Started with this:

The blizzard had passed, but the snow was conjuring dervishes everywhere. A few hours in the sky later, this:

Yes, we spent the week of Christmas in Arizona, where it wasn’t exactly hot, and I most certainly had a cold. It struck on the plane, spent a day settling in, then started pounding my head on day three, when I just sat in the guest house and read. I would rather have been home sick, because I have all of my toys there, but it was miserably cold and snowy back in Minnesota – the day we left a storm laid down five inches of snow then whipped it around with malice and glee, and I was surprised the plane left on time. I fell asleep during de-icing, woke somewhat when we took off, then dozed in the back until we hit turbulence. Bumped around for a half an hour, the plane sounding like a bag of candlesticks in an earthquake.

 I amused myself by watching the World Perry Mason Episode I’d ever seen; the acting was dreadful, and the plot made “The Big Sleep” look like an episode of Dora the Explorer. (It's this one, if you're curious.) I put on headphones and listened to Christmas music. It was close as I’d gotten to the sentiments of the season so far. It had eluded me this year, but all it took was the Goodyear 1965 album, the most well-arranged Christmas record ever recorded, and I was a kid again, warm and secure and excited, back in the middle of endless December, every day more delicious than the last.

Landed, was delivered unto the in-law’s house, and began our six days in the Valley of the Sun.

As is usual for a vacation, you lose track of the days; they don’t matter. The days are marked by the things you have to do. It’s kid-playday, followed by dinner-over-here day, then dinner-over-there day, and since you can’t really taste anything it’s all a long slog. You can’t shake hands with anyone because of the cold, and when explain your withdrawn mitt people reel back a bit, quite sensibly. It’s shaking hands that gave you the cold in the first place. One of these days a really bad fungoo will kill that tradition, just as the plague ended the habit of exchanging flea-infested combs.

We went to see my niece perform in “Annie,” a musical I had heretofore avoided successfully, concerned that it would contain large quantities of moppets, and sure enough it was infested with them. That “Hard-Knock Life” tune is very odd. (Wonder how many people in the audience wondered why they were playing a Jay-Z song.) It’s a seventies view of the 30s, with all the usual tropes – Hoover caused the Depression, FDR saved us with the New Deal. In fact it ends with a song about getting a New Deal for Christmas, and I’ll give the theater credit for one thing – even though it was an all-kids production, when FDR was wheeled out for the final act, he had a cigarette in a holder. 

Annie was played by my niece, and she did a lovely job. The family dog, Bailey,  played Sandy, which was very cute. Man, dogs have it good in the West. They lead such interesting lives.

Spent Monday just lounging around, ill, nose full of coagulated cement, throat harsh and raw. Tuesday I rallied and made it to Fashion Square, a sprawling mall in Scottsdale that does its best to hide its old bones – 40 years old, updated, but cursed with the ad-hoc layout that afflicts sprawling old mall  that add one wing after the other. I found nothing I wanted. Amazing, really, but I’m sure that says something about me, but I entered Macy’s, and saw miles of glitter and shiny things and perfumes and blouses and just reeled back like Frankenstein confronted with fire. Most of the other shops offered shoes and purses, or purses, or shoes only, so I wandered around until I found a Johnny Rockets, the beacon of ersatz retro comforts. Took a stool and ordered some coffee – tempted, as always, to bark for jake, ink-style – and ate a meal reading an article on Bagehot’s theories of markets in the Weekly Standard, feeling gosh-darn proud of myself that I knew how to pronounce Bagehot. The opportunity never arises to speak it correctly, and if it does, well, either the person to whom you are speaking knows the correct pronunciation and isn’t impressed because he’s just as much of a pretentious ass as you are, or he doesn’t know and doesn’t care.

An Australian man sat down next to me, and we had a talk about the weather. (We’re both for it.) Then I wandered outside, feeling a bit like a dispossessed soul – I love to walk in cities, I love nothing more than to walk in cities, but Scottsdale gives off that GET A HORSE vibe towards pedestrians. Wandered along the canal, where the new retail complex looks almost like a snapshot of Pompeii before Vesuvius, all the stores shiny and bright and pricey and empty. I have no pity, alas; when you see a big store lavishly appointed with spotlights and glass counters, and they’re selling sneakers, and the goods are all spaced about a yard apart to make them seem even more special, you are reminded of the words of Bart Simpson: we need another Vietnam to thin out their herd.

