Monday, February 25, 2002
It’s Sunday afternoon. The temps are dropping about a degree every ten minutes; Large Weather is en route, we’re told. There’s a kid a few blocks away playing on a rusty swingset, chanting some singsong rhyme, and it all feels like a moment in a Stephen King story where the hero realizes he has stepped around a corner into the world of ghosts, rotted abominations, gigantic telepathic spiders, etc. I’m not sure when echoey children's’ voices became synonymous with spooky - probably somewhere in the early 70s, during that wretched plague of post-Rosemary’s Baby TV movies. My God, it seemed as if 73% of all TV movies dealt with a clique of Satan worshippers who’d chosen the movie’s heroine because she was the reincarnation of a Salem witch - why, look at this portrait! ‘Tis ye, Goodewyfe Rebbbornah! The Night Gallery, The Sixth Sense, the Movies of the Week - every show had this plot. Probably Gomer Pile as well. "Gawwlllee! Whut do you mean, she’s a succubus, Sergeant Carter? I didn’t even see her none ‘round the motor pool, let alone putting her lips to a transport -"

Pile! Shutup and help me press her to death with a board and stones before the major comes back! That’s an order!

The Rosemary's Baby influence was more widespread than you think. Recall the basic hook of RB and all the Satanic Cult movies that came later: a group of Upright Citizens are doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers by day and hot bottoms for Satan’s Pole-O-Pain Priapic Thrusters by night, and get together every full moon to sacrifice babies in a basement. Why? For earthly advancement? Wouldn’t college be easier? You can default on your loans, after all, without being clawed apart by the Six-Winged Bloodfeasters of Aabolath. And even if you did have power, you’d have to hide it. You couldn’t fly, or kill people by snapping your fingers, or make worms flow from the ground and smother your foe. You’d have to sit there smiling like any normal person, thinking: if only you knew I had talons on loan from Satan, my friend. It’s the spiritual equivalent of wearing women’s underwear, I guess. If only they knew! And it makes me feel so naughty.

I’ve never understood making a deal with the devil. He’s not known for his trustworthiness. And even if he keeps his word, you get 60 years of fun here and then an eternity bobbing in a pit of boiling urine. And what did these mortal minions actually get for their bargain? Power! They got to be - doctors! Lawyers! It must have been a hard time during the office Christmas party, looking around at all the people who hadn’t sold their soul for a partnership in the zoning law division. They didn’t have to go to hell. They didn’t have to worry about finding a fresh baby every fourth Friday night. Lucky bastards.

Anyway. About five years after these movies died out - killed on contact by disco music, apparently - we started to get books about these cults, insisting they really existed. And then the child-sex-abuse ring accusations started. We had one here in Minnesota; all the usual details. Crusading attorney much beloved by the press for her brave work, children who confessed to all sorts of preposterous abuse (“When the child says he rode a unicorn to Happy Chocolate Land where the clowns put knives all the way in his ears, it’s a metaphor. Trust the children! They don’t lie about these things - why, the very elaborateness of their outlandish tales is proof that something happened.”) And the accused often looked like dumpy miserable unhappy people - because they’d been falsely accused of a hideous crime, of course, and because their children had been taken away from them. If they’d looked happy and fit we’d have stoned them on the spot for not looking guilty and depraved.

The day-care horror stories swept the land. Every state had one, it seemed. I think at one point 47% of America was accused of spending at least one workday afternoon queuing up outside of abandoned churches so they could have sex with the wee charges from a day care. And now I believe there’s just one man in jail, one man left from that period of communal insanity - Gerald Amirault. The Gov. of Mass. refuses to pardon him for reasons I can’t fathom - except that perhaps the number of kids who were dragooned into believing this nonsense were so numerous they now constitute a significant voting bloc.

The evil that was done to these people and the children who were compelled to tell these preposterous tales was greater than the evil of the old TV movies. You have a fighting chance with Satan; you can run, wave crosses, pray for the morning. When a crusading prosecutor gets you in her sights, well, abandon hope all ye who enters a plea. Especially if it’s not guilty.

There’s another element
to those crappy movies, as well - the notion that good people are really bad people. Goodness is a mask. Somehow this got expanded and given wider currency - if goodness is a mask for some, then goodness might be a mask for all. Goodness itself is suspicious. If you saw Buddy Ebsen smiling in a 1957 movie, you’d think: nice guy. If you see Buddy Ebsen grinning in a 1971 film “Salem’s Bride” you vote him most likely to be wearing a black robe and chanting Latin backwards by the picture’s end.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it has to do with the replacement of goodness with coolness. In the best old movies people were Good, or they were Bad, or an interesting combination of the two that resolved one way or the other by the movie’s end. (That’s one of the reasons Casablanca was so good - the Good-Good character, Victor Lazlo, was boring, and the Bad-Bad character, Herr General Fritz Uberbraten, or whatever he was called, was just there for hisses. Everyone else was mixed. Good-Bad Cap’t Renault became good; we all know that Bad-Good Ugarte would have stayed bad. Ilsa had done a bad thing - she left Rick - but for a good reason! Etc.) But that’s been replaced by Coolness - a corrosive element that values smirky skepticism above certainty and belief.

