I have read a lot of books. I have been especially interested in reading history, and one thing I’ve learned over the years is how much there is that I don’t know. Of course, this drives me to read more, so now I have a fairly long reading list of books that I just haven’t gotten to quite yet.
This is not an uncommon thing; there is even a term for collecting unread books – tsundoku. A collection of unread books is called an antilibrary, and supposedly it’s good to have one, to remind oneself of the limits of one’s knowledge. My antilibrary, honestly, is actually not that large. But it’s large enough, possibly, to last me the rest of my life.
Between work, family, and other hobbies, I have not found much time to read lately. So, for 2020, I have decided to read more, and to track what I read on the social website Goodreads. My goal is simple – 20 books completed in 2020. And I plan to post reviews, some of which I may share on this blog.
Let’s see…20 books a year. If I live for 30 more years, which is plausible, that means 600 more books to read before I die. That’s it!?? There’s more than that many books in one aisle at the Barnes & Noble!
When will I have time enough? It almost makes me wish for the fate of Burgess Meredith’s character in the famous Twilight Zone episode. But of course, we know how that turns out. And even if I found time to read 6000 books, I would only scratch the surface of all that humanity has recorded.
Ah well. It’s still a joy to read a good book, despite the limitations of our mere mortal lives. I end with a quote from a great poet.
Knowledge is precious to us, because we shall never have time to complete it. All is done and finished in the eternal Heaven.
Who is the most powerful woman in the United States today? It’s not Hillary Clinton, whose fortunes peaked a few years ago; we all know the story of her rise and fall. No, according to Forbes, those consummate rankers of the wealthy and powerful, it is none other than Nancy Pelosi (b.1940), Speaker of the House and highest ranking elected official in U.S. history. She is seven years older than Baby Boomer Clinton, and from an earlier generation – the Silent Generation.
Taking a look at the Forbes lists over the years, it’s interesting to note that most of the American woman on it are C-level executives in the private sector. Other countries have their Chancellors and Prime Ministers, but the U.S. has its CEOs and COOs – reflecting perhaps the entrepreneurial bent of American society, or perhaps its failing in never having elected a woman to the Presidency. When government officials do make the list, they are usually in the executive branch, which makes Pelosi’s appearance as a member of the House of Representatives all the more remarkable.
Of course, she is no ordinary Representative. She is the first woman to hold the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives, and in fact the first woman to lead a party caucus in the United States Congress (which she has done since 2003). That would actually make her the only woman to have achieved this. She has held her seat since 1987, representing the city and county of San Francisco, and one key to her success is that she has one of the safest seats in Congress for Democrats.
Now, that’s not to downplay her merits as a politician and a leader. She’s has been very effective at guiding her caucus in a time of intense partisan warfare, and was an instrumental part of its major achievement in this era – the Affordable Care Act. Now she leads the Democrats in their first year with a Congressional majority in the Trump era, following the 2018 mid-term elections – and this after weathering opposition from within her own party.
Standing atop the Democrats’ only hold on power in the United States government, Pelosi’s primary accomplishment has been persisting in the face a hostile Senate and an unpredictable and disgracefully immature President. Her way of handling Trump is patient and resolute, like an exasperated mother dealing with a troublesome child. It’s summed up in an image of her that went viral during the 2019 State of the Union address, when he made comments about the need for unity and she rewarded him with a hand clap. If her applause was mocking in any way, surely Trump’s comments were just as insincere.
Pelosi has never lost track of the seriousness of our current state of affairs, and of her responsibility as leader of the House, and undoubtedly will be most remembered by history for her decision to impeach President Trump following revelations that he abused the power of his office in an attempt to influence the upcoming elections. It’s a decision she delayed longer than some might have wished, but in her role the choice was hers to make, and her timing may prove to be the wisest in the end. In deciding to proceed with the impeachment, she has restored honor to a troubled U.S. government. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming trial, I am grateful to her for her leadership, and to her generation – the Silent generation – for sticking around to help us deal with those obstreperous Baby Boomers.
Nancy Pelosi was already included in my “Silent of the Week” post covering Congressional leadership. In light of recent events, and with Forbes naming her the most powerful woman in America, I hereby declare Nancy Pelosi 2019’s Silent of the Year.
