Friday, February 17, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#804)

The Thing on the Bedside Table
by David Benjamin

“Life! Life, do you hear me?! Give my creation LIFE!!”

          — Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, Young Frankenstein (1974)

WASHINGTON D.C. — The beautiful woman with the strangely Oriental eyes, cantilevered cheekbones and subtly protruding lips awoke, as usual, at 4 a.m. and drowsily regarded the thing on the bedside table.

It was pale pink, shriveled, wrinkled and slightly damp. In the dim light, it reminded her of a used condom. She arose from bed and turned, as the door opened. The family’s ancient retainer turned on the light and wheeled a battered air compressor into the the palatial boudoir.

“Good morning, Mungo,” she said.

“Morning, Madame,” said the old man.

For a moment, they stood silently staring at the thing on the bedside table. “I can’t help but think,” said Mungo, “of a discarded snake skin.”

The beautiful woman favored Mungo with her brief, cool, enigmatic smile. “If I’d only known,” she said, “ before the wedding.”

Mungo didn’t reply. He picked up the seemingly insignificant shred of translucent membrane, found a tiny rectum on its surface and attached the air compressor. He flipped a switch. The powerful device suddenly, almost miraculously, filled and expanded the bedside object with hot air, until it stood six feet tall and naked, swollen vastly in its midsection, with soft, tiny fingers, a bald pate and no visible lips.

“Mungo, please,” said the woman, “put on his underpants. I really don’t want to look at… well…”

The old retainer hastily complied.

Although now fully inflated and coursing with oxygen and fluids, it showed yet no sign of animation. Mungo undertook to dress it in a costly, perfectly tailored Italian silk suit, over a white shirt of Egyptian cotton. Meanwhile, the beautiful woman mounted atop the thing a golden mane, fashioned of fine polyester strands. She glued the flamboyant toupée in place and swept it back, lending it the look of a windblown blond duck perched atop a marble bust.

A look of pathos clouded her lovely face as she studied the daily handiwork she shared with Mungo, and only Mungo.

“The tie is too short,” she said. “Re-tie it. And don’t forget to Scotch-tape the short end.”

“Of course, Madame.”

After this correction, Mungo proceeded to apply a thin coat of spray paint on its face, transforming its hue from a fish-belly pallor to the interior of an underripe muskmelon.

“Perfect,” said the beautiful woman. “Lovely.”

“Almost forgot,” said Mungo, finding beside the bed a thin metal shaft. “If I don’t put the steel in his spine, he’ll start flopping around like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.”

Now fully dressed, adorned and erect, it remained inert. The beautiful woman said, “Try some of his favorite words.”

Obediently. Mungo leaned close to its ear and said, “Tremendous! Really tremendous! Believe me! A wall! A WALL!”

This elicited no response. The old family retainer kept plugging. “Wharton! Best school! High IQ. So high you wouldn’t believe! Believe me! Energy! Enthusiasm! Beautiful buildings! Big hands! Big everywhere! Just tremendous! Incredible! Unbelievable! The blacks, the Jews! They love me! Love me! Bigly! Three hundreds and six electoral college votes! Biggest in history! Best in history! Biggest! Best! Fine-tuned machine! Biggestbest! Trust me! I KNOW!”

Its surface trembled but its eyes stayed shut.

“I think, Madame,” said Mungo, “that we’ll need stronger measures today.”

“Very well. Piss him off.”

Mungo nodded, placed his mouth next to its ear, and whispered a single word that sent a violent shudder coursing through its bloated form.

“Hillary!” hissed Mungo.

“Good, it’s working! Keep going.”

Mungo stepped back and calmly intoned a bruising series of inflammatory exclamations. “Obama! Disgraceful. Total disaster. Worst in history! Little Marco! Dishonest media. Crooked Hillary! Illegal leaks! Mexicans! Judges. Real leaks! Fake news! Shut up! Illegal votes! Millions! Disgraceful. Illegal aliens! Disgusting. Muslims! Nuclear holocaust! Nordstrom’s! Unfair!”

With this stimulus, it began to twitch and rock in place. Its lipless mouth began to squirm. A thin strand of drool emerged.

“He’s ready,” said Mungo. “Crank the engine, Madame.”

The beautiful woman sighed. While Mungo placed a live cell phone in its left hand, she lifted her nightgown and positioned her pussy within reach of its right hand.

Wearily, she sighed and told Mungo, “Okay, rev ‘im up.”

Mungo, assuming a tone of abject desperation and palpable fear, said, “Oh, but please, sir. Please don’t. Please, I need this job!”

It stirred. Its eyes flew open. They flickered once and rolled back. But then they focused keenly and malevolently on the cringing face of Mungo.

Simultaneously, its little left thumb began to click frantically on the cell phone, misspelling an insult — in capital letters — to Pope Francis, while its tiny right hand ground away at the beautiful woman’s reluctantly exposed genitals.

After a moment, the woman detached herself from the claw in her crotch, stepped back, rearranged her negligee and said, “Well, God help us, it’s morning in America.”

“You,” it growled, leering at the old man. A reddish tinge glowed beneath its orange surface. Its mouth twisted with malicious pleasure. “YOU?” it roared.

Juicily, it spit out its two favorite, life-giving words like dum-dum bullets into the face of the ancient retainer: “You’re fired! FIRED!”

It went on, of course. Once activated it always went on. “Get out! Out of my sight! You’re disgusting! Horrible! You’re a disgrace! Total disaster!”