I was thinking about this last night when I came across, at 12:00, “That’s Entertainment III: the Bottom of the Barrel.” I usually am not crazy about musicals, but I’d never seen this stuff before. Lena Horne at 21, singing in a bubble-bath - whew. I think if you’d boiled that film stock down to a small paste and smeared it on me when I was 15 I would have exploded. A few Busby Berkley numbers with sets the size of small countries, and then a batch of Gene Kelly clips. Dancing always bores me, I’m afraid; it’s the least of all the arts in my book. But I’ll always watch Gene Kelly dance - no one else captures a certain American essence like he does. Yes, Astaire was elegant, but this isn’t an elegant country; it’s a broad-shouldered, sunny-grinned stomping-on-the-ground country that turns on the grand broad schmaltz when it’s had a few. If you can find a more American moment in musicals than the Singin’ in the Rain sequence, tell me.

If I could be anyone in the movies, it would be Gene Kelly. A man ought to be able to dance like that, just in case you’re in a bar and Cyd Charisse walks in. She probably won’t. But she might.

The house is absolutely quiet, because Gnat and Wife are sleeping; they both have the flu, although Gnat’s pulling out of it. (Wife’s divebombing into the worst of it today, I’m afraid.) We finally got her down for a nap; she slept for an entire ten minutes; then, when putting a sock down the clothes chute, the knob slipped from my hand and the chute-door snapped closed. It was like the moment in a submarine movie when someone drops a wrench, the enemy ship hears the noise and drops 48 depth charges, killing Mark Leonard. (There’s today’s Trek reference for you.) She woke up right away, and I was in the doghouse for carelessness. Wife gets Gnat back down. I have to sneeze - and of course I stifle it, once, twice, three times, blowing all my eardrums in the process.

Had to take Gnat to the doctor on Friday, since she was not herself at all - no cheer, no glee, just half-mast eyes and lank damp hair. The doctor suggested that Gnat had the flu, and that’s what’s sweeping through this charnel house again. I don’t seem to have it as bad, but then again I think I’m full of so many competing virii and bacteria that no one germ ever gets the upper psuedopod. They have me gerrymandered - one strain gets one lung, another handles the back of the throat, SpecOps germs are going cave-to-cave in the Nasal Passages, and the new germs with no seniority are sent off to the ankles, or the fingernails. I am the walking model of multilateral cooperation among germs.

Or would be, if I was walking.
Tuesday, February 26, 2002
Today: the plague abates; quartermaster dad; the invidious politics of a goose-salvation movie

I was going to go on and on about Reveal light bulbs, but I have the feeling I might need it for a column topper tomorrow. And I could go on about the Internet Hate-Speech law the EU wants (and is there any better name for that sclerotic batch of regulators? Ewwwww) but I need that for a column tonight. Paying jobs always come first.

So, a few random notes. Aussie Blogger Tim Blair (which is fun to say quickly - it has the same delightful meter as “ramalama dingdong”) wondered yesterday “what is it with the Lileks household and disease?” to which I can only quote Instapundit Glenn Reynolds: having a small child in the house is like living in a bioweapons lab. (That’s the nice thing about the Internet: your imaginary friends correspond with you, often of their own volition, and talk about you when you’re not around. If ever I go insane I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell the difference. Doc, either the medication is working or Blogger is down again.) I’d add: a bioweapons lab in which the clean suits afforded the same protection from infection as a thong provides shielding from the sun. The etiology of this bug is clear - from my wife’s brother’s son to Gnat, from Gnat to my wife. We stayed clear of the fungoo that brought down the Giant Swede’s house, but were powerless against the Arizona Grippe. Me, I survived. Didn’t hit the floor like the rest of the family - turns out all I needed was sleep, and after a nine-hour binge last night I am hale, strong, clear-eyed and in full anal-retentive overdrive.

Yesterday, for example, I redid the fridge. Tossed out the elderly vegetables, cast out the suspicious chicken, wiped down the shelves, replenished the stocks of ale from the garage. The disorder of the fridge is inevitable, and there’s nothing you can do about except clean it out before the stuff in the back attains consciousness and unionizes the lunchmeats. But before I go on the weekly shopping expedition I like to edit the fridge down to active duty personnel. I also performed minor realignment of the cupboard, which is something over which I can exercise a small amount of control. Two months ago I arranged everything by frequency of use and genre, and the fragile peace remains in effect to this day. (This aspect of my personality both thrills and frightens my wife, since I was a domestic slob when she met me, and I’ve now vaulted over her in terms of household order.)

Then it was off to Target, again, for household goods. Every so often you have to stock up as though civilization itself were to fall tomorrow. I bought 6 boxes of Reveal light bulbs, bales of toilet paper the size of Daisy Cutters, enough shampoo and shaving cream to prepare the Gitmo detainees for a class picture, over-the-counter nostrums for everything that can beset the family’s heads, noses, mouths, throats, guts and bowels. (I realized a while ago that you can actually buy Pepto-Bismol before you need it; there’s no means-test at the pharmacist. You can have these things on hand in case they’re needed. Really!) And a bath mat to keep Gnat from slipping in the tub, and extra razors (they had a sale, and I am now inured against a sudden bout of lycanthropy) AND extra crayons to have on hand when the current batch have been completely broken or eaten. Also bought two paintings for the upstairs hall that match the painting in the stairwell. If Target sold bourbon, I would just put the family in a Winnebago and live in the parking lot.

Back home. Put everything away with great satisfaction. Put up the pictures. Made supper: pecan-encrusted whitefish with a curry-dressing salad. Ate. Looked at my wife, and said: I am going to pass out now.

