What Happened Today: May 22, 2023
Western water wars; Epstein blackmailed Gates; Delusional American flyers
The Big Story
As the Colorado River water level nears dangerous lows because of persistent droughts, seven states that rely upon it for their water supply will make drastic voluntary reductions to their usage to comply with a new landmark deal announced on Monday. If the primary states involved, Arizona, California, and Nevada adhere to the temporary cuts, the Department of the Interior will pay out about $1.2 billion to their cities, irrigation zones, and Native American tribes. Those cuts, along with other voluntary measures taken by the seven total states involved in the deal, would decrease the usual water demand made upon the Lower Colorado Basin by about 13%, according to government projections.
Part of one of the most aggressive water-reduction plans ever made for the region, the changes will run through 2026 and have major implications for the residents and the agricultural producers in the involved states. While the proposal still needs final approval from federal agencies, it’s expected to be ratified without further changes after a contentious negotiation process between the seven states all affected by the deal, including Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Officials from those states have spent months hashing out the terms since the federal government gave them a deadline of May 30 to reach an agreement for unilateral reductions. That mandate came after last summer, when water levels in two of the biggest reservoirs along the river, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, were so low that there was a risk the water would no longer flow into the hydroelectric turbines powered by the lakes, cutting electric supply for millions in the region.
Debates about states like Arizona reducing their water use at a rate far greater than California were eased somewhat during negotiations thanks in part to a wet winter with enough snowpack to—for now, at least—boost the river’s water level. Further intervention from the federal government could be imminent if the states cannot finalize a more long term water plan while drought conditions continue.
Read More: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/may/22/colorado-river-states-california-arizona-nevada
In The Back Pages: Tea With Martin Amis
→ Every new report on Jeffrey Epstein brings more questions than answers about the nature of his ties to some of the world’s most powerful figures. According to a Wall Street Journal report on Monday, Epstein’s discovery of an affair between Bill Gates and a Russian bridge player more than a decade ago became information that Epstein used to blackmail the billionaire Microsoft founder. Citing a 2017 email in which Epstein asks Gates to pay him back for coding lessons he covered for the bridge player, the WSJ said, “The implication behind the message, according to people who have viewed it, was that Epstein could reveal the affair if Gates didn’t keep up an association between the two men.” Representatives for Gates offered a muddled retort to the paper, writing that “Epstein tried unsuccessfully to leverage a past relationship to threaten Mr. Gates” after he failed to persuade Gates to join a philanthropic project Epstein pursued to rehab his reputation after his 2008 sex-crime conviction.
→ Speaking of controversies that have only become murkier, German investigators suggest in a new report that Ukrainian officials were behind the explosions last September that destroyed the Nord Stream gas pipelines that were a crucial energy conduit between Russia and Europe. With at least three state investigations by Denmark, Sweden, and Germany still ongoing, blame for the explosions has continually shifted, with accusations against Russia, the United States, and Ukraine. No definitive proof has been found to substantiate any of these allegations, and officials in each country have denied any culpability. The vacuum of definitive information has been gamely filled by conspiracy theorists and independent investigators alike, creating an increasingly dense fog around whatever did happen.
For more on the pipeline controversy, see Lee Smith’s piece from February that pokes holes in a supposed bombshell exposé that claimed the United States was behind the attack: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/sy-hersh-swings-big-misses-lee-smith
Today’s headlines come from Haïti Progrès, a Haitian newspaper published in French, French Creole, and English from Brooklyn, New York. Founded in 1983, the newspaper also has an office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
The Emergence of Monsters // The Mango Sector Is in Danger // 150 Citizens Killed and 300 Injured as Victims of the Gang War // Why Have We Waited So Long to Take Control Ourselves? // Reign of Terror during the Government of Ariel Henry // Mexico says 15,000 Haitians are Preparing to Rush the U.S. Border
→ Boston news outlet 25 Investigates’ new report into the opaque state systems tracking negligent doctors has found that only the most tenacious patients will learn the full detail of some doctor’s backgrounds. In the Massachusetts public physician database for one nursing home physician, Dr. Hooshang Poor, new patients wouldn’t learn that Poor settled two Department of Justice probes in 2019 and 2022 over billing fraud and improper prescription of narcotics, or that he was the subject of a state audit in 2017. A recent surge in patient complaints about doctors to the state medical board has led to a backlog of cases—the board’s 1,282 pending investigations in 2020 is almost triple the 2017 total—but patients can’t see if a doctor is being investigated until after the case is closed. “When it comes to disciplining substandard medicine, it’s almost unheard of that that occurs,” one attorney told the 25 Investigates team.
