|Damn: its cold. I was walking Jasper this morning in my usual winter garb - no hat, tennis shoes, no gloves - when the radio weatherman give the temp. Its two above, he said. ""Twenty below with the windchill." I thought: hmm. That explains the stabbing pains in my hands. Well, thats why God gave us ten fingers. You really only need two.
We quickened our pace.
Took the family to the Galleria, an up-up-upscale boutiquery in Edina. Had to get some things, exchange others. They have a Barnes and Noble the size of Belgium, which I love, and they love me; Ill be doing a signing there next year for the GoRF book. I pushed Gnat around in her stroller; she did fine, and was all goggle-eyed at the lights and scenes. We ended up at Big Bowl, an Oriental restaurant that avoids all the usual cliches,a and substitutes a dozen new ones I like it.. But today I noticed it was part of a chain, the irritatingly named Lettuce Entertain You, Inc. group of restaurants. The table had an application for gift certificates, and listed all the bistros in the chain. Most are in Chicago, including a score of places called Country Bakery. Im presuming theyre Perkins-esque places, serving Hearty Fare. There were a few Italian places that had mama-mia ethnic names, and some joints whose names teetered on parody: okay, I can see a sportsbar named P. J. Clarke's. But they also have a place called R. J. Grunts'. Really.
Now that's Chicago.
The food was good, but my coffee was cold. I recalled that every time Id been to this place, the coffee was served lukewarm. While I was waiting for Sara, I saw a fellow who looked like a manager - he wore street clothes, laughed with a server as he passed, and he didnt have that slight whiff of self-consciousness people have when they walk through a restaurant. He was short and fat. Really fat and getting fatter. Not big-boned fat or glandular fat, but damn, these are good nachos fat.
Are you a manager? I said.
Im one of them, he said. His tone managed to combine wariness, disinterest and the suggestion of a threat: nicely done.
Foods great, service was fine, we enjoyed our meal, I said. But I got to tell you: the coffees always cold.
Always? This was not really phrased as a question. Id heard this accent before. Where?
Yes. I dont know if the mugs you use suck the heat out, or if the Bunn-O-Matics are set too low, but the coffee arrives lukewarm every time.
Huh. He mulled this over. You like our coffee?
Not really, I said.
I think it sucks, he said. Its Caravelle, he said.
I placed the accent now. I nodded. Northwest used it before they switched to Caribou on some flights. Its not good coffee.
Were changing. The whole chain is changing coffee. In that one sentence, you could see a year of corporate intrigue. Taste tests. Surveys. Focus groups. Bidding wars. Contracts. Maybe someone got fired for losing the chain; maybe someone kept their job because of the switch.
Anyway, I knew where this guy was from.
You from the home office? I said.
Yeah, he said, in a flat Chicago accent. Were all Midwesterners, I know, but sometimes when you listen to a true Chicagoan and catch a wafting note of the old Capone aroma, you know theres vast difference between Minneapolitans and Chicagoans. We are what they have for lunch. For appetizers.
I could just imagine this guys life: probably worked his way up from Country Bakery manager to a plum job in one of the incubator restaurants; then they sent him out to the Far Territories. Its a fascinating business, the Restaurant World; for millions of us, its our version of military service.
|Got another big Mystery Box from Amazon. Its always fun to roam around the empty silent aisles at 1 AM, order a few little items, set the shipping preference so youve forgotten all about the order when it finally gets there. This box had a game for Gnat, a Flanders Simpson figurine, and the "Pennies from Heaven" soundtrack. Id forgotten that last one. Its the British version of PfH, which Ive never seen, and it has four times as much music as the American version - all 20s and 30s pop music. It seems to haven chosen for its melancholy undertones and general creepiness. (I can presume that Dennis Potter - one of the most brilliant men to ever work in the medium, thank you - chose the music for its ironic value; when a fellow is singing Just Let Me Look At You Im pretty sure it goes with a scene of Bob Hoskins doing some window peeping.) The British pop of the period, if this collection is any indication, was performed by women about to expire from tuberculosis, and men in their latter 60s. The bands dont really swing, and dont give any indication they can, or would want to, for heavens sake. Everyone performs as though theyre afraid of waking the Queen. Its music to appease Hitler by. I can just imagine Neville Chamberlain conducting the bands with tiny umbrella.