Nap. Zzzzz. Up: walk dog; it’s cold. It’s about 14 degrees, but as usual I didn’t have a cap or gloves; I haven’t worn either all winter. It’s my way of knowing whether it’s too cold for Jasper’s paws - if my hands are cold, his paws must be freezing. Back home. Tried to feed Gnat - she’s feeling much better, but rejects all food. She hasn’t eaten in, say, a week. Or so it seems. A little here, a little there, but in general: nyo. Nyo! Tried to amuse her with a video, and noted that I’d recorded a Disney channel about geese. She likes geese. And here my troubles began.

This one was called “Fly Away Home,” and as far as I could tell from what I saw, involved the efforts of Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin to use ultralight aircraft to get seven geese back to their favorite pond. Awww. How sweet! Except this is the modern age, of course, and nothing is just sweet; it must also be political. Turns out that the geese’s home pond was slated to be turned into - dum dum DUUUMMMM - housing for human beings. If the geese arrived in time, the housing project would be blocked. As I joined the story, a crowd of protesters (saintly) had assembled to yell at the developer (worse than Hitler) who was standing on a bulldozer (evil) which was belching black smoke into the pure pristine air (pass Kyoto! Now!)

I’m paying attention, because this seems a little heavy-handed for an afternoon’s kid movie. Jeff Daniels flies his flock into the fog, and it’s a scary moment - they can’t see! The geese might lose! Houses might be built! Then the fog lifts, and they’re in a downtown skyscraper canyon, zigging for great justice between the towers of Baltimore (played by some Canadian city.) Stunned office workers look out their windows, point up as if Superman had bounded over a building: it’s a guy in an airborne lawn mower being chased to his death by geese! Well, no, but having been chased by geese a few times in my life, that would have been my assumption.

Now it gets good. We switch to the TV news, which is reporting live on this event, of course. Says the anchorman:

“If anyone’s having a two-martini lunch in Baltimore, they’ll swear off after this.”

Yes, in 1995 people often got drunk at work; it was part of the culture, don’t you know. Their narrow ties would become askew, their shotglasses smeared with Brylcream, and everyone had a slight hack from smoking ten Pall Malls over the steak-and-liquor lunch. Then they’d all go back to their Madison Avenue offices and run something up the flagpole, just to see who might salute, and then everyone would go home, have a martini, kiss Doris Day, and sleep in pajamas in small separate beds.

The anchor then switches to a reporter in the field, a stern blonde, who says:

“What we have here is an increasingly nasty confrontation between tree huggers, bird watchers and greenies versus the forces of economic progress.”

In what world does a reporter come down on an issue like this, to say nothing of speaking positively of “economic progress”? This is a movie so divorced from reality that the TV news is seen as the enemy of geese. Then she interviews the greedy, arrogant developer:

“I have the men and machinery committed,” he says, “and I can’t walk away from it just for a bunch of ducks.” Whereupon he is informed that they are geese, and we’re supposed to react like Felix Unger did when Oscar called a ladle a spoon - that's a goose! You did not know that that was a goose! In the real world, developers would bend over until their forehead kissed the ground to assure everyone that they were greener than green, and that this new development - which, incidentally, will generate millions of dollars in property taxes to pay for services for the poor and employ a thousand people, all paid a good union wage - will also have a special lake. See? Right here. Right in the middle of it all. We call it Goose Lake. They'll love it. We even have a groundskeeper to remove their disease-bearing droppings. But in the movie world, developers are ravening savages, Earth-rapers both crude and blunt, and the protesters are always well-spoken, kind people who ride to protests on bikes made entirely of sustainable hemp.

Well, Jeff Daniels, who’s heavily bearded to indicate his iconoclasm, crashes his plane, and sends his 12-year-old daughter up in an ultralight to finish the goose-guiding. He gives her a speech about how her dead mother would have wanted it this way. Any man who sends up a child to lead some geese by appealing to the spirit of a dead parent is engaging in psychological child abuse of the worst sort, but here it’s a sign of selflessness and devotion to the cause - the cause, of course, being the reinsertion of clueless fowl into private property.

At the last moment the geese arrive; the crowd cheers, the developer - who is standing on a bulldozer with a megaphone like Il Duce on a tank - says I don’t believe this, and huzzah! The development is presumably thwarted.
The credits rolled right away, so if the developer had the bulldozers scoop up the protesters like rioters at a Soylent Green distribution depot, I didn’t see it.

One can only hope.

Look. I’m a softie. I want there to be sufficient wetlands for the Goose-American community. I would love a nice be-kind-to-geese movie. You can actually tell a story like this without resorting to these pathetic stereotypes. But, on the other hand, I’m grateful; from this movie I learned much, and hope the kids learned the same:

Geese are more important than housing.

Geese are saintly creatures, God’s Own, even though anyone who’s had protracted experience with them knows that the males are gigantic bastards with the personality of a drunk English football supporter, and a good-size flock shits about 4000 gallons of green-white excrescence a day; they’re like an ill-mannered airborne septic system. But they’re better than developments with sewer systems that channel the effluence away.

All the people connected with this movie live in houses that arose naturally from the earth itself, displacing not so much as a field mice.

Hollywood cannot tell a simple story about leading geese via plane without making it an economic morality play. There’s a reason I like Rolie Polie Olie as much as my daughter - when Olie feeds Precious The Chicken some of the vitamins reserved for the larger animals, and Precious grows to gigantic dimensions, Pappy does not hobble over and give a lecture about genetically engineered feed.

Give me simple nonpolitical children’s fare, like “The Wizard of Oz”! I mean, those two paths Dorothy could take - one was gold, the other the color of International Bolshevism - you just knew it didn’t mean anything.

Note to those already composing the emails: I know. Believe me, I know.

