Creek, Sunday Nov. 12
week three

Some years winter just feels like an old wet dog, following you home with no enthusiasm, no malevolence. You just look like someone to follow.

Tonight Jasper and I took a walk in the snow, and were followed by an old, wet dog. He was sitting on a porch; he watched us pass. Then he decided to follow. I heard his toenails on the concrete walk: click click click click, a comfortable gait, a sound familiar to all dog owners & the urban equivalent of a horse’s hooves clopping on . . . well, the pavement, so it would be the urban equivalent of something urban.

Man. I’m tired. Baby no sleep parents no sleep baby no go in crib. Long, common story.


Some years it seems as if winter has to work up its courage. Some years it just arrives, complete, like a catered banquet with one dish: snow. (Served cold.) This year it’s timid - we were supposed to get four inches last night, but we got only rain. Tonight I walked Jasper to the video store, and noted that the drizzle had turned to big soft flakes - but they died before they touched the ground. We’re supposed to get another four inches tonight. If I wake tomorrow to a white blank world, that’ll be fine. If not, that’ll be no surprise. It’ll all get here eventually. Everyone knows this winter will be, as the ancient sages and almanacs put it in the days of Ben Franklin, “ye muthafuggah.”

Note: “fug,” as a euphemism for “farg,” was pioneered by Norman Mailer, I believe. His post-war novels had guys who couldn’t fuggin’ believe it. They couldn’t print the real word, because people would be outraged. I find this astonishing. The men he was writing about had just come back from a global meatgrinder; they’d seen their best friends get their heads sheared off their necks. But the culture that could accept this as a necessary business couldn’t print bad words, because people’s sense of decency would be offended.

Probably a good idea. After the experience of the war, it was probably better to pretend for a while. To believe in civilization as desperately & fervently as you could.

Where was I? Right: not asleep. At the video store I saw a DVD I just have to own: a double feature of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “Fantastic Voyage.” I want it for the latter movie. A groundbreaking movie of my youth. There’s a certain age of boyhood when something can be amazingly cool and exciting and scare the krep out of you in a way that makes you feel like you’re three years old, because it contains terrors you can’t quite explain. I was ten when I saw it, which meant I was immune to the movie’s main attraction: Raquel Welch in a skin-tight white scuba outfit. No, I saw it purely in the terms that ruled my life: Science! and Adventure! Saw it with my friend Peter, who was my comrade in Science! and was smarter than I was. Odd: while I knew he was smarter, there was something lonely about his brand of brilliance. It was an arrow pointing to a world of Few Girls, If Any, and while that wasn’t crucial at the time, I had the sense it would be crucial later on.

Naturally, he got married ten years before I did.

We saw the movie at the Fargo Theater; my Mom dropped us off. You could do that then: drop off two ten-year olds downtown for a Saturday afternoon movie. I’m sure we got great greasy bags of popcorn from the stand outside the theater - there was a fellow who had a tiny popcorn stand, and he made without question the finest popcorn in the world. The theater let you bring it in, too.

We sat in the balcony. I remember drinking it in, just lost in this spectacle that was SO COOL and wondering if I’d be able to get a Revell model -

- and then that horrible ending, with Donald Pleasance crushed to death by white blood cells -

That figured in my waking nightmares for a few months.

So tonight when I upload this, I’ll order it from Amazon. I’ll laugh at the special effects, no doubt, but I have to own it; have to see it again.

This weekend we went to a christening for the son of our friends Stacey and Andrij, The Formerly Crazy Uke. It was an Orthodox ceremony presided over by the Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in America. A very big deal. The rituals of the Orthodox faith make every tradition of my upbringing look modern and sloppy, like someone making up lyrics while banging on a ukelele. The chanting, the singing, the walks around the altar, the mysteries of the big altar behind the screen where the Most Holy Icons are kept, the flat gilded Byzantine faces looking down with infinite sadness, the smell of wax (if we finally meet God and his breath smells like wax, lots of people wouldn’t be surprised at all) - it all feels ancient and humbling to me, like a hand on the forehead that keeps you in place when you kneel and resists for just a second when you wish to stand . . . but only for a second. Maybe two.

