Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Author: Jeff Spevak Page 1 of 150

Clearing the mind in these troubled times

Run! It’s Guilala!

Sure, I’m watching. The Trump presidency looks like one of those time-lapse videos of a dead pig, where you see it being consumed by decay and maggots. Fascinating and terrifying as it is, I sometimes have to walk away for my own peace of mind. I seek normalcy through culture.

Music. I often have Pink Floyd on the stereo when I’m writing, which is happening right now. But a few minutes before this typing started, I was listening to a new piece of vinyl I picked up today at Record Archive. “John Cage presents Variations IV” sounds like a man trying to find a station on a dashboard radio while driving the car with the windows down, adding ambient sounds from the street to the mix. This is Cage trying to shake us of the notion of what composition is generally understood to be. The liner notes on the back of the album suggest this is a “music-as-experience” experiment. The sounds supplied are of each musicians’ choosing; a chart prepared by Cage creates random opportunities for sound to be applied.

It is not conducive to writing.

Books. Which one I’m reading sorta depends on what room of the house I’m in. Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is in the living room, where I can usually find a block of an hour or two to focus on this amazing story. It’s going to take me a few more months to get through those 1,000 pages. Because upstairs, on the nightstand, waiting, are the final few pages of George Saunders’ experimental novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It gets a little easier once you understand that most of the main characters are dead.

Oops, sorry, I’m a little late on this spoiler alert…

And then there’s the book My Friend Michele gave me, Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees.” That’s the one I read on the bus on my way to work. Or when I’m taking a lunch break. And when I’m on the bus on my way home from work. It’s the kind of book you can pick it up, set it down, and pick it up the next day and you’re right back in the redwoods. I am learning so much. Like, what happens to the human body when it falls 50 feet out of a tree (a lot happens, none of it good.) And redwoods are the largest living organisms on the planet, unless you count the mostly underground fungal mass, three square miles big, in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon. And some biologists prefer to see that fungus as many individual mushrooms.

That kind of stuff is what biologists talk about at cocktail parties.

Cuisine? I will not eat anything until I have confirmed that it is dead.

But this self-inflating narrative that builds my case for Renaissance Man completely falls apart when the discussion moves to film. Because, I really like bad movies.

Oh, not just any bad movie. You couldn’t get me to sit through one of those Hallmark Channel things if you propped my eyelids open like Malcolm McDowell being drugged with illness-inducing drugs and forced to watch violent films in “A Clockwork Orange.” No, I want 1950s movies where the careless spread of radiation from nuclear bomb tests creates gargantuan insects. I want slow-moving actors in lizard costumes crushing Japanese cities.

Like “The X From Outer Space,” from 1967. I watched it last week. That one has it all. A team of scientists on an expedition to Mars encounters a flying saucer, which attacks it by spraying it with spores. The Earth scientists gather one of the spores and take it inside their ship, which offers the familiar, non-science special effects: Flames erupting from the rear of the spacecraft, with fumes curling up lazily, like a cigarette sitting in an ash tray. When the spacecraft returns to Earth, the tiny spore soon grows into an armor-plated chicken with glowing red eyes, 200 feet tall, weighing 15,000 tons. Not again! Poor Tokyo! Excellent use of model tanks and aircraft. Lots of tense dialogue, delivered with gritted teeth and easy-to-read subtitles. Men who dress like generals point at a huge wall map, tracking the creature’s movements with a red cut-out of the monster that they happened to have in a drawer somewhere, perhaps from when the last monster flattened Tokyo. They’ve even named it, Guilala. It moves on from Tokyo, kicking over things – what the hell’s wrong with these creatures? Now it’s up to the same team of astronauts and scientists who carelessly brought this thing to Earth to stop it. Which they do, with jet fighters – at least the ones Guilala doesn’t swat out of the sky – dousing it with something called “Guilalanium.” Which shows you how ahead of its time “The From Outer Space” is, as we haven’t even invented the stuff yet. All with a superbly out-of-place jazz soundtrack, and one of the female love interests wrapping up the film with an inexplicable comment about Guilala teaching her about love.

One year later, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released. The technological gulf between the special effects of these two films is immense.

But I don’t clear my mind with 90 minutes of lousy science fiction because I’m interested in learning something new about space travel. Or to discover how easy it is for a 15,000-ton creature to sustain itself by feeding on nuclear fuel, which is plentiful and poorly stored throughout the Japanese countryside. No, I’m here for the stuff that you never see in movies that take themselves too seriously. I’m here to watch astronauts slamming down a few cocktails and dancing on the moon.

