. Sic transit gloria Monday: three days later, and the Wellstone story already feels cold and old. The special editions are in the recycling bins with the Best Buy ads and comics; the eulogies are done, the emotion mostly spent, and everyone’s looking to the election. At any other time there would be a protracted period of recollection, but the election is hard upon us.

If it’s Mondale as a replacement, it ought to make Wellstone’s supporters scowl a bit. The true heir to Wellstone’s policies would be the Green candidate - but oddly enough, none of his supporters are suggesting that anyone vote for that fellow. Policies are one thing; power is quite another. The objective is not to carry the Wellstone torch for the next six years. The objective is control of the Senate. The Wellstone legacy turns out to be no more than a seat marked D.

Friday afternoon I listened to a local talk show whose host has been hammering Wellstone like a hot horseshoe for 12 years. I wasn’t surprised to hear him spend his three hours treating Wellstone’s death with sorrow and respect; I wasn’t surprised to hear the callers say the same thing. Over and over, one by one: I disagreed with everything he said but he was a good guy, and it’s all a damn shame. Every so often a contrarian would shoulder his way on the air and spit on the floor: are you nuts? The man was a flaming socialist, and we shouldn’t be putting him on a pedestal when we can stand on the grave’s edge and whiz on the coffin. Or words to that effect.

I read the same sentiment here and there in the blogs. What sticks in some people’s craw is the idea that principle = virtue, as though dedication to an idea is, of itself, a laudable thing. Of course it isn’t; the world is full of people filled with terrible certainties. You can quickly Godwinize the argument down to nonsense: Hitler was full of conviction; is then Hitler to be mourned? It’s a valid question in another context. But not here. You have to judge the motives and character of the person who has the convictions. Do they seek something which any objective civilized mind would find evil? One caller to a weekend show insisted that Wellstone believed in Socialism, just like Lenin and Stalin. The host - a rock-ribbed Christian conservative - batted the idea away like an outhouse fly, because it’s tiresome, useless, and counterproductive. Wellstone didn’t want the Gulag, the Purge, the forced transplantation of whole populations, the formation of the faceless masses into a fist directed by cold-blooded elites. He may have been on the fringe of American politics, but his ideas were the outer edge of a dominant political party; he sought change through democratic means; he meant well.

Eyes roll. He meant well? Faint praise, yes, and weasel words you usually hear at sentencing hearings. But if you’re going to accuse someone of being kith and kin to tyrants and murderers, you have to realize that intentions do count, as I’ll explain. And if you’re going to call Wellstone a tyrant and group him with the A-list collectivists, insist that his vision of government was a gun to your head, then you have no gas left in the tank when it comes time to run over the guys who really meet those descriptions. We can have fun with the guy when he’s alive, but death changes the tenor of the debate. Put the broad brush back in the muck bucket.

Doesn’t mean he was correct. Doesn’t mean that the end result of some of his policies wouldn’t have been ruinous. In my view, his desire to "liberate" people from market forces would have saddled them with another burden - indifferent and unresponsive government control, higher taxes, less choice in nearly every area of life that mattered except abortion. He was one of those idealists who assumed that aspiration alone would solve the petty details. He always wanted to climb the next mountain and find Shangri-La, and this filled his supporters with awe and devotion. Occasionally one acolyte might ask: but we’ll run out of air halfway up. What then?

“We’ll find a way! We’ll invent new ways to breathe! We’ll barter with other climbers for O2 tanks! We’ll find a shortcut around the mountain so we won’t need oxygen. What matters is that we try, and find a path to Shangri-La for everyone!”

Yes, but the mountain is littered with the bones of the dead who said the same thing. Shouldn’t we -

“Shangri-la! We can do it! We can do it!”

But again, to be fair: for all his high-blown rhetoric, he could mix it up on the ground floor. I heard him sit in a few times for a local conservative talk-show host on KSTP. He gave as good as he got; he didn’t issue bulletproof harangues, blow people off, spend an hour chain-sawing strawmen. He argued, attempted to persuade, listened, replied - and his words didn’t have the maddening vacuity of a careful politician who measures every utterance against the impact on whatever demographic’s in play that week. In this sense he was a bad politician, as they’re currently defined; it was his luck to represent a state where he could speak his mind without editing, and find most voters nodding agreement.

