Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Category: Words Page 2 of 4

Working on decimation, because words matter


I am a word guy. It’s how I make my living. Words are my truth, and I insist we follow their precise meanings.

One particular agitation for years has been when a waitperson approaches me in a restaurant, sees my plate with some still-edible scraps of food on it and asks: “Are you still working on that?”

Working? Working is a task, often one that a person is paid for, like operating a backhoe on a hot day. I’ve never been paid for eating. If I’m eating, and paid for the privilege, it’s supposed to be a pleasure.

So, yeah, I’m a curmudgeon (noun: a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man). But it’s not that I can’t learn. As is the case in my longtime association with the word decimate (verb: to kill one in 10). It irritated me when I’d hear television weather reporters tell us, “Hurricane Katrina decimated the city of New Orleans.” What? It killed one in 10 people, it destroyed one in 10 houses?

But now I admit, time has moved on for decimate (historical verb: a form of capital punishment to quell rebellion among Roman troops, with one out of every 10 men put to death). Grudgingly, I now embrace a new decimate (modern usage: to kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of).

I move on to new, trendy words and phrases, not with reluctance, but with caution. A phrase that appeared a couple of years ago is “throwing shade” (slang: subtle, sneering expression of contempt for or disgust with someone). I like the sound of it, and its intention. Yet since I don’t want to appear to be an older white man trying too hard to be hip, I avoid phrases like throwing shade (social media personality Bugatti Beez: “I just wanna love yo stupid ass but yo stupid ass be acting stupid & that shit stupid”).

More recently, I find agitation in the word “per” (preposition: for each, as used with units to express a rate, such as a gas selling at $2.59 per gallon). I’ve been reading internet stories about the upcoming Super Bowl so that I can engage in social conversation with people, and it’s astonishing how often I come across sportswriters using “per” (example: “Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be wearing a size XXL jock strap, lined with duck down, per Sports Illustrated’s Peter King). In this case, per is used to indicate attribution. I’ve seen internet sportswriting that contains three pers per story. Apparently, the writers believe the use of “per,” rather than “I read somewhere else,” gives their own reporting a lawyerly authority. And as a former sportswriter, I can confirm that sportswriters are neither lawyerly or authorities.

This week, I’ve been reading the Trump henchman Roger Stone complaining about his arrest on seven criminal counts, including obstruction of justice and witness tampering. Yet another witch nailed in the witch hunt. He’s said Osama bin Laden was treated better than he has been. Stone calls his predicament a “legal lynching.”

Perhaps he has forgotten that bin Laden was shot in the head and his body dumped in the ocean. Perhaps he has forgotten that lynching was something mobs of white racists did to black people in America, and not that long ago.

These words are Stone re-defining the legal system at work. Verbal sideshows that sidestep fact and true definition, and overstate the situation, for his convenience.

In truth, words always matter.

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.

Mondays with Ernie

 

Long rumored, now inevitable. Lyons Press will publish 22 Minutes, my book on the life of Ernie Coleman.

Hardcover, $26.95, 224 pages, weighs 1.7 pounds, official publication date May 1, 2019. You can pre-order it now from amazon.com. No salesman will visit your home.

A local sailing legend on Lake Ontario, Ernie’s long life was shadowed by a terrible tragedy. He’d survived the sinking of the cruiser Vincennes during World War II’s Battle of Savo Island, the worst open-sea defeat ever suffered by the United States Navy. Four big ships and more than 1,000 sailors were lost that night, including more than 300 on Vincennes. All in a 22-minute battle, as referenced in the book’s title.

Here’s how the book came about. I was hired by one of Ernie’s daughters to write the story of his life. He was 93 years old when I met him, living in Summerville with a view of Lake Ontario from his house. Ernie was a carpenter who built a family through four marriages, adoption and stepchildren. His was a story of courage, tragedy, comedy, curiosity, brawls, an affair that ended his first marriage, his adopted daughter’s descent into drug abuse, and a relentless desire to live life to its fullest. And building boats, and sailing. We self-published the book in 2012 as Chasing the Wind. It sold more than 2,000 copies. Pretty good for a self-published book.

