Monthly Archives: September 2012

Stone Age

In this sucked-silent, away place there is something halted, something wrecked. Without even knowing what happened here, why it is what it is now, being here, looking down at this mountainside layered with broken lives, you feel a deadness, a dull ache, as if standing at the intersection where fear and sadness and abandonment all come together to form a corner of desolation. And, yet, there is beauty.

Up the river on crowded sloops, and on carts and in wagons, the jobless immigrants (so many of them from the north of the United Kingdom that soon, nearby, there would be an encampment called Irishtown) came here 150 years ago or so, because they heard that there was work, and a chance. The city had been crowded and unwelcoming, and those who were unlucky or unsmart, or who couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the sticky largesse of the criminal element among their own, or couldn’t stomach becoming part of those gangs and organizations, went north – some because, back in their homeland, they had been masons and cutters and this would be familiar work, while others would do anything, even this killing labor, to prove that they were worthy of the American dream’s promise. Here was where opportunity seemed written in stone.

This mountain, in fact the whole chain that it is a small part of, is full of bluestone, made of it. Here, quarries were established, and soon there were men all over the ridges and promontories, finding brutal ways to yank the hard stone from its rightful place, while the men’s wives either stayed at home or climbed steep trails up to the mountaintop resorts, where they made sure that rich patrons could lead a fantasy life far removed from any that these servants would ever know. The men, in the jagged rock pits, would work in partner teams: one would hold a pointed drill shaft in his bare hands, the other would swing a sledge hammer to strike that shaft lower into the stone. Both men would pray for unwavering focus and unerring accuracy, because one misguided downward arc and a man could lose his hand, or the use of it – and there are heartbreaking stories of wives forced to leave the men they loved, now crippled, who were unable to do the one job available, and these women marrying another man who could provide.

Later, blasting became a mining technique, and with it came increased injuries, and deaths, and the need for fewer workers. The irony is that the bluestone – sliced to size and shipped south – was used primarily to surface the sidewalks of the city from which these quarrymen had fled. Soon the invention of Portland cement provided a cheaper, faster, more pliable, replaceable and repairable walkway material, and the age of bluestone ended.

Up here is all that’s left of it, except for the occasional city pavement that continues to embrace its cut-stone legacy. Up here, it’s a stone graveyard – shards and chunks and great unbudging rocks lie about in the now-overgrown and nearly hidden work roads and sluices and cart-wheel paths. It is so immensely silent, and, yet, the littered cliffs and ridges make you hear the pounding industry that produced this debris of dismemberment. There are, here and there, perfectly cut and sized stone sheets, piled up, waiting to be hauled away – as if, one moment there was a loud and kinetic and thriving way of life and then in the very next moment it all just ended, everyone vanished, and all that is left is the physical evidence and the undocumented suggestion. Like a ghost town – like the Roanoke colony. Echoless echoes.

And, yet, this being-then-not-being should come as no surprise. Where these gouged stones and shavings now lie, where hordes of workers climbed and assaulted the earth, one can also discern, though just barely, the footpaths of the natives who walked here in a previous time. And, in locations, possibly linked and coordinated, tucked away on this and neighboring mountains, one can stumble upon cairns and liths and mysterious piled-stone structures, date and creators unknown. And among these stones, and among others that simply make up the land, one can, every now and then, find the finely etched remains of a creature that swam here when this pile of bluestone was underwater, and possibly just slurry soon to be compressed by the shifting earth and the rumbling glaciers – a living thing caught in mid-swim, in a life that – like the bluestone quarry and the lives that inhabited it – was and then the next second wasn’t.

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Finding placeness in a physical site can be stimulating, exhilarating, meditative, even awe-inspiring. But what about finding it nowhere? Does placeness have to be somewhere? Can it appear out of thin air? One of the great potential arslocii spots can be found in radio – if it is special. Theater of the mind. But don’t expect it to happen often. It won’t.

