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I’ve run out of excuses

It’s over. And now it can be confessed. I am a fraud. For decades, I’ve been writing about the arts, while never creating much of any arts myself. No music. Or oil paintings. Or marvelously clever bird houses. Or even provocative graffiti sketches on the walls of public restrooms. Just words, words, words. That’s all I did. The world is overflowing with words. Too many of them. Watch cable news, and you’ll see.

Enough, already. So I retired last week. There was a big party at Abilene Bar & Lounge. With people I had worked alongside just days earlier, and people I hadn’t seen in years. People who had previously been simply sources on the phone, and now I could connect to a face. And many of my favorite musicians playing all night long. Phil Marshall, and his raging version of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” A serious guitar player, who many years ago introduced me to the joy of vintage cocktail music.

I listened to each musician’s music, even as I tried to engage everyone in conversation; there was not enough time or breaks between songs to really do it right. And I nearly fell off my bar stool when I spotted my long, long, longtime friend, Mike, making his way through the crowd.  A relationship that goes back to our high school days. He’d driven from Alexandria, Va., to be a part of this.

Eager to celebrate my departure, friends gave me bottles of bourbon and favorite wines, re-christened “The Critical Mass,” with new labels featuring a caricature of me (fairly accurate). Along with other cool stuff like a peace-sign key ring, which I immediately put to use.

At age 66, I’ve never before owned a respectable key ring.

Lots of WXXI and CITY Magazine swag, including travel mugs, a baseball cap and a Lawrence Welk holiday DVD. Promises of future dinners. And my final story, a career retrospective, nicely framed and preserved behind glass, like an extinct bird.

Shot glasses of Jamison’s whiskey magically appeared in front of me.

I was thinking: I should retire more often.

And yet, “retire.” That’s the wrong word.

Recalibrate, that’s the word I’m looking for.

I’ve done it before.

Phil Marshall and John Kelley jamming at the retirement gig.

Here’s a biographical bit that I don’t often share: I began this journalism journey as a sportswriter. So yeah, I’ve seen Pete Rose naked. After a decade of that, I moved on. To writing about music. One of my first interviews was with Stan Ridgway, who’d had an MTV hit a few years earlier, in 1982, with “Mexican Radio.” Kind of an offbeat song: “I wish I was in Tijuana, eating barbecued iguana,” he sang, accompanied by an image of an iguana – or a questionable representation of one – roasting on a spit over a fire. I went to Ridgway’s show at the old Rochester music club, Red Creek, and gave him a copy of my story. He was genuinely excited about showing it to his mother.

I hope a lot of the people that I wrote about over the years showed my words to their own mothers.

Times change. No one watches MTV anymore. I won’t be reporting on the arts anymore. But music will continue to be a focus of my life. Here’s Suzi Willpower at the party, blowing away the crowd…

 

Last weekend, I stopped by Record Archive. I’ll always be grateful to the Archive, and co-owners Alayna Alderman and Richard Storms, for hiring me for a few months after I was laid off by the local newspaper. It filled a void, until our public radio station, WXXI, and CITY Magazine, picked me up off the junk pile and squeezed a few more years out of my carcass.

While at the Archive, I also grabbed the new CD by The Third Mind. A super group that includes a favorite singer, Jesse Sykes, and a favorite guitarist, Dave Alvin. It is glorious psychedelic rock, one of the best things I’ve heard in a while. I also found an old Thelonious Monk vinyl album from Italy; I’ll bet he never saw a penny from it. And, an impulse buy: Jungle Feast, a debut album by something, or someone, going by the name Exotico Paradisio. A 2020 re-creation of that old cocktail music that Marshall first introduced me to, with exotic instruments accompanied by screaming birds and monkeys.

Then I swung by a bookstore. I picked up a copy of The Little Book of Aliens, by a University of Rochester astronomy professor, Adam Frank. In the book’s introduction, he promises to explore the beer-fueled debate (that’s how he frames it) on the minds of his fellow astronomers: Are we alone?

