Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#716)

Beau Geste… American style
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — It’s time to mothball the U.S. Air Force.

I mean it. Really, what have we ever gotten from the USAF but Curtis LeMay, Hiroshima, Doctor Strangelove and Tom Cruise in a form-fitting flight suit?

Perhaps I exaggerate, but it’s fairly clear that the Air Force has outlived its time. The Navy has an identical air force, with the added strategic advantage that it moves around — anywhere the need arises — on big boats. And the CIA has air power, with its video-game fleet of drones, that scares the hell out of everyone.

The USAF can’t even lay claim to the greatest combat pilot in U.S. history. The immortal Richard Bong, who shot down 40 enemy planes and won the Medal of Honor, goes back to the days when the air corps was still part of the Army.

We could fold all those pilots, planes and rockets back into the Army and save billions in redundant expenses. Even better, we could use the Air Force Academy for better purposes than what it’s doing now — which seems to be mainly a) preserving the triple-option offense in football and b) supplying the nation with right-wing Christian kooks who know how to fly jets and launch missiles.

Where have you gone, Chuck Yeager? The world turns its lonely eyes to you. Except that it doesn’t. You’re over the hill.

Today, the big threat to world peace isn’t something you can readily target with an F-35 fighter-jet that flies at the speed of sound carrying air-to-air missiles and quarter-ton bombs. Right now, what everybody worries about is a whole lot of pseudo-religious hoodlums (often referred to, sloppily and tendentiously as “terrorists”), who hide among civilians and carry deadly weapons largely supplied by American military contractors (recalling, of course, the words of Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”).

The Navy Seal team that executed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan aptly demonstrated the most reliable method for defeating the gangs of violent psychos who roam the deserts and jungles of the Third World and occasionally disrupt the middle-class complacency of the West by blowing up a deli or murdering the odd cartoonist (I know — this is a tautology). Nowadays, we call this sort of activity “special ops.” Small squads of finely tuned commandos who use precise intelligence from inside sources to sneak behind enemy lines and — in deadly lightning strikes — decapitate the enemy’s leadership.

Every U.S. military branch has some of these guys, whether they’re called Seals, Rangers, Delta Force, Jason Bourne, whatever. But most of our commando groups have a glaring weakness. They’re mostly white guys and monolingual.

Few of our special forces are indigenous to — or intimate with — the places where they have to infiltrate and maneuver. Our native “spies” in countries like Syria, Yemen or Libya are few and often bereft of military training. We have no one in Nigeria, for example, who knows the languages, turf and customs of that complicated country as well as does Boko Haram, the gang of barbarians whose idea of a good time is burning down a schoolhouse with all the kids inside.

With a few Nigerians on our team, we’d be better able to deal with these guys.

This is where the French Foreign Legion comes in. Since 1831, the Foreign Legion has been running various kinds of special ops, mostly in Third World outposts like Timbuktu. More important — as indicated by the movie Beau Geste (which has been made five times) — the French Foreign Legion is not particularly French. They take guys from everywhere and turn them into Gary Cooper.

The typical recruit of Foreign Legion lore is an ex-con or deserter with a phony name. His last resort in life is the thankless prospect of anonymous drilling in the bleak Sahara. His sole reward is the prospect of being killed by bloodthirsty insurgents who wield scimitars and ride glistening black stallions. But, if the recruit survives, he becomes a crack soldier and a romantic legend in his own right.

This is where the U.S. Air Force Academy comes in. Once we’ve cleared out all those Top Gun wannabes, we can fill the Academy with cream-of-the-crop students and athletes selected from every nation — including America but especially from those troubled locales where poverty, despair and religious zealotry turn promising young people into jihadist nuts. Out there in the Rocky Mountain obscurity of Colorado Springs, ensconced in Western luxury and American propaganda, the cadets of the American Foreign Legion would get a) a rigorous, liberal and broadbased college education, and b) daily drills and exhaustive instruction in how to fight the sort of clandestine, asymmetric war that seems to represent the future of conflict throughout the world.

The result would be a flow of multicultural commandos of unparalleled skill, able to fight in anywhere violence erupts. But, uniquely, the American Foreign Legion would include agents able to infiltrate and operate unsuspected in any nation, because they would come from that nation, speak its languages, know the territory, understand every custom, tradition and gesture.

OK, this sounds a little creepy. One pictures the Uncle Sam setting up sleeper cells and black sites everywhere, waiting for trouble with his finger on the trigger. But hey, the status quo is already creepy, as long as the predominantly Caucasian CIA and NSA and God-knows-who-else operate secret missions out of every U.S. embassy, consulate, FOB, investment bank, news kiosk and press club on earth.

The American Foreign Legion would probably be more transparent — and definitely more benevolent — than the sneaky crap we’re doing today. Best of all, it would guarantee, in a few years, the next remake of Beau Geste. starring — just a suggestion — Chris, Luke and Liam Hemsworth as the smokin’-hot Geste boys!

Eat your heart out, Tom Cruise!

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#715)

“I came… for the waters”
by David Benjamin

KOWAKIDANI, Japan — You don’t have to go far in Japan — maybe 100 yards in any direction — to find something weird. On our way here, we passed by the alleged cradle of the kamaboko, the classic Japanese “shocking-pink fishcake.” Considering the popularity of kamaboko in celebratory Japanese cuisine, it’s no surprise that the town of Odawara would claim the glory of being first among fishcakes. The American equivalent would be the birthplace of the hot dog.

Alas, in our eagerness to reach our onsen, we passed the Fishcake Museum with barely a snigger. We were onsen-bound. We couldn’t wait to shed our duds and take the plunge. Japan is a nation whose fondness for sexual repression rivals only the Puritan US of A. Yet, for centuries, the tediously formal, pathologically uptight and insufferably stuffy Japanese have been shamelessly indulging themselves by lounging about, drinking saké and wearing washcloths on their heads, in steaming basins of volcanic water, boys and girls together buck naked.

Alas again, this tradition is fading. In the high-end onsen where we spent the night, the management segregates men and women in two common-bath rotenburo. Hotlips and I, who like to bathe together, deplore this arrangement — which is why we took a room that has its own little tub on the terrasse, replenished constantly with a steady dribble of steamy water from the fiery heart of the adjacent mountain.

At home, I shower hurriedly and rush to work. At an onsen, I take a dozen baths a day — always washing first, lest I soil the water for my fellow bathers.

Wet fellowship — even sharing a tub with strangers — is the essence of onsen. Hotlips and I once visited a spring called Shiobara, which required — from our sleeping quarters — a steep descent, wearing just a cotton robe and a pair of ill-fitting plastic slippers, down a hundred-odd narrow, slippery wooden steps. At the bottom, overlooking the lazy Hokigawa River, several sunken baths awaited, side-by-side, each steaming in the chilly air, each a slightly different temperature.

I seek out the “coolest” tub, usually about 44 degrees Centigrade, because I’m a gaijin (foreigner), unaccustomed to the uniquely Japanese thrill of being boiled alive and feeling my brains bubble inside my skull. I have observed — with the sort of awe usually reserved for sword-swallowers and cliff-divers — a pair of leather-skinned Japanese old-timers as they soaked, neck-deep and nude, in water that would send me to an emergency room with full-body blisters.

Shiobara had one such tub. I tested it once, for an entire nine seconds, just to show Hotlips that I’m not chicken.

My screams set dogs barking as far the foothills of Mount Fuji.

Shiobara’s tubs are sociably aligned. During one of our dips, we bathed beside a vivacious naked woman who was hiking the river and sampling onsen along the way. She plied us with questions, answered ours and lingered with us merrily. We shared with her an intimacy more immediate, warm and even sensuous than we would have felt if we’d all been wearing pants. The Japanese are hardly a spontaneous —or notably convivial — people. But strip them down and drop them into a cloudy pool smelling faintly of sulphur and barely cooler than a lobster pot, and they turn into a veritable Shriners convention.

This all works, among men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes mingling together in the nude, because there is an unwritten code of onsen etiquette. It requires strict eye contact and the mutual suspension of prurience. Yes, you may peek. But to stare, or to even hint — by word, deed, wink or innuendo — that any of this steamy frolic has to do with sex is the pinnacle of bad taste.

That’s why everyone was appalled by the appearance of several ignorant young women at an onsen called Hacho no Yu, in the rugged valley of the Kinugawa. Rather than draping themselves scantily with a terry-cloth tenugui, the little white towel that serves all purposes at an onsen, the girls were obscenely overdressed — in bikinis. They were covering up — and thereby drawing lewd attention to — things that everyone in every onsen has always silently agreed to first uncover and then overlook. These brazen hussies made us all feel naked.

Our favorite hour at Hacho no Yu, our favorite onsen, was after midnight. By then, the other guests had spread their futon and succumbed to the sedative mixture of hot water and warm rice wine. Hotlips and I would climb mossy stone steps to a round basin — eight feet in diameter and perfect gaijin temperature —whose vista included the inn and the river. One night, a young hiker in search of a bath before pitching his tent in the woods, emerged from the darkness. He undressed swiftly, slapped a tenugui over his lap and slipped goose-pimply into the soup, where we all soaked and chatted as though waiting for tables at TGI Friday’s.

One wee-hour April morning at Hacho no Yu, we had hurried shivering up the clammy steps and plunged in, glad for the shocking warmth in the midst of the chill. No hikers appeared. The only sound from the forest was the wind in its branches. Otherwise, we heard only a trickle of hot water and the hiss of a nearby waterfall. We were just getting wrinkly when a gentle spring snow began to fall.

It was invisible almost ‘til it touched us. In the instant before melting on our steamy skin, each snowflake was a white-hot spark that left no mark. The sky, it seemed, was sending down a paradox of fire and ice to excite our senses and confuse our nerves.

Such moments might all disappear into mere memory. The surfer-girl bikini team at Hacho no Yu were an omen. True onsen —no walls between genders — are a threatened refuge. They’ve retreated into what we call the deep inaka, whose chaste and neighborly denizens still understand that the measure of modesty is how you behave when you ain’t got a stitch.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#714)

Landfills I have known,
B&E’s I’ve committed

by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Whenever I’m up in my old hometown, I get flashbacks driving through a broad stretch of manicured parkland on Monowau Street, where it crosses Council Creek. Gravel piles now occupy one side of the road. On the other side, the only item that catches the eye is a recently built skateboard park.

When I was a kid in Tomah, this part of town was the edge of the wilderness. It was also where the city ran one of its dumps. For a kid in those days, your basic landfill was — all rolled together — a playground, a beach, an amusement park, a treasure trove of discovery and wonder.

Conveniently, the Monowau Street dump, perched on the shores of the creek, was walkable from any kid’s house. Council Creek, of course, held its own fascinations. Parents made the meandering stream virtually irresistible by trying to scare us away from it. The standard adult lie involved giant snapping turtles. As broad as tractor tires with viselike jaws and legs that could propel them at speeds that rivaled gazelles and cheetahs, these monsters would clamp onto the limbs of unwary tots and drag them into the fetid depths. There, often, the pollution in the creek would kill your average kid before he had time to drown.

The pollution started up on the south side of town. That was where the creamery regularly dumped its unwanted whey — a thousand gallons at a time —turning the creekwater white from verge to verge and two miles downstream.

Well, not exactly two miles. Just shy of a mile, the creek reached the dump, whose constant flow of oily seepage mixed into the whey-white water, rendering it the color of well-stirred Nestle’s Quik. As tasty as this looked, the creek’s aroma at this point — an ambience of rotten eggs with a hint of scorched ozone — tended to discourage a taste test. However, having fallen in a few times, I can testify that Council Creek’s prevailing flavor suggested — to paraphrase Thurber — a naïve domestic kerosene without any breeding. But I was amused by its presumption.

I frequented the dump with brother Bill, and cousins Danny, Bobby and Tom. We were rarely the only kids there. In later years, grownups put fences around dumps for the simple reason that kids flock to them, like flies to a cowflop. There’s just so much there to see and do, so many layers of ooze and offal to lift up and see what’s underneath. Might be a diamond bracelet. Or a pissed-off puff adder, or — bonanza! — a dead rat crawling with maggots. “Hey, guys! Looka this!”

Your typical grownup has no eye for a dump’s allure. All he can see is great, gray heaps of sodden detritus — sheetrock, tree trimmings, paint cans, splintered lumber, rags, dirt, dreck and slime. But a kid? A derelict tricycle, for example, always had at least two salvageable wheels. A broken mop or broom, once its head was severed, could serve as a spear, a hiking staff, a whiffleball bat, or a kendo stick (if only we’d known about kendo!). Once I found a multitude of 4x6 manila cards, each covered with meaningless notations. I rescued a thousand or so that hadn’t been smirched and tucked them into a drawer beside my bed, intending to use the back sides for some unspecified clerical purpose. They stayed there, clean and ready, ‘til we moved away from Tomah. I think they ended up in the dump.

Once, we found the dump magically hip-deep in cranberries, unwanted surplus  from one of our area bogs. We immediately launched a cranberry war. Another time, a local bakery left a pile of bread as tall as the Tomah Cash Mercantile building. Yes — bread war. In the dump, a kid could always find a decent three-legged chair, or a couch clean enough for lounging on the front porch, if only we could figure out how to hail it home. Luckily, we didn’t need to haul most treasure very far, because all our dumps adjoined the woods, where you could set up a camp —properly referred to as a “fort.” Your basic fort had cardboard walls. It featured the dump’s finest broken chairs and sunken sofas, and usually a mattress that wasn’t too damp and didn’t smell too bad. Best of all, the erection of a fort prompted the inauguration of a campfire. If there’s anything kids love more than forty-foot tower of garbage, it’s a fire.

One summer, we’d set up a nice fort, with campfire, near the Milwaukee Road frog shops when an actual yard dick saw our smoke and barged right through our gate, scaring the wits out of all of us. In its railyard, the Milwaukee Road stored surplus accessories — weathered wooden bins of thick glass light fixtures and signal arms. And there were rust-coated clamps, spikes and connectors, all molded of high-carbon steel and heavier than a paragraph by Nietzsche. We had accessorized our fort with some of these items. The yard dick didn’t approve. At his urging, we hastily decommissioned the fort, returned the loot and never again darkened the railyard. At least not while he was there.

On the other hand, there was this fort we built in the woods near Tomah’s other dump, way out on the north side. In that fort, Danny and Bobby proudly introduced the concept of a roof, so we could hang around there on a rainy day. Unfortunately, the presence of the roof combined with the absence of ventilation to concentrate the landfill odors that had soaked deep into the tissues of our cardboard walls. Entering the fort tended to make your throat tighten, your gorge rise and your eyes water. I visited once and never returned.

One of the big lessons that a kid learns in the dump is that anything abandoned belongs to him by a sort of eminent domain. The corollary to this law is that, if you can get inside any place that’s left alone, you can have anything you find there. Or, at least, you’re entitled to look around. Operating on this principle, Bill, Danny, Bobby, Tom and I (well, most kids in town, really), added deserted buildings to our entitled turf. We developed a knack for breaking and entering.

For example, there was a sawmill way up near Grandpa Schaller’s that was temptingly empty on weekends. Any barn with an unlocked door, any fence with a slat missing, any house with broken windows and no occupants or furniture inside — these were all fair game. At some time or other, we probed every building at the Monroe County fairgrounds — a veritable wonderland for juvenile burglars.

Our most daring B&E was the old 7-Up bottling plant in downtown Tomah. The only access to the empty building was a small alley-level window barely wider than a kid’s head. Once inside, we had to navigate about thirty feet of lightless crawlspace, over a “floor” covered by a deep layer of black filth that had a springy texture, like compressed lint. You got the sensation of creeping over an immense carpet of dead kittens.

Alas, when we got inside, the building had been stripped mercilessly. We came away with no booty at all. But this is often the archaeologist’s fate.

Do kids still risk these mildly illicit adventures? I fear they don’t, if only because parents are so much more vigilant now. Most moms in Tomah in those days could go kidless for 36 hours or more with no more emotion than a sense of relief. Eventually, like plug nickels and rag-eared tomcats, we all showed up.

Now, kids have quality time and play dates, not to mention martial arts and yoga lessons, skateboard ramps, 3 a.m. ice times, Imax movies, hired clowns, iPhones, pornographic texting and Grand Theft Auto.

But I wonder. If you’re a kid who’s never played sandlot work-up or backyard whiffleball until it’s too dark to see the pitcher, never played touch football under a streetlight so far into the night that the neighbors call the cops, never found soiled treasure beneath 500 pounds of putrifying potatoes, or skinnydipped in a leech-infested swimming hole, never climbed a fence into a forbidden orchard guarded by a mean old man with a rock-salt twelve-gauge, never made a campfire in a deserted sawmill or lifted rocks in a swamp in search of garter snakes and salamanders, never traversed a whole block of your hometown main street by jumping from roof to roof, or crawled through thirty feet of knee-deep grime and rat pellets to break into a condemned factory, well, sweet Jesus! Have you lived at all?

Or did you go straight from infancy to adolescence without ever being a kid?

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#713)

The ‘right to work’ for nothing
by David Benjamin

You got me workin’, boss man, /Workin’ ‘round the clock. /I want a little drink of water, /But you won’t let Jimmy stop…
                                                                 — Jimmy Reed 

MADISON, Wis. — The relationship has rarely been amicable between dedicated American businessmen and the pampered laborers who rake in obscene amounts of remuneration for the little work they do. Fortunately, a tiny elite force of “efficiency experts” emerged years ago to bring order to this disparity, turning the production process into cold, crisp, clear statistics and guiding management in its mission of whipping the working class into shape.

Foremost among these geniuses of productivity is my old friend, Smedley — who consulted in the efforts of Gov. Scott Walker to castrate labor unions and elevate Wisconsin into a “right-to-work” state. Now, Smedley is drawing up the last phase of Walker’s dream. “We’re poised to strangle organized labor in America, dismember its body and bury the pieces in widely scattered landfills.”

Smedley said, “Scooter told me. It’s not enough to deny the silly notion that workers have ‘rights.’ These chronic goldbricks — who’ve been raping the economy since Samuel Gompers — have to be crushed and demeaned until they do what they’re told without a peep. They must come to see the smallest workplace benefit — like 60 seconds, once a day, to take a leak — as a gift bestowed on a case-by-case basis by Bosses whose only moral responsibility is profit.”

I said this sounds pretty harsh. Smedley reminded me that “efficiency” is harsh because capitalism knows no mercy. He noted, “Scooter is the ideal hero of a new labor regime, because hasn’t worked at a real job for even a day in his whole life. With no capacity for empathy with rank-and-file slobs, Scooter can focus totally on making the frustrated dreams of every beleaguered Boss come true.

“And the Boss,’ Smedley added, “is the savior of the American way of life.”

“But now that he’s passed a ‘right-to-work law, what more can Walker do?”

“The answer lies in that very phrase: ‘right-to-work,’” said Smedley. “It embodies the steady, patient dismantling of the labor movement. The Bosses have framed the debate, twisting language to their advantage, often with the unwitting assistance of organized labor. Indeed, the term, ‘organized labor,’ was long ago embraced by unions despite its evocation of ‘organized crime.’ When Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to label the giants of industry as ‘organized money,’ the pejorative never caught on. That was the Bosses’ first semantic victory.

