Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Book

Around about 2005, six years ago if you are not good at math, we began a process of writing a book. This was not intended to be our only book, merely our first, but from this perspective of it being not-yet published, well, it is looking rather lonely.

In a nutshell, the process so far has been something like this: there, in a flash, was an idea (that’s the easy and cheap part). Admittedly, it was an ambitious project from the get-go, every aspect time-consuming, but we are not talking Tolstoy here. This is non-fiction and does not require a life’s perspective or commitment. We had a fondness for city architecture, mostly uniquely designed houses (since we live in a city that actually has houses) that spoke to us in a meaningful way because they were fashioned with personality, verve even. The first months of the project required a lot of looking. Then there was the weeding – of choices and of thinking. More looking, more weeding, rethinking. Followed by months spent in records rooms, gleaning information about the properties. Databases were built. Photographic shoots were done in various excursions, mostly in seasons where the houses were visible through trees, but not too bare looking. Two different cameras were used, no special lighting except how luck found it. We walked and stared and took notes about what we were seeing.

Then the actual writing. More weeding. How to organize? Categorizing and grouping based on our impressions – this is a book of impressions as well as facts. A layout was needed, a page design for the generated text and images to do justice to a very thoroughly considered idea and execution. More months of design work, inside and for the cover. Quark and Photoshop became our best friends, fonts were selected. When it reached a presentable stage, we offered it to a large university press, one whose interests tend toward urban topics. They liked it, we were thrilled, we felt the investment was worth it on every level. We had many emails to and fro with the editor in charge; this person, who had encouraged us, then kept our book as a hostage for two years. After those two years, he turned it down.

Devastation was an understatement. Disappointment colored our efforts. It wasn’t that we were not familiar with rejection, but like a bad relationship gone south suddenly and unexpectedly (always because it is the other person’s fault, of course), we were set adrift. Gathering our wits and strength, we sent it to other potential publishers. Naturally, the university press had held onto it until just about the time that the economy had tanked, thank you very much. The rejection continued and not a few publishers said (and this is hard to write), “if only you had submitted this a couple of years ago, it would have been a go.” Damn that university press twice now.

We sat frozen for a time on this project and moved forward with other things that we had put aside for our commitment to this, our lifelong project. In 2010, we decided that we had put so much into it that we had to finish what we started. Out we went again, this time revisiting the properties to see if they had altered during the lapse of time, or if our feelings about them had diminished. We added some things new, removed a few that had been renovated out of recognition and interest, found some additional information about a few places in the new technology-ized city databases and on websites that weren’t available in the first go-round. We rewrote, reshot, reconfigured, redesigned. We are going to have it printed ourselves. Why? Because we like it. And we still, six years later, think it is worthwhile to put out there. How many things can you say that about in this everything-is-replaceable world?

So, all of this preamble is to talk about the placeness of process and problem-solving. Of having an idea, acting on it and seeing it come to fruition, no matter the hurdles. It is finding resourcefulness and determination in yourself and your ideas, making them develop when they are worthy of pursuit. It is a place of self that wants to share with others: show and tell – it seemed like a great idea in grade school and it still is now. It is the creative urge and the not giving up that makes things possible. Maybe it won’t be the best book out there but it will be the only one exactly like it. Unless, of course, the university press has come up with their own version of our book that they claimed not to want to publish. Then we will be discussing the placeness of lawsuits.

Our discoveries of placeness can often be external but they are always put through an internal filter, the great determiner of placeness. But here we are, faced with finding placeness within ourselves, the placeness that moves us forward in a process of creativity: at first it is a dream, then the struggle happens, now, soon, it becomes a reality. The book.

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Get With the Program

I know these places, both of them, as well as I know any place I’ve ever been … and, yet, I’ve never been in them. I can tell you, with my eyes closed, where you’ll be if you turn left or right, or where you’ve come from if you’ve come from this direction or that, but I’ve never turned in any direction there, or come from or gone to any place anywhere near them … but, I could draw you a floor plan, or map, and be accurate to within inches. That’s because, although I never dwelled there, never even set foot there, I spent a good deal of my youth and equally misspent early adulthood there, with people I know so well that I can tell you what they’re going to say or do in any situation, even though I have never met them, or stood with them, or talked with them – yet, they have meant as much to me as so many of the people whom I have spent time with, which says something about other people, but more likely about me. And, possibly – likely – you.

Last week, within days of each other, Sam Denoff and Sherwood Schwartz died. They shared so much – both writers-producers, both songwriters, both Jewish guys from Brooklyn, both terrifically successful – yet, it is possible that they never met, not even in the small, incestuous Hollywood community that they both worked in for many years.

Denoff, with partner Bill Persky, and under the aegis of Carl Reiner, wrote “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Schwartz was the guy responsible for (or, is that guilty of) “Gilligan’s Island.”

