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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

Boy, would I ever love to play Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginal Woolfe? by Edward Albee. I’m serious! Of course it would probably be more like me playing Elizabeth Taylor playing Martha. But still.

I’m taking a quick break from The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart to read this delightfully dark drama (or maybe dramedy?), which we’ll discuss at The Civil Life Civil Reading Group meet-up on Oct 20. I’m pretty excited that it seems like we’ll have a few more people participating because, like me, they just love this play.

Haven’t read or seen it? You should. Do both. And definitely watch the film version starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, and Sandy Dennis. I won’t recommend the order, but I will say that if you watch the movie before reading the play, you will absolutely hear the actors’ voices as you read. Absolutely. Each one of them is so incredibly compelling. Each one really makes you feel it. All of it. Could there be a better cast?

No. No, there couldn’t be. What kind of vain idiot am I to think I could even play a toenail of Elizabeth Taylor’s Martha? It’d be fun as hell, though.

A Brief Note on Reading, Writing, and the Life of Adventure

One good thing to come out of teaching an online class this term is reading Tobias Wolff for the first time. “Bullet in the Brain” is such a good story, I wanted to read something else by him. His memoir of his tour of duty in Vietnam called out to me, so I picked up a copy of In Pharoah’s Army and am reading it now. It’s good. I am finishing the section on his Airborne training. He limns this portrait beautifully and it’s governed in part by his sense that this kind of adventure, and military service, and even war experience, is critical to the formation of a writer. He cites precedents, not the least of whom is Ernest Hemingway. Most of all this just makes me think of how little I agree with this in my case.

I will happily read about adventure, provided I am in a well-insulated house with efficient climate control systems and a very well-stocked liquor cabinet. I have no desire to jump out of airplanes or fight in a war. I just want to read books. But on balance, what I’ve mostly read about is non-adventure, you know, Beckett, Kafka, Proust.

I do like to travel (and have been reading some travel classics like Blue Highways, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Great Plains). I do not camp, though, and “roughing it” includes spending any amount of time without access to bars and room service and Wifi. I am a traveler who demands powerful, hygienic toilets and snow-white, king-size beds. I need blackout curtains and Bloody Marys. And a good book. Even one about someone headed off to the grim pleasures of Special Forces training. I’ll just enjoy that vicariously, Mr. Wolff, with a cocktail in hand and no one barking orders halitosistically into my soft, inexperienced face.

Missing Letters

I think I understand why G. Perec penned a text with nary an ‘e.’ My fancy typewriter has a kaput key. It’s hard when circumstances deprive a writer in this way. Frequently used letters, when taken away, limit language and make sentences seem awkward. Recall the Perec text, wherein characters all puff cigars since cigarettes have ‘e’s in them. I must fix this key, quickly.

The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

No, regardless of what it looks like, I haven’t given up reading. I just got lazy and stopped posting about it. Well, here’s a quick one.

I think the last thing I posted about was JR by William Gaddis. Since then, I finished my quest to read all 37 Shakespeare plays, plus I read all the Civil Reads selections… what were they? Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Vintage Munro, a collection of stories by Alice Munro, Junky by William S. Burroughs, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz by Geoff Dyer (And it was. Beautiful. Go buy it and read it right now.). Also, of course, the second in Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions series, because, yes, I’m just a big kid.

Patrick suggested I read The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, and, since he’s basically a genius to me, I always take his advice. The story here is… As you might know, Patrick has a column on the Riverfront Times Gut Check blog called Drunken Vegan, in which he writes about cocktails, often from a vegan perspective. Patrick also loves books. So it makes sense that he would buy several books on the subject of those irresistibly intoxicating imbibables—you know, for R&D.

The Drunken Botanist is really interesting because it’s a fun to read referencey work about plants used in booze. It’s organized in sections, and alphabetically by the plant’s common name within the section. I’m in the “most common” (that’s the first) section right now. It’s not a super comprehensive botany book or anything, and doesn’t claim or pretend to be. What it is, is a work for the GP, like I am, who know a little about plants, but not a lot, who are interested in a little history and “how it’s used” and “how you can grow it, if it’s practical,” but not a ton of technical stuff or jargon. An interesting read that makes me want to grow every plant she talks about. Fascinating facts I never new, like that sugar beets are probably at the start of just about every kind of liquor, because they’re used in yeast cultivation. And that the sugar from beets isn’t very different than the sugar from sugarcane. Or that all kinds of liquors have certain restrictions w/r/t their alcohol percentage or percentage that has to be made up of a particular ingredient for them to bear their names.

There are little recipes for cocktails throughout as well. Mostly common (or at least I’ve heard of them, so I think they’re common) cocktails. I don’t mean boring, here. Not at all. These are cocktails in which the liquor in question is highlighted beautifully. Or sometimes even the plant used to make the liquor is highlighted.

