Today: social whirl; the partisans; why rightwingers hate interracial friendships

Quite the weekend. All that was missing was good coffee. I ran out of beans yesterday, and had to open the Emergency Can of Chock Full O’Nuts - “better coffee a millionaire can’t buy,” the jingle says, but I think that refers to some apocalyptic world where money is useless, and men must survive by their wits and their fists. Even then, this would be lousy coffee. I bought the can, as noted, for those days when I run out of beans, and because the can has utility in its afterlife. I fill them with coins. I move the coins to the basement. They keep the house from blowing away.

I’m not a coffee snob, but - well, no, I am. I’m not going to pout if my beans aren’t hand-harvested by glove-wearing Master Pickers who reject 95 of every 100 beans and feed the chosen ones to minks whose digestive system remove the bitterness, then roast the results in six-bean batches, then ground by a Swiss-made mill so sharp that the resulting powder is so fine it’s weaponized. No. I buy French Roast beans from a local company, grind them daily, and that’s that. But it spoils you. Makes you realize how long this land has lived with bad coffee - and no, Starbucks didn’t rescue us from that, nor did Caribou; neither are quite right to my palate. (Which is as nuanced as an oven mitt, I’ll admit.) But forty, fifty years of Folger! How my people have suffered.

You need coffee when your wife wakes you at 7:20 on a morning you thought you were going to sleep in. You really need it when you open your laptop to continue the project that kept you up last night, and you notice the time the laptop went to sleep: 3:22 AM. I was working on the Restaurant postcard section, which now has about 50 cards of the pre-chain dining world.

Many social obligations. Friday night my wife went to a cookware party - everyone buys a chafing dish, and the hostess gets 50% off a full set of pots and pans. (If ever I am appointed Ruler of All Things Mean and Great, my second edict will be to forbid the description of a pot lid as a “piece.” A “six-piece set” of pots invariably turns out to mean three pots and three lids. Listen: to count as a “piece,” it must have a separate purpose and function. A pot with out a lid still has uses, like a man without a hat, but a lid alone is just a lonely chapeau.) So I watched Gnat. The Giant Swede brought his two kids over, and Gnat was beside herself: frenz! She plays well, shares well, and exhibits a heartening amount of empathy. When GS’s daughter banged her shin and cried a bit, Gnat said “Don’t cry, Madeline. Be happy. You can smile!” Said with great concern. The look on her face as she sat at the big table with the other kids, eating pizza just like the big kids, drinking milk just like the big kids, was precious. When exactly do we stop scrunching up our shoulders when we’re happy? It’s one of those things we teach ourselves not to do, perhaps; it’s too unguarded, too childish. Just as well. Imagine some solemn treaty-signing ceremony, and the diplomat from the winning side grinned and scrunched up his shoulders with delight. Wouldn’t do.

I gave Gnat a bath, put her to bed, and watched a movie. “Artificial Intelligence.” Global warming, melted ice caps, and William Hurt - and that’s just the first five minutes. The scenes with the robot boy and the family were quite affecting; Jude Law was tremendous, but the movie took great pains to alienate me, and finally succeeded. Part of the problem was the set design - like those execrable Batman movies, they seemed to think that Funky Urban Futurism can be established by an excess of neon. But it was the dank Kubrickian fog of hopelessness that grew tiresome. The boy’s search for meaning and redemption is just another variant of the human search for the same, since we’re all machines in one form or another. He prays uselessly to a Coney Island statue, humankind prays pointlessly to various deities, and none of it matters because the world freezes over and everybody dies.

Thanks, Steve! Thanks, Stanley! It’s been fun!

Saturday we went to a christening for the newborn daughter of the Crazy Uke and his wife, Mrs. Leavening Influence. It was held in an old Ukrainian Church in Northeast, a place I enjoy visiting. When you grow up in a church done over in sleek Danish Modern woodwork, the old world of the Eastern Orthodox traditions are fascinating to examine. The gilded icons, the strange cross with the extra bar, the gaunt Byzantine faces regarding you with sadness and foreknowledge. Gnat behaved - I’d told her this was a special whisper party, and she went along. But she’s only two, so there were times she had to run around and speak out loud. We went to the basement. There’s a stage on one end, an warped wooden floor, old schoolroom chairs, a map of Ukraine from the days when it was part of the Soviet empire. You could see imagine immigrants sitting down here in the 1950s, watching their children in the Christmas play, or perhaps hearing a lecture on events back home. You didn’t have many meetings on behalf of the nuclear freeze or détente down here, I think. Half of the new arrivals were probably partisans, if not more. Men and women.

And in the end, they won; they got to go back home. The Crazy Uke’s parents just returned from six weeks in the old country. They’re merry and kind people; I always feel honored to meet them. And I always remember that when they were in the Resistance, they had secret code names, a nom de guerre. No one else I’ve ever met had a code name. You see this old man beaming as he bounces his grandson on his knees, and you think of him 60 years ago as the Wolf, meeting in some farmhouse with the rest of the cell, pistols on the table. Could he possibly have seen the life his family would have in America? All these children, all these fellow Ukrainians, their own church, the same songs in the same tongue, wealth and health and freedom. You cannot begin to imagine how much they love this country.