So I accepted this challenge on Facebook where you post ten indispensable albums, one a day. Here are the albums I chose, along with the text I posted on FB (with some edits). I consolidated them into one list for the blog format, also figuring I should save the information somewhere that doesn’t belong to the android overlord of social media.
So without further ado, here are my top ten indispensable albums.
1) Jesus Christ Superstar
My first experiences with music were listening to my parents’ record collection. They had a lot of old albums that I remember, but the one that I remember most fondly is the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. They had the double LP set, with Sides 1 and 4 on one record and sides 2 and 3 on the other, so you could play them on a turntable with a record changer. My sister and I knew all the lyrics and would sing along together. This was actually a concept album before it became a Broadway musical, and as a musical is still produced to this day. It’s a brilliant work that has stood the test of time.
2)We’re An American Band
My generation grew up on rock and roll, and was greatly influenced by the music made by the generation that came before us – the Baby Boomers. We call that music “classic rock” now, and there are a ton of possible choices that might go on a Gen-Xer’s list of indispensable albums. I chose this one: We’re an American Band by Grand Funk (Railroad). It was also in my parents’ collection; they had one of the original gold foil copies, and I listened to it from an early age. I think this album captures perfectly the energy, attitude, and ambition of the young Boomer generation. I still have it on CD and pop it into my car stereo when I need to get my blood flowing.
Here’s where my list of indispensable albums starts to veer away from the ordinary. When I was in high school some friends introduced me to the progressive rock/space rock/acid rock/whatever you want to call them rock band Hawkwind. I was instantly hooked on them. It’s not that they are that impressive musically; I just loved their weird style, their use of electronics, and the psychedelic and science fiction themes in their songs. And I’m telling you, until you’ve listened to Hawkwind’s epic live double album Space Ritual with your headphones on in a dark room in an altered state of mind, you have not truly experienced the mystery and majesty of this Universe.
After being introduced to Hawkwind, I started getting into more alternative rock music, especially what was coming out of Europe. There’s a lot of interesting stuff from this time period (late 60s through 70s), but as for indispensable, I would have to pick the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy by Gong. This is a three album series that tells a strange mythological tale involving, among other things, magic tea, extraterrestrials and mystical prostitutes. A wonderful expression of the spirit of its age, it is playful, humorous, and – to me at least – has a profound spiritual message. The second album, Angel’s Egg, is the centerpiece and my favorite of the three.
5)Liege & Lief
So what makes an album indispensable, I think, is that you’ve listened to it many times, never tire of it, and feel that the world would be a lesser place without it. With that in mind, I have to include Liege & Lief, by Fairport Convention. This folk rock album features adaptations of traditional Celtic music and the enchanting singing voice of Sandy Denny. It is an all-time favorite of mine.
When I was in high school my friend Joe Webb introduced me to my next indispensable album, Extraterrestrial Live by Blue Öyster Cult. It’s the second live album I’ve put on this list. I guess there can be something in a particular concert performance that makes it memorable and unrepeatable and better than a studio album, and this is one example. And of course it has the sci-fi/fantasy appeal that is a staple of heavy metal music. This double LP set has so many great numbers – Black Blade, Godzilla, Don’t Fear the Reaper, Joan Crawford, and my all-time favorite, Veteran of the Psychic Wars.
There is a lot of music from high school days on my list of indispensable albums. It just goes to show how the impressions made in your formative years are the ones that stay with you. And here’s an astounding album that has made a lasting impression on me: The Dreaming by the inimitable Kate Bush. It’s so uniquely creative, and every song is a gem.
This next indispensable album might not appeal to all tastes. Frankly (heh), it’s obnoxious and crass and has lyrics that would get an artist ratioed and hashtagged into oblivion in today’s social climate. But it fit into its time, which was a much more free-wheeling age.
I’m talking about the brilliant satirical rock opera Joe’s Garage, by Frank Zappa. I want to listen to it many more times before I die, and when I do die, you can play this song – which features the greatest guitar solo in history – at my funeral.
Suddenly I’m jumping ahead two decades to 1999. What about all the wondrous varieties of rock music of the 80s and 90s? Well, I can appreciate it and admire it, but none of it made it to…indispensable. Maybe if this was a top 20 list.
