Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#729)

“Stay in the yard!”
By David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — My morning walk takes me past the great old houses — sprawling duplexes and a few triple-deckers — of West Washington Avenue. This city’s planners designed this street, leading uphill to the Capitol building, to be majestically broad. They planted a dozen varieties of shade trees — maple, oak, ash, elder. Every day, I admire the grass verges on both sides, wide enough — and lush enough — to serve as yards for children at play, family picnics, touch football, games of hide-and-go-seek, stoop tag, red rover…

But these classic homes are now mostly rentals, for students, singles, transients. The green space in front is mainly a lavatory for canine convicts whom downtown-dwellers incarcerate in their apartments (as surrogates for kids?).

When I was a kid in Tomah, not far from here, the yard was a place of both liberation and exile. In that era, any kid beyond diaper age was unwelcome indoors. I was “underfoot.” Regardless of the weather, Mom shooed me outside, with vague instructions to “play,” but warned me, “Stay in the yard.”

If, at age five, I’d been inclined toward epistemology, I might have replied: “What IS the yard?” On our block of Pearl Street, there were no fences. Our plot between Pearl and “the alley” bled into the Kimpton compound nextdoor and flowed through two more broad lots beyond, all the way to Ann Street. But I didn’t really need to define terms. Once I’d been kicked out, Mom didn’t care where I went or what I did. My exploratory instincts steadily expanded my “yard” into a four-block realm where the only parental stricture that gave me pause was “Don’t cross Jackson.”

Jackson Street scared grownups. As the direct route from the town’s main drag, Superior Avenue, to the hospital, it had a little more traffic than the average sleepy Tomah street. Typically, parents resorted to exaggeration, depicting Jackson as a sort of outlaw dragstrip beyond the rim of civilization. This worked for a while. I didn’t start crossing Jackson ‘til I was almost eight.

“The yard,” as an altar of traditional American family values, a playground for kids, a cozy outdoor bistro of picnic tables, chaise lounges, birdbaths and jungle gyms, is more myth than reality. When I lived in one of California’s most lawn-intensive communities, I never saw a family outdoors. The only humans who ever set foot on an immaculate row of front lawns that stretched as far as the eye could see were Mexican landscapers, pouncing on dandelions or blowing leaves.

Even when I was a kid in a small town, grownups pretty much avoided the yard. In daytime, parents worked. At night, mosquitoes kept sane adults indoors. Kids often used the yard on summer nights, for all those games that nobody plays anymore — blindman’s buff (or “bluff”? I’ve never figured that out), kickball, statues. We played a version of red rover so brutal that, by and by, the littlest kid would head toward home whimpering tragically and clutching his wound. In response, we would cheer his departure, mocking his theatrics ‘til he came stalking back, face red, lower lip stuck out, eyes wet, saying, “I ain’t no crybaby.”

For any kid with any pride, the point of the yard was to not stay in it. Halfway between our little house and my grandparents’ bigger house on Pearl, there was an ancient honeysuckle bush. In our toddler stage, my sister, then me, then kid brother Bill were leashed to the The Bush. We were left, often for hours, to sit in the sun, throw our toys beyond leash range, eat dirt and ants and launch the occasional squalling conniption (which got no sympathy). Bill was the only one who ever slipped the leash. He crawled up the yard, crossed sidewalk, grassy verge and Pearl Street. Toward dusk, he was found in the Konicek’s yard, and returned intact.

Bill was simply keeping faith with the ancient Code of the Kid: If they tell you to stay in the yard, cheezit.

The American yard is, indeed, more shibboleth than lebensraum. It is more often ignored than enjoyed, more groomed than occupied.

Later in my childhood, Mom moved us to an apartment above the S&Q Hardware. Instead of a yard, we had a rickety porch bolted to the rear wall of our building, below which was a muddy, rutted parking lot. We were joined wall-to-wall to other buildings, which made it possible for a kid to traverse an entire block of Superior Avenue by hopping from rooftop to rooftop.

This zinc-and-tarpaper paradise was better than any lawn I’d ever been told to stay in. Down in the parking lot, I chalked a strike zone onto the nextdoor wall of Jaffe’s emporium and played a thousand games of wallball with my rubber-coated baseball. Every morning, old man Jaffe had to deal with the mystery of why some of his stock had been shaken off the shelves in his storeroom.

When old man Jaffe finally figured it out, he ordered me to stop banging his wall. This was like saying “Get out of the yard.” So I stayed — and flung my ball in the hours when Jaffe’s wasn’t open.

