Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Category: Words Page 1 of 4

When words are worth more than a can of beans

President Trump engages in a food fight.

For years now, I’ve written one or two blogs a week. Until recently. A glance at my web site confirms my suspicions, that I haven’t written one in… 10 weeks.

It’s not writer’s block. I’ve been cranking out plenty of words for my gainful employers. And I’ve been two-finger tapping away on my keyboard at the other stuff I write on my own time. The baseball book, the novel.

But when it comes to the opinions that fuel the blog, The Critical Mass…

…I just can’t find the words.

I’m overwhelmed by the firehose of bullshit that is the Trump White House, and America today. Remember when families desperate to leave the terrible circumstances of their homeland came to our southern border, seeking safety, only to be turned away or imprisoned, children taken from their parents and tossed into cages?

That’s a tragedy that’s been swept aside in a year of crashing worldwide economies and unemployment. Racism and white nationalists emerging from the shadows. Climate change and wildfires. Poverty. The longest war in American history continuing in Afghanistan, with no explanation. Murder hornets and 17-year cicadas.

We can’t focus on one outrage, the atrocity of the day, before we’re forced to confront the next one. That’s the strategy. Wear us out, until we give up.

Our claim to the title of the greatest country in the world disintegrates as we are increasingly unable to protect our citizens from a virus, while virtually every other “advanced” country – most of Europe, Canada, even North Korea – is doing better. We’re doing worse than what Trump once called the “shithole” countries of Africa. The Trump spokespeople claim the situation is getting better. The emergency room personnel, the infectious disease experts and the numbers all tell us that it’s getting worse.

Who are these strange men in unidentifiable camo outfits and unmarked vans, swooping down on citizens in the streets of Portland, Oregon, detaining them, intimidating them, then allowing them to go free after a few hours, without charging them? It’s like a dystopian novel, and we’re only in the first chapter.

What are we to make of the words this week from White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany? In defending the demand from Trump that schools must open – despite warnings to the contrary from scientists – she exclaimed, “The science should not stand in the way of this.”

“Science should not stand in the way…” The words that will surely Make America Great Again.

Trump. You’re a sucker if you’ve written a check to the Republican Party, in the hope that the money will support… oh, ideas like building a wall along the entire 1,954 miles of our southern border. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 2016 the Trump family, and its businesses and properties, have ingested $17 million in Republican National Committee campaign money. Your border wall dreams are going toward grooming Trump-owned golf courses.

I can’t find the words. But maybe Lindsey Graham can. Here’s what the senator said on May 3, 2016, during the Republican presidential primary: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed… and we will deserve it.”

He was right!

During The Critical Mass drought, I did try to find the words. I keep a lot of notes, I scribble things on stray pieces of paper. Here’s one idea I jotted down:

It’s astonishing the chaos we find ourselves in today. After 244 years working on it, you’d expect the United States would have figured out this democracy concept.

Those words didn’t go anywhere.

Remember back in April, when a thousand or so people stormed the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, protesting the “stay-at-home” order as the coronavirus pandemic was overtaking the country? Militia guys in camo outfits, waving automatic rifles, demanding their right to infect anyone who gave them a cross look?

In response, I scribbled these words:

Liberals stormed the nation’s libraries yesterday, waving library cards, demanding their right to news and information…

Those words, also, led me nowhere.

Action follows words. I will no longer buy Goya products, after this week the CEO of the company praised Trump. After all Trump has said, and done, to harm Latinx people. Goya’s products are essential to the Mexican cuisine I love; we lived on the southern border for 1½ years. Goya joins a list of my personal boycotts that include Home Depot, Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby, WWE, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs. I’d love to add Facebook to that list. But then, you wouldn’t be reading this, so I’ll have to dance with that devil. For now.

That photo of a smirking Trump, posing with Goya products on his desk in the Oval Office, demonstrates how divisive a can of beans can be.

Everything’s been upended. Careers. Families. Dinner.

I’ve lost a few friends this year. And our memories of those friends were limited to Facebook posts, because large gatherings in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic are dangerous. My Friend Jackie was one of them. Smart, funny, wise, sarcastic, caring Jackie. Sitting in a coffee shop at the Rochester Public Market, working on The New York Times crossword puzzle. Maybe asking me for help once in a while.

“What’s a five-letter word for home run?”

“Tater.”

She passed away on May 23. Here are words from her obituary, which she wrote herself:

Contributions may be made in her name to any political parties/organizations that work to unseat right-wing elected officials.

Political words? Perhaps. But really, they’re the words of a person who cared deeply about others. She saw what has been happening in this country. And who is responsible for what appears will be maybe 200,000 Americans dead of COVID-19 by the time the November elections roll around. And she wasn’t afraid to assign blame.

So where words have failed to appear for me over these last several weeks, I have found them in others. In fact, a whole bunch of words arrived in the mail last week. A letter from my niece, Bryden, who was planning on marrying her fiancée, Brian, this October in Colorado. In their words, why they’ve called it off:

It didn’t have to be this way. Through ineffectual leadership at nearly every level, at least 2,200,000 people have been sick and over 116,000 people are dead so far in the US. To have any of you end up in either category as a result of our little get together would be devastating.