Last night I watched the end of Fantasia 2000 - it was originally premiered on the IMAX, a pointlessly overwhelming medium for animation. Better on a regular screen, and absolutely perfect on Ostentasia (my 16:9 widescreen TV) - but while some of the animation is splendid, the movie hasnt the kitsch or heft of the offerings in the original. Rhapsody in Blue, set to Hirshfield drawings: perfect idea, but if I can sum up what the animators seemed to be saying, its this: HEY! ITS RHAPSODY IN BLUE SET TO HIRSHFIELD! PERFECT IDEA! The obligatory ha-ha sequence, which cast Donald Duck as Noah, to the music of Elgar - dont ask - just reminded you that Warner Brothers had better ducks. The end sequence, though: Firebird. Whew. Worth it just for that.
I remember having an argument with an old friend about the time signature for the end of that piece: I swore it was 7/4, and demonstrated, but she refused to believe I was right.
Anyway: I checked the extras for the disc, and they included some Disney animation shorts from the mid 50s: musical instruction lessons on instruments, sounds, history, etc. Widescreen, too. Pioneering stuff. Deadly dull. You could see the influence of the UPA studio, which gave everyone permission to be modern - i.e., abstract backgrounds, reduced animation, cheapness as an aesthetic statement - but the Disney boys didnt have their heart in it, so they lavished all their skill on this cheap style. Exceptional craftsmen, but theres not a tot alive who wouldnt prefer Daffy and Bugs. Not enough id in Disney.
I dont love Disney. I dont have the same growly reaction some do, perhaps because I realize that its inevitable. Nothing I can do. As they say in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, just lie back and think of Englund. But the less Disney the better. The less Robin Williams, the happier my home will be. Toy Story, yes, but thats not Disney. Pre-sixties Disney, yes. Pre-Aristocrats Disney. Not Pooh Disney, for heaven's sake - drives me nuts that Disney got to define Pooh for the modern age. Greshams Law of Animation ruled the 60s, and Pooh suffered - the cheap scratchy crap that Disney churned out in its lean years drove out the gentle melancholic Pooh illustrations of my childhood. Theyre still available, but theyre Classic Pooh. Grrrrrr.
Perhaps in 80 years Disney will own all the Simpson characters and bring out friendlier, cuddlier versions.
In the big mystery box, as mentioned, was the Flanders figurine. I always wonder what the Chinese workers think of these things when they package them. There was one small piece that kept Neds glasses on his face - a transparent Flanders death-mask, if you will. It was probably the job of one person to pull the lever that put that little mask over Neddies face. All day, one job. By rail, by ship, by rail again, by truck to the Amazon warehouse, then by plane to my house, where the little plastic falls out of the container and sits, invisible, on the floor. And then - months after the worker pushed the button that made the piece of plastic - I stepped on it late at night. It cracked like a whip.
WaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAA awoke the Gnat.
What was that? Sara asked.
Ned Flanders face-mask, I said. She let the matter drop.
After youve said Ned Flanders face-mask, there's really no place the conversation can go.
|Id forgotten how much anger I have towards Hanna and Barbera, but - all hail the blessed TiVo, I now have my anger banked & stoked & enraged anew. The TiVo transcribed something an obscure piece of animation the other night: The Funky Phantom, a 1971 H-B crapfest Id no doubt seen as an impressionable child. It was H-Bs attempt to capitalize on the success of Scooby-Doo. The show was a blatant retread: the teens drive around in the Looney Duney, their dune-bug version of the Mystery Machine; theres a Daphnesque blonde, a Shaggyesque moron, a big stupid bruiser, a comic-relief dog, and a ghost - voiced by Dawson Butler - who sounded exactly like a combination of Snagglepuss and Yogi Bear. (Both of whom, of course, were voiced by the immortal Dawson Butler.) Mickey Dolenz was one of the voices, too.
Dreck. Just - dreck. What really alarmed me, however, was that I found myself humming along with the theme as it played. The theme had been stuck in my head, waiting, like a grain of plutonium in a lung sac, for 29 years.