Read More: https://www.boston25news.com/news/health/25-investigates-patients-left-dark-about-some-parts-doctors-past-mass/CCGPRW3PUNCFNMBOQ35YOGTH3I/
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→ Most of New York City’s high school seniors are chronically absent, a new report finds, suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and virtual learning essentially “normalized the idea of not attending.” The study of NYC Department of Education data from the Empire Center, a self-described “independent” think tank, found that in the 2022-2023 academic year, roughly 55% of 12th graders were missing at least 18 days a year, the threshold for chronic absenteeism, a surge above the already-high 40% rate during the 2021-2022 academic year. “It’s a number that’s difficult to fathom, and policymakers should be treating this as an emergency,” one study author told the New York Post. The city’s public schools already endured a level of absenteeism above the national average before the pandemic, but the current record-breaking absenteeism isn’t dragging down graduation, as administrators are pressuring teachers to give missing students a passing grade. That’s left a growing number of New York high school graduates with a diploma overwhelmed if they go off to college.
Read More: https://nypost.com/2023/05/20/55-of-nyc-12th-graders-chronically-absent-post-covid/
→ Martin Amis, the English novelist, journalist, and critic, died on Friday at the age of 73. A comic writer who took on big themes (the Holocaust, terrorism) with variable success, he sought to differentiate himself from his famous novelist father, Kingsley Amis, while idolizing the two writers he called his Twin Peaks, Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow. Amis’ misanthropic wit, wordplay, and top-shelf noticing were on evidence in his 1985 hit novel, Money, and two more subsequent novels that formed his “London trilogy,” which found a devout readership that wouldn’t be quite so satisfied again until his late novel, Inside Story, that lightly novelized his relationship with his father as well as his friendship with writer Christopher Hitchens. All along, Amis’ gossipy interviews and regular appearances in the British tabloids he so often scorned fanned the flame on a celebrity that sometimes crowded out his literary achievement. Writing 15 novels, and at least one good memoir, along with collections of non-fiction, Amis always returned to the subject of mortality. “Every morning we leave more in the bed: certainty, vigor, past loves. And hair, and skin: dead cells,” he wrote in The Information. “This ancient detritus was nonetheless one move ahead of you, making its humorless own arrangements to rejoin the cosmos.”
→ A few miles north of the U.S. southern border in Arizona, a man who’d called border agents to report an uptick in illegal migrants crossing his property was shot and killed by those same agents, members of his family told News 4 Tucson. The victim, Raymond Mattia, was just a few feet from his door when dozens of shots were fired at him by agents, according to his family members who spoke with law enforcement after the incident. “I keep hearing the gunshots and I can’t get over it. … It’s very sad just to know who they were shooting at, you know,” one family member said. On Sunday, The Guardian reported that the FBI was currently investigating the shooting.
→ Roughly 1 in 3 Americans believe they could take over the cockpit of a commercial plane and safely land the aircraft in an emergency landing, according to a YouGov survey earlier this year. On Monday, The Washington Post published the results of its own test of such confidence, finding that in a flight simulator, Americans without piloting experience were actually pretty bad at navigating the skies, “even with a prodigious amount of guidance” provided by a coach in the cockpit. As to be expected, perhaps, the paper suggested that “no inexperienced traveler should ever volunteer to land a plane in an emergency.”
TODAY IN TABLET:
Grand Theft Auto in the West Bank by Ari Flanzraich
Young Arabs are turning to video games to role-play a version of the conflict in which they win
The Butcher of Desire, or Imagining Philip Roth by Sam Apple
Meet Phil the Kosher butcher, non-traditional writing student, counterfactual storyteller, Lothario
SCROLL TIP LINE: Have a lead on a story or something going on in your workplace, school, congregation, or social scene that you want to tell us about? Send your tips, comments, questions, and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This piece was originally published in Tablet, February 2021
Tea With Martin Amis
How to write? With love, says the author.
