Category Archives: Musings

A Timely Entrance

daily_scheduleWe all are creatures of schedules, whether by adhering to them or ignoring them, purposefully or by perverse nature or by mindlessness. Some of us couldn’t function without them; others resent them; for many of us, it is both. Still others pretend that they live without any schedule at all.

The typical time frame in the so-called work world is 9 to 5, give or take an hour on either end, but in this 24/7, internationally plugged-in life cycle we find ourselves in, work can commence at any hour, and in so doing the “ordinary” world seems to lurch – they don’t call it a “shift” for nothing. And pity those whose shifts vary, regularly or otherwise, such as police officers and firefighters, who might have long days followed by short days followed by days off, and a change in hours, as well. This spreads out decent schedules and terrible ones in an equitable sharing, but it has to wreak havoc on their sleep patterns, not to mention their personal lives.

We here at arslocii are people who, over the years, have had less scheduling than most. Some might call it “underemployment.” But, when you work for yourself you have to create your own schedule, and that can be difficult for many, impossible for others. Freedom requires discipline.

timeclock

Change being the only unchanging certainty, we, though free spirits that we are, have found ourselves for more than a decade as someone else’s employee, on someone else’s clock. Not that this was a new concept – we’ve had lots of jobs – but, rather, a bullet we had dodged for a while. And, maybe because of that avoidance, in some sort of karmic payback we ended up having to design our lives around a 4 p.m to midnight  work-time slot. What that meant was that we had part or most of the daylight hours to attend to stuff of our own and had to “time-shift” what we would normally do in the late afternoon until after the witching hour because the real hours belonged to an employer. Once you get used to the rhythm, it isn’t so bad. But, because of the schedule, our dinner time was around 3 in the afternoon. Again, you can get used to it. So we did. We got pretty good at it, in fact. It got to feel like normal. We wondered how others could survive on those horrible 9-to-5 work-release sentences. Other than realizing that the world’s insistence on stupid, standardized work hours meant that we could no longer attend evening socializing of any sort, we felt that we had the best of all possible worlds – except the one where you don’t work for anyone else … or work at all.

Then suddenly, unrequested, this year they changed the schedule on us, to noon to 8 p.m., and Sunday through Thursday. Now, most everyone would think that this would be an improvement over the previous work-day period. It even moves us closer to “normal” hours. But not quite, not enough. In fact, in some ways, in many ways, it is an even worse schedule. After seven-plus years of afternoon dinners, we now are forced to dine at 9 pm. Explain that to your trained stomach. And, by the time you pack up your stuff and get out the door, you still can’t make that 8 o’ clock curtain. Also, where did the hours go for taking care of home-based stuff? You don’t have a day, you don’t have a night. What’s left is maybe two hours in the morning and possibly (if you can stay awake after a meal) two at night. Think about how quickly two hours can disappear without notice and – wham! – suddenly your whole life becomes somebody’s lousy dime. Of course we need that dime. We are grateful for the dime. Others envy us our dime. Some might think us spoiled and entitlement-obnoxious for complaining about that dime. But, still …

In the midst of this upheaval, though, we have found something that we didn’t expect: a renewed sense of placeness. When you go to work to the same place at the same time with the same people every day, you cease to notice any of it, and you come to believe that that is all there is to the place of work and the tasks you and others do. Then, you find yourself coming in at a different time, and the workplace seems something new, even alien. Whereas before, on a later shift, we would come in just as the day-crowd was leaving, and all we knew of them was the transitional passing off of information, chitchat and uncompleted work. They were them; we were us. Eloi and Morlocks. As different, in a real sense, as day and night. But now we are among the day people, and the room that is, at night, quite empty is, when the sun shines, a lively place full of workers who, until now, were just shadows who left their stuff for my group to tidy up and send on its way.

What you see, what you sense, is that a workplace, one with numerous shifts that go on around the clock, is like a theater that never closes, and that you used to think that the production – comedy? tragedy? – began and ended with your entrances and exits and lines, but now you realize that the show was going on before you arrived and continues after you leave, that work life is like this endless ribbon that you are merely a snippet of cut off at random lengths, and that the place hums to more tunes than you ever imagined. It’s a new script, but somehow you know your lines and the choreography; it’s a familiar set, yet something is different enough to make you think that you missed the memo and a few dress rehearsals, and it makes you aware, perhaps for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, of the artificiality of it all – that offices and factory floors are like Potemkin villages to which you grant the gift of reality, whatever that is, so that you can do what you have to do and believe in it.