Doesn’t mean he was always right. But some people of his stripe are content to hector and lecture from on high, vaguely annoyed that you ask questions when the TRUTH is so bloody obvious. (See also McDermott, Bonior.) Wellstone spent a lot of time with the people of this state, and he didn’t treat them like a herd that had to be branded and fed. He liked people. He liked them enough that you could argue with him, tell him he was full of codswallop and here’s why, and you’d still get a grin and a handshake at the end. In many cases he viewed his opponents the way his opponents viewed him: as a perfect example of how it’s possible to mean well and be completely wrong.

It surprises some people that he spoke warmly of Jesse Helms. But it only surprises you if you believe that people cannot form personal bonds that find their way around the iron bars of ideology. It’s mysterious only if you’ve never had a three-hour political argument with an old friend that collapsed to silence and sighs, and was restarted when one of you said: so. How are you?

This all seems obvious; why bring it up? I don’t know. I read stuff here and there that took glee in Wellstone’s death. Some folk seemed to think that a refusal to bury the hatchet and mutter the funeral liturgy was a Brave Stance, that the times cried out for a Truth Teller who branded Wellstone as the treasonous hell-bound scoundrel he really was. But there’s nothing brave about that. There’s no consequence aside from a few angry emails, scowls in the comments section, removal from a few visitors' bookmark lists. None of these people, if they had the opportunity, would say it to the face of anyone who had a loved one die in the plane crash. Hey, our prayers are with you, but I still think the man should writhe for eternity under Satan’s hoof. Sorry, but someone has to say it. They’d hold their tongue - either their own sense of decency would win the moment, or shame and cowardice would close their throat.

Of course, most commentators never have to worry about meeting anyone who suffered from Friday’s tragedy.

But it can be arranged. Interested?

The trouble with dancing on Wellstone’s grave is that you have to walk over several other graves to get there. The wife, the daughter, the aides, the pilots. Yes, yes, everyone’s sad they died, but that has nothing to do with the pernicious effects of the man’s beliefs, does it. Well, aside from the pilots, they all believed as Wellstone did. If he’s a traitor, a collectivist, a tyrant, a Stalin-in-shortpants, then they should join him in hell. No, they were just citizens, they didn’t have the power he had. Yes, the power to be half of the coalition that lost every 98-2 vote in the Senate. Get real. When he clambered out on the far boughs, he was usually alone. When he voted with the majority he did so in accordance with the issues of the party which, like it or not, represents the opinions of half of the country. For this he should go to hell? Okay, maybe not, but really: in the end run we’re better off that he’s dead. Cold but true.

Then that goes for all who believe as he did - including the young campaign aide on the trip, a guy in his early 20s. He believed a lot of nonsense. When I was his age I believed a lot of nonsense too. Perhaps the world would have been better if I’d gone down in a bog while I believed stupid things; there was no guarantee I’d ever change my mind, after all. There’s certainly no guarantee this young man wouldn't have changed his.

On Saturday we learned that this young man was a very close friend of a member of my wife’s family. It was one of those phone conversations where you get the entire gist by watching your wife’s face, listening to the few words she musters. I suppose I should be pleased, in an abstract way, since this means that there’s one less person to spread what I believe is a counterproductive approach to economics and domestic security. I suppose I should refuse to call him a good kid too, since he believed what his mentor believed. I suppose I should put on my best Mr. Potter face and snort that he got what comes to fools, and content myself with the knowledge that the Republic is better off without his breed of starry-hearted Tinkerbells.

But I can’t. You want to give it a try? Knock yourself out. Yank open the morgue drawer and shout at the dead. And if that strikes you as Brave, and that’s what you call Principle, and you believe this is the necessary reaction to the senseless expense of human life:



Okay, laugh, snicker, carp and jeer if you like, but I’ve always enjoyed the Pet Shop Boys. The remixes are always techno exceptionale, and the lads write some fine songs. The vocals put some people off - too twee, too weightless, too . . . gay. As for the last charge, well, duh, but so? It’s like hammering Noel Coward for not writing lyrics that could be chanted by British soccer hooligans. (“We’re modern sorts, our geist has been zeited! / That’s why we support Manchester United!”) Neil Tennant’s voice has a quality you only find in untutored amateurs. He can’t do the big Whitney sob or Garland shout, so he contents himself with wry, measured melancholy, and his voice is perfect for the material. I like it. Sue me. Point is, I was shoving CDs in the car radio the other day, and found “Home and Dry,” a good song off the last album. I thought: you know, this should have been a hit.

