One of the few virtues of growing up in the 70s is the constant realization that everything is better. I mean, everything. Food. Architecture. Shampoo. Politics. Coffee. Music. Magazines. Television. Cars. Industrial design. Consumer electronics. Video games. (When I was a kid our version of a deathmatch was Pong; tonight I hooked up the Xbox to the large TV and played Jedi Knight in widescreen mode.) Beer is better. Life is better. In the 70s there were rumors of a razor with two blades; today I shave with THREE and fully expect I’ll be scraping my face with a six-blade model by 2009. Movies? Yes. Movies are better. Factor out the two-dozen great films of the 70s, and you’re left with cheap, noisy, witless violent vigilante movies, lousy post-Peckinpaw westerns, screw-the-future dystopian sci-fi, and bloated all-star disaster films (a meteor strikes San Francisco, triggers an earthquake, and killer bees pour from the core of the earth, swarming over Natalie Wood.) (Screams performed by Marni Nixon.)

"The Towering Inferno" was on TV the other night; I tuned in just as Steve McQueen was about to leap from a helicopter and save Fred Astaire and Della Reese and Mason Reese and Dave Mason and the rest of everyone else who was famous in the 70s. The credits for this movie are impeccable:

Susan Blakely, the poor man’s Farrah Fawcett

O. J. Simpson, in the days before he was widely regarded as a man who stabbed his wife in the throat

Robert Wagner AND Robert Vaughn - it’s a suave-off!

Mike Lookinland - what a curious name; too bad it wasn’t pronounced LooKINNELA-NID. “Lookinland” sounds like a Sid & Marty Kroft theme park.

Joan Crawford - I think she played a gargoyle briefly glimpsed on another building.

At this point, diligent Bleat reader are probably thinking hmmm: he wrote about the Towering Inferno before; will he repeat the same lines about the inadvisability of putting a 138-story skyscraper in SAN FRANCISCO and filling it with combustible shag? Now you know why there’s no search function on this site. Let’s just all proceed with the understanding that I repeat myself, endlessly, and save ourselves from the grim revelations that would result from actual proof.

But I have a new point, actually. At the end of the movie comes a perfect 70s moment, a Deep & Profound comment from Paul Newman, the architect of the skyscraper. He’s sitting on the curb with Faye Dunaway, the smoking tower behind him, and he says: “Maybe we should just leave it there as a monument to all of the bullshit in the world.”

A burned-out, 138-story wreck left vacant as a “Monument to Bullshit.”

In the 70s, this was deep. This was profound. Maaaan, that’s so true. Tha’d be great, you’d be flying in to San Fran, and you’d see this big charred building, and it would be like yeah, that’s how it is, they didn’t update the sprinkler code to reflect new construction paradigms and so people died, man. Facile as it sounds - and facile as it is, granted - the times wanted a monument to those who identified bullshit as bullshit, not those who came up with something ennobling and true. <eyes rolling>

You need both. But the more you celebrate the former, the less likely you are to notice the latter. When a certain flavor of nihilistic cynicism starts to taint the debate, anything that smacks of optimism and cheer tastes saccharine and cloying. The clever people would always rather listen to Chumbawamba sing an Iranian mullah's fatwa than hear the Captain and Tenille sing the American Constitution. (For me: coin toss.)

Ohhhkay, you say, and my point is? Well, I was googling around tonight, trying to find evidence that Ralph Bakshi had rotoscoped footage of a Pope in his movie "Wizards," and that this unPope had blessed rotoscoped Nazis heading off to fight the gentle elves. That's what I remember, anyway. I ran across an interview where Bakshi said that “Wizards” was an allegory about the Jews and the Holocaust, and he did it because he saw fascism on the upsurge.

In 1975.

To quote Jolson: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

To some, fascism is always on the upsurge, always around the corner. And they always expect it to appear as it did before, wearing black shiny boots, whistling Wagner. They never recognize it when it marches beneath the hammer and sickle, or the crescent moon. But that’s not my point. My googling brought me to several pages devoted to reviewing Bakshi’s “Lord of the Rings” movie, which I saw in the theater - under duress.