So, from a simple rejiggering of when you show up for work, what you might come away with is the knowledge that, in all other things in your life you believe yourself to be the star of your own movie, but here you are but a member – perhaps even just in the chorus – of a large and revolving cast, and that the “set” has a lot more storyline outside your own than you ever thought. And somehow, somewhere in there, there is art.

uattend.time_clock

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Ways and Means

As creatures of habit, once we establish ourselves, we find our favorite routes to and from. Some of us never vary our paths; others are more experimental in mixing it up a bit, for variety’s sake. I once worked with a guy who had his routes, by car, so mapped out that he knew exactly how long each one would take: 7 minutes and 32.5 seconds – yes, that precise, and he loved to offer his statistics. Kind of scary.

I do find that once I like a certain path, I will repeat it since it becomes predictable and safe. And I am definitely a shortest-distance chooser, meaning that if there is a choice between the fastest route (higher speed, when it likely takes you out of the way) and a slightly slower one (that connects the start and end points in a straight-ish line), I prefer the latter. Of course, here we are talking about roadways. But whether it is by bicycle or on foot, I will move according to “as the crow flies.”

Another factor that determines my paths is a sense of comfort with the terrain. I just don’t feel safe in multilane highways that slice through undeveloped parcels and give the traveler no sense of context, let alone placeness. It can be like a big, open-range cattle-herding chute, in stampede mode. We have way too many of these behemoth roadways and they disconnect people from places. It is an earthbound version of the “fly-over,” which is how all of America between the east and west coasts is referred to by east- and west-coasters. We have set up thousands of miles of “drive-over or -through” zones. I consider these avoidance paths.

screen map

I am a map person – I know that that places me somewhere in the pre-Holocene epoch – and loving the in-hand maps includes the wow factor of the mind-blowing concept that crazy/brave explorers mapped out our world, long before GPS appeared. I not only value what they did but I cherish what they left for us. Maps are wonders of the world – how were they designed, conceived and realized? I have seen some of Lewis and Clark’s first renderings of the Mason-Dixon line. Did they find a path or did they make one? Native Americans followed deer paths and Lewis and Clark followed Native Americans. Now we follow road engineers who don’t believe that the land knows best – they just cut down anything in the way; and it never ends up being a straight line anyway.

I admit I don’t warm to GPS or even to Internet mapping programs because they lack context. There is no where there. Certainly I can follow directions, although they are not always accurate. Instead of beaming in on the micro, a real map will give you the whole picture, and then you can find the specifics. On a device, you have a very narrow window through which to view your options. If you move out, the detail is lost, street names disappear; move in and you are a dot with maybe three lines surrounding you. With a map, you have an entire region and you can maneuver through it in different ways. And you will probably learn things along the way, as opposed to accepting and following one way. Sometimes getting lost with a map in hand can be challenging or exhilarating, since it offers you options for self-correcting. I always feel safer with a map nearby, it is a guidebook to the ground. And as long as we are grounded, it is useful, necessary.

iPad

Recently, relying on a web-based mapping program in a rural area – it, sadly, was the only option (well, there’s one point for the electronic version) – but it mapped the wrong address on the wrong road, and had its little pointer pointing to the end of the road for the destination. Strangely, the real road continued on despite the virtual road having ended, but the blinking dot (meaning my car) just kept moving along the empty space of non-existent road on the virtual map. Talk about scary. The road ends/it doesn’t end and the virtual car has found the other side of the looking glass. It was the cellphone to the rescue, in this instance.

Yes, it is miraculous and bizarre, and a bit scary, that a satellite can find you and follow you – yet, apparently it doesn’t care where you are. But think about the miraculousness of a piece of paper that a) someone created, b) after someone trekked, c) after someone measured in distance and contour: mountains, rivers, oceans, roads, and drew it all in an organized system of scale.

Look at a real map and find those squiggly lines that snake up a mountain or alongside a creek. That’s the path I want to take, in this case not a straight line but as straight a line as nature provides, the contours of the land molded by wind and water. If we follow such paths, who knows where they might lead?

ny map

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Who’s That Nut-Nut-Nut-ing at My Door?

I like to think that I can communicate with non-human animals. I don’t eat them, and maybe that gives me an edge, since they can smell it on us. Or, maybe I am just open to other creatures, so it happens. Yes, I have opposable thumbs – big deal – I don’t think that is the only meaningful attribute in the universe.

Many years ago, we were living in Allentown, Pa., in the upper two floors of an old Victorian twin. The house sat at the top of a big hill with amazing views west, a precarious and exciting spot for watching thunderstorms roll in. The yard swept steeply downhill and, because of its pitch, stayed as a rather wild area. There were many small animals that made their homes on that hillside. I watched their daily patterns as they grazed about in the late afternoon: rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, chipmunks and birds. There were times when I witnessed bunnies playing leapfrog in the grass, just as frolic-y and fun-loving as squirrels. I would sometimes sit in the yard and watch them as if it were a scheduled performance, one I would have gladly paid to see.

