Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Selfie Apocalypse: Does Anyone Even Give a Shit That We've Become Totally Tasteless?

Kim Kardashian has announced plans to release a book of selfies, titled, appropriately, "Selfish," and this, surprisingly is not the absolute nadir of the look-at-me picture-taking craze. (Though I feel in need of a "Silkwood" shower simply for googling "Kim Kardashian selfie book.")

Nope, that crown would go to the folks I saw snapping their smiling mugs in front of the World Trade Center Memorial. The folks posing for selfies in front of the names of people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, standing on what is, for all intents and purposes, a burial ground, and sporting the same goofy grins they'd use at Disneyland.


The lack of respect and dare I say, decorum, took me aback. The memorial, in my mind — and I say this as someone who had never so much as visited New York City until a week ago — should be treated like hallowed ground. Like Gettysburg. Like the U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Like Normandy.

But here were all these t-shirted tourists texting, Tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming selfies taken in the footprint of the fallen towers, oblivious, it would seem, to their surroundings.

Call me a prig or a curmudgeon or old (which, in these times, in this culture, is the greatest insult available) but I was offended. I wanted to scold, chastise or somehow otherwise convey to these people that were being assholes.

Instead, we walked away.

A shame, really, because the memorial itself is beautiful. Stark and sobering, its cascades of water shooting not skyward in exuberance but falling ever downward, like tears into the abyss. It made me sad, to look at those names, and took me back to that September day, when we sat in our living room, glued to the television as newscast after newscast played desperate answering machine message after desperate answering message that people trapped in the towers left for their loved ones.

It made me cry all over again.

But here were all these teens texting, Tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming selfies. And adults who should have known better. Adults who should have known that there is a time and place to simply be an observer, not a participant.

We spent the next few hours wandering Battery Park and Lower Manhattan and eventually found ourselves at Trinity Church. The sharply-pointed ancient spire caught my attention first, but it was the graveyard that held it.

I have a thing for cemeteries. For walking among graves, looking at stones, reading history. There are entire novels written in these names and dates. Much older men married to much younger women and you can imagine the decades she spent as a widow. And maybe that he wasn't her first choice, or any choice at all, for a husband.

There are beloved children gone to their rest at the age of 2 or 8 or 12, sometimes more than one in a family, and the sorrow of those words etched in stone is still palpable centuries later.

And there is always a surprise or two. The guy who defies every actuarial table ever devised and lives to be 86 in the 1700s when that was very nearly the equivalent of knocking on the door of immortality. "That's awesome, dude," I think.

We spent a long time at this cemetery, longer than my husband wanted to, with his eye on the clock and the Brooklyn Bridge still to walk across and back.

But I lingered, reading what markings were still legible in the heavily eroded rock, noting names and ages and respecting the stone path the church had carefully laid out among the stones. We were guests in someone else's home, was the path's implicit message, and expected to behave as such.

I couldn't put into words why I was so taken with these graves, but Dave could.

"You're remembering them," he said.

Yes, calling these people, so long forgotten, back into memory.

That's how I wanted the World Trade Center Memorial to feel. If I were managing the site and writing the rules, that is what I would say.

Call those buried here back into memory, and keep yourself out of the frame.


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