“But the biggest,” said Smedley, waxing almost philosophical, “was turning the word ‘union’ into a profanity. ‘Union’ was once the labor movement’s pride. ‘A more perfect union’ is the first ideal stated in the Constitution. We waged a Civil War to preserve the Union. But, today, most loyal Americans regard ‘union’ as a synonym for laziness and disloyalty, for refusal and insubordination on the job.”

I agreed. “Even ‘right-to-work’ is a linguistic contradiction,” I said. “It means ‘the right to lose your job to someone who’s willing to work for less.’”

Smedley only smiled.

“Okay, so,” I said, “the bosses have framed the discussion. What next?”
“Workers are still ruining the economy by expecting too much. They want houses when they should be happy with tents. They want cars when they only deserve shoe leather. They want sick days, coffee breaks, day care, health coverage, Sundays off and — God help us! — overtime pay. They’re running amok!”

“So, what’s the answer to all this greed, selfishness and luxury?”

“Auctions,” said Smedley. His saturnine smile reminded me of the Grinch. “We’re talking about the logical climax of the right-to-work crusade. We’re talking about putting out to bid — once a year — every job below senior management”

“I see,” I said. “So companies would bid for the best qualified people by offering the highest possible pay for each position?”

Smedley laughed out loud. “You really don’t get it, do you, kid?”

“Well, I guess not. I’ve worked all my life.”

“This explains why you don’t get it. You have no aptitude for leadership.”
Smedley said that in the brave new world of Scott Walker (and other state-house visionaries), workers would auction themselves for the lowest possible wage.

“Let’s say you want to flip burgers at Wendy’s,” explained Smedley. “You offer the Bosses the current minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. Another guy says he’ll do it for seven bucks. A woman interrupts, willing to sell herself for $6.50, after which the first bidder cuts his price to six even. When the auction is over, Wendy’s has a sweet one-year, cash-under-the-table deal with an illegal Salvadoran for 60 hours a week at a buck-and-a-half an hour. And you know the beauty part?”

“There’s a beauty part?”

“Wendy’s doesn’t even have to pay the simple bastard. He’s illegal. His only recourse is outfits like the National Labor Relations Board, which was long ago neutered by K Street lobbyists, right-wing Congressmen and plutocrat campaign donors like Dave and Charlie Koch (who, by the way, actually have a framed, notarized deed for Scott Walker’s soul — it’s hanging in their garage).”

I was still trying to make sense of Smedley’s plan. So, I said, “But if this auction scheme of yours takes hold — ”

“Oh, it’ll take hold, son. It’s as American as rhubarb pie.”

“But eventually,” I hypothesized, “the bidding will hit zero. People will work for nothing — like bloggers at the Huffington Post. We’ll end up with a system of de facto slavery across vast swathes of America.”

“Well, duh,” said Smedley. “It worked before, didn’t it?”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#712)

“You wanna make somethin’ of it?”
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Unlike Ernest Hemingway, Nelson Algren and Opie Taylor, I didn’t engage in a whole lot of pugilism in my school days. Every normal kid in the combative 1950’s had ample opportunity to get beaten into tapioca by thugs at recess. However, operating under the assumption that I couldn’t possibly prevail against the sadistic hulks who roamed the playground like Jurassic reptiles, I learned how to evade most near occasions of bloodshed.

In retrospect, I’m a little regretful. Later in life, I learned that I have a certain moronic tenacity and a talent for taking a punch. Beating me senseless was a little like whacking a sheet hanging on a clothesline. I just kept hanging there, white and limp, while my assailant grew ever more arm-weary, knuckle-raw and aggravated.

But in grade school, I didn’t know how durable I was. Instead, I figured out how easy it can be to talk your way out of a potential subdural hematoma. I also noticed that, whenever a ruckus broke out on the St. Mary’s School playground, the final act was an anticlimax imposed by a grownup — usually Father Mulligan — who required the combatants to emulate Jesus and shake hands.

As testament to the warped psychology of kids, these coerced truces often evolved into friendships.

I remembered all this while pondering the fuss in Washington over President Obama’s delicate nuclear-arms talks with Iran. The Republicans — who took the extraordinary measure of writing a cautionary primer on U.S. civics to Iran’s ayatollahs — have stipulated that their idea of foreign policy involves neither my conversational strategy nor Father Mulligan’s invocation of divine authority. A handshake is unthinkable, and talking? To those guys? Just plain sissy.

I realize that it’s metaphorically dubious to suggest an exact parallel between schoolboy playground battles in the 1950’s and 21st-century nuclear diplomacy, but this GOP stunt nevertheless harked me right back to noon recess at St. Mary’s.

I mean, you remember how it went. The first kid, usually without evident provocation, would get himself chin-to-chin with some other kid. He would address him by his last name (fights never began on a first-name basis), followed by something like, “You’re a slime-sucking horse’s ass!”

