Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

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“there is a loneliness in this world so great
that you can see it in the slow movement of
the hands of a clock.

people so tired
mutilated
either by love or no love.

people just are not good to each other
one on one.

the rich are not good to the rich
the poor are not good to the poor.

we are afraid.

our educational system tells us
that we can all be
big-ass winners.

it hasn’t told us
about the gutters
or the suicides.

or the terror of one person
aching in one place
alone

untouched
unspoken to

watering a plant.”

― Charles Bukowski, Love Is a Dog from Hell

All good things…

“Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies….” The Shawshank Redemption

Some time in the last few years — unnoticed by me but it should have been — the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (better known to us as Shakers) officially closed itself to the World (the rest of us). That is, they made a decision to not accept converts to their sect. At the time of writing this, there is only one remaining member of their community, which once numbered 30,000 spread from New England to Ohio and Kentucky, living out the ascetic Shaker life at Sabbathday Lake, in rural Maine. I have visited Shaker communities in New York State and across the line in Massachusetts. The time may have come to visit once again, this time as pilgrim, rather than tourist. Today, I think of another thing whose passing will go little noticed; whether it’s a good thing is up to each of us: the end of Agincourt.

What began as a personal quest has morphed into a (for me) large collaborative effort among students, faculty, staff, as well as non-university participants including composers and musicians, artists and artisans (no distinction being made here), friends and practical strangers, husbands, even. Now past its peak, long past, each subsequent iteration has been less that its predecessor. Not in quality, necessarily, but in its embrace, the enthusiasm, the resonance with which it has been entertained, accepted, explored, incorporated, collaborated, enlarged, enhanced. Don’t mistake me here: it is as much a challenge as it ever was. But the question is no longer “how?” Instead, it has become “why?” And that makes all the difference.

What began as a curious academic exercise grew into an investigation into the relationship between narrative and design, between place-making and story-telling, will return to its origins and carry on so long as I do.

It’s become Chromolume #8. If you must ask, please do.

 

TWTW: Reading List

You don’t read a book because it topped the NYTimes “Best Seller” list for umpteen weeks. Nor because Good Reads labelled it “Best Historical Novel of the Year”, though that’s a recommend hard to ignore. You read a book because it touches where you are, what you need, who you might like to have known — or been. I’ve just wept my way through The Nightingale and learned a lot. I hope you will, too.

How many books will prepare me to write the story of Clotilde Sobieska and her convoluted connection with a small town in northwest Iowa?

Howard Tabor’s aunt Mary Grace had married Kurt Bernhard, a French refugee from WWII. Uncle Kurt left a good deal of himself behind, as most refugees do. In his case it was the memory of his first wife Clotilde Sobieska, daughter of Peter and Mary, themselves Polish refugees and vintners living in Alsace-Lorraine. Confused yet?

When Paris Went Dark was helpful in understanding the Bernhard’s generation, in France and during the war I don’t (didn’t) enjoy reading about. And now The Nightingale may be enough to rough out the story of Clotilde’s short life in the French underground. In the Agincourt narrative, it seems to have sprung from a painting by Gabriel Spat, titled originally “Portraite une famille” but repurposed into “The Project.” What I can say after reading Nightingale is that my attention span is long, while my capacity for writing, telling this or any other story, is shorter than “Cliff’s Notes” by contrast.

ADDENDUM

The complex story of how Spat’s impressionist family portrait came to be in the community collection could in an introduction to “the way things work.” Which was followed by a TWTW 1.2 expansion.

When Paris Went Dark was a first stab at understanding the Nazi occupation of Paris, which was becoming central to the plot.

TWTW 1.2

I have little idea what’s going on here. There’s a message on the back but it doesn’t help. Does it suffice to say there needs to be a story being told?

The card, BTW, is far too expensive for the project budget.

