Today: the Fritz-Norm debate; the banner explained; why my e-mail karma is bad

Duty will compel me to listen to the Mondale-Coleman debate, but I will be chewing on a damp towel the entire time. I can’t stand these debates; I can’t stand the tone, the caution, the intellectual flaccidity, the overall aura of Mommyism hovering over the entire affair. Play nice! Remember to share, and don’t be mean. Fine sentiments for the playground, but in a political debate I want heat, sparks, bile and brimstone. I’m not saying that they should pound the pulpit and puff themselves up like outraged adders; I’m not suggesting they grab each other by the shoulders and tumble into the gutter in the first few minutes. ("Hey, you wizened half-blind stroke-addled hack - what was the first thing you noticed when they chipped you out of the glacier? No trilobites?" " Oh, yeah? Well, where’s your your wife today, you turncoat Kennedy-wannabe haircut-on-a-stick?") That’s not quite helpful. In my Tuesday local column, I do call for the return of lies and invective in political campaigns - big bold naked lies that have fine entertainment value, such as insinuating your opponent puts on a Pope hat and passes out leaky batteries in day-care centers. I’m not serious, but I’d prefer that to modern political dialogue. They’ve swiped the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm - and as a result their rhetotic and critiques are timorous and toothless. Why? Because they’re good gentle souls who cannot bring themselves to be honest?

Of course not. It’s because the electorate will be turned off by “negative” rhetoric. (Or advisors have convinced the candidates that the voters will be turned off.) Apparently we prize civility over clarity. Apparently we’d rather watch two grown men share their Tonka trucks than have them start a fight when one of them starts to ram the truck into the puppy. I can understand why people might be turned off by political conflict - the stakes don’t seem high to most people, and since many have the typical pox-on-both-their-houses approach, it seems absurd to see politicians engage in substantive combat as if this really matters. Well, it does matter. And the candidates know it matter. More people might think it mattered if the politicians acted as though it did.

What dismays me most is that the “negative rhetoric” is invariably about as caustic as a bar of Dove soap that’s been sunk in the tub for half an hour. Simply quoting someone’s record is “negative.” Pointing out past votes or statements is “negative.” In short, the act of criticism has been mommified into a nokey-dokey - all to appeal to the people who pay no attention, but receive political campaigns the way an aeolian harp receives the wind. This is the consequence of peace and affluence: what matters most to the country matters least to the people, and the only way they can be persuaded is by using the same warm kind voice they heard as they drowsed in the cradle.

It makes me wish Ventura hadn’t screwed up so much, hadn’t allowed his mouth and ego to waste his political coin. Whatever you thought of the man, his campaign was characterized by humor, winking self-parody, and utterly blunt remarks that would have made the blood drain from the face of any campaign manager. Once he was confronted by a single mom who complained that she couldn’t afford to go to college, and Ventura inquired why this was the State of Minnesota’s responsibility. If you listen to the tape you can probably hear a small thonk as the head of Ventura’s handler hit the floor, followed by the sound of someone cracking an ampule of smelling salts. But Ventura paid no price. On the contrary: many voters who often wondered why everything seemed to be the state’s responsibility took a look at Ventura, and sized him up as someone who didn’t measure every word against the decalogue of Unquestioned Assumptions. It didn’t hurt him at all.

When your opponent sets up a straw man, set it on fire and kick the cinders around the stage. Don’t worry about losing the Strawperson-American community vote.

I don’t envy Coleman’s job - the political climate requires him to defer to Mondale’s status as the Solon of the Gopher State, as well as make propitiatory sacrifices at the altar of his deceased opponent. He’s running against the quick and the dead and he can’t really say a thing about either. Does it matter? It might have mattered Friday, if Mondale had appeared to debate, and the media had a chance to chew over the exchange. But Monday morning - eh. If one candidate actually prevails in the debate and leaves a twitching husk on the Fitzgerald stage, the headlines on election day will say “Candidates trade barbs.”

O, how I long for the days when the city has three newspapers, and the rack on the streetcorner has three headlines: “Candidates Debate” says the Sober Paper of Record, “Coleman Humiliates Disoriented, Confused Mondale” says the Argus Republican, and “Mondale Prevails Over Callow Opponent” say the Plain-Reader Democrat.

Who will win? Don’t ask me. I am lucky enough here to count myself among the wisest political minds of the state - meaning, I haven’t the faintest idea either. And if anyone says they do, well, hope is a big eager bird, and sometimes one must open one’s mouth and let it take wing.

