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Lies my teachers told me

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

I believe it was the first grade. Maybe the second grade, at Northfield Elementary School, in the suburb of Cleveland where I grew up. The teacher was leading a discussion about a character in a story the class was reading, a character who lived in an apartment building.

“Why do people live in apartments?” she asked.

My hand shot up. I had actual experience in this matter. I explained how my family had sold its house and was now living in an apartment while a new house was being built.

A pause…

“No,” the teacher said, and moved on.

True or not, I guess my experience wasn’t the specific answer the teacher was looking for. And I didn’t raise my hand for another 10 years.

But I continued to listen.

It was my fifth-grade teacher who introduced me to potential nuclear annihilation. Northfield, she explained, was perfectly positioned to be a major player in a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Pointing to a large map of Northeastern Ohio – in this pre-internet Stone Age, classrooms at the time were well equipped with pull-down maps of the entire planet – she showed us how the Soviets could drop a bomb on our town and wipe out both Cleveland and Akron in one strategic move.

I looked at the map. It seemed logical. We were doomed.

Same teacher, another lesson: I was sitting by the classroom windows, it was a beautiful spring day. The teacher was droning on about her favorite subject, The Cold War. Her point of view hadn’t advanced much beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly a decade earlier. But now there was hope. The United States had a new defensive system, she said. A net, floating in space over the entire country. If the Soviets launched a missile, it would penetrate that net, and an alarm would sound.

I was kind of a smart fifth grader. I even read the newspaper every day. And I knew this story the teacher was telling was totally insane. I suspected she had confused someone’s use of the word “net” as a metaphor for our missile defense system and taken it to mean there was a literal “net” hundreds of miles over our heads, keeping us safe.

Out of these early learning experiences emerged the man you read today: Cynical and questioning of authority, yet prone to glancing fearfully at the sky whenever I make a trip back to Cleveland to visit my mom.

Knowledge is power. And, as such, society is structured around gatekeepers. Sometimes those gatekeepers unintentionally pass on bad information. My fifth-grade teacher simply wanted us to be prepared for nuclear Armageddon, ready to dive beneath our desks if a sudden flash of light blew out the glass in our classroom windows. Because of her prescient warning, perhaps a few of us would survive. Fifth graders on whose narrow shoulders would fall the task of rebuilding and repopulating Earth.

But I doubt my fifth-grade teacher developed the theory herself that our town was Ground Zero. Perhaps she came across a copy of Reader’s Digest left in the Teacher’s Lounge, and in there found the concept of nuclear multi-tasking expressed by yet another fear-mongering gatekeeper, whose qualifications and intentions are lost to us.

Think of all the gatekeepers who control our lives, by managing knowledge, and restricting our access to the ideas and resources that will move us forward. Politicians, of course. Corporations. Relatives. Neighbors. Police. Judges. The school board. The people who write textbooks for our schools. Coaches. Scout leaders. Bartenders. The person who decides what vegetables to stock on your grocery shelves. Your boss. His or her boss. Churches. Satan.

It will only get worse. “Deepfake” technology is coming. We’ve already seen internet hoaxes that regularly fool millions of people. That’s like Gumby and Pokey animation compared to the potential of deepfake. When deepfake technology is perfected, which will be very soon, the world will be inundated with fake photos, videos and audio whose origins will be undetectable. Computers are already being used to write news. With deepfake, algorithms will allow computers to read images and audio, enabling the creation of scenes that never happened. People will appear to say things they never said. In other words, real fake news. Our thoughts and actions will be controlled by technology far more insidious than 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Hal 9000.

We’ll have no idea as to the identity of those gatekeepers.

That’s when the credibility of media – real, authentic people – will become essential to the survival of society.

And just as we need the media to help us navigate this threat, it is losing its way.

Why was so much attention granted over the past week to a television actor, Jussie Smollett, who selfishly tried to parlay the nation’s racial issues into a pay raise for himself by creating a fake crime that would raise his public profile? Receiving far less attention was the arrest of a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and self-described white nationalist who was stockpiling weapons and creating a hit list of Democratic lawmakers, activists and media personalities. His goal, prosecutors said, was “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country” and establish a “white homeland.”

Let me say right now that the vast majority of news reporters in this country understand which of those two stories is the most significant. But the gatekeepers far up the food chain like the Smollett story because it is web site click bait. A racist plotting mayhem is old news. An actor faking a race-based crime? That’s like an episode of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman.

The importance of the media as a responsible gatekeeper in a free society cannot be overstated. Truth isn’t subjective, it really is out there. And it must keep our increasingly overtaxed attention spans focused on a 21st-century perspective: While our president wants to build a medieval wall, a couple of weeks ago China landed a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon

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.

Working on decimation, because words matter

I am a word guy. It’s how I make my living. Words are my truth, and I insist we follow their precise meanings.

One particular agitation for years has been when a waitperson approaches me in a restaurant, sees my plate with some still-edible scraps of food on it and asks: “Are you still working on that?”

Working? Working is a task, often one that a person is paid for, like operating a backhoe on a hot day. I’ve never been paid for eating. If I’m eating, and paid for the privilege, it’s supposed to be a pleasure.

