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

Book of the Future Month Club

My Friend Sue belongs to a book club. They meet over hors d’ouvres and white wine and discuss that month’s book. Hillary Mantell’s Wolf Hall, that’s one I remember Sue’s group having dissected. A weighty novel about Oliver Cromwell. Plenty of heads roll in that one.

Book clubs. They’re a small thing we can do to battle the current breeze of anti-intellectualism.

A few years ago, I was hitting the local literary circuit for my self-published book, Chasing the Wind. I did about eight or 10 clubs, sometimes with Ernie, the 93-year-old sailor who I’d written about. Usually I’d read a few brief selections from the book, then answer questions. The club members seemed excited that the real-live author was actually sitting in the living room, drinking wine – the Mormon book club excluded – and talking about the Battle of Savo Island. And asking questions like, “Who’s the most-famous musician you’ve ever met?”

“Johnny Cash, I guess.”

Without exception, every member of every book club was a woman.

What? Guys don’t read books? I know that’s not true.

Maybe we just don’t do well with sharing our feelings about literature. But actually, I think it’s something else. We’re not into organizing these things, like we do with softball teams and bowling leagues. Entities with uniforms, chicken wings and beer. Instead, our book clubs are informal affairs. As I discovered when I bought a battered copy of Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold for 50 cents. Because I liked the cover. And I started reading it.

I casually mentioned it to My Friend Dick. And was stunned to discover that he was also reading Farnham’s Freehold at that moment. The two of us, reading one of Heinlein’s lesser-known sci-fi novels. What are the odds? So we had an informal book club meeting right there. The book has some intriguing ideas, like a car that generates its own power by the wheels powering a turbine. But at this stage of his career, Heinlein’s cranky ideas had taken firm hold of his characters. Farnham’s Freehold is the story of a family retreating into a bomb shelter during a Russian nuclear attack, then emerging to find a completely new world. Somehow, they’ve been blasted into the future. The main character is a mysogenistic, know-it-all creep whose wife is portrayed as an irrational alcoholic. So we excuse him for running off with a younger woman who’s better suited for the challenges of a survivalist lifestyle.

Heinlein actually did have a bomb shelter in his home in Colorado. I suspect there was some fantasy fulfillment on his part as he typed these pages.

I also discovered that the images on that cool cover that had prompted me to buy the book had nothing to do with the story.

Dick loaned me another Heinlein book. The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. The book was used, that’s the only way to acquire mass paperbacks. A little ragged, it had a bunch of small holes punched through the cover and into the first few pages. Someone’s small dog had gotten ahold of the book during its history.

The Cat Who Walked Through Walls? Pretty much the same thing as Farnham’s Freehold. Time travel, a future dystopian world. The protagonist doesn’t like his fellow characters who need a hand. “There’s no free lunch” is his motto. Objectivism is a quality Heinlein seems to admire in his heroes. Dick, who I consider to be a bit of an unchained intellectual, calls Heinlein “Ayn Rand with rockets.” And a cat does indeed walk through a wall.

So after our book club’s two experiences with Heinlein, I was feeling like I was through with the guy. But while walking through the flea market at the Rochester Public Market, I spotted a pile of battered paperbacks. Heinleins. I bought a handful of them. Because I liked the covers.

The Critical Mass

Paul McCartney’s jailbreak

Very few artists reach the enviable position of being a prisoner of their own success. After all, what creative person wouldn’t want to see their work so adored that tens of thousands of people are enraptured by it, celebrating it, showing how they have made it a part of their lives as well?

Paul McCartney has reached that point, where 35,000 people on Saturday night sang along with “Let It Be” and held the lights of their cell phones high, until it looked as though Syracuse’s Carrier Dome was filled with tiny little fires.

And there was one, a few songs later. “Live and Let Die” had been accompanied by a pyrotechnics display unlike anything I’ve seen before. Indoors, anyway. A mix of video and actual fireworks, so well designed that you couldn’t tell what was real and what was digital imagery. Then McCartney went to the piano for “Hey Jude.”

But just a few seconds into the song, people in the crowd began to notice something else, pointing and worriedly murmuring. Here McCartney was playing one of his most-famous compositions, and he was losing the audience. High on the towering stage, where the beams supporting the lights seemed to be almost brushing the Teflon roof, a small orange fire was smoldering. The fireworks had set something ablaze.

People were clearly wondering: Is the Carrier Dome roof fire-proof?

Fortunately, before it could be tested any further, someone from the Carrier Dome staff climbed into the dark entanglement of the stage’s nether regions and snuffed out the fire, with glowing red ashes falling past one of the video screens showing McCartney’s giant face as he wrapped up “Hey Jude.”

McCartney himself seems to understand that this music is an overwhelming force of nature. So he lets it be, at least at first. The first third of the three-hour show was simply McCartney and the band laying the songs out there. Alternating a Beatles song with one by his post-Beatles band, Wings, or his solo work. An opening of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Junior’s Farm,” “Can’t Buy Me Love.” McCartney was just playing them straight, letting the crowd revel it its own memories.

But this was McCartney’s version of Ali vs. Foreman, “rope-a-dope,” where Muhammad Ali allows George Foreman to take his best shots, expend his energy. Then Ali, and on this night McCartney, takes over.

Slowly, at first. The Wings song “Let Me Roll It” got a little “Foxy Lady” tacked onto the end of it. A tribute to Jimi Hendrix, McCartney explained, allowing him to tell a story about him seeing Hendrix play a song from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with such ferocity that his guitar was hopelessly de-tuned.

McCartney found the way out of that successful artist’s prison, by outlining the relationship he would have with these 35,000 people. The band would play, and then he would pause every now and then to tell a story in an almost grandfatherly way. And those 35,000 people would be respectfully silent, because this was insight from a guy who was in the midst of this history, the songs from their lives.

