FEBRUARY Part 4
Flipping around the channels tonight I came across a magic show, filmed in Vegas. Magic acts irritate me. We all know that we’re being fooled. The magician does not have the power to pull broadswords out of his ear. The magician lacks the ability to conjure birds from thin air. He has all this stuff on him, somewhere. Right now, in a Vegas dressing room, a magician is stuffing three yards of knotted silk scarfs up his urethra. If he had true magical skills, he would not be performing at three in the afternoon for an elderly couple from Des Moines. He would visiting them at home and using his Mesmer Powers to make them sign over their annuities. So the question becomes: how did he make that leggy blonde disappear, and why would he want to? She wasn’t wearin’ any underwear! Bring her back!

The crowd’s applause is, essentially, an admission of ignorance: We’re clueless and impressionable. Hoorah for you and your skill at fooling people who have no idea what you're doing.

I mean, I was watching this act that had a woman climbing through her partner’s torso. Right through it. It was a great illusion, but I’m assuming it did not actually happen. No spouting gouts of blood, no intestines spilling onto the stage floor. So it was fake. Yawn. For me the illusion only takes on meaning when I know how it’s done. That’s what interests me.

In the old days of Vegas, of course, if something disappeared, it stayed disappeared. Or it turned up a month later in the desert.

Good weekend. Much food. Supper at the Atlas on Friday. Scalzi was in town, so I took him to the one joint in the city where I can pull the Cosmopolitan Sophisticate routine. No menus for us, waitperson; inform the chef that James is here, and he may cook what he pleases. Abaz made his usual Platter of Piscatory Ecstasy, and we were very, very, happy. Saturday we had a house guest: Twee, the Surgeon from Saigon we met in Arizona over Christmas. We were putting her up for a night before she went off to Mayo. Naturally, I took everyone to a Vietnamese restaurant in the Vietnamese / MidEast part of town.

Perfect multicultural Minneapolis moment:

While observing a black couple and a Hispanic man harvest a meal from the Chinese buffet table, the Vietnamese waiter entered the kitchen and shouted BA-DA-BING, BA-DA-BOOM.

The food was good, and Twee assured us it was authentic. Later we went to the video store to rent a movie, and if you ever think it’s hard to rent for yourself and your partner, add a Vietnamese national who doesn’t speak a lot of English into the mix. So “Trainspotting” is out.

Then again, why not? None of us will understand it. Only fair.

They ended up getting “Runaway Bride,” which I declined to watch, since I have no interest in those mechanical contraptions known as “romance” movies. Of course, I watched much trash this weekend, but that’s another Bleat.
Tonight I was looking for some scannable art in my collection of old magazines. I paged through a Ladies’ Home Journal from 1958. If the past is another country, then of course we’re all expatriates, but I feel a particular sense of kinship with the locals from that era. In the right mood, the most innocent slogan in these ads sounds salacious (“No huffin’ and puffin’ - just a wonderful muffin!”) and as it turns out, whenever I look through these old magazines I’m always in the right mood.

I found an article on the Bellevue All-Meat Diet. Really. The author claims to have lived for a year entirely on meat, from 1928 to 1929. (For perspective’s sake - since the magazine dates from Nov ‘58, this would be akin to someone explaining a diet they undertook in 1970. Which seems, while not right around the corner, down the hall.) The menu:
Breakfast: Fried Pork Chops. (For variety, they were broiled.) The author noted that “if we still hankered for more fat, we had bacon.”

Lunch: “same as breakfast, though sometimes a steak or chicken.”

Supper: “Usually a steak that had its own fat.”

For variety, they rotated a few treats into the routine: fried brains, broiled kidneys (“with their own kidney fat.” There’s something you just don’t see often enough nowadays: kidney fat.)

At the end of the year, they were all quite healthy. The author of the study goes on to describe the virtues of fat, its indispensable role in the modern diet.

“In 1954,” he writes, “I suffered a stroke.” You know why? Because he hadn’t been eating ENOUGH meat. So it was back to the diet of Meat!

Here’s the punchline: This doctor was an Arctic explorer, and patterned his all-meat, no vegetables diet after his observation of Eskimos.

Yes, give me a porterhouse, and make it Eskimo style!

The story that caught my eye, however, was at the back of the magazine. It was a head-shaking, hand-writing account of Modern Youth, who were clearly headed to hell at speeds far exceeding those of previous generations. And what imperiled Johnny and Jane in 1958?

Early Marriage!

