Today's Special

"And here is Earth, a bright-blue jewel glittering in our modest galaxy, wandering in the darkness like a tourist in a bad neighborhood, about to be mugged." From "Stephen Hawking is a Peeping Tom," in Essays.

The Critical Mass

Bat McGrath: The early years.

Bat’s advice on life from a Tennessee mountaintop: Keep it simple

Bat McGrath is coming back to Rochester, with a gig Friday at The Little Theatre. I can use a little Bat right now.

The signs are all around me. Yesterday, with my hands full of coffee cups and jackets, I put a set of keys on the roof of the car. Just for a few seconds, I thought. And then drove off. A mile down Lake Avenue I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw something sliding past the window, and onto the street. I turned back but, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at how bent-up a set of keys gets when 40 cars drive over them.

A minor problem. Four keys, I’ll get new ones made. But it’s nevertheless an irritation. Big things, little things go wrong and you realize it’s time to simplify life. So you can pay attention to details, not let dumb things happen.

McGrath’s songs are often like that. He sings about “re-arranging the change” on the bar in front of him. I understand that image, I’ve sat in bars idly re-arranging thousands of dollars in coins over the years. He sings about using wire to put a rebellious muffler back on your car. I used to do that kind of thing all of the time, years ago. Use a coat hanger, rather than pay a mechanic $100 to do the job.

He writes lots of love songs.

Bat today: Ethan Porter, left , and Bat McGrath.

As most Rochesterians know, McGrath and Don Potter were the music scene here, back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They had a great band, The Showstoppers, and a late-night coffeehouse, Hylie Morris’ Alley, where young musicians like Chuck and Gap Mangione, and Steve Gadd, would show up to play.

I wonder what happened to those guys?

Good things, I guess. For Potter and McGrath, too. Potter found God and The Judds, and has done well for himself. McGrath and Tricia found each other, and moved to a mountaintop home in the woods just outside of Nashville. You can usually find them up there with the dogs. And the copperheads. Living a quiet life of creativity. Tricia was on The Young and the Restless for years. Now she makes quilts. McGrath, who gave up writing and performing for a while to work as a bodyguard for Van Halen, before returning to being a musician.

McGrath’s been riding a real creative surge, writing songs, cranking out new albums. The parts wear out; he had a triple bypass a couple of months ago. But he and Tricia keep things simple, and manageable, with few distractions. And the creativity flows on that Tennessee mountaintop.

Friday’s show starts at 8 p.m., tickets are $15 advance, $20 the day of the show, and available at The Little and thelittle.org.

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The Critical Mass

 It’s time to start pruning the bad limbs from the tree

Several friends of mine have been posting ME TOO stories on Facebook. Women bearing witness to their experiences with sexual harassment. I’d heard pieces of these stories from them, but not the whole thing. I’d never picked up on the sense of entitlement that some men seem to feel when they’re alone with women, often in cases where they’ve just met. I didn’t get a full sense of the depravity. The outright weirdness.

This awakening that we’re seeing is inspired by the allegations that Harvey Weinstein, who was perhaps the biggest entertainment mogul in the world until last week, is a longtime sexual harasser. A friend of mine was quoted in Sunday’s Washington Post on the matter. She said one of the things she learned as a radio DJ in the 1980s in Buffalo, where Weinstein was getting his start in the entertainment business, is as a woman, “never be alone in a room with Harvey Weinstein.”

I suppose you could say that was the ’80s, and we’ve come a long way in three decades. Yet a year ago we were hearing the Access Hollywood tapes in which a presidential candidate confessed to sexually assaulting women. And there was plenty of outrage. It didn’t matter, we elected Donald Trump president.

I was sitting in a bar with friends one night in June 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples in this country had the right to marry. Someone pulled out a phone and showed off a photo of the White House lit up in the colors of the rainbow. I know that not everyone in America was happy about it; but around our little table that night, we were delighted. And proud. We felt that America was moving forward.

Do you think we’ll feel something like that again anytime soon?

So we can’t rely on society correcting itself, moving forward. Too many conflicting interests are in play. In fact, by many yardsticks – the conversation on race, the rise in violence and discriminatory actions against LGBTQ people, the attack on the environment, the economic divide in this country – we’ve been backsliding over the past six months.