To which Kid #2 would wittily respond: “Oh yeah?!”

Back to Kid #1: “Yeah!”

After which, the second kid was required — according to time-honored juvenile protocol to say, for example, “Yeah, well, (Last Name), you’re a pigfaced pile of crap.”

A few more “oh yeahs?” and “yeahs!”, culminated then in the rhetorical gauntlet-blow, always framed as: “Oh, yeah? You wanna make somethin’ of it?”

This was the cue for dialog to end and combat to commence, with lots of rolling around on the playground and body blows that had no effect because each kid was wearing a winter coat, two layers of clothing (one flannel, one wool) and long underwear.

What I figured out around fourth grade was that you could reliably forestall one of these contretemps by altering the standard liturgy, essentially tossing in an “Et cum spiritu tuo” where a “Christe eleison” was supposed to go.

For instance, let’s say Laufenberg, one of my more dependable antagonists, got into my face and delivered his line about me being a slime-sucking horse’s ass. Rather than taking his cue and intoning the obligatory but hackneyed, “Oh, yeah?”, I would cross him up with, “Jeez, John, d’you really think so?”

Laufenberg, expecting a question but not that one, would hesitate. This gave me time to rustle up a little more food for thought: “OK then, John, but what sort of horse?” Laufenberg might rally with a cunning riposte like, “Hunh?” But, by then, I was positioned to defuse the threat — and launch a general equine debate among the kids gathered ‘round — by asking, “I mean, could I be an Arabian horse’s ass? How ‘bout a mustang? Or a Clydesdale? A Shetland pony’s ass maybe?”

Forgive the obviously flawed metaphor, but it seems to me that, ever since the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, the ayatollahs have been saying to America, “You’re a slime-sucking horse’s ass,” and the U.S. response, for 35 years, has been the same old, “Oh yeah?” Followed by you-know-what — which would probably be OK if we’re talking about a couple of ten-year-olds on a parochial-school playground.

But here, the “you-wanna-make-somethin'-of-
it?” part involves hydrogen bombs. This is why, at last, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry surprised the ayatollahs and said, “Jeez, guys, d’you really think so?”

This altered liturgy now seems to be approaching the “What sort of horse’s ass?” stage. I think this is good, but it obviously violates the Republicans’ foreign policy principles, which appear to be stuck on the “oh-yeah?-yeah!-well-you’re-a-
pigfaced-pile-of-crap!” plateau. GOP senators are so miffed over the Arabian vs. Clydesdale discourse in Geneva that they’re writing mash notes to mullahs.

Ironically, Sen. Cotton’s Letter to Tehran is another positive sign. My old foe Laufenberg wasn’t known for parsing the Marquess of Queensbury Rules before grinding some kid into the asphalt at recess. If he had, he wouldn’t have remained — from 1st through 8th grades — the alpha-male Cro Magnon whom we all knew and feared. The last thing a true bully ever does is explain himself.

The President is getting the mullahs to explain themselves, and recess is already a little safer. But even if he can humor the Iranians, he faces a bigger challenge with the local bullies, who’ve been calling him a pigfaced pile of crap — and worse — for more than six years now. I don’t think they’re going to let up.

As Dorothy Parker didn’t quite say, “You can lead a horse’s ass to Congress, but you can’t make him think.”

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#711)

A snatch of trade-show jazz
by David Benjamin

BARCELONA — If it’s March, it must be the Mobile World Congress (MWC). January was Vegas and CES. Been to IFA, NAB, CATV, DVB (in Dublin, with whiskey tastings and dog races — loved that), Electronica, CeBit (in Hanover, proudly known as “The Armpit of Lower Saxony"), IBC, even once hung with the leisure suits at the RCCC wing-ding in Grand Rapids.

Here, it’s “cellular devices,” everyone peering into 5-inch screens, thousands of phoneblind geeks veering and stumbling, like the first reel of The Day of the Triffids and I’m Howard Keel. What am I doing here? My only phone sits on a table at home.

I’m a spy at a Star Trek convention. Everyone is breeding tribbles and hoarding dilithium crystals to warp themselves into strange worlds (5G, wherever that is) whence no nerd has gone before. Over there, back to back, two propeller-heads staring into the hypno-screens of their “communicators,” executing a Vulcan mind-meld and catching up on Kirk’s weight-gain issues. Except, well, this starship voyage is real. These mooks are serious. They have the power, the money, the technology to make all of us into trekkies, transporting us into text-eternal exile on the mothballed transport Botany Bay, somewhere beyond the Neutral Zone.

I’m the only one without a smartphone. But I’m a certified smartass, and I’m carrying a book (Deadwood by Pete Dexter), just in case things get boring.

And they do get boring.

Up on the huge screen before the “keynote” session (how can a speech be “key” if there are two or three of them every day?) a six-foot portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook feuhrer. A hero here. For most of us a lot more ambiguous. Internet pioneer or a greedy little dropout with a Napoleon complex? What have you done to my privacy, Zuck?