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

Karma comes home

That’s me, on the left, with WXXI’s Randy Gorbman, reporting live from the jazz fest this summer.

Now, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted…?

Oh, yes. Reporting on the Rochester arts scene. Music, theater, painting, sculpture, dance, literature. Dressing up your dog in holiday-appropriate costumes. The stuff that represents the best of humanity. All of that – or, at least my role in it – came to a skidding halt when I was laid off by the local daily newspaper in September of 2017.

But what the Democrat and Chronicle does not value – and I know, I was in the meetings – WXXI understands. I have been doing two stories a month for the area’s public radio station for a little more than year. Covering the jazz fest, the Fringe Festival. Most recently writing about the loss of Rochester Music Hall of Famer Bat McGrath. And exploring the tale of Lesley Riddle, the black country-blues singer who played a huge role working with The Carter Family to popularize country music in the 1920s. Then he was promptly forgotten, before being re-discovered in the 1960s after having lived in obscurity for more than two decades here in Rochester. A Rochester story that parallels that of blues legend Son House so much, it is almost uncanny.

But two stories a month is not enough for a community whose arts scene is so vibrant, so interesting. We face a lot of problems in Rochester. Poverty. A dysfunctional city school budget. Mistaking a plate heaped with macaroni, home fries, hot dogs and meat gravy as cuisine. But artistic creativity is not an issue in this city.

So on Monday morning, I started at a newly created position at WXXI. Arts & Life Editor, Which, I assume, means I’ll have to check my own spelling. And we have plans. Vibrant, interesting plans, although perhaps falling a little short of Oprah giving a car to every member of her studio audience. YOU GET A CAR! AND YOU GET A CAR! Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, and months, you shall be rewarded.

We’ll make it happen as fast as we can. The only things that will hold us up are technical issues. Like, I’m staring at the phone on my desk. It has 28 buttons on it. I don’t know how to use the thing.

The arts scene is equally complex. Our deep cultural scene must be represented by not only telling the stories of our hometown musicians, and artists, but by treating the city as every bit deserving of attention from the biggest names in the arts as any major city receives. The arts is how we celebrate the triumphs, and address the difficult issues, of society.

It’s important to remain on the razor’s edge of culture. I’m your guy, I stopped wearing yoga pants a few years ago.

I tried to make good use of my two years in exile. I had aging-parent issues. The dog got long walks. I read a lot; Ron Chernow’s “Grant” is astonishing, he wasn’t anything like the guy you learned about in junior high history class. I had my own book published, “22 Minutes,” the story of a Lake Ontario sailor and a tragic World War II naval battle. 

But here’s the best part: the support I received from friends and strangers was unexpected, beyond what I would ever ask for. My last act before walking out the D&C door for the final time was to post a message on Facebook, explaining I’d just been laid off. I expected a few responses. “Sorry Dude, I’ll buy you a drink if I ever see you again.”

Instead, a tsunami of responses hit. Outrage from hundreds and hundreds of people, most of whom I didn’t know. Strangers stopped me everywhere – in grocery stores, in restaurants – to tell me how much they missed my writing, and how they’d cancelled their subscriptions.

And it just kept on coming. An unexpected support system emerged. At my going-away party – we called it “The Freedom Party” – friends presented me with a beautiful laptop computer and read poems about me. Friends gave me tickets to a Paul McCartney concert. There were lots of dinner invitations at friends’ homes. I’d walk into a bar and a glass of red wine would magically appear in my hand. We’d go out to eat at a restaurant and at the end of the night my friends had quietly paid the bill. I had several friends, suspecting financial hardship, offer to loan us money. Not just a few hundred bucks. I mean a few thousand dollars.

Amazing friends. I’ll never forget their support. I’ve written virtually every day on that new laptop. Blogs, freelance stories, a few songs, a novel about surrealist artists and robots. It’s better than it sounds.             

While cleaning the attic one day, I found a stack of newspapers. Democrat and Chronicles, and the now extinct Times-Union. All dating back to 1989, 1990, and when I first moved to Rochester, as assistant sports editor of the Democrat and Chronicle. I’m not sure why I kept them. The big news in Rochester then was serial killer Arthur Shawcross. But looking at those newspapers, now more than two decades old, I was astonished at how large they were. Not only their dimensions, but the number of pages. And on those pages, dozens of local bylines and photos. There were swarms of young and smart reporters like Steve Orr and Gary Craig. Crime news, sports news, society news, threatening weather, bowling scores. Each issue of those old newspapers was a portrait of a day in Rochester, yellowed, preserved like an insect trapped in amber.