Madison today, a city of vast and verdant lawns, is a sort of California. I rarely see anyone sitting outside with a beer, a family partying, dads and sons playing catch, kids playing red rover. Yards have become artifacts. Nobody hangs tires from tree branches anymore. The kids, I assume, are booked solid — for Little League, ballet, soccer, tai chi, voice lessons, computer camp, personal trainers, Pilates, transcendental meditation, violin, mixed martial arts, Bible study, butoh.

Even when the American yard was a credible living space with grass, trees, morning glories, clotheslines and purple martin hotels, the command to stay in it was more dismissive than obligatory. A yard was a staging area for adventure. The few obedient shmucks who stayed in the yard missed out on the stuff that made a kid’s life footloose, creative, treacherous and worthwhile.

Today, there are more lovely lawns than ever before. Yards look better because nobody sends kids out there anymore. In their eternal war against whimsy, parents have cunningly devised a labyrinth of virtual yards. Now, we have ways to confine our kids — with sedative electronics and hypnotic gadgets, in supervised sports, esteem-building games, cloistered clubs and helmeted excursions, with coaches, tutors, nannies, mentors, counselors, schedules, appointments, playdates and GPS surveillance — that put to shame the skinny old rope that tethered me to Annie’s honeysuckle bush.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#728)

Sour grapes
By David Benjamin

“Never hurts to give us a crack at something… but we’re not going to publish a book narrated by a dog who ‘discourses on human/dog relations and canine theology while debating dog ethics with a poodle named Cupcake.’ That’s just not us…”
— Charles Ardai, editor, Hard Case Crime

The first query I sent for my new novel was to Charles Ardai at an offbeat publishing house that specializes in hardboiled noir. I’d been an Ardai fan since he started the imprint. While declining two of my manuscripts in the past, he’d been prompt, personal and courteous. I thought The Voice of the Dog well-suited to Hard Case Crime, because it contains a serial murderer and enough bloodshed, violence, profanity and misogyny to make Mickey Spillane blush — right up Ardai’s alley. Right?
Not quite. In less than two hours, Ardai apparently managed to digest my almost 7,000-word query, which included an obligatory cover letter, an artfully concise synopsis, the usual author bio and my first two chapters.
I rarely reply to a rejection. They’re pretty much water off a failure’s back. But my disappointment, with Ardai’s obvious haste to dismiss me once and for all, triggered an intemperate urge to talk back not so much to him, but to a publishing establishment that has enslaved itself to a set of formulae and literary cubbyholes that generate cash, shortchange readers and exasperate ink-stained wretches like me — sometimes to a point where we cry out in self-indulgent anguish.

Mr. Ardai:
I persist in believing that you’re a nice guy. This is despite your lightning rejection of my query about The Voice of the Dog. I suspect, actually, that you didn’t read anything beyond my synopsis — which I thought was a model of economy and compression that any professional editor would approve.
Your rejection summoned to my mind a host of familiar considerations. Perhaps the arbiters of publishing have always been genre-specific and pathologically vertical in their view of the market. I certainly can’t argue that this outlook is not shared by many readers, among whom I circulate more than you do. One of my frustrations is the frequent encounter with an allegedly “avid” bibliophile who intones to me the grave announcement that he or she “never reads fiction.”
In my experience, however, readers as a class are not nearly so narrowly focused and arbitrary as editors who insist on manuscripts that are not only easy to pigeonhole, but which are written intentionally to fit into pigeonholes. You favor authors, in essence, who have compromised their imagination in order to reflect the limited imagination of market-driven “literary” gatekeepers who themselves can’t, don’t or won’t take on the terrible risk of writing.
Of course, we both know that you have on occasion violated your pattern when the violation served to feather your nest. In my query to you, I cited two novels, The Colorado Kid and Memory. Each is a thoughtful, non-violent story far less true to your Hard Case, hardboiled formula than my ms. of The Voice of the Dog. Indeed, in Memory, there are no crimes or criminals, no private-eye or police-detective protagonist, no easy women. Just a brain-damaged man muddling through a haze of lost memories in search of a life he can never recover. It’s a heart-rending tragedy that you would never have considered were the author not Donald E. Westlake.
In the case of Memory, you wisely chose — based on the author’s notoriety — to break your own rule and follow a rule that’s been largely forgotten by a publishing establishment in which you were once a maverick, but where you’re now a burgher in good standing. For Westlake (and Stephen King), you conceded a principle that’s implicit among most rank-and-file readers: “A good story is a good story.”
People who read me — and there are a few — don’t know what to expect from one book to the next. Even when I work within a recognizable “genre,” I tend to deviate from formula, partly because the constraints of the formula are inconsistent with my definition of good prose, partly out of sheer orneriness.
Long after Jack Scovil took me on as one of his clients, I wondered why he had done so. After all, I’m a horizontal, eclectic writer in a business that has gone increasingly vertical, categorical and conservative (as you have done.)  The answer I arrived at was that Jack was a comfortable man who could “afford” me. He had enjoyed great success in his career and, as he grew older, he represented a few writers, regardless of their quirks, because he liked their work. He probably agreed to represent me not because of my commercial potential but despite it. I flatter myself with the belief that Jack regarded me as a writer with a unique talent and style whose very uniqueness would always pose problems for him as a salesman. He knew that, without an advocate, I would always face offhand rejections, like yours, from editors for whom a good story, well-told and unpredictable, has ceased to be the first priority.
But Jack had nothing to lose.
He never made much money on me. He might have broken even. But he read a lot of good stories and he gained two friends  — my wife and myself — who loved him to the end. Publishing used to have a little room for things like that. 
I won’t trouble you again. You needn’t reply. I do wish you well.
Peace,

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#727)

When Oliver Stone
mishandled Michael Caine

by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — In my newspaper days as editor of a Massachusetts weekly, the Mansfield News, I probably had too much fun. There was, for example, a summer day in 1981 when I needed to fill space in “Expeditions,” my culture column. So I took Bill Breen, high-school cub reporter, to the movies. Bill recently sent me the tearsheet…

Director Oliver Stone has done it. Mano a mano, he has met the ages-old challenge of convincing an audience to take seriously the adventures of a disembodied hand.

No one has accomplished more in this endeavor since Señor Wences offhandedly drew a face over his thumb and forefinger and made it talk on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The thought of five little delinquent fingers creeping around between our feet hasn’t been quite so terrifyingly handled since Uncle Steve told “The Monkey’s Paw” story to a group of ten-year-olds, including me, around the campfire at 4-H camp.

Stone’s movie, released last weekend, is called The Hand. The title “character,” to say the least, is more cuticle than handsome. The story is gripping. Director Stone is determined to make a film that grabs the moviegoer and doesn’t let him go. And for good reason! After all, the sequel possibilities are near at hand and numerous.

The next film in the series could be Second Hand, in which the title creature dies, only to be resurrected in Second Hand Rose.

Spinoffs and variations would ensue. The Foot could reveal at last how Rosemary Woods reached that fateful pedal and created Richard Nixon’s 18-minute gap. Next could come The Toe: The Life Story of Lou Groza. There could also be The Lip: The Saga of Leo Durocher. Then, The Head, the harrowing tale of a toilet that went berserk. In The Finger, the mutilated hero would be a proctologist.

There hasn’t been so much potential for films about body parts since the legendary Chesty Morgan starred in Deadly Weapons.

The Hand crafts the story of a cartoonist, played without much animation by Michael Caine. He has troubles with his wife, who was once a veritable handmaiden. But now she’s playing footsy with her yoga instructor.

In the midst of this marital sparring, there’s an automobile accident (a clutch failure is suspected) in which cartoonist Caine loses his drawing hand. From this point on, Caine’s life becomes so touch-and-go that he turns into a prosthetic figure.

Meanwhile, back in a digitalis patch in upstate Vermont, the disembodied hand begins to tingle with newfound purpose. It takes on the job of manipulating Caine’s inner feelings. It will be Mr. Hand to Caine’s Dr. Jekyll.

Subliminally kneed and muscled by the hand, Caine begins to wreak revenge on his enemies — remotely. His fingers do the whacking.

Caine’s life, however, isn’t as palmy as once it was. Despite his singlehanded efforts, he can’t hold a job. Thumbing his way west, he unwittingly transports his stowaway hand. He takes a job at a seedy manual arts college in California. There, he scratches out a hand-to-mouth existence, proudly refusing handouts. But it isn’t easy. Just trying to make a simple meal of Hamburger Helper, he’s all thumbs. His only relief comes in the form of an amorous coed with magic fingers, who soon has Caine eating out of her hand. But inevitably, the relationship is handcuffed by the sinistral attentions of the hero’s missing parts.

In the climax, which crawls along at a nail’s pace, Caine’s severed fingers gain the upper hand. Mr. Hand becomes unmanageable, strangling people left and right. Caine’s bodiless meathook is caught in the act of manhandling Caine’s wife. But does the hand get the blame? No! Caine’s own daughter fingers him.

Eventually, Caine becomes a hopeless neurotic, handled — with kid gloves — by a psychiatrist.

