FEBRUARY 1997 Part 1
 The standard Saturday guy's-day-out afternoon with the Giant Swede. First stop: Pet Food Warehouse, for Pet Food. It was adopt-a-dog day, and I had to be restrained from taking home several dozen dogs. IT's like open house day at the orphanage - the difference being, of course, they don't gas the children if no one adopts them. Some of the dogs were lazy old nerf-brains, most had enough puppy in their faces to give them a chance, but there were a few old happy hounds that just broke my heart; I can't imagine anyone adopting them when small cuddly unformed pups are right around the corner. One dog caught my eye - a Yoda-eared hellhound half the size of Jasper, comprised of about thirty different breeds. A stern and wiry bit of slapdash genetic engineering.

The adoption lady, however, was very picky about to whom she'd give the dog. It had to be someone with a yard, willing to spend time in training, no kids, and an interest in taking the dog to flyball classes. If you didn't meet the criteria, I had the feeling she'd gas the dog herself rather than let you have it. I understand how people get caught up in their role as a savior of the lost and unwanted, but I wanted to say lighten up, lady. It ain't a person.

I'd like to have an immense house in the far western suburbs, with a lake and enough room for five or six dogs. I think that's heaven: standing on the porch at sunset, shouting to the woods and having your pack bound out from the brush one mutt at a time. It's odd, really; until I got Jasper, I was indifferent to dogs. I expect it will be the same way when we finally have a kid. Damn well better be.

Odd skirmishes in the customer-clerk war today: the Clerks Strike Back. I told the Swede about yesterday's web entry, and the problems of attempted customer levity. We commiserated. Five minutes later at the computer store, he gets a clerk who tries to be funny - unheard of in this day. The Swede had asked if the Intellimouse worked with all Win95 programs, and the clerk had responded no, it actually makes the programs blow up. Or something like that. Another clerk slapped him in the head and told him to stop lying to customers.

An hour later I was at the grocery store. The check-out clerk (or "courtesy," as they are called on the intercom, as in "all courtesy up front," as though it's a courtesy to take my money) said "where's the headphones?"

I gaped. For two reasons: one, I usually wear headphones while I shop in the grocery store. There's generally something of interest on the radio, whereas there is nothing of interest on the store's PA system. If they played KSTP or Elvis Costello at high volume, I'd take off the headphones. In fact, if they played Pet Shop Boys people would probably shop quickly, with great style, hand over their money with a certain ironic weariness, and they'd be out of Crisco by five PM each day. But usually I'm listening to some conversation on the air before I shop, and I see no reason to quit just because I'm pawing through shrink-wrapped meat.

Reason #2: I've never seen this clerk before. I shop daily at this store, and nearly every face is familiar, yet he's an unknown - and he knows I always have headphones. I am suddenly certain that all the clerks have been talking about me, and that they call me Headphone Guy. This isn't paranoia. I put in enough years in the service industry to know that there is no greater bonding element between clerks than the discussion of the regular clientele.

"So what am I," I ask. "Headphone Boy? Headphone Guy? What?"

"Just wondered where they were," he grinned. "Okay, $2.23."

That didn't answer the question. Now ever time I walk in the store with headphones, and a clerk nods hello, I know what they're thinking: Headphone Boy. Maybe I should wheel in an old Victrola some day, stack up some shellac 45s and push it around the aisles as I shop. Or perhaps get those little ear-buds, and paint the cord to fit my flesh tone. If I think about it too much, I'll never go in the store again.



An evening at the theatah. Went to see "The Three Musketeers" at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, expecting - what? At best, swashbuckling with an arty touch; at worst, some sort of incomprehensible deconstruction of French nation-building myths. You never know. But it was superb, and I overcame my standard indifference towards live theater in the first five minutes. I don't like most theater because plays inevitably involve actors, a breed I never trust. Once in college I dated a young woman whose mother was on the board of directors for the Guthrie theater, and we saw some grim interminable Chekhov play. The lead actor was a craggy cliff of brooding masculinity, taciturn pathos and tragic nobility.

