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The dangers of our C-level sustenance

I’m going off the grid for the next 10 days.

I will not answer your phone calls offering me great deals on Caribbean cruises.

I will not start each morning by scanning various web sites to take a measurement on how far we’ve fallen as a nation.

My Facebook and Twitter accounts will lie fallow, weeds sprouting between your gasps of disbelief over kitten videos and that photo of Donald Trump hugging the United States flag as if he were humping a Golden retriever.

Oh yeah, Trump doesn’t like dogs. Not exactly grounds for impeachment, but very telling in my book. I was at my doctor’s office a couple of days ago and in all honesty, if she had acted as crazy as Trump did during his CPAC speech last weekend, I would have run from the office. Two people I want to take their jobs seriously: The person who addresses my blood pressure issues, and the person who controls our country’s nuclear weapons.

And while I’m thinking about the doctor’s office, our waiting rooms need a literary update. People magazine is nothing but news of C-level celebrities and the occasional family that survived an encounter with a serial killer.

I refuse to subsist on C-level junk food. At least, for the next 10 days.

I will stop watching television for the next 10 days. Right now, as I’m typing this, I’m watching Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tell Congress that the Trump administration was not keeping immigrant children on our southern border in cages. No, she insists, those boxes made from wire fence with kids sleeping on concrete floors are “detention spaces that have existed for decades.”

I just need to get away. Even the arts, where I turn to for beauty and distraction, is no help. Last week, I went to the New York Times’ web site, and this was the first story I found under the heading Television:

Jussie Smollett Won’t Be on Final Episodes of ‘Empire’ Season.

And this was the first story under the heading Sports:

Patriots Owner Robert Kraft Charged in Florida Prostitution Investigation.

And this was the first story under the heading Music:

R. Kelly Charged With 10 Counts of Sexual Abuse in Chicago.

I will read two books over the next 10 days. A biography of Benjamin Franklin. And George Saunders’ novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to

First music of the day: June Christy’s Something Cool, a 1955 record that introduced the “vocal cool” period, and one of the excellent pieces of old vinyl that I picked up during my new favorite holiday, Saturday’s Record Store Day. “I don’t ordinarily drink with strangers,” she sings on the title track. “I mostly usually drink alone, but you were so nice to ask me, and I’m so terribly far from home…. A cigarette, I don’t smoke them a a rule, but I’ll have one, it will be fun, with something cool.” I look out the front window, and see that it rained last night; everything is a lush green.

1, “The civil lawsuit filed against Goldman on Friday by the Securities and Exchange Commission seemed to confirm many Americans’ worst suspicions about Wall Street,” The Times writes in the lead story of the day. “That the game is rigged, the odds are stacked in the banks’ favor.”  Think of last week’s lead story, that 29 miners died in West Virginia because the mine owners willfully ignored safety violations. This week, as Congress gears up for financial reform debate, the conservative drum beat against “Big Government” will grow louder. But all we’re asking for is Effective Government. Those miners simply wanted to earn a living wage, not give their lives for the company’s profits. And when you invest in a retirement plan, you don’t expect to lose it in a market fraud. Government reform and regulation is important in today’s society, which is far more complex than anyone can handle. As The Times notes in an editorial today, “When Republicans try to block reform, they are doing nothing more than shilling for the banks.”

2, In Southeast Asia, the dung of civits – a nocturnal, cat-like animal – is gathered from the hills in an exotic harvest: coffee cherry seeds, fermented in the animal’s stomach acid and enzymes, produces (The Times writes with first-person authority) “a brew described as smooth, chocolaty and devoid of any bitter aftertaste.” Highly valued by connoisseurs, beans fraudulently said to be marinated in civit stomachs are becoming a problem. And, as is always the case with foods of curious origin, you must wonder, “Who was the first person to decide that beans extruded from a varmint’s digestive tract would make a tasty cup of coffee?” Also of interest in this story, a passing reference to a local funeral tradition in the Philippines of hanging coffins from sheer cliffs. I don’t recall Ferdinand Marcos coming to such an end.

3, “Romney Will Endorse Rubio Over Crist in Florida, Adviser Says.” The headline refers to the Florida senate race, in which the formerly obscure Marco Rubio is leading Governor Charlie Crist in the Republican primary. Y0u must ask: What right does Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, have to tell the people of Florida how to vote?

4, A story on public toilets in New York City parks suggests viewing a video on the newspaper’s web site in which the issue is discussed by a New York University toilet expert. Who knew there was such a position?

5, A 58-year-old grocery store produce clerk from Austin, Texas, has ranked the Top 9,200 films of all time. He’s seen 7,000 of them, slotting the unseen ones based on others’ opinions, and plans on stopping at 10,000. Brad Bourland takes other critics’ ideas into account; while he tells The Times that Being John Malkovich as a masterpiece that he would have ranked in the Top 200, some critical carping led him to place it at No. 502. The story doesn’t mention the Top Three, so I looked it up for you at www.themovielistonline.com: 1, Casablanca. 2, Citizen Kane, 3, The Godfather.

6, Natalie Merchant’s new album, Leave Your Sleep, is actually a poetry compilation set to music. It also comes with an 80-age hardbound book of photos, drawings by Merchant and annotated poetry text. As music packaging grows increasingly slim, bowing to the artistically soul-less download, “there’s still an audience for a project that’s a little more hand-crafted,” insists Robert Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records. Merchant describes her interest in learning all she could about the poets she selected as driven by the fact that “I had never collaborated with dead people or strangers.”

