FEBRUARY 1997 Part 2
Saw the big-screen Star Wars today through two pairs of eyes: I was watching it as I first saw it 20 years ago, and as I saw it today. Back then, of course, I was amazed. This was the film that set a new standard, but that the standard was quickly eclipsed. For ten years I've seen snatches of the movie on TV, maybe watched it straight through once or twice, but in all those viewings the small screen never showed the imperfections that are apparent in the moviehouse. In short, the sets looked like sets. The stormtroopers appeared to be clad in parts carved from stackable plastic lawn chairs.

The rank badges on the Imperial officers are just hunks of plexiglass glued on a strip - and glued unevenly, too. When people turned on the video monitors, they displayed graphics that could have been taken from a 1981 video game.

The new additions, by contrast, were crisp and pretty damn cool, but they seemed less an enhancement of the old film than a preview of the next one.

The latest New Yorker reprinted its 1977 review of Star Wars, which is suitably snooty; it refers to the film's "relentless pace." Good Lord, it that seemed relentless in 1977, they would have thought today's films to be unintelligible. The first hour of the film is damn near stately, and certain segments crawl at the speed of a Jawa transport. I'm being too hard on it, I know. I had fun. When the Death Star blew up - and I hope I'm not spoiling it for anyone - the new effect was so tremendous I got a jolt that was nowhere near the rush of the first viewing. But probably bigger than viewings 2 through 9.


I think it's this: for as long as I can remember, Star Wars has been part of the present, part of the whole floating pop-culture stew that makes one feel connected to the zeitgeist. Seeing it after twenty years, in a theater stuffed with children who not only weren't born when the last movie came out, but weren't born when I rented Star Wars to watch on my new VCR - it made me realize that the movie is part of the past. It's old and so am I.

Favorite line: When Obi-Wan is inspecting blast damage, he attributes it to Imperial Stormtroopers, for "only they are capable of such deadly accuracy." Both the Giant Swede and myself burst out laughing at that one. We've been joking about the Imperial School of Marksmanship for twenty years. There isn't a soldier in the Imperial Army who could hit the broad side of a dewlap at ten paces.

I have this image of visiting the Giant Swede in the nursing home forty years hence, and watching the Swede's roommate take a leak and miss the bowl. "Imperial stormtrooper school," I'll say, and the Swede will get the joke. Some 21-year old orderly will overhear us - and that's the good news, really. He'll probably get the joke as well. Hell, I quote Casablanca. Maybe that's what makes movies timeless - the fact that we aren't.

 

02/09/97


Day three of a writing slump. It's not that I can't write - just that what I do write seems unusually shallow and labored. As though there's a dense sponge between the little gland that squirts out inspiration and the part of the brain that uses the juice for fuel. Sand in the gas line. I went back last night to a chapter of the novel I'm working on, and whereas the characters had previously been engaged in a spirited discussion, they were now sitting around listlessly swapping sentences. They sounded like actors in a play where most of the audience had left during intermission.

I'm tense and overcaffinated; last night I was tense and tired. (A theme is beginning to emerge.) Last night I had another installment of the old performance-anxiety dream, this one taking the shape of talk radio. In this dream I'm doing a show, but I'm doing it in a state of confusion and distraction - I'm in a hotel room or some strange living room, doing the show over the phone with no idea if anyone is listening; sometimes in the middle of the show I forget I'm doing it entirely. The general mood is one of embarrassment and insignificance. But I usually have these dreams before I'm supposed to do something on radio or TV, not after. Of course I know what this is about, but I'm not at liberty to say at the moment.

I can say that I am tired of having my head feel full of helium, and more than a little tired of having to make things up all the time. Between my two columns I have to come up with a minimum of 104 pieces a year - plus AOL plus the Post plus 12 Almanac scrips, plus a novel (just for fun) and assorted other items. I'm usually thankful for this job, and I don't mind the pressure. But I think of my friends who have M-F jobs, and how their duties and responsibilities are cleanly delineated. The Giant Swede is in charge of massive hangars, but he doesn't have to design a new hangar every year, or invent 104 small sheds, each different.

