Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#765)

Getting Peggy back
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — We’re getting my sister back.

We began to lose Peg, my previously bossy big sister, when her body was taken over by a merciless mystery called lupus. It invaded her kidneys, eventually devouring them. She got a replacement kidney, named Steve, from a young man who lost control of his motorcycle. But even with Steve, Peg was trapped in a downward spiral of illness, infection, cancer, brain damage, a thousand drugs, and a case of sometimes comical but ultimately tragic dementia.

As she approached the end, Peg was present. But she wasn’t there. This Wednesday, despite her strength and sheer obstinacy, all that stuff finally killed her.

We started recovering Peg that morning, right over her dead body.

Rosey was there, Peg’s sidekick since they met in Mrs. Schober’s third-grade class at St. Mary’s School in Tomah. Rosey was one of Peg’s first fortresses.

Peg built bastions against the chaos and unfairness of life. While our mother and dad were waging war and breaking up, Peg found refuge in Rosey’s house on Superior Avenue, with Rosey’s mom and dad as her backup parents. She found a refuge there of humor, intelligence and unconditional welcome. In return, she built around Rosey and herself a social circle, of giggling grade-school girls, that gentle Rosey could have never gathered on her own. All those girlfriends, who served to flummox and fend away the intrusions of her two barbaric little brothers, were another of Peg’s fortresses.

The love affair of Peg and Rosey survived even when Mom forsook Tomah, hauled us to Madison and ruined Peg’s dreams of a teenage social paradise at Tomah High. Rosey and Peg’s sisterhood stayed true then and down the years.

Rosey remembered, reminisced and helped us to get Peg back.

Junko was there. She lost her own sister, to cancer, 24 years ago. By marrying me, Junko got a new sister, one who shared her wanderlust. Peg loved uncomfortable adventures. She traveled to China before there were any decent hotels. She slept in tents in the Amazon. She hiked up mountainsides in Switzerland. She traveled with us often — to Paris, to the Loire valley and to Brittany. She and Junko would slip together into girlish symbiosis, building a fresh fortress — against me. Wherever we were, they would take over the kitchen, building one of Junko’s gourmet dinners, holding me at bay and sharing jokes at my expense. I was used to it. I’d been staring up all my life at Peg’s battlements.

Junko remembered Peg’s sheer pleasure in discovering new places, her willingness to try almost everything. She recalled our stay at a winery in the Touraine, where we sat by the pool feasting on our hostess’ paella, where the family dog, a giant Dane named Gaspard, nosed immensely up to Peg hoping for a handout. Peg, fearless, summoned up her high-school French and, with ladylike formality, said, “Asseyez vous, s’il vous plait.”

Gaspard, obediently, bowed his great head and sat at Peg’s knee. We all laughed.

Junko remembered that. We all laughed. We were getting Peg back.

Patty, one of my my high-school friends, was there with her husband, Oren. They had only adopted Peg in recent years, when Junko and I circled back to Madison. They knew Peg more when she was ill than when she was the cool career woman whose office — at a Milwaukee law firm — was a fortress of efficiency. Patty knew a Peg who, in her weakened state, was sweet and solicitous. Patty was part of a small society that Junko and I created in Madison when Peg was too ill and too alone to form her own circle. Patty and Oren were two of the turrets in Peg’s last fortress. Peg told Patty secrets she would never share with me. She looked lovingly at Oren the way she could not see me, her lifelong adversary.

Beside the room where Peg had died, Patty and Oren celebrated their late-life bond with Peg, thanked me for adding this small burden to their experience. We remembered things Peg said — wisdom, memories, non sequiturs — and smiled, as we got Peg back.

Bill, our  brother, arrived from Tomah, too late to join the brief vigil that preceded Peg’s death. We consoled him for that. We suspected she had passed quickly to spare us the anguish of a prolonged death watch. Bill, like me, remembered Peg’s fortresses. He reminded me of Peg’s bedroom in our Madison apartment. She had a room to herself, while Bill and I shared ours. Peg’s room was inviolate. We were forbidden the back door because it was in Peg’s room. She checked daily for signs of intrusion. She lived in an oasis of feminine neatness while Bill and I ran amok, loud, profane and trailing crumbs.

Bill's arrival reminded me: He was the drummer in a teenage rock band called the Lordes, which I — always eager to mock a sibling — called the Lordies (because of that superfluous “e”). Prior to one of the Lordes’ biggest gigs, we were all present, including Rosey, at a rehearsal. Bill asked if Peg had a request. In one of Peg’s rare unguarded moments in the presence of her bestial brothers, she chose the Beatles’ simple, moving ballad, “And I Love Her.”

