Sometimes the best thing for a family is time apart. My wife was accompanying a friend to a little gathering Saturday afternoon, and she promised to be back by six so we all could go out to dinner. Her friend was meeting other at a Thai place downtown, but promised to have her back before sunset. Go! I said. Go eat Thai. Go hang out. Well be fine. Go play and dont worry.
Sometimes you need to take the bolt cutter to the bonds of obligation, but you cant do it for yourself. Too much guilt. The other partner has to do it. My wife was a little dazed by the prospect - free time? No curfew? Do as I please? What strange world have I wandered into?
Gnat and I played grocery store, went outside and shivered in the backyard, then went to Southdale for hangigers and fench fies. (Forgive me the cutesy-wutesy spelling, but its just so . . . cute. And wute.) We were sitting in the food court munching on supper, when she looked up and said: DOGGY. What? JABBER. DOG. Unsure why there would be a mutt in the court, let alone ours, I looked around, then followed her gaze: she was looking at the A&W sign, which said HOT DOGS in big neon letters. This is the first instance of unprompted reading without clues or context. She saw the word and she knew what it was. And you know what? I got it on tape. I always bring the camera when we go on excursions, and it paid off here. Two years, three and a half months, and she read her first word.
Shes read them before, but its been mimicry with a book as a prop. This was the first time she did it on her own - and Im gratified to note that her first word was written in neon, and referred to vague minced animal parts in an intestinal casing. Its more American that way.
Yes, and the fact that you were eating fast food in a mall is American too, and symbolic of the entire consumer-obesity complex that is raping the planet. You think Im being silly, eh. Well. I did a column a few weeks ago on McDonalds, and why they suck, and I got letters that said I was a wretched example of rectal flora just for going there once a month. Its odd: the hate-mail I get from the far right always has the flavor of someone who is half in the bag and having fun hating my guts; the far-left hate mail sounds like it comes from people who are miserably sober and bitterly regretting the fact that they have to waste time flaying my boil-flecked bodkin, but if they dont, the planet is DOOMED.
Anyway. We finished our meal, washed up in the lav, then went downstairs to Crate and Barrel. She found a toy area, announced she wanted to play with kids, and marched off to wreak her will on her peers. (She shares, but only after prompting.) I had to negotiate some equal time with a little boy who wanted to play with the big painting easel, but it worked well. So well that I didnt notice that the easel was on a platform raised seven inches above the ground. I turned away for a second - a second! - and I saw Gnat turn, step into empty air, fall off the platform and crack her head on the floor. Many tears. Horrible tears. I picked her up and took her out into the mall, soothing her sobs.
Kiss - make it bedder, she said. I kissed it. I suggested that we should have some ice cream.
O - kay, she sobbed. Pause. I happy now. Sob.
After ice cream - well, Dairy Queen, which is a different thing entirely - we went to the Apple store, then home. She was tired and sad. I lost my mommy, she said. She put her head on the table. I lost my Mommy. So we went to the Battle Bridge and watched a DVD of late 30s Mickey Mouse cartoons. She sat curled in my lap.
You big, she said. I small. And that was just fine with her.
Now that I think of it, I really ought to sue. They put an object attractive to children up on a pedestal; they did not rope it off, or remove the brushes, or do anything else to discourage its use. Should I be responsible for the moment I turned away and my kid hit the floor?
Well, of course.
I dont like the 30s Disney cartoons. Well, amend that - theyre interesting, but theyre also pretty lame. Youre surprised when things actually happen, when someone takes a hammer to the head, because usually its funny bunnies making Easter Eggs, or Mickey being the gosh-heh-heh EveryMouse. The animation is usually superb, but they bear the same resemblance to 40s animation as a Punch cartoon in 1910 to New Yorker cartoon in 1929. Same genre, different world. In fact if you look at the changes between the animation of, say, 1937 and 1942, you see that everything changed - cartoons become harder, sharper, funnier. The music isnt soft merry pap, but loose crazy anarchic explosions of brass and percussion. The sentimental, infantile quality of the pre-WW2 cartoons boiled away quite quickly.
Interesting what a war can do to a culture: it makes their cartoons better.