Afterwards my date asked if I'd like to go backstage, and of course I did. We went to the actor's dressing room, where he was scraping paint off his face. He greeted my date with a flamboyant hello that, in retrospect, makes RuPaul look like Bogart.

"You liked the show?" he rolled his eyes. "Gawd, I thought it was just ca-ca."

Ca-ca? CA-CA? Here this guy moves an audience to sobs, and a minute later he's speaking two octaves higher and calling things CA-CA?

Subsequent experience with theater women honed my wary distrust, but of course we're all adults now, and I don't hold anything against the profession. I just tend to go in with my arms folded across my chest: impress me.

This theater is different, though; I've met several of the actors, and one of them is married to a good friend of mine. He's a middle-aged Frenchman trained as an architect who left his profession to enter a Parisian clown school. Right there, I'm in his corner. Years ago I was at a dinner party at his house, the events at which would lead to a phone call from an investigator working for the Scientologists to call me and pretend to be a magazine interviewer, so he could smear one of my friends. But that's another story, and I damn well have no intention of telling it.

It's impossible to describe how they staged the show - this theater has a patented style that's nowhere near surreal but hardly linear and realistic - call it irrealism, maybe. The plot of the Dumas book was plainly visible, the characters were intact, and it was generally brilliant from the get-go.

At the end of it my wife handed me a sack of cutlery. We'd had dinner before at a friend's house, and she'd recently gotten divorced. (Apparently he got all the knives and forks, so we brought food tools.) I told my wife to wait at the vestibule, and I'd bring the car around - we were in a deserted part of town, and who knew what miscreants were lurking around the corner. She said no, she'd come with - and I said Honey, this is how Batman got started. Some punk killed his parents coming out of a show. We don't even have a kid with us. We'd get killed and no Batman would result. What's the point?

It strikes me now that just as the Three Musketeers was the pulp fiction of its day, so the Batman story is to our age. In 250 years theater groups will probably stage dark yet whimsical retelling of the Batman story, complete with a program stuffed with serious essays. It'll make a good play. Too bad it will be full of actors.



Haven't seen the rereleased Star Wars yet, although of course I will. Have to. It's one of those milestones in your life. Boomer milestones consist of remembering where you were when JFK, RFK and MLK were shot; for my generation, it's where you where when SW, TESB and ROTJ came out.

1977 was a lonely dismal summer - I was living by myself in a one-room apartment in Loring Park with a Murphy bed and a cat. I went to see the movie in the afternoon at the Skyway, and stayed for another show. I saw it four more times at that theater. I moved back to Fargo for the rest of the summer and saw it another four times at the big dusty Fargo theater.

When Empire Strikes Back came along, I was doing better - living in a dump, working as a waiter, but deep into college with a fine circle of friends. I went to see this installment at the Southtown, with the Giant Swede and his Veronica Hamelesque Ukrainian girlfriend. Yoda was charming if a tad boring, but I was duly stunned when Vader dropped his little bombshell on Luke at the end. The movie ended glum, hopeless and inconclusive, and I absolutely loved it. At the end of it I thought I have to wait years to find out what happens next. That didn't bother me. When I was a kid and bought a Tintin comic book about going to the moon, only to find it was a two-parter. I found the second part in a Winnepeg bookstore eight years later, and picked up the story as though I'd finished part one that morning.

Come the Revenge of the Jedi, I was still in school, still a waiter, mired in a torporous relationship. I went to the movie alone in the afternoon, and desperately tried to convince myself that I liked it. But I didn't. Carrie Fisher looked about as a radiant as a brown dwarf; Billy Dee Williams continued to confuse grinning with acting; Mark Hamill looked as though Luke had spent the last few years on Skid Row, Boba Fett was killed off for no good reason, the creatures looked like Muppets (there was a blue three-fingered elephant that looked like a plush toy) and the plot was THE SAME  AS  THE  FIRST MOVIE. Blow up the damn Golf-Ball-O'Doom. Except this time we had Luke and Vader fighting as in the second movie, while the Emperor cackles and uses the words "join" "dark" "side" "inevitable" and "die" in every possible combination.

