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

After 6,000 years, civilization agrees on one thing: No eye gouging

Men have been in charge of what we recognize as civilization for about 6,000 years. The results have not been encouraging.

Men created war and slavery. Men are responsible for creating the mechanisms that have created a rich and powerful business class, a minuscule sliver of the total population, that rules in a self-serving manner over the rest of us.

The news of the past few weeks has been dominated by reports of men in powerful positions sexually harassing women. Men have repressed women for centuries, manipulating the biological reality that women are the child-bearers into meaning they are also primarily responsible for child-rearing.

The lobbyist for the gun-manufacturing business, the National Rifle Association, is run by men.

Men captained the Titanic and the Hindenburg, shot JFK, rode with the KKK, killed Bambi’s mother and led an armed insurrection against the U.S. government in 1861. Mein Kampf was written by a man (albeit a man with one testicle). Men ordered the Ohio National Guard to shoot at unarmed Kent State University students and purposely crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 into the Indian Ocean. Men planned and approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 129,000 people, most of them women, children and the elderly.

Men led the Donner Party into a dangerous shortcut through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where they were trapped by storms in the winter of 1846-47. Half of the 87 pioneers died, with some of the survivors resorting to cannibalism.

Men on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slaves were private property. Men withheld the right of American women to vote until 1920, and still do not allow women to vote in Saudi Arabia and Vatican City.

American men conspired with Russians to influence the last U.S. presidential election.

The American president – a racist, misogynist, bigot, prolific liar and corrupt business cheat – is a man.

Men are in charge of the Cleveland Browns, who it appears will not win a game this season.

Men wrote some rules – no eye gouging! – and charged money to watch two people competing in boxing and then mixed martial arts, anti-social behavior that would result in the combatants’ arrest if it occurred on a city sidewalk.

Men have distorted cultural values. The most-overrated band in the history of rock, Kiss, is a men’s club celebrating juvenile behavior. A male executive at Decca Records passed on signing a little-known English band, The Beatles.

Adam Sandler, who’s starred in some of the worst films in history, is a man. The Waterboy. Jack and Jill. You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Little Nicky. Spanglish.

Is any of this the sign of an advanced civilization? The evidence is overwhelmingly against that conclusion. After 6,000 years, it’s time to turn over the keys to women.

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The Critical Mass

Prog circus: Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come.

 

Prog rock is crushed beneath the pendulum

The challenge came via Facebook from My Friend Patrick. “Jeff Spevak, what say you?” Followed by a link to The Atlantic magazine, and contributing editor James Parker’s review of David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock.

The headline: “The Whitest Music Ever.”

The subhead: “Prog rock was audacious, innovative — and awful.”

What say I, Patrick? That story’s off to a bad start. Whitest Music Ever? What about The Ray Conniff Singers? Or Lawrence Welk, fer crissakes? And while audacious and innovative, prog wasn’t awful. Mid-’70s radio pop, that was awful. Remember “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero?”

Weigel, a reporter for The Washington Post, loves prog rock, Parker hates it. That’s the start of a good argument. But the parameters of the debate are ill defined. There is some confusion as to what is prog rock. Rush, yes. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, yes. Yes, yes.

But is Jethro Tull prog rock, or merely a heavy version of Fairport Convention?

Is Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells prog rock, as postulated by Parker, or merely orchestral New Age?

I am neither hater nor fan of prog. I fall right in the middle, which makes me the perfect referee in this longhair-pulling fight.

Here’s a key piece is testimony cited by first Weigel in his love note, and then Parker in his attack:

“We’re a European group,” declared the lead singer of proto-proggers The Nice in 1969, “so we’re improvising on European structures … We’re not American Negros, so we can’t really improvise and feel the way they can.”

OK, so what’s wrong with that? Other than the awkward racial generalization. Prog does indeed have some classical to it, and classical is not much for improvisation. But a lot of prog – particularly King Crimson – does resort to jazz, which is all about improv.

Much of this genre dissection runs to personal taste. Rush and Yes, and their rosters of excellent musicians, lose me with the insectoid whine of the lead singers. And while Rush is hailed for its sci-fi themes, as an occasional reader of the genre I find the band’s ideas to be overly-worn territory.

