Edward Albee Is Dead

Edward AlbeeI just learned that Edward Albee died yesterday. It isn’t a shock; he was 88 years old. Still, it is sad. He was a hero of mine.

I first discovered him in high school. I went over to the college, which was performing The Zoo Story. It was a total mystery to me going in. And it was performed in a converted classroom. There were perhaps 50 people in the audience. I was blown away. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could do so much with just two actors and a bench. Now, of course, I see it in context. But then it was totally new to me.

It started my obsession with Theatre of the Absurd. But that term always brings to mind Eugène Ionesco. It’s actually much broader than that. Albee was more in the tradition of Samuel Beckett. Although clearly The Zoo Story was influenced by John Osborne. Albee was at his best when he was at his most real. Things like The American Dream are at best uninspired, and certainly nothing worth reading more than once.

Edward Albee’s Work

The truth is that Albee’s work was quite uneven. But I think that says something good about him. He was always searching. At the same time, it is hard not to think he was just a bit evil. I read Tiny Alice many times in high school — trying to figure out what Albee was on about. I finally went to the college library and researched the play. After it opened in New York, reporters asked him what the play meant. He replied that he knew when he was writing it but that he had forgotten. It was a good response, but I think Albee was rarely clear what he was doing.

Edward Albee is best known for his 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’ve cooled to it over the years. It is such hateful play about four unlikable people. I have a bleak outlook on life, but it isn’t that bleak. Don’t misunderstand: the play is brilliant and there is much truth in it. But I think his aim was much more true in A Delicate Balance.

Middle Period

After that, Albee got a little soft with two of his best plays: All Over and Seascape. He seemed to get to the point where he could see past alienation. Both of those plays triumph over alienation in their way. And then, Edward Albee went rudderless — for about a decade.

That’s not to say the work was bad. Certainly he got lots of bad reviews, but that was true of most of his work. He never wrote the kind of stuff that was meant to be fully appreciated in one viewing or reading. But he wasn’t doing anything he hadn’t done before. But all that changed in 1991 with what I consider his masterpiece, Three Tall Women.

Three Tall Women

It’s hard to say just what is so great about the play. The second half is simply a conversation between the same woman at three different ages: 20s, 50s, and 90s. And it shows, in such a powerful way, how cynicism grows in us. I’ve done a lot of writing trying to mimic what Edward Albee does in that play. But like the greatest art, it’s obvious yet elusive.

Anyway, it’s sad that Edward Albee has died. But he left us a lot of great work. And I assume he had as good a life as anyone could reasonably expect.

Remember 9/11: 15 Yearly Missed Opportunities

Remember 9/11Do you remember 11 September 2002? It was the first year that we got to remember 9/11. Ah, it was a good time. By that point, we had only lost 67 American troops in Afghanistan. No one was much thinking about Iraq, even though the Bush administration was already pushing hard for war. That’s not completely true, of course; Donald Trump told Howard Stern that day that he was for the new war. But overall, it truly was a good year to remember 9/11!

By 11 September 2003, it wasn’t quite so great to remember 9/11. By then, 342 American troops had died in Iraq. On the plus side, the number of American deaths in Afghanistan was down to only 54. The unemployment rate had gone up to 6.1 percent. Things certainly weren’t getting better, but times were nice enough to look back and remember 9/11.

On 11 September 2004, things were much the same as they had been in 2003. There were a few things that were worth celebrating. The unemployment rate had gone down to 5.4 percent. What’s more, Thomas Friedman had already started using what would later be called the Friedman Unit. On 30 November 2003, he wrote, “The next six months in Iraq… are the most important six months in US foreign policy in a long, long time.” Yes, it was still a good day to remember 9/11!

The Unwinding

Still, things had started to unwind a bit. By 11 September 2005, every person I knew who had voted for George W Bush the year before claimed to regret it. How could they have known that the Iraq War was a sham — something the Bush administration had wanted to do from the moment they got into office? Certainly reading a book was out of the question! This was the Bush era: real Americans didn’t read! In 2005, it was not a good day to remember 9/11.

So when we remember 9/11, just what are we remembering? It doesn’t seem to be anything deep. It seems to be like the frat boys partying on the announcement of Osama bin Laden death. “We’re number one!”