As we wrote previously, sound can create a sense of place. And we all have experienced music that, on first listening or after multiple encounters, transports us. It’s like time travel, returning us to a time and place where we first heard it. Music has that power of memory. The best bit, though, is how music can be transcendent, lifting our minds above our earthly cares.

But what happens when someone is so knowledgeable about music that he/she can program it to create placeness? There are a select few people on the radio who are painting or sculpting a place, an emotional, sensual and mind-engaging place that is formed by a masterful sense of their materials and built into an experience that we can share in a meaningful way. Creating a space out of sound waves. Thin air made solid.

This happy occurrence has made me a believer in the aural arslocii phenomenon on two radio broadcast programs. Luckily, both can be heard streaming online also.

One of them has been going on for thirty-plus years, offered by WXPN, a radio station originating at the University of Pennsylvania. It is called Sleepy Hollow, and it airs only on weekends and for just three hours on each of its two mornings, although in the past several years it has added a couple of hours on Sunday at the early side of the program. The mix of music is eclectic, spanning decades as well as cultures. The common thread is its tone: soothing sounds to awaken and delight the mind as the early-morning body shakes off sleep. It is not sleep-inducing but rather a gentle massage of the senses done with finesse by the three DJs – Chuck Elliott, Keith Brand and John Diliberto – each creating a show. And, especially, in a world of overformatted, focus-group-styled radio hammering away at your pocketbook and head, like so much television does, Sleepy Hollow is yippie radio – maybe, softly said, yippee.

Some of us are old enough to remember when, in the late Sixties, some unique, off-the-wall FM-radio stations insinuated themselves into the commercial mix and started a music revolution. Progressive rock was a kind of anti-programming, a free-form format that promoted albums over single releases and stayed away from top-40 rock. Sleepy Hollow follows that singular and lonely path to this day. To quote its own website: “ …from Miles Davis, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell to Chet Baker, Norah Jones and Nick Drake – Sleepy Hollow is a place where mood and music combine to create a warm and relaxing weekend morning experience.” Arslocii.

A babe in comparison, at not quite seven years old, is Radio Deluxe, which I bumped into on WAMC in New York state. Another personalized mix of jazz, stage, standards and surprises, it’s hosted and curated by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, the husband/wife duo whose combined knowledge of popular-musical culture is an encyclopedic treasure trove. They also offer great banter from their lofty Manhattan  apartment, “high atop Lexington Avenue, here in the deluxe living room.” While Jessica, a singer, prefers vocalists and John, primarily a jazz guitarist, leans towards instrumentals, a perfect blend is the result. From their website, quoting Christopher Loudon, of Jazz Times: “Among radio’s greatest pleasures is each weekly installment of Radio Deluxe, two hours of great jazz and smart, sassy repartee from John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, the hippest husband-and-wife team since Louis Prima and Keely Smith.”

Each of their shows is a tribute to musicians and is a joy to be privy to. The adept team manages to create a physical space for us listeners, and while we are being entertained and enriched we are catching a glimpse of what it is like to be immersed in their musical world. Placeness. The thing is, they are both accomplished musicians and they have created a show to honor others who came before them as well as give glimpses of their own talents. They set the tone as well as the bar with their unique radio program and give us a little history lesson, to boot. Some weeks it is the two hosts, other times there are guest musicians giving the sense of a “live” component.

As listeners, we are brought into their living room, imagining ourselves seated around the piano or a blazing fireplace, enjoying the sounds, the conversation and, maybe even, the cocktails. In one show, you can actually hear one of the guests in the background asking John for more ice – and he actually answers. It brings us another tick closer to our imaginings of what the renowned parties at Gershwin’s must have been like, only this is more intimate, because we are guests, too. Jessica and John are serious about the music, and they make us laugh. Sound waves made palpable. Oh, yes, and they and their show are oh so deluxe and, through them, so are we.

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Nesters, Empty and Otherwise

Consider the robin.

