FEBRUARY 1997 Part 3
 I have a great idea for a disaster movie. There's this ship, okay, and it has a bunch of people on it, each of whom has exactly one personality trait so we can keep them straight. Just after we've met all the main characters, the captain of the ship is stricken with food poisoning and collapses; there's no one left to steer the ship, which is headed straight for an iceberg. (Oh, and one more thing - if the ship drops below 24 knots, it explodes.) A plucky cruise director manages to regain control of the ship, but suddenly a massive lizard appears from the water. Just as he is about to break the ship in half, he's struck in the head by an asteroid.

The resulting tidal wave deposits the ship on a small coastal island, which promptly explodes with a volcano; every building on the island is set fire, and there is a tremendous loss of life and painstakingly detailed scale models. Lucky for all, a tornado blows out the fire, but it carries off the remaining characters to safety. Unfortunately, by now they all have Ebola.

Watched part of "Asteroid" tonight, and was unmoved. Any movie that has a FEMA agent as the take-charge hero has already destroyed any credibility with me. If the movie concerned the aftermath of an asteroid hit, and the FEMA agent went around handing out checks, then I'd find it plausible. Favorite moment: the hero is in a truck trapped on a bridge with a raging flood pouring over his vehicle. The windows are down. When the flood passes, he gets out from the truck, totally dry. Dry hair and dry clothes. Next scene: his hair is actually shorter.

I taped what I didn't watch, but I will probably never watch it. I tape more shows than I actually watch.

Went to a surprise birthday party last night - enjoyable social evening with one special aspect: the host had a working Atari Star Wars arcade game. I hadn't played one of those beasts in years. If I had my own arcade in the basement, it would be mostly - a couple of pinball machines (Mata Hari, 8-Ball Deluxe, maybe Black Knight). But there would be pride of place for Asteroids, the Most Perfect video game ever created.

For sentimental reasons, of course. Yesterday I was sitting around pounding java withWesley and the Giant Swede yesterday, and although it didn't come up, we were the great Asteroid warriors nearly 20 years ago. The machine sat in the basement of the Valli, and we each pumped our earnings into it a quarter at a time. We were all equally good, with our own style - Wes tended to slap the hyperspace in spastic panic; the Swede tapped it with insouciant cool. (Wes usually survived, though.) I shot everything. I was so full of coffee that I could not help but be a great Asteroids player. Then in rode Wagner. A curly-haired flathead with half-mast doper's eyes and an oily sheen to his face. He brought his own posse; he stood outside of the Valli culture, and did not mix. And thus was distrusted. He played the machine with inhuman cool, and he was good. The first time we saw WAG at the high score position, we seethed. Then we watched: instead of tapping the FIRE button once per shot, he fluttered his fingers on the button to get a faster fire rate. In derision, we called this technique "wag bullets." Wesley never adopted it. I did.

When the owner of the Star Wars game showed up at the party, I told him I'd given it a spin and got the high game and put my initials up; hope he didn't mind. He knew I was kidding. But on the way home my wife asked me if I'd really got the high game, and I said I hadn't. Walking into another man's home and posting your initials on his machine was alpha dog behavior, like peeing higher than another dog's pee. I wouldn't do that to a host.

Unless, of course, he was WAG. Or ZAC, but that's another story and another machine.

(Centipede.)

 

02/17/97

 

Several more important lessons learned tonight's installment of "Asteroid."

* If an asteroid hits, it's good to be a young married couple, because your furniture is cheap. When the sofa lands on your head, it won't kill you.

* If your house is completely demolished by a raging firestorm, and you are worried that A) the overpressure will kill you, or at least puncture your eardrums, and B) that the firestorm will suck oxygen from the atmosphere and leave you to suffocate, your fears can be allayed by checking the opening credits. Is your name listed? Then you'll survive.

* However, if your name in the credits is the last one listed, and is preceded by "And," then you are a veteran actor who's been hired because you're really good at a tear-jerking death scene. Start to worry.

* If an earthquake strikes your computer lab, don't worry. All of your disk drives will survive.

* If you are Annabelle Sciorra, make sure you confuse "acting" with the facial posture common to people who have overdosed on Novacaine.

