Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Fred Rogers and Donald Trump are not from the same planet

Will I see a film this year that’s more relevant to these frustrating, clock-spinning backward days than Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

For many people, it would be easy to get lost in sentimentality while watching this beautiful and inspiring documentary about Fred Rogers, the amiable host of the children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Perhaps you grew up with it. Or raised your kids in that neighborhood.

I was 10 years old when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired in 1968. I had aged out of its demographic. By then I was watching Get Smart, The Mod Squad and even one of the most-brilliant, bravest shows to ever air on network television, The Prisoner. Yet as a cultural icon, Fred Rogers was inescapable, and many people took advantage of it. So my familiarity with Rogers came through the lens of other people. Saturday Night Live and Eddie Murphy in “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” and its hint of citizens who would cheerfully remove the tires from your car if you left it unattended.

But after seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor? on Sunday afternoon, I see that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, like The Prisoner, was also brilliant and brave.

The film shows us Rogers’ first days of working in television. He hated it. Rogers saw that the people producing the shows didn’t know what to do with the new medium. The technology was racing far ahead of the people using it. That’s how it always is; Over the last few years, I witnessed print media wrestling with digital concepts that they pretended to understand, but didn’t. Inevitably, they set the bar low, eyes on the stupidest common denominator. Rogers saw so much potential in television, wasted on clowns getting hit in the face with pies. Why didn’t it treat children, and adults, with dignity? Television, he thought, could be an important learning tool.

And he demonstrated that with the very first visit to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Remember, 1968 was an astonishingly tumultuous year in this country. And here was a kid’s TV show, in its first week on the air, taking on the Vietnam War. Gently reminding children that what was happening in Vietnam was not … neighborly. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? even shows us a moment that first week when the puppets in King Friday XVIII’s castle lament the construction of a wall. You could hear a slight murmur of recognition in the darkened Little Theatre at that, an acknowledgement of the relevance today of building a wall.

The film shows us that Mister Roger’s Neighborhood continued to take on difficult subjects throughout its run. A puppet helps explain the meaning of assassination following the murder of Robert Kennedy. Rogers, in his comforting voice following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, with a schoolteacher aboard, reminds us how sometimes tragedy and sadness is inevitable as we move forward. And we mustn’t be afraid to express our emotions about things that frighten us.

Rogers talked about race as well. Back-and-white film of a white man pouring chemicals into a swimming pool to discourage black swimmers is followed by a scene in which Rogers is cooling his feet in his tiny wading pool. Officer Clemmons, one of the recurring characters in the Neighborhood, shows up. Rogers asks Clemmons if he’d like to cool his feet in the pool, and there you have it: A black man and a white man, repudiating the racists. In a scene reminiscent of a Bible lesson, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Rogers even towels off Clemmons’ feet.

We see Rogers in the Senate calmly, yet with an urgent edge we never hear when he’s in his own neighborhood, explaining the importance of funding PBS. And he wins over his snarky interlocutor, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Senator John Pastore. We see Rogers flashing anger as he dresses down those who are abusing the vast influence of television. Rogers was a Republican, yet it’s so clear what he would have thought of the current president’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.

It has not gone unnoticed by many people, how different the worlds of Fred Rogers and Donald Trump are.

How could anyone doubt Rogers’ message of respect? Yet doubters there were. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes a moment to show a few newspaper columns by conservative writers, and a Fox News host, his voice spiraling upward in outrage, castigating Rogers for his belief that everyone is special. No, the conservatives howl, everyone is not special. You must earn special.

Rogers levels his critics. Treating others with dignity isn’t a reward to be handed out, like a biscuit for a good dog. “Let’s make goodness attractive, in this so-called new millennium,” he says.

There were many people weeping in the theater during Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and afterward as the lights went up. Was it a sentimental trip down memory lane? Perhaps for some. But mostly, in the pure light cast by Fred Rogers, and his belief in the goodness of humanity, we’re all left to wonder: Why are we living today in such shadows?

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Stay oblivious. Be happy.

World Cup opening ceremonies: British singer Robbie Williams and the Putin Pop-Agandists.

My patriotism is now boundless. Among the many reasons for geographical pride – the wisdom of our leaders, my shiny red MAGA hat shrewdly manufactured in China – is the United States soccer team remains undefeated in World Cup play.

This is as it should be. How sad we were each Winter Olympics, as our curling team fell to squads from lesser countries such as Norway and Canada. After many such humiliations, our system of curling youth leagues here struck gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics. We are the curling masters of the planet! And now, in the World Cup, the thankless work of millions of soccer moms across the United States is paying off: Our magnificent team remains unscored upon!

