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Author: Jeff Spevak Page 1 of 157

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.

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Facts, reality and what our own eyes tell us, matter in this space

Since its inception, the goal here at The Critical Mass has been to post at least one blog a week.

But it’s been weeks now. And silence…

What happened?

Is it writer’s block?

No.

Nor is it PTSE. Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience, that’s what the psychologists are calling it. An epidemic of “collective exhaustion.” Weariness that is the result of living and working through a year of uncertainty. Like so many Americans, I am exhausted by the past year. Here we are, it’s April, and last week the neighbors finally dragged their Christmas tree out to the curb.

When is this coronavirus pandemic going to end? When will things get “back to normal?”

There will be no “back to normal.” More than a half a million Americans are dead from COVID-19. What kind of unreal thinking allows us to fool ourselves into believing that society can simply shrug off so much human tragedy and get “back to normal?”

How do we recover what we’ve lost? Not just the lives. But all of the social constructions that were built, or have evolved, over the years? How long will it be before we see the re-emergence of our favorite restaurants and music venues? Or small businesses that were forced to shut their doors? How long before we’ll feel safe about utilizing services such as public transportation? How long before we are comfortable with getting on an airplane, breathing the re-circulated air of strangers? When will those of us who have been working from home feel safe to be among co-workers again? How do we reward front-line workers such as doctors and nurses, or the people who stock grocery-store shelves, for showing up for work every day? How long will it be before it’s safe to take part in vast communal events such as festivals or the opening of an exciting new museum exhibit? And how long will it be before all of the jobs that have been lost will return?

How will we react when a resurgence of COVID-19, or one of the variants now lurking on the edge of news stories, blossoms into yet another threat to our lives?

My losses over the past year of pandemic have not been personal. Parents of friends have passed away of COVID-19, and I miss John Prine. While some friends have contracted it, they have recovered, none have died. I still have a job. Forced to work from home, I’ve made use of the time as best I could. Recognizing the shortcomings of our house, we’ve invested heavily in home improvements: New vinyl siding, updated kitchen. I’ve been alphabetizing CDs and albums. Dusting out-of-reach places. Reading books I’ve been meaning to read for years.

I’ve been exploring movies. How did I miss this one: A low budget but effective comedy called “Spivak,” about a failed writer. That one hit too close to home.

I am wary of television. TV commercials are a place where, despite what specialists in bird anatomy tell us, a boneless chicken wing is a real thing.

Reality check: chicken wings do not function without bones. Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” has definitively illustrated that point.

Yet I’ve watched more television than I believe I ever have. While wondering whatever happened to Dennis Miller, it occurred to me that today’s successful comics – those working standup and as late-night talk hosts – offer only a very progressive point of view. Why is that? The answer seems obvious. Conservative politics and social issues generate a fresh and plentiful supply of new chum. And like sharks, comedians are feeding on it.

Yet something more dangerous is afoot. Unreal thinking is found not only in television commercials, and in the inability of the richest country in the world to deal with COVID-19, but among the people most responsible for our well being.

Case in point: While President Joe Biden was creating legislation that will have a huge and positive impact on Americans, Congressional Republicans were complaining that gender-neutral gremlins are castrating Mr. Potato Head. He’ll no longer be a “Mr.” Kids can now decide the gender of their Potato Head. Free to create same-sex Potato family units. At the same time, Republicans were bringing before Congress complaints that Dr. Seuss is a victim of “cancel culture” because six of his books containing racist imagery will no longer be published.

Reality: That’s not “cancel culture” at work, that’s the publisher’s decision. The “canceled” books are not strong sellers, and the Seuss empire no longer wants to be associated with the casual racism of the 1960s. Classics such as “Green Eggs and Ham” are safe, of course. If you want to share Asian stereotypes with your children, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” will be selling for insane money on eBay.

Unreality’s next-door neighbor is hypocrisy. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and the Republican party welcome megabuck corporate donations. It’s about influence, those corporations want something for their money. Tax breaks, the loosening of environmental laws. But now citizens have begun taking note of Republican efforts to suppress the voting rights of likely non-Republicans. Pressure is being put on Georgia-based corporations such as Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines to get involved, and throw their economic weight behind the movement to protect voting rights. Major League Baseball responded by pulling the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. And McConnell squealed. Now that political free speech is running in the other direction, he’s warning these suddenly progressive-acting corporations to stay out of politics.

And finally, blindness sets in. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson saw the same domestic terrorists who attacked the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 that the rest of us witnessed. “I knew these were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law,” he said. Trump has spoken of Capitol police officers kissing and hugging those domestic terrorists, and holding the doors for them as they rampaged through the building.

Patriots do not set out pipe bombs, mix Molotov cocktails, and carry spears, tasers and bear spray to a riot that leaves five people dead and more than 140 injured, including police officers, and more than 300 rioters charged with federal offenses.

Polls tell us a majority of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump. Despite the lack of any evidence that this happened.

I guess what’s slowed The Critical Mass these days. Facts, reality and what our own eyes tell us, matter in this space.

I shall now resume writing about things that we really have to take a hard look at. Like Bigfoot.

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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