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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

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: 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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