The penultimate AZ entry. Lord knows what I’ll do for Friday.

As usual, I’ve been asked to solve a few technical problems while here. As I’ve long said: the key to making people think you know a lot about things is to know just a little bit more about how things work. Most problems can be solved within the parameters of your capabilities,  but you can’t make it look easy if you want to keep your reputation. An exaggerated explanation makes you look better – but be warned; it may inflate opinions about your actual skills.

Problem: wireless internet isn’t working.
Diagnosis: may have something to do with the WIRELESS button in the “off” position.
Solution: depress button.
Explanation designed to burnish reputation: “there was a problem connecting to the router.”

Problem: PSP cannot get internet access at Grandma’s house.
Diagnosis: (after a minute of button mashing) PSP isn’t looking for Grandma’s network; it is looking the network at home.
Solution: make it look for Grandma’s network whether it wants to or not.
Explanation designed to burnish reputation: “needed to set up an access point for this network.”

Problem: father-in-law’s new HiDef set doesn’t look hi-deffy enough, and the picture’s too small.
Diagnosis: aspect ratio and-or input selection may be off.
Solution: change input selection from “composite” to “component.”
Explanation designed to burnish reputation: none needed, by this time.

Problem: other houseguest’s new RAZR phone just plain dang doesn’t work.
Diagnosis: SIM card needs reseating. Or doesn’t; we’ll just give that a try.
Solution: produce a small tweezers from one’s Swiss Army Knife; fiddle around while looking intently at the phone. For extra credit: ask owner of phone which song she’d like as a ringtone; find midi version on web in seconds; upload to phone via Bluetooth, earning godhood status. Bonus points: get the Marine anthem for her husband’s ring tone. Ascendeth unto heaven.

The girls are doing a play. Last year it was Narnia; the entire series of books was compressed into one long play, with each girl doing about 17 roles. This year Gnat suggested they do “A Christmas Carol,” so Hannah, the clever older girl, wrote a script and some songs and began auditions. Everyone got a part. Even the dogs.  But a day into the production, CRISIS AND DRAMA: The young man slated to play Scrooge backed out, citing a previous engagement with his PSP, so I was cast as the Replacement Ebeneezer.

We had three practices, which were like herdinedg cats with low-voltage stun guns. In the meantime people drift off here and there on errands, and since I neither golf nor shop for shoes, I have been co-watching the kids with the other houseguest, and working on The Novel. It’s clicking into place; had a few ah-hahs in the shower today, if you know what I mean, and one was particularly rewarding; it assembled backstory, opportunity, and motive in one nice little package, and gave me the shocker for the Difficult Middle that always plagues a book. As I said a while back, this book has been sitting in the back of my head for some time, and now that I’m actually writing, it seems anxious to tell itself.

The play went well. I was sufficiently scroogey, the girls were delightful, and the dogs did not move their bowels during the performance, which is all you require of extras. The audience – a dozen relatives  - demanded the cast return for several bows, and as the notices no doubt will say tomorrow, Play Enjoyed By All. 

In the evening everyone went to a movie, but I had a pounding headache that would not profit from a Ben Stiller film in which things blow up or fall down, so I wandered around the mall. It was a “lifestyle center,” which meant it had no roof. These places are touted as the future of retail, if not the present, and I can see why; unlike the enclosed regional mall, they seem to pose less of an investment for the shopper. You go to a mall, you’re committed. You’d better do something there. But a lifestyle center is much more seductive, possibly because the definition between outside and inside is blurred. You don’t really enter it or leave it, and in this sense it seems much more like traditional downtowns. I like them. I feel as though I’m floating through a make-believe world unmoored from history or culture, at least until I make it to the Barnes and Noble, but I like them. This night, however, was cold and wet. Everyone scurried from awning to store – except the Youts, who were too cool to exhibit haste in any form. I waited for my party under an umbrella and watched the Youts, and what an unpleasant batch of rats and tramps they were, too. Really: the girls were all forty pounds of plaster poured into a gallon Ziploc bag and topped with crocheted hats (! In 2006?) and their dates were usually nasty little  hatchet-faced characters you’d expect to find coughing up blood in an abandoned Times Square tenement in 1967. Every so often your impression of America coincides exactly with the caricature of its worst critics, and as I looked into the Cold Stone Creamery, watching a dozen people of generous girth staring blankly out the window as they lapped at ice-cream cones the size of the Olympic torch, I felt  . . . alone.

