Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Where They Were

the deskYou work and work, and then one day your job is done, or you are done with it, or they are done with you, and – whether it be through resignation, retirement, reorganization or death, physical or psychical ­– you are out that door, a lump of he’s-a-jolly-good-fellow sheet cake in your gut, and gone baby gone.

Except … there are some people – whether because they were beloved or admired or projected a force of personality that transcended the quotidian quiescence of most workplaces – who leave behind their “ghosts”: They, or their tenets, or their echoes, remain in the room. And where they did their work seems to have achieved a kind of placeness that borders on the haunted. That desk, that cubicle, that office – these seem to be theirs and them, and it’s difficult to imagine that they will not be occupying them any longer, and so people leave them alone, stay away, don’t touch a thing and cast glances there every now and then as if to spy them, in their past poses, and thus to reacquire the comfort of their presence, and to return that tilted world to a balance. It is not quite a cargo cult, and not quite a wish, or a prayer, but a feeling or a need.

We humans have an innate propensity toward sanctifying the places where the bigger-than-life have labored, and imprisoning them as if in amber. Douglas MacArthur’s office, Cesar Chavez’s office, Churchill’s underground bunker, others of personages either widely famous or locally known – we freeze those rooms at a certain point in the past, a date or year or period or heightened significance or benevolence or creativity, sometimes in situ, sometimes moved and reassembled in a museum setting.

It is not that the famous or near-famous are there, again, or ever will be, or can be – it is that they were, and that they touched the things there and walked among them , and that the work we know them for was done there. It is like a contact magic. As posed or arid or clinical or hokey or even phony as these places are – somewhat like the real-estate equivalent of taxidermy – they have, in a secular, past-revering and -distorting, celebrity-obsessed society, the power and the function of shrines.

The only such place that to me ever actually felt holy, with a natural and overpowering placeness that was both artless and art-filled, was Jackson Pollack’s studio, on Long Island. Wearing little booties to help preserve the wondrous splatters that explode all over the studio floor, the visitor feels, strongly, palpably, that he has arrived while Pollack has stepped out for a few minutes – paint cans sit open, brushes still upright in them; the only thing missing is a cigarette curling smoke, long ash dangling – and that if he waits long enough the artist will walk through the door and wonder what the hell this interloper is doing there.

But, closer to home: Within 10 days recently, the place where I work saw the departures – planned, if not joyous – of two office leaders, each with 30-plus years in the job and a staff that not only relied on them but looked up to them. We had our parties, said our “auf Wiedersehens,” looked on with envy, pity and fear ….

Now there is the matter of their desks. Theirs are in good locations, one in a prime spot. We have people who would be better served by moving from where they are now to these now-vacant stations. There is no reason for them not to move.

But nobody can bring themselves to do it.

Everybody is steering clear of these two workstations. One of them was cleared, cleaned and neutralized by its recently departed tenant; there is nothing there to indicate that this person ever spent time there. It is ready for anyone to take over. But it sits empty – it is Kevin’s place, still. And the other desk? Well, it’s nearly the way it was when Vince sat there; he walked away without removing much – books, papers, even his favorite green drinking cup are still there. Drawers are still full. No one can even imagine removing the artifacts – it would be blasphemy, desecration. It’s Vince’s desk, and likely to be for a while. And, hey, the way it looks – maybe he’ll be back. You know?


When is it time to remove the bones? Is there a respectable period – of mourning? – after which these places cease to exude their placeness and return to simply desk and chair? What is the shelf life of reverence? When does “too soon” become “OK, now” – like finally taking the clothes of deceased loved ones out of the closet and packing them up for Goodwill? Will it take an ignorant, inadvertent newcomer to simply plop down in the spot, and that will be that?

And what is it in us that believes in ghosts and “haunted” spots, that lets the specters of friends and colleagues past rule sensible acts – that imbues a place were we knew someone to be with the continuing characteristics of that person and the emotion or respect that we felt for them?

It is, like most things, inexplicable, and vapors.


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Getting Lucky

vegan trufflesIt is time to admit to an addiction. Of course, this isn’t one that requires a daily dosage – so, maybe then that makes it a quasi-addiction or a fair-weather addiction. And, it is a very common human one, one not so much found in other animal species. There are many human addictions: we are addictive creatures, and the problem occurs when it controls your life while you lose control over it. All placeness is lost when this happens.