It’s a pretty book, too. Designed. No dust jacket over the decorated hard cover. Nice feeling pages, with just the right amount of decoration where it works. You can read it straight through, as I am, or you can flip to a plant that interests you at that moment. It’ll definitely be something we keep on our bar shelf and refer to often.

Memoir Experiment Part Ten—Progress

I should never have agreed to attempt to teach an online class. During my freshman year in college, for some reason completely obscure to me now, I enrolled in a computer programming class. I think the language was some hopelessly forgotten piece of computer history, like Cobol or Fortran. I had to drop the class because I was unable to power the machine up, or whatever the phrase is, without the help of the cheerleader sitting next to me. For all I know, she may have gone on to become a brilliant computer programmer. I did not. I repeated this folly in my junior year, now required to take a class in Pascal. This, too, is hopelessly outdated. I did survive, perhaps because the language was named for a figure from the humanities, rather than sounding like a radioactive element or Soviet locomotive. Regardless, I barely scraped by.

A hazy recollection survives. One programming assignment involved figuring out how to count various zoo animals and perhaps categorizing them by type and color. I struggled mightily to get my scraps of code to line up. And lo! The program seemed to work. But as usual, I was too bored with the whole pointless project to adequately test it and I completely left out the lines that accounted for zebras or antelopes or ibexes. I had managed a B in spite of myself, but the exercise was another piece of mental evidence I had amassed against computers. Wasn’t this zoo nonsense just a needless layer of complexity? Why didn’t the zookeeper simply go out with a pad of paper and a pen and count the confounded creatures, taking note of their varieties and colors?

And why doesn’t the teacher teach instead of staring dumbly at a panel of dancing electrons, trying to figure out the difference between a folder and a module and wondering why the fools in administration insist on one instead of the other?

Genetically, I am a combination of my mother and father. My father, in his eighties, struggles to understand various facets of computers out of a sense of duty. My mother detests computers and has nothing to do with them. When forced to confront them, she breaks down in tearful rage. As do I. I seem to have inherited only her luddite strands of DNA governing my reaction to these infernal machines. More often than not, I want to fling computers under the wheels of onrushing buses.

I remember fondly a recent visit to England’s Hook Norton Brewery, which has undergone very little change since its beginnings in 1849. A charming old curmudgeon gave us a very thorough tour of the facility, designed so perfectly over 150 years ago that little change has been necessary, but to meet outside developments, like an increase in air traffic and its effect on the ambient atmosphere (until just about ten years ago, they had employed a metal coolship wherein the newly fermented ale was cooled by the breeze). Whenever our guide detailed some painful change dictated by external forces, he punctuated his sentence by saying “That’s progress for you” (with a delightful long O). Indeed.

Hook Norton Coolship

A great many truisms deal with change and its inability to be halted. And much change is very good, like improving the lives of human beings and expanding their rights and protections. But some changes have proven ill. The changes to higher education in the past decades have been disastrous, especially those affecting the humanities. The businessmen and the technocrats are now running the schools; high-paid administrative positions blossom, while faculty members are “rightsized.” We have finally reached the point at which higher education as it stands is beyond saving. It’s probably no longer worth saving. But university instructors used to be more than computer operators earning minimum wage and they used to teach something worth learning. Those days are now firmly rooted in history. That’s progress for you.

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Memoir Experiment Part Nine—Libraries

I walked out of the baking sun into the cool stone shadow of what was formerly the only entrance to Pius Library at Saint Louis University, now relegated to a back entrance, the whole place having undergone extensive renovation since my days as a graduate student. I had been there since these renovations, a year or so back, after teaching an evening class. On that occasion, I enjoyed the new grand-looking entrance. But the old entrance was appropriate to this visit. The fall term was set to begin soon, and that particular end-of-summer feeling was in the air, though it was still quite hot and humid.

The library was cool and quiet and filled with that lovely bookish scent. I wandered the stacks looking for three titles. I had them written in a little notebook just as I did in the old days. Of course now you can have the call numbers texted to your phone, but I much prefer my little notebook filled with cryptic notes and ciphers, entered in a crazy-man gothic scrawl.

There were very few people about as the term was not to begin officially until the following week, and this sparsely populated vista became even more appealing as a result.

I love libraries.

It was on the third floor, heading into the stacks that I actually felt a little giddy. There’s nothing like an academic library. Public libraries have shifted more and more resources to computers, electronic media, and various technological gimcrackery, often displacing books in the process. Academic libraries have not been immune to these changes, but their collections of physical books continue to be their main draw. Libraries are still ranked by the number of volumes they hold.