So the 75-year-old McCartney, looking and sounding years younger, played “In Spite of All the Danger.” the first song that he, John Lennon and George Harrison ever recorded, as The Quarrymen. And as a platform rose from the floor, carrying McCartney and an acoustic guitar to new heights, he described how while living in England he had written this song as an inspiration for people fighting for Civil Rights in the American south: And then he played “Blackbird.”

There were new songs, such as “FourFiveSeconds” which he recorded with Rihanna and Kanye West. But McCartney said he and the band could tell what the audience wanted to hear by when the cell phones came out to record, and that was Beatles music. And so it was with “Eleanor Rigby,” in which the Carrier Dome assumed an almost church-like aura. “Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear…”

The Beatles overwhelmed all. Especially McCartney’s tributes to the two who have died, Lennon and Harrison. McCartney brought out a ukulele for a sweet opening to Harrison’s “Something,” before the song exploded beautifully into the full band. It was followed by “A Day in the Life,” largely written by Lennon, segueing into Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

And to hammer home the point of what this night was really all about, seven songs as encores. All Beatles songs. “Yesterday,” a reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Helter Skelter,” “Birthday,” “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight.”

And then “The End,” with the finest lines McCartney ever wrote closing the show: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

The Critical Mass

Joanna Scott’s new novel shows its metal

Master typist that I am, in the midst of a series of email exchanges with Joanna Scott a few months ago I misspelled “fiction” as “faction.” A typo that, in a literature context, lends new meaning to an otherwise serviceable word. In subsequent emails, we’ve adopted this new word, faction, as a handy reference for a fusion of fact and fiction.

Scott’s smart and inventive new faction, Careers For Women, is a tale of consequences that cleverly solves one of the singularly most-important tasks for a novelist, find the villain in the story. And it’s really not spoiling anything, hopefully it’s just stoking your interest, to reveal here in the second paragraph that the villain in Careers for Women is… aluminum.

Scott will undoubtedly explain why she is picking on this stalwart of the Periodic Table of the Elements during her 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24 reading and book signing at the College Town Barnes & Noble, followed by cocktails at the nearby restaurant Grappa.

A professor of English at the University of Rochester since 1987, Scott writes high-concept fiction. Her 1996 novel, The Manikin, is dominated by the gothic western New York home of an obsessed taxidermist, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her first 11 books – novels and story collections – have accumulated a smattering of other literary awards and shown an interest in plundering from history and its landscapes. Her first novel, 1988’s The Closest Possible Union, was set on a slave ship. Her 1990 novel Arrogance was about the early 20th-century Austrian painter and moral-standards wrecking ball, Egon Schiele. Tourmaline, published in 2002, takes place on Elba, the island where Napoleon was exiled.

None of this is unusual, of course. But Scott seems to pay particular attention to the details that set up her tales. In fact, when she began writing her last book, De Potter’s Grand Tour, it was intended to be a non-fiction exploration of a distant relative of hers who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When she couldn’t uncover enough as to why he got on a steamship and wasn’t on board when it arrived in port – Suicide? Murder? Whoops, he just fell overboard? – it became a novel.

Joanna Scott.

Careers For Women does indeed open with a gathering of those young career women that the title promises. Except, “It was 1958,” Scott writes, “and we had come to New York in search of husbands.”

Those words, the title of the book and the dust-jacket depicting women from the legs down in wool skirts and high heels reflect the influential HBO television series Mad Men. These women are being mentored by Lee K. Jaffe, or Mrs. J as she’s called by everyone. And that name immediately brings to mind the 1958 novel The Best of Everything, which became a Joan Crawford film, about five young women working in the publishing industry, as Scott herself did as a young woman. The Best of Everything was written by Rona Jaffe. Is Scott coyly referencing Jaffe’s book? The parallels seem obvious.

But no. The historical details accompanying Careers For Women are once again in place. Lee K. Jaffe was an actual person, the head of public relations of The Port Authority in New York City. And as Careers For Women moves through the 1960s, we begin to see Jaffe’s significant role in the development of the Port Authority’s most-ambitious project. The development and construction of the World Trade Center.

Some interesting techniques come into play here. As a teacher, Scott is worried that the novel is dying. Readers can’t seem to train their video-game focus to stay on the job long enough. So Careers For Women is broken up into little subheads. These sections are sometimes a few pages long, or a page, and one is even a single paragraph.

Scott plays with chronology as well, darting back and forth in time. One of her characters, writing a dissertation on William Randolph Hearst, explains what Scott is doing: “It occurred to him that he might organize the story in a different way, in accordance with the force of association rather obedience to the order of time.”

Alongside Mrs. J, Scott adds to the Cuisinart of characters Maggie Gleason, a young woman from Cleveland who serves as a narrator with an omniscient view of the story. And a prostitute, Pauline Moreau, with a young child. And just as Mrs. J doesn’t seem to care that small businesses will be swept aside to make way for the World Trade Center, the director of an aluminum plant takes no responsibility for the disaster he is overseeing in St. Lawrence County. Aluminum provides the good life for he and his wife; they even live in a house where virtually everything is made of aluminum. As Scott writes, aluminum “is the most-abundant metal in the earth’s crust.”

A sense of doom surrounds all of these characters, and the landscape itself, as Careers For Women is also a story of the desecration of the environment. It’s depicted in Scott’s use of a legend of the indigenous people of the region, a creature that has been “born only to kill.” And that doom is fulfilled. As of course is the fate that awaits the World Trade Center, which was constructed with a lot of, yes, aluminum. But Scott interestingly, and wisely, skips a re-telling of that tragedy. It has been done enough, this is another story.

In fact, when Careers For Women skips ahead to post 9/11, Scott’s faction finds its unexpectedly upbeat conclusion as Mrs. J gazes at the fountain and park that has been created where her Twin Towers once stood. Rather than sadness, she sees beauty.