“The Rhythm of Life”

“Daddy started out in San Francisco,
Tootin’ on his trumpet loud and mean.
Suddenly a voice said, ‘Go forth, Daddy.
Spread the picture on a wider screen.’
And the voice said, ‘Daady, there’s a million pigeons
Ready to be hooked on new religions.
Hit the road, Daddy. Leave your common-law wife.
Spread the religion of the rhythm of life. “
And the rhythm of life is a powerful beat,
Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet,
Rhythm in your bedroom, rhythm in the street,
Yes, the rhythm of life is a powerful beat….’

I might have guessed Sammy Davis, Jr. wrote the lyrics for Shirley McLain’s number in “Sweet Charity”, a 1969 film. As yet another birthday peaks above the horizon, retrospection might be expected, especially for someone whose career has been focussed on history. Well, at least it’s supposed to have been. But that’s another question for anther time.

So, it was September, 1951, probably the day after Labor Day; that’s the way we used to do it in the era before T.V. And Marge walks me to the neighborhood school, then only grades one through four, and enrolls me in First Grade. I was in the care of Miss Mary Hletko, who I liked very much. My class might have had a dozen students, really, or at least that’s the way I remember it. O.K., now I’ll cut to the chase.

The rhythm of my life has been regulated by education, multiple sequential levels of it, from there through grad school — a couple of them, and one of those a couple times; I’m kinda slow that way. My point is that I have been at school of one sort or another for seventy years. Those rhythms of class sequence, alternate days (MWF versus TTh); semesters then quarters then semesters; holidays and their variants — we used to get both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays off; now we get neither — and the irregular flow of time through those lazy summer months (slow at first, then increasingly rapid as Labor Day drew nigh) have regulated my life since that day when Marge dropped me off. [Eighteen months later, by the way, Marge herself packed a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash and lit out, never to be seen again, but that, too, is another story.]

Follow a pattern, any pattern, long enough and it becomes part of who you are. But then what happens, what replaces it, when you’re no longer a part of the pulse? I guess I’m gonna find out.

For Agincourt, the response is simple: I’ve long been aware of the diverse rhythms that can govern our lives and tried in my modest yet anal-retentive way to build them into the story.

[#1524]

The Office 1.1

Anson Tennant, the reluctant hero of our story, returned to Agincourt from three years of training in Chicago — classes at the Art Institute, some time on the boards with J. L. Silsbee and perhaps some other unnamed offices, the sort of practical experience which was still the rule rather than the exception. While I build a model of his office (scale ½ inch equals 1 foot), it occurred to me that he would have had an open house to celebrate the beginning of his professional life. And that, obviously, requires an invitation. Time to dust off “The Little Guy”, an illustration from a building journal circa 1915. So, I’m fudging three years to make it work for Anson. What font do you think would complement this charming image?

The Office

Anson Tennant’s World of Work

It’s almost impossible for me to imagine architect Anson Tennant apart from the studio-apartment where he worked: Suite 205-207 in the Wasserman Block. This quick (i.e., hasty) perspective was my first graphic impression of what I had in mind; the sort of place a young man might begin his career as an architect — at the time, Agincourt’s only resident architect, though not the first to serve the community. [His predecessors have yet to be determined.]

As an enthusiast of the Arts & Crafts movement into which he’d been born, and nurtured in his parents’ architect-designed home on East Agincourt Avenue, the general character of the space — renovated by Tennant in 1912 — would have reflected the ideas of Gustav Stickley, perhaps even inspired by ideas he found in Stickley’s monthly periodical. For the present, I think the time has come to develop this space along A&C lines and make a model as my contribution to ARCH371 this semester. Put up or shut up.

PS (07NOV2021): Looking for A&C inspiration, I ran across this image of an interior by British architects and planners Parker & Unwin — probably one of their houses at Letchworth Garden City.

TWTW

In the general and ongoing nature of “The Way Things Work,” here is an interesting series of images from Macomb, a fairly large town in western Illinois — home of Western Illinois University, where a lot of my high school classmates went to university.

