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Merry Memory, and Many Happy Returns

Life is portable; the past is anchored, and memory is its unreliable Boswell, an attempt at history that, strangely, over time, becomes less witness than hearsay, or myth.

One can enter memory in much the same fashion that one finds his way to and into a familiar room with the lights out, where one knows where to sit and what generalized forms and specific objects he will be able to make out, more or less, as his eyes adjust.

Memory is not a process, or a state; memory is a place. But, unlike the idea of place that we know in the physical world – where you go somewhere to find yourself in it – memory is also a place that can come to you, even unbidden.

We are, all of us, in a memory time of year – for everyone, holidays and rituals based knowingly or not on the return of the light loom large, and we cannot help but flash back to times when life seemed happier or simpler or more understandable; when families were full and there were no gaps; when memories were being made, not being recalled. It is, personally, a memory time because it was in mid-December, more than two decades ago, that a handful of wonderful beings entered our lives, changing them forever, and, later, at other times, in separate memory rooms, departed. Then, too, as we struggle to disassemble a loved house and move much of it to the next place we call home, memory is the 300-lb. gorilla that is the room. Everywhere we turn, the place we are viewing dissolves, and for a moment (a split-moment? no time at all?) we are in the same place but on a different plane, involved in a collision in which where becomes when.

And as we take furniture and personal possessions to the new place – leaving voids for memory to fill, and anti-matter spaces that have spectral solidity, like phantom limbs ­– it is for more than mere practicality that we do so, more than just to avoid having to lay out the money for a new chair when we have a perfectly good one (or two, or five) already available, and appropriate. Part, if not much, of the reason we take our stuff with us is that these things are time machines – by merely keeping them near, and occasionally giving them some attention, they take us to places of memory.

The odd or wondrous thing about memory is that it is not static – it is cumulative, and discriminating. For, given a sufficient amount of time, the older memory fades as newly minted memories cling to object and place, and new myths are born, burnished and held to the heart.

This holiday season, then, it is not necessary to bodily travel to be somewhere else and to be in the presence of those you love – just look around at where you are, and allow yourself to be taken to where you’ve been when you were here before. But don’t dwell too long, or cling to that place. So long as you are you, it will always be there, and at the moment you need it, somehow, in your hand, you will find the key, and know the way, and you will feel the power of its placeness. And you will feel at home.

palace at 4 a.m.

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Inside the Box

In passing a number of packing, shipping crates lately that seem to be everywhere – on city streets, in suburban enclaves – it looks as if everyone is relocating. It got me to thinking about boxes.


Obviously, Donald Judd was thinking about boxes long before this synapse occurred in my brain. His boxes are definers, forms, containers for space. I think he was prescient and profound about their metaphor for life because our lives are defined and contained by boxes. Cradle to grave.


There is the large box we inhabit, whether it be apartment or house or office cubicle. A rectilinear world surrounds us, encases us. If our homes can’t contain all of our belongings, we rent a storage space – another box – unless we have a garage, also a box. If we are moving to a different location, a structure is supplied in the shape of a  pod, referred to as “container-based moving,”  and it is a box for your belongings. Then we move and we find a place to live in that needs remodeling, so we bring in a Dumpster, a huge rectangular box to fill with debris; the unwanted stuff gets boxed and carted away. Often, too, the wanted stuff gets boxed but stays with us – look at all the plastic storage boxes you can buy at big-box stores. Many of our furnishings are, face it, boxes that hold other belongings.

Our cars are just shiny, molded boxes – containers to move us from place to place – also with as many of our belongings as we can carry. Overseas shipping containers are huge boxes that fit on boats, train cars and 18-wheelers – and they float. And, too, smaller boxed items are shipped everyday, everywhere by many competing shipping companies.

Proposal rings come in small boxes, gifts come in boxes of all sizes; England and Canada, among others, celebrate Boxing Day. Books and DVDs come in boxed sets. Box seats are desirable to some theater-goers, if they can afford them. In the sport of boxing, somehow, the square stage of the event is called a ring, but we all know it is really a box. Heck, these days, even liquids come in boxes. A typical day could involve starting off with boxed cereal, working with text boxes and going out to check your post-office box before sending off a box of chocolates to an admiree and grabbing a Bento box for lunch unless you have brought along your own lunch box, then off to the box office to get tickets for a performance.

Why do shoes come in boxes? Mass production, it seems. Funny how they can become stashes for treasured items like seashells and love letters.

If you get on your soapbox, it may elevate you in a crowd but its useful life as a container happened before you came along; unless, of course, you might argue that it helps form and package your thoughts for a public forum. But beware, you might inadvertently open up Pandora’s box, resulting in a crowd-displeasing pummeling by round rather than square objects. Boxed ears can occur.

Ultimately there is the last box. It can be made of wood, metal or cement. It can be lined or bare and it will contain for eternity, only this container must be contained by non-rectangular earth cut into a rectangle to receive the box. A fitting end for a square peg.