Recalling that, I also remembered that Peg — who was constantly listening to WLS Top Forty radio in Chicago (with special devotion to immortal DJ Dick Biondi) —  force-fed rock ’n’ roll to her unwilling brothers. Driven, perhaps, by all that subliminal suggestion, Bill became a drummer, playing down the years in a half-dozen  bands. I became a music maven with an encyclopedic memory of the hits I hated because Peg loved them.

But remembering that moment in a basement on Simpson Street in Madison sometime in the Sixties, as we all listened to Bill softly drumming and Pat Noles torturing Paul McCartney’s lyrics, I saw in my sister Peg a deep strain of romance that she rarely exposed — at least to me. It has lingered in me, a tie that binds us. More profoundly, it's a force that has sustained Peg, miraculously, through an ordeal that would have shattered, embittered and swiftly destroyed almost anyone else.

I realized, thanks to brother Bill and the Lordies, that Peg’s tenacious romance is a fine, subtle madness that we’ve shared as a family all our lives, a source of foolish strength that keeps me going. More important, it helped me, on the morning of her death, to get my sister back. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#764)

Stop saying that!
by David Benjamin

Literally for Figuratively. ‘The stream was literally alive with fish.’ ‘His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.’ It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.”
     — Ambrose Bierce, from Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults

MADISON, Wis. —  Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in April’s issue of The Atlantic, “The Obama Doctrine,” is probably the most important foreign-policy article written during this (or maybe any) presidential administration. However, several times in the midst of Goldberg’s lucid analysis, he uses the word “reticent” — which means “habitually silent or uncommunicative” — when he means “reluctant” or “hesitant.” With each iteration of this near-miss, I quietly cursed Goldberg’s copy editor.

Goldberg’s error, however, was the last (not “penultimate,” which — honest to God, people! — does not mean “super-, hyper- or mega-ultimate”) straw. I feel driven to bellyache because our most august organs of journalism are solecizing more and more often. Not a month ago, the New York Times’ China correspondent Chris Buckley (not to be confused with novelist Christopher Buckley, son of William F.) referred to “the giddy exultation of President Xi Jinping in state-run media.” The word he wanted, but did not find, was “exaltation.”

Frequently, the Times, and other supposed defenders of proper English usage, will publish a sentence — overlooked by editors whose only job is to look — in which a reporter writes “mirror” when he or she means “echo,” “discount” instead of “disregard,” “everyday” instead of “ordinary,” “decimate” — which means to reduce by one-tenth — instead of “devastate.”

F’rinstance, when an F3 tornado blows through Coon Hollow, Oklahoma, leveling every house, farm building and double-wide, turning Main Street into rubble and flinging entire herds of livestock into the next county, Coon Hollow is not shrunk by ten percent. It ain’t “decimated.” It’s gone. “Devastated” is both correct and subtle.

A note to Times copy editors: Strive, strove, striven. Plead, pled, pled. Hear my plea, please! He pled, not “pleaded,” guilty. And, shine, shone, shone. “Shined” is only correct when it applies to shoes and silver. The sun shone down on my old Kentucky home.

Of course, as linguistically slovenly as our print media are (not “is”), the talking heads of TV offend far more often and egregiously. Given the opportunity, they might describe their own inaccuracy as “phenomenal.” But they would be wrong. Their blunders are commonplace. Sportscasters, groping constantly for the superlatives that populate their patter, shout “phenomenal” when they mean “excellent” or “heroic.” A “phenomenon” is a thing exceptional and rare but not necessarily good. That F3 tornado in Coon Hollow is phenomenal but hardly as welcome as a grand-slam homer.

In a similar onset of hyperbole, your sportscaster will roar, “Unbelievable!” or “Incredible!” after, say, a 20-yard touchdown pass or a bunker-to-cup chip shot. Trouble is, this marvel is believable and demonstrably credible because ten million TV viewers just saw it happen, with their own lying eyes.

When pressbox hysterics proclaim disbelief, they mean “remarkable” or “extraordinary.” But are even these terms accurate? Excellent athletes perform spectacularly so often that their exceptions tend to be the rule. A scrupulous reporter would curb his or her enthusiasm to the point where he or she would describe a routine between-the-legs windmill slam-dunk as “pretty darn good or “definitely above average.” (See Ray Scott.)

Or, ideally, when a network shill sees an athlete do something wonderful, couldn’t he or she just call it wonderful and shut up afterward (not “afterwards”), leaving the audience to “wonder” how the athlete made that difficult maneuver look so easy? Wouldn’t reticence be more eloquent?

And when the game’s over and the sideline reporter sticks a mike in the star’s kisser, how gratifying would it be to hear a question that doesn’t begin with “how” followed by an adjective?

“Bubba, how proud are you that blah blah blah…?”

“Shooter, how grateful are you that Coach trusted you to yada yada yada…?”