As for Fall Happiness season - it’s an ad from a late 40s campaign the local movie theaters ran. I have a soft spot in my heart for this ad, because it’s so stupid; surely no one looked at the ads and thought Oh Joy, it’s Fall Happiness Season again! I hope it’s as grand as the last two years! Clumsy old ads are sometimes indistinguishable from Soviet propaganda - they have the same nuance-free appeals, the same basic exhortation. Comrades! Strive to maximize joy in the harvest season! The original ad has a small gopher that tells you the dates of FHS (Sept 27 - Nov 7), which suggests that one can collapse into a weeping heap of disconsolate despair on November 8, tossed into the cruel cold maw of Winter Misery Season. But you’d better perk up come December, when it’s Happy Christmas Glee Time!

Meaning, free popcorn for Monday matinees.

A little inside-the-site chatter here, if you’ll allow. I fear some people wonder WHY THE HELL I haven’t answered their letter - well, here’s what I got when I called up my mail tonight:

And forty minutes later it had only downloaded 640 letters. I have been trying to digest this bolus of mail for some time; with a pokey dial-up, it can take a long time to download some of the multi-megabyte files people send, and then I get knocked off line, or my wife wants to make a call, or I have to leave the house, or something. I really, really apologize for this; I used to make a point of attempting to answer all my mail, but what with the tot and the house and the work and everything else, I just can’t. So it was with awe! that I read a note from Instantman today, noting how he answered a couple hundred e- mails yesterday afternoon while performing all sorts of academic-underbrush clearing. Hey, thanks, prof! Make the rest of us look bad! You may be energetic now, but take it from me: in the long run, that meth screws you up something wicked.

Just kidding. I admire his dedication to returning mail. And I’d probably do a better job myself if I didn’t spend time on the Bleat, or on the site itself. This thing may look like a big inert wad of pages and pictures that requires no time, but I’m in the middle of the annual overhaul. Unlike the previous attempts to bring some sort of consistency to the site, this is a root-and-branch renovation. Every fallow acre is being reseeded. Take the Motel section - in the last year I’ve collected 30+ more postcards. To add them I’ve had to put them in the right state folder and adjust all the links fore and aft - and since I was doing that, I might as well redesign the site. Ditto the restaurant and Curious Lucre sections. The Institute of Official Cheer has languished too long, and I’ve got three new additions ready to go. The Bleat archives will have links for each month. There will be a site map. Most importantly, the site won’t seem like a rambling wreck of a house with a dozen additions, but a unified, visually coherent product. You’ll see what I mean in December. From half-assed to three-quarter assed: that’s the goal.

So I beg your forgiveness for being tardy with mail. I’m not saying I’m the busiest guy in the world, but between the newspaper column, the syndicated column and the bleat, I write nine pieces a week, and in those rare moments when there’s nothing to do but relax, writing some more isn’t always first on my list. And for those who’ve noticed, yes, Flotsam Cove is over. It made it 35 weeks, which isn’t bad. It’ll be folded into the new Institute, and there will be updates; there will be an e-mail list for people who want alerts about new material. The Matchbook section will continue to be updated every Monday, because it’s easy to do.

And now to bed.


Okay, Thursday will be business as usual. Sorry. Many Gnat and Jasper tales to come; much more stereo aggravation, fall paeans, tales of the grocery store, etc. I haven’t forgotten that this is usually a feather-light interlude of domestic diversions and pop-cult blather - but these are interesting times, and it’s my web page. Bear with me, or move along; I won’t be insulted. But it’s rare that a stupid Senate race in Minnesota has national implications, and something was said today that no one else seems to be mentioning. So. Here we go. First, a tidbit from my very own paper.

In comedy, it’s called a “Spit Take” - responding to something outrageous by spewing whatever you have in your mouth. A true spit take these days is rare; usually it’s done as an ironic gag, an attempt to channel old-style Jerry Lewis hackwork shtick. Look at me, ma! I’m doin’ vaudeville? Well, this morning I had an honest-to-God spit take - cereal and milk all over the editorial page. I was reading a Strib edit on Yasser Esam Hamdi, a guy born in Louisiana but raised in Saudi Arabia. He was caught in Afghanistan as part of a Taliban fighting group. The government is keeping him incommunicado, and yes, this does raise Troubling Issues. But see if you can find the line that made me blow Frosted Mini-Wheats and skim milk:

Hamdi's plight recalls the days of the Japanese internment camps -- the shame of World War II. Back then, having the wrong ethnicity was enough to justify indefinite lockup. These days, it seems, being caught on the wrong battlefield is enough to scotch due process.

Caught on the wrong battlefield.

I can only quote Krusty and Bart: Oy gevalt and ay carumba.

