Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Yield Sign: Give Way. Speed Up.

Our world is dotted with signage. Daily, we are bombarded by advertising, street, warning, directional and traffic signs – all in place to attract our attention and give us instruction of one kind or another. I have had a lifelong fascination with the “yield” sign. Back in my 4th- or 5th-grade classroom, our teacher asked if anyone knew what the word “yield” meant. Now, I was not one of those kids with a persistently raised arm, but I decided to give it a go. I was clueless as to what its definition was and I probably had never used the word before, yet alone heard others use it in conversation, but I deduced its meaning based on my observations of how people behaved wherever yield signs were posted. I answered, “Give way.” This was a significant moment for me in the powers of observation and deductive reasoning.

The yield sign originated in Tulsa, Oklahoma, based on a collaboration between a traffic engineer and a police captain (Rice and Riggs) around the mid-20th century. Originally it was a keystone shape in yellow and black and, over the past sixty years, has changed into a triangular target design in red and white. The thinking behind creation of a yield sign was that often a full stop wasn’t required, but rather a cautionary slowing and merging, especially where a less busy “feeder” street intersected a busier “collector” street. Yield signs became de rigeur on highways and expressways at the points of one-way intersections, such as on-ramps. Always found at points of convergence where one fork has precedence over another, they create a kind of road hierarchy.

If you asked a child of 9 or 10 now what yield means, based solely on observation, they might likely guess, “Speed up.” That is the interpretation so often expressed by drivers faced with the triangle. So, who’s place is it to give way? Obviously, it is still the one with the yield sign, the one entering the flow of traffic. For those who have never experienced traffic circles, they operate in pretty much the same way – entering traffic slows (or stops, even) for the traffic already in the circle. Of course, on highways there is an unstated courtesy of the car in the slower flow lane to move over to the left, if it is safe to do so, to accommodate the newbie entering on the right. But that is not always possible or sane to do, depending on traffic volume. And it is not the law, in contrast to the stated yield sign.

As cars have been made more adept at reaching 60 mph in 10 seconds or less, is it mainly for the purpose of breaking the laws of yielding the right-of-way? Americans don’t like to yield – they like others to yield to them: their land, their labor, their property, their sense of self. Apparently, on the roads, too, letting others yield is the preferred method. No one wants to give an advantage to anyone else, and it is reflected daily on the road as the yield signs are ignored. I guess the question is: Why do we still have yield signs if they mean nothing? Granted, they are one of the most attractively designed signs on the road and I would hate to see them disappear. Moreover, we still do need the yield sign – maybe even more so today than in the kinder, gentler, more naive times when it was devised. The problem comes in when drivers choose whether to obey them.

A place can be a point of convergence, or a choice (in this case, both); and a sign is a wayfinding device or an enforceable rule: the physical manifestation of a law that is supposed to protect us from our worst selves. Yield signs, for me, have a kind of placeness, marking a juncture, acknowledging crossing paths, suggesting union, showing that there are others in the world and that, sometimes, you must surrender, slow down and merge. The yield-sign lesson that day in grade school, perhaps, had that element, too – of learning to give way, not only when traffic merges but maybe in other situations as well. These days the message seems to have lost its meaning. Or maybe the problem is that no one knows what those red-and-white triangles mean. And, too, it reminds me that it is not only a traffic-control device but also a moment of understanding and reason, a place of awareness and the artful grace of acquiescence. Too bad not every driver had that moment in the classroom.

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Rest in Peace

We came up to Woodstock this week to buy property. Actually, two properties: one for the next chapter in our lives, and one for the last. Not much luck, yet, on that first mission. But, as for the other … well, let’s just say that we can check “take care of eternity” off our to-do list. We just staked our claim to a three-and-a-half by ten foot bit of it.

Cemeteries, at least the old ones, by their very nature are repositories of placeness. They are fields of stories, untold, hinted at, of lives lived and lives snatched away, of fulfillment and mortal theft, of the luck of the draw and the final act of field-leveling and shared fate. These days, though, cemeteries are gated communities for the dead, with rigid rules of corporate bloodlessness that rival those of New York high-end co-ops: size of stone, type of shrub, adornment of gravesite – all spelled out and enforced. In this way, they are not only places for the dead but dead places; in terms of placeness, dead zones. Cold uniformity that robs the deceased of their individuality.