Of course, I don't want office life; I can't stand it. I've never written anything worth reading in an office. In DC I had to go into the office every damn day and sit there in a shirt and tie and pretend to be working, and it drove me daft. I read magazines and books for four years, and at 6 PM when the boss blew the quittin' time whistle I slid down the dinosaur's tail and went down to the bar for an unearned bourbon. Then I walked home 2 1/2 miles home, and did my work in my own office.

But I had co-workers. I miss my friends in DC. A brighter group I've never known. Now my only officemate now has four legs and a wet nose, and his idea of gossip consists of what he picks up from the pee of passing dogs. Even if he could tell me he detected a bitch in heat, it wouldn't be something I was interested in hearing.

Okay, then: part of this tension, this whirly-headedness, probably comes from the impending Job Situation. If I go back to office life I won't be a happy man. If someone is watching me to see when I come and go, if co-workers are giving me the dark eye because I'm in at ten and out at one - regardless of how much I produce - I will not be a happy man. Come the spring and the summer, I want to spend every possible moment outside, not staring at the season through a sealed window.

Ahhh, shaddup. Last week I was writing a 1.5K words a night because I was energized by the possibility of change; now I'm dribbling out a few phonemes per day because I'm wary of it. What's more likely is that I've had too damn much coffee, and too much time alone. Tomorrow the call should come, and then things get good. Unless of course they get worse.

02/10/97


A panhandler almost punched me out once because I quoted a Looney Tunes cartoon. He would have been correct to do so. When I was living in Washington, I got up at 7:30, watched the news, and then watched half an hour of Warner Bros. cartoons. It was a syndicated batch I'd never seen before, or since, and had several classics. One cartoon pitted Bugs against two Hee-Haw holler trolls with big hats, red noses, bare feet and raggedy pants held up by rope - the usual rustic stereotype. These two boys were a-feudin', but they pooled their efforts to kill that darned varmint rabbit. They proved powerless against Bugs, of course. He started calling a square dance whose commands weren't "swing your partner dosey-do" but "grab the fence post in your hand, and hit him on the head as hard as you can."

It went on for minutes, and I was weeping tears by the time it was over. I saw this cartoon maybe three times in two years. Every morning I hoped they'd show it.

One morning they ran a particularly good Foghorn Leghorn, involving the classic scenario: Foghorn vs. the Little Chicken Hawk, with the Dog assisting the deluded yet hyperaggressive Chicken Hawk. (Thereby making it Foghorn vs. Dog via proxy.) Foghorn issued a classic line, unutterable today: "Nice boah, but he makes as much noise as a skeleton pitchin' a fit on a tin roof." I walked to work considering the dynamics of Leghorn cartoons vs. Daffy cartoons, and was quoting various Leghorn remarks to myself when a panhandler appeared and asked for money.

"Sorry, Boah, can't oblige," I said in Leghorn mode, not thinking, and oh my God did I instantly regret it. I had just called a Black man boah . And not only he was justifiably aggravated, he was one of the neighborhood's loudest, most aggressive and generally meanest panhandlers.

"What did you say?" he spat.

"Sorry, Brother," I stammered. "No change." He sized me up and dismissed me with a glare of contempt. It took about ten blocks for my knees to stop shaking. I've never forgotten that. I instantly took Foghorn out of my vocal repertoire, as I once retired Al Jolson after another unseemly and misunderstood incident.

I thought of this today as I crossed Hennepin Avenue, and spied a panhandler sizing me up from a distance. Normally I don't give to the Uptown crowd, 99 percent of whom have a Clockwork-Orange attitude. I talked to one once, and the conversation basically boiled down to this:

Why are you on the streets? Because my parents don't understand me. What don't they understand? That I want to be on the streets.

Okay. Fine. Sizing me up now, however, was not a scabby droog but a classic bag lady. Thirty-eight layers of clothes, a dozen shopping bags at her feet, a sad raggedy dog looking up at her with a hungry look.