And don’t blame the Duck Dynasty crowd. Our elected officials don’t like to deal with tough questions. Many media outlets seem to believe that presenting both sides of a story means bigots get equal time. A lot of corporations, often headed by smart people who should know better, are reluctant to join the fight.

Play it safe, don’t rile people.

I don’t like living in an echo chamber, hearing only my voice. Social media exacerbates that problem. And for that reason, whenever a friend tells me “you should block that idiot” on Facebook, I’ve always declined to do so. My reply has generally been, “I think we need to know they’re out there.”

Now I’ve changed my mind. We know they’re out there. They’re getting louder. Gathering around statues of the heroes of the Confederacy, guffawing over misogynistic jokes, planning racist Halloween costumes. I don’t want to be just one more small megaphone that amplifies their message.

So this week, I’ll be poking around my social media accounts, blocking a few people here and there. Not people with whom I simply disagree. But the ones who disseminate fake news stories intended to distract from the debate. And certainly the racists, and those who thrive on bigotry, hate and ridicule.

I want them to understand that they’re not welcome. It’s like the words on a T-shirt that a guy I know sometimes wears: MAKE RACISTS AFRAID AGAIN.

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The Critical Mass

The lonely paperboy

It’s not been three weeks yet since I was laid off as entertainment writer at the Democrat and Chronicle. And one of the first things I did, of course, was cancel my subscription. I didn’t feel like finding that reminder sitting on the front porch when I took the dog out for the morning walk.

On Friday, I got a letter from the D&C, “we want you to consider coming back.”

As a subscriber.

A form letter, accompanied by lots of boxes to check, for which option suits my needs: “Includes Saturday and Sunday delivery of the print edition…”

But no box for “Kiss my ass.”

And that reminds me: You can subscribe to The Critical Mass by clicking on the “Subscribe” button on the left side of my under-renovation web site, jeffspevak.com. It’s free. You’ll get an email informing you as to when the next snarky blog has been posted. Just like this one.

The Critical Mass

Harvey Weinstein fooled me, too

Harvey Weinstein is the entertainment story of the moment, although it’s certainly not the kind of press he’s been accustomed to receiving over the years. One of the mighty has fallen. A front-page blockbuster story in The New York Times alleging you have sexually harassed, and even assaulted women, can do that.

Sometimes.

Weinstein has been perhaps the biggest name in the entertainment industry for a few decades. A producer of film and theater. I interviewed him a year ago, as a road production of Finding Neverland, which he’d been involved with as both a film and movie, was coming to Rochester. I dug out the notes I’d taken from our conversation. He’d been heavily involved in the development of the show from the beginning, and was eager for people to understand the changes that had been made since its debut. “It’s more fun,” Weinstein said. “It deals with a great subject matter, and you walk out of the theater feeling stronger. We’ve added new songs, so the ending is really upbeat and fun and much more triumphant.”

That is the mission of this kind of entertainment, he said. “These are tough times in our country, economically, for a lot of people. When they see Finding Neverland, the story of Peter Pan, families walk out of the show so happy. And that makes me happy.”

I’m sure he is right, although big-time Broadway musicals are not my thing. Once we’d dispensed with the chatter about Peter Pan creator John Barrie, who was a peculiar fellow, we moved on to what I was really interested in hearing about. The intersection of entertainment, politics and social issues.

Weinstein walked that none-too-subtle line of family entertainment and addressing challenging issues. On both fronts, he moved in hefty celebrity circles. And the entertainers were not always singing about little boys who can fly.

Weinstein was calling from his Manhattan office, ebullient over the previous evening’s benefit for Hillary Clinton, which he co-produced. Was he the liberal entertainment elite we’ve been warned of?

“This is what we do, speak as citizens,” Weinstein said. He has been speaking out for years on AIDS, juvenile diabetes, gun control, universal health care, poverty and multiple sclerosis research. Weinstein also produced the acclaimed 2014 film The Imitation Game, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, who broke the German Enigma code machine during World War II, and then as a gay man was persecuted by the British government. As I had just watched the film, which is awash in socially-conscious messages still relevant to today, I asked Weinstein about it.

“Thirty-nine thousand British men or women who were criminalized as homosexual, between 1900 to World War II,” he said. “And were still criminalized as of the movie’s release.

“Benedict Cumberbatch and I talked about it, the importance of it. And it led to a movement to de-criminalize those people.” In fact, Weinstein helped to lead that campaign to pardon gay men convicted under the same law that had resulted in Turing’s chemical castration.