Sunday my wife had a baby shower for her sister, so I left. They had sweets and punch and fine breads and pink gifts. A real hen party. I excused myself and acted like an archetypical Guy, Banished: I had some fast food, went to the computer store, went to the stereo store, and went to the magazine store to look at magazines about computers and stereos. Then I went home and chatted with the guests; one was an 80-year old women, a neighbor of my sister-in-law. She was a lifelong Minneapolitan, so we had some things to talk about. She’d worked downtown in the late 40s and 50s, so I flipped open the laptop, called up the Mpls site and went through the old pictures and postcards, looking at Minneapolis as it had been in her time. She went to high school across from a house where I lived for a few years; six decades ago she looked out her classroom window and saw the window I’d look out one day. The world is full of these connections - and it makes you realize how few of them are ever explicitly realized. On a planet of five billion people, it only takes two to make you realize how small the world can be. Oh, and she dated my dad, too.

Just kidding.

I’m slipping into bathos at record speed here tonight; a function of happiness, I suppose. So let me explain just why right-wingers hate interracial friendships, and what this has to do with feeling good about what you think, not what you do. This isn’t a screed, but it belongs to the same genus, so if you’re disposed to roll your eyes at this sort of thing, ta-ta; see you tomorrow.

Let’s say you’re a movie reviewer. You’re writing about a war movie, and you say this: “Indeed, the love that the soldiers feel for one another has no erotic component whatsoever, which is probably why left-wingers hate these movies.” If you had an editor who cared, he or she would advise striking the line, because it would make you look stupid. It would make you look like someone who dealt in the laziest form of archetypes - why, them lefties is all homo-lovers!

Let us turn to the current issue of the New Yorker (the cartoon issue, and the worst such issue in memory). David Denby is reviewing “8 Mile,” the new Eminem movie.

“People who are convinced that Eminem is destroying America might want to consider the delicacy of the white-black friendships in ‘8 Mile.’ (Perhaps the specter of such friendships is what right-wingers actually hate the most.)”

This is what happens when your sole contact with the “right wing” consists of descriptions in New York Times editorials and “West Wing” episodes. In Denby’s mind, the “right wing” is inherently disposed to segregation in all forms, including social - in fact, social integration is the worst, and it is not only hated, it is what the “right wing” actually hates the most. They seethe to this day over “I Spy.” They regard the downfall of jazz as beginning the moment Benny Goodman asked Charlie Christian to join his band. The fact that the attacks on Condi Rice (brief, strange side note: the other night I dreamed I was at dinner with Cap Weinberger, and he asked me who I wanted for veep in 04, and we both said “Condi Rice” at the same time and high-fived. Do I dream about Heidi Klum wearing only three shots from a Reddi Whip can? No, I dream of high-fiving Cap. Pathetic.) Anyway - the fact that explicitly racial attacks on Rice and Powell from the left - be it Belafonte or the radio host in Florida - are irrelevant, since the left at its heart believes in goodness for Blacks in general. The “right wing” puts up with Rice, but when they get together to sew sheets and pre-soak the cross wood with lighter fluid, you have to know her name comes up.

The other day I was talking with a Democrat friend about the election. She’d remarked, with equal amounts of sarcasm and good-natured ribbing, that the GOP had two years to build utopia. I thought about that later while walking Jasper around the block, and thought, no; they’re not about building utopia. Personally, I’m interested in keeping other people from building Utopia, because the more your believe you can create heaven on earth the more likely you are to set up guillotines in the public square to hasten the process. But we were exploring her opposition to the GOP, and she mentioned “Home schoolers, the religious right. They drive me nuts.”

The home-schooling part I didn’t quite get. There seems to be some who believe that this is a typical day in a home-schooling classroom:

“Alright, Ezekial, Rebecca, Simon, Mary, put away your snakes and come over here for natcheral science. Ezekial, how old is the earth?”

“It’s six thousand years old!”

“That’s right. Rebecca, did the dinosaurs come afore man, or at the same time?”

“Uhh . . . at the same time?”

“No, Rebecca, there were no dinosaurs. You’re going to have to get a paddlin’ for that, and remember: God wants it to hurt.”

As for the “religious right,” they are utterly irrelevant to me. I’ve been told for 20 years that they will bring a miserable double-knit Pat Boone theocracy, but the evidence seems lacking. There is nothing I want to hear, read, or see that I cannot hear, read, or see. Now and again they get a book banned from a school, just as the Grievance-American community succeeds in banishing Twain because he uses the N word, but no one can look at the American popular culture in the last 20 years and tell me it’s been moving in a direction that gladdens the heart of Jerry Falwell. I have my hell-in-a-handbasket moments, but they’re not about sex or bad language or violence. They’re about the vulgar, grunting, brainless way in which these subjects are handled. I lament the loss of the gentle innuendo, the graceful aspects of old pop culture, but would I want to live in a society that put the screws on so tight that artistic invention was the only way to express certain human necessities? No. It’s a matter of degrees, of context, of intelligence. I can applaud the Victoria’s Secret catalog that shows up in the mailbox, and decry a culture that wants to tart up 12-year olds and sell thongs to little girls. There’s no contradiction. It’s not an either-or. If the religious right has any effect, it’s prodding people like myself to stand up and get pissed instead of letting it roll over us without comment. And if I find common ground with them on nipple-piercing parental notification laws, then that’s how it works. If they’re on the other side of the barricade when it comes anti-sodomy laws, then that’s how it works.

So they organize. So they vote. So what. To hear some speak, though, this society is bound by the constricting bands of puritanism and repression, and we are but two laws away from confining pregnant women to the kitchen and denying them footwear, and this god-bothering cabal will now repeal the 20th century.

Look. One of the most popular movies of this season is “Jackass,” in which a guy shoves a toy car up his butt and goes to the doctor for X-Rays. And one of the most popular movies is the VeggieTales version of the biblical tale of Jonah. You got your yin, you got your yang. You want to censor my books and mags and movies, well, I got your yang right here, but I’m really not worried. The recording industry and the movie industry showed last year that they pose a far greater threat to my ability to see and hear what I want when, and where, I want than the much-feared “religious right.”