"Excuse me," she said, and I stopped. "Do you have a moment? I said I did. I was en route to the grocery store, and figured I could pick up a sandwich and some dog food. "Do you think you could buy me two scoops of vanilla with caramel?" She pointed to the Haagen-Daaz store a few feet away.

I blinked. "I could buy you a sandwich, and some dog food, but . . ."

"I'll pay," she said with great contempt. And she began to fish around for some money. She produced a five and gave me instructions in an imperious tone. Cowed - and annoyed - I walked into the Haagen-Daaz store. The clerk was attempting to hide his smile.

"I'm on a mission from God," I said. "Two scoops of vanilla. In a cup." He dished it up and told a few recent stories of this woman's behavior, such as buying coffee for her poor dog. She was new to the Uptown scene, but making a splash; she was destined to be doyenne of the functional nuts at this rate.

I went outside and gave her the ice cream. She asked for my name, and I said James; I asked the name of her dog, leaning down to let it sniff my hand.

"DON'T TOUCH HIM. What's your last name?" I said it was, ah, Wiggins. "You look so much like Anthony I could just put my knee in your chin," she said.

I straightened up.

"I could, you know," she said. "You look so much like Anthony I could just break your chin with my fist."

"I'll be going now," I said, with a smile.

"Arrividerci," she said, tonelessly. "Au revoir. ADIOS."

I was certain that if I called the authorities, they would say they knew who she was, and that they had no cause to bring her in. She can function, which is to say she knows how much ice cream costs; she will probably insist she is perfectly fine, aside from the fact that Jesus talks to her when she closes her eyes. She's not a danger to herself or to others. Meaning we do nothing until she freezes to death. And then we gas the dog. That's all, folks!

 

02/11/97


The Sunday New York Times had a piece about the forthcoming U2 album, one of those serious reverential features that makes it sound as if the artists are crawling up a mountain with bare feet so God can hand them ten cuts for the next album. Essentially, they've holed up with some young producers adept at combining various varieties of noise into screeching bass-heavy dance music, guaranteeing the next album will be indistinguishable from other products of the same genre. That's not what the article said, of course, but that's the feeling I got. Last night during a 1:30 AM cable prowl I saw a video from the album: Discotech. There's a warning sign, right there. I actually like techno, trance and the rest of the machines-gone-mad dance music, but when you call your song "Discotech" it's a sign that this isn't just music, but an Important and Ironic Commentary on the Conventions of the Genre.

The song wasn't bad, what little there was of it. (One ordinary riff by the Edge played through a blown amp, and a lot of incoherent ranting by Bono.) It was the visuals that made me despair. It looks like the seventies. The worst of the seventies. One moment everyone has like the sickly needle-fiend thrift-store look of early punk, then they're dressed up a la Saturday Night Fever, and then at the end they dress up like the Village People. The Edge was wearing a leatherman bondage outfit, and it doesn't help that he now sports a moustache borrowed from Harry Shearer's character in Spinal Tap. Everyone looked embarrassed.

Enough. Enough seventies. Enough. I was there. I was present for the whole grisly decade and I can testify it was one long moronic mumble, as inarticulate as a reefer-fiend talking through a mouthful of shag carpet, or so hideously cheerful the only sensible response was to become a reefer-fiend and listen to Judas Priest. The clothes were awful. The morals fit the clothes. The television had a few bright spots, but it was ruled by Norman Lear - inventor of the term "didactic comedy" - or jigglicious shows like Three's Company. Political leadership was bankrupt, craven and incompetent; automobiles got ugly. It was a decade so bereft of style and spirit it had to resurrect the 50s just to make it to the 80s.

What made me happy to usher in 1980? The first album by U2. If I'd know that 17 years later they'd be fat and wearing bellbottoms under a mirror ball, I might have put the record back.

The editor of the paper called me this morning to assure me that everything is going fine, and that relaxed me. It's always heartening to get a call from The Editor. Not A Editor, but The Editor. I mean, everyone's an editor. I'm an editor. But whenever there are more than one editors, you want a call from The Editor.

Relieved from waiting by the phone, I took Jasper around the lake in the snow, to check our territory and investigate how many shameless dogs have wandered into our turf and peed on the snowbanks. I wondered if our days of afternoon wanderings are numbered. I wonder if I can make it plain to my new employers that it's important I take every afternoon off. Jasper found a stick on the lake today, and came bounding back to me as though he had wrested a great prize from a fearsome enemy. There is no moment in an office that beats that. I speak from experience.

 

02/12/97


The wife is at work until eleven, so it's a night of pacifying the dog while I try to write. The VCR is dutifully transcribing tonight's Voyager episode - it's the Borg vs. the Sagging Ratings! - so I've that to watch when the work is done. Just passed the TV set on the way upstairs; Comedy Central is showing a documentary on Andy Kaufman's wrestling dementia. I've seen it. Everyone talks about what a great piece of conceptual humor his wrestling schtick was. No one ever points out that the entire bit, start to finish, was Not Funny. Odd, yes; disturbing, certainly. But Not Funny.

Getting out about a thousand words per session on the novel, which isn't bad. A few new characters showed up last night - they didn't have much to say, but I have a pretty good idea who they are. This has promise. It's ironic - in DC, I wrote about Minneapolis; now back in Mpls, I write of DC.

 

The last novel wasn't hard. I knew what the whole thing was about from the start. The last aborted novel was a mess from the start. One of these days I hope to write with the speed and inspiration I had when writing the Myst novel, before that project blew up. I probably can't broadcast the particulars of the matter without incurring some sort of frowns and legal mutterings from the Brothers Miller, and no one would really believe me anyway. Sour grapes, etc.

Aw, what the hell. Here's the story. I wrote a review of Myst when it first came out, and e-mailed it to the Bros. Miller. They liked it - in fact, they had a guileless gee-gosh attitude about their work, as if they were relieved and a little surprised to find out people thought it was as good as they had hoped. We e-mailed back and forth for a while. I ran into them at MacWorld in San Francisco, and since I had a copy of my latest book on me I gave it to them in thanks for the pleasure I'd gotten from the game. Next thing I know they asked if I'd like to see the Myst book they were writing, maybe offer a few suggestions.

It was awful. I mean, it was just awful. It was as bad as - well, if I'd tried to design a gorgeous CD-ROM game, draw all the illustrations, compose the music and construct the story, my effort would have been as bad as this book. The first third was devoid of drama; it consisted of a boy and his father writing books underground. Not exactly nail-biting stuff. The last third ended with a plot trick straight out of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The problem with the middle third was that there was no middle third. But that's okay. They weren't novelists. They were everything but, which is far more than most people, me included. I banged out a few chapters based on their story, sent it along.

And a few weeks later I'm on a plane to Washington to meet the Brothers Miller. We went out for a good greasy breakfast. They were two of the smartest, most likable fellows I'd ever met - smart, unpretentious, funny. We went back to Cyan Headquarters, played Tank on Silicon Graphics machines. (I'M PLAYING TANK WITH THE MYST BOYS!) They showed me the big blueprints for Myst II, a moment I will never forget. It was like sitting down with George Lucas and learning Darth is Luke's father a year before the film comes out. I got the go-ahead to write the book, and I could have flown back to DC under my own power.

For the next few months that book wrote itself, as the cliche goes. But in retrospect I made several mistakes. One: I attempted to invent a good deal of the backstory myself. As someone steeped in Myst, I could never figure out exactly how the hero built all that stuff, and why he had such an odd mix of technology - high-tech star charts in one building, clumsy gear-driven equipment in the clock, a steam boiler in the rustic cabin, an industrial elevator in the tower. I attempted to explain that, and I added a subplot about the Pirates of the Black Flag, which the game alluded to. I added a lot of stuff.

