Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Around the Block

Sidewalks might seem an odd topic for an essay, but I find myself thinking about them a good deal as I walk the streets of my little city. I live in Providence, and like any old city, it is a layered place. In some neighborhoods the sidewalks shift mid-block, alternating between modern asphalt, depression-era concrete, and decorative brick. And then there is the cobblestone. The New World measures age differently than the rest, and here the cobblestone is ancient, a remnant from a world now remote and gone. We have no Roman roads or Neolithic monoliths in New England, but the cobblestone is a reminder that a different yet analogous society once functioned here.

There is a particular street, an alley by modern standards, which holds my imagination like almost no other in the city. It is tiny and hidden, just a lane connecting two side streets, but it contains centuries. As I write, its name escapes me, though I know exactly where to find it. The street is almost too old for sidewalks, but has a narrow, raised strip on either side. To my delight, it is paved entirely in cobblestone. Worn and cracked from endless years of foot, cart, hoof, and eventually auto traffic, it remains as a porthole to a past that is becoming increasingly obscured by less substantial things. If one stands at the end of this street and looks down, the sight is not that different from what a man or woman in the Eighteenth Century might have seen. The gulf of time and culture that separates me and my world from the Colonial Englishmen who once roamed my neighborhood is fairly large, but it’s somehow reassuring to know that before anyone had ever thought of “America” as a political entity, people were living and dying in this city, some in houses that are still occupied.

Before America had a highway system, or the world’s largest economy, or even a self-conscious political identity, it had cobblestone streets and horses, and a population that got around without the thought of automobiles, or even electricity. There is something special about a place that allows one to feel this in a tangible way. I cannot help but regard places like my little alley as treasures of a high order to be protected fiercely from the intruding forgetfulness of world that doesn’t want to know its own history.

The sidewalk is an endangered thing in car-crazy America. Entire subdivisions are sometimes built without them. Many people now live their lives without substantial use of their feet. The fact that this does not disturb us more than it does speaks volumes about our priorities. And yet sidewalks have a peculiar and important place in the world. Urban people live much of their lives on the sidewalk. Street performers make sidewalks their stage. The sidewalks of New York City are as busy as any highway; in fact you might say that sidewalks are a kind of human highway.

My own sidewalks may never be as well traveled as those of Manhattan, yet they have seen centuries of traffic and they reflect this sometimes beautifully, sometimes roughly as they carry me from block to block, through the city and around again to the place where I began. They are always waiting.

The Urban Luddite.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thoughts on Aging (or One-Third Life Crisis)

Is it normal for a basically young man to contemplate getting older? We are not supposed to think about aging until we are aged. That is, there is no hill until you are over it. And yet I think I have always imagined myself old as well as young. Barring an early death, I will one day be “old.” Oddly, it seems easier for me to imagine myself at seventy than to imagine myself at forty. Perhaps the clichés are more attractive. Old men can sometimes conjure images of grey-bearded wisdom and secret knowledge. One thinks of philosophers, prophets, wizards, and kung-fu masters. Middle age is often viewed as the un-romantic time of comfortable, pot-bellied respectability and unquestioned routine. One thinks of sit-com dads and office managers. All of this is, of course, nonsense, but nonsense has a way of asserting itself.

It seems that every generation has hopes of eternal youth, or at least youthfulness. We tell ourselves that we will be different somehow. We vow to avoid clichés of adult life such as careerism, boring practicality, and ill-fitting pants. Suddenly, we awake to find that we are homeowners, parents, bosses, and that our waistlines are growing slowly and inexorably outward in answer to some manifest destiny we were not told about. Somewhere, somehow, there is a shift.

When does being respectable become more important than being cool, and aren’t both of these things illusions anyway? There is a sense in which respectability is the “cool” of adult life. Like hipness, it cannot be grasped, but can really only be conferred by others. There are steps we must take, clothes we must wear, but we won’t know we are there until we get a nod or two from our peers. The terrible trick is that once you have mastered these things, it’s time to move on. Have you amassed the prefect indie-rock collection and assembled the most hip and exquisite thrift store wardrobe? That’s wonderful, but you’ll be needing a suit for that new job, and most of those bands will be forgotten in five years anyway. Likewise, at just the moment when you have become the most respectable, established, home-owning, salary-winning, secure lady or gent on the block, it dawns on you that there are much graver concerns ahead.

