One of the things I’m enjoying about Lightroom (the photo editing software I started using earlier this year) is its ability to stitch together multiple photos in a single panorama shot. The AI it uses to do this is pretty sophisticated, and I’ve had some very pleasing results thus far. This is one, from this past weekend when I went down to the Outer Harbor again (yes, I was down there two weekends in a row). This is a grain elevator in the southern end of the Outer Harbor’s general recreation area. I love how this turned out.

Bigger version here.

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Tone Poem Tuesday

I make an attempt every now and then, maybe once every year or two, to acquaint myself with the music of Alan Hovhaness, and I invariably come up short. I don’t really know why, but I’ve yet to find a work of his that really speaks to me on some deep level. His music is often described as naturalistic and mystical, but ultimately I don’t usually hear that; all I find in his work is long meandering passages that sound like melody but…aren’t, tempos that never change much, and long pages of pizzicato work in the low strings. I know that this is probably unfair, given how amazingly prolific he was…and that’s why I keep trying every now and then.

Anyway, I tried this piece and honestly, I didn’t get anywhere with it, aside from some lovely writing in the middle for the horn and the trumpet. I did like that passage a great deal. If anyone out there wants to set me straight on Hovhaness, I’m willing to listen!

Here is the Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate” (a single-movement work that bears no formal resemblance to the classical symphony) by Alan Hovhaness.

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Memorial Day, 2024

Remembering this day those who lost their lives fighting in wars under the American flag. I make no attempt this day to adjudicate the justness of any of those wars; there are other days for that.

(image credit)

Every year on this date I listen to this song. It’s been done by many artists, so here it is by the Dropkick Murphys. This song is one of the best artistic meditations on the awful futility of war that I know, because those last words are so absolutely true: “It all happened again, and again, and again….” I don’t find a great deal of solace or even solemnity in Memorial Day, just a sadness that we keep coming back to this and that there will never, ever, be a Memorial Day when we can say, “Interesting, there are no new names to remember this time around.”

I’m also reminded of Lee Blessing’s play A Walk in the Woods, which dramatizes an event in the 1980s when two arms negotiators, one American and one Soviet, got frustrated with the lack of progress and wandered off to put together their own proposal, which was soundly rejected by both sides for being too realistic, I suppose. In that play, Blessing puts these words in the mouth of his Soviet negotiator:

“If mankind hated war, there would be millions of us, and only two soldiers.”

I fnd it hard to disagree with that sentiment.

Here are the Dropkick Murphys.


oh how do you do, young willy mcbridedo you mind if i sit here down by your gravesideand rest for a while in the warm summer suni’ve been walking all day, and im nearly doneand i see by your gravestone you were only nineteenwhen you joined the great fallen in 1916well i hope you died quickand i hope you died cleanoh willy mcbride, was is it slow and obscene

did they beat the drums slowlydid the play the fife lowlydid they sound the death march as they lowered you downdid the band play the last post and chorusdid the pipes play the flowers of the forest

and did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behindin some loyal heart is your memory enshrinedand though you died back in 1916to that loyal heart you’re forever nineteenor are you a stranger without even a nameforever enshrined behind some old glass panein an old photograph torn, tattered, and stainedand faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

did they beat the drums slowlydid the play the fife lowlydid they sound the death march as they lowered you downdid the band play the last post and chorusdid the pipes play the flowers of the forest

the sun shining down on these green fields of francethe warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dancethe trenches have vanished long under the plowno gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing downbut here in this graveyard that’s still no mans landthe countless white crosses in mute witness standtill’ man’s blind indifference to his fellow manand a whole generation were butchered and damned

did they beat the drums slowlydid the play the fife lowlydid they sound the death march as they lowered you downdid the band play the last post and chorusdid the pipes play the flowers of the forest

and i can’t help but wonder oh willy mcbridedo all those who lie here know why they dieddid you really believe them when they told you the causedid you really believe that this war would end warswell the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shamethe killing and dying it was all done in vainoh willy mcbride it all happened againand again, and again, and again, and again

did they beat the drums slowlydid the play the fife lowlydid they sound the death march as they lowered you downdid the band play the last post and chorusdid the pipes play the flowers of the forest
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“The Force will be with you. Always.” (a repost)

Today marks the 47th anniversary of the release of George Lucas’s “little space movie”, which wasn’t even 20th Century Fox’s projected “Big Movie” of that year. Little did the world know what was about to happen…and certainly a five-year-old kid in LaCrosse, Wisconsin had no idea how his world was about to be shaped forever. I wrote this post in 2017 for the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, and I wouldn’t change anything. I’ll probably write something completely new for the 50th, though…my God, we’re almost at fifty years of Star Wars….