I know one Ukrainian song; it has but one word. It gets tricky towards the end, but I’m confident enough now to belt it out with the expected gusto.

Many years! is the general theme. Many years. We sang the song and the ceremony ended. Pictures; pictures; videos; pictures. At the end the Metropolitan came up to the Giant Swede; the Metropolitan had obviously been told that the GS worked for Northwest Airlines. The Metropolitan absolutely had to catch a flight that night; would there be trouble if it snowed as much as they said it would snow?

Trust in God, as the proverb says, but de-ice your wings.

Signs of age, perhaps: I joined AAA. Usually a fellow does this when he gets a family, since you start imagining your brood marooned on a dark country road in Manson County, with two-toothed banjo players descending silently from the trees to rape & roast your beloveds. Somehow, you think, AAA won’t let that happen. One phone call, and they’ll dispatch a helicopter full of Mossad-trained operatives.

AAA, AA, then AARP. It would be more apt if the organizations that appealed to your demographic began with the letter of the alphabet that corresponded to your age. I’m in the Elamenopea phase of my life right now, so I should have a wallet full of cards from organizations that begin with M. Or N. Or O.

Or L!

It’s Monday; it snowed, then the snow sank away abashed when the rain returned. I woke feeling fine today - yes, I woke on the sofa, and once more I’d kicked off the cover, but I felt as if I’d had actual REM sleep. That makes all the difference. Fewer hallucinations in the course of a day. I like that. Oh, they’re amusing at first, but after a while you just don’t know what to believe anymore. You learn to disbelieve the owls coming out of other people’s heads, but other things are a judgment call. In the store today, for example, I weighed some yellow peppers: $5.97 for two of them. Two! Why, that’s almost three dollars each. They’re more expensive than cigarettes.

Or are they? I couldn’t say. And that pleased me: you know you’ve quit smoking when you don’t know what they cost anymore.

Anyway. I bought the peppers, because I want to provide my wife with a Happy Festive Meal tomorrow. I do the cooking and shopping, poor dear, and I plan the menus according to ease and quickness of preparation. It all boils down to Tacos, Burgers, Spaghetti or Chicken & Starch, but the trick is disguising the standards with a jazzy new arrangement. No Turkey Tacos this week: It’s shredded chicken in a special cooking salsa on a corn tortilla with Black Bean garnish and Bright, Expensive Sliced Peppers surrounding the dish.

In other words: Tacos. But it won’t seem like tacos, and that’s the trick. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of marinades, too - stick a leathery piece of meat into a bowl, dump on some marinade, leave it in the fridge overnight and it seems as if I’m cooking while doing nothing at all. If you give off an impression of planning meals ahead of time, it somehow makes them more savory.

It’s a column night, so I’m off to work. Might even get to some mail tonight, although I doubt it; I fear another mass-mailing apology is imminent. I hope people understand. My job is writing. My hobby is writing. Sometimes after I’ve finished my job and my hobby I just don’t feel like writing anymore.

Hence the appearance of Ostentasia, the Shamefully Large TV. I feel guilty for watching TV when I have, literally, 741 unanswered letters in my box. But there’s nothing more depressing than looking at the clock, realizing it’s 1:30, and I have to go downstairs and sleep on the sofa so I don’t wake Gnat. I need at least an hour a day during which nothing is required except eyeballs and eardrums. But I have to earn it. So off to work I go, again.
Burned out. Empty tank. Not a jot of juice left; fumes only.

Although that’s not why there’s no Backfence today. I was staring at the screen all day, brain just a loud droning dial tone, waiting for the usual instincts to kick in and produce a column. Eventually, they did. Eventually, I wrote, and wrote and wrote in a fast hot blur all the things I wanted to say, and yea, it didn’t stink. Wasn’t half bad. I saved it -

The network thought about it for a minute, which is never a good sign.

I called the piece up again. Everything I’d written was gone. There was just a crater where the good stuff had been. It was five o’clock, and I was about as dispirited at the job as I’ve been this year. Metro actually needed extra space today, so I was happy to oblige. I went home.

You know, I probably have about two months of vacation accumulated; I ought to take a day or two.

Tonight I spent upgrading the Art Frahm site, which is going to be the subject - along with the rest of the site - of an AdWeek article sometime soon. Three hours of rescanning, retweaking, rewriting, redrawing and writing new material. End result: fabulousness. But I’m drained, spent, and now I have to take out all the recycling. There are two nights a month I regret that I like beer and newspapers.

This is one of them.

Anyway: the Frahm site is done, aside from the FAQ section. It has seven addition pieces of art, and it’s been completely redone. Warning: this is what the 6.0 version of this site will be like: larger file sizes. Bigger pictures. I did the original site for 640X480 2400 kps; times have changed. Now each picture is between 80K - 100K. It’s worth it. Frahm was unique among the cheesecake artists: relentlessly competent and unvaryingly obsessed.

With one exception. As you’ll see.
Quiz Bowl night at the Irish Pub again. Big crowd - 20 teams of four or more. (Except for us: a mere three against the world.) Somewhat easier this time, or perhaps we were felt smarter. I didn’t feel as if I had to race home like last time, when I couldn’t get my wife on the phone was convinced that the house had burned down, or filled with gas, or both. Well, no, then it would have exploded. If had filled with gas first. Which it didn’t.

This time there was a genuine drunk - shocking, I know, for a bar, let alone an Irish one, but this fellow was a classic beer lush; he looked like a mascot for Duff beer, if you peeled the skin off. Squat, round as a big beach ball, little black bristly moustache, tiny bright eyes. Drank Bud. Constantly. Heckled the MC; made ear-piercing whistles for no particular reason, made stupid remarks to the big-haired hags at his table who - needless to say - greeted every remark with Phyllis-Diller cackles. Then he passed out. Put his hand over his face, leaned his head forward as though praying, and boom: out.

Made one want to play mischief. Someone gets on the floor with a faceful of ketchup; you put a gun in the drunk’s hand. Then everyone screams until he wakes - then everyone falls silent.

Anyway, it was fun. Drove home with great care - tonight was the first real snowfall, inasmuch we know this one is going to stay. Lovely downtown tonight - all the buildings glowing in the distance, snow swirling under the streetlamps, cars making that characteristic schisssss as they skid, helpless, through the intersection. Took the highway home at 45 MPH and was passed, naturally, by a dozen idiots in cars that weighed slightly more than a half-full juice box. Got home; put daughter to bed with her new lullaby tape. It’s by someone who was famous 20 years ago. This is where all old rock & rollers end up: either as children’s artists, or as miniature train conductors on Thomas the Tank Engine.

Bought a TiVo today. Can’t use it, of course, since I don’t have a satellite dish service yet. (Actually, bought the combo TiVo Direct TV unit - one less box.) I also bought the dish. As commonplace as this technology is, I like the fact that I have a satellite dish of my very own. When I was a kid, I never thought I’d have one. Oh, I dreamed of it - when I grown up I want a satellite and a laser! - but I never thought that actually attaining these objects would be feel so ordinary. I mean, I have five, six lasers. Big deal. In fact, today I was toting up the Amazing Advances in my lifetime, and how none of them really are new. I have a cellphone - but I’ve always had a phone. I have Walkmans - but I’ve always had a stereo; now I just have one that moves around with me. I have a computer - but we always had a typewriter. I have this wonderful TV setup - but we always had TV.

My life, drat the luck, is nothing but incremental improvements - and all these little modifications are so twitchy and unstable I have to buy service contracts for the day when they blow up.

