Jeff Spevak, Writer

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What they don’t know either helps them survive, or it kills them

The band lays down a jazzbo beat as I recite “Old Drunks.”

I’ve had a few people – well, three, that’s a trend, right? – ask me about the spoken-word piece I read at Tommy Brunett’s birthday party before a hundred or so people Sunday at Marge’s Lakeside Inn, on Lake Ontario beach. Tucked in among performances by musicians that included Suzi Willpower, Mike Gladstone and Brian Lindsay (“What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” was a perfect choice for Lindsay), what I read was a tribute to the men and women who built America and, now worn out and broken, live out their lives in saloon shadows, lit by neon beer signs. The words are actually pulled from a yet-to-be-published novel that I wrote, “A Bottle of Mezcal.” You can find the first few chapters of the manuscript on this web site under the heading “Works.”

So, for those three people, here’s the text from Sunday’s reading:

OLD DRUNKS

A guy wearing the weary tweed jacket of a failed Bohemian novelist sits at a table talking to a woman blanketed in the too-heavy makeup of a declining actress. Yeah, she had been a star of the community players stage, once. They stare idly at the television mounted on the wall over the bar. It’s a hockey game. “We live in a violent world,” he is saying. “Even vegetarians kill plants.”

She nods, her eyes trailing off to stare down at the pimento-stuffed olive at the bottom of her glass. It looks up at her like a disapproving eye.

Ray Charles sings, and the old guys at the bar grunt with approval. Some of them have only one good arm, and the blood vessels in their noses have bloomed into bright-red gin blossoms. I watch them lean forward into their pints of beer, seemingly in unison; they are red-assed mandrills now, crouching on the river bank, sipping the water.

But years ago they built this country. They can tell you how to mix the mortar that keeps every brick in this city in place. If you ride the trains with them, they point out the window, to the lines strung on the poles outside, and tell you those wires are made of copper because they have turned green in the weather. They can start a car with a screwdriver without killing themselves. They know stuff like that. Even that old guy in the polyester suit has stories. He worked fishing boats in Alaska and logged somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. That was in the days when men used horses to drag the trees down the hillside. Those horses would work until their hearts burst, and the crews piled the carcasses against the wall of the bunk house. In their youthful exuberance, the loggers slid down the corrugated tin roof and landed on the dead horses, laughing. Polyester Suit says he once cannonballed onto a horse that exploded on impact. “His guts blew out his mouth and his asshole,” Polyester Suit says. “Musta been exactly ripe.”

These old guys shot real people in wars and dropped bombs on historic cities without a second thought, but Johnny Cash rumbling “Sunday Morning Coming Down’’ makes them cry.

Their lives are arcs of random experience. What they don’t know either helps them survive, or it kills them.

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.

Mad, and getting Realist about humor

The first issue of The Realist.

When I was a kid, like 10 or 11 years old, My Uncle Robbie was the youngest, and coolest, of my uncles. He had a motorcycle. He went to Woodstock. And he read Mad magazine.

I never had a motorcycle. The Woodstocks I attended were the paler, anniversary ones in 1994 and ’99. But I did read Mad.

After 67 years, the magazine has announced it will soon cease publication, although that “cease” is kind of vague, as it appears Mad will continue to re-issue old content. And some of its legendary contributors said a few days ago that new material may even be published on yet-to-be determined platforms. Platforms that likely contributed to the cause of death: The internet, where anyone with a keyboard has the potential to create brilliant satire in this target-rich era.

Internet humor: A primary suspect in the death of Mad magazine.

Following the announcement of Mad’s approaching death, the tributes poured in. From celebrities including Weird Al Yankovic, fondly recalling how Mad shaped their own humor.

So yes, of course, I read Mad as well. Did, as in past tense. Maybe if I had bought a few copies over the last four decades, it wouldn’t be going away now.

But other culture was creeping into my brain. Mad gave way to National Lampoon. I saw R. Crumb and Zippy the Pinhead as philosophers, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were teachers. The comedy albums I listened to, the mainstream of Bill Cosby, gave way to the edgy non-sequitur humor of The Firesign Theater and Monty Python. I could find Monty Python on television as well – thank you, PBS – and in the movie theater.

The two things I remember laughing at the hardest in my late-teen years, laughing to the point that I couldn’t breathe, were National Lampoon’s “High School Yearbook Parody” and the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur de-limbs The Black Knight. “Just a flesh wound.”

We move on with time, and it can be a dangerous passage. My Uncle Robbie is in his late 60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s hit him a few years ago. Now he doesn’t even recognize his wife.

