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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.'”

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Sept. 5

This morning’s coffee is from the island of Java. I’ve loaded the five-CD changer with all John Coltrane.

1, Page One at a glance: Democrats are calculating which of their candidates are hopeless causes in the November election and will abandon them financially in the hope of protecting candidates more likely to win in November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Sept. 14 with the goal of bringing peace to the Middle East, airline ticket prices are soaring, Asian-Americans are the new stars of fashion design and robots are being used like rolling teleconference units to put people like doctors in hospital rooms even when they’re miles away. The scary headline on that last story: “The Boss is Robotic, and Rolling Up Behind You.” The fear is that of one of these things, which look like space-age upright vacuum cleaners, could put an end to the discreet workplace tradition of surfing the Internet for porn.

2, That story about Democrats weighing who may not get financial support also reports that Democrats are urging their candidates to get tough on their Republican opponents. In one ad, New Jersey Democratic Representative John Adler accused his challenger “of buying a donkey so he could call his house a farm and get a tax break.” Shouldn’t the Republican have purchased an elephant?

3, You thought bank bailouts are a thing of the past? We’re currently bailing out Afghanistan’s largest bank, Kabul Bank, in the midst of fears of an oncoming Afghan financial crisis.

4, While Republicans are trying to create a war over the building of a Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory (doesn’t that count as enhancing the community?), the actual site of the 9/11 attacks is coming together with astonishing speed after eight years of delay. When completed over the next couple of years, it will include shimmering new skyscrapers, a performing arts center, a museum, thousands of trees and two memorial pools in the actual footprints of the two collapsed Twin Towers.  For those who truly are offended by a Muslim presence two blocks from the site (but who also apparently are not offended by the presence of seedy sex shops even closer), the positive response to the community center/mosque should be to point with pride to what’s finally happening at ground zero.

5, A new phenomena is emerging, as citizens are being billed for emergency equipment sent to the scene of an accident in which they are involved. Your insurance company will sometimes pay this bill. But sometimes not. And it doesn’t matter if you are not at fault: Might determination of fault mean sending a bill to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda after 9/11, I wonder? This is apparently happening in 36 states, although 10 states have put at least some restrictions on the practice. As services such as police and fire departments are generally paid for by your taxes – maybe socialism isn’t such a bad thing, eh? – opponents of this practice of billing people for them argue that they are, in effect, being double taxed. As one group fighting the idea has noted, “The role of police and fire departments should be to serve and protect, not serve and collect.

6, Columnist Thomas L. Friedman discusses The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era, by Michael Mandelbaum. Basically, the U.S. must re-think all of its foreign policies, because we can’t afford the old ones. For example, bullying wars of choice are out. We must re-build our economy, Mandelbaum argues, establish priorities (How important is winning in Afghanistan, anyway?) and “shore up our balance sheet and weaken that of our enemies,” as Friedman summarizes for us, “and the best way to do that in one move is with a much higher gasoline tax.” You can imagine how that last idea would go over with the voting public, and how it would be exploited by politicians. But it’s suddenly a very different world, isn’t it?

7, Frank Rich further explores the idea when he writes, “We can’t afford to forget now that the single biggest legacy of the Iraq war at home was to codify the illusion that Americans can have it all at no cost.”

8, Rich quotes Andrew J. Bacevich’s views on war bankrupting America; Bacevich’s new Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War is examined in the Book Review. In reporting on the book’s viewpoint that the belief in the U.S. military’s need to dominate our thinking is too easily accepted, reviewer Gary J. Bass, a Princeton professor, writes, “Those who step outside this monolithic view, like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, are quickly dismissed as crackpots, Bacevich says. This leaves no serious checks or balances against the over-weening national security state.” Bass concludes with, “As foreign policy debates in the run-up to the November elections degenerate into Muslim-bashing bombast, the country is lucly to have a fierce, smart peacemonger like Bacevich.”

