I was standing in the grocery store tonight, waiting for the coffee grinder to finish pulverizing a pound of French Roast, when a man came up to me and said “I have to tell you something.” He looked as if he really had to tell someone, which can be disconcerting. “I was coming home on 35W tonight when I saw a billboard that had a message from God.”

Uh oh.

Grind, coffee grinder, grind!

“It said ‘Stop using my name in vain, or I’ll make rush hour worse.’ And it was signed God.” He grinned. “I figured that would be something for your column.”

Full-body relax. He was a reader, and just wanted to say hi and offer a subject. Now I had to shift gears out of private-shopping mode and into Public Mode - I wondered if my hair was all over the place, if I had a piece of salmon stuck in my teeth, whether I had coffee breath, etc. It’s an odd thing to happen, but it’s really very cool - the point of writing, after all, is to be read, and to have strangers come up and say nice things is one of the perks. I mean, the guy who makes sure the powerlines are working never has someone stop them in the store and say “thanks for the juice!” No one ever thanks my wife for saving the state money for prosecuting Medicaid fraud.

Hats off to everyone! Well, no. Hats off to Most Everyone. No; people don’t wear hats. Well, then: Hats symbolically refered to with a doffing gesture using the thumb and index finger, if the recipient performs a socially useful or mildly diverting function.

Yes, that’s a slogan that will catch on.

Another weekend in the plague house. My wife has some sort of bronchial fungoo, and either I have been wrassling with the bug for several days or - more likely - the long-term exhaustion fellow pneumonia sufferers predicted still has its clammy hands around my neck. I’m slightly hot; I’m slightly cold; I am bone weary and need to nap, then I’m good for four hours and need a sip from Lethe again. All the damn day long.

Staggered to the burbs for Christmas shopping, and made a stop at the most hideously run chain store in America, CompUSA. Every week I go there. Every week something stupid happens. The staff is usually smart and overworked, and I do not pity those fellows: each day they have to spend hours dealing with people who ought not to have anything more complex than a hammer, let alone a computer. I’ve overheard conversations that make a man weep: so, does this come with the internet in it? My emnity is directed at management, which has an odd insular culture that seems utterly unaware of how their decisions affect the customer. I’ve noted before how they refuse to put prices on anything. They also have - get this - antiquated computers in the checkout line, which is odd for a store that sells the damn things. Green type on black screen vintage OS, and the credit card receipts come from a frickin’ ADDRESSOGRAPH, which generates a receipt 17 inches long. It’s just ridiculous. But today I noticed that the cashier had a badge that said “Front End Lead.’’ I asked what that was.

“It’s an assistant manager,” he said.

There’s your corporate culture in a nutshell: come up with some jargon that means nothing to anyone outside the company, and put it on all the badges. No customer will ever ask to speak to a Front End Lead, and every customer will be confused by the term, but somewhere in the bowels of the company HQ is a cadre of consultants in charge of the Front End Lead Goals 02 Program, which no doubt seeks to maximize lateral process flow and optimize systems for human resource retention. This is the same store that checks your bags as you leave - you have to open the bag, show the receipt and produce the merch, even though you’ve just bought it five feet from the guy who does the checking. He’ll watch you check out, then ask you to prove you bought everything. Idiocy.

Longtime readers of this page may recall that I applied, in the long-ago world before the war, for a job as a panellist on a nationally syndicated public radio quiz show. I had a great time at the audition - it’s rare that I leave something like that thinking I done gud, but this time I was pleased with my performance. I didn’t step on anyone else, got most of the questions right, tossed in the requisite quippage, and had fun. I heard nothing, which I assumed meant that I didn’t get the job.

FF to Friday: I got an email concerning the show from a coworker, and while it had nothing to do with my tryout it reminded me that I hadn’t heard anything, and since the coworker had the producer’s phone number, I thought I’d call and ask - sniff - if it was true (whimper) that I had failed the audition.

