Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Stalin’s dead, but the weekend was alive

That’s Stalin on the rug.

Spiritual isn’t a word to be taken lightly. It’s reaching a pretty high level of human consciousness. Yet there I was at Lovin’ Cup Bistro and Brews Saturday night for Connie Deming’s show, backed by Phil Marshall on guitar, with Scott Regan opening. This was a deeply moving event. And yeah, spiritual.

Regan is generally identified as the weekday morning host Open Tunings on WRUR-FM (88.5), but he needs more recognition as a songwriter. He knows a great song needn’t be simple, it can go two places at once. So he sang one about trading baseball cards. Indians and Braves, exchanged without a thought to their homeland, accompanied by a high, lonesome-wind chant by Regan. Regan’s not a classic voice, but he’s evocative in a Willie Nelson way; earnest, like an armadillo scratching through the desert sand, looking for grubs.

Marshall backed him for a song, then Regan played solo, then Marshall returned with Deming. Deming is no desert mammal. Her voice soars, it goes wherever the story takes it. She draws inspiration from many places. Often her autistic son. Or from what she detected her listeners needed when she was playing group homes for the autistic and the elderly. And when she covers an old standard, like “Stardust” – at Marshall’s urging – it takes you to a place that is both long ago and timeless.

Marshall plays those standards for people in hospice. He’ll play whatever the dying want to hear, whether it’s Hoagy Carmichael or The Beatles. In a decision made just that morning, Deming asked Marshall to play a half-hour set, right in the middle of her own set. So we heard songs Marshall had written, inspired by his work in hospice. And he told stories about his work. Some of these stories were touching, some were funny, but never at the expense of the dying. Marshall is always the foil, because he’s learning something from these people.

After the show, Marshall told me he has been reluctant to play these songs and tell these stories for audiences. He’d even joked between songs about how uplifting it would be to play “Grief Walks In” in a bar on a Saturday night. He felt it might be exploitative. But no, it’s explanatory. It’s sharing something that we’ll all experience, if we haven’t already at the bedside of a friend or relative.

This show wasn’t tightly scripted. They made it up as the evening went on, the songs found their proper places. It was the kind of organic, nocturnal animal that might not appear again.

There was more. Early Sunday afternoon, The Death of Stalin was playing at The Little Theatre. A film that should win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but that’ll never happen. This tale of the Soviet Union in the days following the death of Stalin – he falls ill in a pool of his own urine, which I suppose is better than dying in someone else’s urine – is too insane for serious awards. Comedy crashes headlong into tragedy as we see fearful Soviet authorities comically scrambling to kiss ass and save their souls while in the background people are being strong-armed into basement rooms, where they are executed. This is hilarious! Why are we laughing, someone else is being shot in the head! The performances are brilliant, at times the movements of these Soviet leaders look as though they were choreographed by The Three Stooges. You know Steve Buscemi as the googly-eyed, bandy-limbed stringbean with the look of a guy who thinks a safe is about to fall on his head. But with the aid of a little padding and some loose suits, yes, he becomes a very convincing Nikita Khruschev.

So the movie’s over, and we spill out into The Little Café, where there’s a reception for this month’s gallery show, Off the Page: Creative Responses to Writing. It’s an unusual show, created by 10 women from a book club who have interpreted favorite books through various art mediums. I’d brought a couple of novels – Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and John Fante’s Ask the Dusk – to loan to My Friend Tony, who is recovering from back surgery. Sitting at his table, in the midst of people I know, I eavesdropped on strangers’ conversations about art and food and cars and listened to Steve Piper playing guitar and singing over and around the roar of the crowd. Thinking: Why isn’t every weekend like this?

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The failings of Emblidge, Holland and myself as journalists

Norma Holland and Doug Emblidge.

I know Doug Emblidge and Norma Holland. I’ve been to Emblidge’s house, we drank wine, he played guitar. Holland I’ve gotten to know mainly through her work with EstroFest, Rochester’s all-women comedy ensemble. So we’ve shared a few laughs.

