Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Ben Franklin in Florida

OK, I’m back. It’s true that you can access social media on Florida’s Gulf Coast. But there are enough distractions to keep Twitter and Facebook – and the world in general – at arm’s length.

Distractions drifted in through an open, second-floor window in My Friends Tim and Carole’s condo in Dunedin one morning. I saw unfamiliar green vegetation. I heard unfamiliar bird songs. Even the hydraulics and the slamming of garbage bins being upended into trucks creeping along the streets was oddly exotic, although we have such machinery in Western New York.

After a half hour of this, time I would never have allowed myself in Rochester, I picked up my book and wandered downstairs. Unexpectedly, I was the first one to do so. I went outside and sat on the patio to read. In the sun, which is 93 million miles from Earth whether you’re in Rochester or Clearwater Beach, yet its influence on each city is dramatically different.

I heard the lazy drone of a single-engine airplane overhead. Inside, Tim was up, and had turned on the TV. Most network television is a monochromatic block of desensitizing opiates. And ESPN’s SportsCenter, in particular, is death’s waiting room for middle-aged white guys. Only the local news seems to reflect regional diversity. These words across the bottom of the screen are typical of news stories of interest to Floridians:

TERMITE INSPECTOR SAVES MAN FROM DROWNING

I went back inside. A newspaper was lying on the kitchen table. I couldn’t help myself. The front-page headline read:

HUGE BUDGET, BIG DEFICIT

Below it, the drop head explained:

President Trump’s Record $4.7 Trillion Plan Envisions Robust Growth, Domestic Cuts

Torrential spending driven by baseless estimates of growth, but in case of failure offset by cutting important social programs, because rich folks are off limits.

That afternoon, we drove on down to Sarasota, where Our Friends Ellie and Kevin have a winter home. Sarasota, a charming city. We passed threatening billboards:

JESUS SAVES! BUT MAYBE NOT YOU!

And next to it, another billboard:

AVAILABLE

Words capturing my feelings about religion. Threats. Everything’s for sale. And judging by other billboards around seemingly content cities like Sarasota, Florida has a lot of personal injury attorneys looking for work.

Personal injury. Is there such a thing as “impersonal injury?”

We moved on to Clearwater Beach, where the AAA TourBook promised, “bold street performers posing for photos with gaggles of giggling teenyboppers….”

Giggling teenyboppers? Who wrote that line? Charley Weaver?

It was spring break, and Clearwater Beach was prepared. A few years ago, it banned alcohol from the beach. How does the city get away with that? Alcohol isn’t illegal. Dogs, also banned, aren’t illegal. It’s their bi-products that the city is guarding against: College kids vomiting on your beach towel, dogs pooping on the sand. Typical government over-reach.

Nothing is said of jet skis, rich kids’ toys whose buzzing motors are the antithesis of nature. Noisy, unnatural. Nor is there any attempt to curb the encroachment of restaurants whose appearance generally suggests they were slammed together from driftwood, all bearing names seemingly ending in possessive “y’s.” Frenchy’s, Crabby’s, Salty’s, Rusty’s, Guppy’s…

And what the hell is an “interactive buffet?”

Lounging by the hotel pool, I picked up my book again, one I had borrowed from My Friend Scott. It was Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin that rescued me from the mediocrity of traffic jams clogging all roads leading to Walt Disney World. A fat biography, I read Benjamin Franklin in its entirety during the trip. Its wisdom insulated me from the words of that sandcracker wiseass, Jimmy Buffett, that seemed to be booming out of every open doorway at every restaurant and bar up and down the Florida coast.

Franklin was a brilliant journalist, inventor, scientist, businessman, diplomat and politician. He was a man who understood how to win friends and allies though great doses of self-deprecation. A pragmatic philosopher who in his later years would lie naked on his bed for an hour each day for his “air bath,” a precursor of today’s Zen-like pursuits of trendy self improvement.