If anyone’s interested, here’s my take on the debate: a draw. I listened to it, winced, sighed, yawned. Coleman was often too nice - I can’t hear these calls for a “new tone” without thinking A) he’s pitching this at those who believe nothing in particular, and hence distrust anyone who does, or B) he’s going to be devoured like a limping rabbit who wanders into a wolf den. He made a good point about taxes - he said to Mondale that when you begin with the assumption that you’re going to raise taxes, well, that’s what you’ll do. But when you begin with the assumption that you’re going to concede something to get something done, well, concede you will - and often more than you’d like. Concession, horse-trading, back-scratching and all that cloak-room frottage is the way things are done on the Hill. Of course a candidate cannot admit it. You expect them to shout “I promise that if I agree to fund the Robert Byrd Seniors Hydrotherapy Center, I’ll get one of equal size in Duluth, with towel-warming racks as well!” But when I hear calls for a “new tone” I cannot help but imagine the candidate as a fellow walking into a lion-stuffed Coliseum, armed with a feather.

Mondale was a cranky old nasty man who dropped big clanging pieces of boilerplate on the stage, most of which were forged in 1978. How I tire of hearing how everything is going to hell, and how not a jot of progress has been made since Bobby Kennedy slumped over in the Ambassador ballroom. I did learn something about the Constitution, though. As Mondale said:

I'm opposed to late-term abortion, but I also know that the Constitution says that you must protect the life and the health of the mother.

I have the old original version; Mondale is dancing to the remix, so I will grant him that the Constitution does indeed explicitly state this, right between the provisions that grant gun ownership only to redheads and the amendment that permits quartering of troops in private houses if they keep the stereo down after ten. But for me the great fault line ran through this question:

Mr. Mondale, this is for you. This is from Peggy. ``As a businesswoman in southern Minnesota, I'm concerned about technology reaching our businesses and our homes. What is your vision for keeping all of Minnesota on the cutting edge of technology?''

Mondale’s response:

Growing economy, leadership that builds trust. I think right now there should be a reduction in the interest rates.

I’m not kidding. Pitched a question about getting broadband to rural areas, that’s what he says. One word was noticeably absent in Mondale’s reply: INTERNET. Or, for that matter, Fiber, or broadband, or any other aspect of that amusing diversion we call the Web. High-speed internet access in the rural portions of the state is an issue here, because many small towns are served by independent phone companies that can’t afford the upgrades. Or the local phone exchanges have been purchased by out-of-state companies that don’t want to spend the money to run fiber to the barn. It’s a real issue - our paper did a story on it a while back, how the lack of high-speed access crimps the ability of outstate companies to compete.

He continued:

I think that we need to support education that produces economic growth. This is maybe where we disagree. We made a promise that in addition to putting a burden on the schools with new testing that we would provide economic assistance for these schools, elementary and secondary and high school, that would allow them to educate these kids for the future. That has not been done, nor have we brought new help to students.

We need to do that. We have several wonderful educational institutions in our state university system and in the community college systems, and in other systems, that help young people to get ready for this technology and get ready for the future. That's our future, and that's where, I think, our support must be.

Translation: the secretary prints off his Emil for him.

Here’s Coleman:

What we have to do is have to make a firm commitment to make sure that all of Minnesota is wired, and going beyond wired now, now we're talking about wireless. I had an opportunity to visit with the folks over at Minnesota Wireless in Mankato. Wonderful cutting-edge operation, a tentative conference on technology about six months ago, in that same area.

It is our future. We should be wiring the schools and let the businesses draw off a that so they can afford to create the public-private partnership that expands the use of technology. We should be looking at opportunities to expand wireless.

I'm a former mayor. I understand about infrastructure. Part of infrastructure is roads and highways, (inaudible) but another part of infrastructure is the wireless infrastructure. It's linking all of Minnesota through technology. I will be a champion of 21st Century thinking when it comes to making sure that all of Minnesota is wired.

To me, this was the most important moment of the debate - not because it concerned a particular issue, but because it showed who inhabits the current century. Fritz just didn’t get it - which means he’s likely to have a nice steak dinner with The Other White Meat, Fritz Hollings, and sign on to some Disney-paid bill to install copyright protection at the hardware level. Then all the suburban yups who voted for Fritz because, well, you know, Paul and all that, will find himself putting a CD in his computer to rip tunes for personal use - and the disk will be spat out. Or he’ll pop in a DVD he got from a friend, and have to get a new DVD driver with security certificates that establish him as the True Legitimate Owner of the disc - enter your access code now, please, and wait while we access the Warner Brothers / Suncoast database to ensure you are the rightful owner. And the guy will sit there and think: hey, how did this happen?

I’m not saying Coleman is a bulwark against this scenario - only that Mondale obviously hasn’t a clue. When it comes to the computer, to the Internet, he’s truly Grandpa, the guy who thinks he broke the machine when he accidentally minimized a window.

And this is the guy who will vote on digital issues.