So on one of those occasions, as I was sitting in the grass, the entire community of small mammals showed up simultaneously, whereas usually their timing was as separate acts, with a bit of overlap. My partner was coming up the path alongside the house, and stopped. It was like a Disney moment, with me and these other wild creatures all going about our business in perfect harmony. A peaceable kingdom, indeed. The bunnies were perhaps a couple of feet away from me, and the whole cast of characters surrounded me, as if I were a tree in their landscape. I talked softly to them. This went on for minutes and we shared a moment. Arslocii.

Disney moment

I have always talked to animals; at a zoo, where a pacing wild cat would suddenly start purring and pressing its flank against the bars; to squirrels, many times admonishing them to stay out of harm’s way. In March, I was working in my community garden plot and was visited by a robin who, of course, was excited by the digging. I started talking to this robin, and when a huge worm would surface I would toss it over to Robin (let’s call him/her that). Every day after that, Robin would show up and serenade me, or call to me from a tree; then, upon hearing my voice, would hop over to greet me. My partner was digging in the plot one day and Robin showed up. After hearing the wrong voice, Robin flew away.

I am an appreciator of squirrels, despite the fact that so many people see them as pests. We have a small courtyard that is an oasis, if not an animal refuge, in a hard-surfaced city neighborhood. Squirrels come into our courtyard every day, sometimes to bury things, since we have one of the few breaks in the pervasive cement. One squirrel likes to eat the samaras on our paperbark maple tree. I don’t mind as long as the smaller branches don’t break, although they often do. To ameliorate the damage, I started setting out small fistfuls of peanuts in the shell. Since there is more than one squirrel, I am learning a lot about their differences. There is a huge chubby one that sits in the pile and scarfs down the nuts, scattering empty, broken shells every which way. There is a slimmer one who systematically buries all the nuts, maybe eating one or two, but leaving no trace that there ever were peanuts.

tail

I don’t put out nuts every day, maybe every few days. They all get taken, but I can tell who got them by what is left or not left behind. I have witnessed, lately, that if the fat guy got the nuts, the thin guy gets angry and kind of acts out, running around the courtyard and digging up some of the stored booty. I have talked to this particular squirrel and explained that there is more to come, just be patient.

Yesterday, the overfed one’s thievery must have happened again because the thin squirrel was excavating previously stashed nuts. And, surprisingly, a few shells were left on my steps. But the peculiar thing was that, sitting in an empty plant tray on a low wall, there was a single peanut still in its shell and with telltale dirt marks from its burial. Mind you, I always pile the nuts far from the stairs and door, to give a sense of safety to the hungry diner. Was this squirrel telling me something, making an offering, or asking for more? This had never happened before. It was a sign.

1st sign

This morning, while I am sitting at the kitchen table next to the partially open window that separates the kitchen from the courtyard, I hear a strange chirping sound. It is unfamiliar but insistent. I look out – and there is the thin squirrel looking straight at me through the door, and the chirping is emanating from the squirrel. It is a request, I understand. More nuts, please, sir. (And, so, more nuts were given.)

An interspecies communication, a breaking down of barriers, a placeness. It is a wonderful thing. And right in my own backyard.

offering

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Fingers, and That Place in Time

reelWe needed to cut the grass. Just three weeks before, we’d used our push mowers and trimmed the green stuff to well under ankle height. Now, after the perfect combination (if you are grass) of steady rains alternating with bright and warm days, the undulating lawn was covered in knee-high weeds waving in the breeze and tall, shaggy patches of growth. They were also still wet from a recent downpour, and try as I might, I couldn’t get the manual mower to do anything but run over the tall stuff, bending and flattening it but doing far too little in the way of cutting it. Stepping back to consider my work, I appeared to have been trying to create crop circles to fool and excite the UFOlogists in the neighborhood.

