January 2006


Whereas my students are presumably counting the days until Spring Break, I must admit that I’m counting the days until Target opens in March. I’m more than a bit conflicted over my paradoxical fondness for Big Red: after all, Target is just another big-box store: a category killer in direct competition with the independent ma and pa stores that give downtown Keene its flavor and charm.

Target is merely the latest in a string of big-name stores and restaurants debuting in Keene’s Monadnock Marketplace: a shopping strip on the outskirts of town that boasts, among other things, a Borders bookstore and a 24-hour supermarket. Although I know I should consistently shop at the independent bookseller within walking distance from my house, it’s often easier to find things at Borders: they more reliably stock the books I want, so if I want it now, I hop in the car. The same is true with grocery shopping: although I live within walking distance from a small health food store, their selection of produce is small and, I’ve found, unreliable. So when I need to buy groceries, I start up the gas-guzzler and head toward the outskirts of town, my own tree-hugging, earthy-crunchy sympathies be damned.

The Monadnock Marketplace used to be a large soggy field; in a comment on my post about that 24-hour supermarket, Kathleen remarked how at least one of the buildings there is already starting to sink into the poorly filled wetlands it was built upon. In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau explains how he prefers a wooded swamp to any of the landscapes that civilization has “improved,” for in his estimation “most all man�s improvements, so called, as the building of houses, and the cutting down of the forest, and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.” A swamp is more valuable that prime real estate, Thoreau suggests, because it can’t be commodified, only appreciated with a poet with an eye toward beauty instead of the Bottom Line.

Filling a wetland so that folks like me can buy inexpensive, attractive homegoods (or simply walk about taking reflective photos) is almost certainly a deformation of the landscape…but if developers were going to build things anyway, I’m glad at least one or two of Keene’s new stores are ones I like. For good or ill, I like filling my apartment with inexpensive, attractive things: although Thoreau got away with having only three chairs, a desk, and a bed in his cabin at Walden Pond, I can’t wait to go to Target and buy a new toaster.

At the end of the day, I guess I’m more Whitmanian than Thoreauvian, being able to agree full-heartedly with the former when he admitted to his own contradictions: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” I know I should be content to hug trees and nibble homegrown granola, but instead, I’m itching to browse the dollar bins at Target…and there’s no stopping that.

Shopping at Trader Joe's

My replacement pencam arrived last week, so on Saturday night I took it on its maiden voyage at Trader Joe’s in Tyngsboro, MA, right across the border from New Hampshire. Normally I wouldn’t think a grocery store on a Saturday night would be a happening place, but the store was packed…and among the various surreptitious shots I snapped while gathering a handbasket of edibles, this blind pencam shot is my favorite, posing as it does an “Indian spices” sign right over the head of a savvy, label-inspecting shopper. Yes, the food isn’t the only thing that’s tasty at TJ’s on a Saturday night; the images there are something to savor as well.

Reflective image

To give another perspective on yesterday’s post about the controversy over Cool Jewels’ multi-colored storefront, here’s a reflective shot showing the colorful facade of Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant, which no one is complaining about, reflected in the colorful shop window of Cool Jewels across the street. Yes, that’s Yours Truly with funky faux-fur hat and loyal dog at heel: if you click on the image for a larger version, you can get a better look at the colorful wares the store sells.

You’ve seen this picture before, in late December, a couple weeks after I’d posted reflective pictures taken inside Cool Jewels on Main Street here in Keene. Several days ago, when Keene was crawling with odd photographers, I mentioned seeing a newspaper photographer taking a picture of this same awning, another angle upon which you can see here. Reggie and I literally stepped around that photographer; in fact, I almost snapped an image of him doing his job, but I stopped when I recognized him as Sentinel staffer Michael Moore (no, not that Michael Moore), a photographer who had taken my picture last September. Even a digicam-wielding place-blogger has scruples, and I’ve no desire to peeve the local press. We might cover the same beat, the Mainstream Media and I, but we each have our own approach and perspective, and I respect that.

Moore’s photo of Cool Jewels’ colorful facade appeared above the frontpage fold of yesterday’s Sentinel along with an article by Peter J. Cleary, who I assume was the person I saw standing with open notebook alongside Moore as Reggie and I skirted the scene. (I’d link to the article in question, but the Sentinel‘s online archives are available to subscribers only.) It seems there’s some debate over whether Cool Jewels’ funky facade fits the historic ambience of downtown Keene, a question of particular importance now that newly erected signs mark the boundaries of her historic district.