After the debate I listened to the usual cud-chomping on the local shows, but the instructive analysis came a few hours later on an ABC radio summation. I was so amused by it that I typed it up on the spot for blogging purposes. Said the reporter:

“Norm Coleman said he wanted to bring a nice, bipartisan tone to the Senate; speaking an hour later at a raucous campaign rally, Walter Mondale said that was interesting, since Coleman ran the trashiest campaign in modern election history against Paul Wellstone, and he urged everyone to vote for in honor of Paul and Sheila Wellstone.”

Not a word of the substance of the debate. Not a word. Just a repeat of this preposterous assertion that Coleman has run a vicious negative campaign - the worst in human memory! It’s interesting to see Mondale go smash-mouth at his age, at this point in his career. Before he entered the race he was regarded by most Minnesotans as That Old Guy Who Lost That Thing. He had receded into the background, earned the statesman’s halo, and eventually come to represent the state of Minnesota for better or for ill. He was one of our own, on his way to a statewide eulogy. But it turns out he’s willing to hold out his wrists for the strings and twitch to the DNC’s script - if they say Norm Coleman channels Satan, then that’s what he’ll proclaim. I always had a hometown admiration for him as a fellow who knew when to leave the stage and make his way in the real world. But now he strikes me as a man who lies for the sake of power with vigor and enthusiasm - and it’s power he never sought to wield again.

If all these things matter so much to you, Mr. Mondale, where have you been?


If Walter Mondale loses, it will make one rewrite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous remark: there really are no ninth acts in American lives.

Okay, that’s enough of that. Back to life as we know it.

I need a Hazel. A stout, no-nonsense, jauntily-drawn wisecracking maid in an unflattering uniform complete with superfluous hat. Someone who knows how to clean something so it stays clean for more than 27 minutes, who can run to the store and shame the butcher into handing over a better cut, make chocolate-chip cookies using only cloves and tandoori marinade, and scour the commodes while I sit in the comfy chair smoking a pipe, scowling at the paper and worrying about Formosa.

Monday, for example: the gals came over for a coffee klatch / toddler playdate. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: in the space of one generation, sex roles have been completely reversed in a way my parents wouldn’t have recognized - but which my mom would no doubt have applauded. My wife goes to the salt mines; I stay home and have the gals over in the afternoon for bonbons and pink squirrels. Monday Gnat usually goes to “school” - but there was no class this week, so I invited all the moms to come over and let the tots romp in the basement. Of course this meant a round of dusting, window cleaning, neatening, lampshade adjustment (must - all - be - parallel), quilt smoothing, dog vacuuming, etc. I do this all the time; I spend an hour a day cleaning this shed. I love cleaning. Wasn’t always so; in my bachelor days, for example, the unwashed clothes in my closet became so dense and compacted they had to be jackhammered out on laundry day, and my oven - well, Welsh coal miners would have found it intolerable. Nowadays I feel a curatorial responsibility towards Jasperwood, and I want to relieve from my wife that wifely sag that comes from knowing you have to clean the damn house when you get home from a full day of work. I stick to the adage all wise married man should repeat: a happy wife is a happy wife. I think she fears I will take this too far, and rig up Spider-Man-type devices that let me shoot Windex from my wrists, but even that would be okay.

Let’s just say this: I’ve had a few rooms get away from me in my lifetime. They’ve hit that point where all you can do is throw in a grenade and forfeit the damage deposit. Now I’m a different man, and I appreciate the fleeting but savory illusion of control over disorder and mortality that comes from a half-hour spent under the sink, nabbing errant coffee grounds with a tweezer. I don’t line up all the forks in the drawer or arrange the cereals by height and type. In fact I’ve set myself up to experience the joys of chaos, the giddy glee of randomness: I bought two sets of drinking glasses, one adorned with 1940s French produce labels, the other painted with 1950s independent milk company bottle tops. Arrayed together in the cupboard, they look great. But when you remove one or two, well, it spoils the effect. And as luck has it, they're being used. I’d come down in the morning, and my wife would be drinking from one of the glasses.

“Oh! You’re . . . using it.”

(Blank look) “Isn’t that the point of having them?”

“Sure, sure! They could get broken in the dishwasher, is all I’m saying. I mean for drinking water, you could cup your hands under the faucet. If you were in a hurry and didn’t want to get a glass down and worry about, say, dropping it.”

“And what should I do for the milk? Lap it from a bowl?”

“Well, no! Hah hah! You can drink from the carton, though. I do.”

“Which is why we all got the stomach flu.”

“Yes, but look at those glasses! Aren’t they cool? When they’re all clean and together up there on the shelf?”

(Rolled eyes)

Of course, I am exaggerating how anal I am (and I am exaggerating by exactly 2 percent; any more and I’d be very uncomfortable.) But I do love a clean house. Every day when I leave it feels as if I’ve wrapped a package and cinched it with a ribbon.