And then I thought: how would I know if it was? I pay no attention to these things. Like most people over 30, I live outside the rules of radio. I roll my own. I thought of this again today when Entertainment Weekly showed up in the mailbox. Avril was on the cover, whoever she is. I’d seen her on some teen girls mag cover last month; she was making a face intended to convey outRAGE!ousness, and the headline said that guys dug her and girls dug her and she was cool, so there, the end. Now comes EW; the entire cover is a close-up of her face and her nose is crinkled up to indicate that she has ATTITUDE! Said the headline: she’s pop, she’s punk, she’s in your face.

Let’s take these one by one.

She’s pop! I’ll grant that. No evidence need be advanced; the point is conceded.

She’s punk! On what world? Look at those teeth: straight and white and not a hint of plaque. Johnny Rotten got his name from his abysmal dentition, after all. Sid Vicious’s body odor could make a New York lamppost keel over. The punk movement was not pretty. It did not exfoliate. But “punk” is now defined as being anti-Britney, i.e., just as pretty and young but with an “edge,” which comes from the “street,” which is defined as that smooth expanse your mother drives on before she drops you off at the mall with her credit card. When Avril sticks a safety pin through her ear, pogo-dances all night and throws up seven beers and a handful of uppers in the gutter outside the club, then she’s got a downpayment on punk. But only if the ear gets infected tomorrow.

She’s in your face! If so, then one simple request: get out of my face. The desire to be in my face does not equal the right to be in my face; it does not even mean you have the qualifications to be in my face. Indeed: if you get in my face, I will get in your face, and we will have a contest of in-face getting you cannot win.

In short: all I need to know about her I will learn in 14 months, when she does a Bally fitness center commercial.

In doing some research for today’s Mondale column, I reread his speech at the 1984 Democratic convention. Here’s a real time-capsule moment for you:

“When we speak of change, the words are Gary Hart's. When we speak of hope, the fire is Jesse Jackson's. When we speak of caring, the spirit is Ted Kennedy's. When we speak of the future, the message is Geraldine Ferraro”

Well, at least one out of four didn’t cheat on his wife. What a snapshot of 1984: a time when Gary Hart was the 845th blurry photocopy of JFK to be handed around, when Jesse Jackson was regarded as a bulwark of righteous enlightenment instead of a self-aggrandizing shakedown artist; when Ted Kennedy was a big pickled Care Bear, and Geraldine Ferraro was the future, not a footnote-to-be. I was a hardcore Democrat at the time, and I remember watching the speech and thinking: we are going to lose. We are going to lose 51 states. Puerto Rico will demand statehood just for the chance not to vote for this guy.

Yes, he won Minnesota - but by 4000 votes. Perhaps the DFL thinks that those 4000 voters have died or moved away, and it’s really Mondale Hour now. I just feel sorry for the guy. If he wins, he has to leave home, leave his family, leave his nice job, and go back to the ossuary of the Senate for six years. One night he’ll find himself staring at the lovely ceiling, listening to Robert Byrd drone on - for heaven’s sake he was talking when I left and twenty years later he still hasn’t shut up - and he’ll think: "if I was home I’d be sitting by the fire at the cabin with a book, and I’d hear the wind in the pines, that low whoosh that makes you turn up the heat and reach for the Old Granddad. I’d have my slippers on. The ones the kids got me, the ones with the white nubby fur inside and the rabbit ears. Maybe I’d put “Shane” on the VCR - that’s the only tape we have at the cabin, for some reason. Keep meaning to bring some more, but on the other hand you can’t go wrong with “Shane” . . . . but life didn’t turn out quite the way I intended. It’s odd - one day you’re a happy man, basking in the twilight glow of a life well lived. And the next thing you know you’re a goddamnned Senator again.

"Wha - we’re voting? Find Daschle, find Daschle - well, he’s shaking his head. So I guess it’s a nay.

"Where was I? Ah. Yes. It’s not just the wind in the trees you love to hear. It’s the way the mailbox creaks in a good stiff breeze. See, it’s one of those sounds you never remember until you hear it again; you can go the whole winter and never hear it . . . and when you hear it in the distance as you drop off to sleep, well, it’s one of a dozen different things that tells you you’re home.

