Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Stories from the edge of the world

I’ve been reading too much. The cracks in my crackpot beliefs are showing. I now assign the chance of life on other planets as merely a 50/50 possibility. I’m starting to think Bigfoot may not be real since, as best we know, one’s never been hit by a pickup truck on some lonely Oregon road. The existence of ghosts seems a mathematical impossibility, because it’s been estimated that 108 billion homo sapiens have lived on the Earth over the last 50,000 years, which would make the afterlife a pretty crowded party.

Is the Earth flat? My Friend Jon re-tweeted a story about an Italian couple that recently made an earnest effort to sail to the edge of the world, which they believed to be in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Sicily.

They didn’t quite make it.

Perhaps their failure could be blamed on their compass, an ancient navigational instrument designed around the principal that the Earth is round. If there is a magnetic north, where is the south pole on a flat Earth? What would a flat Earth look like? Your sailboat arrives at the edge and … then what? A beach? And the ocean, which falls away to…?

The more-relevant question actually is: Did people ever believe that the Earth is flat? Any thoughts that we might be living on a celestial pancake is fine for people who haven’t had any reason to think hard about the question. If you’re a professional football player, a clerk in a convenience store, Italians with access to a sailboat, or a blogger with a limited readership, being a proponent of a flat Earth isn’t putting anyone in danger. I do prefer, however, that airliner navigators and the people who design communications satellites understand that this thing is round.

When beliefs evolve into the Spanish Inquisition, that’s when we have a problem. Religion has been at war with science for centuries. The acceptance of a flat Earth was a theologically convenient argument for anyone who suggested that European Catholicism wasn’t at the center of the world; Asian and African people could be pushed to the fringe of existence. The Catholic church acknowledged no other celestial model than one that depicted our world at the center of the universe because… well, that’s where God would place us.

But generally speaking, and certainly scientifically speaking, the answer is no: It is a myth that people once universally believed that the Earth is flat. Copernicus so feared defying the church that he waited until he was dying to publish his concept of the Earth as just one solar system bauble orbiting the sun. You may have learned in junior high history class that the crews on Columbus’ three sailing ships as they crossed the Atlantic were on the edge of mutiny because they feared falling off the edge of the world. In fact, the sailors were getting cranky because they were hungry and running out of water after Columbus – who knew the Earth was round – had miscalculated how long the journey might be. It was only the unexpected appearance of the Caribbean islands that saved them.

Columbus’ experience shows that the round-Earthers were not always on the mark either. The math used to calculate the possible size of the planet would often conveniently eliminate the spaces that ultimately turned out to be home to other continents – North and South America – and the people who lived there. Columbus learned of this math error first hand.

Add in the mythologies of lost continents such as Atlantis and Lemuria, and quite a cartographical shoving match emerges. The various misconceptions of the Earth throughout history can’t be laid at the feet of the geographers of that day; they did the best they could with the information at hand, and while wrestling with the politics of the church.

But what’s our excuse?

Most ancient civilizations believed we live on a round planet. Logic, and science, told them so. Yet there is reporting now that people living in the 21st century are increasingly prone to believe that the Earth is flat. Eleven million Brazilians believe so. There’s a yearly Flat Earth International Conference that was organizing a cruise for 2020 that would take believers to the rim of the Earth, and the towering ice wall that holds the ocean in place. Apparently, the cruise didn’t happen. But YouTube has lots of videos supporting flat-Earth beliefs, the internet is a pipeline for crazy. Take my word for it, don’t go there, I wasted a couple of hours of my life on it.

Logic and science aside, crank theories sometimes find breathing room long after they’ve been disproven. Such as the 19th-century suggestion that the Earth is hollow, and a sun burns at its core. Edmond Halley – who correctly predicted the return of the comet that now bears his name – saw the Earth as three concentric circles, nestled one within the next, that turned independently of one another. Cartographers created maps and globes depicting what the landscape of a Hollow Earth might look like. In the 1800s, scientific expeditions to the Hollow Earth were proposed. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story about it. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote fantasy novels that took place at the Earth’s core, one of L. Frank Baum’s 13 “Oz” books has Dorothy on a journey to the planet’s interior.

Read about it in this book by David Standish: “Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface.”

True, belief in the Hollow Earth wasn’t widespread. Certainly not as widespread as the idea that a large aquatic creature lives in Loch Ness. This, despite the assertion by marine biologists that Loch Ness is devoid of the sizeable fish population needed to keep Nessie alive.

True story: Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the most evidence-driven character in English literature, Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies.

Why would alien races from another world visit us? With the internet provided virtually anything aliens would need to know of Earth, from nuclear secrets to recipes to our television shows, the only function of UFOs visiting our planet would be tourism.

