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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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Rocking out with Black Sabbath Bernie, and Erskine Caldwell’s bag of turnips

The country appears to have united behind the Bernie Sanders meme. Bernie sitting in a folding chair, in his dazzling mittens, huddled against the cold, waiting for the start of the Biden inauguration.

Perhaps the pearl-clutching narrative of an American divide is overblown. In its first few days, we’ve watched the Biden presidency take on COVID-19, send relief to Americans whose lives have been upended by the loss of jobs, sign executive orders to protect the environment and reverse climate change, open pathways to racial inequality and transgender rights. Build a humane immigration policy. And, perhaps most importantly, level with the American people about the challenges we face, both in what he says and through a press secretary who seems to not be lying.

No one should have a problem with any of that. Biden’s merely building on four years of Trump accomplishments that include…

Oh, dear…

…a virus that has killed nearly a half-million Americans, cities on fire, white nationalists among  the “very fine people on both sides,” tear-gassing those who dare assert that Black Lives Matter, conspiring to overturn election results, embracing murderous dictators, urging crowds at political rallies to beat up protestors, ignoring science, responding to a hurricane wiping out much of Puerto Rico by tossing paper towels to people who had lost their homes, referring to the porn star that he had an affair with as “horseface,” holding the country hostage through the longest government shutdown in history, hiding his tax returns, mocking the disabled, ignoring domestic terrorists bringing their automatic rifles to state capitol buildings and threatening to kidnap and perhaps kill the governor of Michigan, urging a mob to ransack the United States capitol and hang the vice president. And, at our southern border, turning back people fleeing poverty and unstable governments, and sending them back to Guatemala. And keeping their kids locked in cages.

And lying repeatedly about all of this.

And on and on and on. It will only get worse as we learn more of what the most corrupt presidential administration in American history has been up to over the last four years. Thanks for trying to lighten things up a little, Bernie. But seeing you on the cover of a Black Sabbath album sets the right tone.

As honest, responsible adults, people who care about others, and who are still the majority here, what’s the secret to dealing with an America that has become one of those “shithole countries,” as Trump once so delicately characterized African nations?

Crazy. Prove me wrong, but it’s a Republican thing. Most recently, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose many batshit beliefs include her tweet in 2018 that it was Jewish lasers from space that ignited the worst California wildfires in memory.

Bernie! She’s talking Jewish lasers!

Crazy. Again, prove me wrong, but it’s mostly Republicans who adhere to the QAnon conspiracy that Hillary Clinton leads a cult of baby-eating pedophiles.

No sane person can survive in such an environment. There are times when I have to come up for air. Make it a practice to tune out the news for a while. Sometimes for a day or two, sometimes an entire week. I’m just now emerging from such a period.

I’m not alone in this practice of self preservation. Here’s something I read in cnn.com:

During a crisis and isolation, many take an inventory of their lives and dare to be themselves, and engage in weird, creative, and non-conforming patterns,” said Judith Zackson, a clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut, via email.

Some of her clients are more outspoken than they were pre-pandemic, Zackson said. They have experienced changes in personal style, weird sleeping patterns and hobbies, and even sillier humor.

Of course, she also hears from people annoyed by their partners’ stranger tendencies, which include apocalyptically hoarding food and supplies, and hobbies like collecting stones or walking their cat.

Collecting stones, she says.

I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid, when my Uncle Joe gave me what’s called “A Golden Guide.” Profusely illustrated pocket books for kids, about things like fossils, the stars and zoology. This one was called “Rocks and Minerals” – Golden Guides get right to the point. They tell a kid how to identify a meteorite, although I never got that lucky. Most of my time was spent on pages 110 through 113. The igneous rocks. Granite. And pages 133 through 139. The metamorphic rocks. Gneiss and schist.

I still have the book. And I have never stopped picking up rocks and stones. It’s those years of walking my dogs. Following them on paths through the woods. Turning Point Park near my house is the usual place. Abbie will be trotting about 10 or 15 yards ahead of me when I spot an intriguing rock. She goes right on by it, intent on checking out something dead behind that tree. But I pick up the rock. There’s a lot of marble in Turning Point Park.

This weekend I was re-organizing some of the book shelves when I can across that old Golden Guide to rocks and minerals. And there, among those dusty books, rocks. Lots of them, tucked away behind Hemingway and Bukowski. Even a fossil of some kind of segmented marine creature that I found in the gravel parking lot at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center.

So I sorted out all of those rocks, representing years of wandering with the dogs. And rocks I purchased as well. Seems crazy, buying rocks. But that’s how I got my trilobite, about the size of a pet mouse. And a couple of red garnets that came from a vein deep in Idaho. The guy who sold them to me said they’re half as old as the planet itself.

About a dozen rusty railroad tie-dating spikes were in the book case as well. Spikes I pulled from the ties on the tracks that pass through Turning Point. The spikes have the date stamped on the head, so railway workers know how long that particular tie has been in place.

Well, I guess they would know, if those dating spikes weren’t sitting on my book shelf.

Taking inventory, Zackson said, dare to be myself. The books. I started sorting through them as well. There are a lot of them, downstairs and upstairs. I guess if I can lay any claim to being a Renaissance Man, it’s in my reading material. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, friends have been giving me books. Like they’re afraid I’ll get bored. I have a half-dozen going at the moment. I read whichever one is closest at hand. My Friend Sue gave me the Richard Ford novel “Independence Day.” Ford’s like me, a former sportswriter, so I guess there’s always hope a guy can move on to something serious. And there’s “The Wild Trees,” gifted by My Friend Michele, A fabulous narrative on the biology of California redwoods. I’ve learned things such as, when climbing a tree, any fall of more than 60 feet is not survivable.

And how do you feel about omelets? From Robert MacFarlane’s “Underland,” which I finished a few weeks ago, I learned that in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest there is a fungus, mostly just below the surface of the planet, that is 3.7 miles in diameter. And it’s not an array of mushrooms. it’s one single organism. One. Humongous. Fungus.

Erskine Caldwell.

I’d be done with the job of organizing that shelf if I wasn’t uncovering miracles that I didn’t even know I had. On Saturday I found a copy of “Three By Caldwell.” Three novels by Erskine Caldwell, all in one book. I must have bought it at a used book store, because it has $4.50 written on the flyleaf. I started reading the first book in the collection, “Tobacco Road.” And couldn’t put it down. More than 100 pages in, and the only thing these Depression-beaten, broken, hopeless Georgians had gotten around to doing was fight over a bag of turnips.

So that’s one thing that’s come out of this quarantine, and my need to duck out of reality for a few days. Who knew a man could write 100 pages about a bag of turnips? But damn if Erskine Caldwell didn’t do it, and do it well.

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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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