Wednesday, August 10, 2016

solidity in the liminal

“The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.”

~ George MacDonald, A Dish of Orts.


We are constantly reminded about the persistent certainty of change. This is a subject manifesting in such popular forms as our music and our aphorisms. All of that acknowledged wisdom still cannot completely convince us to count on the reliability of transition. A living human, body and soul, is in perpetual motion. As we live, we dwell upon moving surfaces. With a corner-of-the eye awareness, daily routines are repeated in a temporal context. The fluidity of time occurs to us when our continuities are disrupted. A building we always knew is torn down, a business we counted upon for years dissolves, people we long valued are suddenly absent, a protracted succession of work days or schooldays conclude. The passage of time bewilders and shocks. It’s as though time suddenly lurched forward, after a lengthy spell of stillness. But the hours and days have always been moving, all in the same increments. Yet there is ever an insistence upon solidity, upon predictability in the acknowledged provisional. The trick is to live a wise dynamic, even a comfortable one, in temporal conditions. The length and breadth of liminal space cannot be determined. Temporary can last a long time.


As technologies continue evolving, more conveniences and tabulations are connected to our tasks. The mundane and transitory aspects of communication, travel, and commerce become increasingly easier, as well as increasingly monitored and measured. Popular corporate culture obsesses about fickle figures known as metrics. Ease and access are as phenomenal as they are potentially impersonal. The universality of immediacy is really incredible, such that a few undercurrents counteract, by seeking to “unplug” the pace. Recently, on a Boston-bound train, I sat across the aisle from a passenger with two restless young children. Trying to calm down the squirmier among them, the woman spoke in impressively adult tones, “now you need to be patient.” The child replied with a memorable, “but I don’ waaaaanna be patient!” Who does? But we have to be.

If only the cherished could be held in place, and only the detriments be discarded. We would rather not view things and people we love as temporal. At the same time, we wince and want the things we dislike to go away fast- as in right now (this takes patience). All reside in the same time measurement, and unfortunately what we love is moving along and potentially away from us at the same rate as the unwelcome abiding of what we dislike. But then, we are each in motion, too. Evidently, I have something in common with the reluctant child on the train.

A fond memory recalls a simple, yet memorably savory meal I had when I was 17. It was in Paris, and I had spent a day on one of my many photographing ventures. Realizing how hungry I was, I looked for an appealing eatery that I could afford. Stumbling into a little cavern appropriately called Le Clos des Bernardins, I saw that I had just enough money for a salad. Well, the waiter brought me a wide plate that was richly adorned with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and vinaigrette on palm-like chicory greens arranged to point outward like sun rays. At the center of the salad was a warmed morsel of goat cheese. The colors, textures, and tastes were immediately striking, and I did all I could to eat civilly and slowly- albeit through tenacious hunger. I remember telling myself to savor this special food, and that I would momentarily stop to put down the silverware and look around the arched little dining room. I treasured every bite, and after gratefully paying the waiter what I had, I equally savored my slowed steps across the Latin Quarter. Even back then, I knew this was something to remember. What is purposed to last about a beautiful event cannot be the perishable ingredients, but rather the complete impression. Like flowers, a delectable meal is not meant to last.


Amidst the temporal, there abides a universal thirst for permanence. I strongly doubt there is anyone that doesn’t wish for something in life to last forever. It could be a beloved person, a situation or place, or a slice of time preserved only by memory. I remember my 13-year-old self at the end of the summer camp season, being very sad at the prospect of leaving many new friends, and returning to the bad old city. A bigger kid put an arm on my shoulder, trying to console me. He was probably a ripe old 15, and he said, “come on, good times don’t last forever.” In retrospect, that’s a rather grim pronouncement for an adolescent to utter to another. But it’s also an acknowledgment of impermanence. Summers do inevitably wind down. We begin school so that we can graduate. The optimist’s comprehension is that there will be more good times to follow, and it’s good to expect them.

Because of the work I’ve been doing for the better part of two decades, the word preservation is in my daily parlance. Archivists also want things to last forever. In my field, we use terms like permanence, longterm keeping, and conservation grade. We confer at length about best practices, formatted backups, and disaster preparedness. Of course, we must work to these ends; that is central to our professional stewardship and the common mission to preserve and provide access. We look ahead and we look back. Consider the historic materials and landmarks reaching us today from great spans of time ago. I type these words from atop the Boston Athenaeum, whose foundation dates back to the late 1600s. How will these places look, three centuries from now? Many of us, regardless of our work, have a personal awareness of preservation. The mindset says, “good things should last forever.” But we are striving to make things permanently endure in a temporal context. Our predecessors have passed their torches to us, and they may have also thought of the paradox of permanence in the provisional. We know that we do and see things that are momentary, but we proceed with a confident sense of preservation.


How can there be rootedness in temporal times and places? Ideally, it begins with a sturdy sense of daring and a powerful imagination. It demands faith, the evidence of things unseen. There is a popular biblical passage about the dogged and daunted life of Jeremiah the Prophet. Perhaps he had an inkling that his was among the lives that would be associated with metaphors. There have been many such individuals across the centuries. The ancient Jeremiah was enjoined to invest all his personal resources into the purchase of property in enemy territory which was embroiled in conflict. It was a volatile war zone. But he did it, despite his second thoughts, because what loomed even more powerfully was that he needed to buy that field and make it bloom. There was a holy calling that haunted his thoughts that he follow his vocation. The alternative would have been even more costly to him, and those who knew him. There had to be solidity in the liminal. We say that we make permanent decisions, and that we establish ourselves and our investments. But at the same time, many of us keenly know that we are digging into moving platforms. Perhaps what we must do, in order to maintain sanity, is to prosper between the temporal and the permanent. What is substantial, to the point of solidity, is our treatment of the transitory.

