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“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.

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.

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.

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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