Monthly Archives: April 2011

You Always Love the One You Hurt

There is a road, not far from us, one we’ve traveled up and down many times, two lanes east, two lanes west, divided by a narrow, grassy median. It’s called The Fairway. Why? Not because it is in any way fair – lined as it is by car dealerships, shopping malls and underwhelming low-rises designed for senior housing – but rather because where it and everything around it is there once was a golf course, and this was a fairway in it. Unless you knew, there would be no evidence, no clues to its past life, except, of course, for the name. Oh, and the slight dogleg to the left, and the welcome sign made up of a gigantic golf ball atop a humongous tee, right near the American flag. Fore.

A few minutes from there is a suburban community where, once, a long time ago, a large tract of the land was cleared to build an amusement park. After that went belly-up, a big-box-anchored shopping center (and its enormous blacktopped parking lot) took its place, soon to be joined by scads of large and small commercial strips and clusters. And lots of predictable, suburban-ish houses. The area, as well as the big mall, is known as Willow Grove, but we defy you to find one willow, let alone a grove of them, anywhere within the incorporated limits.

As long as there has been a past and a language in which to frame and consider it, people have relegated places to it. It is not uncommon – in fact, it is commonly caricatured – for someone to give directions to a lost traveler by telling him to make a turn where, say, “the old Johnson place” used to be, even though the Johnson abode has been a ghost for decades; it is equally commonplace for there to be roads named for the properties or businesses that the roads were built to take people to: Hagy’s Mill Road, for example, or Old Forge Road – places long since gone, vanished before current memory, existing only in the names of the surviving byways.

It’s always been thus, this presence of the past, whether by design, or as an honorific, or just an apathy or reluctance to change. Names were given, and though, through disasters or deaths, economics or migrations, the places disappeared, the names remained, and gave these areas a kind of historical or folk resonance that they would not have otherwise: Germantown, for example, or Georgetown.

These were natural passings away, as all things do in time. But, in the 20th and 21st centuries, dominating developers have changed the rules, and, in so doing, have diminished both landscape and memory. It goes like this: They find a piece of land with some distinguishing characteristic – a stream, a gorge, meadows, a forest of a certain kind of tree or the dwelling spot of a certain kind of animal – then plow it all, gouge it, strip it, turn it under, level it, reconfigure it, build on it … and, with not the least sense of irony, name the new development after the very feature native to the spot but subsequently eradicated. It’s like naming a nature preserve after the animal you’ve just hunted into extinction there.

How many “communities” do you know of that have the word “hill” in their name but are as flat as a table top? How many “fields” with barely a blade of grass? Or “estates” with nary a manor house or signs of the presence of wealth and privilege? “Arbors” that are essentially treeless? Or “farms” bare of crops, animals or anything elementally similar to arable land? Or “park” with no place to stroll, no tree to sit under and nobody to interact with? What view has been bulldozed into oblivion to create a development with the word “view” in it? 

Given our propensity towards naming locations with a sense of what they were, or once played host to, what perverse thing is there in us humans that makes us kill off the last remnant of the thing that attracted us to it in the first place, and then name the replacement after it? There’s something truly ghoulish or possibly cruel about such forensic categorizing.

By doing so, do builders believe that they are sustaining or re-creating the original placeness of a place that they have wiped off the face of the earth, merely by calling it by what they’ve removed – that words will trump the visual evidence … that marketing voodoo will make it so? It’s like the opposite of the movie “Poltergeist” – here, developers want to acknowledge that there’s an Indian burial ground under the townhouses. It’s a selling point. 

Even in this world, where money talks louder than rational thought does, we need to leave some places alone – to allow their placeness to persist and ripen, or to permit them the time to establish a sense of placeness among the populace. Not everything beautiful needs to be commoditized, and co-opted to suit the needs of those who wish to profit from it. And let it not be up to our governments to set aside or legally protect certain selected plots of land for the common good, to preserve them (until businessmen convince the politicians that the land is too valuable to just sit around doing nothing productive). Let it be up to us to demand that meadows stay meadows, that hills provide fine prospects, that farms will be places where food is grown and animals tended. Let us fight for what we value, and for what, in the coming years, we will truly want and need, and desire to be in.

Until then – if such an idealistic “then” ever occurs – instead of beating around the bush (which they have, by the way, uprooted to put in the hot tub), let the developers just call their work by the most essential things that they have destroyed: let their developments be named “Sense” or “Aesthetics” or “Stewardship.” If they can’t be caring, let them at least be truthful in their dishonesty.