But old cemeteries? They are like walking in libraries, among giant, upright books that tell the simplest of tales, engaging the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks, to ride that dash between birth and death dates. There is no greater exercise of narrative imagination than standing before a tombstone and trying to reassemble the life and death it announces. And there is no odder yet more comforting act, nothing more soothing, nothing more frightening and shiver-inducing, than to walk among an old cemetery’s tall and short, upright or tilted, clean or moss-covered monuments, stepping about the now-and-again suddenly too-soft earth, and hearing the whisper of an invitation, one for which you can do nothing but return your R.S.V.P.

The plot we bought – and on one of our birthdays, no less; talk about symbolism or circularity! – is in the Woodstock Artists Cemetery, just off Rock City Road. How can you not love a town that sees its duty to be an artists’ colony from cradle to grave, that honors the act of art-making and those who do it by designating a lovely rise near town to keep the recorders of beauty and shapers of thought close by and attended to? How can anyone who feels himself to be an artist not want to be, forever, in a field among others, equal among equals, the best-known name and the least sharing, finally, that same table at that same cafe, egotism a thing of the past.

We’ve written about the Artists Cemetery on our website, and instead of being gauche and quoting ourselves, we direct you there, where we think we captured some of its spirit and placeness, its sophistication yet innocence, its sadness yet celebration, its sweetness and, in a way, its victory. If, in its strong placeness – far stronger than at the traditional cemetery across the road – one feels there are ghosts afoot, they are triumphal spirits: artists become art.

Come visit us at plot K-12, up the hill, a little to the right of the tree, just down from the Wilsons. But no hurry. We’re not quite done the art of living. But when our time comes, we will be vapor once more, and vapor among vapors of brethren.

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Putting Down Roots

The case for trees is an easy one to make.

The benefits of including our tall arboreal friends in our environment are without dispute, and numerous. Survival for us and, too, for everything on the planet would be impossible without trees. They breathe oxygen into us and provide needed atmospheric recycling of moisture, among other notable biological processes. They air-condition our world, especially urgent now because of climate change, a result of our reckless disregard for other living systems, and our ignorant belief that our desires are the most important and necessary.

Lecturing aside, trees are awesome in almost every respect.

Our interest here, though, is to discuss the psychic benefits of trees and their transformational character in determining and creating placeness. They are major players. But, rather than repeating the scientific data, we are going to give first-hand anecdotal examples.

Our street, a 19th-century vestige of an industrial mill town, is urban and hard-surfaced, a layered mix of stone and cement, and nary a growing thing except sidewalk-crack weeds. In fact, directly across the street from us, on a cement porch, are some flowers in containers – artificial flowers – freakishly colorful (though fading) year round; neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor dark of night shall stay them. One wonders why people are so willing to substitute facsimiles for the real.

Within five years of inhabiting our house we went on a quest for trees. In city-speak, “street trees.” Our park system provided two for free; that was disappointing, since they had promised four, but we added two others, plus a few more within our small courtyard. The lessons learned from tending and watching these trees and the difference they have made in our lives are enormous. When they were small and vulnerable to human assault, they were vandalized mostly by the mindless pulling off of the leaves – ironically the very thing we wanted them for. One night we heard a snapping, crunching sound, and looked out to see a bunch of drunks that had just broken off a sizable limb from one of our trees, carrying it off over their shoulders like natives back from a hunt. To do what with it? We don’t know. To be imbeciles, for sure. But since that moment we became crazed guardians of our turf and our trees. Happily, that level of destructive behavior never happened again (until bulldozers and other tall street-paving, house-building, cement-pouring vehicles started showing up twenty years later in our gentrifying neighborhood).

As the trees grew, space changed around us. There was the defining of space through the demarcation of lines and boundaries, creating a buffer zone and a filtering between street and pavement, as well as a sense of our space versus the larger general space. And the tree canopies formed another kind of space above, a soothing and calming enclosure of shade, not only for our facade’s southern exposure and our courtyard’s leafy shelter, but for encouraging walking as opposed to running and screaming (mostly what happened within the barren no-man’s land of hardscape). There seemed to have been, until then, such a total disregard by inhabitants for the dead zone of the streetscape, almost as if because it was so devoid of life it was beyond control or caring, that it was an edgy, uncomfortable place that had to be passed through but was not valued other than for parking or driving or raising hell or tossing trash. We firmly believe that lifeless areas produce lifeless thinking.

