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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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Mad, and getting Realist about humor

The first issue of The Realist.

When I was a kid, like 10 or 11 years old, My Uncle Robbie was the youngest, and coolest, of my uncles. He had a motorcycle. He went to Woodstock. And he read Mad magazine.

I never had a motorcycle. The Woodstocks I attended were the paler, anniversary ones in 1994 and ’99. But I did read Mad.

After 67 years, the magazine has announced it will soon cease publication, although that “cease” is kind of vague, as it appears Mad will continue to re-issue old content. And some of its legendary contributors said a few days ago that new material may even be published on yet-to-be determined platforms. Platforms that likely contributed to the cause of death: The internet, where anyone with a keyboard has the potential to create brilliant satire in this target-rich era.

Internet humor: A primary suspect in the death of Mad magazine.

Following the announcement of Mad’s approaching death, the tributes poured in. From celebrities including Weird Al Yankovic, fondly recalling how Mad shaped their own humor.

So yes, of course, I read Mad as well. Did, as in past tense. Maybe if I had bought a few copies over the last four decades, it wouldn’t be going away now.

But other culture was creeping into my brain. Mad gave way to National Lampoon. I saw R. Crumb and Zippy the Pinhead as philosophers, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were teachers. The comedy albums I listened to, the mainstream of Bill Cosby, gave way to the edgy non-sequitur humor of The Firesign Theater and Monty Python. I could find Monty Python on television as well – thank you, PBS – and in the movie theater.

The two things I remember laughing at the hardest in my late-teen years, laughing to the point that I couldn’t breathe, were National Lampoon’s “High School Yearbook Parody” and the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur de-limbs The Black Knight. “Just a flesh wound.”

We move on with time, and it can be a dangerous passage. My Uncle Robbie is in his late 60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s hit him a few years ago. Now he doesn’t even recognize his wife.

The brain evolves, devolves. I was reminded of how far my own pursuit of the darkest humor went when I read this week of the passing of Paul Krassner, the iconic, counter-culture writer. Krassner wrote freelance pieces for Mad in the late 1950s. But he recognized that Mad was humor for teenagers. And he was an adult. An adult consumed by the oncoming political unrest. So he channeled his taste in anarchy by creating an underground humor magazine, The Realist. This was a proper vehicle for Krassner and his ’60s Yippie cohorts, known for pranks such as nominating a pig for president. Even Norman Mailer, Richard Pryor and Joseph Heller wrote for The Realist.

Krassner and The Realist may have been humor, but they were dead serious about it.

The Realist was over-the-top outrageous. Pornographic. Obscene. Satire is a killer. Why would a humor magazine publish a cartoon depicting dozens of Disney characters such as Snow White and Donald Duck engaged in a massive orgy? I suppose the message might have been one that is the highest duty of humor: to expose hypocrisy and corruption. And to do so with a tenacity that goes beyond a flesh wound. Was the obscenity of the Seven Dwarves engaged in anal sex – a perversion of many people’s definition of All-American entertainment – any worse than the Vietnam War we were watching on our televisions?

BE THE 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.

The Critical Mass

Slaughterhouse-Find

photoThe morning walk with the dog is generally uneventful. I do keep watch for the woman walking her dalmatian.  He’s fat, his body shaped like an overstuffed Navy duffel bag, and he never looks happy. I usually cross over to the other side of the street with Abbie when I see the dalmatian and his handler heading our way. But sometimes an encounter is unavoidable. As we approach, he is at the end of his leash, straining hard, a low, diesel-like rumble coming from behind bared teeth. “Oh, they really want to play!” she says.

“Yeah. well….” I move on, pulling Abbie along behind me.

A couple of mornings ago, we came upion what I thought at first was a massive trash pile at the end of someone’s driveway. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was a yard sale. We paused. Abbie sniffed at an old coffee pot. I walked along the tables, examining the family detritus. Sports equipment, board games, odd pieces of wood, shoes, baseball caps, pens, exercise DVDs… you know what it looks like. Every item appeared to be broken or missing a piece.

Except this. A familiar face. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., staring at me from  the cover of a vinyl record album. A 1973 spoken-word recording of the author reading from his greatest work, Slaughterhouse-Five. It had one of those heavy plastic covers on it like libraries used to do to help preserve their records, with a slot for the check-out card in the back. In fact, I could see from the markings that it used to belong to the Monroe Community College library. I was ecstatic. I paid the lady a buck and almost skipped home the rest of the way.

It’s just one record, so most of Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t there. I put it on the turntable and set the needle in the groove. The speakers crackled, and the words came to life. He starts with the book’s seventh paragraph: “I would hate to tell you what this lousy book cost me in money and anxiety and time….” Vonnegut, speaking from the dead.

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