Saturday, March 24, 2012

Epiphany in NYC

My Glass is Already Broken © Jean Stimmell 2012

“In swearing by what he saw, the author stands behind the notion 
that bearing witness, if only for a second, can alter one’s life...[i]

We traveled to the city in deep sadness to attend a Friday evening memorial service for a dear friend.  While I expected it to be a moving experience, I never expected to have an epiphany – but I did.

No doubt I was predisposed to have such an out-of-body experience grieving Josh’s death and reminiscing with his many friends at the memorial about how remarkable he was.  Looking back on it, the events that lead up to my revelation fit the definition of what Carl Jung called synchronicity which, according to him, occurs when separate events reveal an underlying pattern – beyond the realm of time and western scientific understanding.[ii]

My tale starts next morning after the memorial, waking up at our bed and breakfast to a splendid, warm and sunny, spring day. Reading the NYT’s Book Review with breakfast, I happened across an essay, Convergences, by Douglas Coupland about recent cultural shifts he attributed to the rise of the Internet.

 Coupland cited fashion as one example of such a change. It used to be that, as a society, most of us followed the fashion trend of the day, whether it was crew cuts or perms. But now, every style is in fashion at once – and continues to stay in fashion – from bald to hirsute, bare feet to high heels, formal to the absurd.

Another example of this new reality is what he considers a new genre of literature: novels that “cross history without being historical” and “span geography without changing psychic place;” novels that collapse time and space. According to Coupland, these convergences point to a major societal shift: “we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once – a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. [iii]

While I found Coupland’s observations about the nature of our new postmodern world interesting, I felt assured that I had fully digested his thoughts with my bagel and was done with the topic of “atemporality” for the day.

After breakfast, we set out on a walking tour to explore the Chelsea District of Manhattan before returning home. We soon found ourselves engulfed in a sea of art galleries. Out of 200 possible choices, we randomly entered the Gallerie Richard, featuring the Spanish artist, Dionisio Gonzalez, who constructs spatially and socially complex worlds that, according to the gallery, “challenge the histories of photography and architecture.”[iv]

From Dionisio Gonzalez’s current NYC exhibit:
 ‘Favela’ Photographs Reimagine at the Gallerie Richard
Using Photoshop, Gonzalez interweaves imaginary elements of modern and contemporary architecture into straight photographs of Brazilian shantytowns. The effect is both disturbing and disorienting.

I felt some unseen presence permeating my brain. What was it that felt so strange? Then it came to me: atemporality was rearing its head once again, a fact that was confirmed when I read the exhibit flyer: “These photographs are heavily processed accumulations of time and information, condensed seamlessly into a single moment.”

What are the chances, I mused, of going directly from reading Coupland’s essay on atemporality to becoming lost in Gonzalez’s shantytown collapse of time.

I found myself falling under Gonzalez’s sway as if hypnotized, moving from image to image, studying each intently as if in a trance. As I did, the hard crust of my mind – and all I thought I knew – softened like the earth after a gentle rain.  Feeling dizzy and needing a break, I headed up the nearby stairs to get some fresh air on the High Line.

The High Line, for those that don’t know, was originally built as an elevated railroad spur line to move freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district.  After the spur line was abandoned by the railroad, it was redesigned and planted as an aerial greenway, running from the Meatpacking district up through the neighborhood of Chelsea to the West Side Yard.
J. Stimmell: photos from the High Line 3/10/12
Stepping out onto the High Line, I had a brief moment of respite as I mingled with the ornamental grasses and flowering shrubs; that is, until I gazed out over the city and was stunned by what I saw: rather than relief for my overstressed brain, I discovered an uncanny recapitulation in brick and mortar of what Dionisio Gonzalez had created on his computer screen:
J. Stimmell: photos from the High Line 3/10/12
A profusion of atemporality in real time: warehouses, factories, row houses and tenements in different stages of decay, like strata from an archeology dig of NYC’s storied past, all in the process of being overwritten by space age buildings of stainless steel, asymmetrical geometric shapes, or draped facades like a Christo sculpture.[v]

J. Stimmell: photos from the High Line 3/10/12
The further I walked down the High Line, the more disoriented I became. Feeling like I was being sucked into an alternative universe, I escaped the Hi Line down the next stairway. This is crazy making, I thought.  I’ve had enough postmodernity for one day.
J. Stimmell: photos from the High Line 3/10/12
Spotting the old landmark diner at 10th Avenue and 22nd Street, I sought refuge inside, hoping to step back into a more traditional time and place.  Instead, I found to my dismay that it had been transformed into a crowded, hip food joint, vibrating with myriad conversations and blaring music so loud, I lost all ability to concentrate, even to remember my name. 

Something snapped. This final assault on my normal, everyday reality was too much!
Time slowed down.  The frenzied clatter of the diner faded away. Suddenly I was gone.

Like a thunderclap under a clear blue sky, I was jolted beyond all time and space by a sudden Satori-like moment.  Mesmerized by a kaleidoscope of reflections competing with reality through the diner window, I became transfixed by an old man who was clearly me, very feeble but serene, looking out of place in the fast-paced bustle, trusting his caregiver to guide him expertly into a beat-up Honda, shoehorned between an Audi Quattro and a Cadillac Escalade. Then the caregiver got in and slowly drove away until I disappeared up 22nd street.

I shook my head. What was happening to me? I knew that, according to Jung, the universal archetypes we all carry in our collective unconscious have no sense of time.  Could it be that being subjected to this succession of atemporal earthquakes had triggered a tsunami wave that demolished my cozy linear world of modernity, freeing my unconscious mind to surge into my waking life, melding past and future as one in the present moment?

