Monday, March 11, 2002

TODAY: winter redux; the uselessness of mornings; letters to the editor; the Time Machine; remember. And new Flotsam.

Ice storm Friday
- everything shellacked. Snow on Saturday, temps in the single digits, a wind that felt as though the world had turned its face from the sun for good and let the stars pick our bones white. Jasper was limping after half a block’s walk - there’s little as sad as a beast attempting to do his business squatting with one good front foot. If I’ve going to live in Antarctica, dammit, I want penguins, and lots of them - this brutal cold requires comic relief. All we have are crows. They assemble in the trees over Jasperwood by the hundred, demanding that something die already.

I cannot wait for spring. It’s nice to be alive, but it would be nicer for the world to share the sentiment.

I get up an hour earlier and take care of Gnat. Usually working on five hours of sleep. Coffee: verboten, since I want to head back to sleep whenever my wife gets up. It’s her time to sleep as long as she wants, to catch up on the week’s slumber deficit. Then I get to go to he spare bedroom where the bed’s as soft as the lighting in a Maxfield Parrish painting. And I sleep as long as I like. In the old days when I woke on the stoop of noon, I always felt abashed and lazy - if I’d gotten up at a normal hour, I’d be running around the lake, splitting wood, etc. Now I know better. When I wake at six I am disinclined to do anything but shovel in some processed grains and read the paper. So Sundays are the best: I’m up early enough to feel human, not some sort of night-trog whose skin would sizzle if touched by the dawn, AND I get to return to the barge of Lethe and trail my fingers in the waters of sleep until one o’clock in the afternoon. Unconsciousness: that’s living.

Sunday morning must be the slowest period for new American internet content; when the browser starts up and loads the home page, I’m almost hoping that InstantMan didn’t post anything this morning, just for his sake, and just because seven posts before seven AM would indicate that the site is actually run by a brain in a jar. There’s just nothing new on Sunday morning, which is the obverse of the print world: Sunday is when the old media drops a daisy-cutter on your steps. This morning’s paper was read start to finish, except for my column, of course; why bother? The editorial page had a piece from the New York Times from some Dutch professor noting the ominous parallels between Orwell’s world of perpetual, undefined war and today’s five-month old war. Very convincing. Made me want to scuttle off to the side so the telescreen couldn’t see me and write something the diary I have hidden in the wall. My favorite moment: the professor assured us that Europe was sympathetic to our grief, and noted that after 9/11 he had sat in silence at his desk for three whole minutes. After which, of course, Al Qaeda disbanded.

There was also a letter from someone complaining about the language used by a military official describing the effect of the Operation Anaconda on the Taliban / Al Qaeda fighters: “We bodyslammed them,” he said, and the letter writer - who I see quite clearly as a gaunt man in a thick Danish turtleneck sweaters, sandals over gray socks, wire-rimmed glasses perched on a thin beak - worried what horrible effect this language would have on our youth, what it taught our young men.

This fellow probably doesn’t realize it, but he’s closer to Orwell’s 1984 than anything the government is doing, at least as far as Orwell’s ideas on the use of language to delineate that which the mind can conceive. The letter-writer seems to think that language that describes the outcome of war in terms that have a robust endorsement of "our side" (as he'd put it) leads to the emotions and mindset that produces war itself - so we should use words that discourage young boys from finding any positive attribute to a successful conclusion of a military campaign. Perversely,

Satisfaction in victory = thoughtcrime

Were there guys like this in the 40s? Probably. I heard a lady on a call-in show today insist that Gore would have solved this problem without war, and accused the show’s host of supporting the war because he was a Jew first, an American second, and beholden to the agenda of International Zionism. You always have people like this, and they say much more about themselves than the party or ideology they purportedly represent. (I have many friends who are devout members of beliefs I do not share who are nevertheless untroubled by bodyslammed Al Qaeda.) But I don’t think that newspapers in the 40s believed it was a necessary part of their job to air anti-anti-Nazi sentiment every day, just for balance’s sake. You can decide if that’s for good or ill. But then I read, for example, this little squib from the LA Times:

A student troupe canceled a Sunday performance at an American Red Cross luncheon after the charity barred it from using the words "God" and "prayer."
Seventh- and eighth-graders from the Orange County High School of the Arts had planned to sing a medley of "America the Beautiful," "Prayer of the Children," and "God Bless the U.S.A."