The show was part of a Cartoon Network preview of the Boomerang network, and settled for me the question of whether I should get Boomerang. (No.) The show began with trivia - a screen in Microsofts Comic MS typeface said the show only ran for 16 episodes and was animated in Australia and was noted for its unique sound effects.
Did a Google search tonight, just for amusement, and found a page that said the show only ran for 16 episodes and was animated in Australia and was noted for its unique sound effects. So I might as well repeat the facts, let Google hoover up this page so were all in agreement.
I did, however, learn that after the show was canceled, the episodes ran in a show called The Godzilla/Dynomutt Hour with the Funky Phantom, the title of which ALONE tells you why I want a war-crimes trial to be held on the graves of Hanna and Barbera.
The episode of Funky Phantom was followed by The Hair Bear Bunch.
(You may now react as though you have been offered the opportunity to shave Aunt Selmas corns: Shudder.)
This is a week too late, but it needs to be said: one of the great composers of our era died last week. Hoyt Curtin.
Ive included below a 185K MP3 of the opening of one of his more ingenious compositions. I grew up hearing this at least once a week; even now a month rarely passes without hearing it. As a child, I never gave a thought to the astonishing complexity of this little piece of music, and to this day I wonder whether it could actually be transcribed at all - it seems more like a series of instructions to the musicians, e.g., go from here to there in this many measures. Curtin remarked that he often wrote music to challenge the members of the band, and you can hear it here - they meet the challenge with brio & enthusiasm.
The rest of the composition is in the Charles Ives vein, but its toe-tapping Ives; it quotes, with mocking earnestness, a beloved American childrens tune (Chopsticks), runs the brass section through recapitulation of the theme, transposes the restless arpeggiated undercurrent a half dozen times before bringing everyone together on the main theme again. Its just a delight. And now hes dead. He was a crazy thing. And now his crazy thing is stopped.
Im serious. I'm referring to the Jetson's theme - (Apologies: this used to link to an MP3 of the theme, but server space is tight.)
|Mmm: I could use a beer. Let me be specific: I could use one for a specific purpose, and thats filling this beer-shaped hole in my sense of the evening. Ill be right back.
Ahhh. Its a James Page Voyageur Pale Ale. Cant just have a beer nowadays, you know; cant just have a Schmidt or a Hamms. It has to be a particular genre of beer. And as much as I grind my teeth at the number of needless distinctions and varieties commercial culture continues to create, this is a good thing. Beer is better today than it used to be. Sometimes at the liquor store I see men buying big cardboard suitcases of Coors Light, and I weep for them.
Incidentally, the liquor store has a big sign in the window: HUGE LIQUOR SALE. I dont know why I find that so amusing, but I do; first of all, one thinks: well, yes, that would be not unexpected at a liquor store. But the very term LIQUOR SALE sounds as low-rent as - well, as Liquor Store, for that matter. Perhaps thats why I like this place: no euphemisms, like Package Store or Party Store or Beerporium. No, theyre honest: LIQUOR STORE. You can come here and purchase some LIQUOR.
Its an interesting building. Utterly nondescript, but its been a grocery store, an auto dealership, an office building, and a laundromat. None of these incarnations are discernible at present, except for a sign on the north wall that lists old tenants:
I dont know why that sign remains. The building is well-maintained; the tenants just put up a lovely mural on the south wall. (It advertises, of course, LIQUOR!) Perhaps they have the same sort of sentimental attachment to the gracenotes of urban decay as I do, but I doubt it. Business owners rarely tolerate these sorts of things; its not in their nature, and I dont blame them. Thats why my Dad had the station modernized back in the late 60s - it was the look of the New, and that kept customers happy. Let things go to seed, and people drift away and they dont come back.
This James Page label still looks new to me. Its better than the old one. I never bought the beer when it had the old label.
The phone rang this morning; my wife watched me answer it, say hello, listen in silence for 30 seconds, then go in the basement, come upstairs, look behind the TV, then hang up two minutes later without saying a word.
Who was that? she asked.
It was the automated recording from the satellite company, I said. The TV hasnt called their computer in 60 days. Indeed, as I discovered, the guy who set up the unit hadnt connected it to a phone jack AT ALL. The TiVo, yes, but not the upstairs unit. I called Audio King, which sold & installed the units, and while I was on hold I thought what Id said:
It was the satellite company. The TV hasnt called their computer in 60 days.
