Today's Special

"And here is Earth, a bright-blue jewel glittering in our modest galaxy, wandering in the darkness like a tourist in a bad neighborhood, about to be mugged." From "Stephen Hawking is a Peeping Tom," in Essays.

The Critical Mass

The rhythm of Rochester

Does Rochester have a stronger music heritage than nearby Buffalo and Syracuse, as was postulated Thursday morning? Well, the arts is not a competition, folks. But let’s consider the rhythm section that will be joining the Rochester Music Hall of Fame when the seventh class is inducted in a ceremony and concert April 22 at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater.

Drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Tony Levin. Two of the most dominant and innovative musicians in rock, pop and jazz over the past few decades. Gadd is the go-to sticks for Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, James Taylor and damn near everyone else. His most-recent album, Way Back Home: Live from Rochester, recorded at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, won a Grammy. Levin is Peter Gabriel and King Crimson’s bassist, and a myriad of other acts, as well as his own projects. He’s known for his use of the Chapman Stick, a bass he plays with sticks. Gadd and Levin were young guys on the scene here in the ’60s, playing the clubs, studying at the Eastman School of Music, joining Chuck Mangione’s early bands as he was emerging as a jazz star.

Gadd and Levin will play together at the April 22 show, joined by their old bandmates from L’Image, a groundbreaking soft-jazz outfit that first appeared in the 1970s, although it didn’t release an album until 2010: Mike Mainieri, David Spinozza and Warren Bernhardt. And as a couple of Hall of Fame board members noted, there will be at least one special guest to be announced.

So we’ve got that. Add to it the Eastman School of Music icon John Beck, Emmy-nominated composer Ferdinand Jay Smith and the spectacular sacred-steel stars The Campbell Brothers, and this seventh class shapes up as one with not only a big and diverse pedigree, but one that could deliver memorable live performances as well.

As if the Campbell Brothers’ room-shaking blend of gospel, country, rock, jazz and soul isn’t enough – the band has played with The Allman Brothers, and Medeski Martin & Wood – it will be joined at the show by sacred steel star Robert Randolph. It was Chuck Campbell who gave Randolph his first pedal-steel guitar, from the House of Guitars, launching his career.

Beck, who’s been on the Eastman faculty since 1959, is a world-regarded professor of percussion as a performer, teacher and writer. And he always comes prepared, as we saw at a Kilbourn Hall show during a recent Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. When a fellow percussionist asked if anyone in the house had a drum key so that he could tighten one of his drum heads, it was Beck who jumped up from his seat and passed one down to the stage. At April’s show, drum key in pocket, Beck will play a set with the house band, Prime Time Funk.

Smith started his music career as a 15-year-old DJ before he moved on to promoting shows for bands such as Led Zeppelin, The Rascals and Fleetwood Mac. In 1973 he founded Jay Advertising, based in East Rochester, and began creating a string of musical themes and scores, many familiar to this day: The theme music for the 1980 and 1988 Olympics, HBO specials, movies, sports documentaries, even the theme song for Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous. He’s been nominated for two Emmys as well. There is no accurate way to measure this, but it is possible that more people, without being aware of it, have heard Smith’s music than the music of anyone else in the Hall of Fame class of 2018. Rochester’s Casey Filiaci will lead a medley of Smith’s music with a video salute at the concert.

Karl LaPorta opened Thursday’s press conference announcing that in June he is stepping down as the president of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame board of directors, and handing over the leadership to Jack Whittier. Whittier recalled how all of this started: LaPorta was at Whittier’s house, tuning a piano, when he suggested that Rochester needed a Music Hall of Fame, because Buffalo and Syracuse each had one and, “Frankly, we’ve got better music than both of them.”

It remains a work in progress. No physical building yet, although Whittier hinted Thursday that something might be in the works there, with projects that would push the Hall of Fame “past an induction ceremony.”

Big names – soprano Renée Fleming – have yet to be inducted, but that’s always a matter of availability. “Trying to get Steve has been a seven-year process,” the show’s concert producer, Bruce Pilato, said of Gadd. And there still isn’t much representation of the musicians who have been or were longtime, blue-collar voices on the Rochester scene: The Dady Brothers, The Colorblind James Experience. Maybe even Mastodon, one of the top metal acts now playing. It’s based in Atlanta, but two of its members crawled up though the Rochester club scene.