It is, at least in these parts, common, ubiquitous and typical, except for that famous red underbelly. It is small, and it weighs only a few ounces, except, maybe, for those chunky, bulbous redbreasts you see every now and then who look like they’ve traded in their diet of invertebrates for a Krispy Kremes binge.


It is not awe-inspiring to view a robin, the way it is to spy an eagle or a hawk, but it is always nice to see one on your lawn – it means that spring must be near, or that summer’s still with us, and that the ground must be nicely worm-aerated. More snazzy than a sparrow, less showy than a cardinal, it’s a fine avian neighbor, and an urban pleasure.

But, now, consider the robin’s nest.

We’ve had the opportunity to do so recently. Here’s a photo of one of them:

Beyond its surface beauty, it is perfect, not only as an object but for its function; a human craftsperson would kill to be able to blend together all the disparate twigs and string and mud and end up with a gorgeous basket of such lovely proportions of width to length to depth while creating the illusion of smoothness and motion. And robins do it without hands – you go and try making one of these with just a beak and a couple of three-toed feet. And then, once the raison d’etre for the whole shebang – little robins – are hatched and all have flown away, this awe-inspiring bit of work is abandoned, left only for us to admire, and for the elements to ultimately disassemble. Place created, place appreciated, place left for discovery, place left to mutate and disappear. Arslocii.

But – and here begins the questions-without-answers portion of today’s sermon – is it art? If the robin has not entered into this project with the thought of creating a work of art – and, to complicate matters, we don’t know that it hasn’t, but let’s say it hasn’t – can it be classified as a work of art, as much as it seems to us to be art? Is intention a necessary element of art? Or is the determination up to the perceiver alone? Is a spider’s web art? If not art, then “artful”? Or does there have to be intent for something to be “artful”? (And, then again, of course, we can’t know that the spider isn’t loaded with intent, and even artistic analysis.)

Then, we have to ask: Does it matter? Does it really matter to anyone but an artist who needs identification and validation and aggrandizement, that what has been created is art? Does the robin make its nest for ego strokes, or to attain the title of “artist”? Unlikely. So, then, another question: Why does the robin do what it does? Making a nest is certainly hardwired into its massively interesting and complex little brain, but making such a perfect one, and one so beauteous? What is gained if it is perfect? What is lost if it is not? Does the robin even know that its nest has beauty; did it even have the desire to make it so? Does “art” and “art-making” play any part in the life of a robin, or a bee, or a cat? And, of course, that submerges us into the definitional discussion of “art.” Let’s not forget: To 99.9 percent of the creatures who live on this planet, the Mona Lisa is something to crawl over or chew on – it is only to us humans, one of whom painted it, that it is something called “art,” and something called “representational,” and something we hold in a value known as “esteem.” History is always written by the winners, and “art” is defined by the dominant species.

So, let’s agree: the robin does what it has to do, and we look at it and say it is beautiful and art. But: Is there anything we humans have to do – not want to do, or like to do, but need to do – that we call “art”? On first glance, the answer would be “no.” Most of us go through life doing nothing that could be seen as art-making; for most of us, art is something we perceive, not conceive, if indeed we even perceive. Most of us don’t seem to have the time, or the inclination, to make art, or even to go to look at it, or to know it when we see it; art isn’t what we’re after, but rather distraction. As someone once said, “Anything will make us look, but art will make us see.” Truth is, most people just look, and don’t care to or want to or know how to or even know that they have the capacity to see.

On second glance, though, it seems clear that we humans are just as hardwired to create as are the other creatures on this planet, of whom we are a small part. From the start, it has been a need to draw. The cave paintings are evidence of that. And, after recently seeing the wonderful documentary “Playing for Change,” it seems clear to us that making musical sound is something that we are meant to do; we hum, we manipulate objects to produce tones and rhythms and subsonic vibrations – some will say that that is the most basic hardwired “art-making” we do, and maybe they are right: babies sing, after all. But performance seems something strong within us – go to just about any part of this country, perhaps the world, and wherever there is a settlement of moderate size or larger, the people there will have established a theater group, so that they can combine all those other arts – painting sets, singing show tunes – and also find themselves by pretending to be somebody else.