This was just the sort of thing Id expected Id be saying when I was a kid. Yes, I thought wed have moonbases and Mars shots and space stations cartwheeling overhead, but I also thought Id say things like this.
Well, I wouldnt want the TV not to chat with the mainframe. It needs all the information it can get. This month weve had the music channel set on Seasonal Favorites (the best thing about satellite TV, Ive discovered, is the nine-billion commercial free music channels) and theyve provided an instructive tour through the rise and decline of pop music. The 40s stuff is genial and sappy; theres the obligatory Bing rendition of White Christmas, which contains one of the more devilish pieces of whistling in the repertoire. I can do it, most of the time - its an octave leap at the top of my range, though. The 50s & 60s stuff has overproduced stuff with echoey strings and / or rock updates. The 70s tunes - well, there arent many, and those that are, are Chicago. (Shudder.) I heard two recent Christmas songs that stuck out - one was from a Rosie ODonnell Christmas album, something Id buy only if I was doing some skeet shooting, and the song was Im Going to EMail Santa Claus. I reminded myself to carry around a large, scaly fish in case I ever meet Rosie, so I can slap her with it. The other song was by a Country singer named Wynona - Ive heard of her, but I havent heard her before. It was as if Patsy Cline came back to life. Spooky. Not just the voice, but the phrasing. She had it down cold.
Usually we trim the tree to the collection of Christmas CDs I stuck in the ornament box. No more. This time we let the bird on high beam down music - from Space!
That was this years revelation. Last years revelation: neither of us can stand Mannheim Steamroller. But thats another Bleat.
|Low bright moon tonight; I can see it from my window, a big swollen yellow eye glaring through the trees. And I can see the planes heading towards the airport, only their lights visible - they look like constellations skating down a hill. I can see many things, because its pitch dark in my room except for the light of the screen. This room is on two different electrical circuits. One just blew, and it took the lights with it. I could go reboot the circuit. But it's nice just to write by the light of the moon and the monitor. And so I will. Tonight's tale is almost like a fable. So let's begin:
The trumpeters had to be tied into place, it turned out. Cinched with a cord into brackets that looked like something youd use to burn someone at the stake. A guy smoking a Pall Mall tied them in and plugged them into the battery array.
I should explain. Back up a little. In fact, I should back waaay up. If the mail is any indication, the Yahoo! mention brought a huge spike in traffic not just to the site, but the Bleat as well. Exactly how many people, I dont know, since I dont check particulars. I like to think of the Bleat readership as small, intimate, a gathering in a corner of a coffeehouse, but Id hate to have that verified. Doesnt really matter. But: given that there are many new readers this week, a few things must be reiterated to explain exactly why they tied up the trumpeters.
1. I live in Minneapolis. I wasnt born here, but I always wanted to be here. Ive always been fascinated with downtown Minneapolis, its history and architecture; I always wanted to be a newspaper columnist for the biggest paper in town. And now I work downtown as a newspaper columnist. It all worked out exactly as planned.
2. Downtown Minneapolis has something called the Nicollet Mall -the nations first conversion of a downtown shopping street to an auto-restricted pedestrian mall. Its also the only successful one, I believe, and while most ideas from that era of urban design have failed miserably, the Mall works. Its where Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat. It contains magnificent vistas at all hours of the day, in every season. In the winter its lit up for 15 blocks; classical music plays from the bus shelters, and the streets throng with shoppers and office workers. Its a downtown that doesnt throw off those nervy you might get knifed; maybe not vibes. People generally behave.
3. For the last several years, the Christmas season has been celebrated downtown with a nightly parade called Holidazzle. Thirty minutes of brightly lit float down the Mall. Bring the kids! Freeze to Death! The parade is only canceled if the temps drop below -25 wind chill. Really. Otherwise, we just suck it up and get on with the necessary business of seasonal bemusement.
4. Tonight I was Grand Marshall of the Holidazzle Parade. When they offered me the spot, I asked if I should have a costume: no, they said. I was a Personality, and was to stand shorn of holiday trappings, dazzling the crowd with my Personality Status.
It was not meant ironically.
