Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

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World War III, with proper cultural annotations

With the conniving John Bolton vanquished, World War VI has been sidestepped, thanks to quick action by President For Life Donald John Trump, as accurately recorded on social media (See Trump Presidency Tweets, Vol. 3, 7:38 a.m. Jan. 29, 2020).

A long period of degeneration of political intellect had left a vacuum that was, briefly, occupied by World War V’s Zombie Apocalypse (See “The Walking Dead,” season 11, episode 7). But the period of national conflict (the Bowling Green Massacre) leading up to the era of anti-intellectualism (99 out of 100 scientists were indeed wrong about climate change) was offset by President Trump’s decision to wisely turn to the new powers entrusted to him (Alan Dershowitz, “if a president did something that he believes will help him get elected — in the public interest — that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” CSPAN Jan. 28, 2020). Just as King Solomon of Israel settled an early child-custody case by suggesting splitting in half an infant (The Hebrew Bible, 1 Kings 3:16–28), Trump’s solution to the challenges he faced was separating the presidency from the antiquated notion of checks and balances (The Constitution of the United States, separation of powers, Articles 1, 2 and 3, ratified June 21, 1788).

Republicans quickly realized that reaching a threshold does not necessarily mean that threshold has been reached: “Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office” (Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Jan. 31, 2020). This is a refreshing take on language (Abbott and Costello, “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third”). The degree to which President Trump’s critics accused him of personal corruption seems hardly commensurate with the man who – and we know this from his own words – tenaciously fought corruption in Ukraine (Joseph Heller, “Catch-22”).

These are complexities beyond the grasp of most Americans, who are now free to turn to their iPhones and watch videos of baby pandas learning how to walk at the Berlin zoo, or surf Netflix for documentaries on how the noise from wind turbines causes cancer (Donald Trump, National Republican Campaign Committee fundraiser, April 2, 2019). As has been widely quoted in recent years, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them (George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”). From this base theory, we draw corollaries difficult for commoners to comprehend, including “War is peace” (Ibid); “Freedom is slavery” (Ibid); “Ignorance is strength” (Ibid), and, “A trial does not necessarily require witnesses” (Senate Republicans, First Trump Impeachment hearing).

Normalization was now the new normal (Rudy Giuliani, “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation,” The New York Times, May 9, 2019).

Trump further solidified his base support by identifying troublesome sectors of the general population. The rise in hate crimes validates his efforts. “Fake News” outlets would soon be trampled as well. We know ancient cartographers once untruthfully depicted the Earth as flat, but debatable science is often unquestioningly accepted as real, ergo the war on truth (See climate change, the Hurricane Maria death toll, President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Senator Ted Cruz’ father was a part of a conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy, dozens of women accusing the president of sexual assault).

The emergence of the President’s alternative facts was skillfully enabled by what has been called Congressional Republicans’ “cringing shamefulness” (The Washington Post Editorial Board, Jan. 31, 2020).

The president set aside distractions such as parents whose sons and daughters gave their lives while in military service. And environmentalists protesting war-effort initiatives that included Trump’s freeing up national parks and waterways for the exploration of much-needed oil and the disposal of contaminated waste. And left-wing groups such as the American Bar Association rating his judicial candidates as “not qualified.” And while more than 160 countries that have banned the use of land mines due to their history of killing and wounding civilians, Trump rescinded restrictions on the U.S. military’s use of the weapons in order to further bolster the defense of the Homeland.

Trump discovered that healing the world was more swiftly accomplished when negotiating with just one man (Russian president Vladimir Putin) than having to answer to millions of his fellow citizens (Democrats, and anyone who refused to believe that Hillary Clinton’s cloud-based email server was actually a physical piece of hardware hidden in a basement in Ukraine).

Trump was the first (and one of the few, outside of White Nationalists) to recognize that Obama was planning to use Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to build concentration camps to lock up dissenters and nullify the 2016 election (Trump re-directed those FEMA funds to the more-democratic concept of building alien detention camps and separating children from their parents).

“So it goes” (Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse-Five”).

Prior to World Wars III, IV and V, it was common to see television cable news shows explain global conflicts by deploying retired generals in front of wall-sized maps, with arrows depicting how American troops were executing a series of “pincer movements” to trap Saddam Hussein’s army (“The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News). Pincer movements have long played a significant role in military history (Soviet Red Army vs. German Wehrmacht, Stalingrad, winter of 1942-’43). Yet the strategy had fallen out of favor by the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan at the end of the 20th Century; when Taliban soldiers saw the pointy part of the arrow coming toward them, they withdrew into the desert or mountains or general population until they observed the back end of the arrow, thereupon returning to the fight (“Lawrence of Arabia,” Best Picture, 1963 Academy Awards).