Group director Cherilyn Bacon said a Red Cross representative told her the lyrics might offend some of those attending.

These things would not have happened in WW2 - again, you can ponder the matter and figure out why, but the fact is that no one would have thought to make this complaint. The nation was at war; the idea that singing a patriotic medley that contained “God” and “Prayer” would be divisive and offensive and cannot be allowed at a RED CROSS MEETING would have struck most people as absolute lunacy
. I know there are people who think that the Red Cross decision is a good thing, that we’re better off because the kids didn’t sing “God Bless the USA,” but all I can do is plead ignorance because the reason escapes me completely.

I can, however, find another charity.

my wife wanted to see a movie. Pick one, I said, bravely. She does not impose chik-flik tastes on me, and I do not drag her to noisy action films - mainly because she knows better, and I’m mostly bored with action films these days anyway. She chose “The Time Machine,” which stunned me. My little white raisin ! Young men dream of marrying women who look like my wife and want to see the Time Machine. I was a bit trepidacious, however, since all the reviews had sniffed or yawned, and Jabba the Knowles seemed ready to plunge a shiv into his thorax in disappointment. To be honest, these sorts of movie no longer appeal to the 14 year old in me, because they’re not really movies at all. They’re visual firehoses that pin you in your seat, often against your will; you don’t so much watch them as struggle against them, and it’s exhausting.

The Mummy Returns, for example, operated on the idea that unless the audience’s hemorrhoids were briskly rubbed with a pumice stone every four minutes, we would fall asleep. So it was a noisy, calamitous mess with no pacing, no drama, no characters - nuthin’ but mummies, mummies, mummies. Lots o’ mummies. I loved the first one despite itself, but the second confirmed what most movies confirm these days: they don’t trust me. They beat me because they love me and they try to make it up by giving me more, more, more. I’d feared that the Time Machine would be the same thing - but what the hell, it was only 90 minutes long.

Loved it.

Why not? It looks great, but the CGI didn’t have that chilly gee-whiz feeling you get sometimes; turn-of-the-century New York, teeming with people and horses, looked absolutely real, and the artifice was secondary to the scene, not the point of it. The characters, simply drawn, were strong and good; the music swelled and rumbled and sobbed and sighed as required; the few nods to the original were clever and concise. Action? Sure - in small doses at first. "The Time Machine" didn’t have its first big noisy set-piece until the movie was half over, and it kicked the pace up nicely. The battle with the bad guy was not interminable and preposterous - oh, look, he’s sustained his seventh blow to the head with an iron rod; oh, good, he’s shaking it off and punching harder than ever!

Reviews have compared it unfavorably to the original, which the reviewers all seem to remember not as adults but impressionable children. True, it’s a great boy’s movie for a Saturday afternoon. Having seen it recently, however, it may be in a better position to compare. There’s very little drama to the story, since it’s told entirely in flashback. Rod Taylor is perfectly cast as Rod Taylor, but he doesn’t seem too much like a scientist (although for the 50s, when scientists were Strong-Jawed Men of Action, he’s perfect.) The Eloi, those dead-headed blonde-bons who shuffled off into the slaughterhouse when the quittin’ time whistle blew, were so stupid and annoying you wanted to see them eaten. Hell, you’d want the Tabasco concession in Morlockville, because they must have tasted rather dull. Human tofu.

It’s a fun movie, but this one wanted to be smarter, I think. And it worked. I’ll give you a few examples: the Morlock - who are just plain nasty looking here - hunt their prey by tagging them with blowdarts. Our Hero pulls one out, sniffs the goo on the dart, makes a face; later, as the Moorlock charge through the forest looking for the Eloi they’ve shot, their noses wrinkle furiously until they find the one they’re looking for. A lesser movie - which, by Hollywood’s odd logic, is the greater number of movies - would have Our Hero mutter “scent! Of course
, they’re tracking them by scent!” But the movie leaves the detail unexplained. It trusts that you get it. Now, this is no big thing; it’s a very small thing, but that's the spirit of the entire film. No elbows in the ribs.

Or fingers in the eye. The action scenes are edited coherently, and all the stuff that could have smelled like typical 70s sci-fi - the library hologram that survives for 800,000 years, the artifacts of old New York dug up by the primitives of the future - aren’t as lame as you’d expect. I know this is faint praise - not as lame as Logan’s Run! - but having read so many bored and dismissive reviews, and not being a bitter fanboy who’s going to spend an evening despairing at the Great Lost Opportunity, and speaking simply as a moviegoer who was braced for the worst, I don’t regret a dime of my $7.50.

