By Justin Lifflander
I enjoyed hosting Igor and Yevgeny during their first trip to the United States in the summer of 1991. But I couldn’t understand the topic of their debate during a visit to the Thomas A. Edison rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike.
“It was strawberry,” Yevgeny said.
“No, it was definitely cherry,” Igor countered.
I figured they had spotted the selection of ice-cream – a cornucopia of flavors compared to the Soviet offering of vanilla and vanilla.
“In any case, it certainly improved the smell,” Yevgeny said.
I realized as we exited the men’s room that they were discussing the scent of the urinal cakes – not a line item on any central production plan in the USSR.
Since that first visit of Russian friends to America I’ve had many occasions to reveal the subtle nuances of my motherland’s culture and daily life to foreign visitors. As a salesmen with a multi-national corporation in Moscow in the 90s, I organized “reference” visits for bankers, telecommunications executives and oilmen to our customers in Europe, the US and Canada. There were memorable professional discussions: the Canadians didn’t believe the Russians when they admitted they lost about 5% of their extracted crude oil between the wellhead and the depot; the Russians were similarly incredulous at the Canadian figure of 0.5%.
Shopping sprees provided some of the best adventures. During a transit stop in New York a delegation of oilmen from Siberia fulfilled the average weekly sales target at my hometown hardware store in one visit. For years afterwards the proprietor would ask when they were coming back.
Misha, a dual-livered giant from Nefteyugansk who headed that delegation, quietly made a personal request at the start of the trip.
“I need vibrator. Ten speeds,” said Misha unabashedly. I said that I had never heard of such a device but would do my best to help him in his quest. I naturally turned to Jamie, my childhood friend who knew Manhattan well. He accepted the mission and we found ourselves parked in a van at the edge of Times Square late one night, seven well-fed and well-watered oilmen happily chatting in the back, while Jamie and Misha headed off into the fleshpots to seek their quarry.
They returned shortly and Jamie reported: “They were fresh out of 10-speed dildos. There were vibrating eggs with that many settings but I was unable to explain to Misha how they work. Actually, I’m not quite sure myself” (he claimed). “The salesman offered two 5-speed dildos and a good discount. Misha is satisfied.”
My ability to impress my Russian friends with American gadgetry has dwindled over the years, thanks to their own ability to travel, local availability and a general waning of American charm worldwide.
Still, when visiting the US on my own I make a list of what surprises or impresses me so I can enlighten my friends when I next find myself at their kitchen tables. My news could be as simple as the man in the street’s opinion of a particular politician, an observation of a new product or service, or my amazement at the latest kinky perversion. I recall trying to explain phone sex, based on the example of “Dial 1-900 FAT GIRL, for the men who love them!”
Here are three key observations from my January visit:
1) The problem of teenage drinking in America.
More specifically, the problems teenagers have in acquiring things to drink. This topic is linked to greater matters, like intellectual property rights, the strength of the Yuan and law enforcement.
The manufacture of fake IDs has always been a topic close to my heart (see page 74 of How Not to Become a Spy). Highlights from my childhood include the precision etching that turned a 65 into a 63 on the old-style New York State driver’s licenses; removing the emblem from a CIA employment brochure to make an access badge for myself; and a series of fake college IDs made from the clipped logos of unsolicited recruiting brochures. Fortunately Beaver College only rebranded after I turned 21. Cutting and pasting skills mastered in 3rd grade art class were put to good use in a pioneering technique for laminating a piece of 8-track tape tp the back of these cards to simulate a magnetic stripe. But, as we say in Russian, “I might as well take a break” in the face of what modern competitors are offering.
An underage acquaintance, who shall remain nameless to protect him from the wrath of his parents, showed me what looked like a box of custom made chopsticks he had just received directly from China via Fedex. He gingerly lifted out the chopsticks to reveal two fake IDs (Wisconsin driver’s licenses) complete with photo hologram, signature and first rate laminating job. I presume the man in China supplying these has the presence of mind to send fake New York State driver’s licenses to his customers in Wisconsin. This would facilitate plausible deniability for beer vendors and increase the chances of deceiving the local cops.