The Critical Mass

My obituary moment

Last week I had caught my bus for the usual ride downtown and found a seat next to another fellow. He looked at me. “Hey,” he said. “You’re the guy. The newspaper guy.”

“Yeah,” I said.

A few days ago I was watching Paterson, a beautifully subtle film about a bus driver who writes poetry. After a conversation about William Carlos Williams, a Japanese tourist who was sharing a park bench with the bus-driving poet asked him if he wrote poetry.

“No,” the bus driver said.

Twelve hours later, the connection between these two scenes, one from a movie, one from my life, fell into place. In Paterson, the bus-driving poet’s dog had shredded his notebook filled with poems. How can you be a poet when you have no poems? So no, he answered honestly, he was not a poet.

It was the same thing when I got called into the Democrat and Chronicle Human Resources office on Tuesday. “We’re eliminating your position,” the editor said.

So now my answer to the guy on the bus will be, “No, I’m not the newspaper guy.”

Two characters, a New Jersey bus driver and a newspaper arts and entertainment writer, who no longer knew who they were.

It’s a dangerous thing to tie your identity to your job. I’m not sure where the tipping point came, but somewhere during my 27 years at the Democrat and Chronicle I could no longer tell the difference between my personal life and my professional life. Maybe it was the day at the jazz festival when a guy asked me for my autograph. I looked at him and said, “Are you joking?”

The editor was wrong when she told me they were eliminating my position. Someone else will have to write the long Sunday feature stories about the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra trumpet player whose wife didn’t get proper treatment for breast cancer and died, because the cult-like church they belonged to believed God heals all. Someone else will have to interview Brian Wilson, carefully navigating his drug-ravaged brain to discover the genius within. Another writer will have to find the words to describe the giant spermatozoa floating over the heads of 10,000 people last weekend at the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival.

The newspaper wasn’t eliminating my position. It was eliminating me. That’s just the language corporations use so they don’t have to deal with the humanity in the situation.

I believe I said, “I’ll go get my shit and leave.” My language might not have been quite that coarse, I can’t remember now. But that’s what I was thinking.

As my fellow newsroom employees gathered around my desk for the uncomfortable condolences and hugs, I couldn’t find the words to explain how I felt. Which was… I felt like nothing. I’ve always taken my job so seriously. Now that I didn’t have the job any longer, it was like I didn’t care. I hear 27 years of being rode hard and put away wet does that to a horse.

If they live that long.

I wonder what parts of me have gone missing, and which ones will return. A few months ago, I was told I couldn’t use social media for political comment, and I was not allowed to appear at public rallies; not as a speaker or anything official, I just couldn’t be there to see for myself what was going on.

As a condition of employment, I had to be someone other than who I am.

Big companies guard their images closely, and I can’t blame them for that. There are millions in CEO salaries to protect, shareholders must be rewarded for their investment. Yet news organizations use social media for political comment, and they are often observed at public rallies, if only to report what’s going on. They aggressively protect their First Amendment right to do so. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people too, my friend.”

More so, I think.

My final act before walking out the offices of the Democrat and Chronicle for the last time was to go on Facebook. I typed:

Myself and two of my newsroom colleagues just got laid off at the Democrat and Chronicle. After 27 years here, I feel… relief.

That was it. I hit “send.” I figured a dozen or so friends might reply. Sooo sorry Dude, let’s have beers, I’ll buy… But if you’re reading this, you maybe know what happened next. Hundreds of people responded to my post. Other people added their own Facebook posts, and people responded to them as well. I can’t count how many people joined conversations. A thousand? More? I don’t know how many people read those posts. The Rochester Fringe even posted a statement that began, “Yesterday, we were devastated to learn of the layoff of Jeff Spevak, a true champion for the arts…” As of Friday morning, 13,000 people had viewed it.

I don’t know what to make of it. A city’s arts community responding with outrage to the news that the daily newspaper had dismissed its single remaining arts reporter. People cancelling their subscriptions. Praising my writing as though I’m some kind of keyboard savant. I inspired people? Musicians valued my judgment? People, I used to be a sportswriter, for chrissakes! I haven’t been able to read most of these hundreds of comments yet. What I have read thus far – and I will read every word, even if it takes me into next week – has made me laugh out loud and cry. I love you all. The arts fighting back. My unemployment tragedy is social media genius.

It will all probably go away this weekend. I’m sure the Democrat and Chronicle hopes that is the case. But for now, I’m enjoying my obituary moment.

I’m already recovering some of me that has gone missing. You’re looking at a piece of it. I’d given up blogging for a while, telling myself I would resume when I finished the novel I was writing. The book took a lot longer than I expected. A half a year ago, I stopped getting up at 6 a.m. to crank out the words. I was wearing out. I staggered to the finish line a month or two ago.

But I love how it came out.

Now I have all kinds of time on my hands. No excuse to not blog. And now that I have your attention, unintentional as it may be, I hope you’ll follow The Critical Mass. Dammit, I’m gonna get something out of this. I promise The Critical Mass will maintain the high degree of irreverence that defined it in the past.

I’ve started writing another novel. I’m on chapter two already. It’s coming back to me!

It goes back to Paterson. The Japanese tourist, the William Carlos Williams fan, is so pleased with the conversation that he leaves the bus-driving poet a gift. It is a beautifully bound notebook. He flips through the pages. They are all blank. He must fill them. The bus-driving poet is a poet once again.

The Critical Mass

The Republicans: Brazen liars hiding behind pretty lecterns.

The Republicans: Brazen liars hiding behind pretty lecterns.

It’s long past time to call Republicans on their dangerous BS

Blood is in the streets, theaters and cafés of Paris. The worst thing we can do now is… do what Republicans are already doing.