Honest to God, this reads like parody, but I’m taking this straight from the story:

“We’ve had so many marriages this last year that I can’t even keep track of them,” said the gloomy high-school principal. “Students start going steady when they’rethirteen, and during high school most of the girls are wearing a boy’s ring on a necklace If they aren’t officially engaged by the end of their senior year, they think their life’s ruined.”

Let’s just read that last sentence again, savor it, and move on:

“There’s not much we can do about it - in this school we let them keep on and graduate if they’re married. We expel them if we learn they’re pregnant, but a lot manage to scrape through anyway before they begin showing. And these sack dresses make it difficult to tell, you know.”

That’s what bothered them in the year of my birth. Too much marriage.

02/22

It’s a Monday, a column night; another 12 minute Bleat before I return to the smoking, foundering wreck of this week’s Newhouse essay. Go:

Forty-plus degrees today, sun, and early spring in the air. There’s an aroma we forget in this part of the world - the scent of air that’s been pre-warmed for our convenience. Some mornings it’s warm, but the air still has the shocked frozen feel of a fish stick lost in the back of the deep-freeze for three months. This morning when I took Jasper for a walk the air was smooth and suave, confident, full of promise. It’s the smell of another green world, coming our way the day after the day after someday soon.

But you can still walk on the creek and not fall through.

Walked around downtown, as usual, and everywhere I heard the tap . . .tap . . .tap of melting ice. It’s as if someone scattered a million metronomes downtown, all set to a different rhythm but counting off the beats for the same melody. When I saw ice, I speared it with my heel, just for the joy of seeing it shatter. In the early spring we all turn on the ice like partisans going after collaborators. Meaning, we shave the ice and hang it by its ankles! Well, no. But we would if we could.

On my walk I saw a ridiculous argument between two motorists. One big stupid white slob in a JETS sweatshirt and one close-shorn black guy with gold wire-rims a brown turtleneck. I heard only two lines of the argument: YEAH WELL THEN YOU CALLED ME NIGGER, to which the other guy said I DID NOT CALL YOU THAT. And I thought: here you have the problem in a nutshell.
The white guy exhibited maximum dickheadedness throughout the event. He’d get back in his car, move ahead a yard, stop, get out, and go back to harangue the other driver. He made three trips back and forth, each accompanied by much gesticulation. Back in his big red sedan. Pull ahead. Pull over. Return. Shout. Back to car. I noticed that he had a passenger - a small person, child or wife. I wondered what they thought.

After a while the passenger door opened, and an elderly lady tottered out. She walked towards the front door of the building with a scowl on her face, and I thought: poor oldbird, having to sit through all that . . . but it was just as likely that she approved of her son’s behavior. You tell ‘em, boy. You tell ‘em.

Sigh.

Off to the record store to look for a Moby CD, then to the comics store to look for new Chris Ware or Jason Lutes; nix on all three counts. Back to the office, then back to home. There’s much more to it all than that, of course, but it’s a Monday night bleat, and time’s up. Back to work.

02/23

Fifty two perfect degrees today. Cruel; very cruel. It’ll be nice this week and nice the next, then the ragged blade of winter will scrape our necks in March, and we’ll squeal in shock and surprise. Winter behaves like the monster in a horror movie; it always comes back when you think it’s dead, and there’s always a sequel next year.

Speaking of which. I finally saw “Scream” the other night. Not # 3, not #2, but #1. I’d avoided it because it held no interest - slasher movies aren’t my favorite genre. In the 80s, however I had a brief phase as a horror-film aficionado; I thought “Nightmare on Elm Street” was scary enough to make me sit through all the sequels hoping to repeat the initial jolt. Ditto “Hellraiser,” which still ranks as one of the more . . . soiled experiences I’ve had. The first and second movies in the series made me want to stand under a shower of hot scouring sand for a month, and they probably cured me of the genre entirely. That, plus a girlfriend.

I never watched the Halloween or Friday 13th movies; they seemed like cheap silly nonsense. The speech in “Scream” about the rules of horror movies might have struck 1998 audiences as novel and insightful, but it was something apparent to us all back then: any teenager in a deserted, adult-free location who has sex will be hacked to red glistening teen tartare before the evening’s out. I had a girlfriend in the early 80s whose father enjoyed these movies; he thought they were a real hoot. He was a high school teacher. Maybe that was the target audience of the slasher films: bitter middle-aged men chortling mirthlessly at the sight of dismembered nubility.