Plus, at some point later in life, I started getting heavily into electronic music, so that genre gets the last two of the ten albums.
Now, for electronic music, I actually have an indispensable band, and that band would be Underworld. They are just freaking amazing in their mixing skills and their composition and tempo – and what’s even better is they’re still active and producing as much as ever. Just follow them on Spotify for endless fresh tracks. They’ve had a lot of great stuff since the early 90s, but if I had to live with just one of their albums, then that album would be Beacuoup Fish.
10)Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost
My number 10 indispensable album is a probably obscure psychedelic trance masterpiece by electronic musical project Shpongle. It’s title is Nothing Lasts… But Nothing Is Lost, which is taken from William Blake and speaks to the ineffable mysteries of time and consciousness. It’s a work of genius, a dream journey in an electronic and world music soundscape that is utterly entrancing and profound. That’s my opinion, anyway; I think it’s one of the best albums in its genre. It is best listened to in its entirety as one continuous piece, which you can only approximate on YouTube.
That’s right, my top ten list goes to eleven.
Most of the albums were from the way back, when I was first developing my attachment to music. But I really do appreciate the more recent waves of artists as well, so here is one more. My eleventh and final indispensable album of this list is Illinoise, by the quirky, creative indie musician Sufjan Stevens. He is a multi-talented virtuoso, and while his albums can be hit or miss as he genre-hops, this is one that I never tire of hearing.
Some moons ago I posted about my history of working in IT, and how I was focusing in data warehousing and working with many associates from India. That was back when I lived in North Carolina, and I predicted that there would be more corporate campuses in my future. When I moved up to Pennsylvania, I actually took a job that was in a downtown office building – a work environment with a different vibe. On a corporate campus you’re more isolated within the company’s culture, and usually eat at the cafeteria since it’s inconvenient to leave the campus. In a downtown environment you can escape for a walk, and eat at nearby restaurants.
Well, once more I have switched jobs and, as predicted, I am now working at a corporate campus again. It’s an interesting one, sprawling and maze-like, with buildings that are oddly colored and resemble warehouses. It’s like being in a giant art project, with the insides of the buildings filled with interesting art, too. The buildings all have open floor plans – that is, they are just one huge room on each floor, so they are warehouse-like on the inside as well as the outside. But it’s not that they are converted warehouses, as some office sites are – these were built this way intentionally.
My desk is in the middle of the floor, in a huge space that is cacophonous when the building is full. The power and network feeds are up in the ceiling, and connect to the individual desks via long, coiling cables called “pythons.” It’s a unique setup in my experience. The energy here is very dynamic, basically a perpetual commotion, like one might imagine a trade floor would be – and it is a finance company, so that is fitting. At least there are windows, so there is a little bit of natural light.
I am in the data warehouse group, and as usual, most of my coworkers have H1B visas and are from India. So the pattern persists. This has become my niche – token white guy on a fin tech data warehouse team. I’ve occupied this niche for twelve years, and with each job shift I notice the workforce getting younger and younger than me – disconcerting, but obviously inevitable. There’s so much aggressive energy from young people trying to prove themselves, and to me it’s all old hat and I’m just here because I need an income so I don’t retire in poverty.
Including this one, I have now worked a total of 18 IT jobs in 6 different Eastern states. My longest stint was for 5 years and three months, and my shortest (not counting this one) was for 5 months. It’s been a fascinating career, full of all kinds of experiences, and I don’t regret taking any of the jobs, even the ones that drove me crazy (but that’s a whole other story). Here’s to what adventures lie ahead.
I’ve posted before about “books from the Third Turning that I didn’t get around to until the Fourth Turning.” Waiting on the bookshelf for some time has been Ruling the Waves, by Debora L. Spar. This book is subtitled “a History of Business and Politics along the Technological Frontier” and in the introduction discusses the Internet a bit. It was published in 2001 (pre-9/11!), when the commercial Internet was young and Web 2.0 was just getting going. The book was hoping, then, to shed some light on what was to come in the development of cyberspace.
