The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Feb. 19

The coffee is Guatemalan. First music of the day: English folk singer Michael Weston King. I saw him last night at a house concert.

1, Concerns that gas prices might hit $4 a gallon could become a campaign issue as Republicans look for a way to attack Barack Obama’s economic policies. “In a closed-door meeting last week,” The Times writes, “Speaker John A. Boehner instructed fellow Republicans to embrace the gas-pump anger they find among their constituents when they return to their districts for the President’s Day recess.” Boenher is counting on your short memory. As I recall, the last time that gas prices hit $4 a gallon, the economic policies of Republican George W. Bush, which Boehner and cohorts would like to return to, were in effect.

2, That same story discusses how  the National Republican Committee includes the price of gas in its list of talking points, including the “Pundit Prep.” The “Pundit Prep?” You mean Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh don’t come up with all of those great ideas on their own?

3, Instead of politics as usual, how about unusual selflessness? Another front-page story details “the longest chain of kidney transplants ever constructed, linking 30 people who were willing to give up an organ with 30 who might have died without one.” In February of last year, a 44-year-old California man named Rick Ruzzamenti decided to donate one of his kidneys simply because he thought it would be a good thing to do. That kidney was flown to Newark and transplanted into a 66-year-old stranger, whose niece had wanted to donate one of her kidneys to her uncle, but her blood type had proven incompatible. In turn, one of her healthy kidneys went to a stranger, a woman in Wisconsin, after her ex-boyfriend agreed – despite their acrimonious split – to donate one of his healthy kidneys, which went to a stranger in Pittsburgh. And on and on the chain went, iced-down kidneys in cardboard boxes criss-crossing the country on commercial airliners, until 30 people with healthy kidneys had helped saved the lives of 30 people who they did not know.

4, Nothing sums up a life well spent better than a Times obituary. John Fairfax, English-born adventurer, has died at age 74 at his home near Las Vegas. “Footloose and handsome, he was a flesh-and-blood character out of Graham Greene, with more than a dash of Hemingway and Ian Fleming shaken in,” The Times writes.  “At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle. At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar. Afterward, he was apprenticed to a pirate. To please his mother, who did not take kindly to his being a pirate, he briefly managed a mink farm, one of the few truly dull entries in his otherwise crackling resume, which lately included a career as a professional gambler.”  Fairfax is best known as the only man to have rowed by himself across the Atlantic Ocean, starting from the Canary Islands in 1969. Upon arriving at shore in Hollywood, Fla.,  180 days days later, “This is bloody stupid,” he announced. Two years later, he and his girlfriend began rowing across the Pacific Ocean. That took a whole year. The obituary was delayed 54 years when, after a failed romance, Fairfax “resolved to kill himself by letting a jaguar attack him,” The Times writes. “When the planned confrontation ensued, however, reason prevailed – as did the gun he had with him.”

5, The man who created the images for two of the most-popular ever role-playing video games has died. Adam Adamowicz, who was 43 when he died of complications from lung cancer, was the visionary behind Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The Times obit describes Adamowicz’s contributions to Fallout 3 as “locations like a crumbling Washington Monument and coin-operated personal bomb shelters; items like the Pip-Boy 3000 – an electronic wrist computer that serves as a player’s conduit to menus, maps and other vital information – and the Fat Man, a weapon that launches miniature nuclear bombs; and monsters ranging from mutated naked mole rats to 30-foot-tall super mutant behemoths.” Players lost in the world’s radioactive rubble also enjoy a radio playing The Ink Spots’ 1941 hit “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” Fascinated with ’50s iconography, Adamowicz said he created a world that had been hiding for hundreds of years in a subterranean shelter, with “Ward Cleaver being pushed out of his bunker and he’s looking for fresh tobacco for his pipe and then here comes a raider over the top of the horizon.” Well played, Mr. Adamowicz.

6, In the Travel section, frequent flier and bookworm Dominique Browning says she’s given up on reading high-brow literature while flying. The travel hours pass quicker and more smoothly, she says, with “narrative drive. Plain, old-fashioned, unrelenting, compelling storytelling.” Having selected George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones during a weak moment at the airport bookstore, “Within minutes, I was a goner,” she writes. “As dismal hours in the airport lounge slipped by, my mind stayed locked in the conveyor belt of a fantasy saga. Nothing mattered but world domination. I left the tawdry, dingy, gray world of airlines and moved into a place of large, complicated, colorful contest. When I glanced at my fellow passengers, I no longer saw the poor slobs who were as sick and tired as I was. I saw the Brotherhood of the Wall, imperturbably guarding a towering barrier of ice and magic. That wasn’t a manic Chihuahua yapping in a crate. It was a direwolf pup, with whom I felt a mystical kinship.” But it’s not just about what you’re getting from the book, it’s what you’re not getting from your journey. “All I want now, from a good airplane book, is transport,” Browning writes. “A sense of propulsion. I want to feel the rush of plot against my cheek. I want to know where I am going, and why. I’m willing to trade transport for  transportation. I want all of the things, in other words, that airlines no longer deliver.”

7, The Louvin Brothers made beautiful music, gospel-country harmonies that influence musicians today. But what is it about those southern Appalachian, Depression-era acts that lead to such self-destructive antics? Satin is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, is Charlie Louvin’s story of their tempestuous lives. Ira Louvin died in a car wreck in 1965, Charlie passed away last year at age 83, just after competing this book. The book (its title is a Louvins song) is loaded with drinking, fistfights, smashed mandolins, guns, spousal abuse and stories of Louvin contemporaries such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe. You wonder where the Louvins would stand today if a racist comment by Ira hadn’t made Elvis Presley decide to never record a Louvin Brothers song. “If I had to guess,” Charlie says, “I’d say that one statement by Ira  cost the Louvin Brothers music catalog two or three million dollars.”

8, If you have a bad feeling about America’s wrecking-ball role in today’s world, then apparently you won’t be any better after reading Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream. Author Gregg Jones describes scenes such as American troops using a “water cure” to get information out of a Filipino mayor, something that sounds quite similar to the “enhanced interrogation” of waterboarding. American troops are “greeted on foreign soil as saviors, and then quickly despised as occupiers.” Writes reviewer Candice Miller, “On nearly every page, there is a scene that feels as if it could have taken place during the Bush and Obama administrations rather than those of McKinley and Roosevelt.” You’d think we send our future leaders to college to learn their history lessons. That never seems to happen.