Monday, July 31, 2006

Charlottesville: place or pseudo-place

I'm reading Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars by Paul Fussell. In a chapter that contrasts travel and tourism, Fussell says,

Tourist fantasies fructify best when tourists are set down not in places but in pseudo-places, passing through subordinate pseudo-places, like airports, on the way. Places are odd and call for interpretation. They are the venue of the traveler. Pseudo-places entice by their familiarity and call for instant recognition: “We have arrived.” Kermanshah, in Iran, is a place; the Costa del Sol is a pseudo-place, or Tourist Bubble, as anthropologists call it. The Algarve, in southern Portugal, is a prime pseudo-place, created largely by Temple Fielding, the American author of Fielding's Travel Guide to Europe. That book, first published in 1948, was to tourism what Baedeker was to travel. It did not, says John McPhee, “tell people what to see. It told them..what to spend, and where.” .... Because it's a city that has been constructed for the purpose of being recognized as a familiar image, Washington is a classic pseudo-place, resembling Disneyland in that as in other respects. One striking post-Second War phenomenon has been the transformation of numerous former small countries into pseudo-places or tourist commonwealths, whose function is simply to entice tourists and sell them things. This has happened remarkably fast. As recently as 1930, Alec Waugh could report that Martinique had no tourists because there was no accommodation for them. Now, Martinique would seem to be nothing but tourists...

I fear that Charlottesville is well on the way to becoming a pseudo-place, if it has not already become one. The Court Square beautification project—was that done for the benefit of city residents, or was it done for the benefit of tourists? The Downtown Mall--there was talk of removing newspaper machines from the Downtown Mall because, as I understood it, they make the mall look cluttered and ugly for the tourists. Never mind the needs of locals who just want to grab The Hook as they're walking past. It's not that I dislike tourists, and I can appreciate how the business they bring to town benefits us all, but Charlottesville is a city—albeit a microcity—with residents who need to pick up dry cleaning, shop for food or buy stamps, and I'd rather live in a city and not a living museum. I'm now reminded of my friends who live in Harper's Ferry, WV. Residents there are required to pick up their mail at the post office. Mailboxes are illegal. I asked my friend why and he commented dryly that, "mailboxes aren't historic."
And shouldn't we give tourists credit for some intelligence? Presumably they know that this is 2006 and not 1776. Is it necessary, for tourism's sake, to make Charlottesville conform as much as possible to the look of an era that has long past and will never return?
I hope I don't anger people by writing this--or sound too uninformed about local issues. It's just that I read that paragraph quoted above and could see in it an echo of C'ville.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Dubious distinction

Thanks to sitemeter, I learned that if you do a google search titled "Eyes sucked out with vacuum cleaner" this site is at the top of the list of what comes up.

Goodbye, cstone.net. I tried to stay with ntelos as our internet provider, but the portable broadband they offer was endlessly frustrating, and our request for DSL ended up in limbo for two months. We've switched to embarq DSL, and have had to give up being seamusb@cstone.net --our email addy since 1998—and join the crowd at earthlink. Once Cornerstone Networks was bought out by Ntelos, and “cstone.net” email servers dwindled away, I felt our address had a certain distinction—I imagined it as the internet equivalent of arriving on the Mayflower. Alas, nothing lasts forever.

Which reminds me of telephone exchanges. Have you ever wondered what your telephone exchange says about you? This is something I first contemplated when I was 10, and my family moved to an outer suburb of Buffalo, NY. Our new phone number started with '631'. The city and the closer-in suburbs, such as the one we moved from, all had exchanges starting with '8'--we had been '835'. I was the new girl in school, and exchanged phone numbers with another new girl whose exchange was also '631.' My cousin, who'd lived in that town for her entire life, had a phone number that started with '688.' Suddenly it seemed that all the cool kids had phone exchanges that started with 688 or 689, rather than 631 or 634. We 631s were parvenus: greenhorns of the world of cul-de-sacs and brand-new colonials. And so began my mini-obsession with the first three digits of one's phone number.

When I left home after college—fleeing Buffalo's suburbs for a studio apartment in the hip Colonial Circle neighborhood near the Elmwood stip on Buffalo's west side (photos included)—my phone exchange was '885.' Any phone number starting with '88' designated the desirable areas around Delaware, Elmwood, and Richmond Avenues, plus the lower west side and the arty Allentown neighborhood. 885 was OK, but I thought 881 was hipper. To me, '885' said, “recent emigre from the suburbs” and 881 showed a lifelong city dweller. Funnily enough, I actually met someone who shared my obsession. He was outraged by his '881' phone exchange and wanted '885' or '883'. He told me, “881 is a west side dirtbag who fixes his car in the street in front of his house.”

I lived in that neighborhood, in three different flats, for much of my adulthood before moving to Charlottesville. Shortly after getting married, we lived in Kenmore, NY (877) and then Kalamazoo, Michigan-- 383—but then returned to the west side and an 885 exchange.

