Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

The box of manure in our basement  

The song is a beautiful piece of 1960s pop. Melancholy, yet upbeat. Confronting an issue – loneliness – and offering hope:

And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you

Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to

Guide them along …

There is quite a distance between a cry for help and the statement made on Christmas Day by a strange loner who rigged his RV with explosives, drove to downtown Nashville and staged his own death to the soundtrack of Petula Clark singing “Downtown.” The fact that no one was killed does not ameliorate the darkness of the act. He knew better. The people around him who knew he was building bombs knew better.

So for now, we associate a violent act with a song that urges people to seek comfort among strangers. “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city, linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty.”

The arts is sometimes a strange bedfellow to inhumanity. Paul McCartney didn’t have mass murder in mind when he wrote “Helter Skelter,” with Charles Manson’s followers using the blood of one of their victims to paint the song title on a refrigerator door during their weekend murder spree in 1969. Misspelled as “Healter,” they weren’t scholars.

Mark Chapman and his favorite book, “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The man who murdered John Lennon had an obsession with the novel “The Catcher in the Rye.” Adolph Hitler’s deep admiration for the music of Richard Wagner is well known. Yet the works of McCartney, J.D. Salinger and Wagner have survived those associations. “Downtown” will live on as well.

Of course, these stories are never as simple as all that. Wagner couldn’t control his fan base after his death in 1883. But his raging anti-Semitism (today excused as the rantings typical of a 207-year-old man) remains his responsibility.

Everything created by musicians, painters, dancers, writers and architects is a reflection of the artist. Maybe not in image, but in message. Their art outlives the worst of the self portraits that it reflects. As much as I detest Michael Jackson now, I’m sure his music will survive with future listeners not giving much thought to his alleged pedophilia.

Although, in my mind, they should.

I don’t expect even-handedness in a fractured world. The girlfriend of the Nashville RV bomber reportedly told the police a year ago that he was making bombs. They shrugged and moved on. If that bomb maker had been a Black man, rather than white, it seems likely the cops would have been kicking in the door of his RV, shooting first and worrying about what we think a little too late.

This past year was a product of the bi-polar planet on which we live. One side of it works just fine. There are times when I feel like a hyena creeping out of the desert, to the edge of a campfire, where I watch all of these amazing humans doing incredible things. And I just feel damn lucky to be close to it. Squirreled away in my home through the pandemic, I’ve read some great books. This was unplanned, but more than a few have had something to do with trees. My Friend Michele gave me Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees,” the story of California redwoods; I learned that falling from a tree any more than 60 feet means you’re dead. Trees are to be found in nature writer Robert MacFarlane’s “Underland: A Deep Time Journey,” but its real soul is uncovered in the world beneath the roots; there is a cavern in China that is so large, it has its own weather system. And now I’m deep into Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Overstory,” in which trees are as much characters as humans. While it’s fiction, much of it is based on fact; as blight was wiping out chestnut trees across the country, an attempt was made to halt the spread of the disease by clearing trees from a 400-mile zone across Pennsylvania. The maneuver failed; the workers’ axes and saws helped carry the plague across the state.

I read that and thought about COVID-19.

Peter Gunn navigates his 1959 Plymouth Fury through another scene.

Television? It hasn’t been of much help. Amazon Prime created special “Holiday” categories of dozens and dozens of films to choose from. It’s astonishing how many really unwatchable Christmas movies have been given the green light over the last 15 years. All attempting to reveal to us The True Meaning of Christmas. Which is basically: Don’t Be An Asshole. None of these films meet the standard set by “A Christmas Story.” In that true classic, The Meaning of Christmas is simply: If the neighbor’s vagabond hounds seize your Christmas Day turkey from the table and viciously dismember it, there is a Chinese restaurant open somewhere.

In this time of quarantine, I have enjoyed an amusing dalliance with “Peter Gunn,” a private-eye series from the late 1950s and early ’60s starring an actor I’d never heard of. But Craig Stevens seems to have set the stage for Sean Connery’s James Bond. “Peter Gunn” is fedoras, jazz and blonde cocktail crooners, casual smoking, cars with big fins, fisticuffs and serious gunplay in warehouses stacked with labyrinthine arrangements of crates, good for chaotic chase scenes. All of this in less than a half hour for each episode. With an immediately recognizable theme by Henry Mancini.

Music, as always. As I’m typing this, I’m listening to Scott Regan’s “Open Tunings” show on WRUR-FM (88.5). His final song of the year is Nina Simone’s version of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” It’s elegant, drenched in melancholy and a wistful sense of something lost.

A lost year, perhaps.

A year in which we’ve tumbled backwards.

More than 25 million Americans have either lost their job or seen a significant drop in their income. More than 8 million Americans slid into poverty. That’s all contributing to one in four American households experiencing what those who study social structure call “food insecurity.” People are going hungry. In 21st-century America.

Perhaps they are… I’m searching for the right word here… unlucky? The Institute for Policy Studies published a report that demonstrated that many Americans are not going hungry at all. In fact, since March, when the pandemic started kicking in, the total net worth of the country’s 647 billionaires has grown by almost $960 billion.

