|Back to normal. The holidays - that long smear of enforced jollity from Halloween to Jan 1, that sugary frenetic epoch well call BoogivingsmasEve - its done, over, and were poked out the door into to the hard cold light of January, blinking, thinking: thank God thats done.
I used to dislike January - it seemed like a glacial block of time you had to chew through with your own bare teeth, with nothing but the small cold molar-panging nougat of February as your reward. Then the miserable sloppy-drunk month of March, and the failed promises of April. Things around here dont get lovely until May, and by the end of May youre already thinking June, which means July, which means the Fourth - the midpoint of summer, but really, its all downhill fast from there . . . then Augusts long rattling snores, followed by September - warm at first, yes, but then it snaps a cold towel on your buttcheek and wakes you up to the first dark chilly night of autumn . . . then orange and black decorations appear in the grocery and drug stores . . . BoosgivingsmasEve again, another year chopped twelves times, chopped 52 times, atomized into 365 grains and hoovered up the Reapers nostril -
Or so I used to think. The Gnat changes all that. Now everything is seen through her eyes. I have no choice, since she has developed telekinetic powers, and Sara and I frequently are immobilized while her eyes spark red and pink, and then we CANT - MOVE but we SEE - THINGS from inside her head - MAKE - IT -STOP!
Thats what happens when your baby goes to France. Mad-cow beef and nuclear power plants. They get on the plane as googly drooling infants, and they come back with superpowers.
Yes, my baby went to France. I didnt go, but not for any bad reason; I just didnt. My wifes sister lives in France, and got married a few weeks ago, so half her family decamped for Gaul. I stayed behind to mind the dog, get some work done, and - most important - sleep in my own bed again. After months on sofas, I was back in the big soft bed. Alone, yes, but no more the cold basement, the dusty pillows, the rumbly furnace in the next room, the scritch-scritch of the TiVo unit engraving Ay, Que Bumbelino on its hard drive in the mistaken belief that I WANT a Spanish soap opera; no more. Sleep. In a bed. Like a civilized man.
It was miserable. I was miserable. For days Id told Gnat: youre going to France in your underpants. (This child is turning me into a complete moron, and I dont seem to mind at all.) As the days grew closer, I was seized with dread. Surely something awful was going to happen. Maybe gravity was stronger in France, and theyd drop her on the floor! I had a little talk with my uncle-in-law, who was going to be the chauffeur. Take good care, I said. And drive safely. Because if anything happens to my daughter in your care, Ill kill you. I grinned. He grinned. Ill find you, and kill you, I repeated, grinning, and then Ill kill myself. I grinned. He grinned. Everyone grinned! Happy holidays!
I was only half-serious. But really, I dont know how I could have gone on. I would have opened my veins, put my head in the oven and shot myself, just so everyone got the point: do not revive.
Off to the airport. Snow. Blizzard. Got everyone on the plane, said farewells, trudged home with cold coal for a heart. The house was dark; Jasper was happy, having thought wed all left for good again, but I was disconsolate. I was shoveling that night, and a neighbor asked how Christmas had gone with the new little baby. Fine, I said, but Now shes in France, and God help me, I added, in her underpants.
But. I had laid in a stock of provisions.
DVDs: Two John Woo pre-Hollywood movies, X-Men, Gladiator, Toy Story 2
A biography of Nero
The Soldier of Fortune PC game
Seven CDs to rip, including The Powerpuffs Girls soundtrack
Three computer magazines, three political journals
The largest collection of single-malt scotches ever assembled in this house (Im serious: at the Liquor Depot, the inelegantly named booze barn by the U, I found three gift sets, each with four or five single-serving single-malts. Granted, I havent heard of most of them, and they could be making it up for all I know; all you need is a wordy label and a name like The Blangerimonie, and it looks authentic. But I havent had a drop of the stuff since Gnat was born; not even a jot of my beloved bourbons. Ive been a good boy. But it was time, in the words of Martin Luther to not only sin but sin boldly.)
One large cigar of Cuban origin
A stack of family videos to edit for the December home movie
A box of Diner tapes to translate to MP3s
A freezerful of meat
A case of Sam Adams Pale Ale
So I was ready. And after I got past the first lonely night, I got into a groove: wake, walk dog, sit in front of machine, rise for meals, walk dog, go to basement at 1 AM, have scotch, watch TV, sleep, repeat. By Sunday I backed up all the drives, archived Gnats pictures, written a ton of new material, scanned & annotated 65 new motel postcards, and - finally - decided what the 6.0 version of the site would look like. (That one took an entire day.) And Id had some lettuce, too.