Emblidge and Holland are also quality television journalists. They care about the profession.

Both news anchors at Rochester’s Channel 13 WHAM are now newsmakers since the web site Deadspin released a compilation of TV reporters reading a script provided by Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation. It’s hilarious, as the anchors earnestly mouth the message in unison. They’ve been compared to zombies. To political prisoners reading a propaganda statement prepared by their captors. It’s also chilling. Because the free press isn’t meant to be like this. Our local journalists should all be free thinkers, of their own minds, they shouldn’t be reciting corporate memos.

On its surface, the script might not seem all that horrible. It is a vague condemnation of fake news. The cacophony of voices never says what specifically triggered this outpouring of crocodile concern. The message simply seems to be: We can all agree, fake news is bad.

But we can’t agree what is fake news, and what isn’t.

Here’s why so many of those Sinclair television anchors have stepped up to confess – some anonymously, some on the record – their dismay at being a part of this charade.  It’s because they know: Sinclair is a smarmy operation. It is the company that produced anti-John Kerry swiftboat stories, a disgusting attack on an American war hero. Sinclair provides the nearly 200 television newsrooms that it owns or operates with “must run” commentaries. Most notably the Terrorism Alert segments that appear virtually every day on its stations. These are generally substance-free reports, loaded with buzzwords about some foreign-looking, brown-skinned guy arrested at an airport. Here’s a typical Terror Alert, from last August:

Two men detained over the weekend at Heathrow Airport are now out on bail. The BBC reports that the men arrived on a flight from Turkey into London, and were questioned after being suspected of preparing for terrorist acts. However, officials say there is no immediate threat to the public and released them.

That’s it. That’s the whole story. Two men “suspected of preparing for terrorist acts.” Except, apparently they weren’t preparing for terrorist attacks after all, and the men were released. It’s not news.

Unless your aim is to create fear.

Vagueness is the weapon. They throw in a line about “suspected of preparing for terrorist acts” and let you fill in the blanks. Terrorists! At Heathrow Airport! Were they on their way here? Of course they were! Thank God we stopped them! This time…

How about our home-grown terrorists? Like the guy who shot and killed 58 people and wounded 851 at a country-music concert in Las Vegas. Or the guy who shot and killed 17 of his fellow students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Those killers are irrelevant, they don’t fit Sinclair’s right-wing scare profile. Those murders, that’s just the price Americans have to pay for our right to own assault rifles.

But I digress. Emblidge went to Facebook to thank those who came to his defense, who realized he’s not the problem:

Thanks to all for the kindness shown at a difficult time. This too shall pass. As I often say … some people have real problems. I don’t.

And I like the words Holland posted on her Facebook page:

The Sinclair message you saw me and my colleagues in has damaged the trust you place in us — a trust that’s taken, me in particular, 22 years to build. That hurts. Here’s the truth: I could have chosen to quit, but who among us has an alternate career in their back pocket ready to go? I have a family to support. That’s not an excuse — that’s reality. Moreover, I have a career I love and worked hard for. Am I supposed to be bullied into giving it up? So, I read the statement and now I’ve been called disgusting names. That hurts, too. One bad day does not speak for a career filled with good.

I’m with her on that. As journalists, all we have to offer is our integrity. Sinclair is hiding its political agenda behind the good names of its employees. People with families to support and no intention of abandoning a noble career.

We have to realize, the First Amendment is under assault. And we don’t know where the next attack is coming from. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what’s right and what’s wrong. You might not know if you’re getting wise counsel, or fear.

I’ve been in those kinds of uncomfortable situations in the past with my former employer. In my final year there, I had editors kill two of my stories, both featuring musicians and artists and writers calling out the misogyny, xenophobia, racism and bigotry accompanying the Trump campaign. You know, in talking to musicians and artists and writers, it was kind of hard to avoid that subject.