Although these new signs are both eye-catching and lovely, Keene doesn’t need signs proclaiming the beauty of her downtown, a fact that is apparent to anyone walking Main Street (or anyone spending any time browsing Hoarded Ordinaries, for that matter). As I’ve blogged before, none other than Henry David Thoreau remarked on the beauty of Keene’s Main Street when he passed through on an 1850 trip to Canada. Part of what gives downtown Keene her particular charm–part of what keeps visitors coming back to town and readers returning to Hoarded Ordinaries–is the fact that downtown shops and businesses have for the most part preserved the brick and mortar integrity of Keene’s vintage buildings.

But. Right across Main Street from Cool Jewel’s eye-popping purple, orange, and turquoise storefront stands Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant, whose equally colorful facade graces the childhood home of Thoreau’s mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. In the several years I’ve lived in Keene, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the decidedly non-Thoreauvian color scheme of Thoreau’s mother’s house…but I’ll assume Margarita’s decor probably raised an eyebrow or two (to borrow the imagery of yesterday’s Sentinel headline) in the restaurant’s early days.

For good or ill, Thoreau’s mother’s house isn’t a museum, and neither are the other buildings in Keene’s so-called historic district. If Cool Jewels stood in rainbow glory right next to Keene’s crown jewel, the pristinely white Congregational church at the head of Central Square, I could understand the hoopla. But Cool Jewels has a Chinese restaurant on one side and Armadillos Burritos on the other. Even in the heart of Keene’s historic district, there is a strip of ethnic eateries and more than one funky boutique that already belie the 19th century aura of the place. I fail to see how a flashy (and to my eye, attractive) paint job is going to irrevocably damage the aesthetics of downtown.

Neither Thoreau nor his mother would know what to make of our “historic district” if they could walk Keene’s Main Street today. Not only would Thoreau and his mother be mystified by the abundance of automobiles, cell phones, and other newfangled gadgets, neither one of them would have ever seen much less patronized a Chinese or Mexican restaurant. I’d like to think that Mrs. Thoreau would have oohed and ahhed over Cool Jewels’ colorful inventory of Mexican, Balinese, and Indonesian wares, but the 19th century that Thoreau and his mother grew up in (and which Keene’s historic district presumably celebrates) was sadly not the most enlightened of times. Although Thoreau decried the Mexican War because it wrested land from indigenous people, his published remarks about Irish immigrants in Concord, MA show that he wasn’t immune to his culture’s prejudices: a product of his time. The face of America is much more diverse than it was in Thoreau’s or Thoreau’s mother’s day, so I don’t see why downtown facades shouldn’t reflect the various hues of Keene’s local color. As much as I love the sight of bare weathered brick against blue sky, I am equally cheered by the flurry of color that all of our downtown businesses lend to grateful eyes.

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Vanity, so I thought I’d revisit an image you’ve seen before.

Vanity is an interesting word since it has several meanings. When I heard today’s Photo Friday topic, I immediately thought of vanity in the sense of personal conceit: a self-obsessed person primping in front of a mirror. And although I’ve posted plenty of pictures of me reflected if not primping in mirrors, I automatically associated the conceited sense of “vanity” with shop window mannequins, objects designed to trigger our own sense of style and self-obsession (“Why can’t I look like that?”) Most of the shop-window mannequins I repeatedly photograph here in Keene are headless, an apt visual metaphor for the way vain self-absorption makes us figuratively lose our heads, striving to become a pretty body even if there’s no accompanying brain attached.

But then there’s the sense of “vanity” invoked by the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, my favorite. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher…all is vanity.” Old Quoholeth wasn’t preaching against conceited frivolity; old Quoholeth was pointing (in the most Buddhist of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures) to the empty impermanence of all created things, their existence doomed to pass. What’s more vain in this sense of the word than a photo of a headless bridal mannequin, her splendid finery pointing not only to lasting love but to the eventual inevitability of “death do us part.” Looking at that first picture, which do you see as more solid: the mannequin in her wedding dress or the building reflected from across the street? Lace or brick, the Preacher would say they each are equally vain, each merely a physical facade masquerading as abiding presence. Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Shop windows, gleaming goods, and the buildings that contain them are all destined to pass, preserved only in the shutter-snap of memory.

    If my juxtaposition of a gorgeous wedding dress and the grim realities of Ecclesiastes seem too dark, keep in mind that I snapped that first picture last September 11th, my parents’ 51st wedding anniversary and a date that we now naturally associate with the fragility of human existence.