The Hand, indeed, is a flick best handled with rubber gloves — better yet, forceps. Novelist Marc Brandel is the initial culprit, supposedly inspiring this film with a book called The Lizard’s Tail. Stone’s offshoot tries to terrify but only tickles. One suspects that Brandel has by now washed his hands of the whole enterprise.

Until you’ve seen it, you can’t fully appreciate the idea of an armless hand maneuvering around underfoot, scurrying beneath the furniture, lying in wait to grab its victims by the neck and wave its wrist menacingly.

One accidentally funny scene depicts Caine groping around a field, looking for his truncated career, while you-know-who sits on his hangnails, watching from a safe distance. The audience can ‘t help but chuckle at the scene’s heavy-handed irony. 

Stone, in this film, misplayed his hand by not going for laughs. Instead, he has fashioned an unintended farce, badly in need of a manicure.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#726)

The prebuttal imperative
of the “liberal media”

by David Benjamin

PARIS — I thought I’d coined the word “prebuttal” until today when, in the New York Times, I found Paul Vallely using it in an op-ed piece about Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Sii. Vallely was citing a preemptive denunciation by GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, issued before the Vatican had officially released the Pope’s historic message.

My own definition of “prebuttal” applies to news outfits, particularly the Times, accused so often by right-wing propagandists of “liberal bias” that they’re gun-shy. “Pre-actively,” in any political story that pits liberals vs. conservatives, Establishment news organizations rush to articulate the right-wing position.

The eternal irony is that the Right never credits mainstream journalism for this premonitory obeisance. Jugular conservatives like radio clown Rush Limbaugh thrive on and profit from the myth of the “liberal media.” It would be right-wing heresy and ratings suicide to praise fair minds for their fairness.

This tortuous balancing act doesn’t only reduce the editorial space (or air-time) available for liberal views. It squeezes out facts. It pushes down — into the deep unread portion of the story — that useful information that serves to help the unbiased, the curious and the ignorant to decide which argument is more cogent.

I’ve been reading newspapers since I could read. Lately, I’ve gotten the sense that proud old broadsheets like the Times and the Washington Post are tailoring coverage in hopes of getting the right-wing noise machine out of their ear. My latest example is a Times piece last month by Coral Davenport. It covered President Obama’s pending executive order to extend the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act jurisdiction to vulnerable water sources, including lakes and streams previously unprotected by the law.

This sensible idea received a preemptive razzberry from the corporate and agribusiness interests who’ve been poisoning lakes and streams for a century. Their well-known promise about the filth that they spew into our rivers, wells and water tables is that we should “trust” them to voluntarily carry out the sort of environmental stewardship they’ve never previously cared about.

(Don’t Tread On Me. You might squeeze out something disgusting.)

The Times anticipated this right-wing outcry. The Times knew it would be trashed by “Fox and Friends” as Obama’s personal Pravda, just for reporting the plan, plainly and objectively. Indeed, of the 1,071 words in Davenport’s story, 450 provided readers a plain, objective — somewhat hasty — explanation.

Davenport could have explained more, including why the EPA believes more rules are necessary. But she had a prebuttal to write. She pumped out and quoted 463 words dedicated to the rich and powerful — in the form of vows by Republicans, corporate spokespeople and pathological polluters to kill this Obama-spawned regulatory monster while it’s still in the womb.

“Environmentalists” and the EPA got 158 words from the liberal Times — roughly one for every three words given to their pro-pollution opponents.

I found a similar imbalance in Charlie Savage’s Times story about last week’s King v. Burwell Supreme Court bombshell, which upheld the Affordable Care Act. The Court’s vote was 6-3, suggesting that the Times reporter should afford the winning (liberal) side twice as much space as the defeated minority.

Au contraire. In his quote-heavy analysis, Savage gave pro-Obamacare justices 558 words. On the other (losing) hand, the flamboyantly reactionary Justice Antonin Scalia, all by himself, commanded 602 apoplectic words.

Next day, the Court’s marriage-equality ruling was an even bigger triumph for liberals. True to prebuttal protocol, the Washington Post gave the victors 99 words in ‘graphs 3 and 4, including a snippet from Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. The conservative losers got twice the ink — 184 words — covering ‘graphs 5-9, with an extended comment by Chief Roberts and an Apocalyptic dig from Scalia.

Based on these examples, this prebuttal thing seems to me like an actual trend. But I always prefer a little more evidence. To test my intuition, I went looking for a story where the good guys got licked. I wanted to see if the Times — worried about accusations of “conservative bias” — might skew its coverage toward the laments of the defeated Left.

The 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission seemed like the ideal control. The story was by Adam Liptak, the Times’ crack legal correspondent. It was heavy on straightforward, apolitical explanation. Liptak devoted 401 of an 875-word report to background, as well as the implications and the dramatis personae in the futile struggle to keep organized money from trampling the American electorate into a state of feckless feudalism.

In the remainder of Liptak’s story, the winning — conservative — side got 279 words of coverage and quotation. Most important, conservative justices claimed the “top” of the story. The liberals, whose arguments slipped to ‘graphs 5, 12, 15, 21 and 23, got the loser’s appropriate share of attention — 195 words.

Every case I’ve examined renders a similar outcome. In the liberal media, when liberals lose, they lose. And when they win, they also lose.

“Prebuttal” — routinely granting precedence to the utterances of plutocrats, hired guns, blowhards and zealots who can’t even imagine returning the favor — has become, I suppose, a sort of survival tactic among America’s few remaining bastions of professional journalism.

I’m just thinking that a motto-edit is probably advisable. The little box beside the banner has always read: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” But that old saw dates back to bygone bygones, when the Times ruled the media and called the shots. Today, revised subtly for editorial accuracy and media realities, the motto in the box would look the same and you’d have to peek close to notice the change:

“All That Fox News Thinks Fit to Print.”

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#725)

Know thy caliber, know thyself
By David Benjamin

PARIS — In the wake of the vicious killings at the Emanuel AME Church, Americans can take some solace in the embrace of psychology — by the National Rifle Association and the Caucasian Caucus of the Republican Party — as a way to understand, and possibly achieve a measure of Christian tolerance for the mass murders that remain trendy among America’s angry white guys with guns.

The Delphic maxim says, “Know thyself.” The example of Dylann Roof, the Charleston mass murderer, is instructive. We’ve learned that he was poor though white, and alienated from a broken family. He was a restless, bitter school dropout with an itchy trigger finger who apparently possessed the social skills of a rabid polecat. He was a blank tablet whose only mark was the palimpsest of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which liberated him — without government interference — “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them,” ideally by snuffing as many of his imaginary enemies as he had bullets.

We could condemn young men like Dylann and cling to the false panacea of gun control. Or we could join with 2nd Amendment defenders in their conviction that society is ultimately safer by understanding our budding sociopaths and seeking to guide their impulses — constructively.

DR FELDMAN: “So, Darrell, do you know why you’re here?”

DARRELL: “Huh uh.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Well, you see, the government doesn’t know you’ve just purchased your 52nd automatic weapon. Nor have they been notified that you’ve  stockpiled enough ammo to depopulate New Hampshire. However, the NRA keeps track of these things. They’ve hired me to help you plumb your motivations.”

DARRELL: “I don’t wanna plumb nothin’, shrink.”

DR. FELDMAN: “This is evident, Darrell. But don’t you feel, perhaps, a little uneasy? Aren’t you haunted, sometimes, by emotions you can’t understand?”

DARRELL: “Haunted? Nah. I’m pissed, man. Really pissed.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Good, that’s a start. Now, Darrell, let’s explore that.”

DARRELL: “Explore what?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Your anger.”

DARRELL: “I’m not angry, man. I’m pissed.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Yes, well, a minor semantic point. You’re pissed. But why so many guns, Darrell?”

DARRELL: “I dunno. They make me feel good, y’know. Safe.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere, Darrell. You sense some danger in your life, a threat that you can’t quite put your finger on?”

DARRELL: “Aw, no. I can put my finger on it all right.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Really? Very good, Darrell. We’re making progress. I’m very pleased. Now, why do you feel threatened? What’s causing this?”

DARRELL: “Them.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Them. Perhaps you could be a tad more specific, Darrell?”

DARRELL: “Say what?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Them, Darrell. Who are they?”

DARRELL: “Them, man. The ones who hate me. The ones who laugh and talk behind my back. The ones who get stuff I can’t get. The ones who pass algebra and get jobs and take out mortgages and have girlfriends and get married. The ones who have beliefs, values, convictions and new cars. The ones who work in offices and eat out and know how to dance and don’t pick their nose in public."

DR. FELDMAN: “You mean, people who have actual lives?”

DARRELL: “Yeah.”

DR. FELDMAN: Unlike you.”

DARRELL: “Yeah.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Who only have anger, hatred and an AK-47.”

DARRELL: “Yeah.”

DR. FELDMAN: “And have no idea who you are, because you have no occupation, no group to identify you, not even a family to speak of. Even being white isn’t that self-defining because being white is just so… white.”

