FEBRUARY 1997 Part 4
 If you had a hundred monkeys typing on a hundred word processors, you would have a good explanation for the e-mail I got today. I've never received such an illiterate batch of rantings in my life, all condemning me to Hell's cellar for daring to make fun of Star Wars. I wrote a piece on AOL concerning a few questions I had about "The Empire Strikes Back," the sort of joshing you give an object of your affections. I mean, after watching a movie 20 times, you start nit-picking, just to keep it fresh.

You'd think I'd hawked a sputem bolus in the face of the Pope. One guy sent me 174 pieces of mail - forgetting, perhaps, that I could delete the entire bomb with one keystroke. At least I know it took him more work to send it than it took for me to defuse it.)

Another child sent me an Instant Message bomb, which I ignored by collapsing the window. But there was no way around 126 pieces of legitimate mail, all of which had to be processed. I'd get five letters that were appreciative, one that was appreciative but solemnly pointed out my errors, and then three that went like this:

Your story SUX! George Lucas is the gratest and U will NEVER BE as famos as he is!!!! I feel pity for U because U must be small to say that. What right do U have to make fun of STAR WARS it is a part of our culture!!! U are a faggot ass mind and I hope Zorba the Fett kills you - oh I forgot U wouldnt know what that is!

Yes, Zorba the Fett. Probably another of the famous Fetts, the Kray brothers of the Empire. I can't shake the image of an enormous Fett-beast waddling around like a drunk happy Greek peasant, arms outstretched. What can you say about someone who believes that not knowing about Zorba the Fett is a mark of shame?

I could just realize that these people are damp pale pimply virgins who will end up in ten years as damp pale older virgins, brushing doughnut crumbs from their greasy beards as they read novels with busty elves on the covers. (No insult to busty-elf book writers, some of whom I count as friends.) (Or did until now.) I politely informed the youngsters that Star Wars is entertainment, a good hobby, lots of fun, but not a religion, and that if it was a religion, they needed to get out of the house and meet some girls who didn't have Playboy Party Jokes printed on their backs. If a letter was particularly insulting, I got their first name from their member profile and used it in a reply - Jjoker297 may sound oh-so-cyber-scary, but it's fun to start the reply "Dear Robin."

I actually look forward to signing back on. There will be another hundred letters, and frankly I'm going to pour myself a nice tall Maker's Mark, find the most offensive missives, and let them have it. I mean, these people are defending Ewoks. More processing power than common sense and conscience.

Picked up some Vietnamese food tonight. The cashier at the Lotus is about four feet tall, and either 13 or 29 - I can't tell. She is able to figure out the tax with a cheap Casio calculator at a speed that defies belief, and she always says the exact same thing when she brings the food: sorrybout the wait. She says it in a charming high voice that's English by way of Vietnam via France. Doesn't matter if you just stepped in - sorrybout the wait. Her robotic tone and mechanical skills have made me christen her the Sorrybot. But today I got her off the script and asked a question about the menu item, and she responded with an amazingly articulate and detailed response, in English, with no accent. It's as if the first thing she learned in English was sorrybout the wait, and she never shook the inflection. I love going to that place, because the cooks in the kitchen are always shouting at the owner - loud pot-rattling rants in Vietnamese, right in the middle of utterly white Edina, Minnesota.

That's one of the few things I miss about DC: accents. I can never criticize a bad accent, because anyone who speaks English poorly is better in a second language than I am. In DC I heard every voice on the globe, usually speaking from the front seat of a cab. I had my favorites. A Korean accent always sounded like the Asian equivalent of Brooklynese - blunt and plain. I loved the precise lilt of African accents, particularly Kenyan; those guys spoke English better than 99 percent of their passengers. I've never enjoyed the sound of a Middle Eastern accent; it seems angry at English. And the Spanish language has always grated on my ears for reasons I don't understand; it just annoys me. French bores me, because I know I'm being condescended to.

Above all I miss Southern accents. Not gawlll-ee Gomer accents, but a courtly, friendly and contented Southern accent. You can't mistake it for genuine friendliness, but even at its worst it's a fine instrument of civil lubricant. Even the sharper Grit variants, bred to sound like wary warnings, have a friendly ring. And there's nothing like Southern black accents. It drives me nuts that Ebonics is held up as an authentic patois - there is nothing as rich and sonorous as the English language in the mouth of an American who's black, southern and over 40. A hint of rue, an occasional cackle, and the whole range of musical dynamics from rubato on up. I miss sitting in the back of the cab at eleven at night, bouncing up the rutted streets, listening to the man behind the wheel tell tales.

