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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.

Delusion, witchcraft, and the conservative way

A typical idyllic Trump household. Photo by Jon Gary.

Despite the pandemic, My Friend Jon gets out quite a bit. Rides his bike all over the county. He recently posted on Facebook a photo he took of this house blanketed by big TRUMP WON banners. Life-size cut-outs of Trump on the front lawn, and a two-dimensional Trump and Melania at the front door, greeting visitors.

I’ve stumbled across similar conservative urban trail markers. Here’s a house all dressed up in DON’T BLAME ME I VOTED FOR TRUMP banners. It’s just a two-minute drive from where we live:

This one needs a bigger U.S. flag.

Here’s another one, just one street over from our house. TRUMP 2024 it says. With images of handguns, brandished in a threatening manner. In the spirit of holiday décor, it recently added “TRUMP” spelled out in white Christmas lights in the front window. I walk the dog, Abilene, past it a couple of times a week:

Hello neighbor!

Who lives in these homes? Are they crazy? Are garish exhibits of personal political statements a Republican thing? I don’t recall Democrats draping their homes with HILLARY WON banners after the 2016 election. And Clinton did win the popular vote, so at least there would have been some truth to that one.

What’s happening inside these homes? They’re debating Critical Race Theory. They don’t know what it is, except… something, something, murmur, mumble… something about Black people.

No one who lives in these houses seems able to cite any specific evidence proving that THE ELECTION WAS STOLEN. All they know – and this really is all they know – is the vote didn’t tally up to what they were hoping for. They don’t know exactly what happened, except… some, some, murmur, mumble… something about the libtards.

Something grand-sounding like these words, which I conveniently created just for this essay, might be chiseled on the granite base of a forgotten statue covered in pigeon shit in your town square:

If we trust each man, woman and dog to be the curator of their own truths, then the rules of society will inevitably crumble.

We’re seeing the cracks widen now…

Domestic terrorists can attack the United States Capitol in an attempt to reverse the results of the November election and overthrow the government. And be hailed by conservatives as HEROES.

A 17-year-old kid can drive to another state, with an illegally obtained AR-15, shoot three people – killing two of them – and earn the praise of conservatives. And earn a trip to visit Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Without offering any evidence, Republican Lauren Boebert can accuse her fellow congressional representative, Democrat Ilhan Omar, of being a Muslim terrorist.

Maybe this is a matter of you can’t see the morning until you’ve stayed up fretting all night. Sometimes, society’s norms do hold up.

A tourist at the Capitol building, on an invitation from Trump.

Because Unite the Right organizers have been found liable for millions in damages after a white-power rally in Charlottesville, Va. Because the conservative conspiracy entertainment theorist Alex Jones has been found guilty of defaming the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Because Trump White House political strategist Steve Bannon has been charged with criminal contempt for ignoring a subpoena from a congressional committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. And because the manufacturers of voting machines are suing right-wing media groups for claiming, without offering any evidence, that the companies were involved in election corruption that put Joe Biden in the White House.

Can you imagine how extensive this network of corruption would have to be in order to subvert, state by state, a national election? And no one – NO ONE – has stepped forward with any evidence?

Perhaps it’s a matter of personal perspective. Through which lens do you choose to view the world? What has caused more hospitalizations and deaths, COVID or donuts? Either answer is correct, depending on the time frame you choose.

There can be many variables, but ultimately only one truth. In 2020, in the final thrashing year of the Trump presidency, the Department of Homeland Security finally acknowledged that violent white supremacy is “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.”

Not Muslim congresswomen. They’re not even on the Lethal Threats to the Homeland chart.

We’ve seen these TRUMP WON banners before.

Johannes Kepler, risking prison for the truth.

Centuries ago, mathematicians and astronomers such as Galileo, Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler were calculating how our universe worked. Yet they were cautious about being too loud about presenting their evidence that we live in a heliocentric solar system. The progress of European civilization was hindered by too many Flat Earthers, and by a Catholic church that insisted the Earth was the center of the universe, and by believers that the hand of God was behind the death of every sparrow. The advance of humanity was stunted under threat of prison and torture. True, a smattering of cultures ranging from the Chinese to the Maya seemed to have a better grasp of cosmology. But let’s not award too much credit to a culture that, as a religious offering, would cut the beating hearts from the chests of enemies captured in battle, or even the hearts of their neighbors.

Humanity is only one rung up from the Black Widow spider, notorious for eating its mate.

Acceptance of facts and truth is critical to society moving forward. But when rejected, facts and truth are equally valuable as tools that reveal prejudice or lack of education. Displays of ignorance is a Geiger counter, its escalating chatter betraying the danger at hand.

Awareness of their willful ignorance warned us of who would be waving those TRUMP flags on the steps of the Capitol building on January 6.

When truth and science isn’t allowed in, witchcraft and superstition fill in the void. Human nature has always been open to delusion. Over the centuries, nothing has changed.

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.

“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.

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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