What was needed was a power mower. We could borrow one, or, if need be, rent one. But a power mower is something I will not, can not, use. It has nothing to do with the loud noise of it – although I do dislike the sound, especially up close – nor the smell of the clouds of exhaust. It has everything to do with this: When I was a kid, my Uncle Charles had a power mower – the electric kind, with a long extension cord that snaked back across his well-kempt lawn to an outlet inside his suburban ranch house. He was mowing one day – maybe a day like the one I was now trying to mow in – and, perhaps, the wet grass clumped up and choked the works, clogging the blades and bringing the mower to a halt. I don’t know the exact details – I don’t think I ever asked. I think I didn’t want to know, although now I do, a little. Anyway, for reasons I can never quite wrap my mind around, my Uncle Charles decided that he could remove that clump of grass, and he put his hand out and reached for the obstruction … and the mower started up. And he lost his fingers – all on that hand except for his thumb. Just like that. And family lore has it that when my Aunt Lena found him on the lawn, he was banging his hand against the lawn, not in pain but in utter anger at his stupidity.

mower(somegeekintn)

It was a moment where he could have gone one of two ways: to do what he did, or to turn off the mower, or unplug it, and then try to unclog it. But, in that moment, that split second ­– that place in time that altered his life forever – he felt that he could do the job just by grabbing at the grass. Did he feel that there was no risk? Or did he think that it was a reasonable risk? Or did he just think the wrong thought? Or did he not think at all? In a breath, in the twist of a wrist, everything changed.

And thinking of this, I thought of the brother of a friend, a guy who worked nights and headed home in the early still-dark hours of the morning. He took the same route all the time. But this one morning … did he miscalculate the distance between him and the oncoming truck, or did he not see it, or was he so tired that morning that he couldn’t think straight, or did he think that he could make it? A reasonable risk, or no risk at all? But he pulled away from a stop sign, into the intersection, and he was dead before the other vehicle hit its brakes. What happened in that hair’s breadth of a moment, between intention and oblivion? That place in time.

Stop sign

These are extreme examples, and sad ones, and I’m sorry to lay them on you. But we all make these decisions, if decisions are what they are – impulses, maybe, is a better term. We sit at corners in our cars, at stop signs, and sometimes because of cars parked too close to the corner we can’t see oncoming traffic clearly, but we feel, as we edge out a bit, that we can see enough, and that it seems clear to go, and we go – and we, the lucky ones, make it. But it could have gone the other way. We took a gamble – for some reason, we thought it was worth it, or that we were invincible and nothing could happen to us, or that if suddenly a car appeared we could hit the brakes – or they could – and calamity would be avoided. A place, a decision, a time – an action. A result. We go into old buildings and walk onto floors that look like they could never hold us. There is that moment of hesitation, or calculation, or ego, or nothing – and then you step forward. And you are in that place in time, that action of no return. That steep and rocky path, with a long fall below; the electrical wires that could give off a fatal jolt; that rickety ladder you use to reach that ceiling fixture; the slippery roof on a rainy day, and you with a tool in your hand, and a cloud that looks like it could hold lightning … we go ahead and do what sense might tell us to hold off on. That place in time where the action of the present meets the fragility of the future.

Time is a place, and this is the most tenuous of locales. That reaching out with the back-of-the-mind awareness that you should keep that hand where it is. Is taking that chance a weakness of the creatures that we are, or is it what makes us human and the dominant life form on the planet? Is it those chances that are what makes a person an artist, and makes nothing into art? By that place in time, by the accumulation of all the little places in time, are we carving out our rightful place in this world, that place that comes only by confronting the chance and taking it. Sometimes you lose your fingers ; sometimes you make it out into traffic unscathed; sometimes you win the battle. Sometimes you disappear.

We have hired a neighbor to mow our lawn for us. I will not touch that power mower, no matter how careful and aware I am or sure I will be, with the memory of my uncle in my mind. I am not one for leaps of faith. I will never rule the world by taking a chance. I am resigned to knowing that I will have more fingers than others, but they will have led more vital lives losing a few of theirs, and dwelling more fully in a frighteningly alive placeness that I can’t bring myself to quite enter.

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Infernal Inferno: Thermal Thoughts

fateI must have been 3 or 4 when it happened. I still have a memory of the event that seems to have imprinted on my life. My parents were away, maybe for their first trip since I was born, my grandmother was staying with us and that was great – but I was so eager to see my mom and dad.

The casement windows were higher than my sightline, so I climbed up on a chair to catch a glimpse of their impending arrival. The seat wasn’t quite enough of a boost and I raised myself to the arm, balancing on its narrow edge, and leaned over the radiator toward the now attainable view – a bird’s-eye perspective of the main entrance to our apartment building. I would be able to witness their grand return.

As the chair tipped, my face hit the sharp edge of the cast-iron radiator, blood gushed from my cheekbone. I still wear the scar as well as the memory. This was my first intimate knowledge of radiators.

As an adult and about eight years after buying our house, we decided to switch from a hot air system to hot water. We went with baseboard radiators – something I couldn’t fall on, maybe. I assisted, as much as I was able, with the installation, all the while uncertain about my choice and still harboring a strong attachment to the old cast-iron maidens; hey, we were blood brothers. Our heating contractor was chosen because of his enlightened attitudes, and this led him to hiring me later as his helper on other heating jobs. For three years, I worked on every type of heating system devised – some by geniuses, some by charlatans. There were many cast-iron radiators that we would either install or de-install. My sense was that the smarter people stayed with the old stuff.