But agents were suggesting that I should re-write Chasing the Wind, and include my relationship with Ernie. Kind of a Tuesdays With Morrie thing. And so I did, weaving into the story of how the two of us put together Chasing the Wind over a series of Monday-morning meetings. And how I had to tell the story of what happened to Ernie on the night Vincennes was sunk, when he wouldn’t tell it himself because of his recurring nightmares. And how, after it was published, I took Ernie to book clubs and public readings, until a few months before his death at age 95.

So Chasing the Wind became the book within the book. The publishers insisted the name be changed to avoid confusion; while the two versions share some material, 22 Minutes is a much fuller, more rewarding story. I came up with the new name one morning while walking my dog, thinking of my friend Gary Craig’s book about the Rochester Brinks robbery, Seven Million. It’s all in the numbers. That’s how creativity works sometimes. Steal.

The cover of Chasing the Wind was a photo of Ernie sailing his boat, Desire. For 22 Minutes, Lyons Press went with a photo of Vincennes, and an inset of Ernie as a 24-year-old Navy man. I wasn’t excited about it, Ernie was about much more than that ship. But the Lyons Press marketing people figured it would get your attention.

And we worked hard on the subtitle, because that’s what the search engines are tuned to. World War II, Savo Island, Vincennes… Ernie had a deep life, so he gets two subtitles. That cover you’re looking at now hasn’t been adjusted for the final titles: “The USS Vincennes and the Tragedy of Savo Island” and “A Lifetime Survival Story.” Still too much of a focus on that one moment of Ernie’s life. But, hey, we’re trying to sell a book here.

I was talking to some friends about it, and we started casting the movie version. I’m looking for a Spencer Tracy type to play Ernie. I wanted Randy Quaid to play me, but he’s hard to find these days. One of my friends suggested Jeff Daniels, and I’m cool with that. Anyone got his number?

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.

Censorship, lies, and the n-word

One of the greatest albums ever, The Allman Brothers, “Live at Fillmore East.”

I saw with great satisfaction that Haruki Murakami is among the literary luminaries to be featured at October’s The New Yorker Festival. My Friend Monica introduced me to the Japanese writer about a decade ago. I’ve since read a half-dozen of his novels, including the weighty The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle twice. Murakami’s style has had a significant impact on my own words: I think of it as “Real Surrealism.”

Drawing far more attention was another guest who was confirmed on Monday as the festival’s headliner. Steve Bannon. But by Tuesday, the howls of protest had led the festival to drop Bannon. The toxic brand of racism practiced by the former Trump adviser was too much for intellectual spirit of The New Yorker Festival.

Censorship? What’s happened here forced me to recall some of my own brushes with the question. With Glenn Beck, when he was the king of Fox News. And the drummer from one of the world’s best-known rock bands, who dropped the n-word on me during an interview.

I had two opportunities to interview Beck. Late in 2005, he was barnstorming the country with a multimedia Christmas extravaganza of holiday music, videos of flags snapping to attention in the breeze and his maudlin ramblings about American values. Beck’s publicist called me and asked if I wanted to talk with the conservative television host, talk-radio flamethrower and best-selling author before his appearance here. This was after Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, had spent the summer following President Bush around the country and appearing at anti-war rallies, demanding the president explain his actions.

I told Beck’s publicist that I didn’t want anything to do with a guy who’d called Sheehan a “tragedy slut.” I didn’t want to talk to a guy who said of the women collectively known as the 9/11 widows, women who’d lost husbands in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up!’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them.”

Beck’s publicist called again on an otherwise beautiful afternoon in 2007. “Your favorite guy is coming back to town,” he said. With an even bigger show. More patriotic music, videos of soaring eagles and Beck lamenting about why can’t the world be more like he wants it to be. Did I want an interview?

“No,” I said. “He’ll have to peddle his nonsense without my help.”