But perhaps the Hall of Fame is closing in on the present. This seventh class is the first in which all of the inductees are still alive. When this fact was pointed out to one of the board members, he immediately came up with a brilliant tag line: “The Class Above Grass.”

Tickets for the 7 p.m. April 22 ceremony and concert, ranging from $31 to $76, are available at the Eastman Theatre box office, rochestermusic.org and (585) 454-2100.

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The Critical Mass

The new urgency in Presidents Day

Happy Presidents Day. A holiday that calls attention to the fact that it’s been a year since we’ve had a president.

The United States is falling apart.

We should be united in the idea that we must act against guns in this country. “Thoughts and prayers” are useless. After the latest, not the last, mass killing at a school, every argument presented by pro-gun people is thoroughly refuted by common sense. You say mass shootings are the work of the mentally ill? Where are the mentally ill mass assassins in other nations – Great Britain, Canada, Australia – with the good sense to make assault rifles as illegal as lawn darts? You ask, mockingly, why don’t we make trucks illegal, since terrorists have used them to run over innocent people on crowded streets? Trucks are designed to move freight, AK-47s are designed to kill humans.

You say the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun? We need to flip the culture, and accept the reality: The overwhelming history of the world tells us that guns are evil. Maybe you’re an honest deer hunter, but because you stayed silent as the gun culture spiraled out of control, you are complicit in these tragedies. We no longer need guns to put food on the table. That’s what grocery stores are for.

And on and on it goes.

We should be united in the idea that racism is evil. Instead, we are divided by racists emboldened by a racist in the White House.

We should be united in the idea that sexual harassment and assault is evil. Instead, it is excused by a man in the White House who himself has faced convincing charges of harassment and assault.

We should be united in the idea that, in the richest country in the world, every citizen should have access to affordable health care. Instead, we have a man in the White House who is working to reverse that right.

We should be united in the acceptance of science. Instead, we have a climate-change denier in the White House.

We should be united in the understanding that no adult can support a family on the current minimum wage. Instead, massive corporations grow richer and richer on the backs of an abused working class, thanks to the economic policies of the man in the White House.

We should be united in the idea that Americans want clean air and water, safe working conditions and national parks celebrating the grandeur of our landscape. Instead, those protections are being stripped away by the man in the White House.

We should be united in the belief that a great nation is defined by how it treats its most-vulnerable citizens. Instead, the House of Representatives has just passed a bill that damages the Americans With Disabilities Act’s mission to help a disabled citizen use legal representation to fight for equal access to businesses and other facilities. Without a tweet of protest from the man in the White House.

We should be united in the idea that a foreign nation should not be allowed to meddle in our election process. Instead, we have a man in the White House who seems to have no interest in preventing this from happening again. Because he knows he’ll need those foreign agents again in 2020.

We should be appalled that the First Amendment is under attack by the demagogue in the White House who is too absorbed in protecting his own interests to understand the role of the press in preserving American democracy.

We should be united in the idea that this is a nation united by truths, but truth has been bent into unrecognizable shapes by the liar in the White House.

We should be united in the demand that the man who occupies the White House not shatter our moral compass.

And on and on it goes.

Happy Presidents Day. A day set aside to celebrate our greatest leaders. And today, a holiday reminding us that we don’t have one.

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The Critical Mass

Shake your Eddie Money Maker

Eddie Money, innocent passerby Ernie Orlando and, lurking in the background, the young Eddie Money.

Your first reaction probably isn’t: “Wow! There’s Eddie Money!”

It’s more like: “Huh. So that’s Eddie Money…”

This despite Money having sold more than 30 million albums. The guy exudes an everyman vibe. “Eddie Money was here last week,” the waitress at Mr. Dominic’s said. “I had my picture taken with him.” That’s the way it’s been in Rochester the last few weeks. The ’80s rock star, star somewhat faded, taking a break from the casino circuit, posing for photos. Money here, Money there. Getting ready for Wednesday’s world premiere of Two Tickets to Paradise: The Eddie Money Musical. Five shows, running through Feb. 18 at Kodak Center for the Performing Arts Center. Then, they say, take it on the road.