Other highlights: ordered pizza from the place I like, but Sara doesnt. I like their sauce. She doesnt like the crust. I compromise by - altogether now, husbands - by acquiescing. (Its the marital version of Bipartisanship.) But no more! Im out from under her thumb now! Im ordering MY pizza, and if she doesnt like it, well, then she shouldnt go to France! I had store credit at this place too, because the last time I ordered one, the sausage was raw. Really: pink in the middle. Very pink. They apologized and gave me an $8 credit.
I was halfway through this pizza when I thought I should check the sausage. Yes indeed: raw.
Other highlights - well, no, that was about it. The family came back a few days later, and all was right again. Saras still jetlagged - she didnt sleep much over the week, but Gnats fine & happy and weve been having a delightful time. While everyone slept, I cleared out my email box, and did a mass-mailing to the 400+ people whose letters went unanswered in 00. Uploaded the new site in bits and pieces, fielded a few error reports, fixed things here and there. Its still rough in spots, Im sure, but it always will be. Now begins Year Six of the site, and if it seems self-indulgent and sloppy, just remember: it is. But its free.
Welcome back: here we go.
I thought I was a geek - well, maybe because I am, at heart. I have one shelf in my studio devoted to childhood geek-roots; it has an old Spiderman Comic (#21), a few Tom Swift novels, a Space Ghost Little Big Book, my pocket Spy Telescope, my first microscope, my first camera, a small Star Trek communicator I made when I was 11, my first radio, and a collection of fine tequilas. (Note to self: refile tequilas to the Adult section of shelves.) I loved this stuff as a kid, and I lived for sci-fi in all its forms. To this day I have a warm spot for the excesses, peculiarities and silliness of fandom. But over the holidays I discovered a variant of geek fandom that appalls even me.
Battlestar Galactica fans.
I wouldnt have thought about the show at all, except that TiVo kindly recorded about nine hours of BSG for me on Christmas Eve. (Sounds like flavor-enhancing chemical, or a cow hormome, or a Quake weapon: BSG.) I watched some shows while wrapping presents,and pronounced it to be Krep! Unalloyed drivel! Derivative hackneyed shitework - with a few diadems studded in the steaming heap of offal, sure, but few indeed. I understand that some people found this show as children, and were wide-eyed in amazement at its niftyness. Had I grown up with these Trumblesque ships and shiny scary vocoder-voiced robots, Id have a soft spot for it in my heart, too. But I would not, as an adult, be defending it as a high point of human civilization. It STINKS. I watched a large chunk of a two-parter, where our heroes - Richard Hatch, who looked like every stoner dude I knew in college, and Whatsisname who played, God help us, Starbuck (the Han Solo clone) - had to blow up the guns of Navarone, or the shows dramatic equivalent. This planet, you see, had one big gun which they used to defend themselves. Did the fleet wait until the gun was carried out of the line of sight by celestial mechanics, then waltz across the front lawn at their leisure? Of course not. They plowed through, slowly, getting their finite supply of ships picked off while Lorne Greene frowned in his classic Massively Frowning fashion.
Of course, the gun was destroyed at the Last Possible Second. And there was much rejoicing. It might have been more dramatically effective if everyone on the expeditionary force hadnt been wearing beige jumpsuits with the CUTEST little matching beige berets.
But it gets better. I did some poking around tonight on the net and was reminded of the ongoing attempts to bring back BSG, including conflicting projects from Hatch and the series creator. Of course, there are serious websites devoted to the show, full of fan fiction and reviews. Ill agree the concept of the show is interesting, but to me it has the same flaw as the Star Wars universe: its the past, not the future. Everyone in the story is DEAD. I prefer sci-fi that gives us something to look forward to.
Anyway. I found a fan BBS with thousands of messages. Including this one:
I was watching some Adam-12 today and saw an episode where Laurette Spang (Cassiopia) plays a young woman stalked by a crank caller, and she ends up being attacked. Show was proably from 1973-74, four years before appearing on Galactica. Does an okay job.
Just a small t.v. trivia FYI.