So I put on long underwear, tromped down to the hotel where the parade assembled. Stopped en route at a drugstore to buy jerky, figuring I might get hungry as the night went along. While I was there I bought a big candy cane - a prop, a wand, something to point at people. Saw a display for battery operated lights - bought two strings, batteries, hand-warmer packs, and gum. Paid up, left the store, thinking: forgot the jerky. Ah well. When I entered the hotel I realized Id never been inside before - its an old Holiday Inn, built in the early 60s, and its paved with that veiny white marble that looks as though it was quarried from Dinah Shores uterus. The hotel has been renovated a few times, but it still has some floating staircases and other modernist touches. I checked in with the parade organizers, found out I could cool my heels for an hour. Went upstairs to the bar, ordered a hamburger. Tried to read the Wall Street Journal, but the TV was playing the NBC evening news. Its been years since I watched network news. Same people. Same drivel. Same blunt reduction of complex stories down to simple tales. More people get their news from NBC than any other news source! the speakers BLARED at the end of the show.
Well, THAT explains it, then, I said to no one in particular.
What? said the barmaid.
More people get their news from NBC than any other news source, it said.
They always say that.
I just thought, well, that explains it. The rapier-like thrust of my witticism now felt like a mashed banana.
Oh, never mind. I overtipped her in shame and left. Went to the restroom, hooked up the lights, wrapped them around my neck, put the candy cane in my pants like a pistola, jammed the Santa hat on my hat and headed out to do my Celebrity Duty.
The floats were quite elaborate. And brightly lit. I was in the first float, standing at a railing, spotlight from either side, with a bkig backlit plaque announcing my name and title. Behind me, three women in Nutcrackeresque costumes, lashed to the float like sailors in a storm. I took my place - gripped the railing - the idling engine kicked into gear, the thousands of float- lights clicked on, the music swelled and down the Mall we went.
I can't describe how much fun this was. And how odd. Everyone ought to lead a parade once in their life, just to experience the curious sensation of marching down the middle of the street to cheers and hurrahs. The bleachers were full of people; there were people in the skyways, people on the second and third floors of office buildings; people on the sidewalk five deep. (And the occasional block with hardly anyone, but Im sure Ill fill those blocks in with hundreds of people as the memory gets burnished over the years.) I waved and shouted MERRY CHRISTMAS! and HAPPY NEW YEAR! and HAPPY HOLIDAYS! and pointed at people with my cane.
And I have to admit:
Standing on a float riding down the Nicollet Mall on a December night, driving between the huge towers lit from ground to floor fifty, hearing a complete stranger shout out LOVE THE COLUMN! -
is - about - as - good - as - it - gets.
And then I released the Smilex from my gigantic balloons, and shouted out AND WHERE IS THE BATMAN NOW? in a maniacal cackle.
Well, no. But it occurred to me.
|We had Beef Choppies for dinner the other night. I still dont know what they are. They were in the meat department at Lunds, in a giant freezer that has giant slabs of meat on one end, finely diced hamburger meat on the other, and gradations of each concept in between. Left to right, you got your meat of increasing density. Right to left, the meat gets chopped. If hamburger was One and the Slabs on the other end were 100, Beef Choppies were located around 12, or 13. Perfect for Grilling, the sticker said.
Ah, I thought. Ill take these home and grill them, then.
If theyd stuck the sticker on a wax candle, Id have thought the same thing. It was that sort of day.
Anyway, they were good. Especially when grilled. I think theyre a higher grade of meat thats been chopped up to assume the properties of the hamburger medium.
Hence the name.
This was Saturday. Usually I do the grocery shopping on Sundays; usually Im pushing the cart through the aisles, and Ill see the Famous Transplant Surgeon shopping as well, pushing the cart as his wife picks out foodstuffs. This week I shopped on Saturdays. There was the Famous Transplant Surgeon, with his wife. Im beginning to believe hes actually a hallucination. Or a hologram. In the future, when holograms are ubiquitous, perhaps stores will stock the aisles with holographic celebrities, models, etc. Politicians will buy time in the matrix; for $100,000 theyll have the right to have a holographic doppelganger stand in the bread aisle, palpating the loafs.
One of those excursions where imagination fails me, and I cant come up with more than three meals. After half an hour I had three meals in the basket. Enough, I said, and I gave in to the standbys - my ten-minute turkey feast, the Obligatory Pasta Course, and fishsticks. That last one is actually lightly-breaded halibut with my homemade horseradish-jalapeno tartar sauce, but lets be honest: its fishsticks.