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Cheque-ing Out

Roughly the size of paper currency, which it acts as substitute for, it originated in the 1600s in England as a bill of exchange. By adding a serial number to it to certify its value, we know it today as a cheque (a/k/a “check”). Following the California gold rush, banks on the East Coast, vulnerable to stage-coach robberies by transporting large amounts of ore from points west, started accepting drafts or cheques. And around 1913, the cheque became an accepted payment standard in the United States. The Federal Reserve set up a system of clearinghouses to expedite processing, coast to coast. By 1952, 47 million checking accounts existed, with annual cheque-writing reaching eight billion. Nearly fifty years later, the numbers were more like 70 billion a year.

Cheques have been declining in use thanks to electronic methods of payment and easy access to cash. In some European countries, banks have stopped issuing cheques altogether. The future looks dim for the paper cheque, the place of cheques being usurped by newer technologies. I think about cheques because I write them often, have been writing them for years, and I have a number of memories associated with them.

As a child, my parents helped me to start a savings account. It was nice, with a small booklet or ledger in which transactions were written and balances kept. It was my own financial diary, for what it was worth. I used to watch my mother write cheques and it was she who taught me how to fill them in properly. I felt like an adult when I got my own checking account and started paying for things with cheques. It was kind of like getting a driver’s license for money management; ergo, perceived independence. The nice thing about cheques was that you were always aware of your outgo and your balance. And, with cheques, as opposed to credit cards, you couldn’t spend what wasn’t there.

Cheques are records of memories for me, something like photographs. I can look at old cheques and conjure up images of events or acquisitions of note. I have my mother’s old checkbook registers and cheques, and as I look through them I am reminded of years that certain things took place, expenditures that were made, when items found their way into the house, trips that were taken, how ridiculously cheap their mortgage was and how much they gave their parents every month. I have one of the final cheques my father wrote, when he paid cash for the last car he owned. (Yes, there was a time when you could write a cheque to cover the full price of a car.) I find that cheques can tell stories about lives. And for some inexplicable reason, I had a special chuckle when the sequential number on a cheque I wrote matched my address number. There was a strange circularity to it.

In 1981, newly married and living in Seattle, we switched banks and realized that there was now a box of useless cheques in our possession. Always eco-minded, I just couldn’t see the sense of throwing them out – they were cheques, after all: in one moment worth whatever we had in our bank account, the next moment without any value whatsoever (and maybe, at that time, one and the same). The winter holidays were approaching and I decided to put them to good use: I made a Christmas tree out of the cheques. I cut them lengthwise into strips and curled them, then fastened them to a wooden stand, layering and shortening the curled pieces until they became a facsimile of a conical evergreen in paper – pale-green paper, to boot. And the special meaning of Christmas as a symbol of money was perfect in every way. Those cheques never had such a meaningful existence.

The space on a cheque has been in my thoughts lately. As cost of living and inflation continue to rise, the cheque hasn’t increased in size accordingly. Over a few decades, the amounts written on my cheques have grown beyond the space provided. Whereas a cheque written when I was first starting out could have been for five dollars, these days cheques for thousands of dollars seem de rigeur. But the line to fill in the amount is unchanged, the same space whether the number has three places or six. There seem to be more zeros than ever before and, yet, the cheque design stays the same. Maybe for that reason alone, they will become obsolete – because they have run out of space.

I was always fascinated by the idea that a cheque could be written on anything and be legally binding. As long as it had the account number and signature, it didn’t have to be the “official” bank cheque. I doubt that it would be acceptable currently if it couldn’t be easily scanned; for instance, if it were on someone’s plaster cast. I used to try to think of possible surfaces to attempt to write a cheque on to challenge the system. According to M. Liepner, in Applying the Law, a Canadian farmer during the 1930s painted a cheque on the side of a cow and then cashed it. This idea might have been derived from Jewish law: a “get” (divorce document) can be written on any durable material, including the horn of a cow. Perhaps, to avoid this kind of thinking, banks devised “personalized” or customized cheques with images, colors, photos – you, your children or pets, your favorite candy bar, cartoon character or endangered species. Cheques have become cousins to the tee-shirt industry in advertising commercial products and also our sense of self (or is that the same thing?).

Not so long ago, you used to get your cheques returned by the bank after processing. Now you get an electronic image of that cheque, made smaller and smaller every year (somehow inversely proportional to the money amounts). The writing seems to be on the wall – that banks are doing everything they can to discourage us from using cheques. They are treated as necessary evils, separated out on your statements from the “electronic payments” as second-class citizens. Funny, since they helped to develop the banking industry. Just like they replaced money, they are being replaced by computerized virtuality and Internet clouds. The sad part is, these latter forms of banking will leave no relics, no artifacts to ponder. Try tracing your signature on airspace. It’s like blowing smoke rings. Cheques aren’t just about money, they are archival records of a life well (or mis-) spent.

