Monthly Archives: November 2010

Near and Fur

There is an attitude among some that animals belong outside, not in. There was a time when human animals dwelled outside along with the fur-covered ones. Wild animals started joining humanoids around the fire for warmth and shared food and, likely, companionship. In present-day terms there are seemingly more animals living indoors than there are out. (And, come to think of it, there are now the homeless people who live on city streets and under and around no-man’s-land leftovers created by roadway ramps. In some bizarre through-the-looking-glass sense, the homeless and domesticated animals have traded places. And, too, we have created a new category – of homeless animals. It always surprises that we are the ones making the decisions for all of nature.)

So, the question begs: Should animals of the furry variety live in with us? “Yes” is the answer. Having enjoyed the company of all sorts of nonhuman animals – from chameleons, birds, turtles, mice and hamsters to cats and dogs (a delineation of species or size rather than one of favoritism) – my sense is that other creatures complete us. They are our evolutionary link; since we have removed ourselves largely from their milieu and, at the same time, have destroyed their native habitats, it seems only fitting that we should invite them in to dine with us, even sleep with us. In my experience, other species help us to feel more human, in the sense of finding our place, not in the sense of feeling superior. They are sentient beings who connect us to the real and wild parts of our makeup, which we have deliberately chosen to ignore or suppress, real and wild not being synonymous with uncivilized.

Living with other animals, whether four-leggeds or not, isn’t always easy: there are the bodily fluids; the flying fur, as well as the tumbleweed variety, and dander – an issue for many; the possible incursion of fleas and ticks (perhaps a tradeoff for other pest-control management); food and utensil differences (maybe not for every household); walking and/or litter-box tending; allowable permissions and training for household behavior; grooming; health check-ups; and dreaded disease processes, and eventual death. Except for the fur, all easily apply to humans as well.

If you allow it, the place that other species make is in your heart, first. Even some of the most stand-offish people can be opened up by a smiling tail-wag or a purring cuddle, an eye-blink kiss or a nuzzle. Just as Ms. Dickinson observed that hope has feathers, it can have fur as well, since the resilience and adaptive natures of nonhumans keep them solidly in the moment. There are voids left when those interactions disappear from our lives with them. There is something in them that reminds us of us, like a mirror, but in a smaller body covered in hair. And they are the third element of hearth and home. They fill out the empty spaces by finding their spots – sometimes in your path, other times in lovely corners you had never really noticed. They are adaptive even if you aren’t, they can teach you to slow down and just be. Humans seem to have lost the ability to simply exist, and to not worry about what it means, or who might not approve, or whether it is in any way productive. The relationship between human and non- is one of mutual learning and understanding. The furry ones find their place with us and we with them, we envy their superior senses of sight, sound, smell and who knows what else. They envy our opposable thumbs, which enable us to open cans, and our ability to light warming fires. As inequitable an arrangement as that may sound, it is a win-win.

Given their druthers, would other species of animals rather be with us than not? You would have to ask one of them. Once ensconced, they appear to enjoy themselves thoroughly. And so do we. They make a place a home, a home a place. As remarkable as they are in so many respects, finding their place seems to come naturally, and their sense of place is contagious – infectious, really. They can symbolize home and they are at home, curled up and warm and content.


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At Different Stages

We at arslocii have always been of a mind that performance makes a theater and not vice versa. We’ve felt that a stage play didn’t actually even need a stage – that the play was the thing and, if compelling enough, the thing could be played anywhere. We’ve seen plays and musical performances put on in the unlikeliest of spots – out in open fields, in church basements, in living rooms, in marketplaces – and by virtue of the performance, the location has been imbued with that quasi-sacred, holy-ground feel and aura that is a theater. And, even in – and perhaps especially in – latter-day theaters, with their thrust stages and unadorned halls, there is the sense of getting back to basics: stripped down to essences, they are like enclosed Modernist amphitheaters, flexible enough to play host to anything, from Rodgers & Hammerstein to “Godot” to “Oedipus.” They are, or can be, in a very Venturi/Scott Brown way, decorated sheds, but of the soul. And, sometimes, because the performances come out of this dark blank slate, without visual competition, and with a dreamlike presentational affect, they can be even more powerful, have greater impact. A theater need be nothing more than a focal point, a campfire in the night of the world.

And yet …

There we were, going to see a performance of “Burn the Floor,” a spirited ballroom-dancing revue starring some of our favorite hoofers from “So You Think You Can Dance.” The show was being put on in our town’s old orchestra hall, one of those 19th-century jewel boxes that, these days, spend less time with orchestras within their restored walls (our town’s orchestra has moved down the street to the new symphony space) and more time playing host to touring acts and troupes, and smaller-scale arts efforts.

