Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Swept up in turbulent waters, attacked with killer tomatoes

Oh no, Scott Regan is playing John Prine’s “Lake Marie” on “Open Tunings,” his morning radio show on WRUR-FM (88.5). That song always makes me cry.

“We were standing, standing by peaceful waters….”

Damn. Sniff.

So yeah, I’ve been on blog sabbatical for a while. Reading, listening to music, walking the dog. But I’ve had absolutely nothing to add to the public discourse over the last month or two. That shouting, antagonistic, barbaric yawp of people sliding into the abyss that inevitably claims all of us. The Etruscans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Manson Family…

These are times that make my brain hurt. But I did continue to scribble notes on scraps of paper. Which I now unload, here, as an unreliable document of the past couple of months.

My respect for COVID over the past two years has led to a dramatically reduced social calendar. The biggest negative? I’ve been watching more television. That Applebee’s commercial with the cowboy swinging his Levis-clad butt in my face was forcing me to re-think my pledge to not throw heavy objects at the TV screen. Thankfully, over the last week, that commercial seems to have receded into whatever marketing hell it came from.

Not incidentally, the best show I’ve discovered during the COVID TV era is a low-fi Canadian faux-dramedy, “Trailer Park Boys.” Anything that depicts humans as irredeemably stupid gets my Emmy Awards vote.

When I heard about it the next morning, I didn’t know what to make of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. Judging by the high degree of attention it was receiving in the media, this was big, big news. And two days afterward, a sports gambling company piled on, reporting that geotagged Twitter data showed 41 states supported Rock and nine states were behind Smith.

I have thought long and hard about this. Emerging from the fog with thoughts such as: With Russia invading Ukraine, do Will Smith and Chris Rock even matter?

I just keep repeating to myself…

“Peaceful waters. Standing by peaceful waters.”

I read a review of the recent release of the final book of Simon Gray’s four-volume “The Complete Smoking Diaries.” For true completists, those books are, “The Smoking Diaries,” “The Year of the Jouncer,” “The Last Cigarette” and now “Coda.” From the reviews I’ve read, Gray’s memoir quartet sounds a lot like Marcel Proust’s seven-volume “In Search of Lost Time,” which we used to call “Remembrance of Things Past.” Here’s a review from The Guardian of Gray’s first book in the series, when it was first published in 2004:

It’s perfectly possible to take Simon Gray’s diaries for just what they seem to be: a grouchy-hearted, grimly comic rant against the world by a playwright in his mid-60s who finds himself neglected by the modern theatre, unable on pain of death to drink a drop of his former daily three bottles of champagne, and obliged to confront the ineluctable mortality of his friends and therefore of himself. ‘The Smoking Diaries’ is a lament for the sorrows of growing old, of finding oneself stranded in a place from which there is already no return.

Ineluctable. Or, inescapable, inevitable. As a writer in his mid-60s who finds himself neglected, I am a moth ineluctably drawn to this flame.

Here’s a cocktail napkin on which I’ve scribbled “Food Insecurity,” “Underserved” and a third word that’s been blurred out by a crescent of red wine from the bottom edge of a wine glass. This looks like it came out of a conversation about feel-good euphemisms. Food insecurity is when people are starving, which should not happen in a nation of rich people. Underserved is when minorities can’t have access to decent schools or health care. Which, again, should not happen in a nation of rich people.

On another scrap I find this:

“The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.”

– Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp died in 1968. Was he predicting any artists living today must rid themselves of the artificial propellant of social media? Or did he mean today’s great artists might as well pick out an unoccupied piece of land and dig themselves a shallow grave?

Of course, I write down everything this guy says:

“I think inside every song there are other songs. But I also think, inside your voice, there are other voices that you have yet to discover and that’s kind of why you are here.”

– Tom Waits

And inside every comment is a lie. And other lies that we have yet to discover. And that’s kind of why I am here. My more-recent notes grow increasingly dark. There’s a list of names that basically asks: These people are transparently lying, how do they get away with it?

It’s like dialogue from a political satire. Marjorie Taylor Greene denying she had called for martial law to overturn Trump’s election defeat, despite the presence of an email in which she irrefutably suggests the answer might be in declaring “Marshall Law.”

Or The New York Times reporting that, in a private meeting, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California warned his Republican colleagues that their inflammatory comments might get people hurt or killed, and he was going to call Trump and suggest he resign. McCarthy insisted that story was “totally false and wrong.” And then, oops, here come the audio tapes of McCarthy, proving the Times story is totally true and correct.

Political satire isn’t always funny. Politi-tag this Twitter data and we’ll see it’s largely conservatives backing a notion borrowed from “Fahrenheit 451.” They’re calling for book burning, including high school math books.

Something’s not adding up here. Who are these nimrods, how did they get into positions of power? It’s the media as well, and voices like Laura Ingraham, attacking President Biden’s proposal of student loan forgiveness. She tweeted, “My mom worked as a waitress until she was 73 to help pay for our college.” It apparently escapes the Fox News Harpie that Dear Old Mom working way past retirement age to pay off her kids’ college tuitions might be a sign that something’s wrong with our system of higher education.

And what about the act of throwing a tomato at a presidential candidate? Asked about comments he made in 2016 about that possibility, Trump, the man who would go on to be the leader of the free world, raised this horror in a court deposition released just this week: “You can get killed with those things.”

