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Tag: Jack Kerouac

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Oct. 31

This morning’s coffee was imported from Mexico, which you may interpret as a statement on immigration policy if you wish. First music of the day, the Debussy opera Pelleas et Melisande. It’s in French. The dog is chewing on a rawhide bone from Brazil.

1, In a front page dominated by analysis of the upcoming election on Tuesday (same stuff you’ve been reading for weeks), Page 1 shares a little space with this story: The first sign of Alzheimer’s disease is often “Unexplained Debt and Creditors’ Calls,” resulting from “an inability to understand money and credit, contracts and agreements.”  Remember that, as well, when casting your vote on Tuesday.

2, After the discovery of what appears to be two bombs on planes from Yemen, and bound for the United States, “White House officials do not want to look as if they are seizing on a potential catastrophe to win votes,” The Times writes. “But at the same time, they remember when President Obama was criticized when he said nothing publicly in the three days after an attempt to blow up an airliner on Dec. 25.” You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

3, I do not own a cell phone. It’s endorsing mediocre technology and communication. In the magazine this week, in a piece called “Funeral For a Friend,” Virginia Heffernan voices what we’ve lost as and lines dwindle.  “Your phone voice was distinctive; your phone manner was distinctive. You thought a great deal about people who rhythmically and mysteriously inhaled and exhaled cigarette smoke while they talked, or left long silences or didn’t hang up immediately after saying good-bye.”

4, An elementary school in Los Angeles, which Michael Jackson briefly attended, has removed the plywood obscuring the name on Michael Jackson Auditorium. The support to reveal the sign, covered up seven years ago after Jackson’s arrest on child-abuse charges, was nearly unanimous in the community. One dissenting voice has come from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Already it’s extraordinarily hard for sexually violated kids to come forward,” said the network’s director. “When we honor accused pedophiles, especially one as high profile as Michael Jackson, it risks intimidating even more victims.”

5, The Sunday Styles section, in a story headlined “The Great Unwashed,” describes a movement whose devotees do not shower or wash their hair daily, and do not use deodorant.  “We don’t need to wash the way we did when we were farmers,” says Katherine Ashenberg, author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. According to The Times, “Retention of the skin’s natural oils and water conservation are two reasons.” Researchers may be coming around to this idea as well, noting the skin holds many beneficial germs.”

6, The Week in Review ponders why, as millions of dollars from Wall Street, corporate America and special interests  pour into Republican campaigns, President Obama – raised by a single mom who sometimes had to resort to food stamps to feed her family – is portrayed as an elitist. “The elitism argument is kind of a false one because the president talks about people’s economic interests and middle-class families,” The Times quotes Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, who apparently advises Obama (It’s been my experience, in watching Obama during this campaign, does do exactly that). “And those that are supporting Republican candidates right now – because they think they’ll look out for their interests – are going to be very surprised when they find out what the corporate sponsorship of that party is buying.”

7, On that note, in an editorial, The Times notes that nearly $4 billion is likely to be spent on the midterm elections. By contrast, it’s estimated that $2.85 billion was spent n the 2006 midterms.  “Much of this is a direct creation,” The Times writes, “of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., which has cut away nearly all campaign finance restrictions.”

8, In another editorial, “It is past time to pull the plug on the ‘virtual fence’ that the federal government has been trying to erect on the border with Mexico,” The Times writes. A $7.6 billion project that began with the Bush administration, it’s an overwhelmed piece of non-functioning technology that mistakes tumbleweed for illegal immigrants. “So long as there is a demand for cheap labor, a hunger for better jobs here, and almost no legal way to get in,” The Times writes, “people will keep finding ways around any fence, virtual or not.”

9, Columnist Frank Rich, quoting many old-line Republicans, notes that Tea Party candidates who win on Tuesday will quickly be incorporated into the Republican Party. The greatest service that the Tea Party is providing, Rich writes, it allowing Republican candidates to hide from the massive failures of the Bush administration. By the time the next presidential election rolls around, “the equally disillusioned right and left may have a showdown that makes this election year look as benign as Woodstock.”

10, Thomas L. Friedman notes that while India is thriving in the new economic environment that was launched by American innovations such as what was happening in Silicon Valley more than two decades ago, the U.S. is standing still, and poised to go in reverse. “The U.S. seems sadly unprepared to take advantage of the revolution it has spawned,” he says one Indian editor writes in Businessworld magazine. “The country’s worn-out infrastructure, failing education system and lack of political consensus have prevented it from riding a new wave to prosperity.”

11, It is astonishing the degree to which we are distanced from the events of the world. Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, a fine book about Civil War re-enactors, notes that Nov. 6 will be the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, Horwitz writes, 75 percent of eligible southern men served in the military, more than 60 percent of northern men did so. One out of three southern men died in the war. The public saw gruesome testimony of the war through battlefield photos of the dead brought to them by this new invention, photography. “We’re spared this discomfort today,” Horwitz writes, “with the American dead from two ground wars air brushed from public view.”

12, The Pee-wee Herman comeback is real. The Pee-wee Herman Show opens Nov. 11 on Broadway, and advance sales are reported to be “solid.”

