Oh. great. Took a small nap after supper, as usual. Most necessary. Most needed. I’d worked late, got up too early, and had a trying morning with Gnat. I figured I’d get in 22 minutes then rise, renewed. When I finally woke and looked at the clock, I’d been asleep for one hour and 25 minutes. It was ten to eight. On most normal nights I like to have a beer around eight.

So? my wife said when I explained the dilemma. I figured you needed the rest, so I let you sleep.

Dang, woman; my sleepin’s cuttin’ into my drinkin’.

This is going to be a long night. I am now drinking the coffee directly from the carafe, attempting to wake up. Expect wild unedited throw-it-up-on-the-web screedishness, because I'm not in a placid mood

Big article in the Strib business section today - billboard ads that go out of their way to be edgy. Money quote: “If you think diarrhea jokes are a bad way to sell Mexican food, you probably won’t be stopping to eat at Chino Latino. And that’s fine with them.” See, they’re the “leading practitioner of edgy advertising. If you don’t get the joke, then they don’t want your business.”

Oh, I get the joke. It’s just not that funny. Of the many aren’t-we-naughty! billboards Chino Latino put up, two stood out: one said they had three spice levels. Hot, Very Hot, and Excuse Me I Have to Go to the Bathroom. Ha ha! We put so much pepper in the food you will spray your entree from your hindquarters before you are finished! Ha ha! The second was for the Tio Pepe Taco, or some such item, and it was described simply as “Runs South of the Border.” I remember looking up at that billboard, and thinking this was like promising that they only served undercooked chicken. No thanks.

But it's not just a sigh / eyeroll / whatever thing. At some point in your life you have the Ward or June Cleaver Moment - you see something that makes you realize a line has been crossed, a line you never thought about before. In this case, it’s the line that separates the previous standards of public discourse from the new standards, which permit snarky hip remarks about colonic detonations.

And if you don’t like it, you’re the prude. Heard that before? You’re square, dad. You’re, like, L-7. You’re, like, some King Victoria dude or something. It’s the old battle, the old war, and probably one of the reasons I get tagged as a reactionary who spends his night lighting candles in front of a picture of Eisenhower while I pick the gravel out of my knuckles. Because I think we’re better off without having big billboards that make cutesy jokes about getting hectic blurts from spicy food. I’m the problem. I need to shut up. And you, and you, and you over there rolling your eyes at this little fit of pique? When the Italian place has a big ad that says “Bring your mom in - she hasn’t seen this much red sauce since menopause,” tell me why you think that crosses the line.

I wouldn’t waste the pixels on this drivel had it not been for this thumb-in-the-eye quote from the holding company’s president, Phil Roberts. His response to people who don’t like the ads: “he’s probably wound too tight to eat there. Go to Applebee’s.”

Phil? Let me put this gently. Lurid billboards at major intersections that promise a horrid, gut-shuddering blurt of liqueous fecal matter do not make me want to visit your restaurant. I know it’s edgy; I know it flatters your target audience, which would seem to be Minneapolis hipsters whose idea of a good night on the town is being condescended to by the entire waitstaff, from the maitre d’ who hates you for doing something so OBVIOUS as coming to Chino Latino, to the dishwasher who's tempted to lob a gob of sputum at you because your purse is a Target knockoff of a Prada original. I get it. And it's stupid. You have to know how declasse this is. Picture yourself making a pitch to the St. Regis Hotel managers in New York; they're considering putting in a Cuban cafe, and want to know how you'd craft the ad campaign."Simple! Food so smokin' hot it'll come out of your butt before the waiter brings back the Amex receipt!" Blank, dead, stunned looks. "Well, it worked in Minneapolis."

I was actually thinking about that ad campaign a few days ago. The Strib ran a Times article about the power of the middle-market retailers to dumb-down American culture, make it conform to their god-bothering socially reactionary image. If it weren’t for Wal-Mart, you see, Michael Moore’s book would have been #1 on the bestseller list -

Uh, start again. If it weren’t for Wal-Mart, everyone would be buying Karen Finley exfoliating chocolate-sauce and listening to CDs that set dialogue from “The Vagina Monologues” to the sounds of industrial machinery and Peruvian flutes. Because culture is imposed, not chosen. Right? People stand in the Wal-Mart book department, crying out for Al Franken
, but all they see is the 1,394th entry in the "Left Behind" series, so they buy it. In fact they buy six copies.

“With the chain’s power,” says the article, “has come criticism from authors, musicians and civil liberties groups who argue that the stores are in effect censoring and homogenizing popular culture.”