St Bernard's Parish

When we walk downtown, Reggie and I often pass St. Bernard Parish, crossing Main Street at the traffic light between church and Post Office. Today, the noontime bells were tolling at the precise moment we stopped to wait for Walk.

When I first moved to Keene, I pronounced St. Bernard like the dog: Bur-NARD. I’ve since learned that the preferred local pronunciation for this parish is Saint BUR-nerd.

If this were an audio-blog, I’d share the sound of the noontime bells tolling and the proper pronunciation of this church’s name. Instead, you’ll have to close your eyes and imagine for yourself: can you hear it?

Dave said it first. “Nobody goes out walking anymore, except for dog owners and the odd photographer.”

Dave linked to me as a dog owner…but he just as well could have tagged me as an odd photographer. Who else walks her town with dog leash in one hand and camera in the other, wandering (and photographing) in the midst of Monday’s snowstorm while saner folk stayed inside or at home?

Who else but an odd photographer would consider a shot of a white No Parking sign against a snow-rimed birch to be photogenic, or a glimpse of a white, snow-topped car abandoned in front of a falling-down No Loitering sign? These scenes at best are accidents of chance, the sort of thing most folks tune out as they bustle to and from work or hurry the dog to be about his business, already. On Monday in the midst of a snowstorm, everything was wrong for photography: low light, low temperatures, no color, and the persistent problem of precipitation. After wrecking my pencam in a rainstorm, what the heck am I doing potentially damaging my digicam in a blizzard?

What the heck am I doing? Nothing but Business As Usual: the same old stuff I do most every day.

On Monday I told myself no pictures, just a dog-walk like normal people take: me, the dog, and the journey There and Back as quickly as possible. But even when I vow not to take pictures–even when I’m Not Officially Looking for images–I see them everywhere: there a hanging sign, here the sight of snow on an awning. Perhaps I’m not so much an odd photographer as an addicted one, because I’ve tried to give it up but can’t. I’m sure it’s possible to walk through downtown Keene without snapping a handful of pictures along the way, but I can’t remember the last time I pulled it off.

Yesterday I ran into an acquaintance while a group of strangers asked the oft-repeated question, “What kind of dog is that?” (If you’re asking, Reggie is part chow, part German shepherd.) S remarked how she’d recently dog-sat a friend’s poodle, and I recalled how I’d seen her walking the pup in question. “It took such discipline,” S noted. “I had to walk everyday.” I nodded but wondered internally who I really walk for: a dog who needs exercise, or a blog that needs a steady diet of images?

As it turns out, I might not be as odd as I thought…either that, or oddity is rampant here in Keene. On Monday, which wasn’t a fit day for man or beast, I saw not one but two other photographers out snapping unusual images. The first (at left) was shooting upwards into a snow-limned tree, and the second (below) was snapping her reflection in a shop window. Up until Monday, I thought I was the only person in or around Keene who took such odd pictures; although southern New Hampshire attracts more than her fair share of shutter-snapping photographers, usually these photogs limit themselves to the usual photogenic scenes: the church spire in Central Square, oodles of pumpkins in October, or the splendor of New England fall foliage.

Given the youthful demeanor of both of Monday’s backpack-toting photogs, I’m guessing they’re taking a photography class that forced their weather-defiant fieldwork…either that, or snapping pictures on the way to or from school is the next big thing. Yesterday on my way to teach an afternoon class, I walked (without dog, with camera-laden bag) behind two college guys on their way to campus. One carried a camera around his neck, and the second waited patiently while the first composed and snapped a shot of a Beware of Dog sign. Seemingly overnight, photography is something everyone is doing, and the odder the shot, the better.

Just this afternoon, in fact, I saw a photographer from the local paper standing, camera in hand, in front of Cool Jewels, looking up at the multi-colored awning I first blogged in December. Have even the Mainstream Media been bitten by the Odd Photography bug? Maybe I’ve started a growing trend with my local photo-bloggery. Let’s hear it, everyone, for our rallying battlecry: We’re here, we’re odd, get used to it.

Yesterday was snowy and today sunny…and somehow the combination of sun on snow always makes me look up.