I hated Hobbits. I hated all that elvish crap. From an early age I had come to associate hobbits with dorkhood; Middle Earth was the dream realm of the friends with retainers and pasty skin, high-water pants, Dorito-stained fingers, private languages made up entirely of references to a small shared body of sci-fi books and fantasy epics. Picture, if you will, a tribe of dorks who existed before computers, before the Internet. Before US distribution of Monty Python.

I remember watching the LOTR movie and sensing the dismay roll off my comrades in hot brackish waves. I'm ashamed to say I felt some grim pleasure at their discomfort.

Fast-forward 2.5 decades. My friend the Giant Swede was one of those sorts in his youth, but he shook it off. When I met him in the 70s he was a long-haired chain-smoking slacker skulking in the depths of the Valli; in the 80s, he became a gym-rat with an Arnie buzz-cut in RayBans. Now he’s one of those 90-hours-a-week corporate guys. (If you’ve flown Northwest and passed through the new Detroit terminal: that’s his. He did that.) He’s about nine feet tall, a few dozen moons away from 50, two tiny kids at home. You look at this guy, you don’t think Comic Book Guy; you think Terminator.

We’ve managed to coordinate baby-sitting for next week, so the Giant Swedes, my wife and myself can see a movie. They want to see the Lord of the Rings part two. We agree.

This means I have to confront my ancient prejudices. This means I have to go downstairs, pull down the unopened LORT part one DVD, and watch it, tamping down the memories of that boring night in the movie theater in the long-distant 70s.

So I watched it.

Jaw on floor.

I don’t want to sound like some panglossian Miranda - O brave new world, with such realistically rendered Orcs in it! But now and again you take note of something that sternly separates the THEN from the NOW; you realize that you live in an age of bounteous confabulations impeccably constructed, and you can’t help comparing today’s culture to the thin brackish broth of your early teens.

I mention this just for balance, in case I occasionally sound like one of those cranks who think the whole world’s gone to hell. These are frightening times, but they’re wonderful times as well, as Hallmarky as that sounds. I really have no ending for this - I’m just typing on the kitchen table at midnight, and once again I’ve written myself into a corner. Where’s the Grand Conclusion? Where’s the Sweeping Assertion, the Partisan Generalization, the swift drop of the rhetorical guillotine that dumps the 70s, the Manichean viewpoint of the movie, and current events into the same bloody basket?

Beats me. Like I said at the beginning: everything is better. I might be wrong, but I am a happier man than those convinced that everything is worse. Your choice. It’s always your choice.
I’m speaking in generalities here, which means that none of this can be taken seriously at all. That said:

Americans have an ambivalent attitude towards smells, evident in the fact that the very word “smell” has a negative connotation. We prefer aroma, which sounds romantic, or scents, which sounds useful and decorative. Aromas and scents mask smells, smother smells, replace them. “Aroma” conjures up warm fresh bread; “Scents” brings to mind curtains waving in a fresh spring breeze. A “smell” is something that comes from the diaper pail.

As the one who cleans the house on a daily basis (my wife does the weekly vacuuming and serious dusting; I do the daily surface cleaning, appliance cleaning, window wiping, commode disinfection, etc.) I have tried to establish a consistent Aromatic Profile for the house, but it’s hard. You have your Orange Power cleaners, your Fresh Spring Windex, your old-school Spray-Away glass cleaner, which has a janitorial scent that conjures up elementary school, and sends you off into a Proustian reverie. Mimeograph fluid; pencil shavings; puke in the hallway, warm milk, hot steampipes . . . Smell is the most evocative of the senses, the one most closely tied to memory, but it’s taken for granted in most instances and suppressed in others. When we plug in an air-freshener or spray something in a room, it’s not so much because we want to experience an aroma - it’s because we want to get rid of another. Our ideal smell - well, it doesn’t.