There’s an interesting case to be made for the effect of these mass-market stores, but it’s not going to be made by these hysterical gibbons flinging BS from the think-tank ramparts. If “not buying something” is “in effect, censoring” then I have spent my entire life silencing the right of Adam Sandler to speak his mind. And would someone please explain to me why “civil liberties” groups are spending their time worrying about the homogenization of popular culture? I’d offer that American society provides so many opportunities for expression that “civil liberties” groups are reduced to complaining that the failure of Wal-Mart greeters to hand out free copies of Phuq U’s latest CD is the equivalent of the National Guard arresting Molly Ivins and confiscating her typewriters. Yuh know whut, laidy? Turns out Molly Ivins cain’t say that! Hyuk.

Of course, I am compromised here. Target bought a lot of my books. Is the Gallery a homogenizing influence? I don’t think so. In fact I’m not even sure what that means. The paragraph continues: “The mass merchandizers and wholesale clubs typically carry an assortment of fewer than 2,000 books, videos or albums, and they are ruthless about returning the goods if they fail to meet a threshold of weekly sales.”

Do you understand the ramifications? Unpopular merchandise is replaced with new merchandise that might sell better! In a related story, corner newsstands routinely return unsold newspapers at the end of the day!

What amused me was the phrase “fewer than 2,000 books, videos or albums.” I’m thinking again back to my youth in Fargo, a city of 50,000 or so. Videos, of course, did not exist. Albums could be had at a various places; Woolworth’s always had a cutout bin, and they sold records at the Ben Franklin and Johnson’s Drug Store, too. For anything exotic or imported you had to go to Minneapolis. As for books, you could get the popular hardcovers at the department stores, but they had a thin selection. Books were sold mostly on wire racks in drug stores and supermarkets. Paperbacks. what I mean to say is that I don’t think there were 2,000 books and albums for sale in the entire city of 50,000 people.

Maybe I’m off a bit, but you get the point. And yet I did not feel underprovided. There was the library. There was even a Bookmobile, which drove around town and brought books to such remote locations as 24th av. North. Now there's Amazon. What's the problem?

I’ll agree that Wal-Mart’s decision not to stock some lad mags may be overwrought. But you know . . . I do not look forward to the day when I’m standing in line at the grocery store with Gnat, and she points to Cosmo, and wants to know exactly what it means to have sex so hot his nose hairs will catch fire. Again, back to my youth - nearly every convenience store in the 70s in NoDak had a dozen skin mags. But the covers were discrete, or the mags were placed behind the counter. And everything else seemed rather tame, which is to say as normal and boring as ordinary life. There was just enough residual puritanism in the culture to place these mags off to one side, and just enough liberty to say what the heck, sell ‘em. I’m not one of those grim stern burn-the-pr0n sorts; nor do I spend hours poring over the Victoria’s Secret catalogs that arrive every other day, whispering harlot. Harlot! I’m your basic Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy! kind of guy. I curse. I’m about as prudish as a Medici pope. I’m a bad Lutheran. But: I know that there’s the private sphere of adults, and the public sphere of everyone, and stone me if you must but I think a certain amount of vestigial modesty and - gasp - hypocrisy should inform the latter. Even if it doesn’t prevail, it ought to be part of the argument, and not in the passing sense of noting how sophisticated we are that we can honor our hypocricies and ignore them simultaneously. I have a daughter, and I want her to keep a certain sense of innocence as long as possible. Let the world reveal itself gradually, over time. At this point I’m not asking that the culture make my job easier. I’m just asking it not to make my job harder.

How does this work, specifically? Simple. If GQ wants to run a fashion spread where all the models wear thongs, fine. It’s my job to keep that issue on the top shelf. All I ask is that Old Navy not sell thongs for three year olds. If they want to put gigantic Calvin Klein underwear ads in Times Square, go right ahead - that’s what Times Square is for. But don’t put up big pictures of half-naked 13 year olds; that’s not what this culture is about. Yet. And don't make every square inch of America what Times Square used to be. Otherwise there's no point to having Times Square.

It’s a matter of the line. Some people don’t see it; some people see it and want to erase it. Some people think it’s up ahead, and some think it’s way behind us. It’s the people who hate the line that bother me, the ones who see any manifestation of prudence and reserve as a threat to free expression - or, worse yet, proof that the Friends of The Line want America to consist entirely of women in pinafores and men in suits eating meatloaf at Applebee’s. But only after they’ve said grace.

Ask yourself: A major retailer should be

a) resistant to the coarsening of public sphere
b) indifferent to it
c) assist the process

Few would argue C. Most would probably argue B, until they saw something that offended them. Everyone has that moment when they find their inner Cleaver; mine came a few years ago when Chino Latino put up the diarrhea billboards. THAT’S IT, I thought. I am now officially a dad.

Am I overreacting? Of course. But you know what I mean. You know where the line is. Every day you see it; every day you see something that steps over it an inch or two. And we shrug and sigh and move along in the line, buy our groceries and get on with the day. And we will all end up as old folks in a nursing home whose window looks out on a restaurant billboard that uses the F word.

If that bothers you, you’re wound too tight. Go eat at Chino Latino.