Wednesday, February 27, 2002
Note to self: it’s been a long day; I wrote one column this morning, a Backfence this afternoon; there’s no reason to write a Screed . . .

Damn. Couldn’t resist. Link later.

Note to self, deux: while putting bills in a special pile may aid the process of paying them later, it is not a substitute for actual payment.

Note to Simpsons producers - and there are at least a dozen, according to the credits: please stop. A few weeks ago you had a genuinely funny episode that not only amused but felt fresh; it proved there are still people out there who can write a good episode. I don’t know who wrote last week’s “cowboy” episode - Ian Halftone-Grey, perhaps - but that dog subplot just sucked, to use the vernacular, and the main story had as much appeal as a piece of jerky that’s spent the last year lodged between sofa cushions. (Mmmm . . . sofa crack-meat!) It’s nice that you brought Dennis Weaver (Dennis WEAVER?) back from the dead to voice that character, but it wasn’t funny. Hint: if you want to know how to make good Simpsons episode again, there’s a program that runs in syndication in many markets at 5 and 6, CST; it’s called “The Simpsons” and many of the first 10,000 episodes are uniformly funny and occasionally brilliant.

Last night I watched a second-season ep (I think) in which the Simpsons are Going to Washington - at the time it aired, I lived in Washington, and the Simpsons were the latest thing, what with that cheeky Bart being dissed by President Bush and all. (Stupidest line ever uttered by a Bush: “We need families to be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons,” or something to that effect. Set the GOP back 10 years with the sub-30 crowd. Yes, by all means, let’s emulate some corn-pone dirt scratchers complete with a gouty old man dispensin’ wisdom from his ol’ wisdom-dispensin’ chair, and a hero who looked like the bastard child of Dick Gephardt and Will Wheaton. Criminey.) When the show went out of its way, twice, to make gratuitous Mark Russell jokes, we nearly wept. It’s like they were speaking to us.

(Side note: the strenuously unfunnyness of Mark Russell was a running theme on my Diner radio show; on Mondays we would recalibrate the audience’s humor meters, retighten their standards, by reading Russell one-liners from the paper until no one was laughing. Didn’t take long. It gave me the opportunity for some of the longest pauses in radio - tell the joke and just let it die, slowly, gasping. Later the Dark Chef lifted “The Deficit Rag” from the Simpsons episode, and sometimes when I finished reading Russell we’d play that stupid song as if Mark Russell himself had popped up in a back booth at the Diner. Whereupon the Dark Chef would play some shotgun sounders. One week we left him bleeding outside for five shows. The trick, in radio, is to mention that you stepped over the moaning body of Mark Russell on your way into the Diner, and mention it four times running, so people call up on Friday and ask if he’s still out there. And the Diner patrons, God bless them, did.)

Anyway. When you watch the old episodes from the first half of the Decade of Simpsons, you note two things: Homer, in the beginning, was much more malevolent, aggressively clueless instead of cheerfully & passively clueless, and 2) the show often had, gulp, heart. There are some wonderfully sentimental moments in the show. But that was when the people who did it still enjoyed themselves. Now you can smell the self-loathing.

Final note to self: go to SLEEP, already.

Thursday, February 28, 2002
Today: Bleat 101 for newbies; does Dog exist; Arab gamers rejoice

Well, once again, welcome to those who’ve arrived here from Instaman, or Reynolds’ Wrap, as I like to call it. Lots of new customers, so perhaps it’s time to recap the basics. I'm gettting so many new links from so many places, and I think people often expect a warblog, or at least a blogblog. Time to be clear: this is one of those old-style "web journals," and as such it has History. New visitors might feel like someone who started watching the X-Files in the fourth season. In the interests of national unity, then, a recap of the basics. (If this was a TV show, this Bleat would be those crappy episodes where they string together clips with some flashback pretext.) Swell music; dissolve:

The Bleat is a concertedly insignificant journal that usually concerns itself with embellishing domestic scenes until I, not the object of my fury, look like the dork. Often it will seem as if I have completely lost perspective on what truly constitutes hardship or difficulty in this life - I have not. But there’s no amusement in recounting a fight with a dunderheaded shopclerk and concluding “it may have been irritating, but nevertheless I am lucky to be an American, and I'm grateful I am not a Tutsi farmer whose sole well is five miles away, is surrounded by rabid jackals, and brims with Hutu heads and chicken feces.” I think that’s a given. Likewise, from time to time my complaints may seem like the mewlings of a pampered have-it-all plutocrat who’s just learned he may not legally whip the poolboy; specifically, when I talk of Jasperwood, our house, it may sound as if I write these things from a Petit Versailles that looms on a hill behind monogrammed gates. It’s not. I spent 15 years in crappy small apartments and rooming houses; I spent seven years as a waiter, worked as a convenience store clerk, an itinerant seed salesman in the South, did data entry and - shame of shames - telemarketing. Hence I do not regard people who take those jobs in their 20s as necessarily oppressed, disadvantaged or the equivalent of disenfranchised 19th century factory workers doomed to a life of penury, dropsy, and burial in Potter's Field. If a lazy sod like me with no commercial skills can make it, then the promise of America remains intact.

The cast of characters is quite small: besides my own crimped & blinkered soul, there is the Gnat, my daughter. She is 19 months old, knows 15 letters in the alphabet and can count to three; today I drew a picture of Jasperwood and some stick figures; she said “house” and “mommy, daddy, baby, puppy.” Wow. I mean: wow. I’m with her most of the day on weekdays, and it’s an endless adventure. Prior to her arrival I had no aptitude with children at all, and regarded them as unnervingly loud shaved pets. Things are different now. Today while changing her diaper, she said happy happy happy, daddy! And when I picked her up she gave me the tightest little hug she could muster and a devout kiss on the cheek. I do not deserve the amount of happiness she gives me.