That makes it so much more placeful when you can find fulfillment in an unlikely place, and it comes from out of the blue.

On our way into an upstate New York movie theater to watch an Oscar-nominated film, we stopped at the candy counter. Just as an aside, we rarely go to movie theaters; but when we do, we never stop at the candy counters because what they contain – overly processed and -sugared fare – is not what we seek. But, in this particular theater, where not just the lowest common denominator is offered, there were some strange vegan treats that had that hand-made look. Lucky Chocolates. We opted for the quite large peanut-butter cup, to share.

Let’s just say, it was wonderful. Dark, real-tasting chocolate – ganache, really – generously coating about an inch-thick cup of honest-to-goddess peanut butter (maybe it was also handmade, since it tasted like the real deal). Not too sweet, allowing the bitterness of the chocolate to coat your mouth instead of the usual sickening sugar residue that accompanies most mass-produced candy. Almost more of a food than a dessert, but sweet in a subtle way, satisfying and yummy. That treat may have made me enjoy the film even more than I already did.

After the movie ended, we studied the label: Where did this food of the goddesses come from? Saugerties, New York. We went to their website, handily printed on the wrapper, and discovered that they are not just reinventing the peanut-butter cup – they make everything! From their website: “Handmade, luxurious, small batch chocolates made from organic and fair trade chocolate.” If you read on you see that there is consciousness and ecumenical awareness behind the creation; I would say intelligent design, if that term weren’t so loaded. I had eaten a total of one half of one item that they made, and I was already a devotee.

On our way to Saugerties (of course we had to go), the excitement was high. Would they have other things we liked? Was this a one-off experience with the movie candy? We were full of anticipation. The storefront was nestled in a block of 19th-century shops along one of the town’s main drags. Surrounded by small cafes, a bookstore, and various thrift and antique shops, there was a red canopy covering the windows, with gold horseshoes painted on the glass. It is a “chocolateria,” it said. Its look was old-time-y and new-age-y, all at once.

Lucky Chocolates


Lucky Chocolates-1

Inside, the scent of chocolate had the same sort of effect as walking into an opium den. The smell was seductive and heady and had permeated every dark-wood and glass display case that cannily resembled the ones at the corner store from my childhood. Candy is on one side, toys are on the other; mostly retro toys. The place reeks of nostalgia. I am hooked.

There are so many choices, I was overwhelmed. Categories of food preferences and/or allergies, and belief systems – and it is all tied up in a small or large chocolate confection. We chose a variety of offerings, a sampling. There are funny labels like “For Dudes,” a tray of car- or tool-shaped candies. Our purchases were placed neatly into adorable boxes. As I looked around, I noticed a soda fountain at one end, closest to the kitchen area. They also have homemade drinks, juices, egg creams. This place is a throwback that looks forward. That describes me, too. I want to stay.


So, now for the proof (even without pudding): We are only partway through our chocolate treasures and not one has disappointed. Some have reached heights that had not been thought attainable: the raspberry truffles, the turtles, the honey truffles, the mint patties, the vegan lime-ginger truffles. Can we eat them all before they get stale? Can we mete them out and pretend to be adults? Can the spiritual be found in chocolate? Placeness. I have found it and it resides in the Hudson Valley.




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The Shadow Knows

We tend to design our living spaces with light in mind. It’s only natural: We need to see our environment – and through windows, the outside – to know things like time of day, where that object you don’t want to trip over is, whether that’s a brown shoe or a black, and so on. Light helps. That’s why so many brains have set themselves to the task of creating the best sources of light, natural and artificial. Control of light is a marker of civilization and – even if you hate compact fluorescents – progress.

We think about darkness, too, and not just in ways we can obliterate it with light. During sleep hours, in a movie theater, in moments of middle-of-the-night contemplation, for star-gazing – for most of us, the darker the better.

window well

But, lately, it’s shadows I’ve been considering. Not the necessary and mood-enhancing umbral pools at rooms’ edges, in places where table and task lighting pay no attention. No, it’s now that Spring is in the air, and the sun is higher in the sky and in spots that the  winter sun could only aspire to … it’s now that the light is hitting objects we’ve placed in windows and on doors, and reflecting off things sitting on tables and sills, and so creating designs and patterns, splashes of color and amorphous mandalas all over the walls and floors of lucky rooms. And these shadows, like Plato’s, reveal the world and the shape of structures in it that direct observation never shows us; in fact, the shadows uncover shapes and elements and physical relationships that we are totally unaware of without their assistance.


