kim shuck

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The White House Ornament

How I Wound Up Wearing Strawberry Panties at the White House

Washington DC is one big graduation speech. Did you hate sitting through those too? There is the “nothing will be the same” litany: “The familiar things we are leaving behind” blah blah blah. DC has a keen sense of gifting new ideas and structures to the generations to come. It has that eager beaver ‘this is a rolled piece of paper with a ribbon but my REAL diploma is in the mail’ kind of excitement. ‘Ok guys, let’s build a bunch of stuff in marble shall we? After all we are a country of our own now. It’s time to generate some traditions… John… you take notes.’ Sigh.

I am a great believer in traditions. The enthusiasm of DC is contagious. They reached for a Greco/Roman style, for marble, for things that smacked of rationalism, solidity and importance; perhaps unconsciously borrowing from things that also smacked of monarchy and or empire. When I was a kid I loved those postcards that had the textured plastic over the image so it looked 3-D or moved. DC is also like one of those things. There is that infectious ‘Let’s put on a play in the barn, Betsy can sew the costumes’ vibe. Then there is my personal knowledge that the land was stolen, there were in situ traditions that might have, say, informed folk not to build in the Potomac’s flood footprint. There is my awareness that one of the men who lived in the White House marched my people from Georgia to Oklahoma in direct conflict with a Supreme Court ruling and managed to kill off a substantial number of them on the way. The marble is really pretty. There is a lovely tree on the Capitol grounds.

I am not over fond of my cynical streak. I’ve been trying to give it less exercise. Whenever I make such a decision something comes along to test it. A very good friend was in the middle of doing me a big favor this summer. She was actually doing me the favor when she asked if I would consider making an ornament for the White House Christmas tree. She’d been asked to recommend someone to Nancy Pelosi’s office. What do you say? Remember… taking a cynicism fast at the time. I said sure. She handed me preliminary paperwork. I thought ‘ok sure, ornament… fine, could I do it next year? Ha ha’. Not to overstate the case, and of all of the things I may repeat in this writing I only want to say this one once: I am not a huge fan of W. It struck me that of all of the times I would want to be present in the Bush White House, the ‘don’t let the door hit you in the backside as you leave’ period between the election and the eviction seemed… appealing. ‘Yeah ok, ornament… why not?’

The instructions for the White House Ornament were interesting in and of themselves. I was not to speak of the “theme” of this year’s ornaments to the press until after official announcement during the first week of December. I was not to imply that use of my ornament represents any approval or sanction by the White House. Sigh. I wonder if they have any idea how much work I would loose if people thought that the White House sanctioned me in any way. Perhaps I should have sent back guidelines for them, or a return invoice stating that the submission of my ornament did not in any way imply approval or sanction of their White House. The ornament must compliment a red, white and blue theme. Subject matter: something distinctly American that represents your area. My first infantile temptation was to get deeply political and snarky. Sad to say that is frequently my temptation. Perhaps something about the number of soldiers killed from my area… but no. I have hit an age in which I’m not actually interested in having my every action be defiant and intellectually superior. I thought long and hard about my ornament. I had just done a red, white and blue piece earlier in the year… really no desire to do more of that.

Hello my name is Kim and I’m a perfectionist. Hello Kim. But seriously it’s a terrible affliction. I have the support of my friends and having surrendered and understood my inability to control my perfectionism I am on my way to getting well. Really. I finally worked out my design. Without going into painful detail: my ornament is about the deep roots of a respect for diversity in California. I actually am proud to live in an area where this is an ongoing value. The American part of that… maybe not, but the local Native folk here, well, they have had a tradition dating back quite far that supports diversity. We all have part of the answer. I believe that. I also gave myself permission not to make the ornament red white and blue. I figured I could do something primarily blue, which would compliment the color scheme… but not be too locked into that oh so recognizable flag thing.

So I filled everything out. They sent me a silver painted plastic globe. I covered the globe in deerhide and proceeded to bead. I finished and shipped the ornament. They sent me back an invite to a White House event celebrating the artists. Six months after the preliminary conversation I was at Regan International arguing with an airline functionary about my luggage and the possibility of having some notion of where it was and when I might have it back. I have mixed feelings about many things involving the trip to DC, but I did want to be dressed nicely for the party. I feel sorry for the lost luggage woman, but she was not good at her job. Among other moments of wit she informed me that I should not expect my luggage to arrive at the same time I did. I am the child of a career military man, I always bring my toothbrush, hairbrush, and an extra pair of undies in my carry on. Dad is a bit of a Boy Scout and the traveling guru of my childhood, I pack well and I’m generally prepared. Nevertheless I, perhaps naively, do actually expect my luggage to arrive with me, especially when they are now charging a fee when you check said luggage in… how about we start charging per hour until they return that which they have misplaced? When I got to the hotel I involved the concierge, a lovely woman with an air of competence who evidently called the airport at regular intervals until they coughed up my suitcase at around 3am. I did not want to dress out of my purse for a White House party.