13, In a review of Grant Wood: A Life, Deborah Solomon describes Wood’s most-famous work as “a pale, homely farming pair posed in front of their white house, looking as if their dog had just died.” That’s as fine a summary of “American Gothic” as I’ve ever read. R. Tripp Evans’ summary of Woods’ life seems equally interesting. A strange, taciturn, incoherent man who lived with his widowed mother, always misplacing his keys and wallet, addicted to sugar to the point that he’d sprinkle it on lettuce. The painter’s brief marriage, described as “calamitous,” to a light-opera singer 10 years older that he prompts Evans to postulate that Wood was a repressed homosexual, but the evidence suggests merely a repressed human.

14, I was puzzled by Lee Siegel’s “Beat Generations” Oct. 10 essay in the Book Review, which suggested that Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac and Tea Party chanteuse Sarah Palin had more in common than is immediately evident. In a letter to the editor, Seton Hall professor of English Jeffrey Gray found what troubled me. “Presenting the Tea Party as hip bohemia obscures the fact that what the Beats ushered in, in the 1950s, was the beginning of the end from a Tea Party standpoint,” he wrote. “Rejection of capitalism; flight from jobs and family in pursuit of mystical or sexual ecstasy; fascination with ethnic others; experimentation with illegal substances; and general descent into hell in a handbasket.”

The Critical Mass

Bus lit: scraps of Kerouac

My current bus-ride literature is Jack Kerouac Book of Sketches, a paperback about the size of a package of frozen lima beans. The book collects Kerouac’s thoughts and images, the idea being to “sketch in the streets, like a painter but with words.”

kerouacAs much as I admire Kerouac, I often find him maddening. I flip through the book as the bus bumps over curbs, looking for insight. It’s often not here among these fragments and undeveloped ideas, 15 notebooks which Kerouac typed into a manuscript in 1957 – the year that On the Road came out – but was not published until 2006. There’s enough to keep me going. I guess it’s good bus literature, short lines that my eyes can follow even after being jerked out of place when we hit a Lake Avenue pothole.

A poem-ish scrap called “Coyote Viejo” describes how Kerouac’s father, who was dying, would listen to Danny Kaye on the radio, because he thought he was funny. Kerouac calls Kaye “a stale &  narrow clown,” and the time spent by the radio a “waste of time.” But then Kerouac turns on himself, “just as I waste time on box scores,” or “on TV stupidities – how mediocre everything’s got since 10 years!”

Five pages later, a few lines beneath the title TOMBSTONE:

I was a naive overbelieving type.

Perhaps he got them off of a tombstone, or wanted these words on his own marker. Kerouac died at age 47, having destroyed his liver with excessive drinking. His headstone reads, “He honored Life.” I looked it up on the Internet.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Aug. 8

I generally don’t remember my dreams; but last night, John Mellencamp came to stay at our house while he recorded his new album. He was kind of a talkative guy, and while we were sitting around the dining room table, listening to music, I was trying to remember if I had any of his albums around the house to play. I asked him what he wanted for breakfast the next morning and he said, “Just a couple of Cokes.”

1, Reacting to the over-reaction to the building of a mosque a few blocks from the site of the Twin Towers,  The Times writes, “In Murfreesboro, Tenn., Republican candidates  have denounced plans for a large Muslim center proposed near a subdivision, and hundreds of protesters have turned out for marches and planning board meetings.” Citing other areas where Tea Party groups and Christian ministers have lead similar protests, The Times notes that communities once questioned the effect such buildings would have on local traffic, parking and noise. “But now the gloves are off,” as “opponents have said their problem is Islam itself.” The fear mongers are turning American into a land of intolerance.

2, Hate is running hot. Ten aid workers were executed in Afghanistan by the Taliban. “They appear to have abandoned previous taboos on using woman and children as suicide bombers,” The Times writes, “and now have dealt a blow to the longstanding custom of giving safe passage to aid workers, who have often been free to work in both government and insurgent dominated areas.”

3, Ignoring similar trips taken by Laura Bush during her husband’s reign, critics are attacking Michelle Obama for taking her younger daughter and a few friends to Spain, a trip that the Obama family is largely paying for.  The Spaniards, however, are ecstatic, The Times writes, with “one study claiming the publicity from her visit would be worth $1 billion for a country where tourism is at its lowest level in seven years.”

4, In a story headlined “Leading the Way into Deep Water,” The Times explores how the now-disbanded Minerals Management Service abandoned its mission as the public watchdog over activities such as offshore oil drilling in a corrupt pact with energy industries. In Louisiana, “oil saturated the state’s culture long before it covered its marshes. Oil is equally prized as a source of jobs and tax revenue.” The MMS’ long history of mismanagement of its duties may have helped make an accident such as the gulf oil spill inevitable, but that doesn’t stop folks such as Louisiana governor Ding-Dong Bobby Jindal from telling 10,000 people at a pro-deep water drilling rally to “defend our way of life.”