Oh God, there goes the music. Throb, throb, wham! At 120 decibels. Every high-tech trade show I’ve been to… How many years? Giant speakers and a beat dumber than Diana Ross singing “Baby Love.” Thump, thump, thump, not even a “thumpety” in between. Speakers the size of a two-car garage, and music composed by gifted gorillas force-fed barbiturates. Makes Iron Butterfly and Twisted Sister sound subtle and sophisticated. Wham wham wham, screech, THUMP.

Picture Beethoven here, feeling the throb. Smiling. Glad to be deaf.

But it works, Makes you grateful when the human speakers finally hit the stage, spouting drivel but so much more tuneful than the alleged music of the concussive fanfare. It’s hard to trust anyone, or any organization, or any  collection of 90,000 like-minded trade-show zombies whose musical taste stinks this bad.

Next year, I bring tomatoes.

Not to eat.

As the alleged “music” humps and thunders, words two yards tall explode on a stageful of screens. Theme seems to be “ME.” Mobile entertainment? Massive entropy? Mind-numbing ennui? The flicker-flashing, epileptic uber-images — shades of The Andromeda Strain? — assist in conveying the existential apotheosis of consumer gadgetry… my Internet, my money, My health, My education, MY travel, MY entertainment, MY friends, MY identity, MY lobotomy!

OK, I added that last one.

By and by, a woman marches on stage. She has quiet self-assurance of a wounded cobra. Her name is Anne and she’s Director General of the GSMA — which used to stand for something, but now it’s NBI. She makes it clear that she wants everything “connected.” Connected cars, bikes, mopeds. Connected toothbrushes. (You get a shock if you skip a molar.) Connected suitcases. Connected suicide bombers destroying five different Burger Kings simultaneously.

Oops. Wait. We already have that.

Even so, what they don’t seem to have is connected security. To get as far into the Fira Barcelona as this “keynote,” there are security checks over and over. Six times. The only guys not carrying mobile phones are shlepping machine guns. And the uniforms! Lapis lazuli with red epaulets. Charcoal from head-to-toe with a jaunty maroon beret. Dark khaki with form-fitting body armor (a full metal jacket) and bloused pantaloons. Desert camo with forest-green trim highlights and patent-leather, steel-toe jackboots. Spain is the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré of military haute couture. Generalissimo Francisco Franco lives!

Nice thing about Spain? They hire pretty girls to stand around directing the clueless. Uniforms aren’t as varied and flattering as the cops and soldiers’ outfits, but they’re cute, in navy blue with red blazers, red scarves. One senorita smiles glowingly and Ray Charles bubbles ineluctably upward…

“See the girl with the red scarf on! She can do the dog all night long, oh-oh yeah…”

Along the way to the keynote, tall unnerving banners declaring the “unleashing” of various “markets.” From what? I pass under “South Africa Unleashed.” But didn’t that happen, finally, in ‘94? There are more unleashings — Colombia (a little scary — cocaine, anyone?), Peru (would anybody notice?), Russia (fine, but can we snap that idle leash onto Vlad the Terrible?). Wait a minute. “Germany Unleashed”? Even after 70 years, the idea of the Fourth Reich — unleashed Rottweilers and Dobermans (and Angela Merkel in a pants suit!) galloping amok across the Englischer Garten, mangling poodles and swallowing Yorkies whole? — tends to trigger my weltschmerz.

Besides “unleashed,” the big word here, in the corridors, on banners, printed in nine-foot letters on the show floor, is “INNOVATION” (all caps). Same as at CES, same for years at IFA, NAB, IBC, Electronica, etc. Marketing types in geekworld use “innovation” the way teenagers use “like,” “y’know,” “dude,” “awesome.” Y’know? Like that, dude.

Picture a precocious Mobile-Worlder, 13 or so, checking it all out, saying, “Whoa, hey! Awesome, I mean, like, the innovation here, I mean, y’know, these innovative dudes’re awesome at y’know, like, innovating, dude! I’m like, whoa. Y’know. I mean, that’s what it is, dude, like, innovation!”

Yes. I know. (Scotty, quick! Beam me up.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#710)

Overheard at an ISIS barbecue
by David Benjamin

SOMEWHERE IN SYRIA — A trio of Islamists — Ahmed, Mohammed and Kurlijo — gathered round a campfire, a Christian baby roasting on a spit.

One says, “Ah, I love the smell of barbecued infidel in the morning.”

“It’s night time, Mo,” replies Ahmed.

“Hey, look,” says Kurli. “It says on my iPad that America is spoiling for a big-ass ground war against us, right here. They’re ready for a whole new quagmire.”