7, The Travel section’s European issue samples cuisine from across the continent. In Stockholm we discover “meat of one particular animal paired with appropriate wines, such as ‘Red Deer and Bordeaux,’ ‘Veal and Nebbiolo’ and ‘Cow and Cabernet.’ ” (Note to myself: Prague’s slow-cooked pork with a blackberry and black pepper glaze, served on a bed of mashed potatoes with a thick Montepulciano wine reduction.)

8, Are we being struck by more earthquakes than usual? No, says the United States Geological Survey. “Several million quakes occur yearly, most undetected,” The Times reports. Each year, about 16 earthquakes of 7.0 magnitude or higher are recorded. We’ve had six so far this year, so we’re right on schedule.

9, Much has been made of last week’s survey of the Tea Party folks being a little wealthier, better educated and a whole lot whiter than the rest of America. What’s another major difference? “They were almost unanimous in their dislike of President Obama,” The Times writes, which takes them far from the mainstream; Obama remains one of the most-popular national politicians in the country. As for “better educated,” three out of 10 Tea Partiers cling to the belief that Obama was not born in the United States, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

10, The Times editorial page notes that pro-gun marchers will be descending on two parks in the Washington, D.C., area on Monday, ostensibly celebrating the Second Amendment and the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord. A better anniversary to take note of, the editorial suggests, is the 11th anniversary of the Columbine massacre. It points out that the two students responsible for the shootings had obtained their weapons through what’s known as the “gun-show loophole,” which allows hobbyist dealers to make no-questions-asked sales. Closing this loophole would undoubtedly be applauded by the founding patriots of Lexington and Concord, The Times writes, because, “It demands the political courage to value human life over the bravado of the gun culture.” And, I will add, Monday’s celebrants also appear to be silent on another Monday anniversary, the Oklahoma City bombing by terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

11, Columnist Frank Rich sees a tie-in between the rabid anti-health care reform protests and Virginia’s declaration of April as “Confederate History Month.” Both movements are revisionist histories and myths enabled by “unreconstructed white cohorts.”

12, “According to the perverse aesthetics of artistic guilty pleasures, certain books and movies are so bad – so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed – that they’re actually rather good,” writes Walter Kirn in his review of Solar, the new work by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ian McEwan. Perhaps this is why I enjoy sci-fi films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space, or anything featuring atomically enriched, gigantic insects. But Solar, Kirn writes, runs in the opposite direction, “so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high minded and skillfully brought off – that it’s actually quite bad.” This sounds much like my perception of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I first picked up because it was so highly regarded, only to find myself on a death march to the final page, hoping to find some salvation in the end, thus justifying my investment. It did not happen. I remain convinced to this day that I am one of only 37 people worldwide to have actually read that numbing bestseller in its entirety.

The Critical Mass

I read the Sunday New York Times, So You Don’t Have To: Dec. 20

1, Senate Democrats announced they have the 60 votes to move past the Republican health-reform blockade. It’s not what we needed – some of those senators exacted their pints of blood before they gave their vote – but the forces aligned against this bill were astonishing: $1 million a day spent by insurance lobbyists. When considering the cost of this investment, we need to see the whole picture, one that’s been missing from this acrimonious debate, and minus the obfuscations of the Palins and the McConnells. Here’s how The Times deftly summarized the cost: “The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the cost of the legislation  would be roughly $871 billion over 10 years, with the costs more than offset by revenues from new taxes and fees  and by reductions in government spending, particularly in slowing the growth of Medicare. The budget office said the bill would reduce future deficits by $132 billion over that period.”

2, Born in Cuba, long a resident of  New York City, working in obscurity her entire life, Carmen Herrera and her minimalist geometric paintings have been discovered by the art world. The 94-year-old’s largest paintings can now go for $30,000. “In an era where the art world idolizes, and often richly rewards, the young and the new, she embodies a different, much rarer kind of success, that of the artist long overlooked by the market, and by history, who persevered because she had no choice.”

3, Reader’s Digest is re-tooling for the 21st Century, says Sunday Business. In this story, we find that the magazine, with a readership once “rivaled only by the Bible,” has had to sell off one of the world’s greatest collections of corporate art, just to stay in business.

4, Business’ portrait of life as a WalMart sales associate makes it sound like the whole thing’s a cult.

5, The Automobiles page bids farewell to the Pontiac brand. Those ’60s-era “big, confident cars” were works of art, with names to match: Star Chief Custom Bonneville. The auto-obit shares a page with a story on the Honda Accord Crosstour. Crosstour? You call that a car name?

6, Milorad Pavic, sorry you’re dead. But after seeing your obit in The Times, I need to get my hands on your 1988 novel Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words. Arranged like a dictionary, so that it can be read in any order, the book was typical of the Serbian writer’s attempt to “do away with the forced-march, page-after-page strategy to which most readers are accustomed.”

7, The Times‘ Frank Rich reports that, as of Friday, The New York Post had featured Tiger Woods on 20 straight covers. That breaks the record of 19 by 9/11. Considered alongside “snake-oil salesmen” such as Bernie Madoff, Ken Lay and John Edwards,  the Tiger Woods image con job is simply more of “A decade that began with the ‘reality’ television craze exemplified by American Idol and Survivor – both  blissfully devoid of any reality whatsoever – and spiraled into a wholesale flight from truth.”

8, The Book Review examines The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. According to biographer Joan Schenkar, Highsmith – the author of novels of criminal behavior such as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley – was an odd one. “She collected snails, liking their portable hiding place and the impossibility of telling which was male and which was female,” Schenkar writes. “She traveled with snails in her luggage and kept hundreds at home. If she was bored at dinner parties, she might get a few snails out of her purse and let them loose on the tablecloth.”

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