One of the virtues of living in this climate is the astringent clarity of the night air in winter; it’s like inhaling liquid oxygen. It’s white and antiseptic; it consumes smells as they arise. The dog left something on a neighbor’s yard tonight, and by the time I got to it the thing had frozen solid and had no more aromatic qualities than a ceramic figurine.

I was thinking about this while doing some research on the old Brooklyn Paramount theater, a gigantic movie house built at the end of the 20s. You can reconstruct, through photos, nearly every detail of opening night; you can browse the fashion mags and imagine what people wore, peer at newspaper ads to determine the brand of cigarette you might have seen someone pull from his pocket. You can reproduce the front page of the newspapers stacked on the corner newsstand. You can watch the movie itself, perhaps. You could even put yourself in the shoes of the MC who announced the event, and imagine yourself facing the vast dark hall, feeling the sweat in your shirt collar, the pinch in the heel of your stiff new shoes, the tickle in your throat from the dry warm air, the flavor of the anise Smith Bros. lozenge you’d chewed to soothe your windpipe. We could bring the entire night back to life if we wished.

Everything but the smell. Every age has its own palette of aromas, and I suspect the 20s had a riotously bright & ripe sequence of stinks: mothballs, cheap cigars, seventeen kinds of hair pomade, popcorn oils, old perspiration, gin, dime-store perfumes whose character we can’t even guess. No one ever sits down and catalogues an era’s aromas, because they’re part of the daily details we neither notice when they’re abundant or when they’re gone. In every other aspect of daily life there’s usually something that stands out and begs the attention of the eye or the ear - typestyles fall out of favor, and hence define an era. Certain instruments are used in movie scores, then are abandoned, so the scores 40 years later are bound to a particular period. But smells? We never encounter old smells the way we greet old pictures or songs, but we don't forget them. If you gathered a hundred people of my era and wafted the scent of a mid-70s shampoo over the room, 78% would say “Wella Balsam.”

If we could travel back in time, I think we’d spend the first few weeks in a state of constant disorientation, because we’d be presented every minute with things that we hadn’t anticipated, or details we’d gotten wrong. I can't say what that might be - a persistent hogo of horse and fried hamburger, or automobile exhaust that was familiar yet different, or just a lot of BO. Women might smell like strange flowers; men would walk out of barbershops trailing waves of musky spice. We've just no idea.

I think that’s one of the reasons I love my matchbook collection - these ordinary bits of jetsam are exactly today what they were back then. If I want I can strike a match and smell 1947, 1965, 1974.

That’s a very long introduction for this small apology: it’s a column night, I’m busy, and I have only two matchbooks for you this week. Enjoy them in the context just provided.
This morning’s dream had good news and bad news. The good: I’d been chosen for a time-travel experiment. The bad news: as soon as I landed in the past, I was required to grab my rifle and head to Gettysburg to fight with fellow Minnesotans. I remember thinking that this was an strange way to spend one’s summer vacation, but, well, duty was duty. I grabbed my rifle from the closet and headed down the boardwalk to the train station. There were other men on the street with guns, too; no one spoke. No one seemed angry, or happy, or despairing; you just sensed that this was what we had to do.

It was a bright blue day; I could smell the dew and the fields, and I remember thinking how much I wanted to be alive when all this was over.

I woke before the train came; I woke because Gnat had climbed up on the bed and was insisting I read some books. The box of books in our bedroom contains volumes from last year, so they’re all infantile and simple. I know them by heart. I laid there, eyes shut, recounting the adventures of Maisy as she enumerates her belongings. Two flowers. Three buckles. Four fish. Five crayons. This was the first book Gnat really grasped. A year ago she would point at the pictures of the flowers and say “pre.” This was shorthand for “pretty flowers.” All flowers were “Pre.” The ten fleas that bedeviled Eddie the Elephant were “fees.”