Almost certainly, neither man ever moved a stick of furniture on any of the sets where their ideas took form (tough unions out there), but it was those ideas, and the words that transmitted them, and the actions and movement that propelled them, that gave those artificial locales – the places I know so well – a real (or mannered simulacrum of) life, and arslocii.

Don’t close your eyes (it’s hard to keep on reading that way) but kind of close them and follow me through the door of 148 Bonnie Meadow Road, New Rochelle, New York. Come on, you know the way: down that single step (watch out for the foot stool!), the bedrooms in the corridor behind you, the living room with its sectional ahead of you, the kitchen with its odd shuttered pass-through just to your left. Merely a stage set – but it is in our brains because Rob and Laura threw their goofy show-off and show-biz-y parties there; Rob told Richie the facts of Rosebud there; walnuts (and Laura) poured out of the closet next to the front door; the Peters, whose baby Richie was definitely not switched at the hospital with, entered laughing there; Rob and Laura manically prepared for childbirth in their separate beds there. So much of that has placeness because of what Sam Denoff put down on paper, and how others interpreted it. Some obituaries for him stated that Bill Persky was the half of the duo who really “got” the Petrie home life and the Petrie’s marital relationship; it was Denoff, a slightly more acerbic wit, who gave us the best of the Alan Brady writers-room office material.

Here, too, take a stroll (perhaps bursting in, without knocking, with the soon-to-be-insulted, “yu-u-ch”-responding Mel Cooley): there, the couch; here, the upright piano; the desk and typewriter … but, here, too – and mostly – Buddy shooting off one-liners and zingers like a pitching machine; Sally polishing jokes, and opening up, self-deprecatingly, about her single life; Rob, trying to hold the madhouse together to get that week’s script finished on time, looking normal but being acceptably mad himself. In addition to providing us with one of TV’s first non-hospital, non-courtroom, non-police station, non-saloon or -wagon train workplaces, Denoff et al gave us sort of real people actually doing sort of real work in it, and giving young generations an image of what an ideal collaborative and fun workplace can be (thus, ruining millions of young lives when their expectations were shattered when they entered the reality of really real workplaces), and, similarly, what a  collaborative and fun marriage looks like (with similar real-world disappointments). Denoff helped create an iconic place and ideal work (and home) situation that we could aspire to. It was a hopeful, Kennedy-era place where even the jerks were lovable because they were vulnerable and vainly silly. The Petrie home, the Brady office – they were places we not only wanted to be in, we were in them. We just didn’t have any lines.

Sherwood Schwartz did not deal in such a smart product, but it was calculatedly so and, amazingly, no less iconic. Say the words “a three-hour tour” (and, of course, say them twice) and, inevitably, the person you have said the phrase to will sing it back to you, suddenly acquiring the mock solemnity that signaled the foreshadowing of the shipwreck of S.S. Minnow on the apparently unmapped, off-any-radar island upon which Li’l Buddy, the Skipper, millionaires Thurston B. and Lovey Howell (don’t ask why they were taking a cheap boat excursion in the first place), Ginger, Mary Ann and the Professor would be constrained to in their ridiculous and often surreal escape attempts and equally pea-brained stabs at creating a functional society comprised of boneheads (but enough about current politics). Completely artificial-looking and soundstage-bound though it was, we know that place too well for our own self-respect. Half-close your eyes again: there’s the beach area where cockamamie rescue plans failed time and again, the living areas with their thatched roofs and hammocks, the Professor’s lab-hut – ah, yes, there they are, stuck in your brain cells like gravel lodged in tire treads, with no one or nothing but age and death to remove them.

As we wrote last time, what creates placeness is that intersection of the alluring and irresistible force and that ineffable thing we call chemistry, added to empathy and a kind of hard-wired recognition that borders on precognition. The genius of Sam Denoff and Sherwood Schwartz was knowing and writing about exactly where that intersection can be found: where people we know and like and understand come together to be with us in a way that is safe and comforting  and knowing and knowable, true without being in any way real – in a family unit, nuclear or extended, in an archetypal setting, to create a placeness that is somehow little short of home. 

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The Science of Placeness: When Worlds Collide

One of the greatest difficulties of living in this world (you make your list of 100, I’ll make mine, and I’ll meet you back here in five minutes) is living in this world. That is because we are, essentially, incompatible with or, if not incompatible, exactly, at the very least at odds with our surroundings.

You see, we humans are chemical reactions (and if you’re in a mood, you might say, and correctly so, we think, that we are merely chemical reactions); all life began that way, evolved that way and continues on that way, our cells going along happily dividing themselves (or unhappily misdividing themselves), ingested chemicals interacting with or disrupting the course of other chemicals, until the experiment is over and the post-life chemical theatrics take over and polish things off. (Sorry, creationists, religionists and the irrational hopefuls – no comfort to be had in that sentence, or from this corner.)