To further explore that question, I also picked up investigative journalist Garrett M. Graff’s UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here – and Out There. Frank’s book didn’t bother with such a weighty subtitle, but both should work together to answer questions that have intrigued me for much of my life.

Martha, Jennifer and Spevak.

So there you have it. Recalibration, or whatever you want to call it, offers the opportunity to casually investigate my odd interests. Cryptozoology, that’s one. The Loch Ness Monster. And Bigfoot. The history of the Flat Earth. For all of these pursuits, I don’t take the position of “prove they exist.” I prefer, “Prove they don’t exist.” It’s much more exciting that way.

And I’ll take on one more re-recalibration. Write. Two bouts of COVID over the last couple of years, and a general world weariness, led to me drifting away from The Critical Mass. I’ll start plugging away again. Right now.

I’ve had one book published, 22 Minutes: The USS Vincennes and the Tragedy of Savo Island: A Lifetime Survival Story. See, Garrett M. Graff isn’t the only writer who needs two colons for his subtitles. Now it’s time to hit the accelerator pedal on the word processor. I have 2½ book manuscripts in the works, both non-fiction and fiction.

So, write. With little else to occupy me, I have no excuses.

2022: Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out

Abilene hanging out at Iron Smoke Distillery.

I’m not certain of the actual date, but in the midst of it all, 2022 got to be too much for me. So, with the exception of the stuff I actually get paid to produce – words that bring in the grocery money – I took a break from writing. No blogging: The Critical Mass is a vanity project anyway. I set aside the novel in progress: the bookstores are overloaded with them.

This year, the self-reflection that accompanies lining up words in the correct order felt too much like self-flagellation.

Despite assurances from the anti-Fauci stormtroopers that COVID was imaginary, I contracted the virus in May after attending a radio convention in Philadelphia. It lingered. I still feel it now. Or I still feel something, something’s leached into my bones….

This year, I lost my 92-year-old mom and my 14½-year-old dog. The actuarial tables insist those were good, long runs. That doesn’t make it feel any better. That dog and I, we explored Turning Point Park together many, many times. In the kitchen most mornings, I would hear Abbie’s toenails clicking on the wood floor as she wandered in to see what I was doing.

Making toast.

Of course there’s a piece for you….

My dogs – my college dog Hormel, the first Weimaraner, Mosel – have always made the world a more comfortable fit for me.

But in this most forgettable of years, a loyal dog was not enough salve to ease me through 2022. Beyond death and COVID, many of these other cuts were small, for sure, but they hurt like hell anyway. I have felt robbed of community intimacy and connectiveness.

I was still going into the office. But for vast stretches of 2022, we weren’t going out to hear music or eat at restaurants or see Rochester Red Wings baseball games. If friends visited, we sat on the deck, hoping the summer breeze would blow any lingering virus into the neighbors’ yards.

I’d go to the grocery store. I’d be one of the few wearing a mask. True, the infection rate of the virus had been dropping all summer. So wearing a mask was perhaps less preventative than it was the act of the neighborhood crank yelling, “HAVEN’T YOU HEARD? THIS THING HAS KILLED MORE THAN A MILLION AMERICANS!”

Yet as the year crept on, when I ventured out, even I was leaving my mask in the car. Throwing caution to the wind. Perhaps it was a belief that Americans are blessed, almost to a state of naïveté. As if, if we so choose, any of us can be Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Or, “Herschel Walker Nearly Goes to Washington.”

That right there should be a reminder: It’s not smart to rely on herd mentality, and the public in general making wise choices. My casual maskless summer is now being reversed. From what I have read, COVID might be making a comeback this winter.

