This is the Place – Reflections on the attack at Manchester

I have been avoiding reading about the Manchester attack. I know when I’m too close to the edge to look over, and that’s the way I’ve been feeling since I heard about the tragic event. Today, I looked.

As the saying has it, there are eight million stories in the naked city. Manchester, this time, is that city.

One of those stories belongs to eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos, the youngest of the victims. She was caught in the blast after having become momentarily separated from her mother and sister, both of whom suffered shrapnel injuries.

Another one of the stories is that of Sorrell Leczkowski, 14 years old, who was with her mother and grandmother. She died. Mother and grandmother are still in hospital, recovering from their wounds.

Not all of the names have yet been released. But for each name, there are countless stories. None of them explain. They merely convey. Those who will survive this incident will recover, more or less, from their physical wounds. There is no recovery from the emotional wounds.

“A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.”
“The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.”

A parent who loses a child to illness, or accident, no matter the age of the child, is a changed parent. There is no returning, though there can be a moving on.

But a parent who loses a child, particularly a young child, to an act of atrocity, and worse – their child was there by their own permission or in fact in their very care – not only cannot return, but can never really regain possession or control. That which was stolen, remains stolen. The fault these parents will naturally assume, whether warranted or not – and here, clearly not – will never let them taste sweetness again without tasting bitterness. All the would-have-been-joyful moments to come will forever be tethered to darkness by the fact of the missing essential element: the child.

There is no justification for what happened. There is no explanation that can complete the puzzle of life for the people who were affected. And we have all been affected. The best we can perhaps hope for is to remember. Remember the path we were on. Remember why we were on it. Remember where we thought we were going. Remember who we were with.

For me, this memory is helped along by “This is the Place,” a poem by Tony Walsh, which he so forcefully read in the aftermath of such loss. I leave you with this thought, in the hope that it helps you to come to a better place, as it did me.

Tony Walsh reciting “This is the Place”Tony Walsh reciting 'This is the Place'

Icarus has fallen and Mrs. Ramsay has died.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Credit: Wikimedia)

A recent BBC article touched on something that I’ve always had a deep connection to: the background details, information, contexts, of our lives. Without knowing where, or when, or under what peculiar circumstances an action is occurring, it cannot deliver the full impact of its message to us. Quite often, in learning a single seemingly insignificant detail regarding a subject with which one may already have a high degree of familiarity, one can be transported to a wholly other understanding.

Alfred Hitchcock (or more correctly one of his cinematographers, Irmin Roberts) shocked us with his visual revelation of this in the dolly zoom (or vertigo effect) he used in a number of his films. By pulling the camera back, away from the subject, and at the same time zooming in on the subject, thereby keeping its size relatively constant, the background seems to come out of hiding, and suddenly dominates the scene. It changes the entire texture of the moment, from an isolated activity, to a part of a puzzle; from the general to the specific.

In the picture above, thought to be a copy rather than the original of Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the background detail of a pair of legs disappearing into the sea, could be all but lost, as we admire the painting’s other qualities of scene, light, movement, activity. But that detail, the fact that it is occurring even as we look on, comes as a bit of a shock to our daily lives, thrusting us into the life of the picture itself.

We all know the story. Daedalus, inventor, fashions a pair of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus, to escape from Crete, where they have been imprisoned by King Minos (something about Theseus, and the Minotaur, but that’s beside the point). Daedalus cautions Icarus to fly “at a middle height.” Too low, and the sea water with soften the wings. Too high, and the sun will melt them. Ahh, impetuous youth. Icarus gets carried away with himself, flies too high, the wings melt, and he plummets into the sea, to his death.

And in the painting, this has just happened! Nobody knew it was going to happen. No one was prepared for it. They were just doing what they always do. The ploughman, plowing. The shepherd, shepherding. The angler, angling. Ahh, but there, Icarus falls! In an instant, an ordinary day has become extraordinary.

In her 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf spends the entire first chapter of the book, by far the longest chapter, telling the story of the Ramsays, on a visit to their summer home in the Hebrides, mostly as it relates to Mrs. Ramsay. It’s a lovely story, exposing the details of peoples’ lives with the deft hand of a master.

The bridge between that visit and the next (in the world of the novel, at least), is a chapter of a mere 20 or so pages, titled, Time Passes. Within this already slender chapter, bracketed at the end of section III, almost as a footnote, is this:

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

That’s it. That’s how we learn that this woman whom we have gotten to know so well in the whole of everything we know about this family, has died, and we only learn of it, literally, in passing. The shock of reading that sentence in that way, in that part of the story, remains with me 40 years on, so far. An ordinary story of an ordinary family, became extraordinary in that moment.