When people tell me I speak like a radio guy, I know what that means: I don't sound like I come from anywhere. I had most regional variations driven out by my high-school speech coach, and over the years they creep back one at a time. My editor in DC pointed out last week that I was using "you betcha" at least once every other conversation. What he doesn't note is that I've yet to dismiss y'all from my vocabulary, something I picked up working in the South in 1978. And I have no intention of getting rid of it. It's a perfectly fine word. Sorry 'bout the wait, y'all. I should teach that to the Sorrybot. After all, she's from the South.

Vietnam, yes, but it's all a state of mind anyway.

 

02/24/97

 

I met the grandfather of dogs today. Jasper and I were walking around the lake, fighting a sharp chill, squinting against the light; when we rounded the bend of the northeast corner I spied an old fellow with a cane, picking his way across the icy walk a millimeter at a time. Then he spied Jasper, and he crouched down and spread his arms. Hello, puppy! he called. Jasper's ears went back with excitement; his tail swept side to side at the speed of a metronome for a foxtrot, and he did that little dance dogs do when something good is en route. He ran up to the old man and barked hello. The old man grinned and patted Jasper's head and made the happy phonemes all dogs know as a sign of happy greeting.

Here was a man who loved dogs, and who had always loved dogs, and had probably owned a dozen or more. Or perhaps late in life, with his kids grown and his wife gone, he had suddenly started paying attention to dogs, and they were something new, one of the few new things in recent years. Perhaps he took a swift nip of schnapps for fortification purposes before heading around the lake, and the sight of my little wolf struck him at the same time the sunlight and the hooch, and he was overwhelmed with the sheer glee of the everyday world. I get like that even when I'm sober.

"He's Jasper," I said.

"Jasper!" the old man said. He was dressed well but not expensively; his cane was a stick, and an inventory of his dentition would have come up short of the usual stock. "What a good little dog." Jasper stood a few feet away, looking at the two of us, and barked his impatient command: do something! The man waved his hands and Jasper did the dance again, and nuzzled the old man's hands with his snout.

"It's a great day for a walk!" the old man cried. I said that it was exactly that, and we parted. Jasper kept turning back to watch. Eventually I turned back too, and saw the old man standing at the edge of the curve in the road, waving. Jasper barked and I waved. I've thought about that fellow all day.

There's another old man who stamps around the lake with a walker in the summer; I hope he's there this year too. One tortuous inch at a time. His posture has the crimp associated with a stroke, and his head is bent, one eye snorkeling out to observe the passersby. For a few weeks I passed him daily, and I always thought, here's a fine contrast: I'm tan, in good shape, wearing just shorts, all the energy in the world, taking the whole of the lake in a mere hour. On the other hand, a wrinkled man in gray slacks and a plaid long-sleeved shirt moving his reluctant self an inch at a time. Each of us, essentially, passing ourselves at other times. He was me, and with luck I'll be him. Anyone who walks the lake daily with a walker after a stroke has this place in his soul - he grew up here, spooned on the shores with some fine young lady, took in concerts at the bandshell, watched the kids splash in the summer and skate in the winter, and now all of life has probably been pared down to a balky body and a small allotment of waking hours, and still he's out here walking, because it's his place.

"Nice dog," he finally said one day. A deep voice with a slight slur. I fell along side of him for a while and we talked about the walk. About how the park service wasn't cutting the grass anymore: a shame. About the weather. Cold June, but can't complain about July. And then I said goodbye and revved up my pace to my usual level. I don't doubt that he hasn't been all the way around in years, but every step is part of the path. And it's good to be on the path. There's always something coming in the opposite direction.

Otherwise, little today: some web work, more Star Wars fallout. Seventy one letters yesterday, 32 today. My AOL editor tells me that there was such a commotion on the message boards and chat rooms over my piece that four people were kicked off the system permanently for terms-of-service violation. I like that. I am amazed again at the depth of emotion here, and how misplaced it is. Star Trek fans may be humorless partisans at their worst, but the average Trek fan I know delights in complaining and nitpicking - and also admits Star Wars into their personal cosmology. Whereas the Star Wars fan seems to regard Trek with blistering contempt; they call me a "trekkie" as though it's the most grievous insult they can muster. Someone Instant-Messaged me today and told me that EWOKS RULE, and I replied: If you liked the Teddy Bears, fine. I didn't. Let's leave it at that. Whereupon he wrote me an e-mail explaining how Ewoks could kick my ass. There's a piece here - I just don't know where I'll send it.

