Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#770)

The NRA’s worst nightmare
by David Benjamin

“The Bible says that homosexuals should be put to death… Obviously, it’s not right for somebody to just, you know, shoot up the place…  these people all should have been killed, anyway, but they should have been killed through the proper channels…”
Pastor Steven Anderson, Faithful Word Baptist Church, 14 June

NEW YORK CITY, Nov. 1, 2016 — The mass slaughter that took place yesterday at the nation’s largest pet shop appears to have decisively shifted the long-stalemated gun control debate in the United States.

On a peaceful, festive Halloween afternoon in Manhattan, a heavily armed gunman — later identified as Akhmed B. “Benny” Bemish of Hauser Street, Queens — burst into the vast, multi-floor Pet World emporium on 2nd Avenue, and opened fire. Horrifically, the madman seemed determined to target puppies and kittens. He bypassed, for example, the cockatoos and parrots who began screaming and uttering strings of obscenities, and such larger, less cuddly targets as boa constrictors and ostriches.

This atrocity took the lives of 63 adorable puppies and mewing kittens before NYPD Tactical Police were able to storm Pet World and blow Bemish to Kingdom Come. Since then, the backlash has been overwhelming. Some of the Second Amendment’s most stalwart defenders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are admittedly reconsidering their position on personal ownership of combat weapons like the .50-caliber Beowulf assault rifle now made infamous by the Bemish rampage.

“Sen. McConnell,” said a spokesman, “is heartsick. As you know, he’s a great dog-lover who often hunts with his coonhounds, Old Blue and Bingo, in the Kentucky woods. He believes deeply in everyone’s right to charge into the natural world and shoot almost anything that moves. But in light of this outrage committed by a twisted freak against the very essence of innocence, the Senator has decided that thoughts and prayers are a piss-poor response.”

The scene at Pet World, according to witnesses, was nauseating. One employee described an infant Dalmatian ripped to shreds, and peke-a-poo pups riddled beyond recognition. “If you’ve never seen a little-bitty baby Bichon Frisé lying in a pool of gore, with no head — just a sticky ball of bloodsoaked fur — you have no concept of true horror. I’ll never be able to sleep again,” she said.

A policeman at the scene, later identified as Sgt. Waldo Hoople, burst from the store white-faced and weeping. Fellow police were unable to stop him from leaping into his cruiser. He sped away, lights flashing, siren screaming. Asked where he had gone, a patrolman said, “Where’d he go? Home, of course. He had to hug his rottweiler.”

Indeed, dog and cat lovers everywhere are holding their pets just a little closer in the aftermath of this unspeakable act of anti-animal animus. Commentators are comparing it to the 9/11 attacks and Hitler’s Final Solution. “Only worse,” said a tourist in Times Square, visiting from Wichita. “These little snuggle-pusses had no idea what was going on,” she said. “But the Jews saw Nazis all over the place. They had to figure their number was up.”

Within hours of the tragedy, which also claimed the lives of three Pet World employees, a bipartisan Congressional coalition had drafted bills to tighten background checks. Their proposals could also end the so-called gun-show loophole, massively increase the budget for mental health intervention, and ban blind people with seeing-eye dogs from carrying firearms.

The Pet World holocaust, during which furious police pumped more than 400 rounds into the lifeless body of Akhmed Bemish, drew no immediate comment from the NRA. But late today, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre warned against overreaction and leveled his fire at Bemish’s furry victims.

“Until we gain some control over the pets that infest and threaten our very way of life, incidents like this are inevitable,” said LaPierre. “These unhealthy creatures crap on our sidewalks and pee on our shoes. They bark all night, they shed all over the furniture, they track mud into the kitchen and they fill our lungs with cat dander. Hey, and don’t even get me started on fleas!”

Despite the NRA’s pleas for sanity, the entire nation is searching its conscience. Both ordinary people and experts on the psychology of extremist violence wonder how society could have sunk so low that it could cheapen the life of, for example, a four-week-old Pet World cocker spaniel named Poodgy, who sat helpless in a wire cage while a lunatic with a machine-gun ran amok. Poodgy perished in a hail of gunfire.