When she turned to the second page, I slurred Maisy has two ‘pre.’

“No, Daddy, that’s not right. They fowers.”

Let Daddy sleep. He has to defend the Union.

“You wake up. Time to get up, Daddy.”

Daddy is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

“No! No trampling! Read another book. Pees?”

How about some Steinbeck.

“Read dis one.”

Okay, fine. I was awake, and I ran the early-morning systems check: no headache, no fuzziness, no overall bone-deep weariness that will make this day a long slumping stagger towards the post-supper nap. Good. Must not have stayed up until two watching old movies, then. Huzzah.

I spent the morning retweaking a column on the weekend antiwar rallies. I didn’t write anything about that here, because A) everyone else was talking about it and B) all I could bring to the table was the same plate of canapés everyone else was serving, so never mind. I did have one idea I didn’t see elsewhere, but I decided to save it for the national column. As it turns out, I didn’t use it, so I’ll bore you with it now.

It has to do with the Stalin-flavored character of the rally’s organizers, the ANSWER / Action / Workers World Party crew. When I read the accounts over the weekend, I wondered why no reporter mentioned that the folks behind these events were FLAMING COMMIES, to put it bluntly. I asked a friend who holds the media in genial contempt why he thought the issue wasn’t raised, and he said the reporters knew, but didn’t want to cripple the antiwar movement by pointing out uncomfortable facts.

He’s wrong. There is a liberal bias in the media, but in most cases it’s not the willful contortion of events to fit an predefined agenda; editors don’t have a Play-Doh Fun Factory with a special Pinko Template so they can squeeze the raw data into pleasing shapes. Not to say that papers don’t embark on crusades for liberal matters; they do. But my paper also just did a big series on hideous waste of taxpayer money at the Department of Transportation, and gave it as much play as any Enron story. Probably more. We ran Enron-related wire copy, but this MnDOT story was spread over three days, consumed vast tracks of the news hole, and had custom graphics. We went to town.

People forget these stories when they accuse the entire enterprise of bias; those who are convinced that we wake every day wondering how we can stuff another thick choking wad of Democratic goodness down the reader’s windpipe give us no credit for exposing the perfidy of the state, because we ran an photo of Bush in hooting-chimp mode six months ago. We also get angry calls from people who think we’re in the pay of Sharon. The hard left hates us as much as the hard right, and sure that counts for something.

Anyway. The bias isn’t a sin of commission; it's a sin of omission. There are things some people in the news-gathering business just don’t see. We all have blind spots, and perhaps for reporters in the mainstream media one of those blind spots is the unsavory nature of some of their coreligionists. They don’t know, because they haven’t bothered to look. The idea of investigating who’s behind a peace rally doesn’t occur to them because they’re not inclined to think there might be anything unsavory about the organizers.

How could there be? They’re for peace. And most people in most newsrooms know someone who’s involved in the peace movement - an old friend, a neighbor, someone from church. (Yes, reporters go to church.) Everyone in the paper has read a dozen stories of Spunky Grandmas going off to march for peace. Even if Peace in a specific instance might have perilous repercussions, Peace in General is surely a concept we can all uphold. There’s no more reason you'd investigate the advocates of peace than you’d investigate a food shelf.

And if the food shelf turned out to be run by anarchists who think grocery store workers should seize control, smash the cash registers and open the doors to the poor - well . . . it's a idealistic notion that means well, but it’s not typical of food shelves in general, and if we lead with that fact, people might not give to food shelves, so let's just call them "advocates for the co-op grocery movement."

You really want to lose the argument with these people? Point out that the peace-rally organizers are Communists. I’ve noted this odd phenomenon for years; you can be indifferent to Communism, you can be an actual Communist, and no one will really care, but opposition to Communism will really make some people suspicious.

