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

Photo by Aaron Winters.


I hear you.

So the subscribe button has been installed this week on my web site, It’s over there, to the left. Hit it, you’ll be asked for your email, and from there to eternity you will be notified of each new blog posted on The Critical Mass. An aggregate of culture and social discourse in Rochester, the nation, the world, the universe and the swamp inside my head.

(WARNING: Common side effects from consuming The Critical Mass include nausea, drowsiness, inflamed bowels and mental disorientation.)

I’m humbled and energized by the support I’ve received the last two weeks, both through social media and as I wander through the city. And thanks for all of the free drinks, that goes without saying. If half the folks who reacted to my getting laid off as entertainment writer at the local newspaper – after 27 years of busting my ass, thank you very much – hit that subscribe button, I’ll be a social-media mogul. Share this post with your friends, discuss The Critical Mass with strangers, tell them all to hit that subscribe button, Hit it, hit it, HIT IT.

(WARNING: The Critical Mass should not be accompanied by the operation of heavy machinery and/or consumption of more than four cocktails in one sitting.)

The web site itself is undergoing re-thinking, reconstruction. The blog remains active, but some content has been removed. It will return, with new stuff, and fully compatible with your 21st-century devices. That’ll take a month or two, because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Fortunately, my friends do.

Nor do I know where this is going. It’s all part of my personal re-invention. What is it I do? Perhaps more importantly, what is it I want to do?

(WARNING: The Critical Mass has been linked to internal bleeding of the brain, outbreaks of mass hallucinations among rodent populations and unexplained livestock mutilations in rural areas of Wyoming and eastern Montana.)

No, I don’t know where this is going. Not yet. But I have some pretty good ideas…

The Critical Mass

Margaret Explosion, Paul and Leo Dodd: Filling in the lines

Margaret Explosion has returned from its summer sabbatical for its usual Wednesday-evening residency at The Little Café. The band likes to call what it does “background music,” something for patrons to talk over as they discuss the French film they just watched. But Margaret Explosion’s self-description is as self-deprecating as its music. It is a sublime cocktail of the spaces between notes. Peggi Fournier on sax, Ken Frank on upright bass and Paul Dodd on drums. It is an unusual organic machine, one that never rehearses, one that never even bothers with an introduction before playing. The musicians are milling about onstage one moment, and the next moment there is music. And Margaret Explosion records every moment of every show. It posts what it likes on the band’s web site.

Something is missing now. Bob Martin, whose feathery guitar notes are so much the echo of jazz master Bill Frisell. Martin, who has played with Fournier and Dodd in many forms over the past few decades, has moved to Chicago. In his place last week was Phil Marshall. Dodd figures they haven’t played together in five years, when Marshall filled in for Martin. In Margaret Explosion fashion, they have not rehearsed for this moment.

We know Marshall. From The Colorblind James Experience, Lalaland, and as a key component to who knows how many local acts, most recently The Fox Sisters and Annie Wells. And the Phil Marshall Band, with a gig Friday at Abilene Bar and Lounge. I have written this before, in a scene loaded with astounding guitarists, it’s hard to say Marshall is the best. But I think he is the best at writing for the guitar. The empirical evidence is in his 2016 album, Scatterbed. Inspired mostly by his work as a music therapist playing for the elderly – dealing with cancer, dementia, or their bodies simply worn out from life – most of the songs document not only these people having reached the end, but how the lives of bands draw to a close as well. Perhaps Marshall didn’t intend Scatterbed to draw that parallel, but it is there.

Martin was known for the astounding array of effects devices that he put into play, electronics that could sound like ghosts, or a car filled with clowns sinking to the bottom of the ocean. And here Marshall was last Wednesday, now officially of Margaret Explosion. Sitting on the floor Buddha-like, in front of his own shrine of effects pedals and knobs, his guitar whispering accompaniment to Fournier, Dodd and Frank. A perfect fit, yet we shouldn’t expect him to be Martin 2.0, and he won’t be. Two, maybe three times, the rocker showed through the jazz cracks.

Behind this, Dodd. In a scene loaded with amazing drummers, he is the most-interesting to watch. So subtle, with marionette-like movements, half of his playing isn’t playing at all. He’s hitting notes that are in his head only.

It is how he draws as well. Dodd has a show now at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, 137 East Ave., running through Nov. 12. Much of the exhibit, called “Witness,” is his intriguing portraits, heads floating against a white background, interpretations of mug shots pulled from the pages of the local newspaper. The eyes are intense, or vacant, as Dodd searches for what’s behind them. And often, in his search for emphasis, lines are missing. The side of a head, even the pupils of the eyes in one larger work. Lines that are in his head only.