And there were Ewoks. I'd read that Lucas intended for the forest moon to be populated with Wookies, but they settled on Ewoks, the very name an inversion of Wookie. God, I hated the Ewoks. I was ready to join the Empire if it meant I could kill Ewoks.

But I went to them all, and I'll go to the rereleased versions, and I'll be there for the next three. I love Star Wars, but it's never quite grabbed my imagination as completely as, oh, say, Star Trek, to name just one other intricate multi-decade science fiction epic. Star Wars came along when there wasn't any Star Trek, and if it hadn't been for SW they probably wouldn't have made that excruciating first Star Trek movie. But Star Trek is about culture as well as adventure, and its world is fully detailed. It's an unfair comparison, I know - six hours of SW movies versus 16 hours of ST movies, plus 600 hours of TV. But still, there's just more to it all; it's not a galaxy far far away; it's this one, this neighborhood. Best of all, Star Trek takes place in the future, whereas Star Wars takes place in the past, meaning all the characters we love are dead by now.

Everyone is atitter about the prequels, but they won't be what I want. A story about the fall of a Republic and the rise of Empire is a timeless story; it's Greece, it's Rome, it's about the best intentions of humanity and its worst instincts. This requires a level of political sophistication and detailed characterization that's beyond the skill of George Lucas. Plus, we know the ending: the Republic falls, the Empire wins. And we know the ending to that story, too. I'd rather he made episodes 7,8, and 9, concerning the reestablishment of the Republic and the battles with a wounded but still potent Empire.

But does anyone ask me? No. And why should they? I'll be there opening day no matter what, and the minute the screen goes dark and the first chord crashes and the words EPISODE ONE scrolls up the screen, I will probably start screaming along with everyone else. Same reaction when EPISODE NINE scrolls up, except by then I'll spit out my dentures if I shout too loud.

Hurry up, George. Get going.


Listening to J.C. Watts give the GOP response to the State of the Union. Damn surreal, this. As soon as the President stopped speaking, ABC started flashing the results of the Simpson verdict: GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY. Cut to the frowning black lawyer who believed this would set back race relations. Cut then to J.C. Watts, talking about a hardscrabble upbringing that sounds exactly like what my father went through. Watts, of course, is insufficiently Black by the hard left's standards, and hence dismissible. This country could elect Colin Powell and J.C. Watts as Prez and Veep, and some people would call it a setback for race relations, because they weren't the right kind of Black. Apparently Watts needs to tattoo THUG LIFE on his torso to be taken seriously.

On the other hand, there are days in which I don't feel a member of my ethnic group, and it's usually the day the J.Crew catalog arrives. One came today, and as usual it made me want to apply for membership in some other species where no one, and I mean no one, looks like a smug trust-fund old-money twentysomething walking the dog in intentionally wrinkled chinos. The whole catalog is a handbook for How to Be a Smirky White Person - one pale stick-thin coltish model after the other (each given at least one photo where they grin, bite their finger and look off to the left - which, for models, constitutes Acting) interspersed with hairy-legged fey male models pretending to be attracted to pale stick-thin coltish female models. Seventy pages of clay-coated dead trees to sell me boxer shorts in colors such as "Coral," "Opal," and "Mica."


I'm waiting for a bright yellow shirt called "Bile."


Watched a nature special with Sara tonight. They're all the same - the Hallmark-card sentiments of the narrator, the bumbling cubs accompanied farting oboes (once I'd like the narrator to point out that in real life, nature does not have a soundtrack.) There's the obligatory shots of wolves stalking a spindly-legged ruminant, which always ends with someone's entrails yanked out all over the picturesque landscape. We never know who to root for in these little plays. We tend to side with the wolves, but they always end up killing something cute while the mother looks on and bleats. At this point my wife always gives Jasper Dog a dirty look, as though he is tainted by his membership in caninity.