"Someone peed on our steps this morning. Peed right on the Post. The bag was dripping when I picked it up. I’d forgotten how much I really don’t like it here."

Finally: one more small piece of the Blade Runner world comes true: meet Darryl Hannah’s fashion daughter.


I like to end my evenings with some TV, and I often don’t care what. Anything to scour away the buildup of flaky, itchy reality. Since I don’t want my daughter jerking away everytime Tony Soprano fires a pistol, I use wireless headphones. For years I’ve had a pair made by RCA - great sound, quite comfy, but if the sound level drops too low for a protracted period of time the transmitter decides well, I guess he’s not listening and blasts STATIC so loud you can actually feel the sound waves collide in the middle of your brain and ricochet around your skull. Recently I noticed that the left side was cutting out - not surprising, since Gnat likes to play with the plug that connects to the receiver, and she’d probably shorted it out. So I bought another pair - not the super-expensive ones that could blast a signal through a battleship hull, but good enough for lounging six feet from the TV in the family room.

If you’ve ever used these things, you know you have two thumbwheels - one on the headset, one on the base station. You twirl them until the signals handshake and you have full, rich, hiss-ridden stereophonic glory. Well, I couldn’t get a signal. I only got one ear. The left ear was dead. Drat. The problem was the receiver jack, then - Gnat was also fond of sticking the plug into the jack and wiggling it around.

What to do? I could have the receiver repaired. Pause. Gales of Laughter! Sure, I’ll give a c-note to Best Buy to fix this thing, and do without family room TV for a week. You know what happens the moment I turn it in to the shop. The war with Iraq starts, and I have to endure it in Mono. Not something I’m willing to risk. So I instantly conceived of a plan: get a new receiver for the family room, move old one downstairs to the Battle Bridge, where headphones are never required. Problem: receiver must also contain a DVD player, since the unit was part of a craptacular Sony Home Theater system I got a few years back. And it must fit in the cabinet, of course.

Off to Audio King, where the staff is smart, knowledgeable, low-pressure, and dressed in ties and jackets - home of the nose-bleed markup, in other words. They had one unit, a clunky JVC with a bewildering interface. The manual probably said “If unit does not work, stab buttons at random until desired function is activated.” No go. With slumped shoulders took myself to the bright loud hellsink known as BEST BUY.

There was a row of composite devices - six models of varying price, size and power. I really wanted the one with the mirrored faceplate and low profile, but I realized I’d be cleaning jam and syrup off the front every morning, and one of my chief objectives in life today is not adding to the number of sticky surfaces I have to Windex daily. A clerk wandered past and asked if I needed help. I told him what I needed: a combination receiver / DVD player, such as they had in this aisle. Which was best?

“Uh . . .” He looked down the aisle as if praying one of the units would sprout legs and arms, clamber down from the shelf, waddle over and say I’m the one, old chap; deucedly simple, and handsome to boot. “Well . . .”

“That’s okay!” I smiled. “I can figure it out. Thanks for your time.”

I had no desire to trail behind a stoner who explained how this unit played, like DVDs, and the green thing here meant it had, like, power. I sized up all the stats, picked a Pioneer that was A) cheaper than the Sony I’d bought three years ago, and B) had more power. While I was studying the model another clerk came by with one of those Nightmare Customers - a cranky old man who didn’t know anything and didn’t want to pay too much and wasn’t going to be sold somethin’ he didn’t need and wanted that one his brother Virgil had with the remote that had the buttons up in the left part, where you thumb can get at ‘em real easy. This clerk had patience, enthusiasm, and knew every product well. When he was done satisfying the old fellow, I buttonholed him and asked his opinion. He said this wasn’t his department, but if he had to choose he’d go with the Pioneer, and he listed off 37 reasons, ending with a vigorous denunciation of the Sony for its cheap construction, proprietary speaker interface and substandard speaker wiring. “But this really isn’t my department,” he insisted. “I can get Daryl.”

I told him I’d talked to Daryl. “You sold me!” I said. “Great job. Thanks.” He grinned and ran off, Robin the Boy Stereo Salesman Wonder, full of Pepsi-fueled eagerness. Bless him.