“How’s that Syrian refugee resettlement look now?” tweeted South Carolina Congressman Jeff Duncan. “How about that mass migration into Europe? Terrorism is alive & well in the world.”

The dead weren’t even cold, but Duncan chose to use the Paris tragedy as an anti-immigration platform. In this case, the extraordinary wave of Syrians who are fleeing that country’s barbaric war under President Bashar al-Assad. Very few countries are stepping up to their humanitarian responsibilities to help these people, including the United States. Duncan has been properly smacked down for his snide remark by a number of much smarter people, who have noted that the refugees are not the terrorists; they are fleeing the terrorists.

France has actually taken the leading military role in Syria, with its attempt to oust Bashar al-Assad that includes its bombing of ISIS targets in that country. Whether that has anything to do with Friday’s terrorism attacks remains to be seen.

But Ted Cruz has the answer. More air strikes. Somewhere. Just blow up some people. And it doesn’t matter how many innocent civilians are killed, he says, because radical Islamism “will not be deterred by targeted airstrikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties.”

It’s the “Kill ’em all, let Muhammad sort ’em out” foreign policy.

This increasingly loud rhetoric of conservatives is stupid, dangerous and solves nothing. It not only punishes innocent people, like Syrian refugees and Afghani goat herders, but it creates hatred of the United States.

It’s long past time to quit chuckling about conservatives’ nonsense and call them out on it. Behind every important issue of the day – climate change, racism, immigration, minimum wage, terrorism, does the media ask too-hard questions at debates, did Ben Carson stab a schoolmate, on and on and on – you’ll find a Republican fantasy.

This week’s Republican Presidential candidate debate was so chock full of lies that news organizations couldn’t fact check them all. Overwhelmed by the bullshit, writers and editors simply threw their hands in the air and settled for writing stories with headlines like, “Top 10 lies told by Republicans at the debate.”

I watched only the first 12 minutes of the debate before my head exploded and I turned off the television. But that was long enough to hear classic fallacies uttered by three men who Republicans judge as qualified for president.

Donald Trump was up first. He was asked about minimum wage. He said no, we can’t raise it, because if we raise taxes and wages we can’t compete with the rest if the world. Trump said poor people will just have to work harder to “get into that upper stratum.” Now, when Trump says wages are too high, he’s obviously not suggesting that CEOs and the 1 percent, that “upper stratum” where he lives, give up anything. He’s only suggesting that wages for the rest of us be kept in check so that rich folks can build their empires. He’s suggesting that the poor and increasingly poor middle class handle the tax burden, because the rich shouldn’t be asked to pay for things from which they’ve benefited: Roads, schools, science and medical research, oil subsidies, cops who shut down protestors, the embassies that look out for their global interests, the military that defends their offshore business ventures.

Next, Dr. Ben Carson, same question. He closed his eyes, looked up at God and talked about how minimum-wage jobs as a young man were his gateway to a greater prosperity. All Republicans insist that the typical minimum-wage earner is that 17-year-old kid flipping your burger. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, three-fourths of Americans earning the minimum wage are age 20 or older. Those are adults, old enough to kill people in wars. In fact, the average minimum-wage earner in the United States is 35 years old. That’s a person who likely has a family to provide for. Taking it embarrassingly further, one fourth of Americans earn less than $10.55 an hour.

Then it was Marco Rubio’s turn. He went after intellectuals, a longstanding Republican tactic: “Welders make more money than philosophers,” he said. “We need more welders and less philosophers.” Wrong on both counts, it turns out. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median annual salary for welders at $37,420, and for philosophy teachers $63,630. The BLS also says there are 849,930 welders in this country, and a mere 23,210 philosophy teachers.

Ah, but those are facts. Perhaps Rubio fared better with that favorite Republican tactic, fear. “If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine,” he said. “And that means all this automation that’s replacing jobs and people right now is only going to be accelerated.” In that same answer, Rubio insisted that “tax reform and regulatory reform” and “repeal and replace Obamacare” will result in higher wages. I personally don’t see the connection.

I’ll give Rubio this: I have noticed self-scanners replacing minimum-wage workers at the check-out lines in the big box stores. But robot philosophers in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, puttering around college campuses, feels like a stretch for even a cheap sci-fi novel.

The Critical Mass

Dopes mascot Porcina, "Too Pig To Fail," is struggling with an undiagnosed malady after a summer in rehab.

Dopes mascot Porcina, “Too Pig To Fail,” is struggling with an undiagnosed malady after a summer in rehab.

Smokin’ Dopes: The Agony and the Ecstasy

The smoke has finally cleared. Record Archive celebrated its 40th anniversary last weekend and the Smokin’ Dopes somehow found themselves in the midst of the action. Hundreds, maybe a few thousand music enthusiasts, descended on the Archive during the course of the day, and we were in change of feeding them pulled pork and smoked turkey. To keep their energy levels up. Because shopping is… draining.

Alas, it’s likely the last public appearance of a fine year for the Dopes.

Three events, that’s about all we can handle in one year. We’re not caterers. We don’t travel the country on the barbecue-competition circuit, two-legged carnivores with tools. We eat fish and vegetables. Sushi, even. We are artists and writers and software geniuses and teachers and musicians.

Our Finest Year Ever started with Memorial Day Weekend’s Rock City Rib Fest, where the ragtag Dopes – at more than 20 strong, the largest team at the event – stunned the culinary world with a second-place overall finish in the World Bacon Championships.