I do have one carp. There’s an anti-technology theme that runs through the movie, with Men of Science wondering whether we will Go Too Far, where all this technological advancement will take us. Just once I’d like one of the noble primitives squatting around the fire to wonder where all this technological insufficiency will take them. “I mean, Mumba, will there come a day when we will wish we had a way to stay in one place, rather than roam the land fleeing winter and wolves? Will we perhaps think that there are ways to order society beyond bloodlines and brute force? Perhaps we could invent a way to bring down a mastodon with one blow, instead of having our warriors crushed and impaled every time we venture forth to secure sustenance? Might we not be going far enough?”

I won’t hold my breath.

Okay, I have one other carp. The moon blows up (this is not a spoiler - this is the sort of movie that doesn’t have surprises) and the debris surrounds the earth. From what I’ve read, this would be catastrophic for us, since the moon keeps the poles from wobbling uncontrollably. In fact as the moon moves away from the earth, its stabilizing influence will wane, and the earth will be like a top in the death throes of its Nijinski spin. Eight hundred thousand years out, I think the planet would be inhabitable even if the moon just moseyed off the ranch on its own accord; blasted into bits, it would not have the density required to make the earth behave.

See, I can accept lasers in 1900, but atomized moons? Forget it! What do they think I am, an IDIOT?

I am recording
the 9/11 show to watch later. I don’t want to watch it at all. I have my own version. I have a six-minute edit of the footage that begins with shaky - very shaky - camcorder shots of the house, the TV, and Gnat playing while the towers burn. It brings the moment home more than anything else - the combination of her idle happiness and the horror on the TV, the awful vertiginous feeling that the whole world was tipping over.

Which is exactly was it was doing, of course. And does to this day whether we feel it or not.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

How things get done:

1. The fridge has a little alcove that supplies ice (cubed, or E-Z Melt Crushed) and water on command. A little light comes on, too, so you don’t fear getting up in the middle of the night and mistaking the alcove for the bathroom. Why did ice shoot out of the toilet when I flushed? And why am I standing on this chair? Oh no! Not again!

Wife notes that the water spout no longer works. Husband agrees to look into it.

2. Afghan war begins; Kabul falls; Christmas comes; spout fails to heal itself

3. Water leaks from bottom of fridge. Not good. Husband swabs water, mentally sets aside money for new fridge

4. Wife notes that a working water spout would be a good Valentine’s Day present

5. Husband calls service bureau the last week of February. They agree to send someone ‘round the beginning of March

6. Repairman leaves note on answering machine explaining that he cannot find house; service call canceled

7. Husband calls service bureau, stays on the line until dispatcher agrees that yes, the street does exist, and is clearly marked on the city atlas all repairmen have. Promises a call the next day

8. Tall gaunt young repairman pulls fridge from its cove, announces that the solenoid is broken, and blames the leakage on a stuck pea in the freezer drain. Offers to blow-dry it out for $80 an hour. Estimated time of job: One hour. Husband declines, and opines that the lack of a pea-defeating screen over drain a major design flaw. “They’re all like this,” says the repairman, who no doubt financed a new 64” TV last year with the proceeds from his blow-drying pea-extraction sessions. He promises he will return when the solenoid arrives.

9. Solenoid arrives in a box with the service bureau’s phone number written in big red letters. Box sits in mud room for five days

10. Call is made; repairman arrives a day later. He is early, God bless him. He spends much time on the floor grunting, then calls the service bureau. Seems the new solenoid has a different connection paradigm than the old ones. It’s not threaded. The home office assures him that this is the right part. “They’re all like this now,” he tells Husband. He fixes it, then has Husband try the water. Nothing. The water’s traveling to the reservoir, but nothing is coming out. “Okay,” he says, “I think I know the problem”. He removes the bottom bin, and finds the reservoir is frozen solid. “I’m not surprised,” Husband says. “Anything I put down there freezes solid.”

“And here’s why,” repairman says. He points to a vent on the bottom which allows air from the freezer to chill the bottom compartment. “It’s on high.”

“What’s the point of that?” I - er, Husband asks, holding a baby who is putting her fingers in his nose. “Cold air settles; why bring more cold air into the bottom?”