Not quite a genius, I think. There were some issues, such as slavery, on which Franklin seemed to take the convenient road. A sometimes slave owner himself, in the later stages of his life Franklin came around to the idea that owning another human being was wrong. But at least he got there, many of the Legendary Founding Fathers never did. Perhaps his late arrival is because he believed that our opinions were not our own, as they reflected so many outside influences. Franklin’s evolution on human issues and tinkering with science was often driven by pragmatism. He was a man who could look at something and see its next purposeful level. Franklin owned a pair of eyeglasses for helping him to see in the distance, and another pair for reading. He cut them in half and put the separate pieces together, thus inventing bifocals.

Franklin didn’t discover electricity. The phenomena was known, but merely used for shocking parlor games. Franklin himself had used electricity to fry a turkey. Then came his famous experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm. The inspiration that made him, for his time, the most-famous person on the planet. He demonstrated to the world how to properly use electricity, collect it through lightning rods, store it in batteries.

Franklin despised the idea of hereditary entitlement and excess wealth, and shunned the clothing and powdered wigs of aristocracy. One of his contemporaries, in describing Franklin circulating among the Jeffersons, Madisons and Adamses of the moment, said Franklin appeared to be nothing more than “a big farmer.”

Franklin understood words. Thomas Jefferson had written this line in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin, assigned to proofread the document, changed the line to, “We hold these truths to be self evident.” That it is not some sacred right granted by religion, but a biological truth, that all men – and perhaps some day women, Franklin loved women – are created equal.

Franklin was a writer, as Isaacson says, who “was graced – and afflicted – with the trait so common to journalists, especially ones who have read Swift and Addison once too often, of wanting to participate in the world while also remaining a detached observer. As a journalist, he could step out of a scene, even one that passionately engaged him, and comment on it, or himself, with a droll irony.”

I sense Isaacson is levelling a slight criticism at Franklin here. A common criticism often voiced against journalists, that it is a professional affliction for them to reveal their opinions or reactions to the world. That it is unprofessional to take a side against false equivalencies.

In this age of social media deception, religion as a threat, low expectations for breaded seafood, and the daily implosion of fact under Trump, what would be the error in once more calling on the wisdom of Jonathan Swift’s satire and Joseph Addison’s essays warning of government tyranny levelled against its own people? Or in meeting the absurdity of these times by adopting Franklin’s pragmatic vision, his uncanny ability to see a use for electricity beyond frying a turkey? Faith and belief are often blind and deceptive comforts. Without truth and science, we’d all be left in the dark.

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The Critical Mass

Dead Skunk in the middle of the 21st century

Loudon Wainwright and Greg Leisz prepare to bring a Dead Skunk into the room.

Loudon Wainwright and Greg Leisz prepare to bring a Dead Skunk into the room.

Loudon Wainwright III was nearing the end of his show when someone in the audience shouted out a request: “Dead Skunk!”

“I need more money for ‘Dead Skunk,’ ” Wainwright said, shaking his head with mock disapproval. No, he rarely plays his novelty hit from 1972, the only genuine hit he’s ever had. Guess Wainwright thinks a song about hitting a skunk while driving his station wagon is undignified. He’s moved on to some serious and beautiful music. And songs listing his medications and about being stalked by 400-pound fans and lamenting the loss of his sex life, the latter played while wearing a red stripper’s bra that had been left in the dressing room. So novelty is in the eye of the songwriter.

Well, that was Monday. And every man has his price. Friday night, as Wainwright was again nearing the end of his show, he paused to recall how a few nights earlier he’d dismissed his eager fan’s call for “Dead Skunk.” But Sixthman, the group that assembles Cayamo, this week-long Caribbean cruise of singer-songwriters, had approached Wainwright and basically said, “OK, we’re putting the money where your mouth is. Now play it.”

And he did. With help from his sister, Sloan Wainwright, renowned dobro stud Greg Leisz and the enthusiastic crowd that packed the Norwegian Pearl’s Stardust Theater. These people knew the words. They bought the 45 rpm single back in the day. I’m sure mine is in the attic.

A very specific generation dominates this event. Young acts like the Ryan Montbleau Band are rocking out on the pool deck. But older acts like the Richard Thompson Trio out-rocked them. I sometimes get the feeling that my music’s getting quieter as I age. But I haven’t lost the rage. And neither have a lot of the people I see around me.