Or, if you like, Cod Choppies.
House of Wax, starring Americas favorite Haunted Aesthete, Vinnie Price, was on the other night. Couldnt resist. Not only does it feature a mute Charles Bronson in the Igor role, its one of those 3-D movies thats been flattened down. People are always throwing speaks RIGHT INTO THE CAMERA! or hurling a pot RIGHT INTO THE CAMERA! or flaming things are toppling RIGHT etc. The best moment, and most shameless use of the medium ever, consists of a barker drumming up business for the wax museum by whapping a paddleball RIGHT INTO THE CAMERA! The scene lasts for about 17 minutes, it seems, and the barker even faces the camera and tells us hes aiming for our popcorn. The highlight of 3D, right there.
This week will contain diminishing Bleatage; its the holidays, after all. Im busy. But there will be something every day - Wednesday and Thursday will feature some peculiar newspaper Christmas ads from the 20s. Friday will have the annual Christmas story, and then NOTHING until next year. This might be the way things go next year; Ill be on a completely different schedule starting in February. Upside down. Ill be getting up early now, for the rest of my life. Thats fine. Ive had more late nights than 99 percent of most gainfully employed adults. The Gnat isnt like Jasper; she cant sit on the steps with a worried expression for four hours, waiting for me to tend to her needs. Ill be getting up when my wife gets up now, ready for the daily adventure, and I will go to sleep with the rest of the solid citizens. How this affects the Bleat schedule, Ill find out. It might mean four days a week instead of five, or even three. But there will always be something new M-F in the Bleat spot. Guaranteed.
Like this, for example. As for the third picture in the series, no, I didnt plug my baby into a socket. Just in case you're wondering.
|Ish Kabbible, my dad used to say. Meaning: nonsense. I hadnt thought of that until a few moments ago, when Google kicked up Ish Kabbible as a result of a search request. (I am now in love with the sound of that previous sentence: Google kicked up Ish Kabbible. Repeat until happy.)
This will become relevant in a few paragraphs.
Last month I purchased a CD of Christmas Big Band tunes - nifty stuff, mostly from the early 40s. It started with Hello, Mr. Kringle, a novelty tune I have not been able to erase from my brain since I heard it. I heard it today while shopping. I was at the Galleria, an up-up-upscale shopping court frequented by people who have everything except for that $900 scarf made from the leghair of Bolivian wombats. They have a Williams Sonoma, and I was picking up some useless items for gifts when I heard the bouncy tune on the speakers above. I started to sing along, to myself, softly. I remembered that the tune was recorded by Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge (Its funny because there are Ks instead of Cs!) and while Id not given the song much thought, now I found myself waiting for the strange little passage at the end: one of the band members steps up to the mike to tell Santa what he wants. Its an interminable series of rhyming items. The trumpets mock him as he talks. Its the sort of corny - sorry, korny - fun that characterized novelty songs of the era.
Standing there in Williams Sonoma, I thought: this is the birth of white rap.
Just now I fired up the browser to see if I could find out who did that little spiel, and when Kay Kayser prompted Google to suggest some Ish Kabbible pages, I had one of those ah-hah moments. Thats what Dad meant, or rather, who.
In 30 years, Dads will mutter Alyankovik, and their children will be equally puzzled.
The other night The Sound of Music was on TV, and I caught that interminable Doahdeer, a female deer song. Gave me the creeps. I liked the musical when I was a little kid - had nice happy songs everyone could sing in a nice happy fashion. But it might be my least favorite musical. Granted, I dont have many favorite musicals. Singin in the Rain, if you leave out that Donald O'Connor Make Em Laugh number - which never does, as least with me; Make Em Wince is more like it, especially towards the end, where you fear hes going to start kicking himself in the nuts. West Side Story is cheese and corn, but Lord! what a score. My Fair Lady is too stagebound, and all the oi-crikey mlord Cockneyisms get annoying after about 2 minutes, as does the romantic portrayal of life as an ignorant underclass posey-vendor.
|NOTE: that was the end of 00 - the rest of the month was given over to old ads and the annual Christmas story.|