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Desert Solitaire: A Lone Ranger

We have said that placeness can be in the eye of the beholder. One such beholder, a certain Edward Abbey, wrote a book in 1968 called Desert Solitaire. His observations about time spent alone in the desert, specifically Arches National Monument (now Park), are keen and true – and often express our concept of arslocii. Up front, in the introduction, he worries that the book might be perceived as being based on appearances and surfaces rather than “to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships … the true underlying reality of existence.”

First of all, an amazing time the late ’60s was – when people actually thought about such things as reality. Apparently, a lost notion. And, then, to be concerned that critics might think that he wasn’t providing dialogue about it, let alone answers. Wow. But, he as writer is a great combination of scientific observer and poetic interpreter. The 33,000 acres of Moab valley, canyon and tableland, with the deep gash of the Colorado River, which he tends as a park ranger, are described in achingly beautiful detail, sometimes to the point of madness. And he is protective and angry about its impending loss for human use. But he states, simply, that he is there “to confront … the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us … in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.”

Abbey illustrates so well in this book that the combination of human observation – not intervention – and wilderness together make a perfect pairing. Voyeur and performer, interpreter and constant changer, lover and indifferent object of that love. Arslocii. One of his stated goals is to lose the filters, the human translation of the place – although he certainly describes and reacts to what’s around him – but he simply wants to “be,” just like nature itself. He can’t help his human emotions and his metaphors and similes, and because of that he makes it real for us. He creates that placeness for us in his words. We can’t see it through his eyes but we can hear it in his voice. Nature’s indifference feeds the flames of his human passion.

Aside from rants about nearly every facet of human endeavor (and I cannot disagree), Abbey is a prophet in his wild world. And he is the perfect counterpart to the wilderness. His writing is eloquent, his mind is facile, his sources of knowledge are varied and vast. He has depth and humor and seems to be without fear. As powerful as his detailed sightings of landscape, flora and fauna are, as deep as his respect and love of nature are, he is a man who treasures the gifts of individual humans in the context of civilization

precious and fragile, drawn through history by the finest threads of art and idea. … It is the conscious forefront of evolution, the brotherhood of great souls and the comradeship of intellect, a corpus mysticum … a democratic aristocracy based not on power or institutions but on isolated men – Lao-Tse, Chuang-Tse, Gautama, Diogenes, Euripides, Socrates, Jesus, Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, Paine and Jefferson, Blake and Burns and Beethoven, John Brown and Henry Thoreau, Whitman, Tolstoy, Emerson, Mark Twain, Rabelais and Villon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Spartacus, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, Lucretius and Pope John XXIII, and ten thousand other poets, revolutionaries and independent spirits, both famous and forgotten, alive and dead, whose heroism gives to human life on earth its adventure, glory and significance.

He goes on: “The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.” His thoughts and the rich tapestry of his surroundings, a harsh environment to be sure, are the ideal and the real, brought together in this remarkable diary. Placeness.

Desert Solitaire is as full of extremes and paradoxes as nature is, written by a human who is at once a misanthrope and a mystic. In the forty-four years since its writing, Abbey has proven himself to be right as well as righteous.

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Ray of Hope

Of all the many deservedly laudatory obituaries for writer Ray Bradbury, who died last week at age 91, few if any really “got” what it is he did, and did better than any of his contemporaries, among whom there were no equals.

Most of the tributes took their cue from the one from the Associated Press, which began: “Ray Bradbury anticipated iPods, interactive television, electronic surveillance and live, sensational news media events, including televised police pursuits — and not necessarily as good things.” All true, but incomplete, and missing the point. Bradbury was only tangentially a futurist – indeed, as a Slate blog entry wondered, “Did Ray Bradbury Even Write Science Fiction? If Not, What Was It?” Unlike, say, Arthur C. Clarke, or even the Aldous Huxley of “Brave New World,” who invented futures for either scientific, sociopolitical or social-commentary purposes, tomorrow for Bradbury was only a convenient construct to talk about the past and present, and a way to get his stories printed in (and to make some needed money from) the sci-fi pulp magazines. But he was never really a “time” guy.

Character interested him more. The science-fiction world was not rich with characters beyond the 2-D, simply motivated figures needed to push the plot along, plot was king. Many of Bradbury’s characters were more rounded, more interior, more humanly motivated than what you found in other pulp stories, in which heroes and monsters operated on the principle that action is character, that what a person did was the key to understanding what he was. But, while he was among the best in writing character-driven genre fiction, Bradbury was not primarily a “character” guy.

