MARCH 1997 Part 3
One question: how much pot do you have to smoke before Gallagher is funny? One drag, two joints, an entire ounce? A bale the size of a Hefty Bag? I ran across a comedy show featuring Gallagher tonight, and sat stone-faced through the whole thing. It was an astonishing performance - a stridently unfunny man whose every gesture is met with howls and shrieks from an audience that makes the Hee Haw regulars look like a college of Oxford Dons. Gallagher himself looks common and somehow contemptuous; then he looks like Richard Simmons impersonating a methamphetamine dealer. In any case, people with melon-shaped heads should not make a career out of smashing melons with a sledgehammer. It gives the critics ideas.

Took Jasper to the vet today for his yearly shots - parvo, kennel cough, distemper, paw-rot, Anastasia's Dropsy, whatever. They like Jasper at this clinic; he was the wonder pup who beat off the Usually Fatal Parvovirus at the age of 2 1/2 months, and is treated like a conquering hero when he returns. Whenever I take him for shots, I'm reminded of the times my mom took me for yearly checkups, and how I dreaded them; I'm also reminded to have kids of our own, so the dog doesn't remind me of events normally connected with human beings. Important difference between the clinic and the vets: the clinic did not have a crematorium attached for patients who don't make it.

In the lobby was a nasty white spitz named Gus, one of those twitchy yappy dogs that won't sit down and won't shut up. They're hardly dogs. They lack dignity. They're not dogs, not cats, but something in between. Dats, or Cogs. Gus would not stop yelling at Jasper. He was furious about something, and barked without cease. Imagine that you're sitting in the waiting room, nervous, trying to read a magazine, and there's a short wired guy a few chairs away staring at you and shouting F-CK YOU! F-CK YOU! F-CK YOU! over and over again. Jasper sat down and put his muzzle on the floor and whined softly. F-CK YOU! F-CK YOU! F-CK YOU!

The exam was fast; not much you can do with a dog. They're okay, or they're not. Jasper engaged the vet in conversation, and gave a yowling oration of such tonal variety that I almost expected him to speak actual words. Which, of course, would be bad. I don't want my dog to talk. Once on television I saw a dog that said "I love you," and I can think of nothing worse. Dog wants to play, brings his rope toy; you're busy, and say no. Dog says "I love you." You would have no choice but to play. Try disciplining a beast that would look up at you with big liquid eyes and say "I love you." Wouldn't work.

A helper came in to held him down for the shots, giving soothing words and stroking his chest - which, in dog lingo, is foreplay. Sure enough, that awful red-tipped liverish tentacle peeked out, took a look around and retreated. Then a shot in the butt, which produced a glass-shattering yipe, and we were done. On the way out, we ran into Gus, who burst into a torrent of fresh invective. F--K YOU! F-CK YOU! F-CK YOU! F-CK YOU! But Jasper saw we were heading for the door, and quickened his step. He spent the rest of the afternoon at my feet, watching me work, occasionally looking up with that warm expression that I know means one thing, whether he can say it or not.

Got anything to eat?


A nightmare day, but it's all my fault. I asked for it. I asked for it in the pages of a large metropolitan daily paper. I had a piece in the Washington Post on Sunday recounting my adventures with the Star Wars partisans, and at the end I invited the clueless morons to prove they were not clueless morons by not e-mailing me. I gave me address. I didn't stop to think that I also had a column in AOL, and that I might get a few pieces of e-mail on that matter, too. (Small subject: Macs vs PCs. Nothing computer people would get particularly exercised over.)

 

As of 9 o'clock tonight, I have 290 e-mails. I've answered about half of them. Some can be dealt with fairly easily - a brief thanks for a good letter, a little flick of the whip for a bad one. Some mail goes to such earnest lengths to steer me from my heresy that I simply have to respond - when a 18 year old sends me a 4,000 word essay explaining why the Force actually is a valid religion, I have to do something. To remain silent would be like ignoring a drowning man, particularly if the man is just face-down in a shallow puddle and can be easily saved by turning him on his stomach.

 

My entire day has consisted of reading one hectic scream after the other, and responding to each individual cri de coeur; as I put it to a friend, I feel like a monkey who has spent a week living on peanuts and crack. I'm going to have to watch the X-Files just to bring me back to reality.

 

Here's a typical letter.

Hello, Ny name is Jedi Dash. I recently read your thing about Star Wars on the web, and I feel I needed to get some things of my chest. First of all, I am not a geek, I am an intelligent person. I think that you have no right to critcize Star Wars fans. In case youve lived 10000 feet below the earth for the past twenty years, you would realize that Star Wars is one of the best theatrical presentations of our time. It is an obbsession.All Star Wars fans unite together to form a legion of friends, and we dare to challenge those who criticize us. so here go's:

WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?! HAVENT YOU READ NEWSPAPERS ACROSS THE COUNTRY?!?!??! STAR WARS WAS 3 AND A HALF, ESB AND ROTJ 4 STARS. i DONT SEE HOW YOU CAN SAY THAT THEY SUCK, BECAUSE THE ARE A HELL OF ALOT BETTER THAN SOME MOVIES IVE SEEN. IT IS A VERY EMOTIONAL STORY, AND I FEEL THAT NOTHING IS WRONG WITH IT. YOU MUST BE SOME SORT OF ASSHOLE, CAUSE YOU SURE DONT LIVE WITH US ON THIS PLANET! STAR WARS RULES, AND IF YA DONT HAVE SOMETHING NICE TO SAY, DONTSAY IT AT ALL! YA STUPID BITCH!