Etcetera. It was the normal start to a normal day. While it spouted away, the beautiful woman and the old, discreet butler guided it out toward the world where it raged and fumed incoherently, uttered statements of colossal ignorance and lied gloriously. In bursts of energy provided by an 18-hour supply of hot, compressed air, it alternately insulted and demeaned vast swathes of humanity in swift and dizzying succession, only to turn an instant later and plead pathetically with great masses of total strangers to please, please like me, love me, like me, admire me, worship my wealth, envy me my luscious wife, say good things about my golf swing, adore my every bizarre impulse and trust my every preposterous outburst.

As it crossed the threshold into another day of ineffable tremendousness, it turned toward Mungo, whom it had just fired. It shook the old man’s hand possessively and said, “I’m really a swell guy, by the way. Really. I am. They all love me. All of them. Believe me. Who are you?”

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#803)

Knock yourself out, Mom
by David Benjamin

“Each team will have six to nine players on the field, instead of 11; the field will be far smaller; kickoffs and punts will be eliminated; and players will start each play in a crouching position instead of in a three-point stance.”
                                             — New York Times, 31 Jan.

MADISON, Wis. — Alarmed by a steady decline in participation by school-age kids, not to mention all those compound fractures and head injuries, USA Football is changing its rules. Predictably, there are traditionalists who fear that this sissification of Pop Warner football will produce kids untrained, unhardened and useless to high school, college and professional coaches.

How easily we forget all those gridiron legends who never played organized children’s football. Jim Thorpe, for example, and Red Grange, Otto Graham, Marion Motley, Jay Berwanger, Vince Lombardi, Ray Nitschke, Pop Warner.

Not to mention me.

For generations, kids like Jim Brown, Night Train Lane and me played ball on sandlots, in yards and pastures, and in between the parked cars on city streets. We waged gridiron battles in a parent-free era of unsupervised sports, long before the first 40-year-old suburban sadist with a clipboard ever lifted a three-foot, 50-pound linebacker by his facemask and told him to get out there and kill.

When I was the newbie in eighth grade, the kids in my neighborhood welcomed me into their weekly game of tackle on a vacant lot down by the Wisconsin & Southern railroad tracks. Our rules were a lot like USA Football’s just-announced reforms. We didn’t, for example, know a three-point stance from the Peppermint Twist. For a kickoff, we simply heaved the ball to the receiving team and ran like hell to beat it there. We eliminated punts by establishing midfield as the “first-down” line. This gave each team, at most, eight plays to score.

The first team with five touchdowns won the game. We could usually squeeze in eight or nine games before it got too dark to see one another.

We had no actual “teams.” Every week, we chose up all over again. One of our captains (who took turns picking players) was always Roger Westmont — tall, handsome, athletic and alpha. After a while, the other chooser — to my lifelong surprise — was me.

(A brief, apologetic explanation here: Somehow, I turned out to be the best open-field runner that fall among the kids of Waunona Way. This qualified me for “captain,” a weird experience for a wallflower who’d spent his entire previous recess career hanging on the fringe and waiting to be “the last kid picked.”)

Our total “equipment” consisted of one football, preferably inflated.

Back in my hometown of Tomah, a kid once got a shiny new helmet with a one-bar facemask (think Johnny Unitas) for his birthday. When he showed up to play, we all told him don’t be stupid. Take it off or go home. He never wore it again.

We didn’t do penalties, but we had rules, largely unspoken, all basically covered by the axiom: “Play fair.” You couldn’t go for another kid’s head and you never, ever, led with your head. The occasional dispute was settled by arguing.

Our field was “natural” and not exactly flat. There were a few humps here and there and a dip around midfield that was mushy after a heavy rain. The only lines on the field were imaginary. The sidelines were the trees.

The only spectator we ever had was the odd kid who arrived late because he had a paper route. Our parents had no idea where we were or what we were doing. We probably could have been more adept at blocking, tackling, running, throwing and operating the single-wing option-veer, but we would’ve needed an adult for that sort of uplift. We got enough of grownups (and uplift) every day at school.

Occasionally after a play, a kid would sit still for a moment, rubbing a bruise, licking blood off his knuckles or gasping for breath after Fat Tony landed on him. But then someone would say something like, “Hey. You quittin’ or what?” After which he’d bounce off the grass and line up for the next play.

None of us ever needed an ambulance. Which begs the question: Was this serious football? Maybe not. But every Wednesday down by the tracks, there were a dozen kids pounding on each other and rolling around on the ground for two solid hours, finishing off with a pigpile and limping home late for supper, dog-tired, bruised, scraped and smeared with grass stains. It seemed pretty serious to me.

There was this one play, for instance. I had just eluded the entire opposing team, except for one lonely defender. I was streaking down the treeline. The sun was sinking on the gray horizon, a light mist was blowing on my cheeks and the world was my oyster. Except for the one kid between me and the endzone: Roger Westmont. He had a perfect angle on me. I decided what the hell, I’ll run right through him.

Oops.

We were both nearing Mach One when Roger went airborne. Leading with his shoulder, he hit me like a hot-rod Lincoln on an open stretch of blacktop. The impact drove the ball into my diaphragm and lifted us together several feet into the sky. We came to earth in the woods, plowing a path six inches deep into dead leaves and humus, leveling several saplings and launching a flock of pissed-off chickadees into a hysterical chirpfest. We ground to a halt ten yards deep in the forest, just shy of a serious tree.

After shutting down for about 30 seconds, my lungs kicked back in and I was able to speak. “Good one, Rog,” I said. We helped each other up.

Roger and I, and all of us, survived collisions like that partly because we were young, lissom and unprotected. We wore no armor and had no illusions of invincibility. We had no trophies to win, no fans to impress, no parents to live up to. Nobody told us to “leave it all on the field.” Nobody was watching.

I doubt that USA Football, even in its best intentions, could ever restore that sort of purity and that much joy. Parents have long since taken the fun out of football.

But here’s an idea: Take the kids out of football. Give it to their parents. They are, after all, the ones who really care. Dress up all those gung-ho moms and dads in uniforms, spend a fortune on pads and jam helmets on their heads. Give ‘em the ball and encourage them, literally, to knock themselves out.

Trouble is, I doubt that the kids would hang around to watch their elders clothesline one another and stagger off the field with pulled groins and subdural hematomas. Kids, I suspect, don’t share grownups’ tolerance for watching family members play bad football.

Ideally, they’d all sneak off in search of a vacant lot near the tracks.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#802)

Imaginary icebergs
by David Benjamin

“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”
                                                          — Joseph Stalin

MADISON, Wis. — There’s little evidence — even in the alt-right online sixth dimension — that ravening hordes of “illegal aliens” are swarming across the Rio Grande and killing Americans. The firmest numbers I could find on this claim were in the right-wing Washington Times about a year ago, which counted 124 homicides committed by undocumented immigrants between 2010 and 2015.

Sounds like a lot, until you dig down. In those six years, there were 95,876 other murders in the United States (give or take a few). The illegal-alien share in all that bloodshed comes out to .00129 percent, or one out of every 774 murders. Putting this into perspective, you’re eight times more likely be killed by a cop, 2,170 times more likely to be offed by your wife (if you’re a guy), and 5,271 times more likely to be strangled, shot or immolated by your husband.

Obviously, if you want to drum up hysterical fear of immigrants, statistics like this don’t really sell the goods. What you need is the perfect anecdote, a story so wrenching, touching and emotionally charged that even a skeptic is appalled into silence. If you’re talking about wetbacks on homicide sprees, your story begins and ends with Kathryn Steinle, killed in San Francisco on 1 July 2015 by a chronic border-jumper named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.

Steinle’s death is, at first blush, the xenophobe’s perfect storm. The victim was young, beautiful, bright (a Cal Tech grad), bursting with promise and — most important — white. The shooter was a career offender swarthy of complexion who’d been deported five times, only to sneak back into America, only to be arrested, convicted, imprisoned, and deported again to his native Mexico, only to sneak back across the border.

Add to this San Francisco, the most notorious (to the right wing) of all so-called “sanctuary cities.” Even worse, Wandering Juan was only on the street because a Frisco judge had just vacated a marijuana warrant that was too old — 20 years — to prosecute. Meanwhile, nobody in town had told the feds from ICE that Lopez-Sanchez was at large.

If various authorities in at least four states (California, Washington, Arizona and Texas) had been more effective in kicking Lopez-Sanchez back to Guanajuato and keeping him there, Ms. Steinle would be alive today. Before the shooting, Lopez-Sanchez had been jailed in San Bernardino County for entering the U.S. without a pass. Once released, he wasn’t deported. And, apparently, nobody in California knew that he was a fugitive from Texas, where he was on probation.

Lopez-Sanchez’ vocation of petty crime spanned five presidencies and two agencies, INS and ICE. All of the horses and all of the men under Reagan and Clinton, two Bushes and Barack Obama couldn’t keep this bad hombre out. The lawmen who kept catching Juan treated him more as a pest than a monster, probably because — until the shooting — he had no record of violence. His thing was narcotics. He fed his habit by selling heroin and marijuana, for which the best market in the world is America. This explains why Lopez-Sanchez wouldn’t stay put down yonder.

Kathryn Steinle’s death was a confluence of heartbreaking happenstances. Four days before the shooting, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger, in the city for business, parked his vehicle near the Embarcadero, a popular tourist mecca on San Francisco Bay. Someone, possibly Wandering Juan, broke into the car and hit the junkie jackpot. Just lying there was a .40-caliber handgun.

Of course, the BLM doesn’t routinely issue guns — especially .40-cal cannons — to its employees. This was a “personal” weapon that its owner hadn’t very carefully concealed.

Lopez-Sanchez either stole the gun or acquired it from the thief. His rap sheet suggests that he had no plans to use it. However, before he got around to selling the gun, Wandering Juan, who was habitually stoned, took it into his head to stroll by the Bay and plunk a few sea lions. Considering his history and his high, it’s likely that if he’d aimed directly at Kathryn Steinle and fired, she would have gone unscathed. But he wasn’t trying to shoot her, or anyone. Ballistics experts confirmed that the bullet that pierced Steinle’s aorta had bounced off the pavement.

The killing, by a small-time felon waving a stolen handgun, was almost surely accidental. This likelihood is among the many ironies that render the story all the more poignant.

The biggest irony, of course, is that we’re all talking seriously now about erecting a $21 billion wall to protect the homeland — from the Beaner Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. We’re looking at an extreme case of anecdote abuse.

I hasten to emphasize that a good anecdote, applied properly, is a neat expository device that helps make thorny issues accessible. Every day in the news, we see reports about complicated crises that people need to know, but they’re hard to explain. So, to draw readers in, the resourceful reporter will often lead by telling the story of a real person whose situation illustrates the dilemma.

Typically, the story then goes from the specific to the general. The reporter marshals testimony, documentation and measurable evidence to verify the scope and urgency of the issue that was capsulized in the opening anecdote. In professional journalism, the anecdote never stands alone. It rests atop a pyramid packed with proof, context and meaning.

An anecdote without a pyramid, however, is just bar talk. Or it can be magic. Sell the story as though it’s the tip of an iceberg, an example among thousands, and suddenly a singular outrage — like Kathryn Steinle's murder — becomes an epidemic that threatens to shred the very fabric of civilization. In reality, it threatens nothing, but never mind. By emphasizing certain details and omitting others,  the magician of hyperbole — without actually lying — can transform a single senseless crime into a holocaust and mount a statue of its luckless victim, bathed in floodlights, atop the Great Wall of Paranoia.

Kathryn Steinle’s loss is a heartbreaking story. But it has no pyramid and there is no iceberg. It’s not the story of alien invasion and liberal appeasement trumpeted by its hucksters. Certainly, some of the undocumented who sneak into America are drug mules and junkies. A few are rapists, even killers. But most are maids, tomato-pickers and gardeners — as well as the odd honor student, poet or chemical engineer. These arrivals to our teeming shore pose problems, but they aren’t big problems. After all, this is America. We’re better here at unfolding the couch and finding an extra blanket than anywhere else on earth.

The bigger problem today is a flood of scary stories too pat to be true, spun by blowhards too smug to believe. Rather than freaking over a trickle of Muslims and Mexicans, we should be focusing our fear on the propaganda that’s abroad in the land, and the totally “legal” people — millions of us — who swallow it.

The barbarians, Gracie, are not at the gate. They’re in the West Wing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#801)

… or the Highway
by David Benjamin

"He didn't like it. That song stuck and he couldn't get it off his shoe. He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”
                     — Tina Sinatra, on her father’s opinion of “My Way”

MADISON, Wis. — I was impressed, perhaps awestruck, by Rachel Maddow’s restraint on Inauguration night. She didn’t flinch, didn’t curl a lip, didn’t roll her eyes as “president” Trump took to the dance floor and tripped the leaden fantastic to his favorite tune, “My Way.”

Really?

I grew up to the voice of Frank Sinatra. He was everywhere on radio, TV, in the movies. And he deserved all the glory he got. My favorite Sinatra cover was his wistful rendition of the Kingston Trio song, “It Was a Very Good Year.” His talent was eclectic and extraordinary. He proved he could dance with Gene Kelly in On the Town and Anchors Aweigh. He showed that he could hold his own with actors like Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate) and Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity), even Grace Kelly! He maintained a standard of excellence for decades, despite a notoriously unhealthy lifestyle. When Sinatra finally slipped into a late-career decline, I tried to look away.

But he was hard to avoid.

Although he had mostly lost his voice, he kept recording. He could still fill a ballpark with adoring septuagenarian bobby-soxers, all paying triple figures to hear Frank croak out “New York, New York.” He wasn’t proud of what he was doing then, for the money. You can hear it. But he kept stroking.

Listen to Sinatra on his last few pop hits, “Strangers in the Night” and the vaguely incestuous duet of “Something Stupid” with his talentless daughter, Nancy. There’s contempt in his voice for the shmaltz and bathos in these fifth-rate ditties. Still, I forgave Frank for these sides because, after all, he’s the jazzman whose phrasing and insight turned “One for My Baby” into the perfect lament to lost love. Nobody ever sang “Chicago” quite so infectiously or “I Cover the Waterfront” so hauntingly.

So, okay, Frank. I grant you “Strangers in the Night.”

But I had draw the line when Paul Anka stole the melody of a rinky-dink French pop song, wrote new lyrics and then offered it to Sinatra. Frank should have known better. He should have said, “This low I will not stoop. Give this turkey to Frankie Laine. Or sing it yourself.” But Sinatra gave in and recorded “My Way” — a self-congratulatory snatch of doggerel that begins as a paean to rugged individualism but sinks, by its last verse, into the desolate sneer of a dying shut-in. It became, of course, one of Frank’s biggest hits.

And this I cannot forgive.

Of course, Sinatra paid his penance. The fact that millions of fans revere “My Way” as Frank’s last testament is a crowning indignity. He couldn’t get through a concert, in his final years, without having to drone this self-piteous dirge.

Sinatra came to deplore the song, which is easy to understand if you listen dispassionately: “… when there was doubt, I ate it up and spit it out…” Yecch. Lines like this bespeak neither Paul Anka nor Sinatra. Songwriter Anka, probably while drunk, conceived a a black romance, its protagonist a bitter recluse isolated by a sourceless anger, irreconcilable to the thousand compromises we all make in life, else we are crushed. The result: an ill-rhymed elegy to macho fantasy, the testimony of a loser who thinks he won by never backing down, never checking his impulses, and never diverted — by love, leisure or laughter — from his dogged plod.

True to the lyric, Sinatra had regrets, especially about having to sing “My Way” over and over again to a million starstruck geezers. The song diminished him, made him common. Listen to his other work, especially in those elegant mid-career albums after his celebrity had faded and he grasped so much better the lyrics — both sad and joyful — into which he was breathing life. Watch him, exuberant and athletic in High Society, or tortured by mortal frailty in The Man with Golden Arm, and you see an intricate, thoughtful actor who had studied and pierced the depths of his characters. By all accounts, Frank Sinatra was both selfish and gregarious, often impetuous, sometimes needy, frequently arrogant but equally tender and generous, and — ultimately — inscrutable. He was both larger than life and humbler than his cynical Rat Pack persona. He was a cat with nine lives and a hundred mythical faces. He bore no resemblance to the deathbed whiner depicted in the lyrics of “My Way.”

Sinatra, remember, was a street kid who savored the company of the rich and profligate. I doubt that he ever aspired to epitomize the “forgotten man,” whoever that is. And he absolutely did not want “My Way” as his epitaph. Given his druthers, I think he might have chosen “Come Fly With Me.” But “Autumn in New York” would be just as good. There’s also this sparkling version of “You Make Me Feel So Young” on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! Or, well… so many choices.

Anything but “My Way.”

Which brings me to Donald Trump, who sincerely loves the song. Which figures. The man’s inclination toward self-congratulatory shlock hardly comes as a shock. But think about it. What if Trump had, for once, confounded our expectations, swept Melania onto the dancefloor and cued the bandleader to play “It Was a Very Good Year,” or perhaps the Sinatra cover I’m listening to at this moment, “Maybe You’ll Be There”? You should hear it!

If Trump had revealed momentarily that he has, at least, please, just a hint of good taste in music (or something!), well, some of us — perhaps even me — might have entertained one (fleeting) hope that we might yet be spared the “American carnage” of doing it his way.
 
And if he had, what about Rachel?

She’s a softie. She would’ve smiled.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#800)

What Obama and Trump Really Said
by David Benjamin

(As a service to mankind, Harvey Brusbussen, editor-in-chief of the international hacking organization, IncontinentWiki, has released, exclusively to this reporter, the full transcript of the post-election meeting in the Oval Office between President Barack Obama and President-Elect Donald Trump. Here it is.)
Trump: “So, how’d I do, bro?”

Obama: “You totally rocked, dude. You’re the only one who could have pulled it off.”

Trump: “Hey, thanks for believing in me, Barry. When you suggested it, I thought you were crazy. I never thought I’d even win a primary, much less the whole shootin’ match.”

Obama: “It was the same for me when I ran for president. Totally out of the box!”

Trump: “True. We were both surprises. But beating Hillary? I thought, no way!”

Obama: “I knew you could do it, Donny. I was counting on you.”

Trump: “Well, we had to beat her. She could have forever soiled your legacy as president. You’ve been the best since Roosevelt and you’ve done so much for America! The Affordable Care Act. The recovery from the Bush Depression. You saved General Motors! You took out bin Laden, man! High five!”

(They slap palms.)

Obama: “Thanks, but you’ve made a huge sacrifice. I know how you hate politics.”

Trump: “Looking back, it was fun. Your strategy was pure genius. I mean, I saw what Hillary was doing — framing her campaign as a continuation of the Obama administration. I couldn’t let that happen to you, man. Everybody hates Hillary. If she put her name on your work, everything you accomplished would be tainted.”

Obama: “I agree. But no way I could dump Hillary. She was next in line. My only option was to support her passionately but make sure she lost the election to somebody whom Americans could despise even more than they despise her.”

Trump: “And here I am!”

(They laugh and high-five again.)

Obama: “Thank God I didn’t have to look very far, Donny. You were a no-brainer. In more ways than one. Millions of people — especially in New York — have been hating your guts for years. You’d spent your life building the most vulgar, repulsive image in the history of wretched excess. Compared to you, Caligula was Emily Dickinson.”

Trump: “Hey, being repulsive worked for me. And it came in handy for you. Now that I’m president, every time I attack you or one of your good works, the whole world will come to your defense. The more I dump on you, the more people will love you. Can you imagine this happening with Hillary?”

Obama: “Y’know, Don. The sad part is, I like Hillary, as a person. But it’s weird. Everything she touches turns into ten million flames on social media. With friends like her, who needs enemies?”

Trump: “Well, you do, Barry. And I’m your man. I’m gonna trash you, and everything you’ve ever done — 140 ungrammatical characters at a time — ’til the Democratic Party takes America back from the Donald Trump disaster”

Obama: “All I can say, again, is thanks.”

Trump: “Don’t thank me yet. I’ve got work to do. First thing, I’m gonna huddle up with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to repeal Obamacare, with no plan or forethought whatsoever. It’s gonna be so ruthless, mindless and pointless that all of American will suddenly wake up and realize they like Obamacare.”

Obama: “Brilliant.”

Trump: “And then I’m going to nominate a Cabinet full of gasbags, has-beens, toadies and upper-class twits. The blowback will be massive. People are gonna be nostalgic for you even before I’m sworn in. I guarantee it. After that, I’ll just go completely off the rails. I’ll be the gonzo president. By summertime, even the most gutless weenies in the GOP — Priebus, Romney, Cruz, Walker — they’ll be whispering about impeachment.”

Obama: “Don, I really hate to see you doing this. Behind that hideous mask, you’re the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

Trump: “Well, don’t tell anybody, Barry. Remember, being the world’s most colossal horse’s ass is my meal ticket. Made me rich! And it gets me close to all the pussy a guy could ever dream of.”

Obama: “About that, Donny. Do you really get a lot?”

Trump: “Hey, I wish. In actual fact, I’m kind of a babe repellant. I mean, the hair, the weird orange glow, the big crude mouth. The sheer stupidity. And I’m fat. I’m old. If I wasn’t rich, no woman would touch me with a ten-foot toilet brush.”

Obama: “Yes, but you were married to beautiful women. And you’ve got Melania. She’s gorgeous.”

Trump: “Wait, man. You think Melania’s real? You believe that phony birth certificate?”

Obama: “Say what?”

Trump: “I thought you figured it all out when Melania blew a circuit at the GOP convention and re-booted into that old speech by your wife.”

Obama: “You mean?”

Trump: “That’s right, Barry. She’s synthetic. They’re doing amazing stuff these days with silicone and artificial intelligence.”

Obama: “But she had a baby, Don. You have a son.”

Trump: “Hey, don’t get me started, man. We’ve had to send the kid back to the shop to be re-wired at least five times. And he still doesn’t register any human expression. Until the engineers can find the glitch in his software, we’re just spreading this vague rumor that he’s autistic.”

Obama: “Donny, I’m sorry. I had no idea.”

Trump: “Hey, kids. Whaddya gonna do?”

Obama: “Listen, one other thing is bothering me.”

Trump: “The Putin bromance?”

Obama: “Exactly. You’re patriotic, honorable, intelligent. But for my sake, you’ve dragged yourself down into Putin’s gutter. You’ve been kissing his ass for two years and it breaks my heart. I mean, the guy’s a total pig.”

Trump: “Hey, no big deal. Remember, I’ve spent my life among rich realtors, urban developers, slumlords, casino gangsters and now, Klan kleagles and Republicans! The scum of the earth. Putin is just another one of the boys. Besides, the Putin gambit is a key to our plan to rehabilitate liberalism.”

Obama: “Right again, Donny. Ever since FDR sweet-talked Joe Stalin at Yalta, the Democratic Party has been stuck with the tag of Russian appeasers and soft on Communism. But now, thanks to you…”

Trump: “Hey, by the time I’m out of the White House, Russia and Putin will be hanging around the Republican Party’s neck — like a dead polecat on an anchor chain — for generations to come.”

(Another high five.)

Obama: “So, Donny, when do you plan to get bored with public service and announce your resignation?”

Trump: “Not long, bro. I’m just waiting for the Coen Brothers finish up those sex tapes of Mike Pence and Paul Ryan with Jane Fonda.”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#799)

Saturdays at the Erwin
by David Benjamin

“What is it?/ Hey, why it’s Buttercup/ Popcorn!/ Add sweet cream butter to hot popcorn,/ Mix it up, wrap it up,/ Buttercup is born./ It’s delicious!/ So nutritious!/ It’s a taste delight!/ It’s so munchy , crisp and crunchy!/ You’ll enjoy each bite./ Eat Buttercup, Buttercup,/ Popcorn at its best./ It beats all the rest!”
                       — Movie intermission jingle, ca. 1953

MADISON, Wis. — A kid named Chucky Dutcher was my mentor in the art of moviegoing. A slightly disreputable urchin from a sprawling, unruly family who lived on the wrong side of the Milwaukee Road tracks in Tomah, Chucky was the unlikeliest of cinema mavens, if only because in school he had a hard time sitting still.

Like many of my early friends, Chucky was a street kid who had no curfew, lived by his wits, talked out of both sides of his mouth and knew where the action was. In a small town, the movies represented a reliable source of action, at least ’til we were old enough to drink. So, the movies is where Chucky went — and sat more or less still, even at the risk of refining his tastes and improving his mind.

For most Tomah kids, moviegoing came two ways. One was with your parents, usually in the family Ford to the drive-in out by Routes 12 and 21, always a double feature (one of my fondest memories was a twin-bill of The Thing and The Deadly Mantis). Trouble was, the drive-in closed in September and didn’t re-open ’til almost summertime. In the cold months, you could beg mom and dad for an evening out at the Erwin Theater. But for me, with two working — then separated, then downright divorced — parents, such excursions were damn scarce. And I had no recourse to grandparents. None of them had been to the flicks since the Depression.

Tomah’s only other portal to Hollywood, for kids, was a Saturday matinee program sponsored by the Erwin. In school, for two bucks, you bought a precious ten-week perforated card of movie tickets (Lassie, Doris Day, Tommy Sands, Roy Rogers, Francis the Talking Mule). Parents — even those as hard-up as mine — gladly ponied up the deuce because it promised two or three hours of kid-free tranquility every Saturday afternoon during the diphtheric Wisconsin winter.
 
One blessing of the Erwin matinee was that all ten movies were approved by the Legion of Decency (thus indemnifying me from a Near Occasion of Sin). The worst part was an entire movie house full of other kids, screaming, fighting, running up and down the aisles and smelling like Dubble Bubble wrapped in dirty underwear.

And then, when you piled out of the Erwin in a mad, violent mass evacuation, prodded along by sadistic teenage ushers, the sun was still somewhere up there, sulking behind a leaden overcast. Tomah, in daylight, in the dead of November, projected a bleakness that made the Erwin — with its Technicolor screen and Dmitri Tiomkin scores, its cavalcade of stars, and its walls adorned with Indian-themed art-deco murals — seem like either Shangri-La or a cruel hoax devised to make fragile children hate their lives.

