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The pearl of Keuka Lake

In keeping with my personal philosophy of always staying at least 18 years behind everyone else, about a week ago we watched the 2003 film “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Colin Firth is the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, Scarlett Johansson is the shy chambermaid who becomes the subject of one of his most-famous paintings. It’s a costume drama, so the people of Delft are wearing clumsy headgear, dark cloaks and drab, ankle-length dresses as they stroll through the muddy streets and inspect butcher stalls filled with decapitated pigs. The cinematography is excellent. Many scenes borrow the smoky colors, pure window light and random household contents found in Vermeer’s work. That’s not a lot of source material. A meticulous artist, he did only about three dozen paintings.

“Girl With a Pearl Earring” also enjoys superb supporting actor work from its dogs. Wandering casually through the streets, loping through courtyards of chickens. Unlike the humans in the film, who go about their arcane business with the quaint social interactions we’ve learned from movies to expect of that era, the dogs look and act like 21st-century dogs. Nothing has changed about dogs since they worked their way into the fabric of human society, a relationship that anthropologists believe goes back more than 15,000 years.

Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Dogs have always lived simple, uncomplicated lives. They are creatures of routine. We should follow their example. And in doing so this week, I realize I have drifted from the routines that once made me…

Well, dog-like happy.

(Writer’s Disclaimer: Today’s blog is not about to evolve into one of those “A Year in Provence” style essays about my visit to the oh-so-charming countryside, smugly dispensing my sophisticated superiority, while learning valuable lessons myself from the bumbling yet lovable locals.)

Let’s set the scene. Five of us are here for a vacation week, including the dog, Abilene. The road creeping along this portion of the west bank of Keuka Lake is an eternally temporary arrangement of potholes, band-aid filler gravel and dead twigs and squirrels crushed beneath the wheels of passing pick-up trucks. The house we’ve rented is a rambling decor of knotty pine walls, board games stashed on a shelf, mismatched wine glasses, strategically placed box fans, the ugliest rug I’ve ever seen and a perfect deck overlooking the lake.

These Finger Lakes are long, skinny bodies of water, tree-shrouded grooves in the terrain created by the retreat of glaciers during the last Ice Age. It’s 17 rickety wood steps from the road down to the house perched precariously – in my non-architectural judgment – on the edge of a steep hillside. And then another 42 steps leading to the lake.

The lake is an impossible lens of light. The Sunday morning after our arrival, the sun is reflecting so brightly off the water that it leaves a temporary orange scar on my retinas. From our deck on the west bank, we can easily see the houses on the east bank. The real-estate developers have done their work well. Those houses are packed in, side by side. Many have personal docks for their power boats, their motors snarling like hornets. The kids hot-rod around on jet skis, owned or paid for by their rich parents. This lakeside smells like one long stretch of entitlement.

The following morning is a completely different landscape. Gray and calm. Human activity is limited. Sitting on the deck in our rural outlier of Keuka Lake feels like we’re living in the trees. Their green branches nicely frame our view of the lake. This section of shoreline is not at all like what I’ve been seeing on the other, overdeveloped east side. What neighbors exist among us are hidden from view by a thick growth of trees and brush. A slight breeze carries cottonwood seeds from above, like tiny paratroopers. Small, dark caterpillars descend from the trees on invisible threads. Ducks drift wherever the rippled water takes them. Turtles sit atop posts from a long-decayed wharf that barely breaks the surface of the water. On this relatively untamed shore, there could be dangerous wildlife as well. Perhaps a future encounter with a bear that’s exhibiting aggressive territorial behavior over the wheeled garbage tote stationed at the side of the road.

He can have it.

When time slows, anything passes as entertainment. At mid-week, a street sweeper went up and down the road a few times. I thought that was a courteous, if futile, gesture on the part of the local officials. But it was merely preparation for the next day, as a crew of workers with a road grader, dump trucks filled with asphalt and a steamroller, began loudly creeping along the road, filling in the low spots. There seemed to be twice as many workers in yellow hardhats than was needed, but I’ll give them credit for doing a lot of pointing, picking up rakes as if something interesting was about to happen, and in general trying to find something to do.

As morning slips into afternoon, we abandon the hypnotic sound of powerboat-generated waves crashing into the stony shore and turn to the satellites for music. Sirius radio is tuned to Mojo Nixon’s “Outlaw Country” show, playing quietly amid the hushed whisper of breeze in the tree branches. Until Nixon interrupts the calm to bellow something obscene about a song he’s just played.