Yet as limited as the evidence is for a flat Earth, a hollow Earth, the Loch Ness monster, UFOs and fairies, people believe in them. Sometimes smart people, like Conan Doyle.

We believe in fantasy, we believe in Disneyworld. Giant mice, yes. But often, our fantasies become a danger. We don’t want to do the work to contain COVID-19. We just want a magic vaccine to take care of the problem.

So many Americans insist on personal freedom, yet they want to be led. So they follow the evidence-free claims of QAnon (Hillary Clinton is part of a child sex-trafficking ring!) despite the FBI labeling QAnon as a domestic terrorist group. They follow actor Jenny McCarthy’s insistence that vaccines cause autism, despite the advice of medical professionals. They refuse to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 because it’s an affront to personal freedom, despite those same rebels having followed seatbelt laws for years to avoid being killed in a car wreck. They follow social media claims that 9/11 was an inside job. And jet contrails are actually “chemtrails,” a high-altitude conspiracy to poison Americans. Or maybe it’s a conspiracy to change the weather. No one’s ever sure what is the goal of these coverups and conspiracies. Deep State something, something…

Conspiracies that would need to rely on the silence of thousands of co-conspirators.

Studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is triggered by our brain’s need to latch onto structure. It’s an ancient reflex. Like Neanderthals recognizing that the shape in the darkness beyond the light of the fire that they’ve built in the mouth of their cave may be a bear crouching in the darkness. Information that could mean the difference between survival and being mauled to death.

Today, bears aren’t the problem. That threatening shape lurking in the darkness at the edge of the yard is a rhododendron. So human brains search for other problems to illuminate in this murky world. That’s an opening for the herd effect, where social acceptance, rather than independently confirmed fact, makes an idea seem real. And it’s an opening for confirmation bias, which is the search for evidence that confirms what you want to believe. And that leads us to our dependence on authority figures.

If that herd is your political party… with social acceptance set into motion by Rudy Giuliani… confirmed by an ultimate authority figure, Donald Trump…

And that’s how we arrive at 73 million people believing a presidential election is laden with fraud, despite no evidence.

That’s the hollow world in which we live. A hollow world, where nature abhors a vacuum, and fools rush in to fill it.

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The box of manure in our basement  

The song is a beautiful piece of 1960s pop. Melancholy, yet upbeat. Confronting an issue – loneliness – and offering hope:

And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you

Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to

Guide them along …

There is quite a distance between a cry for help and the statement made on Christmas Day by a strange loner who rigged his RV with explosives, drove to downtown Nashville and staged his own death to the soundtrack of Petula Clark singing “Downtown.” The fact that no one was killed does not ameliorate the darkness of the act. He knew better. The people around him who knew he was building bombs knew better.

So for now, we associate a violent act with a song that urges people to seek comfort among strangers. “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city, linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty.”

The arts is sometimes a strange bedfellow to inhumanity. Paul McCartney didn’t have mass murder in mind when he wrote “Helter Skelter,” with Charles Manson’s followers using the blood of one of their victims to paint the song title on a refrigerator door during their weekend murder spree in 1969. Misspelled as “Healter,” they weren’t scholars.

Mark Chapman and his favorite book, “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The man who murdered John Lennon had an obsession with the novel “The Catcher in the Rye.” Adolph Hitler’s deep admiration for the music of Richard Wagner is well known. Yet the works of McCartney, J.D. Salinger and Wagner have survived those associations. “Downtown” will live on as well.

Of course, these stories are never as simple as all that. Wagner couldn’t control his fan base after his death in 1883. But his raging anti-Semitism (today excused as the rantings typical of a 207-year-old man) remains his responsibility.

Everything created by musicians, painters, dancers, writers and architects is a reflection of the artist. Maybe not in image, but in message. Their art outlives the worst of the self portraits that it reflects. As much as I detest Michael Jackson now, I’m sure his music will survive with future listeners not giving much thought to his alleged pedophilia.

Although, in my mind, they should.

I don’t expect even-handedness in a fractured world. The girlfriend of the Nashville RV bomber reportedly told the police a year ago that he was making bombs. They shrugged and moved on. If that bomb maker had been a Black man, rather than white, it seems likely the cops would have been kicking in the door of his RV, shooting first and worrying about what we think a little too late.

This past year was a product of the bi-polar planet on which we live. One side of it works just fine. There are times when I feel like a hyena creeping out of the desert, to the edge of a campfire, where I watch all of these amazing humans doing incredible things. And I just feel damn lucky to be close to it. Squirreled away in my home through the pandemic, I’ve read some great books. This was unplanned, but more than a few have had something to do with trees. My Friend Michele gave me Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees,” the story of California redwoods; I learned that falling from a tree any more than 60 feet means you’re dead. Trees are to be found in nature writer Robert MacFarlane’s “Underland: A Deep Time Journey,” but its real soul is uncovered in the world beneath the roots; there is a cavern in China that is so large, it has its own weather system. And now I’m deep into Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Overstory,” in which trees are as much characters as humans. While it’s fiction, much of it is based on fact; as blight was wiping out chestnut trees across the country, an attempt was made to halt the spread of the disease by clearing trees from a 400-mile zone across Pennsylvania. The maneuver failed; the workers’ axes and saws helped carry the plague across the state.