The Bleat tries to stay away from awww-how coot! moments, but sometimes they cannot be avoided.

There’s my Wife, whose appearances are rare, simply because she didn’t ask to have her life and times broadcast over the Internet. She doesn’t mind when I talk about her, since she trusts me, but she’s not the narcissistic exhibitionist I am, and given her job as Assistant Attorney General for the great state of Minnesota, that’s probably a good thing. She’s lovely beyond belief and quite Italian, too. I do not deserve the amount of happiness she gives me, either.

There’s Jasper, our beloved dog, who was relieved of the job of surrogate child 19 months ago and now fills out the role of the family pooch, and does so poorly. He is not one of those dogs content to sit around and watch, or sit around and sleep, or just trot alongside asking nothing. He’s very smart, insistent and inquisitive. He talks, almost. Now that he is a dog instead of the focus of displaced paternal yearnings, I almost wish he was more like a dog than the small furry peer he was before. It’s not as if we spend less time together - no. But the rules and vocabularies of the house have changed. For example: in the old pre-Gnat days, whenever I wanted to play I got down on hands and knees, and he did the play-bow, and barkbarkbark we were off. Whenever I wanted to get him going I would shuffle around with small old-man steps. Now we have a toddler, and I’m always on my hands and knees, always shuffling around, and Jasper gets all wound up. It kills me how much I have to tell him no some days. Yesterday Gnat toddled over to Jasper and commanded DOWN! He went down, and sighed hard. On the other hand, the amount of food-strewage after Gnat's done eating is incredible, and if Jasper's later years are spent sitting by her chair in a state of expectation, he will be a happy dog indeed.

On the other hand, every night I take Gnat out of the bath, take her to the big bed for diapering, and EVERY NIGHT my well-turned shin is too much for Jasper to resist, and gawDAMN those dewclaws hurt when they dig in. So we’re even.

Here’s a typical Bleat beginning, which is what I started writing tonight before the phone interrupted my train of thought:

You’ll recall how I beat my chest and shouted Nae! to the flu that laid the family low, how I was proud that my Superior Constitution had laughed it off. Well. Today I’ve been a sodden, sneezing mess; my nose feels like Winston Smith’s schnoz in Room 101 after they let the rat out of the cage, and my eyes are weepy and itchy. But the, ah, fluid portion of a cold usually comes after you’ve felt your worse, and I don’t feel all that bad. It’s just amusing that I get hit as everyone else gets well - by the time I’m done, Gnat will have picked up another cold from someone and we’ll be off again. People with kids understand. You live in a world of perkified zombiedom; you and spouse are cheerful undead automatons who want nothing more than a nice quiet burial some day. You used to want a hot bath, but now that you’re dead you’d just dissolve and leave a ring.

I actually believe we have been bedeviled by one bug since November, a constantly mutating bug chased from person to person. Our Personal Osama. Honest to God - so many people I know have been sick with a cold the past few months that if al Qaeda had tried to give us all a devil bug, no one would know. Smallpox ? Take a number.

Now, at this point I would often go into something else, either a recollection of the day’s insufficiencies, rendered in excruciating detail, or some sort of cultural philippic regarding music, arts, cartoons, Trek, etc. I rant a lot. (When I feel particularly unfair and intemperate, it gets shunted off to the Screed page.) Once or twice a year I get religious, although I am not a religious man -

Which reminds me. This is great. A few weeks ago I was driving around with Ian Punnit, who’s one of the greatest talk radio hosts in the history of the medium. I’m serious - he’s funny, he’s smart, he has an endlessly questing mind unshakably grounded in some core beliefs which I may or may not share, but understand and respect. He’s just a good man. Years ago when I was a talk radio host he took over my time slot when I quit, and I couldn’t bear to listen, since I had to walk away from radio for good for a while. Later he took over for Art Bell, even though he bought none of Art’s schtick - now he’s here in the Cities again, back at KSTP, doing a morning show that has all the intellectual heft of a public radio program with none of its sonorous twee self-regard. So we’re driving around talking about belief, about God, about whether God intercedes in the smallest details of your life. And as a Burgessian Deist - my private denomination - I’m arguing that He’s busy, He’s maybe off in one of the other billion dimensions over which He roams and reigns. Maybe in one of these iterations God is manifestly present in EVERYTHING; maybe in others He makes the occasional flamboyant appearance, strewing spiritual confetti like Rip Taylor. (HelLO! GOD here, PEOPLE). Maybe we’re living in the one version where He just sent hints. I don’t know.

I do know that I don’t feel comfortable with atheism, because it presumes a level of certainty I cannot embrace. I don’t feel comfortable with agnosticism - hey, in or out, pal. A lifetime study of history and culture and my own religious upbringing has made me wary of organized religion, but since I’m the sort of person who’s always looking for a way to intellectually justify his own failings and evasions - part of my dislike of Church, after all, stems from my desire to sleep in - I have to know that my distrust of religion does not mean that the point of religion, its goal and substance, is wrong. You shouldn’t throw out the God with the holy water. I know this sounds perverse, but the very fact that I can argue myself out of believing in a God is what makes me, in the end, believe.