What Ray Bradbury wrote about better than any other sci-fi or fantasy writer, and as well as any kind of writer, was place. In most sci-fi, place was just a backdrop: a rocket ship, an asteroid, a Swiftian society – simply a spot for the plot-motivator to act and react in. But, for Bradbury, place was central. Montag might be memorable in “Fahrenheit 451,” and the writer’s alter ego, Douglas Spaulding, is indelible as the wide-eyed innocent in so many ruminations and spins, but it is the creation and re-creation of the worlds, the towns, the rooms that they moved in that are the height of the lasting art of Ray Bradbury. The dusty, crumbling ghost-town that was once the home of a great civilization and is now the repository of its wraiths and predators in “The Martian Chronicles.” The dark carnival and firefly-illuminated summer nights of sinister giddiness of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” The holographic living room with real fangs in “The Veldt.” Even the crawly, animated, narrative and doom-prophesying skin of “The Illustrated Man.” Ray Bradbury made places come alive on paper, and put people in them who belonged there, and the combination drew us to them and made us belong there, too. He spun loci of placeness, which we empathetically recognized as something, someplace that lived inside us. They were not outer worlds, but inner, built with materials of the past.

And of all the places that, for me, are linked to Ray Bradbury is one, a special one, mine alone: a table in the restaurant of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, in 1972, where Ray Bradbury generously, amazingly, took two hours out of his life to sit across from me, stake me to a burger, and talk to and encourage this young and eager writer who was in awe of the man he was still stunned to be dining with. I am not sure that I can remember a word of that meeting, but it was as influential as any I have ever experienced. I always wanted to be a writer; he made me pursue it, for he saw being a writer as a mission, a privilege, the best thing that one could do with his life. For his personal kindness, for his exemplary work, for the dreams he spun widely and individually, the place I will always associate with Ray Bradbury is my heart.

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A City in Your Hands

Last time, we wrote about how the place in which a newspaper is put together – the newsroom – can influence the look, feel, sound, artfulness and even success of that newspaper, and that the current changes in newsrooms, and moves to new digs, might help account for or contribute to the medium’s general decline, at least here in the U.S.

But, there’s another thing we’ve been thinking about that has to do with newspapers and their future, and that has to do with the way newspapers look.

Obviously, the way a newspaper looks is important. Many millions of dollars are paid each year to high-priced designers and consultants to make newspapers more appealing to the eye. These professionals tinker with typefaces and white space, column width and story length, all towards making the product a clean and easy read, with the hoped-for result that this rehabbing will improve circulation and/or attract advertisers – and, all the while, restricted by the limits imposed by newspapers having to look like newspapers, having to be able to fit on and be run off on a printing press that can’t easily be customized, and requiring a limited universe of paper type to be its medium.

Too often, though, these designers shoehorn all newspapers into a one-size-fits-all construct, overlaying the project with a look that they prefer or are identified with, imposing the same typeface, structure and attitude to every newspaper they are hired to “fix.” There are, at any given time, certain rules of modernity that these designers cling to and proselytize about, and, soon, newspapers everywhere look like newspapers everywhere else, becoming the Holiday Inns or McDonald’s of the print medium; that is, they are cookie-cutter versions of each other, without individuality outside the masthead,  with the idea that that sort of conformity engenders a kind of comfortable familiarity that also boosts ease of navigability. It’s all about the ego of the designer and his certainty about the superiority of the current (or, rather, his current) favorite user interface.

These artistic attempts, though, aren’t working, at least not in the most important way – saving the newspapers from extinction by attracting more readers and keeping them “under the tent” – and, so, quite often seem like just some bit of graphical snake oil. Of course, no design, however wonderful, can overcome boring content poorly written, and flawed editorial direction. And such small portions: No design can hide the fact that misguided layoffs by management “geniuses” who believe that the way to a better bottom line is by slicing employees and filling pages with wire-service offerings, which leaves little or nothing to read. Ergo, lots of white space to fool the reader into thinking that she is getting just as much news as she used to for the higher per-copy fee she has to shell out in order to come into possession of an anorexic, anemic impostor of the newspaper she used to love to hold.

But there is another underlying problem, we think – indeed, a placeness-influenced problem – that may be at the root of the design and circulation-spiral “fail.”

Here’s what the newspaper I work for, and which is struggling to keep readers, looks like now:

And here’s what it looked like a generation ago, when it was a popular newsstand item:

The first difference, and one that you can’t see easily from these photos, is the page size: the old version was much bigger – inches larger on each side. This partly – but only partly – explains the second difference that is far easier to note: the number of stories in each version. The old newspaper’s pages are loaded with stories – in fact, on these two inside facing pages, 20 of them, including stand-alone photos – while the current version has maybe two stories and a photo on each. This is both a function of changing design ideas, but also reflects the sad reality that there are more stories on those old pages than there are reporters in our newsroom today. Not all of the stories were staff written, but many were. Today, we don’t have the luxury – or the people-power – to produce that many stories. Of course, now as then, there was wire-service copy available, and pages were and are filled with that readily accessible fodder. The point was, back then, that a good chunk of the mission of a newspaper was to give people lots to read for their dime (yes, it cost ten cents), with oodles of variety, and with what Paul Dacre, the editor of London’s Daily Mail, calls  the “human twiddly bits that make for conversations in the pubs.” So much of that fascinating, readable, quotable, water-cooler-ish type of story that made newspapers newspapers is gone these days. Some of that is because of changing attitudes in the newspaper business about what news is (although, when you look at what the Internet portal sites consider news, you realize that nobody ever lost money underestimating Americans’ level of sophistication), some because of changing layout considerations – but some because of a backlash against anything that isn’t “hyper-local.”