In this argument, labels are handed down like prison sentences. At what point does psychedelia become prog? The Nice are labeled “proto-proggers.” If Parker is going cite Moby Grape as prog rock, he should certainly concede that The Nice, which debuted the same year as Moby Grape, is full-blown prog. The Nice’s keyboardist, Keith Emerson, moved on to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a trio certainly atop the Mount Rushmore of prog. But ELP made the leap to nonsense for Parker after Emerson discovered the Moog synthesizer. To Parker, rock loses its integrity with the introduction of too much stuff. It was an overdose of the musicians’ creative juices as “like mad professors, they threw everything in there: the ideas, the complexity, the guitars with two necks, the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts.”

He sees even the stage presence of prog rockers as the result of too much thinking, citing “their priestly robes” as pretentious. But weren’t punk rockers in their artfully torn, black T-shirts and studded wristbands pretentious as well?

Popular music is ultimately a swing of the pendulum. Parker finds the appropriate quote in Weigel’s book: “Every new artistic movement rebels against whatever came right before it.” History bears that out. Sometimes the pendulum’s swing is generational, as rock gave way to hip-hop. Sometimes it’s a commercial wave, as pop surrendered the airwaves to metal or when disco was pushed aside by punk. The Ramones helped stomp to death the final strings of Procol Harum. In bewailing the increasingly fidgety nature of prog rock, Parker points out, “To all this, the relative crudity of punk rock was simply a biological corrective — a healing, if you like.”

Maybe. It could even happen within a band, as Genesis found when it lost Peter Gabriel and handed the microphone to its drummer, Phil Collins. From art rock to pop. Of course, none of this allows any credit to the teenage brain, when it’s most attuned to the miracle of music, and is open to diversity and setting its own timeline of discovery. I discovered the glam rebellion of The New York Dolls and the psychedelic prog of Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come in the same summer of 1974. The same year that Bruce Springsteen spoke for me. Perhaps in a search for something I’ve lost, I still listen to those vinyl albums to this day.

And really, wasn’t prog rock’s downfall This is Spinal Tap? In the 1984 satire Rob Reiner’s character Marty DiBergi, who’s shooting a documentary on the band, reads aloud a review of Spinal Tap’s latest album: “This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, ‘What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn’t he have rested on that day too?’”

Thereafter, it became impossible to take seriously any long-haired guys.

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The Critical Mass

People. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

 

Connie Deming and Martha O’Connor. Photo by Aaron Winters.

People. Meh…

Crowds, that was the word for the weekend. I needed some new black jeans for Saturday night’s show, “What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song?” So Friday afternoon, clutching 10- and 20-percent off Veterans Day coupons in hand, I drove over to the big box store to score a deal. As did everyone else. The parking lot was jammed. The lines in front of the two cash-register setups were – this is no typo – each 40 yards long.

At this point, sane people turn around and go home. I proceeded to the menswear department. My goal: Two pairs of jeans. This proved impossible. Crowds had spent hours pawing through the shelves, searching for just the right relaxed-fit jeans. Any organization was long lost, articles of clothing were flopped in piles like drunken sailors at last call. After 20 minutes I finally found the right size of boot-cut style and fled to what looked like the shortest of the two cash register lines.

I was now a prisoner to the comments of the people in front and behind me. It was like those stories they used to tell us in high school political science class, about how communism wasn’t working because in the Soviet Union people were always lining up for bread and vodka.

“This is ridiculous,” a woman snapped. “This is worse than Black Friday.” But she didn’t give up her place in line.

“Oh, that’s cute,” a grandmother-type said, pointing out a polka-dot top emblazoned with the outline of a schnauzer dog, definitely cheesy, not cute. Another captured customer idly recited the various Christmas-gift opportunities tantalizingly displayed on shelves as we crept by. “Peanut brittle…” “Mixed nuts…” “Milk-chocolate reindeer…”

An amiable codger strolled past and, joking with a woman, pointed at me: “That’s quite a line, he was clean-shaven when he got here.” I’ve been growing this beard for a year.

Fifty minutes later, I reached the goal. “It’s been this way since 9:30 in the morning,” the woman working the check-out line said.

Connie Deming makes a surprise appearance as Dusty Springfield as Martha O’Connor and I perform “How Did We Get Here?” Photo by Julie Gelfand.

Enough of people. We bailed on the Joni Mitchell tribute Friday night and took an offer for dinner at Tommy and Jen’s house. Dick Storms was there too, he was to be one of Saturday’s performers at “What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song?” Storms’ version is a casual re-working of a song he’d already written and performed in the past, “Three Billion Hairless Monkeys.” It’s about too many people on the planet, and the havoc we create.

I got some sleep. And faced yet more people Saturday. Crowds of them.