Now, whether or not He’s yanking strings, smoothing paths and placing obstacles is another matter, and frankly I think that 99% of what people attribute to an interventionist Deity is just an attempt to put a logical template over the random collisions of daily life, and this is what Ian and I are discussing. I considered bringing up my dog-God analogy - man is to God as dog is to man. Dog’s don’t know what they don’t know. There’s an entire world out there dogs cannot possibly begin to understand - arithmetic, moonshots, Jiffy Lubes, telephone lines, etc. They lack the ability to ask the first question that would lead them to this realm. So it is with man. We only have five senses and a few pounds of smart gray meat. Maybe all we see is all there is. Maybe we’re utterly unequipped to grasp elements of the cosmos that are all around us all the time.

“People say that God wasn’t at Columbine,” Ian was saying, “and I say that’s nonsense - He was there all the time talking in those kids’ ears saying don’t do it, and they chose not to listen.”

“I’ve never heard that voice,” I said. We were turning towards Summit Avenue, a broad boulevard in St. Paul lined with the houses of the early 20th century elites. “It doesn’t bother me that I don’t, either. Maybe I don’t have to . . .” And I was going to say maybe I hear it all the time in the form of my conscience, and I’ve mistaken it for my own voice. Or the echo of my parents. Anyway, let me tell you my dog-man-God theory, and how I don’t believe God intercedes on a daily level -

“Sometimes,” Ian said, “I think people are just like that dog.”

He pointed out the window to a dog trotting alongside its owner. The dog wore one of those megaphone hoods to keep him from eating his stitches or licking off his medicine. I stared, slack-jawed. Not only had my precious metaphor been trumped, it had been amped up, pre-empted and spiked in my own endzone. God had interceded in my life for the express purpose of making fun of my dog metaphor. And that was it! From hereon every after, no God for me! And if I disbelieve and stand before Him on Judgment Day, He slaps his forehead: what do you mean you don't believe? What do you think the thing with the dog was all about, son? What do I have to do, set the dog on fire as well? Part the Mississippi?

If so, it’s very New Testament of Him; the old-school G-d would have opened up the ground and swallowed my entire tribe. But I had to laugh. Perhaps God is laughter - the embodiment of delight, contentment, satisfaction and love. (Nothing makes me feel closer to human bliss than my daughter’s laugh.) Hell is simply the absence of laughter, the denial of laughter. You don’t need actual pain in hell; the knowledge that laughter is evermore denied is pain enough.

Anyway, I do religion twice a year. I’m also in favor of a flat-rate tax, public transportation, civil gay unions, representational art, plentiful legal immigration, suburbs, school choice, tax-free zones to invigorate inner cities, techno, Belvedere and Maker’s Mark, good cigars, fast cars, a manned mission to Mars ASAP, James Ellroy novels, old radios, new computers, Star Trek, Mexican beaches, the 20th century in general, and the 20s and 50s in particular. Plus Indian food. And while I admire self-reliance, I thnk Ayn Rand was a dreadful writer..

If you’ve read this far, then you’ll like tomorrow’s Bleat as well.

But there’s more! I found this website via Fark today, and it just depressed me unutterably. The following excerpt is pathetic and sad, on so many levels. See if you can figure out what this is. The language is rather fractured because it’s translated from the Arabic, and I won’t make fun of that since I speak but one tongue, and hence have no business joshing at those who are less than expert in a second language. But the ideas come across intact:

Stones from the remainders of the devastated houses which are very similar to the stones pilgrims hurl at Satan as a symbol of animosity toward him, disowning him and repulsing his evil and sins. But the pilgrims’ Satan is hiding, playing tricks in secret, whereas the Palestinians’ Satan plots in public, heavily loaded with the most modern machines of destruction which are most capable of devastating and slaughtering of man, provided with the most enormous bugles of information, the most circulated and the most able to turn facts upside down and decorate falsehood to refute truth by it so that it surpasses the cheating of Beelzebub. They really represent the splinters of Satan’s bomb and rocket remainders which stone children gather and set out to draw the most wonderful portrayals of sacrifice and to defend themselves and the human values. They throw their stones to the faces of grudge and hatred in order to remove the masks of those faces, reveal their falsehood and refute the myth of God’s Chosen People in addition to all other myths which constitute the State of Israel.

Okay: editorial in an Egyptian newspaper? Moderate mullah interviewed in the Tehran Times? No: This is the readme file Underash, the first Islamic 3rd person shooter . (At first I thought Underash referred to the chafing you get in your bikini zone, but it’s Under Ash.) (Catchy, I know.) As far as I can tell, you get to reprise the intifadah, shoot Jews, the usual.

I’ve always wondered if there was a Hezbollah version of minesweeper where you get points for blowing up on your first move. Now I wonder if there will be suicide-bomber FPS - no save-game function, obviously - that let you run into wedding banquets, kill everyone, observe their mangled flesh as you float up and then meet your allotment of black-eyed ones. But let’s go on with the ReadMe:

Within the last five years, the three dimensional electronic games invaded the programs market and occupied the rank of precedence worthily, but their technology and the bases of their sciences remained highly confiscated and surrounded by a curtain of secrecy and insolvable technical difficulty and the topics they handled were directed in a way which offends us as Muslims and Arabs.

Why do I feel as if International Jewry is being blamed for keeping 3D game technology out of the hands of Muslims?

     In spite of the great deal of hatred and violence such games were charged with, they succeeded in sneaking to our houses and to the minds of our children and youth who have been used to spend their times playing with them, firing bullets from our backs or in front of us at the men of the Resistance or at the soldiers of the Arab armies.