This building is the A. T. Ewing & Son Automobile Repository, which I take to have been a parking garage and auto mechanic for folks who didn’t have a garage at home; possibly an auto dealer as well. I would gladly appropriate this image for Agincourt (a town of similar size and vintage), though the asking price of $89 is way beyond my price range. Looking for other (cheaper) images, I accumulated the story of the Ewing garage in Macomb.

At some point the business closed and the building was adopted as the Lark Theatre for movies, the new out-of-the-house form of entertainment. That, in its turn, seems to have morphed to a legitimate stage theatre for dramatic production of the community theatre variety. And that in turn was demolished, replaced by a public park — onomatopoetically named Lark Park. Though I would gladly sacrifice the open space for the original building of about 1910.

And so it is with the fabric of our lives, civic and otherwise.

PS: Buildings of this general sort are quite common at the turn of the last century: (see below) clear-span and clerestory- or monitor-lit.

Books about Bookstores

“I became a writer, a teller of tales,” he once said, “because otherwise I would have died, or worse.”  Carlos Ruiz Zafon [1964–2020]

My reading list lately has been crowded with books about bookstores. An old friend once joked (in all seriousness, I believe) that his notion of retirement was the management of a bar-bookstore-travel agency, because it combined his three favorite activities. I can applaud two of them.

There is always Fahrenheit 451, and 84, Charing Cross Road is in a class by itself. I didn’t get very far in A Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. But “The Library of Babel”, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, has been on my reading list for far too long. Then another Spanish-language writer stepped ahead of him: Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who created a quartet in the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books”. Last night (or early this morning) I finished Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and am about to begin The Midnight Library by Matt Haig:

“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

Regrets I have aplenty. And I’d almost welcome an opportunity to reflect on what might have been. But only to confirm the choices made, no matter how ill-conceived.

There’s a blog entry here about Agincourt’s once-upon-a-time dealer in used and the occasional rare book which I probably need to expand. It’s already the end of October and I’ve not written very much.

ἅπαξ λεγόμενον

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Sarah Ruden’s introduction to her new translation of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass mentions the hapax legomenon, the thing said only once. Oh, would that I could claim as much for telling the Agincourt story, which, if anything can be said of it, is repetitive.

Translators of literature are the most admirable of writers: their indelible imprint is in the translated text, yet they themselves do not stand between author and audience. “Catalyst” is the wrong word, because the chemical reaction it sets in motion leaves the catalyst intact; it changes but is unchanged. Surely, for translators this can not be true — though as a monolinguist how would I know.

Ruden’s introduction reminds us that language has its quirks — idiom, figures of speech, dozens of them — and of the difficulty maintaining that quirkiness through translation. My first conscious encounter with the translator’s art was Andrew Bromfield’s masterful conversion of the novels of Georgian author Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili (a.k.a., Boris Akunin), where Bromfield somehow manages to retain the vernacular of a Japanese accent heard by a fictional Russian ear, then written by a Georgian author and rendered into English. Might I prefer a meeting with Bromfield over one with Akunin? Probably.

The hapax legomenon, the thing said only once, is infrequent in my experience. A case decades ago became the wound that never healed until, that is, words like acid reflux issued from my mouth — a thing said only once — that ended our “möbius friendship,” the kind that have just one side. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, for that was a moment of difference between theatre and drama; the act and the actual have rarely been more clear.

Teaching (that thing I do for money) is hardly hapax-atory. Each academic season for fifty years in the metaphoric saddle of acadême, however, I know that each class is unique; each class meeting will be like none other because both they and I are not who we were on Tuesday last. Did the Greeks have a phrase for the thing said often but never quite the same?

In the final tally, I will have said few things only once: “Will you marry me?” and “I do.” “You can put this job some place dark and moist!” or “I quit.”  And, of course, those few words that will be said as my eyes close for the last time. What do you suppose they’ll be?

“It was a long time coming. But I’m glad that it’s finally here.” I’ll be beyond saying that again.