Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Deer: A Solstice Tale

Staying in a wooded cottage in upstate New York for the winter solstice, surrounded by the serenity and beauty of nature, one expects all of life’s dramas to fade into a perfect cosmic balance. Fewer humans per square foot = harmonious, bucolic calm, right?

Our first morning there, we awoke to deer just outside our door and, had the door been open, it seemed that they would have come in to greet us. They appeared to be a family group, or a herd; obviously a large male, a few less bulky females and several gangly offspring. They were cautious, alert, but also familiar with their surroundings. Some were absolutely breathtaking; all were whitetail. They had come from the hillside above our cabin and were making what we soon learned was their twice-daily pilgrimage to the house at the foot of the hill below us: the large domicile was their deer diner, where a well-meaning citizen fed them some sort of grain mix. And these poor, hungry creatures arrived like clockwork for designated feeding times, much like any domesticated animal does. As we all know, deer are starving not only because winter takes away the grass and leaves of their diet, but also because their ability to roam and get food is impinged by human development and the disappearance of their habitat. They still reproduce no matter how little space or food they have. I don’t know if feeding them is the right-headed thing to do, but I understand the urge to assist these beleaguered fellow creatures.

One of the group, we noticed, arrived with the rest and then settled into the hillside. This one did not continue on to the feeding site about thirty yards below. She curled up like a cat on the ground, camouflaged in the brown leaves and resembling one of the frost-stricken shrub mounds that pepper the woodland floor. When the rest of the herd had eaten their handout, the caravan moved in a retrace of their steps, back to wherever it is that they spend their days and nights. But she stayed, coiled, head down. Much after the rest had gone, we saw her get up and move unsteadily and slowly, we hoped, to rejoin the group. But she hadn’t eaten, never reaching the destination but participating as well as she could in an established habit, though stopping short of the goal.

The next day, the same thing: the herd moving down the slope to the eating spot and the one deer arriving late and settling into the same position and location. Oh no, she must be sick, we thought. And if she doesn’t eat, she will die. She stayed longer in her coiled repose each day that we watched her. It was heartwrenching. What was wrong: Was she aged, was she injured, was she dying? I couldn’t stand to witness this. I am a big believer in all things natural, and I understand that nature is very practical and not at all sentimental; but I am sentimental – a cruel irony for this observer of natural wonder.

Here we were, in this exquisite setting, views from every window, and our most meaningful prospect of the descending woodland had this poor, hapless deer right smack in the center. I found myself not wanting to look out, thankful for the short days so that I couldn’t see the tragedy playing out before me; on the other hand, I was compelled to look, hoping that she had gone back with the herd. I was despising this beautiful place, all of the joy drained out like the life I was witnessing. I was sobbing every day, to the point where my partner said that I was not allowed to look out the windows anymore. Our car was parked down the slope, not far from the deer’s site, so we had to pass it every time we were going out; I was eventually forbidden to look in that direction at all as we passed, since the tears would start flowing again. And when we turned our car around to exit the property, our headlights would scour the landscape like searchlights, and I couldn’t look because I was afraid I would see her still sitting. It was so distressing; I longed to be back in the familiar daily stresses of the too-dense city.

We mentioned this terrible situation to a local friend who came over one day and was willing to look from a distance, even if we weren’t. She didn’t see the deer, dead or alive. The next day, the day of the lunar eclipse, I was looking out at the woods, feeling a little easier, when a huge bird arrived and sat in a tall tree above the site. It was a bright, sunny day, and the giant creature opened its wings, a span of many feet. As the sun shone through the massive feather spread, much like a hang-glider or kite but more beautiful than any you could imagine, glowing orange and black – it dawned on me: a vulture. Oh no, oh no. The sobbing began again, but it was different this time.

Strangely and suddenly, I started thinking that the worst was over, and whatever pain and suffering that may have been happening there in the woods had ended. I was relieved, somehow, that the deathwatch was over. I knew that there would be more vultures coming soon to do what they do so well in ridding the world of dead animals. And then, just as quickly as it had arrived, the vulture flew away and no others came. Now I was confused, but I had just been through the whole gamut of emotions: terror, sorrow, resignation, relief, acceptance – and I was starting to feel less anxious about the landscape. I began looking anew out the windows and, when I walked by the site, I scanned the ground for the deer. I became emboldened and walked closer to the wooded parcel, not entering it because it was a drop-off from the path, carefully studying the ground and all the frost-stricken shrub mounds that lay about. No deer. My partner, too, looked hard for the deer and did not find it. My spirits lifted. The woods became friendly and attractive once again.