Consider using your newfound free time for something more important: to learn more about what people who are not as privileged – and who are much more dramatically affected by recent events than we are in having to cancel our wedding – have been facing in this country. People who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, non-white, queer, trans, non-binary, etc. Everyone we invited has undoubtedly benefited from privilege in some way to varying degrees; acknowledging that and learning from it are critical to how we improve as a society.

If you were going to come, you were going to spend a few hundred bucks on the trip. Consider donating some of that money to a cause that helps people.

The best time to make a change was yesterday, the next best time is now.

I miss My Friend Jackie. But after that letter arrived, I began to think we’ll be OK.

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.

What they don’t know either helps them survive, or it kills them

The band lays down a jazzbo beat as I recite “Old Drunks.”

I’ve had a few people – well, three, that’s a trend, right? – ask me about the spoken-word piece I read at Tommy Brunett’s birthday party before a hundred or so people Sunday at Marge’s Lakeside Inn, on Lake Ontario beach. Tucked in among performances by musicians that included Suzi Willpower, Mike Gladstone and Brian Lindsay (“What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” was a perfect choice for Lindsay), what I read was a tribute to the men and women who built America and, now worn out and broken, live out their lives in saloon shadows, lit by neon beer signs. The words are actually pulled from a yet-to-be-published novel that I wrote, “A Bottle of Mezcal.” You can find the first few chapters of the manuscript on this web site under the heading “Works.”

So, for those three people, here’s the text from Sunday’s reading:

OLD DRUNKS

A guy wearing the weary tweed jacket of a failed Bohemian novelist sits at a table talking to a woman blanketed in the too-heavy makeup of a declining actress. Yeah, she had been a star of the community players stage, once. They stare idly at the television mounted on the wall over the bar. It’s a hockey game. “We live in a violent world,” he is saying. “Even vegetarians kill plants.”

She nods, her eyes trailing off to stare down at the pimento-stuffed olive at the bottom of her glass. It looks up at her like a disapproving eye.

Ray Charles sings, and the old guys at the bar grunt with approval. Some of them have only one good arm, and the blood vessels in their noses have bloomed into bright-red gin blossoms. I watch them lean forward into their pints of beer, seemingly in unison; they are red-assed mandrills now, crouching on the river bank, sipping the water.

But years ago they built this country. They can tell you how to mix the mortar that keeps every brick in this city in place. If you ride the trains with them, they point out the window, to the lines strung on the poles outside, and tell you those wires are made of copper because they have turned green in the weather. They can start a car with a screwdriver without killing themselves. They know stuff like that. Even that old guy in the polyester suit has stories. He worked fishing boats in Alaska and logged somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. That was in the days when men used horses to drag the trees down the hillside. Those horses would work until their hearts burst, and the crews piled the carcasses against the wall of the bunk house. In their youthful exuberance, the loggers slid down the corrugated tin roof and landed on the dead horses, laughing. Polyester Suit says he once cannonballed onto a horse that exploded on impact. “His guts blew out his mouth and his asshole,” Polyester Suit says. “Musta been exactly ripe.”

These old guys shot real people in wars and dropped bombs on historic cities without a second thought, but Johnny Cash rumbling “Sunday Morning Coming Down’’ makes them cry.

Their lives are arcs of random experience. What they don’t know either helps them survive, or it kills them.

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.

What I said

VickiKristinaBarcelona at the jazz fest.

The Rochester International Jazz Fest is over. I return to my regularly scheduled life.

Except for one last detail. While wandering the streets, I had a few people ask me about one of my morning appearances on “Open Tunings,” Scott Regan’s show on WRUR-FM (88.5), to discuss the festival. What were the comments I had made opening Wednesday morning’s show?

It was nothing extraordinary. It is what should be obvious. A reminder, for those of us with a public platform, or if we’re just chatting with friends, of the importance of the words we choose.

So here it is:

No one said anything to me yesterday about this. I received no emails or tweets or Facebook posts about this. But I said something yesterday that I regret. I joked about stalking one of the all-female bands that I’ve admired at the festival.

Stalking is a part of our society’s culture of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, it’s nothing new. But in the last two years we’ve see the Me Too movement bring more attention to the issue. I’ve been shocked by some of the stories shared by my women friends.

We have a president in the White House – our house – who faces serious allegations of sexual harassment and assault. A new accusation came up last week. The president’s response? “She’s not my type.”

She’s not my type. That’s an astounding level of entitlement.

Women musicians deserve to be appreciated for their music. If dressing in a charming or sexy way is a part of that performance, fine. But I’m not allowed to take it to the next level.

So I apologize to VickiKristinaBarcelona. And I apologize to your listeners.

And with that, Scott played VickiKristinaBarcelona’s version of Tom Waits’ “Hold on.”

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