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With No Particular Place to Go

Since Jan. 6, 2010, and for 191 consecutive Wednesdays thereafter, we’ve explored in this space the concept of placeness, specifically placeness as art, and we even coined a pseudo-Latin-ish term, “arslocii,” to use as a tent in which to gather together our musings, monologues and misgivings.

We started off as purists, adhering rather rigidly to our stated mission of writing about art and site, and how each impacts the other and imparts a power to (or subtracts the same from) each other, so that because of this relationship, symbiotically, each has a certain “something” it did not have before, and has become something it was not before – and that together they are not two things but one. Placeness. Arslocii.

Soon, however, ideas and truths and suppositions led us further afield: consideration of the role empathy plays in the perception of art and place, the placeness of “places” that don’t actually exist (“homes” that appear in fiction-based TV shows, the Glass houses of Salinger’s stories), the placeness of highway entry ramps and the space circumscribed by plastic traffic cones or gabions, the placeness of places inhabited and deserted and left behind by death. And then, frankly, we wrote about things that merely caught our attention or plucked our emotions, and we took out the sturdy arslocii shoehorn and made them fit, and tried to walk without anyone noticing our pronounced limp and our bloody toes.

Arslocii and looking at the world through it became our life, and we can’t envision a time when we will stop seeing things in that way. But we do envision a time when our clockwork entries will stop. And that time is now.

We’ll still be contributing to Arslocii, but on an every now and then basis, as we divert much of our energy and efforts to other, long-term projects that we will let you know about. Those who’ve signed on to receive these blog posts regularly will see them from time to time, like house guests who, kindly, have brought their own sheets, towels and food; those who check in to this site in a hit or miss fashion might, if you continue doing so, bump into something new to read … or not.

Thanks for your interest in what we’ve thought about; we hope to earn that interest again with our newer pursuits. As the departing Mr. Wickham said to the relieved Bennets, “Let us say not farewell, but as the French have it, au revoir!”

See you soon, then, some place else.

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The Bag I’m In

I needed to put something in something and carry it somewhere. Genius was not required to conclude that a bag was what I needed.

shelf

In a deep, tall closet that we use as a kitchen pantry, there is a certain shelf – when this building was home to a contractor’s office, before we turned it into a home, this closet was utilized to store boxes of files, so the shelves are sturdy and broad – and about half of this shelf is inhabited by our stockpile of paper bags. [Digression: Don’t use plastic – save the Earth. End of diatribe.] There are, on this shelf, grocery bags of all sorts – the plain brown sacks, the ones with formed paper handles, the ones that have been made deceptively smaller (as if we didn’t notice) so that it seems as if your huge supermarket bill has bought you more stuff when in fact it has bought you less, the ones that have stamped on them the alleged name of the possibly fictitious line worker who, “with pride,” pushed the button to the bag-cutting and -forming machine. (And just why do the markets and paper companies think that we’re interested in knowing who made this bag that, “with pride,” is already about to burst at the bottom with the weight of three boxes of tissues in it? Are we supposed to feel good about the bag because “Fernando Torres” had a hand in its mechanical manufacture? Is the personalization meaningful, even to Fernando? Are we to think that the bag was handcrafted in some way by an artisan who, apparently, likes to work in multiples? Is the point of the worker’s name on the bag so that we know to whom to direct our “Great bag – keep up the good work” thank-you note? I don’t get it, but to save a stamp, let me state here publicly: “Thanks, Fernando Torres, for helping me get my tofu home safely. Stay proud, but don’t get cocky.”)

with pride

Most of the bags on the shelf come from supermarkets, a few from department stores (remember them? They used to advertise in all the newspapers. Remember them?). A few of the bags have the logos of high-end boutiques (the only way they got here is if somebody else used them to bring us gifts). There are thin and long bags that once had wine bottles slipped into them. There are bags that seem masculine; others that seem feminine. And others that, like kids in school who don’t know the answer to the teacher’s question, are scrunched back so that they won’t be selected. Some bags we’ve had for just a week or two, while there are a few goofballs or underachievers that we’ve probably had for years.

And then there is a clump of them, a real handful, maybe 50 or so, tied together by the kind of white string that bakeries bind their boxes with. They’re crisp, brown, Duro No. 6’s. I look at them, and it’s funny the things that make memories rise up in front of your eyes, spectrally, faster than light speed, but these bags do it for me. They are, sitting there, themselves placeness, and, via recall, placeness suggesters. First, they make me think of – and feel, and smell, and hear, and, strangely and sadly, turn around and swear that for a second I can even see – our guys, that special and irreplaceable litter of cats, now long-gone but forever clawing at the fabric of our hearts … because we would use a new one of these bags just about every day to hold the nasty stuff we’d scoop from their litter boxes. The Duro No. 6 size seemed just perfect: It could hold a lot, but not too much, because you wouldn’t want a big bag of cat stools sitting around for very long or bursting open at the seams, and the No. 6 was easy to lift when full, and its opening was big enough for a heaping scoop to slide in and out of without losing its toxic cargo. And when each was filled, it would be put into a grocery bag with a half dozen or more of its stinky brethren, to sit until trash day, a pile that looked like a fraternity prank in the offing.