Currently, I am in the process of changing residences. Once again, the new house will be altered from a heated-air system to hot water. And now I am caught in a personal journey into radiator hell in the Underworld of craigslist. It seems to be my destiny.

Inferno

The first circle of suffering is the one where people question your sanity about going in the opposite direction from the flow. I think we are just talking about American flow here, because in Europe (where they have been heating long before we were born), Canada and Australia – central heating still means hot water. Despite that, America is yanking out water systems like there is no tomorrow – and maybe there isn’t. But I was, miraculously somehow, able to make it out of Limbo alive and with my imperative intact. Although some may argue that this decision included the second circle, Lust, because they think that my sense of reason is impaired by going this route and pursuing radiators.

grouping

Another circle of suffering is the Dante-imagined cold slush of Gluttony; my goal is to avoid that sort of chilly hell – in my old age, especially. Hell is supposed to be plenty warm, as I intend to be with my radiant units.

Within craigslist, I relentlessly search the listings for radiators: this is where Greed, Heresy, Anger, Fraud and, potentially, Violence come into play all at once in varying amounts. You know what I’m talking about.

My quest is in progress. Possibly nine of the fourteen radiators needed have been located. If I can pull this off, it will be the best kind of placeness yet – the one that keeps me warm as climate change makes comfort more challenging, and my own circulation slows to an eventual stop. And, mostly, it will be a scaling of Purgatory, and a kind of closure to my life with radiators – scar and all.

hot radiator

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Woodstocks Nation, Part 4: New York

logoRight up front, Woodstockers will tell you that the famed rock concert didn’t happen there. Of course, this will not stop them from trying to sell you an “authentic” souvenir commemorating those three muddy, giddy, iconic and inimitable days of peace and music. And why should it? The show might have taken place in Bethel, but it got its name from the town that spawned the idea for it and lent its considerable good vibes to the proceedings – good vibes that exist there to this day, in much the same way that they did then. Manhattanites come, old folkies go, but, to an extent that is almost miraculous, Woodstock remains Woodstock. The concert happened nearly 70 miles away and 45 years ago, but the echoes reverberate still off Overlook Mountain.

village green

Come into town (we were heading in from Woodstock, Vermont, via Massachusetts), along Route 212 or down 375 (what is soon to be known officially as the Levon Helm Memorial Boulevard), take a gander at the mountain range all around, and then notice primarily what is not in the village, the central core of the town: except for a couple of national-brand pharmacies, there is no big-box store, no chain restaurant, no big-name shop – this is by design. Woodstock wants none of that, thank you. There are more Buddhist prayer flags than American flags (not that it is an unpatriotic place, it’s just that it has its priorities), and more ponytails per capita than most other towns – and that’s just on the men. Where other village greens in other towns display old cannons or heroic statuary, Woodstock, N.Y., has a Peace Pole. It also has, on warm-weather Sundays, a drum circle, complete with volunteer dancers swaying in abandon, and a bizarre Father Woodstock – dressed like a sorcerer by way of Sergeant Pepper and Doug Henning – giving peace signs to passing motorists.

peace pole

It’s the boutique-y shops, oddball businesses and natural beauty that attract weekend tourists to this oasis in the Catskills just two hours north of New York City, but what draws artists and writers and musicians to make Woodstock their home, even if they’re just weekenders, is that it is a place that, since the early 20th century, has been a gathering place for the creative of word and deed and imagination. The town calls itself the Colony of the Arts; its town crest hasn’t the usual symbols of government on it, but, rather, representations of painting, theater, music and writing.

It is a town with a laissez-faire attitude toward outsiders and art-makers – it is known as being a place where you don’t have to explain yourself or your oddities, and a place where those attributes might even be celebrated. There is even a cemetery dedicated to artists. Folks from Milton Avery to Joan Snyder, Bob Dylan to Steve Earle, The Band to Donald Fagen, Helen Hayes to Uma Thurman have all called Woodstock home at one time or another. Even David Bowie’s around there somewhere. These days, real estate is a bit pricey, and younger folks are taking their artistic baby steps in outlying smaller towns and in the nearby city of Kingston, but even they know that other places are for paying your dues – Woodstock is the reward.

joy

We began our Woodstocks wanderings with the intriguing though half-baked concept of touching base with as many towns of a similar name as possible, and seeing if there were any commonalities. There weren’t many – shared names, even if from identical origins, don’t mean that there are any other similarities. They weren’t separated at birth; they don’t have shared DNA. Woodstock, Conn. and Woodstock, N.Y., might just as well be in different countries. What they do share, though, is a sense of what they are, a solidity of values and a refuge from urban woes. They are all relatively small outposts, and they have lives beyond the shadows of behemoth cities. They all have nice people. Maybe what they share is a kind of goodness, a spot of safety and the sense that if all the rest of the world starts slipping down that drain with a loud sucking sound, they will not be going that way, or if they are, they will be last.