We will never know the fate of that deer, but we are, in our insular citified way, happy that we didn’t have to know. Bambi’s mother wasn’t really killed by that hunter – we all hope that. We had said, over the course of our visit, many pagan prayers for the deer. What we want to believe is that she was healed by the lunar eclipse and the winter solstice happening simultaneously, a seasonal natural miracle – an occurrence of mythic proportions in a place in nature. We like to think that nature is full of miraculous events – all of us living things are evidence enough – but sometimes you just need a twist of fate to reinforce your sense of hope and magic.


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Landscape, with Elves

My family house, built in 1935, was in its entirety like a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. Although built in the old first ring neighborhood, just beyond city-block houses, the setting was up on a plateau, with a wooded vertical hillside behind it. The style was Tudor/Arts & Crafts, almost Hansel & Gretel-ish, with many uniquely fashioned details in iron, wood, stone and brass. The craftsmanship was more in keeping with William Morris’ era than anything in this house’s own post-Depression, modern-era place and time. The man who built the house, name unknown, created a modest-sized home with the amenities of a palace or, at the very least, a compact version of an imagined and well-realized Rhineland fantasy. There was no other place like it on the same street, nor anywhere else in the entire city, as far as I know. My family bought this house about twenty years after its construction as its third owners and parted with it in 2001, having lived in it for nearly fifty years. I have named it Probasco Haus.

The rathskeller (yes, it had one) was a theatrical playroom, its walls decorated in a serious yet playful manner of Old World charm: cartoons, simple renderings, murals, frescoes of gnomes or dwarves inhabiting a two-dimensional, panoramic world, framed between the basement ceiling and the wainscoting that skirted and bisected the rathskeller walls. Their elfin homeland was subterranean but park-like; it had a canopy of trees and a sky, plus lots of hilly open landscape dotted with woody plants. Think Black Forest, but a bit more sparsely vegetated. Their posturing is etched in my memory; their folkloric scenarios continue to play in my head. They didn’t frighten or alarm me, rather amused or entertained. They lived in my house and, I figured everyone else ’s too. Growing up among them, they just seemed normal to me. But they weren’t.

The characters who peopled the cellar walls were surely inspired by fables. They were clothed as peasants in tunics, short pants and medieval shoe styles (poulaine and scarpine) and pointed hats of the period. They went about their daily tasks in the open air. Most of what they did was drink. The rathskeller was designed to be a party place, and the denizens who circled the room created the atmosphere, making a welcoming place for imbibing. This was in-your-face, post-prohibition, open-bottle flaunting and frolicking. Although a possible reference, the participants don’t seem to be observing St. Lucia Day, a day when the beer was brewed, the celebration began, while gnomes and elves ran wild – the weather just looks too nice to be December. They were just kindred spirits painted by those who had been long deprived of legal spirits.

Although the elfin dramas surrounded the space, they read like vignettes, separate mini-morality plays: a guy sucking a jug dry with a straw; another character finding a bottle and hoping to find some drop within; a sad sack being scolded by a woman (wife or mother?); a passed-out guy being “revived” by another man by pouring a jug on his face; someone puking behind a tree; a desperado running for the privy; and others serving them, both drink and food. The drinkers’ appearance is worse than the those who don’t partake, although everyone is neatly groomed. The drinkers are ridiculed and humiliated, which makes me wonder whether the seeming frivolity was a guise for a cautionary tale. They are adorable and stupid.

Originally, all four corners of the large room held sculptures of jolly men cast in plaster and finished to look like bronze or earthenware. They were about 3’ high and looked quite real as they reposed on paint-rendered fence, hitching post, whiskey crates and tree limb, bringing a three dimensional element of theatricality to the flat, painted surfaces, bridging the reality gap between the walls and the fully dimensioned people partying in the room. The four grotesques sported beards, glassy eyes and big-cheeked, inebriated faces (like some of Santa’s own), and sat with crossed ankles (feet sporting medieval long-toed shoes) to hold the large mugs positioned in their laps; each mug contained a lamp. Appearing like gargoyles or giant garden gnomes, they fleshed out the inner corners of a historically referenced and masterfully executed dreamlike party place. These sculpted figures were sconces – a kinder gentler German Expressionist form of ambient lighting that cast drama up into their mischievous visages and then into the darkened cellar corners. They were magical and mythical and, along with the 360-degree murals, gave a sense of pagan spirits as well as high spirits. Much like the pre-electric castle in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the magic was at play. The gargoyles scared the hell out of my mom and she had them removed, sadly, leaving just the paintings to represent frivolity for all time.