The next day we went to dinner with my father-in-law and his lovely wife. Gnat was miserable about the prospect, since it would be a Fancy Place in which no fun could be had and the meal consisted of snails served by contemptuous butlers. Or so she seemed to think. When I told her it was the Olive Garden she perked right up. The place was packed, as it always is, everywhere, anytime. You could built 9000 more Macaroni Grills and space them every seventeen yards and the line would go out the door. I had a pasta dish that would have fed Napoleon’s army, but only the portion in retreat from Moscow; let’s not exaggerate. The meatballs were large as well; drill three holes and they’d belong in a bowling alley. It was good and filling and the wine was red and agreeably coarse. Conversation was grand and Gnat enjoyed herself as well. Thus ended the last night.

The plane didn’t leave until seven, so we had another day to enjoy. Took a walk around the neighborhood, which required dashing across a golf course; chased after the dogs, who lit out for the territories when the door was left open and were a minute from getting pancaked on Shea Blvd. when I finally brought one to heel with some extreme Alpha Dog vocalizations. We packed and left for the airport at 5. After checking the bags we had a meal in the terminal, which had a fine selection of restaurants – a Mexican joint served up a green chili burrito that was identical to the ones I got at Tonto’s Taco Shop in Dinkytown in 1978. With an hour left before the plane departed, we wandered to our gate . .

 . . . and in retrospect, I see the problem. In Minneapolis, you have to pass through security before you get to the restaurants. Not at Sky Harbor. Thus the false sense of time enow. Upon turning the corner I saw that the line was rather long. And it folded back on itself. Six times. I looked at my watch: no way. Wasn’t going to happen. We’ll never make it. I’ve never missed a flight before – it’s a personal nightmare, the idea of missing the thing that takes you home. What next? Whatever would you do? As we all know, all planes are booked to 140% of capacity into the far reaches of the foreseeable future. The mail will pile up! The paper will start again! We made it past the first turn in seven minutes, and I computed the odds again: No way. We’;; never make it. I checked the boarding pass; the plane took passengers at 6:46, which meant it probably shut the doors fifteen minutes later and posted guards in the jetway way to shoot the stragglers.

 People shuffled along, resigned, compliant. One lass chattered into a celllphone about her flight – same as ours. She was two rows over. Hopeless, poor dear. A nice cheerful airport guy gave a long loud speech about what we should do when we got to the security line, and while it was nice information – shoes off? You don’t say! – I wish he’d been checking IDs, since that was the apparent bottleneck. They had three people checking IDs, and room for a fourth. Extra special scrutiny was applied to everyone’s application for passage, too. These guys made the bouncers controlling access to a hot hip nightclub look like tollbooth operators. I suppose I should have been reassured, but if I’d shown up with a legitimate driver’s license that said Mohammed Atta and my ticket said Mohammed Atta, I would have been waved on the plane.

“We’re going to miss the plane,” I said to my wife.

“Shut up,” she consoled. (I’m paraphrasing.)

7:00: we made it to the interrogation stand. Please, sir, here are my papers. Let us through. I only want a new life for my child.  He looked us up and down slowly, amused we expected him to believe in this state called "Minnesota" - sure, pal, it's right between Syldavia and Taxachussets. He asked my daughter to repeat her name to verify that she was indeed a six-year old and not some animatronic explosive device, then let us pass. I think I ripped off most of my clothes and threw them into the bin. Computer in one bin. Camcorder in another bin. Shoes here, belt there, dump pockets, pass through the detector with that careful exaggerated floating-slowness you assume, then scoop it all up and RUN. RUN. I told my family I’d either meet them at the gate or in heaven, and O-J’d it to Gate 7. I’d like to thank the people who saw me coming and did not get out of the way. That’s the way you do it. Don’t move. Let me decide how to get around you. You go left just as I’m juking in the same direction, it’s Concussion City, population two. I made it to the gate as they were closing the door, and they agreed to wait for my wife and child, probably because I had that look in my eye that said I am fully prepared to throw up a green chili burrito about now, so BACK OFF. Stow gear sit down strap in wheels up, and we’re off.

Last year we arrived home from sunny Arizona to find the city smothered in a foot of fresh snow. It was cruel, but undeniably lovely. This year we returned from rainy cool Arizona to rainy cool Minnesota, and it felt fresh and welcome. The snow came the next day, and midnight New Year’s Eve was hushed and lovely.

I thought 2006 was going to be a year of change, but it wasn’t. I think 2007, in the end, will be a year like the one just passed. Unless I lose the last job I’ll ever have, of course, and every syllable I write has to earn me money. The Bleat began in February 1997 as the apotheosis of my underemployed period. I’d hate to celebrate the 10th anniversary with a signoff.

On the other hand, look at it this way: just wrote 1800 words about a frickin' family vacation. Who the hell would buy that?

We'll bungie off that bridge when we come to it.