I’ve been asking around. Trying to figure out why Eddie Money, why Rochester. “He’s got connections here,” is the best answer I’ve heard, and that’s kinda vague. Money’s evidently been shopping it around for a few years, and Rochester Association of the Performing Arts CEO and President Jim Vollertsen is the one who took an interest in developing the project. He’s the producer, and at an abbreviated sneak preview said that Money actually wrote Two Tickets to Paradise eight years ago. But, “It was terrible, you gotta fix it,” Vollertsen said Money told him.

Did they fix it? It’s hard to say from that brief glimpse a couple of weeks ago at University Preparatory Charter School on Lake Avenue. Fifty or so media types and folks associated with the show gathered to watch a musical being born on a gymnasium floor, because the production needed a rehearsal space approaching the 80-foot stage at Kodak Center. The invitees glanced up at the basketball hoops and wondered: How’s the 68-year-old Eddie Money’s jump shot? Likely better than the jokes he was telling as a little audience warm-up.

Two Tickets to Paradise has been reworked by Eric Johnson, the show’s artistic director, and Dresden Engle, who’s well known here for her own musical-comedy endeavors, as well as her work with the comedy troupe EstroFest. It’s a Rochester production, with RAPA casting. And Engle, who’s quite good as the mother of young Eddie Mahoney, as he was known in his formative years.

Throughout the short preview, we sampled a few songs; the show includes the familiar Money hits – “Shakin’,” “Baby Hold On,” “Take Me Home Tonight,” “Two Tickets to Paradise” – and six new ones. Starting off in the turbulent ’60s, with his brother in Vietnam, we see young Mahoney rebel against his family’s wishes that he follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father and become a New York City cop. Father and son butt heads and dad demands the kid quit prancing around like a fairy and get a haircut. Haircut? Eddie wants to be a rock star. These scenes of Italian household charm and chaos have the feel of The Calamari Sisters, always a big hit with Rochester audiences, but with more drugs. As his star ascends, Money’s girlfriend scolds him for caring only about money, drugs and fame, and not enough about the music.

The dance numbers look big, with Money’s music arranged for both orchestra and a rock band, as Money himself narrates the story of his life. He’s watching Alec Nevin; A Webster native and Ithaca College grad, Nevin looks a lot like the young Money, down to that sheepish and endearing grin Money always seemed to wear, like he was asking: Can you believe I’m doing a video?

The inspiration for Two Tickets to Paradise, Money told the preview audience, was Jersey Boys, the acclaimed Frankie Valle musical. Is there enough here? We’ve certainly had plenty of stories of those who seek fame and, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun, flame out and fall to earth.

The story arc is a familiar one. Redemption. Does Money, like Frankie Valle, overcome personal and professional challenges?

Or does he end up like William Holden’s screenwriter Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, floating face down in a swimming pool, dead?

Will Eddie Money live?

Guess.

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The Critical Mass

tonya

Laughing, and cringing, with ‘I Tonya’

I, Tonya? I had no interest. Grudgingly, I was dragged to the theater yesterday to see this bio-pic on ice-skating queen demon Tonya Harding. The best movie I’ve seen in a long time? Probably not. But the most wildly-entertaining film in a while, for sure, and surprisingly thought provoking.

Harding needs no introduction. I’ll provide one anyway. One of America’s best female figure skaters in the early 1990s, she was the first woman to attempt, and land, a triple axel in competition, which she does here to an exhilarating extended use of Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time,” with Rochester’s Lou Gramm on the vocals. However, you more likely remember Harding as a central figure in the plot to sideline her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, who was whacked on the knee by a then-unknown attacker, with the intention of clearing the path for Harding to win gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics.

A too-familiar story. But the film’s exploitation of its other elements overcomes that problem. The acting is universally excellent, particularly Allison Janney as Harding’s excruciatingly harsh, bitterly hilarious stage mother, Lavona. Margot Robbie is also perfect as Harding, and unexpectedly so in the skating scenes. I was stunned by the camera work depicting Robbie on ice. Robbie can apparently skate some, and there were some stand-ins for her, but it wasn’t until reading the post-film credits that I realized that this was mostly computer-generated imagery; the list of people who worked the CGI magic is longer than that of the actors. CGI is usually a deal breaker for me, a guy who prefers to see his cities stomped to pieces by an anonymous stagehand in a giant lizard suit. But I didn’t even realize I was being fooled here. And I’m OK with it.