Chucky Dutcher’s solution to the normal kid’s Hollywood hunger was the personal, unauthorized, 25-cent Erwin marathon. On a cold Saturday after matinee season, Chucky and I ventured parentless to the Erwin for the early showing of Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Pat Boone and James Mason. We watched all five showings. Next day, after church, we went back and watched it five more times.

We skipped four meals and didn’t get home — twice — ’til almost midnight. Nobody commented, or even noticed our absence from the world, because Chucky and I were, by popular local consensus, destined for delinquency. We both had parents too busy, too troubled, too tired to care whether we were in the house or off someplace. They’d just as soon we stayed away as much as possible. As long as the police didn’t bring us home, we were on our own.

I figured out quick that it’s hard to go ten hours in the movies without nourishment. There was food, of course, in abundance, at the Erwin, but you had to buy it. Neither Chucky nor I exactly had a stash of ready cash. We had to husband our nickels and dimes and make prudent meal choices. The most heralded of cinema cuisine, Buttercup popcorn, was usually beyond our means, as were most of the classic candy bars — Snickers, Milky Way, Mr. Goodbar, etc.

Instead, we focused on the proletarian candy choices on the lower shelves behind the glass. You had to know your options and choose fast, because the hostile high-school girl behind the counter hated little kids, there were twelve bigger people behind you and — you could hear him — Lowell Thomas had already begun, in that immortal, mellifluous baritone, the Movietone News. Hurry!

My all-time favorite Erwin entrée was Raisinets. But they ate fast and didn’t last. You’d be digging up your final raisin before the end of the first reel. And you couldn’t go back for more. No self-respecting kid ever left his seat during the film, even to take  a leak or puke. Ever. You were glued to the screen.

Other ill-advised movie victuals were nonpareils, chocolate cigarettes, Spearmint Leaves, Good & Plenty, Junior Mints, M&Ms and malted milk balls. Tasty but ephemeral. If you wanted staying power, you leaned toward the classic filling-pullers — Dots, Jujubes, Jujyfruits — or the little rocks you had to suck. Root beer barrels, Lifesavers (dull but durable), and, especially,  Jawbreakers. A ten-cent box of Jawbreakers once got me through all three hours of Ben-Hur.

Above all, there was one movie meal you could chew ravenously or suck subtly, devour in one reel or nurse through the credits. A caramel-centered chocolate-covered minié ball invented in 1926 by Sean Le Noble, the Milk Dud, for any kid who ever went to the movies, is the pinnacle of 20th-century confectionery.

The magic of a movie marathon was that, once you were settled into your Erwin homestead, with a supply of Milk Duds and Jawbreakers (and nothing to drink lest you need to pee), you were immersed. Sunk into your seat while audience after audience came and went, you uncoupled from reality. You became film, and film became you. You weren’t in Tomah, but in Scotland and underneath Iceland with the Lindenbrook expedition. After I’d seen Journey to the Center of the Earth ten times in 48 hours, I was ready to converse with Pauline Kael on the delicate nuance in Pat Boone’s Thespian style, and the mounting insinuation of Arlene Dahl’s raw sexuality.

By and by, you became, inevitably, irresistibly — for the rest of your life — a line memorizer. You began, innocently, by saying, along with James Mason, “Never interrupt a murderer, madam.” You end up in a gin joint, hollering at perfect strangers, “Goddammit! It’s not ‘Play it again, Sam.’ It’s just ‘Play! It! Sam!’”

Then, one day, without warning, Chucky’s nomadic dad uprooted the whole shebang and disappeared to God-knows-where. Luckily, I didn’t need a sidekick anymore (unless it was Maureen O’Hara). I’d been lured into the Erwin and seduced by Hollywood. I was probably the first kid in my grade to solo at the movies. Alone in the dark, I got my first glimpse of the Final Solution in the scariest film I ever saw, a documentary called Mein Kampf. I fell in love with Jean Seberg in The Mouse That Roared. I watched Steve Reeves in Hercules and Hercules Unchained at least eight times each. I spent one sublime day learning how to dance from Zorba the Greek.

And afterwards…

Coming out the door from the warm Erwin womb into the arctic dark of Tomah at midnight, I beheld the yellow street lights suffusing the bars, diners and storefronts along Superior Avenue with the faint golden glow of a backlot New York.

If I squinted a little, succumbing to the sugar in my bloodstream and the chill of the night, I could just barely see, under a faroff, flickering streetlamp, the silhouettes of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, kissing in desperate haste before fleeing into the darkness from the killer on their trail.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#798)


The geeks who live on the hill
by David Benjamin


“Let's make sure none of our kids have to drive.”
                         — Jen Hsun Huang, CEO, Nvidia

LAS VEGAS -- In the real world, nobody talks about self-driven cars.  We have other stuff on our minds. If we talk about cars at all, it’s usually something about that ominous stain on the garage floor, or the funny noise under the hood, or wanting to strangle the GPS Bitch inside the dashboard who thinks she knows the way and goes into U-turn Panic every time you hang a left she doesn’t agree with.

But here, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), there are 200,000 people talking about self-driven cars. It’s topic number one. Easily, the most unhinged among these robo-gonzos is a guy named Jen Hsun Huang.

To the non-CES millions, Jen Hsun Huang (pronounced “George Jetson”), is... who?

Never heard of him.

But to the crowd that hailed him with a standing, stomping, whooping ovation at a twilight-in-Sin-City CES keynote address, this guy is Jesus on a hoverboard. To some extent, he deserves a big hand, because he’s the ubergeek who invented the GPU (graphics processing unit) that makes video pastimes like “Mafia II,” “Call of Duty: Black Ops” and “Super Street Fighter” so vivid, kinetic and gory.

