Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#734)

God’s great afterthought
by David Benjamin

“...the unborn, though enclosed in the womb of his mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man's house is his most secure place of refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb…”
                                                          — John Calvin

It seems inevitable that sometime in the near future, a Republican presidential candidate will piously declare that every time a woman menstruates, flushing a womb that’s prepared and ripe for childbirth, she commits a little murder, ending a human life that should have been — if only she’d bothered to go out and get laid.

The logical extreme from this new wrinkle in conservative orthodoxy would be something like a tribal council of elders, possibly handpicked by Reince Priebus, Republican Chairman. Once a month, the GOP Fertility Board would be tasked to gather in a tent (or perhaps a Motel 6), while devout young women — each at the peak of ovulation — were lined up, stripped down, covered in pure white robes and sent in, one by one, to come to the aid of their Party.

This utopian fancy tickled me as I was reading Thomas B. Edsall’s recent essay in the Times about theological nuances on abortion among this year’s throng of Republican candidates. Among the 17 aspirants, Edsall noted that only one, George Pataki, supports the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in America 42 years ago. The others, including a childless woman who has practiced some form of contraception through all of her adolescent life and two marriages, agree that life begins at conception. A wavering minority among these foolish divines would allow an abortion in cases of incest, rape or to save Mom’s life.

In light of this unanimous absolutism — which isn’t shared by the American public — I couldn’t help but think of St. Augustine.

You see, women have been quietly aborting their unwanted feti since long before Augustine took up the topic in the 4th century. Aristotle, for example,  theorized 800 years before Augustine that a freshly fertilized embryo has a “vegetable soul.” In this formulation, we all start out as more of a soybean than a person. From that point on, it takes 40 days for a male fetus to be “ensouled” with human life. (Little girls, being inferior, need 90 days to grow a soul.)

Aristotle’s theory superseded Pythogoras’ earlier belief that a fully ensouled human life begins when the sperm cracks the egg. In early Christianity, the Aristotelian view took hold and dominated for centuries. According to St. Jerome, writing in the 4th century A.D., “The seed gradually takes shape in the uterus, and it [abortion] does not count as killing until the individual elements have acquired their external appearance and their limbs.”

Augustine added a fresh wrinkle to Aristotle and Jerome by discussing the phenomenon of “quickening, ” a concept that legal scholar William Blackstone defined like this: “Life… begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwise, killeth it in her womb; or if any one beat her, whereby the child dieth in her body, and she is delivered of a dead child; this, though not murder, was by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter.”

A long series of saints, popes and councils, from the Apostolic Constitutions of 380 A.D. to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, stuck with this definition, agreeing life that begins more or less in the second trimester of pregnancy. This friendly consensus began to wobble in 1588 when Pope Sixtus V officially revived the Pythagorean concept of ensoulment-at-conception.

Three years later, Pope Gregory XIV smelled trouble and went back to quickening. But things would never be quite as cut-and-dried around the Vatican. By the 19th century, Pythagoras and Sixtus were heroes again, their beliefs promoted by Pope Leo XIII. In 1886, Leo etched in granite the position that the Catholic Church — and now many conservative Protestant denominations — deem to be Gospel. Leo’s historic decree prohibited all procedures that directly kill a fetus, even to save the mother’s life. According to Leo — and ever since — a woman who had an abortion at any stage of pregnancy had to be booted from the Church and condemned for all eternity.

The cruelest irony of this rule is that if both the mother and fetus are certain to die unless a doctor performs an emergency abortion, that’s cool. It’s fine with the Church if little Freddy Fetus dies, as long as he doesn’t give his life to save Mom’s.

It’s also ironic, at least to me, that we have to refer to sources like St. Jerome, Pope Sixtus and hardass Leo XIII to trace the ethical history of abortion. As big a deal as it is today among churchmen and politicians, there’s no mention of abortion in the Jewish Bible, in either Testament or any translation of the Christian Bible, in the Jewish Mishnah or Talmud. In all his sermons and parables, Jesus didn’t mention abortion once, nor did his main apostle, Peter. Paul would seem a likely guy to bring it up, but he didn’t. And it doesn’t show up in the Koran, either.

Abortion is like God’s great afterthought.