Artisans and artists fashioned this one-off party space as if they were decorating a medieval cathedral and created a complete vision – a place of comfort and cheer, of history and nostalgia, of human foible and humor, of nature. A house did not have to have something like this in its list of materials to make it whole, but this one did. It made it extraordinary, fantastical, a place of unique placeness, a place that transported you to another realm. Who needed the alcohol? Nevertheless, my parents had some great parties there. I look at the images that remain – not knowing if they continue to exist, or have been undone and covered over by newer owners – and I am back in the room, listening to music and dancing while surrounded by a medieval world: rathskeller cave paintings, in Ohio, no less.


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From Tiny Acorns

We live in a time of unadornment, and have for many years. New buildings are just boxes, with meager attempts at visual design, such as mirrored windows. For decades, stripped-down, modified Modernist-style has been king, and every industrial park, medical complex and suburban office aggregation is reminiscent – no, identical – to the one you passed just down the road: unfriendly to pedestrians, uncaring of environment, unaware of surroundings, unknowable because there is nothing there to know.

This is no new revelation: the lines of this battle and public assault were drawn long ago; it’s just amazing that the winds of fashion or time or human vagaries and fickleness haven’t blown sand over the old lines and led us to the making of new ones. Like many things now, this, too, is indicative of a slump. Controversial Postmodernism looked, for a while, as if it might enliven the cityscape – and the discussion – even if only in odd ways, but it soon was co-opted and subsumed, and now seems as just an eccentric interlude, a test-run of warped iconography and Chippendale toppings before its predestined use as the architecture of Las Vegas and Disney World.

Beyond the commercial building, the same one-note malaise infects the housing stock. Actually, here in our town, it’s two-note. Here, where the red-brick rowhouse is the lingua franca of house-building, there are, spreading like unimaginative but persistent bacteria, the three-story, bay-windowed, one-car-garaged, part stuccoed, part-bricked, part-stone-face, part-sided, lone dwarf-conifered structure that in the suburbs is called a townhome. In the city, where they are being built in profusion, three or four crammed into lots designed for one or two, the same blueprint used in ex-urban developments is being applied. They don’t fit, they don’t accommodate and they don’t age well. The term “cookie cutter” comes to mind; “boring,” too. Built fast, sold expensive, they are as much extruded as constructed, with lowest-grade materials slapped together by unlicensed, barely-skilled workers hired by fly-by-night, carpet-bagger, self-described “developers.” Exploitation aside, these organisms are – to all those who do not dwell inside them, admiring the granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances – characterless intruders.

The other form of new construction here is the modified Euro-style residential unit – informed by Bauhaus principles, sleek and rectilinear, with worker-housing lines and industrial materials, with a whiff of Scandinavian Utopian-community architecture about them. For a while, they were exciting additions to the neighborhoods: cool and stylish, imported and forward-looking. What wasn’t seen, looking forward, was how soon they would proliferate, and by the hands of fast-buck contractors looking to cash in on a trend, to the point where they have now become, if not ubiquitous, then monotonous, and without their original spark and surprise. What wasn’t seen, either – or what wasn’t cared about, even if seen – was that a mass of them, devised by recipe, would soon look like Soviet-era living spaces, or higher-aesthetic public housing – and which, like new cars rolling off dealers’ lots, look immediately dated, rapidly losing monetary and style-points value.

Odd that we tolerate sameness, save for color or flower-bed choice, with our homes, for it is not as if we are a creature with no interest in external adornment: we sculpt our hair, paint our faces, spend fortunes on clothing and jewelry, all to decorate ourselves, to define a more distinct, beautiful or striking or singular us. (Of course, this is a semi-fallacy, because we cut our hair in popular fashions, cosmeticize and accessorize ourselves to resemble the current hot luminary. We conform in our striving to show our difference, and those who are truly different are shunned or mocked.)

Still, we alter our outsides, even in rote ways – but, when it comes to our houses, all the adornment takes place behind the facades, in the rooms, where only residents can see them – unshared. Are we so estranged from our shelters that we do not see them as extensions of ourselves and, therefore, worthy of extended identity?