I, Tonya’s biggest success is in balancing the comic with the tragic. The plot to injure Kerrigan was doomed, because the henchmen who are recruited to do the deed by Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly (played with unpredictably wavering instability by Sebastian Stan) are such ridiculous boobs. When ex-con Shane Stant, hired to put the actual hit on Kerrigan, confronts a locked arena door while fleeing the scene of the crime, he uses his head to shatter the glass and get away. This isn’t artistic license, Stant actually did that. The filmmakers even show us how close to life I, Tonya’s actors nail it with a few brief clips during the closing credits of interviews with the real people. When Gillooly’s pal Shawn Eckhardt, who lives with his parents, improbably claims in the movie that he’s actually a Man of International Intrigue who works in counter-terrorism, we see the real Echkardt saying the same thing.

So I, Tonya had built-in elements of comedy. Yet it’s filled with cringe-inducing scenes of domestic violence – Gillooly is constantly hitting Harding, she’s painfully accurate with her return kicks to the crotch, and Lavona delivers devastating verbal and mental abuse. Go from laughs to shock at seeing a woman beaten is a tough thing to ask of an audience. The filmmakers want it both ways.

And they get it. How? Breaking the Fourth Wall. That’s when a character steps out of character looks into the camera and directly addresses the audience. The filmmakers point out that while I, Tonya is a true story, it draws from often-contradictory comments from the principals. So Harding turns to us and says Gillooly was increasingly abusive. Gillooly tells us, no, he didn’t hit her. What did Harding really know of the Kerrigan plot, and when she know it? The uncertainty is real.

And while we’re laughing at Harding’s white-trash antics, near the end of the film she tries – and perhaps succeeds – in turning the joke on us. With a class-warfare punchline. Her father shoots and skins rabbits to make his little girl a fur coat to wear to the junior competitions. “Why can’t it be just about the skating?” she asks a judge after scoring lower than she believed she deserved. It’s because Harding isn’t what the gymnastics association wants representing America, he says.

Yet gymnastics officials and the media are soon eagerly playing up the Olympic battle between the Princess Kerrigan and the Hardscrabble Harding. Until we are reminded that there were inconveniently other women in the Lillehammer figure skating competition that year; Harding finished eighth, Kerrigan second, with a look on her face when accepting her silver medal, Harding says, “like she stepped in dog poo.”

And then she looks straight into the camera again: We passed judgment on her as well, Harding reminds us.

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The Critical Mass

Down goes Chief Wahoo

I was in Cleveland last summer to catch a pair of games, Cleveland Indians vs. the Boston Red Sox. And because I needed a change of wardrobe.

I bought a new Indians cap. The one with the block C. To replace the handful of Chief Wahoo caps I’ve collected over the years.

The Indians and Major League Baseball announced on Monday that Chief Wahoo, an undeniably racist caricature of Native Americans, would no longer appear on the team’s uniforms. That’s been coming for a while, just one step in a long evolution. Indians fans who can’t give up on Chief Wahoo will still be able to buy plenty of souvenirs adorned with the smirking red face. It’s a tough job, eliminating Chief Wahoo, because he’s been a successful marketing figure in the baseball world for decades.

I myself own three jackets featuring Chief Wahoo including one, even more offensive than the modern image, worn on the uniforms of the 1948 World Series champion Indians. I’ve quietly retired two of the jackets, but I guess I’m guilty of evolving a little slowly myself. The third jacket is a beautiful leather coat. With a Chief Wahoo the size of a champion pumpkin on the back. A coat that’s perfect for this winter, as I sit in my house, looking out the window, watching the snow falling outside. Thinking:

I can’t give that up… It was a Christmas present. And it’s my warmest coat. This spring, I’ll put it away for good…

I’ve been reading comments from Indians fans who are dismayed that Chief Wahoo will no longer take the field with the team. These people seem decent enough, they don’t sound like racists. Chief Wahoo is tradition they say, he’s a friend, he’s been a part of the community for as long as most people can remember.