And how surprised would we all be if the jock on the block, asked to trash his coach, lament his paltry salary or explain his blood-alcohol level, did not wrap up the interview by saying “It is what it is”?

When, please, will Erin Andrews or Lisa Salters summon up the curiosity to keep the camera rolling and ask, “What is what what is, Bruiser?”

In 1909, Ambrose Bierce published a “blacklist” of linguistic and grammatical offenses committed by the reporters, editors and orators of his time. Some of those sins have remained offensive. Some have wormed their way into the vernacular — “preparedness” instead of “readiness.” Others remain unspeakable. Meanwhile, new blacklist aspirants (not “candidates” — see Bierce) emerge every day.  An honest, open speaker, for example, is not “forthcoming” — which means he or she might arrive tomorrow. The right word here — although forgotten — is “forthright.” An action that’s “reactive” is not “reactionary.” The latter is a political term that begins with “r” (for “Republican”) and ends with “y” (for “yahoo” — see Swift).

“Skill set,” by the ways means “skills.” A “track record” is a “record,” unless there are jockeys and drivers involved. You can have one aria and a single cafeteria but not one, lonesome “criteria.”

“Fraught,” for most of my life, has meant “loaded,” “freighted,” “filled.” Something fraught had to be fraught with something — “fraught with hardship,” “fraught with tension,” “fraught with anxiety.” Lately, the Times uses “fraught” untethered, to mean “anxious” or “tense.” I suspect that this is already the norm, a development that curiously parallels the migration of “taihen” (“very, too, greatly, awfully, extremely, remarkably”) from adverb to adjective in Japanese.

I’m still hoping, however, to see “effective” fight back against the ugly  “impactful.” I’d love to hear someone say, “I have too much to do” instead of “too much on my plate.” I wonder why the future tense now — always — requires the speaker to append the phrase, “going forward.” I mean, where else? I’d like to launch every “perfect storm” metaphorist into The Atlantic in a leaky fishing boat. I yearn for the “bottom line” to bottom out and to reach, at last, the end of the day for “at the end of the day.”

And I wonder. When did a real or imminent danger become an “existential threat”? Whenever I hear his sesquipedalian couplet, a chill runs down my spine and I look around fearfully for a pair of armed philosophers named Vladimir and Estragon.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#763)

I wanna be Donny’s girl
by David Benjamin

“Dowd is rooting for the bear… She’ll criticize Trump, but ultimately, she’s OK with him, because he plays his gender role in what she has decreed to be an appropriate manner. He’s a boor, a rogue, a bully and a jerk, but…  he’s a man, and that’s what men are supposed to be like in Dowd’s retrograde view of men and women’s roles in the world.”
Jonathan Shurberg

MADISON, Wis. — Maureen Dowd, a fixture on the New York Times venerable op-ed page, is a Donald Trump fan.

Well, not exactly a fan. But Maureen is pulling for the big lug, for reasons neither political nor journalistic. With Maureen, it’s always personal. And the enemy of her enemy is her BFF.

I didn’t fully appreciate Maureen’s little crush on Trump ’til I saw her interview with him in the Sunday Times. It’s a weird story. Here, Maureen had in her clutches the silliest presidential candidate in U.S. electoral history. But her usually razor-sharp talons were fully retracted. She gently kid-gloved the silver-spoon blowhard through 19 insipid column inches, lobbing softballs, quoting Trump heavily, pandering to his woman troubles, not once even brushing him back from the plate and ending the whole smarmy exercise with a whimper.

What gives? Thousands of Trump’s fellow conservatives are savaging and striving to sabotage the short-fingered vulgarian who crashed their party with a whore on each arm. They’re so appalled at this “oft-bankrupt make-believe mogul clown” that they’re embracing Ted Cruz, possibly the creepiest guy — a sort of cross between Uriah Heep and Gollum — ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

But Maureen kind of likes Trump. She doesn’t have to assassinate his character — partly because the mock marquis of Mar-a-lago has no discernible character in the first place, and partly because he’s a serial self-assassinator. Maureen knows he’s doomed to lose, so why get on his bad side? Besides, there’s an ulterior motive here.

Maureen, let’s remember, made her fame bashing the Clintons. In ‘99, referring to Monica Lewinsky as “a little nutty and a little slutty,” Maureen won a Pulitzer Prize for her obsessive coverage — months and months — of Bill’s White House adultery. The Clintons became the only the only topic Maureen really cared to cover. She tried to make fun of other political figures but her jibes fell flat. Like Marcie Blaine, whose only hit was “Bobby’s Girl,” Maureen keeps singing the same golden oldie, over and over again.

But showbiz is a funny thing. Trump is scorching Republican Earth and setting up Hillary as the next President Clinton. This puts Maureen, suddenly, back in the jukebox and dropping onto the turntable.