What we came to realize, too, on our road-trip journey was that next time we will try a different theme: Paris, Texas, sounds good as a starting point to get us to that other Paris; or maybe Athens, Georgia, with that Greek namesake as the endpoint; there’s also Rome, N.Y. and Berlin, N.J., and we could stretch things and go to Notre Dame in Indiana, or Venice Beach in California, and find our way to those foreign places that come to mind. Finding our Woodstocks was grand, but there’s a whole, other, places-with-similar-names world out there. And, of course, there’s still Woodstock, Ga., and Woodstock, Ontario, and …

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Woodstocks Nation, Part 3: Vermont

welcomeHere’s a free-association test: Say “Woodstock,” and people with money will reply “Vermont,” while those with ‘60s cred will point to the music fest in New York. Of the Woodstocks we’ve visited so far on our thematic trek – first in Connecticut, then New Hampshire – Woodstock, Vermont, is the one that sits at the grownups’ table.

street

The village was invented, it seems, so that the word “picturesque” would have something to refer to, and it is so formally self-aware of this and of its tourist-attracting saleable past that it has a historical marker with so much written on it, it has to continue on the back side. It is the village of a mere 900 or so residents that we speak of here; it sits within the town of Woodstock, which contains about four times that population and a South Woodstock, too.

sign

As we drive into the village core, park and walk around, in the summer sun (although ski season is among its chief raisons d’etre), the place seems to be gleaming white (in more ways than one), with spotless sidewalks, many old and idiosyncratic storefronts, pretty picket-fenced houses, a stately and gorgeous (inside and out) public library … god, there’s even a covered bridge, and a big village green where, when we visited, a huge annual book sale was in full swing. Wholesome values, in aspic.

green

You want New England, this place is perfectly lousy with it. And that’s the drawback, as we see it, from a placeness, arslocii perspective – it is too perfect, and, though a creature of centuries of urban evolution, seemingly too much a creation of intelligent design. Some of that has to do, we’re sure, with the nature of tourist allure – presenting visitors with what they expect to see – and some of it with Disney-ish Main Street-ification. At times, we thought that the only things missing were crowd-mingling reenactors dressed as Paul Revere and an easel-toting Norman Rockwell.

house

There is money here, and much of it came from Rockefeller wallets, and while that family has made startlingly wonderful efforts to preserve art and land, their participation often leans to the development of a more studied, more fashioned, more cleaned-up/dressed-up artificiality – a shaping more than a tending, and a slight soullessness in its immaculate artistry. The feel of that stewardship circulates down Woodstock’s quaint streets and byways.

Don’t get us wrong: It is an attractive village with surprising amenities and photo-worthy views, and, if you find yourself in the neighborhood you owe yourself a stroll. But, when you are there, thereness might not be your walking companion.

bridge

Next time: Woodstock, New York

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Woodstocks Nation, Part 2: New Hampshire

crossroadsIf you can swing it, come in from the north. Shooting down the highway, eye-opening mountains and “notches” rising on either side, angry and dark clouds massed above and ahead as if ready to pounce or knock you into nonexistence with a nonchalant flick of a paw – you then quickly exit the fast road and empty into the small, slow town.

As with our last stop on this thematic tour – Connecticut’s Woodstock – were it not for the signs informing you that you were someplace special, you would not know you were anyplace in particular. For us, placeness is a compelling concept, and the search for and luxuriating in locations that exude it are part of our life’s work, so to be here was to experience a sensation as if standing out in a field while holding a Geiger counter and not picking up a single click.