And yet, despite this feverish trend that sees the offering of a preponderance of local news as the key to survival – ceding breaking news and national and international reports to the ‘Net, radio or video media – the physical newspapers themselves do not look local; that is, they do not look like where they’re from. And that is a key component of readers’ alienation with the product – a newspaper, we believe, ought to look like the town it’s reporting about. But, as similar, clean and white-spaced designs become the standard look-and-feel of the printed news medium everywhere, the “nowhere-ness” of them will, we think, doom the newspaper. It’s not even just a matter of “face recognition” – that the newspaper you read has a different layout or typeface than the competition; it’s that the product you hold in your hands does not accurately reflect the place it purportedly represents … and it should.

Take the New York Times, for example – it looks like Manhattan, or at least the Manhattan of its readers’ imagination, the Central Park West Manhattan, with its glorious old buildings interspersed with modern skyscrapers, and a peppering of people and tiny swaths of color and greenspace.  Then look at the New York Daily News – also New York, but not the same New York; this is the messy, teeming, crowded, slightly out-of-control New York, and the New York that includes all five boroughs. Each is New York, or, rather, the New York that its readers identify with. And each of these papers is successful because they not only speak to their publics but, in a way, also hold up a mirror to them, and make the readers feel that they are holding their city in their hands. Newsday, though a fine paper, and a tabloid (which would normally appeal to city dwellers and public-transportation riders), never quite gained a foothold when it introduced its New York Newsday because it still looked like Long Island.

More to the point at hand, look at the two versions of the paper I work for. The old format looks like the place it came out of: a congested, gray, gritty urban place, with lots happening in it.

The city itself is no less busy or crowded these days, yet the current paper looks far more homogenized and lacking a distinctive personality: a placeness. 

Big city newspapers are dying because they have been made to look like the wrong place – they look like the suburbs and not the metropolis. Just as one-size-fits-all does not work in the design of papers, there is no one-city-fits-all, either. Each city, each town has its own personality, and the newspaper of that town should have that same personality or, in the case of competing papers with different circulation publics, the personality that fits that population cohort.

What differentiates a newspaper from, say, a web-based news site is that there is, when it is working properly, a personal relationship between the newspaper and its reader that is, in a way, akin to the relationship that sports fans have with their home teams. Teams are composed of many different elements (the athletes) from many parts of the world, but they come together and wear a unique and identifiable uniform, with cherished logos and colors, that fans recognize as mirroring themselves, in some strange empathetic sort of way. Newspapers must never forget that they are the home team, and should dress the part.

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(News) Room with a (Rear) View

The room stretches half a football-field’s length ahead, it is dark and I am alone in it. Here and there, around me, are the telltale cigarette-tip-red dots and cool-blue glows of electronic equipment on desks, waiting to be switched alive. One can feel the thrumming of the HVAC system as it rolls fetid air through huge and dirty ducts that hover over the room from the low ceiling.  It is a Saturday; we don’t publish a Sunday paper, so this, the newsroom, is abandoned. But, lately, it’s seemed abandoned even at the height of the day and the heat of the chase. A place that can accommodate maybe 150 workers – and once did – now is home to only about a third of that, and, what with varying shifts, there are times, especially at night, when there are so few people in the cavernous space, and all spread about like blindly sown seeds, that we joke sometimes that we could all carpool to work. In a Smart Car. With the latest buyouts and layoffs freshly sliced into our hearts, it is hard to believe that the few remaining reporters, editors and graphic artists will be able to put out a metropolitan newspaper on time every day. And it is, occasionally, hard to believe that we will exist long enough to get used to the new normal. 

How long one has worked for this newspaper determines the ghosts one sees when one is here, in the quiet, in the dark. A newspaper, for its success, depends on the voice it projects, and the diversity of voices that appear on the pages. But the voices that readers don’t ever hear – the voices of the copy editors joking with each other and grumbling about the horrible stories they have to save, the voices of reporters on the phone trying to cajole facts from reluctant sources, the voices of clueless editors and administrators trying to sound sincere while mouthing corporate platitudes or uninformed and ill-used journalese – the voices that inform the decisions that end up as the words you read (if indeed you are reading them these days, which, of course, is the problem) are getting weaker and thinner, less assured, and are fading away. Some may not consider what we do in making newspapers as art, but there is an art to the smoothly functioning, at times inspired machine that drags raw materials from thin air, pounds them into shape and extrudes them out the door in a polished package. At some future time, in some museum, that defunct item we call a newspaper might be displayed in a case and looked upon as a work of art, the way Toulouse Lautrec’s posters, once commercial come-ons, are now seen. Maybe not. After all, they didn’t use his posters to wrap fish and line bird cages.