Sent the WashPost a rough draft of a column, and they like it, with reservations. Which is why I sent a rough draft: every editor needs to diddle with the piece before it has the right flavor, so you might as well send them something in need of diddling. But this editor is the God of All Editors, the absolute best in the business, so when I send him something half-baked I know the response will be brutal and accurate. We'll see if I can fix the piece, or if it's an idea that really only had ten inches of mild japery and nothing more.

Enough words. I rarely feel tired of words, but after 200 e-mails I think I'm entitled. Time to plug in the synth and make some MIDI stew.

02/25/97

Lund's was having a sale on Bavarian Cream pastry yogurt with chocolate topping. (CONTAINS NO PASTRY said the small print.) Two for $1.10, save 54 cents! I couldn't resist. Bought two. I showed them to my wife tonight, just before she went to sleep she announced that she had an odd craving for Bavarian Cream Pastry Yogurt. I fed it to her a spoonful at a time. After two spoonfuls she looked concerned: what flavor was this supposed to be? I gave it a taste. It was indeed Bavarian Cream - which is to say, vanilla - but it had an odd metallic tang, as though it was tungsten-flavored vanilla yogurt. The aftertaste was sweet yet rusty. I fed it to the dog.

Jasper loves yogurt, but the list of things dogs do not like is short. I used the yogurt as a training incentive; I'm trying to teach him to be a mime. Sara taught him "speak," which is to bark on command - a rather superfluous trick, sort of like teaching a 20-year veteran of the Marines to kill. Jasper is perfectly capable of barking for reasons both sound and imaginary. I want to teach him to utter a soft, barely audible woof. So far so good. The command "woof" makes him aspirate a slight waugh, imperious yet restrained. If any of these commands worked outside of the context of Imminent Food, I'd be more impressed, but unless comestibles are present his vocabulary diminishes.

Finished the WashPost piece tonight, but I went off in a completely different direction than they requested, so this one ain't gonna fly. That's okay. Earlier tonight I watched a TV program on Fox, a real prole-jolting special called "World's Most Grainy Footage of Police Chases" or something like that. Astounding stuff, really. The show offered a testament to the resilience of the human spirit - by which I mean they had footage of a criminal smacking his motorcycle into the side of a bus at 50 MPH, and then getting up and attempting to run away.

Awful story on the local news: someone is abducting dogs in the suburbs, beating them to near-death and returning them to their owners. Sara instinctively gave Jasper a hug, while I did the typical male thang and harumphed about how the perpetrators should be likewise pummeled. Jasper has been oddly subdued tonight - one of those days where he follows me around, plops at my feet and issues great mournful sighs, staring into the distance. Lord knows what plagues him.

The Star Wars hate mail continues to pour in. An example:

 

"I just read your review of "The Empire Strikes Back" and I'm filled with thoughts of malice, anger, and extreme violence toward you. Why you could only come up with condescending remarks about the three greatest movies of all time is beyound me, but in trying to figure it out I've come up with three ideas: 1)You're a jealous Trekkie who's realized Kirk's dead, Picard's gay, and Star Trek not worth the film it's printed on and you just want to lash out at the world; 2)You're a jealous writer who can't come up with anything even remotely interesting, so you attack the best thing you can get your hands on; 3)You're an extreme suckaholic (n-one who is obsessed with saying everything sucks. This condition is usually brought on by not being able to face one's own inferiorities.)

"I can offer suggestions to help you shut up and quit complaining. About the Trekkie theory, get a life! About the writer theory, either quit writing or write something worth reading. About the suckaholic theory, just shut up. I have to listen to enough people in my day-to-day life complain about everything that they see, hear, smell, etc., that reading the same type of babyish whining on the computer makes me wonder why I'm spending $20 a month being online. Anyway, I hope that you see the light and keep your misguided thoughts to yourself, and if you don't maybe you'll die by sticking your finger in your brain while picking your nose during the Beavis and Butthead Moronathon."

I guess I stand corrected.

