Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Category: The New York Times Page 1 of 15

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Nov. 4

The coffee is standard-issue Colombian. First music of the day: The elegant psychedelia of Shearwater. Today’s Times is the post-Sandy, pre-election issue.

1, “I’m going to take a pass on predicting who will win the presidential election on Tuesday, because I can make a safer, more confident prediction about what will happen in its aftermath,” Frank Bruni writes in The Sunday review section. “The embittered troops of the party that loses will claim that their candidate didn’t get a fair shake and will hunker down to fight and foil the victor. It’s what we do, God help us. It’s who we’ve become.”

2, The electoral college system disenfranchises most Americans, according to Adam Liptak. With the electoral college votes of so many states lining up Red or Blue before the campaigns even started, “the candidates have campaigned in only 10 states since the political conventions,” he says. “There are towns in Ohio that have received more attention than the entire West Coast.”

3, For those who take a dim view of the Republican nominee for vice president: “Representative Paul D. Ryan may have largely disappeared from the national spotlight down the campaign homestretch, ceding attention to Mitt Romney,” the Times writes. Or, perhaps, the Times is threatening us: “But if the Republican ticket prevails, Mr. Ryan plans to come back roaring, establishing an activist vice presidency that he said would be like Dick Cheney’s under President George  W. Bush.”

4, As the East Coast pulls itself together post-Sandy, which will cost billions of dollars, it’s being acknowledged that billions more will be needed to storm-proof the country: Climate-change deniers may not have noticed, but we’ve been seeing a “Storm of the Century” every few years. Katrina wiped out New Orleans. Last year Irene and now Sandy on the East Coast. “It takes two catastrophic events of this kind within a generation to build political support to make investments of this sort,” Robert D. Yaro, president of an urban research group, tells the Times. “I’m hoping that Irene was the wake-up call and Sandy is the hammer coming down.”

5, The Sunday Styles section takes note of all of the high-profile Americans who have threatened moving to Canada, despite its socialized health care, if Romney wins. Susan Sarandon, Cher, George Lopez. “In Canada we’re happy to provide a safe haven for next-door neighbors in the middle of a marital dispute,” Canadian artist and writer Douglas Coupland tells the Times. “And if anyone trips while crossing the border, we’re happy to set their broken bones for free.”

6, A new cooking show, The Mind of a Chef, features one of the hot-shot new masters of Manhattan culinary arts, David Chang of the Momofuku restaurants. It starts next weekend on PBS because, as co-producer Anthony Bourdain says, The Food Network or Cooking Channel “can’t get a piece of the publishing or make bobblehead dolls. It’s unlikely there will be David Chang cooking equipment to be sold.” Rather than watching Guy Fiere stuff a baby-sized burger into his mouth, smart chefs like Rene Rezdepe of Copenhagen’s Nomo (“often rated as the best restaurant in the world,” the Times writes) will dish culinary secrets. In one episode, “Chang accompanies Rezdepe as he forages in tall grass by the seaside, then watches him assemble a salad from green strawberries, scallops, pea juice and ‘plants’ – the green shoots Mr. Rezdepe nosed out. ‘This took five hours to gather, five minutes to arrange, and it will take 30 seconds to consume,’ Mr. Rezdepe says.”

7, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the title character in the new film Lincoln, and apparently insisted on staying in character even when the cameras weren’t running. Jared Harris, best known for his role as Layne Pryce in Mad Men, plays Ulysses S. Grant, and also stayed in character, so as to not throw off Day-Lewis. “It was important for him to retain the attitude, if you like, and the dialect he had created. So we would sit there and joke, for example, about the Vicksburg campaign.” Harris also noted that “At the end of the day sometimes we’d ride back in the car, and he’d stay in character but talk about Mad Men, which of course he couldn’t know about, because television hadn’t been invented then.”

8, With Bill O’Reilly’s much-unadmired Killing Kennedy and Killing Lincoln residing at No. 1 and No. 3 on the Times non-fiction hardcover best seller list, it’s perhaps no surprise to read of the death – his age of 100  notwithstanding – of renowned Lincoln biographer Richard N. Current. Poor guy probably died of a broken heart out of frustration for his profession.  Even my mother bought Killing Lincoln (although, Mr. Reilly, she hasn’t read it yet). So it’s a relief to see Chyrstia Freeland’s Plutocrats showing up at No. 15. The book’s about the 1 Percent. As the Times reports Freeland told NPR, “In America we have equated personal business success with public virtue. And what I think has entered the political discourse now, and I think the president is one of the people pushing this, is he’s saying wait a minute, what is good for the guys at the very top is not necessarily good for the people in the middle…. I think it’s actually an existential threat. People don’t want to be just rich and successful, they want to be good. And I think it’s really threatening to feel like, wow you mean I’m not as full of goodness and virtue as I thought I was?”