He said, with an apologetic tone, that I was right to presume I didn’t get the job, and he said he’d been meaning to call. But, if it was any consolation, it wasn’t that my audition wasn’t good; it was -

And I knew exactly what was coming next.

“...but we were looking to add more diverse voices to the show.”

“I’d rather you told me I stunk,” I said, “than tell me I lost the job because of my race.”

The rest of the conversation was, shall we say, strained - I don’t want to mischaracterize the producer’s subsequent remarks, although he did initially sound as though I had punched him hard in the heart. People in his position pride themselves on doing good by hiring with an eye towards “diversity,” and it goes against every atom of their self-conception to be reminded that they are using skin color as a means to judge people. It’s an inevitable by-product of the process, but they hate to confront it. I would too. What galls me is the old & obvious saw about “diversity” - it’s defined in terms that make absurd reductions of individuals down to the hue of their flesh, rather than the content of their character, if I might borrow a phrase. I had this argument with an editor once - I said that a room full of people of different races who thought alike was less diverse than a room full of people who had the exact same ethnicity yet had wildly divergent beliefs. He had no idea what I was talking about; his intellectual cloak kept snagging on the word “diversity,” which meant the wildly varying perspectives that inevitably flowed from different eye shapes and skin tones.

In this case it seemed as though the producer was trying to tell me it wasn’t a race thing, but a voice thing, the way I sounded, and he seemed to suggest they had enough glib radio-friendly males on the show already. Well, I thought, why did you ask me to audition? Would I have stood a better chance if I’d spoken in a pinched nasal voice, had crippling mike-fright and said nothing amusing? When someone drops the DIVERSITY bomb, it’s impossible not to assume that I lost the job because I sounded white - and that in itself is ridiculous, since the guy I sit next to at work could do a great job on the show, and would sound just as glib and just as white, and he’s 100% Indian, as in Bombay India. But he probably wouldn’t get the job either, because his name doesn’t sound ethnic, and no extra value would accrue to the show when they introduced him. People would think: sure, this guy is clever and smart and always makes the show funnier, but I can’t quite ascertain his great-grandparent's ethnic origin from his voice. Better demand a picture so I know whether to enjoy the show or not.

I pity people who have to make these decisions.


Off to Target for supplies. Put Baby in nice blue onesie. Put Baby in cute blue jeans (so! cute! you! could! just! die!) Swaddle Baby in homemade blue sweater. End result: adorable. Get in car. Drive for 15 minutes through late afternoon traffic. Get to Target; park car; hear unmistakable sound of spewage. Cringe. Take shallow breath. Turn around.

(To the tune of the Hallelujah chorus:)

Chunk o’ sweet roll
Out the pie hole
All over her clothes!

All ingested
Half digested
From chin down to her toes!

Baby has tossed her lunch, and soiled her outfit
(Soiled her outfit! Soiled her outfit!)
Our journey just begun, and yet we must quit
(Yet we must quit! Yet we must quit!)

Drive home with window cracked open. Peel garments off Baby, who thinks this is all funny. Soak garments. Put on new clothes. Hand Baby to Wife. Go outside; remove carseat from vehicle. Burn car seat. Put roll of duct tape in back seat for future trips that require Baby to be strapped down.

Go back in house and make dinner.

Stare at dinner.

Put dinner away.

Got a call from my publisher today, and this is just unbelievable: the Gallery is going back for a FOURTH printing. To say thanks to everyone I’ve quit my plans to run Flotsam Cove as a pay site - even though I’d dropped the price down to ten bucks a year, it just seems churlish to make people who’ve supported the Bleat pay more for some stupid scans and fifteen lines of japery. So: I’ll just put the little Amazon badge here and there, and strongly suggest that anyone who likes Flotsam Cove cough up some green -

Urg. You know, after today in particular and this last month of bronchial fungoo in general, I don’t think I’ll ever use the phrase “cough up some green” again. Anyway. You get the idea. This means the pressure’s off, and I can just put up the damn site without feeling obliged to keep it going for the seven people who end up subscribing.

I mentioned recently that I’d been playing Diablo II - well, I’d stopped when I was swarmed by a dozen brothers of the Abominable Snowman from the Rudolph Xmas special, and they all hacked me to death. I was playing a Palladin, which I gather is a religious warrior - this guy was always vowing to cleanse the unholy vaults, scour the unholy tombs, scrub the unholy bathrooms, etc., so I was surprised when he died without a prayer, or a particularly bitter curse. He just died. I have no spells to defeat these guys - it’s early in the game, and I have just a handful of gold and no weaponry to speak of. I’m sure there’s a way around it. To school myself in these games - this is my first in this genre - I am playing the first game, which is quite similar but less complex. I am amused to find that half the skeletons I hack to death are carrying gold coins. Why? What are they going to buy? Calcium pills? Splints? Polish?

An entry on Moira Breen’s fine blog raised some interesting questions about what life in the Star Trek world is realy like, and I found myself nodding in agreement. I’ve long thought that earth under the Federation must resemble some sort of global Singapore. You’d have to have an authoritative power that suppressed dissent, because there'd be lots of it. At some point, a significant number of people are going to wonder exactly what we’re getting out of this Federation thing, anyway. You get sneery Vulcans everywhere who don’t pay their parking tickets, restaurants with ethnic food that makes you hallucinate for a night and throw up all day, Horta rock bands that burn through the walls of every hotel they stay at, those creepy Andorians looking at you like they’re seeing you naked. Eh. And all of a sudden, we’re living in a bad neighborhood - in the last 20 years, we had that V’ger thing show up and scare the crap out of everyone; we had that giant Slim Jim with the volleyball sidecar make the weather go nuts because it couldn’t talk to some freaking whales, and oh, did I mention we had a little visit from about fifty packing crates full of Borg? Then we had that whole shapeshifter thing where everybody had to prick their finger ten times a day to prove you weren’t really evil marmalade bent on conquering the galaxy.

Who needs it? How about we move the capital of the Federation to, say, one of your Rigels? Or maybe even Vulcan, if that’s not too much to ask of the bloody Pointies. Take the heat off old Planet Dirt for a while, if that’s okay with everyone else.

The word “blog” may have tripped up a few. I hesitate to bring this up, since half the readers of this page will know exactly what and who I am talking about. But I often get letters from people who wonder what a “blog” is, and they’re often people whose web habits have never really intersected with the big sprawling “web-log” world - i.e., the private sites updated frequently with links and comments to news stories & other sites. If you’re just used to Yahoo and Amazon and eBay, with the occasional foray into old-style journals like this thing, the sheer quantity of bloggage can be daunting, and the spotty quality enough to send you back to your regularly scheduled sites.

Prior to 9/11 I wouldn’t have recommended any blogs, since most seemed to fufill my Rule of the Web: those who can, write; those who can’t, link. Most blogs just wafted along on a cloud of gaseous poesy, twee geek humor, high-school chatter or self-importance. Since the war began, I’ve found a different sort of blog. There are plenty of intellectually vivacious writers tilling the blog fields now, and my daily web anabasis is much better for them.


There’s no snow on the ground. I cannot begin to describe how wrong this seems - well, duh, no, obviously I can, because I wrote a Backfence on the matter for Wednesday. Start again:

There’s no snow on the ground, and it has utterly leached my Christmas spirit away. I haven’t listened to any of the songs in my iTunes Christmas playlist - not Kay Kyser’s “Hello Mr. Kringle,” which lodged in my brain last year like shrapnel in Tony Stark’s heart; not those bittersweet Charlie Brown piano tunes - which are possibly the only piece of music capable of uniting every single person who grew up in America. No matter whatever our disagreements may be, everyone turns into a puddle of warm treacle when they hear the Skating Song, because instantly we’re a small child in footed sleepwear watching TV in a warm mood of infinite contentment. The choice of light tinkly jazz, which seems inevitable in retrospect, must have been quite Modern at the time. Today, of course, it would be rap:

Well you sucka animations had all betta flee
It’s time for the stylin’s of Chuckie Brown MC
Got a flaccid little twig that I call an Xmas tree
An’ a playa-hating sister, crabby ho Lucy

It’s yo birthday! Baby Jesus! It’s yo birthday! Baby Jesus!

Haven’t even played Burl Ives, whose “Holly Jolly Christmas” (recorded in July, according to the liner notes) is intrinsically part of, yet oddly seperate from, the beloved Rudolph special. I tried playing these songs when we decorated the tree last week, but it felt like patriotic music on Easter. So I turned on the satellite Christmas music feed, and learned an important lesson:

The only contemporary musicians who can convincingly sing Christmas songs are Country Western artists. Rock bands cannot do it, not since the 50s. When you hear .38 Special performing a Christmas tune, you can smell the cigarette smoke and the beer-drenched leather jackets. The message always sounds the same: I’ll be home for Christmas, although I’ll be leaving at eleven to go driving with my friend Paul who always has weed and Doors tapes.

R&B artists are better, but the newer models tend to spent the first minute of a song vocally aping the preminary aspects of sexual transport, which seems inapt.

Snow. I need snow.

At four o’clock today I was at the pediatrician’s, waiting for the doctor. Gnat had a fever. In the next room a child was having his leg sawed off. Or so it sounded. Pediatrician’s offices often sound like a scene from the last half of Hellraiser, and this was no exception. When the doctor came in, I was surprised: Dr. Daniels was a woman. I’d never had a female pediatrician at this clinic; the staff has been dead butch since day one, including the doc who endeared himself to me by describing a runny nose as “profuse rhinitis.” Sounds like a character in an 19th century novel, or perhaps a friend of the Mathers: “Increase Mather, I’d like you to meet Profuse Rhinitis.”

“Oh - you’re a woman!” I said, stupidly. But I recovered: “I thought the clinic had only male pediatricians! It’s nice to see a female face.”

Actually, I didn’t say that. Lord, I wish I’d said that. No, I said:

“I thought - Daniels - uh, you know, Jeff Daniels, the actor, and uh Charlie Daniels, they pretty much sewed up the whole Daniels thing.”

Then I said what I wished I’d said first.

I don’t think it did me any good. What a dork.

She doesn’t have strep or pnuemonia, it seems - just a cold. But it breaks your heart to have this little person burrow in your arms and give a tiny quiet sigh.

As I keep saying, you never know about this stuff, or have any idea how it hits you, until it’s there, and then you realize that the people who said “boy, is your life gonna change!” didn’t even come close to the truth. Any sort of children’s illness presents Fear and Love braided together in way you could never imagine, and you’d coil it around your own neck and throw it over the rafters if it would help her out.

The waiting room was the usual menagerie of loud healthy siblings and sniffling infants, and I noticed more fathers than usual. They all seemed impatient and officious and preoccupied. The mothers seemed like Marines making their fifteenth amphibious landing of the campaign. I fall into the latter category, having made many trips for earaches and sundry bugs. I don’t feel the need to seem as if I’m taking time away from My Vital Life as a Necessary Person.

O, wonderful me.

Stupid foot in mouth me.

Got three boxes from Amazon today, including a gift for myself: the New York PBS documentary on 97 DVDs. Or so it seems. It’s by that BURNS documentarian! Read the fine print, and it’s not Ken but his brother Rick. Hmm. This might seem a bit like getting the VAN DYKE COMEDY CLASSICS tape and find out it’s 100% Jerry, but as long as the discs contain hours of old film and old photos I don’t care if it was assembled by Gummo and narrated by Obtuse (Profuse’s brother.) One of these days I’ll watch it. I don’t actually consume media these days; I just collect it. I’ve ripped the new New Order and Garbage discs, but haven’t listened to them. Last week I got two metal containers with Disney color cartoons from the 30s, which I no doubt ordered during the pneumonia days: in my sick delirious desperate 102+ fever state I was so emotionally overcome by “Dumbo” I stocked up on lots of old Disney, from the days before that bloody Mouse became the joyless squeaky Leviathan with his personality planed smooth.