I read that and thought about COVID-19.

Peter Gunn navigates his 1959 Plymouth Fury through another scene.

Television? It hasn’t been of much help. Amazon Prime created special “Holiday” categories of dozens and dozens of films to choose from. It’s astonishing how many really unwatchable Christmas movies have been given the green light over the last 15 years. All attempting to reveal to us The True Meaning of Christmas. Which is basically: Don’t Be An Asshole. None of these films meet the standard set by “A Christmas Story.” In that true classic, The Meaning of Christmas is simply: If the neighbor’s vagabond hounds seize your Christmas Day turkey from the table and viciously dismember it, there is a Chinese restaurant open somewhere.

In this time of quarantine, I have enjoyed an amusing dalliance with “Peter Gunn,” a private-eye series from the late 1950s and early ’60s starring an actor I’d never heard of. But Craig Stevens seems to have set the stage for Sean Connery’s James Bond. “Peter Gunn” is fedoras, jazz and blonde cocktail crooners, casual smoking, cars with big fins, fisticuffs and serious gunplay in warehouses stacked with labyrinthine arrangements of crates, good for chaotic chase scenes. All of this in less than a half hour for each episode. With an immediately recognizable theme by Henry Mancini.

Music, as always. As I’m typing this, I’m listening to Scott Regan’s “Open Tunings” show on WRUR-FM (88.5). His final song of the year is Nina Simone’s version of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” It’s elegant, drenched in melancholy and a wistful sense of something lost.

A lost year, perhaps.

A year in which we’ve tumbled backwards.

More than 25 million Americans have either lost their job or seen a significant drop in their income. More than 8 million Americans slid into poverty. That’s all contributing to one in four American households experiencing what those who study social structure call “food insecurity.” People are going hungry. In 21st-century America.

Perhaps they are… I’m searching for the right word here… unlucky? The Institute for Policy Studies published a report that demonstrated that many Americans are not going hungry at all. In fact, since March, when the pandemic started kicking in, the total net worth of the country’s 647 billionaires has grown by almost $960 billion.

A new Gallop poll out this week reveals Trump is the most-admired man in America. I’m thinking the rest of the Top 10 – Obama, Biden, Fauci, Pope Francis, Elon Musk, Bernie Sanders, Bill Gates, LeBron James and the Dalai Lama – split the vote among sane people.

The United States is responsible for so many advances in science, yet is populated by so many people who live in denial of clear fact. Fifty-one percent of Republicans still doubt that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. Forty percent of Americans are creationists.

Fifty percent of Republicans believe at least some portions of the QAnon mythology that a secret ring of Satan-worshiping pedophiles runs the U.S. government, and Trump is leading a secret fight against it. A storyline so ridiculous, any self-respecting screenwriter would lock the script in the bottom drawer of his or her desk.

Fact, and demonstrable history, is no match for populist politics. On Columbus Day, we celebrate a cruel slave trader. Town squares remain populated by statues that re-write the American south, leading up to the Civil War, as some kind of antebellum island of nobility.

We know better. At least, some of us know better.

As much as I’d like it to be true, the arts and science are not generally accepted as reflective of truth. We don’t look that deep into ourselves. The internet justification for fact-free beliefs is “owning the libs.” Downtown may be where, “The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” but the internet is not such a place. It is a room of darkness and separation, it nurtures troubles in the same way that a box of manure in the basement feeds a crop of mushrooms.

Acknowledging climate change or systemic racism goes nowhere in this environment. Seeing that 340,000 Americans are dead of COVID-19 should be a wake-up call, not something sprouting out of bullshit.

There is no evidence that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. None. And yet…

It all brings to mind the philosopher George Carlin: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

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Making way for strange, sweet, otherworldly creatures

Rudy Giuliani as Inspector Clouseau.

It is so sad for us that Peter Sellers has been dead for 40 years. It would be a short reach for the comedic actor to dip into his most-famous role, as the bumbling Chief Inspector Clouseau, to play Rudy Giuliani in a movie about the final days of the Trump presidency. Can’t you see it? Clouseau/Giuliani standing in front of a landscaping store, a dildo shop metaphorically next door, as he bravely proclaims Trump has won re-election. Yelling about conspiracies even as the television news crews pack up their equipment, Clouseau/Giuliani now rendered irrelevant, because at that same moment the major networks are starting to predict that Joe Biden will be our next president.