At noon, J.D. McPherson was playing an in-store show at the Record Archive Backroom Lounge. The place was packed. McPherson’s from Oklahoma, but he’s built a strong Rochester following through a series of incendiary concerts over the last few years. Plus his drummer is former Rochesterian Jason Smay, of the Hi-Risers. This show was full band, rocking. The perfect example of a rock band as a well-oiled machine.

And then that night, “What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song?” Nineteen different versions of the same song title, “How Did We Get Here?” It wasn’t sold out, but Hochstein Performance Hall looked pretty good with about 300 people on hand. Especially for the closing number: Storms had about 200 plastic maracas that were passed around as we danced through the aisles, then stormed the stage. So we were pretty adrenalized when we headed over to Tapas 177 for the post-show party. And again, the people: The bar was shoulder-to-shoulder, grooving to the booming salsa music.

By then the big-box annoyance, the curmudgeon dust, had long cleared from my head. The music did it. And the excellent people, all working to make something really cool happen.

In fact, I was so at ease that I easily dealt with a near catastrophe in the midst of my version of “How Did We Get Here?” I’d cleverly drafted the best singer in Rochester, Connie Deming, to make a surprise cameo. And when Steve Piper actually broke his electric guitar in the middle of the song, he shifted so smoothly to a back-up he’d brought along that neither my duet partner Martha O’Connor or I noticed what was happening.

After the show, a woman asked me if my version of the song was a true story. Did I once fall in love with a woman working at a record store who turned out to be gay?

No, never happened. Not a true story. I’m a writer, don’t believe everything I write. Except: Don’t shop the big boxes.

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The Critical Mass

Bassist Brian Williams tries to interpret a lyrics sheet as drummer Marty York looks for his drink during rehearsals for “How Did We Get Here?”

“How Did We Get Here?” gets to the big stage

What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song? It’s gone from an amusing, backroom challenge among a handful of local singer-songwriters at the Flipside Bar and Grill’s open mic night to sold-out shows at the Fringe Festival to, this Saturday, the big stage at Hochstein Performance Hall. Eighteen local musicians presenting their versions of this year’s challenge title: “How Did We Get Here?”

Two years ago the challenge was “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart,” a Fringe Fest sell-out at Bernunzio Uptown Music. Last year’s song, “You’ll Thank Me Later,” sold out two nights at Bernunzio. As Dick Storms closed out the second of those shows, his fellow performers stormed the aisle and danced to his gospel shouts. At that point, as much as everyone loved the intimacy of the Bernunzio shows, it seemed the next step was to try a larger venue.

I’ve heard about eight of this year’s songs. They’re wildly diverse and – not unexpected for a city stocked with talent – stunningly executed. At Tuesday night’s rehearsal, a few of the musicians were running through their creations one last time. Storms’ Eastern European apocalyptic warning. The Cole Porter stylings of Paul Nunes, amusing musings from Kerry Regan, the austere imagery of Lisa Winter. Scott Regan, the host of “Open Tunings” on WRUR-FM (88.5) is one of a handful of musicians returning for the third time, with perhaps the most-stylistically surprising effort: A rumination on vehicles that is part Beat Generation spoken word, part high school driver-education film.

This thing started in the basement of Jeff Riales, who’s probably the best songwriter in the city. Scott Regan was nosing around down there when he spotted a line in one of Riales’ notebooks. Riales said he’d never finished the song, and told Regan he could have “Don’t go drinkin’ on an empty heart.” So Regan wrote the first one, which he presented one night at the Flipside. After nearly two-dozen local songwriters had picked up the challenge, Sarah Long Hendershot took notice. She’s a singer-songwriter herself, her band The Jane Mutiny has a show Friday at The Little Café and a guest-filled, post-Thanksgiving Black Friday there on Nov. 24. She correctly figured there were enough strong versions of “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart” for a show; She’s now organized three of these annual events. They sometimes include her own version of the challenge song (Riales even finished his “Don’t Go Drinking on an Empty Heart” for that first one), and a running storyline throughout the show, with this year’s host local comedian/actor Michael Kolden. Who I’m told was once in a play about eating underwear, so he’s perfect.