Was I a hypocrite because, while Beck was critical of Cindy Sheehan speaking her mind, I wasn’t allowing him to share his thoughts with the readers of the newspaper that I worked for, allowing readers to make their own judgment?

No, not at all. It’s just that I believe people who are the shapers of public opinion, be it politicians or the media, should treat the truth with reverence. That’s the same reason I support The New Yorker’s decision to dump Bannon. Both Beck and Bannon have a well-documented, abstract relationship with the truth.

So I denied Beck access to my forum, minor as it was, just as The New Yorker has backed off on Bannon. Sometimes it’s an easy decision, and both men have their own platforms from which to spill their bile. Yet over the years, I also interviewed Ted Nugent and Kiss’ Gene Simmons. Two unlikable characters. In fact, I interviewed each of them twice. So, I’m not exactly consistent in my thinking.

But what about that interview with the drummer from one of the world’s biggest rock bands?

Butch Trucks played with the Allman Brothers Band from its earliest days, virtually inventing Southern rock at a house in Georgia, mixing in blues and jazz and whatever else a bunch of young guys do when not trapped under adult supervision. Trucks was the rhythmic force behind the sound. When I interviewed him by phone, maybe a decade ago, he was in a New York City hotel room, relaxing before a gig that night. It was an engaging conversation, he was very excited to tell me he’d just bought a DVD of the latest Lord of the Rings film. He was totally into the Tolkien books, he’d read the whole Middle Earth saga maybe a dozen times. Trucks said he loved reading, he was trying to make up for hitting the bars with the band as a young man, rather than going off to college.

We started talking about those early days. And the band’s decision to bring in a second drummer. Jai Johanny Johnson, better known as Jaimoe. Trucks was animated in his storytelling, describing his reaction upon meeting Jaimoe for the first time: “And in walks this big, black…”

And then, the n-word.

There was an awkward pause, maybe two or three seconds. I’m sure he was thinking: Uh, oh, I just uttered a racial slur to a reporter. And I know what I was thinking: What am I gonna do with that?

And, after that pause, he continued the story.

Short answer. I did nothing.

This is how I rationalized it. In his narrative, Trucks was taking us back to the days when he was a young, skinny white Southern boy of the ’60s, no worldly experience, reacting to an unknown, a black man. He was giving me his true thoughts from that moment, a half-century ago. Now he’d grown, the world had changed. Somewhat. There was no reason to believe he still thought that way.

So in the story, I wrote about Trucks’ love of Tolkien, his drive to improve himself intellectually, the early days of the Allman Brothers, his relationship with his bandmates now that they were older, some of them already dead. If I told the story of Trucks uttering the n-word, it would take over the story. Obscure the portrait of the man.

In January of 2017, Trucks himself was dead. Distraught over financial problems, he was in his Florida condo when he put a gun to his head and, in front of his wife, shot himself.

To this day, I don’t know if I made the right decision in leaving out the awkward, unguarded moment of Trucks and the n-word. I think, maybe, yes. I’m about 75 percent sure of it. That other 25 percent is, was I protecting Trucks because I liked him, and the interview had been a good one?

My internal hand-wringing over my act of censorship gets even more complicated. I’ve heard the n-word sung, to great effect, by musicians ranging from rappers to Patti Smith. I read it in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I heard black guys saying it on the bus on my ride to work. I recently watched a film, Wise Blood, an adaptation of a Flannery O’Connor story, where a white actor says it. And it made me uncomfortable, even in the privacy of my living room.

Artists use the word, and guys telling stories use it, because it has the ugly ring of reality.

Ultimately, what Trucks said wouldn’t have made much of a difference in this most-significant debate in today’s America, race. It would have simply been a gossipy little shocker, quickly forgotten, but perhaps forever damaging to Butch Trucks. From our conversation, my sense was he didn’t deserve that. And without it, in what I confess is an act of censorship, I believe I presented the truer picture of our conversation.

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.

Page 2 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén