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Dark Endeavors


Institutional and Not

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, March 20, 2002.

In my Pleistocene youth, my grandfather fought what is now realized as Alzheimer’s in Sarasota, Florida where he had a vacation cottage distant from his beloved New England. The family made pilgrimages to his side as he clearly went down in hell and fear, medicine only able to sedate, and no soothing explanations for the wife and children as their proper, highly regarded husband and father screamed terrible things about creatures invisible to all others, swung at nurses, faded into gibberish and coma and all the horror that such things are. He died in 1956, I think, and I was eight. There was no information like I just described at the time, at least to my age group; that was the burden of adult family members to endure in silence. I think, in retrospect, that they labored under century old fears that the neighbors not think that insanity ran in the family, and it is not hard to believe that Alzheimer’s could produce that image in that age of ignorance. We continue to live in ages of ignorance, but at least we now know that more about senility and Alzheimer’s, and that without calming drugs, the ill can slip into big time dementia that must be scary and awful to them, never mind to adult children with cherished memories that do not meld with the creature before them.

My grandfather had three children, and both his daughters – one my mother – died of the same thing. The sisters benefited, if that is the word, from vastly better and more compassionate environments and lived deep into old age, although their last decades were spent at residences designed just for Alzheimer patients. The alternating genders in successive generations certainly holds and fixes the mind of all grandsons. Me, for example. I worry. I do, although I’m already considered so far off the pier it’s possible that what might be an inevitable diagnosis will fail to distinguish itself.

This, of course you’ve already guessed, leads to a discussion of Ocean Journey’s collapse. How in the world do you connect those dots, the dense among you ask? Because Alzheimer’s has not only a medical presentation but a societal metaphor - one which follows many of the same symptoms.

It is highly unlikely that there was ever a huge demand for a huge aquarium in Denver, nor was there much reason to believe that ocean creatures are happy at the atmospheric pressure and gravity of five thousand feet. Nor was there a logical assumption that such an aquarium would actually edify the children in the age of the Discovery Channel and the childhood Haj to two Disney parks so close to the real thing, especially at the prices charged. The current head of the consortium that runs the aquarium claims it was only a dream and not for the money. In fact, it was always for the money, for those of us with moderate memories can easily recall the sketchy and controversial funding projections for this in the last decade. It made no sense on the face of it, and early on it was clear the proponents were hoping to latch on to large wads of tax support. They hoped we would forget, and apparently we have.

Here is a quote from the Daily Camera today:

Even donations totaling $35 million weren't enough to keep the aquarium healthy. Townsend said maintenance costs are very high and it would be difficult to survive without some government aid. No! A salt-water aquarium the size of LoDo is expensive to maintain? What do you know now that you didn’t know then? If $35 million in donations have not been enough, what – precisely – was the business plan anyway? But Ocean Journey has no shame. The recession and impact of Sept. 11 also hurt efforts to increase revenue. The aquarium had hoped to make $21 million last year but took in only $11 million. Think about that. What was the basis for that hope anyway, and were they on track to achieve it before September 11? Did Ocean Journey think folks were going to fly to Denver to see them? Most of the nation could fly to aquariums at actual oceans for less. And, of course, as the Republican government now admits, there has been no recession worthy of the name. And it is highly unlikely that a fifty percent drop from their probably baseless expectation of income could reasonably be blamed on events in the last thirty percent of the year. Note the absence of comparisons to other years.

… the $15 admission price was not too high, and was in fact less than many aquariums charge. However, other institutions, like the Denver Zoo, can charge less because they receive public funding. There it is. It’s our fault. Ocean Journey was conceived, as so many so called art projects are, as something that superior people would feel was necessary to the commonweal and therefore support beyond the norm. Like virtually every art project business projection, it was deeply flawed, which is to say if it wasn’t filled with delusions or outright lies, the next thing to them. The hope was that the prospect of bankruptcy would be seen as an embarrassment that would need to be hidden by large government intervention. They guessed wrong, as these folks often do, but what galls me is that this same process of bogus claims of social or artistic need will inflame future government, although clearly not the people, in about five years for another project, probably a theater or conference center or the like, and it’ll fold in the same circumstances if we don’t remember and learn.

But we do not, and when the debate gets tiresome and might lead to Enron-like balancing of public statements against the facts that were known, and the seeming utilization of public money by deception which therefore might initiate criminal proceedings against people who can still hire, somehow, eminent attorneys and start a process that will cast a hero’s toga on no one, we simply choose to forget and move on. Just as we did with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which we were once assured would never cost the taxpayers a cent. As a society, we have Alzheimer’s, and when the screaming starts against phantoms like September 11, we allow opiates to do their work and wander away to other distractions, as my family did in Florida in the middle of the last century. They went to Marineland, which was then new, and for which there was a market. This is Dark Cloud.