Saturday’s list of performers features familiar faces such as Connie Deming, Kraszman & Fishwife, Anonymous Willpower, Fred Vine, Maria Gillard and Greg Hassett, who was a part of last year’s house band, but is stepping to the front of the stage with his own song. The house band this year includes the scene-omnipresent Brian Williams on bass. The band is also drummer Marty York and guitarist Steve Piper, part of the night’s clean sweep of members of Watkins & the Rapiers: The two Regans, Rick McRae backing a couple of songs on trombone and accordion and Tom Whitmore, yet another singer-songwriter who’s taken on the challenge for the third time.

Along with the WIEIRWTSS veterans, I heard new voices at Tuesday’s rehearsal. Chris Bond – Scott Regan compared his song to Tony Joe White. Kevin Reed – a 17-year-old guitarist whose version was like a lost Wilco track. And Madeleine McQueen, a mere 21 years old, but with the biggest voice in the room. Like a few of the songwriters, she interpreted “How Did We Get Here?” as an invitation to comment on today’s political atmosphere: “The only light in the house is from the TV,” a metaphor for an isolated president whose only connection to the world is watching Fox News.

And there are a few musicians I have yet to hear: Phil Broikos, Mike Muscarella and Bob Bunce and Rural Delivery.

Another three-time performer is Martha O’Connor. Once again O’Connor’s much-needed, untethered spirit will join me onstage. An odd place for a guy who has never performed until well past mid-life crisis, but I’ve managed to crawl under the chicken wire and get into this event each time. My songwriting career now spans 3½ songs, although they’re not really songs. They’re spoken-word pieces. Stories. And this year, my goal was simple: I was going to write one where none of the characters gets killed.

That was harder than I expected.

The show starts at 7 p.m. and is $15 advance, $20 the day of the show, tickets available at Record Archive, Bop Shop and brownpapertickets.com.

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The Critical Mass

Setting new standards in American fashion

I understand. The clothing and accessories we see on fashion-show runways are not for human consumption.

But when I stumbled across a photo of a model wearing blue jeans that had been reduced to little more than a set of belt loops, pockets for her apartment key, a zipper and the seams, I paused: What is the outrageously paid designer of this outfit trying to tell me?

High-end concepts frequently reach for extremes. Some of the vehicles you see at car shows never hit the streets. New buildings never seem to meet the swooping grace of the architect’s drawings. Your dog will never look like Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club competition. These are unattainable standards. In your attempt to reach for this high bar, it is expected that you will fail. This is how the Fabulous People keep the Great Unwashed in our place.

A dog, maybe.

Those disintegrating runway trousers? Likely an inside joke by its creators. They’re laughing at us, that we might take this seriously. Or perhaps this was a Halloween costume, Jamie Lee Curtis from one of her scream-queen films.

Americans in general are not terribly cognizant of the truths that their outfits speak about them. Or the lies. I see people wearing sweat pants to dinner in a restaurant, as though they think it makes them look like a famous athlete. “Look at how much weight LeBron James put on in the offseason!”

We don’t think deeply enough about the important meaning behind fashion. Like the inherent sexism in this model’s tattered runway moment. Because as far as I can tell a guy wasn’t asked to put on this ridiculous outfit as well. Although I know several who would.

Yet sometimes we also think too much about clothing. On my bus rides into the city, out of sheer boredom I evolved into a careful observer of what people wear. I noticed the jeans that had been carefully sliced along the thigh with a razor and then run through the washing machine, producing a feathery effect. I saw calculated cuts exposing a knee. And the occasional slash high on the back of the leg, revealing a crescent moon of buttock.

You can do these reconfigurations yourself. But mostly, Americans pay lots of money for people in other countries to do it for them.

I seek the middle ground when pondering my personal wardrobe, and prefer to remain silent rather than make a fashion statement. Ripped-out jeans mean I’m sealing the driveway or it’s laundry day and these are the only pants I have that I can wear upwind from you. The holes in my jeans are honest, a combination of brushing against exposed nails and careless handling of chainsaws. Age plays a role. I keep my clothing for a really long time. I have flannel shirts that have gone through several cycles of fashion, from Nirvana to the Brawny Paper Towel Guy. It is a carefully cultivated realness.

All good relationships come to an end, of course. And so it was a couple of weeks ago. In a moment of couture self-evaluation, I realized it was time to put down my distressed jeans, threads stretched to the limit, fabric crying for me to end its misery. And into the trash receptacle they went. Three or four of them.

Where they were obviously discovered by a leader in the fashion industry, desperate for a new idea. My old blue jeans. Torn, caked with coffee grounds, smelling of shrimp tails, but remarkably close to what you see on runways today.

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The Critical Mass

A part of the uniform, or a sign of a sick society?