Filmgoers seek out such message films because, Weinstein said, “They want to know the truth.”

I asked Weinstein, what motivated him to take the lead on social issues?

“My dad,” he said. “He was a GI in World War II, he saw active combat. He always said that without the GI Bill, neither my brother or I would have been able to go to college.  That’s the importance of the government setting up services to help people.

“When my Dad passed away, I went to a theater and saw An American in Paris. That helped me get through a tough time.”

So I ended up liking the guy. But he didn’t scream at me, call me a fucker, push me into a wall, threaten he was going to ruin my career. Nor did he invite me to his hotel room, expose himself to me and masturbate into a potted plant. All things that, over the past week, he’s been accused of doing.

And it keeps getting worse. Weinstein has admitted to much of this astoundingly bad behavior, although not the assault and rape allegations. The first lawyer that he had retained as the charges were becoming public knowledge suggested that Weinstein was simply a dinosaur acting as men did a few decades ago, and was still learning how to behave in the 21st century.

That’s a pretty astounding piece of logic. Apparently young women who want to work in the entertainment industry have to put up with the slow learning curve of men such as Weinstein. And that excuse also defies common sense. As the head of a vast entertainment conglomerate, Weinstein can’t operate from the past. He not only has to know what’s happening now, he has to anticipate what people will want in 2019.

So Weinstein fooled me. Get in line. I interviewed Bill Cosby a year or two before the rape allegations against him emerged. I had no idea. Years ago, I was fond of a literate, socially liberal band called Moxy Fruvous. I interviewed its frontman, Jian Ghomeshi, who went on to become a well-known Canadian broadcaster, until more than 20 women accused him of slapping, punching, biting, choking or smothering them.

Ghomeshi was acquitted in the 2014 trial on charges brought by three of the women, although there was a stipulation that he had to apologize to one of his accusers. Cosby’s sexual assault trial this summer ended in a mistrial. The investigation into the Weinstein allegations has just begun.

So now we have questions to ponder.

One, how did Weinstein get away with it for so long? Who stayed silent, when they should have spoken out?

And two, if you want to use them as Exhibits A, B and C of liberals being just as capable of egregious behavior as anyone else on the political spectrum, that’s fine. I’ve seen such talk on the internet.

I’m not too sure of Cosby’s politics; I know him as a guy who spoke often of the value of education, and scolded black teenagers for wearing saggy pants. Weinstein and Ghomeshi I took as progressive, forward-thinking men. But once we saw who these guys really were, all three of their careers, and their legacies, were ruined.

But we now have another one in the White House. One blockbuster story after another. A man who’s admitted to committing sexual assault, if you recall the infamous Access Hollywood tape: “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” A man whose own words and actions confirm he is racist, misogynist, bigot, business scam artist, ecology assassin and prodigious liar.

Shouldn’t the president of the United States be held to a higher standard than a guy who makes movies and Broadway shows about Peter Pan?

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The Critical Mass

Photo by Aaron Winters.

 

I hear you.

So the subscribe button has been installed this week on my web site, www.jeffspevak.com. It’s over there, to the left. Hit it, you’ll be asked for your email, and from there to eternity you will be notified of each new blog posted on The Critical Mass. An aggregate of culture and social discourse in Rochester, the nation, the world, the universe and the swamp inside my head.

(WARNING: Common side effects from consuming The Critical Mass include nausea, drowsiness, inflamed bowels and mental disorientation.)

I’m humbled and energized by the support I’ve received the last two weeks, both through social media and as I wander through the city. And thanks for all of the free drinks, that goes without saying. If half the folks who reacted to my getting laid off as entertainment writer at the local newspaper – after 27 years of busting my ass, thank you very much – hit that subscribe button, I’ll be a social-media mogul. Share this post with your friends, discuss The Critical Mass with strangers, tell them all to hit that subscribe button, Hit it, hit it, HIT IT.

(WARNING: The Critical Mass should not be accompanied by the operation of heavy machinery and/or consumption of more than four cocktails in one sitting.)

The web site itself is undergoing re-thinking, reconstruction. The blog remains active, but some content has been removed. It will return, with new stuff, and fully compatible with your 21st-century devices. That’ll take a month or two, because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Fortunately, my friends do.

Nor do I know where this is going. It’s all part of my personal re-invention. What is it I do? Perhaps more importantly, what is it I want to do?