I nearly wept. Then I realized: in my worst geek-state days, I was never that bad.
Hoorah for me!
And then, as if to enshrine the day forever in the annals of sci-fi krrrrep, TiVo offered up The Black Hole. Rule #1: Ernest Borgnine does not belong in any movie that requires him to A) wear a jumpsuit, and B) act. The movie has its moments - some truly imaginative set design, and a curious John Barry theme that hints at a much better movie (the theme has this little obsessed-sea-captain lietmotif that sticks in my head for a day after I hear it.) But the robots are unforgivable. I always referred to the banged-up cowpoke-voiced robot as a Slim Pickens knockoff, and I learned via IMDB that it was Slim Pickens.
I mentioned the movie to a co-worker who handles the DVD reviews; he has every DVD in the world. He had the Black Hole, and was happy to lend it - so while the family was in France, I watched it in glorious widescreen downstairs in my lair. While the acting still stinks and the robots still ruin it, the movie does have some astonishing visuals. The bridge of the ship, the flybys, the crowded starfield that makes infinity itself look absolutely claustrophobic - what a beauty. Too bad it trips up so many places; it could have been one of the best sci-fi movies of the day.
Bonus points for two scenes: Anthony Perkins getting his innards spun about by the Big Bad Evil Robot, and the vision of hell at the end. But all in all, I remember my feelings when I saw it the first time.
Which was, exactly, what? I do have journals from that era. Just dont know if its worth it paging through a dozen volumes just to find an entry that reads Saw The Black Hole. It was really bad. But lets see. First: lets see if I can track down the actual release date...
Well: after 15 seconds on Google, I got it: Dec 21, 1979. I love the Internet.
Found the entry after 6 minutes of looking through the shelf of journals. According to the book, I saw three movies in Fargo Christmas weekend: Quo Vadis on TV, which I pronounced fine; Time After Time, which I said was fine, and The Black Hole, which i said was good - fun, didnt take itself too seriously.
Wish I could have said the same thing about myself. I really need to burn each and every one of these journals. A more prolonged embarrassment Ill never find, although there are interesting notes: on Jan 01, for example, I note, at 1:47 AM, that Larry King appears to be drunk tonight. This was in his radio days.
The next day I went to see Kramer Vs. Kramer, which I said was Fine.
Well, Ive always had a way with words.
The other night I went out to shoot some night-vision footage of the creek. It had snowed for the last few days, and the woods were buried in a perfect untouched mantle of thick fresh snow. Jasper and I trudged down to the creek, pausing to saw hello to Bailey and Traveler, the two new dogs at the end of the block. (Poor dogs: they spend most of their time outside, and people dare to pass THEIR TURF from all directions all day long.) Jasper went straight to the middle of the creek, which he never does. I followed, regretting the entire enterprise by now. I was just getting weird green spotlit images of . . . snow. Well, perhaps wed get something under the bridge. Nifty nighttime images of the underside of the bridge: yes, that would be good.
I turned on the camera; it made its usual beep. Jasper scratched himself, making his chain jangle.
I heard footsteps, just as I heard them stop.
And here I thought: you know, its 10 PM on a Saturday night. Its about seven degrees out. Im standing under a bridge with a camcorder. If theres someone up there, theyre certainly wondering what the hell Im doing.
I coughed, said Come on Jasper! loudly and walked out from under the bridge. It was that or just silently slide into the light. As we walked on, Jasper bounded through the snow towards some shadow, and I heard someone start walking again, crunch crunch through the snow, creak creak over the bridge. I looked back, and saw what appeared to be a female, and I wanted to say: SORRY ABOUT THAT.
She probably had a small little doubt about cutting through the creek late at night - but then she thought, well, its usually safe in the summer, its surely safe now. And then she sees a guy under the bridge. With a red light of a camcorder glowing.
Walking home I remembered being in the airport parking ramp a few days before; I was in the elevator with a single woman. The elevator doors opened to a floor that was mostly deserted - my first instinct was to be a gentleman, and let her go first, but Ive trained myself in parking-ramp situations to be a Reassuring Jerk: I go first. I go first and head off in my direction.
You have to reassure people that you recognize their worst presumptions.