If you dig into abortion history, as it swings back and forth between Aristotle and Augustine on one side, and Pythagoras and Tertullian on the other, you get tons of deliciously abstruse testimony — from Philo and Clement of Alexandria, Barnabas, Athenagoras, Saints Hippolytus and Basil the Great, Minicius Felix, Saints Ambrose and John Chrysostom, some outfit called the Didache, the Synods of Elvira and Ancyra, the Apostolic Constitutions, Popes Stephen V and Innocent III, Aquinas and Sixtus, Pope Gregory XIV, Hieronymus Florentinius, Pope Pius IX and even Bill Blackstone. These arbiters of uterine orthodoxy have one thing in common.

That’s right. They’re all guys — just like the right reverend candidates Bush, Carson, Christie, Cruz, Gilmore, Graham, Huckabee, Jindal, Kasich, Paul, Perry, Rubio, Santorum, Trump and Scooter. (Let’s give Carly a break and call her an Honorary Guy.)

From Pythagorean times ‘til around 1916, when Margaret Sanger started kicking the hornet’s nest, women pretty much weren’t allowed to utter a peep about what they should do about the unwelcome seeds that careless consorts and Roman rapists had planted in their bodies. It’s been, like, 2,600 years, and the all-male clergy are still arguing about how many zygotes can sing “Mammy” on the head of a pin.

Why not just shut up and let women decide for themselves?

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#733)

Internet zombies
by David Benjamin

“Yea, thou [sic] I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/ 95,000 Americans killed by illegal aliens since 9-11.”
                               — Americans for Legal Immigration PAC

MADISON, Wis. — Good old Homer has cut me off. This is a shame, because I like the guy. I met him at a book fair last spring, where Homer was both the master of ceremonies and the most gregarious of my fellow authors.

Then, he went home to Arizona and started sending me dispatches from the Right-Wing Chain-Letter Network (RWCLN), including one that seemed to promote White Supremacy. I gently chided him for cozying up to the skinhead crowd and he responded that his interest was without malice. He was simply quenching his historical hunger to set straight the misbegotten notion that the Civil War (er, the War of Northern Aggression) had something to do with slavery.

Slaves? What slaves?

Homer stayed in touch despite that little tiff. But since I criticized his sourcing on another popular RWCLN urban legend, I think I’ve lost him.

The item in question can be googled with the phrase, “If this doesn’t open your eyes, nothing will.” It laments the loss of California — referred to as a sort of 160,000-square-mile “insane asylum” — to a criminal enterprise that involves state bureaucrats and bleeding hearts, who are conspiring with millions of barbaric banditos (without papers) from south of the border down Mexico way.

By my count, this RWCLN warning about the Brown Peril appears on at least 28 websites. Its essence is a list of ten (why do these things always come in tens?) terrifying incontrovertible statistical facts — none of which is actually a fact, or even an educated guess. Two examples:

The RWCLN reports that 40 percent of all workers in Los Angeles County are working for cash while not paying taxes. “This is because they are predominantly illegal immigrants working without a green card.”

Although I hunted on all 28 sites, there’s no visible source for this extraordinary factoid. However, in a 2009 article in the Los Angeles Times, writer Hector Tobar traced this brazen fallacy to a study done by the Economic Roundtable four years before “which estimated that 15 percent of the [L.A.] county workforce was outside the regulated economy in 2004. Illegal immigrants getting paid in cash, it said, probably made up about 9 percent of the workforce.”

Another breathtaking stat in the RWCLN dispatch asserts that “Over 300,000 illegal aliens in Los Angeles County are living in garages.”

Holy tool-rack, Batman! Could this be true?

No. There’s no source to indicate that this gobsmacker is even vaguely accurate. Tobar traced this claim to a Times story on residential zoning  in 1987 — that’s 28 years ago! — about “unauthorized garage conversions.” The Times estimated that about 200,000 people were living in converted garages, but offered no insight on these garage-dwellers’ ethnicity. Tobar noted that “living in an ‘illegal garage’ doesn’t make you ‘an illegal.’ You might just be a starving artist, or a guy who recently lost his job.” (Or a future high-tech millionaire?)

In every case, the RWCLN’s distorted data are at least a decade old. Most trace back to the previous century.

The curious feature of this
superannuated Ten Worst list is that all of its nativist alarums have a single origin. On every post, this comic-villain myth comes with a devastating clincher that reads, “All 10 of the above are from the Los Angeles Times,” allegedly published in 2002. In other words, this stuff must be gospel because it comes straight from one of the pillars of the Establishment media.

Try to overlook the irony of the press-despising dittohead crowd using a “lamestream” bogeyman to validate its own neurosis. Instead, let’s take a look at the record, where three times — in February and November 2007, and again, with Tobar’s story on 7 September 2009 — the Los Angeles Times denied ever fomenting these spurious stats and debunked them one by one.