I’m excited to see our sports organizations, and all athletic supporters, embrace the socialism needed to compete on a world scale in sports we are otherwise ambivalent about. Socialism has worked for our fire and police departments for years. Our public school system is socialism. The magnificent sports edifices we build, palaces where American oligarchs send their teams for our entertainment, and to distract us, are also socialism at work. And the oligarchs selflessly take on the complex task of negotiating the accompanying television and merchandising contracts, so that we can live our simple lives in stress-free oblivion.

But our team’s World Cup presence far exceeds these primitive efforts. It isn’t costing Americans anything!

Growing up in Cleveland, I have certainly experienced the thrill of championship seasons. True, I was just a little kid then, but I still have the fading picture of my brother and I posing with my dad with the team photo published in The Cleveland Press after the Browns won the 1964 NFL championship. And then… well… a bit of a drought. I’d long since moved away when the Cavaliers won the NBA championship three years ago. I was visiting my mother then, and before the final game, and at her request, I spread my dad’s ashes around the front lawn he once patrolled with his riding lawnmower. And then Mom and I watched the Cavs game on TV. Victory. I was happy for my friends and relatives still living in Cleveland.

The Browns’ best player on its ’64 title team was Jim Brown. The Cavs’ best player was LeBron James. Larger-than-life heroes. I think of them, from time to time. Maybe when I’m watching a movie. Brown in The Dirty Dozen. Or James in Trainwreck.

Yet our World Cup heroes go one step further, they are completely selfless. I can’t name one player on the team! None will ever have a movie career!

Admittedly, that championship lift to the community doesn’t last long. Only until the reality of the next season sets in and age, torn hamstrings and the new young and hungry team pushes aside your heroes. But at least my old hometown had two transcendent moments during my lifetime. I’m sure the people of Flint, Mich., with its poisoned water system, would welcome a sports championship to celebrate. Think of what it would do for the spirits of the people of Puerto Rico, still living beneath canvas roofs on their hurricane-flattened island.

What would you rather have in your community? Eighty thousand people in a stadium for eight Sunday afternoons, cheering the Buffalo Bills to a 6-10 record? Or would you prefer a lead-free water system, successful federal responses to natural disasters, public transportation and museums and theaters for the arts?

Would you rather have a wall on our southern border, or a national health-care system?

Nationalism in any form – sports, politics – is a powerful force. It’s the old college spirit. My dad avidly followed Ohio State football, even though Columbus is a 2½-hour drive from Cleveland, and he’d never been to a Buckeyes game. In fact, he’d only been to Columbus once or twice in his lifetime. But sports transcends distance and breeds compassion for your fellow human being: The avid followers of major-college sports programs are willing to overlook grade-cheating scandals, drug arrests, players beefed up on steroids beyond all recognizable human form and the arrest of star players on felony charges. My dad saw Ohio State football as an affirmation of the superiority of life in Ohio. Even though half of the athletes on the team were from Florida and Texas.

Your star quarterback is charged with rape? Your president is the subject of serious federal criminal investigations into possibly conspiring with a foreign country to help him win an election, and then obstructing that investigation by firing the investigator?

In both worlds, it’s all fake news. Stay oblivious. Be happy.

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.

WXXI, the jazz fest and sleep-deprived haikus

I likely won’t be blogging for a bit. Starting Friday, and for nine days, I’ll be covering the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival for our public radio station, WXXI. It’ll be total immersion in music. An escape from a suddenly incomprehensible world where everything seems to be upside down. Where fiction is truth, where people seeking asylum from violence are equated with gangs.

It won’t be a total escape. Musicians, being smart and compassionate people, are likely to be poking holes in our festival cocoon and reminding their audiences of what’s going on in the outside world. Musicians have a habit of doing that. Speaking truth to power.

At the festival, I’ll see names you know: Seal, Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck.

And names you should know. Bluesman Jack Broadbent, All Our Exes Live in Texas, Ulysses Owens, Jr., and his “Songs of Freedom” show.

I’ll be providing daily web site content for WXXI. The first story, a preview of the event, has already been posted on wxxi.org. I’ll be filing reviews of each night’s shows, previews of the next night and interviews with musicians: The fabulous Moon Hooch, whose picture accompanies this post, is on deck.

You’ll hear me on the radio. On weekdays at about 5:50 p.m., I’ll be live from the festival site on WXXI-AM (1370) and WRUR-FM (88.5). And weekday mornings, at about 10:30 a.m., the “Jazz Corner” segment, and my sleep-deprived comments, returns for the third year on WRUR and Scott Regan’s Open Tunings show.

And yes, there will be jazz haikus.

Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.

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