They seem, on the face of them, fuddy-duddy and unnecessary ornate temples dedicated to the white Western world’s conception of culture. That being said, going there, being there, one could clearly feel something … special about it that the newer theaters just don’t have. There was a formal processional entry – from the sidewalk up a few steps to the set-back brick and gaslight-flickered façade; through large doors into a narrow decompression foyer, the first layer of leaving the real world behind; then on into a large, high-ceilinged lobby, with staircases shooting off and up, and, just ahead, ticket-takers for those lucky enough to have floor and lower box seats (and whom, tonight, would include us); then, beyond, a spacious hallway that semi-circles the row of entrance doors leading to the performance area – each ring of ingress drawing us into, even making us complicit with, the make-believe to come.

Then into the theater proper, all red velvet and gold filigree, bedecked tiers forming a wall of opulence, or, perhaps, obeisance: dressing up for a visit from the gods – an audience in both senses of the word. While seemingly stylistic and interior-decorating overkill for the task at hand (except where acoustical functionality was the driving force), there is, deeper, a sense of placeness that enunciates clearly that this is exactly what a space of this sort should be – in the same way that circus is best seen in a tent, or baseball in a human-scale stadium with grass on the field. And when the curtain rises – and, yes, there is a curtain, not merely a bank of lights turned on, as well as a massive proscenium that is happy to provide a fourth wall – we know that this is a place of art and wonder and imaginativeness.

Some places can be anything, and many new theaters are like that; other places are one thing, but perfectly so. Each has its role, and its magic, and even its contrapuntal possibilities: a full-costumed opera on a bare thrust stage, a Beckett play in a Victorian- or Edwardian-era hall – playing against type, and placeness, creating a new place with hybrid life.

There is not just one way of doing things, but there are ways that we, as participant-observers, know are just right, and tell us that we belong. Maybe anything called a theater does that. Maybe anything – whether black box or jewel box – that draws us to it, and draws our minds and hearts for us to see, has a placeness supreme.


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Wrack & Ruin

There it is, still standing, a vestige, sturdy and upright beyond all odds, remarkably vertical despite the forces of horizontality, concocted of sinew and bone as any other living thing but built of natural stone or manmade versions thereof – a singular wall or, perhaps, a forty-five degree angled pair of walls forming a kind of solidarity for the ages. Time was when there was more to this, when its solid mass made its structure less visible than now. Such remnants, considered ruins, sit in isolated overgrown places: open meadows or wooded lots, near abandoned train tracks, in brownfields. They stand as reminders of what once was or what might have been. They are in slow demise, left out to fend for themselves – abandoned, both structure and site.

Confession time: ruins speak to me. There is something about a partial built structure, in combination with nature on the ascent, that excites something primal in me. It is not only the aesthetics of it, the textural interplay of hard and soft, or grays entwined with greens, or straight and sharp edges in counterpoint to curves and wiggly organic lines – it is all of that and more – and there is some energy felt, too, rather than merely visual delight. Ruins are like a breach or tear or glimpse into other time periods – a kind of limbo of unclarity where convergences of past, present, and future gather. And it is uncertain, for an instant, as to which one you are occupying. I am not a science-fiction aficionado. For me, ruins represent time travel in real time. They provide one of the few instances when we are made aware that there was something before us and our here and now.

Such partial structures are often walls, masonry walls. The most beautiful are stone or brick. Occasionally, there is one of cinder block. Rarely are they wood, since wood doesn’t stay self-supporting for very long. Often, they are house walls, sometimes with chimneys. Others are former buildings of commerce or industry. Occasionally, they are false starts, buildings unfinished as opposed to structures in aging dismantle. They cling to life, they are fighters: against the elements, against human whim and greed, against physics and even probability. They are survivors.

When I first met my life partner, it was because of a ruin. I was in upstate New York, in the woodsy rounded mountains of the Catskills. I had walked through a thicket the day before and spied a ruin, cloaked in its site as they often are. In the morning’s bright light, I wanted to test out my new camera, but headed out hastily in search of the hidden treasure, forgetting the camera. I doubled back, almost at a trot, and literally bumped into this guy who (apparently) had followed me into the woods. We started talking, I explained my mission, he enlisted, we walked together to find the crumbled structure. I photographed the site from various angles, we walked more; in fact, most of the morning, and watched a deer amble across our paths, mere yards ahead – it was the most silent of moments. A deer and a ruin – it was magic and it was fate. Ironically, those pictures never “took” but something else did that day.

It is said that fairies live in the woods. Maybe they inhabit the ruins of man. And maybe their gentle spirits enliven and protect them and infect us, those of us that find them. The partial structures suggest something other than what we witness on a daily basis: that land is to be “improved” and used and modified. Sure, there was once some structure on this piece of ground, but it has been given back, rejoining nature in a dramatic tango, a creative tension and parity. Excuse me, could I cut in? Maybe it has something to do with life, an all-at-once illustration of growth, change and death found in a ruin and its site.


