Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Variation on the "Third Place" concept


My Garden

I've got a photograph of myself, probably around age 8, standing in my grandmother's garden with a ring of daisy's in my hair. The photo sits on my desk, and although the image is very faded it is a reminder to me of who I am at the core. What is it about the garden?

In my case, it is a "third place". The garden calls to me, especially in the early morning when the birds are singing. Here in Minnesota we have a small window for gardening and those of us who love it know what I'm talking about. We become manic, getting outside as early as 6am and staying outside until 9 pm. Of course the hours between 10 and 4 are for anything else that need to get done between gardening sessions. After the frost and before the humidity and mosquitoes set in, that gives us about three weeks of bliss. This year we've had no rain, so there is no excuse not to have annuals planted and weeds at bay by now.

Almost every type of life lesson can be learned in the garden. Here life regains the larger cosmic perspective where my role is neither central nor insignificant to the big picture. If one defines the "divine" as that force within us which wants to live, to create, to love, to play, to imagine, to make, to know, then the garden is one place where I experience it. Even though I spend most of my time alone in the garden, I am never lonely. I am surrounded by life stirring and a sense of connection I feel no where else. On one level, I am with my grandmother ( who has passed away), my father-in-law (who is very much with us) and other gardeners. It is very much like the joy of reading a great book and knowing a good friend is also reading it. You share the same world even though you are not in the same physical space. The other type of communion which occurs is with nature, as an artist. My senses are heightened and I am " in the zone". My neighbor is often out gardening at the same time as I am, on occasion we exchange pleasantries for awhile and then return to gardening. It is like watching young children do something called parallel play, they may be near one another but each of them is in their own little universe. Truly my attempts to describe this experience will fall short, it is in the doing, not the retelling where the magic lies. I know that my kindred spirits have their own version of what I am referring to, that place where all else falls away.

Not everyone has this kind of zen relationship to their garden, and let's face it, those of us that do have plenty of gardening moments that would not be among our "peak" experiences. There are the times when you are entertaining and feeling surge of pride in your garden and some kind soul points out the abundance of creeping charlie in your yard. You try to shrug it off as their problem but the glow has left you none the less. Or when your perfect ornamental tree is just the right size to accent your pond in the most marvelous way and it becomes infested by insects and needs to be cut down, leaving a vacancy which can't be mended. Indeed your gardening hobby can make it difficult to walk past weeds without feeling compelled to just pick a few, lasting upwards of an hour. Like all good relationships, this one requires maintenance and if you neglect it, the world knows the truth.

As with many of my third places, I will have to return to share more insights. It is past 4pm and it is a bewitchingly beautiful day out there so I must get back to the garden. I will leave with this final observation. I hum when I garden, I didn't even realize it until someone pointed out to me one day. Last year my son Ian was working with me in the garden and I heard him humming away. I smiled. He has caught the bug.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Soccer Field

During our dog's adolescence we hung out in dog parks in the evening. Absolutely parallel to children's parents, dog owner's love to see their charges getting exercise, socializing, and providing entertainment and fodder for conversation for onlookers. Every possible dog/owner combination exists, the one's who keep the dog's leash on and then cling for dear life, the one's who bring balls and then proceed to intervene on dog squabbles, the one's who insist on dog training in the midst of "play time", the one's who tell you the dog's pedigree or every possible aliment, etc., etc. You get my point, it's great people watching for free. There is something about us that wants to be a spectator. Whether it is watching TV, reading facebook entries, or taking your dog or kid to the park.

As adults we also like to multi-task, if we are taking the dog or kid to the park we are "on duty", being responsible pet owners or parents. We aren't just going to the park to "chill", kick back and generally admit to being someone with extra time on our hands to space out and stare at the sky for no good reason. This "down" time is understood to be productive and worthy so we don't have to feel guilty for being a slacker.

Another big advantage of the dog park or kid's park is the built in subject for conversation. Let's face it, chit-chat can be work, at least for me. Even the most introverted among us are social beings and yearn for something to "bond" about, that commonality that will make it easy to be together. Bystanders to the action, we are still part of the experience because we can take away the story, "remember when so and so did the face plant off the monkey bars?"

Now that our children are in their adolescence, we are no longer at the playground, we've replaced it with the soccer field. We come and go to games and or practices 5 out of 7 days a week. We see the same families year after year but we often don't see them anyplace other than at soccer. We share a comraderie, war stories such as "remember when the tornado siren went off and we madly biked home ahead of the black clouds." We soak up the sunshine on hillsides and share snacks or grumble and groan together on the sidelines when our team is getting badly beaten. Sometimes grandparents or aunts and uncles drop by. It feels good to be hanging out, feeling the weather, laughing, yelling and sharing a "third place".

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Monday, May 4, 2009

Pet Peeves

To avert boredom, yours and mine, I'll change the subject a tad today. My main goal for this blog is to generate interest, discussion and awareness about the role the "third place" plays in our lives. As an amateur social scientist, one of my life long passions has been to observe and study people, I won't feign objectivity, I see and record things based upon my own hodge podge lens on the world. My neighborhood is my habitat, generally speaking it is easier for me to decode what is going on at "face value" when I don't have to translate into my native tongue. I don't just mean literal language here, I'm referring to all the filters and guards we put up to try to understand one another across cultures (ie. gender, age, race, economics, politics, religion).

As mentioned in my last blog about the "state of the pub", cultures are in a constant state of change. Our physical world or sense of place shifts beneath our feet and many of us yearn for a certain balance of familiarity without total predictability. We want smells, tastes, sights and sounds from our good associations and memories from our pasts. The continuity makes us feel "at home". Embedded in our "third places" are all sorts of values which are imprinted on us early on, some of them are too obvious to state, others are more subtle and difficult to identify. Some are so intertwined we cannot tease them apart from one another without destroying the ambiance, mood, atmosphere.

What am I talking about? I'll see if I can describe it through some examples. What sorts of things make me comfortable in a "third place"? A clean bathroom with supplies in place! Creative bathrooms show personality, which I love, but are an extra. Also, I hate the hand dryers that break your eardrums, make your skin warp in freakish ways and never dry your hands in time. As a result you wipe your hands on your pants or grab the door with wet hands (nice). Yes, acoustics are important to me. Background music is fine, but not so I have to scream or use hand signals to talk with someone. One should be able to sit at a table and have a private conversation, that works on multiple levels, again proper acoustics, but also cell phone management. I'm talking about manners, and my cultural, undoubtedly antiquated, sensibilities. Similarly, I have children and they are unruly, on occasion I break down and take them out to dinner with me, but I try to keep in mind that others sometimes choose a quiet intimate restaurant to remember what it was like BK -before kids. What else. Thankfully wait staff have caught on to the reality that single people, in particular woman, are comfortable and happy to be dining alone so we too want a window seat. This is what good customer service looks like in my "third places": eye contact, a smile, audible, helpful(ie. knowledge of the service being provided, good at reading social cues).

My pet peeves reveal my stripes as they say, my cultural predilection for order, cleanliness, privacy, boundaries. The reason I haven't chosen to critique what I don't like about particular businesses is that I generally am ready and willing to forgive an oversight or problem if I sense goodwill. After all, I have great admiration for small business enterprise and know from first hand experience that it ain't easy being on the other side of the operation sometimes. I also find that I am much more open and tolerant and shift my expectations when I am not on my own turf such as when I travel to another country.