Monday, August 8, 2016

musical chairs

“Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!

With lips unbrighten'd, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.”

~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Work Without Hope.

“Musical Chairs” is an old-fashioned children’s social game which I recall from such occasions as birthday parties and indoor recess times in grammar school. A line of chairs would be situated at the center of a large room. There must be one chair fewer than the number of participants. A moderator would operate a music-playing device, and while the music played, the group would process around the chairs- moving along while carefully eyeing the shortened supply of seats. Without warning, the moderator suddenly stops the music, at which instant each person must seat themselves in one of the chairs. Inevitably one person is left unseated, causing them to leave the game. With each subsequent round, one chair gets removed, the music recommences, and with another surprise halt, the diminishing group scrambles for an incrementally shorter supply of seats. There are always too few chairs for one-too-many people, and thus the game of elimination continues, right down until there are two people and just one chair.

The dynamic gets interesting when the game pares down to something like five chairs for six people. Those precious, remaining seats receive an intensifying, hawkeyed, hovering treatment. With each turn around that diminished set of places, the sense of urgency increases. As the group of contenders decreases, always with one-too-few corresponding possibilities, the game becomes increasingly competitive. As a children’s game, we can say the ramifications are very low, of momentary note, and quite forgettable. Some of you might remember the schoolyard song that ends with “the cheese stands alone.” Well, “alone” lasted barely a minute, long enough to move on to another game. The “cheese” might later wind up hitting a home run, or scoring a goal. Such situations had no enduring memory, broadly speaking.

Schoolyard at my grammar school, P.S. 13, in New York City.
Below: Seeing the P.S. 13 schoolyard, as a visitor with adult's eyes.

Then there are those among us who remember in sharp detail. Whether beneficial or not, we are able to see metaphors in things as trivial as children’s games. In the thick of New York City, playgrounds and schoolyards are paved like streets and sidewalks; all were interchangeable and seamless to us. My friends and I invented games, or we imposed our own usable rules upon known popular street games. Assembling to play “ring-a-leevio,” which combines hide-and-seek and tag (and sometimes running bases), we’d start by setting geographic perimeters. We did with our odd mutations of baseball and football, too. What is acceptable, and what is out-of-bounds? We didn’t dislike the kids who couldn’t exceed at batting, fielding, running, or throwing; we didn’t like the kids who refused to play by the rules. We didn’t know many “grownup” words, but we had our own version of “inclusion.” Ramon’s little brother Jorge had to play with us, because he was Ramon’s brother. Luis was with us, because he lived on the same block. Madhavan was with us, because he was with us in school. Such things went without question, and well they should.

Corona, in New York City.
Below: Schoolyard at my junior high school, I.S. 61, in New York City.

Departing from those childhood instances of mutually-accepted rules, time revealed more of the rigid variety- implied in “musical chairs.” Particularly when there is no infraction of the rules (or laws, or etiquette), exclusion can be a terribly negative force. Turning aside the rose-colored glasses, the same kids that called “do-overs,” and would add a 4th strike to allow for a more interesting ballgame, were also among those who ostracized other kids. We naturally know how to shun and leave others out, and such adolescent behaviors that reach adulthood and middle age practice subtle and effective ways to accomplish their ends. Sending a fellow child to the sidelines looks quite direct and overt, compared to how adults blackball each other from behind closed doors. There is also a bullying dimension to neighborhood gentrification, especially as landlords imitate their lesser peers who gouge residents and squeeze them out of their homes. As with schoolyard, workplace, and political bullies, if they can get away with it, they will. But conscientious people do notice. What seems as elusively opaque as boardroom doors is an equally elusive notion of the downtrodden transcending exclusion.

As some are either content or resigned to be overlooked, many are not. The latter can echo Coleridge, in the quoted Work Without Hope, stupefied and mystified at exclusion from fulfilling a vocation. The amaranth flowers of his poem bloom for those who have successfully reached and taken their brass rings. These blossoms adorn that last seat and its fortunate occupant. Indeed, the plight of the job hunter continues the legacy of musical chairs. But the adversity is much more complex, and life sustenance is in play. The rules appear simple: an individual makes inquiries and represents their abilities and accomplishments, aspiring to be able to demonstrate their qualifications in person. Honest play for honest gain, or at least it should be so.

Alas, as it was during childhood, there are innocence-threatening realizations to be made. Of course there are exceptions; at least I continue to resist succumbing to cynicism. In too many instances, hiring procedures tend to be woefully rigged and disingenuous, amounting to one of the last bastions of permissible bigotry. Many of us naively face the job market with high hopes that blend together hard-earned degrees, gainful employment histories, achievements, and adventurous can-do pluck.

Below: From the abyss of automated online applications.

We bravely and dutifully endure demeaning online procedures. Some of these strangely demand typing in such things like the name of our junior high school. Succinctly worded résumés and crafted letters, targeted to the position, are absorbed into data-dissecting web applications along mazes of pigeonhole questionnaires. These reside in a cloudy culture that belongs to the virtual world of passively choosing from formulated lists and thumbnails, like shopping, social media, news, and even dating. But for the job hunter, the genres are oddly enmeshed. The perfect impression is sought, to draw attention. Applicants are challenged to be personal and specialized, yet the process is vague and uncommunicative. Often, rejection notices are eschewed; there is merely silence with the assumption that somebody else got the musical chair. On the other side of the virtual curtain, many a search committee will hand the coveted position to a crony- regardless of experience or credentials. Insiders play their own private version of musical chairs. After all, we dwell against a fear-based culture; unknowns are distrusted and prejudices remain unquestioned. And many of us are astonished at our own naivete and purist expectations. There are those who would rather not play games. Despite all of this, stouthearted searchers continue on. Somewhere out there is a chair that will not be whisked away.