No. It’s as simple as this: A people’s culture is not to be belittled as a mascot. And after we put away Chief Wahoo, we go to work on the most-racist marketing opportunity in American sports, the nickname of the NFL team from Washington.

Twenty-four hours after my longtime favorite baseball team was stripped of its mascot, I can tell you: It didn’t hurt at all.

What about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish? That’s a culture as mascot. And perhaps a question for another day, while we evolve as a community. Yet it’s a question we’ll eventually have to ask. The urgency maybe isn’t there because Irish Americans, who were once a denigrated sector of immigrants, aren’t facing the same kind of discrimination today as Native Americans do.

You don’t think that’s the case?

Here’s what happened a few days ago in Phoenix, Arizona. Armed protestors waving American flags and Trump flags confronted people at the state’s Capitol building. They singled out dark-skinned people – lawmakers, state employees on their lunch break, and even children – calling them illegal and telling them to go home. Some were of Mexican heritage, some Native American. Light-skinned people were merely questioned if they supported “illegal immigration.”

In a video of the confrontation uploaded onto YouTube, a woman is heard shouting, “Those guys are illegal … They do not have any rights here. It is not their time. This is our time. Our nation. Our laws. Our streets.”

Rep. César Chávez, who was brought from Mexico to the United States as a child, said a female Trump supporter asked who he was and who he represents. “I’m an undocumented legislator,” Chávez replied. As he later explained to the Arizona Capitol Times, which covers politics in the state, he wanted the protesters “to understand that in this country, through a process, you, too, can be a part of a nation that provides opportunity to everybody. I wanted them to understand that an individual who came to this country undocumented at the age of three is now a member of the Arizona State Legislature.”

While defending a young student who was being harassed, Rep. Eric Descheenie said he was confronted by Trump supporters who asked if he was in the United States illegally. “I’m indigenous to these lands,” said Descheenie, who is Navajo. “My ancestors fought and died on these lands.”

When Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs later asked why no authorities were present to defend people who were clearly feeling harassed, she said she was told by an officer that law enforcement was instructed to stand down while the Trump supporters exercised their First Amendment rights.

That’s America today. And it’s getting worse, as we watch government agents breaking up families. Just this week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a Palestinian man – a tax-paying, well-respected businessman in his Ohio community – who had been in this country for 39 years. “There are violent criminals walking the streets,” said Rep. Tim  Ryan, “yet our government wasted our precious resources incarcerating him.”

Baseball fans who love Chief Wahoo are not inherently racist. Yet circumstances in this country indicate they have to think a little harder about the larger issue. Whether it’s Trump fans expressing First Amendment rights, or baseball fans supporting their team, the difference may be one of degrees, but both groups are setting fires that must be extinguished.

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The Critical Mass

Mastodon. It’s life.

Hard work, and a creative urgency to push the envelope of metal. Mastodon, which features two guys who came of age on the Rochester music scene in the 1990s, won a Grammy at Sunday night’s 60th annual awards.

It takes perseverance in tough times, as well.

Mastodon’s song “Sultan’s Curse” was awarded for Best Metal Performance in a Sunday-afternoon ceremony before the evening’s main event at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Mastodon’s Emperor of Sand was also nominated for Best Rock Album, but that award went to The War on Drugs for A Deeper Understanding.

Mastodon drummer and singer Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher both played in Lethargy and Butterslax, eccentric metal bands that were very active on the Rochester scene. Then 18 years ago they moved to Atlanta, met vocalist and guitarist Brett Hinds and vocalist/bassist Troy Sanders, and created Mastodon, generally hailed as one of the best of today’s metal bands.

Today’s metal stands on broad shoulders. “Thank you to Judas Priest and Black Sabbath for creating this kind of music that we call home,” Dailor said in accepting the Grammy on Sunday.

“We’d like to thank our fans especially for putting us up here where we are today,” Kelliher said.