By Noah Kumin
The framing device that Martin Amis uses in his recent novel, Inside Story—Amis has a young man over to his Cobble Hill brownstone for tea in 2016 and is giving him writing advice—felt very familiar when I first read it. I suppose that’s because in real life Martin Amis had me, Noah Kumin, over to his Cobble Hill brownstone for tea in 2016, and there he gave me writing advice.
That spring I was a student in NYU’s graduate writing program, where Amis was teaching that semester. At the first class, his cracked voice and halting manner made it seem like he was as nervous as we were. Where was the sneering enfant terrible the media had promised us? Only to be found in the books?
The mutual wariness lasted several weeks, and when I informed Amis after one class that he had been assigned to me as my thesis adviser, he gave me the same look I would later see him give to a Boerum Hill bartender who told him that if he wished to continue enjoying his vape pen, he would have to do so outside. Both times the look said, “I am evidently dealing with annoyance, but I am willing to go along with them so long as nothing escalates.” Yet Amis turned out to be a good teacher, a thoughtful reader, and a kind person—decidedly more lad than cad.
A novelist’s life is a hybrid affair: There’s life and there’s fiction, and they often overlap. Inside Story takes this hybridism to the hilt. It’s a short novel about an affair with a woman named Phoebe Phelps, plus several longish essays about Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and Christopher Hitchens—intermixed with Amis’ workmanlike advice on the craft of writing. As an attempt to weave together these disparate threads, the book is not quite a success, although each swath has its attractive patterns. I suspect I was not the only person who, upon hearing that Amis was writing about Hitchens, Bellow, and Larkin, hoped that he might bring these three characters to life novelistically and have them duke it out with one another in a battle of ideas, or, at least, of personalities. What Amis has done instead is to write in a straight nonfiction mode about their lives and, particularly, their deaths. These essay sections are often touching, sometimes informative, but never quite invested with the dramatic verve one expects from Amis.
But the romance has verve to spare. Here is A-plus Amis, still suave and sweet and sour and sly at 70. In this storyline, an on-the-make writer named Martin Amis, walking through London, notices an attractive woman in a business suit and, in the grand tradition, sputters some words in her general direction. She accepts a date, although she informs him that she is a one-and-done type of gal and that he should not get his hopes up. But he does. Of course he does.
It ends, as you know it will if you know Amis, in madness and squalor. This is his true metier: finding the cracks in what he has called, borrowing from Wyndham Lewis via Saul Bellow, the “moronic inferno.” I do not believe this distinctive feature of his fiction has been sufficiently remarked on. His technique in his great books, in, say, Success, The Pregnant Widow, even in Time’s Arrow, is to ratchet up the ugliness until, like a fire that consumes every last flammable object, all that remains is parched earth and pathos.
As for the biographical essays: On Bellow, Amis is sad and reverent. He focuses on the late novelist’s descent into dementia, and what emerges from these passages, more than anything, is evidence for the fragility of the human mind. On Larkin, Amis is cool toward the man, warm toward the poet. His investigation centers on Larkin’s quip, “deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.” Amis settles on a psychosexual explanation for Larkin’s misery, involving Larkin’s father, a violent man and an admirer of the Nazis.
On Hitchens, Amis is a paragon of loving friendship, and I suspect the book’s climax, as Amis receives a supernatural sign from his recently deceased atheist compadre, will move even those who are ill-disposed toward Hitchens. Although Hitchens’ character in Inside Story sometimes comes off as less appealing than Amis intends, the portraitis saved by what Amis calls “the love of life of the Hitch, the amour fou of the Hitch.”
“Life,” Amis writes toward the middle of the book, “is artistically lifeless, and its only unifying theme is death.” But what could have actually unified Inside Story is more of a thesis about death, instead of unconnected descriptions of dying and its aftermath. Other material feels as though it has been jammed together by brute force: Amis casually dispenses with one major plot point of the Phoebe Phelps affair—a mystery around one character’s paternity—in a footnote. Nor is it quite clear what Amis’ recent New Yorker short story about the European refugee crisis is doing sandwiched in here.
