Skip to content

Category: beginnings

Vital Records

My father’s address book, 1990s.

Life stories depend on birth and deaths; they frame the narrative, so to speak, with a start and endpoint. But for genealogists and family historians, they are trickier than you’d think, even in the modern era (in the administrative sense of modern: ie. after governments starting keeping civil records, usually in the nineteenth century).

Here are some examples. My father’s birth date was well known to me and, in fact, hard to forget: he was born on December 26, 1926 and he always made a big deal about both Christmas and his birthday, which were an annual double-header. You wouldn’t know until you looked for his actual birth certificate in Chicago, though, that his parents initially named him Sandford Earle; that was his legal name until they filed for a re-issued birth certificate for Earle Stanton on September 10, 1929. Was he called Sandford for the first three years of his life or was he called Earle all along and then they finally made the change official years later? Why correct it at all since many people go by their middle names? My father knew this story and told it to us: he said that his parents decided that they didn’t want him to be called Sandy and reversed his name to Earle Stanton (still not Sandford!). But think of the confusion this would cause later for genealogists….

Looking for births also unearths surprising other stories, random or significant. A search by my father’s name, for example, also turns up an Earl Olsen (with the same spelling of our last name, and a different and more common spelling of his first name) born in Cook County on November 18, 1926. He was one of two Earl Olsens born within about a month of my father in Illinois, according to Ancestry. com. What are the odds? One of those Earls died in Palm Beach a few years before my father died in upstate New York. Did they live parallel lives all along? They would have been hit by the same historical factors at the same time, like a late drafting for World War II when they turned eighteen at the end of 1944. My father was rare among my friends’ parents for serving in World War II instead of Korea or even Vietnam.

There are of course poignant moments too, like the birth certificate I found among family papers for my father’s sister Margaret Jane, who did not survive infancy. A quick check of FamilySearch.org reveals the length and breadth of her short life: Illinois, Cook County Births 1871-1940 and Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1978-1994 confirm she was born July 22, 1925 and buried August 8th in the family plot at Oakwoods Cemetery. The list of Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916-1947 cites her as “Margaurite Olsen” and states that her burial date was July 10th, which is clearly impossible (unless that was a different child, but again—what are the odds?). Just like family stories, government records are filled with mistakes that lead researchers astray. “Documentary evidence” and certified copies of vital records are more of a hope and a promise than a guaranteed truth.

My father’s sister’s birth certificate
(note the attached pink ribbon)

My mother, who has unearthed a lot of genealogical information about her ancestors in Ireland and Scotland, speculates about anomalies in her family’s record books. A story circulated among her relatives that her great-grandfather William Espie was born in Wales. When she searched the UK databases, though, she could only find a William Espie who died in the right time and place in Ireland but was born in Australia. It seemed unlikely to be the right person: how many American Scots-Irish families included ancestors who emigrated backwards from Australia to Ireland before coming to the U.S.? But then she wondered, could the family story have been referring to New South Wales all along? Such are the random and confusing trails through archives and history—as criss-crossed as the immigrants’ journeys.

Both genealogy and biographical research take a lot of grunt work: like a detective you check out leads and cross them off, which means phone calls and emails and internet searches and library visits and combing through indexes of scholarly volumes etc etc. Most of what I do in a day, when I get to this work around the margins of my other work, is defining the negative space around my father: who never met him? What didn’t influence him? Where wasn’t he?

This is most apparent in the oral histories I’ve been reading, mostly from Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Robert Indiana, who was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) at the same time as my father, didn’t know him. I try other keyword searches for Olsen in a range of SAIC alumni oral histories and archival collections…. Nothing. Robert Kulicke, who employed my father at Kulicke Frames for ten years, says little about his art business at all in his oral history. My father was represented in the mid-1950s by Grace Borgenicht’s gallery, but he is nowhere in her oral history (I’ve already written about the one reference I did find to him in that gallery’s archive). Nor does he come up in the oral history of Grace Mayer, photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art and a friend of my dad’s for decades, though her archive at MoMA apparently has a Christmas card he sent her that I won’t be able to see until the museum’s archives re-open in October 2019. Other generous researchers connect me to other generous colleagues who were part of the New York City art world in the 1950s and 1960s…. Nothing. It’s as if he wasn’t a part of the art world. And maybe, in its recorded version, he wasn’t.

My father does appear in James Harvey’s oral history from 1963: my father and Harvey were both SAIC alums and moved to New York City at the same time. A trail of breadcrumbs led me from Harvey to other random surprises. For example, one of the names that came up over and over again in SAIC oral histories, including Harvey’s, was Kathleen Blackshear, an artist and much admired teacher there from 1926 to 1961. The Kathleen Blackshear and Ethel Spears papers at the Smithsonian include Blackshear’s address book from 1947-57, which they digitized.

Page from Kathleen Blackshear’s address book, 1947-57.
This is the right Earle and the right Olsen, both with an e.