The RWCLN’s xenophobes — including, bless his heart, my friend Homer — pledged temporary allegiance to the otherwise satanic Times to demonstrate the legitimacy of their racist fables. But the Times, repeatedly, refused to pledge back. The fact-check website,, added its own rebuttal last year.

But never mind. The oldest posting I could find for Homer’s “open your eyes” list popped up on the Internet in July 2008. Every other posting — two dozen in all — appeared after the Times’ third effort to clear the record. The three most recent reincarnations of the phony list came out this week — at the Conservative News Forum, Tea Party Nation, and some gun-nut outfit called The FAL Files.

What we have here is another episode of “The Internet Walking Dead.” Lies, slanders and fantasies planted on the Worldwide Web live on, even after they’ve been apparently snuffed by fact-checkers and their misquoted sources. The Internet undead are immortal, because they have no head to blow off with a shotgun. A fresh lie, as it ages, becomes an Internet zombie. This monster slowly shuffles its spastic way into the deep, ignored back pages of Google until, one day, one of its words or phrases reappears in an entirely unrelated, completely innocent post about some other subject. (The RWCLN’s phony list is paired, for example, with Queen’s 1975 hit recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) Happenstance suddenly sweeps the beast back to Page One, googling it full of new life and giving comfort to the whackos, bigots and hysterics who first sank their fangs into its toxic bloodstream.

We’ll always have Internet zombies because we’ll always have guys like Homer, who are old, prosperous, comfortable, fortressed in white enclaves and yet — somehow — pathologically insecure, convinced that hordes of the impure, armed by the Pentagon, will roar into their cul de sacs in convoys of gun-mounted Humvees.

Friends like Homer never explain to me this irrational terror among people who can’t actually cite any personal harm from the Others whom they deplore. I can only suspect that the main wellspring of this gated-community senior-citizen prejudice is boredom.

Life is more of a thrill if you spice it with a frisson of fear, especially if what you’re afraid of is a many-headed, multicolored fairytale dragon who lives just on the other side of a wall atop which — every day — your undocumented handyman mortars another row of imaginary bricks.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#732)

Land of the aggrieved,
home of the whiny

By David Benjamin

“I am the most fabulous whiner. I do whine, because I want to win.”
                                                                      — Donald Trump

MADISON, Wis. — Excuse me for a moment while I compare Donald Trump, red-state narcissist, to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights martyr.

It all starts with Dr. King’s definition of victimhood. In word and deed, Dr. King crystallized the plight of America’s black minority as victims — of oppression, suppression, exclusion, vigilantism, terrorism and apartheid. He lamented that the pathology of victimhood had persisted as the black man’s burden ever since the first slave ship debarked from Africa.

Against this cruel history, Dr. King’s liberating message was, simply, “Enough.” He told black Americans that victims could fight back — without the violence that had been systematically exercised against them.

Dr. King stood his ground, folded his arms, and resisted without retaliation until the brutality of his foes made their bigotry untenable. He turned the historic victimization of the black community into a form of theater that played — dramatically and irresistibly — on the national stage.

It worked. Then it backfired.

After the civil rights movement achieved some of its goals, and ended for all practical purposes with Dr. King’s murder in 1968, a vast white reaction took Dr. King’s lessons to heart and donned the mantle of victimhood.

White folks — really, most Americans — have been pissing and moaning ever since. Victimhood has become the Great American Pose. We are a coast-to-coast huddled mass yearning to bellyache. Richard Nixon, our first victim-president, bitched constantly that the press hated him and the Jews were out to get him. America has marked a half-century of mounting selfishness with periodic festivals of victimhood. We lost a war to a bunch of pajama-clad guerrillas because the hippies protested, our politicians chickened out and our generals were pussies. We got blackmailed by a gang of Arab oil sheiks because Jimmy Carter gave us all a case of malaise.

By the end of the 1970’s, we were tying yellow ribbons around trees because we were held helplessly hostage by a handful of thugs in Iran — a tiny, weak country that we had ruthlessly dominated for 40 years. On September 11, when Al Qaeda murdered thousands of us, we were so accustomed to seeing ourselves as victims that even New Yorkers went soft. We spent a decade wallowing in self-pity while our leaders dicked around in the Middle East. When our victim-in-chief dressed up in a Tom Cruise Top Gun costume and styled himself a “war president,” nobody giggled. We shrugged in resignation when he let the bad guys sneak away, invaded the wrong country and created a whole new generation of victims, GIs and Marines who came home with absent limbs, shattered brains, crushed illusions or just plain dead.

The troops who made it back from the quagmire were survivors — victims. But we called them heroes, because what’s the difference anymore? It wasn’t their valor we valued. It was their pathos. They came home to the same neurosis and backbiting that typifies the 21st-century incarnation of the land of the aggrieved and the home of the whiny.

When a new tormenter, ISIS, beheaded a few Americans, our sense of victimhood blossomed and bled. While groping for someone — anyone, everyone! — to blame for these faraway atrocities, we joined together to sing the chorus composed by Paddy Chayevsky to assuage our national plurality of couch-bound malcontents: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m got going to take this any more.”

In the film Network, after millions march to their windows to spew this cry of invigorating defiance into the airshaft, they go back, sit down and watch TV — waiting for the tube to tell them what to shout next.

Today, the guy on TV telling angry white men what to holler is Donald Trump. In his sympathy for the voiceless, he vaguely resembles Dr. King. He speaks, after all, for the victims of a system that has marginalized them, stolen their opportunities and left them with little to do but wonder what the hell’s going on here. Stand behind me, Trump roars. I have purchased the great, vengeful power that none of you shlemiels can afford. I share your fury. I vow to victimize your victimizers.

But there is a difference. Dr. King, who must have been as mad as hell, never betrayed his anger. Dr. King not only had a voice. He had a plan — a dream, if you will. He said, I will spend my life working to set you free and make you equal. Dr. King’s victories validated his words. Today, we’re still not free and equal, but we’re closer to that dream, thanks to him.

If any plan can be discerned in Trump’s blitzkrieg of blather, it’s payback. Trump is, in his own formulation, the whiner in chief. He’s the voice of ten million  twitchy grumblers who harbor the heartfelt belief that they’re not to blame for all the screw-ups and miseries in their disappointing lives. He assures us that all this crap is somebody else’s fault. Maybe it’s Mexicans? Or the Kenyan usurper.

Consider this outburst: “I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad.”

The rhetoric is Trumpian, but it’s not Trump. Our orator is Howard Beale, Trump’s fictional forebear, a reality-show blowhard in a cynical movie, who had to be killed when his ratings crashed.

By and by, when his whining begins to grate, we’ll do the same to Donald. Figuratively, I presume. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#731)

Stop playing defense, Zorba.
Play the Game(s) your way!

by David Benjamin

TO: Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister, Hellenic Republic

Dear Prime Minister Tsipras:

Please accept my belated congratulations on your triumph last month in the Greek-bailout plebiscite. Although this was, in many respects, a Pyrrhic victory, it gave inspiration to debtors, underdogs and even chronic deadbeats everywhere.

As one of the millions who have, at some point in life, suffered from the tyranny of Organized Money, as one who feels a natural antipathy toward slick financiers and fat bankers in shiny suits who’ve never done an honest day’s work, I applaud your resistance to their sadistic hunger to punish your nation for the public profligacy that they — in their limousines and yachts, in their villas and penthouses — practice in private impunity.

You now represent the outcast and the downtrodden to a degree rarely seen in a national leader anywhere on earth.

However, as your ensuing clashes with Wolfgang and the Skinflints has demonstrated, one defiant referendum isn’t enough to restore Greece to its proper  status in the Western world. What else can you do to inspire the insulted and injured? How can Greece rise up to provide common folks everywhere a beacon of resistance, solidarity and common sense?

I propose a grand gesture that would be uniquely Greek. More important, this is a national project that would show the world a model of self-sustaining investment and economic creativity. I refer, of course, to the permanent revival of Greece’s greatest contribution to modern culture — the Olympic Games.

Yes, geriatric bribe-mongers on the International Olympic Committee already have an Olympics scheduled for next year in Rio de Janeiro. Screw it.

Literally. Hold your own Games, in Greece, before the “official” Olympics can get started. Invite the cast of that Olympics to blow off the old farts in the IOC and come to your Games.

You know this makes sense, Alexis. The regular Olympics have become a monstrosity of scale, commercialism, spectacle, corruption, drugs and ugly nationalism. The construction of the vast facilities necessary to a 21st-century Olympics requires a host nation to incur insupportable debts, to prostitute themselves to corporations, to invent ridiculous mascots, and to construct opulent athletic venues that might well be used once and mothballed forever after. Every Olympics destroys neighborhoods, uproots the host city’s most vulnerable citizens and wreaks social turmoil, while enriching the rich and powerful and glorifying the host nation’s creepiest, greediest and sleaziest politicians.