Driving home from the mall she'd requested music. Since I do not want to be at the mercy of Raffi or Happy Songs from Barneys Sing-A-Long FunTime Wristslittery, I always have some home-burned CDs on hand. I mentioned the Pottery Barn Kids CDs a while back - theres a new one, Play Time, which is as unappealing to children as the first. I figure, shell get used to it. Shell grow to love it. And so she has: she is particularly enamored of Louis Primas Banana Split for my Baby, probably because she envisions something completely different: she sees a bisected banana handed to an infant. Three Little Fishies by Kay Kysers ensemble, makes her smile - and me too. This tune, which seems like a jokey little ditty, is a fascinating period piece. Lets have a look:
1. Its a novelty song, but the musicianship is impeccable. Though they were tagged as a comedy act sometimes, Kysers band was full of top-shelf pros.
2. Cloying widdle iddy childwens voices were much more tolerated then than now. The song structure is simple: one normal-voiced person sings a verse, the widdle iddy childwen-voice singer repeats it, then a guy who sounds like hes standing three feet from the mike replaces the first three lines of the verse with nonsense - skip diddly wumbum clickedy yedoo! - and repeats the fourth line in singspeil. The kiddie voice is incredibly annoying, but I guess they put up with that back then. Its the voice of Tweety, the voice of Snuffles the Mouse in the old Warner Bros. cartoons. Now kids are usually portrayed as smarter, hipper, more sarcastic than clueless parents - even if the kids are three.
3. Who sings what? When this song was on the radio, everyone knew who sung what. I dont. Kay introduces them at the beginning, calmly summing the singers over some silken saxes. Sully, Ginny, Ish Kabbible, Oopy Doopy Oop: have it. I love the way he says that last part; its such a wonderfully casual way of handing off the song. Have it.
A little research tells me that Sully was Sully Mason, who did the nonsensical scat voice. Ginny is the Ginny Simmons, who was one helluva dame. Harry Babbitt sang the kids voice. I cant tell what Ish sings. I dont know if Oopy Doopy Oop was a character or a throwaway line- it sounds like the name of the scat-singer, since what he sings literally consists of nonsense like oopy doopy doop. But Kay named Sully, so its not him . . . but why didnt Kay name Harry, who plays the kid? Maybe the kids Oopy Doopy Doop? Nope: the character was named Little Audrey.
Its quite possible this made no sense to anyone then, and this was my parents version of Steve Millers pompitous of love, endlessly debated over sodas at the malt shop.
4. At the end of the song the fish swim back from the domain of the shark, and profess that theyre about to be home. That shark almost ate us - for seafood, Mama, sings Lil Harry Audrey, and he switches to this jazz intonation that changes the meter of the song, and makes the band start to play a different song. Then it ends.
This refers to something. I know it does. The phrase for seafood, Mama, is a reference, a parody, a callback of some sort, and Im pretty sure Ill never know what it means.
So much stuff in three minutes - so many different voices, different instruments, different personas, all in the chipper service of a throwaway novelty song. And heres something else: it was done live. All one take. These guys were so good.
AND NOW ITS ALL GONE TO HELL!
Well, no. Also on the home-burned CD are three songs from a VeggieTales compilation, and they are delightful and clever. In fact tonight when I got back from Orchestra Hall, and I wanted something to play that was upbeat and catchy, I put on The Song of the Cebu from the Veggie Tales, and sang along.
Thats my sole criterion for childrens music: Id listen to it even if she wasnt around.
Am I still updating the Matchbook section? Yes! Glad you asked.
By some miracle, the cold has passed me by. My wife fell; my daughter was clogged for a week, but I stand tall, unfelled. My secret: Vicks Vapor Rub, mixed with lambs blood; paint an X on your chest.
BOY CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT TONY SHOT CARMELLA ON THE SOPRANOS LAST NIGHT?
No, no, just kidding. I would never do that. I hate it when people blurt out spoilers - oh yeah, Lukes father had a sled named Rosebud. Why are you upset? Youd have found out anyway. I was able to enjoy three years of Sopranos in a months viewing because Id avoided reading anything about the show. I knew I wanted to watch it some day, so I just skipped every article, every interview. If the subject came up on the radio I turned the channel. The other day a talk-show host brought up a recent development, and I changed stations - and later I heard him chuckle over the people whod been upset that he dropped a key plot-point without warning. Hah hah, too bad. What a boor. Were not living in the 60s, when TV shows were ephemeral things, when you had to be there or miss it and wait for the summer reruns. In the time of TiVos and VCRs we shift shows around to fit our schedules, and if our schedules are busy we might not get to a show for a few days. Or a week.