I spent a great deal of time in that library while I was a graduate student. One semester I had a class that met there. We were supposed to meet in a classroom. We were also supposed to meet for three hours, but Professor Clarence H. Miller said that it was uncivilized to hold class for that long. So we met for about an hour. He preferred the rare book room for our meetings, surrounding himself with incunabula and existing, like some impossibly rare orchid, within very strict atmospheric conditions. He must have greatly preferred the specially controlled temperature and humidity necessary to protect the books in this quiet library within a library. Like most scholars, he preferred the company of books to people. We sat around a large conference table in comfortable office chairs that could roll and twist and pivot. One day he reclined too far and somehow got one of his armrests trapped beneath the conference table. He flailed about helplessly for a moment and then hollered “Oh, what the devil!” I loved this. I loved hearing this phrase one ever only encounters in stiff Victorian dialogue, along with ejaculations like “My word!” But it was quite right and quite natural coming from him.

As always, we met for less than one hour that night. CHM always wanted to hurry home for a beer. I did too.

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Goodbye Porkpie Hat

I’m thinking about Lester Young. Waking up in the night with the stereo on, hearing that soft and kind of peppy saxophone with a million tons of emotional weight buried beneath that easy sound, I realize that everything I know about Lester Young, I learned from Geoff Dyer. Here was a great artist whose spirit was almost broken by its ugly contact with authority. And I think about how Dyer’s story about the greatest jazz artists in history is also the story of police brutality. That ugly history isn’t buried in our past, as the residents of #Ferguson, Missouri know today.

And I think how earlier today I went to the store to grab a few things, and on the way in, I saw this tall, African-American guy with huge beautiful dreads and a little bebop goatee. He had a Pixies T-shirt on and trim desert camo trousers. He said, “Hey, how ya doin’?” He greeted me because I was grinning at him like an idiot. I’m glad he recognized my loony smile for a friendly sign; I just kind of liked him. And I wish a lot more people just liked each other, instead of mistrusting one another. (I wanted to say, “I saw the Pixies in 1990 at Foellinger Auditorium in Urbana, Illinois. I was in the front row. Kim Deal dropped cigarette ash on me.” But instead I just smiled shyly and said, “Hey.”) Music brings us together.

The Army doctor who interviewed Young in advance of his court martial wrote in his notes, among other things, “Jazz.” A one-word indictment, a term embodying his fear and ignorance, his suspicion of the black world, alien and ugly to his square-white worldview, but it is a cry in the night, too. Maybe it’s that cry that woke me and made me think about jazz and black and white and how we’re all pretty much as dumb as we ever were. I’m thinking about Lester Young now and how he drowned his spirit in gallons of lovely silver gin. Hey, Pres, you were the best.

I’m glad that Dyer later depicts a cop who treats Bud Powell with respect and care, who approaches him with caution and even reverence and who, according to Dyer’s beautiful account, colors his final days of madness with the gentle tones of humanity, instead of the ugly sounds of bigotry and fear. I lift my little late-night glass and utter a silent prayer for more people like this gentle peace officer and fewer like the evil human shit of a lieutenant who degraded Lester Young, and all the others who react to black skin with fear and anger. Is it really the early days of the 21st century? Let us come to our collective senses, if it’s not too late. Maybe if we all just listened to that almost mischievous-sounding tenor saxophone, we might become a little more human, we might become better people. We could greet strangers with a smile and a sense of shared humanity, instead of a disrespectful sneer. Maybe, given the chance, we could even love each other.

Memoir Experiment Part Eight—The Unplugged Shakespearian

I’m going to teach an online course for the first time this semester. I have certain misgivings. More than that, I wonder if I can even master the bare necessities required to operate the electronic application through which I will be “delivering my content.” It is obscene that we have to debase ourselves by adopting the language of business to discuss what we’re doing, but online education, it seems to me, is the product of business people, not educators.

I’m slow to learn these new technologies; like some savage from a remote jungle presented with some maddeningly complex and advanced device, I stare at it dumbly as my heart fills with rage. But then as my mind wanders from the task at hand, as it always does, I remember the early days of my Ph.D. program. A graduate student named Sean started when I did. He was a renaissance scholar, focusing on Shakespeare. He brought his books and a few necessities down south with him from his native Michigan. He had an old typewriter he used for his papers. This was in the late nineties. I believe he wrote his texts out longhand first, in a most elegant cursive, though I might be romanticizing after the fact. His expression was melancholy, and while he loved the study of literature that engaged all his energies, he saw that the outward trappings of the field were inexorably changing, necessitating the use of the very technologies that had driven him to literature and the supreme humanism of the renaissance. There was email, for example. He didn’t use it. Student and faculty messages went unread. Announcements were unheeded. He was told his email account was already set up, he merely had to check it. But with a Bartleby-esque stubbornness, he preferred not to. Indeed, this was a good deal stronger than preference. There were also grumblings about his antiquated carbons and necessarily mono-spaced typefaces. Harmless eccentricity quickly seems pathological when one faces some minor inconvenience. The writing, alas, was on the wall. Sean knew his days were numbered. He told me one day he was leaving, returning to Michigan. He loved Shakespeare more than anything, but he had discovered that society would not allow him to be a Shakespeare scholar on his own terms. He simply would not use a computer; this would rob him of his very humanity. And so he was gone, abandoning his official studies.