(WARNING: The Critical Mass has been linked to internal bleeding of the brain, outbreaks of mass hallucinations among rodent populations and unexplained livestock mutilations in rural areas of Wyoming and eastern Montana.)

No, I don’t know where this is going. Not yet. But I have some pretty good ideas…

The Critical Mass

Margaret Explosion, Paul and Leo Dodd: Filling in the lines

Margaret Explosion has returned from its summer sabbatical for its usual Wednesday-evening residency at The Little Café. The band likes to call what it does “background music,” something for patrons to talk over as they discuss the French film they just watched. But Margaret Explosion’s self-description is as self-deprecating as its music. It is a sublime cocktail of the spaces between notes. Peggi Fournier on sax, Ken Frank on upright bass and Paul Dodd on drums. It is an unusual organic machine, one that never rehearses, one that never even bothers with an introduction before playing. The musicians are milling about onstage one moment, and the next moment there is music. And Margaret Explosion records every moment of every show. It posts what it likes on the band’s web site.

Something is missing now. Bob Martin, whose feathery guitar notes are so much the echo of jazz master Bill Frisell. Martin, who has played with Fournier and Dodd in many forms over the past few decades, has moved to Chicago. In his place last week was Phil Marshall. Dodd figures they haven’t played together in five years, when Marshall filled in for Martin. In Margaret Explosion fashion, they have not rehearsed for this moment.

We know Marshall. From The Colorblind James Experience, Lalaland, and as a key component to who knows how many local acts, most recently The Fox Sisters and Annie Wells. And the Phil Marshall Band, with a gig Friday at Abilene Bar and Lounge. I have written this before, in a scene loaded with astounding guitarists, it’s hard to say Marshall is the best. But I think he is the best at writing for the guitar. The empirical evidence is in his 2016 album, Scatterbed. Inspired mostly by his work as a music therapist playing for the elderly – dealing with cancer, dementia, or their bodies simply worn out from life – most of the songs document not only these people having reached the end, but how the lives of bands draw to a close as well. Perhaps Marshall didn’t intend Scatterbed to draw that parallel, but it is there.

Martin was known for the astounding array of effects devices that he put into play, electronics that could sound like ghosts, or a car filled with clowns sinking to the bottom of the ocean. And here Marshall was last Wednesday, now officially of Margaret Explosion. Sitting on the floor Buddha-like, in front of his own shrine of effects pedals and knobs, his guitar whispering accompaniment to Fournier, Dodd and Frank. A perfect fit, yet we shouldn’t expect him to be Martin 2.0, and he won’t be. Two, maybe three times, the rocker showed through the jazz cracks.

Behind this, Dodd. In a scene loaded with amazing drummers, he is the most-interesting to watch. So subtle, with marionette-like movements, half of his playing isn’t playing at all. He’s hitting notes that are in his head only.

It is how he draws as well. Dodd has a show now at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, 137 East Ave., running through Nov. 12. Much of the exhibit, called “Witness,” is his intriguing portraits, heads floating against a white background, interpretations of mug shots pulled from the pages of the local newspaper. The eyes are intense, or vacant, as Dodd searches for what’s behind them. And often, in his search for emphasis, lines are missing. The side of a head, even the pupils of the eyes in one larger work. Lines that are in his head only.

In an artist’s talk Saturday afternoon with RoCo’s Bleu Cease, an audience of about 30 people was curious as to whether any of Dodd’s subjects, all of them convicted of various levels of wrongdoing, had ever confronted him about being the unauthorized subject of his work. No, Dodd said, that has never happened.

But this did: When Arthur Shawcross was arrested in 1989 for the murders of a dozen women, Dodd recognized this odd, bulky man as a fellow bicyclist who he’d see on Alexander Street, the soon-to-be-notorious serial killer pedaling his way to the Dunkin’ Donuts at Alexander and Monroe Avenue. This brush with evil was too much for Dodd’s muse to resist, and he drew Shawcross’ portrait. Monroe County District Attorney Howard Relin later bought it and gave it to Chuck Siragusa, who had successfully prosecuted Shawcross.

The Shawcross portrait is not at this show. But that evil would have been eclipsed anyway by a far more powerful and beautiful presence that is at “Witness.” Paul’s father, Leo.

