October Week One
Fifteen hundred orphans.

One thousand, five hundred orphans.

Count to one hundred, slowly, visualizing a child’s face for each number. Then do that fifteen times.

I can guarantee this will get me a few letters pointing out the children in Iraq killed by sanctions; that’s some people’s immediate reaction. As if there’s a parallel. As if refusing to fill the coffers of Saddam so he can rebuild the anthrax factories is analogous. It isn’t. The children in Iraq die because of Saddam. The children in America are orphaned for the same reason.

Friday I wrote a Backfence I knew I would regret - instead of answering letters in my voice, I handed it over to a Taliban scholar, who came up with detailed, logical replies that inevitably spiraled into murder. Black humor, blacker than pitch, but after I’d filed I knew that some would take it the wrong way. So after supper I rewrote the entire thing, and let me tell you I was about as sick of writing that night as I’d ever been. I was tired of writing when I wrote the first column. I’ve never felt so . . . useless, really, in all my professional career; the notion of going back to the baroque inananities of standard Backfence just seems impossible, and humor tethered to the events of the day has to have a dark componant as well as a jolt of hope & light, but man: I don’t know what to do anymore.

Last night, for example, I had a rather blatant dream: I had agreed to take over both George F. Will’s and Dave Barry’s column, and they were both due on the same day as my Newhouse column and a Backfence and a Bleat, and I didn’t have a computer. Just an old IBM selectric. And all the pages I fed into the machine were wet. And it was 11:30 PM, with midnight as my deadline. I had no idea where to start. When I wrote something, all the pages would stick together, and could not be pried apart without shredded them, and the words bled into a muddy mess of ink.

A grandiose and flattering dream, I suppose; the world is NOT weighing on my shoulders, waiting for the next dispatch. I just don’t look forward to the next week with any great pleasure. The sadness and tremulous resolve in the letters I get is overwhelming, and I can’t write pretending that 091101 didn’t happen. Wouldn’t want to try. I watched that CNN doc on Afghanistan last night, “Behind the Veil,” which contains a public execution of a woman at a Kabul sports complex built by the UN. A Taliban spokesman says, in a reasonable voice, that if the international community does not like executions performed in this sports complex, they should help the Taliban build a dedicated facility for the purpose.

I just felt the blood drain out of my body. These men do not deserve to live.

Well! How was your weekend? Actually, things were good here - lovely weather, a picnic in the park on Saturday, family walks to the park to swing and teeter/totter. Sunday night my old friend Wes came by with his new old car - his ancient Mustang, which he’s been restoring for 20 years. It’s drivable now. Spare, but authentic; you sit in the cockpit and turn on the radio and you expect to hear news about the Vietnam war. He’d recently had some vacation time, and he did exactly what I do when I’ve the opportunity: he went to New York. He lived there for years - taught at the Tisch center at NYU, and every trip I’d make the long trek down Broadway to his office. This trip was, for him, defiance and reassurance. He drove. (Not the Mustang.) And, once there, he walked, the subways being in a state of unimaginable contrusion. He got close to the Pit, and was kindly moved away by a man in khakis with a very large gun. What struck him more than anything - on a personal, human level - was a firehouse in Brooklyn; the front of the building was heaped with flowers, candles, pictures, memorials. You can’t even begin to imagine it without realizing how many lives were lost just trying to help someone.

He was wearing his faded old NY cap, the letters arranged in the classic subway-token logo. Here’s a guy born and raised in Minnesota, who always felt the pull of New York, and to this day loves it like an ex-wife . . . well, an ex-wife who towed his car twice a year and charged too much for rent and beer. And he’s hardly unusual; there are millions like him, and millions like me who never lived there but knew it and loved it. The first time I visited New York I thought it was the APEX of swank to have coffee at the Herald Square Chock Full O’ Nuts - even though the coffee was cold, the clerk bleakly surly and the refills not forthcoming, this was what I’d been waiting for: coffee! Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee! In New York! Here I am!

Saw the can in the picture above a few days ago in the grocery store. Stared at it for ten seconds or five minutes. A simple stupid coffee can. Now it looks like an urn from Atlantis.


The other shoe is about to drop, I think. Soon. I also think we’re talking about a millipede here.