I read The Sunday New York Times so you don’t have to: Oct. 14

Today’s coffee is a beautiful Guatemalan. First music of the day: Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd.

1,While Mitt Romney received a boost from his debate performance against Barack Obama – you may read my use of the word “performance” as a euphemism for my preferred phrase, “deception-filled” – the Times reports, “There is little sign, however, that Mr. Romney’s rebound has translated into races for the Senate.  Although Republicans have made modest gains in a few Senate races, the polls have been poor for them on a whole. Some races have already gotten away from them, while others are on the verge of being lost.” One forecast model, which predicted in August that Republicans had a 68 percent chance of winning the Senate, now lists that probability at just 16 percent. Mitch McConnell must be turning over in is grave.

2, Governor, we hardly knew ye: A Times examination of Romney’s schedule during his four-year term as governor of Massachusetts shows that he spent one-fourth of that time out of state. Seventy percent of that time was spent on personal or political trips unrelated to his job as governor, including activities laying the groundwork for a future presidential run. Critics of Romney’s performance in Massachusetts – actually, you’d have to call that non-performance – say this is proof he was more interested in getting the job than in doing it.

3, Bruce Springsteen had said he was staying out of politics this year, after working hard for Obama in 2008. But, borrowing from the familiar Romney campaign strategy known as the “Flip-Flop,” Springsteen is now joining the Obama campaign, with a Thursday appearance in the battleground state of Ohio.

4, Interesting story on juvenile killers on page 1A. Maurice Bailey is serving a life-without-parole sentence for the 1993 murder of his 15-year-old girlfriend, who was pregnant with their child. “I go over it pretty much every night,” says Bailey, now 34. “I don’t want to make excuses. It’s a horrible act I committed. But as you get older, your conscience and insight develop. I’m not the same person.”

5, The school superintendent of El Paso, Texas, has been sentenced to prison for a scheme to artificially inflate the school system’s test scores in order to keep it eligible for Federal funds under the No Child Left Behind Act. In Texas, student success is measured by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a test administered when they are sophomores. “Students identified as low-performing were transferred to charter schools, discouraged from enrolling in school or were visited at home by truant officers and told not to go to school on the test day,” the Times writes. “For some, credits were deleted from transcripts or grades were changed from passing to failing or from failing to passing so they could be reclassified as freshman or juniors.”

6, Texas seems intent on demonstrating why states are often not best left to their own decision-making processes, despite the desires of non-regulatory advocates. Seven more cancer scientists have resigned in protest what they call “politically driven” decisions made by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. The Associated Press story doesn’t say how many scientists had previously left the program, which is the second-biggest cancer-research funding agency in the country. The scientists are critical of the absence of scientific review before dispensing taxpayer money for what they call a “politically driven, commercialization-based mission.”

7, In an unusually long editorial, the Times makes a convincing argument for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan. Not in 2014, as Obama promises, but immediately. “America’s global interests suffer when it is mired in unwinnable wars, in distant regions,” it writes. “Dwight Eisenhower helped the county’s position in the world by leaving Korea; Richard Nixon by leaving Vietnam; President Obama by leaving Iraq.” The corrupt alchemy of government and religion there cannot  be undone. Our largest concern, that al Qaeda would find “safe haven” in an Afghanistan that has no U.S. presence ignores the fact that al Qaeda enjoys safe haven in countries like Yemen. And wasn’t bin Laden living withing the borders of our alleged friend, Pakistan?

8, The founder of the Principality of Sealand has died. A half-century ago, Roy Bates took possession of an abandoned concrete-and-steel British military outpost off the coast of England and declared it a sovereign nation. This was being done by other DJs in the 1960s, with the intention of setting up pirate radio stations beyond the reach of  British broadcasting regulations. Curiously, the British government itself seemed to concur with Bates’ right to do such a thing, and never interfered with the operations of Sealand, which funded itself by renting titles to people and selling stamps.