In an artist’s talk Saturday afternoon with RoCo’s Bleu Cease, an audience of about 30 people was curious as to whether any of Dodd’s subjects, all of them convicted of various levels of wrongdoing, had ever confronted him about being the unauthorized subject of his work. No, Dodd said, that has never happened.

But this did: When Arthur Shawcross was arrested in 1989 for the murders of a dozen women, Dodd recognized this odd, bulky man as a fellow bicyclist who he’d see on Alexander Street, the soon-to-be-notorious serial killer pedaling his way to the Dunkin’ Donuts at Alexander and Monroe Avenue. This brush with evil was too much for Dodd’s muse to resist, and he drew Shawcross’ portrait. Monroe County District Attorney Howard Relin later bought it and gave it to Chuck Siragusa, who had successfully prosecuted Shawcross.

The Shawcross portrait is not at this show. But that evil would have been eclipsed anyway by a far more powerful and beautiful presence that is at “Witness.” Paul’s father, Leo.

Leo Dodd, who died about two years ago, was a watercolorist. But he bears witness to a different side of Rochester than that of his son. Leo’s watercolors are of public works, often in mid-construction. Many bridges. The Xerox building downtown. The erection of the Tom Otterness outdoor sculptures at the Memorial Art Gallery. Always accompanied by people. Sometimes construction workers, or citizens in a park.

A part of Paul’s artists talk touched on his brother, Mark, who was an 18-year-old college kid when he and some friends were busted at Bowling Green State University on the most minor of marijuana charges. Smoking a joint, an activity that we know at least 11 presidents of the United States have participated in.

After Paul’s talk I asked about Mark. There was, of course, a story beneath the story. Small-town corruption. Leo had put a mortgage on his house to pay Mark’s legal fees, and was told by the local justice officials that some of the bail money would be returned and, if he “got rid of that Jew lawyer” and re-directed the money to them, they would go easy on Mark.

Mark did serve some time, and the most-startling part of “Witness” is from that period. In a glass-enclosed case, among other artifacts, is a letter Leo wrote to his son while he was in the jail. It is brief, at times poetic, done with thoughtful lettering. There is a reflection of the politics that he hoped to pass on to his son.

We implore…

Never – Never be conservative…

closed in your outlook, fixed

in manners and thought

But most of the letter is hope and support. No parental chastising for making the wrong decisions. At one point, Leo drew a little timeline of Mark’s life so far: Long dashes equaling decades. There is a little figure of Mark, not even two decades in, with many more lines ahead, lines that he would have to fill in. It is a remarkable document, and moved me very deeply.

Paul said his brother’s experience with the criminal justice system had a big impact on the family. And Mark. He wanted to help those caught in the merciless machinery, as he once was. Today, many more decades into his father’s timeline, Mark is a parole officer in New York City.

The Critical Mass

The demons in our midst

The backstories to tonight’s Mastodon concert at Rochester’s Main Street Armory run deep.

It’s called one of the world’s top heavy-metal bands, but Mastodon is actually a genre-bending rock and prog quartet whose seven albums often reach for expansive themes, and the demons in our midst. Based in Atlanta, it features two musicians, drummer Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher, who graduated through the ’90s Rochester indie-music scene, most notably with the quirky metal band Lethargy.

It’s hard to tell whether success comes with a price, or if it’s just life, but Kelliher damn near drank himself to death. Mastodon’s 2009 album Crack the Skye was inspired, in part, by the suicide of Dailor’s 14-year-old sister, Skye. And the band’s latest album, Emperor of Sand, strikes a new theme: A collection of songs heavily influenced by cancer that has touched the band. Kelliher’s mother died of a brain tumor, Dailor’s mother has been undergoing chemotherapy for years, and bassist Troy Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

And there’s this. One of the tour’s supporting acts is Eagles of Death Metal, which evolved out of a put-down of a band that Josh Homme, a guitarist with Queens of the Stone Age, considered to be a little too tame to be called death metal. So the joke became a band, then a tragedy: Eagles of Death Metal was playing a sold-out show at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November of 2015 when terrorists entered the theater and began randomly shooting people. Eighty-nine were killed, including the band’s merchandise manager, in a coordinated series of attacks that including suicide bombs, claiming the lives of 130 people and injuring 368 more. Homme rarely tours with Eagles of Death Metal, and was not at Bataclan that night; but co-founder Jesse Hughes was there, with the band escaping out a back door of the club. ISIS claimed credit for the attacks.