Perfect fall day - it’s October, to everyone’s surprise; how did this happen? The trees are all on the verge of opening their taps and letting the green drain down. But the sun had weight, the lawns are lush and long, and everything looks perfect. It’s a lovely city. It’s a place worth keeping. Winter, I think, is going to be long and hard - many an afternoon spent looking out on the big backyard, not seeing anything but the white snow and empty trees, the TV news reflecting in the old rippling windows like an underwater dream. There’ll probably be some inadvertant soundtrack to the drama & nerve-wracking moments - during the first week, when it seemed as if a gigantic bolt-cutter was snapping every cable that held the world in place, Gnat’s Baby Van Gogh tape played daily, and the buzzy cheerful music seemed like horrible mockery, or worse: an idiot in the corner reciting limericks while the tanks rolled outside. Now when I hear that music it seems oddly comforting: the sound of a time that did not get as bad as was instantly feared. We adapt to anything.

Spent the whole day with Gnat. Worked when she slept. We went to Target to get supplies, and I found a smoke machine for my planned Halloween Tunnel of Terror. I’d decided to fill the garage with red bulbs, add a smoke machine, play moaning sounds of the damned, wear a robe and a scary mask, and wordlessly dole out candy. I put the smoke machine in the cart and was choosing a horribly disfigured mask from the Horribly Disfigured Mask Aisle when I thought: the neighborhood is full of young children. Do I want to give them nightmares? Would I want Gnat to come up to my driveway, dressed in a princess outfit, and face this horrible apparition? There was a guy in the old neighborhood who puts on a spectacularly creepy show, complete with Gregorian chants, amplified screams and bowls full of writhing weevils - it’s a great job, and the teens like it, but for the little unicorns and Ariels, it’s a vision of hell itself.

I put back the smoke machine. I’m going to sit outside with a big bucket of candy and praise their costumes. Or, rather, my wife will. I’m no good at the costume-praising department. Half the time the kids don’t want praise; they want candy, and you can just cut out the palaver, jack. Cut to the Mars Bars, pal. Then I get irritated: YOU’RE WELCOME, I say after they’ve failed to issue a civil Thank You.

Little creeps.

I’m going back for the smoke machine tomorrow.

Well, no. But I am going to get a skeleton and put it by the tree on the corner, and light it up. I hope it’s a good warm night, like the last few Halloweens - had one a few years ago that was nigh in the high 70s, and I remember meeting some of the neighbor men under a streetlamp for cigars and conversation; such a warm night so late was too precious to waste on anything but indolence, conversation and cheroots. But there’s something to be said for the night that turns somber and forbidding, too - those nights when the rain comes down at eight, and drives all the dilletantes off the streets, mats down the leaves, hisses on the open pumpkins. A good halloween has a moment when the carved smiles no longer seem like your friend, when even an adult feels some sort of ancestral dread, no matter how minor or fleeting.

But that’s
a whole month away. For the first time in decades, I’m looking forward to it; for once, the whole ThanksgivingsmasEve smear of holidays from November to January doesn’t seem like a series of logistical challenges, but a rare opportunity to burrow in, be grateful, value every moment. One eye on the tree; one on the news . . . and then both eyes on the tree, the fire, the snow, the twilight view from the broad windows of Jasperwood, the family warm inside, and my wife’s voice:

“I wish you’d taken that skeleton down from the tree before the snow fell.”

In advance, I confess: she has a point.


Good news item #1: I’m pleased to report that Diet Coke with Lemon is perhaps the finest soft drink released in recent memory, and I’m proud to be alive in the days that saw its birth. It’s a rare honor. Back in the days when I worked at Ralph & Jerry’s, there was a message written on the cooler wall years before:

“This stuff is going to sell like you wouldn’t believe.”
--Lloyd, on Tahitian Treat

His remarks - oracular, prescient - had been scrawled on the cooler wall with a Magic Marker by a co-worker after Lloyd (a scrawny guy about five years older than a corner-store stockboy ought to be) had tasted the first shipment of TT. I’ve always wondered if such a soda-related epiphany would come to me. It has.

Good news item #2: it was 84 degrees today. Autumn heat is the best of all, because it seems like a gift, an unexpectedly hefty tip, an act of generousity on behalf of a stranger. When we took the family walk to the park we’d pass through pockets of warmth, as if someone had saved summer in a bottle and dropped it on the sidewalk for all to enjoy. Everyone at the playground was in summer gear; everyone realized it would be 20 degrees cooler tomorrow. “See you in the Spring” was the common farewell. It’s a mark of the return of confidence that no one said this with a quaver in their voice or a God-Willing shrug.