“Sultan’s Curse” is the fourth time a Mastodon song has been nominated for a Grammy, following Best Metal Performance in 2007 for “Colony of Birchmen” and 2015 for “High Road,” and 2012 for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for “Curl of the Burl.”

About persevering those tough times. Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Dailor’s mother underwent chemotherapy in a 40-year, on-and-off battle with cancer. The band’s 2009 album Crack the Skye referenced Dailor’s sister, Skye, who committed suicide in 1990. Kelliher’s mother developed a brain tumor, from which she later died.

Through it all, Kelliher nearly drank himself to death. He was partying so hard, he had to be hospitalized after his liver started shutting down.

It’s life, Kelliher told me the last time I talked with him, in 2015, when I was working for the daily newspaper in Rochester. “Today’s been one year of sobriety for me. It’s been a struggle for many years. Everyone tells me the first year is the most difficult, when you’ve been an alcoholic most of your life.

“Being sober, I could hold it together when I saw my mom that first day, in a kind of vegetative state. My brother was losing it and I just told myself, ‘I’ve gotta stay strong.’ We’re only here for so long. For me it was a choice when I gave up the booze. I didn’t have to be that guy who needs a depressant to cope with life.”

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The Critical Mass

The human-animal hybrid in the White House

I have been an avid watcher of the State of the Union message for years. Perhaps my favorite moment came in 2006, when George W. Bush called for legislation banning the creation of “human-animal hybrids.”

This was lifting the veil to reveal something straight out of the pages of The Weekly World News. Bat Child. Or a science fiction story: Were U.S. Navy laboratories creating a race of mermaids to carry out underwater espionage? And then the curtain of silence once again descended. We’ve never again heard a chief executive speak of human-animal hybrids. Silence, despite overwhelming evidence that a race of spineless humanoids has infiltrated Congress.

Barack Obama’s State of the Unions were not to be missed. Here was a man who wore the presidency with respect and elegance when he entered the Capitol building to speak to the nation. He was inspirational, intellectual, a man of unquestionable moral character. His eight years in office were scandal-free. And he had a sense of humor.

I don’t need to explain why I’m breaking from personal tradition on Tuesday, when Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union. No one seems to speak anymore of Trump “pivoting” toward a more-presidential persona. After a year in office, we know what he is: A racist, misogynistic, ill-informed, corrupt, sexual assaulting, vulgar, junk-food consuming, narcissistic, xenophobic, authoritarian child. A grifter who’s leading his friends – and with friends like them, who needs robber barons? – in a headlong plundering of the nation. Humorless, unless you get a kick out of the lame nicknames he lays on his political foes. I see no reason to expect a different side of Trump on Tuesday. And as Trump is a proven liar with an astonishing lack of self-awareness, there is no reason to accept anything he says as the truth.

I stay informed, I read the news of the day from trusted sources. But I don’t waste my valuable energy gnashing my teeth over Trump. In November of 2016, the nation indicated its preference for a qualified candidate by nearly 3 million votes. We ended up with Trump, who was defeated by the biggest margin of any of the five men who lost the popular vote but still won the election, in most of those cases due to the quirk of electoral college.

I do see a just conclusion on the horizon. The hot breath of Special Counsel Robert Mueller is clearly on Trump’s neck. This will end as it did for Nixon. Then, a trio of Republican Congressional leaders went to the Oval Office and told the president that he had virtually no support in the House and Senate as an impeachment trial loomed. Soon, some spineless creatures from Congress, perhaps Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, will be escorted into a back door of the White House, where they will inform Trump that the jig is up.

And then what? We will begin the search for solutions as to how to handle President Pence on another day.

Perhaps that day will also be Tuesday. The opposing party’s response to the State of the Union Address is often memorable only for the careers it has ruined. Remember how Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal crashed and burned in hilarious fashion while delivering their responses to Obama’s State of the Union?

The Democrats’ answer to Trump Tuesday night will be Joseph Kennedy III. A 37-year-old Representative from Massachusetts. Smart, socially principled and, by most accounts I’ve read, a good man. Not well known nationally.

But, three years before the 2008 presidential election, not too many people knew Barack Obama.