No one can explain why Maureen can’t get her mojo working on anyone but Bill and Hillary. Bill’s successor, George W. Bush, was a dangerous bungler who left the White House with the worst popular approval ever recorded. Maureen didn’t pick on Dubya — and his glassy-eyed, goody-two-shoes wife — with nearly the vitriol she poured on the Clintons. I suspect this was because she arrived late at the Bush feeding frenzy. By the time Maureen had turned her sights away from Bill, Hillary and their chosen heir, Al Gore, an army of kidders — most funnier than Maureen — was already mocking Dubya mirthfully. There were no openings on the firing squad.

Maureen could have taken this opportunity to broaden her scope. She could have become funnier or more serious, more political, more philosophical, less personal. But no. Maureen’s forté has never been politics, ideology or even laughs. Maureen’s motto is “Ad hominem.” Her weapon of choice is the sniper’s rifle.

It’s not unusual for celebrity journalists (mostly at the Times) to develop their own private cult of personality. A reporter can easily fall in love (or hate) with one public figure and lose all perspective as she daily dissects the object of her fixation. Lou Cannon, for example, the distinguished Washington Post correspondent, was seduced by Ronald Reagan, eventually competing with Rex the family spaniel to be the Gipper’s permanent lap dog.

In the opposite direction, the Times’ Katharine Q. Seelye cultivated such an animus against Al Gore that she actually created urban legends (still circulating on the Web) based on things that Gore never said or did.

In the subsequent regime, Frank Bruni’s man crush on George W. Bush produced some of the softest White House coverage in the Times’ history. Bruni, nowadays, is still atoning for his sins of gullibility.

But no contemporary journalist is identified with, and dependent upon, one political family the way Maureen has bonded — as a sort of lifesucking lamprey — with Bill and Hillary. She nurtured the immense mistrust that haunts Hillary today wherever she ventures among voters. It was Maureen who stitched Hillary to the semen-soiled hip of Monica Lewinsky, and eventually transferred the blame for that stain from Bill to Hillary. Maureen’s weird parochial-school reverse feminism has somehow laden Hillary with all the penance for Bill’s iniquities.

Through all of Bill’s misadventures, real and imagined, political and carnal, Hillary was a bystander, helpless to curb the appetites of a larger-than-life life-partner. But Maureen, from her bully pulpit in the newspaper of record, averred that Hillary’s loyalty to Bill was far more dastardly than Bill’s betrayals of his wife, family, party and nation. Hillary should have seen Monica flirting with Bill and foreseen what might happen. And done something!

Neither Maureen — who (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) explained all this — nor America will ever forgive Hillary for letting Bill listen to the tiny devil on his shoulder. Maureen’s reward for her moral vigilance is about to come due — four (or eight!) more years of Hillary to kick around.

To make sure of this, Maureen feels obliged, apparently, to flirt with Hillary’s most beatable opponent, Donald Trump. If this seems a little nutty, even a little slutty, well… it’s showbiz.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#762)

Pants police pulling for Carolina
by David Benjamin

“Lawmakers had focused… on the contention that it might allow men dressed as women to enter bathrooms and commit assaults. There is no evidence that has happened elsewhere, and it is not clear how the North Carolina regulation will be enforced…”
                                  — Jonathan Katz, The NY Times

MADISON, Wis. — When the visionary legislators of North Carolina passed a law regulating the use of public rest rooms by rogue transvestites and transgender predators, I sensed a golden opportunity for my old friend, Wilhelm “Free Willy” Bienfang, America’s foremost “idea man.”

So I got in touch. Sure enough, Bienfang had already set up shop in Charlotte, ready to launch the first private-sector free-market security agency with a lucrative government contract to patrol every Tarheel toilet from Hothouse to Cape Hatteras. He was calling the company Drag Net, Inc.

“A little play on words there,” said Bienfang, chuckling.

Getting serious, the brilliant polymath explained that the easy part was the North Carolina legislature’s passage of a statute, swiftly signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory, that restricts men — who were born male, but who look, dress or feel like women — from using the Ladies Room, and vice-versa. “The hard part is figuring out who’s trying to sneak into the wrong toilet, and stopping them before they reach the stall and start unbuttoning.”

“Yes,” I said. “I see the problem. If a man is disguised to look like a woman, how do you know he’s not really a she?”

Bienfang immediately referred to the famous bar scene in the film, Crocodile Dundee. The movie’s eponymous hero is approached by Gwendolyn, a seductively dressed gay transvestite, and begins to flirt with him/her, only to be told — askance — that the doll is actually a guy. Dundee, a spontaneous frontiersman unschooled in New York mores, immediately takes hold of the drag queen’s crotch to confirm the diagnosis. She leaps in the air. So does Dundee.

“We’re recruiting an army of Crocodile Dundees,” boasted Bienfang. “Of course, the inspections will all take place discreetly behind a strategically placed screen. No leaping in the air. And latex gloves will be mandatory.”

I felt a shiver of squeamishness. Of all the dirty jobs I could imagine, this one pretty much took the cake. Who would apply to do something so creepy, intrusive and possibly violent — for eight hours a day?

Bienfang replied, “Ah, naive boy. You have no idea how many minor perverts, voyeurs and peeping Toms are out there, most of them living with their mommies,  sadly underemployed and drilling holes in bathroom walls. They’re already flocking to my human resources team.”

He added, “Besides, what redblooded American has not, at some time or another, pictured himself (or herself) lifting up a strange woman’s skirt or yanking down some random guy’s pants, just to get a load of what’s underneath? Ya follow?”

I blushed at this. But Bienfang had a point. Peeking into people’s undies seems like the only way to effectively enforce North Carolina’s ironically named “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act.” I wondered how Bienfang was advertising for this “career opportunity.”

“Well, first of all, you’ve got to dignify the position with the right title,” said Bienfang. “I mean, the first term I discarded was Penis Police. A little too blunt, wouldn’t you say?”

I agreed wholeheartedly.

Bienfang went on. “We thought about calling our troops the Pubic Patrol, the Ben Dover Brigade, the Genital Generals, the Weenie Watch. We were even tempted by Graboids. Remember that one? From Tremors?”

“I remember,” I said, wincing.

“But finally, we opted for subtlety and good taste, in the spirit of Gov. McCrory,” said Bienfang. “If you’re lucky enough to get a position working in the field for Drag Net, Inc., body-searching people before they can enter a public toilet to take a leak, you’ll be officially known as a ‘privates investigator.’ Or P.I. ‘Pee-Eye,” get it? Nyuk nyuk.”

I conceded that this was about as subtle a title as this job could manage.

“Of course, around the office,” said Bienfang, “we’re already calling ourselves ‘dick dicks,’ for short.” Bienfang suddenly laughed. “Or long!”

Apropos to nothing, I noted that there’s actually an animal called a dik-dik, a small east African antelope with an elongated snout.

“Really? That’s great. We’ll put one on our logo,” said Bienfang. “Maybe somebody’ll get the joke.”

I tried to suggest to Bienfang — who tends to have too much fun with his ideas — that this was hardly a joke. We were discussing a serious threat to privacy, civil rights and every person’s physical autonomy. I said, “All kidding aside, in order to protect innocent little girls (and boys) from being molested, you’ve created a system that repeatedly molests innocent grown women (and men).”

Bienfang wiped the grin off his vulpine face. “This is bigger than that,” he added. “In the whole history of North Carolina — or just about anywhere — there’s never been a recorded instance of a man dressed as a woman creeping into the john to force himself sexually on the little girl in the last stall. Or vice versa.”

I knew there was more.

Bienfang said, “However, now that my prurient pals in Christian Carolina have hatched this appalling idea, it’s going to seep into the impressionable minds of our national pedophile population.”

“Which means?” I said.

“Yes!” said Bienfang. “Someday, somewhere, we’re finally gonna catch one of ‘em!”

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#761)

“I will bomb the shit out of ISIS…”
by David Benjamin

“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation.”
                                            — William Tecumseh Sherman

MADISON, Wis. — Hitchhiking in ’69 with my girlfriend Becky was easy, because she was gorgeous. We got rides, in minutes, all the way across America, always with men. Once, unintentionally, Becky got into an argument with one of these samaritans, a fierce, chiseled young guy who introduced himself as Danny. The topic, of course, was the war in Vietnam.

Becky was against it. Danny had been in it. Although barely past his 21st birthday, he’d spent more than two years at war. He’d been seriously wounded, once almost killed, three times. Becky shrugged off Danny’s ordeal. Infecting a conversation among strangers with an air of anger and tension that was all too commonplace in the Sixties, she dwelt relentlessly on the politics and morality of the war.

I tried to support Becky’s argument, but my heart wasn’t in it. Like so many kids I’d grown up with, Danny had plunged impetuously into a maelstrom of filth terror and death that neither Becky nor I could remotely imagine. We knew, rationally, that Danny’s war was, at best, a futile crusade. At worst, it was an atrocity that betrayed our country’s most cherished ideals. But Danny’s investment in that experience was too consuming and emotional to apply to it any sort of coherence or moral suasion.

All we could do — or should have done — was respect, even revere, the personal sacrifice that dominated Danny’s existence and would haunt him for all the rest of his life.

The lesson that I later gleaned from that encounter was never to allow myself to speak lightly, theoretically or ignorantly about the deepest and most visceral realities of humanity’s ugliest enterprise.

I recalled Danny a decade later when I was editing the weekly newspaper in a small Massachusetts town and learned that the chairman of our high school’s English department, Bob Tighe, had been invited to a Holocaust remembrance at Northeastern University. Bob, I discovered, was among the U.S. GIs who had liberated one of Hitler’s death camps. The next time I saw him, I asked for an interview about that experience. He declined, explaining that his contribution to the Northeastern forum was a singular exception to a personal rule: “I never talk about that.”

I didn’t press.

I came of age in the era of the Vietnam War. I did not go. Arduously, and at risk to my own freedom, I opposed the war, refused to go when summoned, and fought successfully for status as a conscientious objector (CO). As a Catholic school kid steeped in contrition, I felt guilty for dodging the Vietnam draft.

But not that guilty. No one who found a way to avoid that particular hell needs to regret his actions — whether they were relatively honorable and aboveboard, like performing “alternate service” as a CO, or simply expedient, like cheezing it to Montreal.

This is why I don’t begrudge presidential aspirant Donald Trump the alleged “bone spurs” that rendered him 4F during the war. Trump was richer than God, with a father who was connected to New York’s power elite. So, bone spurs or not, he was never going to ‘Nam.

If anything troubles me about Trump’s nifty Selective Service sidestep, it’s the fact that, unlike me and my high-school friend Barry — who spent years in exile in Canada — Donald ducked his “duty” without qualms. I’m convinced that Trump felt neither a momentary pang of guilt for his non-service, nor a twinge of empathy for the scarred, bitter vets like Danny who came back in badly-fitted pieces.

Unlike all the poor black kids and smalltown hayseeds who got fed into the meatgrinder, Donald Trump was entitled — by birth, by wealth and by sheer arrogance — to never dirty his tiny hands with the blood and slime of the quagmire in Indochina.

I know this because of the flippancy that Trump manifests when he talks about “bombing the shit out of ISIS,” and “making the military so strong” that “no one will mess with us.”

“Oh, yeah?” I ask that big pink face on TV. “How?” I ask because you don’t win wars with bombs. You win it with infantry. You win it by killing kids — yours and theirs.

If Trump had paid any attention to his war, in Vietnam, he’d know that the grunts who died there, who took his place — and mine — on that heartbreaking black wall in Washington (has he ever been to the Wall?), never knew, from day to day, from tour to tour, which of the people all around them were the so-called enemy. They could never be sure that innocent civilians were innocent civilians.

As Adrian Cronauer (portrayed by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam) said, “It’s very difficult to find a Vietnamese man named Charlie. They’re all named Nyugen or Doh or things like that.”

As in Vietnam, an “enemy combatant” in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or any other Middle Eastern nation looks pretty much like everyone else. He wears the same kaftan, turban, sandals, beard, pigmentation, language and religion as your typical storekeeper or cabdriver. He sports no stars, no bars, no stripes nor any other symbol of military rank. To blend in, an ISIS commando needs only to shuck his ammo belt and ditch his Kalashnikov. He’s Victor Charlie and he’s invisible.

Where do you drop the bombs? How do you beat the shit out of a phantom?

If Donald Trump can answer this, coherently and credibly, I’ll believe that he actually cares about all those damaged veterans who have been, to him — until he needed them as stage props in his preposterous presidential campaign — also invisible.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#760)

“… A new nation, conceived in lunacy…”
by David Benjamin

“There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light.
She went out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned the previous night.”

                                            — Reginald Buller

MADISON, Wis. — Sometime last year, the Day of the Tachyon dawned. There is no twilight in the offing.

Sci-fi enthusiasts know about tachyons through the writings of James Blish and Isaac Asimov, but the concept derives from a German physicist named Arnold Sommerfeld, who first posed the possibility of a parallel universe overlaid on our own visible, tangible reality. Sommerfeld started out with the fact that the limit of human perception is the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. His theory, later refined and given the name “tachyon,” was the postulation of particles whose speed is always greater than the speed of light. A tachyon world moves too fast to see, feel or perceive in any sense. Yet it would exist in the same space as our own slow-motion, light-trapped universe — there but not there, real but unreal. Hyper-real. Surreal.

In American politics, we have attained — well, some of us — tachyonization. We’ve enlisted enough civic tachyons to compose a new nation, conceived in solipsism and dedicated to the proposition that all men were born yesterday. Tachyonites populate a parallel republic — both in our midst and beyond our rational comprehension (or theirs) — that might well be called the United States of Alternate Reality (USAR). Their standard-bearer is the casino mogul from Queens. But their purest apotheosis and patron saint is Mrs. Mary Lou Bruner of Mineola, Texas.

After winning a first-round Republican run-off, Mary Lou is on the brink of joining the powerful Texas State Board of Education — which influences textbook choices for virtually every school in the erstwhile United States. Among her stated positions, Mary Lou has said that the death of President John F. Kennedy was a Democratic Party plot, engineered, of course, by JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson.

It would be against the USAR’s anti-regulatory faith to have a constitution. But if it did, Article One would dwell in exhaustive and paranoid detail on the tragedy of JFK — otherwise known as the Original Conspiracy.

Among the self-contradictory truths jammed into Article One would be the long roster of evil plotters who joined together, or worked independently, or operated at cross purposes, to kill JFK. A partial list would include, in no coherent order, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the Mafia, Fidel Castro and the Commies, Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, UNICEF, the Trilateral Commission, Prescott Bush and the Carlyle Group, the Freemasons, the Elders of Zion, the Vatican, the NAACP, the Democratic Farm Labor Party of Minnesota, Earl Warren, Huntley and Brinkley, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Dr. Spock, the Screen Actors Guild, the PTA and the Rotary Club, and both of JFK’s brothers under the diabolical spell of Ethel Kennedy.

But back to Mary Lou, who believes devoutly that Barack Obama is a drug-addled Kenya-born radical-Muslim ISIS usurper who worked his way through high school as a sodomite prostitute. He “hates all white people.” Mrs. Bruner believes Islam should be eradicated and that the UN has plans— for reasons known only to her and her fellow tachyonites — to depopulate the Earth. She thinks Texas should secede (possibly as the USAR’s forward operating base) and that the Ku Klux Klan started out with a real good idea.

Article Two of the USAR constitution would stress the importance of being white, with honorary exceptions for Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas and real good singers like Aretha Franklin. “African-Americans” would be Negroes again, they wouldn’t use the same toilets as white folks and they’d be content to eat shortnin’ bread and fill in society’s background as supernumerary tapdancers, mammies, pickaninnies, sharecroppers, prize fighters, Pullman porters and strange fruit.

Article 3 would be about Christianity, family values and going to Hell. It would revoke all that pinko drivel on Liberty Island about “huddled masses.” Instead, ideally, the USAR would erect a Statue of Individual Sovereignty, whose “mighty woman” would be clad in combat camo, holding up an AR-15.

Article 4 would evacuate Capitol Hill and turn it into a food court — or it might be a good place for Roller Derby. In place of the “Washington establishment,” the USAR would have a CEO with a handpicked Board of Directors whom citizens — “shareholders,” actually — would trust to re-appoint the CEO over and over again without the expense, annoyance and uncertainty of a popular election.

Article 5 would retain Social Security and Medicare, but the money would be funneled through evangelical megachurches, who would deduct a ten-percent “tithe” before mailing the payments via FedEx (no more Post Office). All the checks would be symbolically signed by Jesus.

The USAR would have a really cool flag, no taxes, and a “beautiful wall” built by Mexicans all around America. It would fight wars with “overwhelming force,” but without putting our sons (no girls in the army!) in harm’s way. We’d win by just scaring the shit out of everyone else in the world, who would love us.

Best of all — no “media” in the USAR. Tachyonites (as they already do) would learn all they need to know from infomercials, from right-wing websites to explain conspiracies and from talk-radio hysterics who would dutifully whip every conspiracy (as they already do) into an imminent Apocalypse. The tachyon world (as it already does) would ping-pong constantly between mind-numbing terror and salvation-bound fatalism. As Country Joe said, “Whoopee, we’re all gonna die.”

The USAR’s unwavering belief in belief was expressed by a Mary Lou Bruner supporter, who explained that it doesn’t matter whether she’s right or wrong about anything on (the non-tachyon portion of) Earth. John E. Tweedell of Hideaway, Texas, said, “If she’s standing alone, she’s standing on her principles… For that, I admire her.”

Don’t we all.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#759)

Pain in the morning
by David Benjamin

“Paris is always a good idea.”
                                    — Audrey Hepburn

PARIS — Paris is not the city that never sleeps. It not only sleeps, hitting the sack by 5 a.m. at the very latest, but it has a hard time getting up. Paris is the city that rolls over and heaves the alarm clock against the wall.

At least that's how it seemed to me on a recent Saturday morning at 7:30. I was up this early, on a dank morning in February, because Hotlips (my own true love) and I were catching the morning train to Spain (where the rain… well, you know the rest).

Paris is called the City of Light for its long summer nights. But winter here is a dark ride. Even at noon, the slanted light bestowed grudgingly by a low-hung sun — the grainy glow that inspired Monet’s impressionism and Sartre’s existentialism — wounds the February tourist’s heart with a monotonous languor.

At this hour in this gray month, in a Cole Porter drizzle, the sky is a cast-iron skillet and no bird sings. Except for a sleepless clochard who shuffles by, giving me as wide a berth as I give him, no one stirs. I’m looking for croissants and hoping for a copy of this morning’s Times, more hopeful of the former than the latter.