But maybe all these urges are simply subsets of what seems to be a human narrative imperative. That what it all is, really, is the need to tell our story, personal and cultural, through whatever natural or near-natural means we can. To produce something that says we were here, see what we are, and who we are, and what we can do. And, now that we’ve put it out there, and left it behind, it’s yours to do with what you want – live in it and with it, or appreciate it, or let it be. What’s hatched has flown away, leaving behind shards of our inspiration, and placeness, and magic.


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In One’s Cups

I’ve always had a fantasy about beverage containers and how, when I would see them tossed recklessly on the streets, I would pick them up and mail them, along with a picture of what they looked like lying on the ground, to the companies who sold them to the uncaring consumers who trashed them. Since the boobs who dropped them on the ground were anonymous, though ubiquitous, the detritus of containers would be returned to the source. My purpose would be in shaming the product-makers and also overwhelming them with the mountains of containers that they have generated, pushing their noses in it. I wish. Of course, that’s a naive idea, since manufacturers seem to be shameless these days; whereas, in a previous century, “bottlers” were proud of their name stamped on a container and careful in taking measures to insure that the containers were returned to them – because, let’s face it, before branding became our national mantra, a person’s name was his word and it was something worth protecting. And, too, our society wasn’t so disposable then as it is now – with everything, not just containers.

The embarrassment I feel walking through my neighborhood and seeing trash is more than just an aesthetic disgust, it is a sense that no one has respect for anything (including themselves) and that the world is just one huge dump. It reminds me that, these days, personal convenience always overrides the global good, or even the local one. The attitude that allows it to be someone else’s problem rather than “mine” is juvenile and misguided. I am old enough to remember the television commercial from the early 1970s “Keep America Beautiful” campaign. This public-service announcement was an ecological campaign in which a Native American (Iron Eyes Cody) tears up in his soulful eyes after trash is thrown from a speeding car and lands at his feet. Obviously, I developed a conscience from this example, while other people took it as a mandate to follow suit, to crap on anything and everything. Why hasn’t anyone attempted to educate our ignorant masses in the 40 years that have intervened?

There is no place to go in this world where you don’t find evidence of human exploitation, but wouldn’t it be helpful for our national psyche and sense of self-worth to not consider every waterway and scrap of land as a toilet?

So, all of this rant was brought on by the simple act of taking a walk and seeing a group of red plastic cups clustered on a grassy strip next to the pavement. The ubiquitous red plastic cups. They have been with us for a handful of years and, yet, there are likely more of them than there are of us on the planet by now, having become an even worse scourge than bottles or cans were. These red (or blue) cups have become the party container of choice, and, it seems, no one even cares what is in the cup as long as it is alcoholic. No names, no brands, just generic grog that dulls the senses and makes everyone with a red plastic cup an imbecile. The dulled brains then feel no remorse about using and disposing of something wherever and whenever – something that stands out like a sore thumb and can be carried by the wind. It will ultimately be buried in landfills and, with a half-life equal to plutonium’s, it will never go away unless removed by someone else to someplace else. These red cups most likely will end up  floating in the oceans like a tub of bobbing apples. I may yearn for the days of “branded” trash, where at least you knew its origins and whom to blame. Now the anonymity is universal and everyone is complicit, ergo guilt-free, in the general disregard and malaise – both producer and consumer. It’s a perfect pairing, really, sad to say.

The total disrespect that people have for their environment, their place, is astonishing. That old saying of “fouling one’s own nest” is what we are about, it seems – to the max. Maybe this is the thing that separates us from other animals: that we are the one creature that self-destructs by not valuing or following the laws of nature. Our placeness doesn’t appear to have meaning or weight, it is only our momentary convenience that matters. Okay, then, maybe we will get what we deserve.


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