Or, in my case, a year. I missed TiVoing the first few Sopranos, so I decided to just wait for the DVDs in a year. Stupid, I know, but Im like Woody Allen in Annie Hall - if Im not there for the opening credits of The Sorrow and the Pity, forget it. Lets get coffee for four hours and see the next show. (When I finally did encounter The Sorrow and the Pity on cable, I came in late and missed the first 20 minutes. I watched it anyway. Cest la guerre.) I can understand why a radio host who ran a show called Lets All Talk About the Sopranos would assume that the audience was up to speed, but on a political-events show, if you're going to ruin a surprise, at least give folks fair warning. Radio people need to learn the "SPOILERS AHEAD - SCROLL DOWN" concept.
So Im reading FARK this morning, and some maroon puts the plot-point in a link description. I was reading it without thinking, and then I realized what I was seeing: whoa! Rear back! Retreat! Retreat! Too late. I was peeved for an hour, until I realized that I had confused two characters, and that the supposed bombshell was something Id expected to happen last season.
All was right with the world.
I mean, come on. If you didnt think Tony was going to whack Dr. Malfis ex at some point, youre not paying attention.
An ordinary Monday. Morning amusements in the family room, then upstairs to play with Gnats computer. She now has the old Sony, which she uses for a few tutorial programs. It is without question the worst computer Ive ever owned - its processor speed is "faster" than my Mac, but it's slower to react to actions in the desktop, and unbelievably noisy. One of the CD drives refuses to recognize the disk, and gives me the merry message that the program AUTOPLAY.EXE cannot run because the program AUTOPLAY. EXE cannot be found. Im not kidding. Its the right hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.
Im coming to loathe Sony. Its a classic example of a company that tells you how you will behave, instead of anticipating what you might want. Recall the tales of my struggle with the various stereo systems? Well, this weekend I took the new DVD/amp from the family room and installed it in the Battle Bridge downstairs. The Battle Bridge is the only room in the house wired for surround sound, and I was determined to set it up. I couldnt use the Sony, because it has a proprietary interface for speaker wires, and if you dont have Special Sony Plugs you are double-hosed. So. The new Pioneer receiver, which plays nice with everyone, went downstairs. I spent an afternoon figuring out which cable went where, and the result was true surround sound - in the room where I never watch movies. Ah well. The Sony went back upstairs, and was connected to the new Sony wireless headphones - and here we have more Sony cleverness.
The headphones do not have an off switch.
They have a band that connects the two cans; when you put the headset on, your head pushes up the band and turns the headset on. But if youre short and have a commensurately smaller noggin, you have to wear the cans down low like hiphugger jeans. A great innovation from a company whose domestic market is about my size.
Still, I claim success. Weve gone from nothing working anywhere to most of the stuff working, mostly.
Ive no time to use any of it, but its nice to know its there.
Anyway. We hit the grocery store today, and this time I brought the video camera. (Its not a Sony; they have some weird proprietary compression thing that makes them useless with Macs.) I know I look like a yuppie dad non pariel, filming the tot as she waves at the lobsters, but why not? Either every moment counts or none of them do. Lose the trivialities and the substance of daily life evaporates. Film the things that dont seem important, and youll have a better record of the kids life than a series of graduations, holidays and school concerts.
Then to school. I forgot to bring a diaper this time - I have one with NATALIE written on it, and for ten weeks Ive put it in the basket and picked it up at the end of class. Today I figured wed be safe. And of course you know what happened. The only way I can describe the mess is this: nuclear, chemical and biological.
Home for Sloppy Joes, which have now been christened Messy Hangigers. Wife comes home; nap; walk dog; write column; this.
You can tell Im compressing things as we get to the end of this Bleat. Im in a hurry to upload and watch some TV; its the season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and from what I understand LARRY BEATS TED DANSON TO DEATH!
Note: this week I forgot to do a "previous bleat" link, so just go to the permanent link below, and scroll up. D'oh.
Tidbits today, mainly because its late and Ive been writing all the long damn day. So:
Everyone is sick of the election rehash, and sicker still of the Wellstone memorial story, but: one detail needs relating. Got it first hand the other day from someone who attended. As they were waiting for the event to begin, they noticed a big beach ball bouncing around the crowd, traveling up the stands and down, back, forth. A beach ball.