At times, in this room, I feel like Jonah, except that it is not a whale that I have been swallowed up by and am in the belly of, but rather a dinosaur. In fact, we in this business are dealing with conjoined dinosaurs: the print newspaper format itself, and the newsroom where it traditionally has been created. I won’t go into the decay of the daily, which is well documented elsewhere ad nauseam and is a perfect-storm confluence of misunderstanding, mismanagement, confusion and irrational exuberance about the digital realm. But what is also falling by the wayside are these grand newsrooms, once teeming with ideas and with colorful people full of those ideas. With so many folks rubbing up against each other, the friction often sparked exciting results: a critical mass of skepticism, cynicism, witticism and idealism. The newsroom went through evolutionary phases – from the smoky, feverish, wild and untamed “The Front Page” days to cool and distancing insurance-company-like corporate reinventions (some blame print journalism’s decline on the banning of indoor smoking, and the frowning upon by bloodless management of visible signs of alcohol misuse) – but it was always a place that could become a mess quite easily, piled high with handouts and food scraps, and swirling with contorted workspace and equally twisted personal relationships. But now, with reductions in the workforce, and the selling off of old newspaper office buildings, and the digital and mobile and work-at-home capabilities of the new enterprise, the vast newsroom, which often seemed like a cross between an asylum and Grand Central Station with desks, is a money-eating anachronism. 

And, so, this room that I am in now, so appropriately and symbolically silent and dark – this basement space that once held mighty printing presses before they were moved to the suburbs and the bosses (whichever bumbling or sinister iteration of them it was at the time) decided to move the editors and reporters from some lofty floor in the building to this now unvacuumed mite- and mouse-infested dungeon – is to be abandoned before summer, slated to feel the developer’s work crew and ultimate conversion to a residential and retail-space future. We few, we unhappy few, we band of dysfunctional brothers, will be moving to a much smaller space in a building that itself is a relic of a gasping industry: the department store. Where once this news operation and all its attendant sales and support services took up 13 floors of an iconic structure known throughout the region, now two newspapers – once bitter sibling rivals, now sharing the same bunk bed – will be shoehorned into one floor that at one time might have been where one went to purchase lingerie. Irony upon irony: It is the demise of department stores, and loss of the big advertisements that they used to fill newspapers with, that is at the root of the financial collapse of big-city newspapers … and, now, the one invalid is inhabiting the other.

I am sure, considering the millions of dollars that are being tossed at this new workspace, that it will have fine lighting, fresh carpeting and all the modern amenities, and it will, by comparison, show the current place for the NIH-alarming germ-pit that it is. But it will, almost certainly, be another stop on the road to homogenization. With each successive modernization of quarters, the newspaper product itself has become concomitantly colorless. Clothes make the man; newsrooms make the paper. Once I worked for what was then called an “alternative” newspaper, a weekly that was created with somewhat less than the extension of journalistic excellence in mind; indeed, the owner – who also owned the town’s slick and thick and superficial city magazine – came up with the idea of this new venture because he wanted an advertising venue for those businesses that couldn’t afford the rates in his flagship publication. In other words, this new newspaper came into being solely for the publisher to snag the dangling dollars of low-rent operations; we, the writers and editors, were to be, from the get-go, mere filler. It’s always that way – publications are, first, businesses – but it’s rarely so blatant; there is usually the pretext of providing readers with exciting reading. At any rate, the owner gathered a staff, and this staff – snookered into thinking that they would be able to do something good – wanted digs that reflected their idea of the enterprise: an alternative paper should be in alternative offices. We wanted a loft someplace, with (this was decades ago) old standard typewriters, bare floors, brick walls, crummy lighting and the feel of gritty, old-timey journalism squeezed through a Village Voice-y filter. The only thing we didn’t think of was a Jolly Roger flapping in the breeze outside the offices, but that’s the atmosphere we wanted to work in and the image we desired to project. Instead, the owner spent lots of money to lease fairly fashionable space and to decorate it with the most neutral, cool, patrician accoutrements one could imagine. The newspaper, unfortunately, came out the same, and died an ignominious death. Lesson: Newspapers take on their surroundings, like camouflaging animals. Not that art can’t be made anyplace, but sometimes a certain kind of art needs a certain kind of place. Our new place may turn out to be too nice for doing what we do; journalists can be seduced by anything, even a free meal, and, subliminally, the workspace can be a seducer and defuser of creativity. 