Leo Dodd, who died about two years ago, was a watercolorist. But he bears witness to a different side of Rochester than that of his son. Leo’s watercolors are of public works, often in mid-construction. Many bridges. The Xerox building downtown. The erection of the Tom Otterness outdoor sculptures at the Memorial Art Gallery. Always accompanied by people. Sometimes construction workers, or citizens in a park.

A part of Paul’s artists talk touched on his brother, Mark, who was an 18-year-old college kid when he and some friends were busted at Bowling Green State University on the most minor of marijuana charges. Smoking a joint, an activity that we know at least 11 presidents of the United States have participated in.

After Paul’s talk I asked about Mark. There was, of course, a story beneath the story. Small-town corruption. Leo had put a mortgage on his house to pay Mark’s legal fees, and was told by the local justice officials that some of the bail money would be returned and, if he “got rid of that Jew lawyer” and re-directed the money to them, they would go easy on Mark.

Mark did serve some time, and the most-startling part of “Witness” is from that period. In a glass-enclosed case, among other artifacts, is a letter Leo wrote to his son while he was in the jail. It is brief, at times poetic, done with thoughtful lettering. There is a reflection of the politics that he hoped to pass on to his son.

We implore…

Never – Never be conservative…

closed in your outlook, fixed

in manners and thought

But most of the letter is hope and support. No parental chastising for making the wrong decisions. At one point, Leo drew a little timeline of Mark’s life so far: Long dashes equaling decades. There is a little figure of Mark, not even two decades in, with many more lines ahead, lines that he would have to fill in. It is a remarkable document, and moved me very deeply.

Paul said his brother’s experience with the criminal justice system had a big impact on the family. And Mark. He wanted to help those caught in the merciless machinery, as he once was. Today, many more decades into his father’s timeline, Mark is a parole officer in New York City.

The Critical Mass

The demons in our midst

The backstories to tonight’s Mastodon concert at Rochester’s Main Street Armory run deep.

It’s called one of the world’s top heavy-metal bands, but Mastodon is actually a genre-bending rock and prog quartet whose seven albums often reach for expansive themes, and the demons in our midst. Based in Atlanta, it features two musicians, drummer Brann Dailor and guitarist Bill Kelliher, who graduated through the ’90s Rochester indie-music scene, most notably with the quirky metal band Lethargy.

It’s hard to tell whether success comes with a price, or if it’s just life, but Kelliher damn near drank himself to death. Mastodon’s 2009 album Crack the Skye was inspired, in part, by the suicide of Dailor’s 14-year-old sister, Skye. And the band’s latest album, Emperor of Sand, strikes a new theme: A collection of songs heavily influenced by cancer that has touched the band. Kelliher’s mother died of a brain tumor, Dailor’s mother has been undergoing chemotherapy for years, and bassist Troy Sanders’ wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

And there’s this. One of the tour’s supporting acts is Eagles of Death Metal, which evolved out of a put-down of a band that Josh Homme, a guitarist with Queens of the Stone Age, considered to be a little too tame to be called death metal. So the joke became a band, then a tragedy: Eagles of Death Metal was playing a sold-out show at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November of 2015 when terrorists entered the theater and began randomly shooting people. Eighty-nine were killed, including the band’s merchandise manager, in a coordinated series of attacks that including suicide bombs, claiming the lives of 130 people and injuring 368 more. Homme rarely tours with Eagles of Death Metal, and was not at Bataclan that night; but co-founder Jesse Hughes was there, with the band escaping out a back door of the club. ISIS claimed credit for the attacks.

The Bataclan tragedy was followed in May of this year by a suicide bomber, inspired by Islamist extremism, who blew himself up after an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people and injuring 250. And then came last week’s massacre in Las Vegas at a Jason Aldean country-music concert, leaving 58 people dead and injuring 489. That one was carried out by an American citizen; a terrorist attack with no known motivation.

The stories of these distant tragedies are often accompanied by a collection the pictures of the victims, a yearbook page of death.

The details are often different when large crowds come under attack. In Nice, France, an ISIS sympathizer driving a truck down a sidewalk killed 77 people. In Norway, a right-wing extremist planted a bomb in Oslo, killing eight people and injuring at least 209 when it exploded. He then went to a youth camp, shooting to death 69 people and injuring 110, many of them teenagers.