Glen Phillips is a nice songwriter, sings well and has an incredibly winning stage persona. He’ll do a song or two by his old ’90s pop band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, but he’s been filling his sets here with lots of new material. You get the feeling this guy never stops writing. But Thursday evening, after a few pointed comments about the horrific field of un-presidential candidates being showcased by the Republican Party this season, Phillips played an old song that offered a vision of what American foreign policy might be like under one of these out-of-touch cowboys: Randy Newman’s “Political Science,” and the self-explanatory lines about “Let’s drop the Big One.”

A lot of people here knew that one as well.

I’ve seen Lucinda Williams a couple of times in the past year, and she’s been dredging up an old protest song from the ’60s, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”  She did it again Thursday night, explaining how it seemed relevant again today. She’s thinking about the Occupy movement. It’s quieted down a bit, as the northern cities become less forgiving with winter. Most of the Occupy news these days seems to come from mayors who decide to send in cops to hit their fellow Americans with sticks. Mayors who haven’t read the Constitution, and its guarantees of free speech and the right of assembly. Mayors who allow their local governments to chew away at the edges of those basic freedoms with local statutes that limit Americans’ use of their public spaces. Yes, Mayor, freedom is a messy thing. Lucinda Williams knows the Occupy folks will be back in the spring, and the movement will be messier than ever. Cops will hit their fellow Americans with sticks. Because, as both sides have seen, Occupy works.

I’ve included the lyrics to “For What It’s Worth” at the end of this post, so you can remind yourself of how relevant those old words remain.

Maybe revolution was in the ocean air because Thursday was tie-dye night on the ship, and some of the old hippie clothes came out. Including guys who didn’t need a peace-sign headband to keep their short, gray hair in place, but they wore one anyway. The past is a good thing to keep close at hand. It helps to remember that a dead skunk smells the same in1972 as it does today.

Friday night, after his show, Wainwright was eating at the Brazilian red-meat overload restaurant, sitting at a table just a few yards away from us. I make it a point to not bother celebrities when they’re trying to enjoy a private moment, but I did run into Sloan Wainwright and Leisz at the salad bar. “How much did they pay Loudon to sing ‘Dead Skunk?’ ” I asked.

Both pleaded ignorance. “He didn’t tell us,” Leisz insisted.

“You mean, he didn’t say, ‘Here’s your half, now let’s go out and embarrass ourselves?’ ” Leisz shook his head no. The secret was safe.

A half an hour later, a familiar song came over the ship’s PA system; they’ve been playing music by all of the artists on the cruise. This song was a young-sounding Wainwright, singing about a dead skunk in the middle of the road. Wainwright’s table erupted in laughter.

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH

There’s somethin’ happenin’ here

What it is ain’t exactly clear

There’s a man with a gun over there

Tellin’ me, I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn

Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong

Young people speakin’ their minds

Gettin’ so much resistance from behind

I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

What a field day for the heat (Hmm, hmm, hmm)

A thousand people in the street (Hmm, hmm, hmm)

Singing songs and carrying signs (Hmm, hmm, hmm)

Mostly say, hooray for our side (Hmm, hmm, hmm)

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound

Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you’re always afraid

You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

We better stop, now, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down

We better stop, children, what’s that sound?

Everybody look what’s going down


The Critical Mass

How James McMurtry and Mitt Romney see, and don’t see, the poor

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt live on the high seas.

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt live on the high seas.

Here’s how much Sunday’s John Prine show got to me: Monday morning at breakfast I was assembling a fist-sized pile of smoked salmon at the breakfast buffet while singing to myself, “I am an old woman….”

It’s now Wednesday, Day Four of the Cayamo music cruise through the Caribbean. The music has been crazy and beautiful. We’ve already seen Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt performing their two-man, songwriters-in-the-round thing, joined for a bit by fiddler Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. James McMurtry dedicated his Oklahoma white-trash epic “Choctaw Bingo” to “The First United Crystal Methodist Church.” McMurtry finished his set with “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore,” his ode to the working man cut adrift by this economy. The guy sitting on the floor nearby looked our way and shouted of the roars of approval, “ ‘I don’t care about the very poor.’ ” That’s a Mitt Romney quote, as you know.