There is no way to know whether our trees are directly responsible for altering the landscape in more ways than one, but we think they did. There are the wonderful sculptural shapes of the trunks and limbs sans foliage that cause shadows and lines, which we value and enjoy in the lower winter sunlight, but our sense of being enveloped in a treehouse goes missing until spring. And during the leaf season, we have both interior and exterior dappled light and wind-carried movement at every vantage point. Birds and squirrels add another level of reality. We have watched a certain squirrel (or, more likely, generations of them) lie prostrate on one of our second-story limbs and doze off; this year, we discovered a large squirrel nest in that same tree, although we  have never seen baby squirrels.

We have observed our trees since they barely reached the second-story windows, and then watched them reach the third (a truly amazing moment when they became real trees) and beyond. And, over the course of these twenty years, we do think that our trees have changed the personality of the street for the better: quieter and less aggressive; occasional sporadic bursts of noise rather than sustained loudness; containment and control as opposed to wide-open nothingness; softness and curvy shapes to help balance the hard rigidity of buildings set up to the sidewalk. Of course, there are neighbors who have despised the trees from the first day, maybe more so now that they drop more leaves, and one person in particular likes to inform me about high winds causing the trees to sway – a perceived threat to her, a comfort to me.

Another interesting change that has gradually taken place is concerning dog waste and the people who do or don’t control it. In most instances, we have found that if you show that you value something, even something as meaningless to many as a tree, then they too will value or respect it (unless they are sociopaths). For years, as the trees struggled to achieve height, they and their reclaimed pits were treated as small dumping grounds for cups, bottles, cigarette butts and dog droppings – especially dog droppings, since there was no other non-concrete spot for squatting. Of course, it is the caliber of the dog-walker that makes a difference, but when we put low-profile fencing around the pits (only two of the four pits got these), behavior changed. New dog-walkers had bags to scoop up what was deposited and, quite often, dogs were led right past our trees on a mission to other sites.

Sometimes it’s hard to get used to the idea that the trees have become a “given” and are not treated as something to be attacked or abused. Sadly, no one else has followed suit in planting arboreal companions for ours – yet. We stand alone, but we stand tall and a bit cooler than anyone else in nature’s shade, despite the overwhelming ratio of hard surface to soft. Our place has the qualities of an urban oasis, its appearance of placeness and the sense of placeness it exudes – all thanks to trees. We couldn’t live here without them, and we wouldn’t want to.

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Air Space

Exploring the concept of placeness, one finds – as do those who dig deeper into the intricacies of physics or medicine or philosophy or any other science, art or craft – that the ideas get bigger as the scope gets smaller. Atoms, at one time, seemed miraculous enough as a micro building block of what we perceive as existence, but attempts to make even finer points of it have turned up gluons and other particles that have made matters (and matter) even more complex, and have sent us off on new directions via twisty paths, with the understanding of everything as the goal. Good luck with that.

Similarly, in pondering placeness, and placeness as art, and art itself, we here at arslocii have gone to places and seen things, and felt things, and recorded them, and so have come up with descriptions, skirted and homed in on definitions, and evolved questions, which in turn have generated more questions. Sometimes, clarity has been the reward; at other times, it’s been like trying to scoop up light in our hands and sip it.

On the radio this morning, music started playing, and then the deejay began speaking while the song continued at a somewhat lowered volume, and he said, to identify the tune, “Behind me you’re hearing …” and we thought: “Behind”? Unless the show’s host had actually turned his back on the CD player in the studio, there was nothing literally “behind” about it. But, in terms of placeness, it was a fascinating jumping off point: thinking of a diminished sound as being “behind,” as if radio waves were a place with directional coordinates. (Sometimes, intriguingly, “behind” is referred to instead by radio professionals as “under,” and the announcer is said to speak “over” the music.) It’s not location we’re dealing with here, really, nor physical layering, but representative abstract depiction, a metaphorical component to placeness.

And it got us to thinking (or, actually, rethinking) about where placeness resides; that is: Does or can a place contain “placeness,” in and of itself, as an essence of it, or is placeness just something in our head that we superimpose on a site, for some reason or need? Is it there, or do we bring it with us? And what is “it”? And where is “there”? And, as with radio, do you need to have an actual, physical place to have placeness?

Of course, something like radio is easily the topic of a placeness discussion in and of itself. Anyone lucky enough (i.e., old enough) to have heard Stan Freberg’s power-of-radio commercial (“Cue the maraschino cherry!”), or Jean Shepherd’s intimate and rollicking latenight monologues, knows that these artists of the air did more than just paint pictures with their words and sounds – they created places we were in, and today we have memories of being there. We can not only describe what we “saw,” but tell you how it smelled, or how big things were. They were magicians of placeness – they took us someplace else: behind, under, over. And no matter whether you were listening to them in the dark of night or the light of an afternoon, in a room, in a car, in the park, the placeness was there. And we were in it.