“They all have this feature now,” he says. “This model, anyway. I can blow-dry it out for you -”

Husband declines, and asks, quite sensibly, whether the solenoid was the problem. Repairman agrees that there’s no way he can charge for the part or the labor. The only problem is whether the Screen will accept it. Upon interrogation if seems he is talking about the computer terminal in his vehicle. This Screen appears to be the final arbiter of billing matters. He calls the home office, and asks how he can subtract the part from the bill in a way that the Screen will accept. There is much consultation. Husband imagines the old days, when a fellow could write a few words on an invoice, like NO CHARGE, and that would be it. But the Screen is an angry god, and must be assuaged.

Repairman gives up. “Don’t worry, you won’t be charged,” he says. He gives a merry farewell and walks gingerly down the ice-covered steps to the street below.

Husband realizes he will have to empty out the fridge and spend two hours blow-drying the fridge.

He gets a glass of water from the tap.

The first of many.


driving back from Target, I give Gnat the cell phone to play with. While she’s pushing buttons it makes an angry beep, a sound I’ve never heard before - it’s the phone’s version of the sound the dog makes when she twists his ears. I look at the Screen: a message. From the cell phone company. My automatic payment has been declined. This is not good. It can’t be because my card is overdrawn, because I carry no balances on credit cards. If it’s not a house or a car, and I can’t pay for it this month, I don’t buy it. We are the sort of customers credit card companies hate, but I can live with that. I was pretty sure the phone was on the Amex, which is famous for never declining anything as long as you’re in good standing, which I was. Unless my identity had been hijacked! I called Amex, and learned that the phone company had an erroneous expiration date, hence the decline; they assured me my account was in “exemplary” condition. That’s why I like Amex. They have British-accented customer service reps who use words like “exemplary.” So I called the cell phone company.

1. “Due to a network error, your call could not be completed. Please try again.” I did.

2. Got through, plowed through the menus, selected the option that seemed close to my problem, was put on hold. Was assured repeatedly that my call was so important they would rather stuff hungry weevils up their urethras than disappoint me, so hang on. Wait five minutes. Cordless phone beeps twice, valiantly signaling its imminent death. You - go on - without me (coff) I’ll - be fine. Pick up wall phone; am now tethered to wall as Gnat decides to leave room to go play with the fireplace tongs. Recording tells me that they would sooner see their friends and families flayed and sprayed with lemon juice than fail to solve my problem, so stay on the line. Click- clickity click

Dead empty silence.

Do do dwee! If you’d like to make a call

Hang up. Try again. Wait. This time I get a human who solves my problem with good cheer.

Total elapsed time of repairman visit: one hour.

Total elapsed time of phone problem: 45 minutes.

Number of books read recently: zero.

I wonder why.


the 9/11 documentary last night.

Who knew falling bodies made such a noise?

Who, having seen the bodies hit, could ever sleep again without hearing the sound?

How many good men are going to eat the barrel in six years just to make the sound stop?

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

This will be dull. Not much in the tank tonight; typical Tuesday, with two columns under the belt and naught but the desire to sink on the sofa and watch a “Blind Date” marathon. I’ve finished the cover for the symphony - and yes, it’s still en route; everyone who expressed an interest will get an email from the Minnesota Youth Symphony soon, and I hope you cough up the ten-spot for the disc. The opportunity to encourage talent like this comes along once or twice every fifty years, and you’ll be in on the ground floor.

“In on the ground floor.” Oh, we’re writing at the peak of our ability tonight.

Also worked on a small little site that has no home yet - it’s a series of scans from wartime British men’s mags. Great covers, stunningly dull photos, cheesecake nudity and ads for hair creams that don’t stain your pillow. I think I’m going to put up a WW2 site for all the curious wartime ephemera; I’d intended to put the Brit stuff into the imminent Institute addition - yes, the Institute will suffer its annual big-deal hoo-hah upgrade, with a section devoted to 50s & 60s “men’s” mags; it’s called
”Stagworld.” And you will be stunned. It’s that bad.