My big mistake was telling an interviewer in the local paper that I was hired to add "sex and violence" to the story - an offhand reference I didn't think would make the article; I was just chatting before the interview began. But I said it, and I was quoted correctly. It was true - I'd added a couple killings to the first third of the book to point out how bad the Bad Guy really was. And I intended to make the relationship between the hero and his wife a little more than starry-eyed mooning with a chaste smooch or two. Nothing explicit or even metaphorically racy, just not something aimed at a 10-year old. But the comment earned a chastening letter from one of the Bros. Miller. I smelled trouble.

About the rest of the story, I will say nothing. We parted due to "creative differences," which is what a successful songwriting team says when they fire the drummer. I will point out that it only took seven months for the amiable creators of Myst to turn into guys who fire people through subordinates. I'm not pissed they found another writer; that happens. But they didn't even have the courtesy to give me a call, and that makes them gutless high-handed cowards. In my book.

I'll still buy Myst 2, though. In fact I'm looking forward to it.

In the meantime, it's back to my own book. Working title: "Not Damn Likely." Or perhaps "Bad Hat." And then I have to fix the previous novel. If the dog leaves me alone.

 

02/13/97


Everyone is looking for opportunities to shout the catchphrase of early 1997: SHOW ME THE MONEY. I expect clerks in stores to shout this at me after they total up my items. I wouldn't be surprised if the local IRS commissar called up on April 15 and bellowed it over the phone. Bank tellers seem to greet each customer with apprehension, and are relieved when the customer does not scream the catchphrase. In the offices of the guys who are creating the long-delayed Myst sequel, they probably get phone calls from the head office shouting SHOW  ME  THE  DUNNY. That said, I have been waiting for my prospective employer to SHOW ME THE, ah, gelt. Today they did.

I almost dropped the phone. It's real money. It's kinfolk-said- Jed-move-away-from-here money. This almost certainly means that the entire deal is going to fall through. I'll know in two to six weeks - time that I will not spend thinking about The Money. I will go on as before.

Not damn likely.

I wrote ten tons of novel last night, and I'm almost afraid to look at it; the delusional character of fevered writing jags does not always produce work whose quality is equal to the energy expended. But at least I wrote it, and now chapter one is solid and done. If I am to commit to this book, that means I have to go into the literary equivalent of a Clean Room - I can read no fiction of merit or consequence without risking stylistic pollution. My voice is pretty well formed and established, but a good novel can still make my internal gyros lean in a different direction. So it's a steady diet of dreck and magazines. For Dreck, I picked up - and I say this with shame - a Star Trek novel. This book concerns Kahless, who's the Klingon Jesus, except that he disemboweled a lot of people and laid down the Klingon Commandments. (Disembowel those who dishonor your father and mother. Etc.) It's a standard Trek novel: fun plot if you're a Trek geek, and cardboard writing flecked with anachronisms and cliches. I've read ten Star Trek books over the years, and only two were any good.

As far as magazines, there's always plenty of those. I subscribe to Wired, The New Republic, The National Review, The American Spectator, Entertainment Weekly, New York, the Washington Post Nat'l Edition, the New Yorker, Minnesota Monthly, Home, MacWorld, MacUser, MacAddict, the Net, Gigantic Asses, and a few others. (Just kidding about the last one. An obscure Simpsons reference. I think.) So there's always something new around. But today saw the appearance of a sentimental favorite: the Victoria's Secret Swimsuit Edition. I had just come back from the walk around the lake; I'm dressed in about 17 layers of clothing, and I resemble the Michelin man. The snow is starting to fall and an astringent February wind is whipping up the drifts. I take out the mail, and the first thing I see is Tyra Banks in a stream wearing a swimsuit that's three microns wide. I spontaneously spoke Klingon, right on the spot. I don't know what I said, but it sounded like Klingon.

I am finishing up a Leinenkugel's Auburn Ale right now, one of the several mysterious Leinie's brands that were not allowed in Minneapolis. It's an odd tale. I would go up to Fargo and see strange fabled brands of Leinie's - Auburn Ale, Northwoods Lager, BigButt Dopplebock (a bad, bad name; it sounds like the name of the fat kid in junior high who gets beat up in the gym class shower) and Maple Ale. Due to a prolonged distributor's war in Minneapolis/St. Paul, these brands were VERBOTEN. I tried them all in Fargo. The Maple Ale was, indeed, Maple flavored. Just the thing for when you want to get hammered on pancake syrup. It was like beer served by Perkins on Sunday Morning for the hair-of-the-dog crowd. But the rest were good - and, more importantly, attractively packaged. Now they're here.