You could get a pretty good argument going as to who looks more out of place on a cruise ship, McMurtry or Greg Brown. You don’t expect to see such weedy-looking guys walking around the pool deck unless they have a wrench in their hands, disappearing behind some unmarked door. Prine brought out Brown’s wife, Iris Dement, for duets on “In Spite of Ourselves” and “Muhlenburg County.” What a great hillbilly voice she has. I mean that as a compliment. Loudon Wainwright III continued with his amusing themes of “death and decay” and “shitty love.” The Civil Wars were the biggest surprise, a charismatic duo blending imaginative harmonies with very unusual songwriting. But Lucinda Williams was no surprise. She’s a blonde again, if you’re keeping score, and brought out Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller to help her “Get Right With God.” We’ve been hearing so much great music, it’s easy for an audience to sit back and say, “Yeah, here’s another good one.” But Williams had that crowd up and out of its comfy seats, howling.

Williams said her manager had to actually go into her cabin at 5:30 in the afternoon to wake her up for her 8 p.m. show. It’s easy to sleep here. Almost too easy.

Yet I live in fear of missing something. Richard Thompson described his band as a “folk power trio” that fell “somewhere between The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Peter, Paul & Mary.” The former far more than the latter, as they rocked the boat with what Thompson described as a new genre of music, “death lounge.” Then, mindful of what cruise line we were on, he amended that to “Norwegian death lounge.”

Hermetically sealed on a cruise ship with three dozen musical acts. I haven’t even seen Keb’ Mo’ or Enter the Haggis yet. In the spa, we walked around in white robes like Greek gods. And after all of that smoked salmon, my breath may smell like the hold of a Norwegian fishing boat, but I do expect my math skills to improve dramatically by the time we get back to Miami.

The news? I don’t know what’s going on right now. The only reason I know who won the Super Bowl was I happened to be walking through a bar during the final minute of the game, and stopped to see what all of the shouting was about. That’s a pretty good way to get it done. You may have spent 12 hours on Sunday watching pre-game, game and post-game analysis. I watched 51 seconds and got the whole story.

Here’s my tip on pre-game football shows: The keys to winning the Super Bowl are the same things those experts will tell you are the keys to winning an insignificant Cleveland Browns-Jacksonville Jaguars game.

This morning, good southern boy that he is, John Prine was standing in the fried-breakfast line in the cafeteria – a mass-nutrition event that last year one of the musicians called “the food tube.” So I went up to Prine, with my plate-load of salmon, and said “ ‘Lake Marie’ always makes me cry.” He smiled and said thank you. “I’ll bet I’m not the only person to say that to you,” I said. “No,” he replied, smiling humbly. “You’re not.”

I’ve been ashore, too. It feels strange. The first port of call was The Dominican Republic. It’s lush and mountainous, populated by the most relaxed dogs on the planet. I bought some cigars, of course, for my two- to three-a-year habit. I saw a cow using its hind leg to scratch behind its ear. I’d never seen that before. I guess Dominican cows are more limber than American cows. We took a bus up into the mountains. Racing along those narrow roads, all I could think of was the two words that see to appear most often in newspaper headlines from that end of the world: Bus plunge. We passed a crew laying some asphalt; a kid, maybe 14 years old, was pushing a wheelbarrow. At the police station, I saw men with automatic weapons, wearing fatigues. Sure, The Dominican Republic has a lot of trees and ferns. But if you really want to camouflage your troops in a place like that, disguise them as a mud hole. Or a dog.

There are a lot of poor people out there. It’s a world of poor people. I could see them through the window of our bus. Their houses look empty, their businesses look like sheds. It’s not like they’re choosing to live any way in particular. This is what they have. I was embarrassed, sitting in that air-conditioned vehicle, splashing down their muddy dirt roads, on vacation from our cruise-ship vacation. Ships that hold wonders these people will never see. Like $60 bottles of smooth single-malt scotch in the duty-free shop.

I have stuff. But I’m not a rich man. Seeing all of that poverty makes me wonder: How does a guy like Mitt Romney sleep at night?

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