Who brings a beach ball to a memorial for a dead man? Can you imagine standing in the garage, keys in hand, patting your pockets for wallet and sunglasses, thinking have I forgotten anything for this somber event? Oh, right! An inflatable sphere the crowd can bat around for fun. Its not a memorial service without one.
Im surprised no one dove from the stage after their eulogy, and surfed the crowd to the concession stand.
I have created a monster. Well, no, not exactly; my wife did most of the work. But I am about to lose control of the car radio.
No radio! Moosic! Gnat commands. And she has a playlist: Zib-e-doo-dah. Catch falling star. Chicken song. (Nobody here but us chickens) Banana spit. Hairbrush. Pirate song. Moomoo song. What once was a joy is now rote duty; I dont even think she enjoys the songs as much as she enjoys the control. When I give in, she tunes out, and adopts the expression of a bored aristocrat who's commanded his troupe to perform acrobatics while he looks out of the window and thinks about France.
At the office I got a collection of Al Capp cartoons - the Shmoo series, to be exact. The preface was written by Harlan Ellison, and its damn near incoherent. It rambles, shouts, hectors, sneers, and does its damnedest to be Harlanesque, but it just sounds like a cranky old man who finally got through to Art Bell and is going to set him straight about how things really were 19-ought-seven, by Gum. Did you know this is "an anti-intellectual, anti-artistic nation that breeds Jesse Helmses, Rush Limbaughs and Phyllis Schafflys"? Yes, those are his examples. Harlan: look in the Yellow Pages under newspapers. Phone em up, and ask for them to drop a paper off at your door. Youll discover that American culture has invented a few new bogeymen in the last 10 years, and that no one gives a nosehair for Phyllis anymore.
Theres a line that makes you do a double-take: "Unless your my age (pushing close to seventy.)"
And you think, wow: all these years, hes been getting older. I know it sounds stupid, but some people get fixed in your brain as being of a particular age. You always think of Stokowski as old and JFK as young. (He would have been in his eighties by now, if hed made it). A young Reagan looks like a green-banana version of the real thing, who we all remember as 70 years old, precisely. Harlan Ellison is a Fiery Young Man. Run through your mental scrapbook of famous people, and youll see that each has an unshakable identity, like a picture on a New York delicatessen wall.
Except for Michael Jackson.
He is now, officially, the Worlds Creepiest Man-thing. Those horrid eyes transplanted from a carved-up Bambi, the mini-butt cleft chin, the Uglaut nose thats peeling like cheap wallpaper. Hes a slow-motion shapeshifter. All this we knew, but now we know hes crossed over into sheer madness:
Whats wrong with this picture? Well, whats not wrong? The towel over the face suggests that the Jackson Facial Rearrangement Project proceeds anew on the pliable flesh of the newborn. The very existence of an MJ offspring makes one shudder - Id rather chew off Aunt Selmas corns with my incisors than think of that unholy thing having carnal relations. (At least Bubbles got the night off.) The maniacal expression suggests that he will be consuming this tidbit as soon as he lurches back into the shadows. But holding your kid over a balcony with one hand - well, thats the thing parents have nightmares about doing. For Gods sake! I duct-taped Gnat to my chest just to climb the stairs.
How many kids does he have? How many are bobbing in giant test tubes filled with melanin-bleaching compounds?
We should have known, long ago, how deeply odd this dancebot is. Think back to the 80s. When he sang Billie Jean is not my lover, I think pretty much everyone in the audience knew he was telling the truth.
Finally. Blix, as in Hans Blix, the Sgt. Schultz of international arms inspection, always makes me think of some Scandinavian brand name. A powdered drink, for example. Solveig? A cup of hot Blix for to go with Mueslix please. I see a thin bearded guy wearing a thick turtleneck sweater, spooning Blix into a mug in his small flat, scowling at the newspaper. It tastes like cocoa, but its not chocolate. It has a hazelnut note, and theres chicory in it. In trendy supermarkets in America youll find a can or two, with a thick layer of dust on top. Since 1927, the companys motto has been Drink Blix. They havent run TV ads since 1964, but the trains carry small ads that say Drink Blix or just Blix, with a picture of the stylized mascot theyve used since the 50s.
