Tag Archives: iPad

The Bottom Line

We are slogging through the underbrush, the vines and weeds grabbing at our legs, sharp-edged bush branches snapping at our faces – think jungle movies you’ve seen, minus the machetes. The ground is crunchy in spots, spongy in others, and in places a swampy stretch meanders alongside us. The sky is vivid blue, and clear, made more so by the dark, penned-in area we find ourselves in. And it is quiet. In a forest, this quiet would not be so unusual – but we are, despite the wild, untouched nature all around us, right in the middle of a city. Ninety-nine percent of Philadelphians don’t know that where we are – under their feet, beneath their cars, almost entirely out of sight and lost in the veldt – even exists; and of the one-percent who do, 99.5 percent of them have never been where we are now walking: a canyon carved into the metropolis, nature taking back what the city-builders and titans of industry bulldozed away.

In New York City more than a decade ago, some visionaries noticed abandoned, elevated train tracks stretching north-south near the Hudson River – and, finding their way up to that level, saw that, left to the elements, the tracks and bridge structure were now a thriving meadow of native plants, shrubs and flowers. Today, after years of work and millions of dollars, the High Line has become a ribbon of accomplishment, a tourist magnet, an exotic and expanded pathway to and from work and play, and a blueprint for others who, in their home towns, have a rail relic with the potential for renewed greatness.

In Philadelphia, there are two. One is called the Reading Viaduct, a mile-long bridge of north-south track that once carried passengers to and from the Reading Railroad Company’s grand Center City terminal. There is a group trying to emulate the High Line there; at the moment, neighborhood politics – it runs through Chinatown, and some are not happy with the development prospects – are putting, at a minimum, a speed bump into the planning.

A less publicized, and at the moment more monumental, project is what has brought us into this urban Amazon. It is called, by its small group of hopefuls, Viaduct Greene, and what the Reading Viaduct is to rehabilitating old passenger tracks, this has its eye on a nearly four-mile swath of left-behind land that once funneled freight trains into town. Most of it is below street level, defined and contained by soaring old stone walls topped by delicate iron railings; the key proponents of the dream – Paul vanMeter and Liz Maillie – hope to take this “inconspicuous, intimate submersive space of mystery, wild excitements,” in their website’s words, and turn it into a nature path connecting the burgeoning Loft Area just north of downtown to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s cultural zone, and especially to the new Barnes Foundation building. The two envision numerous access and egress points along the way, leading to, perhaps, a boardwalk or grated walkway that would allow the walker or bicyclist to travel among the untouched greenery without disturbing it (or kicking up clouds of whatever has permeated the ground-surface over the years). The two also envision money from various deep pockets coming forward to make this a reality.

And now we are with vanMeter, as he leads us through this eerie and wondrous conduit, occasionally stopping us at a spot to show us, on his iPad, where exactly we are in relation to the “real world” above us, and what it all looked like back when where we are standing would have put us in danger of being hit by a locomotive. We push on, from the eastern end, emerging from the darkness of a tunnel underneath what is a parking garage into the improbable lushness of this ad hoc city wilderness. We are in another place from what we could even imagine experiencing – except when, from time to too-frequent time, we are yanked back into the reality of our location by piles of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, some tossed with uncaring abandon from cars passing along the overpasses above our heads, and some from the homeless (one who accosts us with the belligerence of a property owner who has caught poachers in his field) who have found this to be an area far more amenable (and, perhaps, safer) than steaming sidewalk grates and stairwells.

We plod on, like the sailors and film crew looking for the beast on Kong Island. We look up, but, in a bit of disconnect, it’s not mountains we see but office and condominium buildings, and the Community College of Philadelphia campus. And always, even as the sun hits us, and the leaves and branches caress us and whack at us, we are constantly aware of the monumental walls of giant cut-block stone, gray and still sooty after all these years, and not going anywhere. We are, in a way, cowed by these giants (in movie serials of the past, they would begin to move towards each other with an ominous rumble, threatening to squeeze us to bloody pulps at the episode’s cliffhanging ending), but in a way elevated by them – they have an emotional impact not so different from the great walls of cathedrals, or of the Pyramids: they seem prehistoric, the work of early humans in thrall to some ancient gods, and that once a year the sun aligns with the tunnel in some religious denotation of the Heavens’ power over us. Of course, the “early humans” in this scenario were underpaid immigrant laborers, the “ancient gods” were robber barons and railroad capitalists, and the streaming “sun” was the gravy train of good old American commerce. But, these days, that sort of financial strutting confidence does seem prehistoric. And we’ll take our resonant monumentality where we can find it.