The brain evolves, devolves. I was reminded of how far my own pursuit of the darkest humor went when I read this week of the passing of Paul Krassner, the iconic, counter-culture writer. Krassner wrote freelance pieces for Mad in the late 1950s. But he recognized that Mad was humor for teenagers. And he was an adult. An adult consumed by the oncoming political unrest. So he channeled his taste in anarchy by creating an underground humor magazine, The Realist. This was a proper vehicle for Krassner and his ’60s Yippie cohorts, known for pranks such as nominating a pig for president. Even Norman Mailer, Richard Pryor and Joseph Heller wrote for The Realist.

Krassner and The Realist may have been humor, but they were dead serious about it.

The Realist was over-the-top outrageous. Pornographic. Obscene. Satire is a killer. Why would a humor magazine publish a cartoon depicting dozens of Disney characters such as Snow White and Donald Duck engaged in a massive orgy? I suppose the message might have been one that is the highest duty of humor: to expose hypocrisy and corruption. And to do so with a tenacity that goes beyond a flesh wound. Was the obscenity of the Seven Dwarves engaged in anal sex – a perversion of many people’s definition of All-American entertainment – any worse than the Vietnam War we were watching on our televisions?

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.

Dr. Strangelove’s Salute to America

The M1 Abrams tanks arrive. Averaging two miles per gallon, they had to catch rides on rail cars and flatbed trucks to get to Trump’s “Salute to America.”

After all was said and done, ’twas climate change that rained on Donald’s parade.

Karma caught up with the anti-science president. First a blistering heat greeted his Fourth of July self-aggrandizement in Washington, D.C. Then a thunderstorm. And there was Donald J. Trump, standing behind his rain-splattered, bullet-proof glass, frowning over this unmitigated disaster. Describing how, during the American Revolution, one of the first things done by the patriots was seize control of the airports.

Indeed, he said that. This presidency is increasingly sounding like a 21st-century remake of “Dr. Strangelove.”

Hiding behind a plea to patriotism, and our military men and women, Trump’s “Salute to America” was attended by tens of thousands of people, when hundreds of thousands were promised. And no matter what number is used, it still leaves out hundreds of millions of Americans. Building on fear, we had military vehicles parked on the National Mall, guns pointed pointlessly at the Lincoln Memorial, or other architectural marvels that remind us of the country’s founding ideals that have been abandoned.

Despite this fiasco being paid for by American taxpayers – including $2.5 million diverted from the cash-strapped National Park Service, users fees intended for the repair and maintenance of those parks – the divisive strategies that got Trump elected, and continue to fuel his supporters, were evident. Fearful of the negative reaction that the historically unpopular president and his policies might draw, VIP tickets for entry to a fenced-off section of the mall – a public space – were issued to Republican political appointees and donors only through the Republican National Committee and Trump’s reelection campaign. As it became apparent this week that Trump might be standing in front of a vast, nearly empty space, members of the military were issued tickets as well.

Trump, who avoided military service in Vietnam because he claimed he had bone spurs, and because he was “not a fan” of the war, wanted a military presence at his parade. Just like the ones frequently seen in those bastions of democracy, Russia, China and North Korea. He promised us “brand new Sherman tanks.” That should be a treat for the antiques-minded men and women of our armored divisions, as the last Sherman was built in 1957. The cost for just the military aircraft ordered up for the event, roaring over the stage as Trump spoke, including the Boeing 747 designated Air Force One when the president is on board, was an estimated $1 million.  A stealth fighter flew overhead, although I’m not sure anyone saw it.

I doubt we’ll ever see the actual entire cost of this near-sighted spectacle. Did you know it takes 10 gallons of gas just to start an Abrams M1 tank? Political props are costly.

Yeah. About those tanks and extravagantly armed aircraft. In today’s world, they’re useless. That war in Iraq, with our tanks rolling over a museum-quality Iraqi military, was just a show. What was that about, anyway? Something to do with weapons of mass destruction that never turned up? Then we moved on to invasions of Iran and Afghanistan, which supposedly had something to do with 9/11. Again we brought out the tanks to clatter up and down dusty streets, scattering goat herds. And aircraft to strafe wedding parties; that actually happened. Any “bad guys,” as the military likes to call the people we’re fighting – a way to trivialize a complex political situation – simply disappear into the mountains or the general population. When our tanks and aircraft move on, the “bad guys” return.

After more than 25 years of perpetual war in the Middle East, we have nothing to show for it, except casualties and ruined lives. Yes, we build the best tanks and jet fighters. That doesn’t matter anymore. As we’ve already seen, the wars of today, and the foreseeable future, are cyber wars. Russians using the internet to disrupt our democracy, and build on the divisiveness sowed by Trump. The world’s countries are preparing to attack not each other’s military hardware, but each other’s technological and energy infrastructures.

So leave those tanks parked on the National Mall. As reminders as to how fleeting our grasp of reality can be.

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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