Author Archives: oook

coming to grips with our lack of understanding

I was listening to a recent (July 14 2016) episode of Open Source as I walked yesterday, in which Greil Marcus was interviewed by Max Larkin about three songs (Dylan’s Ballad of Hollis Brown, Geeshie Wiley and LV Thomas’ Last Kind Words Blues, and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground) that Marcus has written a book around (Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations). A short segment seemed especially relevant to issues of art and creativity that I’ve been thinking about lately, so I transcribed it when I got home:

To me, works of art, whether they’re songs, whether they’re novels, whether they’re paintings, whether they’re movies, are fictions: they’re imaginative constructs that people create and then they inhabit and then they tell you stories from that position, as if they’re true. But they’re making things up, they’re lying. These things didn’t happen. And so the fact that Geeshie Wiley and LV Thomas were from here as opposed to there, that they lived at this time as opposed to that time, all of that is interesting and will tell you something about how these songs came to be musically as part of a tradition, but will not tell you anything about why the recordings they made, and especially Motherless Child Blues and Last Kind Words Blues, are absolutely unique, why there is nothing like them. That is because they had the tools and they had the will and the desire and the genius to be able to turn that into an artifact that we can listen to and say “who ARE these people?” and when we say “who are these people, we don’t mean “are they really from Houston?” which is where they were from, was LV Thomas really a lesbian, which she was was. That’s not what we mean by “who are these people?”. It’s like, “what is this ABOUT?” How can people DO these kinds of things? It’s our sense of awe in the face of great art. It’s a sense of coming to grips with our lack of understanding of how something so beautiful, so preordained, so unlikely, has come to be.

click to hear:

The sense of the sublime that inhabits the art that moves us (musical, graphic, narrative, photographic, whatever) is hard to pin down or distill into words. We knows it when we sees it, and that sense of knowing may or may not be transitive: others may not feel or apprehend or catch or get it. I’m aware of this feeling with every batch of photographs I process and put into my Flickr photostream—there’s an ineffable something that inhabits some images, often because of some imaginative construct that I’ve put onto them in capturing or processing. Sometimes there’s a story, either manifest or lurking under the surface. Sometimes it’s just a portent, or an allusion that only comes into focus within a set of images. Here’s one that produced that sort of frisson, though I haven’t yet imagined the narrative into which it might fit:



An early morning walk in Menlo Park CA, where we’re visiting for a couple of days, produced two apparently unrelated images that provoke a single meditation on collections and patterns:

Menlo Park power pole Atherton police blotter

If you collect a lot of anything [pictures of electrical supply, snippets from newspapers, gravestones, whatever] and then work with the collections in an analytical sort of way, seeking the patterns within the collections, eventually stories/narratives begin to emerge. That seems blindingly obvious, and I’ve been through the procedure many many times, but I realize I haven’t always known the formula/method. So I’m trying to reconstruct when I began to employ it—when I began to be a collector, a pattern-finder, an analyst. I can’t recall that anybody ever suggested the procedure to me, though it should have been an element of my education. I don’t know when I first formalized the collect-analyze-narrate process for myself. Surely my Flickr albums are just this sort of gatheration, and I ought to do more along those lines.

As for today’s examples: the power pole belongs in the collection that includes Electricity in Ajijic and

trolley wires

…and as for the Atherton police blotter, it reflects the irreality of life on the edges of Silicon Valley, where “service persons” are essential elements of domestic life, and the outside world is full of “suspicious people.” Such things are everywhere one looks.

v2.0 sent off to Blurb


I’ve been revising my cemeteries/graveyards book, yclept Remembered, and just sent it off to Blurb for a test print. It’s the first I’ve composed with InDesign (and yes, I DID finally solve the vexatious Adobe/Amazon snaggle, by getting my “subscription” via Adobe, a deal with Lucifer himself… but not without many calls to Customer Service and much grinding of back teeth). Remembered v2.0 can be downloaded (it’s a BIG file, a pdf of 150 pages) by any enthusiasts out there. I’m sure it will be further revised once I can see it in print, and in the light of future skulkings in graveyards.

Adobe and Amazon Hell

On May 7th I bought a 12-month subscription to Adobe InDesign via Amazon, at $16.99/month. I installed the software and had been using it for almost 2 months. On Sunday June 26th I exported a pdf of my current project. When I then tried to use InDesign I got a message from Adobe saying that my account was cancelled for non-payment of the monthly subscription fee. The Amazon page showed that the payment had been made and that my subscription was active.

What to do?

I called Adobe’s Customer Care and spent more than half an hour on the phone with an agent in India, who told me that my only option was to CANCEL the suspended subscription and buy a NEW subscription—the cancelled account could not be reinstated.

I contacted Amazon and was told that everything on their end was correct: I had an “active” subscription for the product. So I cancelled that subscription (they waived the “early cancellation” fee and refunded the last month paid) and bought a NEW subscription, at the NEW price of $19.99/month (Adobe had raised the price without telling me and apparently without informing Amazon, so that [I deduce] Amazon’s payment of my subscription fee was $3.00 less than Adobe expected, hence the cancellation by Adobe of my access to InDesign).