 

02/26/97

 

Driving into downtown up 35W north, the view of Minneapolis beats any postcard view of Manhattan. There's enough sky between the buildings to make them look like a confederation of individuals, not a stone-faced mob frozen in place. And damn, they're big. A flat-faced seventy-story box in New York is big, but not when there's an eighty-store flat-topped slab up the street. Here a fifty-five story building runs all the way to the sky. Best of all, it's all mine. I love Manhattan, but it's all someone else's world. I have watched this skyline go up, one gargantuan hand-made creation at a time.Close up, it bothers me a little; the more I know about what was here before the giants showed up, the more I regret the loss of the old plain brick buildings that gave downtown a human scale. In my 20s I was happy when they knocked down the undistinguished little buildings, usually standing forlorn at the edge of a parking lot, but now I want to keep as much of it as possible, Which, of course, isn't possible at all.

Had lunch in downtown Mpls today at a strenuously macrobiotic cafe; I'd been there when I was a food critic, and had been appalled at the menu. Either they've changed or I have. Now free-range mahi mahi with turnip salsa and seven-gourd compote actually looks good. I lunched with a fellow former Pioneer Pressian; we discussed our various exit dramas, as well as his current project in the online world. I'd like in. It's Another Opportunity - as opposed to the Other Opportunity - and I'm curious to see if there's a place for me.

Afterwards I walked around downtown just to burn off some energy. Went to see my agent, but he wasn't in; on the way out I ran into the metalsmith who made the wedding rings Sara and I still wear. I pointed to it with pride: they worked! I first met him in 1977 when he had a little shop in the Dinkydale - a small arcade in the Old College Inn in Dinkytown, at the University. Years later, we're both doing precisely what we did then, and still having fun - the sort of realization that makes you greet the other guy with great cheer. We shook hands, congratulating ourselves.

I went to Shinder's, where every magazine in the world is sold, looking for a new issue of Acme Novelty Library. No luck. But to my astonishment I discovered a new comic book by Steve Ditko. That name means nothing to most, but he invented Spider-Man back in the early sixties, drew Doctor Strange and dozens of other stories for Marvel. One of the giants. He invented a certain kind of perspective, an omniscient view of the city no one had ever drawn in comics. Spiderman lived on the rooftops, in the cornices 40 stories above street level, the water towers of old industrial buildings. Ditko's world was the rooftop domain.

He vanished abruptly from Marvel, did a stint for DC - which in the 60s was akin to defecting to Russia, then turned up drawing the Blue Beetle for the dreadful Carlton line. I bought it all. The stories didn't matter, as long as they had his artwork. Then he vanished completely. Never gave interviews.

But here was a brand-new comic, c. 1997 Steve Ditko. It was awful. For some reason the strips weren't inked - just rough pencil work. They were little morality plays with predictable conclusions - angry work from an old man who's finally mistaken the force of conviction for an artistic achievement. It was obviously published out of old admiration and new pity, the same way that Esquire published F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Crack Up." Without ink and color, the strips looked like something drawn by a ghost. All of his characters looked like they did 35 years ago. I had the same sad feeling when I look at the late work of Will Eisner, who drew the Spirit in the 1940s and still cranks it out. It was like having something familiar from childhood suddenly confront you in the street, toothless and wrinkled.

Drove home, walked Jasper around the lake; he was pissed when I wouldn't let him play with a passing dog, and he kept shoving his snout into my leash hand and taking a finger in his teeth with delicate pressure. That is not acceptable. I sat him down and issued a NO in the Moses-Gives-A-Verdict voice; his ears went flat and he looked down. If it works on dogs, why doesn't it work on children in grocery stores?

Back home, turn on the machine: note from Mrs. Giant Swede, a call from the Newspaper Guild - my union! Taking up my cause! Raise the red flag, boys - everybody out! Maybe. Maybe not. And then a call from the Washington Post. Last night I finished the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue piece and shrugged, thinking: eh. They'll hate it. What do I know? They're going to run it Sunday on the front of the section. The editor was telling me what he liked about the piece, and I had no idea what he was talking about. The minute my head hit the pillow last night the entire night's work was wiped from my cranial RAM. I'll take his word for it, though. Nothing puts a bounce in the daily step like selling a piece to the Post. I feel the same way about that as I did when I started selling pieces to the Daily 18 years ago. Probably like I did when I was 8 years old, dragging my wagon up the street selling apples to the neighbors. After I sold that first bag I was thinking of the comics I could buy. I could already see myself swinging on my web like Spidey, from building to building, perching on the top of the skyscraper and looking over the city. My city.

