Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Category: Life During Wartime Page 2 of 33

The truth, and where to find it


I keep looking for, thinking about, what good might come out of this world-wide disaster. It will be difficult to find our way through this. Through the fog. Reality obscured by the daily White House coronavirus press briefings.

This one, from last week, is easier to understand if you imagine it as a Monty Python skit. With John Cleese, who excels at portraying buffoonish authority figures displaying a comical lack of self-awareness, as President Trump. And Eric Idle, master of the befuddled expression, as the Reporter.

President Trump: “I think mail-in voting is horrible, it’s corrupt.”

Reporter: “You voted by mail in Florida’s election last month, didn’t you?”

Trump: “Sure. I can vote by mail.”

Reporter: “How do you reconcile with that?”

Trump: “Because I’m allowed to.”

A true story.

I’ve stopped watching Trump’s version of FDR’s Fireside Chats. Trump’s more of an arsonist. I leave farce to the professionals.

I’m also leaving advice on how to protect myself from coronavirus to medical professionals. I leave my understanding of climate change to scientists. I leave economic theories to reputable economists, not a guy whose career has been a string of failed businesses, bankruptcies and bailouts from daddy.

The pursuit of facts, not conspiracy theories. Until recently, as the body count grew too high to deny, Trump was suggesting that coronavirus was simply a Democratic Party attempt to bring down his presidency. As if people in Italy and Spain would willingly sacrifice their lives to influence the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election.

Trump has lowered the bar on every aspect of life in the United States.

And the standard of truth has suffered the most. Why do so many millions of Americans buy into this? It’s like that old horror film, Children of the Damned. Are they a futuristic race… or a threat to our planet?

Trump calms his followers: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

What good can possibly come of this pandemic? There’s nothing to be found in the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

If anything can be rescued from this rubble, perhaps it is… time.

I’m working from home. I’m not going out to see shows, or movies, or new exhibits at the museums. I’m not hanging around with friends. I’m looking out the front window, watching my neighbors walk their dogs. What’s on TV? Tiger King, no thanks, I’m not into the spectacle of white-trash drama.

I venture onto social media, and see how you’re amusing yourselves. Posting your high-school portraits. Compiling your “Choose Your Quarantine House” list. That one’s on both Facebook and Twitter. Name five celebrities – writers, TV stars, musicians – who you’d like to be quarantined with. Here’s one of the early houses: Justin Bieber, Will Ferrell, Kylie Jenner, Dr. Phil and Mindy Kaling.

If I was in that house, I’d sleep in the garage. But it gets me to thinking. My Writers Quarantine House?

  • Certainly Haruki Murakami, so I wouldn’t have to read his books a second time just to begin to understand what the hell is going on in those pages.
  • James Joyce, so I can ask him, “Why does Finnegan’s Wake open in mid-sentence, and what do you mean by ‘wielderfight his penisolate war?’”
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, because I want to know where he got the idea to write a novel about a dog who has the pituitary gland and testicles of a criminal implanted in his body, and becomes a cat-strangling Bolshevik.
  • And Margaret Atwood, because I want to know what inspired the bioengineered plague and post-apocalyptic corporate evil and blue butts of her novel Oryx and Crake.

For my fifth, how about George Saunders, because I’ve interviewed him, and I want to know where such a nice, normal guy finds such strangeness. Or Colson Whitehead, because I want to know where an elevator to the future will take us. Or Marquis de Sade, just in case things get a little too comfortable.

Time, it’s an intellectual exercise.

I’m reading obituaries in The New York Times. Bruce Baillie. Cause of death… well, he was 88. A photographer. I’d heard the name, but wasn’t familiar with his work. Now, in death, I know him. And I’m fascinated by the guy. A pioneer in avant-garde film. A hippie, counter-culture favorite. His lens was set on Zen. Short films, sometimes with superimposed imagery. One of the most remarkable is a 2½-minute film from 1966, “All My Life.” The camera slowly pans a long fence, overgrown by weeds and wild roses, as Ella Fitzgerald elegantly sings the song of the same name. Many people might find it stupid. I’m amazed at its simplicity, and beauty. If that fence were in my back yard, I’d be staring at it all evening, as the sun set, glass of wine in hand.