On the other hand - I always wanted a communicator, like in Star Trek - and now I have my cellphone! Close enough. I always wanted my own Univac, or Computational Array, or Landru 9000 - well, I have computers aplenty. I have a TV that makes the old Zenith look like an Etch-A-Sketch pad, really.

But do any of these things make me happy?

What, are you nuts? Of course they make me happy.

Lots of things made me happy today. Buying the machinery wasn’t one of them; that’s just a transaction.

Being on the team that beat 19 other teams and won the Quiz Bowl - that made me happy. The Guiness did its part, too.

American tableau, part one: I was walking to work from my car. There were hundreds of teens downtown for some function; don’t know what. Four of them, dressed in the Ignorant Thug style that finally reached the corners of small-town America, approached a Parking Meter Attendant. Mind you, we’re at the edge of downtown, five blocks from a dense core of gigantic office towers.

“Hey,” says the lead teen to the civil servant. “D’you know where there’s a McDonald’s?”

My first big city was Chicago. Went from Fargo to Chicago. No training-wheel cities in between: small to large. Even then I was able to figure out that the dense, built-up core of a major American city had a passing chance of holding a few fast-food restaurants somewhere.

The Meter Man looked at them and said “I don’t eat fast food.”

I thought of helping, but no: let them learn. Show a man where McDonald’s is, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to find it himself, and you feed him tallow & meaty-beef beefmeat for a lifetime. Probably a shorter one.

Tableau two: At the grocery store. In a rank mood for this and that reason, mostly to do with current affairs. A cashier was taking customers - but his light was off! This threw everything into doubt! It cast into doubt the entire paradigm of grocery-store checkout signage & semiotics! Two teens behind me, trying to puzzle out the details of the coupon. He had a big bag of Doritos ($2.29) and a small bag of Funyums. (.69)

“It says two bags for the price of one,” he said.

“But that’s only if you get the same bag,” she said.

He looked at the two pouches of salty fan, briefly channeled the spirit of Nigel Tufnel.“They’re both bags,” he said.

“Why would you get two bags for the price of one if the second bag is so small?” she said.

He blushed, furiously. She had him there.

Went home, whipped up a fine dinner for my family, sat Gnat while Sara tromped out in the snow with Jasper; played rope, then sat down to the evening’s work. I’m recording & MP3ing all my compositions as lullaby songs - just slow them down, add strings with slow attack, and bingo: lullabies. Then I edited some video from the baptism - and that presented a small problem.

Looking for music to use in the baptism movie. Sorting through my Mahler collection, realizing with no small amusement that when I was an Impressionable Teen, I was convinced that Mahler was the soundtrack to my own Tragic & Noble Life, but now I want anything but a Mahler score. I want peppy big-bands and frisky disco and purposeful Industrial and Techno music, each doing their best to poke away the looming shadows that fill the corners of a Mahler score.

Right now, for example, I’m listening to the Adagio from the 10th, the last score he finished; I have two versions. One is 32 minutes, and the other is 24 minutes. It’s not an excessively eventful movement. It tends to wander like an old man in the hills, so there’s only one reason for an additional 7 minutes - excessive worshipfulness of the score. Mahler wrote these heartbreaking legato lines that beg to be stretched to the point of evaporation, but he’s better served cold, I think. Bernstein may have ruined Mahler for millions by making him accessible. The older I get the less comfort I find in his music, and the more I really understand it. There’s a moment in the 10th when Mahler - not a healthy man at the time - stares death in the face. There really isn’t anything like it in the symphonic repertoire. It’s just horrible. But it’s followed by five minutes of music that makes the end of Holst’s “Neptune” sound like a Sousa march.

Remind me, when I get to the afterlife, to kick Ken Russell in his dessicated testes for that Mahler movie he made.

Interesting weekend ahead: emceeing at Orchestra Hall on Sunday, and this time I’ll take pictures. Next Monday’s Bleat will have a few photos of the event I’ve been discussing these past two years. Between now and then: sleep! Just kidding. Work.