Jeff Spevak, Writer

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The Critical Mass

Young American Wanderlust

From Rochester west to Chicago, and then south to Austin, the railroad tracks wind through the backyards of America. It’s as though the country’s turned its back on Amtrak.

We’re traveling to the South by Southwest Music Festival. I can hear Scott plucking on his new ukulele in the sleeper car across the aisle. This may be a long trip indeed.

Or perhaps not. Traveling by train is not cheaper than flying. It’s merely a different form of travel. One in which you choose to abandon the rush wait rush of airports in favor of being in the company of folks who want to feel like they’re moving about the country.  No one’s pissed off. You strike up conversations. You look out the window. You read. Big books. In the lounge car the first night, a young woman is reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. A young guy is deep into Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He is halfway through it. I’ve brought along David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. That’s more than 1,000 pages. But I can’t focus on it right now. Not with Scott plucking away on that uke. Is that the first song they teach everyone, “Dueling Banjos?”

So I’m looking out the window, at the highway. We’re moving a little slower than the cars out there, but not much. I don’t understand the critics of Amtrak, complaining it loses money. The Republicans keep trying to cut its funding, stomp it out of existence. But what mass public transportation makes money? Certainly not that highway out there.

Our porter – a nice, arcane idea – has just handed me a copy of The New York Times (More timeless relics are the glass insulators on the creosote-soaked telephone poles following alongside the tracks, oblivious to the cell phone towers looming in distant farm fields). One of the first Times stories I read is about the great blueswoman Carolyn Wonderland marrying the comic and one-time Saturday Night Live writer A. Whitney Brown. I think to myself: I’ve interviewed both of them.

We change trains in Chicago, with time for a walk around downtown, where some fellow selling the magazine produced by the homeless points out a sign across from the art museum that reads, “Historic Route 66 begins here.” I wonder aloud how they decided that’s where it started, rather than where it ended. From Chicago and through much of Illinois, the train follows the iconic road, symbol of young American wanderlust, before we loose it somewhere north of Springfield, and one of the most architecturally interesting state capitol buildings I’ve seen. If Route 66 is an American landmark, it is one in need of serious Federal dollars. The surface here is cracked and cratered with potholes. Few cars are on this stretch of 66, preferring the much smoother road running parallel to it.

Amtrak gives you a little brochure with information about the communities you see passing outside the windows. When we arrive at South Bend, Ind., our brochure eagerly points out that it is primarily known as the home of Notre Dame University. “To others,” it tells us, “it is virtually defined by the Studebaker Corporation, which started making wagons here in 1852, came to prominence, and finally ceased auto making here in 1963.”

A few miles down the rails from South Bend, I am sad to read in the Times that the great contrarian folk singer Jack Hardy has passed away from lung cancer. I saw Hardy play at my friends Rick and Monica’s house concert about 1½ years ago. He wrote protest songs, political songs. I’ll bet he was a fan of rail travel. The Times points out that he was born in South Bend. His full name was John Studebaker Hardy.

I’ve heard critics of Amtrak suggest that public rail systems are un-American, that they’re socialist programs that train the population to think in lockstep. Actually, I think the authorities fear anything where people gather and have time to read books and play musical instruments and exchange ideas and complain about the authorities.

I stare out the train windows, looking into the back yards of Americans. I see their kids, their gas grills, the places where they’ve buried their dead pets and the American Dream. It is this way everywhere. Not too many rich folks live alongside the tracks. One year, during an early-morning train ride up the California coast, I saw a naked man standing on his back porch, watching the train as he drank his coffee. These Americans tend to fill their backyards with broken major appliances, stacks of warped lumber, abandoned dog houses, collapsed tool sheds, children whacking each other with sticks and rusting car fenders tossed aside like corn husks.

Deep in Texas, while sitting in the observation car in a late-afternoon sunshine, we speed past a woman taking her laundry down from the backyard clothesline. In the yard next to her house, I spot something big lying on its side, legs sticking out like a child’s plastic toy tossed aside. Rigor mortis has set in. “Oh my god, A DEAD HORSE!” I shout. Shriek, actually, like a little girl. It was the first dead horse I’ve ever seen.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Oct. 24

This morning’s coffee is an excellent Mexican. First music of the day, a continued obsession with the jazz saxophonist Ben Webster. Other pertinent noise: The dog sprawled on the couch next to me, snoring heavily. I’m smoking salmon this morning, a whopper caught in Lake Ontario by my friend Doreen. She’s allergic to salmon, and can’t eat it.

1, The first page of The Times is heavy with bad news, including an election nine days away in which the results will be determined not by issues, but by money; a report that Iran is paying, in cash, millions of dollars to a top aid to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai; and an expose revealing the “Wild West chaos” brought to Iraq and Afghanistan by the private security companies hired by the U.S.

2, In that last story, “Iraq Archive: Private Gunmen Fed Turmoil,” The Times writes of “a critical change in the way America wages war.” It is “the era of the private contractor, wearing no uniform but fighting and dying in battle, gathering and disseminating intelligence and killing presumed insurgents.” These “presumed insurgents” are far too often innocent people, and the details of the abuses by American-hired security thugs are sickening and shameful. To avoid “messy disciplinary action,” The Times writes, after indiscriminately shooting up some civilian vehicles in one incident, one group of contractors “handed out cash to Iraqi civilians, and left.”