We emerge, finally, after a six-block walk that takes well over an hour, into a parking lot and then up to the surface, where pedestrians and drivers tootle along, unaware of the amazing bit of natural placeness below their feet, just over the bridge railing, a place they note, if they note it at all, with minimal curiosity. Another amazing, endangered  Philadelphia treasure, that deserves the hard work and good intentions that vanMeter and Maillie are applying to it. But, whether they win or lose, whatever happens with their Viaduct Greene project, it is somehow comforting to know that it represents what will happen when all of us silly anthro-creatures bite the dust and nature has the last laugh, rolls up its sleeve and gets to work.

1 Comment

Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Life, Nature/Nurture, Philly-centric

Art: Being a Where

The current surgical separation of Netflix’s conjoined-twin business-model offerings – disk and streaming – has got me to thinking about how I partake of the arts these days, and why, for me, the joy of the experience has diminished.

It’s not my advanced age that’s at the heart of the problem, although there is a degree of been-there-done-that that makes so much of what’s new seem so referential, like merely familiar subsets of what’s old. And it’s not because music and movies are worse than they used to be – or not just because of that.

No, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that my dissatisfaction, even borderline alienation, has to do with placeness.

One aspect of this needs to be mentioned and, as it is not wholly central to things, dispensed with right off the bat. I used to dismiss as silly those recorded-music aficionados who felt that the reproduction on vinyl LPs was superior to the digital form. They claimed that, despite the cracks and pops and hisses that records are heir to, there was a “warmth” to them, a fidelity that was as true as it was “high,” and that the ones and zeroes of digital reproduction set down musical performance in a way that was chilly and superficial and, in terms of position, without anchor or referent. Lately, I’ve come around to the former way of thinking. Digital recordings provide tones and voices that are clear as a bell … but where is that bell, exactly? There is a scrubbed-clean sameness to much of the digital, but listening to vinyl you can actually feel the room in which the music was recorded; you perceive, through echo or a muffling or something, a locational aspect to the music-making – whether in studio, auditorium or  outdoor venue – that gives the listener a dimension of experience that an MP3 lacks: placeness, in a word, in the sense of feeling, even subliminally, that you are in that place with that performer. It is like what the sense of umami is to taste: an enhancer, a presence, that fills the empty spaces among the other components.

But, even more to the placeness point is the dwindling importance of the tangible and the environmental; in other words, the physical aspects. The portability, the ubiquity, the availability of digital files – on an iPod or iPad, via iTunes or other “stores” – is so enticing, such a leap forward in mass distribution … but, basically, I want to be able to hold a CD or DVD, I want to feel a paper book. I love the concept of “the cloud,” but I lack sufficient trust in anything I can’t touch, possess, collect – be with, look at, identify as “mine.” Yet more, I want to have a place where those paper books, or recorded movies, or captured performances reside, in toto and as separately selectable items; that is, a library, or a shelving unit, or a rack. I prefer my collections to have three dimensions, solidity and proximity. More than clicking on wheels or tapping on a touchscreen – both amazing technologies, don’t get me wrong – I want to look around me and see (and smell) my books, go to a wall and pull out the CD I want, open a door and check out my DVDs. I am no Luddite; in fact, I am an early adopter (I adopted early-adopting early); at the least, I am an early desirer. I see the benefits of the new (many if not most of them accruing to the manufacturers and distributors), but deep down I cling to the creature comforts, the humanness, the context – the placeness – of the old way. I want, as the overused Stein-ism goes, some there there.

And though I have marveled at the everywhereness of new technology since my first  Sony Walkman, what I need to satisfy my need for placeness is place, a specific place, where the recorded media are displayed for my enjoyment. The ability to carry a player and/or a screen with you wherever you go to distract you wherever you are is a miracle of leisure-time democratic principle. But, for me, listening to music via earplugs in a public place, or watching a movie on a small screen on a hurtling bus, is nothing more than boredom-busting. To truly appreciate, even revere, a work of art, one needs to see it in a place designed for it to be seen or heard. By that I don’t mean only concert halls or movie theaters, though those are the best placeness places for such things (if they weren’t doing their jobs, they wouldn’t have been around for so long), if you could eliminate the annoying people factor; but in addition to those arenas, I believe that one needs to designate a place – a special room, a special section of a room – that is set aside to listen to music in, or read a book by the light of. I believe that there ought to be, if one can swing it, a special room or area the sole use of which is to watch movies in, with, if possible, some other spot in which to watch television. Formality of venue imbues a recorded medium with a special status, a properness, a location that lets us receive it in the spirit in which it was given, grant it the respect it desires and occasionally deserves – not treat it as some casual afterthought on the walk to work but as worthy of our complete attention, in an environment that focuses that attention and rewards our participation.