The top vendor of these fake IDs is a company called DoFake. Its website warns buyers not to risk purchasing second-rate products in the US but instead avail themselves of this fine Chinese offer. According to his website Mr. DoFake has no qualms about counterfeiting:
“China does not have the same laws on counterfeiting, or copyrights, as you may very well know. Everything of value is counterfeited here!”
According to my source, despite the high quality work, police are rarely fooled. They confiscate the fakes but don’t often prosecute. Maybe they figure if a kid can afford a $100 fake ID he can afford a good lawyer too.
I mourn this as another example of technology’s destruction of basic human interaction skills. Our teenage “plan b)” was to linger outside the entrance of the local deli on a Friday night and wait for somebody’s older sibling to come by. A tax rate of 1:6 and a promise of anonymity were sufficient to convince a potential coconspirator to aid us.
But perhaps it’s just that the informal training has shifted from negotiation to theatrical skills. Imagine the acting effort required for a teenager to come up with an even semi-believable explanation to his parents as to why he needed to order a set of custom-made chopsticks from China.
2) A tale of cultural sensitivity and a momentary lack of vision.
The work of Gilbert and Sullivan is not unlike the political success of Donald Trump: some people love it while others can’t fathom it. I am of the former group. Every time I head west to an English speaking country I scan the virtual horizon for any chance to get my G&S fix. The best I could secure this last trip was an evening with the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players in Aventura, Florida to see their enjoyable road show called “I’ve Got a Little Twist.” It’s a delightful performance led by NYGASP director David Auxier. Snippets of original G&S pieces are performed in the original or with modernized lyrics, and mixed with Broadway and other popular tunes.
While doing my search I learned that the company had cancelled its planned winter performance of the Mikado under pressure from activists protesting racism, anti-Asian themes and costumes, as well as the fact that not one genuine Asian person is in the troupe. I reviewed the Mikado libretto and indeed it contains mockery of all races, including the white guys who write such things. After initial skepticism I searched my soul and found sympathy for the complaints.
"Why must we once again go through the panoply of politically correct racial discourse to explain why [INSERT OUTDATED ASIAN MUSICAL HERE] is offensive. Is incorrect. Is *racist*," lamented playwright Ming Peiffer.
Actress and blogger Erin Quill echoed accusations of racism: "People who do 'The Mikado' with exaggerated makeup, stereotyped gestures, and general disrespect to Japanese people are racist."
Others took umbrage with the make-up of the cast: "The galling part is the producer...thinks casting no Asians in it is also totally fine," wrote actor Greg Watanabe.
In the end, NYGASP cancelled the production. Executive director David Wannen announced, "NYGASP never intended to give offense and the company regrets the missed opportunity to responsively adapt…”
I finally concurred with their discontent when I remembered the reasons why I won’t reread Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and why I’m fine with the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings. There comes a time when glaring examples of bigotry have to be put on a shelf—where they should gather dust but continue to serve as reminders of less civilized times.
The questions arise: “Where do we draw the line? What are the boundaries? What’s next?” Having spent 30 years in a country not famous for its clarity on “the rules of the game” I am hyper-sensitive to their absence. The answer is a complex formula combining artistic value, historical significance, contemporary passions and, of course, the element of time.
NYGASP’s Mr. Wannen gives hope when he says there is a chance to “responsively adapt.” So here is a proposal for a Mikado rewrite that provides an exit to this paradox (something all G&S fans appreciate).
The original Mikado, set in the royal town of Titipu in ancient Japan, mocks the intrigues and romances of that proud imperial country’s ways (though one has to ask if it really was about Japan!). Lead characters include the Emperor Mikado, his son Nanki-Poo and Lord High executioner Ko Ko.
The new production, to be called Bravado, is set in the North Korean town of Shlong-yank. It stars the emperor Bravado and his son Nasty-Kim. For authenticity’s sake the role of the executioner will change several times in each act.
The songs of the current libretto are easily transformed:
“Three little maids from school are we”….becomes “Three scared officials who rule are we.”
“The flowers that bloom in the spring”…becomes “The missiles that boom when we sing.”
“A wandering minstrel I, a thing of shreds and patches”…. becomes “A potential defector I, the border often catches.”
“I’m the emperor of Japan…A more humane Mikado never did exist”…becomes “I’m an enemy of Japan…a more insane Bravado never did exist.”