It’s not that they support Communism - oh, heavens, no - but they’re suspicious of anyone who seemed particularly interested in confronting the Red Menace. Communism is like, well, chiropractic medicine. They might not believe in it, but they have a friend who did, and all in all what’s the harm, and besides, the doctors want to suppress it, and the doctors are a special-interest group interested in their own turf, so what are they trying to hide? I mean I knew this doctor who complained all the time about malpractice insurance costs, and you should have seen his house. Like he was hurting.

That’s how the argument goes. The argument is never about Communism, it’s about the reasons one might have for opposing it. The Fang’d and Hateful Shade of Reagan hangs over the conversation - in fact, now that I think of it, this is the adjunct to Godwin’s Law. Just as the invocation of Hitler in a usenet flamewar means the conversation has come to an end, the invocation of Reagan in defense of one’s anti-communism means you’ve just lost the case, because you’ve revealed yourself as an idiot from a strange alternate universe where Reagan is not a punchline.

Remember: some on the left in the 80s were seized with the Spirit of Nixon, and wanted nothing more than détente and rapprochement; they wanted endless negotiations that would codify the precise number, size, and destructive potential of the missiles aimed at our cities. If we all agreed to have 27,293 missiles apiece, and we swapped ballet companies once a year, everything would be fine. For us, anyway. For those living on the other side of the wall, well, they had our warmest personal regards and best wishes. We had our system; they had theirs.

Which is like saying we fed our dogs, and they beat them and put them in kennels, but since we both have dogs we must celebrate our common bond.

The Anti-Communists didn’t buy it; they wanted to confront Communism and defeat it. They kept pointing out the nature of the Communist regimes, and insisting that everything the nutball left said was metaphorically true of the West was factually true of the Communists, and more so. This was the debate in the 80s, and it’s mostly forgotten today. Those who have suspicions and antipathy towards Communism in 2003 are viewed with the same bemusement you’d extend towards someone who runs a website devoted to bringing back "WKRP in Cincinnati." They’re an intellectual Disco Stu.

Nowadays, if you point out that someone’s a Communist, you might well be accused of - dum dum DUMMMM - McCarthyism. The term has morphed from its original meaning. It no longer means falsely accusing someone of being a Communist. It now includes correctly identifying someone as a Communist, or ascribing a taint to someone because they don’t reject the Communists in their midst. (I’ll admit there’s a significant difference between the two.)

But let’s leave this increasingly insupportable series of generalizations, and return to the point. Do reporters suppress the nature of ANSWER / ACTION because they don’t want to embarrass the movement? No. Do they secretly admire the ANSWER / ACTION / WWP positions on China, North Korea, and other dictatorships? Of course not. (Cuba is another story.) Are they inclined to wonder who’s behind the rallies? No. NeoNazis, Klansmen, Separatists, Militias, the Promise Keepers - these words make reporters’ antennae quiver. “Communist” does not. It’s an institutional blindspot, and if you doubt it, consider this:

A fashion designer premiers a line of clothes emblazoned with the hammer-and-sickle. The story runs in the variety section; there are quotes from fashionistas about retro iconography, the kitschy appeal of Socialist Realist art, and nostalgia for the stability of a binary, pre-terrorist world. The story would have the tone of a worldly cultured person peering through a monocle at a butterfly whose wings were amusingly deformed.

Now imagine that a fashion designer splatters swastikas all over the Spring Line. Would the items be reviewed with the same bemused detachment?

The hammer and sickle don’t evoke the same reaction in the average journalist as the swastika - and that’s the problem. Bias isn’t a sin, if you ask me. But indifference is.
I’ve had problems with my Molehill Transmogrifier all night; it only seems capable of turning them into buttes, not towering ranges of indignation . . . Let me give it the old Fonzie slap -

Ah. There. Perfect. The dials go all the way up to “Mountain” again. Let’s begin:

