Love, Misery, and the Stars in the Sky

If on a winter’s night a traveler is taking shape much like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, itself a riff on Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights. In all of these books there is a frame story that carries along through a series of vignettes.  In traveler, the frame story is that “You” the reader have begun one book only to have it cut off a few pages into the first chapter. The book is flawed and so you get a new copy from the bookseller, but then you find the book you’ve now purchased appears to be a completely different story. And so it goes, passing from one book to the next, each one a strange, unfinished tale. In the fourth of these “books within a book” there is this exchange between a soldier and a woman.

The man warns that it is dangerous to watch the sky in a place such as this. She mistakes this as the observation of an academic, but the man is thinking about the stuff separating the stargazer from the stars: In this case, mortars and flying shrapnel.  The clear night sky means something very different to the two observers.

So we have the one thing, the night sky, being watched by two people with two distinct reactions. In Joyce’s Ulysses, this is called parallax. But I’m not going to go Ulysses on you, not least of all because my wife especially hates when I talk about Ulysses.

Instead, how about this: Physical places can elicit strong reactions from people, and sometimes seemingly innocuous places can carry awesome emotional weight. I think about this whenever I visit Manhattan. The old mystery novel geek in me comes out and I think, “Probably every square foot of this island is the site, somewhere back in history, of a violent crime.”

I also think about this in malls, of all places. I am sure you’ve seen it yourself. Employees  in those cell phone kiosks inevitably located at mall hallway intersections sitting alone by their registers with gray, vacant expressions. It always occurs to me as I pass them that “That place is some employees’ vision of hell. For the rest of their lives they won’t be able to pass by a Verizon store without feeling a shudder.”  Few place besides a store or restaurant can draw such polar emotions from people. For an unhappy employee, the business is hours of misery bottled in a physical space. For the visiting customer who loves to go there, it is a bit of a different experience.

For fun, I dug up this list of the most hated companies to work for. Think about all the bad vibes in some of these places next time you stop by. It is no surprise that an airline is near the top of the list.

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