And there, under O, is my father. The color-coded notations after each name seem to refer to the years she sent holiday cards to each person, so she may have kept up with my father for a year after he graduated in 1951. Then nothing. Jim Harvey appears under H and she kept up with him longer, though he died in 1965. There are cards in the collection that she received from students and colleagues as well, but none from Earle. It’s a dead end, but a poignant one. My father was there. His trace exists on paper in a Chicago collection and in pixels on a computer screen. There would have been no way to search for that reference; it wasn’t indexed. I have already quoted Robert Caro’s dictum: one has to turn every page (and I’d add that one has to click every arrow….)

My grandfather’s address book, Florida, 1970s

My father and grandfather left address books too, which sit in my own personal basement archives. My grandfather’s was a battered spiral bound book like you might find in any stationery store, but embossed with his name, as much of his property was. Andrew was a meticulous, cautious man; in her letters my great-aunt Marie called him “sensitive.” His address book lists some friends in alphabetical order (“The Jones,” “The Lutzes”) but many more service providers, from lawn care and barbers to restaurants and camera stores. He made notes in all caps even for the obvious (“ROTO ROOTER FOR DRAINS”) and carefully wrote down every birthday in the back of the book, including his own. He included his wife’s birthday and his wedding anniversary, though by these years in Florida he was long widowed. He had phone numbers to call for the Correct Time and Weather listed under T and W. There are almost no names I recognize because my father had little interest in his father’s friends or even in his own extended family. During the 1970s, my sisters and I visited Grandpa Olsen once a year. He sent us Hallmark holiday cards with a five dollar bill tucked inside, and he paid for our expensive private schools and colleges.

With its reproduction William Morris print, my father’s address book is a familiar paisley-covered hardback, probably from the gift shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1990s. Inside there are still scraps of paper scribbled over with handwritten names, numbers, and addresses because my extroverted father collected acquaintances everywhere he went. When he died eight years ago it didn’t occur to me to check his address book for people to notify: I had never managed a death in the family before, nor seen anyone else do so up close, and I had no idea of protocols. Later I would find the name Bob Parker there: Robert Andrew Parker was a friend of my father’s from SAIC that I had never heard him mention, but looked up after seeing his name in Harvey’s oral history. His phone number was the same in the 1990s as when I did finally speak to him about my father in 2019.

My father also preserved, randomly, a daily calendar from 1969: one of those small bound notebooks with a page for each day. At the time he was working for Kulicke Frames so the pages are full of measurements as well as sketches, mostly for the geometric paintings he was making on Plexiglas at the time. The brief entries are filled with sales calls with clients like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Pace and Martha Jackson galleries, and artists like Saul Steinberg. Like his father, my father often wrote in ALL CAPS. He jotted down phone numbers with their New York exchanges like CO7-, LA4-; in 1970 our phone number on the Upper West Side would begin UN5- for University. Some appointments still have resonance: on June 4th he met his old friend Grace Mayer at MoMA at 12:30. I still have his copy of her photographic history of New York City behind me on a shelf. The dates February 20-March 1, 1970 are held for “Caribbean,” though one of my oldest, vividest memories is of being on the island of St. Vincent’s for my sixth birthday on March 3rd. The historical events of that tumultuous year are all missing: fifty years ago on June 28th, when the Stonewall riots began in Greenwich Village, he sketched another grid in pen.

My father’s appointment book, 1969

My father’s only other surviving appointment book, from 1990, is filled with reminders to “pay Con Ed,” “pay Athens phone”….and a note on February 2 for “Attempted ROBBERY.” The follow up a few days later reads “Called Haim [his landlord] he promised new door.” I don’t remember that particular story, which would have taken place when he lived in an industrial loft in DUMBO, but my father was robbed in his New York City homes several times, including once when he was tied to a chair as the burglar searched for valuables. By 1990 my father was spending much of his time upstate in his second home in Athens, where he would soon retire. That year he framed a lot of art for law firms and travelled to Philadelphia and London. And finally, my sisters and I, all in our twenties by then, appear: “Tina dinner 7:30 Pasta Presto” on February 14 and Margrit’s name next to train times to Portchester on another day. He notes each of our birthdays and “Vicky’s wedding” appears on June 30th. He was present at that wedding; in fact, it was held at his house, which my sisters and I sold after his death. It’s the blank spaces around these brief notes that biographers and memoirists struggle to fill in and interpret—all the absences that define a presence.

My father’s appointment book, 1990

Rain Man

It must be difficult to film a new and surprising martial arts sequence. In the long history of the genre and its films, hasn’t everything been tried already? The first scene in Wong Kar Wai’s new film Grandmaster (2013) manages to feel fresh though: although using atmospheric elements and a restricted palette have been done, Kar Wai spends as much time on the water as the battling men. The rain becomes an active participant in the fight– striking with force, spinning through the air, bouncing off targets. Although the melee is hard to make sense of because of the choppy editing and the darkness, it is a visual treat that sets up a film full of visual treats.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ML5jUmfHz_I]

I went to see Grandmaster with someone who didn’t like it. There is no consistent story with suspense or drama. The characters are one-sided. The ending sentimental. All true. But where else can you see a close up of an exquisitely-lit coat button? Recurring patterns of feet sliding and pivoting on the floor? The attention to sensual detail (and moody cinematography) are typical of Kar Wai’s films and he arranges his moving canvas carefully. There are long swathes of gold in a brothel , then a shift to an all-white winterscape. There are brief cuts to archival footage from Chinese history in the 1930s and 1940s. Text appears on screen to move the chronology along.  The film is based on the historical figure of Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), a martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee, but Kar Wai doesn’t always seem sure if he is making a biopic, a romance, a kung fu flick, or even a documentary about the varieties of martial arts in China.  Nonetheless, I found the film beautiful enough to forgive many flaws.