I can almost taste it. Cant you?
Note: this week I forgot to do a "previous bleat" link, so just go to the permanent link below, and scroll up. D'oh.
A conservative religious womens organization and the NOW have finally found common ground - at least according to a radio show I heard in the car this afternoon. A spokeswoman from the former group was on, decrying a new assault on American values, and I was rather surprised to discover the object of her ire: The Victorias Secret TV special. I realized two things: 1. Some people have lives so soft and comfy they have the luxury of being offended by a bra parade, and 2. No matter how much you squint, you cannot program a TiVo with mental telepathy. You still have to drive home and set the thing manually.
Bothered by Victorias Secret, eh. These people need to roam around the Internet until they encounter the goatse.x picture somewhere in a message board. (I may have the name wrong, but you may have seen the picture - you dont know if its about proctology or spelunking.) And I hear the critics sing: Oh, so you criticize them for criticizing the VS show, but you feel PERFECTLY free to criticize the suicide bomber painter, eh? Sure. They have every right to protest; Im not telling them to shut up. Im suggesting they stop thinking of Tyra Banks as one of the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse. More to the point, theres a difference between getting alarmed over healthy, giggly women prancing around in bras and heels, and getting alarmed over paintings that romanticize the violent death of healthy giggly women, and anyone else in the immediate zone. If this distinction is unclear, Im here to help:
Print this out, place it on your desk, and drive your forehead into the X as hard as possible. It may shake the small, pea-shaped brain fragment loose from whatever skee-ball cone it got lodged in.
Besides, I didnt want to destroy the painting. Several of the callers to the radio show wanted the FCC to shut down the VS TV show as an affront to public morals. They hadnt even seen it - but the idea of Wonderbras on a prime-time show was so horrifying youd think the government had required everyone to be fitted with Clockwork Orange eyeclamps and be forced to view an Ellen marathon.
The host of the show is a cultural conservatives whos a mile to the right of me. And he thought the protests were stupid. Im glad hes around, though; when every other Artist at work in the land is determined to push the envelope, its good to have a few people help the envelope push back. Sometimes the prudes are right. Sometimes too much is too much. For the sake of my daughter, I do worry about the amount of sensuality in the culture; a few years from now, I dont want to be standing in the grocery store and have to explain why Brad and Jennifer are tongue-wrestling on the cover of People. I think the public space should be, well, somewhat demure. As for the private space - which includes whats inside the magazine, as opposed to the unavoidable images on the cover - thats different. You can choose to look inside a magazine. You can choose to rent a certain movie. Believe it or not, you can choose not to watch a Victorias Secret special. Im not worried about some of the things people are allowed to choose to view. Im just not crazy about having the choice made for me, and sexualizing the entirety of public space.
That make sense? I thought so.
More than the amount of public sensuality, though, I worry about the character of the sensuality. I get annoyed that marketers push glittery thongs or tatty emblems of skank-ho culture on pre-teen demographics. We can get along without that, thank you. I get bored with the monthly parade of doltish doxies on the covers of the lad mags, all wearing the same go-thither mask of Attitude while yanking down their drawers. Its blunt rote tripe for adolescent wankers - no cheer, no mystery, no beauty, no love.
Since the consumer of these pictures has nothing to be intimate with, this genre of pictures devalues intimacy altogether, and thats an interesting development. In the past these magazines had to provide the illusion of intimacy, because the viewer still had some residual attachment to the idea, still thought it had a place in the mechanics of lust. But that lie got old. Now the denial of intimacy is alluring. Lets use each other together.
By contrast: the Victorias Secret catalogs are drenched with the promise of intimacy. Quite often this makes them silly, to my eyes; all those straps and frills and bows and ribbons. Youd need a Merit Badge in Lingerie Deconstruction to successfully denude someone dressed in that lace Laccoon. But many of the catalogs have the character of an orchid hothouse, humid and hushed; they promote intimacy, or at least a simulacrum of it. They may only be paying collagen-injected lip service to the idea of intimacy, but at least they use the vocabulary of romance. Maxims approach is as romantic as a train wreck arranged by drunken engineers.
Why spend all this time on it? Were talking about underwear here, for heavens sake. Support garments. Hosiery. So its sexy. So what? Whos bothered by a little skin?