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The Critical Mass

Men had their chance, and blew it

Live at The Cub Room: “Men captained the Titanic and the Hindenburg…”

At The Cub Room this past December, I contributed a spoken-word performance to Tommy Brunett’s Whiskey Brunch, with Greg Hassett on guitar and Gregory Andrews on drums. In recognition of #MeToo, the Women’s March protesters who last weekend filled the streets of many of our major cities, and today’s sentencing of former U.S. women’s gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting young women in the program, including many of the sport’s biggest names, I’m re-printing that pile of words here in The Critical Mass:

Men have been in charge of what we recognize as civilization for about 6,000 years. The results have not been encouraging.

Men created war and slavery. Men are responsible for the mechanisms that have created a rich and powerful business class, a minuscule sliver of the total population, that rules in a self-serving manner over the rest of us.

The news of the past few weeks has been dominated by reports of men in powerful positions sexually harassing women. Men have repressed women for centuries, manipulating the biological reality that women are the child-bearers into meaning they are also primarily responsible for child-rearing.

The lobby for the gun-manufacturing business, the National Rifle Association, is run by men.

Men captained the Titanic and the Hindenburg, shot JFK, rode with the KKK, killed Bambi’s mother and led an armed insurrection against the U.S. government in 1861. Mein Kampf was written by a man, albeit a man with one testicle. Men ordered the Ohio National Guard to shoot at unarmed Kent State University students and purposely crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 into the Indian Ocean. Men planned and approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 129,000 people, most of them civilians.

Men led the Donner Party into a dangerous shortcut through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where they were trapped by storms in the winter of 1846-47. Half of the 87 pioneers died, with some of the survivors resorting to a Christmas meal of cannibalism.

Men on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that black people were private property. Men withheld the right of American women to vote until 1920, and still do not allow women to vote in Saudi Arabia and Vatican City.

American men conspired with Russians to influence the last U.S. presidential election.

The American president – a racist, misogynist, bigot, prolific liar and corrupt business cheat – is a man.

Men are in charge of the Cleveland Browns, who it appears will not win a game this season.

Men wrote some rules – no eye gouging! – and charged money to watch two people competing in boxing and mixed martial arts, anti-social behavior that would result in the combatants’ arrest if it occurred on a city sidewalk.

Men have distorted cultural values. The most-overrated band in the history of rock, Kiss, is a men’s club celebrating juvenile behavior. A male executive at Decca Records passed on signing a little-known English band, The Beatles.

Adam Sandler, who has starred in some of the worst films in history, is a man.

Is any of this the sign of an advanced civilization? The evidence is overwhelmingly against that conclusion. After 6,000 years, it’s time to turn over the keys to women.

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The Critical Mass

Wendell Castle’s assault on the standard definition

The standard definition of a chair or a table was merely a starting point for Wendell Castle. He had no interest in the school of “form follows function.”

The Rochester creator of the art furniture movement died Saturday afternoon at his home in Scottsville. He was far beyond a furniture designer. At the December opening reception of his retrospective, “Wendell Castle Remastered” at the Memorial Art Gallery, he was his usual artful figure. He cultivated a trim, designer-professor look in round eyeglasses and, as always, a superb jacket. Everyone wanted to talk to him, of course, and at 85 he was wearing down a little by the end of the evening. “That would never fit in my house,” I said to Castle, pointing to a nearby piece, a lamp that looks to be about 15 feet tall.

“It won’t fit in mine, either,” he said.

OK, so neither one of us lived in an airport hangar. The piece was made of a beautifully polished wood that bent upward at odd angles, like a paper clip that’s been twisted into a new shape, which is exactly how Castle came up with the form.

He’d worry about where it fits later. It’s all about the art of the piece. The anti-Ikea.

Don’t sit still. Art, and artists, keep our culture’s conversation moving forward. They embrace new ideas, study how to use new technology. Deep into his career, the woodworker was using robots to create his pieces.

A Kansas native who moved to Rochester in 1962 to teach at Rochester Institute of Technology, Castle wore life well. Besides his personal style, it could be seen in his collection of vintage automobiles, heard in his singing and guitar playing. And in his family. His wife, Nancy Jurs, creates ceramic and stoneware sculptures. Their son, Bryon Castle, is also an artist, and is in charge of the finishes on the furniture that emerges from the Scottsville workshop. Their daughter, Alison Castle, lives in Brooklyn, where she writes and makes films, including a documentary she’s completing on her father.