Will we no longer gather as a community for concerts, or a stroll down the sidewalk on a beautiful summer evening? The commonality in all of these acts of violence against society is fear. The perpetrators – be it extremist politics or the infamous “disgruntled former employee” – want to bring daily life to a calamitous halt. And after the bodies are counted, we see fear again. Fear as a legislative tool.

The Second Amendment is a difficult piece of grammar to interpret. Here it is, in its entirety:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The historical context is important. The Second Amendment does not guarantee the right of all Americans to carry automatic weapons. The Founding Fathers, of course, never heard of such a thing. If the notion had struck Ben Franklin, the Battle of Bunker Hill might have had quite a different conclusion. The Second Amendment simply calls for “a well regulated Militia.” And in the 21st century, militias are as relevant as stagecoach drivers.

Yet we’re stuck with a large sector of the country that believes that the safety of his family, and the preservation of his country, is in the hands of a well-armed man.

A well-armed white man. Because consider that same person’s reaction to a well-armed black man, or a well-armed Muslim man. That changes the argument, exposing the roots of the fear.

Cancer kills far more Americans than foreign terrorists. Yet while we crank up spending on our military, there are proposals before Congress now that will remove Americans’ access to proper health care. Should we deport legislators who are behind this threat to our lives? Perhaps you have encountered the statistic that more Americans are killed by their furniture falling on them than are killed by terrorists. Yet we hear no one calling for the deporting of Ikea.

We can’t outlaw trucks, we can’t prevent some angry person from stopping at the hardware store on his way home from work and buying the materials he needs to make a bomb. Instructions can be found in right-wing publications or on the internet. Something big and dangerous will always be at hand. In the larger picture, our leaders are unwilling to tackle the admittedly difficult task of changing the culture of violence. Something that won’t be accomplished in our lifetimes, but a beginning that we owe to the future.

A comment I heard a day or two after the Las Vegas shootings is such events, while tragic, are the price we pay for the Second Amendment. That argument didn’t seem to get too far; I don’t know many people who are willing to surrender their lives for your right to own a gun. No one wants to die from a random bullet fired by a sportsman from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

No, the argument we’ve returned to is: “If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns.”

Think about that for a moment. If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns… If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns… If we give up guns, only criminals will have guns…

That would make them easier to spot, wouldn’t it?

The Critical Mass

Puerto Rico, Las Vegas and Tom Petty: Damn the Torpedoes.

On this morning’s dog walk, I began to connect the dots between the big news of the last few days. Tom Petty died. More than 58 people murdered, hundreds more hospitalized, at a mass shooting in Las Vegas. Our government’s efforts to being relief to hurricane-crushed Puerto Rico – much of it without electricity, food and water – is a failure.

The link, it seemed to me, and the dog, is America’s belief in magical thinking. It’s reflected in our entertainment, where the blockbuster movies of each season often feature superheroes. Fantasies where we wait for Superman and Wonder Woman to come to our rescue.

That has been played out most dramatically, and obviously, in Las Vegas.

President Trump’s go-to cover – that Muslims or ISIS were behind this crime – is not an option. The terrorist was, as is most often the case, an angry white guy with a lot of guns. Our gun-manufacturing lobby, the National Rifle Association, is silent. But its sycophants have rushed out the usual self-righteous defense of “it’s too soon” and disrespectful of the dead and injured to discuss the politics of gun control. The president’s spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, made that point of course, as well as offering the delaying tactic of, “we need to know more facts.”

Quite frankly, the facts are irrelevant. Whether he was mentally disturbed, had sympathies for ISIS or just hated country music, the fact is that the killer had access to an arsenal that he turned on his fellow Americans. Only the results are relevant. If the Trump administration and Congress are slow thinkers, they’ve certainly had time to mull these facts: Orlando in 2016, 49 people killed and more than 58 wounded. Virginia Tech, 2007, 33 dead and 17 wounded. Sandy Hook Elementary School, 2012, 20 children ages 6 and 7, and six school employees, all dead, another two wounded.

And on and on and on it goes. Trump ordered flags around the country flown at half staff following the Las Vegas murders. Symbolism. The only action the government can offer.

The superhero fantasy conclusion to an insane person shooting into a crowd of music lovers is that a citizen marksman will whip out a pistol and put a well-placed bullet in the bad guy’s head. And what better setting is there for this outcome than at a country-music concert in Nevada, which has some of the loosest gun laws in the nation?

