Mar 1, 2023 | Volume I, Issue 2:

Limbo

empty bowling alley

Putting Third Places First

Beal St. George

Each of us, like it or not, is tasked with the ongoing life practice of accepting unpredictability. Sometimes that ends up being a good thing: serendipity, unencumbered, can delight. So although I hadn’t planned to wind up studying bowling alleys in college, it turns out that their existence has brought a lot of meaning to my life. 

 

It was while reading Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone—a cautionary exploration of the decline of social capital—that I first intellectually grasped the concept of the third place, though I’d been readily availing myself of third places since, well, forever: after school, spending hours at the library reading (gasp!) actual books; in the outfield for the local softball team; in cafés, listening to my surroundings.

 

Putnam (who, coincidentally, was  born in Rochester, NY!) is the celebrated grandfather type of all liberal arts college political science departments. In Bowling Alone, he investigates the causes behind the decline in membership of social spaces (from bowling leagues to churches), and in our mind’s eye, we are left with the bleak image of the lanes: run-down, low-slung, nearly deserted at eleven P.M., just a few stragglers belly-up to the bar in low spirits and the increasingly rare crack! as bowling ball meets pins.

 

The third place, for those unfamiliar, is exactly what it sounds like: a place, where people gather, that isn’t home (the “first” place) or work (the “second”). Coining the term in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg posits that third places are important for everything from civil society and engagement to the institution of democracy, to establishing your own sense of place in the world. 

 

Oldenburg distinguishes a third place as a place that grounds community life; think libraries, gyms, parks, cafés, places of worship, and, of course, bowling alleys. Though never actually referring to bowling alleys as third places, Putnam’s writing draws on the same thread: his point, broadly, is that community engagement has declined since the 1960s and that this decline has had—and continues to portend—calamitous results. 

 

Academics have since elucidated eight characteristics of third places (perhaps because sociologists constantly feel the need [read: threat] to measure and quantify their extremely squishy social science), the specifics of which I won’t go into now, but which, broadly, are useful in distinguishing the term. Third spaces are neutral spaces, creative and generative spaces, spaces of familiarity and also of new encounters. They’re accessible and accommodating (read this as: of newcomers and regulars; of people of all abilities, backgrounds, identities; and also as a descriptor of the general vibe). Third places are not snobby. They’re wholesome. 

Increasingly threatened by both careless digitization and maximal individualism, third places play a vital role in our collective society and our individual psyches—which is why it’s crucial that they be preserved.

 

For my part, I’ve mapped my life, in narrative terms, much more by my first and second places than by my third places. But when given a moment to think about it, one can clearly see that it is the places we go in the interstices—the corner store you dash into for tortillas on your way home from work, the beloved hairstylist’s chair you always leave feeling more yourself, the community garden where you stop to say hi to neighbors—that create texture in the fabric of our lives.

 

A vital tenet of the third place is its intentionality: the furniture chosen to make people feel comfortable, to make it easy to talk to your neighbor; the music you play (or don’t play); the agreement that, in libraries, we speak in hushed tones, and only when absolutely necessary. Each third place is crafted (a term I use loosely, since I think this intentionality only takes us so far—and of course it is the community, that which blossoms from the environment, that is really adding value to our lives) to nurture the kind of belonging it hopes to create.

 

We must be careful, then, when it comes to creating online “places,” that they truly are net-additive, not net-destructive (and I don’t mean that kind of ‘net!). No matter how much fun you’ve had on TikTok or how many vintage finds you’ve bought off neighbors on Facebook Marketplace, you likely wouldn’t say it’s a stretch to call the Internet the Wild West of our time: inequitable, terrifying, dangerous, full of racist colonizers.

 

One can make the case for a virtual third place: that is, after all, the world we are now living in. But if one benefit of third places is their “placefulness,” which, in her book How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell defines as “​​living with grounded consciousness in the present time and location,” then let’s be mindful about casting all digital spaces as third places. There are communities to be found online: of other queer youth like you, of people who play the same video games you do. These could be the intentional kind of digital third place that Oldenburg, now 90, didn’t originally conceive of, but might welcome. 

 

What is not an online third place? Social media. Sites where sharing your own experiences neither furthers someone else’s nor invites thoughtful conversation—sites that instead create an (Odell, again) “algorithmic ‘honing-in’ [that] would seem to incrementally entomb me as an ever-more stable image of what I like and why.”

 

And here’s where we get to the maximal individualism. We’re told, on those sites, to “be ourselves.” But what, asks Odell, is a personal brand, “other than a reliable, unchanging pattern of snap judgments: ‘I like this,’ and ‘I don’t like this,’ with little room for ambiguity and contradiction”? 