I love the streaming offerings of Netflix, sent via Roku box to my TV screen. But I have no intention of having them replace my getting of disks, as well. I will push a remote-control button and watch a streamed movie – that will be entertainment; but I will also slip the white envelope out from the larger red Netflix (soon to be Qwikster) envelope, slide the gleaming disk from the sleeve, feel it in my hands, carry it over to the DVD player, have the player’s drawer slide out to receive the disk and then slide back in. And then have the fruits of my very human, tactile process come up on the screen, and let the placeness envelop me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Random

In the Gutter

Could there be anything, anywhere with more placeness, and artfulness, than a book? In the small amount of space that a book takes up in our hands and in front of our eyes there are worlds. It is both its own place and any place. And its placeness is multifold: It is not just those well-described universes created by writers and laid down in ink on a page – the intended placeness – but also those spinning galaxies of life and motivations that we invent in our own minds, that we bring to the reading experience from our own histories and backgrounds, in partnership with and reaction to those dark, squiggly symbols that are words and that we interpret into mental pictures. It is this self-imagined world – in which we can conjure up and “see” people we’ve never met, and buildings and towns we’ve never visited, even creatures and things that do not exist – that is at the heart of the magical placeness of the book.

But there is another, book-related placeness that, perhaps, is the most powerful, and personal, and evocative of all.

Let’s digress, momentarily – in order to make a soon-to-be-made point – to a discussion of the new iPad. It, like so many of the Jonathan Ive/ Steve Jobs/ Apple mechanisms, created not just a curiosity in us, or a mere desire, but a lust. (Or, rather, it has done so in one of us … the male one of us.) And not the least of which because of its ebook-reading capabilities. The iPad’s screen is bright and clear and can, in an instant, “become” any book, any word-built world, any brain we desire to see or meet or, like avatars, live in. And to bridge the gap between what we have had for centuries and what it offers, the iPad produces a brilliant simulacrum of the old-media reading experience. Turn the seductive, handheld device sideways, in landscape orientation (an appropriate descriptor for the viewing of worlds), and the screen “becomes” a book, with the familiarity of facing pages. What’s more, with just a horizontal swipe of a finger across the smooth glass screen, one can “turn a page,” the astonishing software emulating the comforting rhythm and flow we of all older generations have come to define as book reading. You can sit, and read, and flick pages, in a hammock, at a table, even under the covers, with a book that brings along its own flashlight.

It has everything a book has … except essential placeness. That is, it itself lacks so much of what makes a place a place, and a book a book. The slide of a finger across frictionless glass does not have the scratch, the catch, the warm roughness and stubbly caress of paper’s subtle resistance. One cannot slip one’s finger under a page and hold it there, in sweet anticipation of feverishly flipping it over to follow a tense story line. The iPad pages have no smell. They do not bend. They cannot tear. They will not age. It is not easy to jot down that “NO!” or “YES!!” next to a passage that inflames you or defines you, and you cannot discern the personal affront or happy agreement felt by the person or persons who read the book before you, because we cannot see their particular handwriting and underlining, confident or tentative, in pencil or ink, that tells us that real people have touched this page and been touched by it, and that now we are part of that continuum, that shared reading journey. In fact, with the iPad, there is no sense, no evidence, no mark indicating that anyone has read this before you: all books are new and hold no spiritual or physical residue of those who lived and read before us.

In the physical and, perhaps, metaphysical sense, a book is like a plot of land; an ebook is like the deed to it – with it you can find the land, and know it, but never feel the soil sift  through your fingers.All this, and more, about the iPad (and other similar electronic devices) we’re sure has been written. But when it comes to true placeness in the book-reading experience, where the real art lies – the art of the physical book, the vehicle per se, not the words or pictures on the page – we may find no better symbol of the difference between old and new than in the lowly, literally overlooked gutter.

Indeed, of all the components of a book – cover, page, words, illustrations – the most unduplicatable component outside the physical realm is the gutter: that gap, that valley between facing pages, the gully that swoops down to the binding, that chasm of process that allows a book to be a book. It is by the gutter that we can gauge our reading progress (as the sage said, to measure what we’ve lost). It is in the gutter where we slide our bookmark or slip in that ribbon that carries with it the memories of other gutters and others times, and of the circumstances that brought that ribbon into our lives. In the gutter of second-hand books and library books, we find the evidence, the detritus of others, and in our own books read again we bump into our own leavings: a hair with a color of bygone times or long-gone people, crumbs from the meal or snack we had in our first life with the book, receipts we thought we’d misplaced or thrown out – in that little chasm, that caesura, dwell so many of the wonders of reading and of being a reader.

If living is an art, then the gutter of a book – inimitable in an iPad, ebook world – is a strange, unexpected locus of the art of intellectual life. A book is more than just viewable words, organized. It is a place where we take things from and put things in, and leave ourselves in some way. It is like speech, in that it is the spaces between that can make all the difference. In the rush to “progress,” we are so worried about being left behind, of falling through the cracks. Sometimes, the cracks are where it’s at.

Leave a comment

Filed under Musings, Words Words Words