“Americans are among the most resilient folks on earth,” said Dr. Garrett Huxley, Chief Shrink at the world-renowned Bismarck Institute of Bad Behavior Studies. “We have an incredibly high tolerance for senseless violence.”

Huxley explained, “We can deal emotionally, say, with Elliot Rodger blasting four or five stuck-up sorority girls in Santa Barbara. In a way, we understand, because everyone’s been rejected by a member of the opposite sex. Likewise, we understand Jared Loughner going after Gabby Giffords because, really, who doesn’t despise politicians, especially Democrats? Likewise, we can easily see why a racist kid like Dylann Roof would shoot up a church full of black people, or why Omar Mateen would need to purge his latent homosexuality by gunning a bloody path through a gay nightclub. We can even feel a pang of sympathy for Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer. Sure, we all like kids, but have you ever seen one throw a tantrum at the shopping mall? You wanna strangle the rotten little moznik.”

But Dr. Huxley added that, even in America, where guns are the foremost icon of our historic victory over the redcoats, the Indians and the Clanton gang, there must be a limit. “Guns everywhere, for everyone, yes. Concealed and open carry, why not? Guns in schools, guns in bars, guns in crowded theaters, guns at Trump rallies, guns in the Mormon Tabernacle, assault weapons in nursery schools, okay, fine. But , but — ”

Here, the previously cool, collected psychologist welled with tears.

“But puppies? And kittens?! My God! The humanity!”

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#769)

The universal kitchen table
by David Benjamin

“Out of the kitchen, to stew is to fret, to worry, to agitate. In the kitchen, however, to stew is to have great expectations”
                                                — Molly O’Neill

PARIS — In another life, with another wife, my in-laws were Ralph and Edie, who lived above a store in Jamaica Plain, in a neighborhood — just up the street from the notorious Bromley-Heath housing project — that the Times nowadays would euphemize as “gritty, “ or maybe “sketchy.” You went to sleep there — if you kept a window open — to a concert of drunken outcry, breaking glass and the odd, distant gunshot (or backfire, cherry bomb, who knew?).

With four kids in various states of high-decibel metamorphosis and no time for housekeeping, Ralph and Edie’s place had the feel of a bivouac for transient combatants just behind the lines of an endless, low-scale war that no man, recalling the words of Tim Buckley, could find. Hanging out there took some getting used to, especially with the occasional roar that emanated from Louie’s room.

Louie was Edie’s dad, an ancient shut-in — scrawny, disheveled, hard-of-hearing and cantankerous, a fearsome figure who inspired no fear because Edie’s kids were tough as nails and ironic about Louie’s ravings. He was this family’s version of the crazy aunt in the attic.

At Ralph and Edie’s, one learned to tiptoe through the chaos, the inert bodies — kids, their friends, total strangers — strewn among the strewn shoes, unfolded laundry and empty containers — toward the kitchen, a brightly lit oasis where the grownups gathered, Ralph and Edie, Uncle Richie and Aunt Mary, Mrs. Cody from down the street, anyone else who happened by. This was a stationary but a moveable company. The kitchen was no more orderly than the rest of the second-floor sprawl, but its rude bounty was dependable. It was where troubles were aired, problems parsed, reality explained and sighed over, and a ray of hope — occasionally — shone briefly before fading into resignation. All this happened in an air of rough congeniality, thanks to Edie’s boundless love and Ralph’s air of priestly forgiveness.

The table was too big. It took up most of the kitchen. It was scratched, scarred and always a little greasy. When food appeared — this happened steadily without much regard to the concept of mealtime — things had to be moved among the table’s clutter — ketchup, mustard, mayo, bottles, books, toys and playing cards, dirty dishes, hats, gloves, pants, mail, the Globe, the Herald-American or the Phoenix — to make room for clean plates, cups and silverware. But room was made. And over victuals — Edie’s meat, potatoes and boiled-to-death vegetables or Ralph’s vast platter of chicken wings in sticky orange sauce — the world would circulate around the table, plucked, picked at, poked and examined in terms both simple and profound. Here was a kitchen table, a platform bounteous and boisterous, in the great tradition of the kitchen table.