All of these examples serve to reinforce the importance of what’s not talked about, what’s not planned, what’s not provided for, in determining our entire relationship with the things that actually happen in our daily existence. In today’s world, it could be argued that the background is often deliberately obscured by the current events made to swirl around in front of it, serving as a smokescreen, trying to keep us from noticing it. It is there, however, and it is an actor in the events transpiring center stage. Our ability to detect it, or not, may not in any way change the outcome of what actually happens in that particular moment. But in seeing it, in witnessing it, it may indeed have a profound impact on what happens for each of us, as we move off-screen, to enact our own next scenes.

New review of six-year-old song: Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek

Listening to a song on my iPod, not sure of some of the lyrics, I wanted to look them up online. Finding them, I also found some reviews. I felt many were missing the boat, not only of what this song was about, but what a song is about, or what a painting is about, or what any of these can be about. I hope you are provoked into thinking.

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Look at all the reviews. Well… maybe not all of them. There are a lot, over the years. So many people try to decide what Imogen Heap must be talking about in the lyrics to “Hide and Seek.” Are they right? Does it matter?

When an artist puts a work out there into the air, into the light, it owes its existence to her, or him; but it no longer belongs to them. If the song is a good one, it enjoys and appreciates that “birth,” and pays homage to its maker each time it is witnessed/seen/heard. But a true work of art is also born again inside of each person who discovers it, who feels it. What it means to each of us becomes important to the song, the painting, the poem. It is not just sitting there; it is doing something, for us. It – and we – are changing by having discovered each other. We discover the song, the painting, and it works hard to provide for us what we strive to find in it: our own thoughts, dreams, hopes. The art discovers an audience; and we, each of us, literally breathes new life into it.

A dead painting, no longer seen by anyone; a dead song heard by no one; have no sustaining life because no one could see themselves in them. But one that is alive is alive because it speaks to us in our own language. We get it… and so we have it. It lives for us, and through us.

This song. It means things to its author, for sure. It means different things to each person who gives their interpretation of what it means. The fact that there are so many different interpretations speaks to just how rich a gift the song really is.

On top of what the song “means,” there’s the music. I’m a musician; I honestly hear the music a hundred times before the words even reach my ears. And it is her music – the stunningly integrated whole of the concept, the execution, the melody, the harmony, the phrasing, the “effects”, the pacing, the timbre – that just wipes me out. It grips and it doesn’t let go.

There are not so many songs like that, at least not for me. A hundred, maybe two, out of all the thousands and thousands and thousands that I’ve heard.

So this song is more than a song; it’s a place that we’ve been to. It’s a place that we know, and a place that we both love and dread. It’s a real place, in our hearts, and beyond us. As the poet e. e. cummings put it, in his poem, “maggie and milly and molly and may”:

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone

That’s the place I mean. That’s where this song lives.

AT&T ad by BBDO agency rips off Christo and Jeanne Claude

Yadda yadda yadda. Yet another blog post that’s probably giving AT&T more press coverage than they could have dreamed of. But I have to believe that someday, somewhere, there will be a reckoning and, dammit, I want to have my say. Besides, ask BP at the moment whether it’s necessarily true that any publicity is good publicity. It ain’t necessarily so…

My case is simply this: first, Christo and Jeanne Claude were prominent artists. That means that their art is sufficiently well-known that any claim of a resemblance between BBDO’s use of the draping fabric over large objects and Christo and Jeanne Claude’s use of same being a mere coincidence would have to be rejected.

Second, Christo and Jeanne Claude were conceptual artists. Their art was not in the building of the stuff, but in the idea to do so. Their art, in rather lay, gouche terms, could be described as “draping or wrapping large things in fabric.” It’s what they completed in 20 publicly executed art projects, and what they conceived of in 38 or so more. So anyone doing something like draping or wrapping large buildings and monuments must necessarily be seen as at least “lifting” from Christo and Jeanne Claude.

There are two reasons why this is important. Christo and Jeanne Claude were fiercely independent with regard to the production of their art. They would never accept a sponsorship or any sort of payment for their art. The entire purpose of the AT&T ad is, on the other hand, to generate revenue. There’s a significant disconnect between Christo and Jeanne Claude’s art and BBDO’s craft.

Second, Jeanne Claude died less than a year ago. While no one ever accused the advertising industry of being “decent,” if they’re going to rip off someone’s idea like this, it would have been nicer, and somehow more understandable and appropriate as at least a nod, if not a tribute, to at least wait until the body was cold. The way they have done it here is really pretty despicable.

No disclaimer is really sufficient. It’s like presenting a bit of factual reportage as fiction by changing the names and saying “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” Disingenuous statements can generally be seen as such, at least by sufficiently educated observers. How this one will shake out remains to be seen. It is a pretty sad thing that Christo, if he were to choose to ardently fight this rip off of his work, would have to do so on his own now for the first time in over 50 years, when he is likely focused on other aspects of life.

That may be how AT&T ultimately gets away with it. This, more than anything else, makes me say to AT&T and BBDO: shame on you.