The Bataclan tragedy was followed in May of this year by a suicide bomber, inspired by Islamist extremism, who blew himself up after an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people and injuring 250. And then came last week’s massacre in Las Vegas at a Jason Aldean country-music concert, leaving 58 people dead and injuring 489. That one was carried out by an American citizen; a terrorist attack with no known motivation.

The stories of these distant tragedies are often accompanied by a collection the pictures of the victims, a yearbook page of death.

The details are often different when large crowds come under attack. In Nice, France, an ISIS sympathizer driving a truck down a sidewalk killed 77 people. In Norway, a right-wing extremist planted a bomb in Oslo, killing eight people and injuring at least 209 when it exploded. He then went to a youth camp, shooting to death 69 people and injuring 110, many of them teenagers.

Will we no longer gather as a community for concerts, or a stroll down the sidewalk on a beautiful summer evening? The commonality in all of these acts of violence against society is fear. The perpetrators – be it extremist politics or the infamous “disgruntled former employee” – want to bring daily life to a calamitous halt. And after the bodies are counted, we see fear again. Fear as a legislative tool.

The Second Amendment is a difficult piece of grammar to interpret. Here it is, in its entirety:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The historical context is important. The Second Amendment does not guarantee the right of all Americans to carry automatic weapons. The Founding Fathers, of course, never heard of such a thing. If the notion had struck Ben Franklin, the Battle of Bunker Hill might have had quite a different conclusion. The Second Amendment simply calls for “a well regulated Militia.” And in the 21st century, militias are as relevant as stagecoach drivers.

Yet we’re stuck with a large sector of the country that believes that the safety of his family, and the preservation of his country, is in the hands of a well-armed man.

A well-armed white man. Because consider that same person’s reaction to a well-armed black man, or a well-armed Muslim man. That changes the argument, exposing the roots of the fear.

Cancer kills far more Americans than foreign terrorists. Yet while we crank up spending on our military, there are proposals before Congress now that will remove Americans’ access to proper health care. Should we deport legislators who are behind this threat to our lives? Perhaps you have encountered the statistic that more Americans are killed by their furniture falling on them than are killed by terrorists. Yet we hear no one calling for the deporting of Ikea.

We can’t outlaw trucks, we can’t prevent some angry person from stopping at the hardware store on his way home from work and buying the materials he needs to make a bomb. Instructions can be found in right-wing publications or on the internet. Something big and dangerous will always be at hand. In the larger picture, our leaders are unwilling to tackle the admittedly difficult task of changing the culture of violence. Something that won’t be accomplished in our lifetimes, but a beginning that we owe to the future.

A comment I heard a day or two after the Las Vegas shootings is such events, while tragic, are the price we pay for the Second Amendment. That argument didn’t seem to get too far; I don’t know many people who are willing to surrender their lives for your right to own a gun. No one wants to die from a random bullet fired by a sportsman from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

No, the argument we’ve returned to is: “If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns.”

Think about that for a moment. If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns… If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns… If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns…

That would make them easier to spot, wouldn’t it?

The Critical Mass

Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and Tom Petty: Damn the Torpedoes.

On this morning’s dog walk, I began to connect the dots between the big news of the last few days. Tom Petty died. More than 58 people murdered, hundreds more hospitalized, at a mass shooting in Las Vegas. Our government’s efforts to being relief to hurricane-crushed Puerto Rico – much of it without electricity, food and water – is a failure.

The link, it seemed to me, and the dog, is America’s belief in magical thinking. It’s reflected in our entertainment, where the blockbuster movies of each season often feature superheroes. Fantasies where we wait for Superman and Wonder Woman to come to our rescue.

That has been played out most dramatically, and obviously, in Las Vegas.

President Trump’s go-to cover – that Muslims or ISIS were behind this crime – is not an option. The terrorist was, as is most often the case, an angry white guy with a lot of guns. Our gun-manufacturing lobby, the National Rifle Association, is silent. But its sycophants have rushed out the usual self-righteous defense of “it’s too soon” and disrespectful of the dead and injured to discuss the politics of gun control. The president’s spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, made that point of course, as well as offering the delaying tactic of, “we need to know more facts.”

Quite frankly, the facts are irrelevant. Whether he was mentally disturbed, had sympathies for ISIS or just hated country music, the fact is that the killer had access to an arsenal that he turned on his fellow Americans. Only the results are relevant. If the Trump administration and Congress are slow thinkers, they’ve certainly had time to mull these facts: Orlando in 2016, 49 people killed and more than 58 wounded. Virginia Tech, 2007, 33 dead and 17 wounded. Sandy Hook Elementary School, 2012, 20 children ages 6 and 7, and six school employees, all dead, another two wounded.