New owners of our paper have made all the usual noises about the future, and hope, and commitment, and hands-off integrity, and blah-blah. They have bought the product; they have inherited the plans for the move into the new, snazzier offices. We can’t stay here, in this big, long and barren room – it’s been sold out from under us by the previous owners – but, if the new owners had any sense, they’d keep us away from the new place, and find us some déclassé dump and let us thrive there. And we could pretend to be not the “information workers” we have been forced to become but honest to god newspaper people again, for as long as we have that privilege.

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Becoming a Word

At family events, when there was too much swirling activity and raised voices, too many bodies bumping up against each other in the kitchen, way too many kids spinning out of control, my grandmother would say, in her thick accent, that the roiling, rambunctious scene was a “kesselgarten.” Growing up, I always thought that this was either a Yiddish term of misty and indefinite origin, or another of those Yiddish/Russian/Ukraine/shtetl hybrid things that she often uttered, to the confusion of even her husband, who had been raised in the same part of the world but in the city, not the countryside. Then, sometime later, I learned that this word, “kesselgarten,” actually was derived from Castle Garden, the place in New York where immigrants disembarked in the United States before Ellis Island became that intake destination. So, the turmoil, emotions and energy of Castle Garden were boiled down to an essence and converted from a specific place to a generalized generic term, which in turn bestowed a newly applied placeness to whichever location it was now used to describe. Castle Garden, long forgotten, had become “kesselgarten,” a sort of portmanteau word with a life of its own. (In fact, “kesselgarten” must have already attained that separate status even by the time my grandmother emigrated here, because she never set foot in Castle Garden, having landed somewhere else. And, interestingly, there never was a word or phrase like this generated by the experience of being in Ellis Island.)

There are locations so full of placeness that they have become, over time, terms of specific meaning that are long divorced from connection with their geographical origin but which have retained, have even heightened, the inherent characteristic that made those locations memorable.

Consider: How often is the word “bedlam” used to describe a mass, unorganized, unruly gathering or celebration? How many know that the origin of this handy, weighted word  (perhaps overused by sportscasters to describe fan hysteria) comes from a place, Bedlam, once a notorious institution for the insane in London. The awful, palpable placeness of Bedlam not only overcame any link to its own origin – it is itself a corruption of Bethlehem, a much more benign association – but became a much-used, standalone noun and adjective.

Frankly, not too many other real places that have become lower-case descriptors come to mind – not in all the centuries that we humans have been giving names to locations and talking and writing about them. There’s Waterloo – Napoleon’s place of failure – that now is used to denote anyone’s downfall, but it’s hard to think of other such place-based incidents that have taken the same path. Watergate has not become a noun, verb or adjective, but the latter part of it – “gate” – is now attached by eager-to-pigeonhole media as a convenient suffix to instantly denote a scandal: Irangate, Bonusgate, Travelgate and so on. 

More often, but not all that more often, mythology is the source, but in the strangest of ways: People create a fictional place needed to exist to satisfy the needs of their belief system – Heaven and Hell and Eden, in the Judeo-Christian canon, for example, or Paradise – then, over time, that fabricated reality becomes a generalized noun or adjective, so that “heavenly” has little to do with Heaven, but rather with something very nice, and “hellish” can mean simply horrific, not directly related to the place that Satan is said to rule. Scylla and Charybdis, of Greek mythology, are the original “between a rock and a hard place,” but, again, there are not many other such places-become-words. Indeed, often it is an object in a place that takes on new lexicon life, not the place itself. Troy has no meaning beyond itself; Trojan horse does, though.

Why do some places become immortalized as dictionary entries and others not? Often, perhaps usually, the ones that do make it are places with extreme pleasurable or painful placeness – but Hiroshima has not, nor has Ground Zero, Gettysburg or Chernobyl. Killing Fields has, to some extent, but what others? This transmigration also seems to need a personalized aspect – the victims of Bedlam, the individual lost in Castle Garden – but, there, too, it is not widely applied. The most personalized place of universal and symbolic grief and myth, Calvary, has no application beyond its geographical existence. Obviously, there is no forcing of this sort of thing, no merchandising or packaging it, to make it so. It either happens or it doesn’t. Frankly, the why this/not that defies explanation, possibly even analysis.

What does seem clear, though, is that our current world is home to almost no places with undeniable placeness sufficient to become that part of our collective mythology or cultural ethos that demands inclusion into our language to explain what it is we are and do. We seem to live in places that do not reflect us, or us them; they are not places that tap into our souls or dreams, so that by their mere mention, in a kind of shorthand, we understand the world and each other more and better. It’s a paucity of language, it’s a bankruptcy of placeness, it’s a continuing sign of the decay of our ability to frame and tell stories and create meaningful conventions. When everything and everywhere is so accessible and commonplace and similar, nothing is colorful, nowhere signifies and metaphor dies.