9, In The Sunday Review, two compelling personal stories shed light on two big election issues. Nicholas D. Kristof introduces us to his former Harvard roommate, Scott Androes, who quite his job as a pension consultant and was working as a seasonal tax employee – the kind of job where insurance isn’t built into your employment. Now at age 52, Androus has stage 4 prostate cancer. “President Obama’s health care reform came just a bit too late to help Scott,” Kristof writes, “but it will protect others like him – unless Mitt Romney repeals it.” Kristof also writes, “In other modern countries, Scott would have been insured.” Referring to the derogatory term chosen by anti-Obamacare critics, Krisftof adds, “Is that a nanny state? No, it is a civilized one.”  And Frank Bruni interviews Helen LaFave, the step sister of Michele Bachmann, and the “member of our family” who the Minnesota Congresswoman sometimes references during her attacks on gay and lesbian people. We also meet LaFave’s partner, Nia, as they discuss with heartbreaking sadness how Bachmann is leading a war against them.

10, If you’re old enough – let’s say mature enough – you’ll remember the sensational trial of Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor who was convicted in 1979 of the murder of his pregnant wife and two daughters nine years earlier at their home in Fort Bragg, N.C. Books have been written about the crime, and a movie made about it. MacDonald blamed the attack on a seemingly improbable gang of drug-crazed hippies. Now 68 and still in prison, MacDonald is getting yet another hearing. Errol Morris has just published another book on the murders, pointing to the MacDonald prosecution’s suppression of evidence and intimidation of witnesses. Particularly the testimony of a woman who – and DNA evidence apparently confirms this – says she was in the apartment at the time of the crime. She was a drug informant known to the narcotics cops. Her boyfriend at the time also confessed he was there. A witness, a paramedic, places her near the crime scene. Her attorney then testified this week that, yes, Helena Stoeckley had indeed told him at the time that she was at the crime scene. “Now there is a mountain of evidence supporting Mr. MacDonald and debunking the case against him,” Morris writes in an opinion piece. It really was, he claims, drug-crazed hippies.

11, In the Book Review, essayist Jim Arndorfer recalls when John Steinbeck was being recruited in 1958 to write a novel about a presidential candidate who was actually a thinly-veiled  Richard Nixon. Steinbeck declined the offer, reasoning that an attack novel would have little impact on the 1960 election (Steinbeck’s favorite candidate, Adlai Stevenson, lost the Democratic nomination to JKF anyway). A memo from the affair reveals that the literary plotters believed that books carried a weight that newspapers, TV and radio couldn’t duplicate. “It retrospect,” Arndorfer writes, “it’s easy to feel superior to their short-sighted sentiment – but who could have predicted the power of 140-character messages in today’s political environment? And who can predict the media that will make Twitter seem old hat?”

12, Interesting trivia from a review of Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Just like Johnny Cash and prisons, the singer-songwriter included stops at mental institutions during a 1970 tour of Europe.

13, The magazine’s food issue is like grocery shopping: Don’t go in there if you’re hungry. Mark Bittman offers “Bacon 25 Ways.” With tofu, with popcorn, with sage and beans. My friend Dick left some home-ground sauerkraut at the house, that’s going in bacon today.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Sept. 16

The coffee is Guatemalan. First music of the day: Danish jazz  trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, as close to a living Miles Davis as you’ll hear today.

1, In today’s top story, “After days of anti-American violence across the Muslim world, the White House is girding itself for an extended period of turmoil that will test the security of American diplomatic missions and President Obama’s ability to shape the forces of change in the Arab world.”

2, We lost a good man in the effort to work with the Muslim world when Libyan ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed last week. He was so willing to adopt the ways of the people he was among that he often signed letters “Krees,” the way Arabs pronounce his name, Chris. “Some people enjoy bureaucratic fighting in Washington,” one of Stevens’ former bosses said of the young diplomat that he knew in the 1990s, “but he wanted to be on the front lines where the fires burn.” Stevens also did not like have security forces around him, which may have led to his death. “Chris had fallen in love with Libya’s revolution,” The Times quotes an Iranian-born writer who met him. “At the end, those very forces whose influence he thought would be curbed had claimed his life.”

3, The political landscape has shifted dramatically since the Democratic convention. Polls show that three-quarters of Americans now trust Barack Obama over Mitt Romney with handling the future of Medicare.

4, Some Republican candidates are quietly pushing away the Tea Party’s confrontational ways. Even George Allen, running against Tim Kaine for the Virginia senate, after losing to Kaine last time around, has been talking about how much he enjoyed working with Hillary Rodham Clinton. But, as The Times notes, people tend to remember if you’ve said of Democrats, as Allen did at a convention of Virginia Republicans, “Let’s enjoy knocking their soft teeth down their whining throats.”