And then the August demo at the Rochester Public Market. Those poor, well-intentioned people in the pop-up tent next to us, demonstrating how to prepare a healthy mango salsa, must have been flabbergasted. The same for the serious people in the tent a few yards away, handing out brochures outlining the importance of preserving wilderness waterfowl. Right in the middle of their good work drops the Manfred von Richthofen Flying Circus of barbecue teams, The Smokin’ Dopes. We were demonstrating how to pull pork, and I don’t know if anyone in the audience learned a damn thing. People just watched as we put on the show. The Official Smokin’ Dopes Band, Watkins & the Rapiers, played their sublimely subversive songs. Hogzilla, a 55-gallon drum that my neighbor Pat welded into billowing pork-rendering machine, massaged the chicken thighs, sausages pork shoulders with applewood smoke as groups of Dopes pulled pork, handed out samples and sold raffle tickets for the plates that Mark and Jones were finishing off.

And then Saturday’s Record Archive blowout, with the 40-percent-off sale drawing a huge crowd. The Dopes were an assembly line, furiously slapping together pulled pork sliders doused with our homemade fiery Carolina-style vinegar-based barbecue sauce. Bill estimates we handed out more than 300 of them. The Dopes had also cooked up eight different versions of a cranberry barbecue sauce, which we offered at a tasting station, asking folks to fill out comment cards. Raves, nothing but raves. “Do you sell this stuff?” people kept asking.

Well, no. Would you like a T-shirt?

Watkins & the Rapiers closed their set with a really fine version of The Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover” as Iron Smoke Whiskey handed out samples of its product. Near the end of our three-hour shift we took the show indoors. Archive Founding Father and lead turkey smoker Dick Storms joined the Rapiers to belt out the Director’s Cut version of his song “Barbecue” while Margaret and Jean did a demo of our turkey-bacon club sandwich, a third-place finisher at the Roc City Rib Fest. Then we raffled off six of them. With Dopes T-shirts.

But barbecue teams are always flirting with disaster and tragedy. The Dopes are no exception. On Saturday, some punk barfed about 10 yards from where we had the smoker set up. And this was at 10:30 in the morning, before we’d served any food. Sarah and Jones had to run to the grocery store for some kitty litter to dump on it.

And our mascot, Porcina, isn’t feeling well. After spending the summer in rehab – Tommy and Jen’s tool shed – odd black pits seem to be boiling up from beneath her papier-mâché skin. Some kind of fungus? One thing the Dopes don’t have on staff is a mycologist.

And perhaps the saddest tale of all, Hogzilla was unavailable for the Archive 40th. After the Public Market demo, Pat and I had loaded it into the back of his pickup for the ride home. He drove carefully, but apparently Rochester’s potholed streets were too much for the bungee cords holding it in place. Formerly holding it in place: Turning off of St. Paul Boulevard, we heard a loud, dull thud and immediately knew what had happened. Pat hit the brakes. Hogzilla had flipped over the side of the truck and landed upside down on Thomas Avenue.

Fortunately traffic was light, with just one car behind us, and it easily evaded the roadblock before driving on. (And by the way, thanks for the help, pal). I jumped out of the cab and wrestled Hogzilla to the side of the road. We loaded it back onto the truck and made it home without further incident.

But now Hogzilla sits in my driveway, lid hideously bent, like a broken jaw. It’s a tribute to Pat’s welding skills that the thing held up with little other damage. But it looks like Hogzilla’s on the disabled list for the upcoming salmon-smoking season.

The Critical Mass

Allen Ginsberg: "Papa-ooma-mow-mow."

Allen Ginsberg: “Papa-ooma-mow-mow.”

What is a song, anyway?

I’m a word guy. I love song lyrics. Greatest songs of all time? Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” Dusty Springfield singing “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The Beatles’ “Let it Be.” Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Patti Smith’s “Gloria,” her “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” has to be the greatest, most-defiant opening line ever. Huge chunks of Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks. A lot of Dylan, the lines he delivers with a sneer give me a chill. Thousands to choose from. To be comprehensive would be to be ridiculous.

And this. Read the whole thing. Out loud, even. It’s not the message in the words, they’re meaningless. It’s the evocative construction, the weirdness of the moment of creation. Letters that form words that are purely rhythm and abstraction and reckless iconoclasm. Imagine Allen Ginsberg walking to the stage in a small coffeehouse in San Francisco, circa 1955, pulling from inside his tattered jacket pocket a few sheets of paper, smudged with pencil lead and eraser marks, carefully unfolding them, as though he were handling the Magna Carta, and rather than giving us “Howl,” slowly reading this. The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.”

Bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, well, the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, well, the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, well, the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, don’t you know about the bird
Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word

A-well-a, everybody’s heard about the bird
Bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, don’t you know about the bird
Well, everybody’s talking about the bird
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word
A-well-a, bird

Surfin’ bird
Bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb, aaah


Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-oom-oom-oom
Oom-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-a-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, ooma-mow-mow
Ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, ooma-mow-mow
Well, don’t you know about the bird
Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word
A-well-a, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word

Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow
Papa-ooma-mow-mow, papa-ooma-mow-mow…


The Critical Mass

The Cardiff Giant, in his Amy Winehouse period.

The Cardiff Giant, in his Amy Winehouse period.

The suckers born every minute

Four of us were on the way outta Cooperstown when I slammed on the brakes. A sign along the roadside had caught my eye: THE CARDIFF GIANT. He was here, at the Farmer’s Museum. I had to see him.

The Cardiff Giant is often labeled as the greatest hoax in American history. A 10-foot-tall man “discovered” in 1869 by guys digging a well in Cardiff, NY., outside of Syracuse. Supposedly a fossil of some forgotten race. P.T. Barnum figures in the story, so that ought to tell you something.

And now here the Giant was on this summer afternoon, reclining in his shed among the tools and arcane tractors of honest, hard-working American farmers. One of the Giant’s arms lies across his body, in what appears to be a vain attempt at modesty, for the mighty fellow is naked. The Giant’s details are rough. In two or three seconds, any casual observer will determine that this is simply a figure chiseled from a big block of gypsum. Yet thousands of Americans were fooled by this. They wanted to believe this was a giant. Perhaps because the Bible says there were once giants on the earth.