But this was different; having The Gals over meant an entirely new cleaning and straightening regime, one that went beyond merely stacking the magazines on top of the toilet tank to arranging them chronologically. This time I had to clean to the molecular level, on the chance that one of the gals hauled an electron beam microscope up the steps and decided to investigate dust buildup in the corner of the boiler room. The job is complicated by Gnat, who either stands between me and the object to be cleaned, smears said object with jam-hands after it’s been Windexed, or gets out every towel from the drawer so she can “help.”

When this is done, it’s off to the grocery store for the weekly run. A few weeks ago I made the stupid mistake of letting Gnat push around a little tot-sized cart; now she begs to use one, even though she rams it into people’s legs and fills it up with 20 bottles of ketchup. Those little carts are the work of the devil; there’s NO REASON to have them there except to complicate the lives of the parents. Might as well put a giant squealing Elmo in the corner that vomits KitKats every five minutes - just as distracting.

I get all the stuff I’ll need for the week’s meals, drive home, lug everything into the house, put it all away, then feed Gnat. She’s exhausted, and goes down for a nap like Clubber Lang in the 12th round. I have a few minutes to catch up on my reading. The sun has changed position, illuminating a new series of waterspots and dusty shelves, so I clean some more, too.

She gets up; we make cookies for the moms and tots to come, arrange the toys in the basement, and wait. She’s very excited about having her “frenz” come over, and when the doorbell rings she totters off across the living room: my frenz! My frenz are here! I open the door, and she puts her hands together. “So nice to see you!” she says. “Come on in!” You could just die, it’s so cute. For the next few hours the house is upended - toys everywhere, squabbles, resolutions. I chat with the moms about school, feeding, the usuals. They leave at five; I put away 9,392 small plastic pieces, make dinner, feed Gnat. Wife comes home an hour and a half later while we’re doing a cheap puzzle. I mean, cheap: the pieces are 1/16th of an inch thin. They don’t stay together, they bow like old formica countertops, and everything’s so crudely drawn you can’t tell what goes where. They’re akin to the cheap learning videotapes my wife bought at a skyway half-price book sale - the animation is so limited you fear that the Alphabet tape will stop at P, because they couldn’t afford anymore letters.

Nap. Up: walk the dog, play with the dog, remind the dog that my leg will not carry on his line no matter how many times he humps it. Upstairs for the hour-long bath/story/bed ritual. At nine . . . I start work.

It’s a Newhouse column night, and I’m hosed - nothing I write about the election will survive, since the column goes out Tuesday afternoon. What’s more, whatever I write will probably be tossed for an editorial about the election. So I write about the mechanics of drug legalization. At 10:30 I start a Bleat. At 11:30 I beam it to the downstairs laptop, format it, upload, make some corrections - and I realize I am absolutely wiped. Too tired to watch TV, which tells you something. Oh, I could use the TiVo to freeze a frame and watch that, but them movin’ pitchers just plumb take it outta you. Bed, sleep, facedown in Lethe without a Mae West.

Today: in the morning I work on the column while playing with Gnat. Ten minutes at one, ten minutes at the other. Hard to concentrate on either, but it all gets done. Out of the house at eleven to vote. As ever, I lament the loss of the great old machines with the levers and the Perry-Mason-era metal styling; now we make Iowa-basics ovals on a paper in a cheap plastic booth. So many people are voting, making ovals, that the entire row of plastic booths vibrates back and forth, as if some sort of combat is going on. (In my ideologically monolithic part of town, this is not very likely.) A few folks dote over Gnat, referring to her as Toddler (TM) - her Backfence persona - and then we’re off to her Nana’s. I grab some drive-through on the way, eat lunch in the car en route, drop off the slumbering little sack and head back downtown.

I have three hours to write the column. I start by replacing the keyboard map for my PC, which is now an accepted part of the daily routine. No one knows what the problem is. The general impression seems to be well, if that overwriting the map is working for you, maybe that’s what we’ll have to do. Great. Rah, PCs. Rah and rah. I take some phone calls, agree to do an interview for some radio station in New York tomorrow, God knows why - someone must have played a prank on the producer and swapped out his rolodex with one from a novelty store. I finish, file, head up the highway, retrieve child and sing old jazz tunes all the way home. (She likes “Let’s Turn off the Lights and Go to Bed.” She also loves “It’s Bad” from the Sopranos soundtrack; it has a brutal thudding beat, and she counts off each bass note. According to her, the song is in 11/4 time.) We stop at the grocery store for sausage and oranges, then go home. We play downstairs for a while; I open the laptop and check for blogs, allowing myself one note in the VodkaPundit's comments section that takes 12 minutes to write because I’m also involved in a tea party with Gnat, a cheap naked doll whose clothes have been MIA for a year, and an utterly disinterested Jasper Dog.

It’s five. I ignore the election news. I’m not one of those people who sits and watches the results, living and dying by the latest exit poll conducted on 2 percent of the people who voted in a town noted for being a dead-cert predictor of the outcome 50 percent of the time. I’ll tune in around eleven or twelve. Give it to me straight, doc. I can take it.