My account information page at Amazon shows that the new subscription is paid and active. The Amazon Licenses page has a button labelled “Access Product” but the link is broken (“Trying to find something? The page you specified could not be found.”). Evidently THAT link is supposed to authenticate my purchase to the Adobe server; without that authentication, Adobe has no record of my License.

I’ve talked with Amazon Customer Care people in Cape Town (twice, two different reps) and somewhere in the US, and have been assured that the Problem has been Escalated. I tried again to use InDesign this morning, got the same message, called Amazon, and actually achieved a three-way call (me, Cape Town, India) and am assured that the issue will be resolved in 24 or 48 hours. I’m not holding my breath.

All of the people I talked with were friendly, professional, helpful… but not really able to DO anything. The connection between Amazon and Adobe (who are after all business partners in this) seems to be defective or worse: the arrogance/greed of Adobe’s subscription model is surely part of the problem (I thought I had what amounted to a contract for a year, at $16.99/month), but it seems the quality control on Amazon’s Web page link management is at least as much of a problem.

To add one more annoyance, when I open LightRoom there’s now a message from Adobe saying that they have found a problem with my payment for the Creative Cloud Photography package (LightRoom and Photoshop), which I ALSO have via an Amazon subscription, and that if I don’t straighten it out in 13 days, my access to THOSE products will be cancelled. It develops that Adobe has raised the price for that package, again without telling me or, seemingly, informing Amazon: $9.99/month instead of $6.99. Amazon knows about the issue and, I’m told, has a Team working on it.

It’s not about the money. I NEED those products (they are, in effect, the Only Wheel In Town), so I’m over the barrel and I’ll pay them the additional 20-25%. It’s about the Service. And the complete absence of recourse. I’ve now lost 3 days on my project with InDesign, and spent several hours on the phone (mostly on hold) trying to straighten out a problem that I certainly didn’t cause myself. And I very much doubt that I’m the only person in the world with this problem.

Bancroft and Tyszkiewicz

For the last few days I’ve been transfixed by a skein of mysteries connected to a grave site in Père Lachaise:
Clara's tomb
The questions at issue have changed as I’ve excavated bits of fact and built new conjectures from successive discoveries, and I need to go beyond the summary I’ve been writing for the currently-under-development v2.0 of Remembered: a graveyard book v1.0. The actors in this particular drama are:

  • Clara Elizabeth Peabody Bancroft (1826-1882), the lady of the statue
  • Edward Payson Bancroft (1823-1865), her husband
  • Elizabeth Bancroft Tyszkiewicz (1857-1883), their daughter (also known as Klara Elżbieta Tyszkiewicz – Łohojska)
  • Count Benoit [Benedyk Henryk] Tyszkiewicz (1852-1935), husband of Elizabeth Bancroft Tyszkiewicz
  • their children Benedykt Jan Tyszkiewicz (1875-1948), Edward Tyszkiewicz (1880-1951), and Elizabeth Marie Tyszkiewicz Plater-Zybeck (1882-1969)
  • …and several other relatives of the above

The dates of death of the first three are the armature of the unfolding saga: it seems that Edward and Clara Bancroft were touring Europe in 1865, when Edward died in Naples (of what we don’t know, but he was subsequently interred in Mount Auburn cemetery). Clara herself was a wealthy widow when she died in Paris in 1882, and her daughter Elizabeth inherited a bundle but died in Switzerland in 1883, but (according to the plaque on Clara’s monument) her last wishes were that her mother’s tomb include a statue depicting her strewing roses:

Son gendre et ses petits enfants pour accomplir les dernières volontés de sa fille la comtesse Tyszkiewicz ont élevé ce monument témoignage d’un vieux souvenir

Her son-in-law and grandchildren, to fulfill the last wishes of her daughter the countess Tyszkiewicz, have raised this monument in witness of an old memory

The very opulence of the statue is reason enough to inquire further, but it’s as difficult to know where to start as when to stop the inquiry. Among the questions that arise (and that Google isn’t quite helpful enough with): how did Clara Peabody (a daughter of a mildly distinguished New Hampshire family) and Edward Bancroft (a very young Boston “broker”, possibly of stocks but maybe of Civil War-era cotton) meet and come to marry? What made the considerable fortune that Clara Bancroft inherited on her husband’s death? How did their daughter come to meet and subsequently marry a very young Polish count? Of what did the Countess Tyszkiewicz die (possibly TB? or some after-effects of the birth of her daughter?) and where is she buried? What happened afterwards in the lives of the Count and his children? How did the Count’s estates fare in the catastrophes of 20th century Poland?