The author has a premise that when a ground-breaking new technology is introduced, it goes through four phases of development before becoming a commonplace part of everyday life on which we depend. First there is the invention phase, involving just a few people, and then the entrepreneur phase, where risk-takers develop the new technology commercially. Next is what she calls a period of “creative anarchy,” when the most successful entrepreneurs battle for supremacy in the marketplace, and finally the rulemaking phase, where those who now dominate the technology application push for a fixed legal structure within which to operate.
She goes through different waves of technology, and I was interested to see how what she describes compares to Strauss & Howesaecular theory. The first wave Spar analyzes is the wave of advancements that led to the Age of Discovery – but this happens over a long period of time (centuries) so bringing saecular theory into it seems difficult. The next technological wave was that of the telegraph, and here it is easier to do the analysis.
I was half-expecting to find that the Gilded generation were major players in the drama of the development of the telegraph, since they are the Nomad generation of the Civil War Saeculum. After all, the Nomad generation of the current saeculum, my generation, has had a big part to play in the rise of Internet technology. But what I found is that the the main players in the story (looking at the U.S. part of it) were all from two generations – Compromise and Transcendental. The Gilded are nowhere to be found, probably because they were too young.
The narrative of the development of the telegraph did track pretty well with the turnings of the Civil War Saeculum, however. The invention period occurs at the end of the Transcendental Awakening, the 2nd turning. It involves two key players, Samuel Morse (b. 1791, Compromise Generation) of course, and Alfred Vail (b. 1807, Transcendental Generation), who worked closely with Morse. The idea of transmitting electricity over wires had been known about for decades; their genius was in combining the transmission with encoding, to create information. They managed to get some public backing through Congress to build a line, but the enterprise failed.
So then came the entrepreneurs to buy them out, and build a private enterprise instead. A key player was Amos Kendall (b. 1789, Compromise), a former postmaster general who left his position specifically for this purpose. He proved that it was possible to raise funds privately to build a telegraph line, and once the public caught on to what the technology made possible, the money started flowing into more and more companies building regional lines. Other big time entrepreneurs of this period included Henry O’Rielly (b. 1806, Transcendental) and Cyrus Field (b. 1819, Transcendental), who built the first trans-Atlantic line.
Without going into too much detail, the competition became fierce, as well as costly to the companies involved. In the period leading up to the Civil War, that is the 3rd turning in saecular terms, there was fighting over patent rights and access to markets, as well as confusion sowed by competing signal standards and encoding methods. This is the “creative anarchy” period in Spar’s terminology.
The winner of this period of conflict turned out to be Western Union, thanks in large part to the efforts of Hiram Sibley (b. 1807, Transcendental), who led it in its transformation into a telegraph company, eventually establishing the first transcontinental line. With this consolidation came standardization – the rulemaking period. After the Civil War, in the 1st turning of the next saeculum, Western Union became a huge and powerful monopoly, enough to worry people into pressuring the government to regulate it, though not much was done in the Gilded Age.
I just find it fascinating that the so many of the key players in the development of the telegraph were from the Transcendental generation, the Prophet archetype of the Civil War Saeculum. They were the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs equivalents of their time, and of this technological wave.
It wasn’t until the end of the new saeculum, with the founding of the FCC, that private communication networks became thoroughly regulated. That was during the era of radio, which is actually the next technology covered by Spar’s book. So I will continue reading Ruling the Waves, and report in another post what I discover.
I have been a student and fan of the Fourth Turning theory for over a quarter of a century. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned that a play which incorporates the theory is running off-Broadway. It’s called Heroes of the Fourth Turning, written by Will Arbery and directed by Danya Taymor. I got a ticket for it as soon as I could, and luckily my BFF was able to come along as well. It’s premiering at Playwrights Horizons, which is basically a development house supporting playwrights and producing new works.
Since I am so interested in the aforementioned theory, I wanted to review not so much the play itself as how it presents and incorporates the Fourth Turning concept. So I will be looking at the play through a soda straw, so to speak. But I will start with a brief summary review from a general perspective.
The play we saw is an excellent production. It’s well written, well directed and well acted. It has one long act, entirely set on the back porch of a house in Wyoming, on a very specific night in the year 2017. It has great tech too, with the set design and dark lighting pulling you into a setting that seems very real.