The radio-show guest had two responses, as I recall. 1. The body is such a beautiful thing that it must be covered at all times. Im paraphrasing, unfairly, but that seemed to be her gist. In order to respect the beauty of the body, it must be hidden. To me this sounds like respecting Beethoven by driving knitting needles through my ears. 2. Sex is acceptable only in the context of marriage. Shes welcome to think that, of course, but I would point out that no one in the viewing audience had sex with the Victorias Secret models. Her very point seems oblivious to the possibility that married folks might shop at Victorias Secret. Every been to a VS store at the mall? Id bet that half the clientele is married, at least. But she seemed to think that a lingerie show was, by definition, incompatible with marriage, as if there was something dangerous about female sexuality that wasnt explicitly tied to a social convention.
So now we have the fusion of the Saudi Female Virtue Police, the League of Well-Meaning Godly Busybodies and the National Organization of Shrewish Phallophobes all on the same page. (Its a page that has no pictures, of course.) Proof, perhaps, that the Sex issue doesnt skew right or left anymore. (If it ever did.)
Hmm, he says, wondering if there's a Big Issue to be found here.
I havent thought this out, so Im just typin & grinnin, Buck Owens-style, but, here we go.
Call them eagles, as does Andrew Sullivan, or call them anti-idiotarians, or just call them the post-9/11 voices who were quickest to sense the realignment of the political landscape - however you define this new political demographic, one of their characteristics is an indifference to other peoples healthy expressions of their sexuality. Ah, but one mans healthy is another mans trip to the Vault to have his skin peeled off and doused with lighter fluid, right? No. Theres a consensus on this. No kids; thats evil. No housepets; thats sick. No putting on a furry suit and rolling around a bed full of Beanie Babies; thats pathetic. Its the difference between something that might conceivable include a kink and something that is continually defined by the kink.
And this laissez-faire attitude will destroy marriage! It will destroy America, just as it destroyed Rome! Or so the woman on the radio seemed to think. Ill agree that a society needs marriage to survive - its the best way to raise kids. Its the best route to happiness, period. Get together, be together, stay together. Marriage itself, however, doesnt guarantee a healthy society; if the society is clan-based, rigidly patriarchal, polygamous and gynophobic to boot, well, we know what hell on earth for women that creates. But wearing Victorias Secret lingerie before one is married will not destroy America. Being 20 years old and watching the TV special will not shatter the institution of marriage like a cold toffee bar struck with the spike of a high-heeled shoe.
As for the malleable minds that will be warped by these lanky inhumans and reject real women, well, good. Real women will be spared the difficulties of living with an idiot.
When the lids on tight, the stuff that bubbles out is altogether ookey, if I may quote the Addams Family theme song. (Now there was a couple who loved each other. Say what you will about their hobbies, but do you think Morticia and Gomez had separate beds like Rob and Laura Petrie? Good Lord, no; if Gomez hadnt had that big cigar to clench all day he would have been dragging Cara Mia up the stairs nine times before lunch. He was crazy about her.) My friend George just gave me a few more additions for the upcoming Stagland project - obscure, cheaply printed 50s mens magazines that interspersed boring stories, celebrity gossip and two-fisted tales with depressing photos of hard-faced showgirls and up-and-coming actresses. (Theres cheesecake of Anne Bancroft in one of them, I just discovered. Anne Bancroft!) Furtiveness and shame rolls off every page, no matter how cheery the copy.
I dont want us to go back there. Shame has its place, but these books created shame where no shame should have existed. But I do not want to be some sanguine libertine here, shrugging his shoulders, failing to see the real damage wreaked on our youth. Ill admit there was something about the VS special that bothered me. Just now I wandered downstairs, and it was on the TV. One of the Supermodels was introducing Phil Collins.
How many balding spud-shaped guys will see that and believe that they too will someday get an air-kiss from Heidi Klum, if they just learn to shout out interminable ballads?
Put out your eyes and pour ice down your pants, my friends. Its the only way well ever be safe.
Note: this week I forgot to do a "previous bleat" link, so just go to the permanent link below, and scroll up. D'oh.
STUPID fargin mainstream media, once again validating Oliver Stones one true remark: whenever the media writes about something you know first hand, you know just how wrong they get it. In this case its a WSJ story on Fargo, and how their economy chugs along nicely despite the lack of photogenic scenery. The article begins: Its never been easy for Fargo . . . (t)he 1996 hit movie Fargo didnt help, depicting a desolate wasteland of harsh winds, hip-deep snow and graphic violence.