In one bold stroke, Greece can begin the dismantling of a bread-and-circus travesty that probably has Baron Coubertin spinning in his grave. All you need to do is stand on the steps of the Parthenon, surrounded by the media, and announce that, in June 2016, Athens will host the first quadrennial Real Olympic Games, in direct rivalry to the boondoggle in Brazil.

But how can you do this?

It’s easy, Alexis!

Your first principle must be that the Real Olympics welcomes only individual athletes competing in real sports with no national, political, regional, tribal, commercial or corporate affiliation. Every athlete in the Real Olympics — you will announce — will compete unattached.

Of course, because only individuals will be welcome, all team sports will be jettisoned. No rich, rude American basketball players, no temperamental Brazilian soccer stars, no boring team handball games, no preposterous water polo games where you can only see the rubber hats on the players’ heads.

Moreover, because of the naked nationalism that emerges at every Olympics among the judges of diving, gymnastics and trampoline, the Real Olympics would sponsor no sports that require judges. (And how the hell did jumping up and down on a trampoline become an Olympic sport?)

You would also want to eliminate the last blood sport allowed in the Olympics (boxing), several sports whose various world championship competitions overshadow their Olympic versions (bicycle racing, golf and tennis), sports that require an animal (jumping over rosebushes on horses), any sport that requires makeup and sequins, and a few sports that are just too dull to watch (taekwando, judo, shooting).

This would leave the Real Olympics with about a dozen real sports that hearken all the way back to the height of Hellenic athletics — running, swimming, wrestling, discus-flinging, archery, weightlifting, pole-vaulting, steeplechasing. decathloning and septathloning, sailing and rowing, with a few badminton and table tennis matches thrown in. You could even add a few neglected but popular sports like bowling, horseshoes, squash, Bronx-style handball and Greek-style bocce.

Everything would fit into gyms, tracks, stadia, parks and pools that already exist in Athens. With this limited, but entertaining menu — every event decided by the athletes themselves — you could run off the whole Real Olympics in one exhilarating week (while selling two-week Greek-tourism packages to the fans).

And the best part. After every victory, as the gold medal (perhaps bearing the image of Pheidippedes, the Greek hero who ran himself to death delivering news of the Battle of Marathon) is bestowed, there would be one flag ascending toward the sky — the flag of Greece.

And no national anthems. Ideally, each victorious athlete could select his own theme music to accompany the flag-raising. (Personally, I’d either go for Thelonious Monk’s ironic version of “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You,” or George Thorogood and the Destroyers singing “Get A Haircut” so loud that, by the time the flag hit the top of the pole, everybody in the stadium would be clapping hands, dancing in the aisles and wailing out the chorus.)

Honest to Zeus, Alexis, you could turn the Real Olympics into the best show since Woodstock. I bet you could get Springsteen to play the opening ceremony!

As for sponsors, you could sign them up and paint their names on the fences, but they wouldn’t be allowed to touch the athletes. No teams. No nations. No flags. No logos. No shoe contracts. If a high-jumper or breaststroker wanted to compete in the name of his hometown back in Kansas or Austria, or some worthy outfit like UNICEF or the Southern Poverty Law Center, great. But Coca-Cola, Exxon-Mobil, Google and Samsung would be no more welcome than poor old Sam Mussabini was in Chariots of Fire.

Would athletes sign up? Ask yourself this: If you were one of the greatest fencers in history with only one chance at the spotlight every four years, wouldn’t it be nice — just once — not to be shoved off prime-time TV by a bunch of pre-pubescent pixies in sparkly leotards doing the splits on a two-by-four?

Yes, Alexis. If you build it, ESPN will come.

And just imagine how this is gonna piss off Angela Merkel.


Friday, July 31, 2015

The Weekly Screed (#730)

Good fences?
By David Benjamin

“Something there is that doesn't love a wall…”
                                                   — Robert Frost

MADISON, Wis. — The only fence I ever loved was here in Madison, erected around an immense construction site for what became the Elvehjem Art Center. Known modestly as the University Avenue fence, it became a magnet for art students, frustrated poets, revolutionaries and disgruntled English majors. One undergrad spent several gallons of paint to compose a list of at least 100 pet peeves, starting — brilliantly, I thought — with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole.