4, It’s complicated. The report on contractors gone wild is based on a new leak of 300,000 military documents released by WikiLeaks, the Internet whistleblowing group run by the Australian computer wizard Julian Assange. WikiLeaks was initially hailed for bringing to light many scandals, and Assange still has his admirers, including Daniel Ellsberg, who in the 1970s was both celebrated and reviled after he released The Pentagon Papers, the secret 1,000-page report on the Vietnam War. But The Times presents a portrait of Assange as a man who’s on the run, frequently changing his look, criticized both by governments and now even his former supporters, who accuse him of reveling in his new-found celebrity, evolving into an unfeeling demagogue whose release of secret documents was done without removing the names of informants who could pay with their lives.

5, Cable news’ role in the elections has reached previously unimagined levels, now becoming major players in aiding fund raising. Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio declared his economic policy must be correct because “Rachel Maddow thinks it’s wrong.” Maddow, the liberal MSNBC cable host, laments “For those of us who work at MSNBC, one of the most surreal things about this particular election year has been conservative politicians’ efforts to make us part of the elections.”

6, Is this a reality that I can’t accept? “The best possible result for Obama politically is for the Republicans to gain control of both houses,” says Democratic pollster and strategist Douglas E. Schoen. Why? “The reality of presidential politics is it helps to have an enemy,” Peter Baker writes in the Week in Review section. “With Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, they shoulder responsibility for the country’s troubles. No amount of venting about George W. Bush or the filibuster rule has convinced the public otherwise. But if Republicans capture Congress, Mr. Obama will finally have a foil heading toward his own re-election battle in 2012.”

7, Sports becomes a Week in Review issue. “Is it morally defensible to watch a sport whose level of violence is demonstrably destructive?” writes Michael Sokolove. After watching one of the particularly brutal hits during last weekend’s NFL games, he says, “I immediately thought: This is how a man dies on a football field.”

8, Delaware Republican candidate for the Senate Christine O’Donnell’s utter confusion over the Constitution last week put the pollsters to work. “On the question of church-state separation, at least, a majority of Americans do seem to get the gist,” The Times writes. “The First Amendment Center poll showed that 66 percent of Americans agree with the statement that the First Amendment requires it, wherever the concept may be found. Oddly enough, however, the poll also showed that 53 percent of Americans agree with this statement: the Constitution “establishes a Christian nation.”

9, Our misinformed public is driven by deliberate deception. “Republican candidates and deep-pocketed special interests are spreading so many distortions and outright lies about health care reform that it is little wonder if voters are anxious and confused,” The Times writes in an editorial. “Voters need to know that health care reform will give all Americans real security.”

10, “President Obama, the Rodney Dangerfield of 2010, gets no respect for averting another Great Depression, for saving 3.3 million jobs with stimulus spending, or for salvaging GM and Chrysler from the junk yard,” writes columnist Frank Rich. “For Obama, the ultimate indignity is the Times/CBS poll News poll in September showing that only 8 percent of Americans know that he gave 95 of American taxpayers a tax cut.” For most Americans there has been no Change They Can Believe In. This is because, Rich writes, those who disemboweled this country economically got away with, and they’re about to go to work again.  Should the corporate-fueled Republicans regain some control in the mid-term elections, “an America that still hasn’t remotely recovered from the worst hard times in 70 years will end up handing over even more power to those who greased the skids.”

11, Harvey Phillips, “a Titan of the Tuba” has died. It was largely through the efforts of Phillips, an accomplished musician, that the tuba emerged from its reputation as an “orchestral clown,” as The Times puts it. Phillips commissioned or was the motivator behind more than 200 compositions written for the tuba, and once said, “I’m determined that no great composer is ever going to live out his life without composing a major work for tuba.” He paid one such composer a case of Beefeater gin for his work. Phillips would practice his own tuba playing in the back seat of the car while his wife drove, their children watching the road in order to warn, “Daddy, bump!”

12, In a Travel section story headlined “The Tricks and Trials of Traveling While Fat,” Rob Goldstone (5 feet, 7 inches, 285 pounds) reports that in China, children would run up to him and rub his belly because they thought he was “The Happy Buddha.”

13, In the Book Review, Stephanie Zucharek in general pans My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man’s Journey Deep Into the Heart of Cinematic Failure. I haven’t read the book, but I do agree with the critic’s premise. “There’s been lots of ink and oceans of pixels spilled on the question of whether the Internet has killed film criticism, but the very short answer is that serious (if unpaid) criticism has thrived on the web. The problem is that it’s all too serious.” But I find too many bumper-sticker philosophies disguised as thinking on the Web. Author Nathan Rabin’s words “probably worked beautifully in their original form, as smart on-line bonbons,” Zucharek writes. “But Rabin is better at being funny than he is at cutting to the heart of why bad movies affect us so deeply.”

14, In this political season, the Book Review devotes an astonishing amount of space to a serious overview by the fairly conservative writer Christopher Caldwell of conservative books and the somewhat liberal writer Jonathan Alter of liberal books. My conclusion? These books don’t change anyone’s mind. Whatever your political belief, you can find a book to match it, read it, and go on without having learned something you already didn’t know.

15, I used to be a sportswriter. In a review of Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry’s Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity, reviewer Marc Tracy comments, “sports sections run absurd, character-buttressing portraits of antisocial man-children.” Indeed. That’s one reason I gave up the habit.

16, This week’s magazine is “The Women’s Empowerment Issue.” “Telling women they have reached parity,” Lisa Belkin writes of whether they feel they are equal to men in society, “is like telling an unemployed worker the recession is over. It isn’t true until it feels true.”

17, In “The Rocker’s Emasculation Issue,” Keith Richards’ new autobiography, Life, is evidently an exciting read. But one thing I didn’t expect to learn was that Mick Jagger suffers from, in Richards’ opinion, and as The Times re-phrases it, “uncertain sexual identity.”

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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