Inspector Clouseau as Rudy Giuliani.

Or, can’t you see the eyes of Clouseau/Giuliani bugging out as he howls incoherently about election fraud, while tears of black sludge run down his cheeks? Clouseau/Giuliani floating improbable, evidence-free plots of voting machines manufactured in Venezuela under the watchful eye of dictator Hugo Chávez (who has been dead for seven years) switching millions of votes from Trump to Biden.

Perhaps the narrator of our Clouseau/Giuliani film will be John Fetterman, the 6-foot, 8-inch, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. Tattooed and goateed, with a no-nonsense speaking style perfectly suited for closing the case on the sputtering Clouseau/Giuliani charge of voting irregularities in his state: “The only irregularity we had was the president’s campaign rolling up in a clown car in downtown Philadelphia, having an impromptu press conference, and saying ridiculous things and making up lies.”

Clown car. That’s the image that has perfectly captured the final downward spiral of Trump in these last few weeks, as he bounces around like an amusement park bumper-car ride, finalizing the dishonor of: Worst President Ever.

Oh, how harmless it all seemed, five years ago, on the day the acclaimed grifter and reality TV star rode down the gold escalator in Trump Tower to make the announcement that he was running for president. And since that day, that escalator has just kept on going down, down, down, down…

On the Sunday after it was evident that Biden had won the election, and speculation turned to how many Secret Service agents it would take to drag Trump from the White House, I did not turn on the television until late that evening. I’d had enough. Outside my window, the leaves on the trees lining the street had all turned a glorious gold. All day long, I listened to The Allman Brothers Band. “Eat a Peach.” And “Live at Fillmore East,” the greatest live album of all time. One of the Top 10 albums of all time, period.

As night fell, we Zoomed with friends, equally ecstatic over Biden’s victory. While we talked the television was on, but muted, showing us images of people dancing in the streets. Dancing! Truly moving images of celebration. People holding up hand-lettered signs reading “YOU’RE FIRED!” The gloom of Trump had been lifted, for a moment at least. There was no longer a need to respond to Trump, and his thrashing about like a mastodon trapped in a tar pit. No need to pay any mind to the snarling acid trip of Clouseau/Giuliani.

All of my friends are smart, but I feel bad that a few were taken in by Trump. It’s been a tough year if you’re inclined to make excuses for 250,000 Americans dead of COVID-19. Or record-high unemployment. Or seeing fellow Americans rallying in the streets against racism as their president orders them to be tear-gassed so as to clear the way for a photo-op of him holding a Bible upside down while standing outside of a church he doesn’t attend. Or hearing Trump snarl about how he sees cities ravaged by riots and fire – on his watch, by the way – even as he applauds the anarchy of militia guys wearing camo and waving guns in the halls of government buildings. It’s a tribute to the National Rifle Association that it can inspire 17-year-old kids with automatic rifles to shoot people in the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Even as the NRA leadership, including its president Wayne LaPierre, appears to have been busy using my friends’ NRA dues to buy powerboats and take vacations to exotic islands.

There has been so much to absorb in the midst of the Trump funeral knell. As the dust and spittle settled, I read an online story that insisted the new breakout sexy-nerd star of this year’s election coverage was Steve Kornacki. The MSNBC analyst whose uniform was khaki pants and the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to his elbows, waving his arms at a big electronic board that gave him every combination of vote totals and electoral counts imaginable. I guess we’re supposed to forget that in the weeks leading up to this election – and the 2016 election, for that matter – most of the pollsters and prognosticators had been really, really wrong.

But yes, I do find smart people to be sexy. Carl Sagan. Frida Kahlo. Dr. Anthony Fauci. Maria Popova, who writes one of my favorite web sites, Brainpickings. So I turned off Kornacki and read a Popova post entitled “250-year-old Natural History Illustrations of Some of Earth’s Strangest, Sweetest, and Most Otherworldly Creatures.” It opened with this observation:

If the legendary nanogenarian cellist Pablo Casals was right, as I trust he was, that working with love prolongs your life, and if Walt Whitman was right, as I know he was, that an intimacy with the natural world is the key to robust mental and physical health, then the English naturalist and pioneering ornithologist George Edwards (April 3, 1694–July 23, 1773) owed his longevity, which eclipsed the life expectancy of his time and place by decades, to the extraordinary creative vitality with which he reverenced nature in his work.

That’s one hell of a sentence. Popova’s point through her long essay – copiously illustrated with color prints of Edwards’ decades-long career of creating watercolor studies of monkeys, birds and anteaters – is that a long and rewarding life is to be had from comingling with nature.

I trust she is right. Spending too much time in the company of ugly creatures such as Trump, Giuliani, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsay Graham, will take years off your life.

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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