D19 of #IGWritersMay: Novel aesthetics. I make no secret that at its heart, THE SONG OF FORGOTTEN STARS is really my love letter to STAR WARS. (This is a page from the book THE ART OF STAR WARS.) #amwriting #starwars #sciencefiction #spaceopera #Forgotten

I didn’t see Star Wars on opening day. In truth I don’t even remember exactly when I saw it, but it was later in the summer of 1977. We had just moved from Wisconsin to Oregon, and in that time I was not even aware of this enormous movie phenomenon whose popularity was sweeping the nation.

I finally saw it, though, with my sister, who is six years older than me.

I didn’t like it.

It was very loud. It opened with big words flying through space and then there was loud spaceships and talking robots (one of whom only talked in beeps and whistles). There was a girl in white and a bad guy in black whose breath sounded weird. There was a desert planet with weird dwarf-creatures and a kid named Luke who lived with his aunt and uncle. (The uncle could be pretty gruff if Luke was goofing off, to which I could relate.) There were more loud spaceships and one really really big spaceship shaped like a giant ball. There was a guy dressed in black and white who helped the farm kid, and this guy had a giant ape-man friend. There were swords made of light and even more spaceships and a big battle in space.

All of that, and I didn’t understand a lick of it.

In my defense, I was all of five years old at the time.

Until Star Wars, my movie experience was pretty much limited to stuff like Bugs Bunny Superstar and Disney live-actions like The Shaggy DA (which contained a hoot of a pie fight). Then there was this movie with loud spaceships and robots and a farm kid and a bad guy in black and…well, I had no idea what to make of this movie.

Luckily for me I had my sister, who is six years older than me.

She went all-in for Star Wars. She ate it, drank it, breathed it. She talked about it a lot, and gradually her enthusiasm began to win me over. She explained the story to me because I hadn’t understood it all that well, and I decided that I wanted a part of her enthusiasm for my own. So I went with her to see the movie a second time.

I have never ever ever recovered.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Wars as it nears and achieves 40 years, and I find myself relating to it most as a storyteller myself. As a writer I tend most to look at Star Wars through the prism of story. Many stories have had a deep effect on me, on the stories I want to tell, and the way I go about telling them, but none moreso than Star Wars, even as the Star Wars story itself has changed over the course of its four decades. Most of the core ideas are still there, though, as Star Wars is now no longer in the hands of its creator, George Lucas. Star Wars is still a tale of heroic adventure unfolding in the sky. It is still a tale not just of the wars but more well-focused on the people fighting that war. It is a tale of improbably redeemable villains, of the way our paths mirror those of our parents, and of finding love in the face of desperation. It is a tale of family.

I can’t help thinking in most, if not all, of these terms every time I write a story, no matter which genre it’s in. Star Wars made me want to be a storyteller (what is playing with action figures, if not storytelling?). It also taught me that stories can focus at times on more mystical matters, and it taught me that story is an excellent way of addressing the challenges people face in their hearts. Most importantly, though, Star Wars taught me about heroes and quests and the wise elders who try to guide the heroes on their way.

Other stories have come since Star Wars arrived, and many have come to places almost as near to my heart. It’s not only stories, either; it’s all of creative art, really:

Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles
The Lord of the Rings
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
My Fair Lady
Much Ado About Nothing
The House with a Clock in its Walls
The Lions of Al-Rassan
Mary Stewart’s Arthurian trilogy (plus The Wicked Day)
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique
Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor
Invisible Touch by Genesis
Once and Again
Princess Mononoke

These are all things — and there are more — that are at the center of my creative life, but none has ever quite dislodged Star Wars as my Prime Mover. Star Wars is, and continues to be, my Platonic Ideal of what story is.

Even so, I haven’t always kept as close an eye on Star Wars as a massive universe as many. I’ve read only a small handful of all the many novels and comics written over the years, and I haven’t played any of the video games. For me, my appreciation focuses pretty exclusively on the movies themselves, and not just the wonderful Original Trilogy but also the admittedly uneven — but still, in my eyes, uniquely compelling — Prequel Trilogy and even to a smaller extent the recent “Rebirth” movies, The Force Awakens and Rogue One. Those form the core.

Star Wars is as strong now as it ever was, and it is very likely even stronger. It has more fans than ever, and it is now in the hands of a corporate power whose pockets are deep enough to maintain it at a very high level for decades to come. More fans are created every day, it seems, and yet…I do have to admit to feeling a certain level of possibly grumpy oldsterism. Sure, you kids can love Star Wars and in fact I hope that you will, and that your love for Star Wars will lead you to other things. But I came in on the ground level. My memories may be hazy, but I do remember a time before Star Wars.