The creative process sometimes seems no more complex than the simple act of answering your own questions. Yesterday I was seized with one of those ideas that shoves its way in your head and demands completion. To hell with your schedule: do it NOW, or youll never do it. I was rocking Gnat to sleep for her nap - one of her 20-minute specials that takes an hour to get to - and I was thinking of the final scene in the French edition of Vertigo. (Really. As people whove done some baby-rocking in their time know, your mind wanders far afield. Id seen it a few nights before, so it was fresh in my mind.) Its a simple scene tacked on for European markets, and consists of Madge, or Midge, or whatever the doomed non-girlfriends name was, sitting by the radio. Shes listening to a piece of news that relates with astonishing specificity to the events weve just seen in the movie. Then she turns the radio off.
It got me thinking of the radios in movies and TV shows - they always broadcast exactly whats needed. Its almost like a special brand of radio: the Plot Point Radio.
And that was all it took. I saw the logo for the brand; I saw an ad from Gilligans Island - the Professor, endorsing Plot Point transistors - and I thought, well, no one else is going to do this, so I will.
This is where you start asking questions. Who makes the Plot-Point? I played around with some names, and I thought, well, what if two guys with really unfortunate names got together to make radios? Like, Bob Bustad and William Toob. Hah! Hah! Bustad-Toob! Ha. Well, no. Not really. Funny names usually arent - but then I saw the names like this:
And that looked quasi-Dutch, and now I saw two solid Dutchmen who were absolutely convinced of their own brilliance, clueless about everything . . . and then I imagined their ad director begging them to change the name of the company - you cant say the name without sounding like Elmer Fudd, fer chrissakes! - And that made me think, well, who does the ads? And now Im off in that direction. Before the night is over, I have everything plotted out, one ad done and a quarter of the copy written. This will take every night this week to finish. It might be stupid. So far its fun, and thats always a good sign.
In the summer of 1979 I was a salesman in the south for Northrup King, a Minneapolis seed concern. Thats another story. What matters most for todays purposes is a weekend night in the dead of a Mississippi summer - deep wet heat, a long slow evening spent watching the sun get drunk and fall face first off the edge of the earth. It was Tupelo, Elvis birthplace - the Bethlehem for a certain musical cult. I bought a six-pack of Strohs beer, filled the motel sink with ice and stuck the bottles in my impromptu glacier. Turned on the TV and prayed this hillbilly hollar had a PBS station. They did! But would they carry the show Id watched all summer long . . . they did!
I cracked a beer, sat back, and enjoyed one of the more influential shows of my early early adulthood: I, Claudius.
In the winter of 2000 I was sitting at my desk, listening to the CD writer engrave, via laser, the latest version of the website into a semi-permanent reflective platter. Wife and child asleep in the next room. Just the sort of life I hadnt dared dream Id deserve. While the machinery works, I read: a new biography of Nero. While the book confirms what Ive always known - I, Claudius was fiction, of course, and took liberties with the truth - the book emphasizes what Id been loathe to admit:
1. Claudius was a sadistic, murdering politician as cunning as the most conniving senator; while he had some interesting and amusing qualities, he was nowhere near the gentle scholarly soul of the books or the TV shows.
2. Nero was not a fat giggly lyre-plucker. On the contrary. For that matter, he didnt strum the lyre and warble while Rome burned; in one of those moments of understatement that make you realize, with a sigh, that much of what you know is a flat-out lie, the book states that in reality, he led the fire-fighting efforts night and day for more than a week, at great personal risk.
But thats fine. I like the truth. Its good for a man to get a nice bracing shot of it from time to time. The truth about the Romans doesnt diminish my interest in them a bit - I still find them the most fascinating civilization of antiquity. Practical bastards, brutal & debased, consummately political, Protean in their adaptability, and grounded in virtues which they would mostly ignore, and which would survive them.
My antennae went up when the author debunked the tales of Messalinas sexual insatiability, and I remembered that the pamphleteers said the same thing about Marie Antoinette during the late French unpleasantness. It never changes: absolutism is repaid in full by a blast from the gutter, shamed by an accusation from whoremasters and scoundrels. But things do improve. Two thousand years later, those out of favor politically are not pressured to stab themselves to death. They resign, do the talk circuit, and end up as pundits. Nero could not have imagined that Seneca might show up on the outskirts of town - the Roman equivalent of MSNBC - arguing that his matricidal past would come back to haunt his new post-fire reconstruction agenda. OFF WITH HIS HEAD! a tyrant might have screamed. But they never anticipated television, where everyone is reduced to a jabbering head.