The Times tells me that musicians, actors and artists are dying of coronavirus. John Prine, it got him at age 73. That one seemed to hit a lot of my friends hard. People are posting lines from Prine songs on Facebook. “Lake Marie” is my favorite Prine song, and I posted a couple of lines from it.

Because we love music. And because Prine told the truth

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Time enough at last

Burgess Meredith, and the isolation of a good library.

As far as I was concerned, Major League Baseball’s Opening Day got off to a good start this week. The Cleveland Indians beat the Detroit Tigers, 9-0.

Waitaminute… the Tigers beat the Indians, 9-1.

No, the Indians beat the Tigers, 15-4.

Fantasy baseball. If there’s no sports news, we can just make it up.

Is anything more media-irrelevant in these coronavirus days than the sports pages? On Saturday morning, I browsed through The New York Times sports section. The star player of the Oregon Ducks, Sabrina Ionescu, has been denied her opportunity to compete for the NCAA Women’s basketball championship, because the season’s been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sports announcers have gone to Facebook to post factious commentaries on their dogs eating dinner. A few dozen guys, connected through basketball, celebrated a birthday together; four have since tested positive for coronavirus, two others are dead of it. And the NFL draft of college players is still on for next month, so brace yourself for four weeks of sportswriters turning to the always-useless exercise of conducting mock drafts.

Disappointment. Dogs eating dinner. Death. The NFL draft. And mock drafts would be happening anyway, coronavirus or not.

We all have our ways of coping. Who am I to point a finger? For every chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls that I will read today, I will just as likely sit through 90 minutes of They Saved Hitler’s Brain.

It did not help that just his morning, some web-site links arrived in the email, sent by My Friend Barbara. “For when you don’t want to read the news… or you run out of books, whichever comes first.”

The Voynich Manuscript.

She provided a link to The Internet Archive. Its goal is “universal access to all knowledge.” Digitized collections of websites, music, millions of books. Assembled by volunteers. It’s called Folkscanomy, “a system of classification derived from the practice and method of collaboratively creating and managing tags to annotate and categorize content.”

Once I had logged in, I found all of this… amazing stuff. A link to a site that shows every page of The Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious 15thcentury book written in an as-yet unbroken code, the pages filled with drawings of obscure herbs and cosmological references, and women taking baths.

Music, some of it relevant, as musicians post videos of their coronavirtual concerts. Hip-hop mix tapes. Religious sermons. Medieval Alien Jazz by Eat Rust, an atonal collection of electronic psychedelia with titles such as “Gather The Inner Organs Into A Neat Pile – It’s A Sign That You’re Still Alive.” And way more Grateful Dead concerts than I’ll ever need.

And there is The National Emergency Library, created especially for readers in our current pandemic. Here, I found the 1925 edition of Certain Mounds and Village Sites in Ohio, an exploration of some of the Native American burial mounds in the southeastern region of the state; I’ve visited a few of them. Here’s Orwell’s always relevant Nineteen Eighty-Four, not far from Rachel Carson’s prescient Silent Spring, 396 books and magazines about Dr. Who, and a photo magazine called The New Nude.

Anatole France.

Here’s a book I never would have known of, were it not for me being granted time enough at last: From 1925, Anatole France: The Man and His Work. The digital listing allows me to read the forward on the long-dead French writer:

“Had I been Nature,” said Anatole France, “I should have made men and women not to resemble the great apes, as they do, but on the model of the insects which, after a lifetime of caterpillars, change into butterflies, and for the brief final term of their existence have no thought but to love and be lovely.”

This morning has shed its skin and evolved into that classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “Time Enough at Last,” where the book-loving Burgess Meredith is the only survivor of a nuclear holocaust. He wanders up the steps of a public library, and finds books and books and books. Then stumbles and breaks his eyeglasses. “That’s not fair,” he wails. “That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was – was all the time I needed…! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

Indeed. Under Feature Films, sub-head Sci-Fi / Horror…

Click …

Oh no. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. Zontar the Thing From Venus. Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory. Teenagers From Outer Space. Curse of the Swamp Creature. Roger Corman’s Dementia 13. The 1962 low-budget cult classic Carnival of Souls, which overcomes the zombie acing of its cast with eerie sets and foreboding organ music.

All this, and time enough at last!