5, People who have written bad checks – in an example presented by The Times, a woman who unwittingly bounced one for $47.95 – are getting letters threatening them with imprisonment. But even though these letters appear to be coming from the local district attorney’s office, they’re actually from debt-collection agencies that have paid for the right to use the seal and signature of the DA. The letters often demand that the citizen take a “financial responsibility class,” a additional $180, some of which goes back to the DA’s office. Approximately 300 district attorney offices around the country are using this startling practice.

6, Tissue engineers are using plastic and the body’s ability to grow its own cells to create simple hollow organs, such as windpipes and bladders, for transplant. Researchers are working on more-complex organs such as kidneys and livers, as well as blood vessels.

7, Michael Wreszin, who specialized in writing biographies of American radicals, has died at age 85. Life as a liberal is not easy, The Times says Wreszin once conceded. “For those despairing souls who identify with the left,” he wrote in one of his books, “this is a history of a group of dedicated radical intellectuals who experience almost nothing but defeat, disillusionment and ultimate loss of hope. This story offers an example of the message in Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague. The struggle is endless and futile, but engaging in the struggle is what makes one human.”

8, Did you know more than 3,000 former NFL players are suing the league over concussions?

9, On the editorial page, The Times writes, “As the country approaches the first anniversary of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ on Sept. 20, politicians and others who warned of disastrous consequences if gay people were allowed to serve openly in the military are looking pretty foolish.” More foolishness in the years to come, I say.

10, Also on the editorial page, Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal is used to launch a very convincing argument that Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – the stimulus – worked in a big way: saving or creating 2.5 million jobs, keeping unemployment from reaching 12 percent, helping the economy to grow by as much as 3.8 percent. “Republicans learned a lesson from  the stimulus that the Democrats didn’t expect,” The Times writes. “Unwavering opposition, distortion, deceit and ridicule actually work, especially when the opposition doesn’t put up a fight.”

11, “Death and the Civil War” is the next episode of the PBS series American Experience, airing Tuesday. “To lose the same proportion of the population today that died in the Civil War, the historian Drew Gilpin Faust says,” The Times reports on one of the brutal observations made, “would mean seven million deaths.”

12, Arts & Leisure takes on the impossible task of defining shock and the arts. Impossible, because the standards change with time, place and the individual. Amusingly, two essays on the subject both choose to open with a reminder that the 1913 premier of Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” was greeted with the audience breaking out into a brawl-filled riot. “Shock long ago went mainstream,” The Times writes, “raising the question: Can art still shock today?” Yes or no, it remains the duty of the artist to do so, seems to be the conclusion, “to reflect the real world back at itself.” As the ’90s performance-shock artist Karen Finley says, “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to go out and try to shock people.’ It’s usually a much more subtle matter of time and place.” Critic Maggie Nelson adds that art needs “to say things the culture can’t allow itself to hear. But all shock is not created equal. Once the original ‘ugh’ is gone, you’ve got to look at what the next emotion is.”

13, An excellent short interview with writer Nicholson Baker in the book review. He’s overwhelmed by the sheer size of Barnes & Noble: “No More! Stop the presses!” He gently lampoons the promotional toils of today’s authors, who “seem to be able to work hard and finish big shiny books and keep going and complain about their hotels and give bouncy interviews and readings and do all the things you’re expected to do.” And then, he goes into a dark assessment of sending drones on  military missions: “We’re in the middle of a presidential administration in which one man in an office with velvet couches goes down a kill list. Our president has become an assassin. It sickens me and makes me want to stop writing altogether.”

14, Do not read page 10 of the Travel section if you rely on Taco Bell for your Mexican fix. Otherwise, only authentic street food will do as writer JJ Goode follows Roberto Santibanez, owner of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Fonda restaurants and author of Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales. He reports on tortillas rolled with chicken that is doused with “mole verde, a verdant, rich sauce from pumpkin seeds and thrilling from the mellow but persistent heat of cooked green chiles.” And  a “banana-leaf-wrapped tamal filled with mole verde, fragrant with the herb hoja santa.”

15, After you’ve enjoyed your tacos, in the Magazine we read in the bird world that not only do “baby Eurasian rollers – aka Coracias garralus – vomit on themselves when they sense danger, but the smell of the vomit sends their parents flying for cover. Scientists now think that the birds throw up not only to ward off predators but also to warn their doting caretakers not to return to the nest until the threat has passed. As the researcher Deseada Parejo noted, ‘They parents seem to be saving their own skin.'”

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