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Time Piece

Things change. Time moves on. But even time’s march has been altered. The keeper of time has had a spatial reorientation. Clocks were once mostly round and the hands of time circled a face much like the earth circles the sun. Clocks had meaning implied by their design, and their marking of time had a beat or rhythm just as the passing days do. The clock face was sometimes anthropomorphic: a friendly face to greet you when you came home, a touchstone when you were expecting company or had a deadline to meet, an authoritarian presence watching from on high in the classroom or ticking down the final minutes at work. Almost always round, sometimes square.

Clocks were made into pieces of furniture, decorated in every style, handcrafted and machine-made, geared, weighted and sprung. They became art objects and people kept them around even after their function ceased. They made sounds, played music, had dancing figures and animals festooning their facades. The grandfather clock was a serious investment and it set a tone for a household of how serious time is, beautiful and serious with deep and throaty tones and shiny brass pendulum weights. There was the clock hanging in the kitchen of your parents’ house, the one that left an age spot on the wall when you removed it and which had so many associations with family, food and how time seemed so infinite then. Now you look at it hanging in your own house and its demeanor has changed – now it is a collectible.

Some clocks were hand-wound with special keys, giving you the sense that you had some control over time – an anniversary clock, say, or a seven-day mantel style. My grandmother’s wind-up from the 1920s had such a loud tick that it was a constant reminder of the passing of time; there was no way to avoid its audible countdown. Later, many more clocks were electric and usually silent except for an occasional hum. Clocks are all around me, some from family members, and which are like family members; others because they spoke to me in intimate tones about needing a home, again.

But now, in the digital age, clocks have become machines, as in Olympic trials: merely accurate numbering tools. Their displays are in cyphers, whether in the early form of rotating flaps in mechanical-digital displays or, now, in LED and LCD with their seven segments of light mixed and matched to show the full spectrum of time configurations as binary numbers, much like a cheerleading squad spelling out their team’s name with their body parts. The seven-segments system of time-telling sounds as perfunctory and bloodless as it is. Maybe the digital display is more accurate, although I wonder, in a contest with a perfectly attuned Swiss movement, who the real time-keeper would be. And the thing is, who cares? The time isn’t the real issue here. It is the sense of time. Clocks, analog clocks, give a sense of time as well as keep time. Why would we want to lose that? Do we think that if we make it a manageable set of numbers that we can control it better? Good luck.

A few years ago I had a work-study student, an architecture major, who had never learned to read an analog clock. Her digital wristwatch stopped and she needed to keep track of her work hours. Up on the wall was a battery clock with face and hands, and she couldn’t decipher it. To her, it was an artifact of the past, an archeological relic with a field of circularly placed numbers that had no meaning. After my initial shock, I began to realize the scope of loss in not having a connection to “real” clocks – the metaphorical, spatial (and this, a future architect!), cosmological sense of clocks, not to mention their rich history, mechanical prowess and diverse artistic merit. There are worlds in clocks. Yes, they are timepieces (maybe in two senses now), but they have presence and placeness in their unique combination of form and function. They hum and tick and whirr as they loop around continuously in their circular pattern; some of them chime and please the listener.

Think about it, the friendly clocks in fairy tales or nursery rhymes as opposed to the ominous “24” digital bot interface. Oh sure, there are a few digital clocks in my life. It is hard to avoid their flat gaze. As long as the friendlier-faced clocks remain and tell more than just time, it makes the time ticking away more palatable and more tangible. Give me a pretty face any day. And the fact is, no matter how endearing they are, they are still constant reminders of the dwindling days, just as the hourglass showed us in The Wizard of Oz. There is no pretense in an attractive analog clock, just something more than a cold countdown. They represent the dance of time; instead, their digital conquistadors confer a flat and empty number sequence: an LCD display is removed from the patterns of time. Analog clocks still have that ancient connection to sundials and real time. Even if they don’t save us from the ravages, our time spent will be more engaging with an illusion of timelessness. Tick-tock.


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Where There’s a Will

If you happen to love the place you live in – truly love it, not simply appreciate its benefits and features – then there is no place in the world that has more placeness, no convergence of dimensions that is more “you”: it defines you, you define it; you change it, it changes you; you know it, it “knows” you. This place – your home – is more than just a comfy spot, or a cozy space, but an external expression of you, the oversized physical manifestation of your wants and wishes, your past and present – it is the shell for which you are the seed. It is the strands of your own double helix unraveled then knitted around you, for warmth, and protection, and identity. It is the thing we humans most want – that place that, when you go there, it not only has to take you in, it can think of no lovelier thing to do.

This musing about the placeness that resonates in the places we live in is no stranger to arslocii discussions – it is also the core pondering point of a book we are fitfully working on about our own house. But it all, so to speak, comes home to roost because of two things: one, that we are working on our wills, and, two, because of a movie that we just saw.