I have no idea what the means, other than “those kids today rotting their brains with GameBoys and Nintendos.” Nice to see some things are the same in all cultures.

The dream of producing distinct Arab games . . .

The dream! For God’s sake, this is like saying “the dream of distinct Arab Pop-Tarts” or the “dream of distinct Arab napkin patterns.” If producing “distinct Arab games” is a dream, then why not just DO IT?

. . .might be visiting the minds of many huge companies in our Arab Homeland, but thousands of technical problems constantly formed a hard obstacle which could eliminate that dream.

Nonsense. Six guys in Croatia came up with their own 3d engine for Serious Sam. A dozen guys in Poland came up with their own 3D engine for “Mortyr.” For that matter, where did Doom come from? The Special Vatican / Pentagon Joint Task-Force on Rubbing The Arab’s Nose In It Again? It’s possible that the Jews force brown-outs on Cairo so the computers will crash and swallow all the day’s work, but if you just save often you can get around this, too.

Dar Al-Fikr, as a pioneer Arab institute in the field of publishing, however, was determined that it had to spread her message through the various channels of information and to succeed in its mission at all expenses. Seven years ago, therefore, it started to prepare whatever requisites for realizing this aim

Anddd three-quarters of the race for Longest Lead Time nearly run, it’s Daikatana and Duke Nukem Forever neck and neck, and as they round the turn - wait a minute! Out of nowhere, it’s Underash! It’s pulling alongside! It’s leaving them in the dust! I’ve never seen anything like it - Underash has just won the longest lead-time award for a lousy game ever!

. . .using and training distinct technical experiences internationally and at the level of the Arab Homeland, and providing them with the most updated equipment and means.

One reverse-engineered Lithtech engine, a 833 Sony and a pirated copy of Photoshop.

     While other great Arab institutes were preoccupied by the turmoil of their consumptive advertising programs, Dar Al-Fikr was studying, working and preparing its equipment silently and secretly until it achieved the aim which all others failed in, and realized the dream of billions of Muslims and Arabs.

That’s one hell of an installed base.

Look. Maybe in translation this has a spirit absent in the original, but it’s of a piece with the stuff I see translated elsewhere - these ridiculous boasts in the service of commonplace accomplishments, elevation of the subject matter to preposterous heights, and the overall impression that someone is overcompensating.

Are most Bleats like this, the newcomer asks? Why, no. Most are much longer.

Friday, March 01, 2002
Today: fitfully better; there is a Waiter at the Bottom of the Ocean; goodbye mailboxes

Cold’s abating - today I was dry of nose, clear of eye, and unconvulsed by those full-body sneezes that leave you sore for two days. (“Ah-choo!” Gnat says when I sneeze.) But I had medicine head all morning. Odd, because I’d taken no medicine. I can only conclude that I’ve had these various bugs for so long my body has grown an organ that squirts Robitussin DM (short for Dee-Mentia) into my system, whether I need it or not. Or maybe I was tired. Stayed up late answering 9,434,457 emails, and got up early. There are those days when your feet hit the bedroom floor and they feel like water-sodden logs; your eyes feel like they’ve been rolled in ground sand and baked at 400 degrees for an hour. This was one of those mornings. Then came the weird wired feeling. I felt like an electric chair buzzing in an abandoned prison.

Prowled the blogs, and discovered, to my amazement, much linkage to the Screed. Checked my mail: oy. You have to understand my amusement here, friends - I write these things for my own enjoyment, and expect them to be read by, oh, three dozen people. (More on THAT later.) When I got links from and the Corner, I gulped hard - jeez, I should have given that thing a closer read. I mean, the rule on this site is Post and Forget. The Screed grew out of a desire to wall off my fumings from the sweet reason of the Bleat; it’s the attic where I chain Bart’s evil twin. I remember posting it, shutting off the machinery, and going downstairs to watch a Twilight Zone over a bourbon, thinking: well, that was a big noisy waste of time.

Hah! Anyway, I’m pasted, beat, shagged out, but I’ve enough left in the tank for the following:

1. Driving in to work this morning the oldies station played “Pump It Up.” Having just been released from Gnat care, having just seen the Screed vault to the toppermost of the poppermost, I was in one fine mood, and damn near blew the speakers and split a neck-disc bobbing my head. O how we pogo’d then; yea how we thrashed in dim cheap boarding houses with beer-soaked carpets, one big bobbing mass of happy collegians punching into the 80s - and what a song! About as simple as it gets, but everyone plays their instruments like Mike Tyson working over the kidneys.

Actually, when the record first came out, I didn’t go to any parties; I was still a stonely loner living in the dorm by Dinkytown, My parties consisted of my job as a waiter in a beer hall, where I was guaranteed every night six dozen opportunities to talk to actual women. It wasn’t until the Daily days when I got an actual social circle, and hooked up with some folk who also understood why “This Year’s Model” is, was, and ever shall be the definitive statement for egotistical, self-loathing clever art-dorks who desperately want to shut up and dance. (And then talk about it later.)

Right after came that Talking Heads song, the Oh My God What Have I Done song, which every middle-aged man in my demographic sings alone in his car at some point. (I sang it a lot after we bought Jasperwood, my Beautiful Home.) At one point David Byrne - the blue-cool art-dweeb counterpart to Costello’s hot spitting Blighty bile-boy - sings a line which, on the video, he illustrated by making chopping motions on his left forearm. And there I was, all these years later, in my beautiful car on my way to my beautiful job, making chopping motions on my forearm. It’s automatic. If the song came on when the Giant Swede was in the car, we’d both do it without comment.