Mo: “That would be great. Think of it. We get to kill Americans, break the hearts of their moms, break up American marriages, orphan American kids and  devastate their families. And the beauty part: We don’t have to go anywhere or spend any money. No air fares, no phony passports, no huge MasterCard bills for explosives and blasting caps at Home Depot. We just squat here, pick off redneck kids from Oklahoma and Utah, behead the occasional reporter and then, like Geronimo and the Apaches, we melt into the desert. Allahu Akbar, baby!”

Ahmed: “I don’t get it. They’re safe, across a whole ocean, thousands of miles away. All their own Muslims are Westernized, petty bourgeois, tamer than hamsters and under surveillance by Neighborhood Watch. Why in Allah’s name would they want to ship their children over here to get killed, maimed and screwed-up for life with PTSD. Haven’t they seen American Sniper?”

Mo: “Americans? Man, they’re all crazy. But the craziest of ‘em all belong to this big political party. Old white men who get some sort of sick thrill rounding up teenagers from small towns and urban ghettos, duding them up in camouflage costumes and shipping them off to die pointlessly in Third World hellholes like this miserable slab of barren ground right here. Yo, Ahmed! Keep the spit turning.”

Kurli: “So, you’re saying there’s a permanent war party in America?”

Mo: “Yeah, they call themselves lots of things. Conservatives. Patriots. Republicans. Chicken hawks. But it all comes down to flag-waving, saber-rattling and sacrificing the young for the sake of getting a few Golden Agers re-elected.”

Ahmed and Kurlijo shake their heads in wonder at the absurdity of American militarism. Mo points at Kurli and says, “Hey, what’s that you’re sitting on.”

Kurli: “What? Oh, that’s my Koran.”

Mo: “Our most sacred book? The reason we’re out here, freezing our tuchises, slaughtering Yazidis and Shiites and harmless Jews? We massacre whole villages for looking cross-eyed at the Koran. And you’re using it as a sit-upon?”

Kurli: “Hey, lighten up, Mo. The ground is cold.”

Mo: “You should be reading the Koran, not using it to keep your ass warm.”

Kurli: “So, Mr. holier-than-thou. You’re saying you can read?”

Mo: “Well, not exactly. My imam says education is against Allah.”

Ahmed: “The imam’s right. Who reads? We live — happily ignorant — in a tribal, oral, virulently anti-intellectual culture that has devolved tragically from the scientific progressivism of our Ottoman forbears.”

Kurli: “You’re making us sound like Southern Baptists.”

Ahmed: “Hey, if the sandal fits, man. We’re functionally illiterate, unemployed, politically reactionary, chronically pissed off and we love guns. And all we really know from sacred scripture is what we hear out of wild-eyed preachers who think the Great Satan is on the march and the world is coming to an end. We could all close our eyes and imagine we’re in Mississippi.”

Kurli: “What’s Mississippi?”

Mo: “Hey, please, man. Do me a favor. Get off your Koran already.”

Kurli finally relents. Sitting on the cold ground, he fans the Koran and says, “I can stare at this book for a year and not understand a word. But maybe that’s the secret of jihad. Maybe what keeps us fighting is what not what we know, but what we don’t know about Islam. Let’s face it. When you’re talkin’ scripture, most of us couldn’t tell the difference between Mohammed and, say, Matt Damon.”

Ahmed: “Hey, Matt Damon I know. I love that guy. Even if he is an infidel. I mean. He’s macho but he’s also sensitive, y’know?”

Kurli: “Yeah, those ‘Bourne’ movies were great.

Mo: “Except for the last one. But that wasn’t Matt Damon.”

Ahmed: “No, it was that Chris Pine guy. The one from the Star Trek remake.”

Mo: “Hey, now there’s something I could do all day — watch Star Trek flicks. Spock. Uhura. Captain Kirk! Wouldn’t it be a gas, killing Americans with phaser guns? Zap! Zip! Bwee! Or better yet, just stun ‘em. And then slice off their heads!”

Ahmed: “I’d just as soon kill ‘em outright. I know too many guys got tennis elbow from sawing off the heads of missionaries. The pain is excruciating.”

Kurli: “That’s the thing I can’t figure out. They know we like to behead outsiders, right? They know we’re penniless sadists with nothing to lose. They know this whole place is just rocks, camels, the occasional sandstorm, and homely ignorant women cloaked in tent-canvas from head to toe. Why do they keep coming? Why do they fight an enemy who runs away and hides until they give up and leave, even if it takes a hundred years? Why do they send these nice young kids for us to frustrate them, blow them up, cut them to ribbons, screw with their minds and turn them into homeless drunks and cripples living out of garbage cans?”

Ahmed: “ Funny, isn’t it? Now and then, we do a suicide bombing in the neighborhood. Or we mimic some white-guy hero from Western history, like Henry VIII or Robespierre, and we hack off a few heads. Meanwhile, for the sake of political gamesmanship, they sacrifice thousands of their own children in an unnecessary war on the wrong side of the world. And it’s us they call barbarians?”

Kurli: “Go figure.”

Mo: “Hey, the Christian is medium-rare. You want me to carve?”