Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

“Alien 37: The Pandemic Summer,” now showing

“Alien,” and a vision of things to come from John Hurt.

In the midst of a summer of house renovations, and personal renovations that included recovering from a broken hand, a broken molar and blood-test results that prompted Doctor Jerry to say, “I can’t believe you’re walking around,” I decided a slow-down was in order.

Take it easy. Stop typing so much. The world can go on for a while without The Critical Mass.

“And no alcohol,” Dr. Jerry said.

Ouch.

Now the broken hand is somewhat healed. The new molar is at the Tooth Lab, getting built to my jaw’s specifications. My last blood test showed a significant drop in my cholesterol, blood sugar and vampire-attraction levels.

A glass of wine or two has been approved.

Thank you, Dr. Jerry.

Life, uninterrupted. There is no longer the need to constantly monitor the television news channels. A lying, corpulent, corrupt, poisonous, psychopathic presence has been pried loose from the White House. Adults are once again in charge. No matter how bad the exit from Afghanistan was, was it any worse than the last 20 years?

I feel like… typing again.

So here we go.

Inspiration comes to me like a torn pieces of paper swept up by the wind, swirling, darting, tumbling, until I snatch them from the air, and read the words:

Why do we even care which celebrities bathe? An investigation

That’s a headline from one of the web sites I check every morning. For real. I don’t even know where to start with this one. Is the dearth of celebrity bathing an issue? How do we measure the current levels of celebrity bathing? Which authorities are in charge of the investigation?

If this is the road journalism is taking, I must be out of touch with mainstream America. And physically, I have been. I’ve avoided crowds for 18 months. Until that Brandi Carlile concert earlier this summer (Although I actually went for opener Ricki Lee Jones). I’ve seen Carlile maybe a half a dozen times over the last decade, and have gone from sorta ambivalent to somewhat appreciative. But on this night, I was alarmed. Sitting in my third-row seat, I was surrounded by thousands of maskless Carlile fans bellowing along with every song. Spraying COVID-19 droplets into the summer night’s air.

I was thinking: Should I even be here?

Now I am more careful about the company I keep. For live music, it’s been just a handful of shows by local musicians; generally friends who have shown me their proof of vaccination papers. For rare appearances at restaurants, it’s been late-night reservations, past the time when normal people eat.

When venturing out into the pandemic, I am the guy you see wearing a mask even when pumping gas at the gas station. It won’t end soon. I fear the anti-vaxxers’ work won’t end until we run out of Republicans.

I prefer the safety of home, peering out the front windows as the FedEx and Amazon Prime trucks pull up in front of the neighbors’ houses. Everyone’s buying cool stuff they’ve seen in TV. Except us.

No, there’s this: One of this summer’s home-renovation projects was erecting a gazebo on the deck. The gazebo came from Wayfair, the company that until recently was airing a seemingly endless big-screen TV barrage of commercials featuring a happy couple whose lives have been improved dramatically by acquiring material goods. The jury is still out about dog bowls in brilliant colors inspired by Vincent van Gogh paintings. Dogs are generally colorblind. But the gazebo has improved my own life dramatically. It’s sturdy, with a brown-tinted plastic roof that keeps the sun off my head. When it rains, I feel like I’m living in a tin-roofed house from a Steinbeck novel.

The dog and I lounge on the plush deck furniture. At 13, she’s a well-practiced lounge act. She snoozes, I read The New Yorker. I recently renewed my subscription after it had lapsed for a few years. It too has improved my life dramatically. The George Saunders short story in the issue dated Aug. 30 (My birthday, thanks George!) is brilliant. Who else can write a tale questioning our commitment to justice by opening the story with a talking can opener?

We invite people over to spend time on the deck in groups of four, maybe five. Seems like a pandemic-manageable number. On one afternoon, My Friend Carlos cooked paella on the charcoal grill. It was marvelous, he said it was in the top three of all time that he’d ever made. Carlos is a paella authority, he’s from Spain.

My Friend Reo stopped by the deck one evening. The cicadas were filling the night air with that whirring mating call of theirs. I don’t respond, especially after Reo was inspired to describe how the “cicada killer” (Latin name: sphecius speciosus), a female wasp that uses its sting to paralyze a cicada, then carries it to its nest, rips the head off the cicada and deposits eggs in the body cavity. The hatching larvae feed off the carcass.

The inspiration for sci-fi stories. Perhaps most memorably the 1979 film classic “Alien,” when the creature – after a period of incubation inside its host – bursts out of John Hurt’s chest.

Dr. Jerry did not warn me of this possibility. A horror that spawned many sequels. “Alien 37: The Pandemic Summer,” now showing. Perhaps forever.

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The pearl of Keuka Lake

In keeping with my personal philosophy of always staying at least 18 years behind everyone else, about a week ago we watched the 2003 film “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Colin Firth is the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, Scarlett Johansson is the shy chambermaid who becomes the subject of one of his most-famous paintings. It’s a costume drama, so the people of Delft are wearing clumsy headgear, dark cloaks and drab, ankle-length dresses as they stroll through the muddy streets and inspect butcher stalls filled with decapitated pigs. The cinematography is excellent. Many scenes borrow the smoky colors, pure window light and random household contents found in Vermeer’s work. That’s not a lot of source material. A meticulous artist, he did only about three dozen paintings.