Bounding onto the CES stage in his signature black leather jacket (my signature is Duluth Trading compression socks), Huang launches explosively into an “incredible” (he loves this word) harangue — to the throbbing roar of what reminds me of a Trump campaign rally in lynch-mob mode — about his “amazing” (likes this word, too) GPU. He proclaims, with all due immodesty, the “extraordinary,” “unbelievable” spiritual fulfillment it has bestowed on humankind, unleashing the imagination of — by his gradually escalating count — one, two or maybe 50 billion glassy-eyed video-gamers on this planet and beyond.

He did, by the way, rather graciously suggest that there are a few benighted atheists, like me, not yet been born again into gaming. I get the impression that Huang and his believers see us analog holdouts as a sort of sad relict of Bedlam and Titicut, living in our pj’s. confined to bare white rooms, playing with our lips and fingering through tattered copies of Photoplay.

Since the ballroom at the Venetian was equipped, by chance, with a video screen thirty yards wide, Huang treated the faithful to a preview of Nvidia’s newest G-Force (I think this is a brand) video game. In this clip, a person, possibly female, clad in bronze body armor, blasts pop-up monsters with a) an apparent ray gun, b) a machine gun and c) a flame thrower of devastating ferocity. With every simulated explosion, the crowd channels Meg Ryan in Katz’s deli.

I’m loath to digress but, jeez, I wonder. Has anybody noticed that the actual central plotline of almost every video game has barely advanced in 30 years beyond “Space Invaders?” Or, for that matter, the shooting gallery at the Monroe County Fair?

But never mind. Movie’s over. We’re here to talk about self-driven cars.

On that topic, Huang hyperboasted — another echo of our president-elect — that fully functional Level 5 robo-cars are here. Right now. The wait is over. (Yeah, I know. Who was waiting?) Huang said, “What used to be science fiction is going to be reality.” Or is. Right now.

Ay, there’s the rub, George. I admit that I don’t know dick about GPUs or “Grand Theft Auto.” But I was tuned into sci-fi long before Huang fried his first transistor. Hence, when he uttered that “going to be reality” line, the seven most potent words in science-fiction history silently rolled off my lips.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”

As I’ve noted before, the great sci-fi minds — from Karel Capek to Arthur C. Clarke (author of those seven fateful words) — have depicted robotics as a god with two faces, one benign and helpful (like Robby in Forbidden Planet) the other malevolent to the point of holocaust (Cyberdyne Systems in the Terminator flicks).

The capriciousness of autonomous machines is one of the great unresolved, irresolvable, thrilling and frightening sci-fi themes. It’s a premise as complex as Nvidia’s latest block diagram. For every dream-come-true brought about by fictional cyborgs, there is a Hell on earth that spreads to the moon and engulfs whole solar systems, eventually turning the best-laid plans of mice and men into a heap of smoldering ashes overseen by a robo-demon with a metallic grin.

All because George Jetson went down to the auto mall and bought a self-driving Ford that could think circles around his puny human brain. The robotic rub, from Asimov to Philip K. Dick to Stanley Kubrick, is that, by and by, the machine realizes that George, comparatively, is a moron. In sci-fi, the robot says, “Wait a minute. What am I doing at this lamebrain’s beck and call?”

And the fun begins.

If science fiction, as Jen Hsun Huang enthuses, becomes reality, the robots will sense their superiority and turn on us. They’ll confiscate our houses, cars and bank accounts. We mere mortals will be retained, in reduced numbers, as minstrels, French maids, gardeners, chauffeurs, armor-polishers.

Wax on, wax off.

But don’t panic yet. The prospect (or horror) of robo-motoring isn’t as immediate — for real people — as Huang raved. He exposed the dream’s caste system inadvertently, by describing a scene in his personal near future. In this fastasy, he’s heading home in his autonomous Audi — let’s call it Artoo. He has reached the hill that leads to his house. Artoo says, “Yo, Jen Hsun. How about we activate the gate so we can drive right through when we get there?”

Stop the film here. Let’s look at the freeze-frame.

Huang’s hill is near San Francisco. I know those hills. I also know the scorched salt marshland out by East Palo Alto where the poor folks are cut off from the rest of the world by Route 101. And I know the working-class flats of Redwood City, Fremont, Richmond, Alameda.

People like me — and you — don’t often drive up the forested hills of Woodside or Hillsborough, or above Portola Valley, unless we’re delivery boys. If we tried, we’d eventually spot a private-security cruiser in our rear-view.

With this story, Huang accidentally confessed the truth about autonomous cars for the foreseeable (non-science fiction) future. They’re for guys, like him, whose homes — usually referred to as “compounds — have gates. Guard dogs. Surveillance. Gold faucets and trophy wives.

This is a future I’ve seen, at robo-car trade shows. Self-driven, machine-learning, mind-reading, well-spoken cars with English accents and rich Corinthian leather — these rides are way cool. But they’re out of our league, Steve.

Huang will be invited to the White House and he’ll give one to Trump. Free.

The rest of us, we’ll get one — eventually. But mine will be second-hand, when it’s a little too old to drive by itself, when it’s prone to stains on the garage floor, when the HUD turns fuzzy, the ECU smells like burning plastic, and the “infotainment” system can only find re-runs of “I Love Lucy.”