I thought of Edie’s kitchen here last week. My latest wife, Hotlips, and I fled the Paris downpour into a favorite haunt, Le Roi du Pot Au Feu. Immediately, we understood that our reservation had been unnecessary. Here was not so much a restaurant as an oversized kitchen with a few partitions and better hygiene than Edie ever managed in her whole life. Here was a place that could be transplanted, lock, stockpot and wine barrel, to the semi-mean streets of Jamaica Plain. Our host was Ralphlike, easily warm but not effusive, quickly getting us off our feet and into a corner with a red checkered tablecloth and the wine already uncorked and waiting — which he poured almost as quickly as I looked at the bottle.

No wine list, no menu. Our host said, “Le pot au feu?” We said, “Bien sur,” and that was that. Quickly appeared a bowl of clear soup and soon after, the pot au feu, a boiled beef dinner piled with leeks, potatoes, carrots and turnips, accompanied by a chunk of shankbone, its marrow (os a moelle) intact. There is no three-dog-night meal in Paris homier than Le Roi’s beef stew. It provides comfort true to Ralph and Edie’s kitchen, complete with the gentle ministrations of a host who seems to have known us since we were kids off the street dragged upstairs by Patty, or Lisa or little Ralph. The kitchen-table feel of the joint only gets cozier as we listen to the staff arguing over our heads and a shifting cast of characters passes through, nudging us, ignoring us while glancing at us in casual measurement — as we do them.

And then Louie arrives — not the muppet grouch from upstairs in J.P. This grandfather, pronounced “Louie” but spelled “Louis,” is entirely French, quiet and decorous — only similar in age and frailty.

Our hostess has to help him to the table across from us. His skin is papery, his hair wispy. He sighs heavily as he sits, the exertion of his journey visible in the vein that throbs on his temple. He whispers his order, soup simply and os a moelle, three chunks of shankbone with hot marrow and toasted bread, a calorie explosion that poses no danger of adding an ounce to his scant and willowy frame.

He is dressed beautifully, in a dark suit of vintage provenance, immaculately laundered, freshly pressed and buttoned down. His tie is plain and dark against a white shirt, with cufflinks. He’s a Parisian of the old school. He has never worn this suit with a colored shirt — not even a subtle pinstripe — in his life. Nor will he ever. He has never set foot on the street with a scuffed shoe, or a naked breast-pocket.

We observe him askance, cautious not to intrude. We fall a little bit in love, because Louis carries us back to an elegant epoch when even a beef-stew dinner — in a menuless bistro with nameless wine and the din of curse and clatter from the plongeurs in the kitchen — required a suit-and-tie, an air of genial dignity and a handshake from an avuncular maitre d’ in a soiled apron.

Across the aisle from this stubbornly proper grand-père, we toast the wife whom he has unwillingly outlived and feel at home with him and with our host and hostess, the Ralph and Edie of rue Vignon. And we settle a little deeper into the kitchen table that makes the world go ‘round.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#768)

The Achilles’ kisser
of Donald Trump

by David Benjamin

“Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”
                                          — Donald Trump

PARIS — It’s a mystery — especially given the example he has established — why none of his opponents for the presidency of the United States have attacked presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump where he’s most vulnerable.

The guy looks awful. I mean, to use his word, horrible. Disgusting. Creepy, discolored and bloated. Normally, knocking a politician’s looks is taboo. But this year, as they say on “Law and Order,” Trump has “opened the door.”

We’re talking a huge door here, beginning with the guy’s mouth. I get the willies every time I watch Donald talking through a lipless orifice that looks like one of Mattel’s rejected prototypes for the plastic kisser on Malibu Barbie. “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah noticed that Trump’s signature moué looks more like an anus that a mouth. Cartoonist Tom Toles draws Trump’s mouth as a sort of octopus-sucker on a pedestal. It’s chillingly accurate.

But Trump’s mouth is just the tip of the blubberberg.

For any reasonably aggressive opponent, Donald’s soft underbelly is, well, his soft underbelly. The guy is fat. Donald talks about Rosie O’Donnell? He’s fatter.

I cannot begin to fathom why, at every opportunity, Trump’s adversaries don’t dwell on his hair, cantilevered front and back, dyed a shade of strawberry blonde unknown to nature and teased into a state of perpetual, giggling self-mockery. Every day, all day, Americans are gazing at the most ridiculous and unconvincing comb-over since Gene Keady retired as basketball coach at Purdue. Why is this not an issue?

Stated in terms as politically incorrect as the man deserves, Trump is bald. Bald! He’s a cueball with fringe.

Next, let’s talk fingers. When Kurt Anderson, in Spy, last century, summarized Donald as a “short-fingered vulgarian,” he triggered two decades of vengeful vituperation from Trump. Why? Because Anderson was right. Check out those little Trump stumps. He couldn’t cover an octave to save Atlantic City. Trump’s attenuated digits are pink, dainty and softer than a teddy’s tummy. More significantly, they’re the sort of feckless fingers that have never done an honest day’s work, turned a screw, cleaned a toilet or gripped an ax-handle. They’re the hands of a sissy, rendered all the more effeminate by Trump’s pathological germophobia. He says he loves, loves, loves ‘em, but he’d rather not touch the horny-pawed Caucasoids who fill his stadia, sucker-punch his protesters and swallow gleefully his vows of ethnic cleansing and autocracy.

Next: What is the man doing to his skin? It’s tinted (basted? spray-painted?) only slightly less orange than his hair. I keep wondering when one of those white-bordered green fruit molds is going to suddenly erupt, and spread, on one of Trump’s puffy little apricot cheeks.

Plus, he’s old! He’s the only politician in history who wears make-up when he’s NOT on television. Strip away the cosmetic surgery, wash off all the foundation and blusher, the chemical tan and a ton of talcum, plop a flowered hat on his chromium dome and he turn, for all appearances, into one of those demented grandmothers in the express checkout line at Waldbaum’s arguing unto death the price of a single beet.

How does he get away with this? If only his tastefully reluctant opponent set them loose, Hillary’s campaign attack dogs could revel in mocking that polyurethane face, his swollen figure and those frantic little doll-fingers.

Sure, Trump could retaliate, sniping at Hillary’s wrinkles, her unruly mane, her jowls and pantsuits? But he’d simply be conceding that she’s a 60-something lady who looks her age and doesn’t work that hard to hide it because — as she’ll mention — she’s got a white whale to harpoon.

Trump is the cliché of a guy fighting desperately against the ravages of time, and losing by three touchdowns. His media saturation has gotten people used to looking — without recoil — at the Dorian Gray of Mar-a-Lago. But if you encountered him for the first time, perhaps strolling with your little daughter on the sidewalks of New York, you’d wonder for a moment if one of Stephen King’s circus-clowns had risen from the sewer. You’d notice the vainglorious strut, the jut of his painted jaw, the lifeless smile, and you’d say, “Let’s cross the street, sweetie. I don’t like the looks of this guy.”

And then, of course, there’s his “equipment.”While Trump blithely implicates Hillary in her husband’s infidelities, he boasts about the breathtaking beauty of every willing broad he’s ever (prodigiously) boinked, in and out of various wedlocks. He’s begging a question that his every foe has, inexplicably, neglected to ask: “Girls, girls, girls! Why?”

Because he’s rich. Or says he is.

Picture Trump, instead, as a shnook from Jackson Heights who drives a cab, works the loading dock at Wal-Mart or maybe both. Would the working-class Donald draw even a glance from any of those models, showgirls, beauty queens and groupies that the tycoon Trump bribed into the backseat of his limo? Hah! If this guy even tried to say, “How ya doin’, doll?” to one of them, he’d be risking — like you, me, or any other penniless slob — a stiletto heel right through the eyehole.

Bernie, Hillary, Paul Ryan, all you folks: If you really want to hit Trump where it stings, where he’ll lose his cool and start flinging F-bombs on live TV, then just keep repeating the second opinion of the doctor in that famous joke:

“Okay. You’re ugly.”

To follow up, you could produce a poll (real or fake, — with Trump, it doesn’t matter) in which 65 percent of Americans, including 79 percent of women and 88 percent of the really hot-looking ones, agree with the punchline: “You’re ugly, Donald.”

Quick, sweetie. Let’s cross the street. And don’t stare.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#767)

“We could dump it… over the rail”
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — My kid brother, Bill, had no particular plans. His style was to go with the flow, roll with the punches. You could get into Bill’s face but you couldn’t get much lip. He’d find an angle of deflection. He’d step aside with all due dignity, draining your indignation, sapping your passion. You’d turn away smiling, or shaking your head.

For a while, he was a regular at the big motorcycle gathering in Sturgis, an outlaw festival of belligerence and bloody noses. He strolled through the mayhem untouched, unchallenged and apparently fearless. He wore, like a white-magic wizard, a shield of amiability, invisible but inevitably disarming.

Fight Bill? you’d ask. What’s the point?

Ironically, Bill was a “fighting man,” more than 25 years in the Army Reserve, a veteran of George H.W. Bush’s strange rescue of the princes of Kuwait, and a combat training officer of singular repute at Fort McCoy. His comrades at McCoy admired Bill’s air of command when teaching young troops how to conduct themselves in harm’s way, amidst flying bullets and exploding shells, and how — above all else — to emerge upright and unscathed. He was good at this, I think, because he wasn’t the “warrior” about whom the Army likes to boast. He was the non-fighting man who not only knows how to glide through a fight without damage and to achieve his objective with guile rather than brute force, but also — most important — to make sure none of his friends get hurt.

An easygoing demeanor and a quick sense of humor, tinged with the irony we learned from his dad, Big Bill, worked for Bill through school, despite the depredations of an older brother who was overbearing and sarcastic. It worked for him through the turmoil of a Sixties youth. It faltered in the collapse of his marriage and the alienation of a beautiful and purposeful daughter. But it restored him eventually. He found his metier,  as a quiet contrarian among the rank-and-file soldiers of American’s enormous military machine. He was a fly in that ocean of martial ointment, doing the backstroke while sympathetic noncoms silently cheered him toward the shore.

Bill’s secret was that he didn’t want to beat anyone, and this calm, enigmatic resolve discouraged most everyone from trying to beat Bill.

It even worked with Sonnet, his tough-love daughter, who came to see the saint beneath the tarnish. And his son, Brooks, who for so long fought Bill’s loving counsel helplessly, like a boxer slugging a waterfall.

But along the way, Bill picked up an enemy without empathy, which would not stint its steady rain of blows. It turned Bill’s easy nature into weakness and probed without rest for an opening Bill couldn’t close. Bill’s diabetes was a stealthy stalker closing ground on a victim who was loath to look back over his shoulder. Bill never saw an enemy he could take seriously, and so…

Nor could he take himself as seriously as he might. In a book about our early days, I wrote a scene — almost entirely true — in which Bill and I were stumped about how to dispose of a washtub containing fifty pounds of putrid gray water filled with dead tadpoles. It was Bill, in my recall, who looked at the railing of our rickety porch, mounted twenty feet above the Monowau Street sidewalk, and uttered an inspiration both brilliant and supremely mischievous.

“We could dump it,” he said. “Over the rail.”

And we did, spectacularly.

I wrote, “The water hit the sidewalk with a juicy, gratifying splat, and spewed itself halfway across Monowau. It spread swiftly, darkening the pavement and flooding the gutter. From above, we could spot countless little black lumps and specks, the dead tadpoles who hadn’t yet decayed into nebulous blots of scum. Looking down at what we had wrought, Bill and I felt like bombardiers on a Flying Fortress, gazing through the bombsight as the pattern of our explosions begins to mushroom from the roof of a German munitions factory.

“ ‘Holy shit,’ said Bill…”

My kid brother Bill was a hero in that scene. But Bill — the essential kid brother — never perceived any distinction or heroism in himself. He demurred and accommodated. He put things off. He didn’t have plans. He never gave himself credit for being as smart as me, or as competent as his sister Peg — who died also last month, just two weeks ahead of Bill.