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The Office

We are disassembling an office, one that has been used as such in the same way for decades, but there is more to it than putting books in boxes and chairs in other rooms. It is not about the death of creative dreams; there is that, of course, a little, but most of the dreams that were designed to be dreamed in that room have been dreamt, and, truly, it is a time of dream transition. It is time to do other things in that space, and to do in other spaces the things that were done there, and to move on with differed, not diminished, lives.

But there is something about shutting down and clearing out an office – especially, particularly, a home office – that has not a little of the whiff of dying to it, and is very much like the deaccessioning of art, for a personal office is nothing if not a work of art.

Putting together an office is not, as comparisons go, like building up a shape using clay, or chipping a figure from within a block of stone, or putting paint to canvas. It is a different sort of artistic endeavor: one less planned (at least after the initial move-in phase) but no less intimate and revealing – a kind of installation art that, over the years, just keeps getting installed or installing itself, adding layers, subtracting space, telling more. In a way, an office is a sort of work of art in which art of a sort is made.

The corporate office – the one provided for a worker in a building that one has to leave home to get to – is a different animal. The chair is their chair, the desk it their desk, the carpets, the light fixtures, the color on the walls – all theirs, and not necessarily your taste, and not particularly conducive to you doing the best work you can do. That is why there are so many unavoidably unsatisfactory and incomplete attempts to “personalize” one’s office space: pinned-up photos and cartoons and fortune-cookie slips, desk borders – like the edges of a boxing ring – populated by stuffed animals and action figures, framed snapshots and a pale, gasping philodendron. All these: all attempts at remembering who you are in a location that does not encourage it – in fact, actively discourages it or any individuality.

But the home office … well, for starters, it does have the word “home” in its name, and that goes a long way to making you feel good about it from the get-go. Second, and directly following: It is in the home, thus making convenience a given, commuting a minor perambulation, lunchtime a refrigerator raid. In many cases, the occupant will have chosen the room, in the house or apartment, designated to be the office, and for a reason: sometimes because it is the only room available – that space in the basement, that second bedroom, that corner of the kitchen; sometimes because there is a certain “feel” to a space, a familiarity, a feng-shui thing, even an odd empathy, as if one “gets” this space and knows it and knows that this is the place where good work can be done and destinies could be met.

But more: Since the space is not “theirs” but yours, it can become what you want it to be  (while, in return, you become what it says you are), to look how you want it to look, and to behave in a manner that you determine. In other words, it is the you that contains you as much as it reflects you. And, if you are lucky, it will make you a better you, at least creatively. (Physically, those barbells will not get used enough to affect even one ab. Trust us.) You like that old, awful-colored rug? Drop it on the floor, anywhere. That mobile from your college days? Tack it to the ceiling. Want your cat there? Absolutely. Want it dark, with just a pool of light on your task? If that’s what you want. Loud music? If it helps, rock on. (If it distracts, go ahead, too. Distraction is incubation.) You have the freedom (within marital parameters) to make this office the best room for you, one you will find yourself drifting to even in nonwork hours. It can become your sanctum sanctorum, an arena, a cave, your room with a view, a womb. And as you work in it, and things expand to fill the spaces – as the cork board seems to have sprouted paper barnacles, as once neatly-lined-up books seem now to have been frozen in mid prison breakout, as your once-spacious desk appears to have been miniaturized and your once-ergonomic seating device has now the comfort of an Inquisition torture tool – it is here, and then, that the unconscious art has taken over: an unwitting, subversive expression of self – like automatic writing – and what the self is capable of, and capable of tolerating with the tunnel-vision goal of worthy accomplishment in mind.

And, then, to take it apart … and, where instinct and happenstance made a work of environmental and performance art, now focused intent is making it disappear, so that it can become … what? The next step. The new chapter. The second following the present breath. This needn’t be a sad moment. It could just be that what you did there you now feel better doing someplace else, or not at all. A space, dear to you, as dear as you are to yourself, which has – face it – lost its energy, even its raison d’etre, is getting a chance to be the next new you. What you do now doesn’t require what this space is now.

Things change. People change. Rooms change. Artists emerge from blue periods and become Cubists. Representationalists become Abstract Expressionists. Writers become editors. Art changes as the artist changes, and so does the workplace. Futures create memories. People get older, or wiser, or just different. And – to invert (and convolute) Lillian Hellman’s famous phrase to the HUAC witch hunters – sometimes we won’t or shouldn’t cut this year’s fashion to fit last year’s style.

We move on. So do our spaces. But, in a corner, in the way that that same old light glances through the window, by the familiar creak of that well-trod-on floorboard, in the dent in the wall that only you know the history of, there is continuity. And placeness. And comfort.


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