Jasper is, without question, the most annoying dog at the playground. Other dogs sit tethered to benches, and occasionally woof at competing mutts, but Jasper whines and barks the entire time. He hates the playground. It is a realm of danger and peculiar peril he doesn’t understand. When Gnat goes on the swings, he’s worried. When she goes down the slide, he insists on clambering up the platform to follow, and there’s nothing as undignified as a dog attempting to climb a height not scaled for dogs. They look like Fatty Arbuckle going over the wire at Folsom. When he makes it to the top, he goes down the slide, dog-toes splayed wide, a what-the-hell! expression on his face; then he barks. What are you DOING? Likewise the teeter-totter. Madness! He’s never happier than when we leave.

The other patrons of the playground no doubt feel the same.

Long day. Two columns. The second came out with remarkable ease - after staring at the screen for an hour, hemming and hawing, I just said okay, write the damn thing, and bang. Out it came. Back home to play with the Baby Who Will Not Sleep - for two hours I swear we did nothing but put toys in the toy basket and take them out again. Watched Judge Judy, which featured Scandoids from the Twin Cities; always a pleasure to see fellow citizens get the tender edges of their self-righteous sensibilities charred black by the Judge. Every show you hope for one of those priceless moments when a plantiff commits some breach of decorum so egregious they’re summarily dismissed, but those are rare.

Enough for today; I’m going to go outside and finish reading the newspaper while it’s still short-sleeve weather. It’s a night too rare to waste it bathing in the light of the machinery.


I’d like to propose a new word. We all know about pheromones, the chemicals that supposedly float betwixt us carrying certain messages, such as sexual availability. (If they actually work as advertised, then no one who ever wore Giorgio should have gotten a date in the 80s.) We know “meme,” which is an idea that flows through a society. It’s like a trend, only it’s mostly intellectual & conceptual. Well, last week we were all flipping out over biological warfare; this week, it seems, the growing worry concerns bin Laden’s possible possession of suitcase nukes. He might have gotten them from the Russian mob. It’s a real bowel-loosener, but the Russian mafia is corrupt beyond corrupt - a friend of mine who did a diplomatic stint in a post-Sov republic used to say that we should bring the US mob to Russia and teach them a few things - namely, when you exort money for a service, at least you PROVIDE THE SERVICE. I can easily imagine a Russian mobster selling Bin Laden’s lads a scary-looking suitcase that contained nothing more than a Starbucks thermos. How can you tell? You can’t exactly snort the plutonium to test its purity.

Anyway - nukes are the fear du jour; in a few days we’d be pleased to find that bin Laden DID have biological agents, but didn’t have nukes. Whew! As these ideas spread - and there will be more, many more - I propose a word: fearomeme.

Use freely, without worrying about royalties. You’re welcome.

I’m working on a Backfence tonight, slipping between Fence and Bleat; the lines between the two are blurring, although I can still tell the difference. I would never, for example, mention the horrible song that came to my mind today in a moment of grim black cheer - for some godforsaken reason a song from the Jetson’s came to mind, that stupid song George Jetson (and did they live up on stilts high above the ground because the city below was radioactive?) substituted to foil Daughter Judy’s entry to a song-writing contest. Two Jetsons episodes stuck in my mind from childhood - Uniblab ("Planet poker! hic!") and Jet Screamer, the Elvis of the Future. About twice a year I will enter a room and say Bay-be bay-be bay-be ah ah ah! a la Jet, but only when A) I’m in a stupidly happy mood, and B) I’m alone. Anyway: the song came from nowhere: Eep Op Ork Atta / Eep Op Ork Atta / Eep Op Ork Atta / And that means I hate you! Come flyyyy with me, come -

And then I stopped, right there, and wondered: what the HELL is going on with my subconscious? Last night, for example, I dreamed I went to a restaurant that served food buffet style, with one condition: you had to agree to be drafted for a massive civil engineering project. This, I thought, was fair. The dream then segued to ancient Rome; I was Caesar, one of the middle-period thinner, blotchier Caesars, and decided to foil an assassination plot by abdicating in favor of my son, who was thin, blotchy, sullen and exceedingly unnerved by the honor. Then I woke up, dismayed I’d behaved so poorly towards the end.