While some might call my experience a psychotic break, I choose to imagine Josh was communicating with me from another dimension, revealing his secret on how to live life to the fullest.

In this brief moment of enlightenment, Josh was teaching me the true meaning of impermanence, the same lesson taught in the classic Buddhist teaching story where the master says:

 “‘Someone gave me this glass, and I really like it. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.’”[vi]

So it is with me. Thanks to Josh I now see clearly that my glass is already broken, so I am going to enjoy it incredibly. 

XXX (1283 words)

[i]Jennifer Wallace, (The Mastery of Non-Mastery, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3/30/12) comments on anthropologist, Michael Taussig’s methodology in his new book, I Swear I saw this.
[ii] The concept of synchronicity was a big deal to Jung, providing persuasive evidence to support his belief that all of us share a common, collective unconscious that underlies our entire human history.  Synchronicity, Carl Jung (1952)
[iii] Convergences, Douglas Coupland. NYT Book Review, 3/11/12. Page 1
[v] To see my photographs of this unusual melting pot of architecture, go to:

[vi]  Achaan Chah Subato, Thai Buddhist Master

Monday, March 5, 2012

Reflections on Bad Apples

Thinner than Ever!   Reflections on the Merrimack 3/2/12*
I have been a avid user of Apple products since the 1980s, but it wasn't until I was thumbing through one of my favorite magazines, Adbusters, and saw the caption, Thinner an ever, over an image of a starving child being handed an iPad that I had a sudden awakening: An "aha moment" that turned my stomach into a knot.

I was blinded by my love affair with Apple until Adbusters came to the rescue, lifting the corporate veil from my eyes. Now that I am awake, I will never think of Apple – or any of their high tech brethrens –  in the same way again.

Addendrum: 4/2/12: There is always a chance, as an article in today's New York Times suggests, that Apple will take up this challenge and "address its ethical and environmental responsibilities with such verve and rigor that it will emerge as [a role model on a higher plane and] "seize the opportunity, as Nike did when faced with a similar situation. After all, if Apple is to thrive in the post-Jobs era, it has to evolve. Noble though raising standards of sustainable design sounds, doing so requires a long, arduous logistical slog, though that happens to be just the type of challenge at which Apple’s new chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, excels."

We can only hope.

* I made this collage in photoshop by combining the Adbuster image with my own photograph of the Merrimack River in Concord.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Craftsmanship and the Consumer

This photo along with a version of the essay below was published in the Concord Monitor 3/3/12

Walking the dog along the drab banks of the Merrimack, I could hardly miss a garishly colored Nike sneaker, bumping aimlessly against the shore, apparently abandoned in the prime of life by its owner.

How different the fate of this forgotten sneaker, I mused, from another sneaker of the same name, touted in a recent Concord Monitor headline: Nike Sneakers Causes Frenzy. According to the article, large crowds of sneaker fanatics lined up outside stores overnight to get first crack at Nike’s new $220 outer-space themed basketball shoe, getting so unruly in some cities that police had to be called to restore order.

Experts have advanced many theories to explain this conundrum: the extreme difference in in how we value these two seemingly similar items: the brand spanking new sneaker versus the almost – but not quite – new one.

This disparity, as we all know, goes far beyond sneakers: sadly it is the norm for much of the mass produced products that line our store shelves.

I recently read a quote by sociologist Richard Sennett that gave me personal insight into this perplexing situation: The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. 1

Sennett’s observation rings true to my own lived experience, watching craftsmanship decline over the last 66 years.  And this decline, it should be noted, is not just on the side of the producer!

When I was a young man, what Sennett says about the craftsperson was also true for the consumer. I remember the pride I took in making what, at that time, was a big investment: buying new all-leather work boots.

As opposed to today’s orgasm of marketing hype, my purchase was less about falling in love with the ultimate object of my desire and more like entering an arranged marriage.

Because it was a big investment, I wanted to be kind to my boots and treat them well. By working hard to build a good relationship, my affection for them grew stronger over time.

Although my boots collected scuffs and scars from the travails of everyday life, I saw them as beauty marks, not blemishes. Maintaining the relationship was what counted: massaging them with Huberd’s Shoe Grease or neatsfoot oil to keep the leather conditioned and supple, while, at the same time, coaxing the leather to ever more perfectly form to my feet.

No need to watch the ads for the best deals to buy new, just rare trips to see Joe at United Shoe Repair for new soles or, perhaps, a little cosmetic surgery.  When my boots finally did grow old, wear out, and die, I felt genuine loss as one does when any close relationship ends.

How different it is today.

In the throwaway society of today, most shoe repair shops have disappeared. We are so lucky that United Shoe Repair, a Concord institution on Main Street since 1909, has managed to survive.  In fact, Pete, third generation cobbler in his family business, says that, beyond just surviving, he has seen a recent increase in business.

Is this a sign that the tide has turned?

Certainly, more of us each day are realizing we have responsibilities beyond being just a mindless consumer: that we have a higher responsibility to buy local in order to benefit our neighbors and keep our hard earned money within our community and a higher responsibility to work toward sustainability for the sake of a sane economy and a livable earth.

Hopefully, a new day is dawning where we can look forward to the Merrimack being home again to ospreys and eagles, not abandoned, neon-colored sneakers.


1  Sennett’s quote comes, from what is in my opinion, a paradigm changing book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work by Matthew B. Crawford. Mr. Crawford has a Ph.D. in philosophy but earns his living as a motorcycle mechanic.