A new Gallop poll out this week reveals Trump is the most-admired man in America. I’m thinking the rest of the Top 10 – Obama, Biden, Fauci, Pope Francis, Elon Musk, Bernie Sanders, Bill Gates, LeBron James and the Dalai Lama – split the vote among sane people.

The United States is responsible for so many advances in science, yet is populated by so many people who live in denial of clear fact. Fifty-one percent of Republicans still doubt that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. Forty percent of Americans are creationists.

Fifty percent of Republicans believe at least some portions of the QAnon mythology that a secret ring of Satan-worshiping pedophiles runs the U.S. government, and Trump is leading a secret fight against it. A storyline so ridiculous, any self-respecting screenwriter would lock the script in the bottom drawer of his or her desk.

Fact, and demonstrable history, is no match for populist politics. On Columbus Day, we celebrate a cruel slave trader. Town squares remain populated by statues that re-write the American south, leading up to the Civil War, as some kind of antebellum island of nobility.

We know better. At least, some of us know better.

As much as I’d like it to be true, the arts and science are not generally accepted as reflective of truth. We don’t look that deep into ourselves. The internet justification for fact-free beliefs is “owning the libs.” Downtown may be where, “The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” but the internet is not such a place. It is a room of darkness and separation, it nurtures troubles in the same way that a box of manure in the basement feeds a crop of mushrooms.

Acknowledging climate change or systemic racism goes nowhere in this environment. Seeing that 340,000 Americans are dead of COVID-19 should be a wake-up call, not something sprouting out of bullshit.

There is no evidence that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. None. And yet…

It all brings to mind the philosopher George Carlin: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

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Making way for strange, sweet, otherworldly creatures

Rudy Giuliani as Inspector Clouseau.

It is so sad for us that Peter Sellers has been dead for 40 years. It would be a short reach for the comedic actor to dip into his most-famous role, as the bumbling Chief Inspector Clouseau, to play Rudy Giuliani in a movie about the final days of the Trump presidency. Can’t you see it? Clouseau/Giuliani standing in front of a landscaping store, a dildo shop metaphorically next door, as he bravely proclaims Trump has won re-election. Yelling about conspiracies even as the television news crews pack up their equipment, Clouseau/Giuliani now rendered irrelevant, because at that same moment the major networks are starting to predict that Joe Biden will be our next president.

Inspector Clouseau as Rudy Giuliani.

Or, can’t you see the eyes of Clouseau/Giuliani bugging out as he howls incoherently about election fraud, while tears of black sludge run down his cheeks? Clouseau/Giuliani floating improbable, evidence-free plots of voting machines manufactured in Venezuela under the watchful eye of dictator Hugo Chávez (who has been dead for seven years) switching millions of votes from Trump to Biden.

Perhaps the narrator of our Clouseau/Giuliani film will be John Fetterman, the 6-foot, 8-inch, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. Tattooed and goateed, with a no-nonsense speaking style perfectly suited for closing the case on the sputtering Clouseau/Giuliani charge of voting irregularities in his state: “The only irregularity we had was the president’s campaign rolling up in a clown car in downtown Philadelphia, having an impromptu press conference, and saying ridiculous things and making up lies.”

Clown car. That’s the image that has perfectly captured the final downward spiral of Trump in these last few weeks, as he bounces around like an amusement park bumper-car ride, finalizing the dishonor of: Worst President Ever.

Oh, how harmless it all seemed, five years ago, on the day the acclaimed grifter and reality TV star rode down the gold escalator in Trump Tower to make the announcement that he was running for president. And since that day, that escalator has just kept on going down, down, down, down…

On the Sunday after it was evident that Biden had won the election, and speculation turned to how many Secret Service agents it would take to drag Trump from the White House, I did not turn on the television until late that evening. I’d had enough. Outside my window, the leaves on the trees lining the street had all turned a glorious gold. All day long, I listened to The Allman Brothers Band. “Eat a Peach.” And “Live at Fillmore East,” the greatest live album of all time. One of the Top 10 albums of all time, period.

As night fell, we Zoomed with friends, equally ecstatic over Biden’s victory. While we talked the television was on, but muted, showing us images of people dancing in the streets. Dancing! Truly moving images of celebration. People holding up hand-lettered signs reading “YOU’RE FIRED!” The gloom of Trump had been lifted, for a moment at least. There was no longer a need to respond to Trump, and his thrashing about like a mastodon trapped in a tar pit. No need to pay any mind to the snarling acid trip of Clouseau/Giuliani.

All of my friends are smart, but I feel bad that a few were taken in by Trump. It’s been a tough year if you’re inclined to make excuses for 250,000 Americans dead of COVID-19. Or record-high unemployment. Or seeing fellow Americans rallying in the streets against racism as their president orders them to be tear-gassed so as to clear the way for a photo-op of him holding a Bible upside down while standing outside of a church he doesn’t attend. Or hearing Trump snarl about how he sees cities ravaged by riots and fire – on his watch, by the way – even as he applauds the anarchy of militia guys wearing camo and waving guns in the halls of government buildings. It’s a tribute to the National Rifle Association that it can inspire 17-year-old kids with automatic rifles to shoot people in the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Even as the NRA leadership, including its president Wayne LaPierre, appears to have been busy using my friends’ NRA dues to buy powerboats and take vacations to exotic islands.