Some people can’t enter any tent that has these people in it. Fine; as you wish. This means that some people who are themselves deeply religious find themselves aligned with people who have an acidic animus to religion - and this I can’t understand. I don’t know how you can be a believer and be comfortable as a confederate of people who despite believers. Numerically the latter segment may be small, but their influence is great. I think most on the left support gay rights, for example, but are uncomfortable with the denomination of the Boy Scouts. Yet they acquiesce. There’s an aspect of ideological purity at work, the notion that doing what you perceive as the Right Thing must be balanced against who else wishes the same outcome, for reasons you find abhorrent. If some on the right support the Boy Scouts because they hate gays, then defending the Boy Scouts on grounds of freedom of religion and association becomes a low priority item. Heads down. Keep mum. Let it all shake out.

The right panders to its religious base, uses it, gives it lip service; the left seems genuinely afraid of the consequences of confronting its irreligious base. Maybe that’s the big difference.

I am not religious myself, but people who are don’t bother me in the least. Sometimes I envy their conviction; sometimes I wish I could lend them my doubt, and I flatter myself to think we would each profit from the exchange. I’m more comfortable on this side because the people who take emotional satisfaction in trashing religion just annoy the piss out of me, and I want nothing to do with them. I’m not talking about atheists - at least they believe in something. I’m talking about those preening sneerbots who lack the capacity for spiritual contemplation, and think that anyone given to theosophical disquisitions is akin to a small boy expecting Superman to fly through the window and help him tie his shoe.

I’m not the first to note this, but: for some, politics has taken the place of religion. As usual, this basic observation has been inflated to cover entire groups, and lazy writers will say that the ENTIRE LEFT has replaced religion with politics. Nonsense. There is a religious left in this country - they’re the ones holding prayer vigils, asking God to keep the United States from removing Saddam. There are the religious liberals, who may take issue with the positions of their church, but are devout believers, and vote Democratic because they believe this is the best way to achieve a certain set of objectives; they are motivated by their conceptions of justice and compassion, and regard liberal policies not as the only way to achieve them, but the surest and the best. But with many there is a belief that liberalism itself is not just a superior method for achieving certain goals, but an idea that is inherently nobler, and bestows on the believer a moral advantage not available to people who believe otherwise. I’ve never thought that people who don’t share my views on national security or economic policy are morally inferior. I’m not fighting Nazis or Soviets here. I’m dealing with fellow Americans about tax brackets.

But when I read comments like Denby’s, I am struck again by the idea that my position on a few issues makes me a bad man.

How, then, can I redeem myself?

Well, there’s an old religious analogue here. I can redeem myself not by acts, but by faith.

My colleague Steve Berg at the Strib had an interesting piece in our new expanded editorial section. It’s his account of what it would mean if joined the new Republican Hegemony. See, he lives in the suburbs, surrounded by Republicans, and they give him gentle jibes about being the sole lib in the land of the elephants. His response to the ribbing was to publish this, which and reveals them for the smug, self-interested, morally stunted dolts they are. It contains some remarkable insights into Republicanism - apparently, taxation is voluntary when you join the Dark Side.

. . . A second sensation is one of relief. I no longer feel guilty about my relative wealth. I'm able to retain my sympathy for the less fortunate. But my compassion is now voluntary. I can choose to serve in a soup kitchen or donate to a charity. But I'm not forced through taxation to help those who might actually try harder to help themselves.”

Um . . . okay. Stupid me, still signing checks to the IRS.

This part stuck out:

There's a bounce in my step. It occurs almost in a flash that I no longer need to worry about my city, whether it's pleasant enough or up-to-date. If my city needs something -- new buses or a ballpark or a museum or affordable homes -- the market will provide it. If the market won't provide it, then we don't really need it. Once I've reached this simple conclusion, I feel much better. A weight has been lifted.

I get the picture. Being a Democrat who lives in the suburbs is de facto morally superior to being a “right winger,” who by definition doesn’t care about the core city in which he lives. Well, to quote an old revolutionary: here I stand. I didn’t leave. I love this city, which has far more problems than any suburb, and could certainly profit from a thousand dozen more Democrats happy to open a vein for the taxman instead of moving to the suburbs. I’ll grant that I’m unwilling to hike taxes on Minneapolis bars and hotels to fund a stadium for millionaire players - but you know what? If they pass it, I’ll pay it. I’m not going anywhere. When I’m old and can’t make it up the stairs you can stick me in one of those condos downtown that overlooks the ancient river.

You won’t find me whining about money for museums, either - in fact the opposition to the expansion of the Institute of Art has come from city residents themselves in a highly Democratic neighborhood who don’t want their living-room picture-window view changed. Fine; they can bitch; they get to do that. You will not find me whining about tax money to restore downtown theaters, or rebuild the riverfront, or revive the milling district, and among my Republican friends who live in the city these are regarded as investments in the place where they live, where their children will play. We live here. We don’t want to see the city surrender. Yes, we could fight every levy, howl with rage over every penny lavished on an ancient theater; we could die pure behind a locked door with bars over the window. We gnash and wail over waste and largesse, yet here we are. We actually care about the city - and we support a reduction in the capital gains tax! How is such a thing possible?

Of course this mulish inability to understand the other side characterizes elements in both parties; duh. But when it pops out in movie reviews and mainstream editorials, when it has the casual conversational tone of received wisdom, I wonder how much it permeates the entire intellectual apparatus of modern liberalism.