Winter. It’s astonishing to see the photos of the record-breaking snowfall in Buffalo. And impassible roads throughout the country. Yet weirdly, here in Rochester, some 70 or so miles east of Buffalo, the snowfall has not been deep enough to completely cover the grass in the front yard. As I’m typing this, on New Year’s Eve, it’s 51 degrees outside with a drizzling rain. No snow in sight.

Earth’s weather. Astronomers tell us Pluto is cold, somewhere between minus-375 and minus-400 degrees Fahrenheit. At least it has an excuse, it’s 3.7 billion miles from the sun.

What’s our excuse? This cold Earth is no comfort for the people of Ukraine. And for the people in the United States who watched as the Supreme Court ruled that it, and not the women of this country, have control over their bodies. We have at hand and we need to lead just and productive and fulfilling lives. Yet we live like we are victims, controlled by circumstances that are within our reach.

As My Friend Frank Bilovsky just wrote on Facebook…

Trump’s tax returns, released by Congress this morning, conclusively show that he is a lair, a cheater and a fraudster. (Example: He earned $50,000 for a speaking engagement but claimed $46,000 in travel expenses to deliver it.) But 30 percent of the voters will excuse it on the grounds that they also fudged their tax returns and got $78 larger refunds than they should have.

That 30 percent is a cold, hard fact standing in the way of charging Trump with instigating the Jan. 6 invasion and vandalizing of the U.S. Capitol building. It will take some gallant nerve to keep pushing it forward.

And when Republicans take over the House next week, it appears they’re going to abandon that investigation and launch endless show trials over whatever is in Hunter Biden’s laptop. Which, according to reputable news reports of its contents, falls a tad – a really big tad – short of instigating an invasion of the Capitol building, where Proud Boys shit on the floor and endangered lives.

Earth is a cold place for the thousands of Americans who mourned death delivered by the teenagers who can legally walk the streets holding a weapon of war. Republicans have made a hero of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who went to a protest following the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a police officer (Not the first time that’s happened, if you follow the news). Rittenhouse brought along an automatic rifle, he must have been planning to use, right? And he did, killing two people and wounding a third. Found not guilty of murder, after he bawled like a baby during his court testimony, the kid did a tour of conservative rallies and media outlets, and lent his name and image to a handful of products. Including “Kyle Rittenhouse’s Turkey Shoot,” a video game in which a cartoon Rittenhouse shoots turkeys that represent the media.

It’s all a game. Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Madison Cawthorn and Lauren Boebert, all Republican members of Congress, battled over which of them would hire Rittenhouse as an intern. He met with Trump at the White House. A $1 million book deal was reportedly in the works.

I’m a writer. Where’s my $1 million book deal? I’d kill to have one.

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.

Stephen Hawking was right… the bronteroc always wins

President Orleans models the “Don’t Look Up” hat.

I think we can all agree that one of the finest moments of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” is the 1963 episode “To Serve Man.” A race of 9-foot-tall aliens, the Kanamits, arrive on Earth and immediately introduce its citizens to all sorts wonders: Machines that provide inexpensive power, stop war, end famine. While visiting the United Nations, one of the aliens inadvertently leaves behind a book. The title is, when translated from their native language, “To Serve Man.”

But this is “The Twlight Zone,” and so there’s a spectacular twist to the story. Humans are volunteering for the opportunity to visit the world of these benevolent aliens. SPOILER ALERT! As the main character, a U.S. government cryptographer, climbs the stairs to the alien spaceship for his own trip to the Kanamits’ planet, one of his co-workers frantically rushes though the crowd. She’s translated enough of the book to shout a warning to him: “‘To Serve Man’… It’s a cookbook!

“To Serve Man.”

Alas, she’s too late. The Kanamits will be having cryptographer for dinner.

That’s the way it always goes when we look up. Up to the stars. From H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” to Ed Woods’ “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” it’s always bad news for Earthlings. As the late physicist Stephen Hawking said, we need to keep our heads low: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

Hawking figured if grumpy space travelers in search of minerals to plunder didn’t get us, then we’d die by climate change, viruses, nuclear war or Artificial Intelligence run amuck.