Like when the British singer Joss Stone – a funny, smart and delightful interview – told me that what was happened in the United States after Trump was elected looked “Hitler-ite.” You didn’t read that, it was cut from my story. Rather than allowing you to judge, an editor made the judgment for you.

Perhaps I could have sought out someone to express the other side of these stories. But I just didn’t feel like giving bigotry equal time. Like that piece I did on an art exhibit that was simply a trail of glass shoes, representing victims of the Holocaust. I could have sought out a Nazi to get the other side of that story. I didn’t bother. I guess as a journalist, that’s my failing.

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Re-introducing the new

On March 19, we launched the new web site, It was a lot of work for my little team, and glitches were expected. One problem was the list of subscribers didn’t transfer to the new site. So most of you didn’t get the email notification that a new edition of The Critical Mass had been posted.

That problem appears to have been corrected. So we’re re-posting the old post.

I hope this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. And please encourage your many friends to subscribe to the site.

Introducing the new

Unless you’re going into a witness-protection program, re-inventing yourself isn’t terribly necessary. You have probably had all you need all along.

Like the photo accompanying this blog. I’ll explain that in a moment.

Right now, you’re on my newly renovated web site, Launched this week. Smells like a new car. Reactive technology that accommodates all devices into the foreseeable future. The main component is the blog, The Critical Mass. There’s a lot of other stuff here as well. Under the heading “Works” you’ll find short stories, essays, spoken-word pieces and sample chapters of several book-length manuscripts, both fiction and non-fiction. At “21st Century Renaissance Man” is a lowbrow’s guide to high culture. “Culture’s Tool Box” breaks culture down into the essentials: Literature, Music, Visual Arts and Cuisine. Elsewhere on the home page you’ll find my Current Obsessions, a note on the freelance work I do, how to contact me and, most importantly, how to subscribe to The Critical Mass; it’s free, you’ll get an email every time I post a new blog.

A few more bells need to be added, a few more whistles are yet to be tuned: The Twitter feed isn’t quite working yet. But this is pretty much Indulge me while I thank a few folks. Paul Dodd and Peggi Fournier, who designed the initial web site many years ago. Rita Coulter, who offered essential early advice and tech support. Paul Schlieter, who discovered the right web-site template. The photographers whose work brightens the pages, including Jones Hendershot, who took the shot of the vintage typewriter at the top of the home page (That’s the first line of my novel, A Bottle of Mezcal, on the paper). Margaret Spevak, who perseveres when the screen reads ERROR. And Barbara Day, who did the heavy lifting to design the pages and get this thing on-line.

Now, about that photo, and re-invention.

The day I left the newsroom.

It’s been nearly six months since I was laid off as entertainment writer at the local daily newspaper. And, of course, many parties followed: Most notably The Freedom Party, with some 70 or 80 citizens showing up over the course of the evening. The excellent food was laid out on the seven plaques I had been awarded in recent years for first-place finishes in The New York State Associated Press features writing competitions. Plaques now serving as trivets, since excellence in writing hadn’t really mattered to my former employers, so I might as well make some use of them.

A couple of guests that night read poems they had written about me, songs were sung late into the beautiful October evening. I got gifts from people who know me well. Accessories to life, like hot sauces.

And they’d collected more than enough money to buy me a beautiful Hewlett Packard laptop. In programming it, they named this shiny technology after one of my favorite writers, Charles Bukowski.

And as the screen wallpaper, they installed that photo.

That photo. The same week I was laid off, I gathered at The Little Café with friends and relatives for a little music. At one point, Sarah Long Hendershot pointed a camera at me. “I thought: Jeeeez, again? You can see it on my face. You’d think they’d spotted Bigfoot behind that wine glass. Maybe it’s the beard. But people had been taking photos of me wherever I went all week. Strangers giving me a thumbs up. Pulling me aside to say, “You’re better than that place.” I had no idea that as Sarah was lining up the photo, friends had secretly assembled behind me, holding up a sign:

Digital artistry by Nancy Valle.


And that’s what I’ve been doing.

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