“We’re losing the class of 2006.” I heard this as I passed the TV tonight, so I rewound to see the context. It was a remark from an American official opposed to the end of the Visa Express, the program that let Saudis enter the US by spending less time at the embassy than you or I spend at the ATM. Since the students are now unable to attend American universities, the official worried, we are losing those Saudis who would be most likely to think favorably upon the US.

In a related story, scientists have using the latest in nanotechnology have managed to construct a violin approximately 1.5 microns long and .7 microns wide. “It’s the world’s smallest violin,” said the lead researcher, and he used it to demonstrate a small, sad song of pity for the class of 2006. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “No? I didn’t think so.”

The last great summer weekend - but then I’ll probably say that again next weekend. (I hope.) It still feels like summer; the heat has been punishing since Friday, with ninety-degree afternoons . . . but this is the crossfade season, when summer diminishes and fall emerges, and for a few bars they seem to be playing the same refrain. Only one tree on the block shows signs of the fatal tint - the leaves on top are a mad bright red, like a teenager who’s dyed his hair to shock all the adults. The cicadas still drill the air, drowned out only by the planes overhead - when I was sitting out back watching Gnat splash in her pool, the sound of the jets and the whine of the bugs assumed the rhythm of breath. The cicadas inhaled, the planes let it out.

“Oh!” said Gnat. “I’ve got an idea!” And it consisted of pouring out the pool water one cup at a time. “This could be fun,” she said, and from the looks of it, fun it was.

I got the pool Saturday afternoon at a hardware store. End of season clearance. She had one before, an inflatable thing with more chambers than a Vulcan’s heart, and hence more likely to leak in seventeen places. Useless. From Flax-Id Industries! Makers of slumpy pools you’ll palpate in despair! The new pool has a nautical scene in which happy denizens of the deep find buried treasure. She named them all: Ocopus, seehoss, crab, starfish, fishee. Exactly why the sea creatures are happy to find the treasure I don’t know; the octopus brandishes a key like a winning lottery ticket. It’s not as if gold coins are particularly useful in the sea. You can’t buy off a shark. You can’t bribe the fisherman. Money only works on humans. In this respect the tableau depicted on her pool is rather sad. Doubloons! Allright! Okay, guys, next time the nets come around, head to the surface and vomit up some gold coins! If we pay them off they’ll be sure to leave us alone then!

“Look, daddee.” Gnat points to the treasure chest. “Money.”

“Fat lot of good it’ll do them, sweetheart.”

She nods, gravely.

Had the Girard Av. block party Saturday night. That’s where we used to live. Neighborhood tradition holds that people who move aware are still welcomed back, so every year gets more and more multilayered; it makes you realize what a palimpsest a neighborhood is, how it’s always six places at once to twelve sets of people. (Enough people have moved in since ‘94, for example, that our old house is now the old Lileks house, not the house of the people from whom we bought it.) The number of children on the block grows exponentially every year, it seems, although there’s always the same four groups: vaguely confused toddlers, know-it-all five year olds, cliquish older girls, and wild feral boys hanging from trees and leading massed super-soaker assaults on the Other Side. (There’s always an Other Side. Put a boy alone in a room and his right side will declare war on his left, or the two will join in mortal combat against The Chair.) The adults are likewise arrayed: there are those who attempt to have a conversation but are really watching their small child get tangled in a rose bush; the parents who know the kids aren’t going to run down to the creek and go over the falls; the ones whose kids are off in a car somewhere because they wouldn’t be caught dead at this lame-o reunion, and those whose children are long gone, scattered like dandelion seeds. It’s the same every year, a demographic mobius strip.

The first year I wore my dad’s old bowling shirt, a classic 50s garment with the gigantic embroidered Texaco logo on the back and his name on the breast pocket. I wore that shirt a lot in those days, but as it began to feel fragile and thin I retired it from circulation. Now it comes out once a year, like an old famous flag. Saturday marked it’s ninth appearance. If I didn’t wear it for the next nine years they’d ask about on the tenth. If it’s ever destroyed in the wash I’ll carry a scrap of the shirt pinned to my pocket. It’s a meaningless tradition - aside from the fact that it’s a tradition, which is meaning enough.

The evening always ends with a fire in a brazier set in the middle of the street. Christmas lights are strung in the trees overhead, not for illumination - the fire suffices - but because, well, that’s always what we do. The dogs come out and forage for scraps; the kids retreat to the shadows at the end of the block and conspire. The adults slump in their chairs, have another Pale Ale from the keg, light a cheroot, relax. I’d gone home earlier with wife & child but went back for the bonfire. And as usual I got the same feeling I had the first year I was there: this would always be home.