Peg and I saw him more clearly. I saw that Bill, like his siblings, had little tolerance for the ignorant and dull. He surrounded himself with the smartest kids in our neighborhood and in his class — friends named Ehle and McKiernan, Gumtow and Pat Noles who barged through our door eager to match wits with Bill’s overbearing and sarcastic big brother. Bill was a musician of true potential but he deemed himself “just a drummer” and never explored the upper reaches of his talent. He found and dated and loved a girl named Debbie, the prettiest, smartest girl in school — who went on, of course, to grow and learn and succeed, pulling at Bill to come along and share it all.

We won’t know why he let go. We know he always loved her. We know that regret haunted him thereafter and reduced him in his own regard.

No one, really, could convince Bill that he was as strong and able, beloved and admired, as he was. Every aspect of himself that he judged as inadequate, ill-fitted or flawed, others saw as virtue and blessedness.

I fear that Bill saw his affliction as penance for sins long forgiven by everyone but Bill. I fear that Bill saw his diabetic stalker as just another drunken biker he could charm for just a moment ’til he could slip on by, leaving that erstwhile foe to wonder — too late to catch up — “Who was that nice guy?”

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#766)

A really great — incredible! —
foreign policy plan!!

by David Benjamin

“His first hundred days would be riveting.”
                                                 — Ari Fleischer

TRUMP HEADQUARTERS, NEVERNEVERLAND U.S.A. — Listen! The first thing we do — first thing! — we buy Mexico. The whole country. I mean, that’s how I do things. I make deals! I’m a dealmaker. And this deal? This would be a great — incredible, unbelievable, beautiful — deal. Really. Believe me. This will be great! The deal to end all deals. Until the next one, of course. Am I gonna be makin’ deals? I mean, really. Your head’s gonna be spinning — ‘cause that’s what I do. I deal!

So, we buy Mexico! This is brilliant. I’ll make ‘em a deal they can’t resist. I’ve done this so many times! They won’t know what hit ‘em. Hey, like the Jews say: “Such a deal!”  And then, we rent the whole place back to ‘em, Mexico! To the Mexicans — every house, every farm, every taco stand, the works. Everything! We’re the landlord. Believe me, I know how to be a landlord — a good landlord. I’m a great landlord! My tenants? They all love me! And I love them, and that’s how I’m gonna treat Mexico. They’re gonna love me! Ya know why? ‘Cause I’m gonna give ‘em jobs! Jobs — on the Wall. That’s right. Lookit this. Is this an incredible deal? We buy Mexico, lock, stock and tortillas, right? And then we get the money back from the Mexicans, in rent. And then we use the rent money to pay the Mexicans to build the Wall that keeps the Mexicans out of America. And here’s the beauty part! Listen! These dirt-poor Mexicans who all wanna sneak across the border? They’ll be makin’ seven, seven-and-a-half an hour — which is, like, a fortune in Mexico. They‘ll all be doin’ great. Rich! They won’t wanna come to America anymore. Besides, there’s gonna be the Wall. This great, big, beautiful Wall that nobody can climb over, because, I tell ta! What a Wall this is gonna be! Believe me! A Wall to end all walls!

But here’s the beauty part. Because we’ll only be paying the beaners seven, seven-and-a-half an hour and collecting rent on everything in Mexico, like the beaches and Puerto Vallarta and all those hotels in Cancun — I mean, the profit? It’s gonna be yooge. I mean, yooge! Trust me. I know these things. I been a landlord all my life. My father was a landlord. And what a great guy. Really! Every tenant loved him. They came to his funeral. Thousands. Millions of ‘em. Lines you couldn’t believe! And the crying? My God! They were mopping up the tears, really! Incredible. But look, I know. I know about rent. We take the profits. In six months, max — maybe less! Four, five months, we got enough, we can buy the rest of Central America — all those tiny little low-energy banana republics. We buy ‘em all! This’ll be easy. Nicaragua, Hondemala, Costa Mesa, Berlitz. And the others. And the best part? Panama! We buy Panama, canal and all. And if anybody — Russians, Chinese, the French, whoever? They wanna send a ship, two ships, a thousand ships, through the Panama Canal? Who they gonna call? They’re gonna call me! Us! America! And first thing we do? We double the price! ‘Cause, you know why? ‘Cause we own it! Is this beautiful?