Wednesday morning, the intense sunlight creates thousands of short daggers of light, dancing vertically across the water. The silver reflections closest to me appear to be the same size as the ones furthest from me, on the far side of the lake, as if they’re on a one-dimensional plane. I point this out to My Friend Scott. He agrees, this is a very odd phenomena of refraction.

Or perhaps it happens all of the time out here.

Now we have now entered a world where my 13-year-old, 95-pound Weimaraner lies on the deck, dozing beneath the freckled sunbeams penetrating the tree branches while the internet explains the world to us. Winner of Best Supporting Dog on a June Afternoon. My Friend Sue is examining a virtual map of the Brood X cicada invasion as it spreads across the United States. We didn’t have virtual maps the last time the cicadas emerged from hibernation en mass, 17 years ago. From the internet vantage point, we appear to be doomed.

All are signs that gently suggest: Slow down.

So we do.

Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

Margaret and Sue are in the house, laughing, mixing cocktails. The wineries only add to the beauty of the region. Our Friend Dan is a singer songwriter, but what matters this week is he is the chef at The Park Inn, in nearby Hammondsport. He’s created a menu that takes everything three steps beyond the norm. Grilled asparagus with parmesan custard and roasted garlic vinaigrette. Fried oysters with creamed spinach, house-smoked bacon, parmesan cheese and Tabasco aioli. The restaurant looks out onto the town square, where the local government has wisely decided that the best way to re-invent tourism lost to the coronavirus pandemic is to close the street and allow businesses such as The Park Inn to set up a huge, cozy tent. It works, time stops for us. We stay well past 10 o’clock that night.

With cosmetology slowed to a virtually imperceptible crawl, there is room for small, magical things to happen. Opportunities for cosmic occurrences emerge. Sue has been working on one of the Sunday New York Times Magazine word puzzles. She is stumped by the name of a Marty Robbins song. Two words, starts with the letter E. All I can think of “Streets of Laredo.”

My geography is off. A few hours later, the deckside satellite radio is playing a Marty Robbins song. “El Paso.”

This is the kind of synchronicity that happens in a world cleared of clutter and distractions. More will reveal themselves. Our Friends Kit and Alexis show up for the last two days of our week on Keuka Lake. We haven’t seen them since the pandemic started. She’s brought a book with her. A 1999 historical novel, set in 17th-century Delft, written by Tracy Chevalier. It is, “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

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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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Ben Franklin in Florida

OK, I’m back. It’s true that you can access social media on Florida’s Gulf Coast. But there are enough distractions to keep Twitter and Facebook – and the world in general – at arm’s length.

Distractions drifted in through an open, second-floor window in My Friends Tim and Carole’s condo in Dunedin one morning. I saw unfamiliar green vegetation. I heard unfamiliar bird songs. Even the hydraulics and the slamming of garbage bins being upended into trucks creeping along the streets was oddly exotic, although we have such machinery in Western New York.

After a half hour of this, time I would never have allowed myself in Rochester, I picked up my book and wandered downstairs. Unexpectedly, I was the first one to do so. I went outside and sat on the patio to read. In the sun, which is 93 million miles from Earth whether you’re in Rochester or Clearwater Beach, yet its influence on each city is dramatically different.

I heard the lazy drone of a single-engine airplane overhead. Inside, Tim was up, and had turned on the TV. Most network television is a monochromatic block of desensitizing opiates. And ESPN’s SportsCenter, in particular, is death’s waiting room for middle-aged white guys. Only the local news seems to reflect regional diversity. These words across the bottom of the screen are typical of news stories of interest to Floridians:

TERMITE INSPECTOR SAVES MAN FROM DROWNING

I went back inside. A newspaper was lying on the kitchen table. I couldn’t help myself. The front-page headline read:

HUGE BUDGET, BIG DEFICIT

Below it, the drop head explained:

President Trump’s Record $4.7 Trillion Plan Envisions Robust Growth, Domestic Cuts

Torrential spending driven by baseless estimates of growth, but in case of failure offset by cutting important social programs, because rich folks are off limits.

That afternoon, we drove on down to Sarasota, where Our Friends Ellie and Kevin have a winter home. Sarasota, a charming city. We passed threatening billboards:

JESUS SAVES! BUT MAYBE NOT YOU!