I don’t know what happened to him. I like to think he ended up in a rough cabin on the Upper Peninsula. There he sits in my mind’s eye with long unkempt beard and a look of preternatural determination, rereading Timon of Athens for the 100th time, or going over some favorite passage from E.M. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture. He cooks beans in an iron pan over a wood fire, and drinks bourbon when he can get it. He mends his simple clothing and subsists on some old fellowship money he squirreled away. He writes his papers and types them up. He has over 500 dead stock Smith-Corona typewriter ribbons. He cannot send his papers to be published, as the journals only take electronic documents. He has no students. But he will not change, no he will not. I respect him immensely.

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Memoir Experiment Part Seven—Baseball

I’ve never really cared for any sports. I could never sustain enough interest to follow them. I did play on some teams as a child. I can’t recall if my parents encouraged me to, or if I simply signed up because of vague cultural expectations. I played baseball one year on the Khoury League. I guess I was probably ten or eleven years old. I remember that we had handsome uniforms. Our sponsor was the Roland Machine Company. I liked wearing the uniform. And I liked that we all got a can of soda and a candy bar after each game. As far as I can recall, we lost every game. We were given some self-esteem boosting trophy, nonetheless. I hated these games and prayed for rain each Saturday during the baseball season. I just wanted to flop on the couch and watch TV. The family room was the coolest room in the house during summer and no one else would be up yet and it would be just me and the television spending some quality time together. But instead I would be out on the diamond pretending I cared about the outcome of the pointless game, really just craving a can of grape soda and the end of the stupid, interminable season. Practice was even worse, with coaches barking out orders and trying to make us into men. That was never one of my goals. I have always tried to limit my participation in athletics as much as possible. I remember once playing soccer and one of my teammates cried because the coach, his own father, took him out of the game toward the end so some one else could play. I laughed to myself. I was an avid bench warmer no matter what the sport. Let me sit on the bench with a book, or just daydream. I was always good at that. One day during baseball practice, the coach was teaching us to catch pop-flies in the outfield, tossing the ball up and batting it right out to us where we could make an easy catch without even moving. He and everyone else must have been hollering at me, desperately trying to bring me back to earth from my reveries, but the only thing that accomplished that was a baseball to the left eye socket. When he ascertained that I was conscious and not concussed, he yelled at me. I could tell he was sorry, but also angry since it was my own fault. Practice ended early that night. I watched television out of one eye and sipped soda through a straw as I sat ignominiously wearing a round steak eye patch, like some carnivorous pirate. I wonder if tofu works the same way? After that season, I never played baseball again. I did eat a few more steaks. And I played other sports on other teams. I finally realized it was fine to refuse, to refuse all of it, and just go ahead and lose myself in the daydream.

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Mangia Italiano’s Infused Spirits on RFT’s Gut Check Drunken Vegan Column

This week on Drunken Vegan on the Riverfront Times Gut Check blog, Patrick talks about Mangia Italiano’s infused spirits. We tried four of them in four different cocktails. All very nice. One we wanted to try was a strawberry and basil infused vodka in — I don’t remember what the drink was called. Shoot. It sounded really good, though. Unfortunately, the infusion wasn’t quite ready. Guess we’ll just have to go back!

Florida Crystals in Vegan Simple Syrup… the Drunken Vegan on RFT’s Gut Check Blog

Yep, yep, yep, it’s Wednesday! You know what that means…. time for another Drunken Vegan Gut Check post from Patrick on the Riverfront Times. This time, learn about why most sugar is not vegetarian-friendly, and how to use one that is (we like Florida Crystals) to make a delightful mint and lime infused simple syrup to use in your mojitos. MMMMMMMM. Drink up!

Cheap Bourbon

Patrick’s latest Riverfront Times Drunken Vegan Gut Check post is up! He tasted three cheap bourbons: Three Potable Bourbons for Less Than $20 at Starr’s, Schnucks and Randall’s. I’ve had two of them. The Schnucks was excellent in a mint julep, and the Four Roses very fine over ice. Alas, I wasn’t invited to the Old Bardstown tasting party… Oh well. I’d always been an Irish fan anyway…. but, seriously, these two bourbons have opened my eyes and expanded my palate. Yipee!