Gnat wakes up so early
- HOW EARLY DOES SHE WAKE? - that the sky is as black as a miner’s nostril. Five AM, every morning. She wakes, cries, calls our names in a piercing wail, then falls silent for five minutes. As soon as her telepathic abilities discern that we have reattained REM sleep, she cries again. Thus is the hour between five and six spent. Eventually my wife stumbles off to get her and nap in the big dark room while I try to sleep on the hard clammy altar of tenebrous daybreak. Now the child has decided that evening should be extended as well; tonight she refuses to go to bed. It’s 9:17 and she is wide-staring awake, playing with her Junior Doctor kit.

Time to check the stool for half-dissolved coffee beans.

The world’s most sleep-scorning baby has the world’s worst father. Here’s a record of recent head injuries:

1. Gnat wants a banana. I give her a banana. I realize I have just violated the no-ambulatory-foodstuffs rule, and attempt to retrieve said banana; she flees laughing, stumbles, cracks her head on the woodwork of the wall. Duration of wails: one minute. It’s solved by going into the living room to chase puppy.

2. Thirty seconds after the cessation of tears, Jasper brushes past Gnat, who is standing by the coffee table; she loses her balance and goes down like a sash weight, glancing off the edge of the table. Duration of wails: two minutes. General tenor: inconsolable.

3. This morning: she is sitting at her little chair at her little table, and attempts to get up; she hooks a foot in the chairleg and does a classic Chevy-chase onto the floor. Duration of wails: 30 seconds.

4. This afternoon: walking across the floor, she steps on a piece of drawing paper and does the Rumpelstiltskin splits, culminating with a noggin-conk on the hardwood floor. It’s almost a cheerleader move. Demi Moore had to practice for a month to do that one for a movie role. Damage: minor, but she’s tired, which leads to far more distress than the situation requires. I give her hugs and a pony ride and she is happy. We decide to go upstairs and play with Lego.

5. She crawls up the stairs, with me behind as usual. On the first landing she attempts to stand, but one leg is an unhelpful position, and she bonks her head on the landing. Duration of wails: 45 seconds, ended by a trip to the Lego room and the promise of Danish delights.

6. Half an hour later, I’m at the table, and she’s drawing. She toddles over and grins wide: her mouth is full of Cheerios, stuffed like a miser’s mattress. I show no alarm, but remove them with one brisk sweep of the finger. Duration of wails: one minute. Not technically a head injury.

7. Ten minutes later she runs over to her table, trips on a rug, falls over, grazing her head on the table as she dives. By now I think she’s just sick and tired of this, and wails out of annoyance. Daddy! Gravity bad!

Projected career: comic relief in the Ice Capades.

I know this sounds horrible
, but any parent will understand. In every one of these situations I was right there, no more than 18 inches away, and in each case there was nothing I could do. Every day she clips her brainpan on something, and even if I swaddled every item in the house in six inches of foam rubber and paved Jasperwood with thick quilts, she’d just fall into a wall, because she’s at that stage when she bangs her head more than her butt.

I always try to balance concern and sympathy with the gravity of the manner - if every bumped head is rewarded with a cookie and a smothering hug and the affirmation that the world is cruel and unjust, the tears get more theatrical as the months go on. Or so I suspect. There’s a fine line between comforting and indulging, and I think we’ll be better off in the long run if she knows that comforting is not a license for indefinite
self-pity. You can’t tell a 20-month old to suck it up and play hurt, of course - but after a while you know when the tears are being produced by some sort of tear-generating program activated by the presence of tears themselves; the child is crying not because she'shurt or scared, but because she's crying. And at that point you can introduce some bracing element - play, a game, a surprising funny noise, a phrase you keep in reserve because it always makes the child laugh.

Today’s magic phrase: poo-poo puppy. She knows what Poo is (as opposed to the entirely separate concept of Pooh, which has a tripartite definition of the juice with Pooh on the box, the cereal with Pooh on the box, and Pooh himself) and when I called Jasper a Poo-Poo Puppy she laughed until she was breathless. It’s her first joke. Certain words have always made her laugh, but using disparate words in combination to produce laughter is the very essence of the Joke.

Jasper just gives us a downcast look. I am not a poo-poo puppy. I am a mighty wolf, even though I am reduced to hanging around this whelp’s chair waiting for a piece of macaroni to be flung down like some Olympian boon. I am
so a wolf. I am.

Thursday, March 14, 2002

Today: the meaning of life; the meaning of literature; the meaning of music; Luca$ sux!

