Have I got some spandrels for you!

May 2007

By Dodge Morgan

The word “spandrel” began life in an architectural lexicon. It defines the accidental and useless spaces between functional shapes, like the “V” that appears between a pair of arches and the triangle of space that happens beneath a staircase. I think it is wonderful that we have a word to describe all the unintended, nonfunctional shapes and spaces resulting from purposeful constructions.

More of what we see is spandrel than is functional and useful, I believe, excepting that the spandrels are easier to ignore. In a moment of sober personal confusion, I had the thought of mental and emotional spandrels as well as physical ones. Such as the useless thought byproduct that occurs between simultaneous feelings of desire and fear, or the competing instincts to laugh and to rage at a really bad joke.

Think of the cornucopia of useless mental images, most with question marks, that fill the spaces between purposeful thoughts by people in a sailboat race. Between the skipper’s command for five sheet-inches of headsail trim and the person sitting under the sail concluding the trim is already just right is the concept of control followed by the concept of rebellion, both subliminal and lacking agency.

The sound of a beer can opening evokes spandrels of hell-raising and AA meetings. Perching on the weather rail with legs dangling heralds exhibitionist thoughts and dieting alternatives. A sudden wind gust is greeted by a quick check on the boat operating budget, a surge celebration, a sense of intimidation and a wonder of nature’s power.

Spray in the face cultures skepticism of the global-warming debate toward natural causes and triggers the puzzle of gravity and questions of drowning. Rounding the halfway mark causes feelings of progress on the chart, challenge on the course, anticipation, hope, and the old half-full and half-empty conclusions. During the comfort of a reach, people see a team in synchrony, a set of competitors, a love affair budding, an organizational chart, the joy of bonding, tomorrow’s vacant challenges and yesterday’s fading disappointments.

The finish line gun evokes emotions of victory for the closure, of the opportunity for next time, of appreciation for others in the race, of the spark of ignition for togetherness in community, and of the loss that one more quest is over and gone.

My own thought spandrels now include the hope that the confusion of these words detonates an aura of overriding puzzlement rather than another ticked-off reader, like a reader of my December Perspective who violently objected to my whimsical, admittedly bizarre and aberrational, column on fighter pilots as lunatic-fringe players with some attitudes appropriate to sailors. Tell me your rationale, Dear Reader, so I don’t have to guess the spandrel in it. And also be aware that “American Promise” is simply the name of a sailboat, a name kept by the Navy Academy for a boat still serving in the training of midshipmen.

Dodge Morgan sails out of Snow Island, Maine.