The World Series is special. That awesome Game 5, with the vast pendulum swings of lead changes. And Game 7, with starting pitchers thrown into relief roles as if there’s no tomorrow, which there isn’t. We even had one of the victorious Houston Astros ending his post-series television interview by asking his girlfriend to marry him.

And at the opening ceremony of the final game, we were presented with a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Except why were those officers wearing sidearms? And I tweeted out that question. Then, on with the game.

And this morning, I’m thinking I’m bothered by more than just the hypocrisy of armed police officers creating beautiful music. It’s a piece of a much-larger picture.

If I were in the position of needing a gun for self defense, I’m sure I’d be happy to have it. But few difficult questions have just one answer. There are usually 30,000 gun deaths in the United States each year. Very few of those victims were criminals shot while committing a home invasion. Most committed suicide, were killed in an accident or were murdered, either by a stranger or, more likely, someone they knew.

Thirty-thousand deaths is an epidemic.

Guns are not only tools for killing people, they are political tools. Politicians use fear to move forward their agendas. We have one such politician/carnival barker in the White House right now. We’re being encouraged to fear anyone who is not a white Christian American. Left unsaid: Trust only straight, rich men. That’s also a part of their equation. Everyone else is either a potential terrorist or someone who wants a free ride on your tax dollars. And the answer is point a gun at them, or build a wall.

It’s a fact that, in this country, most victims of terror attacks were killed by a socially disconnected white American male with a pile of automatic rifles on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel (58 dead), or who invaded a Connecticut elementary school (26 dead), or brought a gun to Bible study in a Charleston church (nine dead) or parked a truck rigged as a fertilizer bomb in front of an Oklahoma City federal building (168 dead).

Any threat, be it terrorism or the faulty maintenance of amusement-park rides, should be taken seriously. But fear is used to cloud perspective. One of seven Americans will die of heart disease. It’s the same numbers for cancer. Those numbers are of no concern to Congress or the president  as they work to disembowel the Affordable Care Act.

Nor do our leaders react to a list being compiled by The Washington Post, which says 813 citizens have been killed this year by police. Killedbypolice.net places the number at 994. The National Safety Council, The National Center For Health Statistics and the Cato Institute calculate that over your lifetime you have a one in 8,359 chance of dying in an incident involving a police officer. But those odds can go up, depending on circumstances. The most-frequent victims are white males armed with a gun or some other weapon. One in four people killed are mentally ill. Black males represent one-fourth of the people killed each year.

Of that average of 1,000 people killed each year in recent years by police, how many were unarmed? The Washington Post says it was about one in 10 in 2015. That percentage has dropped slightly each of the last two years. So we’re getting better? It depends on your reaction to one of those videos where it appears clear that a pissed-off cop executed an unarmed black man.

Numbers are easy to dismiss. Those same charts also reveal that over our lifetime, we have a one in 1,600,000 chance of dying from an asteroid hitting the Earth. I’ve never even heard of anyone being killed by a space rock. That number is simply an actuarial calculation based on the knowledge that humongous meteors are out there and the planet has been struck in the past. And if one the size that wiped out the dinosaurs hits us again, civilization is done.

Unlike meteor strikes, we see terrorist attacks frequently. Yet the Cato Institute calculates your chance of dying at the hands of a foreign-born terrorist as one in 3.6 million, and that includes the 3,000 people who died in 9/11.

So a story’s not told simply in numbers. In the just-completed World Series, was the excellence of the games, and the home-run record, a matter of great hitting or lousy pitching? It’s your perspective. We cheer when Air Force fighter jets fly low over a sports stadium. If you’re a shepherd in Afghanistan and you see a low-flying jet, you run. At a football game, people stand for the National Anthem. But when athletes kneel in protest of police violence against black people, outrage follows. Both are political messages. But one is allowed, one frowned upon.

One respondent to my pre-game tweet about the LA police quartet insisted guns are “part of the uniform.”

No, comfortable trousers are a part of the uniform. Guns are a whole other, and very ill-fitting, accessory in civil society.

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The Critical Mass

Truth and beauty: Hurricanes and other blowhards is why we need the arts

It’s been a month since the nightmare in Las Vegas.

A month since Puerto Rico was flattened by a hurricane, and still more than 70 percent of the island is without power.

Three weeks since the story broke that Harvey Weinstein, perhaps the biggest film and theater producer in America, had been egregiously sexually harassing women since the late 1970s, news that has led to an eruption of women who have stepped up and said: Me Too.