I had something else to say today, but can’t remember what. It’s been busy. Two columns. Much mail. Trip to the doctor’s. Now this. But that’s the end of it all.

Oh, right! A baby picture. Not obligatory; not at all.


Anti-climax department: it’s official. Negotiations have concluded to the satisfaction of all; the contracts are being drawn up for January delivery. “Interior Desecretors: Hellhole Homes from the Horrible 70s” will be published by Random House / Crown Books in 03, making it the second book in the Institute of Official Cheer collection.

Which - just - amazes me, really.

Thinking too much about it dept.: As any parent knows - no! STOP! Don’t go; this isn’t going to be another goopy hymn to spawnhood - certain songs in your child’s videotape collection become engraved on your brain, and you find yourself humming “Please Learn Some Manners, Bananas” while pawing through the racks at Victoria’s Secret. (Not all that inappropriate, really.) Gnat’s favorite tape is Richard Scarry’s Best Learning Songs Ever, and while I doubt that grandiose claim I am not willing to enter into a class action suit to settle the truth of the matter. I am interested in the following ideas:

Richard Scarry is a bad name for a children’s author. If it’s pronounced scary, then you might as well have the books written by Mr. Dickie Nightmare; if it’s scar-ry, as in a lumpy mass of regenerated flesh, it’s worse. (It’s the latter.) This tape consists of animated animals putting on a show for their indulgent parents, singing the usual songs about numbers, letters, shapes, the periodic table, nation states ranked by economic freedom, etc. Each song or skit is inevitably ruined or brought to an unexpected conclusion by the appearace of Bananas Gorilla, who steals a banana, says “Ba-na-na!” and runs away. At the end they teach him a song about asking for bananas and saying thank you, and dim as he is, he grasps the message. But. All the little animal kids and their parents are quite articulate, and even the smallest mouse is able to form complex sentences. Bananas Gorilla appears to be the Village Idiot. His IQ is clearly half that of a simple cat, and he must wander around Busytown performing odd jobs, sleeping in alleys, and generally behaving in the time-honored fashion of the local simpleton. Which means at some point he’s going to go all Lenny on then and snap someone’s neck trying to pet them. Or peel them. I fear for the day a cat parent finds a hysterical Bananas Gorilla curled in a corner of an abandoned basement, next to a half-flayed mouse, sobbing Not Banana! Not Banana!

It’s Richard Scarry’s Best Competancy Hearing Ever!

There’s also a snake called Lowly - there’s a name that builds confidence - and he wears an Alpine hat, a shirt and one shoe, as though trying to fit in with the rest of the fauna. The clothing makes him look like a circus sideshow freak - born without arms, he crawls on his belly! Nature’s cruel joke! Snake lad! Alive, alive! In one scene he’s sitting next to a juvenile cat, who is fishing, and I wonder what the cat’s using for bait; perhaps Lowly is the village vichy-boy, and regularly supplies his masters with fellow worms. And of course the fish in these tapes do not get personalities or voices or brains. But that conforms to the basic rule of the planet: Fish, in general, are just screwed.

Flashback dept.: In 1994 I moved back to Mpls, one month ahead of my wife; the house was nearly bare of furniture, except for the manly necessities: a lawn chair, a small table for one’s coffee cup or drink, and the TV set. I discovered a show called “Absolutely Fabulous,” and thought it was the funniest thing I’d seen in years - it had two characters with no redeeming qualities who weren’t bad or evil. Just hammered. It was so refreshing to see people smoke and drink with such blind enthusiasm. Add a few good supporting characters, and a really, really good theme song by the ever-underestimated Pet Shop Boys (scrapped, alas, for an underwhelming song that seemed to have no connection to the characters or their milleu) and you had something, well, you know. There was a second batch of shows done a year later, but they were trying too hard; another case of talent hobbled by hype. Now, seven years after the originals, comes a new season - mostly ignored, it seems. Their time has come & gone. Well, I’ve seen two, and perhaps it’s just my mood, but I had to stop the TiVo and wipe my eyes twice, and that just never happens. All the things I usually hate in TV are here - it’s over the top, it’s noisy, it’s stuffed with unlovable people, everyone’s shouting - but the old bile and fire is back. Cruel, awful, hilarious.