As a persuasive tactic, it lacks.

When I was an angry little lib in college, I wrote a piece called “Diary of a Bad Conservative,” and I really don’t want to read it again - the wince factor would be too high. I know it's smug beyond belief, which is why I remember it. In short: contradiction in the enemy is a sign of hypocrisy, which invalidates everything they believe in; contradiction in one's comrades is a sign of humanity, which validates their higher beliefs. That was me in a nutshell. I can’t speak for others, but I know that my shift in opinions over the last few years did not cause me to lose respect for folks who think differently, unless they profess a particularly fluorescent brand of idiocy. What they think now I thought then; I don’t think I was eeeevil then, and I don’t think they are now. I wasn’t completely comfy on that side; I’m not completely comfy over here. So it goes. But I don’t ascribe an moral inferiority to friends and neighbors who have a different path to common objectives - unless they insist on proving they're willfully stupid, and live in an ideological exoskeleton that dictates which way they must move regardless of new data.

An old friend who still believes what we believed in college took me to task the last time we met, and wondered where Mr. Middle Ground had gone, why I no longer seemed interested in finding commonality. The simple answer is that there is no common ground with people who think you’re a political leper, a winged monkey in the service of a green-skinned Nancy Reagan in a witch’s hat. Respect works both ways, and if it’s not returned, then something changes. There’s a difference between thinking someone’s strategies are wrong, and thinking them a knave who acts from ignorance at best, and more likely acts from malice. If that’s what you think, I am not interested in changing your mind. I am not interested in working together. I am not interested in suffering your insults or your condescension or any other form your preconceptions take. I am interested in defeating you, and getting down to work with the people who come in your place, and grant me the respect I’ll give them.

Unless they turn out to be florid Commie wankers, too. Then I’m just going to stay home and watch Sopranos reruns. Sure, Tony's a womanizing criminal thug, but you mess with his family and he'll have you whacked.

See? There's always common ground, if you look for it.


. This has been bothering me for hours. I read it on the Comics Journal message board:

I would still love Bill Mauldin's work even if he drew like, say, James Thurber

This is like saying “I would love Beethoven even if he composed like, say, Stravinsky.” Mauldin’s style is inseparable from his material; I have a hard time imagining that a shaky, unshaded drawing of two blobs in a foxhole would have the same impact of Mauldin’s expressive character studies. But the quote above is from Ted Rall, Comic Geeeenius, so I guess I must defer to the master.

There was a brief detour on the message board about artists who, like Rall, are in the business of drawing but cannot draw very well. Thurber was cited as a great cartoonist who couldn’t draw, but he had the one-eyed excuse; plus, the other eye went bad as well, and towards the end he was drawing through a magnifying glass that would pull in quasars if you pointed it at the night sky. But I don’t think of Thurber as a cartoonist; I think of him as a writer who had a sideline illustrating some wonderful punchlines in an endearing, iconoclastic style. (If you firm up a Thurber cartoon, you get Shanahan, who is a cartoonist. Go figure.) Jules Feiffer was held out as another example of a non-skilled cartoonist, which is nonsense; he’s an excellent example of the new style of the 50s and 60s. Another example: Groening. Granted, his work does look like damn good doodling, but Groening was always capable of something Thurber couldn’t do: efficient expressions. Thurber’s characters have two default facial expressions - stunned shock and surprise, or gleeful malice. That’s about it. (It’s still twice as many expressions as Rall can muster.) Groening is capable of rendering an amazing array of emotions with very little ink; look at the “School is Hell” book. One cartoon discusses 60+ high school archetypes, and these teeny drawings capture the characters with perfect, hilarious economy. He has more talent than he has skill, which is always preferable to having more skill than talent.

I mentioned yesterday how lousy this year’s New Yorker cartoon edition is. On further consideration, there are some bright spots. There’s a George Booth cartoon set in the two-room, naked-lightbulb flat his characters have inhabited since Anzio was in the news. There’s Bliss, channeling Addams; there’s Bruce Eric Kaplan, who has a perfect match of a blunt visual style and a stiletto wit. There’s a four-page full color Chris Ware, an excerpt from the forthcoming “Rusty Brown / Chalky White” book that promises to be so depressing it makes the Jimmy Corrigan saga look like a Hallmark Valentine’s day card for Grandma. (Ware puts himself in the last five panels as a giggling pothead.) But there are too many old names from the Era of Cosmopolitan Complacency, when New Yorker comics seem to consist entirely of men behind desks, men at bars, talking dogs, and men on desert islands slouched in the shade of a single palm tree. The cover says it all: a man on a psychiatrist’s couch with a pie mashed in his face, a shrink taking notes. (I laughed when I saw it - but the more I look at it, the more I don’t get it. I do, but I don’t.) Man-on-shrink’s-couch jokes are another holdover from the 60s, when everyone on the staff of the New Yorker knew someone who was in psychoanalysis, and thus deduced that the entire country found the subject ripe for humor.

Well, if not the entire country, then people who mattered. Sorry: man-on-couch gags haven’t been trenchant for 25 years. And that’s odd, since the therapy culture has become mainstream since the heyday of neuroses. But now people associate therapy with Soprano-style interrogations - you sit upright, you look your therapist in the face (or the legs, in Tony’s case) and there’s none of this Sigmundo-jumbo about the oral fixations or penis envy. The rituals of Vienna have been replaced with the blandishments of Oprah: to vent is to heal. Therapy is a personal talk show with an audience of one. The idea of taking the couch, staring at the ceiling and trying to pick your way through the brain to get to the machinations of the superego has no resonance anymore. The entire cult of psychoanalysis has come down to a visual gag: a man on a couch. A king on a couch. A dog on a couch. A carrot on a couch. (“I think my fear of rabbits may symbolize my father.”) At some point someone will draw the last couch gag, and I do hope it’s a couch on a couch. (“I feel as if I’m symbolic of something, but I don’t know what.”)