We were in New York City recently, and, with some time before our bus home, we strolled up and down the numbered streets, on the Upper East Side, in the 60s and 70s, crisscrossing the easternmost avenues. There are magnificent, real, venerable townhouses lining those streets, and while many are classic brownstones, they come in similar but varied styles and colors. And, every once in a while, we would encounter a house that had been modernized, or had been built new in recent decades where once an older house had been; they stood gleaming and brazen and out of context, attached yet detached – cool, flat statements of an architect. Still, among the houses of these streets, the adornments are primarily inside the homes, not out – you can spy the painting and mouldings, photos and weavings, through gaps in the curtained windows (except in the modernized homes, which have, for the most part, used metal or smoked glass to screen from view any errant peeping).

But what is missing, despite facade variations, despite the modernized materials, is personalization – the truly personal expression: a resonating link between the person inside the house and the house’s public face to the city, to the street, to the passerby, to the human-scale experience  – to the creation of placeness, a statement that is, intentionally or not, art.

So, soon, we nearly ceased to look at the places, each beginning to look like the next or, worse, feeling like the next, or the one across or up the street. And we ceased, too, to be stopped by or drawn to the newish kids on the block, each with a sameness in their often-strained difference.

It was just about then when we saw it. It was a grayish brownstone house, somewhat less regal or commanding or rich-looking than many of its neighbors. But it had a band of something, some design, stretched across its front, just above the first-floor entry door and windows. It seemed like something extra, but nothing special. We almost missed it. But we looked again and saw it: what that perhaps 18-inch-high strip of dark metal had punched out of it was a series of squirrel shapes – a long row of them, as if in a conga line. And, more, we then noticed that atop the newel posts flanking the front stoop were sculptures of, yes, squirrels.

Why? Who knows. But all of it was too expensive, too thought-out, too well-done an act to have been merely a whim. The metal band, the squirrel statues – these meant something to the people inside who designed them or paid for them to be designed and installed. Was it a tribute to the city’s second-most widespread wildlife form in the city? (Perhaps somewhere, maybe in Greenwich Village, there was a similar homage to the pigeon?) Was it a play on someone’s name? Or was it just a work of subtle, friendly, individualistic, idiosyncratic art, symbolic of something or nothing, fashioned to catch the eye of people walking by, and make them stop, and smile, and wonder? We don’t know. And, frankly, we don’t care. It broke up the monotony, it brightened our day, it personalized a city that can drub the spirit of anyone. It was, in its way, a buried acorn, happily discovered when needed.

And we were reminded of the sentiments at the end of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”; that is, if one person does such a thing, they might be considered odd, but if more did it, it could be seen as an organization, and even a movement. Think of it: a movement to break down the divide between dwelling and dweller, and between them and the public at large. A movement to take back design, or alter it, to truly personalize the little shelters we call home. To make the concept of placeness, or arslocii, an operating concept in all our lives. To find our inner squirrel.


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Sound Tracks

Every once in a while, here at arslocii, we have to check in with our original definition of placeness. The eve of our first anniversary is upon us, and so, perhaps, this reassessment has even more meaning, as we cross the threshold into the first annual revisit. Or, maybe not. It is odd, though, how perspectives and definitions alter over time. Our original vision was likely more rigid – to explore the nature of a site, a real place that has a far more meaningful experience beyond its physicality. (See our sites arslocii and Sculpturehead.) What we have discovered in the past year is that it isn’t always so clear-cut or tangible, that it can be anything that possesses this quality of placeness, or even a confluence of multiple things. And it also can have no substance or location at all.

We have realized, too, that placeness as art is still a valid and welcome concept, and is probably much more difficult to define than we previously thought. It has appeared in likely as well as unlikely places: it can be found in the public realm and in our innermost thoughts, in a book, in art and architecture, in sad moments or ones of extraordinary exuberance. As we move forward with these writings, we hope that we have produced or will soon create some moments of placeness for you, our readers.

One thing that we have not mentioned thus far is music. We have talked about sound but not music. Music was a huge presence in my life: my mother sang when she was happy, but usually sad songs: “Yellow Days,” “Que Sera Sera,” “Girl From Ipanema.” My father played piano and sang a little, in German mostly; his mother, too – “Black Hawk Waltz,” over and over on her spinet – and she was a great hummer, as well, almost as if it were a nervous habit, humming songs of her day: “What’ll I Do?” “Who’s Sorry Now?” “Always.”