The novel’s strongest theme is his attempt to answer the question of “How to Write,” which is the book’s subtitle. Amis’ answer: with love. “This is literature’s dewy little secret. Its energy is the energy of love.” A charming idea, though it is another one of these generalizations of which Amis is fond in his essayistic mode, and a strange one coming from the late-20th century’s great bard of spite.
“My smirk novel,” Amis says to his wife as they’re enjoying a lovely time at a conference in Saint-Malo, “it’s taking shape. I’ll need your help with the title, El. I fancy a Rousseauesque intonation. How about Confessions of a Sexually Irresistable Genius? ... I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’ll make everyone hate me.”
“They hate you already,” his wife replies.
As a teacher, the best advice Amis gave us was this: Always assume the reader is as busy, as put upon, as you are. He has written in Inside Story and elsewhere about the fact that, as he sees it, the world is speeding up: and the reader has no time for complicated opening pages or literary puzzles. Much of what Amis has to say consists of sound advice for any writer competing in the attention economy: Hook the reader, no overly complex syntax, use line breaks liberally, no secondhand phrases, be original, see things with a poet’s eye.
Yet for all his modernist enthusiasm (“The world you see out there is ulterior: it is other than what is obvious or admitted. ... Never use a form of words which is in any sense ready made”) Amis uses ready-made phrases fairly often, as any prose writer inevitably must, especially whenever Amis describes the American landscape. In one sentence on Texas, for instance, we get “big oil” (as opposed to small oil?), “packed churches” (churches always seem to be packed there—never half-full or merely crowded), and “weekly death sentences” (at least we are spared the cowboys shouting yee-haw). Elsewhere he refers to the writing process as “the result of much blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
Amis’ true verbal originality comes when he is describing things that are ugly or selfish or rancid. Cancer survivors are “roadhogs and me-firsters who squandered the good luck that so rightfully belonged to my friend.” (He’s thinking of Hitchens, who died of cancer.) The authorial ego “is—and has to be—vulgarly and queasily vast.” Procreation is a positive thing, he writes, not because the world is an inherently good place but because it is evil: “I need to see a fresh face. One unmarked by the world. I need to see an innocent.”
What allows Amis to soar to his greatest heights is the depth of muck into which he is prepared to immerse himself. The point is made rather neatly in an old televised interview between Amis and the feminist critic Germaine Greer. In the conversation, Amis expounds on the character of John Self, the boorish, sodden, priapic anti-hero of his big novel Money, contrasting him with the character of Martin Amis, who also appears in the book. “You’re talking to me like Martin Amis in the book,” a slightly disappointed sounding Greer says, “who’s rather prissy really. And I would have said that in the Martin Amis that I know slightly, there’s a good slice of John Self.”
The stories I handed in to Amis were, he remarked, “not onerous to read”—as Amisian a response as one could hope for. He complimented my prose rhythm, which pleased me for the simple reason that I have never encountered another reader who even brought up my prose rhythm. Yet he had little to say about what the work was about. When I first told Amis I was giving him short stories to look at, he sneered. “Slices of life types, are they?” So I chose stories that were as salacious as possible: a tale about a Russian troll farm in Saint Petersburg that dabbles in Miss Lonelyhearts scams, an SF story with a good dollop of torture and suicide, a story of a young nymphomaniac at an idyllic New England boarding school. (“She’s rather good,” Amis remarked.)
Sexual abjectness, gluttony, treachery, to say nothing of suicide, genocide, and plain old-fashioned murder—these have been Amis’ most fruitful themes over the last almost 50 years. And there’s the reason that Inside Story does not pack the wallop of Amis’ best: The reader does not want a story of Martin Amis as he is, what is wanted is a story of Amis at his worst; to put it another way, a story of the devils who occupy his imagination. And although there has been a good amount of legitimate revolt of late against the romanticization of writers, there is still one sense in which such romanticization is fair. An imaginative writer is someone who is willing and able to investigate himself as a whole, and not only the persona that his era finds acceptable. That is the real-life writing, that is literary truth. And maybe that is what Amis had in mind when he uttered in class one day a remark I still can’t forget. He was on a tangent about the writing life, when he landed clearly and emphatically on the statement, “Writers must be like saints.”
I must have made a face when he said it, because he looked me in the eye, with unexpected gravity and a hint of sorrow, and said: “It’s true. And don’t ever forget it.”