This issue was a year in the making, and nothing it had made me laugh. (Aside from the Hokinson reprints.) Whereas Achewood makes me laugh every day. Proof it’s all subjective. It’s all a matter of opinion.

Except for Rall’s inability to draw hands or expressions or interesting details, which is an objective fact.

Woke after five hours of sleep. Took early-morning Gnat duty. She didn’t want me to take her; she wanted Mommy. So I laid on the floor and went back to sleep, which amuses her. She laid on her back in the crib.

“I a cat,” she said.

“What?” I said from the floor.

“I a cat.” She held up her hand. “My paw.”

There’s so much going on in that little head. It’s sobering sometimes to realize you’re only catching half of what she’s thinking. If that. What preceded the realization that she was a cat? What other observations does she have that she keeps to herself?

Dragged myself through the entire day - my wife had the day off, so she did all the Gnat things; I went to work and wrote a column, just to get it out of the way. Went home, started the Newhouse column; took a break to write this. I have a radio interview in the early morn, so I have to go to bed early - and that means a short Bleat. Last night’s exercise in meandering self-righteousness took far too long to finish and post, and I had no idea what compelled me to ramble on like that. Note to self: just because two or three ideas occur to you in the course of the same diurnal cycle does not necessarily mean they are connected, and staying up until 1:45 in an attempt to connect them may not result in success. At least the Bleat graphic was apt - it comes from a kind reader who sent me a batch of great stuff, including the 1958 arithmetic textbook from which the picture was taken. He also sent a Scholastic book from ‘53 called “Herbert, the Electrical Mouse” which I’m scanning right now; I’m going to rewrite the text to fit the pictures, and tell a different story. Coming soon to the new Institute.

Back to work then back to bed. In the meantime, hit the Backfence button below - I’d love as much input on this topic as I can get. Thanks, and a merry placid Tuesday to you all.

My wife bought Gnat a little barn playhouse at Marshall’s. That’s the cut-rate store where perfectly good clothes, shoes and toys inexplicably end up costing far less than originally intended. Liquidator for failed chains? Disseminator of dead-weight goods the big stores can’t move? Mafia front? Who knows. The barn was in a box labeled “Farm House,” which is just plain wrong. It’s a barn. A farm house is where people live. There are no straw-strew lofts or stalls, and there is no tractor in the parlor. Houses on a farm do not have a silo. Criminey. Anyway. She gets it home, opens it up, and it’s missing all the animals that are supposed to come with it. After a few phone calls she locates one in a different Marshall’s store, and I’m bidden to pick it up after work.

Meanwhile, Gnat adjusts. She has a bag of animals - “Classic Farm Animals,” the bag says, as though they hail from the apex of Greek civilization. There’s a slight scale problem, but that does not bother two-year olds. She put out all the animals in the bag and fed them items from her grocery store set, which introduced another set of conflicting dimensions: judging from the size of the Classic Farm Animals, the slices of bread were as big as king-sized mattresses, and the ears of corn were the size of Minutemen missiles.

Today we went to the Har-Mar Mall, an ancient shopping center across the street from the nation’s first Target. I exchanged the inadequate barn for a good one, and eyeballed the interior to make sure it contained a bag of properly scaled animals. Once home I opened the box, severed the wires, undid the tape, unscrewed the parts. Why do they pack these things as if they’ll be sold only in an earthquake zone? What sort of perversity makes the parent spend half an hour freeing the toy from its sarcophagus while the child looks on, bereft? . in ten years, you will have to crack a 128-bit code to make the toy usable. Criminey. Anyway. I opened the plastic bag of animals, bade her to play, and went upstairs to cook the sausage for the penne pasta.


Just a minute, honey, Daddy’s cooking.


I looked down at the sausage, and thought: no, it’s right here, chopped into delightful nubbins, flavored with spices. What did she mean?

I went downstairs. She had lined up all the characters from FARM HOUSE for a toy-time roll call. Duck: present. Cow: present. Horse: present. Tractor and trailer: present. No pig. No farmer.

Having established the previous day that this was the sole remaining FARM HOUSE set in the Twin Cities, there was nothing I could do. Oh, I could call the store, ask to speak to a manager, tell her that she’d denied my daughter a properly scaled pig AND a human overseer, and thus my child's chances of staging a little version of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” were pretty much shot; I could drive to Marshall’s and get a dollar in store credit to compensate for the lack of these characters, but life is too short.

I told her the pig was missing.

Oh. That’s too bad, Daddee. No pig.

It was. But yet we soldier on.

When I went outside to get the mail I tripped over a large box on the stoop: the new receiver from DirecTV. Ah! Now the Battle Bridge would have a signal again. It was a reconditioned $25 RCA unit, nearly identical to the dead slab of crap I had before. Hooked it up, called DirecTV, went through the procedure to activate it - and here we enter mumbojumbo land. I chanted the magic numbers into the phone; the shaman on the other end moved his fingers, and the birds in the sky and the snakes on the land woke as one, and yea: the picture appeared on the wall, and seemed to move; the words appeared as if writ by an invisible hand, and I fell on my knees and said I will order the NFL Total Access Game Package, O my liege. I will! I am not worthy of this package but I shall accept it nonetheless. Blessed be unto you.