* When an asteroid hits a downtown business district at night, there will be a few hundred casually dressed people per square block.

 

And this was based on half an hour's worth of viewing. I assume Anthony Zerbe is going to die of advanced Colorfulness. Too bad. He should work more and die less. He was great in "Harry O," one of those innumerable grim tire-screeching 70s detective shows, and he was of course invaluable to the success of "Omega Man," where he played a albino zombie TV anchor bent on killing Charlton Heston.

 

I taped the rest of Asteroid and went upstairs to work. I am actually making a good dent in my backlog of tapes; a few months ago it became apparent I was no longer watching TV, just taping it. I now sit down and watch TV at night whether I want to or not, just to get rid of the obligation. After I finish a tape, I throw it away. Otherwise I always wonder if it has some unseen Star Trek episode on it, and I waste half an hour prowing the miles of tape for something I haven't seen. Sorry: tape's done, it's gone.

Of course, I did save a few tapes from the Past - a couple left over from my favorite high-80s show, "Crime Story," and a few from Washington DC. Random blocks of nostalgia from alternate universes I once inhabited. I can still sing along with the jingles on the DC commercials, because they are permanently etched on my brain with all the other jingles and tunes I've absorbed. Sometimes I think I would have retained much more of chemistry, physics and math if the teacher had sung everything.

It was 41 degrees today, and yea, there was great rejoicing. Took the Great Walk around the lake, and even thought everything is dead and white and buried in snirt there was that soft promise of spring in the wind - even though it's a long way off. It was a come-hither smile on the other side of a glass block window. But we're over the worst of the snow, and I'm eager to get on to the worst of the flooding.

Jasper was not entirely pleased by the heat, since it made everything melt, and he has a most undoglike distaste of water. When he was a puppy I tried to acclimate him to the stuff by taking him in my arms and walking into the lake. The scars have now almost completely healed. He can swim - what dog can't? - but his expression is priceless mix of distaste, consternation and panic, like an IBM executive trying to cross a room full of drag queens.

Time to finish the Newhouse column now, and then back to the TV. It's my duty.

 

02/18/97

 

Got a call this morning from the KNOW-FM, asking if I'd like to be interviewed during the local insert on All Things Considered. The interview would be fed to all affiliates; I would blanket the state with my wisdom. Would I? Of course. Never turn down radio; never turn down TV. Got dressed and drove to the station. I wore a tie. I always wear a tie when I'm on public radio. I have no idea why, other than it might make me look as though I just came from an actual job. A charming young assistant with one of those ain't-life-grand grins met me at the elevator. Her name was Sasha, which was nice; no one in Minnesota is every named Sasha.

She took me to one of the studios and brought me coffee. I'm used to the funky dump of the KSTP studio, so I was amazed at this facility - it looked like the designer of the Starbucks stores had been hired to do a radio station. Good wood everywhere, fabulous equipment, a sound board wider than Ethel Merman's butt, comfy chairs, mikes that could perfectly register your voice from a distance of a foot. Of course, I paid for it through my contributions. I almost felt justified in taking out a penknife and carving my initials in the wall.

The interviewer came in. He was an amusingly brusque fellow, and quite possibly a raging jerk: I can't tell. In settings like these I prefer the company of insincerely cheerful people; sincerely insincere people throw me off. I couldn't tell if he didn't like me on general principle, didn't like me for reasons he had read in the paper, or was utterly indifferent to my existence in the world in general and his studio in specific. He was certainly tall, though. About nine feet tall.

We did the interview, and it went fine. Four minutes. As I said my final point, I could imagine the interview on the radio - my final words, a beat of silence, the announcer saying my name, and then some peculiar but piquantly ironic music that underscored the subject matter. So I deaccelerated into the final sentence so the interview would sound as if it had a nice natural conclusion.

"Did you get that shirt at Banana Republic?" I asked when the interview was over. "I have that shirt, and I love it."

"You have this shirt," said the tall man.

"Yes. Of course I bought it in the infant's size."

He stifled a laugh, one of those milk-up-the-nose chuckles, and I said "that's what you're thinking, isn't it?"

"Yes!" he snapped, a little glint of cheer in his eyes. "That's what all tall people think, and we know you think we're thinking that, and we don't give a fuck.."