We install a government as a vehicle to address our largest problems. Yet our elected leaders have done virtually nothing about any of the most-alarming issues of the moment. Increasingly we have to do what we can, as individuals. And many small efforts can add up.

Rick Simpson, who’s a friend, and the 6 p.m. Thursday host of Gumbo Variations on WRUR-FM (88.5), has organized “Benefit for the Displaced,” 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday at the Camp Eastman Conference Center, 1558 Lake Shore Blvd. The $10 donation per person goes to the displaced victims of Hurricane Maria and the California wildfires. “We have good friends who live in Santa Rosa (thankfully they did not lose their house, but many of their friends & neighbors did),” Simpson wrote in the invite. “And a Rochester neighbor and friend has family in Puerto Rico. We have good organizations lined up to distribute funds.” Musicians are turning out and there’ll be an open mic set up, with folks invited to bring a dish to pass and a favorite beverage. Attendance is limited to 80 because of the size of the building, so RSVP at ricmon31@aol.com.

I see other benefits this weekend. An artist reception with Rochester’s Darren Brennessel at 5 p.m. Friday at the Multi-use Community Cultural Center, 142 Atlantic Ave., followed at 7:30 p.m. by Linda Starkweather’s one-woman show, Travelling with a Broken Compass. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of art and the tickets to the show ($15 advance, $18 at the door) will go to relief efforts in Puerto Rico. And “Musical Relief for Puerto Rico,” at Downtown United Presbyterian Church, 121 N. Fitzhugh St., is 12:30 p.m. Saturday, with all donations going to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

The arts does this. Because we’re shocked that disaster can reduce Americans to third-world conditions, and our government is unable, and unwilling, to step up and offer proper aid. Instead, our president mocks the Puerto Rican people, calling them lazy and unwilling to do things for themselves.

And when the government does send help? Whitefish, a Montana company with only two full-time employees – but connections to the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke – was awarded a $300 million contract to get the power lines back up. The contract was cancelled by the governor of Puerto Rico when people started asking questions about how a small company with no experience in such disaster-relief projects landed that job.

And look who’s on the job. We get a White House chief of staff, John Kelly, who revealed Monday that he thinks the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but about a “lack of ability to compromise.” That same day, three key players from the president’s campaign were indicted or pleaded guilty on charges that emerged from the investigation into Russian interference in the election, with more indictments certain to follow. And as you read this, Congress is plotting a bill in which close to 80 percent of its tax cuts will go to the richest one percent of the population.

To put it in terms that some of these guys might understand, we pay good money for leadership. Yet we get nothing in return. We’re getting ripped off. I’d rather buy a piece of art, or hand $10 to Rick Simpson while Fred Vine plays guitar, because I like truth and beauty. And I’ll know my money’s doing some good.

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The Critical Mass

Wendell Castle’s walk through a particularly murky woods

The big, overstuffed chair in the living room is about to make that sad, final journey to the curb. I’m very fond of it. I wrote the bulk of a novel while sitting in that chair.

One thing’s holding up the move: Where’s the dog gonna snooze? The chair’s cushions are lopsided, the springs sagging, the result of a 90-pound Weimaraner who shows no respect for Value City craftsmanship.

Practicality. That’s a prime consideration with furniture. Unless you are Wendell Castle. He’s not a form follows function guy. His new show, “Wendell Castle Remastered,” runs through Dec. 31 at the Memorial Art Gallery. The 2 p.m. Nov. 19 talk, “Embracing Upheaval,” will likely be a declaration of war on the American living room.

The Rochester creator of the art furniture movement was his usual artful figure at the show’s opening reception; he cultivates a trim, designer-professor look in round eyeglasses and, as always, a superb jacket. Everyone wanted to talk to him, of course, and at 85 he was wearing down a little by the end of the evening. “That would never fit in my house,” I said to Castle, pointing to a nearby piece, a lamp that looks to be about 15 feet tall.

“It won’t fit in mine, either,” he said.

OK, so neither one of us lives in an airport hangar. The piece is made of a beautifully polished wood that bends upward at odd angles, like a paper clip that’s been twisted into a new shape, which is exactly how Castle came up with the form.

And he’ll worry about where it fits later. It’s all about the art of the piece. The anti-Ikea.