You Kids Today don’t hear what we heard then: in the background was the unmistakable voice of another of my youthful heroes, Brian Eno. The synthesis of Eno and the Heads was one of those planetary collisions that make you think you’re straddling a new crack in the cultural crust.

You are under the impression that this matters far more than it really does.

But, what the hell. That’s what your 20s are for. As much as it dates me, at least this sort of heritage allows me to go oldskool on your punk post-grunge Britney-sweet palates. Eno and Kraftwerk founded modern electronic music as you know it today, son, and by that I mean techno and house and all the swirly gassy thumpy-bump stuff Madonna seems to think she discovered. Brian Eno is the only worthwhile conceptual artist in the history of the genre, AND he’s a great melodic miniaturist, AND he has an ear for something no one else did then: space. Absence. Eno could summon cathedrals out of matchbooks with a few twists of the studio knobs. AND he did “Heroes” with David Bowie. AND he introduced Bowie to the Kraftwerk boys. If I could be any musician, I’d be him - because he had the skills that drew people to him, and he had the perfectly placid ego that let him just sit in the center and watch and work.

Then “Sister Christian” came on and I turned the radio off. Stupid 80s.

2. Read a little piece in the WSJ today about the Post Office’s gradual demotion and removal of the blue deposit boxes.

Hmm - can I find a less elegant way to put that? Let’s try.

Regarding the classic blue mailbox for the receiving of mail, less are soon to be on corners, the Wall Street Journal said.

No, that’s not clunky enough. Give it that old Engrish twist.

For the mailing of the items in your life, everyone must blue corner box, and why not? Can you resist? Wall Street Journal story - for the love in our feet.

There, that’ll do. You get the point. When I read the story I got that old cranky feeling - aw, dammit, no more Blue Boxes on the corner?
Another fine American icon gets tossed on the ash heap of history, along with the classic bifold-door phone booth. You can trace the decline of American civilization to the moment when they installed those open-air phones everywhere, and people stood there like horses tethered to a saloon hitching post. Daggummit!

Of course, most of these things are passing from the scene because they’ve been superseded by an improvement. More cell phones means less pay phones, and as much as we all hate people shouting into their little pieces of face-lego, I like having my own personal phone. It’s one of those Star Trek predictions that became true without you noticing it, until one day you realized - hey, I have a communicator. (I built my own as a kid out of household detritus - a little sewing kit box with a hinge on the side, a coaster for the mouthpiece, etc. I was ten. We did not have officially licensed merchandise in those days. You wanted a phaser, you stole a brick from a construction project and carved one out. You wanted to make your mom a Yeoman Rand hairpiece, you got a lampshade, braided some boiled spaghetti, put it on the lampshade with glue, spray painted it canary yellow, and then insisted she wore it to church. We were hardy then. )

Actually, I lie; there were Enterprise model kits that lit up - (I think they actually used them occasionally when they needed to show a beat-up starship) and Star Trek Phaser guns that shot, incongruously, small plastic discs.

Where was I?

Right. Some blue stand-alone deposit boxes are being phased out over terrorist concerns, of course; others are going away because their work here is done. E-mail has lightened their load. I don’t know where the nearest one is around here, to be frank. There’s just one of those silent unfriendly drab green boxes - they’re like Blue Boxes that got promoted but aren’t too happy about it. They’re all backside, their metal maw soldered shut. No, you can’t give me any mail. I don’t want your mail. Go away. The Blue Boxes are different. They’re much friendlier, almost eager. You always feel a little surge of gratitude when you discover that the box is emptied several times a day - that’s the spirit! Thanks! They all give the same squeak of greeting when you open them up, the same final CLONK when you let the slot slam shup.

As a child (oh boy, here we go again) the box at the end of the block was a source of mystery and wonder; it seemed like an embassy, an oracle, a wishing well, an outpost of the world beyond. The date was stamped in its metal flesh bore the brand of the year it was made (1962)
To a kid, their dark wide mouth is like an interdimensional gateway - once your letter goes in it cannot be retrieved - by Federal Law! There’s no going back! To this day l hesitate before committing a letter to its black gut - doublecheck the stamp, doublecheck the address.

And you could tell how much mail was in the box by the sound it made when you let the door slam shut. An empty mailbox somehow seemed . . . hungry, in a not altogether nice way. We’d all heard about the kid who got his hand stuck in the slot. They had to take the box out of the ground and take it all to the hospital!

Same kid who was probably blinded by the radioactive juice inside a golf ball, too.

Wow. Never had site traffic like this before. It’s funny - thanks to the web, one single page and a number of kind links from around the blogosphere have done more for my screed-side writing than ten years of syndicated column writing. Well, not entirely - the Wall Street Journal Best of the Web excerpted a Newhouse column I did last spring on zero-tolerance. But this traffic is something else.

I think.

Here’s some stats, and I’m not sure what they mean. (I now have a stats page, which I check once a week.) I can’t break them down to this week’s stats, because the administration page goes into spinning-beach-ball limbo when I try. But the entire web is odd tonight - some sites are coming up

Total requests in the last two weeks: 2,581,283
Total page requests: 692,250

I gather the first is requests for pages, graphics, etc., and the second is the total pages hoovered up by a smaller number of visitors. The last two weeks, Wednesday - the day the Screed was first linked - I got 561,959 requests and 142867 pages.

I’m not sure what this means, but it seems like a lot. So far bandwidth is within predicted limits. All is well. My X-box calls. Farewell.

previous :: main menu :: next