One of the bonus features of the Maltese Falcon DVD was a compilation of Bogart’s trailers. Fascinating stuff - if only for the fonts. Man: I’d give anything for some of those fonts. But also notable for a horrible mid-40s misfire called “The Return of Dr. X” Return, revenge, I don’t know - Bogart played a mad doctor who injected young women with big needles, causing them to scream. Repeat for 87 minutes, kill someone, roll credits. Watching this trailer, I thought: did any good horror movies come out of the early 40s? Or the 40s at all?

Could anything on the screen be as scary as the things people feared in the early 40s? Never mind the spectre of Hitler overrunning Ohio; I don’t think people feared that. There were too many immediate things to fear. Can you scare people with lumbering Frankenstein or a moaning Mummy when all their menfolk have been conscripted and sent elsewhere to fight? I’m probably wrong, and I’ll have to check my references tonight after I’m online. But it seems to me that Universal horror in the 40s was down to crap like “Abbott and Costello and Hope and Crosby Meet Wolfman on the Road to Ma and Pa Kettle’s USO Barn Party with Mickey Rooney as Frankenshrimp! You’ll die laughing!”

Just went outside . . . it’s foggy. It’s dead midnight right now, and it’s almost humid. I took out the trash and didn’t wear a jacket. It’s tempting to think spring is just a few days away, but it’s not, and one had better not think such things. Otherwise you go mad. Otherwise you end up in the back yard waving a pistol at the tulip bulbs, demanding them come up. I know you’re down there! Come out with your leaves up!

But that is still two months away. Between now and then: snow and Mexico in varying amounts. Fine with me.

02/24

It rained today. When I left the house to take Jasper to the woods the rain was coming down hard and stern and steady, a spring rain with a job to do. Fog hung low at the end of the block, wrapping the woods in gray gauze. Give us two weeks of this stuff in May and we’ll all go nuts, but at February’s end, rain and fog are old friends we’re more than happy to welcome back. Tomorrow: thunder. Or so the rumors have it.

A fine day, if wet, and overcast. Went to work; wrote a review about a book with the interminable & pretentious title “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Death of the American Dream.” The “death” is ill-defined, but I gather that the authors believe suburbanites are ready to blow out their brains any moment now because their houses are too far apart, and there isn’t a Community Center within five minutes walking distance. As I probably noted before in a bleat, I agree with most of the anti-sprawl activists’ critique of suburbia, but I’ll be damned if I let these little hitlers set policy.

Finished up, went home. For some reason when I walked up to Lileks Manor it looked . . . scrubbed. Clean. Polished, blasted, unusually white, as if the day’s rain had removed grime I hadn’t even noticed. Made a fabulous supper of chicken tequila sausage and pasta; napped briefly, then woke to endure an interminable interview from some marketing company. The gentleman - who had a thick Hispanic accent, damn near Ricky Ricardoesque - read off a series of movies, and asked whether or not I thought they were available for rental. Of the 30 movies, perhaps two were out on tape. Then he read another list of movies, asking if I’d heard of them. Then another list - would I buy them as tapes? Then another list - had I seen the ads? Was I aware of a movie called “My Dog Skip?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Have you seen it?”
“No. But I read the book.”
There was no place for him to input that response.
On and on. Then, out of the blue:
“Do you think that Elian Gonzalez should be returned to his father in Cuba?”
“Excuse me?”
He repeated the question.
“What,” I said, “does that have to do with whether I’d rent Tarzan over the Inspector Gadget movie?”
“It’s part of the marketing survey,” he said.
“Decline to answer,” I snapped.
So I’ll go down as “no opinion,” probably.
I’m still wondering what the hell that was all about.

Found a cache of CDs I haven’t thought about in years - a few loss-leader compilations from Sire (the “Just Say Yes” collection, which surprisingly contains a crap-to-quality ratio of nearly 1-1), a Dire Straits album I’d forgotten about entirely (“On Every Street,” which has the faint aroma of a contractual obligation offering) and a dreadfully mastered CD from the dim era of my youth: Drastic Plastic, by Be Bop Deluxe. I worshipped this album in the spring of 78. I mean, this was gospel. This was The Future. I can still imagine sitting in the dorm room of Sanford, headphone clamped tight, wet towel sealing the crack ‘twixt door and floor, analyzing every note. (Not the lyrics - I never really thought anyone in my generation had any facility with the language until Costello.) Bill Nelson, who was the mastermind of the group, had an effortless style, endlessly melodic and confident; he also was fascinated by the Next Thing, so the music incorporates all the cutting-edge ideas of the day, tape loops, burbling moogs, etc. At least for the first three cuts - then we’re back to quasi-Bowie prog-rock from 75.