Attack of the killer tomatoes.

I just keep repeating to myself…

“Peaceful waters. Standing by peaceful waters.”

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.

Stephen Hawking was right… the bronteroc always wins

President Orleans models the “Don’t Look Up” hat.

I think we can all agree that one of the finest moments of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” is the 1963 episode “To Serve Man.” A race of 9-foot-tall aliens, the Kanamits, arrive on Earth and immediately introduce its citizens to all sorts wonders: Machines that provide inexpensive power, stop war, end famine. While visiting the United Nations, one of the aliens inadvertently leaves behind a book. The title is, when translated from their native language, “To Serve Man.”

But this is “The Twlight Zone,” and so there’s a spectacular twist to the story. Humans are volunteering for the opportunity to visit the world of these benevolent aliens. SPOILER ALERT! As the main character, a U.S. government cryptographer, climbs the stairs to the alien spaceship for his own trip to the Kanamits’ planet, one of his co-workers frantically rushes though the crowd. She’s translated enough of the book to shout a warning to him: “‘To Serve Man’… It’s a cookbook!

“To Serve Man.”

Alas, she’s too late. The Kanamits will be having cryptographer for dinner.

That’s the way it always goes when we look up. Up to the stars. From H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” to Ed Woods’ “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” it’s always bad news for Earthlings. As the late physicist Stephen Hawking said, we need to keep our heads low: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

Hawking figured if grumpy space travelers in search of minerals to plunder didn’t get us, then we’d die by climate change, viruses, nuclear war or Artificial Intelligence run amuck.

Or Earth getting hit by a comet, causing an extinction-level catastrophe. Hawking was worried about that as well.

What a Gloomy Gus, that Hawking was.

With Hawking in mind, the big news from the cosmos this week is a 3,500-foot wide meteor is heading for Earth at about 47,344 miles per hour. Just to get an idea of what astronomers are talking about, the Empire State Building is 1,454 feet tall, including that big antenna on top made famous by King Kong. So 7482 (1994 PC1), as the astronomers have romantically named this new meteor, is about 2½ times bigger than some of our best architecture.

What a mess that meteor would make if it collided with our planet. Fortunately, when 7482 (1994 PC1) arrives on the afternoon of Jan. 18 – SPOILER ALERT! – it will miss us by a mere 1.2 million miles.

That’s if the astronomers are telling us the truth, of course.

In “Don’t Look Up,” Earth doesn’t get so lucky.

This is the Netflix film that everyone I hang around with is talking about. “Don’t Look Up” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, a nerdy Michigan State University astrophysicist professor. Working with one of his students, Kate Dibiasky, as played by Jennifer Lawrence, a comet is discovered heading straight for Earth. A certain cosmic collision is just six months away.

That’s time enough for satire. As “Don’t Look Up” unfolds, we watch science and reality corrupted by celebrity and populism. The first opportunity that Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky have to deliver their warning is on a morning television talk show. It doesn’t go well. The airhead hosts are more interested in the troubled marriage of a couple of pop stars than the demise of all life on the planet.

Ignoring the peril, the worst of us try to cash in on this cash cow from space. Politicians eagerly point to the jobs that will be created by mining its valuable comet. Dr. Mindy is hailed as “America’s Sexiest Scientist.”

One of the criticisms I read of “Don’t Look Up” is that President Janie Orlean, played by Meryl Streep and sporting a “Don’t Look Up” baseball cap, is too ridiculously shallow and self-absorbed to be leader of the free world. Really? Does anyone remember that guy in the MAGA cap? I’d say she nailed it.

Interestingly, as “Don’t Look Up” was being created, it was intended as satire excoriating world indifference to climate change. But now, it’s also a direct hit on today’s politics of division over COVID and vaccines. “Don’t Look Up” means pay no attention to the danger closing in on the planet. Our leaders are playing the politics of distraction as a frustrated Dr. Mindy wails, “What we’re really trying to say is get your head out of your ass!”

Don’t Look Up. Don’t believe what you see.

By the way, the nerdy-looking DiCaprio looks a lot like Dr. Peter Hotez. But DiCaprio is merely an actor. Hotez is the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. The guy on all of the cable news shows talking about COVID 19.

DiCaprio.

Hotez.

What would you do on the day the world will end? Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky choose fellowship with friends and relatives at a dinner party.

The meteor arrives.

SPOILER ALERT… And there, the world as we know it ends.

Yet faced with what appears to be certain death, President Orlean and her smarmy elites have escaped the planet on a spaceship. Locked away in cryochambers, after 22,740 years they emerge from the ship, naked and filled with wonder, to find themselves on a planet that looks like primordial Earth.

What happens next was foreshadowed earlier in the film, when President Orlean is told that an algorithm predicts, “You’re going to be eaten by a bronteroc. We don’t know what it means.”

FINAL SPOILER ALERT! Never argue with an algorithm. A bronteroc turns out to be an emu-like dinosaur creature on the new planet. Kinda cute. With foofy feathers (As a dinosaur enthusiast, I applaud this acknowledgement that paleontologists now believe that some dinosaurs carried a smattering of feathers). After greeting the newcomers with curiosity, the bronteroc suddenly attacks and eats President Orlean, as more of the creatures close in on her devious cohorts.

The good guys didn’t win. The bad guys didn’t win. A very satisfying ending.

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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