Like I say, maybe it’s my mood; after to listening to the Bananas Gorilla song ten times a day, it’s a relief to watch Pats threaten to pour Mick Jagger’s sperm sample into a smoking petri dish containing her one sole egg in order to blackmail Edina’s humorless pill of a daughter. I don’t remember if that was a dream sequence; it hardly matters.

And yet another flashback: got my Twin Peaks DVDs today. Can’t wait. Favorite show ever, perhaps, just for those strange haunting motifs - the traffic light, the trees bending low in a portentious wind, the now-startling sight of Laura Flynn Boyle with flesh on her bones. It’s all parody fodder now, but at the time, it worked. And nothing on TV before or since has ever freaked me out more than Bob. I’m going to get you - with my death bag! God knows what that means, but it sounded right. One of the reasons I tired of airport novels about serial killers was the inevitable Briliance of the villains. They were too smart, too self-aware to frighten. Real evil crazy people think in concepts like “my death bag!” You probably won’t end up chained in the dungeon of a super-smart killer who’s built a SPECTRE-like hideout in the woods, as in one of those stupid James Patterson novels. You might find yourself waking in a stinking tenement, and hearing someone say “you know, Satan lives in my radiator. He always has, wherever I go.”

No - Bob wasn’t the most frightening TV image, now that I think of it. As a child I was haunted by a nightmare image of a man at the top of a cliff using his mind to balance a big rock, which he was going to throw on another man. I saw this on my Grandpa’s color TV, and it just spooked me out ever after. It wasn’t until years later that I saw the show again: “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the very first Star Trek episode broadcast. There’s my geek bona fides: when it comes to Trek, I was literally there from the start.

Holly Jolly Dep’t: Returned to the Mall of America today, sans Gnat. Three floors, three hours. There are very few stores that speaks to me, and it makes me feel very . . . very alone in America, if I can cue the mournful violins. I do not want to eat at a theme restaurant made to resemble a rain forest. I do not play golf; when I go to the big golf store to buy for relatives, I have the feeling I imagine a gay man gets in a Vegas strip club. This is apparently appealing to some, but it’s utterly lost on me. Ditto the sports memorabilia shops. There’s a few computer game stores, but they’re overrun with grasping brats, and it’s all console stuff anyway. Even the Barnes and Noble feels wrong - unlike the other examples that seem to foster browsing and relaxation, this one just feels like a gigantic machine designed to shove Grisham down your throat. The only store that feels right is the blessed Apple store, which is without question the coolest computer store in the world. Literally: it’s about five degrees cooler than the mall, and it’s all ice-white inside.

Everytime I go to CompUSA I just see heaps o’ ugly plastic slabs loaded with stupifying & useless geegaws, rows of cameras that presumably work with the purplish boxes, big chunky ugly monitors. The Apple Store presents an image of seamless pristine integration - and don’t you go poo-poohing that, or the notion of aesthetic compatibility. For some of us, how the computer looks isn’t the main, secondary or tertiary consideration, but it’s in the mix. I’ve mentioned this before - people who do not spend a lot of time thinking about computers are always taken aback when they see my office - there’s the Apple flat-panel display flanked by two clear speaker wands, a glowing jellyfish subwoofer on the floor, the Airport wireless network flying saucer, and a bouquet of cords emerging from a hole on the desktop. (Firewire for iPod, another Firewire for the camcorder, USB for the digital camera, Ethernet for the laptop.) No visible computer. It’s tucked away in the desk. My dream of an office that doesn’t have a Medusa’s scalp of cables running everywhere is fully realized, and the utter simplicity of all the componants apparently makes it look like The Computer of the Future! to those not inclined to give their winboxes much thought. Of course, this is possible with Windows, too.