It’s not like that anymore. Orr and Craig are still there, still smart but not quite so young, looking kinda lonely in the dwindling newsroom, the job titles on their business cards now reading something like Craig’s “Murder, Dead Gangsters and Ukulele Players Beat.” And he’s pretty good at it. Yet the baseball team, the Red Wings, is covered only when convenient. And our arts scene is a neglected mansion. One of our local rock bands, to paraphrase the president, “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody,” and you wouldn’t read about it.

But that’s the disaster that’s today’s media landscape. Corporate thinking is silencing one of the most-vital engines of democracy. Today, media properties are junk vehicles being sold for parts.

Robert Siegel, the now-retired host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” was in Rochester two weeks ago, and something he said struck me as the truth. Your local newspaper, wherever you live, is likely owned by some out-of-state corporation. Making decisions not for the community that your newspaper serves, but for the financial benefit of shareholders. Public radio, and public television, is a different business model. It does get some federal money. Sometimes donors step up with a big check: Thank you Betty Strasenburgh, Rochester activist and philanthropist, you’re why I’m sitting in this chair in the WXXI building on State Street. But mostly, WXXI survives through a public that acknowledges it must invest in some kind of media vehicle that stands apart from the forces that have disemboweled newspapers and commercial radio.

Two other D&C newsroom employees were laid off on the same morning as I was, both of whom had been there longer than me; I calculated that nearly 90 years of institutional memory went out the door that day. But WXXI is growing. Monday, my first day here, was also the first day for videographer Max Schulte, who I worked with at the D&C for more than 20 years. Arriving a week earlier, and now working on the fifth floor of this building, is David Andreatta, former D&C columnist, now the new editor of CITY newspaper; it’s a subsidiary of WXXI, so some of my writing will appear there. Denise Young is a WXXI editor, I once worked with her at the D&C as well.

You can see where this is going. The morning I was offered this job at WXXI, September 16, was two years ago to the very day that I was laid off at the D&C. Some folks say karma’s a bitch. But it depends on where you’re standing at the moment. Because karma is often the truth, revealed.

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

Life in the gates of hell

I am watching President Trump on television this morning, delivering a speech at a ceremony in remembrance of 9/11.

The terror attacks that 18 years ago changed our lives. But not in ways that make any sense.

I’m watching Trump, and I’m aghast. He’s telling stories of the heroes who died on that day. And there were many heroes. September 11, 2001, was a day when Americans – who likely never imagined they would find themselves in the midst of such a tragedy – stepped up and did what had to be done.

But strewn throughout this tribute, filled with florid language about heroes who “tore through the gates of hell,” were words that revealed how far we’ve strayed from truth, and reality.

As always, Trump used the moment to talk about himself. Where he was when the first plane hit the Twin Towers. Not surprisingly, he was watching television. And he said something about how he got involved in the rescue efforts, which I guess is a reference to his radio interview that day where he claimed that, with the Twin Towers gone, he now owned the tallest building in New York City.

A lie, of course.

Trump’s words today, this day of remembrance, should have been inspiring. Instead they felt empty, coming from such a self-absorbed grifter using heroes as props for his faltering presidency.

His mood darted from somber to bellicose. He did not reflect on how we should work for peace. He only promised more war. Anyone who threatens the American way of life, he said, will face retaliation beyond the imagination, something more devastating than a nuclear bomb.

What could that be?

Trump repeated his claims that immigration is a threat to America. He spoke of his much-criticized invitation to the Taliban to come to Camp David for peace talks, and once again claimed he’d rescinded the offer because they had killed an American soldier days earlier. As if this was some kind of new and outrageous Taliban strategy, as if American soldiers haven’t been dying for 18 years in Afghanistan.

Trump’s response this morning to the death of an American soldier, and the cancellation of his invitation to the Taliban leaders was, “The last four days we hit our enemy harder than we have ever hit them before.”

What? When? How?

Eighteen years after 9/11, we’ve learned nothing. A lying, mentally-ill leader is flailing away at immigrants who are not our enemy, but are innocent people fleeing war and poverty. He wanted to host terrorists at Camp David, just days before the anniversary of 9/11, but refuses to face the home-grown terrorists who are shooting people at country-music concerts and garlic festivals.

We are overwhelmed by new scandals every day.

I turned off the television. This is not reality. We’re not living with the truth.

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

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