I Googled some photos of the Cardiff Giant this morning and noticed something odd. There are at least two distinct Cardiff Giants, including one that looks a bit more realistic than the one we saw in Cooperstown. With a little poking around I found that Barnum, who had bought the Cardiff Giant from the original hoaxer, had made a second Cardiff Giant to double the hoax payoff. A hoax of a hoax. That second one’s in Farmington Hills, Mich., at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum.

It would be cool if such things were true. A few years ago, the bluegrass star Alison Krauss urged me to Google “giant skeletons.” I’m not sure if she actually believed giant skeletons exist, but I took her advice. You try it. You’ll come up with videos and photos of construction equipment digging up impossibly large human skeletons.

Last year I stumbled across Season One of a show on The History Channel, Search for the Lost Giants. Supposedly a documentary series, it’s about two New England brothers pursuing their theory that giants once roamed the planet, just a couple of centuries ago. I watched it with interest. Not because I think giants once existed. I’m just attracted to stories of useless quests and unrequited dreams. And here were two seemingly smart guys so obsessed with their urban myth – or so intent on carrying on an expensive fraud for no explainable reason – that every small piece of “evidence” resoundingly backs their idea. So now I Googled Search for the Lost Giants, just to see if the astonishingly misnamed History Channel, which regularly airs programming of dubious veracity, was preparing a second season of the show. No word on that. But I found a blog by Stephen Mrozowski, a professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. Professor Mrozowski was invited on the show to examine the “Goshen Mystery Tunnel,” a long, stone structure beneath the Massachusetts ground consisting of several chambers. Or so they say. The brothers fervently insist this tunnel is connected to their giants, although they never explain how they come to that conclusion; the tunnel seems a bit cramped for giants. In his blog, Mrozowski notes that he was never told that he was being invited on the show to discuss giants. Nor does the show air his speculations that don’t fit the brothers’ needs. Like the tunnel could have been built by Canadian bootleggers to hide booze during the Depression. In the selectively edited video, Mrozowski seems to give the brothers’ quest some credence.

More than a few bloggers point out the racist point of view behind theories of UFOs building Mayan cities. Or a race of giants must have created Indian burial mounds. Because Native Americans could never have stacked stones or dug holes on their own.

This all comes to mind because a few people were hanging out at the house Friday night over a couple of bottles of wine. And the subject of lies came up. Mostly the lies that surround today’s political and social issues. I made some kind of comment about how the Republican Party seems to be collapsing beneath the weight of a decade or two of lies piled on top of lies. Once you start lying, you have to manufacture more lies to support the lies.It’s gotten so bad that, with John Boehner having resigned as House Majority leader, the Republicans can’t find anyone to take his place. No one wants to be in charge when it falls.

Before we left the Farmer’s Museum, I stopped in the gift shop and purchased a postcard of the Cardiff Giant, shot in strange lighting that made it look weirdly metrosexual. I suppose that makes me guilty of supporting the Cardiff Giant hoax. A tribute to the willingness of people to believe.

But there are stone-cold hoaxes bigger and more serious than the Cardiff Giant. Or giants buried in the New England woods. Or computer-generated Internet images of giant skeletons. Hoaxes like “clean coal,” no such thing exists. So we continue to choke the planet to death. And the decision to invade Iraq, and then Afghanistan. Lives and money thrown away. And vaccinations cause autism, a claim backed by virtually no doctor. Faith is comforting, but society moves forward with science.

Driving from Cooperstown back to Rochester, taking the beautiful back roads of Western New York, we noticed that people in these rural communities like to post signs in their front yards. Guns aren’t dangerous, they read. But wind turbines are a threat to “Family, Faith and Health.”

What was it that P.T. Barnum said? Perhaps as he was passing through Western New York, counting his receipts from The Cardiff Giant?

There’s a sucker born every minute.

The Critical Mass

Intelligence test: Which U.S. president was born in Hawaii?

Intelligence test: Which U.S. president was born in Hawaii?

Americans are exceptional confabulists

The singer-songwriter Bat MGrath writes earnest, heartfelt songs of relationships. Every word rings true. Nothing political. Yet it seems as though every time I see him play, he lets slip some hint of where his sentiments lie. As he did Saturday night. Between songs he described himself as an optimist, which I do believe he is. But, he added, it’s really hard to be an optimist these days.

So true. Friday morning, after I had got the coffee going and fed the dog, I turned on NPR, whose handful of reports on the big news of the day all seemed to open with the same words.

“Officials were converging on a small Oregon town in the hope of finding out what and why…”

What. Another mass shooting in America.

Why. Because a significant portion of America is living in a fantasy word. Refusing to deal in facts, maintaining nonsensical positions and, very often, turning to lies to defend the indefensible.

Dodging truth and embracing lies. Frequently hiding behind the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” On Saturday the United States Air Force launched a strike in support of our extraordinarily corrupt allies, the Afghan government. Leaders so corrupt that, according to Americans who are living there, trying to help keep that country functional, the local people actually prefer life under the Taliban. According to American officials, the Air Force attack was “in the vicinity” of a hospital. If so it was exceptionally bad aim, as they blew up the place. The Afghan government said the Taliban was using the hospital as “a human shield,” but hospital officials said that was a lie. The only people in that building were medical personnel and patients. And now 19 of them are dead. Including children.

American Exceptionalism is overrunning the planet while the rest of the civilized world steps back, aghast. All of the great work that this country has accomplished in the last couple of centuries – slavery, robber barons, stealing Texas from Mexico and genocide of the American Indian aside – is being overwhelmed by a loud, rude, angry minority.