Am I completely & utterly satisfied with my choice? Nah. I wish I had more games, but that’s about it. I spend a lot of time in Windows, and I know its virtues and deficiencies.

The other day I was working on a web page - Flotsam Cove, due in January - and I was listening to some music from iTunes; I had a small window running a DVD I’d burned, just to make sure it worked. I thought about how long I’d been working on Apple computers, and I thought: What did I use a computer for ten years ago? No web pages. No video editing. No MP3s. No Internet.

Just word processing, crummy video capturing boards, hand-held sound digitizers, and Citadel BBS at 300 baud.

In other words: same as today, just much less. I was happy with that; I’m happy with what I have now. Can’t imagine what comes next.

Other than Thursday.


I didn’t do a thing today I haven’t done before. One of those photocopied days. As a civilized man with responsibilities, of course, I cannot stray too far from my norms - hah! Today I spent the afternoon mashing hummingbirds into a thick paste, and then I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die! Then I watched Friends! - but sometimes I tire of the rut, remunerative as it may be. Of course, every time I crawl out of the rut I feel like a WW1 soldier who has just left his trench at Verdun, and I yearn for the warm familiar mud of home.

Got an email from Amazon today: the two Simpsons World of Springfield “environments” I’d ordered would not be delivered, because they’d been cancelled. Damn. One was the Simpson’s kitchen, and the other was the Aztec theater. I wanted that kitchen, the 43-year old man pouted. This does not bode well for the rest of the line; if it’s cancelled before I have Comic Book Guy, I’ll be as surly as, well, him. On the other hand, the Simpsons have stunk up the joint this year - some bright spots, yea verily, but someone explain that recent Buddhist episode to me. I am not a particularly religious man in the Organized sense; I’ve never been a Church guy. I study the architecture, I MST3K the sermons according to their compliance or variance with Old Testament thunderings, the context of Luther in his times, etc. It is possible to do these things in church and still be devout, of course - people can be aware of all the political & cultural encrustations that accumulate on any doctrine, and still believe. I’ve never mistaken my own opinion of institutional religion as a Brilliant Critique of the entire enterprise, or proof that I am an Iconoclast, a Free Thinker. I just have too much of a disconnect between the concepts involved and the smell of wax. Somewhere along the line I became a member of the smallest religion: Lutheran Deists.

That said: clumsy blunt smug slams at ordinary mainstream religion make me grind my teeth, and the Simpsons is guilty of some truly nasty work in this regard. In one respect, Rev. Lovejoy is a sharp piece of satire, an example of a man made weary by the job of prodding his congregation towards goodness and belief. That his mission is undercut by his own deep ennui is part of the joke, of course. But the other night I saw an episode in which the Rev is driving a Book Mobile; he pauses, the back end of the truck shaded by a tree, and when he pulls away we see it’s the Book Burning Mobile. Yeah, right. This is like accusing Episcopalians of stoning anyone who proposes adding an accoustic guitar to the services. There’s that horrible little satire on the simplistic & tiresomely earnest Davy and Goliath claymations, in which the characters are making pipe bombs for abortion clinics. Would the show’s writers bring the same level of contempt and ridicule to Buddhism, or Apu’s faith? Never.