So much had changed. But I wondered from the start exactly what we were remembering. It’s not that I don’t accept that 9/11 was a huge tragedy. But it was also a great gift to the war mongers. I doubt that Bush would have gotten his Iraq War if everyone didn’t remember 9/11. We wouldn’t have seen the huge increase in the security state. We wouldn’t be flying unmanned death machines all over the world and killing children because some set of criteria indicate that maybe someone in the vicinity kinda seems like maybe they are sorta terrorish.

Remember 9/11: In Your Own Way

Every year that we remember 9/11, we get yet more reruns of documentaries about what happened that day. I don’t think anyone has to be reminded. We all remember. But I think “Remember 9/11” is kind of like “Remember the Maine.” It’s just a call for war. We were attacked and therefore anything we do is okay. “They raped our queen, so we raped their city, and we were right!”

Now I know: everyone remembers 9/11 in their own way. But as a society, I think we remember the attack. Many remember the rescue, which was both heroic and incredibly successful. (Pretty much everyone who could get out did.) But overall, I’m not sure what we are remembering. It seems that too much of it is remembering that we were wronged. Well, even if you accept that simplistic analysis, what did we learn?

What Are We Learning?

As we remember 9/11 for the 15th year, what are we getting for it? As a country, we are just as likely to resist democratic movements and support autocrats. We have normalized continuous war. Jihadism seems to be alive and well. We haven’t accepted a lick of responsibility for the blowback of our meddlesome foreign policy.

So when we remember 9/11, just what are we remembering? It doesn’t seem to be anything deep. It seems to be like the frat boys partying on the announcement of Osama bin Laden death. “We’re number one! We’re number one!” It means nothing to remember something if you don’t learn from it. And I don’t think that our country has learned anything. We will remember the attacks on 9/11 until the next attack. And we will respond to that attack in the same way we always do.

On this 15th remembrance of 9/11, I think we should remember that responding to tragedies like this should be done in a mature way — and not as a child would. But we won’t. We never do. Humans never have. “They raped our queen, so we raped their city, and we were right!”

Sudoku Meaning on Labor Day 2016

Sudoku MeaningIt’s Labor Day and I do hope that you aren’t working. I am of course working. There are a lot of reasons that are specific to me. One is that I work with people all over the world. International Workers’ Day is on 1 May. We have Labor Day because of the federal government’s disastrous response to the Pullman Strike. Those were the days when politicians actually worried about revolution (although not enough to do what was right in the first place). So most of the people I work with will not have today off.

The other reason is because I work all the time. The closest I’ve had to a day off since I returned from Mexico was on Friday when I worked about two and a half hours. The truth is that this work is kind of addictive. I’ve come to think of it as providing me with Sudoku Meaning. It’s the kind of meaning that I get from doing Sudoku puzzles. I’m very good at them. They engage my mind. They require a fair bit of creativity. But they aren’t deep. What television is to most people, Sudoku is to me.

Sudoku Meaning and My Job

I get Sudoku Meaning from my job. What’s more: I get paid to get Sudoku Meaning. I consider myself quite lucky in this regard. Just the same, this feeds itself. I shouldn’t work this much. But to stay with the television analogy, it’s like people who always watch The History Channel or whatever. They know there are other things on. But it’s just convenient. In this regard, my job is way easier than running Frankly Curious. I never know what I’m going to write around here. There’s no structure. There’s just a vague notion that I should write something interesting for the people who make a special trip here each day — and there are quite a number of them.

Frankly Curious Too!

But the truth is that Frankly Curious mostly provides Sudoku Meaning to me. There isn’t anything fundamental about it. There are times when what I write about transcends the format. Some of my work on Don Quixote works that way — providing me with sense of self-actualization. But way too much of it is facile craft. Give me any subject and two hours and I’ll give you an 800 word article, typeset with images. Hell: give me a first sentence! After writing over 7,000 articles for this blog, I’m good at that kind of stuff.

Rather than find meaning that has substance, we settle for a simulacrum…

It’s all Sudoku Meaning. So I’m looking for some deeper meaning. What that requires, I think, is slowing down. And that brings us back to Labor Day. We should have lots of them. But the truth is that most people don’t get one of them. Even if they get the day off, they don’t get paid for it. It’s hard to have friends and family over for a barbecue if you don’t have any money. But I think we lack leisure because we’ve embraced Sudoku Meaning.