plow

This Woodstock is a traveler’s draw, a crossroads, a spot for White Mountains tourists to stay a night or two, and/or find a place to eat familiar food on the way between here and there, in the center of beauty if not beautiful itself. Being that there are only a little over a thousand permanent residents spread over nearly 60 square miles, the tourists in season easily outnumber the locals, but the locals, who operate b&bs and run or work in the restaurants and shops, are happy to be overrun. It is not, however, really Woodstock that is the center of activity, but rather the contiguous North Woodstock, which, confusingly, suddenly changes into Lincoln before you can apply the brakes. There are lovely and old parts of the town – is it Woodstock? North Woodstock? – like the Soldiers Park, with its memorials to the area’s fallen in various wars, and longstanding classic-form churches, even the huge snowplow with the town’s name on it that serves as the welcome sign, all informing us of the centuries’-old American values of the place: what was important, what was held dear, what constitute the acknowledged and accepted cycles of life. These are the spots in town, few and far between now, that feel most like the classic New England village, that resonate with, if not placeness, then certainly a heartfelt and long-held identity. But it is up the road a piece where most of the visitors are, where things widen out, parking lots spread from the expanding road, boxy commercial buildings have opened up shop, where a once vital train line is now a short-haul theme restaurant, and a new kind of American value is honored.

park

Oh, and there are, along this stretch, tours that guarantee, for a price, that you will see a moose. Given that moose are notoriously shy creatures, and that they tend to stand in the leafy groves beside roadways, in the shadows, it seems peculiar that a jaunt to see them would, first, take place at an evening hour when all is dark and, second, that there could be a guarantee. When we ask an employee of the company how they can be so certain that moose will be spied, that person replies that the little vehicles with paying customers inside go toodling off to where they know moose often can be found and then throw high-intensity spotlight beams into the forest, catching a poor moose unawares and scaring the bejesus out of it. Had much of their habitat not been cleared away and paved over, moose would be all over the place, and you’d need a bus to go somewhere where you could not see them. (As it happened, we missed the tour, saved our money, and the next day, as we made our way to the next state and the next Woodstock, we saw a moose by the side of the road, staring at it as it looked, disinterested, back at us, and not one watt of artificial light was required for this meeting of the minds. The joy of seeing it was greater because serendipity was involved. Sometimes the old ways of doing things are best.

town

Next stop: Woodstock, Vermont.

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Woodstocks Nation

When we vacation, we tend to overpack the car, point it in the direction of compelling, sometimes overlooked places and make our way with a stack of printouts as our guide. That is how we found one place we keep going back to – a place that so immediately and completely and naturally became “our place”  that it was like discovering that you‘d been adopted and now you’ve met your biological family and, from the get-go, in some weird pheromone-ish way, simply “know”” them; it is our Brigadoon, arising out of the heather mist, periodically, in our time but of its own; a spot that lies nestled at the foot of mountains named Guardian and Overlook – how can you not love the protective hug of that? It is Woodstock, New York.

There is, for us, only one Woodstock, but, we have found out that there are, indeed, other Woodstocks – a bunch of them: two in Canada, at least five in the U.S. alone, three clustered in the northeastern portion of the country. Having visited none of the others, we wondered what they were like, and how they compared to our/”the” Woodstock: Was there another Woodstock that we would prefer or be more enchanted by than the one we’d come to hold close to our hearts? Would the others be home to the same kinds of characters and outliers and land’s-enders as the New York Woodstock? Would any or all be a colony of the arts, as ours was? Might there be something common to all, and if so, what – besides the name? And by these wonderings, and with a bit of vacation window open in front of us, we hatched a plan and devised a route, a circuitous trail of mostly back roads, a few highways, mountains and valleys, inns and b&bs, sculpture parks and natural wonders, but all with a central purpose: to arrive at our Woodstock, eventually, by way of other Woodstocks, the ones we could reach in our allotted time. What would we find in our quest of Woodstocks?

Woodstock(s), Conn.

Connecticut, like New Jersey, can be seen by outsiders as a pass-through DMZ, a bedroom-community corridor between New York City and New England, a freeway ramp to Boston. Really: What pops into your mind when you hear the word “Connecticut”? It has a reputation for insurance (Hartford) and the first native-American casinos (Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods). For us, in Bridgeport, is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the country: Bloodroot. The fifth state in the union has no major-league professional ball teams. There is no love song written to it. It has a Woodstock, though – actually, six of them. And, coincidentally, we have a good friend in the town in New York who grew up near (if not in) this town, having attended the Woodstock Academy, in Woodstock, Conn.