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The Locked Room

In the subset of literature that, for no lack of you-pick-it labels, goes by “detective fiction” or “crime fiction” or “mystery novels” or a half-dozen others, one of the classic amuse-bouches is that of the locked-room story. Depending on which absolutist promontory you stand on – my foothold, quite securely, is on the peak of crime fiction / police procedural, leaning more to the American hard-boiled than the Christie drawing-room mechanical – the locked room is either the epitome of brilliant writing and detection, or a slippery trope of gimmickry and trickery. I kind of like them, the way I like any good, clever puzzle, although they are often devoid of real characters in their slavish concentration on a narrative that is less whodunit or whydunit than howdunit.

To explain: While a locked-room mystery needn’t involve a murder, it usually does, just to up the ante. The story usually goes like this: Someone is noticeably missing, or an apartment-building neighbor detects “that smell,” or a landlord can’t get into a rented room, or the door to the den in an ancestral blue-blood manse can’t be opened and the key is nowhere to be found and Lord Grosvenor hasn’t been seen since dinner, or the high-tech computerized keypad (with iris ID) can’t be activated because nobody knows the PIN number. In all these cases, the door is broken down and, alas, a body is found, slumped over a desk, or at the center of the floor, or someplace instantly discoverable. But here’s the hump: the room was locked from the inside, yet the culprit is not inside, and somehow got out – but how? There are no signs of forced entry, or exit. How does one commit a murder (and sometimes in exotic, arcane fashion) in a locked room – often trying to make it look like suicide? How’d the killer get in, then get out? And what is it about the scene – or absent from the scene – that solves the mystery? (I’ve just finished one, an early Martin Beck procedural by the excellent Scandinavian team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, titled, appropriately enough, The Locked Room, an airier-than-usual foray for the writers, more in an 87th Precinct vein, especially one of those Ed McBain corkers involving the Isola cops’ devilish Moriarty, the Deaf Man. The Beck locked-room story has a less baroque solution than most, but, as with most, is far-fetched; many are just brain-twizzlers stretched to 200 pages, and many of them cheat a little by not giving you a pertinent detail, or by basing it all on facts or motivations that are, essentially, unrealistic. Still, the Beck is the one that got me to thinking.)

What hit me this time around, in my reading, is that far beyond being just an entertainment form – a disposable diversion that we read quickly, are engaged and entertained by and then almost immediately forget  – it is clear that locked-room mysteries are, in fact, metaphors. Actually, that realization merits a “duh.” But, while some or most will see the metaphor as one of an existentialist expression of life, I see it, for the purposes of our explorations here, as a metaphor for placeness and art, and of art-making, and even of art criticism. For years now, I’ve thought of the act of creating, whether it be writing or fine arts or even performance, as a painting of oneself into a corner and then finding one’s way out (or not); it used to be that it was important to find the exit path without leaving footprints in the wet paint, but these days that is no longer a necessity: some of the best art leaves tell-tale tread marks, and gladly and purposely smooshes the perfectly coated surface, in attempts at modern or post-modern “transparency.”

But, really, isn’t being an artist a lot more like finding oneself in the placeness of a room locked from the inside, alone, committing the “crime,” keeping the culprit world outside, and, in a sense, waiting for the curious and interest-piqued “detectives” to break down the door and discover you and your work, and your stage-posed ingenuity? And doesn’t the locked-room describe the art lover, who enters that mysterious place and finds a scene that needs “solving,” that demands an understanding of not only its methods but its meaning? Is not art appreciation, on its highest level, standing in a now-unlocked room – one opened by you – and through not just looking but seeing, not just inventorying but empathizing, not just looking for the weapon but also both superficial and deep-rooted motives, finding the answer? The resonance of this placeness is both in the locking and the unlocking of a room we need to be in.

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Sense and Prejudice

Comes word that a scholar is pretty certain that she’s in possession of a contemporaneous portrait of Jane Austen, making it, apparently, only the second authenticated likeness of the writer, and compared to the grumpy-looking one that’s been knocking around for two centuries (there’s also one drawing with her back to us, but what good is that, exactly?), this is one that shows her seemingly confident and content. Still not exactly the girl you’d ask to the prom, but not one who would say no if you did, or glare at you, castratingly. There’s a bit of Elizabeth Bennet in this portrait; sad to say, also a bit of Tony Bennett.

What Austen looked like has been a topic of much interest among those who are interested in such things, a lot of Janeites among them. Was she pretty, but shy, and wrote out of unrequited crushes? Was she plain, but a dreamer? Was she, despite the biographical material, a painted-up girl who, between novels, liked to party hearty? Was she describing herself when she wrote about Miss Bennet? Was it an idealized version of herself? Or was it not her at all, physically – maybe she skewed closer to Lady Catherine de Bourgh on the Cute-o-Meter.