And on and on and on it goes. Trump ordered flags around the country flown at half staff following the Las Vegas murders. Symbolism. The only action the government can offer.

The superhero fantasy conclusion to an insane person shooting into a crowd of music lovers is that a citizen marksman will whip out a pistol and put a well-placed bullet in the bad guy’s head. And what better setting is there for this outcome than at a country-music concert in Nevada, which has some of the loosest gun laws in the nation?

Caleb Keeter is a guitarist with the Josh Abbott Band, which played earlier in the day at Sunday’s country-music show, before headliner Jason Aldean. But Keeter saw the whole thing. His band, he conceded, is stocked with guys who hold Concealed Handgun Licenses, CHLs. This is what he wrote after the tragedy:

“I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with CHL, and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless.”

If it’s a first-hand experience with wholesale human slaughter that changes minds, I guess we’ll have to take it. Because there’s plenty of it.

We’ve seen a similar disconnect of mythology vs. reality in Puerto Rico. In his comments the past two days, the president used the disaster to compliment his administration on how well it was responding. These area self-reverential lies, one that Trump often repeats in many forms. He alone can fix the economy he said during the election. He is a superhero flying in from the outside to clear D.C.’s swamp of alligators. He alone can fix the world, he told the United Nations a few weeks ago.

The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, did not stand for the Trump administration’s self-mythologizing. After Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said the post-hurricane response was “a good-news story,” Cruz corrected her: “This is a people-are-dying story.” Trump’s response was to call the people of Puerto Rico lazy, and angrily tweeted that they were expecting someone else to do the work.

Outrage rightly followed, of course. As the Broadway icon and socially-conscious Lin-Manuel Miranda correctly noted, Donald Trump is going to Hell for this. Puerto Rico is not a state, but its people are U.S. citizens, they serve in the U.S. military and they pay federal taxes. They are not expecting a superhero to clear the roads and repair the electrical grid. But Puerto Ricans have the right to expect empathy, and then tangible support, from the government.

More bad news. Tom Petty died.

He wasn’t one of my personal favorites, but his music spoke to many of my friends. I did like the early songs, straightforward rockers that sounded great coming out of the car’s dashboard radio. Damn the Torpedoes, that’s a pretty good album. I’ve always thought that there are few things more miraculous than a rock band operating at full speed, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were certainly that.

Heartbreakers: Petty died of a massive heart attack. He was only 66, and rich, you’d figure he had the best of health care, perhaps they should have seen it coming. Perhaps they did. Even the wealthy can’t outrun the inevitable. Petty was no superman; when he was addicted to cocaine, he tried to shake it on his own, cold turkey.

That’s not how it works, Petty needed the help of others to get it done.

Gun-rights advocates are normalizing an America under siege from its own fringe. Politicians are politicizing tragedies such as Puerto Rico. They’re both appealing to the myth of Superman fixing our problems.

Again, that’s not how it works.

Change comes when people work together. That’s why the authorities get nervous when they see large crowds gathering in public places. Change is the antithesis of the status quo. Musicians like Petty, or any of our artists, don’t actually lead the way. But they do write the anthems, give voice to our feelings, they know how to find the right words. Obfuscation belongs to the other side. The best of these songs are not complex ideas. Just simple stories that go straight to the heart. Striking a note to which people can relate. Because we know the truth when we hear it.

The Critical Mass

Unemployed in America: I’m wandering in the woods, searching for marmots to put on the grill.

Draining the bottle

As I arrive at Week Two of my eviction from the mainstream media, I had figured on spending the first days of my layoff sitting on the couch in my boxer shorts, watching baseball, a half-empty bottle of bourbon between my feet.

But it’s not been that way at all. That bottle is half-full.

It’s called optimism. I’m writing, reading cool books, getting the laundry done, re-tooling my web site, eating well thanks to dinner invitations, and grilling chicken or whatever unfortunate creature crosses the path of my shopping cart. I’m still reading hundreds of encouraging posts on social media. And I’ve enjoyed some new experiences: I saw a spectacular waterspout over Lake Erie, I’d never seen one before. Everywhere I go – restaurants, the library, places where bands are playing – people tell me how sorry they are that I’m no longer writing for the Democrat and Chronicle. At the Rochester Public Market on Saturday, two people added, “I cancelled my subscription… and told them why.”

Yeah, I cancelled mine as well. Can you blame me? But I’m not sure how I feel about it. I have friends who still work there. And I still believe a strong free press is essential to our democracy.

And without home delivery, I find myself without paper for lighting the charcoal in my grill.