Looking ahead to World Wars III, IV and V, President Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. It set the military budget at $738 billion, which included the establishment of a new military branch with excellent insignia patches, the U.S. Space Force (Although the Prime Directive as initially defined by “Star Trek” prohibits members of the United Federation of Planets from interfering with the internal and natural development of alien civilizations).

Such futuristic thinking is generally the province of speculative fiction. “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (“The War of the Worlds,” H.G. Wells).

In that manner, President Trump sagely anticipated the arrival of Martians and their spindly-legged machines armed with death rays. His cool and calculated unpredictability kept the rest of the world breathlessly in check (Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”). Yet other dangers were far less obvious. The passage of time has shown us that World War III was not announced with a dramatic act of aggression, as we saw with Pearl Harbor and the American entry into World War II (Gordon W. Prange, “At Dawn We Slept”). Instead, it arrived with all of the quietude of a housecat hopping onto a bed to join its slumbering masters (Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine), unpublished manuscript, “And Then We Hit the Snooze Button and Rolled Over”).

The solutions to other dangers had proven to be far more costly. We can trace the true origins of World Wars III, IV and V to the American incursions into North Korea and Vietnam, and the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, roach motels of war from which there was no escape for either nation’s politicians or soldiers.  (“Apocalypse Now,” Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, speaking to Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, “You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill”).

Thus, while expanding their world reach through the economics of military spending working hand-in-hand and the symbolism of missile design (Sigmund Freud, common cocktail party chatter), Russian leaders learned that the bill will always come due. With the failure of its own war in Afghanistan, Russia traded such certified penis envy for teenage computer geeks (a monthly minimum wage of 12,130 rubles, or $191.05 in U.S. currency) launching dissolute bargain-basement cyber attacks from the comfort of their potato-filled kitchens. Their aim? To drive a wedge into America’s racial and economic fault lines, assuring the election of President For Life Trump.

Trump responded with shock-and-awe economics (the 2020 U.S. military budget, $738 billion) that demonstrated its limitless resources. And was time to party, taxpayer’s money well spent ($3.4 million on the Super Bowl LIV blowout at Mar-a-Lago, your invite’s still in the mail).

What could go wrong? (Edward Gibbon, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”) Certainly the United States Senate (President James Buchanan, “The greatest deliberative body in the world”) has never entertained such thoughts.

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The guitar never fell from his hands

David Olney.

The first time I saw David Olney was in Austin, at the South by Southwest Music Conference. He was playing guitar and singing songs populated by unusual characters. Many of them sad. Like the French prostitute in “1917” – Olney wrote this song 18 years before the current movie of the same name – who feels sorry for the young soldier who’s spending the night, because the way the war’s going, he’ll probably be dead soon. Emmylou Harris knows good songs. She recorded that one, as well as Olney’s “Deeper Well.”

So I wrote about Olney, and he must have liked the words, because he put some of them on his web site:

“I saw Olney playing at a festival this spring and thought he looked like a fedora-sporting fiftysomething high-school principal who’d suddenly gone berserk and was using his acoustic guitar like it was a weapon. Love this crazy guy, love this record.”

Olney had a song written from the point of view of a ventriloquist’s partner, “Who’s the Dummy Now?” There’s one about a sorrowful iceberg, sad because it sank the Titanic. And one whose main character is a comedian named Jesus Christ, who travels to Earth, is crucified, and now warns his fellow entertainers that they might want to steer clear of Earth because it’s “One Tough Town.”

I couldn’t wait to get home and tell My Friends Rick and Monica about my new music discovery. I was too late. They already knew about Olney. And soon, they’d booked him for a house concert.

A few songs into that show, the doorbell rang. It was a pizza delivery. “Double cheese with pepperoni, sent by Mr. Steve Earle,” the delivery guy announced, pulling the box from his insulated bag. The packed living room, 50 people, erupted in laughter.

The pizza was a reference to a story Earle tells on a 1995 live album, “Together at the Bluebird Cafe,” recorded with Earle, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. As Earle told the story then, he was a struggling songwriter working in a Nashville pizza place. He’d squirrel away a pizza and, at the end of the night, claim it had been ordered, but no one picked it up. And he’d be allowed to take it home. But his roommate at the time, Olney, would only eat double cheese and pepperoni. And after a few weeks of the night always ending with one double cheese with pepperoni left over, the restaurant owner figured out the scam. Earle was fired.

Of course, Earle hadn’t sent the pizza to Rick and Monica’s house concert that night. It was yet another scam, perpetrated by an Olney fan, a fake pizza delivery guy who hadn’t been able to get a ticket to the sold-out show and was looking for a way in.

You reward that kind of passion. They let him stay.

