The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Oct. 17

It was such a stunningly beautiful morning that, rather than read The Times first thing, I chose to follow the dog through Turning Point Park for about an hour. It’s an appropriately overgrown area on the west bank of the Genesee River, in Charlotte, and people sightings are few. I frequently find cool-looking old bricks, chunks of quartz and rusted metal things back in the weeds. The leaves are maybe half-turned, yellows and browns, and a few oranges, but still lots of green. With the sun shining through that canopy, it’s really a beautiful thing. And now, on to The Times.

1, “Few nations in recent history have seen such a striking reversal of economic fortune as Japan,” The Times reports in its lead story. “The original Asian success story, Japan rode one of the great speculative stock and property bubbles of all time in the 1980s to become the first Asian country to challenge the long dominance of the West.” In noting that Japan has gone “from an economic Godzilla to little more than an economic afterthought in the global economy,” The Times warns, “Now, as the United States and other western nations struggle to recover from a debt and property bubble of their own, a growing number of economists are pointing to Japan as a dark vision of the future.”

2, One of the masterminds of the 2008 terrorist attack on a hotel in Mumbai, India, is cooperating with the investigation. The man, David Headley, has three wives, and apparently two of them alerted authorities – one went to American authorities in Pakistan – warning them that Headley was a part of a group that was up to something deadly. Nothing was done and at least 163 people died. It’s a silence quit reminiscent of U.S. security agencies ignoring signs of an impending terrorist attack here, an event we now call 9/11. Coupled with the lead story in The Times, in which those economy-killing “speculative stock and property bubbles” were allowed to run wild, we see a portrait of a Bush administration completely asleep at the wheel on domestic and foreign policy. And while the concept of a smaller, less-intrusive government is a good sound bite, the evidence lies in the other direction: We need a government that protects us from many dangers.

3, “Return of the Secret Donors,” in Week in Review, explores what could be the biggest emerging scandal in years, although it has plenty of company. The story opens with the illegal anonymous cash contributions that fed the Nixon presidency. “This time around, the corporations are still giving secretly, but legally,” The Times reports. It’s due in part to the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizen’s United decision, giving corporations the same rights as citizens, a move which President Obama, during his State of the Union address last January, warned would come with dire consequences for democracy. He was right. In addition, The Times reports, “tax laws and loopholes have permitted a shadow campaign network of Republican-leaning nonprofit groups to collect a flood of anonymous donations and spend it widely.”

4, A David Letterman joke: “Somebody threw a book a President Obama. I thought, wait a minute. If you’re trying to scare a president by throwing a book at him, you’re one president too late.”

5, Shopping Cart Annie, a vagabondish denizel of New York City’s old Fulton Fish Market, is profiled in the New York section. Annie was apparently a great beauty in days long gone by. She recently died, a mystery woman who told off-color jokes, sold cigarettes and flashed her breasts for a laugh. As he explores her story, Dan Barry’s description on her offers shards of poetry: Her life was “a wondrous gray,” “this bent woman at shadow’s edge.”

6, In the magazine, a profile of Obama and this interesting line: “Obama is preaching patience in an impatient age.”

7, Broadway’s biggest box office shows, Patrick Healy writes in Arts & Leisure, are generally escapist spectacles (The Lion King), comedies (The Addams Family) and jukebox shows (Jersey Boys). Audiences don’t like to get slapped in the face by reality. But hard life can break through, and perhaps that will be The Scottsboro Boys, a musical based on the bleak story of nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women in the 1930s. “There’s a lot of racism in America today that is so insidious, the way enemies of  our black president use code language to depict him as ‘the other,’ ” says John Kander, who composed the show’s music. “And that part of our world has a direct through-line back to the Scottsboro Boys.”

8, Becoming Jimi Hendrix: From Southern Crossroads to Psychedelic London, the Untold Story of a Musical Genius, by Steve Roby and Brad Schreiber, tells us that Hendrix once said, “I don’t play guitar. I play amplifiers.” And when he discovered Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album,  he learned “You don’ t have to sg ike a choir boy to have hits (in fact, it’s better not to),” they write.

9, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann demonstrates that, unlike so many cable news personalities, he’s also a bit of a journalist with a very comprehensive review of The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. Olbermann applies the word “Dickensian” to writer Jane Leavy’s description on Mantle growing up on top of a toxic waste site.

10, Tea Partiers pledge their allegiance to preserving the “original meaning” of the Constitution, which I guess means slavery and women denied the right to vote are a part of the deal. In The Pledge: The History of the Pledge of Allegiance, by Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer, we see that the Tea Party folks may not want to be so quick in declaring their allegiance to the “original meaning” of that traditional classroom civics demonstration.  The Pledge was “a 19th Century socialist ditty” to which the all-important (to the Tea Party) words “under God” weren’t added until the 1950s, as reviewer Beverly Gage  writes, “to distinguish American patriotism from ‘godless Communism.’ ”

11, Seventy-three dead writers’ homes are open to the pubic in the U.S., although the tourists’ interest is not always literary. “Half of the 182,000 annual visitors to Hemingway’s house in Key West,” writes Anne Trubek, “say they came for the cats.”

12, In the travel section, Andy Isaacson’s “Amazon Awakening” is literally a trip. Visiting a tribe deep in the Ecuador jungle, he samples vision-producing potions that reunite him with the ghost of his recently deceased father. In one episode, his shaman “had me stand naked in the center of the room,” Isaacson writes. “Beating  drums and chanting around me, he summoned the ancestral spirits before instructing me to face the four directions of nearby volcanoes in turn, with arms raised, as he blew tobacco smoke on my skin and slapped me with nettle leaves. Then, with his cheeks engorged with alcohol, he held a candle flame to his lips and unleashed spectacular balls of fire that dissipated across my chest.”  These are rituals that have yet to be reproduced at Disney World, although Eliot Spitzer may be able to pass on some advice on where we can find such services closer to home.

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