THE MOVIE FARGO DID NOT TAKE PLACE IN FARGO.
AS WOULD BE EVIDENT TO ANYONE WHO SAW IT.
The one scene supposedly set in Fargo, if I remember correctly, was actually a bar in Northeast Minneapolis about six blocks from a house I shared with the Crazy Uke. Fargo took place in Brainerd and Minneapolis.
Jumped-up Jebus on a SEGWAY can these people ever get it right? Local leaders had no illusions that climate and scenery were going to sell their community. Climate, Ill grant them. Its marrow-cracking cold in the winter. Big deal. So you dress in layers. As for scenery, it takes an unimaginative mind not to see the glory of the prairie - after youve seen the Panavision sky change nine times in the course of a day, mountains look so obvious, so tired. Imagine a mountain range that reshapes itself hourly, and you have the cloud banks of the North Dakota prairie. And this sight is available to all, unimpeded by any signs of civilization, five minutes from the Barnes and Noble. You can put down your Starbucks, drive west, stop, and behold a magnificent void that humbles your heart more than any city skyline or coastal view. Its not for everyone; it has its chilling existential implications, but dont say they dont have scenery. When you hit the Great Plains, the sky is your IMAX, and its open 24/7.
Knock at the door at noon: my dad. Id forgotten he was dropping off his friend at the airport today. Havent seen the old hero in a few months, so this was a delight. Made a pot of coffee, caught up; showed him the movies Id made of Gnat over the summer, then went upstairs to fetch the little starlet from her too-long nap. It took her a while to warm to Granpa, since she doesnt seem him enough, but once she woke she was delighted to discover that she had a Granpa.
For reasons Ill never know, my dad picked up a routine from Snuffles, a cartoon dog in a cheap mid-60s HB dreck about antique car racing. (Dont ask.) The dog, when given a snack, would hug himself, make doglike sounds of glee, and occasionally levitate. My dad thought this was hilarious, and would perform the Snuffles routine for his eye-rolling children. A few weeks ago, I did it for Gnat. It just popped out - I channeled Dad imitating a cheap cartoon character, and Gnat loved it. Now she does it when she gets something delicious.
So were all upstairs having a cookie, and my Dad does the Snuffles routine. Gnats eyes widen - she looks at me - then does it herself. Three generations united by shtick. Hallelujah!
After Dad hit the road I took Gnat to Southdale to get some OS X updates. Not for her, of course. For me. But they have a childrens area set up for the tot demographic, and she likes to play with the Toddler JumpStart program. She also likes to get up and run shrieking into the Mall while daddy is downloading the combo updater, which required me to sprint after her three times. Eventually I had to hoist her over my shoulder like a sack of flour while I bought some DVDs. At the counter I saw some new Apple trinkets - keychains, a desk clock, some pens. An ice-white, Apple-branded ballpoint: $20.
No, I didnt get it. (Wanted to.) There was also an Apple-branded money clip, which the clerk said was a tad ironic - Steve Jobs doesnt believe in paper money, he said. He thinks everyone should use debit cards.
Well, he doesnt believe in shoes or soap either, I said. And I handed over my debit card.
Then we went to the mall court to see Santa. Not to visit him - hes still a bit too scary. Just to see him, from a distance. She stared, wide-eyed: why, thats him! Thats Santa! And Mr. Claus, who had no clients at the time, looked at her and waved. She smiled and waved back - then hid her head in my jacket.
This trip was like no other, because Daddy made the mistake of forgetting the stroller. But. Its not as if shes a fish-girl from a carnival freakshow; she can walk. She can run. Pushing a tot around is useful for getting things done, but theres something indescribable about having the little sprout grasp your index finger and walk alongside you. Yes, shes growing up, but thats a good thing. Whats the alternative?
Now, some boring architecture observations.
This is such a disappointment. I know some people want the World Trade Center replacements to be full of symbolism and bravado - say, a 900-foot steel eagle lifting a wing to flip the bird towards Saudi holy sites - but I want something classically American, or brilliantly inventive. This is neither. This design seems based entirely on what the zoning laws allow. Its ordinariness makes you wonder if its trying to blend in, deflect attention - nope, no symbolic embodiment of American power here, Mr. Bomber; you want the Empire State Building up on 34th. Buildings often look better in the models than they do when built, and this is a rare exception. In the picture it has the white glow of a a marble monument, or perhaps the thigh of a North Dakotan in January. It actually reminds you of the WTC, but not in a good way; theres something creepy about the resemblance. Its the architectural equivalent of Peter Bogdonovich marrying Dorothy Strattens sister.