Is placeness an objective, universally grasped trait or aspect of the “personality” of a locale? Or, if placeness is not objective, and does not reside per se in the places we deem as having placeness, then it is a subjective thing, a personal preference, as much nurture as nature. A need in search of a vessel to hold it.

Or maybe it’s neither. Or maybe it’s both. (We’d sort of like, in a philosophical-cum-romantic way, for placeness to be an entity that exists in a place, just waiting to be discovered, like a new element, or a treasure in an antique shop, or a new sense, like umami.) Or maybe it is something we are meant to perceive but never quite understand – like great art, to know it when you see it, but never to have the tools to explain how or why, but to know when you are in the presence of it.

The direction of our future “digs” into the stratified soil of placeness – including our continued visits to and descriptions of places that we contend have that quality, that  “soul,” if you will – will be to continue trying to determine what it is that gives places that are universally regarded as possessing placeness their “placeness,” to split the atom of it, to see the particles and attracting/repelling forces that give it its substance and shape – to get down to the indivisible, irreducible, ineluctable core. It’s a journey that may take us into places we cannot imagine that we will go, or that we ever knew existed: to dwell in places where music being “behind” or “under” or “over” is more than just a convenient expression but, rather, a signpost.

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Resounding Memory

I grew up in a house that was placed in a unique setting: built upon a large hill but nestled up against another smaller hill on a kind of protected plateau, the whole creating an acoustical framework. The hill behind caused an echo effect and the hill below acted as a funnel, sending sound up to us. We were situated in the middle, like a receiving tower or a dish antenna in the Very Large Array. About a half mile down the hill in a valley was a major expressway, constructed in the watershed of a creek, whose twisty path it followed through the city. Beyond that, a few hundred feet away, were the vast train yards of a once major hub of rail transportation. Both of these travel paths, road and rail, were sources of sounds, sounds that I grew up with – naturally believing that those were the norm everywhere. From the expressway, there was the constant background rush (of course, reduced by the distance from it), a low, persistent, almost ocean sound. And, too, the occasional downshifting of truck engines as they slowed for the road curves that mirrored the creek bed, a baritone drone that changed pitch with gear ratio. All of this was more apparent at night; and as the sound travelled up the hill like surface waves and got caught against the hill behind us, it would bounce and settle into our natural amphitheater – an early version of surround sound. The acoustics were quite good. Then the trains would join in, with their rumbling bass temporarily drowning out the expressway and their soft blasts of diesel air horns, which can be as soothing at night as a chorus of bullfrogs can be. There were more immediate sounds closer by, but not so much at night, thereby magnifying the ones traveling up the hill.

I could never have predicted that I would eventually live in my own house and experience, almost exactly note for note, the same sounds. Thirty years later, in a different city in a different state, a different neighborhood that is more hard-surfaced and appeared to be nothing like the place I grew up in – there I was lying in bed, maybe the first month we were living in the house, and I heard it. I heard it all again.

The house we live in is situated at the top of a hill with a large building behind it that acts just as the small hill in back did in my childhood home. About a half mile down the hill, in a valley and across a river is a major expressway that follows the river’s curves. Between the road and the river are train tracks – not a train yard, but a regularly used set. The persistent sound of the expressway flows up the hill and bounces off the building behind us, the trucks downshift and rumble as they negotiate the curvy road. The trains’ deep roar drowns out the other sounds, and their soft blasts of diesel air horns have that same comforting tone. It is uncanny, really, how similar the distance to the source of these sounds is – the one in Cincinnati, the other in Philadelphia – and how nearly identical the sounds that are generated, then and now. I can close my eyes and listen and be back in my original room. Or, I can be in the room of my own choosing and feel just as whole and connected to here as I did to there.

It is impossible to imagine how I was able to find the perfect spot to recreate the background music of my past. It wasn’t the thing I was actively seeking – it just happened. But it is magical. It is a piece of my past made present. The soundtrack of my life. I am lucky in this way because it is serendipity that this is the way it is. Sometimes being in a new place, the sounds around you can be bothersome, frightening even. What are the chances that I would have the same sounds?

Sound can create placeness just as objects or spaces can. It is said that smell is the most memory-driven of the senses, but I believe, just as powerful, is sound – familiar and eternal and place-making.

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