All done in good cheer. Of course, it could have been done with nasty pleasure as well; good cheer and nastiness are not mutually exclusive. I couldn't tell. We went outside of the booth, and I asked him if he could promise to send me a tape without having any intentions of doing so. He said that he could. A fine fellow, then.

Sasha reappeared to escort me out, but I asked a favor: could I meet the gentleman who did the drive-time classical music show? His show is the reason I contribute to the pledge drive, and I thought I would use my temporary stature as On-Air Talent to bludgeon my way into his office. It's one of the pleasures of living in the media slipstream. Well, he was in, and it turned out he's a fan. We talked about nothing for a few minutes, and I thanked him and left. That capped it: this was a perfect day. High of 45 degrees, a walk around the lake in bright sunshine, a good job on the radio, and learning that one of my favorite on-air personalities reads my work. But it got better.

How much better? Lowry Hill Liquors has a sale on Pete's Wicked Pale Ale, and my new Photoshop filters arrived in the mail.

I didn't hear the interview on the radio, though; I can't listen to NPR anymore outside of Car Talk. I flipped back to KSTP on the way home, because they have commercials. I like commercials.

 

02/20/97

 

I was fired today. It was, as the Native Americans say, a good day to die. (Also said by Klingons, and Keifer Sutherland in "Flatliners.") Mid-40s, sunshine, melting water tapping on the porch roof. Warm enough to stand outside and shout into the cordless phone, instead of pacing inside. Because I can smoke outside, and when you're fired, there's nothing better than smoking, pacing and shouting.

Afterwards, though, I went out for errands. I needed to get a pound of overpriced coffee - Fireside Blend, with each bean personally kissed by the Master Roaster - and some groceries. I had a genuinely odd

experience at Byerly's, home of the Exalted Shopping Experience; every item seemed to irritate me. The happy product names irritated me. The 58 varieties of potatoes irritated me. The magazines in the check-out stand irritated me. There was one mag - "Country Wood 'n' Gingham" or some such name - whose cover had the most inane headlines:

The Man who Planted Trees: An inspirational story!

How inspirational can that be? If the man had no arms, dug the holes by chewing through the grass and rolled the tree seeds into the pit with his nose, it would be inspirational.

French Toast - like you've never had it before! You could fill up a magazine with the ways in which I've never had french toast. I've never had French Toast while sitting naked on the Pope's lap. I've never gone to a skeet-shooting range, had them fire the french toast into the sky and then caught it in my mouth as it fell to earth. I could argue that each instance of French Toasting eating is unique, since the date, time, clothing, dining implement, etc., is different from the last time. I was close to pointing this out to the clerk, but caught myself.

It was a good bad mood, though. When I got home I continued calls to all my friends to hash over the Great Firing. I didn't shout, weep, wail or gnash teeth; I laughed. This is all amusing, and even if it ends up as I fear - with the Other Opportunity (the O.O.) suddenly evaporating - I will still laugh. Specifics: one of my present employers, the paper where my local column runs, decided that since my negotiations with the Other Opportunity appeared to be advanced, and because the O.O. had made an offer my current employer couldn't match, there was no point in keeping me on until my offer from O.O. was solid. So I was out.

Yesterday's column was my last. (My parting words to the audience, it now appears, were "enjoy your disasters while you can." Not bad, really.) That does not surprise me, and I can't say I blame them; no point tossing money at me when I'm just going to leave.

But the rest of the conversation was just flat-out jaw-dropping flabbergasting. The reason they made such an underwhelming offer to counter the O.O. was because they were mad at me. If I'd come to them without a competing offer, and said I wanted more $ and some publicity, then we would have had a nice warm confab about my future, and goodness and mercy would have followed me all the days of my life. The act of bringing a competing offer to jump-start the negotiations was seen as blackmail, not leverage.

I can't say I agree. I thought this is how negotiations are done, but what do I know? We parted amicably, even though I thought I would piss Drano during a few points in the talk. Then I called everyone I knew and vented. (Outside on the porch pacing and smoking. The whole block knows everything now. )There's something fun about being fired; it's like you won the Anti-Lottery. You're full of adrenalin, and when you talk to friends, they're outraged. Everyone is on your side! You're the Martyr of the Hour! And then it wears off, and you feel like slinging a rope over the rafters. Well, I still feel fine. It was just a job, one of many. If the O.O. falls through, I'll make it up elsewhere.