I’m surely not the first to note this, and doubtless not the last, but I am haunted by the possibility that the hokey-pokey is, indeed, what it’s all about. We’ve been doing the hokey-pokey today, and every time I sing the revelation that this dance is the summation of human wants and desires, I get a little queasy. That’s one hell of a message to teach your child. But what of love, good works, adding to the accumulated ingenuity of mankind, al dente pasta with fresh tomato sauce, fast cars with manual transmissions, flowers in the spring, newly-mown grass in the summer and the bittersweet beauty of the fall, to say nothing of the peaceful unanimity of a snow-covered world? Nope. Hokey-pokey. That’s it.

What’s more, the hokey-pokey itself is not defined. Think of it: you put you foot in. You put your foot out. You put your foot in, and you shake it all about. You do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around; that’s what it’s all about. I defy anyone to find the actual hokey-pokey in that sequence. It’s not the foot-putting; it’s not the turning yourself around. Perhaps it’s the circular wagging motion of one’s index fingers, which makes the lesson even more depressing: it’s the gesture we used in high school to indicate ironic enthusiasm. The hokey-pokey means no more than "big whoop."

A deeply cynical man wrote this song; a deeply cynical man.

This worries Stephen King
as well, I think. There’s a King-penned X-Files about a killer doll from Beyond the Grave, or something like that, and periodically a 45 record player starts up of its own accord and plays the Hokey-Pokey song. It’s the sort of detail familiar to King’s work - something innocuous and slightly camp that gets subtly possessed by a malevolence you can’t quite identify. I was thinking about this tonight out on the cliff over a Partagas, and was reminded that King has a short-story anthology coming up. Probably his New Yorker pieces. (It’s always fun when people sniff at King, and I ask if they’ve read his New Yorker fiction - they get this strange look that says uh oh, I’m about to admit I don’t read the New Yorker, which no literary person dare confess.) I haven’t read the last few novels, but I’ve kept up on his short fiction; it’s very good. Why shouldn’t it be? He’s an incredible writer. And I say this as a bona fide college English major. Should anyone in the future want to figure out post-Watergate American culture, they’ll get more from 50 pages of “Christine” than the entirely of Raymond Carver’s output. (You want to learn how Americans speak, at least choose books where they actually TALK TO EACH OTHER.) Sure, some of the stuff tries a little too hard, and some of the books can wear you down, but there’s that generosity of spirit I love in an artist, the desire to produce and produce and produce, to fail now and then and hit it out of the park the next time.

America’s “serious” authors are usually no fun at all, and yes, fun is an important part of art - as much as beauty, to name another discredited ideal. I’ve read a lot of Updike, but the books evaporated like rubbing alcohol. I tried some latter Mailer, but it was like watching an old man dribble alphabet soup. The books that stay with me without exception are the ones written by “genre” authors - crime, horror, sci-fi - because they’re freed from the obligations of Literature. Nothing seizes up one’s ability to Comment Our Our Times like the necessity
to Comment On Our Times. Genre writers usually sneak up on truth from behind, or drive past it and throw a beer can at its head. They dress it up in a funny costume and give it a walk-on part. Mostly they just write, because they want to. Modern lit often strikes me as a Gehry funhouse, applauded for its dazzling skin and insular disregard for the forms of daily life. Genre works are tract houses where the really interesting people live.

Name me a recent serious novel written about the experience of Black men in America. I’m trying; can’t come up with one. I’m sure there have been a few. But none compare to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins detective series - they’re funny, bleak, harrowing, and just plain heartbreaking. (“Serious” authors seem incapable of creating characters as vivid as Mosley’s Mouse, whose charismatic menace makes you actually lean forward as you read.) Caleb Carr - before he inexplicably turned into a truly dreadful polemicist - brought 19th century New York to live in amazing detail, all in the service of a slasher story; James Ellroy’s fevered rants have constructed a brutal parallel history and redefined the moral structure of the old noir
thriller; no mean feat.

I’d like to think historians will study these books to gauge the temperature of the times, but they may well be blinded by institutional prejudice against the common low arts - as if a book that sells 7,000 copies says more about the times than one that sells 70,000.