…a couple of days make. On Friday, while A (not her real initial) and I were walking off potato pancakes in Brookline, MA, here in Keene the last of our snow was melting…in January. The standing joke in New Hampshire is that you say goodbye to your lawn in October or November, then you see it again emerging from the snows in, oh, May. This year, though, has been an anomaly, with several stints of mild weather that have melted nearly all of our snow cover, leaving nothing but scattered piles of plow-pushed snow along roads. Last week’s warm snow-melting temperatures are so unusual, the local paper published a front-page picture of a man standing outside in a light jacket painting the snow-devoid landscape around Mount Monadnock, the accompanying caption asking, “Where’s winter?”

Well, guess who’s back?

This morning when I woke up at 7:00, the snow had recently begun, with just a dusting on otherwise bare ground. Around 10:30, I looked outside and saw the trash and recycling bins I’d set on the curb first thing this morning were already topped with a several-inch snowcap. The snow is forecast to last throughout the day into tonight, with a predicted accumulation of four to seven inches. Yes, that’s more like it, a day-long snowfall that feels more like a proper New Hampshire winter.

So, what do we do here in New Hampshire in the middle of a day-long snowfall? If that snow falls on a Monday, when I work from home, “we” do what we do on any other at-home workday. On Monday mornings I take out the trash, then I post the next week’s batch of assignments for my online class. That accomplished, I move onto the other oft-repeated elements of my morning ritual: let the dog out and stand aimlessly while he does his daily sniff-and-pee routine. (This morning, I stood in a swirling sea of snowflakes, feeling a bit like Gabriel Conroy at the end of The Dead, the snow general all over southern New Hampshire.) Come inside and fix food for the dog and oatmeal and tea for myself. Eat oatmeal at the kitchen table, then sip my morning tea while writing four pages, more or less, in my large ruled Moleskine. Do dishes, then meditate either before or after the daily shower, depending on my mood. These tasks complete, then it’s onto Monday’s tasks: online papers to grade, Tuesday classes to prep, Monday photos and blogpost to upload.

It’s not an exciting life I lead watching snow come then go over morning cups of tea; at times, my quiet existence here in New Hampshire makes May Sarton look like a social butterfly by comparison. What a difference a couple of days make…but what difference is made by our days, our lives? Does it matter that this year was milder than most, that this year I saw bare ground in January when I’d typically see only snow? What difference does it make, really, if today’s snow is general all over southern New Hampshire; what difference did Gabriel Conroy’s snow make? Today’s snow will be melted by spring if not sooner, and swept away from roads and sidewalks by afternoon. And so our moments, like swirling snowflakes, pour through time, so many morning cups of tea swallowed by invisible maws. Tomorrow, today will be forgotten…so what difference will we make while it’s still today?

    A humble nod to Teju Cole, whose rhapsody on Joyce is to blame for today’s thoughts of Gabriel Conroy. If you aren’t already a regular reader of Mr. Cole’s travelblog, be sure to catch today’s post with its paradisiacal final stanza.

One of the benefits of living within walking distance of a campus where you teach an 8 am class is the morning walks your commute affords. I teach at Keene State on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and both days were sunny this week. Living on the east side of Keene means I live in the sometimes-flooding watershed of Beaver Brook…but it also means I walk west on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the slanting sun at my back.

This time of year, the sun casts low, long shadows: as I walk to campus in the morning, my shadow stretches on the sidewalk in front of me for almost a block. Although I’ve no quibble with Emily Dickinson’s predilection for that certain slant of light on winter afternoons, I’m coming to realize that winter mornings offer a certain slant all their own. Here in Keene, the main Post Office resides in one of the ugliest buildings in town: a boxy monstrosity that embodies, in my opinion, everything that was wrong with ’70s architecture. But when viewed from behind and below in just the right light, even the Post Office looks tolerable on an early Thursday morning, gleaming peachly against a field of blue.

The buildings at Keene State, on the other hand, look good in nearly any light. But after walking through that certain slant, I feel more ready than ever to appreciate the sight of Hale Hall’s Italianate eaves jutting over the sun-soaked bricks of Parker Hall: my Hall, the building where I both teach and have my office.

Years ago when I lived in Hillsboro, NH, I drove 45 minutes one way to teach at Keene State three days a week…and 45 minutes in another direction to teach at Saint Anselm College two days a week…and 30 minutes yet another way to teach an adult education class one night a week. Five days a week, I was traversing the southwestern corner of the state…and when I wasn’t driving, I was teaching a handful of classes online.

Looking back on those overworked, literally hyper-driven days, I realize how truly lucky I am to live a relatively pedestrian lifestyle now, one where I walk to work a couple days a week and work from home the others. Viewed from just about any light, that’s a beautiful thing.

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