I believe that every story one writes — or rather, every story that I write — should be, in one way or another, a love letter, either to someone or something. The Song of Forgotten Stars has many influences, but it is ultimately my love letter to Star Wars. If not for Star Wars, there’s no way I would be writing this story. It’s not just about the internals of Star Wars, though: it’s about the way Star Wars impacted me and shaped my life and helped reflected certain relationships in my life. Put it this way: There’s a reason why the two main characters in my Forgotten Stars books are two Princesses, one of whom is six years older than the other. It’s a dynamic that makes sense to me on a lot of different levels.

I also know, from reading a lot about the making of Star Wars over the years and about the life of George Lucas in particular, that the way by which a creative work comes into existence is often a messy one. Lucas’s manner of creation is eerily similar to my own, or maybe vice versa. Lucas is someone who starts out by following ideas in any direction they might go, and only gradually whittles things down and discards this notion or that idea until a streamlined story starts to emerge. I work the same way, at least in part. My rough drafts are often very messy and they always contain entire ideas that I remove entirely, for one reason or another. Lucas has done so much mixing and matching of ideas over the decades (remember that for him, Star Wars is 47 or 48 years old, depending on where he dates The Beginning) that he at times seems to be misremembering his own history. I know how he feels. There are times when an idea seems so organic that it’s hard to claim it for my own. Even if it is.

So thank you for forty years, Star Wars! And may the Force be with you, forevermore.


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And then, there’s anti-serendipity

Serendipity is great! And it’s great when your skill level improves to the point that you start being able to recognize serendipity as it’s unfolding, and you’re ready for it!

But also nice is knowing that the shot is coming, and all you have to do is wait for it.

At one point on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor area is a small network of nature trails, and over one of these towers a metal sculpture by eccentric local artist Larry Griffis. The sculpture is of a vaguely human figure with arms upstretched as if to shout, “Hooray!” I came upon a vantage point overlooking the trail that winds past the sculpture, so I just decided to wait, because I figured it would look like the sculpture was happy to see whoever was coming.

And that’s exactly what happened.

I’ve learned from watching videos by photographers and reading their words of advice that sometimes the shot creates itself right in front of you, and sometimes you just set up and wait for the shot.

I am really enjoying photography.

“You’re here! At last!”

Speaking of that sculpture, I also found this vantage point, and I was very happy with this composition. I really like shots where the subject is framed by something in the foreground. This turned out really well, in my opinion!

Griffis sculpture on the Buffalo waterfront, seen through the trees.


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Something for Thursday

I really like ABBA, and I do not apologize for this.

Jeff Tweedy, though–singer and guitarist for Wilco–once upon a time did not like ABBA, but he got better.

I am currently reading Tweedy’s book World Within a Song: Music that Changed My Life and Life that Changed My Music, in which he writes 50 short essays about one song each that has been important in his life or his musical development or both (plus some extra essays detailing non-musical incidents from his life, so the book is kind of a musical biography). I’m enjoying the book, though I’m only a third of the way through it, and it’s making me appreciate the songs he writes about that I’ve heard and he’s piquing curiosity about those that I haven’t.

Of course I’ve heard “Dancing Queen”. I’ve known that song for decades. I was a kid when ABBA was first huge, and I remember a resurgence they enjoyed in the late 90s via 70s nostalgia and movies like Muriel’s Wedding. When Tweedy gets to “Dancing Queen”, though, he writes first about how he hated it…until one day he heard it over the loudspeakers of a grocery store and realized that he’d been wrong.

Quoting Mr. Tweedy:

But before that day, I, along with many others, had denied myself undeniable joy. Countless fantastic records and deep grooves were dismissed and derided out of ignorance. Of course, this song and this music was always going to win eventually. Because it’s just too special to ignore forever.

There are wrong opinions about music! And to this day, “Dancing Queen” is the song I think of when I THINK I don’t like something. It taught me that I can’t ever completely trust my negative reactions. I was burned so badly by this one song being withheld from my heart for so long. I try to never listen to music without first politely asking my mind, and whatever blind spots I’m afflicted with today, to move aside long enough for my gut to be the judge. And even then, if I don’t like something I make a mental note to try again in ten years.

Melodies as pure and evocative as the one in “Dancing Queen” don’t come along every day. I’m sad for every single moment I missed loving this song. Playing it again right now. Making up for lost spins. I truly recommend spending some time looking for a song you might have unfairly maligned. It feels good to stop hating something. Music is a good place to start if you’re interested in forgiveness. For yourself, mostly, I assume. Because records can’t really change much over time, but we sure can, and do. Better late than never.