Don’t overlook that word, minority. The conservative point of view, a dangerous ideology propped up by easily refuted lies, is the minority opinion in this country.

Here are the facts. Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of gun control. They approve of marriage equality. They like science. They are fed up with endless war in the Middle East. They want cops to be held accountable for their actions when another unarmed black man is shot or choked to death. They understand the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency. They acknowledge our world is being destroyed by climate change. They’re ready for the legalization of pot. They see racism and economic disparity – nor Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s email server – as two of the primary issues faced by this country. They understand evolution is not a theory, but a fact. They overwhelmingly hate Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that gives corporations the same rights as citizens, and is now exploited by Republican benefactors such as the Koch brothers (and, OK, comedian Bill Maher, who gave $1 million to President Barack Obama’s reelection) to inject obscene amounts of money into political campaigns.

A lot of Americans believe in UFOs. I wish that one were true.

Americans are also largely in favor of a woman’s right to her own reproductive decisions, and they are overwhelmingly supportive of funding Planned Parenthood, which has a higher approval rating than Congress. The Planned Parenthood sting videos that conservatives now use as their main argument for de-funding the program are a hoax. (As were the ACORN sting videos, which brought down an organization that helped black people register to vote.) At the second Republican presidential primary debate, the spectacularly failed Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina told a moving story of an aborted fetus, its legs kicking, as Planned Parenthood employees discussed keeping it alive so that they could harvest its brain and sell it for medical research. Not only is that scene not in the fake sting video, no one’s been able to find that specific image anywhere. If you wish to debate the legality of abortion in this country, you may do so. But come armed with facts, not lies.

Most economists scoff at Republican economic theories of endless tax breaks for the rich. Most social academics dispute the Republican mantra that the poor can join the plutocracy simply by working harder. Conservatives gather zombie-like around the notion that poor people, especially poor black people, only want free stuff. Well, politics is all about handing out free stuff. The rich get more, and better, free stuff.

Conservatives are mindlessly caught in the gravitational pull of unstable objects. George Zimmerman, the gun-obsessed killer of an unarmed black teenager who was walking home from a convenience store and paid for it with his life; Zimmerman is a reprehensible creature who’s been involved in a handful of violent scrapes with the law and has recently been tweeting pictures of the body of his murder victim, Trayvon Martin. You may have already forgotten about Cliven Bundy, the New Mexico rancher whose declaration that he wouldn’t pay taxes for allowing his cattle to graze on government land was defended by a score of rednecks who rode their pickups into town, pointing guns at Federal agents. They got away with it. You can bet they wouldn’t have if they were black.

Conservatives establish fundraising web sites for cops charged with murder.

Joe the Plumber. Sarah Palin. Ted Nugent. I’d never even heard of reality TV moralist Josh Duggar until he got caught up in scandals of sex abuse and a web-site designed for spouses who want to cheat on spouses. Where do Republicans find these erratic mascots?

More recently, conservatives are celebrating that wrung-out dishrag of a Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis. Last week she met with Pope Francis, a move hailed by conservatives as Papal approval for her brand of ignorance. Except now it looks like Davis’ publicists pulled a fast one, sneaking her in with a crowd of a few dozen people, never explaining to the pope’s handlers that this was the woman who’s decided she can break a law – in this case not issuing marriage licenses to gay couples – because she doesn’t agree with it. The Vatican this week issued a statement that the meeting “should not be considered a form of support of her position.” Apparently the Vatican doesn’t get Fox News on cable, the pope didn’t recognize her.

NASA said this week that there’s liquid water on Mars. Rush Limbaugh says it’s not true.

Conservatives are awash in crazy conspiracy theories. Anchor babies. Obama and Hillary as The Antichrist. If you want a good laugh, Google “Jade Helm” or “Agenda 21,” a benign United Nations resolution that conservatives have re-built from spare parts, a Frankenstein of mismatched logic, into a program for one-government world domination through environmental action in concert with the liberal media (Although most media outlets are owned by conservative corporations).

Conservative fantasies include the infamous death panels: Yet most Americans approve of government funding for programs that will help the elderly and terminally ill people make comfortable, end-of-life decisions. And “Truther” quests: The sheriff of Douglas County, Oregon, re-posted a now widely debunked YouTube video questioning whether the Sandy Hook shootings actually occurred. Two days later he sent a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, who was heavily involved in organizing gun control legislation, claiming that gun control would not prevent school shootings, adding that he wouldn’t enforce gun legislation that impinged on the Second Amendment gun rights of the citizens of his county.

That sheriff, John Hanlin, now has 10 dead and seven wounded people on his hands after Thursday’s massacre at Umpqua Community College.

Conservatives cite the Second Amendment as irrefutable proof that they may carry guns with abandon. It does no such thing. The Second Amendment is about militias. That’s why it prominently uses the word “militia.” But we no longer have militias. Just as we no longer have slavery. When reading the Constitution, the context of the times in which it was written is very important.

But context doesn’t matter to conservatives, re-writers of history. Jeb! Bush, your brother started those failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and created the instability that opened the door for ISIS. Not Obama, despite your claims that he prematurely abandoned “The Surge” and allowed victory to slip away. The truth on that one: All of the generals who were involved at the time have said the surge was always intended as a temporary measure meant to give the Iraqi government time to get on its feet, after we’d destroyed it. A full-time surge would have been an unending, unsustainable effort. So quit lying about it.

Conservatives love war. Americans build exceptional tanks and aircraft carriers. But we haven’t won a war since 1945.