DARRELL: “Yeah, you got it, doc.”

DR. FELDMAN: “But, Darrell. You have your guns.”

DARRELL: “Jeez, doc. Do you mean…?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Darrell, you may indeed be a nebbish. You might — for the next 70 years — amount to little more than a soup-stain on the necktie of humanity. But you are someone, Darrell. Someone greater than everyone can see.”

DARRELL: “Because I got my guns?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Yes, Darrell. You embody the freedom that is every native-born American’s birthright. You can load, lock, aim and fire — and not even the president can stop you.”

DARRELL: “So, you mean I can shoot ‘em. The ones who go around hating me.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Well, Darrell. I can’t suggest that. I’m only here to listen. And advise.”

DARRELL: “But you can’t stop me.”

DR. FELDMAN: “No one can, Darrell. You have unalienable rights.”

DARRELL: “OK, good. Advise me, doc. Which ones do I shoot?”

DR. FELDMAN: “This is America, Darrell. You have the right to choose — any individual, group, party, faction, busload, congregation, schoolroom. It’s a veritable human buffet out there, Darrell. I can only ask you this question: Who pisses you off the most.”

DARRELL: “Well, I hate the niggers, and the illegals. I hate the stinkin’ chinks a lot. And Catholics. And Muslims, boy, do I hate them. And the Jews!”

DR. FELDMAN: “Well, I‘d skip the Jews if I were you, Darrell.”

DARRELL: “Skip the Jews? Why, doc? They run everything!

DR. FELDMAN: “It’s been overdone. The idea lacks freshness.”

DARRELL: “Really?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Yes. Just as an example, the Nazis murdered six million Jews in a span of barely ten years.”

DARRELL: “Wow. That many? How come I didn’t know that?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Probably because you’re a moron with a gun, Darrell. Remember?

DARRELL: “Oh. Right.”

DR. FELDMAN: “The key, Darrell, is not whom you shoot, or even if you shoot them at all. The important thing is how you feel, about yourself… afterward.”

DARRELL: “Yo. Like, afterwards, I won’t be Darrell, the nobody, anymore.”

DR. FELDMAN: “That’s right, Darrell. You’ll definitely be somebody.”

DARRELL: “Yeah, man. I’ll be Darrell, the crazed gunman.”

DR. FELDMAN: “Emphasis on ‘man,’ Darrell.”

DARRELL: “Yeah! Or Darrell, the mass murderer. Maybe even Darrell, the terrorist!”

DR. FELDMAN: “Well, mass murderer, yes. That’s fine. But let’s not use that word, Darrell, Remember, you’re white.”

DARRELL: “Oh. Really, doc? White guys can’t be terrorists?”

DR. FELDMAN: “Oh my goodness, no, Darrell. If we ever called them that, we might have to take away their guns.”

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#724)

Bistro nights
By David Benjamin

PARIS — A while ago, I sent a New York editor to one of my favorite Paris bistros, a rustic meat-and-blettes eatery called Chez René. I warned her that the head waiter, Michel, would be scary. Sure enough, Michel intimidated Katie and her mom while performing impeccably and responding to their every beck and call.

I knew Michel would be present for Katie’s visit. I even knew which tables he would tend (I directed Katie to one of them). I confidently sent people to (be scared by) Michel because he’d been a fixture at Chez René ten years before when Hotlips and I first dined there (on the best boeuf bourgignon and coq au vin in Paris). He was still there ten years after Katie, when — tragically for us — he retired.

In our first half-dozen times at Chez René, Michel was the same — as cool and proper as a Drones Club butler, while doing everything perfectly. Then, one evening — after we had proven our loyalty to Chez René — Michel greeted us at the door and made sure we had the best table in the corner of the “smoking” (tourist-free) salon. Next time, he kissed Hotlips on both cheeks and shook my hand. Thereafter, we were all on hugging terms.

Of course, his service remained flawless.

Like all veteran waiters in a city where waiting table is a career, Michel did everything with fluid grace. His service was swift. The courses were intuitively timed to the pace we set for our meal. In Paris, rushing one’s repast is a cardinal sin. Hurrying the customer is more like a capital crime. Everything comes in a logical sequence that has been customary here since France was an empire. For all his propriety, Michel created an atmosphere as relaxing as a back rub.