Its been a long time since someone unveiled a design that made me applaud. Recently Cesar Pelli - my favorite architect - showed the models for the new Minneapolis library. Everyone oohed and cooed - it shone! It glowed! Two glass boxes with a giant cantilevered awning that connected Hennepin and Nicollet. I confess I just didnt get it. The boxes will look nice at night, when no ones around, but they wont be entirely glass - the models seemed to fudge just how much opaque material the walls would contain. (The variation of glass and opaque walls is supposed to bring to mind books on a shelf. You know, just like your bookshelf, with all those glass-spined volumes.) The awnings proportions seem awkward and graceless. It seems to be a building that is trying very hard not to be there.
And then theres Block E. God. All. Mighty. Ive watched this project develop for years. I knew the block when it was a seedy bumwalk; when it was a cheerfully cheesy parking lot - they strung ropes adorned with triangular flags between the light poles in a conscious attempt to make it look like a suburban used car lot; hardly anyone got the joke, but I thought it was brilliant. They picked up one theater, put it on wheels and drove it around the block. Ten years after they knocked it all down they built it back up, and to say they screwed the pooch does not do justice to the poor, aching pooch. They built a shopping mall. That makes four such indoor shopping centers downtown, each of which gives off the sad desperate whiff of looming insolvency. (The loveliest of the four, Gavidaee Commons, saw most of its retail above the skyway level converted to bank offices.) Its nice to have a Borders downtown, but its inferior to the booming Barnes and Nobel down the street. Theres a Hard Rock: O goodie. Theres a big movie complex, which is nice; someday, when Im back to regular office hours, I may while away an afternoon there. But its so fargin ugly. They tried to make a faux facade, a prefab streetscape, and it manages to be cheap, cheesy and utterly synthetic at the same time.
Downtown isnt dying - no. Across from the Block E project is another renovated theater, the Pantages, brought back to its original glory after decades of neglect. To the northeast of the Block E project is an entirely new residential area - block after block of townhomes and lofts in the old Warehouse district. The old Milling District is likewise renewed; the Guthrie is building a new theater on the riverfront. But all these projects work because they either sought to rebuild the past with care, or build the future to fit the needs of the tenants. Block E and the Library have GRAND IMPORTANT CONCEPT! stamped all over them, and perhaps that makes me judge them more harshly than I might. Whatever. Theyre both disappointments.
Why, o why, o WHY didnt I continue my career in architecture? The pain I could have saved the world!
Okay, well, what would I have done? Heres what.
Yes, it's a five-minute sketch, and yes, it sux, but: I would have built identical two-story structures on the Hennepin corners, and filled in the rest with one- and two-story structures of different designs. One of the buildings would have had a big blue neon whale etched right into the facade. Id have put the interior mall court back in the middle of the block - the individual structures on the Hennepin side would have access to the interior court, but they would still be separate stores, not just facades for a common area. The setback facade of the mall would have a big marquee perpendicular to the street - thats the tall red line - and a jumbotron showing clips from whatevers playing inside. The white square on the other side of the marquee would show a two-story view of the interior court. The obligatory hotel would rise straight up behind, with the penultimate floor reserved for some sort of theatrical lighting, and a wild multi-hued skin that would identify it as a landmark of the Entertainment District.
Why the blue whale? Why the two identical buildings? Why the hotel on that corner? Because this block had for years two magazine stores on each corner, both named Shinders. Thats the history of the block. Thats what it was. There was a bar of dubious repute called Moby Dicks, and they had a cheap sign of a blue whale outside. Bring it back. The position of the hotel echoes the tallest building on the block before demolition, the Jewelers Exchange. In short: you dont have to know anything about the block to understand the design, but if you do know the block the design rewards you - its new, but has at its heart a nod to the storied past. Dont call me a hidebound architectural conservative, please. I prefer progressive traditionalist.
Hey, I like that. Its nonsensical, yes, but accurate. In an inaccurately sensible way.