There has been so much to absorb in the midst of the Trump funeral knell. As the dust and spittle settled, I read an online story that insisted the new breakout sexy-nerd star of this year’s election coverage was Steve Kornacki. The MSNBC analyst whose uniform was khaki pants and the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to his elbows, waving his arms at a big electronic board that gave him every combination of vote totals and electoral counts imaginable. I guess we’re supposed to forget that in the weeks leading up to this election – and the 2016 election, for that matter – most of the pollsters and prognosticators had been really, really wrong.

But yes, I do find smart people to be sexy. Carl Sagan. Frida Kahlo. Dr. Anthony Fauci. Maria Popova, who writes one of my favorite web sites, Brainpickings. So I turned off Kornacki and read a Popova post entitled “250-year-old Natural History Illustrations of Some of Earth’s Strangest, Sweetest, and Most Otherworldly Creatures.” It opened with this observation:

If the legendary nanogenarian cellist Pablo Casals was right, as I trust he was, that working with love prolongs your life, and if Walt Whitman was right, as I know he was, that an intimacy with the natural world is the key to robust mental and physical health, then the English naturalist and pioneering ornithologist George Edwards (April 3, 1694–July 23, 1773) owed his longevity, which eclipsed the life expectancy of his time and place by decades, to the extraordinary creative vitality with which he reverenced nature in his work.

That’s one hell of a sentence. Popova’s point through her long essay – copiously illustrated with color prints of Edwards’ decades-long career of creating watercolor studies of monkeys, birds and anteaters – is that a long and rewarding life is to be had from comingling with nature.

I trust she is right. Spending too much time in the company of ugly creatures such as Trump, Giuliani, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsay Graham, will take years off your life.

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.

 

Dogs committing editorial comment

It’s coming to an end. Maybe. Trump had a rally a week ago at the fairgrounds in Circleville, Ohio. I had to tune in to that one, as I’ve driven past the site for many years when visiting my in-laws. It’s reliably Republican territory, so the place was packed. The usual Trump scene. No masks. No social distancing. No one at these events is going to pass on an opportunity to “own the libtards,” as they like to say, by paying any mind to science.

As I listened to Trump, I thought of the Pickaway County Fair. And how, with the car windows rolled down, I could hear the excitement of people as they took in the amusement park rides, the food vendors, maybe a vintage car show that afternoon. And there would be the animal sheds, and the smell of…

Bullshit.

The same smell emanating from Trump at the Pickaway County Fairgrounds.

Stanford University researchers have presented a study that shows Trump rallies may have caused 30,000 new coronavirus cases and 700 additional deaths. According to the science: “The communities in which Trump rallies took place paid a high price in terms of disease and death.”

Trump, and his acolytes, live in an alternate reality. They’re not stupid, they choose to believe the unbelievable. Of all the horrors of the Trump presidency, the worst is what he’s done to The Truth. Without The Truth, at our southern border children can be separated from their parents and placed in cages. Without the Truth, Russians are free to meddle in our elections and place bounties on the heads of our soldiers in Afghanistan. Without The Truth, racism and the assault on our climate will continue unabated. And without The Truth, the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic will continue to grow.

In recent months, Facebook has pretended it is some kind of Socrates of social media. But it also can’t handle The Truth. My Friend Karen – not one of those Karens – posted a photo on Facebook of a dog peeing on a Trump lawn sign. Facebook took it down. So I’ll put it back up:

This photo is editorial content. It does not rise to the dangerous level of the president using social media to urge citizens to inject bleach to fight COVID-19, or incite violence against Muslims or Mexicans. Or Americans who exercise their right to protest.

And just in case some social media detective takes down My Friend Karen’s photo of a dog peeing on a Trump campaign sign, here’s another one:

Dogs committing editorial comment. They’re everywhere. Fighting them is useless.

There is no need here to recite, once again, the horrors of the Trump presidency. They are well documented. We only need to remember what Joe Biden reminded us of at their last debate. We know who Trump is. We know who Biden is.

Last night, I watched an excellent documentary. “The Way I See It” is the story of Pete Souza, who was the official photographer for the Reagan presidency, and then all eight years of the Obama White House. And Souza is now using his images to emphasize the contrast between Obama and Trump.

Obama. Souza shows us he is dignified. Intelligent. Well read and informed. Funny, even. Loves his daughters, his wife, and his dogs. And, if you do watch the documentary, there is a word that comes up often as people talk about Obama. Empathy. We hear it time and again. Empathy for the parents who lost children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Empathy for people who lost their homes in natural disasters. Empathy for soldiers who have lost limbs or been paralyzed while fighting in Afghanistan.

Obama is a real human being. Trump? He’s bullshit.

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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