Or Earth getting hit by a comet, causing an extinction-level catastrophe. Hawking was worried about that as well.

What a Gloomy Gus, that Hawking was.

With Hawking in mind, the big news from the cosmos this week is a 3,500-foot wide meteor is heading for Earth at about 47,344 miles per hour. Just to get an idea of what astronomers are talking about, the Empire State Building is 1,454 feet tall, including that big antenna on top made famous by King Kong. So 7482 (1994 PC1), as the astronomers have romantically named this new meteor, is about 2½ times bigger than some of our best architecture.

What a mess that meteor would make if it collided with our planet. Fortunately, when 7482 (1994 PC1) arrives on the afternoon of Jan. 18 – SPOILER ALERT! – it will miss us by a mere 1.2 million miles.

That’s if the astronomers are telling us the truth, of course.

In “Don’t Look Up,” Earth doesn’t get so lucky.

This is the Netflix film that everyone I hang around with is talking about. “Don’t Look Up” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, a nerdy Michigan State University astrophysicist professor. Working with one of his students, Kate Dibiasky, as played by Jennifer Lawrence, a comet is discovered heading straight for Earth. A certain cosmic collision is just six months away.

That’s time enough for satire. As “Don’t Look Up” unfolds, we watch science and reality corrupted by celebrity and populism. The first opportunity that Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky have to deliver their warning is on a morning television talk show. It doesn’t go well. The airhead hosts are more interested in the troubled marriage of a couple of pop stars than the demise of all life on the planet.

Ignoring the peril, the worst of us try to cash in on this cash cow from space. Politicians eagerly point to the jobs that will be created by mining its valuable comet. Dr. Mindy is hailed as “America’s Sexiest Scientist.”

One of the criticisms I read of “Don’t Look Up” is that President Janie Orlean, played by Meryl Streep and sporting a “Don’t Look Up” baseball cap, is too ridiculously shallow and self-absorbed to be leader of the free world. Really? Does anyone remember that guy in the MAGA cap? I’d say she nailed it.

Interestingly, as “Don’t Look Up” was being created, it was intended as satire excoriating world indifference to climate change. But now, it’s also a direct hit on today’s politics of division over COVID and vaccines. “Don’t Look Up” means pay no attention to the danger closing in on the planet. Our leaders are playing the politics of distraction as a frustrated Dr. Mindy wails, “What we’re really trying to say is get your head out of your ass!”

Don’t Look Up. Don’t believe what you see.

By the way, the nerdy-looking DiCaprio looks a lot like Dr. Peter Hotez. But DiCaprio is merely an actor. Hotez is the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. The guy on all of the cable news shows talking about COVID 19.

DiCaprio.

Hotez.

What would you do on the day the world will end? Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky choose fellowship with friends and relatives at a dinner party.

The meteor arrives.

SPOILER ALERT… And there, the world as we know it ends.

Yet faced with what appears to be certain death, President Orlean and her smarmy elites have escaped the planet on a spaceship. Locked away in cryochambers, after 22,740 years they emerge from the ship, naked and filled with wonder, to find themselves on a planet that looks like primordial Earth.

What happens next was foreshadowed earlier in the film, when President Orlean is told that an algorithm predicts, “You’re going to be eaten by a bronteroc. We don’t know what it means.”

FINAL SPOILER ALERT! Never argue with an algorithm. A bronteroc turns out to be an emu-like dinosaur creature on the new planet. Kinda cute. With foofy feathers (As a dinosaur enthusiast, I applaud this acknowledgement that paleontologists now believe that some dinosaurs carried a smattering of feathers). After greeting the newcomers with curiosity, the bronteroc suddenly attacks and eats President Orlean, as more of the creatures close in on her devious cohorts.

The good guys didn’t win. The bad guys didn’t win. A very satisfying ending.

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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