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This Planet is Doomed

The Austin I love. Photo by Karen Schiely.

Five in the morning at the Rochester Non-International Airport, and I am sitting next to my fellow passengers to be, eavesdropping. One of them seems like a nice-enough guy. He’s telling some people he’s just met that he’s been to Europe. Amsterdam feels dangerous, he says. Too many foreigners.

But when in Amsterdam, Isn’t he the foreigner?

Fresh perspective is always in order. I can see better at 33,000 feet.

On my way to the airport, I’d stopped at the 7-Eleven to buy a bottle of unsweetened ice tea, because I know the airport prices are outrageous. But at the security checkpoint, the bottle was confiscated. The security guy looked at me with disdain as he flipped my iced tea into a trash can, alongside containers of orange juice, soft drinks, carbonated water and other potentially dangerous chemicals. Now I have a new bottle of iced tea, acquired through proper channels. A kiosk on the other side of the De-Hydration Zone. I paid $4.75 for that bottle of unsweetened ice tea. It was excellent. And I felt safe.

As is usually the case when taking some time off, I drop into a news blackout. With my brain no longer distracted by the world’s latest tragedies, I’m free to think in non-sequiturs as I soar into the sky.

I usually wake up with a piece of music running through my head. There’s usually no explanation for what I’ve tuned into. This morning it was the theme from Hawaii Five-0.

This airplane is an MD 90, which takes me back to college, and MD 20/20. A sweet wine by Mogen David, we called it Mad Dog 20/20. It tastes like it was distilled overnight.

Whenever I get too big of a head about my status in this community – big-shot writer – I get on an airplane. After just a few minutes, I look down at the ground and remind myself that we are now out of range of my public radio news reports, commentaries and blog. The people in those tiny, tiny houses do not know me, they have never read or heard a word from me.

Up here, way up here, I look out the window and carefully observe the wings that are keeping this airplane aloft. They look flimsy, a little too bendy. The wing I’m looking at has a black dot on it, about the size of the drain in your bathtub (No, I probably haven’t been in your bathroom, but bathtub drains seem to be pretty standard). Next to the dot, I can read some stenciled words: ICE SENSOR DO NOT PAINT. Just below that, with a small arrow pointing at what we non-aeronautics engineers would call the flaps, is another set of stencils placed every few yards along the length of the wing: NO STEP AFT. These are a set of warnings to work crews, suggesting they watch their step, so as to not accidentally disable some of the technology that we might be needing at 33,000 feet. Those words also get me to thinking. Aren’t the men and women who prepare these airplanes for flight properly schooled in not slopping paint over an electronic sensor, and to please not stomp on delicate moving parts?

I’m not afraid to fly. But I don’t want to die trying.

From my window, the United States of America looks bleak. Take that as political commentary, if you must.

By the way, I like this pen that I’m using to take these notes. A nice, steady ink flow. It’s the Pilot G-2 07, if you’re interested.

It’s been five or six years since the last time I was in Austin. I’ve always loved the music, the food, the bats whirling out from beneath the Congress Street Bridge at dusk. The characters sauntering along, many walking very happy-looking dogs. The old guy with dreadlocks falling down the back of his head, stopping just an inch or two from the sidewalk. Margaret has been here for a few days before I arrive, and has already warned me that the city has changed dramatically.

The capitol building in Austin, now dwarfed by the 21st century. Photo by Margaret Spevak.

It has. Spectacular high-rise buildings, all shiny glass, have pushed their way into the now unfamiliar skyline. Many of the shops, filled with smart new art or rusty horseshoes or Cuban guayabera shirts that once belonged to someone’s uncle, are gone. Threadgill’s, one of the rattle-bangy music venues and restaurants of South Austin, is closed, the space soon to be a towering condo. Jon Langford, the charismatic leader of bands such as The Waco Brothers and The Mekons, used to have his artwork hanging in a quirky gallery called The Yard Dog. It is dark as well, a sign posted on the door telling former customers that the owners could no longer afford the rent.

This doesn’t feel right. Forcing out the merchants who once gave life to these streets. But what city official would say no to these millions from heaven?