It was much easier in 1978 for something to sound modern. Believe me. When everything was happy-crappy pop, terminally stoned Californian poetry from the brigade of chicken-chested Sensitive Men, nervous angular neurotic proto-techno stood out -

Okay, enough of the Be-Bop; I forgot how quickly that album got tiresome. I just plugged in one of the compilation discs into the iMac. (And right there is something I couldn’t have done the year of the disc’s manufacture - shovel it into the slot of my writing machinery.) What a line-up, additional proof that the 80s had it all, thankyouverymuch: sulking wimp-rock from Morrissey (“I Will Never Marry.” No! What a surprise) followed by K D Lang, then Depeche (Route 66 remix), then The Wild Swans (If Big Country had been a gay band, they’d have been the Swans) then Erasure, then an anonymous cover of Tubular Bells, then Mighty Lemon Drops, then Irish machine-gun pop from A House . . . hit after hit, and you’ll not hear ONE of these songs on the compilations sold late at night on TV.

Which is why I don’t buy the compilations. When the announcer promises a constant stream of Number One Hits, I do not reach for the phone. Why bother? We’re doomed to hear the number one hits for the rest of our lives. Give me a 10 CD collection of tunes that never cracked the top twenty.

Or - better yet - give me a website where I can find them in MP3 format. All the old distribution models are dead or dying, and I couldn’t be happier. Long live Be Bop Deluxe; long live the marginal, the unpopular, the failed. If the web proves anything, it’s that the B sides will inherit the earth. At least for a weekend.

02/25

Tonight's soundtrack: "Ali Click" by Brian Eno, all eight versions. In the stack of old CDs I mentioned yesterday, I found this Eno remix CD, purchased at Tower Records at 2000 Penn. The album from which it came bored me slightly, but all the remix CDs are fabulous, and this one contains more concentrated grooviness than 99% of most remix discs. Eno: the secret ingredient that guarantees cross-eyed trance-happy goodness. And he's about sixty now. Thumbs up, lad. Thanks. Also found a remix Moby disc of "Go," aka the Twin Peaks theme, and I am reasonably sure I will have a splitting headache tomorrow: I have the volume turned up to 11, and I'm bobbing my head like an electrocuted Barney Fife.

It’s interesting to watch, and slightly horrifying, too. But I have to face it:

I am ready to move to the suburbs.

If, if, if, if. There are many, many ifs before I head out for the territories. I have no intention of ending up in a place where all the houses have gargantuan garages, ersatz historical details, and sit on a Luxembourg lot with three toothpick trees. No. But -

Tonight we looked at a house around the corner - an old house full of old character in an old neighborhood, with charming old details that said: old. And of course there were modern touches, too - a spiffy modern bathroom, an updated kitchen, big louvered windows. It looked right out at the park, right out at the fields and the woods. Lovely all around, except for a few details: the backyard was small enough to fit on my scanner; the upstairs had suffered a renovation that completely hosed the flow of the master bedroom, and everything else needed to be dewallpapered. The house was $460,000. And there were airplanes landing overhead.

Now . . . for $150,000 less, we could have a house that abuts a park, and woods, and lakes, and has twice the space. And no airplane noise. And we’d have a few dollars left over for incidentals, such as furniture.

But we’d lose our neighbors. This is the point that tears you this way and that. I like my neighbors and I’d miss them, and it seems cruel and disrespectful to ask if they’re worth staying for; of course they are. But it’s not as if the block has a progressive dinner every other night.

Well. We’ll see. I have this insistent desire to sit on the back porch and watch the shadows lengthen, watch the dog run and run and run, hear the geese land on the lake. In another era I would be applauded for this ambition. Nowadays, expressing that desire is akin to announcing I’ve a newfound desire to club baby seals.

Note: where I live now was, 90 years ago, the suburbs. It’s all relative.

Another warm day, with more fog than yesterday. The morning was foggy. The afternoon was dense, impenetrable. It’s foggy out there now. When I walked Jasper I just saw a tail at the end of the leash. Tomorrow comes an unseasonable treat, a meteorological anachronism: thunder. We’re promised a thunderstorm, in February, a trailer for the season that will open wide in May. I can’t wait, but there are so many interesting things en route this year - Mexico, perhaps a new house (wherever it might be) the book, the trip to the political conventions - it’s going to be good. And in the short term: thunder and the weekend. No complaints. None.

.