Writing a will is no easy thing: it is that activity in which profundity and pettiness butt heads in the biggest, ugliest scrum ever fielded. Who should get that lamp, that sculpture? How much money should we leave to that relative, that friend, that organization? And, who not to? Who should be rewarded – and who screwed? And to what degree? (It is, or can be, a tawdry exercise, but concentrating on the details of Mammon can help to take your eye off the ball that is whizzing straight for your noggin: that this is all about the end of you, and that portion of existence that follows in which you have been written out of the script.)

And, then, there’s the house. Sell it? Bequeath it? If you love it, if you truly love it, if it is for you the greatest repository of placeness – that is, that place that echoes in you, and is the echo of you – then, what is best? And if you have taken it from nothing, and, over the years, turned it into something special and personal and expressive of you – then what? And this is where profundity and pettiness are joined onstage by grandiosity. The alterations made in the house, the furniture and collectibles placed just so, the art both purchased and made by the inhabitants (one of them, anyway) and which have provided the foundation for what you consider to be the best possible home for you – well, you begin to believe that nothing must happen to this Camelot of the mind and spirit and sensibilities. You begin to believe that it must be retained, in its totality, in its current form, no hair out of place, and preserved, because the world would be diminished by its passing (as much or more as by yours). As you ponder the power and finality of the will you are writing, you might even wonder, momentarily, grandiosely, if there might not be a way to save it, to keep it as is, in amber – say, create a foundation to fund its existence in perpetuity, or donate it to a museum or arts organization with the proviso that it live on in current form, or maybe, somehow, in the remaining time left to you on this Earth you will in some way become so famous or do something so momentous that society will honor you by taking the place that is imbued with your placeness and deem it a national treasure. Across such fields of folly do thoughts scamper when one loves, truly loves, one’s place of personal placeness – the home that defines.

Such thoughts cross minds, especially when dovetailed with the shivery fear that everything that we have done here that matters, once we step away, will be undone, that the Goths will storm our (custom-made) gates laden with granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances and framed “art” bought to complement the upholstery. Are we being disgustingly snobbish? Absolutely. But this is, after all, our sine qua non place, where the ghosts that matter to us reside and, for us, always will.

And, then, during a break in our will-writing, we watched “Summer Hours” (“L’heure d’été”), a beautiful, insightful, breathtakingly understated French film by Olivier Assayas about the dismantling of a place and, in the act of it, the dismantling of the lies and secrets of a life, the tensions and distances of a family, and the understanding of the value of possessions. It was serendipitous that we watched this. It was important that we did.

In the movie, a family has come together – a not-common event for them – in a luminous and lushly gardened French country estate to celebrate the 75th birthday of the matriarch. It is a place not only of elegance and serenity, but also one of palpable placeness, the site of much of the family’s history, and the repository of not just memories but of a fabulous art collection. It was here that a much-loved (in all ways, we are to learn) uncle, himself a renowned artist, lived and worked and surrounded himself with works by famed creators – Josef Hoffmann, Corot, Redon, Degas, Louis Majorelle – that are now worth bushelsful of Euros.

During the party, the object of the celebration pulls aside her eldest son – and the only one who still lives in France – and begins to list for him all the things that need to be taken care of, including the disposition and dispersal of the paintings and sculpture, as well as the house and the property itself, when she dies. He, wanting to avoid the conversation entirely while also seeing himself (or having been nurtured to see himself) as the person responsible for the perpetuation of the family legacy, argues that everything, as is must remain, intact, even if the house is to be used only a few times a year; it must be not just a monument but an unchanging conduit to the family’s heritage, a place that will pass on to the present generation’s children, and to theirs, and on. To which his mother replies that his children and future generations will have “better things to do than deal with bric-a-brac from another era” – the “residue,” she calls it. “It’s sad,” she goes on, “but that’s life. … A lot of things will be leaving with me. Memories, secrets, stories that interest no one anymore.” She tells her son that there is “no need to become keepers of the tomb.” And she says, “After me, it’s another story.”

Yes, exactly. As we write our wills, and look around us, and feel so at one with the home we love, truly love, we realize that some spots have a placeness that is so inherent to them that time does not dilute it, while others are founded in the hearts and minds of those that dwell in them now. This house of ours has placeness … for us, and, perhaps, for a few of those who know and love us and have been here to experience it. But we, and they, and this will pass. As we have seen in the writing of the book about our house, it is not ours, really – we are merely the current tenants in a blink in the continuum, clutching the baton passed to us and necessarily, if reluctantly, moving our arms forward to pass it on. The next person will change the house to suit her, as we have done to suit us. And, soon enough, there will be little left of what we did, and were. It will be somebody else’s place, somebody else’s time – after us, another story. And what we did here, ultimately, was to keep it going, with the hope that love, like cooking aromas, might permeate the walls, and remain.

It’s sad, but that’s life.


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