Went to Circuit City
today with Gnat in the stroller. They have a new slogan: “We’re Right Here.” How many millions were spent whittling that piece of wet balsam, I’ve no idea; it means nothing and invites ridicule. It might make sense if the store changed location every other week and was attempting to get our attention - no! Over here! I saw the Rhino remastered Costello “This Year’s Model” double-CD, and bought it; this makes the third time I’ve purchased the album. In the old days, when you bought an album, it stayed bought - I can’t ever remember re-buying an album for any reason, even if it had suffered a fatal gash. Now we buy them over and over again, lured by new geegaws and crisper sound. (It does sound better than the lousy old CBS CD.)

Also saw a new CD by Pat Metheny Group, and the display promised that Pat was pushing the definitions of jazz
. Oh, damn, I thought. Here I thought he’d defined it so perfectly already; would this be more random fretwork, angular discord and other difficult embellishments? I don’t mean to sound as though I want everything boiled down to mush for my toothless soul, but I love Metheny's straight-ahead stuff. I know he’s held in bemusement among some hard-core types, mainly because the music does not feel like a Q-tip dipped in caustic lye and jammed into your ear canal for your own good. Mere NPR bumper music, some sniff. Well, sorry, but I like it, and the consistent style over the years is something for which I’m grateful. Yes, he makes experimental albums I like to lesser degrees, but then he makes an album overflowing with melody again. (Imagine if every other Woody Allen movie was as funny as Annie Hall - he’d be a national treasure instead of a chamois-skinned cradle bandit.)

So I pop the CD in the slot on the way home, bracing myself for jazz pushed to a new definition - and it was 1985 all over again. Same tone of the guitar, same sitar accents in harmony like a dash of cilantro, same breather patches on Lyle May’s synth, same elephant-bleat of the synclavier, same wordless vocalizations, same same same, except all new. I was overwhelmed with relief. Look: you find a fertile furrow, plow the sucker until nothing comes up anymore. No one bitched at Beethoven because he was still using a symphony orchestra in his later years. No one loves the Ninth because it has no connection to the previous eight, and provides a stunning break from a life’s work. Don’t get me wrong: it’s necessary to take chances; that’s the only way you grow, banal and platitudinous as that sounds. An artist doesn’t owe the audience something. But it’s a pleasure when an artist realizes that this is what people want, and they have a good reason for wanting it. So give it to ‘em. Why not? What’s the harm?

Saw the trailer
for the next Star Wars movie. Wow. I’m hopeful - but why? Is there any indication that Lucas has the gravity of spirit these images suggest? One of the things that pissed me off about Ep 1 was Lucas’ inability to find the epic tone in his story; he had some sort of artistic dyslexia that made him unable to distinguish breadth from depth. It’s possible the second installment will be just as lovely - and just as inert.

Well, back to work
; the CD cover is due at the printer’s tomorrow. And I have another piece of paying work to finish. More than anything, I just want to watch a little TV and do nothing - had Gnat for eleven hours today, with only 50 minutes spent napping, and I’m overdrawn on every personal account. I need about seven days worth of Mexico.

What I will get, according to the weather report tonight, is seven inches of snow.

(Doing hokey-pokey in grim satire of actual glee.)

Friday, March 15, 2002

It’s been snowing for eleven hours - and the skies just lit up with a flash of lightning. Followed by, predictably, thunder. In a snowstorm. The flash gave me a sudden spasm of duckencoveritis before I realized it is highly unlikely anyone will nuke Minneapolis.

I know, I know: don’t give them any ideas. But in a way it’s unnerving, because it makes you realize how many cities people wouldn’t really miss. Omaha. Minneapolis. Des Moines. Hell, Milwaukee. We’re the Old World now; as much as we pride ourselves on our high hip factor here in Minneapolis - yes, really, we do - we’re monochrome Monacos, and the world can do without us. New York, LA, Miami, Phoenix - that’s where the energy is, for ill or for good. Chicago? When the United States fractures into Jerkistan (the upper East Coast) Dixie (the south, minus Florida, which will have invaded and consumed Cuba and renamed the island St. Elian), The People’s Republic of Fog (Pac Norwest) and whatever the Southwest calls itself, the middle of America - which will probably have a name as exciting as “The Nine-State Area” or “The League of Meat” - will have Chicago as its Gotham, its Big Bratwurst. Why not? It’s been training for the job for years. It has the tall buildings. It has the massive rusty infrastructure, the ethnic food, the neighborhood bars full of guys with thick red necks and buzz-cut gray hair pounding down a shot between sips on a Winston, glaring at the TV up in the corner. Chicago always struck me as the city New York used to be, disassembled, carted west and reassembled without instructions. Some things they got right; some they had to reinvent.

