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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

Opening-Day Blog

Thank You for joining me on the Internet. I’d rather we could do this face-to-face, sitting in a bar. Nonetheless, I shall have a dirty martini, thank you. And The Essential George Jones.

Culture’s informed tastemakers have surrendered their leadership positions to focus groups and housewives voting for their favorite American Idol. Order a book through one of the Internet services, rather than one of your rapidly dwindling independent booksellers, and you’ll likely be greeted by a piece of software, as enthusiastic as your new best friend, cheerfully offering a handful of other titles you may also be interested in purchasing. All exactly like the one you just purchased, as if the only thing you ever read is Stephen King thrillers about inanimate objects that kill.

The New York Times Book Review is essential – although not necessarily timely – reading. I’ve found unread, year-old copies lost in a pile, their vitality still intact. The books aren’t going anywhere without me.

Misplaced for a mere three weeks, David Orr’s review of the new Nicholson Baker novel, The Anthology, is one of those pieces that has inspired me to read a book which I would otherwise give no thought to joining beneath its covers. A novel about a guy writing the preface to an anthology of poetry? Does anyone get murdered?

Ezra Pound apparently does, but only in a critical sense. Orr’s review suggests that Baker, speaking through his novel’s character, Paul Chowder, unloads a knowing truckload of his own observations of poets and their craft. Orr writes of Baker’s namedropping of poets (Troy Jollimore, who’s that?) and literary magazines (Rain Taxi, what’s that?). He points to Baker’s – excuse, me, Chowder’s – metaphor of 19th-Century literature as “a huge forest of old-growth birch and beech.” Orr does archly suggest that Baker’s “depiction of the American poetry ecosystem itself is often a little odd, and perhaps has more to do with the experience of Nicholson Baker rather than Paul Chowder.” That’s fine. As a poet illiterati, that’s what I’m looking for.

Perhaps that’s what we’re all looking for. Baker, or someone, to be our poet Virgil, leading us through Hell, Purgatory and then, Heaven.

ACID COMMENTARY. Needing an excuse to get away from the all-consuming web site for the evening, and the preparations for Monday night’s web site release party (see the top of this page) we caught singer-songwriter-wiseguys Robert Earl Keen, Todd Snider and Bruce Robison at Water Street Music Hall. The trio is heavy Texan (even though Snider is now from Oregon), and well matched in the Department of Sly Humor. Keen’s known for that, Robison less so. That’s the great thing about Austin, Texas: People like these guys are just walking down the street, great herds of transient tunesmiths. This is not a competition, but I’d say  Snider stole this fine night, armed with his stoner wit and self-depricating songs that took plenty of laid-back shots at conservatives and anything remotely establishment in nature. While we’re in the midst of the World Series, he even  had a song about the Pirates’ Dock Ellis pitching a no-hitter while on acid. This is, incidentally, the second song that’s been written about this legendary moment in baseball history. Barbara Manning has also written one. That’s two more than Barry Bonds gets.

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