Let’s say I’m the casting director for a movie, and they ask for a quintessential middle-aged, past-his-prime yet seasoned and strong Rugged American Guy. He should look like a fellow who knows his way around a shooting iron, but he doesn’t take them out every night and talk to them. They're tools; they have their own severe beauty, but you'd best not get carried away with how big you think they make you feel. He’s comfortable driving a pickup - not one of those fancy models with the oversized cab and a clean bin liner, but a classic late 60s model that looked just like the one his daddy bought the year he died. (The man loved that truck, took it to the doctor’s twice a week, and damn near demanded they use it as his hearse.) He’s the sort of man who used to drink, and frankly we didn’t mind him so much when he did - his tales got taller, his grin came quicker, and damned if he didn’t shoot pool a little better between Shiners number 4 and 5. Worse thing that would happen after one two many, well, he’d put all his dimes in the jukebox and play Patsy Cline tunes. One day he just stopped, and he never said why, and no one asked.

There are millions of guys like him, but he seems unique - maybe it’s the hint of rue in his weathered face, the slight hitch in his gait that suggests a greater pain he’ll never mention, or just the way he inhabits a certain style of American masculinity instead of wearing it like a rodeo clown outfit.

I’d punch the phone and shout: get me Ed Harris!

Ed. Ed, Ed, Ed. Speaking at the NARAL rally earlier this week, Ed Harris said:

"Being a man, I have got to say that we got this guy in the White House who thinks he is a man, who projects himself as a man because he has a certain masculinity. He's a good old boy, he used to drink, and he knows how to shoot a gun and how to drive a pickup truck. That is not the definition of a man, God dammit!" Harris said to wild applause.

I’m not here to debate abortion, or smite the fellow for speaking out - if he wants to be an advocate for his causes, fine. I’m not tired of actors speaking out; I will never tire of actors speaking out, because it provides the same amusement of watching dogs walk on their hind legs. The sight itself is hilarious, and it always ends with the performer falling over.

Harris’ words are half right. That’s not the only definition of being a man. There are several. I won’t go so far as to say that all men define masculinity in their own way, because frankly some guys just turn themselves into girlypuffs - they abhor any sort of aggression, they whine instead of assert, they yearn to nurture, and they are so exquisitely attuned to sexual correctness that whenever it seems as if they might have to open the door for a woman, they kneel down and pretend their shoes are untied. There's a difference between "men" and "masculinity" and while you might find distasteful the characteristics that define the latter, you have to admit they exist. Testosterone is a boon and a burden. I've no respect for men who think it's a curse, and spend their lives begging for absolution.

That said, I’m the wrong person to defend the archetype Harris is slamming. I’m not a gun guy, for example. (Although gun people don’t make me nervous at all. On the contrary.) I am not a guy who doesn’t drink. In fact I’m drinking right now, and enjoying every sweet, cold, golden drop. I am surely not a good old boy. Watching me interact with authentic good old boys is as painful as watching Al Gore dance to Fleetwood Mac, and because I inevitably use a word like “interact,” I get my ass kicked. Fisk-like, I know that I earned it. A man does not use the word “interact” within a hundred miles of the Alamo unless you are describing the automated kiosks at the Visitor’s Center. I like pickups, though. If it turns out that heaven consists entirely of sitting in the back of a pickup at a Comet drive-in at sunset, watching the stars assemble as the prairie slides into shadows, listening to the buzz of the fluorescent lights and the trickle of tinny old Hank songs from someone else’s AM radio, I wouldn’t be disappointed at all. It’s not necessarily my heaven, but it’s nothing close to hell.

Hell is an awards banquet. Your suit is too tight and the room is too hot and the speeches too long and the chicken too tough and everyone’s applauding stuff you find banal and self-serving.

But back to Ed. If he’d said that this archetype isn’t the sort of man NARAL needs, fine. If he’d said that this sort of man who’d say Hell No, Durleene, I ain’t drivin’ you to no scrapey-shop, fine. But he said that this isn’t what it means to be a man.