The exhibition is filled with preliminary sketches and finished works that seem to have been inspired by a walk in a particularly murky woods. It’s a fusion of organic and digital, technologies that mix handcrafting skills with a robot capable of precise 3D scanning, 3D modeling and computer-controlled milling that Castle has developed over the decades. The overall feel is sculptural. Black-stained layers of ash wood seamlessly come together as humongous fungus, which on second thought becomes chairs and tables. Huge discs that seem to have been cut from irregular tree stumps function as dinner tables. One table has a natural-looking rot hole in the center. The hole seems to be there so that you can see the artful design of the center post that holds it up.

I suggested to a friend that maybe the hole’s purpose was for guests to toss chicken bones into it during dinner.

“I’ve eaten at that table a few times,” he said. “Wendell said he puts holes in his tables because he’s tired of seeing people putting flower vases on them.”

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Hit the “Subscribe” button on the under-renovation web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

The Critical Mass

Outsider media: Mother’s little helper

Mom misses Art Bell.

I’m spending a few days with my mother. She’s doing all right for 87. Losing her vision, so she’s living in an assisted-living facility in Cleveland. A really nice one.

So how’s it going, Mom?

“I need a harder toothpaste. The one I have is too soft, I use it up too quick.”

The television’s usually on all day. She watches only one channel. Like I said, she’s 87, so it’s Fox News. I have one rule when I visit. The moment I step in the door, the TV is turned off.

They’re lying to you, Mom.

“Oh, but I like the people.”

Mom, Fox is a culture of sexual harassment. The former CEO, Roger Ailes. Eric Bolling. Bill O’Reilly.

“Oh, Bill O’Reilly, that doesn’t surprise me.”

She goes into her bedroom to take a nap. But first, she turns on the radio. Mom doesn’t like silence.

It’s a right-wing station. And apparently a pretty low-watt station, because the host of the talk show has to shout to be heard.

“Maybe we’re going to see this Trump tax-cutting bill passed after all,” he says. “Maybe you don’t like the guy, but low taxes creates jobs. Who doesn’t like jobs? That’s a good thing, right?”

“He’s lying to lying to you,” I tell my mother. There’s no evidence that giving money to rich people has ever resulted in job creation. Demand for goods and services creates jobs, not a rich guy looking for something to do with extra cash in his bank account. “They just keep the money for themselves.”

The guy on the radio has heard me. “Have you ever worked for a broke person?”

Probably. And a lot of people who have worked for Donald Trump have worked for a broke person as well. He’s filed for bankruptcy six times.

A few years ago, my mother was seeing people walk through her house. Strangers of normal size, and lots of little people. Three little girls in particular. They didn’t say anything, just smiled and moved on. My mother has Charles Bonnett Syndrome. It’s found in elderly people with limited eyesight. The brain isn’t getting enough visual stimulation, so it starts feeding on stored images. The strangers, the torn curtains and the mountain with people sledding on it that she saw when she looked out her window in the middle of Ohio farm country in June were hallucinations. She knows that now, and after a while the odd images disappeared. But they do return on occasion, although much less intensely. Like during Game One of the World Series. Instead of seeing Dodgers and Astros, Mom said she saw pink flowers.

More from the radio. “Scientists have discovered a 21-year-old woman who sweats blood,” says a perky-voiced woman newscaster. I guess we’re expected to say, “Ewwww!” Presented with another person’s distress, rather than compassion we’re supposed to be entertained. Stay tuned, she’ll tell us more in a few moments.

She doesn’t talk about them much, but Mom is drawn to odd stuff and conspiracies. She was into Art Bell, the host of the overnight radio talk show Coast to Coast. Talk of UFOs, aliens. That’s where she heard about the Dyatlov Pass mystery, where nine Russian winter hikers were found dead in 1959 in very strange circumstances, with inexplicable injuries. The last book she read, before her eyesight had deteriorated too much, was about whether the victims died in an avalanche, experienced panic attacks due to infrasound, were accidentally killed by Russian military tests or were murdered by a wandering group of yeti.

Late night, early-morning talk shows are also where my mother hears about great, life-enhancing products. Fruit juice mixes, cleaning products and My Pillow. I mentioned My Pillow to My Friend Sarah. “I got one of those,” she said. “It was a disaster.”

My brother, who lives just five minutes away from Mom, has managed to discourage her from investing in My Pillow. And that excruciatingly expensive skin cream.

Mom’s actually quite intelligent. She just tends to believe anything she hears on TV or the radio.

I hear the muffled radio voices from her bedroom again. The 21-year old woman who sweats blood has an extremely rare condition called hematohidrosis.