Caleb Keeter is a guitarist with the Josh Abbott Band, which played earlier in the day at Sunday’s country-music show, before headliner Jason Aldean. But Keeter saw the whole thing. His band, he conceded, is stocked with guys who hold Concealed Handgun Licenses, CHLs. This is what he wrote after the tragedy:

“I’ve been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was. We actually have members of our crew with CHL, and legal firearms on the bus. They were useless.”

If it’s a first-hand experience with wholesale human slaughter that changes minds, I guess we’ll have to take it. Because there’s plenty of it.

We’ve seen a similar disconnect of mythology vs. reality in Puerto Rico. In his comments the past two days, the president used the disaster to compliment his administration on how well it was responding. These area self-reverential lies, one that Trump often repeats in many forms. He alone can fix the economy he said during the election. He is a superhero flying in from the outside to clear D.C.’s swamp of alligators. He alone can fix the world, he told the United Nations a few weeks ago.

The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, did not stand for the Trump administration’s self-mythologizing. After Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke said the post-hurricane response was “a good-news story,” Cruz corrected her: “This is a people-are-dying story.” Trump’s response was to call the people of Puerto Rico lazy, and angrily tweeted that they were expecting someone else to do the work.

Outrage rightly followed, of course. As the Broadway icon and socially-conscious Lin-Manuel Miranda correctly noted, Donald Trump is going to Hell for this. Puerto Rico is not a state, but its people are U.S. citizens, they serve in the U.S. military and they pay federal taxes. They are not expecting a superhero to clear the roads and repair the electrical grid. But Puerto Ricans have the right to expect empathy, and then tangible support, from the government.

More bad news. Tom Petty died.

He wasn’t one of my personal favorites, but his music spoke to many of my friends. I did like the early songs, straightforward rockers that sounded great coming out of the car’s dashboard radio. Damn the Torpedoes, that’s a pretty good album. I’ve always thought that there are few things more miraculous than a rock band operating at full speed, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were certainly that.

Heartbreakers: Petty died of a massive heart attack. He was only 66, and rich, you’d figure he had the best of health care, perhaps they should have seen it coming. Perhaps they did. Even the wealthy can’t outrun the inevitable. Petty was no superman; when he was addicted to cocaine, he tried to shake it on his own, cold turkey.

That’s not how it works, Petty needed the help of others to get it done.

Gun-rights advocates are normalizing an America under siege from its own fringe. Politicians are politicizing tragedies such as Puerto Rico. They’re both appealing to the myth of Superman fixing our problems.

Again, that’s not how it works.

Change comes when people work together. That’s why the authorities get nervous when they see large crowds gathering in public places. Change is the antithesis of the status quo. Musicians like Petty, or any of our artists, don’t actually lead the way. But they do write the anthems, give voice to our feelings, they know how to find the right words. Obfuscation belongs to the other side. The best of these songs are not complex ideas. Just simple stories that go straight to the heart. Striking a note to which people can relate. Because we know the truth when we hear it.

The Critical Mass

Unemployed in America: I’m wandering in the woods, searching for marmots to put on the grill.

Draining the bottle

As I arrive at Week Two of my eviction from the mainstream media, I had figured on spending the first days of my layoff sitting on the couch in my boxer shorts, watching baseball, a half-empty bottle of bourbon between my feet.

But it’s not been that way at all. That bottle is half-full.

It’s called optimism. I’m writing, reading cool books, getting the laundry done, re-tooling my web site, eating well thanks to dinner invitations, and grilling chicken or whatever unfortunate creature crosses the path of my shopping cart. I’m still reading hundreds of encouraging posts on social media. And I’ve enjoyed some new experiences: I saw a spectacular waterspout over Lake Erie, I’d never seen one before. Everywhere I go – restaurants, the library, places where bands are playing – people tell me how sorry they are that I’m no longer writing for the Democrat and Chronicle. At the Rochester Public Market on Saturday, two people added, “I cancelled my subscription… and told them why.”

Yeah, I cancelled mine as well. Can you blame me? But I’m not sure how I feel about it. I have friends who still work there. And I still believe a strong free press is essential to our democracy.

And without home delivery, I find myself without paper for lighting the charcoal in my grill.

 

So many books to read. I just finished “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

In this world, I consider myself to be a 60-watt bulb. Not dumb, yet not overly bright. I can’t imagine how people get through this when they aren’t used to dealing with bureaucracies, or elderly folks who have had a lifetime of them and no longer want to be a part of it. It’s a morass of paperwork and interviews designed to make sure that someone doesn’t get a few hundred dollars that they aren’t entitled to have.