When I went back on Sunday to pick some up a trike an neighbor had set out for Gnat, I remembered what the day after always looked like. The barricade set aside, the odd chair or cooler left on the boulevard; a few scraps of paper, a few errant toys, the children’s bikes still festooned with streamers from the afternoon bike exhibition. The everyday leftovers you wouldn’t notice if you were just passing by. I remembered that there was always something sad about the subsequent Sunday, the feeling that parade had passed by and wouldn’t come back for months, that summer was done no matter how hot it felt, that soon fall would disassemble the trees and smother the lawns, and winter would usher everyone back inside - sometimes gently, sometimes with the rude shove. If I hadn’t shown up for the trike I’d have missed the Day After, and it reminded me that I was now outside the currents of daily life on Girard, and as much as if felt like home once a year it wasn’t home anymore, not really, not at all. And it reminded me again of the day I pulled away after locking the front door for the last time, and drove away slow so I could look at the house until it was out of sight, and how - for all the happiness we felt upon moving into Jasperwood, that was one of the saddest days of my life.

But they have a pumpkin carving day on Girard before Halloween. We’ll be there.


Note - new Flotsam this week. I went to the Postcard Convention on Saturday and decided to start collecting old 50s & 60s nighttime street scenes. Three examples are posted. New Matchbook, too - and thanks to Forbes ASAP for the writeup on the Matchbook-o-Rama site!

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:. Today feels like 9/11 more than 9/11 will. It happened on a Tuesday, after all. If your week is like mine Tuesday has a particular mood, a certain tempo. Monday is opening night; Wednesday is Intermission; Tuesday is the act where the characters have been established and begin to act. Tuesday is the definition of a normal day.

For me Tuesday is a double column day - send in the Newhouse piece, write the Backfence. The night before 9/11 I’d written a column on a Justice Department study on CSE. You remember CSE, don’t you? It was a matter of great concern: Child Sexual Exploitation. K1ddy prOn? Not necessarily: it could mean “trading sexual favors . . . for more expensive clothes or other consumer goods. . . .(m)ost of the 'customers' of these children are members of their own junior and senior high school peer groups." I wrote:

This is an extremely squishy definition of exploitation; it could conceivably cover an uncovered 18-year old who gets a Walkman from her boyfriend. Does that seem like something the Federal government should get involved in? The report’s conclusion thinks so, and calls for “a lead Federal agency” to be “given primary responsibility” for protecting children, including giving sex offenders “the unequivocal notion that ‘it is not okay’ to molest children.”

Well, yes; we certainly must counter the unceasing flood of pro-molestation messages we hear every day.

That was the world before that Tuesday: arguing about whether there should be a federal role in the transfer of material goods in high-school relationships.

While the towers burned I called the office and told them I would write something different. I will never forget my editrix’s voice that day: electric, controlled, marshaling everything, working. Then I called the Strib and spiked my next Backfence. Then I sat down and watched and took notes. Laptop, TiVo, camcorder.

Here was one moment when I just felt naked and dead:

Tuesday is my first anniversary.

Something else
about that Newhouse column, something stupidly trivial for this week. I had this line:

Let’s say that the Democrats retake the House, and the economy is still mired in the slough of despond.

That’s a reference to “Pilgrim’s Progress,” of course, a highly influential and mostly forgotten work written in 1678 by John Bunyan. The allegorical riches of that work informed English lit for centuries, which I suppose is why I was required to read it in college. Which brings us to Chuck Berry. Every month I make a CD of random selections from my iTunes jukebox, a soundtrack for the month. Gnat enjoys some of the songs, but not all; she likes “Whispering Bells” by the Del-Vikings because I have proclaimed it TICKLE MUSIC, and always lean back to goose her when it comes on. The lyrics of the song are the height of sophomoric stupidity: the singer seems to believe that the “whispering bells” - which is an absolute oxymoron, like “raspy xylophones” or “breathy harp” - will somehow “bring my baby back to me.” As if the aspirated tintinnabulation of some metal objects will turn a woman’s heart. Please. The CD also contains an Underworld tune that makes me drive too fast, a swank organ tune from the Era of the Holy Hammond, a chipper tune from the “Mulholland Falls” soundtrack, random salsa, two gruesome song poems, and “School Days” by the merry Mr. Chuck Berry.