Oh boy, White House party. I went out for a walk.

Washington is a pretty little city from some angles. I must confess that I arranged to only be walking in the pretty bits. Obama is everywhere. That made me smile. I’m afraid that years of being a working poet has only fed my innate tendency to treat everything as a symbol. Tourist DC is a great place for people like me. Every block actually HAS a symbol on it, generally in the form of a ponderous monument. How was the symbol meant to be taken? What does the symbol mean now? What does it mean that I am evaluating the current meaning of the symbol? Do the red lights on the Washington monument look like monster eyes to anyone else? Ok… must start walking again. Having a mixed race man smiling at me from every corner and mint container made me feel more positive about the whole being in DC thing. My Dad is Native and my Mom is Eastern European. There have recently been places in this country where it was illegal for them to be married. Native religious practice has been illegal, in some cases until the late 70s. A department of Health Education and Welfare study from 1978 outlines what looks a policy of sterilization directed at Native people. It might be a bit of an understatement to say that I have a well considered mistrust of US Government and it’s rules. Seeing the President-elect, a man of my generation, a man who shares a few commonalities with me, seeing that man celebrated so openly made me happy. I looked at monuments, I read commemorative plaques, I walked. It was good. When I started getting too depressed I’d see Obama. It made me smile. Of all symbols this one said to me that this is a country where things can be learned and addressed. Maybe not all things all at once, maybe the pace is disturbingly geological, but things can be learned and I am brave enough to be hopeful. Sometimes I’m brave enough to be hopeful. Then I see a Daughters of the Pilgrims monument and have to sit down and breathe.

So as I said, the airline did get me my luggage. That was the good news. When I opened it it had been so badly manhandled that the small tube of shampoo had literally exploded and spread an even layer of syrupy foam over all of my underwear. My suit was fine, as it had been in a different compartment, but I needed underwear that wasn’t sticky. I had already worn my purse pair. I was not on Mars, I have a credit card, I went shopping.

I do not remember when women’s underwear migrated into three camps. I remember being able to buy reasonable cotton panties: grown up, not trying to seduce or amuse or announce my retirement in cotton panties. I do not wear thongs. Just don’t. Nor do I wear giant cotton granny panties that would have been suitable in the Victorian era. That seems to leave panties decorated with animal fur patterns, cartoon characters or fruit. I didn’t feel like a tiger, I frankly don’t recognize most of the cartoon characters… strawberries. Strawberries would be ok. I could just about live with strawberries.

I feel certain that there are people for whom making an ornament for the White House would feel like a huge honor. I’m sure that lots of folks would have eagerly accepted the invite to the White House for a reception. I really wish I was one of those people. I was happy to be asked for my artwork. I felt compelled to accept the invite to the reception. When I’d RSVPd the recorded voice informed me that the “dress” was business for men and holiday for women. I don’t attend parties like this. My brain could not make out what holiday might mean. Did I get to pick the holiday I wanted to represent? I choose Arbor Day. Nah… not even that house could accommodate the Sequoia Sempervirens that I would want to come as. They would probably confiscate Cupid’s bow and arrow going through security. I’d chosen to go in business wear. That was how I found myself pulling wool suit pants on over strawberry undies an hour before I was suppose to show up at the reception. No really I’m a grown up. Really.

I walked over to the East Entrance and got in line. They were fairly organized. I’ve never attended a party that I had to be searched to get into before. I’m not sure I’d want to again. It sets a tone if you know what I mean. Add to that the sight of Andrew Jackson’s dishware behind glass. I will not share the incredibly hostile thought that went through my head at the time.

Everyone asks me what I thought of DC, of the White House, of the event. It’s like this, the buffet food was good. It wasn’t great, but it was good. Good here meaning that there were things I was willing to eat and the asparagus wasn’t terribly overcooked. The tree was pretty. I was happy for the folks who were happy to be there. For many of the artists there it was the coolest thing they’d ever done. That’s fantastic. It doesn’t make my top ten. Here’s why: I take issue with a number of things about the US government; every government since the beginning. That is my job as a citizen. I take it seriously. I try to nudge things in a direction I like better so that my kids, all three of them, find different things to take issue with. I find that some of the problems made it impossible for me to let go and enjoy being there. There is no measured and adult way to respond to some of the things this country has done. I’m not a petulant child and I don’t throw tantrums anymore. So I didn’t bead a big finger onto the ornament. I didn’t get loud and offensive at the party. I didn’t tell them where they could stick their bread pudding; pretty good by the way. I was meant to feel honored. I tried. I failed. If I had the option again, I’d probably try again. I’m brave enough to have hope. Sometimes I’m brave enough to have hope. Next time in different panties.