But, then, a second memory intrudes on the first. It is of a store, a really old place on a corner in an ancient part of town which has seen gentrification and upscaling but it, the store, resisted until recently all attempts to ride the coattails to the present, or even the near past.   The building is more than 150 years old, and the store in it – a restaurant- and party-supply business – looked to have stock that went back nearly as long. And employees older than that. We called it “the wet dog store” because it smelled like … well, there, you got it. The floors of the place were original and wood that was in spots concave from the generations that trod on it; the shelves were loaded with items that would be archaic if they weren’t, now, suddenly, in the forefront of retro, everything an eatery or food truck might need, if it wasn’t too fancy and the year was 1953: cardboard boats to hold hotdogs, the kind of blue-and-white Anthora paper coffee cups that look like they’ve been around since the ancient Greeks, all kinds of wood coffee stirrers and french-fry pokers, Chinese takeout boxes, classic mustard and ketchup squeeze bottles and sugar pourers … and bags. Paper bags. Tons of them: the kind that corner stores scoop candies into, the kind that pastry shops slip paper-wrapped eclairs into, the ones that perfectly encase a loaf of rye bread. Each type of bag sat, gathered in big fistfuls, tied in string, on old and dusty shelves, with no price anywhere to be found. You’d ask a clerk what a bundle of No. 6 bags cost, and he’d say that he’d have to ask the owner, who sat in an office tucked back in the store and who may have been dozing back there since the building’s foundation was poured. The owner would shuffle out, take a look at the item, take a look at you, size you both up, make a face briefly that led you to believe that he was trying to remember the price, and then would make it up. “Three dollars,” he’d say, definitively and arbitrarily, on one visit. “Two-fifty,” he’d quote you the next. Whatever, it was worth it – cheaper than the much more cheaply made similar bags they sell as sandwich bags in supermarkets, and, anyway, buying from this ancient guy in this ancient place was not only great urban theater, but it was personally becoming a part of a continuity that would not continue much longer. Stores like this are vanishing, with neither a whimper or bang, as older generations die and younger generations don’t want to continue in the business, or they don’t want this kind of stuff anymore, or they buy it now on Amazon or eBay. But these latter miss the point of the joy of commerce. Buying in a store like this is like being an actor in a play for which you have no script but you know all the lines, except that the central character keeps improvising. Even, sometimes, when the owner would make up too high a price – “Five,” he’d say, as if it had always been five – you paid it anyway, without a fuss or reminding him of what you had paid the previous visit, because you wanted to support this creaky vessel until that inevitable day when you’d come for your bags and there’s a Starbucks sitting there instead …

All of this, rushing at me, sparked by a bunch of bags in my pantry, where they create a placeness in my home and echo the placeness of their origin and their wonderfully circuitous journey to me, and my journey with them.

And, please, don’t get me started on the napkins and toothpicks – we could be here all day.

Duro

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Being Tankful

tank pairHaving been a city dweller most of my life, for me fuel delivery was never an issue. It was just there on a need-to-have basis. For a spoiled westerner, fuel for heat, hot water and cooking appeared magically from a pipe in the street. When natural gas arrived on the scene for central heating in the early 20th century, I can recall my grandparents talking about how nervous people were to have it piped into their homes and it took some convincing for them to welcome it. A hundred years later, it is a fact of life, and people are asking for more of it to be harvested. More and more, invisible energy to keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed.rusty tank

Recently I have decided to chuck the annoyances and unpleasantries (I mean, how much are we supposed to put up with for the ideal of convenience?) of the city and go to a more natural, rural area. In this new environment, one detail that strikes home right away is that you are now responsible for storing your own fuel. What an instant lesson in energy usage; you can get it but not easily, and in getting it, you have to keep it on hand on your property in a tank – a hulking, sometimes rusty container about the size of a buffalo. Well sure, you pay for it either way and if you don’t pay, you don’t have heat. But your consciousness about fuel just increased to the tenth power by having to confront this tank on a daily basis. The alternatives for energy are similar whether urban or rural, except that if you go with gas in the country it comes in a bottle, not a pipe.

tank in field

At first, it seems like an inconvenience, having a behemoth storage tank in your yard. Shouldn’t it be out of sight/out of mind like it was before? As much as I don’t like looking at it, it acts like Jiminy Cricket on our shoulder, whispering in our ear about our dependence and our usage. It keeps things real, making a large physical statement about energy consumption. You can monitor the gauge, you can lower the thermostat, you can try an alternative, like burning wood. A number of the neighbors do all of these things to reduce consumption, but the fact remains that we need heat.

rusted out tank

However, maybe not as wastefully as when we don’t see it. I am thinking of a single apartment building in New York City that takes up an entire block. My brother lives in this particular building, and it has a power plant in the basement that cranks heat up to a point where the tenants open their windows in the winter because it is unbearably hot inside.