This is one of the most perfect rock and roll songs written, a perfect match of lyrics and music and audience. It starts in school, goes to lunch, heads back to class, gets to the malt shop in one compact stanza and ends as a holler to the liberating properties of guitars and drums. But there’s this line:

As soon as three o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down

That’s an oblique reference to Pilgrim’s Progress, I think. The Pilgrim was nearly sunk in the Slough of Despond by the Burden on his back, and I expect that this metaphor influenced religious rhetoric for decades afterwards. Something Mr. Berry heard in church as a young man, perhaps - the phrase “lay your burden down” has the feel of a pre-fab phrase familiar to all, probably through centuries of religious boilerplate predicated on a familiarity with Bunyan’s work.

Where Mr. Berry got “My Ding-a-ling,” I do not want to know.

I had to rebuild my bookmarks tonight, since the new install of OS X 10.2 wiped out the old ones. It’s a good idea to trash your bookmarks once or twice a year - frees you from the tyranny of obligation, of checking the six-score sites you checked out once, bookmarked, and trudged back to daily just to see if there was a reason to go there. I could do half the list from memory. My home page is the Instantman, and why not? Loads fast, tastes great, and always has something to see. The next batch are the Named Blogs, and as I arranged the bookmarks I noted something of minor interest. A year or so ago, the majority of bookmarks were institutional. Now the first tier are all individual names, which I’d list but it’s late at night and I’m too tired to link. (Soon, I promise, I will.)

I don’t know any of these guys, and I wouldn’t know them if I ran into them at the market. Well, maybe Glenn and Sullivan, because they have pictures, but Welch would have to wear the hat. Nevertheless, the names mean something right away - a tone, a particular view or concern. In one year, the blogosphere has accomplished what it takes newspapers years to do: make brand names out of individual writers.

A newspaper can launch a columnist, but it takes a while for the column to work its way into the consciousness of the audience. And perversely, the more successful a column becomes, the less connected it becomes from the reader. The Great Columnists assume oracular status; they become machines that issue well-pondered remarks at regular intervals. You never, ever see on the edit page the following:

Screw This
by William Safire

Do NOT mix gin and Jack Daniels, no matter how good looking the bartender is. My head feels like the last stake in the Transcontinental Railroad, hammered in place by fifty guys who had to have their picture taken swinging the hammer and swinging it hard. I need a hamburger.

posted by krusty bill 2:47 pm (permalink)

No one would ever print it. There would be no point to printing it. But printing is different than posting. Printing is for The Ages; Posting is for The Readers.

One of the reasons I feel as if I know these guys is because they’ve let us all know them. It is almost impossible for a blog to be inconsistent in tone or subject matter; it’s assumed that remarks on the failure of homeland security is perfectly comfortable between a post on a friend’s wedding or a weather report. The New Journalism? No: it’s a throwback to the old model of columns, when the local boys wrote everyday whether they had something to say or not.

People felt they knew those columnists in a way they rarely do today. Cedric Adams, for example, was a Minneapolis columnist much beloved, and he frequently resorted to filling out the space by printing the phone numbers of people who wanted to give away kittens. He had a regular featured called “Thoughts While Shaving” that consisted entirely of disconnected ramblings produced while razoring his mug in the morning. It was often banal, but so is most of daily life. People loved Cedric because they thought he was one of them. Few people wait until they have something Mighty to say before they open their yap. The old daily columnists might have been clever fellows with a unique position, and they did things most people didn’t do (George Grim, another daily writer, traveled the world and ladled out dispatches to a pre-jet-age audience; Will Smith spent every night on the town looking for news from the cabarets and TV stations and radio shows.) But columnists were expected to inhabit the same world as the readers, not waddle down from the mountaintop three times a week and drop the tablets on your toes.

I’m not saying the blogs I read are good because they’re trivial. They’re not. But most good blogs I read display no sense of limitation; they’re not constrained by the need to be Important every time they approach the mike, so they develop a sense of personality much quicker than a newspaper columnist ever can. In 94 out of 100 cases this means the work is crap, but in the 6 out 100 it means you get the sort of column newspapers will never run. Or could. Or should. No matter how casual you dress for your newspaper job, you still can’t help feeling as if the paper itself is a tuxedo. At the very least you stand up straight.

Newspapers need to stop treating columnists like people enshrined on marble podiums, and treat them like the comics - something that runs every day in the same place. Not a precious metal, but a utility, something that runs when you turn on the tap.

In the end we’re all as important as Blondie. Might as well show up as often as she does.
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