After Olney had concluded the concert with a song about going to a lamp-shade store to buy one for your head, and after most of the crowd had drifted off into the night, I sat at the kitchen table with Olney, drinking irresponsibly. Red wine. I was prodding Olney for stories about Earle and Clark and Van Zandt. And his pal Eric Taylor.

Taylor and Olney had this intense philosophy about performing live, where they were not just singing songs. They’d slip into their characters’ skin, and tell the story as if the song’s protagonist had arrived in that guitar case sitting off to the side of the stage. I’ve seen Taylor a few times, he haunts his characters. Olney did as well. He could be Shakespearean in tone. At shows, he would sometimes perform an a cappella version of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Other singers and songwriters who knew him, and performed and recorded his songs, called Olney the Bard of Nashville.

Olney wasn’t exactly gossiping that night at Rick and Monica’s, as the wine did its work. He was just confirming what we all knew, or had heard. That brilliant creatures like Earle and Clark – and particularly Van Zandt and Taylor – have a self-destructive streak in them as long as the roads they travel.

And yeah, Olney said, kind of smiling. Maybe him, too.

The last time I saw Olney was a year or two ago, at Fanatics Pub in Lima. He was working on a beard. Over time, a man can get to the Walt Whitman level. Wisdom comes with that.

Sunday morning on Facebook, it was Dave Alvin, a great songwriter himself, who shared the news that Olney was dead. Like his friends Country Dick Montana and Mark Sandman of the band Morphine, Alvin wrote, Olney had died onstage.

It was at the annual 30A Songwriters Festival, in Seaside, Fla. The 71-year-old Olney was playing alongside Scott Miller, who used to be in the V-Roys, a band that was on Steve Earle’s label. And onstage as well was Amy Rigby, who frequently passes through Rochester, most recently last year playing at Bop Shop Records.

Olney was in the middle of a song. He stopped playing, said “I’m sorry,” dropped his chin to his chest, and just sat there on his stool. Dead of a heart attack.

Perhaps still stunned, filled with disbelief, but wanting to share with Olney’s fans what had happened, Rigby and Miller both wrote about it on their Facebook pages. Rigby noted that Olney never dropped his guitar. Olney’s death, Miller wrote, was “as easy and gentle as he was.”

I knew Olney only a little. At about the same level that I knew Col. Bruce Hampton, the brilliantly crazy jam-band patriarch from Georgia who was celebrating his 70th birthday at a concert in 2017 with the Tedeschi Trucks Band when he dropped to the stage. Dead of a heart attack.

Hampton’s death, and now Olney’s, is not a warning to musicians who I might want to interview in the future. I’ve talked to thousands of them over the years. Most have survived. It’s just the odds, I guess.

Tuesday night, I was at The Little Cafe to see The Spring Chickens. That’s the local trio of Steve Piper, Connie Deming and Scott Regan. Olney was on their minds as well. Piper did an Olney song, “If My Eyes Were Blind,” words dwelling on age and loss. Deming went to the piano and played a song she wrote that was inspired by seeing Olney at Rick and Monica’s. A song he played that night, “Women Across the River.” Hers is called “Perfect Sound,” and uses an image she saw while sitting in the front row, the toes of his boots. Her song used lines drawn from a “Deeper Well,” and two more lines she wrote that were pulled almost directly from “Women Across the River.”

Laughing with the women in the rain

as it makes that perfect sound

And Regan recalled having Olney as his studio guest for his morning show on WRUR-FM (88.5), “Open Tunings.” Regan said Olney asked about the baseball stadium across the street. Frontier Field. “There’s a game at 1 o’clock,” Regan said. Olney seized that small moment, and went to the game.  On Tuesday night, Regan dedicated one of his own songs to Olney, “The World Doesn’t Owe You a Thing.”

When death comes, especially in the way it claimed Olney, I’ve heard people say, “Yeah, but at least he went out doing what he loved.” That’s a hard sentiment to get behind, dying in front of a room full of people. Country Dick Montana. Mark Sandman. Johnny “Guitar” Watson, that’s how he went as well.  Tiny Tim, Piper talked about the falsetto-voice crooner Tuesday night, collapsing after entertaining a women’s club. The dance band on the Titanic. They found ways to tell stories, and live their lives, in ways that are romantic and exciting and sometimes sad.

They live like wild horses, and we watch the beauty of them as they run.

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Stylin’ with the Space Force

An acquaintance asked me last week if I’d stopped writing The Critical Mass. No, I said. Just been laying low, absorbed with the new job, visiting my 90-year-old mom in Cleveland, doing laundry.