And who’s gonna stop us? Nobody! Ya know why? ‘Cause the first thing I do, I’m gonna make sure I got the best navy, the biggest army, the toughest fighting force, the best bombs and cannons, battleships and fighter jets and missiles anybody ever had. Nobody’s gonna mess with me. I mean us. And if we say pay double, or triple, to go through the Panama Canal, they’re gonna pay! ‘Cause you know what we’re gonna do next, I mean even before we buy Colombia and Brazil and Argentina and maybe Germany — did ya know? My family’s German, originally. We were immigrants, too, but we came here legally. I love immigrants! And they love me! I get such hugs from immigrants! The legal ones. My wife is an immigrant. Didja know? Really! And she’s really hot! Take a look! My God, the tits on her! And my daughter? If she wasn’t my daughter, lemme tell ya! Hubba hubba! But I’m against people having sex with their kids, especially if they’re, like, under twelve tears old. But the older ones? If it’s consensual…

But listen! The Panama Canal? Gonna make us a fortune! I mean, money coming out of our ears! The national debt? Fifty trillion bucks? Gone! Just like that. Wham! Pow! Gonzo! With so much left over — hey! Tell ya what! We build another canal. I mean, look, the Panama Canal? Really? Have you seen it? It’s pathetic. How old is it? Lemme tell ya, if I had ships? I mean, these would big, big ships! I mean, yooge! You know me. I don’t do anything small! So they wouldn’t fit. My ships would not fit this crummy, pathetic, outdated Panama Canal. We need a new canal! And that’s what we’re gonna get! And you know what that’s gonna mean? Jobs! Jobs! Thousands of jobs. The blacks are gonna love me, ‘cause I’m gonna get ‘em out of their barbershops and their crackhouses and ghettos and I’m gonna give ‘em these great jobs, beautiful jobs! Down in Panama. Incredible jobs, with barracks and cafeterias and all the fried chicken they can eat! Digging the greatest canal you ever saw. A beautiful canal. A mile wide! And all these happy blacks making seven, seven-and-a-half an hour — I mean they’ll think they died and went to nigger heaven! All of ‘em digging and singing! “Oh when the saints go marchin’ in, Oh when the saints — ”

Listen, believe me, trust me, this is only the beginning — ‘cause you know how we can beat ISIS? I mean, this is so easy! I mean it. Listen to me. We buy them, too. The ISIS guys. Lock, stock and camels. I mean, they hate us, right? Why? ‘Cause we’re rich and they’re still livin’ in freakin’ tents. With camels! Really, that would piss me off, too. So, what we do — listen, this is so easy. I don’t know why nobody ever thought of this before. I mean, our politicians are so stupid. Stupid! Really. A total disaster. So, we bomb out an area — thousands of bombs — right there in ISIS territory, right? A few square miles. Bomb it to Kingdom Come. Maybe a nuke or two, but little ones, OK? Then we send in a few thousand troops to guard it and then — Pow! Alakazam! — a casino. As soon as it’s up, we say to ISIS, hey, boys, it’s yours, baby. Here’s the keys! You’re like the Mohegans in Connecticut or the Potowatchamacallits. You guys the Indians who run the casino. Just take the money and leave us alone. Believe me, this’ll work. Hey, look around! Are we afraid of the Indians anymore? No! Ya know why? We gave ‘em casinos.

Hey, listen! I gotta million ideas. Believe me, they’re all gonna work. My ideas? I got great ideas! Beautiful ideas. Big ones! Bigger than my you-know-what down there — which, trust me, is yooge! Lemme tell ya what were gonna do with Russia, and my buddy Putin. What a guy! Beautiful guy. Loves me, too! Listen…

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.