When Hotlips and I return to Paris, we have many places where, like Michel at Chez René, we’re treated like the prodigal son. At our morning coffee place, Patrick, a tattooed ex-seaman who balances white and black flawlessly in his café crème, embraces us both mightily. At Azabu, possibly the only good Japanese restaurant in Paris, proprietress Mami Nakamura glows at our arrival, chef Tamura nods austerely and our favorite waitress, Sachi-chan, giggles with delight.

There’s also the genial bald waiter at Le Bistrot du Dome (best fish we’ve found in Paris), and the one who smiles gently and treats us like family at La Gueuze, where we go for moules et frites and Belgian beer. And so on.

Eating out in Paris is more important to us than museums, graveyards, cathedrals and boat rides, especially in the cozy, congenial bistros that populate every narrow street, broad boulevard and hidden square.

I often wonder why such unforced familiarity and comfort are hard to find in places where “gourmet dining” occurs in America. The USA is overflowing with jovial greasy-spoons and bars where everybody knows your name. But as the prices go up, the warmth tends to go down.

When Hotlips and I used to dine in New York City, we sometimes found cuisine — for twice the price — almost as lovingly prepared and sophisticated as the standard fare at a Paris hole-in-the-wall. But, besides sticker shock, New York offered waiters colder than Michel but without his professionalism. And there was — at every high-class eatery in New York — that one dish, laid before me, the hapless rube, with a flourish and a smirk. Everyone who’s ever dined in Manhattan has faced this culinary conundrum. You’re afraid to tip it over — or even poke it gingerly — and you don’t know how to eat it. Fork, spoon, chopsticks, forceps?

Madison, where we live, has developed a few joints that rival New York in snootiness. Instead of just listing choices on the menu, they publish short essays that detail the provenance of the carrots, the original address of the pissonlit (but no explanation of what the hell it is), the cattle breed of the filet mignon and how old it was when it was castrated. Fascinating, but… the waiters are condescending and oddly defensive. They convey the impression that they’d be working in a much cooler restaurant in a way bigger city if only their talent were properly appreciated.

At any fancy restaurant in America, the wine lists are impressive, even awesome. They go on for 20 pages, separated by regions, appellations and varietals that are a mystery to most diners, with markups four times wholesale. Even a simple table wine, like a Touraine, Tempranillo or Montepulciano — ten bucks at Riley’s Wines of the World — is jacked up to $50.

In Paris, you can find similar encyclopedias. But my favorite wine list is at Le Bistrot du Dome. It has six whites and six reds, each attuned to the dishes on the menu (a blackboard that changes twice daily). They all cost 24 euros (cheap anywhere). At Chez René, the list is longer, but it’s for tourists. Regular customers just ask for the sublime house Beaujolais, which has been bottled and labeled specifically for Chez René for more than fifty years.

And then there’s the whole rigmarole of opening the bottle.

For most of our years in Paris, Michel’s wine ritual consisted of yanking the cork, setting the bottle on our table and shimmering away. Lately, in deference to tourist expectations, Parisian waiters are doing the Latin version of the wine ritual, pouring a dab into a glass and watching non-judgmentally as the alpha customer fusses with it pretentiously. I have yet to see an American do this properly.

The difference between “fine dining” in the U.S. and the joy of the French bistro might come down to the fact that Parisians decided long ago that eating out is more of a party — for everyone involved — than it is a capitalist transaction.

Hotlips and I felt this the other night at a mom-and-pop bistro called Epicure 108 on a remote street in the 17th arrondissement. Every dish was a small adventure. Each of chef Tetsu Goya’s sauces, two days in the making, were good enough to drink straight. The wine ritual lasted about nine seconds. Chef Goya’s wife, our hostess and head waiter, circulated helpfully among her patrons, who are mostly her neighbors. Now and then, she would start to chat, her customers — including us — would stop eating and we all just shmoozed for 15 minutes. Then, back to the food, the wine, the bread, dessert and coffee after.

When people arrive at Epicure 108, they embrace Mrs. Goya. They thank her and embrace her again when they leave. Every night, chef Goya comes beaming from the kitchen, shaking hands, kissing women, telling everyone thank you I hope you liked it.

How could we not? He’s one of Paris’ best-kept secrets. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#723)

What’s beautiful about it?
By David Benjamin

“If you’re pious, friend, open a church. Our business is our business.”
                               —    Jack Warner, indicted FIFA executive

PARIS — The prosecutors who uncovered the vast sinkhole of sleaze in FIFA, the world professional soccer outfit, dug really deep and worked hard to nail the perps, who still might include FIFA fuehrer Sepp Blatter. But, in a way, they didn’t need to look further than the logo on the jersey of FC Barcelona, the futbol team that just beat Italian power Juventus in the European Champions League final.