As I’ve said in Remembered, this is all the stuff of a story that might be written by Somerset Maugham or Saki, and just the sort of digression that I’m susceptible to. Along the way I’ve been enticed into exploring the worlds of 19th century Polish nobility, Civil War banking in Boston, naval architecture (the Count commissioned the construction of a moderately famous yacht), sugar beets (the Count was evidently deeply involved in their cultivation on his estates in the 1890s), lawsuits (the three Tyszkiewicz children attempting unsuccessfully to get at the principal of their grandmother’s trust fund, of which they were the beneficiaries), and the online versions of the Almanach de Gotha. Each of those raises more questions than it answers, and a passage I read just this morning seems especially trenchant:

Archeology is always an encounter between a fixed past and a shifting present; we bring to it our fantasies, prejudices, and predilections—this year different from last year, next year different again. (Charlotte Higgins, New Yorker blog, 3 June 2016)

The trouble, or perhaps it’s the wonder, or the joy, is that pretty much each photograph in Remembered inspires or demands similar searchings and findings. That being the case, the revision of Remembered is proceeding more slowly than I’d wish.

A mind stridently blown, all in half an hour or so

Herewith a summary digest of one of those wonderfully cross-pollinating collisions, a bibliophile’s shaggy dog story, with musical flourishes:

I’ve been reading Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, one of those books that far too few people know of, and that just about ANYbody’s life would be vastly enhanced by contact with (the original recommendation thanks to Kate, who has a nose for such books besides being herself a witty typographer), and I got to this passage:

Sizing and spacing type, like composing and performing music or applying paint to canvas, is largely concerned with intervals and differences. As the texture builds, precise relationships and very small discrepancies are easily perceived. Establishing the overall dimensions of the page is more a matter of limits and sums. In this realm, it is usually sufficient, and often it is better, if structural harmony is not so much enforced as implied. That is one of the reasons typographers tend to fall in love with books. The pages flex and turn; their proportions ebb and flow against the underlying form. But the harmony of that underlying form is no less important, and no less easy to perceive, than the harmony of the letterforms themselves.

This page is a piece of paper. It is also a visible and tangible proportion, silently sounding the thoroughbass of the book. On it lies the textblock, which must answer to the page, The two together – page and textblock – produce an antiphonal geometry. That geometry alone can bond the reader to the book. Or conversely, it can put the reader to sleep, or put the reader’s nerves on edge, or drive the reader away. (p. 145)

Now, I’m a sucker for musical analogies, so this piqued my interest. And then I turned the page, and here’s what most stridently blew my mind:
page proportions as musical intervals

The beauty and economy of this bridge between page layout and musical intervals gives me gooseflesh. “Stridently,” I thought. “Most stridently.”

The phrase “stridently blown” has been with me for 50-odd years, since I first read it in Manning Coles’ Drink to Yesterday. Turns out it’s not common parlance, at least as said parlance is reflected in what Google knows. I searched and got these truncated passages:
Hambledon quotes
So I trekked out to the barn, where the auxiliary library reposes, and found my copy of Drink to Yesterday, and so completed the passage:

…the gaff has been stridently blown somehow. Does a gaff produce a strident note? Describe a gaff, with notes on at least three different methods of blowing it…

I won’t go on to describe what I found via Google search for the phrase “describe a gaff” but suffice it to say my knowledge has been stridently augmented.

I was led to wonder why shaggy dog, and so I discovered and [need I even say?] ordered via Amazon Eric Partridge’s The ‘Shaggy Dog’ Story: Its Origin, Development and Nature (with a few seemly examples) (1953). Should be here in a week or so.

And so it goes….

Siblime and Ridiculous grade into each other

Lowell Cemetery

I spent the weekend in Massachusetts, much of the time skulking in graveyards with intent to depict. Lots of food for thought in my Flickr photostream, as I try to work out where this Remembered project is headed.

I visited the South Duxbury graveyard which was my own introduction to such spaces, probably before 1950.

Myles Standish grave

I remember that I was impressed that Myles Standish was an Ancestor, dead almost 300 years (at the time, he having died in 1656) but still alive and well to me because of the nearby Standish Monument, not half a mile from the place we spent summers in the 40s and 50s, and about the same distance from the site of his house on the shore. Of course there was a healthy dose of bogosity in the whole Longfellow-induced Standishmania thing, but I didn’t know that then.

I stopped to check on the house where I had summered and was astounded to find it gone, replaced by a town-owned park. The vastly ancient cedar tree on the shore is all that remains, and a herd of goats had been brought in to eradicate the infinitude of cat briars that infested the woods when I was last there, probably 8 years ago. It’s a lovely site, and far better that it’s a park than replaced by another of the mogul homes that have sprung up all over Duxbury. Still, it does put one through Changes (as they used to say) to find the world changed out from under. The tree as it was in 1947 is behind the Author:

early yoga

I probably ought to promise not to do this

but sometimes people put the case so eloquently:

Future political scientists will analyze (let us hope in amused retrospect, rather than in exile in New Zealand or Alberta) the precise elements of Poujadisme, Peronism and Huck Finn’s Pap that compound in Trump’s “ideology.” But his personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government, whether Léon Blum’s or Barack Obama’s, is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and “success.” It is always alike, and always leads inexorably to the same place: failure, met not by self-correction but by an inflation of the original program of grievances, and so then on to catastrophe. The idea that it can be bounded in by honest conservatives in a Cabinet or restrained by normal constitutional limits is, to put it mildly, unsupported by history….

Claire Underwood is a more stable person to have in office than a cross between Sauron and Bozo the Clown.
(Adam Gopnik New Yorker Daily Comment, 11 May 2016)