9, The sports section takes a moment to remember that 40 years ago, the Pirates’ Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter, later claiming he had been on LSD at the time. “We’re led to believe that there’s no overlap between drug culture and sports culture, but why not?” says Donnell Alexander, who conducted one of the last interviews with Ellis before he died in 2008 of liver failure. “I think there’s a rooting interest in LSD among a certain part of our culture.” The story interviews Todd Snider, a whimsical folk-rocker who wrote a song about the event, “America’s Favorite Pastime.” I know of at least one other song written about Ellis’ LSD no-hitter, Barbara Manning’s “Dock Ellis.” As a fairly serious baseball fan, I have both in my CD collection.

10, “Victoria Beckham: Is She For Real?” asked the Sunday Styles headline. Former Spice Girl and “pneumatic Barbie of the hinterlands,” current husband of soccer star David Beckham, and now a fashion designer, the story takes note of Beckham’s “improbably lusty chest.” Is this a polite journalistic way to say “implants?”

11, In Arts & Leisure, “Hey Dad, Get With the (3-D) Program” predicts this youthful 3-D generation’s disinterest in the TV shows of the last few years, just as the color-saturated generation that previously came along showed little interest in the black and white shows of their parents’ era. Neil Genzlinger writes that “television technology is poised for another sea change, and when that happens, a curtain drops between generations, thick and impenetrable.” I guess that means Seinfeld goes to the same crypt as F Troop.

12, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is a new documentary that sheds light on one of the most-intriguing musicians of the 20th Century. Most of us know the Canadian pianist as “the Howard Hughes of classical music,” as Larry Rohter writes. “A pill-popping hypochondriac who wore gloves, a scarf, overcoat and flat cap even at the height of summer, and who was so adverse to physical contact that ordinarily he wouldn’t even shake hands.” The new film attempts to de-mystify Gould, noting he had girlfriends. And he liked the music of Petulia Clark.

13, Robert Plant will have a new album out on Sept. 14, Band of Joy. Like his last release, the collaboration with bluegrass diva Alison Krauss, it explores American roots music, but in a different way. Newer, with songs by Los Lobos, and Richard Thompson (not American, but he know us), Townes Van Zandt and the Minnesota indie band Low. “I don’t come from the land of ice and snow,” he tells The Times, quoting a line from Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” after expressing a great affection for the sounds of the American South. “But I do feel I come from overseas, and I feel like a strange cousin from across the water. I’m still a voyeur in America, and after all these years I still haven’t dug in beneath the epidermis.”

14, We’re spending a lot of time in Arts & Leisure today. The cover story is on Harvey Pekar, whose long-running graphic novel American Splendor and its “compulsive chronicling of Cleveland’s commonplace lives, including, most frequently, his own,” made him a “Bohemian celebrity.”  “A major influence in the underground world but never a big seller,” The Times writes, “he was always waiting for his cult fame to recede each time it unexpectedly crested. ” The story also delves into the battle over his legacy since his death this summer at age 70. Pekar’s stories were illustrated by other people, and Pekar’s wife doesn’t like one of his later collaborators, refusing to allow publication of any of that material, which appeared on a web site. Even without that, it appears there will be plenty of Pekar’s rasping, cynical observations of life for years to come.

15, Very funny story on actor William Shatner in the magazine. Shatner’s greatest roles are playing himself, both on TV and in real life. He also insisted on ordering writer Pat Jordan’s meals for him when they’re in restaurants: “The waiter asked if I wanted coleslaw or fries. Shatner answered, ‘He’ll have the fries.’ I said I wanted the coleslaw. Shatner said: ‘I. Want. The. Fries.’ ”

16, In noting the huge catalog of Bob Dylan books already in print, reviewer Bruce Handy writes this dandy line: “If you have been toying with the idea of writing  a book that ‘itemizes Bob Dylan’s copyright registrations and copyright-related documents,’ I’m afraid to report it’s been done.” Nevertheless, Handy appears generally happy with yet another new Dylan book, Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America.

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