Now, I see the attraction in Buddhism - I really, really, really would like to be free of desire, too. (Hmm. Wait a minute . . . never mind.) That’s not my point. I don’t think we’re all better for having deeply held beliefs poorly spoofed for the sake of proving the writers are smarter than them dumb believers, haw haw! It just seems so needless. And then you consider that the same show is capable of actual insight: examine the episode in which Ned, having lost his wife, becomes interested in an intinerant Christian vocalist; at the end he tells her he can found right here in Church, every diddly Sunday. And he looks up with a smile. I don’t think the writer intended this to make Ned look like some sort of clueless Job, a guy who gets the boils but never even starts to formulate his gripes and doubts. You don’t have to be devout to know that Ned’s simple affirmation is the very nature of faith. In fact, one could argue that Ned’s faith is stronger than Lisa’s newly minted Buddhism, since he has come around again to trusting the will of an deity who he believes actively intervenes in individual affairs, yet did nothing to prevent the death of his wife. But still he believes, and trusts. Either he's dumber than dirt, or he knows something we don't.

I’m reading too much into all of this - as a friend once said, the Simpsons do not have histories, they have attributes. Ned’s attribute is his simple-minded reductive Christianity. But odd things happen after shows have been around for a long time, and you watch them again and again; characters assume cumulative aspects not intended by the show’s writers. As I mentioned many bleats ago, I had this odd epiphany while watching the Mary Tyler Moore show every morning for a few months: Ted Baxter is a good guy. He’s venal, preening, cheap, narcissitic in character, but he generally treats people better than anyone else. Murray was a nasty prick; my favorite, Lou Grant, was often an arse, and Mary herself by the last season was a pure ice bitch towards Ted. Everyone reacted to Ted with automatic nastiness, and behaved in a way Ted would never himself behave; we laughed at Ted, but after you’ve seen the shows a dozen times you start to feel sorry for him. He's just not bad enough to deserve what he gets. It’s the same with Flanders. For all his flaws and hidebound doctrine, he’s the only decent guy on the show.

“The Flanders” would be a horribly dull cartoon show, of course. Better he’s a supporting character, the square-john ever at odds with slovenly clueless infantile Homer. But when you look at all the shows, you realize that every writer tries - and usually succeeds - to make Ned a figure of ridicule, but they cannot make him an object of contempt. It just can’t be done. And so the institution in which Ned finds his home is lampooned with glee - probably because they can. A Simpsons episode that treated Islam like they often treat Christianity would produce a firestorm of criticism; imagine a turbaned mullah droning on lovejoylessly about Allah smiting the infidels and tearing out thier bowels, etc. In today's political context? Not. Possible.

Think of the one episode in which the Flanders give all their gifts to the Simpsons for Christmas, and Ned informs Rod and Tod that they’re going to have “an imaginary Christmas this year.” The little twits rejoice: yay! Imaginary Christmas! And we laugh - because, of course, it’s funny, and they’re annoying dorks. But it’s a great throwaway line that hints at something deeper. The kids don’t need gifts to have Christmas. We’re always told that this season is too materialistic - yet the commentators who make that point are often shy to tell us what it should be about, lest they seem like, well, you know, Flanders.

So . . . what AM I saying, then? Bog knows. It’s late and I’m tired. Probably this: when it comes to Christmas, I’ll side with Ned. (If he leaves the kids at home.) For most of the people who pack into the big Lutheran cathedral up the street, it’s a day to affirm certainties, and I’d rather be in their number, because oddly enough that’s where my own uncertainties seem to belong. That there is a God I have no doubt, simply because there is just so much the human mind cannot possibly know, and I think it wise to err on the side of The Great Something arranging this iteration of substance and photons. Just because Jasper Dog doesn’t know there’s a Mayor doesn’t mean I don’t get a tax bill twice a year. Some people find Proof in the Gospels; I find them in a Hubble photograph of a hundred galaxies strewn among the infinite night. It’s not the same proof; it’s not the same sort of God, but we can discuss the details over pie and coffee.

As for the doctinal particulars that don’t pass empirical scrutiny - I can hang on my questions and presume that the questions themselves are evidence against the propositions, or I can re-diddly-lax and let the essential truths of the day take hold. If my daughter has taught me anything, it’s that we’re more than lively meat. I can nourish and groom my doubts all year long, but not on Christmas. Doubt is a rut. Enough of that for now. Enough.

Hey: Merry Christmas!

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