outside the box
Boxes are so ubiquitous as objects that the word box has almost become meaningless. It’s the “nice” of nouns. I’d like to do a little social experiment where each participant has to describe the box they picture when I ask them to picture a box. I imagine they would vary a lot. Of course, the variety makes for a lot of good comedy (as a 'box' search of the New Yorker Cartoonbank makes clear: Box Cartoons)
I have a bit of a battle with boxes. I am constantly wanting to save them so that I will have just the right size box on hand when I need it. Then of course I never do have just the right size and instead I get overwhelmed by all the wrong size boxes I’m storing and send them all to the recycle bin only to start collecting them all over again.
I recently came across an old painting I did of a box. I can’t at all remember why now, but I guess it’s an easy thing to paint. When you learn to draw in perspective you always practice drawing boxes: one-point perspective (inside the box), two-point perspective (outside the box). And it’s kind of iconic. And it has some personality, and a little bit of mystery, because a box is not really about itself, it’s about what it contains. Or used to contain. Or is going to contain. So an empty box is a little melancholy. An object that isn’t fulfilling it’s purpose. I often think of boxes when I’m on the ferry passing through the port of Oakland. Not only are all those containers boxes, but many of them are filled with empty boxes. Apparently we ship all our cardboard boxes back to China in the empty containers (they’re going back anyway so it’s cheap) to be recycled into new cardboard boxes to be filled with stuff we don’t need which is then shipped back.
Recently, I heard San Francisco supervisor Jane Kim tell an inspiring story about her successful year long campaign to #banthebox. This, of course, is a different kind of box. The kind you have to check, on a form, saying that you’ve been convicted of a crime. It’s a brilliant saying (although the website graphics could sure use some help...) because let's not be 'putting people in a box' just because they've messed up once. The idea is not to discriminate against people with a criminal record before they even get a foot in the door to explain. Like so many people, I often feel like the boxes you have to check on any form are so limiting. They can’t possibly tell the whole story. On a form, give me a blank line over a box any day!
In the physical world though, I love boxes. I like sorting things into them and keeping things organized. I love the ritual of taking something out of it’s box to use it and then putting it carefully back away in it’s box. Although at some point (I’m looking at you Apple) it’s not a box anymore and it becomes ‘packaging’. Packaging is a whole choreographed assembly of wrappers and trays and tabs that you unwrap. If you appreciate design it’s a lot more fun, (if you’re an environmentalist it’s frustrating), but in either case your item has still basically arrived in a box.