And, to be quite honest, I had nothing to add to the blogosphere, and in particular the national debate surrounding Trump. Well, “debate” is not the right word for what we’re witnessing. Hundreds of doctors and psychologists have signed letters stating that the president has serious mental issues. Hundreds of lawyers have signed petitions declaring Trump has committed crimes. A national study of almost 200 political scientists concludes that Trump is the worst president ever and forever. Thousands of witnesses have corroborated accounts of Trump lying, assaulting women, cheating his business partners, calling neo-Nazis “very fine people,” referring to Mexican citizens fleeing poverty as rapists, steering government business to his own properties to financially benefit himself, violating campaign finance laws to buy the silence of Playboy models and porn stars with whom he’s had affairs, ordering children to be separated from their parents at our southern border, encouraging supporters at his rallies to physically attack protesters, abolishing environmental protections, evading taxes, asking the FBI to jail reporters, extorting foreign governments in his search of political favors, mocking the physical characteristics of people who question his integrity, spreading bizarre conspiracy theories, obstructing justice, creating fake national emergencies and launching military actions to distract from investigations into his corrupt administration, intimidating witnesses, consorting with murderous dictators in Russia, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, and lying about his golf scores.

There is no “debate.” Trump’s unfitness as a leader is a foregone conclusion.

But I cannot remain silent any longer on this latest outrage. The Space Force uniforms are insane.

To update readers on this sartorial saga, Trump announced early in his presidency that he was creating a sixth branch of the U.S. military, the Space Force, to… well, to fight our space wars. And this week the Space Force moved closer to reality, because we have now seen the Space Force uniforms.

I’m not sure why this announcement took so long, because we’ve been studying various uniform prototypes for decades, with hand-to-hand space combat in mind:

Alas, the Space Force has chosen to fly off in another direction. Surprisingly, our first look at the new outfits this week did not come with Melania strutting down a fashion runway. All we got were a few promo shots of…

Waitaminute! Will our Space Force be duck hunting?

As our brave men and women wrestle evil for control of the stars, they’ll be rocking in what’s called the OCP pattern, or multi-cam. Camouflage intended to hide our troops in jungle terrain, or in the desert, or when they’re walking through airports on their way to what Trump calls “shithole countries.”

The internet, one of the most-cynical inventions in the history of mankind, has already exposed the problem here: Wouldn’t our Space Force be better protected if our fighting men and women wore tunics decorated with stars and planets? If we want to think bigger, perhaps a supernova? Or, going in the other direction, a plain, black outfit? Because, those of us who go out at night and look up have noticed that space is mostly black.

At least the USSF could have picked a camo pattern that’s more cosmic. This one is called “Rhodesian Brushstroke,” and is appropriately spacey:

No, no, no, says the Space Force. Not only is the Space Force to be taken seriously because it has uniforms, but it also has a Twitter account. And someone in the Space Force with access to that presumably top-secret password immediately rushed to the defense of the uniforms with a tweet:

USSF is utilizing current Army/Air Force uniforms, saving costs of designing/producing a new one.

Members will look like their joint counterparts they’ll be working with, on the ground.

Let’s take this official statement at face value. A risky proposition of course, considering the Trump administration is not exactly tethered to reality. Is it “saving costs?” The statement here suggests the Space Force is concerned with a responsible – frugal, even – use of your tax dollars. Great, but the proposed U.S. military budget for 2020 is $718 billion. I think we could safely set aside $1 million to avoid embarrassing our Space Force when it encounters outer-space high society. You know the French Space Force is gonna turn some heads.

More telling, the USSF says these uniforms are intended for “on the ground” members.

OK. The initial Space Force proposal calls for 16,000 personnel. Doing what? Sitting at computer keyboards, gathering intelligence on potential targets launched by North Korea’s space program, marching in parades. How many Space Force people will actually see service in space? Not many, considering the cost to put them up there, and keep them up there. Men and women riding around in space ships, checking inspection stickers on satellites, shooting lasers at threatening aliens, whether they are from Betelgeuse or Mexico, is pure Trumpian fantasy. While we’re waging this Cold War like Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb in the final scene from “Dr. Strangelove,” the Russians are infiltrating the internet, creating divisions that are ripping our country to pieces.

When weighing the price tag of launching a nuclear war versus the cost of hacking our elections, the Russians are getting a real bargain.

Wouldn’t those 16,000 new Space Force recruits be put to better use as special agents assigned to fight the internet blitzkrieg that has been launched by Russia? We could even let them keep the same Batman T-shirts they wear when humiliating their Fortnite opponents.

Reality: If the USSF is really concerned with saving costs on designing/producing new uniforms for the brave men and women patrolling the distant, lonely reaches of the exosphere, it could go with real tried-and-true designs. Of which there are probably thousands stored in television and film production warehouses all over Los Angeles. Like these:

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