So I make dinner. Brown the sausage, make the spaghetti sauce according to my secret recipe. (Hint: salt.) While the sauce simmers I play Pirate with Gnat, who’s waving around a blinking sword she got at the circus. I pirate daddy. I pirate. And so she is. Now you be pirate. So I shout avast and swab the deck matey and sing the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything song from the VeggieTales. I check the pasta; it’s perfect. I pour it in the pasta-draining-thing (I want to say callendar, or calandar, but the spellchecker chokes on both) and scoop up Gnat to put her in her chair . . . Oh. My. I get hit with the breeze from a pantsload of Grade A baby buttcake. Whew. We go upstairs. It’s one of those coast-to-coast numbers that requires I rinse out some clothes and the changing table cloth, disinfect a variety of surfaces and pick out new clothes. Chase down naked tot, clothe her, go back downstairs.

The timer for the pasta has been beeping the entire time.

I scoop up some spaghetti, and discover it has congealed into a solid mass - Medusa on a bad hair day. Forty ccs of olive oil, stat! I make a plate for Gnat and one for myself, and we have dinner reading the Wall Street Journal. Really: I have one section, and she frowns at another.

Wife returns. I make her a bowl of pasta, clean up the dishes and pots, walk the dog, play with the dog, note the dog is limping. He stops, holds up a paw in classic Lassie-hurts style. What happened? I picture a trip to the vet out in the burbs, two hours waiting for X-rays, a cast, poor Jasp - but he shakes it off, and we play some more. Inside. I allow myself forty minutes of work on the website, polishing off some layout changes in a new addition to the Institute of Official Cheer. Phone calls from friends and relatives - one, two, three, checking in with election news or weekend event details. Then I crack open a beer and write everything you’ve just seen read. Providing you got this far.

I was planning to move on to a real subject of concern - the Death of Dr. Smith - but I just went outside for the evening Panter Mignon. I fished in my pocket for the little tin, and found a letter I got at work today. When I first read it, my reaction was dumfoundment, to coin a word. I’d thought: well, screw it. Close down the Bleat, spend the time writing a novel and maybe playing a game every other night instead of twice a month. Get working on that project to transfer all the old DC videotape to DVD and recreate life from the early 90s. Get a headstart on the Stagland book. Watch some movies. It’s been a good run; quit before you hate it. It’s not like you’re getting paid for this, you know.

The return address was the Amoco station a few blocks from my house, which was peculiar. In the dim porchlight I read the letter, which I reproduce in its entirety:

Dear James,
Please Shut the Fuck Up about not responding to your email. Just STFU. No more screen shots. No more email policies which you don’t follow. No more, “Gee, I’m really busy writing three columns a week.” Three columns. Yup, you’re really busy. Some days, you even have to go into work! To type! Be a big fella and just admit that you’re too lazy to respond to your email, or that it’s just not a priority for you, then STFU. You’ll feel better about you.

Your Perspective-Restored Fairy.

PS I sent this via snail mail so you wouldn’t be burdened with another email. You’re welcome.

I’m working on the gratitude part, but it just ain’t coming.


I’m drowsy, so this will be short. I am also completely out of things to say, and after yesterday’s onslaught of pointless minutiae this probably comes as a relief. I did a radio interview for a New York station today, which was enjoyable. I was sandwiched in between Congresspersons and party strategists, which made me marvel once again at the way this punditry business works. I have absolutely no credentials whatsoever. There’s absolutely nothing that sets my bloviating apart from anyone else who reads papers, watches the news, synthesizes a dozen different opinions and deludes themselves into thinking they have an original thought because they’ve phrased the argument in a unique fashion. But! I have a newspaper and a syndicate to back me up, so I must be smarter than the average bear.

Speaking of which: on Cartoon Network the other day they ran some Boomerang programming - that’s the station where all the hackwork from Hanna-Barbera crap factory goes. They played some Yogi Bear, and for the first time in my life I realized that Yogi was a rip-off of Art Carney’s Norton character from the Honeymooners. How could I have missed this? The voice, the vest - it’s Norton. It’s like seeing those weird, uncomfortable Warner Bros. cartoons that feature Honeymooner mice - you’re reminded how big Gleason was back then, and how his career took a path familiar to contemporary eyes. Like Jim Carrey, he made a bid for Serious Consideration (in one film, “Gigot,” he played a mute bum who adopts a child. A French mute bum! So there was lots of mournful accordion music.) He branched out into music, like Eddie Murphy, although he was far more successful. He had a talk show. He had a spell in the wilderness, followed by rediscovery by new fans. But he had his peak, and nothing that followed it seemed to satisfy him. In public he wore it well - the same jaunty grin, the constant cig, the brimming highball glass, the wink. But with an ego and talent that large, it's bad to be number two - and it's daily death to be forgotten, or play a stereotype in a stupid Burt Reynolds trucking movie.