Some stuff’s still here. I stop at Waterloo Records and buy a vinyl album by the Sun Ra Arkestra, Thunder of the Gods, and a book of Sun Ra’s Afro-Futurist poems. The Skylark looks like it was built out of sheet metal, with a ceiling of varying sizes of planks and duct tape. It’s afternoon, but so dark inside that I can’t see the Shiner Bock in front of my face. But I can hear the blues singer.

We’re staying at Our Friends John and Denise’s house. Standing by the pool, high up on the hill on the other side of Barton Creek, you can see a house owned by Sandra Bullock. One of them, anyway.

Denise has a shrine to The Monkees. I think that’s pretty cool. She knew them. We’re sitting outside drinking coffee, talking about the spirituality stuff we used to read in college. I mention Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Denise suggests Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. We all agree that the Carlos Castaneda books were bullshit. John disappears for a few moments; when he comes back, he has three Castaneda paperbacks in his hand. I thumb through Journey to Ixtlan:

We hardly ever realize that we can cut anything out of our lives, anytime, in the blink of an eye.

Really? It’s that easy to cure cancer? Or fix your car’s transmission?

The legendary Continental Club is still here, a dam holding back the total condo takeover of South Congress Street. There’s a blues quartet playing, young guys, The Peterson Brothers. I’m enthralled.

My feet have been aching for new boots. The Austin streets are full of them. I fell for a pair of size 13 black Luccheses They cost $450. I have never paid that much for an item of clothing. Never, ever. In fact, I once bought a car for less than that. Nevertheless, I bought the boots. I’m betting they’ll last longer than that car.

That night I have a dream that I’m in a record store and buy a strange-looking album of electronic music for $33. Someone says to me, “Why would you do that?”

Alejandro Escovedo’s dog. Photo by Karen Schiely.

Sunday at Maria’s Taco Express, it’s the Hippie Church Breakfast. One of my favorite Austin musicians, Alejandro Escovedo, strolls in, with a very cool-looking dog on a leash. I scratch the dog behind his ears. Escovedo asks if I have a dog. “Yeah, a Weimaraner,” I tell him. Escovedo is familiar with the breed. Turn your back on her for 20 seconds and she’ll clear that table of tacos.

My Friend Karen has been documenting the trip in photos. She takes a picture of Escovedo’s dog, but later realizes she didn’t bother to shoot Escovedo. She has priorities.

We go to another record store. I see a double vinyl album, a collaboration between the minimalist composer John Cage and Sun Ra. John Cage Meets Sun Ra. It’s the entire live show put on in 1986 by the two avant-garde giants. And priced at $36.99, it’s damn near my dream come true. I buy it.

Chicken-shit bingo! Photo by Margaret Spevak.

The Derailers have been a pretty slick countrypolitan band for years, but the shine’s worn off a little; now they’re the house band for Sunday afternoon’s Chicken-Shit Bingo at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul. Here’s how Chicken-Shit Bingo works: There’s a big cage with squares marked on its floor, bar patrons buy the squares, someone gets one of the chickens out their pen in the back yard and shoves the chicken into the cage. After a few minutes – the chickens have been eating Cheerios – the chicken poops on a square, and a winner is announced. I suggest an arena-sized upgrade would be Cow-Shit Bingo, and my friends seem willing to consider it.

I’m on an airplane again, Austin to Detroit. Then the connection to Rochester. I’m looking out the window next to me. We’re climbing over a dark Detroit, and the guy in the aisle seat isn’t looking too energetic. Thirty seconds after takeoff, he suddenly jerks his head toward the floor and barfs. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to pack my new boots in my suitcase, rather than wear them on the plane. After a few moments, the women he came on with, who’s sitting between us, looks at me and silently mouths, “I’m sorry.” No need for me to say anything: There’s an air-sickness bag in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me. On it, it says “Hope You Feel Better.”

Everyone has their own personal TV screen mounted on the back of the seat in front of them, 15 inches from their faces. I’m the only one who doesn’t turn it on. All of the adults are watching Fox News or Transformer movies or Pixar movies of kids with huge, round eyes. I pull out my new Sun Ra book, This Planet is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra, and read:

all governments

on earth

set up by men

are discriminating

but the government of death is a

pure government

it treats all in an equal manner

it is a startling, revealing picture

of equality for all

and all in the realm of death

is nothing else but

peace

Profound. Sun Ra is no Carlos Castaneda.

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