 

Third places are magical precisely because of their ability to conglomerate a bunch of different people in one place—and their invitation to talk about something (anything!). They are the anti-algorithm. We need more of them. 

I’ve also observed that third places are increasingly capitalist: places like the grocery store (which used to be the corner store or the general store—a “town center” that fostered commerce and community) are now solely places where we go to spend money. We’re whisked in and out—cart-aisles-checkout-parking-lot—as much by our own desire to maximize productivity as by the store that wants us to spend-spend-spend. 

 

Golf courses, neighborhood bars, paint-and-sip classes, all of which could be called “third places” aren’t so much in that they are economically curated: you’ve got to pay to play. What I’m referring to is built upon more serendipity, more diversity of experience, and a bit more—at least in our commodified world—subversiveness.

 

And we, o careless humans, have also turned many third places (cafés, the pizza shop where we’re all standing waiting for food, the grocery aisle with seventeen different kinds of canned beans) into phone-scroll emporiums: we’re glued to our devices, heads down, individualists that we are, unwilling to look around us and meet someone else’s eyes. Which of these cans of beans is best for my recipe? You ask the Internet instead of the woman next to you picking out her own beans, who is herself much older than the Internet, and who probably knows. 

 

I believe placefulness is a practice. It involves taking in our surroundings, even when they aren’t easily described as “here” or “there,” and talking to the people in those places—this is largely what builds our community. It’s uncomfortable; we’re accustomed to assuming the cocktail shrimp position: hunched over our phones, bottom-feeders in an ocean of algorithmic swill. 

 

Which brings us all the way back to the beginning, to the unpredictability. Let’s have more of it. I’m not saying we constantly need to be talking to strangers, but the simple recognition that we, humans, are here in community with other humans, is an ancient practice (and, today, a perspective shift) that Big Phone and Big Algorithm and Big Capitalism want us to leave behind entirely.

 

So what happens when you step outside in the morning, wave to your neighbor, then actually stop to talk to them, despite feeling momentarily awkward, and end up smiling to yourself as you duck into your car to go to work? Or when you leave your phone in your bag while you wait for your sandwich order, meet someone else’s eyes, and ask, what’s your favorite thing on the menu? I implore you to find out.

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Midnight in March

Painting & Words by Courtney "CB" Brown

He doesn’t even know he’s a good boy!
There’s no good or bad in his reflection;
too small or too big, girl cat boy cat,
scary or cute, worthy or not.

 

He doesn’t consider the texture of his fur
and how it compares to yesterday;
no numbers to track his wins and losses,
days to count, time to spend.

 

There is no moment he calls midnight.
He watches the light outside, always changing,
and has no desire to name the colors.
He knows they’ll only be exactly this way once.

Midnight in March, Acrylic on Canvas

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I'm Sorry

Audio Anxiety by Lisa Kribs

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Music from the In-Between:

A Review of “I Love You Jennifer B” by Jockstrap

Julia Morrison

In the crowded upstairs of a dive bar in Philadelphia, there is dust, the smell of well tequila, a few dozen twenty-somethings eagerly negotiating their plans for the evening, and a small stage. As the lights dim, folks meander towards the dark corner of the bare-bones performance space, and a single A5 chord from an acoustic guitar cuts the chatter.

UK duo, Jockstrap, takes their place casually (if not a bit awkwardly) as they settle into their role for the evening. Vocalist & multi-instrumentalist Georgia Ellery stands straight, wearing a structured gray suit as she scans the audience. Producer Taylor Skye wears a camo hoodie (hood on) and sits where he will remain for the entirety of the evening—obscured by his synthesizer while avoiding eye contact. 

The energy in the air is palpable and filled with what can only be described as curiosity. Shortly following the release of their debut full-length album, I Love You  Jennifer B, Jockstrap is hitting the road on a worldwide tour. As audience members, we have seen countless performances. We congregate in a room that has held many musical acts, surrounded by music enthusiasts with similar interests (and tote bags), but what we are about to experience occupies a space that is entirely unprecedented and impossible to categorize.

I Love You Jennifer B
Studio album by Jockstrap
 

I Love You Jennifer B is, at its core, music for music nerds. Skye and Ellery met at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Their music oozes with the technical skill and mastery of theory that comes with years of classical training. But Jockstrap’s sound is not inaccessible or esoteric in the way music-for-musicians can be. There’s a distinct air of reckless abandon—and even silliness—throughout this album (see: the vocal sample throughout “Jennifer B” that sounds like an evil version of Hank Hill). In earworms like “Greatest Hits” and the album’s runaway star, “Glasgow,” listeners may be caught off-guard by the approachable melodies woven throughout the layers of hyper-futuristic production. They are unpredictable and impossible to nail down. Their ambiguity is indescribably refreshing. 

