1. Life & Culture

Ideas don't fall from trees — you've got to climb for them

Published Sep. 3, 2014

The magazine in your hand begins in a casual morning meeting held many days, even weeks ago. In a room that looks west over a crumbling YMCA and south toward a rising apartment complex, writers, photographers and editors share what's on their minds. It's an idea factory, but it's more like the place where hurricanes are born off the African coast than a Detroit assembly line. One writer's observation rises on the updraft of a colleague's encouragement, begins to spin harder when it encounters some cooling skepticism, and soon a story is born. Or sometimes the conversation just spins intensely, briefly, like a water spout, vivid only for those close enough to catch a glimpse.

Recently, the subject of came up. Amazon was considering buying the website, which allows people to watch others playing video games, for $1 billion. The room groaned in frustration at the idea of millions of inert people watching other people who are only slightly less inert stare at a video screen. "We've lost," one father of a young daughter said.

Someone wondered if Twitch was any more dispiriting to contemplate than golf on TV, or the Food Network. One man's feed is another man's aversion, I suppose. I've stomped my foot plenty of times at my sons' zombie-eyed video game fixation, and plenty of times I've put my feet up to catch the last holes of a golf major. For slack-jawed passivity, I can't see much difference between the two.

Our crotchety lament that kids don't get outside anymore wasn't fresh enough to get outside our meeting room. But it did make me think back to my childhood and my taste for holing up with a book. Even with acres of Pennsylvania woods and streams just outside, I was content to huddle indoors, Hobbit-like; I was a shy kid hiding behind a summer reading list. My stepfather, who owned some of the woods I was ignoring, was the one who lured me out.

Chris Elkus spent his weekdays navigating Wall Street but knew his way around a tool box, and one summer when I was in elementary school, he decided we needed a tree house.

Without benefit of any plans, Chris simply found a good tree with a nice forked trunk, hauled in a mess of lumber, climbed a ladder and began banging some 10-penny nails. I was skeptical. It didn't occur to me that building the thing would be as fun as playing in it once it was finished. But in short order, I found myself kneeling on a platform 12 feet or so in the air, which was kind of a thrill, and swinging my own hammer. Soon we added another floor, some sturdy rails to please my mother and a pulley to haul provisions to the crow's nest. We painted it all a deep piney green. It was quite awesome.

A decade of Pennsylvania winters and a good windstorm decommissioned the tree house. So Chris and I built another tree house that was three stories tall. I was old enough by this point that I found the pulley was very useful for hauling up buckets of beer . . . to go with my books.

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Chris died July 16 after a long battle with dementia. I'll always be grateful to him for the invitation to go outside and make my own fun.

Speaking of new ideas and invitations, you will notice that this issue does not have the Hurricane puzzle. For no other reason than change is good, we introduce this month a new, original puzzle from Merl Reagle. It's called "What am I missing?" which is a name that makes me nostalgic for TV game shows of the '60s that featured panelists named Kitty, Soupy and Nipsey. You readers of a certain age will have no trouble filling in those absent surnames. Please let me know if you enjoy the new challenge Merl's blanks pose.

Bill Duryea is the enterprise editor of the Times.