did happen. But the prospect of the CDC no longer being able to say “science-based” never occurred to me.)

On the CDC’s website, online audiences can learn about science-based approaches to everything from hand sanitizer to preventing teen pregnancy.

(In fact, if I had said that the Trump administration would give the CDC a list of seven words not to use in official documents related to budget proposals for FY 2019, I probably would have been laughed out of the room. After all, the senior CDC analyst who broke the story to the Washington Post could not recall any such thing happening any time before in their long career at the agency.)

The CDC uses the word entitlement in various contexts on its website. Besides the references to programs like Medicare, there is a list of risk factors contributing to sexual violence, including “societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement.”

(The Department of Health and Human Services, which reportedly handed down the list of banned words to CDC, has pushed back on the reports. But they have not provided any details as to their side of the story. I’ll stay tuned to what more they might say, and if this is not, in fact, real life, I’ll write a follow-up post.)

Another section of the CDC’s website provides resources for transgender people, with links to pages within the CDC site as well as links to other organizations’ and government agencies’ pages.

(At least this news will result in some good satire and commentary. I can’t wait to see what Alexandra Petri has to say about this list of words.)

The museum’s July 1, 2016 newsletter commemorating the 70th anniversary of the CDC includes a brief Q&A with the agency’s then-director Tom Frieden. When asked what he considered the CDC’s greatest achievement, Frieden answered: “Throughout our history, CDC’s leadership in evidence-based public health science has attracted the most dedicated professional staff in the world. This extraordinary collaboration of topnotch experts in every conceivable field of public health is a remarkable achievement – and it’s why I’m confident that whatever future challenges we face, we’ll continue to do our job of keeping people safe and healthy.”



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Gone but Not Forgotten at Fort Totten

I mostly think of Fort Totten as a transfer point, where I have spent a not insignificant portion of my life riding the escalators up or down two levels and waiting for a Red Line or Green Line train. The immediate area includes residential neighborhoods, Civil War Defense Forts that are now mostly green space, a library and recreation center, and new development that is slated to include a future children’s museum.

The station is also near the site of the deadliest collision in the history of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). On June 22, 2009, a moving Metro train crashed into a stopped Metro train between Takoma and Fort Totten, killing nine people (eight passengers and the operator of the moving train) and injuring dozens more. Investigations after the tragedy revealed that a faulty circuit caused the stopped train not to appear on the train control system, so that the system sent the moving train into what looked like clear, empty track.

There are a few tributes to the tragedy in and near the Fort Totten station, including a plaque inside the station and another one on the side of an overpass nearby. The biggest memorial to the accident is Legacy Memorial Park, located about three quarters of a mile from the station.

According to the DC government’s website, the purpose of the site is “meditation, remembrance, reflection, hope and renewal for all affected by the tragedy.” It’s a perfectly lovely little park, with nine artfully sculpted columns in memory of the nine lives lost, a curved wall with a memorial quote, and greenery.

legacy 2016

Legacy Memorial Park, Washington, DC

The location itself is meaningful, as it was at that spot that first responders set up their operations and triage after the collision, according to an article in USA Today. As reported in the article, the memorial offered a sense of closure to victims’ loved ones who attended the site’s opening ceremony in 2015.

In a 2011 NPR interview, art historian Simon Schama discussed the 9/11 Memorial in New York and what generally makes memorials “work.” He spoke of “reconciling…two goals” of “a somber remembrance” for the “immediate rites of grief,” and the need to “reflect on the reasons for the sacrifice.”

Schama’s words hint at why Legacy Memorial Park doesn’t quite work for me as a visitor. I appreciate the design, and the solace that the space provides to family and friends of the deceased.

Yet I can’t help but notice that “Legacy Memorial Park” is the most generic name ever, that the location is not marked on the Fort Totten station’s map of immediate surroundings (even though it’s well within the area covered by the map), and that the walk from station to park is not straightforward or intuitive or pedestrian-friendly.

Is there a metaphor in there? WMATA has not always had the best track record (excuse the pun) for either safety or communication. Legacy Memorial Park – which, like Metro, is meant to be a public good, accessible to people with or without a car – fails in similar areas. It is not the easiest place to locate or safely reach on foot, and once you are there, there is little sense of the “reasons for the sacrifice” which in this case were so tragically preventable.

Schama said that “a free society, a democratic society needs occasionally to ask those questions”–that is, “why they perished.” He was speaking in particular of a memorial to a horrendous terrorist attack, but asking those questions is also necessary when it comes to holding leaders accountable for an unsafe transit system.

The USA Today article linked above quotes a grieving daughter who asked, very rhetorically, “why my mom, why,” reminding readers of the heartbreak that continued to linger six years later for those who lost loved ones in the crash.  At the same time, the article reports that government officials spoke of the importance of investigating WMATA’s safety lapses, changing the culture at the agency so that potential dangers are taken seriously, and providing adequate funding to maintain the system. The goal is to prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening again; this time, “why?” is being asked in a more concrete and action-oriented sense.

Visitors can pause to remember the victims of the train wreck at Legacy Memorial Park (located at the intersection of South Dakota and New Hampshire Avenues NE at the entrance of the Blair Road Community Garden), and we all can honor their memories by working for safer public transportation in the future.

Fort Totten is on the Red, Yellow, and Green Lines.

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