Sorry. Not every man knows his way around a shooting piece, but firearms are a manly art. Not every man has a tan on his left arm because it’s been hanging out the window of the pickup all summer, but hurtling a pickup down the long black line is a manly pleasure, by God. Drinking doesn’t make a man a man; not drinking doesn’t make a man a man. But a man who says “I am a drinker, but I’m not going to drink. Today.” - he’s exercising his will over his baser self, and that sort of discipline is surely a manly skill.

If we can work backwards, then, the only legitimate definition of masculinity would be a slump-shouldered Volvo-driving beaujolais-imbiber dropping off his wife at the Million Mom March and his daughter at Planned Parenthood, God dammit!

Which is ridiculous. In a way, Harris points out the fib you often find on his side of the aisle. The Diversity Lie. I’d construe diversity to mean all points, all views, all shades, all ages, but of course it doesn’t; it’s a construct as limited as the one it’s supposed to oppose. Instead of insisting that masculinity isn’t just pickup trucks and guns, they tell you it’s anything but. This plays well at awards banquets, but it makes people here in the vast middle swath roll their eyes. In essence, they’re saying that the ultimate definition of unfettered masculinity, the one that arises when you let the testosterone flow as it pleases, is the most inaccurate definition.

It’s hilarious that I’m defending this, since I’m the cooking / cleaning / toddler-nurturing nebbish made possible by a grant from the Information Age. My daughter will never see me march off to work to slay dragons; that’s Mommy’s job. She sees me at the kitchen table every morning scowling at my computer. I taught her how to use the Internet the other day, how to move the mouse and click on the blue words to make the screen change, and now she thinks that’s all I do: click on links. She said as much on the phone to Mommy this morning. Mommy asked what Daddy was doing. “Daddy’s clicking,” she said. Sums it up. So it’s quite possible that I’m defending the old ‘Murcan archetype because I so clearly fail to inhabit its big boots, and I hope its mystique and power rubs off on me. Ever see “High Plains Drifter”? It had this midget who followed Clint Eastwood around and fed off the emanations of the Stranger’s odd power. Why, Clint even gave him a badge.

Maybe that’s my problem, but I doubt it. (Of course, I would.) Or maybe, having inherited a world built by the old archetypical men - a world that allowed me freedom and luxury like they never had - I don’t feel comfortable spitting on the Spartans.

My wife was watching American Idol tonight. I don’t watch it. Oh, I stand there by the sofa, observing it, and I leave during the commercial breaks and return when the show resumes, but I don’t sit down and watch it. They had the usual parade of wannabees, skanks, drag queens, diva and divos, most of whom warbled in that ghastly modern fashion: zero to sixty in the first two bars. It never occurs to these people that they could vault to the top of the line by underselling a song with some Crosby-style crooning, or nail a tune with some old-style Hollywood cheer. As I may have mentioned, I watched “Singin’ in the Rain” the other night. (I do not like musicals in general, but I love “Singin’ in the Rain” for a hundred reasons.) Gene Kelly wasn't a great singer, but he sells “Lullaby of Broadway” like a starving coal-vendor in Newcastle. You’re going to buy this song, you are. And you do. Clear, cheerful, unwavering tone; no quavering drama, no histrionics, no scrunch-faced pain. He just sings and grins and that’s more than enough.

There was one singer who impressed me - a little too much emoting, but he was pretty good. Big guy, too. Six feet and change, buzz cut, straight shoulders. He qualified for the next round. They ran his name and story at the bottom of the screen, and we learned that this guy is a Marine. They showed him bursting out of the audition hall, and shouting HOOYAH!

Then he called his sister.

I hope he wins. I’d guess that he knows his way around a firearm, and has spent some time in a pickup; one might call him a good old boy. I imagine he gets some ribbing from fellow Marines. I imagine they’ll all be rooting for him to win, too - and that is a quintessentially American definition of masculinity. We’re so secure with the basic facts that we can play around with the details to our hearts’ content. He might just be the first Marine whose recording career will begin after he has secured a SCUD launching outpost, and that is simply one of the many definitions of what it means to be a man. God dammit!

