I smell like fire. Smoke, actually, but where there’s smoke, etc. I spent Tuesday night standing in front of a firepit down at the Triangle, where the neighborhood gathered for the first annual Halloween party. We’d steeled ourselves for inclement weather, since harsh winds and marrow-solidifying-temperatures were predicted. But the temps never dipped below the mid-20s, and the wind stayed down. Cold it was, but with underwoolens and gloves and a hearty fire it was more than tolerable. Three kinds of chili, a smoke machine, spooky lighting, homemade tombstones, packs of kids, gaggles of moms and knots of dads.
Not how I expected the day to end. It began poorly – Gnat woke me up an hour too early, shrieking I HAVE TO GO TO THE CLINIC! I HAVE A EAR INFECTION! ON HALLOWEEN! She did indeed. My wife was also under the weather, so she stayed home from work – took Gnat to the doctor while I tried to get two columns out the door. When they returned Gnat was already better; the throbbing needle no longer pierced her tender ear, and she felt well enough for the evening’s festivities. The school party was off, though, and that was a crushing disappointment. At least she didn’t say “it’s not fair.” You never know quite how to respond to that. You want them to believe that things are fair and good and happy and full of sparkly unicorn-dust, and your inner Drill Instructor wants to bark “Suck it up, half-pint! There’s a whole lot more unfairness rolling down the road and you’d best learn how to get out of its way! Now drop and give me 20!” It’s not fair has an impotent and powerless ring to it, and I’m glad she doesn’t say it much. I think I drummed “just my luck” out of her early on, too; that one’s poison. Luck is like Communism – believe in it if you like, just don’t base your actions on it.
I left the party a while ago, since I was tired of talking, but now it’s time to go help take things down. In the dark. And the cold. Back in a moment. Unless I am struck by a car crossing the street, in which case these will be my last words. So, uh . . . do take any wooden nickels! You can sell them on eBay for more than the face value.
Back. They were packing everything up, rolling up the police tape, knocking down the tables. Up the street a neighbor was raking leaves into the gutter – the sweepers come by tomorrow morning. (I know this because the city called our house and left a message on the machine. Nice.) It was the strangest sight of the evening, in a way – a lone figure scraping the ground with a rake in the dark. It’s the odd details that you never consider when you think of Halloween, since everyone goes for the obvious Supersize Guignol themes, but sometimes the scariest thing you’ll see is someone doing something normal in a way that just feels wrong. You pass a neighbor’s house at noon and he’s sitting on a lawn chair out front: normal. You pass the same house at 2 AM and he’s out there again: creepy.
The best part of Halloween always happens after the party’s over. This was the first Halloween in a long time that felt fun; usually I stand outside and shiver and listen to the radio and hand out candy to kids who are either tiny and adorable, or older and ungrateful, or really older and grabby and unpleasant. We had some of those at the party, since trick-or-treaters were directed down to the Triangle. It was a big group with tots and teens, led by a grim woman who yelled at everyone to STOP THAT, and they emptied out the bins. While they were helping themselves to the entirely of the supply the mother grabbed a bowl and spooned up some chili and took some lunch meats. Not a word to anyone. Some people.
Around the firepit there was a conversation about David Sedaris, who is funny, and everyone agreed he was funny. It struck me that he’s one of those cultural signifiers: you can tell an NPR listener by whether they respond positively to the words David Sedaris. I noted that as well-known as he might be, there are 100 times more people who don’t know who he is but do know who Dave Barry is.
“Who’s Dave Barry?” asked the tall charming orange-haired witch neighbor. She didn’t know. Which is fine, but I was a bit surprised; I thought everybody knew Dave. I thought it would be like not knowing who Jack Benny was in 1948, but of course the days of the monoculture are long gone, and the individual stratum of our culture have so many rewards of their own there’s no incentive to cross the streams, to put it in Ghostbuster terms. I try to inhabit as many streams as I can, though. There’s a range of narrowcast XM channels I visit just to absorb the room tone. There’s a NASCAR channel, for heaven’s sake. Auto racing on the radio would be like golf described via semaphore flags, but some people like it.
Of course, even in the monocultural days there was the sub- or counterculture, and I came across an example of that a few days ago on the usenet: a 1960 Mort Sahl monologue. He was famous for his acerbic comments on topical events at a time when most comics waddled out and peeled off shopworn japes (The same source also yielded an album with the ur-perfect 60s title, “Slappy White at the Playboy Club.”) I’d never heard Sahl; I’d only heard how great he was, how influential. It’s hard to judge the former from this distance, comedy being a perishable good, but it wasn’t very funny. It was different; you could sense how different it was, because it had a jangly hopped-up energy at odds with most of the other products of the era. It had an insider vibe: those of us in the room are the smart ones, and everyone else – including that blockhead mayor of LA who doesn’t think the atom bomb tests have produced climate change – are idiots, okay, and so let me tell you about my trip with Stan Kenton. He talks about Kenton a lot, as though they occupied the same hipster plane. Sorry, Charlie: comics are to musicians as tailors are to tapestry weavers.
He reminded me of a local talk show host, Bob Davis, who has the same manic tempo and amused appreciation for the absurdities of his intellectual opponents. The differences? Bob is smarter, quicker, cleverer, more adept at whittling the argument down to the nub, funnier, and he does it three hours a day. In the olden times a Mort Sahl album must have come down like tablets from the mount, once or twice a year at best. He probably could have done radio as well, but it wouldn’t have been the same – some guys need to feel the laughter as well as hear it; they need the zing they get from a room running on their frequency, and radio does not provide that feedback. You have to provide that yourself.
Anyway. What struck me was the smirky cynicism of it all, which sounded – to use a term I seem to be using a lot – rather adolescent.
At one point he recounts a stay in a hotel and watching the TV, which was a set made by a company that had 23% stake in the hotel chain, and he tossed it off with a knowing mirthless laugh: the fix is in everywhere, pal. Because I guess in Sahl land there should have been a wall of separation between TV manufacturers and hotel chains. It’s all designed to sell, sell, sell, and make you buy, buy, buy! Which is why all Sahl shows were unadvertised and free to the public, I guess.
As to the John Kerry flap: I actually thought he was talking about President Bush. It had the ring of a joke he thought was ineffably clever. Everyone would get it, because everyone knows Bush is stupid. I can’t shake the feeling that’s what he really meant. He’s not so blind he couldn’t see how a joke poking fun at the Gomers in the Army would cause a stir, but he seems blind enough not to realize that the infinite subtleties of his wit might not be apparent to all. Anyway, I’m certainly in the minority on this one. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in the paper as he makes various campaign appearances; I expect the angle will be his “response to GOP attacks on his speech,” not the remarks themselves. The defense for that approach will be simple: by the time the story hit the press, the news cycle had moved on, and the attacks on the speech were more newsy than the speech itself.
They only publish once a day, after all.
New Fargo . . . later. Forgive me for the sloppy updates this week. I’ll be better. I promise. See you tomorrow.