To my surprise, my news vendor, in his kiosk on boulevard St. Michel, is up and at ‘em, a sure sign that he’s no native Parisian. He’s Tunisian, actually, one of those amiable North African Muslims who’ve lived quietly and abundantly in Paris — although never counted as anything but “French” in any census — since the end of the Algerian war in ’62. He’s the rare reliable news vendor, always open before dawn, greeting me with a sad smile and wishing me a “bonne journee.”

Times in hand, I begin the quest for pain. Across the boulevard, the local outlet of the Francewide bakery chain, Paul, is still shuttered, although the time is creeping toward 8 a.m. The new bread joint, right next door to Paul, is equally inhospitable. Up the street, on the corner of boulevards St. Michel and St. Germain, there’s a Brioche Dorée, where anyone who cherishes good bread turns only in desperation. I see a girl inside, stocking the display case. I try the door. Locked. Relieved, I turn away.

We have a Starbucks now, adjacent to my newsstand. It’s open, but I’ve been ignoring it for three years. This continues. Even in the U.S., Starbucks has a poor grasp of the concept of breakfast bread. My objective is the place Maubert, our market square, which began its history in the 14th century as a garbage dump so foul that the merchants of Les Halles refused to bring their refuse there, because of the stench. It’s also where they executed printers, including one named Etienne Dolet, who was tortured there, hanged and burned with his banned books on a hot day in 1546.

At Maubert, I have hopes for a few early risers. It’s an oasis of Paris as it was, a single block where each shop, in a neat row, dispenses one of the staples of a decent French kitchen. From the greengrocer on the corner to the butcher, sausage-maker and baker, the cheese shop that won the latest national prize as the best in all of France and the wine merchant where we don’t go because Loic, from Brittany, has opened a new shop called Le Vin Qui Parle (“the wine that speaks’) just across the boulevard. We don’t patronize the Maubert baker, either, because Eric Kayser’s peerless, fragrant boulangerie is just around the corner on rue Monge.

There used to be a horse butcher, which fell out of fashion and closed. But there are three traiteurs (delicatessen), two Greek, one Italian, and also on rue Monge, a stone’s throw from the marché a brulerie where they’ll grind your coffee and remind you of the way it used to smell at the checkout counter of the A&P.

Yes, of course, they have tea, too.

The café on the far corner, Le Village Ronsard, is frequented by Parisians. Across the street, Le Metro — where the waiters speak better English and the prices are higher — handles the tourist trade.

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, place Maubert fills with stalls and awnings, where vendors hawk all the produce available daily in the shops, but also sell scarves and knives, rillettes, paté and peonies, leather goods, dry goods, jewelry, hats, kitchen tools and, for some reason, fake African masks and carvings.

It’s a three-block stroll to Maubert. As I approach, I see an electric glow that tells me the marché is mobilizing. The cafés have opened early to serve the groggy vendors. The fruitsellers and fishmongers had to rise at 3 or 4 to get here and set up. They rushed to Paris from all around, but now they’ve geared down.

There’s no hurry. I’m the only “shopper” in sight. No self-respecting Parisian would get up before dawn on Saturday to buy beets and beefsteaks that will still be there at 10 or 11. So, the vendors loiter, hang together, smoke and shmooze — and glance at me, torpidly curious.

I was heading to Kayser for a baguette Monge — the quintessence of pain ancien — but I’m barely awake, haven’t had my coffee and the boulangerie in place Maubert, in front of me now, is respectable. And their croissants are still warm. So, I go in, splurge. A croissant, an escargot with raisins. And a pain au chocolat (my favorite).

The salesgirl, whom I interrupted as she filled the racks with fragrant pastries, takes my money, makes change, and eyes me with a flash of resentment. What was I doing, prowling Paris before sunup, breaking her rhythm? Was that the tang of early worm she smelled on my breath?

I head back home, successful. But it wasn’t easy. Paris doesn’t gladly suffer early risers and go-getters. Nor do I… usually.

As I retreat, I turn and peer into the far yonder and up above, thinking I might, by now, spy a glimmer of the dawn through the clouds on the east horizon. But there is no horizon. This is Paris. It’s the city. There are buildings.

Here, in the Latin Quarter, they’re old and cream-colored, graceful stacks of limestone quarried from a vast man-made cavern that sprawls for labyrinthine miles beneath the Left Bank, now packed and stacked, ossified and mortared, consecrated by monks and priests two centuries dead, with the remains of six million forgotten denizens of this morning-dark City of Light. The limestone came up and they went down, in scattered bones and bodiless skulls, Edith Piaf's “poor people of Paris,” into the Catacombs.

On a winter morning, their spirits feel close and neighborly, keeping me company, humming the soft Latin chant that accompanied them from grave to grave, as I bring home our daily bread.