So the creative spark is passed on. Not just in the family. We are exposed to it as well, and are not even required to think about it hard if we don’t have the time, as we go about our daily tasks. Because the scale of the artistry of Castle and Jurs can be startling. Castle’s chairs that look like giant fungi stumbled upon during a walk in the woods. Jurs’ pieces that ooze the ancient vibe of ceremonial things dug out of the earth. This stuff challenges the imagination.

Too much for some institutions. To the dismay of many people, a few years ago Castle’s “Lunar Eclipse,” a towering abstract clock and Jurs’ monolithic “Triad,” both of which greeted visitors to Rochester International Airport, were quietly moved to a warehouse. And replaced by the standard definition of public-space messaging. Advertisements for Wegmans and law offices.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Hit the “Subscribe” button on the under-renovation web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

The Critical Mass

How I spend my idle time

As an unemployed American, I am frequently asked by my concerned fellow citizens, “So, what are you doing these days?” In response, I’ve been compiling a “To Do” list, just to keep the conversation going. I haven’t crossed off a whole lot yet. But I think some of this stuff will happen in the next two months.

1, Finish reading All the Light We Cannot See.

2, Compile list of “Shithole politicians.”

3, Continue writing the new novel. Decide who lives, who dies.

4, Start reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Everyone dies.

5, Walk the dog.

6, As you read, you’ll notice “Watch the Super Bowl” isn’t on this list.

7, Buy my tickets for the Jan. 26 Durham County Poets show at The Little Theatre, so people stop criticizing me for missing this authentically dusty, blues and folk-rock outfit at last summer’s jazz fest. And Shemekia Copeland is there Feb. 24 and Joe Crookston March 16. Cool shows at a great venue.

8, On the Waterfront is showing at The Dryden on Feb. 6. Isn’t it about time I see this classic Brando film? And on the big screen…?

9, Oh, no! Spring Chickens – that’s Scott Regan, Connie Deming and Steve Piper – are also Feb. 6 at The Little Theater. Love their covers of those early ’60s Brill Building hits.

10, Finish reading Blood Meridian.

11, Haven’t seen much avant-garde jazz recently. Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble Feb. 25 at Lovin’ Cup Bistro and Brews should take care of that.

12, Alphabetize the albums and CDs.

13, Watch more of those British TV shows about a quirky detective assigned to a picturesque small seaside town that seems to be plagued by an unusual number of mysterious murders.

14, Start reading Joanna Scott’s The Manikin.

15, Gotta remember, Feb. 14 is some kinda holiday… Oh yeah, first day of spring training.

16, Walk the dog. Do the laundry.

17, Need to pick a song to perform at the Feb. 22 Cash Bash at Abilene Bar and Lounge.

18, And while I’m there, buy tickets to Abilene’s 10th-anniversary party on April 13 at Harro East Ballroom with JD McPherson.

19, I’m needing a Jonathan Richman fix. And there he is, March 10 at Skylark Lounge. And the next night he’s playing at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Road trip?

20, I have to figure this out: Is it, “Actions speak louder than words” or, “The pen is mightier than the sword?”

21, Issues to debate: My Friend Dick told me the current edition of Rolling Stone magazine has a story on driverless trucks. This worries me. There are an estimated 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States. What happens to their jobs? What will be the effect on roadside diners across the nation? Who will buy those country music CDs I see in racks at gas stations?

22, Walk the dog. Do the laundry. Make some sausage.

23, I have to decide who’s right: Virtually every scientist in the world who agree that climate change is real and is caused by man, or Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who doesn’t believe carbon dioxide warms the planet.

24, Finish reading The Manikin.

25, Indians season opener March 29 at Seattle. Time to open that bottle of Cleveland Indians red blend that My Friend John gave me.

26, Consider strategies to get The Critical Mass nominated for the 2019 Trump “Fake News Awards.”

27, Buy a new lawnmower.

28, Start reading Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Mathematical formulas that can predict the future of humanity? That should take me into October.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Hit the “Subscribe” button on the under-renovation web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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