 

02/28/97

Okay, God: if you have web access -and I don't see why You shouldn't - then hear my cry: I get the joke. It's pretty funny, when I think about it. But enough. Kill me now.

This day began at 8:45 AM with a phone call from my old friend and comrade-in-radio, Bruce Gordon. He's doing the news for KSTP in the morning, and I was happy to hear him back at the great AM 1500 - did this mean he was once more enfolded in the radio family? Alas, no: it was not a sure thing, meaning he hadn't quit his day job. Unfortunately, his day job was just that - a day job - and in order to do the news on the 6 AM-9 AM shift he was running himself into the turf and sleeping 45 minutes a day. I told him that there was a Simpsons episode based on this very situation, and that if that TV show was any indication, he would have to sell the pony.

I rolled over and went back to sleep. Phone rings again. I pick it up. It's a gossip columnist, here to ask my questions about my separation from the Pioneer Press. Nightmare time. She's firing questions at me that have no simple answers, and I could just see these questions in the newspapers in crisp black type, followed by my timid denials or obvious non-denial denials. One of the questions was a classic do-you-still-beat-your-wife query, and upon hearing it posed I nearly threw up on the spot. (Actually, on the Jasper; if I ever have a dog named Spot who sleeps in my wife's spot after she's gone to work, and a gossip columnist calls and asks pointed questions and I feel like spewing a gutful of night-juice, then I will throw up on the Spot.) I gave a weakly humorous answer and murmured a few other things and hung up convinced I had shot myself in every useful appendage, foot to hand to head to tongue. And then some.

The rest of the day did not go well. Even though I was working on the smallest acceptable ration of sleep I can take, I flew through the hours with red wide eyes and a high pittering heartbeat, convinced that A) the Other Opportunity was about to come crashing down around my feet, and B) whatever warm mild feelings people attach to my byline in this town will be stamped EXPIRED when this one nasty word gets affixed to my name. And for no good reason other than I meet the criteria for public figure. What began as an intriguing opportunity to better my station has turned into an utter nightmare.

 

Tonight I tried to call a friend of mine at the Pioneer Press, and discuss matters. I couldn't find her phone number, but after a search of my detailed records - i.e., the scraps of paper in the junk drawer - I found an unfamiliar St. Paul number, and decided it was hers. I dialed her up and said: Katherine?

"Yes?"

"It's Lileks."

With great trepidation: "What?"

I was stunned. Everyone hated me. But her? "What did I do wrong?" I asked, point-blank.

Silence.

"Who were you calling?"

I said the name of my friend, a columnist at the paper.

"Oh." Pause. Then she explained who she was.

She was the wife of the guy who fired me.

It was his home number I'd had on a scrap of paper.

At that point I could do nothing but laugh. And when I was done laughing - she joined in, although with less enthusiasm - I made some quark-quick small talk and bowed out.

Oy. At least we all got to laugh together. Me, the ex-boss' wife, and God. I'm sure He was chortling large at that one.

 

So I spent the night redesigning the web page. Slapped together a whole new site. Several areas are off-limits until I bring them up to speed, but most people seem to want the Daily Bleat, so that's what I've built the site around. (All the old favorites will be along eventually.) One of these days I will construct a site that's not hideous and loads in seconds. Until then, this will have to do.

Interesting moment at the beer shop today. All the Leinenkugels special flavors sold for $5.49 except for the Northwood Lager, which is essentially regular Leinie's with a better label. I bought a six, and the cashier rang it up as $6.01. Even with Minnesota's hideous tsk-tsk liquor taxes, this seemed extreme, so I noted that the cost was actually $4.59. The clerk demurred: not possible. I took her back to the cooler and pointed out the price. Then I realized the error: whoever made the price label had transposed the 4 and the 5. Since it was an honest mistake, I offered to swap the Northwood Lager for the superior Auburn Ale and pay full price - it seemed cheap to take advantage of their mistake. I mean, it's a lousy 90 cents. But they wouldn't hear of it. Okay.

It took the clerk ten minutes to configure the register to accept the wrong price. A manager had to be brought in for technical advice, while I stood there grinning red-faced. Customers were backing up. I'll take the Auburn Ale, I said. Really. No problem. It's an honest mistake. But they wouldn't hear of it. Dark looks from other people in line, glares that said troublemaker. When it was done and I handed over my money, the manager chirped "you're the last person who'll get that price today!" and I felt like a thorough jerk.

 

That will probably end up in the papers, too.

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