And next to it, another billboard:

AVAILABLE

Words capturing my feelings about religion. Threats. Everything’s for sale. And judging by other billboards around seemingly content cities like Sarasota, Florida has a lot of personal injury attorneys looking for work.

Personal injury. Is there such a thing as “impersonal injury?”

We moved on to Clearwater Beach, where the AAA TourBook promised, “bold street performers posing for photos with gaggles of giggling teenyboppers….”

Giggling teenyboppers? Who wrote that line? Charley Weaver?

It was spring break, and Clearwater Beach was prepared. A few years ago, it banned alcohol from the beach. How does the city get away with that? Alcohol isn’t illegal. Dogs, also banned, aren’t illegal. It’s their bi-products that the city is guarding against: College kids vomiting on your beach towel, dogs pooping on the sand. Typical government over-reach.

Nothing is said of jet skis, rich kids’ toys whose buzzing motors are the antithesis of nature. Noisy, unnatural. Nor is there any attempt to curb the encroachment of restaurants whose appearance generally suggests they were slammed together from driftwood, all bearing names seemingly ending in possessive “y’s.” Frenchy’s, Crabby’s, Salty’s, Rusty’s, Guppy’s…

And what the hell is an “interactive buffet?”

Lounging by the hotel pool, I picked up my book again, one I had borrowed from My Friend Scott. It was Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin that rescued me from the mediocrity of traffic jams clogging all roads leading to Walt Disney World. A fat biography, I read Benjamin Franklin in its entirety during the trip. Its wisdom insulated me from the words of that sandcracker wiseass, Jimmy Buffett, that seemed to be booming out of every open doorway at every restaurant and bar up and down the Florida coast.

Franklin was a brilliant journalist, inventor, scientist, businessman, diplomat and politician. He was a man who understood how to win friends and allies though great doses of self-deprecation. A pragmatic philosopher who in his later years would lie naked on his bed for an hour each day for his “air bath,” a precursor of today’s Zen-like pursuits of trendy self improvement.

Not quite a genius, I think. There were some issues, such as slavery, on which Franklin seemed to take the convenient road. A sometimes slave owner himself, in the later stages of his life Franklin came around to the idea that owning another human being was wrong. But at least he got there, many of the Legendary Founding Fathers never did. Perhaps his late arrival is because he believed that our opinions were not our own, as they reflected so many outside influences. Franklin’s evolution on human issues and tinkering with science was often driven by pragmatism. He was a man who could look at something and see its next purposeful level. Franklin owned a pair of eyeglasses for helping him to see in the distance, and another pair for reading. He cut them in half and put the separate pieces together, thus inventing bifocals.

Franklin didn’t discover electricity. The phenomena was known, but merely used for shocking parlor games. Franklin himself had used electricity to fry a turkey. Then came his famous experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm. The inspiration that made him, for his time, the most-famous person on the planet. He demonstrated to the world how to properly use electricity, collect it through lightning rods, store it in batteries.

Franklin despised the idea of hereditary entitlement and excess wealth, and shunned the clothing and powdered wigs of aristocracy. One of his contemporaries, in describing Franklin circulating among the Jeffersons, Madisons and Adamses of the moment, said Franklin appeared to be nothing more than “a big farmer.”

Franklin understood words. Thomas Jefferson had written this line in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin, assigned to proofread the document, changed the line to, “We hold these truths to be self evident.” That it is not some sacred right granted by religion, but a biological truth, that all men – and perhaps some day women, Franklin loved women – are created equal.

Franklin was a writer, as Isaacson says, who “was graced – and afflicted – with the trait so common to journalists, especially ones who have read Swift and Addison once too often, of wanting to participate in the world while also remaining a detached observer. As a journalist, he could step out of a scene, even one that passionately engaged him, and comment on it, or himself, with a droll irony.”

I sense Isaacson is levelling a slight criticism at Franklin here. A common criticism often voiced against journalists, that it is a professional affliction for them to reveal their opinions or reactions to the world. That it is unprofessional to take a side against false equivalencies.

In this age of social media deception, religion as a threat, low expectations for breaded seafood, and the daily implosion of fact under Trump, what would be the error in once more calling on the wisdom of Jonathan Swift’s satire and Joseph Addison’s essays warning of government tyranny levelled against its own people? Or in meeting the absurdity of these times by adopting Franklin’s pragmatic vision, his uncanny ability to see a use for electricity beyond frying a turkey? Faith and belief are often blind and deceptive comforts. Without truth and science, we’d all be left in the dark.

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