Think about this for a moment: The president of the United States refuses to release his tax returns. He is hiding something. He is also accused of violating the Emoluments Clause, which bars public officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments. Leaders from other countries are staying at Trump hotels, playing his golf courses, buying his made-in-China products, pumping money into Trump bank accounts. Lobbyists and business people convene at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. All of it because they want access to the president. The conflicts of interest here are clear.

Yet we’ve set aside all of this because Trump is at the head of a government that is a New Crisis Every Day. Puerto Rico has been leveled by a hurricane, the people have no electrical power, food or clean water, and he’s accusing them of being lazy and not doing things for themselves.

Sane Americans, of course, are outraged by these comments. But in a day or two Trump will unveil a new insanity – this guy does command a nuclear arsenal – and we’ll stop worrying about Puerto Rico.

So Trump is getting away with whatever it is that’s hidden in his tax returns, and using the White House as a cash artery connected to his own corrupt heart. But if I want to do some honest work to scrape together a few extra hundred dollars to pay for a new water heater? Forget it. You know what this is all about. The playing field is tilted dramatically in favor of the rich and powerful. There are hundreds of examples of it written into the tax codes, in access to high-powered lawyers, in layers of management set up to protect themselves. We play by the rules, they write the rules.

My optimism comes from the wonderful people around me. It ends there. That bottle of bourbon? What’s going on in this country is not a matter of perspective. Anyone who looks at that bottle now can see that it’s nearly empty.

The Critical Mass

The height of automotive design: 1957 Chevy Bel Air.

I’ve started writing my autobiography. Here’s the outline.

Layers of infrastructure fascinate me. Whenever I come across a work crew that’s digging into a street or sidewalk, I always stop and peer into the hole.

I love the diesel-engine smell and the comforting mechanical rumble of heavy equipment.

One of my favorite sights is a baseball stadium lit up at night.

Buying a copy of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits from a small record store while walking home from baseball practice changed the direction of my life, although not right away.

One of my unusual talents used to be catching fly balls behind my back. Not anymore, though.

I sang with Tina Turner for a few seconds.

In college, I wrote a poem about Rondo Hatton. Google him.

I have eaten haggis. Twice.

I watched a man drown in a river. There was nothing I could do.

I am not on a first-name basis with Bruce Springsteen but it’s not my fault, because I really have seen him 52 or 54 times.

I was looking out of a bus window in Reykjavík, the capitol of Iceland, when a dump truck stopped next to us. It was loaded with fish heads. I thought: Where is that going?

Landscapes of the Hudson River School are beautiful. It’s the light.

One of my favorite art forms is mechanical drawing. I never see them in museums.

When the guitars come out at night during parties and my friends start singing, I always sit in the darkness in the back of the room, in case I start crying, because it’s so beautiful.

One of my favorite quotes: “Some people get nervous about that word. Art. They think it’s a pretentious word from the giddyap. To me, words are only symbols, and the word art has never lost its vitality. It still has meaning to me. Love lost its meaning to me. God lost its meaning to me. But art never lost its meaning.” That’s Joni Mitchell.

My favorite book is George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Another one of my favorite quotes: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” That’s Miles Davis.

Following a dog on a path through the woods is a beautiful feeling. And then the two of you find the crumbling, overgrown foundation of an old building and you both think: What’s that doing here?

Dogs are awesome.

Goat tastes OK.

I’ve never read a Stephen King novel.

The best concert I’ve seen was at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, with Dave Alvin and Tom Russell together onstage performing their song “Blue Wing.”

I shot a gun, once. At an empty beer can. I hit it. I quit while I was ahead.

If I could invite any four living people to dinner, it would be Anthony Bourdain, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Tom Waits and Patti Smith.

Another favorite quote: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” That’s Neil deGrasse Tyson.

If I could invite any four dead people to dinner, it would be William Burroughs, Ben Franklin, Flannery O’Connor and Amelia Earhart, if only to ask her, “What the hell happened?”

Yet another favorite quote: “I’ve always believed in having a sense of balance and stealth.” That’s Patti Smith, she’s amazing.

All of the great cars were made in the 1950s. No. 1 on the list is the 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible.

Yes I’m a writer, but I also know how to operate a forklift.

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