Mom misses Art Bell, who has retired. But others are eager to help. I’ve found four scraps of paper around her apartment with “Smart Mouth” written on them. It’s a miracle mouthwash she’s been hearing about on Coast to Coast. She wants some.

I’m thrilled my mother is so interested in personal hygiene.

Yeah, Mom’s doing all right. Thanks for asking.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Hit the “Subscribe” button on the under-renovation web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

The Critical Mass

People who lie to you think you’re stupid

On this morning’s dog walk, I noticed that the neighbors across the street have already taken down their New York Yankees flag after last night’s loss. They’ve replaced it with a Buffalo Bills flag. Which seems to be an invitation to yet more heartbreak.

Around the corner we walk, to the next street, where a Trump flag is flying over one of the houses.

People lie for many reasons. Greed, spitefulness, jealousy. Self preservation, as in “I don’t know honey, I must have caught it from a toilet seat.” Or self-aggrandizement, as in any discussion that involves golf scores. Lies are often a need to cover inadequacies, fill in a vacuum in the liar’s life. We lie to ourselves: “I’ll start working out next week.” Sometimes, we even lie to be nice: “No George, one more beer won’t make your ass look too big.” Lying is so much a part of our society that we often don’t even think much about it when we hear one.

But we should. Liars lie because they believe they’re smarter than you. They think you’re too dumb to catch them. And while many lies are harmless and easy to dismiss, some are not.

Donald Trump.

I have never seen anything like this. Trump is like a character from a Ring Lardner short story. It’s not just the sheer volume of lies that this guy spins. It’s the willingness of so many people to simply dismiss what’s happening as politics as usual.

This past week was a typical White House week, with a handful of crises, mostly self-created, at which we can marvel. Let’s recap one:

On Monday, Trump was asked why he hadn’t commented on four American soldiers killed in Niger nearly two weeks earlier. He claimed he had written letters to their families and that they would be mailed that day or the next, as though all presidential correspondence is simply tossed into a U.S. Post Office mailbox, in the same way as you or I would send a birthday card.

He added that previous presidents rarely sent letters or made calls to the families of American soldiers killed in action. Trump was implying that his empathy for their sacrifice was far greater. People who had worked for both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama immediately refuted that comment; both had been quite active in consoling grieving families. Lie No. 1 exposed.

It kept getting worse. Trump claimed he had called “virtually” all of the families who had lost a member in service to our country since he took office. True, if “virtually” all means less than half. Meanwhile, an email surfaced which showed that hours after Trump made his claim, the White House asked the Pentagon for the names of all of the U.S. servicemen who have died since January, and contact information for their families. If Trump had already contacted the families, why did the White House need their names and contact info? By the end of the week, those families began receiving rush-delivered condolence letters from Trump. Lie No. 2 exposed.

Trump called the widow of one of the four soldiers and, in his familiar ham-handed manner, told her that her husband “must have known what he signed up for.” She was understandably shocked at his lack of empathy. As were an aunt and a family friend, Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, who were listening in on speakerphone. When Wilson gave her account of the conversation, Trump immediately announced Wilson had “totally fabricated what I said,” and also claimed to have proof. Of course, just as Trump had once claimed his investigators had found proof that Obama was not born in Hawaii, the proof that Wilson had lied also did not emerge. Lie No. 3 exposed.

In serious need of damage control, the White House sent Chief of Staff John Kelly to speak to the media. Kelly is a sympathetic figure, his own son was killed in Afghanistan. Kelly said Trump had merely mangled the talking point he was delivering to the soldier’s widow (thereby admitting Trump had indeed said those words, exposing lie No. 4). Then Kelly went on the usual Trump White House tactic of diversion, claiming that Rep. Wilson was “selfish” and had falsely claimed in a speech that she was responsible for the federal funding of a new FBI building in her district. Of course, a video of Wilson’s speech then turned up. She said no such thing, but instead talked about her role in naming the building after two FBI agents who had been killed. Lie No. 5, with a direct line connected to Trump, exposed.

And that’s just one of this week’s White House crises. That’s not even getting into the Puerto Rico hurricane recovery fiasco, the heath-care scramble, the national debate over sexual harassment and more news on the Trump campaign and administration’s Russia connection.

Trump has no redeeming qualities. He is uninformed and mentally unstable. He is a man whose gilded course in life was launched with a $1 million gift from Daddy. How many of us got that kind of break and squandered it as a racist, bigot, misogynist and liar?

Yet that guy on the next street is still flying his Trump flag.

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