..and so forth.
There is room for improvement on my meter but I leave that to the professionals. At the “Twist” performance in January I nearly wet my pants in awe at the Manhattan subway version of the Lord Chancellor’s solo from Iolanthe. Mr. Auxier, get to work! This is the adaptation Mikado fans await. But hurry! Iran and Cuba are edging their way off the s**t list. The next administration’s top foreign policy objective could be peace on the Korean peninsula— rendering Bravado a timely smash or another politically incorrect piece destined for the shelf.
3) Pampered Pets: moral progress on wheels and a canine debate format.
Gandhi said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I believe economic and infrastructure factors come into play as well. Having teed-off on some of India’s most decrepit golf courses I can assure you are there are no burgers at the halfway houses there. Moreover, cows wandering the links create a hazard that challenges even the most experienced players.
In a similar vein, Yevgeny and Igor were baffled and impressed on that first visit to America in 1991 by the concept of pet cemeteries. I had never thought about it, having grown up with a back yard. I postulated that the cemetery was especially appreciated by apartment-dwelling pet owners. As animal lovers, my visitors quickly accepted the concept and reported it back home as another sign of advanced American civilization.
On this recent visit to Florida I noted the prevalence and sheer size of pet supply stores. Perhaps there is a relationship between a large elderly population and the number of house pets. I thought nothing more of it until I strolled the central district of Boca Raton with friends Dan and Laura. I observed a large number of middle aged and elderly women pushing strollers. Pleased by the fertility and grandmotherly dedication I leaned down toward one baby carriage for a closer look, prepared to offer the obligatory “cootchy coo.” But from under the cover I was greeted by the ugliest baby I had ever seen. Well, nearly the ugliest. And it wasn’t a baby. It was a pooch. I recovered quickly and issued a “nice doggie” instead. I realized that nearly all of the strollers on this well-heeled strip were filled with quadrupeds. I noticed bowls of water placed at store entrances, should an impoverished or unloved creature be forced to approach under his own steam.
So it seems America progresses morally, although the current presidential campaign belies that idea. Voters would prefer to have the candidates stop treating them like morons — creating smoke and mirrors with their immigration walls, email scandals and finger waving revolutions.
Assuming we are not to be treated with respect anytime soon, I have two specific proposals to cut through the BS and facilitate the selection of the best person to lead the free world:
a) We need an infographic illustrating each leading candidate’s lifetime pet history: species, name, age at death, cause of death and candidate’s fondest recollections of the creature.
It will be like the ultimate Jack Welch interview question. Instead of “Why did you leave your last job?” we’ll have “How did you treat your last pet?” The revelations will astound, offend and entertain no less than any of the previous debates.
b) Then, to get to the heart of the matter, we leverage the animal kingdom in a new format of televised debate, based on the wisdom of past leaders.
Despite his brilliance, Winston Churchill’s selection of favorite animal is guaranteed to alienate Jewish and Moslem voters:
“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”
― Winston S. Churchill
But the approach of another great statesman is foolproof:
“If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.” — Woodrow Wilson
Using the Wilson method candidates will be publicly vetted as follows: There are no lecterns on the debate stage or panel-selected questions and timed answers. The set is in the format of a sitcom living room. On one end is an arm chair where the candidate is seated; on the other, a mock fireplace with a rug in front.
An apolitical representative from the ASPCA will parade five different dogs in front of the candidate, introducing each by name (i.e “Donald this is Fido; Fido please meet Donald”).
Fido and his fellow experts will have a brief but invasive opportunity to make eye contact and sniff the candidate in any crevices they choose before being led to a spot in front of the fireplace.
The candidate will have three minutes to summon the dogs by name. (If the candidate forgets the dogs’ names, he or she is disqualified from ever holding public office).
Whichever candidate attracts the most dogs in the shortest period of time wins the “debate.” The loser has to donate what’s left in his campaign war chest to the ASPCA before going home and examining his conscience.
But which dogs to select for this weighty task? Westminster winners of varied sizes, colors and sexes? Or unpretentious mutts, as true representatives of the American public?
Registered members of each party could vote in advance from a pool of canine candidates proposed by the general public via the Internet. Now that’s democracy in action.
Moscow, March 2016