Moving Vehicles

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hi2qKjg2TVk]

The pacing of this opening is terrific — from stillness to speed, from horizontal to vertical motion. The camera is a vivid, dynamic character right from the start. It’s Danny Boyle’s early film Shallow Grave (1994) and you can tell he will go on to make movies with lots of moving vehicles….

If one were to hypothesize about what makes Danny Boyle’s films his own, though, one would probably start with their situations. In the films I’ve seen–Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and Millions– he puts ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances to see what happens. This draws great performances from his actors, and in fact the character development in his films is swift and clear, if not always subtle. The scene above introduces the characters very economically– with the nameplate on their door. In 28 Days Later we meet our main character as he wakes up to a post-epidemic London. We see the deserted city through his eyes — making a familiar cityscape terrifying just by emptying it.

LondonDay28

These are formal pleasures too — like the juxtaposition of a bright fashion billboard still hovering over civilization’s ruins in 28 Days Later. There may be no consumers left in London, but when our four survivors loot a grocery store they are overcome with nostalgia for materialism. The film strips them of everything they knew and had, becoming literally darker and darker. Still, it wrests a modestly happy ending from the countryside, in another

28 ending

beautiful shot of a single word spelled out on a lush green field. These complicated happy endings, that manage to develop organically out of extreme situations, are another hallmark of Boyle’s form and content.

Demography is Destiny

What do critics love about the new Netflix series Orange is the New Black,  exactly? I read Emily Nussbaum’s review in the New Yorker and expected something quite different (ie. better). The first episode seemed thin and sensationalist. The cutting back and forth between the yuppie white lady (played by Taylor Schilling) entering prison and the past history that landed her there was effective exposition but emphasized a simplistic worldview over and over: lesbianism is radical behavior with “consequences,” love easily smooths over all obstacles (like a criminal secret), demography is destiny…. If the show proffers a wide range of lesbian characters it still seems to argue that class and family origins tell you everything you need to know about a person.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBITGyJynfA]

The best part of the series for me was the opening credits, cut to a new song by Regina Spektor called “You’ve Got Time.”  A quick succession of partial close ups whiz by, showing women’s faces of all shapes and colors. It’s a surprising start to what turns out to be a pretty conventional show overall, despite the setting and sexuality (guess what? we only get to ogle the perfect “TV titties,” as a character describes them). The opening and the lyrics to the song suggest a more open-ended sense of the ties that bind and separate women. I presume (hope) the show will address these as it (inevitably) shows our heroine growing into a better person though her encounters with Others. That conclusion seems inevitable, and depressing, already.  In the meantime I’d like to see her thinking, pausing, reflecting more– instead of instantly making yuppie-face and gasping at all the indignities she has to put up with in prison. No shampoo! The show means to mock her for that, but it’s an easy mark. As Spektor sings, “taking steps is easy, standing still is hard.” Perhaps the show’s only (and over-) serious voice, a yoga-teaching inmate, will get to preach that in a later episode.

Slow Motion Picture

The clip above is a good representation of its film, Sweetgrass (2009): slow, deliberate, and beautifully shot. The artistry is apparent, but the filmmakers, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, have the good sense to make the “story” subtle. As in this excerpt, the documentary is not narrated or prefaced or even introduced except through these lingering images. Although it risks losing its audience, the strategy works by forcing us to pay close attention to what we see and hear. The quizzical expression on a sheep’s face. The sound of birdsong. The wind ever-rustling.

There is in fact a story here about change and motion, but it is told through stillness. Montana cowboys have driven their sheep to pasture in the Beartooth Mountains for decades, but the film documents the last run in 2003. As a documentary Sweetgrass is unsparing and unsentimental: it cuts from a silhouetted Marlboro man standing on a ridge to a foul-mouthed cowboy cursing out his sheep.

Barbash and Castaing-Taylor like to disrupt our assumptions about nature and the West. They linger on broken landscapes like the ones that begin this trailer, where lines cut across and interrupt the picturesque and sublime. There is beauty here, they imply, but don’t take it for granted.

The sheep themselves can surprise too. At the end of the trailer they transform from a few stragglers to a shifting abstraction that moves as one. In a breathtaking shot later in the film we see a shadowed mountain across a green valley. As the camera slowly moves closer we make out a line of white trailing down its side. Then the line of white appears to move. Then we see that the white line is actually hundreds of sheep making their way down the cliff. The mountain that seemed so motionless was never still at all and the camera’s slow motion made us see it (and the sheep) afresh. The filmmakers’ restraint is admirable: they let the story tell itself and its structure emerges organically from the material. They show a remarkable confidence in their own vision and judgment, and they earn it.