Just when you feel as if things seem normal, you realize the truth: that’s how you want it. So that’s how you make it. Doesn’t mean that’s how it is.

Tomorrow I do my part for the economy: going to buy a new iBook so I can wirelessly access the Strib email and write my column in the kitchen while Gnat plays. Although today she wouldn’t have given me much of an opportunity; a little goat, she was. Cranky from lack of sleep, although even for her crankiness is pretty cheerful. She’s learned to imitate a monkey - or rather, she’s imitating me imitating a monkey. She doesn’t hoot, but just smiles and makes hyperventilating sounds. Baby, baby, baby. Ah ah ah.


Here’s a definition of the times in which we find ourselves: a jet gets blown up by an errant rocket, a Florida man comes down with anthrax, the Afghan refugee camps are swept by an Ebola-style bleed-from-all-available-exits disease, and it’s not necessarily a big news day. A brisk one, yes, but nothing to get excited about. The sight of the two tall towers coming down set the standard for News. Military action by US forces will be the only thing to really set pulses galloping again.

Heard on the news today that bin Laden is actually “a common Saudi name.” Read the other day that Osama means “Tiger,” or some such supersized feline. Which means that his name could strike the native speaker’s ear as “Big Cat Jones,” which is certainly macho enough. I’m going to think of him as Pussy Smith. Or perhaps Kitty Johnson.

Took Gnat & Hammy, the Alarmingly Lifelike Hamster Doll to the grocery store today. Gnat’s first order of business is to set Hammy in the cart with great deliberation. She also likes to receive the goods I take from the shelf and place them in the cart; this minor transaction makes her feel useful, I guess, and she’s less inclined to molest the foodstuffs if she has some role. Fine with me. At the checkout, she grabbed Hammy by the scruff and gave him to me; since she thinks it’s funny when I imitate Jasper and shake something in my mouth, I did this with Hammy.

MAN! said the fellow filling the grocery bags. I thought that was a real gerbil.

I should have spit it out and sneered well, it is, but I like this store and wish to return.

The kid around the corner set up an apple stand after supper, selling apples the size of grapes. APPLES, he said - through a bullhorn. APPLES. FIFTY CENTS. At first I couldn’t make out the words, just the preternaturally LOUD sound of a boy’s voice flatly declaiming some sort of Important Announcement; had the Civil Defense forces hired in the playgrounds?

APPLES. FRESH APPLES. He sounded incredibly bored.

You always want to patronize these stands, lest their failure somehow turn the kid against the free market. Besides, when I was a kid I went door to door selling apples from our backyard tree. (The tree later turned sour and old, producing red mush, perhaps as protest for not being cut in on the action.) I have a clear memory of the enterprise, or rather a clear memory of the photos my parents took. Red wagon, of course; brown plaid windbreaker with a hood. (It still exists in our basement in Fargo, probably.) I spent my largess on a new form of plastic construction blocks, even though I was deeply committed to Lego - my parents tried to talk sense into me, but even then I was besotted by the New. They were plastic squares with a hole on each side, and some pieces were hinged. Lame. The entire season’s profits: gone.

So maybe I shouldn’t buy apples from the kid, I thought. He’ll only spend it on Digimon and regret having not furthered his Pokeman collection. Let us spare him the regret.

I’m better at rationalising miserliness than anyone I know, which is why it’s good I have a generous wife; in these situations her face appears in my head like the Teletubby Baby-in-the-sun, warming me with her example. So I got my wallet and went down the street.

FREE APPLES, he was saying now. FREE. When I got there I saw he’d set up the classic stand, with a whiteboard sign: APPLES FREE. (The smudges indicated it had previously been fifty cents.) “I hear you have some apples,” I said as I approached. He didn’t stir. I went around to the front of the stand to assume the classic Indulgent Adult position. “Got any apples?” I said. He could barely stir himself to look up. A half-eaten mini-taco sat on a plate; a few quarters were strewn on the table. The bullhorn rested on the ground.

“They’re free,” he said in absolute abject misery.

“Nah, I’ll buy some. How many can I get for a dollar? Two?”

He got up and dug around in a bag. “We picked them ourselves. So they’re pretty small.” I understood the logic; store-bought is ALWAYS better, he probably thinks. He handed me two apples that would be impressive in size if they were prostates. I thanked him and walked home.

Fall’s small pleasures.

previous :: next :: main menu