Sudoku Meaning Is the Modern Sisyphus

Think about Sisyphus — the guy who rolls a huge boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down, requiring him to repeat the process — for eternity. I see this — Quelle surprise! — in Schopenhauerian terms. It is the struggle of life that we live through each day just so we can repeat the same struggle tomorrow.

But we don’t need to struggle anymore. There is more than enough food for all. We can shelter everyone. In the west, we are doing quite well. So I think we developed Sudoku Meaning to help us carry on the Sisyphusian struggle. As Neil Postman put it in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.” Rather than find meaning that has substance, we settle for a simulacrum of it.

I see the problem very clearly in my own life. And I am fighting it. And losing. Badly.

Happy Labor Day.

4th of July: Peace, Love, and Understanding

Nick Lowe - Peace, Love, and UnderstandingIn 1978, Elvis Costello recorded the best known version of “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding.” It’s a great version, there’s no question of that. But a lot of people are surprised to learn that he didn’t write it. This is because his version seems sarcastic. The song was written by Nick Lowe, a man certainly capable of great cynicism. But I think this song is really a self-indictment. It’s an honest question, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?”

When I was in graduate school, I lived with two Brits. I liked them both very much. I still do. They were fun people. But they had a very cynical view of the world and considered themselves very cool. In some ways, I thrived around them. It was knowing them and their incredible self-assuredness that got me to start my first underground newspaper and eventually led to me being a professional writer. But it also brought out a lot of bad things in me, especially being over-conscious of how people viewed me.

As any teenager can tell you, the easiest way to feel un-judged is to be cynical and to pretend that nothing really matters. And I think Nick Lowe suffered from that same thing as many creatively minded people do. So the song is kind of him slapping himself in the face. I know how that goes. I remember writing a song once told from one perspective and thinking that it was so unfair. So I wrote a song from the other perspective. The second song was better, because it was more thoughtful.

I think that America suffers from the same kind of insecurity. This is why we take up 48% of the world’s military spending. We just aren’t right with us. What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding? Everything! It’s for weak people, suckers, or as Donald Trump would say, losers. But I want all the peace, love, and understanding that I can get.

The 4th of July always strikes me as the opposite of peace, love, and understanding. When I was kid, I liked the fireworks. They were colorful. But now they are all illegal. So people get illegal “fireworks” that are not pretty. They are just bombs — loud. And I hate loud sounds. They are the sounds of conflict, hatred, and intolerance. And that is what America is for me to a large extent. If Donald Trump becomes president, it will be a catastrophe, but it will also be fitting.

But on this 4th of July, I want to offer the hope that we can be better — that we won’t laugh at those who are kind. That being an “easy mark” is a sign of greatness, not stupidity. What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding? Not a damned thing.

Morning Music: I Felt Like a Gringo

I Felt Like a GringoThe Fourth of July always makes me think of the Minutemen’s song “I Felt Like a Gringo.” It tells the (true) story of the band taking a day trip down to Mexico on 4 July 1982. It ends with the line, “Why’d I spend the fourth in someone else’s country?”

I guess that’s why I don’t much go in for this holiday. I feel like an outsider. I think that’s a lot of my desire to live in Mexico: if I must feel like an outsider, I might as well be one.

Anyway, “I Felt Like a Gringo” was first released on the EP, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat. It was the first Minutemen album I bought. Less than three years later, D Boon would be dead in a tragic car accident, and one of the best bands ever was finished.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Got a ton of white boy guilt, that’s my problem,
Obstacle of joy, one reason to use some drugs.
Slept on a Mexican beach — slept in trash
American trash — thinking too much can ruin a good time.

I asked a Mexican who ran a bar for Americans
“Who won,” I said, “The election?”
He laughed, I felt like a gringo.
They played a song and they had some fun with us.

Why can’t you buy a good time?
Why are there soldiers in the street?

Why’d I spend the fourth in someone else’s country?

Happy Canada Day! Yanqui Go Home!

Stealing Fire - Yanqui Go HomeToday is Canada Day!

I remember the first time I saw Bruce Cockburn perform live. It was at the Cotati Cabaret and it was in support for his album, Stealing Fire. It’s ironic because it was exactly at that time that my future second wife was his girlfriend. But the main thing I remember about the show was when Cockburn stopped everything and said, more or less, “A friend asked me to perform this song.” That song was “Yanqui Go Home.”

