Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Category: Books Page 3 of 25

Ben Franklin in Florida

OK, I’m back. It’s true that you can access social media on Florida’s Gulf Coast. But there are enough distractions to keep Twitter and Facebook – and the world in general – at arm’s length.

Distractions drifted in through an open, second-floor window in My Friends Tim and Carole’s condo in Dunedin one morning. I saw unfamiliar green vegetation. I heard unfamiliar bird songs. Even the hydraulics and the slamming of garbage bins being upended into trucks creeping along the streets was oddly exotic, although we have such machinery in Western New York.

After a half hour of this, time I would never have allowed myself in Rochester, I picked up my book and wandered downstairs. Unexpectedly, I was the first one to do so. I went outside and sat on the patio to read. In the sun, which is 93 million miles from Earth whether you’re in Rochester or Clearwater Beach, yet its influence on each city is dramatically different.

I heard the lazy drone of a single-engine airplane overhead. Inside, Tim was up, and had turned on the TV. Most network television is a monochromatic block of desensitizing opiates. And ESPN’s SportsCenter, in particular, is death’s waiting room for middle-aged white guys. Only the local news seems to reflect regional diversity. These words across the bottom of the screen are typical of news stories of interest to Floridians:

TERMITE INSPECTOR SAVES MAN FROM DROWNING

I went back inside. A newspaper was lying on the kitchen table. I couldn’t help myself. The front-page headline read:

HUGE BUDGET, BIG DEFICIT

Below it, the drop head explained:

President Trump’s Record $4.7 Trillion Plan Envisions Robust Growth, Domestic Cuts

Torrential spending driven by baseless estimates of growth, but in case of failure offset by cutting important social programs, because rich folks are off limits.

That afternoon, we drove on down to Sarasota, where Our Friends Ellie and Kevin have a winter home. Sarasota, a charming city. We passed threatening billboards:

JESUS SAVES! BUT MAYBE NOT YOU!

And next to it, another billboard:

AVAILABLE

Words capturing my feelings about religion. Threats. Everything’s for sale. And judging by other billboards around seemingly content cities like Sarasota, Florida has a lot of personal injury attorneys looking for work.

Personal injury. Is there such a thing as “impersonal injury?”

We moved on to Clearwater Beach, where the AAA TourBook promised, “bold street performers posing for photos with gaggles of giggling teenyboppers….”

Giggling teenyboppers? Who wrote that line? Charley Weaver?

It was spring break, and Clearwater Beach was prepared. A few years ago, it banned alcohol from the beach. How does the city get away with that? Alcohol isn’t illegal. Dogs, also banned, aren’t illegal. It’s their bi-products that the city is guarding against: College kids vomiting on your beach towel, dogs pooping on the sand. Typical government over-reach.

Nothing is said of jet skis, rich kids’ toys whose buzzing motors are the antithesis of nature. Noisy, unnatural. Nor is there any attempt to curb the encroachment of restaurants whose appearance generally suggests they were slammed together from driftwood, all bearing names seemingly ending in possessive “y’s.” Frenchy’s, Crabby’s, Salty’s, Rusty’s, Guppy’s…

And what the hell is an “interactive buffet?”

Lounging by the hotel pool, I picked up my book again, one I had borrowed from My Friend Scott. It was Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin that rescued me from the mediocrity of traffic jams clogging all roads leading to Walt Disney World. A fat biography, I read Benjamin Franklin in its entirety during the trip. Its wisdom insulated me from the words of that sandcracker wiseass, Jimmy Buffett, that seemed to be booming out of every open doorway at every restaurant and bar up and down the Florida coast.

Franklin was a brilliant journalist, inventor, scientist, businessman, diplomat and politician. He was a man who understood how to win friends and allies though great doses of self-deprecation. A pragmatic philosopher who in his later years would lie naked on his bed for an hour each day for his “air bath,” a precursor of today’s Zen-like pursuits of trendy self improvement.