Trouble is, this self-aware chemistry set that we are exists (if we do indeed exist) in a world (or multiple alternate worlds) that operates by the rules, such as they are, of physics. That is, what we are is one thing, where we are is another – elements and their mutations on the one hand, forces of attraction and repulsion on the other, somehow shoehorned together – we, destined to dwell nomadically on this primally alien and antithetical landscape, Vladimirs and Estragons, waiting for the unified field theory to show up. 

It’s the reason why we often feel out of place in a place – our world – that ought to feel like a second skin; we are in it, and of it, but not fully with it – a speaker of one language in a bilingual country. And we always seem to feel, in the back of our mind, that there is something more out there that we are not perceiving because we don’t have the tools, or we are made of different stuff.

And, yet … I would propose that what we feel when we feel that sense of placeness in a location or spot that we come upon, and which affects us deeply, is somehow a point of conjunction  of the two disparate worlds. In past arslocii entries, we’ve called that feeling  “empathy,” or some form of essential recognition. Perhaps what it really is, or another way of saying it, is that these places of placeness are like those portions of a Venn diagram where circles intersect, if only for a short space, a tiny sliver, an unexpected overlap – where something exists that not only melds but heightens the reaction of the chemical with the forces of the physical, and, with a motion that takes our breath away, they become one. And it is there that the mystery of how a chemical soup can become something with consciousness, and where the mystery of how the bending of light and the pull of bodies can affect time and location – it is there, where gravity becomes gravitas and where physicists look to a Higher Power to explain the unexplainables and the “inconsistencies” … it is there where placeness and art, and we as witnesses and participants, merge. It is where the magic of being exists, and, too, the power of love. 

And, somehow, believing this, or surmising it or postulating it, does not reduce the wonder of the experience to equation or formula. It is what everything is about, and what makes some things in this difficult and incompatible world worth the being here for.

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The Place of History

I never met the man. And there are so few pictures of him that I start to wonder if he really did exist. My understanding is that he was such a quiet, unassuming personality, when he was in groups, that he did kind of disappear into the background.

Here it is, the weekend of July 4th (and, suddenly, national holidays have expanded from one day to three) and I am walking through the old, original part of town as I have done so many times previously. But because the 4th is nigh, there is frantic scouring of sidewalks, especially the ones lining the perimeter of Independence Hall, the ones embedded with commemorative bronze plaques of signers of the Declaration. The area is already teaming with tourists, amassing on one side of the street for the original State House tours, on the other for the Liberty Bell viewing. These are normally popular attractions, but this weekend of all weekends is like a gold rush for patriotism and American history. Besides having to dodge the high-powered water jets that are busily removing hardened gum and spit from the hard-surfaced streetscape, I am dodging the crowds and the array of cameras and photo ops. I am skipping over the water spray and I am ducking under the digital flashes in a strange dance upon America’s collective memory.

And like a flash, I recall the photo I have inherited; the one of him, my paternal grandfather, along with my grandmother, standing in front of the Betsy Ross House. Now, that might not seem like a disconnect to you, but they never lived here – and I do. I had seen the picture in my youth, since it was one of perhaps three of him ever taken. I never knew, growing up, what the couple were doing or where they were, but in among some of their belongings which have fallen to me, there were a pair of Liberty Bell bookends and this photograph, probably taken in the late 1930s. I am guessing at the date, but based on the fact that the Ross House’s facade was restored in 1937 (and the picture shows the new look) and that its adjacent empty lot seems to lack a garden (“Atwater Kent then purchased the two adjacent properties to the west of the Betsy Ross House to develop a “civic garden.” The entire property, including the historic house and courtyard, were given to the city of Philadelphia in 1941.” – from the house’s website).

Here I am, seventy-plus years after they posed for this picture, living here in this city they visited, and, today, walking in their ghostly footsteps, just as visitors like them did and still do, walking among history’s ghosts, here in this layered place. And if I hadn’t moved here, I might not have known the meaning of this image. I have made a connection to my past by moving six hundred miles away from it, and based upon a 2.5” x 4” captured moment in time.

I don’t know how many tourists take their pictures at the Betsy Ross House – far more seem focused on the Hall or the Bell for their keepsake shots. There is something more intimate and sweet about the bandbox-style home’s human scale, although my grandparents appear tiny, since the entire house structure was included in the shot, taken from across the street (by my father? I wonder).

But the other thing that interests me is that they are not, etched now in my mind, celebrating the usual founding fathers, but rather the one female who gets any cred in the whole story (remember, it is his-story). And I am reminded of my love for this grandmother because she, most of all, was a great example of women’s strength. She was an early Suffragette and she never missed a vote her entire life. She rejected her family’s religion and restrictive norms, eloped with the quiet man in the picture and took him to the Betsy Ross House. It is a very American story. A part of my story. Placeness of spirit, love, celebration. Happy Birthday, America!

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