“In light of the COVID-19 Pandemic…”

Frank Gehry Science Library Building on Washington Road and Ivy Lane, Princeton University Campus. PHOTO BY PAM HERSH
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Frank Gehry Science Library Building on Washington Road and Ivy Lane, Princeton University Campus. PHOTO BY PAM HERSH

By Pam Hersh

“In light of the COVID-19 Pandemic…”
“With an abundance of caution…”

These now clichéd phrases begin every announcement of another cancellation resulting from this health crisis that has raised everyone to a level of feverish angst. Personally, my angst fever is off the thermometer scale. I am infected with worry about everyone I know and love, about myself (whom I know, but don’t always love), and about the tens of thousands of victims throughout the world whom I don’t know but who are suffering the debilitating consequences of the disease.

Perhaps we should be saying “in the dark of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” In an attempt to prevent me from becoming swallowed up by dark depression, I forced myself to tap into whatever Pollyanna traits I had left. I began to keep track of some positive aspects of this nightmare.

The major plus for me and many of my friends with similarly hyperactive, over- extended, over-committed lives is that all these cancellations have led to discovering a most elusive treasure – time. I now have the time to get more sleep as prescribed for years by my doctor, read more books, and do more cleaning, a chore that in the past generally was usurped by non-stop activities. I am happy to report that my cleaning of an overstuffed closet led me to find a more tactile treasure – toilet paper, that now priceless commodity absent from supermarket shelves.

Since I am trying to spend less of my extra time watching the news and interacting with people, I am taking longer walks on Princeton University’s campus in this blizzard-like community paralysis playing out in spring-like weather. The result has been a more intense appreciation of the spectacular architectural aspects of the Princeton University Campus. The indoor University Art Museum has closed, but the outdoor museum is in full bloom.

Dr. William G. Bowen, president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988 and a world-renowned higher education opinion leader until he died in 2016, said the sculptures (and I would add the buildings) are “sources of vitality, a reminder of the possibilities of form, for each of us as we walk on the campus.” The campus is truly the home to one of the country’s most significant collections of 20th- and 21st-century sculpture and buildings that represent nearly three centuries of architectural styles from the world’s most prominent architects.

Particularly noteworthy for me is the Frank Gehry Lewis Library on Ivy Lane and Washington Road at sunset.

On a recent early evening walk on campus, it was breathtaking how the pink and yellow fading sunlight caught the shiny steel surfaces and dramatic angles. I recalled a much more innocent time in the early part of this century, when Princeton’s biggest worry was whether the new Gehry building was going to cause traffic jams and accidents on Washington Road – as discussed by the Princeton Regional Planning Board. Skeptics about a Gehry installation predicted that Lewis Library would be the scariest thing to fall to earth in central New Jersey since that Martian spacecraft jarred Grover’s Mill.

That same evening, I stood on Stryker Bridge and took in a panoramic view of Washington Road and took notice of the very sparse rush hour traffic – the result of business and institutional closures. It seems almost quaint that a few months ago we all were freaking out over the Alexander Road bridge closure and the anticipated doomsday traffic jams.

There were three pieces of campus art that I had seen previously but never took the time to absorb. “Double Sights,” the 39-foot tall social justice creation near the fountain outside the Woodrow Wilson School, is particularly intriguing for its representation of the University’s ongoing conflicting emotions about Woodrow Wilson. Designed by artist Walter Hood, Double Sights has two columns etched with quotations representing both positive and negative aspects of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University President 1902-10, New Jersey Governor 1911-12, U.S. President 1913-2. Quotes on the outside of both columns present President Wilson’s views on a variety of subjects, and on the inside of the arch, on one column at the sculpture’s center, is a glass surface with images of Woodrow Wilson’s contemporaries — W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, David Lloyd George, James Weldon Johnson, and others — all of whom were critical of Woodrow Wilson’s views and policies, particularly on the subjects of race and gender.  On the inside of the other column are quotes by these critics about some of Wilson’s most harmful attitudes and actions.

Artist Maya Lin recently completed “Einstein’s Table” an 11-foot-diameter granite “water table,” at the Lewis Arts and Transit Complex. Its elliptical shape, surrounded by seven spheres, recalls drawings of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. In fact the sun itself at all times of the day is an artistic feature as its light reflects off the mirror facades of the Arts Center buildings and adds to the dramatic quality of Einstein’s Table.

The monumental glass, steel and bronze sculpture by leading contemporary artists Doug and Mike Starn on the lawn of the Princeton University Art Museum continually surprises and awes me, even though I have seen it dozens of times. Weighing nearly eight tons, it is constructed of six 18-foot-tall vividly colored glass panels and two cast bronze forms resembling tree limbs. Titled “(Any) Body Oddly Propped,” designed by the Starns specifically for the site, reflects the artists’ long fascination with energy systems found in nature.

“Doug and Mike Starn have collaborated to create some of the most significant works of public art in a generation, and this new piece is expressive and purely beautiful, inviting visitors to linger amidst the sculpture and experience it under constantly shifting light conditions,” said James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum.

And during the past week, I also found something particularly uplifting virtually rather than visually. Democracy is alive and well in Princeton despite the pandemic. Regardless of one’s political affiliation or candidate preference, one has to admire the perseverance and ingenuity that went into the Princeton Community Democratic Organization’s virtual endorsement convention held on Sunday evening of March 15.

Instead of cancelling the endorsement meeting, the officers, led by the club’s President Jean Durbin, figured out how to have the members vote for their favorite candidates virtually and anonymously. The local candidate forum was live-streamed with Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker as emcee, and more than 200 members cast their virtual ballots.

And finally, I end this exercise in positive thinking with another cliché:

Continual “thoughts and prayers” to the heroes of this pandemic –those essential workers (I am totally non-essential) in healthcare, food services, custodial services, public safety, emergency services, who are risking their lives every day in order to enable the rest of us to survive and whine.

I look forward to the day when we have a reason to say “in the light of the COVID 19 former crisis.”