If they make a movie, and Ed Harris plays his proud father . . . yeah, I’ll rent it. What can I say? I like the guy. He brought Tom Hanks home from the moon. That has to count for something.
This afternoon Gnat and I went to investigate a preschool for next fall. She needs other kids; she needs peers. She needs someone who understands the need to spend forty minutes putting sand in a bucket. Like every other preschool we’ve examined, this one was located in a church’s Sunday School wing - a sturdy postwar addition made of painted cinderblocks, paved with linoleum whose hues have come in and out of fashion three times. The tables were covered with the same faux wood I remember from grade school; you could write on it and erase it with spit. I enter these rooms and I’m seven again.

Downstairs there’s a playroom, known as the Large Muscle Room. That seems to be a term preferred by Child Care Experts, and like all terms handed down from the olympian heights it hurts the ear and bores the tongue. The staff calls it “the monkey room,” which fits perfectly. (I noticed also that there were pictures from a Halloween party, which cheered me - Gnat’s current once-a-week preschool had only Orange and Black Day. It’s run by the city. This preschool is run by Baptists. Go figure.) The kids were playing inside today, because the rules stipulate - are you ready? - that when the temps dip below zero, everyone goes inside.

That is a Minnesota preschool.

The basement is the old Fellowship Hall for the church, and it was a treasure trove of unmolested 1920s details. The light fixtures were original. The tile, the plates on the light switches, the door handles, the ancient ceramic sockets - beneath the layers of paint you could see the domestic vernacular of the 20s. Urban church basements, I swear, are like Tut’s tomb for this sort of stuff. There was one sad toy that caught my eye, a wooden bench on which someone had stuck an old steering wheel. But what a wheel: big as a Brobdignagian bagel, seafoam green with a chrome horn ring, and a klaxon knob that could only come from the fifties. It was cracked and busted and it looked like junk, but it made you wish you could have some sort of Dead-Zone skill that allowed you to grab it tight and download all the stories it contained. It would come in a torrent you could hardly parse - HAMBURGER/ LITTLERICHARD/ FORMOSA/ MARLBORO/BRA/SHAME/KOREA/ and then you’d wrest your hands from the wheels, dazed and panting.

This wheel was once the pride of Detroit design; now it wobbles on a pole in a church basement ignored by screeching kids. It gave the room a sad Mad Max vibe, to be honest.

We went upstairs, and met some other staff members. One of them named me by name, and I thought at first it was someone who recognized me from here or there, but then I knew her, and I was stunned. I mean, hammer-to-the-forebrain stunned:

In 1987, I’m doing talk radio with this nine-foot-tall egomaniacal bodybuilder, named Geoff Charles. We worked out at the same gym. Imagine a Libertarian DuffMan: that was Charles. He was a fan of an all-female rock and roll band, and when we did a remote from Lake Phalen in St. Paul; this band did the bumper music. (In swimsuits.) They were incredible; just ripped it up. They did local clubs, too, and I made a point of seeing their shows whenever possible. Did a big story on them for the Pioneer-Press Dispatch when I got a good day job. As with most bands, it all came to naught; they put out one great raw record, toured, split. The lead singer went on to write some fine, fine rock journalism for a local weekly, and she had a side project that resulted in a CD in the late nineties; talk to people who knew the scene, as they say, and they’d recognize the name right away. I hadn’t seen her in years. And here she was: three kids! In this very preschool!

And here I am with my little sprout. Fifteen years.

And now I'm on hold, waiting to go on the radio with a guy I knew from that very era, an old radio guy who's now a blogger. This is the virtue of staying in one place for a while - some days your past is your present - and you None; it’s been a long week, and all I really have to give you is a slew of new Gnat. Enjoy the splash page, click on latest image - there are three.When you're done:

This guy is the radio host. And these are the Jeffies! I accept my statuette with gratitude.

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