 

In Jockstrap’s live performances, Ellery commands the stage with the seriousness,  grace, and grit of a highly trained ballerina—an undeniable master of her craft. She is calculated and pitch-perfect, yet fluid and eccentric. Behind her, Skye sits nearly stock-still, his eyes rarely moving away from his instrument as he produces sounds that both complement and completely disrupt Ellery’s liquid voice. A mad scientist creating total mayhem with each keystroke. 

 

Throughout I Love You Jennifer B, Ellery is consistent in her delivery across each track. Her voice is soft, unassuming, and with little embellishment. As the principal songwriter of the group, her lyrics read as poetry. “Neon,” the album’s opening track, eases the listener into a false sense of comfort as she almost whispers: “Red eye of the dawn/I see you across the hill.” 

 

About 30 seconds into the song, we are introduced to Skye’s whiplash-inducing production. Dramatic, swelling orchestral themes are violently punctuated by borderline-obnoxious bass drops and techno breakdowns. 

 

Even the most emotionally fraught lyrics, like in Track 7, “Debra” (“But pain is also growth / And grief is just love with nowhere to go”), are immediately followed by a cacophonous mixture of Bollywood-inspired riffs, laser sound effects, and drums. The album’s relatively low-key tracks like  “Angst” (a personal favorite) and “Lancaster Court” are interrupted by sped-up, almost-manic vocals and the crashing of war drums, respectively. It is completely chaotic and very much intentional. 

 

“Concrete Over Water” is where Jockstrap’s enigmatic nature is best showcased. It is over-the-top and almost operatic, with lyrics and vocals delivered by Ellery that are so sensory and moving, it feels like she’s describing a moment from the listener’s own past. The song goes on to flow in and out of plucky, yet eerie and intimidating strings;  dizzyingly-fast synth riffs; and vocal samples that sound like the chants of an angry mob.  In sharing this song with a friend, he said, 4 minutes in, “How long is this song?” I was initially offended at what I perceived to be boredom until he rephrased: “How did this much already happen in 4 minutes?” 

 

I would be remiss not to highlight the album’s closing track, “50/50.” It is the perfect bow to wrap up the gift that is I Love You Jennifer B. It’s Jockstrap’s certified banger. Ellery’s  nonsensical lyrics and bizarre vocalizations find perfect harmony with Skye’s driving, bass-heavy techno beats. Almost all of the album’s earlier tracks maintain a sense of whimsy and delicacy. Not “50/50.”  It’s the audio equivalent of Skye and Ellery driving their getaway car off of a cliff.

I Love You Jennifer B occupies a very important, yet often unexplored place in the modern music industry.  What makes Jockstrap so special is their willingness to embrace ambiguity. This album is, for lack of a less-cringeworthy idiom, made with love. It is so over-the-top, so outlandish and downright goofy, at times—there isn’t a gimmick to be found. There is nothing inauthentic about it. It refuses to be pigeonholed. 

 

It would be too easy to call I Love You Jennifer B a masterpiece—the logical end result of two highly experienced and technically skilled artists coming together. Every component of the album, from lyrics to loops, evokes something different—the attitude of a 70s punk band, the futuristic production of a Bjork album, the glitchiness and grit of a 100 Gecs single.  Each track uses space in a mystifying way, filling the few minutes they have with as much as possible without ever feeling drawn out or cluttered. Ellery and Skye are in complete control of their listener. They use the four or so minutes they have to build a sonic landscape that is discombobulating and overwhelming while rewarding us with occasional moments of comfort and even nostalgia. 

 

The musical algorithms of today’s streaming platforms reward artists who fit a specific niche. The more consistent you are, the more you are rewarded by showing up on AI-curated playlists. Make something the algorithm can identify as Indie Rock, and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll earn yourself a fleeting spot on the Indie Rock Roadtrip playlist. And while you may occasionally find a rogue Jockstrap song on an Indie Pop Mix, it will likely be a jarring experience.

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Intermission brought to you by Lily Garnaat

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Limbo: A Book List

Beal St. George

Liminal spaces are places of transition (you can read that literally, metaphorically, philosophically…) and they satisfyingly scratch an itch somewhere deep inside me. Liminal spaces are at once unsettled and unsettling, comforting and comfortable, transformative and deeply ordinary. 

 

Many have written very eloquently about, or from within, these states of limbo, so I compiled an eclectic list of books I’ve read recently that each, in their own entirely unique way, attends to this concept. 