According to my travel journal, I watched I, Claudius, then sat outside on one of those pastel metal motel chairs and watched the traffic for a while. In four weeks Id be back in Minneapolis, reading Graves Claudius books while working in the Northrup King office.
I found those books in a box while cleaning out a space for Gnats toys a few months ago. They fell apart when I opened them. The pages fell to the floor; one had a blue circle around a page number, marking the spot where I stopped on a lunch break, 21 years ago. I grinned at the memory, wondered if I wasnt just imagining myself in the cafeteria - then cast a vote against false history. Thanks, I said to the books; it was fun. And I threw them away.
It rained on Thursday. Rare is the rain shower in a Minnesota January, but we do get them. We get everything. Winter-spittle showers, fire, rocks, toads, snow in July - the sky is infinitely inventive in these parts. Its not like Manhattan, where the man-made world is so spectacular that the sky just doesnt bother to compete. It takes its stars elsewhere. Thats why you see more in the middle of a North Dakota night, for example. Refugees from Gotham.
Anyway. It rained, which was nice; I had no umbrella or cap or hat, and less hair on top than I did 20 years ago, but no matter. It felt good. It was like being anointed with molecules of mercury, quick & cold & shivery. This meant that the smokers couldnt even stand outside, but had to cluster in doorways, and whenever I see them packed like steerage passengers in the hallways ten minutes after the Titanic hit the berg, I am gladdened anew that I gave up the nails. As I passed the IDS center, I saw them lined up by the dozens on the three-step staircase leading to the lobby, everyone silent, facing the street; they looked like the Silent Smokers Choir, waiting for the conductor. Theres a peculiar feeling to any good-sized downtown around 3:30 in the afternoon - everything sags, and for a moment it just seems as if every artifice around you will collapse of its own exhaustion. The messengers will realize that no one really needs this document. The smokers will decide not to go back upstairs - what, the worlds going to end if they dont finish the memo, file the report? The shopper in the diamond store thinks what is this? Clear rocks? What am I thinking? Bankers look out the window and see a sky as gray as a gravestone; people on buses look out with blank expressions, equally disinterested in their destinations as their origin. Everything seems like a communal pretense, and you wish you didnt have to participate. It seems like a lot of work just to keep us all fed and clothed.
Or at least it appeared so at the moment: probably just me. I hadnt written the column yet, and I was truly, deeply tired. Yes, Im sure it was just me. Fitzgerald, as usual, was wrong; in the dark night of the soul it is not 2 AM. Its about 3:31 or so, Thursday afternoon. Two AM, Im in a fine mood, if Im up. Last night I finished work and went downstairs to the Lair, watched a Simpsons Id never seen before. Then some Warner Bros. Cartoons and Gladiator DVD outtakes.
I love Two AM.
Tron was on the other night. As a historical document, its priceless; as a movie, its about what youd expect when people insist it be viewed as a historical document. I only saw the last 40 minutes - Gnat and I were doing the nightly TV session while Sara was walking Jasper. (I usually get up from my 20 minute nap, have a cup of coffee and wake up while Gnats in my lap; we watch cartoons, and she usually falls asleep, drooling, or poops; meanwhile, Sara is outside in the park somewhere picking up dog poop, and then they come home and Jasper insists on playing with his slobbery rope. Drool and Poop: my life.
Drool & poop & pop culture, if thats not redundant. Tron. It was a doomed project -the only people who understand the concepts behind the plot are those who know how preposterous the plot really is. If only Tron had been a silent film, offered with no subtitles, without the real-world opening scenes, it would be regarded as a masterpiece of stark surreal beauty. Im serious. I watched it with the sound way down (didnt want to wake Gnat, whod dozed off in my lap) and the lights low. Its quite beautiful. I also wonder if David Warner was the best film villain of his time (late 70s - mid 80s), since no one else captures his particular blend of weary, self-aware, malevolence. Time After Time; Time Bandits; Tron; he was literate evil incarnate.
Well. Back to work. Im doing car research tonight. Another sign of adulthood: the sports car is being sold for the Family Vehicle. SUV? No. Audi? Oui. Or maybe Ill swap the Defiant for a Gallant, although I hate the name of the vehicle; sounds like Goofus brother from Highlights mag. But thats another Bleat and another week. See you Monday.