Not quite a genius, I think. There were some issues, such as slavery, on which Franklin seemed to take the convenient road. A sometimes slave owner himself, in the later stages of his life Franklin came around to the idea that owning another human being was wrong. But at least he got there, many of the Legendary Founding Fathers never did. Perhaps his late arrival is because he believed that our opinions were not our own, as they reflected so many outside influences. Franklin’s evolution on human issues and tinkering with science was often driven by pragmatism. He was a man who could look at something and see its next purposeful level. Franklin owned a pair of eyeglasses for helping him to see in the distance, and another pair for reading. He cut them in half and put the separate pieces together, thus inventing bifocals.

Franklin didn’t discover electricity. The phenomena was known, but merely used for shocking parlor games. Franklin himself had used electricity to fry a turkey. Then came his famous experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm. The inspiration that made him, for his time, the most-famous person on the planet. He demonstrated to the world how to properly use electricity, collect it through lightning rods, store it in batteries.

Franklin despised the idea of hereditary entitlement and excess wealth, and shunned the clothing and powdered wigs of aristocracy. One of his contemporaries, in describing Franklin circulating among the Jeffersons, Madisons and Adamses of the moment, said Franklin appeared to be nothing more than “a big farmer.”

Franklin understood words. Thomas Jefferson had written this line in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin, assigned to proofread the document, changed the line to, “We hold these truths to be self evident.” That it is not some sacred right granted by religion, but a biological truth, that all men – and perhaps some day women, Franklin loved women – are created equal.

Franklin was a writer, as Isaacson says, who “was graced – and afflicted – with the trait so common to journalists, especially ones who have read Swift and Addison once too often, of wanting to participate in the world while also remaining a detached observer. As a journalist, he could step out of a scene, even one that passionately engaged him, and comment on it, or himself, with a droll irony.”

I sense Isaacson is levelling a slight criticism at Franklin here. A common criticism often voiced against journalists, that it is a professional affliction for them to reveal their opinions or reactions to the world. That it is unprofessional to take a side against false equivalencies.

In this age of social media deception, religion as a threat, low expectations for breaded seafood, and the daily implosion of fact under Trump, what would be the error in once more calling on the wisdom of Jonathan Swift’s satire and Joseph Addison’s essays warning of government tyranny levelled against its own people? Or in meeting the absurdity of these times by adopting Franklin’s pragmatic vision, his uncanny ability to see a use for electricity beyond frying a turkey? Faith and belief are often blind and deceptive comforts. Without truth and science, we’d all be left in the dark.

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Mondays with Ernie

 

Long rumored, now inevitable. Lyons Press will publish 22 Minutes, my book on the life of Ernie Coleman.

Hardcover, $26.95, 224 pages, weighs 1.7 pounds, official publication date May 1, 2019. You can pre-order it now from amazon.com. No salesman will visit your home.

A local sailing legend on Lake Ontario, Ernie’s long life was shadowed by a terrible tragedy. He’d survived the sinking of the cruiser Vincennes during World War II’s Battle of Savo Island, the worst open-sea defeat ever suffered by the United States Navy. Four big ships and more than 1,000 sailors were lost that night, including more than 300 on Vincennes. All in a 22-minute battle, as referenced in the book’s title.

Here’s how the book came about. I was hired by one of Ernie’s daughters to write the story of his life. He was 93 years old when I met him, living in Summerville with a view of Lake Ontario from his house. Ernie was a carpenter who built a family through four marriages, adoption and stepchildren. His was a story of courage, tragedy, comedy, curiosity, brawls, an affair that ended his first marriage, his adopted daughter’s descent into drug abuse, and a relentless desire to live life to its fullest. And building boats, and sailing. We self-published the book in 2012 as Chasing the Wind. It sold more than 2,000 copies. Pretty good for a self-published book.

But agents were suggesting that I should re-write Chasing the Wind, and include my relationship with Ernie. Kind of a Tuesdays With Morrie thing. And so I did, weaving into the story of how the two of us put together Chasing the Wind over a series of Monday-morning meetings. And how I had to tell the story of what happened to Ernie on the night Vincennes was sunk, when he wouldn’t tell it himself because of his recurring nightmares. And how, after it was published, I took Ernie to book clubs and public readings, until a few months before his death at age 95.