Will there be anything else? said the angel from the gray spirit-talker I held to my ear. I said that there was not. And the angel thanked me and bade me a good night. How could it not be good? Everything works again. The downstairs TV has a signal. I'd fixed the family room system that afternoon, so I now have stereo, and the new wireless headphones work perfectly. If ever again I have time to watch TV, well, I am SET.

I just shot this text to the laptop, went downstairs to finish it. My wife turned in early - she has Gnat’s cold, which Gnat got at gym class, and which I fully expect to get in time for my MC job at Orchestra Hall this Sunday. I thought I’d watch some TV with the new headphones.

There’s no signal.

The TiVo menu displays text, but no background images. And it will not replay any recorded programs.


I just rebooted everything to see if that worked, and while I waited for the machine to throw a grappling hook on the bird above, I realized I’d gotten new receiver cards the other day. The cards expire periodically, to deter piracy. My wife thought the envelope was junk mail, and threw it out; hours later, sorting the mail in the kitchen, I realized that the cards were missing. And the garbage bag was empty. Down to the bins with a flashlight. I fished the cards out, scraped off the coffee grounds, and set them aside to be ignored. . . and now the TV doesn't work.

Damed plastic cards. They most necessary things in our modern lives are small, rectangular plastic cards with magnetic strips: ATM cards, driver’s licenses, credit cards, work access cards, hotel keys. They are the perfect symbols of modern life. You never notice them, or give them thought, until they don’t work - and then you are hosed. Whenever a plastic card goes south, replacing it becomes a top priority item.

Anyway. I just replaced two cards - one in the old TiVo, one in the receiver in the living room. (Wow, you say: you must be rich! Three receivers! No. The cost of each per month is about the cost of cigarettes per day, if I hadn’t quit.) The living-room’s card was so firmly seated it took a needle-nosed pliers to get it out, and I am proud to say I have one in the utility drawer on each floor of the house, and do I feel fine when I need one: there it is! Just as I planned! But: Having replaced the cards, the receivers now don’t work. This is intentional. A message on the screen gives me a phone number to call, so I call it.

A helpful tech leads me through the process; we banter numbers back and forth until it’s obvious I put the wrong card in the wrong unit. I reshuffle them, insert the right card, activate the TiVo. Bill O’Reilly rants soundlessly from the other side of the glass. Mission Accomplished. Now the living room unit. She asks me to remove the new card and insert the old one. “Oh,” I say, “I have to get the pliers again.” I can imagine what she thinks that means. I head back to the kitchen for the needle-nosed pliers, all the while speaking in a hushed tone to keep from waking my cold-beseiged wife. I realize that this makes me sound like I think we’re on a secret mission here, and I explain to the tech that I’m trying not to wake everyone up; I just decided to rotate the cards because the TiVo went black, although that didn’t seem card related -

I can see her filing her nails on the other end.

I put in the new card. I find the remote to hit the DONE button.

Doesn’t work. Dead batteries.

Oh, screw it. Screw it all. The pig’s missing and the batteries are dead. I ask the tech if she’s activated the card, and she says yes; I assure her I can take it from here, and she wishes me a good night.

All this tsuris so I can watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Worth the effort?

If you’ve seen the show, you know the answer to that.


So why doesn’t bin Laden appear on any videotapes? Why just his voice?

1. Facial tic is so pronounced it induces an epileptic seizure in susceptible viewers

2. Double eyepatch would imply he is now a blind cleric, which is SUCH a cliché

3. Makeup cannot conceal greenish tone of extremities

4. Like, omigod? A big zit, right before he has to make his first appearance since Tora Bora? On the nose! It’s like huge! Everyone’s going to look at it! He hates his life! He hates everything! (Runs to room, slams tent flap)

I was surprised by my reaction to learning that this could be a genuine tape: I channeled an ancient Rob Schneider "Saturday Night Live" routine. It’s the Binster, ma-kin’ threats! Bin-man, scourge of Cru-sa-ders. O-sama-o-rama. The Lad-i-na-tor. A year ago things were different; a year ago he was a Bond Villain, slippery and omnipotent; he was sure to summon bugs and bombs and lay siege to the land, and his very name drew a cold line down the American spine. Things have changed. He is so 2001. Discovering he’s still alive is like learning that Ally McBeal is still on the air.

Let’s not minimize what his reappearance might mean, but let’s not overexaggerate it either. Even if a volley of Predators converts Al Qaeda’s leadership into bouncing chunks of sand sushi, it still won’t remove the threat. After the Holy Army of Islam is defeated, well, say hello to the Army of Holy Islam. (Which may or may not be working with the Islamic Holy Army.) This is going to take a while. Destroy a worldwide network, and you’ll still have six guys capable of driving a fertilizer bomb up to the Nebraska State Capitol and reaping worldwide headlines.

Bin Laden needs to do something big, something bold. I think he should go to Cuba. Set himself up as Fidel’s successor. Shouldn’t be hard; they both have famous beards; they both hate America; they both hate gays - Osama would have them stoned, Fidel puts the AIDS-infected gays in barbed-wire camps. Give bin Laden ten years, and there will be NYT stories about how time has “mellowed” him, how his “fiery rhetoric” has been undimmed but his regime has “relaxed” its grip. Give him 20 years, and Steven Spielberg will go lick his boots as well. Sure, Osama’s a trifle intense, but you cannot deny the man’s convictions. Or his charisma.

Welcome back, Binny! Keep talking. Keep talking about how your cause is bound up with an attack on Iraq - your timing could not be better.