As soon as we arrived in Charlottesville to look for a house, I recognized that the old-timey phone numbers all began with '295' or '296.' We were assigned a '984' exchange, which to me screamed, “just moved here from New York,” which we had. I've come to terms with 984, but I think I'll always miss cstone.net a little.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Couches again

My brother, after reading my couch entry, sent me this email:


Nice couch! Did you ever wonder how we came to call a cushioned pew a couch? I can't find it or Davenport in my etymological dictionary. It must come from the French Coucher, to lie down. Sofa? Sofa comes from Arabic or Turkish. A davenport is 'a large sofa.' Websters claims this usage is U.S. Only. In the UK a davenport is a small writing desk. A davenport table is a 'a narrow table with drawers, having drop leaves at both ends,placed in front of or behind a sofa. Also called sofa table.' Davenport would make a great name for the protagonist of a gothic novel. "Roger Davenport rode to hounds the day following his wife's suicide."
Hoping I've answered all unasked questions,
John

Does anyone know the origins of the word davenport? I suppose it isn't a huge leap from sofa table to the sofa itself. The only person I ever knew who actually used the word, referring to a couch, was my grandmother. And since I boldly displayed a picture of our shamefully shabby old couch, I now present the new Crabstick living room ensemble.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Book review

I started the devil wears prada, by Lauren Weisberger, and while reading the first chapter I decided that the writing wasn't so great, but it did have potential to amuse me. Chapter two got on my nerves. The protagonist, whatshername--Andrea--is just your typical small town girl, you know, Ivy League education, post-college tour of Europe, mad dash to exotic Asian locations. Mmm-hmm. She wants to break into magazine publishing and says,

Although I knew it was highly unlikely I'd get hired at The New Yorker directly out of school, I was determined to be writing for them before my fifth reunion. It was all I'd ever wanted to do, the only place I'd ever really wanted to work. I'd picked up a copy for the first time after I'd heard my parents discussing an article they'd just read and my mom had said, "It was so well written--you just don't read things like that anymore," and my father had agreed, "No doubt, it's the only smart thing being written today." I'd loved it. Loved the snappy reviews and the witty cartoons and the feeling of being admitted to a special, members-only club for readers. I'd read every issue for the past seven years and knew every section, every editor, every writer by heart.

Oh, come on! I think Weisberger imagined an audience of mouth-breathing yokels. Not recommended, although I think I may watch the movie (once it comes out on DVD.)

Now reading The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I'm only on page 95, so perhaps it's unfair to warn people away. The writing is better than Weisberger's and I love the premise: a guy who spontaneously travels through time because he is "chrono-impaired." Too bad the only time traveling we get to see are his visits to his wife, as he travels into the past and waits for her to grow up and marry him. Oh, and he visits himself as a child. Maybe it will get more interesting, but I doubt it, and this book suffers from the same middle class pretensions as the devil wears prada. Clare, the "time traveler's wife" is an artist. Naturally. Because wildly romatic adventures happen only to artists and never to bus drivers or nurses. She tells us that her sculptures are "about birds and longing." Whatever. Henry, the time traveler, in the Art Institute of Chicago, looking for someone to pickpocket, says,

I'm looking for easy marks, and just ahead of me is a perfect illustartion of the pickpocket's dream. Short, portly, sunburnt, he looks as though he's made a wrong turn from Wrigley Field in his baseball cap and polyester trousers with light blue short-sleeved button-down shirt. He's lecturing his mousy girlfriend on Vincent van Gogh.
"So he cuts his ear off and gives it to his girl--hey, how'd you like that for a present, hugh? An ear! Huh. So the put him in the loony bin..."
I have no qualms about this one.


Aw. Leave the poor prole alone. Are we supposed to be impressed that he takes advanatage of people who are less well educated than he? And on Henry's fifth birthday, his parents take him to the Field museum of natural history. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but in the context of this book, it was like having another mother at the playground say, "Oh, you took your kids to the zoo? We took little Henry to the Field museum. Now he's classifying every animal he sees with its Latin name."

I'm still fresh from reading Paul Fussell's Class, and find these ridiculous pretensions irritating. I have a feeling I'm going to stop reading this book soon as well.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Class

I'm now reading the book Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell. Absolutely fascinating, and sure to raise hackles. Fussell divides Americans into six classes:


Top-out-of-sight

Upper Class

Upper Middle

Middle

High Prole (Proletariat)

Mid Prole

Low Prole

Bottom-out-of-sight


Some of you are probably offended already. And really, this book does descend into the superficial and silly, as Fussell uses long lists of exterior markers to define the classes people belong to. According to him, even the flowers in your garden advertise your class:


Anyone imagining that just any sort of flowers can be presented in the front of a house without status jeopardy would be wrong. Upper-middle class flowers are rhododendrons, tiger lilies, amaryllis, columbine, clematis, and roses, except for bright-red ones.... prole flowers include anything too vividly red, like red tulips. Declassed also are phlox, zinnias, salvia, gladioli, begonias, fuchsias, and petunias. Members of the middle class will sometimes hope to mitigate the vulgarity of bright-red flowers by planting them in a rotting wheelbarrow or rowboat displayed on the front lawn, but seldom with success.