So Chasing the Wind became the book within the book. The publishers insisted the name be changed to avoid confusion; while the two versions share some material, 22 Minutes is a much fuller, more rewarding story. I came up with the new name one morning while walking my dog, thinking of my friend Gary Craig’s book about the Rochester Brinks robbery, Seven Million. It’s all in the numbers. That’s how creativity works sometimes. Steal.

The cover of Chasing the Wind was a photo of Ernie sailing his boat, Desire. For 22 Minutes, Lyons Press went with a photo of Vincennes, and an inset of Ernie as a 24-year-old Navy man. I wasn’t excited about it, Ernie was about much more than that ship. But the Lyons Press marketing people figured it would get your attention.

And we worked hard on the subtitle, because that’s what the search engines are tuned to. World War II, Savo Island, Vincennes… Ernie had a deep life, so he gets two subtitles. That cover you’re looking at now hasn’t been adjusted for the final titles: “The USS Vincennes and the Tragedy of Savo Island” and “A Lifetime Survival Story.” Still too much of a focus on that one moment of Ernie’s life. But, hey, we’re trying to sell a book here.

I was talking to some friends about it, and we started casting the movie version. I’m looking for a Spencer Tracy type to play Ernie. I wanted Randy Quaid to play me, but he’s hard to find these days. One of my friends suggested Jeff Daniels, and I’m cool with that. Anyone got his number?

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Anthony Bourdain ate a warthog anus like he meant it

It was 2009, and America had dodged a bullet. At least for the moment. Barack Obama was safely in office, having defeated John McCain. But we hadn’t heard the last from his vice-presidential hopeful, Sarah Palin. A few hundred people formed a long line at the Henrietta Borders book store, eager to get her autograph on her book, Going Rogue.

On the other side of the city that night, more than a thousand people were in the Auditorium Theater listening to Anthony Bourdain talk about food, dish on his fellow celebrity chefs and dispense wisdom from his world travels. He was erudite, and marvelous.

All of the local media attention was on Palin. Bourdain, who drew a much-larger crowd, one that actually paid to be at his event, drew hardly a mention.

Perhaps people are just smarter than the media.

The news is always bad these days. But the news of Bourdain’s suicide, at age 61, is particularly heavy for this beautiful Friday morning. I didn’t know the guy. And I don’t use the word “fan” often. But I was a fan. I was a fan from the moment I read “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” a 1999 story he wrote for The New Yorker about his career working in restaurants: All of the drugs, sex and questionable food practices that almost made you want to work in food services. I read the book that came out of it, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. I watched his television show A Cook’s World, and the shows that followed, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Through it all, Bourdain evolved from talking chef to television travel companion. What attracted me to him was his immense curiosity. He wasn’t like one of those overly garrulous Food Network hosts who would eat a warthog anus for a cheap laugh; Bourdain would eat a warthog anus out of respect for the Namibian culture that he was experiencing. Bourdain liked to drink and laugh, and he knew how to tell a story. That night at the Auditorium Theatre, he mocked television chefs such as Guy Fieri, who simply drops in on restaurants to rave about overblown cheeseburgers.

Bourdain walked away from the kitchen to experience the world. He was compassionate, immersing himself in important issues. Immigration was one. I remember one Bourdain show where he pointed out that, if it weren’t for immigrants, the New York City restaurant industry would have to shut down.

There’s a weekly column in The New York Times book review section, “By the Book,” a Q&A for authors. One question that’s always asked is: If you were the host of a dinner party and could invite anyone, living or dead, who would it be? That often prompts me to ask the same question of myself. The list shifts quite a bit. Musicians such as Tom Waits or Lucinda Williams. Or historical figures, Ben Franklin. Thinkers, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan. Gadflies, Tom Snyder, the host of the old Tomorrow show. Writers, William Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Parker or James Baldwin. Sometimes I think of the excellent essayist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who might even have an interesting basketball story to tell.

Bourdain was always on my list, without fail. Living or dead. I guess he’s still on the list.

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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