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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: July 11

First music of the day: Canadian jazz pianist Francois Bourassa. It will be a good afternoon on the deck. Chicken quarters are marinating in a local strawberry-balsamic vinegar purchased Saturday at the Rochester Public Market. They’ll be joined by wings, and later, bacon-wrapped figs.

1, Whose recession? Profits for members of the New York Stock Exchange totaled a record $61,4 billion in 2009. New York securities firms have added nearly 2,000 new jobs since February.

2, The teaching potential of robots is being explored with kids in the classroom, as well as with autistic children. “I worry that if kids grow up being taught by robots and viewing technology as the master, they will see it as the master,” says one concerned educator. Yet after all of these years, centuries even, experiments with these robots interacting with, and teaching kids, reveals one obvious fact: We don’t really know much about how people learn.

3, Beneath the headline “Enigmatic Jobless Man Prepares a Senate Campaign,” we meet Alvin M. Greene, Democratic candidate for the South Carolina senate. He’s running against one of the more disagreeable conservatives in Congress, Jim DeMint, but Greene’s victory in the Democratic primary is inexplicable. An unemployed man involuntarily discharged from the Army in August, and so poor he had to have a public defender represent him on a felony obscenity charge, Greene comes off as completely unaware of local or national issues, or what it takes to run a senate campaign. No one can explain how a man who accepts unemployment benefits, and who has no health insurance, came up with the $10,440 filing fee for the June 8 primary. Or how he won without campaigning, getting more than 100,000 votes, 59 percent of those cast, except maybe it’s because his name appeared first on the ballot. Suspicions have been raised that “mischief-making Republicans” are behind the Greene candidacy, although no evidence has surfaced. Greene says one solution for propping up the economy would be to sell action figures of himself. And he’d like Denzel Washington to play him in a movie.

4, In the magazine, “Egghead Alert” discusses how Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was coached in how to appear less intellectually superior for her Congressional hearing. As Richard Hofstrader wrote in his 1962 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, this is a part of “our culture’s longtime devaluation of the head in favor of the heart.”

5, Ousting Al Qaeda from Afghanistan takes on less significance when you read in the magazine how the group has penetrated the next launching pad for terrorists, Yemen.

6, Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton cracks the case on the secret of the ribs at New York City’s Fatty ‘Cue, which the owner himself refers to as built on “strong cocktails, chili, palm sugar and smoky fat.”  I tore out the recipe and stuck it on the refrigerator in anticipation of the next round of ribs smoking. As soon as I find some ground Indonesian long peppers.

7, Pulitzer  Prize winning columnist Maureen Dowd seems to have been off her game for a while now, but I’ll still turn to her for my sports news. Today she examines the inane ESPN special, breathlessly named “The Decision,” in which LeBron James announced he was leaving Cleveland to play basketball for the Miami Heat. “It’s always a bad sign when people begin taking about themselves in the third person,” she writes.  Indeed. Incidentally, Jeff thinks that LeBron teaming up with the millions being paid to his new teammates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh will leave precious few dollars to put little more than a pickup team around them. No championship for you, Miami.

8, I’m sorry, I did not read the special section, “Mutual Funds Report.”  Ask LeBron what he thought. But not Alvin Greene.

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