5, Fritz Teufel, ” West Germany’s answer to Abbie Hoffman,” has died at age 67. While leading a protest of the Shah of Iran’s visit to West Germany in 1967, he compared the event to “low comedy,” and said “the public is justified in throwing eggs and tomatoes if the performance does not satisfy them.”  Teufel was also the mastermind behind a foiled attempt at throwing bags of yogurt, flour and pudding at Vice President Hubert Humphrey to West Germany. The “Pudding Assassination,” as it was dubbed, was typical of Teufel’s Woodstock-era frame of mind. “We were young, carefree and inexperienced,” he said in an interview before his death from Parkinson’s. “In 1967 and 1968, confidence and cheerfulness prevailed, and an unbelievable sense that a new beginning was under way.”

6, Photojournalist Lee Lockwood has also died, at age 78. He was known for being allowed access into communist regimes such as Castro’s Cuba. In 1967, he took a famous photo of an American prisoner of war, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Richard A. Stratton, in prison pajamas, bowing before his North Vietnamese captors. Stratton gave a long confession condemning the U.S. bombing on the country, and Lockwood’s description of the empty-eyed Stratton as “like a puppet” led the State Department to accuse North Vietnam of brainwashing POWs. Years later, Stratton said it wasn’t brainwashing. “You are being tortured,” he said, “all all you have to do to get them to stop is say the same thing that Bobby Kennedy is saying.”

7, In The Week in Review, even free-market advocates are admitting that, in a country offering few job opportunities for its 14.5 million unemployed, government may indeed be the answer. “We think the coma will last for years unless government policy changes to re-stimulate the private sector and bring unemployment down,” says Bill Gross, one such free marketeer who runs the world’s largest bond fund, Pimco. “In the new normal world, there are structural problems, which require structural solutions.”

8, In an editorial, The Times wonders why Democrats have been so timid in celebrating their accomplishments, with the mid-term elections just 90 days away. The Times points to legislative successes in health care, insurance, financial regulation, three million jobs preserved or created and communities benefiting from stimulus projects. “As the economy recovers,” The Times writes, “there will be money available for sane and careful deficit reduction, territory the Democrats know far better than their opponents.” Indeed, does everyone remember what happened to the national debt under Bush? The Times quotes recent remarks on the Republicans by Obama: “It’s not like they’ve engaged in some heavy reflection. They have not come up with a single solitary new idea to address the challenges of the American people…. they’re betting on amnesia.”

9, Uh, oh, two pages later, columnist Frank Rich writes, “Betting on amnesia is almost always a winning, not losing, wager in America.”  A handful of evidence, such as anti-health care reform protesters evidently forgetting that Medicare is a government program, and the millions of Americans who still apparently believe Obama was not born in America, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is reason enough to worry that these issues are not being decided by any intellectual process.

1o, A bedbug panic is unfolding in America. “This Bedbug’s Life” offers exciting insight into these tiny critters. Writes May Berenbaum, the head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois: “They not only attack while we sleep, but they also inject anesthetics, so as to not awaken us, and anticoagulants, so that in every 10-minute feeding they can suck in two or three times their weight in clot-free blood.” Berenbaum also gives us a little bedbug porn: “Because the female bedbug has no genital opening, the male inseminates her by using his hardened, sharpened genitalia to punch a hole through her abdomen. With no elaborate courtship ritual, males in pursuit of a sexual congress often blunder into and puncture the bodies of other males, occasionally inflicting fatal wounds.” So in that last observation, perhaps there is something for proponents of California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8.

11, The re-awakening of interest in vinyl records is well said in a report on LP re-issues from the legendary Blue Note label in Arts & Leisure. “Yes, they’re available on compact disc, but the CDs lack the LP’s visual cool – the urbane photos and silk-screen lettering on the hand-pasted cardboard covers – and fall short of the first edition vinyl’s sonics: the vibrant horns, wood-thumping bass, head-snap drums and sizzling cymbals.” Interestingly, a couple of companies manufacturing these re-issues are doing them in 45 rmp, rather than the standard 33 1/3, because the turntable tracks the groove better at the higher speed, producing a better sound.

12, Brilliance has its limits. In the Book Review, we read that for ourselves in Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. Reviewer Blake Bailey writes “Two stoned white guys writing almost exclusively about dhyana and the like – and I can think of no better way to describe the long middle section of this book – are generally only interesting to each other.” Yeah, I’ve been to that cocktail party, too. Ginsberg aged with dignity, Kerouac went out in flames. One year before his death at age 47, he appeared on Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr., “bloated and drunk, knocking hippies and explaining the war in Asia as a Vietnamese plot ‘to get Jeeps into their country.’ ”

13, The Book Review also examines Mary Roach’s Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. We learn all about “spaceflight’s grossest engineering challenges: disposing of human waste, controlling body odor without washing, and containing nausea – or, if containment fails, surviving a spacewalk with a helmet full of perilously acidic upchuck.” Reviewer M.G. Lord manages to make a case for this as compelling reading, along with Roach’s previous books: Stiff, exploring the science of death, and Bonk, exploring the science of sex. In the new book, we read that male astronauts get a pee unit that comes only in L, XL or XXL. What, no small? This, I assume, is what Roach really means by “Packing For Mars.”

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