There are only five characters, and the premise of the play is that four of them are from the same college class and are reuniting seven years after graduation. Their dialogue establishes their characters, the tensions between them, and reveals secrets from their past – good dramatic stuff. The fifth character is their former teacher/mentor, who arrives later in the play to add a little generational conflict.
The Fourth Turning idea comes into the script because one of the Millennial graduates is familiar with the theory. She explains it in detail in an animated monologue, which absolutely amazed me to behold, seeing as I’ve been interested in generational theory for so long. I certainly never expected to see it explained one day on stage in New York City.
Now this character knows about the theory thanks to Steve Bannon, which is possibly how many people first encountered it back in 2017. And she’s interested in Bannon’s ideas because she is a conservative Catholic and a Trump supporter. In fact, the college the four graduates attended is a conservative Catholic institution – so the play ends up being a kind of exposé of the Red State perspective. We can see why it is set in Wyoming.
The director’s notes mention that the play is meant to shine light on how people on this side of the political spectrum think, but not necessarily to empathize with them. Judging from their reactions, the audience did not approve of the characters’ beliefs at all (at least that was my impression). The conservative stances on abortion and LBGTQ seemed particularly upsetting. Of course, this is not surprising coming from an audience in New York. The promotional material makes a point about how this show is giving a perspective not usually presented to theater audiences.
The playwright, Will Arbery, actually comes from a conservative, Catholic background himself (though he makes clear in his notes in the program that he voted for Obama), which I guess is why he was motivated to write about the subject of conservative thought. It’s kind of a weird twist of fate that the Fourth Turning theory is associated popularly with the political right, seeing as it could just as easily be applied in a story about supporters of Bernie Sanders.
It’s understandable why a theory about a cyclic return to civic renewal would appeal to a minority group of beleaguered traditionalists. Kudos to Will Arbery for making that connection. He also incorporates the idea of different generations – one of the graduates is a Gen Xer, since he is ten years older than the others, who are Millennials, while the professor is a Boomer who was a Goldwater girl, like Hillary Clinton. It’s the Millennials who are ostensibly the Heroes of the play’s title, and whether or not they are ready for the challenge of the Fourth Turning is for you to decide.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a brilliant play. If you are interested in what a play could have to say about generational theory, or what it could reveal about conservative politics in the Trump era, or just want some good character drama, it is worth seeing. You’ll have to hurry, though – it’s only up through November 17. I hope it finds another venue because it is a wonderful work and very pertinent to our time.
Pictured above is St. Paul’s, a 150 year old Catholic church located in Wilmington, Delaware. I used to drive past it every day on my commute to work. Between the exit ramp off the highway and the commuter lot in the commercial district where I worked there were a few blocks of gritty urban neighborhood to drive through, with this church planted in the midst of it, like a watchtower, or a fortress. This quick drive by provided a glimpse of a world unlike either the one I had just left at home, or the one I was traveling to at work.
There might be someone at the bottom of the ramp, begging with a cardboard sign, despite the posted warning of a fine for solicitation. A homeless person might be visible camped under the highway overpass (just to the left in that picture) – a figure seated amidst a jumble of bags and tarps, maybe with a shopping cart. Just down the street from the church there was a ministry which one must assume served food, given that there would sometimes be a long line of people at the door.
This was America, or a part of it anyway. These were Americans, of all colors and ages, though it seemed they were disproportionately older. But maybe I was just seeing the ones like me. Wondering if I could handle being my age – early fifties – but impoverished, desperate for a handout. And then I would park my car in the lot, and get on the shuttle bus that drove me to the office, and the bus would be full of people who were mostly young and mostly Asian. I would feel conspicuously out of place, a middle-aged white guy who was apparently on a different path in life than most other middle-aged white guys.
Of course, in the Asian countries my coworkers were from, there are teeming masses of poor people – people even poorer than the ones whose world I briefly became a part of during my commute to Wilmington. I just didn’t see them, because they were not the ones granted visas to come to the United States and work cushy tech jobs. And of course there are plenty of Americans my age prospering as well as I am, or better. I just happen to be in a field – finance tech, data warehousing – whose workforce is primarily Indian. India has reaped the reward for educating so many of its youth in the field of information technology.