And as Mr. Freeman would later say in The Shawshank Redemption, “That is Goddamned right.”

Here is “Dancing Queen”. (And no, it’s not my favorite ABBA song. That would be “Fernando”.)

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Serendipity, part two

Getting back to my ruminations on serendipity in photography, which I began the other day: I’m learning that what makes photography difficult as an art is bridging the disconnect between what the eye perceives and what the camera captures. We’ve all had that experience, haven’t we? We see something amazing, and we take a quick photo of it–doesn’t matter what kind of device we use–and later on we look at the picture and we’re disappointed. Why? Because it just didn’t look like that.

I’ve been realizing of late that often the point isn’t to capture what it looked like to the eye. It’s to capture something and then manipulate it until it approaches what we think the eye saw.

That’s important. We don’t really remember what our eyes saw at any given moment. Any good trial lawyer knows this: eyewitness testimony is rarely reliable. We go to a place we haven’t been in a long while, and we realize that it doesn’t match up our memories of what it looked like. So, when editing a photo, the point isn’t to capture exactly what the eye saw, it’s to suggest for someone else what our eyes saw. And that might mean introducing some less-than-perfectly-accurate factors, like shifting colors, adding more light to a place that had a little less, tweaking colors, applying vignette where there obviously was none.

Back to my photowalk the other day at Buffalo’s Outer Harbor: I was down there fairly early in the day, when the light was soft and diffuse; there were low-hanging clouds, but not so many as to make the day actually cloudy. There were breaks in the clouds that allowed pools of sunlight to shine down on certain things here or there, and one such spot was the seawall that separates the Harbor from the open water of Lake Erie. Most of the seawall was gray and nondistinct, but there was one place where the seawall was lit bright by the sun through the break in the clouds.

But how to photograph that? I couldn’t figure a way to do it that wouldn’t result in a pretty boring photograph of blue water, a narrow line of sunlit rock, and blue-ish sky above. I took a couple test photos, and each was boring. I tried it in landscape and portrait orientation, and both had the boring “Why am I looking at a wide-angle shot of a seawall?” thing going on. I tried zooming in, but then I lost the contrast of the lengths of seawall that were not lit by the sun.

Then I saw the bird.

I’m not sure what kind of bird it was. I doubt it was my friend the eagle, but it was slowly, gracefully, flying just a foot or two above the surface of the water, from left to right, across my field of vision.

Another pleasant development is that I’m getting fast with my camera to the point that I am more able to react to these things. Turns out that bird, who occupies only a tiny place in it down in the corner, makes the photo.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. So, too, is getting good enough to recognize the serendipity when it comes and the skill to put it to good use.

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Tone Poem Tuesday

Johann Strauss II’s music is always featured heavily at the New Year’s From Vienna concerts, and this overture shows up on that concert’s program fairly often. Die Fledermaus is an operetta by Strauss that I’ve never seen, though on the basis of this description, I think I’d like to. Who wouldn’t want to see a show that is “a sparkling confection of mistaken identities, illicit liaisons, and champagne-fueled merriment”? Not I!

Strauss was known as “the Waltz King”, since he wrote such legendary and immortal waltzes as On the Beautiful Blue Danube and Tales from the Vienna Woods. So it stands to reason that this effervescent overture contains, among other things, a waltz.

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Serendipity, part one

Yesterday I was able to go out and do a photography walk for the first time in a month. We’ve been on a very annoying weather pattern where it’s been rainy every weekend, which has dampened my photography practice. But finally, yesterday was a gorgeous day. I went down to the Buffalo Outer Harbor, and I’ll have more to say about this particular day at some point soon (I’m still editing the photos, for one thing). But there were a few moments of pure luck where I didn’t know what I had until I reviewed the photos. One, which I’ll share later this week, I noticed when I reviewed the photos on-site on my camera’s LED screen. But this one, I didn’t realize until I was all the way home and was reviewing the day’s efforts on my laptop.

Early on in my session, I saw a big bird flying toward shore, not quite toward me, but close. I lifted my camera, got the bird in frame, and I snapped the photo. I was expecting a hawk of some kind, or maybe even a Canada goose. I was not expecting this:

Pure luck…but as Randy Pausch said in his Last Lecture, “Luck truly is where preparation meets opportunity.” (I know he didn’t originate that saying, but he’s the person I associate with it.)

Again, I’ll say more on this later…and maybe also in a video…but really, I just want to share this photo that I took of an eagle. I might be leveling up at this photography thing!

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Today we’ve been married twenty-seven years. How did we make it this far? Mainly, it turns out that if you don’t ever want to give up, you won’t.

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