At the end of this aging process is death, both the starkest reality of our lives, and the one that we wish most not to contemplate. If a culture has no death narrative it must avoid imagining death, or at least create a new narrative. Our own culture is somewhere in the middle of this I think, toying with ideas involving “the circle of life” and the basic “greenness” of death (at least we’re biodegradable), and yet loath to relinquish theistically oriented ideas regarding the continuation of human conciseness after death.

Dylan Thomas once suggested that: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day;” and admonished his readers to, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Philip Larkin, another Twentieth Century poet, took a less romantic view of aging and death: “Why aren’t they screaming?” he asks of the very aged in The Old Fools, a poem that goes on to parody old age as a “hideous inverted childhood.” I suppose our response to human frailty and finitude really does depend upon what we believe happens to us in the end. As Larkin concludes in the poem, “We shall find out.”

The Urban Luddite

Sunday, October 18, 2009

An elegy for Gourmet Magazine.

Every once in a while we have the melancholy privilege to witness the vanishing of something beautiful from the world. I had only just received the most recent issue of Gourmet in the mail when I learned from my wife that the magazine would be folding after sixty-eight years. My first response was denial: “That’s not possible!” I said. “October just came in the mail. Are you sure?” Anger was quick to follow: “Damn those Conde’ Nast bastards!" Bargaining: “What if we take out a few gift subscriptions?” The fourth stage of grief is, of course, depression. This post is my attempt to get from depression to the final stage, acceptance.

If you were not a reader of Gourmet you might find this all a bit hyperbolic. Surely the world can go on without a food magazine? It will certainly go on, but not in quite the same way. Gourmet was unique. Sure, there were plenty of beautiful photographs, some famously so, of abundant produce and picturesque agricultural landscapes, but what raised this above the level of so-called “food porn” was the content. Gourmet was meant to read as well as ogled. The folks who worked for Gourmet were writers and journalists as well as foodies, and this was the great difference. A typical Gourmet article delved deep into the history and culture surrounding a particular cuisine or dish. In an hour or so, one could learn the story and lore of any number of places and come away with some spectacular recipes to boot. The end of Gourmet is, I think, a small symptom of a growing American discomfort with complexity. There is not much patience out there these days for detail. So what if you don’t care to explore the intricacies of Calabrian sausage-making from the Twelfth Century to the present? That’s fine, but what about the intricacies of American foreign policy? What about the intricate realities of trying to prop up governments in countries whose social structures go back to way before the Twelfth Century? It’s complicated. Who has the time?

There was always a copy of Gourmet lying around the kitchen or office of my family’s small restaurant. It was there, as a child, among the food and the clatter that I first picked up the habit of flipping through Gourmet’s glossy pages. It began with the magazine’s many images but did not end there. Good writing does not require an education so much as it is an education, and that is the great problem with our present cultural moment. We are being quietly and constantly warned away from things that are difficult. We are being told every day that thirty-minute meals and thirty-second sound bites are all we busy people have time for.

The 2005 film Good Night and Good Luck resurrected Edward R. Murrow as a founding hero of broadcast journalism and held up his integrity and refusal to pander to his audience as an archetype for the present day. The more recent film Julie and Julia, serves as a similar reminder that America’s food renaissance began in much the same vein. Julia Child and Edward R. Murrow represent an old-fashioned adherence to truth despite difficulty. They didn’t back down in the face of pig-intestines or McCarthyism. America loved Julia Child in much the same way that we love our favorite schoolteacher. She was good to us, but not necessarily easy. She made us work hard and never suggested that difficulty was a good reason to stay away from anything. Gourmet was a sort of Julia in print, never pandering to our ignorance, and always encouraging us to new heights of understanding. Like many good things it was temporary.

The Urban Luddite

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Luddite Welcomes you.

Welcome to the Urban Luddite’s first post ever. I should probably explain the blog title and say that that I don’t roam about, smashing i-phones and laptops. The blog itself would be impossible without technology of course. It has been pointed out to me however, by several friends and loved ones, that I have a somewhat shaky relationship with modernity, or whatever term you would like to slap on our never ending drive towards “progress.” It’s not a word that gets used so often these days and yet I would submit that the attitudes of our positivistic past have not really left us.

If you are the sort of person who feels just a bit ill every time you enter a box store, or who cringes at the armies of chain “restaurants” laying siege to what used to be the countryside, you may feel a touch of commonality with me and my hopefully not too grumpy dispatches.

Looking forward to future posts,

The Urban Luddite.