“Girl With a Pearl Earring” also enjoys superb supporting actor work from its dogs. Wandering casually through the streets, loping through courtyards of chickens. Unlike the humans in the film, who go about their arcane business with the quaint social interactions we’ve learned from movies to expect of that era, the dogs look and act like 21st-century dogs. Nothing has changed about dogs since they worked their way into the fabric of human society, a relationship that anthropologists believe goes back more than 15,000 years.

Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Dogs have always lived simple, uncomplicated lives. They are creatures of routine. We should follow their example. And in doing so this week, I realize I have drifted from the routines that once made me…

Well, dog-like happy.

(Writer’s Disclaimer: Today’s blog is not about to evolve into one of those “A Year in Provence” style essays about my visit to the oh-so-charming countryside, smugly dispensing my sophisticated superiority, while learning valuable lessons myself from the bumbling yet lovable locals.)

Let’s set the scene. Five of us are here for a vacation week, including the dog, Abilene. The road creeping along this portion of the west bank of Keuka Lake is an eternally temporary arrangement of potholes, band-aid filler gravel and dead twigs and squirrels crushed beneath the wheels of passing pick-up trucks. The house we’ve rented is a rambling decor of knotty pine walls, board games stashed on a shelf, mismatched wine glasses, strategically placed box fans, the ugliest rug I’ve ever seen and a perfect deck overlooking the lake.

These Finger Lakes are long, skinny bodies of water, tree-shrouded grooves in the terrain created by the retreat of glaciers during the last Ice Age. It’s 17 rickety wood steps from the road down to the house perched precariously – in my non-architectural judgment – on the edge of a steep hillside. And then another 42 steps leading to the lake.

The lake is an impossible lens of light. The Sunday morning after our arrival, the sun is reflecting so brightly off the water that it leaves a temporary orange scar on my retinas. From our deck on the west bank, we can easily see the houses on the east bank. The real-estate developers have done their work well. Those houses are packed in, side by side. Many have personal docks for their power boats, their motors snarling like hornets. The kids hot-rod around on jet skis, owned or paid for by their rich parents. This lakeside smells like one long stretch of entitlement.

The following morning is a completely different landscape. Gray and calm. Human activity is limited. Sitting on the deck in our rural outlier of Keuka Lake feels like we’re living in the trees. Their green branches nicely frame our view of the lake. This section of shoreline is not at all like what I’ve been seeing on the other, overdeveloped east side. What neighbors exist among us are hidden from view by a thick growth of trees and brush. A slight breeze carries cottonwood seeds from above, like tiny paratroopers. Small, dark caterpillars descend from the trees on invisible threads. Ducks drift wherever the rippled water takes them. Turtles sit atop posts from a long-decayed wharf that barely breaks the surface of the water. On this relatively untamed shore, there could be dangerous wildlife as well. Perhaps a future encounter with a bear that’s exhibiting aggressive territorial behavior over the wheeled garbage tote stationed at the side of the road.

He can have it.

When time slows, anything passes as entertainment. At mid-week, a street sweeper went up and down the road a few times. I thought that was a courteous, if futile, gesture on the part of the local officials. But it was merely preparation for the next day, as a crew of workers with a road grader, dump trucks filled with asphalt and a steamroller, began loudly creeping along the road, filling in the low spots. There seemed to be twice as many workers in yellow hardhats than was needed, but I’ll give them credit for doing a lot of pointing, picking up rakes as if something interesting was about to happen, and in general trying to find something to do.

As morning slips into afternoon, we abandon the hypnotic sound of powerboat-generated waves crashing into the stony shore and turn to the satellites for music. Sirius radio is tuned to Mojo Nixon’s “Outlaw Country” show, playing quietly amid the hushed whisper of breeze in the tree branches. Until Nixon interrupts the calm to bellow something obscene about a song he’s just played.

Wednesday morning, the intense sunlight creates thousands of short daggers of light, dancing vertically across the water. The silver reflections closest to me appear to be the same size as the ones furthest from me, on the far side of the lake, as if they’re on a one-dimensional plane. I point this out to My Friend Scott. He agrees, this is a very odd phenomena of refraction.

Or perhaps it happens all of the time out here.

Now we have now entered a world where my 13-year-old, 95-pound Weimaraner lies on the deck, dozing beneath the freckled sunbeams penetrating the tree branches while the internet explains the world to us. Winner of Best Supporting Dog on a June Afternoon. My Friend Sue is examining a virtual map of the Brood X cicada invasion as it spreads across the United States. We didn’t have virtual maps the last time the cicadas emerged from hibernation en mass, 17 years ago. From the internet vantage point, we appear to be doomed.

All are signs that gently suggest: Slow down.

So we do.

Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Margaret and Sue are in the house, laughing, mixing cocktails. The wineries only add to the beauty of the region. Our Friend Dan is a singer songwriter, but what matters this week is he is the chef at The Park Inn, in nearby Hammondsport. He’s created a menu that takes everything three steps beyond the norm. Grilled asparagus with parmesan custard and roasted garlic vinaigrette. Fried oysters with creamed spinach, house-smoked bacon, parmesan cheese and Tabasco aioli. The restaurant looks out onto the town square, where the local government has wisely decided that the best way to re-invent tourism lost to the coronavirus pandemic is to close the street and allow businesses such as The Park Inn to set up a huge, cozy tent. It works, time stops for us. We stay well past 10 o’clock that night.

With cosmetology slowed to a virtually imperceptible crawl, there is room for small, magical things to happen. Opportunities for cosmic occurrences emerge. Sue has been working on one of the Sunday New York Times Magazine word puzzles. She is stumped by the name of a Marty Robbins song. Two words, starts with the letter E. All I can think of “Streets of Laredo.”

My geography is off. A few hours later, the deckside satellite radio is playing a Marty Robbins song. “El Paso.”

This is the kind of synchronicity that happens in a world cleared of clutter and distractions. More will reveal themselves. Our Friends Kit and Alexis show up for the last two days of our week on Keuka Lake. We haven’t seen them since the pandemic started. She’s brought a book with her. A 1999 historical novel, set in 17th-century Delft, written by Tracy Chevalier. It is, “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

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Reality as airtight as a landfill

Meat beer. Giant black-and-white spiders. Women brawling with each other, right in front of me, tearing their cocktail dresses. A global pandemic, killing millions.

We should know which of these are real, and which are fantasy.

What a big movie spider looks like.

The well-adjusted side of the world does. It is laughing hysterically at former Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow. Now a Fox News commentator, on Friday Kudlow mocked the Green New Deal: that’s a set of forward-thinking ideas, presented by the smart new women of Congress, understanding how economics and ecology work together. But as Kudlow interprets it, the Green New Deal is the road leading us all too soon to “plant-based beer.”

I check the label of the beer in my hand. Hops. Various grains. Yeast. Plant stuff. My beer appears to be largely vegetarian. No cattle died in the making of this product. Unless they wandered from the pasture and got hit by a beer truck.

Anyone who went to college, and experienced almost any kind of social life, would know these beer facts. In fact, Kudlow attended the University of Rochester, just a few miles from where I’m sitting as I type these words. And I have it on good authority that University of Rochester students have been drinking beer for around 175 years.

Worse than his beer gaff, it’s been more than a year since Kudlow proclaimed that the Trump administration’s containment of COVID-19 was “pretty close to airtight.” Airtight as a landfill, it turns out, with the U.S. death toll now passing 570,000.

The allure of your airplane crashing in the ocean, leaving you trapped on an island with eight exotic dancers.

Speaking of trash, this week Georgia Republican Congressman Jody Hice argued against statehood for Washington, D.C., because its population is too Black. Or because it doesn’t have a landfill, that’s what he actually said.

But we know what he meant.

Here’s the obvious question that emerges: How is it that such say-anything buffoons can occupy important positions in government, and the media? Who left the barn door open?

It’s not the job of average citizens to run a quality check on these people. We’re busy, we can’t help but let our guard down. When I’ve had a tough day, I’m just like the next guy. I want to flop down on the couch, turn on the television, and watch the latest advertisements about medical supplements for happy, active, intrusive seniors.

A Quiznos creature.

Then maybe on to “The Horrors of Spider Island,” using all of the stock footage technology available in 1960. “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” couldn’t ignore this fat target. An airliner whose passengers include eight exotic women dancers and their smarmy male manager takes off with two engines, and by the time it’s over the Pacific it has four engines. Until it catches fire and plunges nose-first into the ocean. Cut to a guy talking on the phone, who’s assuring someone on the other end of the line that, yes, the last word from the plane’s crew was that it had caught fire. And now they’ve lost contact. But there’s no need to worry. Because, it’s only been four days…

The screenwriter’s decision to limit the survivors to the eight dancers and their manager – who have somehow found a rubber raft amid the chaos of a burning airplane nose-diving into the ocean – is pretty damn smart. Because now we can get to the meat of the story: Eight women in spike heels, tearing at each others’ cocktail dresses, and their once-smarmy, now-resourceful manager, battling the horrors of giant spiders on an island. Monsters with all of the structural integrity of one of those ragged creatures from the Quiznos sub TV commercials a few years ago.

As the women of “The Horrors of Spider Island” demonstrate, a society under stress can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. Less than a week ago, I posted an obvious observation on social media:

More horror.

Ted Nugent said Covid-19 was a hoax. Now he says he had it, and thought he was dying. Just a reminder that, of the 4,000 or so interviews I’ve done over the years, he was the biggest idiot.

That’s a true story: I mean, that I think Ted Nugent is an idiot. For those of you who rate world events by the numbers they draw on social media, that Facebook post has just eclipsed the 100 mark for comments, with about 350 likes and 30 shares. I call that a success for any minor-league blogger.

This pandemic is working for me. A mix of fantasy and reality.

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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