It helped that the box containing “smugness” was shipped by mistake to San Francisco.

Add this
to the Bleat list of inexplicably persistent catchphrases: “Get a horse.” I’ve talked about phrases that survive long after the original context was forgotten, and things like Victrolas that still mean “record player” to modern eyes (yesterday’s Bleat about the hokey pokey was inspired by an Elmo cartoon, in which Andrea Martin puts a record on . . . an old Victrola. Which means nothing to 2-year olds, but ensures they will associate that device with music. How odd.) In the movie “The Time Machine” there’s a scene about an newfangled automotive perambulator, and as the operator chuffs his way into traffic, stalling and jerking, I thought: “get a horse.” And someone in the movie says just that.

Apparently this is what people shouted at the first generation of car drivers, who were usually found by the roadside staring befuddled at the inscrutable metal beneath the hood, comical goggles draped around their neck. But it’s a phrase that points to the technological pessimism of the speaker - it’s like shouting “get a stenographer” to someone attempting to unfreeze Windows.

You should see the old newspapers: they have automotive sections like papers had tech sections in the latter 90s, or radio sections in the 20s: this was high, high tech, and the target audience couldn’t get enough of it. So given the enthusiasm for the car, the phrase “get a horse” was the taunt of the past, the last gasp of the old order, one final jab of the needle from people whose self-satisfaction was matched only by their lack of foresight. And the phrase survives not as an example of boneheadedness, either - it just . . . survives. Perhaps the phrase will stick around long enough to be translated into terms we can’t yet imagine. When someone invents a teleporter, and people end up as a pile of screaming hairy goo on the other end, there’ll be someone to snicker “get a maglev Mach 2 monorail!”


And why did I mention this tonight? Because as I drifted off for my small post-supper nap, I thought: what this country still
needs is a good five-cent cigar. Why the hell that fatuous yet inarguable quote is still caroming around my brainpan I have no idea whatsoever. Some quotes are like shrapnel - they embed themselves in the culture, the flesh grows around them, and as long as they don’t pierce any vital organs they remain as long as the body’s alive.

I noticed we had four unopened boxes of Colgate toothpaste in a drawer, and I take full responsibility. I have a new scheme for household maintenance: buy what you’re not out of yet. For example: after this winter’s bout of the Eternal Grippe I bought both Dayquil and Nyquil, and put them aside for the day (or ny) we would need them again. Likewise Pepto-Bismol. And the real stuff, too, not “Papti-Bismuth” or “Peptide-Bismalla” or any other store-brand knockoff. I don’t care if it has the same ingredients; they have the mouth-feel of camel drool. I buy light bulbs, batteries, extra boxes of tissue, shampoo, shaving cream, razors. Should Western civilization collapse in a trice, I’m going to spend the last month living like a gentleman. Roasting my neighbors on the grill when the foodstuffs run out, yes, but I will shave before dinner.

It’s not hoarding, or some twisted psychological need to be assured of my personal plenty; I don’t open the doors of the storage closets and bask in the rows of goods. (Much.) It’s just part of the weekly provisioning trip to Target.


If I have two shampoo containers set aside, I am more likely to buy a third so I will still have two when I restock the shower. Likewise, there was a sale on Pooh Juice (made from freshly squeezed Pooh, I presume) that persuaded me to bring home three slabs of shrink-wrapped juice container. Three for Seven dollars
! Of course, if you bought one, it would cost $2.333333, but the sign makes a good argument. Three hundred for seven hundred dollars! Well, let me back the truck up, then. With great satisfaction I delegated a section of the cupboard to hold the Pooh Supply, and now that it’s half gone I have to buy two more. The old ones must be brought to the front, of course. And so it comes to pass than I spend a small but not insignificant portion of the day on Pooh Rotation, as well as stacking Kemps Jr. Blueberry Yogurt in the fridge according to expiration date.

Sounds frighteningly anal retentive, I know, but it’s what you do when you have nine hours a day at home with the tot, and you’re tired of polishing woodwork.

Can’t find the time to balance my checkbook, but my Pooh Juice supply is in order.

That’s enough
for the week; go read the Backfence, which contains a needlessly obscure rap-music joke based on the oft-quoted lyric “Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and hoes.” I couldn’t say it in a family newspaper, but I can here.


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