Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

10 Jun 2001, 10:46 a.m.

Day of the Dead

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Today I used the D.C. metro system for the first time, visited Arlington National Cemetery and the house where Abraham Lincoln died, and read "Surprise" by Martin Gardner. Among other things. More on Lincoln, Gardner, etc. in subsequent entries.

There are many compare-and-contrast points between Washington, D.C., and the SanFran Bay Area. SF feels more crowded and anarchic in its downtown; D.C., more architected (and rightly so!), more self-consciously open and majestic. D.C. has roundabouts (traffic circles), more so than SF. Pedestrians, I think, have it better in SF overall (less sprawl in downtown), but crossing streets might be better in D.C.

San Francisco and D.C. both have mass transit systems that are pretty much subways, but I find the D.C. Metro more confusing than the S.F. BART -- lines indicated by color and by destination, and unfamiliar signage in the stations. There are obelisks on each platform (instead of wall or ceiling-hanging signs) with the name of the station. I kept having to refocus my eyes when looking out a car window, from farsight to middlesight.

One way in which the Metro and BART are alike: big ads on the walls for stupid web sites. Today I saw one ad that realy got my goat. "Run your own web site? Why not perform your own brain surgery while you're at it?" I understand that in-house vs. outsourcing is actually an issue for many businesses, but brain surgery requires an institutional infrastructure that I think running a web site doesn't. Not quite.

I have an idea for a quiz, much in the style of Brunching Shuttlecocks' "Christian Metal Band or Star Trek episode?" quiz. It would be, "Sports Drink or E-Business Company?" Orbitz seems like a good candidate here, as does Eclipse.

So in the morning I saw Arlington National Cemetery. And I was overwhelmed. In the movie Fail-Safe, the President says, "What do we say to the dead?" And the Russian premier says that we must tell them that it will never happen again.

There are more than 260,000 people buried at Arlington (they say). There are so many graves. Everywhere. A mute tribute. And they are in all directions. I could not but turn my back on someone.

We cannot consecrate every piece of ground where someone has fallen, but what is the proper way to pay respect to the dead?

There are signs that explain that this is hallowed ground, that people should conduct themselves with dignity and solemnity. Joel says that such signs tell us what has happened in the past. And he's right. Maybe American tourists are worse than others. But I felt as though people should be more solemn than they were. I felt uncomfortable, even disapproving, when people laughed or gossiped or fussed over camera angles. But who am I to judge? The only people who have a right to mind, maybe, can't say anything, can't tell us how to respect them.

Does this cemetery glorify war? Could a patriot and a pacifist, to borrow Moxy Früvous's terms, equally use Arlington to say, "we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain" and "never again"?

These graves were all Americans. What about the other sides? France and Iraq, Spain and Nicaragua, England and Vietnam?

Man:(explains that the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is "very focused," "ceremonial," and that he can't stray for a moment from his task and his precision.)
Boy:"So, what is it, exactly, for?"

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at