There’s been no one since like Gleason. He hailed from the era of Nimble Fat Comics. From Oliver Hardy to Arbuckle to Gleason, there was this strange genre of fat men who were capable of exaggerated grace. Belushi probably killed that - since him, fat comics have been wrecking balls who knock things down, big gross roaring appetites without refinement. Gleason wasn’t subtle - when you look at his Honeymooner work, you’re reminded what a broad loud ham he was. But that was part of the act. The sloooooow burn, the catastrophic detonation - it was all underscored by the fact that you knew he could, if required, go up on tiptoe and waltz Alice around the apartment.

There’s a scene in a Simpsons ep where Bart and Milhouse get some money, and buy a syrup-only Squishee from Apu. (“Such a thing has never been attempted!”) Bart’s eyes revolve from a sugar OD, and he says “Mmmm, that’s good squishy.” That’s a remix of a Gleason routine - the Reggie Van Gleason upper-class drunk bit. He’d take a slug, cross his eyes, grin and exhale “Ohhhhh, that’s good booze.” I’d guess that 80% of the audience - probably more - didn’t get the reference, but that’s okay. It was a clever nod to an old master, and it’ll play in reruns for ten years.

Started work the usual way: boot computer, launch the writing program, remember that it doesn’t work unless I manually load a keyboard map every friggin’ time, reload said map, then click on writing program icon: WINTEXT.EXE NOT FOUND. Of course, I’m looking at it. Clicking on it brings up the error message that kindly explains that the file I just clicked does not exist. Reboot. Try again. I load Internet Explorer; I click on the Favorites menu item. It does not respond. I try to close the window. It does not respond. I open the writing program and attempt to write; it does not respond. It will not let me close the window. Her eyes are clear and bright, but she's not there. Reboot. This time everything works. What happened before? Like the number of bites it takes to get to the kernel of a Tootsie Bar, the world may never know.

This is a normal day on the most advanced OS Microsoft has produced. Oh, I’m sure it works perfectly for some. There are millions of happy customers who’d throw themselves in front of a bus rather than switch platforms. But as I’ve said before, the keyboard-map problem is fascinating to me and the techs because there is no reason it should be happening. In fact, it can’t. I’m accessing a local program, not one on the network. There is nothing in the start-up procedure that overwrites old preference files. There is no reason that replacing the keyboard map should make the OS unable to find the parent program. This is where computers meet the realms of philosophy: if a thing is impossible, yet appears before you, then it obviously is not impossible. Yet it is not possible for it to be possible. All those philosophers who wondered if it was possible for God to create an object He could not move are missing the point. If God is running Windows, then He will just get an error message informing Him that the object does not exist.

And, being God, He will have known in advance He would get that message.

Just as I know every day I will get the error message.

Use Windows, and draw closer to God!

The cursing tends to even things out, though.

Running in a window in the corner of my screen is “The First Men in the Moon,” a movie that scared the bejeebus out of me as a youngun. Two words: Moon Ants. It’s been restored and remixed; sounds great, looks great, but the moon landing sequence in the beginning is rather amusing. The ship bears the markings of the UN, for one thing. Sure. Right. Can’t have those go-it-alone Yanks establishing hegemony over the moon. The spacecraft is familiar - one orbital unit, one LEM. The LEM separates, and tumbles end over end in its descent, then brakes, then moves sideways looking for a landing spot. (And perhaps a gas station, since they used up all their fuel braking from a pointless tumble.) The ship is about three stories tall, and carries a crew of seven; the first spaceman descends to the moon through a hole in the bottom of the ship, clinging on to a coat hanger. The gravity is equal to, say, Peoria. Within five minutes of landing, they find an old Union Jack and a message claiming the moon for Queen Victoria; it’s dated 1899. Naturally, they’re astonished - and their reaction? It must be a hoax.

A hoax! Somehow England got there first - they had a bonus moonshot program on the side, you see - and left a flag, a message, and no traces of a spacecraft. All for a jolly good prank!

Ah, for the credulous days of childhood, when you just sat back with your eyes wide and your mind off.

Sorry, folks; that’s it. I’m hosed. And now to bed.


. Ahhhhh.

And so Fall Happiness Season ends, and lives up to its name. Quite a week. Today was an unexpected gift - the temps were high, as though a day in October had gotten lost and finally showed up. Am I late? Yes, but it hardly matters. Before supper Gnat and Jasper and I went outside and gamboled on the lawn, tossing his stinky old hedgehog, throwing the ball. There’s nothing like the sound of your daughter giggling and laughing as you race her for the ball; it’s the sound of delight without reservation, innocence undampened, pure joy in the moment. I’d say we all could learn from her, but I’ll wait until she’s potty trained.