But who, besides academics and superficial fangirls, cares, really? There’s not a clue, except maybe the rumor of blindness, about what Homer may have looked like (if, in fact, there even was a historical Homer, one person who spun the Iliad and Odyssey tales). And the many “likenesses” of Shakespeare (another guy who is Existence Challenged) run the appearance spectrum between Johnny Depp and Clarabell.

Does anatomy determine destiny in the writing field? To a degree, it can – a true lack of physical beauty, coupled with a knowledge of it that cripples social intercourse, can lead  one to imprison oneself in a cloistered life in which writing is the escape/therapy. 

But, short of disinterment and forensic investigation, whether this current “portrait” of Jane Austen resembles Jane Austen is just a lot of twaddle. If you want to know, if you need to know, if you have even a smidgen of interest in knowing what Austen looked like, read her books. She’ll be in her characters, probably dispersed around, with a little bit of her in one character, a tad in another. But (and I can hear the Janeites keening on this one) don’t concentrate too much on the people in her books because, although they are the mechanisms that perform actions and have consequences and rewards bestowed on them because of their actions, they are a fairly similar and interchangeable lot living fairly similar plots, book to book. Rather, what Jane Austen looks like is in her places. More than in any other way in her writing does Austen reveal her true self, the most accurate reflection of her, than in her loving descriptions of the England she knew or imagined.

You want to know what Jane Austen looked like? She has the grandeur of Pemberley, the  warm plainness of the Bennet house, the unhappy harshness of Barton Cottage, the breathtaking sweep of Derbyshire and the Peak District, the classist Cinderella awkwardness created by being in Mansfield Park … you get the picture. Placeness as art, art in placeness, self-image as place.

What did Jane Austen look like? Just read. You’ll see her. And the portrait comes in a very nice frame.


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Place Settings

In pondering many of life’s unanswerables, the one that keeps goading me, keeps unsettling me is the one about being in the right place. There are so many variables about where one is and why: were you born there; did you find an employment that brought you there; is your family network close by or, intentionally, not; did you arrive by way of a breakdown or breakup and never left; did you connect with someone and stayed; were you on a quest and, partially or wholly satisfied, remained; were you proactive or did you go with the flow or was it merely inertia? And do you ever think about these things or is it just a given, like the way you look or the sun setting westward?

If so, did you build a life, a life that can sustain you for the rest of it? I mean, besides travel, are you completely content with your locale? Is it an easy, comfortable place to be, or a stimulating one, or is it intolerable? Or is it just here. And now. And that’s all there is. When it comes time to vacate this place, will you do so because of a desire for a particular climate, proximity to slot machines, low taxes, nearness of family, cultural benefits, medical facilities, or a beautiful environment; how about a like-minded community? Or will you be carried out in a box? Will you even have a choice?

It is a puzzle: should I stay or should I go? Can one place be suitable for a lifetime, for a person’s changing needs or desires? I remember my father, who was born, bred, schooled and wed, then fathered, worked, lived and died within about a three-mile radius. He did some traveling, but he told me that there was only one other place besides home that he would have ever considered living – Washington, DC. I found that peculiar, since to me it has felt like a static open-air museum, or mausoleum, with a dash of the kind of yawn-inducing ambience of a state capitol. I’ll grant that some of the architecture is prettier than the average state seat, but the oppressive, imposed grandeur and order is reminiscent of right-wing police states and L’Enfant’s design penchant for creating space for marching hoards. Well, my dad was Prussian/German. The weird thing was that, during his funeral, we caravanned from parlor to cemetery – a distance of 2.8 miles – and passed en route every touchstone of his life. It was a remarkable tribute. Not a planned one; it just so happened that living or dead, this was the road he traveled. It was a neat, nearly straight south-north line from cradle to grave.

I have had, up to this point, more of a zigzag approach. I have now lived about as long in one place not of my birth as I did in my hometown, with multiple stops in between, mostly back and forth in an east-west orientation. As I consider the future, should there be one, I wonder: Is this still the place for it? Could there be a better place to live that is more attuned to the person I am now as opposed to the person I was a quarter century ago? I am a firm believer in there being many lifetimes in a lifetime. What should the next one be? And where should it be?

For me, there has never been an option of returning to the source – it is from whence I came, not where I want to be. That would be like trying to relive the past, and a past is not what I seek. It is the moving forward that beckons. And, too, I can safely eliminate Washington as a possibility. But where? I have been to many compelling places, largely cities, but it is not the city life I am craving now. I look at rural areas, and there is beauty in the land, but it might be isolating and lonely. What’s left is a small town. I think I have often imagined living in a village but not one with a cannon in the center square and, similarly, not one where the sense of self is based on some event that happened three centuries ago – meaning that the town and its identity do not dwell in the past. History is fine, but not as a way of life.

So the quest is to find a place, one that others with equal values have found before and have sustained or built upon, sharing the same interest in moving forward and making the most of every day, being creative and celebrating individuality and a passion for life, as opposed to sleepwalking through it. Where is such a place?

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