The only plot you get in these shows is provided by the seasons. But this one - which took place in Alaska - was notable for two reasons. It showed a bear digging into a squirrel's lair to get a snack. (I imagine a squirrel would be the bear's version of that chewing gum that has a liquid center.) We see the bear digging powerfully, as the narrator informs us that the bear is a powerful digger. The narrator's point is underscored by the music, which sounds like three cellists attempting to saw their instruments in half. Then we see the action from the squirrel's point of view. Really. We're down in the hole, looking at the terrified squirrel in profile. (How they got the camera down in the hole, I don't know; they probably hired one of those high school janitors who gets arrested for putting videocams in the girls' locker room. ) The view shifts to the squirrel's perspective, and we look up the hole to see a bear claw sweep across the opening. It looks fake, like a King Kong hand bursting into an apartment.

Now, either the filmmakers staged the event and spliced their squirrel-den video with stock shots of a digging bear, or the filmmakers were actually down in the hole soiling their drawers as the bear rooted above them, or they put cameras in every single squirrel hole in Alaska until they caught the desired action. I lean towards the fakery verdict. If it was fakery, it was pretty cruel; it means that they kicked dirt down the hole into the squirrel's face to simulate the digging of the bear. I can't imagine you'd have a great deal of pride at the end of the day if your job was to kick dirt into a squirrel's face so he thinks he's about to die.

There was something I'd never seen before - but of course there's always something you've never seen before, be it copulating wrens or the mysterious death-dance of the dung beetle, or bear cubs performing long division, etc. This was rather horrifying. It showed what happens when the mosquitoes hatch. It's tough enough to be covered with fur in August, but imagine if millions of bloodsuckers were stinging you from every angle. The narrator said that the herd of caribou sought relief in higher altitudes - cut to a shot of the 'bou reclining in a snowbank. "But even this provided no escape." The 'bou are twitching and kicking and generally pitching a fit. This is my nightmare, right here. In Minnesota we have snow, and then we have mosquitoes. To know that there is a place on earth that has both at the same time is too horrifying to consider.

Also on an animal note: I've discovered something about dogs lately. A number of times I've left the kitchen while cooking, returned shortly after and noted that Jasper does the old bad-dog slink - his ears go back, his head lowers, and he rolls on his back and looks away. No food is missing; nothing is out of order. But while I was away he was considering taking some food. He was tempted. He didn't do anything, but the mere thought made him feel guilty. He rolls over when I come into the room - because dogs think we can read their minds.

This is a useful piece of information.



Happy day: I did a radio show today, three hours of talk on KSTP AM 1500. Carve away the commercials and the news, and it was probably seventeen minutes. Maybe 18. I do radio infrequently enough so that I'm always a little rust-flecked when I start, and by the time I'm in the groove the show is over. I also tend to say a little more than I need to. But every so often I get it exactly right start to finish, and there's no more exhilarating feeling. Today wasn't one of those shows, but that's okay. It's not a small station; it's a 50,000 watt monster that can probably be picked up in Zagreb if the air is right. This makes it a daunting job. Screw up, and it is a fact apparent to all.

The pressure was compounded by the fact that I was sitting in for The Mayor - a fellow who's much beloved and essentially inimitable. Since I listen to his show, I know his bits and schtick, and while I can't do them, I can refer to them in oblique ways. It's a bit of a trick, to act familiar without sounding like you're trying to replace the top guy; you feel like a guy trying to make friends with the children of the woman he's dating.

God, it's fun. God help me, I love it, I really do. That station is an old friend - one of the few constants in my life besides my wife and coffee. I had my own show for the summer of 87, and quit it when I got a real job in newspapers. Aside from a few new gadgets, the booth hasn't changed in ten years - the red button I pushed to go live today was the same button I pushed in 1987. Ten years ago I had a rotund wisecracking 20something as a board operator; today I had a rotund wisecracking 20something as a board operator.