My favorite fence artist was the anonymous illustrator who painted an enormous image of the Buddhist deity, spectacularly fat and nude but for a loincloth, his face conveying an attitude of pleasurable mischief. The demigod’s blubbery hams and epic thighs sprawled horizontally across twenty feet of fenceboard. Squished beneath this Hotei (his Japanese name) were countless tiny people, flattened, subsumed, suffocating and struggling pathetically to escape. The artist had titled this subtle masterpiece, “Buddha Will Crush You.” To this day, I scold myself for not taking a photo of the great Elvehjem Buddha.

The University Avenue fence appeared when I was in high school, before the word “graffiti” became part of the vernacular. But the fence was a mecca for graffiti. Four city blocks around, it cried out with caricatures and comic strips, messages, love sonnets, hateful haikus, feuilletons and fearful words. I went downtown every week to see what had been painted over and to discover what fresh outrages the restive student body of the University of Wisconsin had splashed and scrawled. Of course, nobody ever encroached on Hotei’s space. He was sacred.

The guy who got me thinking about fences lately was Donald Trump, when he vowed to build a Mexican border wall — “the biggest, the strongest, not penetrable, they won’t be crawling over it.” If I dared to hope that eager throngs of ironic muralists would flock to the border to cover Trump’s foolish fence — over and over — with wit and inspiration, I’d be tempted to contribute to the project.

But if it ever got built, Trump’s wall would repel only the human imagination. Timid tyrants since Hadrian have been putting up fences that looked formidable but turned out easy to either circumvent or clamber over. Besides, usually there were “friends” already inside the fence more sinister than the enemy beyond. While the Ming emperor lined the Great Wall with soldiers to stall the Manchu barbarians, Li Zicheng’s rebel conspiracy in Peking was bringing down the dynasty.

The Bastille, whose walls symbolized French tyranny more palpably than any other edifice, was demolished by hand. Afterward, it literally disappeared.

The Berlin Wall’s main accomplishment was to epitomize the terror and misery of the people stuck behind it. When he urged Soviet premier Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” President Ronald Reagan intimated a possible end to the love affair between our own tribal patriots and their fences.

It was but a respite. After the Gipper retired, his disciples went right back to the hardware store for more barbed wire. Fence-lovers have erected a ludicrous patchwork of barricades along the Rio Grande. If he could work his will, President Trump would expand this mess into “a wall like nobody can build a wall…”

Meanwhile, Hungary’s reaction to refugees from all the strife-torn countries eastward and southward is a wall against Serbia. Tunisia wants a fence to foil terrorists from Libya. Israel is two-thirds finished with a breastworks of concrete, steel, concertina wire and a 60-meter “exclusion area” (in Berlin, this was called “the death strip”) to encircle the Palestinians of the West Bank.

Predictably, that project has bogged down. The explanations are numerous, but the unspoken intuition is that the bigger the wall, the less it can contain.

The vast canvas along University Avenue was a “good fence,” because it didn’t really keep anything in, or anybody out. The crumbling stone wall in Robert Frost’s poem — separating the neighbor’s pines from Frost’s apple trees — was equally useless and, hence, as good a fence as a fence can be. That thing on the West Bank, on the other hand, is a piss-poor fence indeed.

Right-wing Israelis and pent-up Palestinians are not the sort of neighbors who’ll walk the fenceline on a day in spring, studying how thaws and winds, scuttling squirrels and climbing kids have displaced stones and widened breaches. Nor are Hungarians and Serbs likely to peer across their border through a damaged stretch of razor wire and playfully suggest that the mischief was done by elves.

Frost was coy when he suggested no culprit in the gradual dismantling of our man-piled barriers. He knew who that “something” is that doesn’t love a wall. Those who build fences do so despite knowing that no fence is perfect, nor will it ever be — especially if it’s meant to isolate one half of humankind from another half. A really big fence — like Trump’s hypothetical colossus out by Laredo — is therapy for the fearful, the small-minded, the ignorant. Something there is in a wall that thrills the reactionary mind.

There is a healthy human instinct to look at a serious fence the way we look at crosswords and murder mysteries. The fence is a conundrum that tests our wits, summons our ingenuity and demands ¬— no matter how difficult — a solution. It’s a black line drawn by hand that arbitrarily divides an empty expanse in two, making another hand itch for an eraser.

Most of us, all our lives, have never built a fence or raised a wall. But we’ve peeked through, climbed over, circled around, pushed down, crawled under and — best of all — painted, on more fences than we could ever count.

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.