As careful as I have always been with energy use, I think that a fuel tank is going to be a constant reminder. Fill it up, empty it out. It is there, regardless. The process is exposed, and you are witness and victim and perpetrator. In this instance it is a placeness of consciousness, of awareness, of a presence of something that looks so out of place but is born of necessity for survival. Use it sparingly, keep it filled up like a family member but don’t overfeed, and let its appearance in the landscape keep us aware of our dependencies and our greed and the fact that this vessel is a solid object informing us that sources of energy are not limitless. And we are responsible for limits.

new tank

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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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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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Moving On

doorwayWe are leaving a place and we are happy to be doing so, and it’s about time.

We won’t deny that some happiness happened in this place, even some life-changing occurrences and decisions.

But this has been, for the most part, a place of violence and brutality, of anger and low blows and big blows and blowhards, of racism and condoned mean-spiritedness, a place of disruption and dishonesty, disappointment and dashed dreams, a place where nearly every hint of optimism has been undermined by self-serving actions and arrogant entitlement.

And, so, we are eager to turn our backs on this place ­– this year called 2012 – and open the door to the next place, known as 2013.

But such places of time have a way of lingering; we can expect the scent of 2012 to continue to waft into the freshly painted rooms of 2013. Just when you think 2013 is going to be a new and different dwelling place, that will be a note from 2012 being slipped under the door. And don’t pick up that ringing phone ­–  it’s a robocall from down the hall.

We can hope that 2013 will be rich in arslocii. But most places are just places like other places, and the only art is what you bring to it.

But keep your eyes open, and your heart, as well, because the most potent moments of discovering placeness often happen when you least expect them, and just a few can make a year a place you’ll want to revisit from time to time.

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Forest nor the Trees

Up north, the leaves have been off the trees for weeks, helped by a heaping handful of Sandy. But, down south a couple of hundred miles, the leaves were happily attached to their mother ships, showing no sign of giving up the host, until a few days ago, when, overnight – whoompf – bare limbs and the anguished cries of leaf-rakers who’d just filled bags of the stuff, thinking that they’d have some days’ respite before the next necessary round of gathering.

Back up north, where we have a new place to call home, trees surround the house and then roll on to the distance, so that, in spring and summer, there is no horizon, only the tops of massive pines and maples and ash, and all the bushy undergrowth. All of it – the tall, the short, the great variety of green, the hard and soft and prickly, the native and the invasive – creates a kind of cocoon, or a force creeping up on what humans have carved out from it, a sure but subtle approach, like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane; indeed, behind every tree, within every dense brush, on every leaf-shrouded limb, creatures live, many of them, yet so few that we actually see or hear. And you can’t see neighbors’ houses, either – they’re there, somewhere, but behind and beyond, and out of mind. The foliage acts like a buffer, and a sound muffler, and it is, when you first start looking to live in these parts, exactly what your urban heart gladly surrenders to: unbridled green, like a warm mitten, granting you privacy, and ease, and basic things, even a kind of security, tenuous and fragile though it may be.

So, when the sky changes, and the wind blows cold, and the leaves start swirling down like confetti at a political convention, the newbie fears that all of nature that is good is gone, and that fall and winter will be times that are not to be loved but endured. What was green is brown and grey; one feels exposed, as if he’d walked out of a shower to discover that the walls had disappeared and an audience was enjoying the view from box seats.

Yet, that’s all wrong. This is an astounding time, perhaps even more so than when the force through the green fuse drives the flower. Thinking as I was thinking was simply getting it backwards: This is not a time when one is exposed, it is the time when the world is revealed. Where once there was a clump of green, now I see the close, middle and long-range depths of the world around me. That house I was trying to avoid seeing? It’s a lovely counterpoint to the natural world that now unfolds it to me. That ravine, that hillock – both seemed like soft cushions and springs, but are now clearly places of sharpness and mystery and secrets, not monochromatic but full of shadows and dappled areas of browns and tans and orange. Suddenly, I see something red, so red that it would seem impossible to not be a constant beacon, and yet I have no idea what that could be, because in my spring and summer days in this place it has never been visible to me. A short walk informs me that it is a canoe hanging on the side of a small shed – a canoe and a shed I didn’t know even existed.

And then – on going across the road to check the mailbox, I look back at my remarkably ungreened house, so open to the eye that it seems like a landmark, and I see, where just a few short weeks ago there was nothing but tree after tree … I see the mountains, less than a mile away, that look over (hence the name of one) and guard (hence the other) our little village. The real-estate brokers call this having “seasonal views,” and tout it as a selling point, or, rather, a buying opportunity. But it is not so crass – the surprise appearance of the rolling, sinuous and nearly feline mountains is nothing less than a gift, and a comeuppance to any who believe that this time of year is only about huddling and shelter, about losses and not gains.

Discovery is everywhere, in every place, in every direction, if only one moves with nature and time and does not cling to easy beauty, or fears sleep or death. Renewal is yet to come; epiphanies are here right now, for the taking.

 

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