So, yeah, I’m a curmudgeon (noun: a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man). But it’s not that I can’t learn. As is the case in my longtime association with the word decimate (verb: to kill one in 10). It irritated me when I’d hear television weather reporters tell us, “Hurricane Katrina decimated the city of New Orleans.” What? It killed one in 10 people, it destroyed one in 10 houses?

But now I admit, time has moved on for decimate (historical verb: a form of capital punishment to quell rebellion among Roman troops, with one out of every 10 men put to death). Grudgingly, I now embrace a new decimate (modern usage: to kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of).

I move on to new, trendy words and phrases, not with reluctance, but with caution. A phrase that appeared a couple of years ago is “throwing shade” (slang: subtle, sneering expression of contempt for or disgust with someone). I like the sound of it, and its intention. Yet since I don’t want to appear to be an older white man trying too hard to be hip, I avoid phrases like throwing shade (social media personality Bugatti Beez: “I just wanna love yo stupid ass but yo stupid ass be acting stupid & that shit stupid”).

More recently, I find agitation in the word “per” (preposition: for each, as used with units to express a rate, such as a gas selling at $2.59 per gallon). I’ve been reading internet stories about the upcoming Super Bowl so that I can engage in social conversation with people, and it’s astonishing how often I come across sportswriters using “per” (example: “Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be wearing a size XXL jock strap, lined with duck down, per Sports Illustrated’s Peter King). In this case, per is used to indicate attribution. I’ve seen internet sportswriting that contains three pers per story. Apparently, the writers believe the use of “per,” rather than “I read somewhere else,” gives their own reporting a lawyerly authority. And as a former sportswriter, I can confirm that sportswriters are neither lawyerly or authorities.

This week, I’ve been reading the Trump henchman Roger Stone complaining about his arrest on seven criminal counts, including obstruction of justice and witness tampering. Yet another witch nailed in the witch hunt. He’s said Osama bin Laden was treated better than he has been. Stone calls his predicament a “legal lynching.”

Perhaps he has forgotten that bin Laden was shot in the head and his body dumped in the ocean. Perhaps he has forgotten that lynching was something mobs of white racists did to black people in America, and not that long ago.

These words are Stone re-defining the legal system at work. Verbal sideshows that sidestep fact and true definition, and overstate the situation, for his convenience.

In truth, words always matter.

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.

Mondays with Ernie


Long rumored, now inevitable. Lyons Press will publish 22 Minutes, my book on the life of Ernie Coleman.

Hardcover, $26.95, 224 pages, weighs 1.7 pounds, official publication date May 1, 2019. You can pre-order it now from amazon.com. No salesman will visit your home.

A local sailing legend on Lake Ontario, Ernie’s long life was shadowed by a terrible tragedy. He’d survived the sinking of the cruiser Vincennes during World War II’s Battle of Savo Island, the worst open-sea defeat ever suffered by the United States Navy. Four big ships and more than 1,000 sailors were lost that night, including more than 300 on Vincennes. All in a 22-minute battle, as referenced in the book’s title.

Here’s how the book came about. I was hired by one of Ernie’s daughters to write the story of his life. He was 93 years old when I met him, living in Summerville with a view of Lake Ontario from his house. Ernie was a carpenter who built a family through four marriages, adoption and stepchildren. His was a story of courage, tragedy, comedy, curiosity, brawls, an affair that ended his first marriage, his adopted daughter’s descent into drug abuse, and a relentless desire to live life to its fullest. And building boats, and sailing. We self-published the book in 2012 as Chasing the Wind. It sold more than 2,000 copies. Pretty good for a self-published book.

But agents were suggesting that I should re-write Chasing the Wind, and include my relationship with Ernie. Kind of a Tuesdays With Morrie thing. And so I did, weaving into the story of how the two of us put together Chasing the Wind over a series of Monday-morning meetings. And how I had to tell the story of what happened to Ernie on the night Vincennes was sunk, when he wouldn’t tell it himself because of his recurring nightmares. And how, after it was published, I took Ernie to book clubs and public readings, until a few months before his death at age 95.

So Chasing the Wind became the book within the book. The publishers insisted the name be changed to avoid confusion; while the two versions share some material, 22 Minutes is a much fuller, more rewarding story. I came up with the new name one morning while walking my dog, thinking of my friend Gary Craig’s book about the Rochester Brinks robbery, Seven Million. It’s all in the numbers. That’s how creativity works sometimes. Steal.

The cover of Chasing the Wind was a photo of Ernie sailing his boat, Desire. For 22 Minutes, Lyons Press went with a photo of Vincennes, and an inset of Ernie as a 24-year-old Navy man. I wasn’t excited about it, Ernie was about much more than that ship. But the Lyons Press marketing people figured it would get your attention.

And we worked hard on the subtitle, because that’s what the search engines are tuned to. World War II, Savo Island, Vincennes… Ernie had a deep life, so he gets two subtitles. That cover you’re looking at now hasn’t been adjusted for the final titles: “The USS Vincennes and the Tragedy of Savo Island” and “A Lifetime Survival Story.” Still too much of a focus on that one moment of Ernie’s life. But, hey, we’re trying to sell a book here.

I was talking to some friends about it, and we started casting the movie version. I’m looking for a Spencer Tracy type to play Ernie. I wanted Randy Quaid to play me, but he’s hard to find these days. One of my friends suggested Jeff Daniels, and I’m cool with that. Anyone got his number?

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.

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