An inept analogy – unless you think the US was defeated in SE Asia by volcanic eruptions – and I’m not one of those people who revels in retail schaudenfreud, happy to see upscale vendors brought low. I would be happy if they all made money unto the end of days, if that’s how people wish to spend their hard-earned money – and even if I suspect it’s their easy-borrowed money, well, live and let live, spend and let spend. If the development by the canal flourished and did well, great. When it comes to these projects predicated on the sincere, devout belief that people will leave their cars and stroll around and peer in windows and have Genuine Urban Experiences, I would be thrilled if they all worked, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Putting up the shops next to the gigantic mall seems almost suicidal.

It goes without saying that Phoenix believes it will revitalize its downtown with light rail, too. Well, good luck with that.

One evening we attended a showing of “The Story of Despereaux who is not like Ratatouille At All,” a CGI movie based on a beloved children’s book by a Mpls author. I went in with no expectations, and was just happy to be sitting in a nice theater looking at gorgeous things, so I was a bit disappointed that I was a bit disappointed. The backgrounds, the lighting, the set design – lovely. The characters were less engaging – here’s a troll-person from Shrek, here’s the thin cadaverous bad guy from Ratatouille, here’s a stylized human from something-or-other, and here’s a really, really badly done cat. The story stalled from time to time, and I was in the mood for a leisurely tale, so that can’t be good. Natalie liked it, but said it wasn’t anywhere as good as the previous rodent-themed movie, and said “It was odd how they cared so much about soup.” My feelings exactly. 

On the way out I paused at a lobby exhibit devoted to the theater that previously occupied the location: the Cine-Capri. It was a shrine, really - pieces of stained glass, scraps of carpet, swatches of the curtains. Ancient relics - and they dated from 1966. I love Phoenix, but if I'd grown up there I think I would have gone mad watching the changes chew up the history. It was the size of Fargo before World War 2

Christmas Eve I spent in the casita writing a column. At five we went to my mother-in-law’s for dinner; a Boston-based portion of my wife’s family had flown in, and we all caught up. I was seated next to the youngest male in the sister-in-law’s cohort, a high school kid I knew when he was still a theoretical concept. (The oldest kid is now pre-med, and I remember when I baby-sat for him one night – I rigged up a rope line for his Batman figurine between the upper and lower patios of our DC townhouse. Didn’t bring it up, because that gets you the pity-nod. Sure, Unc, I remember.) I figured it was safe to ask the kid if he was playing any good games, and I mimed thumbing a console. He said “Call of Duty 5” with a hint of wariness, and I nodded and said I was still on Call of Duty 4. AAHH-OOHGAH! GEEK UNCLE! He wanted to know if I’d played the Ukranian sniper level yet, and when we got talking about it I realized he didn’t know that it was set in Pripyat, the city by Chernobyl.

“It’s based on real buildings. You know the empty swimming pool? Near the end? With the dogs?” He nodded: damned dogs. “Google around, and you’ll find pictures of that place for real." (I spoke in red and underlined my words as I said them.) "The ferris wheel where you’re evacuated is a real place, too.” We both agreed that defending the stuck tank was really hard, because you didn’t know what you were supposed to do.

As it happens, a cousin at the house where we stayed got the game for Christmas, so I was able to impart much wisdom.

And so on. Another good trip, aside from the fungoo and the rain. The endless rain. The constant rain.  Come Friday morning we got back on the plane and sped home. I watched a better Perry Mason. This one had a young Liam Neeson:

Actually, it's this guy:

Bobby Troup, who of course was also on "Emergency" with his wife Julie London. He played a beatnik in the Mason episode, which lead to a surreal conclusion to the episode. There was no drier, more sardonic cop on TV than Tragg, which makes this all the more bizarre.






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