The United States, meanwhile, is going to bring back manufacturing using trade wars. And tighten its grip on fossil fuel extraction. As far as I can tell, that is the current strategy for expanding economic opportunity for its citizens, which is the role of government in this new age of neoliberalism. I wonder, though, what kind of opportunity will be provided for the poor people of Wilmington.
Some voters thought Trump was going to bring an end to neoliberalism, except he’s a charlatan – a crook and a liar. How could they not see that? I wonder if any of the people I passed on my commute even vote at all. If not, as seems likely, then they get no representation in government anyway. How will any opportunity be created for them in this age of the market state?
Would you believe that I live, work and play in Sweden? Or, rather, what used to be Sweden? That’s right – the Kingdom of Sweden once laid claim to a part of the east coast of North America, back in the colonial era before England snatched it all up. It was established in the lower Delaware Valley, in what would today be called the tri-state area. The sites of what are now Wilmington, DE and Philadelphia, PA are included in the former colony.
There’s even a famous ship involved in the founding, akin to the Mayflower that legendarily landed at Plymouth Rock. The Swedish ship was called the Kalmar Nyckel, and it came to North America with Swedish colonists in 1638. The settlement they founded was Fort Christina, named after the Queen of Sweden. There’s a replica of the ship that plies the former waters of New Sweden for the benefit of tourists, and I sometimes see it when I am at work in Wilmington. But all that remains of the fort is a marker.
There is a little bit left of the old colony of New Sweden in the urban landscape of the area, mainly in the form of three churches known as the Old Swedes Churches. There is one in Wilmington and two in Philadelphia. The one in Wilmington is a National Historic Park, and you can visit and get a tour for $5. When I went, the guide first wanted to know if I am of Swedish heritage, which I am not, because many Americans who are of Swedish extraction come to the church out of, I guess, genealogical curiosity. Then he showed me around the church and grounds, and told me a little history. It’s a remarkable site to visit, with its many very old graves, and original masonry dating from the late 1600s.
As the guide related it to me, the Europeans who first settled here weren’t in New Sweden for very long. The colony was ceded to the Dutch after a war and became part of New Netherland. But even that status was brief, as it all went to England in 1676. By then the Kalmar Nyckel had been sunk in battle. Now the people who lived here got along with their lives pretty well no matter who was officially in charge – it really didn’t matter to them which monarch on the other side of the Atlantic ocean ostensibly ruled them. Part of the logic, I suppose, of living in the New World, which eventually would lead to complete independence from European monarchy.
New Sweden is something of a very minor footnote in American history. The Dutch influence was actually greater in the early colonial era – I’m sure you know what old New York used to be called. And most Swedish-Americans today live in the midwest and descend from immigrants who came in the late 19th century. But I am reminded of the Old Swedes’ historical presence every time I cross Swedesford road, on the northern edge of the former colony of New Sweden. America’s old history remains faintly visible through its modern facade.
I recently finished watching Season 2 of the Netflix series Aggretsuko, which I recommend if:
You like anime.
You need a show with short episodes to watch during meals or whatever.
You want to see a show that captures the Millennial zeitgeist.
Yes, I really do think this show does the last thing on the list, which is a big reason why it fascinates me. Plus, all the anthropomorphised animal characters are just adorable.
Aggretsuko is an anime, full of the tropes of that genre. You have to watch it in Japanese, with subtitles. It’s main character, Retsuko, is a young single woman working an ordinary office job. She is self-conscious, anxiety ridden, stressed by the demands of everyday life, and feels pressure to fit in and appear normal from her peers and social media – in others words, a Millennial. She remains calm – if nervous – on the outside, while cultivating an inner rage that comes out in private moments.
It’s not only the peer pressure and the burnout that make Retsuko so Millennial. As her story develops and she grows as a person, she is able to adapt to the many aggravations coming from the personalities that surround her. She matures, and learns to own her rage, while remaining true to herself. And what she learns about herself is that she just wants a conventional life.
Aggretsuko is loaded with references to modern pop culture and social trends. It satirizes modern life, but there is no nihilism here. In the end, the ordinary aspects of life – a job, a family, friends – are celebrated and valued. And when Retsuko rages, she doesn’t rage destructively to take down society, but rather constructively to find her place in society. Now how Millennial is that?