Corruption is spelled out plainly and proudly on that jersey, which doesn’t say, “Barcelona.” There isn’t a FIFA-governed professional soccer club anywhere that carries the nickname, city or logo of that team. Instead, they advertise.

Soccer fans patiently explain to American ignoramuses like me that my objection to using soccer players as corporate billboards is proof that I cannot possibly grasp the intricate nuances intrinsic to the “beautiful game.”

Yeah, right.

The Barcelona boys play proudly and loyally for Qatar Airways. That’s Qatar, an infinitesimal oilocracy in North Africa with no soccer stadiums, which has never qualified for the World Cup, whose princes bribed FIFA officials countless millions for the rights to host the 2022 tournament. That’s Qatar, where summer temperatures reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit, a climatic reality that poses for the world’s best soccer players the prospect of sprinting back and forth on a 100-yard hotplate for 90-plus minutes in a mid-day sun that has already killed at least 964 of the construction workers who’ve been put to work building those soccer pitches.

Barcelona’s players apparently see no symbolism or irony in representing Qatar more openly than their home city. Nor do their fans seem to mind that they’re cheering, drinking and beating each other up on behalf of Qatar Airways (which most of them can’t afford to fly). Nor did the fans of Juventus, in that Champions League final, display any misgivings about their passionate support for the logo printed on their heroes’ jerseys. No, it’s not “Juventus.” It says: “Jeep.”

“Go, Jeepers?”

I wonder about the conflicted loyalties among fans of FC Milano (Italy) when they play French rival Paris St. Germain. Both teams compete under the strange device, “Fly Emirates” (as do Arsenal and Real Madrid). When all the millionaires on both teams are flying Emirates and getting paid by the same bunch of billionaire oil sheiks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, does it really matter who wins?

As long as the fans file in like sheep and wave their scarves…

Sponsorships in the FIFA empire include two teams — the Glasgow Rangers and Aston Villa in Britain — sponsored by online gambling companies. My friend John in London, who defends soccer as fiercely as I support the Green Bay Packers, roots for the venerable Tottenham Hotspurs. But the Hotspurs don’t play for John. They play, according to their jerseys, for AIA (formerly AIG), a disgraced insurance company now based in China. Russia’s top two teams, Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moskva, wear the logos of giant state-owned corporations, Gazprom and OAO Rossetti. In sum, both squads are President Putin’s boys.

“Go, Vlads?”

The epitome of cognitive dissonance in FIFA sponsorships is Atletico Madrid, a team who — because they’re in it for the money, after all — have renounced both nation and city to wear a jersey that reads: “Azerbaijan, Land of Fire.”

I struggle for a comparison. What if the Packers were to give up the green-and-gold for promo-jerseys that say, “Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Lakes”?

After the FIFA indictments started piling up, the most ludicrous story in the sporting press puzzled over the absence of outrage among FIFA’s “sponsors.” The sportswriter was referring, I guess, to Qatar Airways, Gazprom, the Emirates Group, T-Mobile, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Adidas, Hyundai, Kia, Budweiser, VISA and VW, among others — rootless, faceless, amoral multinationals who — for decades — gladly ponied up kickbacks and bribes and laundered it white before they slipped it to Chairman Sepp, probably in one of those bullet-proof silver-ribbed briefcases with a combination lock and a set of handcuffs.

Moneyed interests, of course, are rampant in pro sports, even the “amateur” ones, like NCAA football and AAU basketball. But few athletic cartels have sold out as eagerly and openly as FIFA — who displays its fealty to filthy lucre on the chest of every player on every team on earth. I’ll believe FIFA has actually cleaned up its act when Catalonian soccer nuts can fork over 80 euros for a replica jersey that says, “Barcelona” instead of an Arabian airline. Or my friend John can get one that doesn’t advertise an insurance company.

“Go, Underwriters?”

Right now, the “beautiful game” is played by athletes and watched by fans who are forced to offer public tribute to banks, sheiks and kleptocrats who don’t reside in their hometown, support the local schoolkids, know the players’ names or even follow the damn standings. It is governed by a club of aged plutocrats, most of whom never played and who understand it less well than even an American ignoramus like me. I know this because, while they’ve gotten rich, the Blatter gang — and the Joao Havelange coterie before them — did nothing, in decades, to make soccer cleaner, fairer, more fan-friendly or more entertaining.

Soccer is boring — compared to almost any other sport (except possibly Scrabble) — not because it’s players are boring, but because its coaches, its owners and its administrators are indifferent to everything about their “beautiful game” except its almighty bottom line.