Dragged myself through most of the day. Cold? No cold? Insufficient sleep? Exhaustion plus cold? Whatever it was, drown it with coffee and stagger for the horizon. At least I'm not sneezing, and that is a hopeful sign. Had lunch with the boss, banged out a column, went to the store for food, then encountered the Hour of Infuriating Incompetence. It began when I was playing with Gnat in the basement, and I clicked on the TV to check the news. No signal. NO FARGIN’ SIGNAL. I knew why, in a trice - last night I’d called to activate the new cards DirecTV sent for the receivers. We hadn’t activated the basement system, because I had a new receiver with a new card, which had already been activated. But some implacable protocol in the bowels of the DirecTV Hal 2000 had decreed that something about the activation procedure was insufficiently kosher, so: click. Off. I fumed, went upstairs to make dinner; the phone rang. Another mortgage company.

“Thanks, but we refinanced a few months ago,” I said.

“Uh - yes, and you refinanced with us,” the fellow said. “I’m just calling to see if you got all the paperwork, and if everything seemed fine.”

“Well, as long as you asked, no - I didn’t get any paperwork. I didn’t get a coupon book, and I had to call the mortgage company to get the address, the loan number, and the payment amount. In my letter I asked for the payment book, and I still haven’t gotten one, now that I think of it.”

Let me tell you, friends: that was a good answer. Because the guy was calling to find out why I hadn’t paid my new mortgage. It took a while, but eventually we discovered that the loan number the mortgage company gave me for my payment was completely, utterly, WRONG. Well, it was right in the sense that it was a numerical string that contained the numbers 7 and 9, but otherwise it was useless. O Happy Day. Nice way to make a first impression.

I promise to get to the bottom of it, hang up. Doorbell rings: it’s my neighbor. He has a FedEx door tag saying they tried to make a delivery, but I wasn’t home to sign for the package. It has my name on it. Hmm. I call FedEx. I explain that they tried to deliver to the wrong address; was the package from DirecTV? It was? Then it’s the kit I'm supposed to use to to return the old burned out receiver, and avoid Penalty Charges. Great. Well, have him come here, and have him look for the domicile whose conspicuously displayed house numbers match the ones on the bill of lading. Thanks.

This takes 10 minutes, during which I am dining on the fish dinner while Gnat watches a VeggieTales tape about friendship. She looks up at me:

You mad?

“No, honey.” I beam. “I’m happy!”

And I am, because I have decided I will be happy. Let’s look at the mail: a letter from the Ministry of Property Tax.

My taxes are going up 15 percent.

The amount is equal to one week’s freelance pay. At some point this year I will write something, and the entire proceeds will go to cover the hike in my taxes. Not the nut: the vig. There’s a date and time for a hearing, in case I wish to lodge a protest, and while I hate to be pessimistic about participatory democracy, I am reasonably sure that a stirring oration about the needs of my family will fail to sway the hearts of the commissioners. The next item in the mail is an alert from a community group: the local firehouse is about to lose a ladder truck. Budget cuts.

In short, then: higher taxes, lower services. Thus is the city revitalized. Thus is the productive class lured back in. Pay more, get less - who could resist?

I now have a hole in my stomach. The phone rings. It’s FedEx. They tell me that the package in question was already delivered. And even though the doorknob hanger said a signature was required, the deliveryman said he just left it' judging from the shipdate it wasn’t the return kit, but the new receiver.

Which I did get. Which now doesn’t work.

I sneezed. Twice.

Gnat looked up from her Farm House playset.

You sick?

Daddy is beleaguered, honey. That’s all. Beleaguered.

You happy?

I looked at that little face, aglow with concern, and it brought me right back to earth.

Yes, honey. I’m happy!

I’d better be. Another day with my wife and child, another day watching the leaves dance in the wind, another day without a cold, another day on the right side of the dirt. It takes a special kind of fool to count that day on the debit side of the register.

Fifteen percent!

Right, right, right. Happy. Happy!



Never underestimate a child’s ability to learn your vernacular, twist it slightly, and shout it out loud in public. If, for example, you say “you’re driving me nuts!” in a friendly way while trying to get the tot dressed, do not be surprised when the tot hollers YOU DRIVE YOUR NUTS! at Target. Over, and over, and over again.

Solved my mortgage-payment problem over the phone today. I could spin a very long story out of the difficulties of dealing with their automated phone menus. but you’ve been there, done that, screamed YOU DRIVE MY NUTS into the dead ear of the robot operator. I’ll spare you.

For sale at Hollywood Video, Star Wars Ep 2: $24.99. For sale at Target, Star Wars Ep 2: $15.99. So it is with every new release. It makes you wonder why Hollywood even tries: everyone who goes to Hollywood goes to Target. Perhaps they’re counting on the people who haven’t been to Target since the movie came out, forget about Target’s ruthless pricing strategy, and want to see the movie tonight anyway.

Translation: I own two copies of Star Wars, Ep 2, and I’m looking for the receipt.

And now, disgust.

Glenn linked to this story about an award-winning piece of art in Denver. It’s called “Self Portrait of a Martyr.” Here's the painting:

I was initially interested by the newspaper story, which is a perfect window into modern journalism. Here’s the opening of the piece:

A prize-winning painting by a local artist has so disturbed some students at the Art Students League of Denver that they want it moved to a less-prominent spot in the school.

School officials refuse to do that.