This book, while at times exasperating, has had me relating almost everything I do to what it says about social class. For example, we have been shopping for a new couch. First of all, “buying a couch” is a quintessentially middle class activity, especially if you do so at national chains or mail order like Pottery Barn. Stores like Rent-a-center serve the “proles.” The Upper and Top classes probably do not buy couches as such, but “discover” them at auctions, or else the same couch has been in the family since 1817. In fact, if the shabbiness of one's couch is a class status indicator, then I am the Queen of England:


So anyway, there we were at Better Living, with its “tasteful” “rooms.” The front of the store held the middle class couches—those that ape the style that might be seen in upper middle living rooms—although there was a surprising number of stiff little T-cushioned fussy plaid or floral couches that I thought went out of style in the 1980s. We wandered into the back of the store and I could see we were in the Proletariat room. All the couches had those big waterfall-like cushions such as you see on reclining chairs, and many came with built in cup holders. After considering the options available to us at Better Living, Grand's, Bassett Furniture Direct, Artful Lodger, and Under the Roof, we selected something called the “khaki classic” at Grand's. With matching love seat. To be delivered Thursday.


I know it's mass-produced crap—but when you have four children and two dogs, mass-produced crap is a sensible option. I know, the more sensitive person would buy a second-hand couch, but I have always furnished my house with hand-me-downs or items from Circa and Second Wind—even a few garbage picked things—and for once, I'd like some upholstery that will bear only the stains of my own family and not someone else's.

Who knew that buying a couch could be so intellectually intense?



Wednesday, July 12, 2006

No friend to Pennsylvania

Spent 11 hours in the car the other day, driving the whole family home from Manchester, NH. I95 through NYC is too horrible to be contemplated, so we selected a more western route, which has more miles but takes less time. It was a difficult trip due to the fact that the night before I skipped dinner, but foolishly drank two martinis and a glass of wine and stayed up well past 1:00am. Even worse, we had to drive through Pennsylvania. I'm sure Pennsylvania is home to many fine people, but driving through it is no fun. Surely it's the largest state on the east coast? It always takes way more hours than you think it should to cross it. Pennsylvania has the topography of rucked-up bedclothes and it's a massive barrier between me and anywhere I want to go. I've driven through every state on the east coast, plus much of the Midwest and as far west as Colorado, and Pennsylvania must have the biggest road sign budget of any state in this country. The interstate chatter is just annoying:

BE ALERT

TARGETED ENFORCEMENT AREA

HEAVY TRUCK TRAFFIC

BRIDGE MAY BE ICY

And my favorite--SAFETY CORRIDOR: FINES DOUBLED NEXT 8 MILES


Not only are we bombarded with safety warnings, but the signs you want to see are curiously useless. For example, it was years before the Pennsylvania DOT saw fit to inform travelers that I76 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike are one and the same. Never mind that most maps label it as I76, that motorists don't realize that what they really want is the “Penna” Turnpike—that inane abbreviation drives me batty-- and will drive miles past their exits because of mislabeling. That particular issue has been rectified, but let's turn to the issue of mile markers. On Pennsylvania's interstates, there will always be signs telling you how many miles to Ptymtuning, or Minersville, or Cochranton, but you will never be informed how many miles to where you want to go, which is always the state line. Because the minute you cross the border into PA, your children start the siren-like whining: “Are we STILL in Pennsylvania?” Example: driving on I79, there's a junction with I80, and what does the sign say? I80 West, Sharon and I80 East, Clarion. Never mind that westbound travelers might have it in mind to travel beyond the town of Sharon, PA. Perhaps Sharon is a lovely town—I couldn't even find Clarion on my map—but somehow I think it's the kind of place where they hold a parade when they finally get a Starbucks. All I'm asking is in addition to listing the little towns on these signs, perhaps mention a major city somewhat beyond, like they do in New York, where you get on I90 just east of Buffalo and are immediately informed the number of miles to Albany and NYC. At least the NYS Thruway Authority understands that most travelers are not heading for Pendleton or Medina.


And now we come to the chief reason that Pennsylvania is such a pain in the ass to traverse by car: that the interstates are designed to detour travelers through as many small towns as possible. Imagine getting onto I64 from I81, only being forced to drive through downtown Staunton. That's how it is at practically every interchange in Pennsylvania. The idea is to bring money into the towns because the parade of shopping malls and fast food restaurants will entice travelers to stop. In reality, people just want to get where they're going, and they're not going to stop at some fucking shopping mall in Cranberry or Breezewood.


On this trip, driving down I81 in Pennsylvania, we got off just to switch drivers. What should have been a thirty second pause turned into a ten minute waste of time because we discovered that there was no way to get back onto the highway. Instead, we had to follow signs directing us “to” I81 South, which took us in an annoying and pointless loop through the business district of what I think was Carlisle, PA. And when we finally got back onto the interstate, we were in one of those “Safety Corridors” because we were in—ooooo—Carlisle, PA, and you can't have people driving faster than 55mph through such a busy metropolis.


My apologies to Pennsylvanians, but driving through your state sucks.