He was performing with a five piece band at that point — an indication that this was a major peak in his career, because I’ve seen him live at least a dozen times and he’s never performed with more than two people — and usually just alone. (Actually, I prefer him solo.) But “Yanqui Go Home” was a song that he did solo. It was not a song the band accompanied him on.

He said that he didn’t really want to do the song. It discusses America as a drunk friend who offends everyone and really needs to go home and sleep it off. But Cockburn, is nothing if not a gentleman. And he said it seemed rude to do the song in America. That’s so Canadian, though! I can’t imagine an American showing a similar level of concern.

I love this song. I think this is exactly what Canada and most of our other OECD countries think of us.

Happy Canada Day!

Anniversary Post: Sinking of the Lusitania

LusitaniaOne hundred and one years ago, the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. It is widely credited for getting the United States to enter the war. It seemed a heartless act: the Germans sinking a ship filled with civilians. But if there is one thing that I have learned in this life, it is that things are never that simple. In general, people have reasons for doing things. They don’t just go around doing evil things for the hell of it. It is a matter of perspective. Yet everywhere I look in the world, I see people who don’t understand this. As smart a guy as Sam Harris seems to think no deeper about the 9/11 attacks than George Bush’s facile, “They hate our freedoms.”

Both sides in the early days of World War I gradually increased the field of battle. On 4 February 1915, Germany announced that the entire sea around the United Kingdom was now a war zone. I’m not clear why the Lusitania was not given military escort into the United Kingdom. It was, nominally, a civilian ship. But it was carrying a lot of military equipment, including over four million rifle cartridges. Technically, everything it was carrying was legal, but the information was kept from the public given that it did tend to muddy the waters. It made it seem much less black and white.

I understand the outrage factor of the sinking of the Lusitania. Just the same, in an objective sense, it doesn’t mean much. World War I was a terrible tragedy. There were roughly 10 million military deaths and over two million civilian deaths. When the slaughter gets that big, it is hard to put a face on it. But the sinking of the Lusitania was a much greater tragedy in terms to pushing the war forward than it was because of the 1,200 people directly killed — tragic as that alone was.

So we mark this sad day just over a century ago.

Anniversary Post: LZ 129 Hindenburg Disaster

Hindenburg DisasterOn this day in 1937, LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed while attempting to land in New Jersey. What’s perhaps most amazing about the whole thing is that only 35 of the 97 people on board died. Look at the video below. It’s hard to believe that anyone (besides Robert Clary) had survived.

I’ve always assumed that the Hindenburg disaster was just waiting to happen. After all, the Germans had used hydrogen instead of helium for it. And hydrogen is just ridiculously explosive. But I learned that this was not a decision they made willingly. Helium was extremely expensive — when you could get it. And mostly, you couldn’t get it, because the United States was about the only country that produced it (it comes from natural gas mining, if you care to capture it). The US refused to export it. And given that construction of the Hindenburg was started in 1931, this probably had nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazis.

Before I always thought that the designers of the Hindenburg were at fault. But now I don’t. In fact, they took great precautions to make the ship as safe as possible. And that brings up the other amazing thing about this disaster: we don’t know what the cause was.

At the time, most people thought it was sabotage. There is even a theory that Hitler called for the Hindenburg to be destroyed because the great old man of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin (builder of the Hindenburg), Hugo Eckener, was an outspoken critic of the Nazis. It seems a bit indirect to me.

I tend to think that it was just an accident. Hugo Eckener thought it was a spark from built up static electricity. One of the crew members suggests that the landing maneuver caused sparks. But there are lots of other theories. In fact, this is one of the cases that is just going to get more confusing as time goes on.

Anniversary Post: Iran-Contra Hearings

Iran-Contra AffairOn this day back in 1987, the Congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra affair started. I was back in college full time, but I was glued to the radio for it. To me, it was so obvious: Republican presidents abuse their power. There was Nixon and now there was Reagan. And I was right. We saw it moving forward. Not only was the George W Bush administration totally corrupt — it didn’t even wait until it was elected. They really are the fascists of our our time.