Today I have seen the sun behind tilted venetian blinds – bars and taut lines in slashes across the floor; the golden reflected light from a teapot jiggling on the wall; window grates leaving fade-in/fade-out hash marks across plant leaves. And there are some intricate weavings and playful squiggles the origins of which I still can’t determine: the light is coming from somewhere, hitting something, and projecting beauty.


This is art of an improvised nature: light, as if conscious, as if sentient, playing off solids like a percussionist utilizing alleyway trash receptacles as a drum kit. Or like water, finding its way around and through even the smallest cracks and flaws, pouring in.


We design our places for light. Perhaps we should just as purposely and consciously design our spaces for the shadows that can be thrown like ideas, sketched like gesture drawings on the canvasses of our rooms … and, just as ethereally, vanish, to return the next time, only different, a new work, a surprising bit of art.

x marks the spot

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Taking a Toll

From Merriam-Webster: highway robbery, n., 1: robbery committed on or near a public highway usually against travelers.

NJ-turnpike-Toll-BoothsIf you live on the East Coast of America, the concept of a free ride is an empty one. Toll roads exist in about half the states, with the original pay-to-pass having been built between Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pa., in the 1790s.  Currently, in every state that touches the coast, or connects to a state that does, drivers must ante up. New Jersey, at some point, decided that, given its strategic location, it could haul in bucket-loads of cash by providing high-speed roads that would take people to where they really wanted to be.

If you want to travel the length of New Jersey – since that’s mostly what it offers – on the New Jersey Turnpike, it will cost a passenger car $13.85. The Garden State Parkway is another means of traversing, but for $15.75; the GSP is a little deceptive, since it stops you periodically for tolls – maybe giving you a chance to get off before you run out of money. And this sporadic payment plan makes it difficult to know what it is actually costing.

NJ turnpike system

I know from experience, the tolls can create a secondary (to the traffic) panic when you are exiting the booth and your one-way ride has already cost $27, and you have nothing to show for it. If you cross borders into and out of New Jersey, it can be as costly as a hold-up during a Wild West stagecoach ride.

You can enter New Jersey for free, but to leave you must pay the piper. Going from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, the fee varies slightly, perhaps based on the specific bridge’s construction expense; sometimes it costs $5 or $4, and sometimes only $1 – so pick your bridges carefully. Pennsylvania is a bargain compared to New York, where, merely to cross a bridge or enter a tunnel and exit New Jersey, get ready to pony up $13 for the privilege. In a quick calculation, if you live in Cranbury, N.J., and you drive into Manhattan every workday (you would have to be insane to do this), your weekly bill for tolls would be around $150. Ka-ching!

The well-known Pennsylvania Turnpike was constructed in the 1930s, and is probably the most expensive ride across a state, if you take it from New Jersey to Ohio – a whopping $35. On the New York State Thruway, from New York City to the other side of the state, you can pay around $25.

familiar sign

In 1993, E-ZPass, an electronic toll-collection system, debuted on the New York  State Thruway, just two years after Colorado’s E-470 came up with the first of its type. E-ZPass is now used in 14 states. With this method, you can be pinched without even opening your pockets; it just deducts your ride from your electronic E-ZPass account. This can provide a kind of out-of-sight-out-of-mind stress avoidance – that is, until you look at your monthly statement. Just add up 20 crossings via a tunnel and the stress is there in spades – thankfully, you are not in your vehicle when you see the bill, since road rage might ensue.

Of course, there are alternatives, but some of them make you happy to pay. My theory is that U.S. Route 1 in New Jersey is purposely left untended, pothole-riddled and ugly just for that very reason.

However, there are many state and county roads throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, and surprisingly, they are interesting rural byways – especially the old parkways that were once toll roads but are no more. They are the only means of seeing what is truly wonderful about these states – in terms of driving. There is no placeness on interstates, since they are all about moving you through, quickly and without distraction. The toll roads will not give you views of the good stuff, the way the back roads do.

Come on and take a free ride.


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