I'll start making money on the Internet! I hear there's a world of opportunity out there, and all I need is a 386 computer, a box of Amway products and ten friends.

 

02/22/97

 

I actually came up with a bona-fide aphorism today. After dinner three of us went outside for tobacco dessert, and we were talking about the complications that arise from speaking one's mind heedless of the consequences. Andrij said an opinion should be expressed no matter what, and I replied - without thinking - "an opinion is like a branding iron. It is one thing to hold it, and another to press it into the skin of a friend." I have no idea where it came from. It was as if I was channeling Oscar Wilde.

I flatter myself, but someone has to. Andrij then let off a fine joke; he always has a new one. Realtors, mortgage brokers, loan officers - anyone who works with money and is paid by commission always has the best, albeit crude, jokes.

This one was actually clean:

How many Vietnam Vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?

I don't know.

That's right. You weren't there. You have NO IDEA.

It's all in the delivery.

Thursday morning I was fired. Thursday night I went to bed, and the last thought I had before slumber was this: I can't believe Cardassia joined the Dominion. At least the Romulans are on the Federation's side.

Either I am extremely healthy and well-adjusted, or I have absolutely no sense of priorities whatsoever.

The former, I'm sure. Word of my termination has already resulted in a few probing calls and e-mails from other media outlets, so my bravado seems justified. Besides, I'm still 98 % certain the Other Opportunity will solidify. We'll see how brave I sound when that falls through.

Damn cold gray day, two in a row. Took Jasper around the lake for his usual ration of sniffing and excreting, then cleaned the house. Tried to do some web-site work, but I have a queasy feeling that a huge and tiresome overhaul of the site is inevitable. I must face certain facts, chief among them this: no one wants to see pictures of my dog. I don't blame them. I don't want to see picture of other people's mutts. A dog is a dog is a dog, as Gertrude Stein once said about Alice B. Toklas. Jasper is a unique and rather striking hound, but he's taking up space on the server as well as the sofa.

Likewise, some of my various sections on the site are just stagnant pools, an inch deep and a foot wide. It's time to rip it up and reorganize the whole damn thing, and stop futzing with it monthly - if the O.O. comes through, I may not have the time for leisurely rejiggering. This means finding the right font, something I won't get sick of after three or four months.

Such a font does not exist.

Wrote a piece for AOL last night - a few good lines, but it strained to make its point. Into the recycling bin it goes - I've already picked out the lines that can be fed to various characters in the novel. Wrote another piece on Star Wars, and it lacked only a closing line. I hate going to bed without having the ending nailed down; endings cobbled together the day of the deadline have a desperate, slapdash feel to them - inelegant and clumsy, a knot tied with thick scratchy rope. But I got up early this morning, made a pot of coffee strong enough to strip paint from a battleship, and watched the rest of the piece write itself.

My editor at the old paper called me yesterday and read me the message that announced my departure. It said that James and Jasper were leaving. I got a small bright pang of regret when I heard that: no more dog stories for the folks of St. Paul. Even though, of course, no one cares about my dog.

Went out to dinner tonight at Sidney's, toasted a friend's new job, toasted the termination of my own. An inch of new snow fell while we ate, a fresh coat that hid the dirt and made the world look clean again. Except no one is in the mood for clean anymore. Screw clean. Green would be nice. Last week's thaw exposed a few patches of grass by the lake, and it looked awful, like a mass grave for plants. March is the cruelest month, really. The temperature rises, the snow melts, the world leans into spring - and then 5 inches of snow falls and knocks your psyche back to December. The entire month is one long parole hearing.

It's possible I won't hear from the Other Opportunity until April. I may just go sit by my in-law's pool in Arizona all day and see how long it takes them to ask me to help pay for groceries. Get a stack of guilty-pleasure books and see what sort of tan I can eke out of a March sun. Much of what bothers one in life can be solved by getting brown and being mostly naked. For starters.

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