Got it? The controversy isn’t the painting, it’s the controversy over the painting. The painting itself is neutral, a thing, an object to which different people may have different reactions. Of course it’s not the reporter’s job to take sides - but the fact that she leads with the reaction to the “prize-winning” painting, instead of the substance of the painting itself, shows how modern journalism often approaches this sort of story. They’re terrified of addressing the actual issue, so they concentrate on the emanations of the penumbra.

Let’s do the old, predictable trick of recasting the graf with different subject matter. Here’s the real description:

The 4-foot-by-6-foot oil painting by Cong Lu, 24, depicts a young Asian man pulling up his shirt to reveal explosives strapped around his midsection. A pistol is tucked into his waistband. The piece is entitled, Self Portrait of a Martyr.

Now, imagine this:

The 4-foot-by-6-foot painting by Cletus Jokle, 24, depicts a young white man pulling up his hood to reveal a swastika tattooed on his forehead. A noose is tucked into his waistban. The piece is entitled, “Self Portrait of a Racial Cleanser.”

Would this get the same neutral treatment in the paper? Yes. Hell, you could have a picture of the Pope sawing the heads off babies, and it would be described as “controversial.” There’s a certain mindset that descends when people protest art - right-thinking people, a group that contains most reporters, side with the artist. Sometimes it’s out of reluctance; who wants to defend some of this crap? But they also regard the protesters as narrow-minded God-bothering cretins, the dreaded Foes of Art who think the culture reached its apogee with “Our Town,” Saturday Evening Post covers, and Mitch Miller albums. Nothing makes a journo’s eyes roll more than conservatives who protest something as silly as art - don’t they have anything better to do? Don’t they have cookies to bake and guns to oil, or something? Jeez.

The controversy is the story, but it’s not the lede. The main story, in my admittedly blinkered view, is that the school gave prize money and prominent placement to a painting that romanticizes the murder of Jews. Yes, he is “pulling up his shirt to reveal explosives strapped around his midsection,” but this isn’t a cartoon Boris Badinov bomb held to his belly with duct tape. It’s not a brick of Black Cats hanging from his nipples with Scotch Tape. It’s the specific sort of explosive device Palestinian terrorists use to murder civilians, and the fact that the artist calls himself a “martyr” would indicate that he knows exactly what they are. Anyone else using bomb belts these days? No? This is like hanging a painting in a university in 1945 that showed a blonde male in a leather SS trenchcoat fondling a canister of Zyklon-B, and reading a news report that described it as “a man in military garb carrying a flask of gas.”

We either have a bad writer, a lazy writer, or a cowed writer.

“Self-Portrait of a Racial Cleanser” might get the same treatment by a newspaper - I think the piece would have some comments by protesters; this story has none - but it wouldn’t get the same treatment on campus. Even if the artist intended it as a condemnation of white supremacists, one suspects he would not be permitted his interpretation of his painting; there would be no talk of the equality of subjective reactions. Intention would matter for naught. Intention would be trumped by the effect it had on the aggrieved. The painting would be draped in a day.

Now let’s say Cletus Jokle wanted his painting to incite racial hatred. Let's say he was serious. Let's say we took the image at its word. Should it be hung? No. He could put it in his house. He could sell it to a private gallery that accepted such things. He could paint all he want - he just wouldn’t have his poison displayed in an institution devoted to artistic education. I know, I know - once we ban the neo-Nazis, who’s next? First they came for the Christian Identity portrait painters, and I said nothing; then they came for the Biological Determinism Cubists, and I said nothing. But I doubt this slope is very slippery. I don’t think it’s even a slope.

Granted, it’s a well-executed painting. Nice to see someone’s working in the traditional forms; given the number of people who can get a degree by putting tiny bomb-belts on a Barbie as a means of calling attention to the genocidal effects of bad body image, an award given to an actual painter is heartening. But the work is thematically incoherent. It means what, exactly? Asians should wear bomb-belts to kill Jews? Jackie Chan is morally obligated to pull the cord the next time he’s the room with Woody Allen? Interpretation #2: Asians in America, like the Palestinians, are an oppressed class; by using the symbols of revolution, the artist is Making a Statement about Solidarity with the Powerless. It’s an allegorical expression of oppression, using the metaphors of revolution (the bomb belt) and Western religion (the shirt-lifting posture is right out of Renaissance painting, and has a St. Sebastian flair to it. A fabulous flair, if you will.)

It reminds one of those two cootie-buckets who were protesting in Spain a few months ago, dressed in bomb-belt bikinis. Like the painter, they fetishize the instruments of death. They find great romantic power in the bomb-belt, in its crudity and directness, the way it symbolizes total devotion to a cause in order to bring about a better world. It’s so brave. It’s so awesomely simple. So clarifying.

Look. The people who actually use these devices think they will be instantly whisked to heaven so they can poke holes in six dozen hymens. The people who use these belts kill women and children and young girls and old men. They blow their legs off. They shoot nails through their eye sockets. You who are so horrified by John Ashcroft’s piety are applauding people who think God tells them to kill everyone in a pizza parlor. The bomb belt is not a symbol.It's not a metaphor. It is not a contemporary icon of power struggles and resistance. It's a bomb belt. To put it in poster terms: it is bad for children and other living things, inasmuch as it throws their flesh on the walls and the streets. Can't you find something else to play with?

Let us now return to the words of the Art Center’s mouthpiece:

"Art is subjective," she said. "Used as a metaphor or presented as the artist's personal statement, every opinion is valid and every viewer is entitled to his or her own interpretation."

Yes, every opinion is valid - but as a famous pig once remarked, some are more valid than others. It’s amazing how much validity you get on campus when you make Jew-killing sexy.

Hamas solidarity AND hot obliques - now that’s progressive.


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