Not much work tonight - I have to write a monologue for tomorrow night's TV show, 90 seconds of whimsy and japery at the expense of Sen. Paul Wellstone. Tomorrow's job: deliver the 90 seconds on the air, live. My entire day will be geared to one and a half minutes of television time. I have the feeling this monologue will generate a few angry calls.

Good!

 

02/14/97


Any month with radio and TV work is a good month, so February qualifies. Did the Almanac show tonight, the monologue that opens the show. I've been doing this for about two years now. Dare I say I almost feel like part of the Almanac family. A couple months back one of the interviewers - the ever cheerful and utterly cool broadcast professional J. G. Preston - was delayed by some sort of problem, and they tossed me the mike to do a few segments. I interviewed a kid who'd grown an 800-lb pumpkin. He was about ready to implode from fear when we went on. I reassured him that no one would care if he stumbled on his words. Everyone would be looking at his Orson-Welles-sized gourd.

I could understand his fear, though. When I started doing live TV ten years ago, I went to the studio as though walking to my own execution. I feared losing my tongue to the stammering nullity of stage fright. In the theater, a friend told me, it's called "going up" - becoming inordinately aware of yourself and your performance, and having your brain empty of everything, including the script and the ability to improvise. It happened to me once on the radio - I started stammering, a great wet bolt of fear shot up my spine and blew every circuit; my heart rate went to about 200 BPM and I shut off the mike. It was awful. Never happened since, although I never forgot it. This is the fear everyone has: they won't know what to say, and they will greet the camera with a frozen smile while yesterday's meal uncoils in their drawers. I usually have a TelePrompter, so there's always something to say. But it's hard to read the words if your brain is screeching an Emergency Broadcast System tone.

But that doesn't happen anymore. TV is mild fun. It's like going to the radio station - for a brief period of time, I get to pretend I have co-workers. I've put in ten years at the station for various projects, and I feel at home there. Why, I'm a guy who's on TV. I'm talent. Actually, I feel like a guy who's portraying a guy who's on TV, as though I'm stepping into the life of someone far more interesting than myself. I mean, most of the week I'm sitting in front of the computer in my sweatpants. And then I'm standing in a TV studio in a suit, signing the release form while one person attaches my mike and someone else powders my forehead. Why the attention? Because I'm talent.

Well, nearly anyone could be talent. The word is best used with extreme sarcasm, because it denotes a class line to which no sensible person would ever refer in sincerity. Talent that acts like talent swiftly earns the ire of the people who put on the show. I've never met anyone at this station who acted as though they thought they were Talent; that's one of the reasons I love the place. Of course, it's in St. Paul. The paper I work for is in St. Paul. The radio station is in St. Paul. I live in Minneapolis. (Aka "the big time.") But I'm wandering.

Tonight was standard: show up, joke with the staff and tech crew, get miked up, do the run through. Then go back to the small green room and read the paper for half an hour. Wander to the other green room, talk with the guests, go outside for a smoke, void my bladder - checking first to see if the switch on the buttpack mike isn't live - then go back to the studio and take my place on the little blue X on the floor. Opening music and credits, then a great bright light erupts from above; the floor director swings his hand at the camera, the red light comes on, and we're live to the entire state of Minnesota. Start yapping, boy.

I do my bit and then it's over. I'm usually home before the show is finished. There's something weird about walking up to the front door, looking through my window and seeing on the TV the faces of the people I'd left just half an hour before. But at that moment, with the show still on the air, the Friday night pizza en route, my dog yapping hello and my smiling =wife telling me how I did, is usually the best moment of the week, one of those times that reminds me my life has turned out to be just what I wanted it to be.


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