balm in Gilead?

Trump connected to the segment of the population that was prepared to believe that racism was realism, misogyny was locker-room talk, inconvenient facts were media myths, and viciousness was the new normal. Just as surely as he has redrawn the electoral map, he has radically altered the Overton window. No Presidential candidate before him had ever mocked a disabled reporter, or bragged about his penis size during a debate. What kept every other candidate before him from stooping to these tactics, presumably, was deference to social norms. But norms can be swept aside.

(Andrew Marantz, in New Yorker news blog)

I wrestle with the personal means to come to terms with the new sociocultural reality, and consider employing tools like Colin Woodard’s recent books (which deserve a careful rereading: American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good), and the prescient writings of Thomas Frank in The Baffler and in his Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, and George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. As so often before, Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source is helpful in reminding me to think more broadly about what’s in front of my nose.

I’m not sure that gnawing old bones of socio-political argybargy is good for the blood pressure, let alone the soul, though I can’t entirely ignore what comes at me via New Yorker and NYRB and various lefty blogs I follow. As an antidote, I’ve found it soothing to read Ursula Le Guin’s novellas and short stories (The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin and The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin), and I’ve just picked up the beloved Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller Jr. –can you believe it first appeared in 1958???) for the fourth or fifth time.

I’ve also been deeply into Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History, and via that engagement I’ve dipped into Gregory Bateson again, via Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, a book I tried to read maybe 20 years ago but bounced off of, feeling discomfort with Bateson’s concept of epistemology (I basically didn’t grasp what he was talking about). This morning I ventured to the Auxiliary Library in the barn and quarried my copy of Bateson’s Naven and what did I find but

What has happened has been the growth of a new way of thinking about organization and disorganization. Today, data from a New Guinea tribe and the superficially very different data of psychiatry can be approached in terms of a single epistemology—a single body of questions.

We now have the beginnings of a general theory of process and change, adaptation and pathology; and, in terms of the general theory, we have to reexamine all that we thought we knew about organisms, societies, families, personal relationships, ecological systems, servo-mechanisms, and the like.

(Gregory Bateson, Preface to the second edition [1958] Of Naven)

“And the like” indeed. So: back once again to General Systems Theory, which beguiled me 45 or so years ago, abstractions high-flown enough to calm the yammer of daily helpings of News of Fresh Disasters.

As Adam Fish just put it:

What is needed are new modes of counter-hegemonic governance. Towards that goal I am going to do nothing. Social evolution is slow and silent not obvious and obnoxious. It is time for a break into scholarship and away from reactionary tabbing back and forth from The New York Times and Breitbart, The Guardian and Drudge.

on the Harmless Drudge account

another passage from Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man

The slang lexicographer is by very nature a voyeur. The lexis undoubtedly leans toward pimping and prostitution, crime and imprisonment, violence and cruelty, drugged and drunken debauches, but the lexicographer is neither whore nor thief, thug nor prisoner, addict nor drunkard. Or not professionally. They are linguistic reporters, except that unlike the tabloids’ traditional formula they make no excuses and they do not leave. The job is to collect knowledge, to explicate it, and to disseminate the information that emerges. As I say, a voyeur, but ideally an informed one. (pg 38)

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

A week or two ago I saw the announcement for Green’s Dictionary of Slang in its online version, and almost bit (at about $60/year). Intrigued, I looked on Amazon and (1) found that the 3-volume print version could be had for a bit less than $600 via Prime, and in used form for around $300; and (2) that Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer (2014) was about $4, plus shipping. I ordered the latter, and started reading it when it arrived. Fantastic so far, and I’m only 20-odd pages in. His first substantive chapter (‘Beginning’) is a fascinating and utterly unique take on autobiography, raggedy bits of wry memory:

This is in no way a conventional memoir, but some things must be said. Or so it seems to me, whose working life is so committed to searching the past for origins and roots. It is a beginning that, without the memories that those from more settled lineages have on tap, has always seemed abrupt. Perhaps, like newly arrived immigrants looking forward to their future and rushing to move beyond the past, the young have no interest in asking questions about ‘before’? Perhaps that was merely me? I failed to ask and remain in ignorance. And since the past was quite literally another country, and that country no longer exists remotely as it was, I am not going to find out. I have been trying to make up for it, by proxy, ever since. (pg 15)

A quick calculation tells me that $60/year is not all that much more than $1 a week, cheap at twice the price for a subscription. So I bit. And it looks like a real winner, now that I’ve browsed a bit and tried out the various features.

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.