The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to

First music of the day: June Christy’s Something Cool, a 1955 record that introduced the “vocal cool” period, and one of the excellent pieces of old vinyl that I picked up during my new favorite holiday, Saturday’s Record Store Day. “I don’t ordinarily drink with strangers,” she sings on the title track. “I mostly usually drink alone, but you were so nice to ask me, and I’m so terribly far from home…. A cigarette, I don’t smoke them a a rule, but I’ll have one, it will be fun, with something cool.” I look out the front window, and see that it rained last night; everything is a lush green.

1, “The civil lawsuit filed against Goldman on Friday by the Securities and Exchange Commission seemed to confirm many Americans’ worst suspicions about Wall Street,” The Times writes in the lead story of the day. “That the game is rigged, the odds are stacked in the banks’ favor.”  Think of last week’s lead story, that 29 miners died in West Virginia because the mine owners willfully ignored safety violations. This week, as Congress gears up for financial reform debate, the conservative drum beat against “Big Government” will grow louder. But all we’re asking for is Effective Government. Those miners simply wanted to earn a living wage, not give their lives for the company’s profits. And when you invest in a retirement plan, you don’t expect to lose it in a market fraud. Government reform and regulation is important in today’s society, which is far more complex than anyone can handle. As The Times notes in an editorial today, “When Republicans try to block reform, they are doing nothing more than shilling for the banks.”

2, In Southeast Asia, the dung of civits – a nocturnal, cat-like animal – is gathered from the hills in an exotic harvest: coffee cherry seeds, fermented in the animal’s stomach acid and enzymes, produces (The Times writes with first-person authority) “a brew described as smooth, chocolaty and devoid of any bitter aftertaste.” Highly valued by connoisseurs, beans fraudulently said to be marinated in civit stomachs are becoming a problem. And, as is always the case with foods of curious origin, you must wonder, “Who was the first person to decide that beans extruded from a varmint’s digestive tract would make a tasty cup of coffee?” Also of interest in this story, a passing reference to a local funeral tradition in the Philippines of hanging coffins from sheer cliffs. I don’t recall Ferdinand Marcos coming to such an end.

3, “Romney Will Endorse Rubio Over Crist in Florida, Adviser Says.” The headline refers to the Florida senate race, in which the formerly obscure Marco Rubio is leading Governor Charlie Crist in the Republican primary. Y0u must ask: What right does Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, have to tell the people of Florida how to vote?

4, A story on public toilets in New York City parks suggests viewing a video on the newspaper’s web site in which the issue is discussed by a New York University toilet expert. Who knew there was such a position?

5, A 58-year-old grocery store produce clerk from Austin, Texas, has ranked the Top 9,200 films of all time. He’s seen 7,000 of them, slotting the unseen ones based on others’ opinions, and plans on stopping at 10,000. Brad Bourland takes other critics’ ideas into account; while he tells The Times that Being John Malkovich as a masterpiece that he would have ranked in the Top 200, some critical carping led him to place it at No. 502. The story doesn’t mention the Top Three, so I looked it up for you at www.themovielistonline.com: 1, Casablanca. 2, Citizen Kane, 3, The Godfather.

6, Natalie Merchant’s new album, Leave Your Sleep, is actually a poetry compilation set to music. It also comes with an 80-age hardbound book of photos, drawings by Merchant and annotated poetry text. As music packaging grows increasingly slim, bowing to the artistically soul-less download, “there’s still an audience for a project that’s a little more hand-crafted,” insists Robert Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records. Merchant describes her interest in learning all she could about the poets she selected as driven by the fact that “I had never collaborated with dead people or strangers.”

7, The Travel section’s European issue samples cuisine from across the continent. In Stockholm we discover “meat of one particular animal paired with appropriate wines, such as ‘Red Deer and Bordeaux,’ ‘Veal and Nebbiolo’ and ‘Cow and Cabernet.’ ” (Note to myself: Prague’s slow-cooked pork with a blackberry and black pepper glaze, served on a bed of mashed potatoes with a thick Montepulciano wine reduction.)

8, Are we being struck by more earthquakes than usual? No, says the United States Geological Survey. “Several million quakes occur yearly, most undetected,” The Times reports. Each year, about 16 earthquakes of 7.0 magnitude or higher are recorded. We’ve had six so far this year, so we’re right on schedule.

9, Much has been made of last week’s survey of the Tea Party folks being a little wealthier, better educated and a whole lot whiter than the rest of America. What’s another major difference? “They were almost unanimous in their dislike of President Obama,” The Times writes, which takes them far from the mainstream; Obama remains one of the most-popular national politicians in the country. As for “better educated,” three out of 10 Tea Partiers cling to the belief that Obama was not born in the United States, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

10, The Times editorial page notes that pro-gun marchers will be descending on two parks in the Washington, D.C., area on Monday, ostensibly celebrating the Second Amendment and the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord. A better anniversary to take note of, the editorial suggests, is the 11th anniversary of the Columbine massacre. It points out that the two students responsible for the shootings had obtained their weapons through what’s known as the “gun-show loophole,” which allows hobbyist dealers to make no-questions-asked sales. Closing this loophole would undoubtedly be applauded by the founding patriots of Lexington and Concord, The Times writes, because, “It demands the political courage to value human life over the bravado of the gun culture.” And, I will add, Monday’s celebrants also appear to be silent on another Monday anniversary, the Oklahoma City bombing by terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

11, Columnist Frank Rich sees a tie-in between the rabid anti-health care reform protests and Virginia’s declaration of April as “Confederate History Month.” Both movements are revisionist histories and myths enabled by “unreconstructed white cohorts.”

12, “According to the perverse aesthetics of artistic guilty pleasures, certain books and movies are so bad – so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed – that they’re actually rather good,” writes Walter Kirn in his review of Solar, the new work by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ian McEwan. Perhaps this is why I enjoy sci-fi films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space, or anything featuring atomically enriched, gigantic insects. But Solar, Kirn writes, runs in the opposite direction, “so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high minded and skillfully brought off – that it’s actually quite bad.” This sounds much like my perception of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I first picked up because it was so highly regarded, only to find myself on a death march to the final page, hoping to find some salvation in the end, thus justifying my investment. It did not happen. I remain convinced to this day that I am one of only 37 people worldwide to have actually read that numbing bestseller in its entirety.