None of This JFK Anniversary Stuff Makes Sense Because Grief Never Makes Sense

Hey. Look very closely at the crowd. Are some of those people carrying spears? New theory?
Hey. Look very closely at the crowd. Are some of those people carrying spears? New theory?
Library of Congress

Every time I start to gag over yet another JFK 50th piece in the papers, I have to remind myself, "Schutze, you've been cranking out the same stuff for two years." Yeah, I know. I added to the pile. But that's different. That was my stuff.

This weekend I found myself stumbling and fumbling over other people's stuff, some of which should have been good reading. A couple pieces especially were so well written that it's sort of hard for me to put my finger on my problem with them. But as we get closer to Friday's ceremony commemorating the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy here a half century ago this week, I think I'm getting closer to my own answer. It's that death thing. And grief. They can be cool in the movies. But in real life, not so much.

Dallas native James "Jake" McAuley, a 2012 Harvard graduate and something called a "Marshall Scholar" at Oxford University in England, had a piece in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times Sunday called "The city with a death wish in its eye" (a line from a Jimmy Dale Gilmore song). He says the same thing I have been saying for a long time, that the ceremony next Friday (from which the word "assassination" has been banned) will be weird because it will show mainly how unwilling Dallas is to look in the mirror.

McAuley writes that, "Grappling with the assassination means reckoning with its own legacy as the 'city of hate,' the city that willed the death of the president."

He talks about how his own Dallas grandmother was a right-winger. He describes a photo of her: "My grandmother smiles a porcelain smile, poised and lovely in psychedelic purple Pucci, coiffure stacked high in what can only be described as a hairway to heaven. Her eyes, however, are intent, fixed on a target -- liberalism, gender equality, gays."

But then he says, "Dallas is not, of course, 'the city that killed Kennedy.'"

Hmm? Say what? Wait, I thought we just said it was.

McAuley talks about what a big airport we built after we shot Kennedy, as if there were some kind of atonement there; he uses the word "metroplex" as if it were a good thing; and he describes the city as "Dallas, with no river, port or natural resources of its own..."

That happens to be a pet peeve of mine: people from within the gold coast confines of Dallas always think we have no river because they never leave the confines, so they have never seen the half-mile-wide, 23-mile-long floodplain entirely within the city limits of the Trinity River, a 710-mile body of water that is the longest river flowing entirely within the borders of the state of Texas. O.K., so they missed it. Forget it. No biggie, I guess.

I agree with what McAuley wrote, and he wrote it very well. There's something else wrong here, probably not with him or what he wrote. Whatever it is, I thought I ran into it again this weekend when I read the review/commentary essay by The Dallas Morning News' new architecture critic Mark Lamster (who, by the way, seems now to be permanently saddled with the rude and unfair local nickname, "New York Pinhead"). I just hate that. It's so Dallas.

Anyway, New York Pinhead Mark Lamster takes on the Kennedy Memorial, that big, el-cheapo, empty, rainy-stainy, cement box (they wouldn't even pop for real marble) in front of the Records Building downtown that nobody even knows what the hell it is, supposed to be a memorial to Kennedy, which Lamster very aptly describes as "a claustrophobic box of white concrete pillars linked together and floating above the ground."

He says, "One critic compared it to a French urinal." Well, pride of authorship goes before the fall, but I actually thought that was me. I can't find a link now, but I distinctly remember saying it looked like one of those public stand-up "pissoirs" the French used to have because they weren't afraid to admit that people urinate. Men, anyway.

So New York Pinhead Mark Lamster is saying the memorial is empty and sterile, and he's dead-on. In its refusal to betray an ounce of sentiment, the memorial is almost derisive, given the enormity of the event.

But then he goes on to criticize the Dealey Plaza area around the School Book Depository, calling it a place where "traffic passes continuously over the crass painted Xs that mark the locations where bullets struck the president, while assassination tourists and conspiracy theorists gawk and mingle." He proposes shutting off vehicular traffic through this interchange, even though it was designed and still serves as the single most important arterial gateway to downtown.

His thought, not fully formed, must be that the venue deserves a stillness, a quiet and solemnity not afforded by noisily whizzing cars and trucks. So then it would all be more empty and quiet like ... the Kennedy Memorial?

Yeah, I don't know. I think you sort of can't have it both ways. If you want to make a place truly public and open to everyone, then it's going to have a little bit of rowdiness and gaucheness around the edges, because that's ... well ... everyone. Turn it into a gated, ticketed cemetery/museum, you got a whole 'nuther thing.

Kennedy was everyone. He wasn't Louis the Fourteenth. He was the descendant of mick bootleggers. The Kennedys had to be good brawlers in order to become American gentlemen. Yeah, they got sent to Harvard eventually, and that happens. But that hardly justifies turning the death-site into Lourdes. I'm just saying it's actually possible to do over-do reverence and come up with something you don't want, something that is more cloying than meaningful.

I have a column coming up in the paper this week in which I say this is all about death and grief in the end, and that's why none of it will ever really make sense. We just have to live through the damned ceremony.

Let me ask you something. You know how in the movies, they always make really really great speeches at funerals? That's the movies. Have you ever heard a really great speech -- like Liam Neeson with a full symphony orchestra -- at a real funeral? One you'd put in a movie?

Maybe you have. I have not. The ones I have heard were all snot-wiping and mumbling and all the more moving and memorable for that but hardy cinematic. It's hard to say anything about real death or real grief that comes out making logical sense. Instead it's all just a wail, muffled or shrieking, stifled or explosive, a wail.

Grief trumps dignity and logic. It's a mess. That's one reason we want it to be over. Grief doesn't really add up. It just grieves. This stuff slated for Friday won't add up. But on Saturday it will be one step closer to being over.

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