ISIS. A reprehensible organization that cuts the heads off of journalists and Muslims alike. Fear grifters such as Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s inept contribution to Congress, insist that terrorists with knives hidden in their robes are crossing the Mexican border illegally to kill us. KILL US ALL! Wide-eyed, spittle flying from his mouth, he’s offered no evidence that this is happening, and ignores the fact that virtually all of the terrorists who hijacked four airliners on Sept. 11 were in this country legally. As were the terrorists who shot up a movie theater in Colorado, an elementary school in Connecticut, a McDonald’s in California, a military base in Texas, a church in South Carolina and now a community college campus in Oregon.

Conservatives are bleeding from the eyeballs out of fear that radical Islamists are the greatest threat to America today. But the only terrorists who are killing people in this country seem to be home-grown, socially inept, angry, well-armed loners. All of the developed Western nations have them. But we’re the only first-world country where 36 people a day are killed by guns. We have a third-world casualty rate. Because too many Americans believe the answer to any problem is to point a gun at it. And too many American leaders insist that the solution to our international squabbles is to have some 19-year-old soldier in a Wyoming bunker steer a cruise missile into a village on the other side of the world, and it doesn’t matter how many children and goats and old people we kill.

Americans are exceptional confabulists. Conservatives hide behind lies rather than confront their inhumanity and inconsistencies: Why do Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both the sons of Cuban refugees, hate immigrants? Conservatives want simple, easy-to-understand, bumper-sticker solutions in a complex world of many cultures.

Everyone wants free stuff. But how can we award the kind of tax breaks that conservatives advocate without exploding the national debt? Economists say we can’t. The Republicans running for president are all college graduates, I assume they can do the math. They must be lying to us.

The majority of Americans know that Obama is not from Kenya. If conservatives are so committed to simple ideas, perhaps that could be the intelligence test for the cabal of unqualified losers currently vying for the Republican presidential nomination: In what state was the current president of the United States born? A one-word answer will suffice.

They all know the correct answer. Hawaii. But they’re loath to admit it’s true.

The Critical Mass

The morning walks are getting strange

Abilene: Does this look a police dog?

Abilene: Does this look a police dog?

The morning dog walks have been encouragingly productive in recent weeks. I’ve picked up a lot of scrap wood on the curb, of course, I always do. I found a screen to replace the damaged one in the front window, oven racks I can cut down to use on the smokers and some brass hardware that matches the fittings on the upstairs window frames. I can’t believe you people throw out this stuff.

Following Abilene through the neighborhood, I also encounter humans. Rare, but it happens. Like the guy from last November, waiting at a bus stop.

“Is that a police dog?” he asks.

“No, she’s a sporting dog. A Weimaraner.”

“Those police dogs, they train them to make arrests,” the guy says. I guess he didn’t hear me. Abbie doesn’t make arrests. “A burglar breaks into the house and those dogs come out of nowhere and hold them down until the police arrive. They stand on the burglar’s chest and hold them down, and they don’t dare move, because that’s a police dog. You don’t mess with them. They’ll go right for your throat if you move. They just hold you until the police can get there with their guns. They’re trained to do that, burglars are scared of them, those dogs just stand on their chests and stare into the burglar’s face, and they’re too scared to move…”

This guy is getting a little too worked up. He’s bubbling over with nervous excitement. “We gotta get going…”

“…The burglar is begging for help when the police come in the front door…”

So I avoid humans on the morning walks.

Many different species of trees line these streets. Lots of housing choices for the squirrels. Most mornings I hear a woodpecker hammering away. Abbie sets off a lot of dogs as we walk by their houses. They’re agitated. My dog ignores them. Yes, she’s thinking, you’re trapped in there, and I’m enjoying the morning walk. One morning, on a street we don’t usually take, I hear a dog barking from behind a living-room window. I am staring off in another direction when I heard a whoomp and glass shattering. Abbie and I freeze. The dog in the living room must have had his paws up on the window and knocked it clean out of wall, frame and all. Now the window is lying on the front lawn, shattered. The curtains move listlessly in the gaping wound. No sign of the dog. I respect the intelligence of dogs, and their almost sixth-sense cognitive abilities. And this dog must be thinking: Something’s broken, Master home soon, I am up shit creek now.

One morning I run into another guy walking a dog. I kinda recognize him. Not the dog, the guy. Some years ago he’d recorded a concept album with his girlfriend, a true story he insisted, about how he’d been kidnapped by aliens and they’d planted some chips in his body. These chips were showing up on X-rays taken by Air Force doctors, but no one knew what they were. And maybe I’d want to write about the album, to get his story of the aliens out there. I’d told him that I wished aliens existed, but I don’t think they do, and if they did they wouldn’t come all this way to fuck with him. Now he was telling me the girlfriend had left him, but he was getting ready to record another album. “Only this time, I’ve figured out that I’m actually an alien-human hybrid…”

Science fiction cliches in the morning. Another reason to avoid humans while walking the dog.

On one of the routes we sometimes take, the street is lined with smaller houses, looking kinda shabby, crouching close to the sidewalk. Their occupants make curious landscaping decisions. More often than not, a really nice car is parked in the driveway. Or maybe a couple of well-groomed pickup trucks. Those two vehicles are worth more than the house those people are living in.

The routine rarely varies. On one of this week’s morning walks, Abbie and I wander past the bus stop, and a guy is standing there. He notices the dog. “Is that a police dog?” he asks.

“No, she’s a sporting dog. A Weimaraner.”

“Those police dogs, they train them to make arrests,” the guy says. “A burglar breaks into the house and those dogs come out of nowhere and hold them down until the police arrive…”

Wait, we’ve already had this conversation.

“Yeah, they stand on the burglar’s chest and hold them down, and they don’t dare move, because that’s a police dog. You don’t mess with them. They’ll go right for your throat if you move. They just hold you until the police can get there with their guns. They’re trained to do that, burglars are scared of them, those dogs just stand on their chests and stare into the burglar’s face, and they’re too scared to move…”

“We gotta get going…”

“…The burglar is begging for help when the police come in the front door…”

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