My brother and I had record players as far back as I can remember and we nearly wore out the grooves of the Nutcracker Suite and movie themes from the mid-fifties to mid-sixties: “Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape,” “Exodus.” We also listened to some of our parents’ favorite dance records, like Arthur Lyman’s “Taboo” and “Bahia.” We both played autoharp, and then piano, and vocally performed in school choruses. But my brother kept with it, becoming a bit of a classically-trained piano virtuoso. I was steered into dance, which happily always involved music and movement.

Once when I was a teen traveling on the West Coast with my parents, we had been out and about for several days and stopped into a university cafeteria to eat lunch. There was music playing on loud speakers, and I realized that I had been without any music for all that time. I was so happy to hear it that tears came into my eyes, and I’m not sure I knew why at first. There had been a lack, and now music filled the hall, giving me a sense of place in an otherwise unknown territory.

Apparently, I never forgot that moment of rediscovery of the familiar soundtracks of my life and how comforting they were. Now I see, too, that music can create space as well as emotion, and an absence of it can create a void. And there you go, an ephemeral collection of sounds generating placeness: no thing, no site necessary, just music filling the space around me and the space inside my mind, drawing pictures, making pleasant tones, conjuring memories – making an archive of time and place based on music, and carrying those feelings into the present while carrying you back to those places.

Of course, with the advent of iPods, one never has to be without music again. There was a time, though, when driving across country could involve vast tracts of music-less-ness, being out of range of radio antennas. It’s frightening to ponder now, when there is so much connectivity, that we don’t know what to do with it, and because of that fact, no one again will experience the eureka moment I did that summer. But lack of music seems to me a kind of deprivation of one of the keen senses, one that can activate all the others. It is the kind of placeness you can have on a moment’s notice, with the push of a button. Instant placeness. Or you can sing.


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It is, after the womb, the first place we know; and, before death, likely the last. It is the single-most persistent place of our lives: we are in it, or on it, or with it for more hours a day, and for more years, than we are in or on or with any other piece of furniture. But it is more than furniture – that word describes a hassock, or a stool. A bed is … a thing and a metaphor, a friend and a foe, mother and lover, the giver of rest and the taker of consciousness, the serpent and the apple – a place where we are us, indeed the most and most often and most vulnerable us that we ever are.

Think of it, bed’s powerful placeness: When we are away from home for any extended period of time, it is not the kitchen table or the garden chaise that we crave to be reunited with but, rather, to “be back in my own bed”; when we are sad or stressed, it is not so much a walk in the woods that we naturally are drawn to as much as we need to “get into bed and pull the covers up over me”; it is the place where we most think of doing some cozy (or, as a child, clandestine) reading, and it is where some of what we read, by Mark Twain and Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Edith Wharton, and others, was written (although, presumably, not together); when we imagine having the most decadent and deserved of breakfasts, in bed is where we have it; when world peace was sought, John and Yoko pursued it in bed.

Bed, it goes without saying, is the place of intimacy – intimacy with everything, in varying ways: with partner(s) (the euphemism for sex is, after all, ‘to go to bed,” no matter if the act took place in a hammock or on the floor), with ideas, with companion animals, with light and dark, with the past and future, with dreams (not daydreams – those are reserved for offices, commutes and unwelcome family events – but those of the most laid-bare conscious self-imagining and unconscious primitive drive) and nightmares and states in between. Bed is the mirror that doesn’t require eyes for reflection. Even our relationship with TV is more intimate when done in bed. In our living rooms we watch shows; in bed we spend time with people – it’s not “The Tonight Show” we watch, it’s Leno; it’s not the “Late Late Show” we stay up for, it’s Craig Ferguson. And not only do intimate relations happen on the bed, but also ours is an intimate relationship with the bed itself; so much so that when one is away, spending the night in a hotel, even if alone, by slipping between the cool sheets of a “strange” bed we experience the exciting, guilty, titillating feeling of committing an act of infidelity.

Bed is evidential – a place that says that you exist and provides proof of it: there is your imprint on the bedding and the pillow, there the wadded linens that show the signs of struggle and submission; hair and stains and smells – and, if you check immediately upon rising, the residual warmth of your body left behind, a sensual spectral presence that will not tolerate lengthy analysis and which dissipates quickly into a wrinkled and sour past.

Bed is the place of siren song: it calls, we fight it, we succumb, we are dashed on the rocks of consciousness’ ebb, and we disappear.

And return the next night for more.


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