I got a cart and loaded the box up. Another clerk - tall, wearing a tie - came by and asked if I needed help. I said I’d made up my mind, thank you.

“These units can get hot,” he said. I said I hadn’t thought about that.

“Feel it,” he said. He put his hand over the vent of a Sony on the end-cap. “Put your hand here.”

This felt creepy. I put my hand on the vent. “It’s warm,” I agreed.

“You have to keep them clean, or the dust builds up,” he said. Now he was like some Steven King rustic, issuing cryptic wisdom from the porch to a tourist who just wants directions to the hotel. He pushed the disc-tray button. “You get dust that builds up in here, and it needs to be removed.” I said I would remove it.

“Can I interest you in the service contract? It includes five free cleanings. We’ll remove all the dust inside the unit -”

You know that spinning kick you see in Kung Fu movies? Where the guy whirls around and shoots out a leg and his foot makes instant contact with the guy’s jaw? That’s what I want to do every time I hear the word “service contract.” I buy them for my camcorders, because they are delicate, expensive creatures. But buying them for $200 combo-receivers is like buying a life-insurance policy on a hamster. I declined, bought the unit, dragged it home. Thus ends Act one.


Gnat had taken a late nap, and was bouncing off the walls at eight; my wife decided to take her to the Mall, let her run around, have a hangiger (as she calls Hamburgers). We’ll be back at 9:30. Fine; I’ll be here setting up the stereo.

I remember from my youth the thrill of unpacking new stereo equipment, how there was always the promise of New and Better Sound with this one, and the unspoken hope that somehow this would help you get a date in the sack, too. (Men seem to believe that about anything they can plug in, just as women believe it about anything they can strap on their feet.) You’d invite your guy friends over to listen to the new system. In college in the dorms, when a guy got a new stereo, he’d invariably use a Steve Miller album to show it off, and I’d have to nod: boy, that crap sounds great. Most of the stuff I listened to was either precious prog-rock meant for late-night low-light headphone sessions, or murkily mixed thrash and punk that sounded awful no matter what you played it on. So the quality of my system didn’t matter. I valued the New System Experience, but I’d made the decision not to be an audiophile, one of those speaker geeks who listens to the system more than he listens to the music.

Still, a new receiver was a blessed event, especially if it had cool dials or nifty VU meters.

Now it just means another X hundred bucks down the rathole.

I removed the cordage from the old system. There’s the TiVo and the VCR and the TV and the receiver, and getting everything to work just right is one of those situations that makes no logical sense; the TiVo video feed has to be run through the VCR, for example. Months ago in a rare moment of foresight I had labeled all the cords, so this time I was spared the hair-pulling experimentation. I yanked out all the STUPID STUPID SONY PLUGS - they defy all known conventions of speaker connectivity; instead of the usual naked wire pair of Mr. Black and Mr. Red, they have these uniplugs that don’t require you to thread the wires into the slots. Very simple, very easy - but when I’d reinstalled the system at Jasperwood, I had to deal with a network of embedded wires in the walls. And that meant cutting the wires several inches from the Sony Plugs, stripping them, marrying the trembling tiny wires to the thick brutish Monster Cable that spilled from the walls, and taping everything back together again. It was deeply satisfying to gather up the stupid plugs, curse them and throw them in the garbage.

It was deeply annoying to remember that the Sony was going downstairs, so I’d need those plugs again, and I’d better get them out of the garbage.

Put everything back, turned it on: huzzah. It worked. It worked! Let’s sit back and enjoy a show -

What time is it?

Good Lord, It’s 10:20.

Where’s my wife and child?

The Mall closed long ago.

Uh oh.

For the next half hour I stood outside on the cliff, waiting for the squad car to come by and deliver the bad news. I’m serious: I was sick with dread. Ten-forty, and they’re still at the Mall? Parking ramp assault, highway accident - take your pick. If they’d gone elsewhere she would have called.

Of course they came home soon afterwards. My wife didn’t have a watch; it was Halloween night at the Mall, they rode on the choo-choo, were you worried?

I didn’t get the starch back in my knees for half an hour.

Later that night I put in a Sopranos disc, poured myself a brown reward, hooked up the headphones and settled in for an hour of Jersey mayhem.

I think we all know where this is going.

The left half of the headphones still didn’t work.


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