Of course, what I was wrong about was that it would matter. Nixon was unpopular with his party, so he was abandoned. Reagan was very popular with his party so even today they won’t admit to this treasonous behavior in the Iran-Contra affair. (Bush Sr was probably much more guilty, but we just don’t talk about that.) And when Reagan claimed that he didn’t remember, it wasn’t hard to believe him. But by far, the most shameful thing was the testimony of Oliver North. He should have been court-martialed and then died in jail. Instead, America — in what has become typical — supported him. It apparently doesn’t matter what you do as long as you defend it with sufficient belligerence. That is also how we got Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court for life.

Not to worry. It would only be 11 years later that Congress would finally get around to doing something about presidential malfeasance: Bill Clinton lied about a sexual liaison. Sure, it isn’t treason. But it was a Democrat. And that’s all that apparently matters. If the Republicans had the votes, they surely would have impeached Obama. And once they do have the votes, they will impeach whatever Democrat happens to be in the White House.

But back in 1987, the Congress tried — however feebly — to do something about actual presidential treason.

Anniversary Post: Royal Greenwich Observatory

Royal Greenwich ObservatoryOn this day way back in 1675, King Charles II ordered that the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) be built. If you’ve ever wondered why we have the random Greenwich Mean Time, it is thanks to this iconic observatory — the first specifically built one in Britain. It really isn’t an observatory anymore. Slowly, work at the RGO was moved to other, more appropriate locations. Since 1998, it is a museum. But what a museum! That’s my idea of a good vacation — as long as there are pubs close by.

Oh, what a long way we’ve come! Just 340 years ago we had kings who cared about theoretical and practical science. And now here in the United States, we have a major political party for whom science is but a play thing to be used when it furthers its ideological goals but mostly just ignored and treated with derision. A civilization cannot long flourish when half of its people look down on the smart people “who think they’re better than us.” I’ve written about that before.

But it is nice to look back on a time when the power elite of the world weren’t quite so evil and parochial as we are here in the United States. I often wonder: would we be worse off with crazy King George III or with “reasonable” Republicans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and John Kasich? It probably would be the same. It doesn’t matter if a leader is insane or he simply thinks he must pretend to be to maintain power to do what he sees as his most important work: taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

Happy anniversary Royal Greenwich Observatory!

Anniversary Post: State Sales Taxes

Sales TaxIt is very possible that on this day in 1921, West Virginia enacted the first broad sales tax. Do you know who loves the sales tax? The rich. I’m sure that the push to get sales taxes all over the United States was the result of the federal income tax enacted in 1913 via the Sixteenth Amendment. The federal income tax remains the only truly progressive tax in the United States. And the sales tax is regressive. This is why conservatives always go on about the federal income tax. They are just fine with the state sales taxes. In fact, many of them want to get rid of the federal income tax and replace it with a value added tax — basically a federal sales tax.

I should be clear, however. West Virginia legislated the sales tax at that time. But it apparently took the state forever to actually getting it working. That great bastion of liberty and supporter of the “common man,” Mississippi was the first state to actually get it going — in 1930, just when the common man could least afford it.

Here in the United States, we have a taxing system that is a mess. It is designed so as to take the maximum amount from the poor, but not make it look like this is what is happening. So everyone focuses on 15 April — the one day when our only progressive tax is collected. But every day — Every minute! — the poor and middle classes are being regressively taxed. But that’s just fairness. Unlike that terrible federal income tax, which is downright un-American!

Happy anniversary to the first broad-based sales tax — the beginning of a terrible American tradition.

Anniversary Post: Folies Bergère

Folies BergèreOn this day back in 1869, the Folies Bergère opened in Paris, France. Of course, at that time, it was known as the Folies Trévise. It’s always been a little sexy, but it has never been the kind of coarse entertainment venue that most Americans imagine. It certainly isn’t anything that I couldn’t take any of my wives or girlfriends to — although that probably says more about my wives and girlfriends than it does the Folies Bergère.

A better way to look at it is like the club in Cabaret. And based upon that, we can say of the performers, “Each and every one: a virgin!” According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Folies Bergère was a standard nightclub in its early days, featuring “musical comedies and revues, operettas, vaudeville sketches, playlets, ballets, eccentric dancers, acrobats, jugglers, tightrope walkers, and magicians.” It followed other clubs into nudity, but apparently with much gusto.

Today, of course, the Folies Bergère is an institution in Paris. It sound like a lot less fun to me than it would have been in the early 1870s:

Each of its shows requires about 10 months of planning and preparation, 40 different sets, and 1,000 to 1,200 individually designed costumes.

Happy anniversary Folies Bergère!