So many books to read. I just finished “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

In this world, I consider myself to be a 60-watt bulb. Not dumb, yet not overly bright. I can’t imagine how people get through this when they aren’t used to dealing with bureaucracies, or elderly folks who have had a lifetime of them and no longer want to be a part of it. It’s a morass of paperwork and interviews designed to make sure that someone doesn’t get a few hundred dollars that they aren’t entitled to have.

Think about this for a moment: The president of the United States refuses to release his tax returns. He is hiding something. He is also accused of violating the Emoluments Clause, which bars public officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments. Leaders from other countries are staying at Trump hotels, playing his golf courses, buying his made-in-China products, pumping money into Trump bank accounts. Lobbyists and business people convene at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. All of it because they want access to the president. The conflicts of interest here are clear.

Yet we’ve set aside all of this because Trump is at the head of a government that is a New Crisis Every Day. Puerto Rico has been leveled by a hurricane, the people have no electrical power, food or clean water, and he’s accusing them of being lazy and not doing things for themselves.

Sane Americans, of course, are outraged by these comments. But in a day or two Trump will unveil a new insanity – this guy does command a nuclear arsenal – and we’ll stop worrying about Puerto Rico.

So Trump is getting away with whatever it is that’s hidden in his tax returns, and using the White House as a cash artery connected to his own corrupt heart. But if I want to do some honest work to scrape together a few extra hundred dollars to pay for a new water heater? Forget it. You know what this is all about. The playing field is tilted dramatically in favor of the rich and powerful. There are hundreds of examples of it written into the tax codes, in access to high-powered lawyers, in layers of management set up to protect themselves. We play by the rules, they write the rules.

My optimism comes from the wonderful people around me. It ends there. That bottle of bourbon? What’s going on in this country is not a matter of perspective. Anyone who looks at that bottle now can see that it’s nearly empty.

The Critical Mass

The height of automotive design: 1957 Chevy Bel Air.

I’ve started writing my autobiography. Here’s the outline.

Layers of infrastructure fascinate me. Whenever I come across a work crew that’s digging into a street or sidewalk, I always stop and peer into the hole.

I love the diesel-engine smell and the comforting mechanical rumble of heavy equipment.

One of my favorite sights is a baseball stadium lit up at night.

Buying a copy of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits from a small record store while walking home from baseball practice changed the direction of my life, although not right away.

One of my unusual talents used to be catching fly balls behind my back. Not anymore, though.

I sang with Tina Turner for a few seconds.

In college, I wrote a poem about Rondo Hatton. Google him.

I have eaten haggis. Twice.

I watched a man drown in a river. There was nothing I could do.

I am not on a first-name basis with Bruce Springsteen but it’s not my fault, because I really have seen him 52 or 54 times.

I was looking out of a bus window in Reykjavík, the capitol of Iceland, when a dump truck stopped next to us. It was loaded with fish heads. I thought: Where is that going?

Landscapes of the Hudson River School are beautiful. It’s the light.

One of my favorite art forms is mechanical drawing. I never see them in museums.

When the guitars come out at night during parties and my friends start singing, I always sit in the darkness in the back of the room, in case I start crying, because it’s so beautiful.

One of my favorite quotes: “Some people get nervous about that word. Art. They think it’s a pretentious word from the giddyap. To me, words are only symbols, and the word art has never lost its vitality. It still has meaning to me. Love lost its meaning to me. God lost its meaning to me. But art never lost its meaning.” That’s Joni Mitchell.

My favorite book is George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Another one of my favorite quotes: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” That’s Miles Davis.

Following a dog on a path through the woods is a beautiful feeling. And then the two of you find the crumbling, overgrown foundation of an old building and you both think: What’s that doing here?

Dogs are awesome.

Goat tastes OK.

I’ve never read a Stephen King novel.

The best concert I’ve seen was at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, with Dave Alvin and Tom Russell together onstage performing their song “Blue Wing.”

I shot a gun, once. At an empty beer can. I hit it. I quit while I was ahead.

If I could invite any four living people to dinner, it would be Anthony Bourdain, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Tom Waits and Patti Smith.

Another favorite quote: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” That’s Neil deGrasse Tyson.

If I could invite any four dead people to dinner, it would be William Burroughs, Ben Franklin, Flannery O’Connor and Amelia Earhart, if only to ask her, “What the hell happened?”

Yet another favorite quote: “I’ve always believed in having a sense of balance and stealth.” That’s Patti Smith, she’s amazing.

All of the great cars were made in the 1950s. No. 1 on the list is the 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible.

Yes I’m a writer, but I also know how to operate a forklift.

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.

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