But wait, six Woodstocks? The way we understand this is that six villages –  South Woodstock, Woodstock Hill, North Woodstock, East Woodstock, West Woodstock and Woodstock Valley – make up the town of Woodstock. Just as an aside, the New York version is a town made up of twelve hamlets. But with New York, the other hamlets don’t have variations on the same moniker.

country

They call the northeasterly part of Connecticut the “Quiet Corner,” especially in contrast to the roaring and belching interstates and the denser urban pockets to its south, and it is here where Woodstock is. And Woodstock is, as the regionalized name indicates, quiet. Farms and vineyards, antiques and b&bs (we stayed in a sweet and quaint place, Taylor’s Corner B & B, along a country road, although, truth be told, every road there is a country road, really). There is not, to the underinformed visitor, much or any of a town, but rather just rolling green acres and homes and occasional shops.

fair signWoodstock is a rural enclave and the people have fought hard to keep it from being over-developed. In this town you are more likely to find frogs and fireflies than lattes – and that is a good thing. It celebrates its history, with one of the original town homes now housing its historical society – and behind it is a nice arboretum/garden with a strolling path – and its agriculture, evident in the large millstone standing upright at the town center and its annual fair.

millstoneBut it also has a notable landmark in Roseland Cottage, a pink-painted Victorian gem that once hosted the rich and famous, and is now a tourist attraction. It was influenced by the designs of Andrew Jackson Downing, has a lovely formal garden, and sticks up like a shard of gingerbreaded coral by the road.

roseland

(It would seem that if you want a town with more commerce and centrality, you need to make the brief slide over to Putnam or Pomfret. An eatery called the Vanilla Bean, in Pomfret, appears to be the popular populist gathering place for the area, and provides a bit of local color – you’re as likely to find biker gangs as suburban families there.)

With Woodstock flowing into Pomfret, and with not much of a town center to Woodstock at all, it is often difficult to know just where you are (of course, there a lot of people in the New York Woodstock who aren’t quite sure where they are, either), and this is compounded by the fact that it is a divided Woodstock, with its six sections, each flowing one into the other, with occasional signs but without definitive borders. We tried, as best we could, to visit all its parts – we may have, but couldn’t quite tell for sure. Like many New England towns, it is cute and historic, and this one is a good reminder of our early American roots. It is its own Woodstock, albeit, to our eyes, with nothing like the placeness of ours, but an original nonetheless.

sign & house

Next installment: Another state, another Woodstock, and scaring moose.

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Cones of Silence

cones galoreCan there be so many traffic cones on residential streets that you become immune and stop noticing them? Cones are all around this city neighborhood – cone overload. The reason is ubiquitous new-home construction. One would never guess that the housing market is down; not here. Every scrap of empty ground in this super-packed, cheek-to-jowl area is being covered with new construction; squeezed in the way road cones squeeze moving traffic into too-narrow lanes. In the service of producing these new constructs, the utility companies are busy as robins in the spring, digging up entire streets that extend for several blocks and lining them all with road cones, much like a highway. It is the one colorful result of new houses.

Cones are friendly, geometric and orange, and they can be jarring, especially to alert a driver going the distance on highways. Out on the open road, we sort of know what they are saying and what we are supposed to do when we see them. On a tight 19th-century city street, they squeeze the limited space further, and stand there resembling a queue of penguins on the march, so that they take on a kind of human or pedestrian presence. And, as pedestrians ourselves, we aren’t quite used to face-to-face interaction with a life-size cone. Should we weave through them like a test course? What is the protocol?

In addition to work zones, cones in the city often represent proprietary space; they can seem in-your-face. Since it is utility companies that use them mostly, homeowners feel that they can nab one or two – since they are taxpayers – and employ them to stand guard and save the parking space directly in front of their door. This strategy is used mostly after a snowfall, but some sticklers decide that it is a useful year-round ploy.

The original traffic cones, though, invented in 1914 by Charles Rudabaker, were for the streets of New York – so their provenance is urban. And they were concrete. Try scooting around one of those. They have been made of various materials including wood, plastic, thermoplastics and rubber. And they can range in size from 12 inches to 36 inches. They are usually reflective, aside from their bright, primary palette. With stripes of reflective tape, they remind me of the legs of Munchkins with their stripey socks. They are party hats for the pavement, or maybe dunce caps.

traffic-cones

Generally speaking, the cones tend to be recognizable. But what is this?

pair

 

A new modern simulacrum of a road cone? Did they run out of the three dimensional ones? They seem makeshift and clever all at once. Like signboards, they are flat but appear full-bodied. They, too, are orange. Plywood, a two-by-four – kind of an easel, but already painted. The weird thing is, these new brethren make the normal cones look fake. Probably, these new cones are less likely to disappear.

artcone

It seems that cones are popular. People do goofy things with them; they wear them, they make art out of them. In 2007, artist Dennis Oppenheim made five giant-sized ones, called “Safety Cones,” for the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle and other places worldwide – perhaps a tip of his hat to Oldenburg and van Bruggen. A New York City architecture firm, EFGH, built a concert pavilion out of cones.

concert pavilion

Cones have become iconic, they are like a universal sign before there were universal signs. They create a placeness wherever they are plopped down. They now decorate my neighborhood. We like them, even with their pointy heads.

cone line

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