Speaking of which. I mentioned once that every time I took her to a particular toy store, she put her Pampers to the test at the exact same spot, back in the Groovy Girls toy display. She was 3 for 3 before today. Well, we wandered back to the Groovy Girls display, and I’m thinking: she’d best not, because I didn’t bring the kit from the car. Then came the sound of someone ripping burlap. Sniff. Good Lord. Four for four.

I’ll keep you posted.

We went to this mall today for a Jell-O mold - wife’s request. I’d gone to Target first, and searched in vain; called the store operator, asked if they had Jell-O molds. “Hmm,” said the operator. “Where are you?” I said I was in aisle B23, and she said she’d send someone right over. A few minutes later a guy whirrs up in a wheelchair.

This store has a few handicapped employees - some of the stock clerks are slightly mentally handicapped, a few customer-service reps are motorized. I’ve talked to this guy before, and he knows every inch of the store. His neck is twisted to the side and he has a speech impediment, which might make the impatient think he is dim, and speak slooowwly and LOUDLY, but that would be a mistake; he’s sharp and quick as a sewing machine needle. And I gather that he loves his job. He’s useful, he has friends, he roams his domain with a walkie-talkie, helps old ladies find the bundt cake pans. Most of the clerks at this store are friendly; you don’t see those simmering waves of hate shimmering off the employees like you do in, say, Burger King. But today on the way in to the store I saw a guy getting off work, pulling his jacket over his Target shirt, and he had an expression that would blow the flies off roadkill. Something about him said he was part of the percentage of employees the company expects to stay no more than a month. He had the look of a guy who always found a reason to quit a job because the bosses were jerks. (We’ve all had a friend like this - every job had the same sad trajectory. New start, low-level gripes, Statement of Principles, Dramatic Exit, a month at home with the bong. Repeat.) I could just see him being trained by the guy in the chair, thinking great, now I’m taking orders from crips.

Until stores like Target, there wasn’t really a place in retail for people in wheelchairs. I never saw them working anywhere when I was growing up. Multi-level department stores didn’t hire them; small stores didn’t have the room. But in Targets and Wal-Marts and K-Marts they rule.

Anyway. “I’m looking for a Jell-O mold,” I said. “Do you have them?”

“No,” he said. No hesitation. I didn’t doubt him for a second.

So we went to Williams-Sonoma. It smelled magnificent - they were baking stuffing and pumpkin pies today. Thanksgiving aromas, the best in the world. A clerk asked if I needed help, and I said I was looking for a Jell-O mold. “What kind?” she said.

“Well, it doesn’t have to be hand-hammered copper from Italian artisans,” I smiled. “Just a Jell-O mold.”

“Good, because I don’t think we carry those . . . let’s see.” I realized at that point that asking for a hand-hammered copper Jell-O mold might not be an unusual request at Williams-Sonoma. We went around the corner, and she found one: $16. The label said it was made in France. What I really wanted was one that cost $1.60 and was made in Trenton, but I didn’t have all day.

Constant readers may recall the epochal battle I had with the new stereo system / headphones. A brief recap:

Wireless headphones lose one side. I detect a short in the cord.
I buy new headphones.
New headphones also lose one side. I blame the headphone jack on the receiver, which, when jiggled, reveals a poor connection
I decide to put old receiver downstairs, and get new receiver.
New headphones sound like crap on new receiver.

And now, the conclusion.

The other day I noticed that the sound was odd on the family room TV. The previous owners of Jasperwood ran wires everywhere, half of which I’ve yet to connect to anything, but I do have the ceiling speakers working. I cocked an ear, and realized one speaker was dead. Hmm. I reconnected some wires, and determined that the problem was with the new receiver, not the speakers. Which was why the headphones sounded so bad.

In two weeks, the new receiver has failed, and I am faced with the prospect of boxing it up and taking it back. One problem: the box, which was quite large, was converted into a “house” by Gnat, and has been battered, folded, knocked around and ripped. So now I have to replace the new unit with the old unit, reattach the STUPID USELESS Sony plugs with electrical tape, take the thing in for repairs -

Augh. Well. That’s what the Battle Bridge is for, right? The previous owners built an entertainment nook in the basement, which I plugged with a cheap Panasonic and a cheap satellite receiver. I rarely use it, but it’s there for guests who stay on the sofabed. I turn it on. There’s no signal. The satellite receiver isn’t powered, even though it’s plugged in. I call DirecTV; after fifteen minutes of diagnostics, we determine that the unit is screwed, and they promise to send me a new one for $25 bucks.

Two weeks ago, everything works.

Nothing works now, except for the TiVo -

Ohh, I just HAD to go and say that, didn’t I.

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