 

Pick one up the next time you’re at the library, or from your local bookseller (here’s an up-to-date list of local bookstores thanks to Day Tripping Around Rochester).

“While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip, I have often longed for my plane to be delayed — so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport.” So begins this slim volume by de Botton, who spent (obviously) a week at London Heathrow Airport as “writer in residence.” The book is organized into four states of limbo: Approach, Departures, Airside, Arrivals. On every page, the text is punctuated by entirely ordinary, and therefore quietly poignant, photos.

 

From the “no man’s land of the aircraft” to the incongruous and all-consuming terminal shopping experience, liminal spaces abound, and de Botton’s gentle yet pointed commentary highlights both the great loneliness and the stirring attractiveness that lures us all to dream about and engage in the great miracle of flight.  

This book is many other things besides liminal: it’s a protest novel commenting on the dangers of totalitarianism and the politics of collective and individual memory. It’s an exploration of magical realism. It’s re-readable (as in, every time you do, you might find something new). It’s on this list, however, because of its structure: written in seven distinct parts, two of which share the same name, this book could read more like a collection of stories, until you realize that each is also a political commentary, or a philosophical investigation, or an autobiographical recounting.

 

Additionally liminal: Kundera wrote the book in his native Czech, but was forbidden from publishing it in Czechoslovakia, which was at the time under Russian occupation; the book was instead first published in France in 1979, and in 1980, was translated to English and published in the US and Canada.

Cute, queer romance novel. ✅ Likable, flawed main character. ✅ Comfortable, speedy writing. ✅ BUT ALSO! A New York City subway meet-cute between August (our aforementioned main character) and Jane (badass queer punk rocker, several years older than August). It’s sweet, and coincidental, when they keep happening to be on the same train, no matter the time of day. 

 

August finally works up the courage to ask Jane out, but Jane doesn’t show up for the date they’ve planned. The explanation for her absence is not a reason we might’ve expected (inability to commit, cheating on girlfriend, addicted to work)—no! THE REASON is purely liminal: Jane is literally suspended in time. Having gotten on the Q train in the 1970s, she’s been time-traveling since then, and is trapped for eternity, physically unable to get off. It’s a sweet book. You (obviously) must suspend your disbelief in order to really enjoy this sci-fi-lite queer romance novel, and I recommend you try.

I’ll admit up top: this book is headier than I wanted it to be. It has an index. It is extremely well-acclaimed, and Jenny Odell is really smart. It is doing a challenging thing by attempting to lay out a vision of something that currently doesn’t exist, a thing that is antithetical to our entire world: the idea of disengaging from the attention economy, that which occupies our entire lives—capturing, optimizing, algorithm-ing everything that we do—and instead choosing to engage in time, space, and “placefulness” (if the attention economy represents “placelessness”). 

 

In her introduction, Odell asks, “what does it mean to construct digital worlds while the actual world is crumbling before our eyes?” If we’re always honing our selves into what is of course an impossible perfection, then ambiguity and contradiction cease to exist, capitalism wins, we don’t learn from our experiences, and we continue to harm our environment. This book invites many limbos, including the discomfort of not knowing and the intrigue of plurality, and through it, Odell offers a roadmap for reawakening to the world and its messiness, and for reorienting our attention for our collective benefit.

True: in February of 1862, during the first year of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln lost his third son, Willie, then eleven, to a deadly fever. Reports from the time indicate that Lincoln, in his deep sadness, had repeatedly visited the crypt where his son was interred to hold the boy’s lifeless body in his arms.

 

George Saunders, from here, imagines, and in doing so, epitomizes liminality: Willie Lincoln is “in the bardo,” a transitional state after death and before rebirth, according to Tibetan tradition. Here is where the book takes place: between death and peace, in purgatory, amidst ghosts both hilarious and horrifying.

Jaouad has received much acclaim for this memoir chronicling her life in the wake of a leukemia diagnosis. In it, Jaouad recounts a four-year struggle against the odds of survival, and, after doctors declare her the victor of her battle, she sets off on a 100-day journey around the country. “I’ve spent the past fifteen hundred days working tirelessly toward a single goal—survival. And now that I’ve survived, I’m realizing I don’t know how to live.” 

 

The book’s title is drawn from an essay by Susan Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” which appeared in a 1978 issue of the New York Review of Books, in which Sontag writes, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Between Two Kingdoms was released in 2021, and in November of that same year, ten years after her first bone marrow transplant, Jaouad learned that her illness was back. She’s still sharing her experiences, building creative community, and in every way she can, transforming isolation and interruption into connection and creativity. We are always in limbo.

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LIMBO

Raven Reynolds

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