Of course, I was 20something back then myself.

Man, am I wiped. There's something about being ON for three hours that takes the starch out of your spine. I feel no compelling need to have an opinion about anything right now. I couldn't even tell you how I feel about indifference. After supper I did something I rarely do: sit on the sofa and watch TV for hours. Inert, staring, bereft of judgment. Except, that is, when I got to "THX1138" on Bravo. Not the whole movie, but the short student film from which Lucas took the idea for the long version. Not too impressive. Essentially, it's a guy running around down white corridors for fifteen minutes, with cryptic voiceovers. It's always amusing to see what the past thought the future would look like - in 60s versions of the arid technocratic soulless future where computers run everything, they're still always magnetic tape and teletype printers. You can chalk it up to budget constraints, but also to lack of imagination and lack of experience. Few knew enough about computers to be able to guess what came next.

Although now that I think about it, Star Wars is notable for what it doesn't have: computers. No one talks to computers, or as far as I know even mentions them, no more than contemporary films discuss fuseboxes when someone turns on an electric light. The computers are assumed, part of the fabric, commonplace. Either Lucas figured out that this was how a highly developed civilization would be, or - more likely - he has no feel for computers at all, and omitted them because they held no interest for him.


Tomorrow is the day I hear The News. Saturday is the day I have to buy the gun. Life is getting interesting.



Here's a measure of winter's obduracy: I was chopping the ice off the sidewalk today when I realized the ice had bent the tip of the hoe. Ice vs. metal; it's an old story (see also Titanic) but it's still surprising when slo-mo water confounds the tempered point of a yard tool. This would have been a perfect excuse to stop chopping, but I straightened it out by banging it on the ice. Odd contradiction there, now that I think of it.

I am not testy about winter; not yet. In three weeks the icehouses have to be off the lake.I have it on good authority that it will be seventy by the end of March, and from here to there is nothing but better clime

Fine; no hurry. When Jasper and I crossed the lake today, the sun came out and seemed to boil away half the clouds. Half the lake was dappled with shadow, and between the dark patches bright crisp light flared off the snow. In July the sun soaks into everything, but at this time of the year it bounces off the world like hail on a tin roof. There's not a day I look at the lake that I don't love what I see.

On the other hand, I have no other hand. My right hand is weak and my left hand can barely pick up this bottle of beer (James Page Boundary Waters Wild Rice Lager: whenever possible, my chauvinism extends to my liquor as well. Just a pity there's no Minnesota bourbon.) After an hour of chopping my hands were cramped and lifeless, and it still feels as if my forearms are vibrating from the blows. I'm sure there are exercises to build up one's forearms to Popeyesque dimensions, but I have no desire to try them. Still, I wonder sometimes about the exercises I do perform each night. I'm up to a 100 pushups now, straight through, with every other batch done at an angle (feet on a chair, hands on the floor.) Because I keep adding new varieties of pushups and adding more repetitions, I am usually sore somewhere or the other. So the purpose of all this is to be in constant low-level discomfort in my biceps, chest and shoulders, and unprepared for demands on my forearms.

But hey, I look fabulous!

I spent the day waiting for an important phone call, which is my version of torture. There is nothing so loud as the sound of a phone not ringing. So I listened to Fearless Leader on the radio while doing a little web-work, walked the beast around the lake, played a game of Rope with Jasper and finally chased him outside for some real dog play. It's times like these, when I'm on all fours on the hardpacked snow in the back yard, playing with the dog simply because we both feel like it, that I wonder what it would possibly take to make me leave this for an office job again. (The answer, of course, is Newspaper Guild pay level A-6 plus overscale.) Then inside to read the New Yorker and American Spectator cover to cover. No phone call. By four I was pissed, by five I was hungry, by six I was eating pizza and by seven-thirty I was concerned only with how my wife would like "King of the Hill" on Fox. Because I like it.

She likes it too.