Of course, I'm getting plenty of mail from supporters, and that's why I spend so much time answering the letters. It's karmic payback for all the handwritten letters I never answered.

Went shopping with the Giant Swede yesterday; he was on a quest to find a leather airline ticket holder. I tried explaining to him that this was a clear indication he has way, way too much money, but I saw his point. He works for an airline now, and flies a lot. If I was a gigolo, I'd want a leather condom holder. The clerk at the Coach store said that they had no ticket holders, but that "Coach is developing such a product now, and it should be available in the Fall." Developing! Images of scientists in heavy oxblood aprons, carefully toiling to invent the leather airline ticket holder. We were so close, but the stitching failed the repeated jacket-pocket insertion simulation. Back to the CAD program, lads.

 

We then went to buy shoes, and I nearly threw a fit right there in Men's Footwear. They didn't carry my shoe size anymore. Why? Because the buyers had decided no one really wore seven-and-a-halfs. The clerk explained with almost fearful deference that the buyers were making these decisions heedless of the clerks' admonitions. They're out of control, those buyers! They don't listen to reason! Please help us stop them! The clerk handed me a comment card and implored me to write the company and complain. I will, but I feel like a Jew on the steppes writing to inform the Czar that his troops are being nasty. The Czar knows damn well what the buyers are doing, and approves.

There's a trend here. First I couldn't find my jacket size. Then they stopped carrying my pants size. Now my shoe size.

I feel as if I am shrinking.


I was in the gossip column of the big paper today. It's such a peculiar life. I wake up, stumble downstairs, glug OJ out of the carton, eat whatever bowel-scouring bran cereal my wife bought, and before I've even had a cup of coffee I'm staring at my name in the gossip column. (I repeat my thesis: any town in which I am a celebrity needs more celebrities.) This article was about the disappearance of another columnist at the Pioneer Press, a sportswriter. The gossip columnist suggested aloud to the Pioneer Press editor that readers might like to see James Lileks' thoughts on sports. Maybe they would, but I have little to say on the matter, other than "find another hobby." And that would wear thin after a few years.

It was a nice start to the day. Friends called over the course of the morn to ask what it meant, and I told them all the same thing: nothing.

Today's cliche: the drama in the grocery store check-out lane. Maybe other people slide through the line like a greased rice grain through a snake's intestine, but something always happens to me, every damn day. Today while watching the cash register tote up my purchases I noted that it pegged my cereal (Apple Zaps!) at $1.77. The price on the shelf had been 99 cents. That's why I bought the stupid stuff: it did not cost a dollar. It was Apple Zaps, for God's sake - a cheap Malt-O-Meal knockoff of Apple Jacks, which as we all know are noted for the utter absence of apple flavor. Every one of the knockoffs had been on sale for .99, and I had chosen Apple Zaps to see if it was as chemically-delicious as the real thing.

If the price had come up as $1.12 or $1.19 I would have let it go; I know the frustration of being in line behind someone who haggles over every penny on principle. But $1.77 was too much, and I pointed out the error. The clerk picked up the intercom and boomed out PRICE CHECK ON APPLE ZAPS. THAT'S Z-A-P-S, ZAPS

Heads swiveled. No one had heard the word ZAPS in a grocery store context, and were curious to see who had prompted the matter. The people in line behind me were shooting hot serrated daggers my way, and I apologized; everyone responded with a tight smile, a head nod, and a "no problem" that really meant ROT IN HELL, ZAP BOY.

The manager returned with the verdict: of the eight varieties of cheap Malt-O-Meal cereal, all but Apple Zaps were on sale. Right. Sure. The tag advertising the sale price of that particular item had fallen off, or been stolen by Apple Jacks partisans who want to protect the market share against revisionist Zap heresies. I could have fought it. But I declined to buy it.

"Actually, I don't even like Apple Jacks," I said.

"They're Zaps," the clerk said.

Thank you. Have a nice day.

 

I got a new old car last night. I was talking to my father, who has decided to sell his pickup and his hated Caddy, and buy a 4-wheel drive. (He also bought a powerboat, God bless him; this summer it's back to the lakes, with that sweet nostalgic perfume of lake water and outboard motor smoke.) I'm glad he's getting rid of the Caddy. That car nearly took my hand off during my sister's wedding. I was getting a camera out of the trunk, and when I closed the hood it didn't go all the way down. I felt under the hood to find a clasp to undo, and suddenly realized there was a reason the hood didn't go all the way down. On Caddys, everything is motorized. The hood had a small winch that pulled it shut. My hand was now in the locking mechanism, and the winch was pulling the hood down onto my hand. My writing hand.

 

I shrieked a bright plea: TURN IT OFF GOD PLEASE OH TURN IT OFF. My dad killed the power and I retrieved my hand - throbbing like a cartoon paw slammed in a leg trap, but intact and uncrushed. I've hated that car ever since.

 

In the course of the discussion of Dad's automotive rejiggering, he said I could have the Chevy, if I wanted it. Sweeter words I've rarely heard. The Chevy is a fully restored 1940 burgundy Chevy convertible, a masterpiece of automotive engineering. I will have to find a garage to keep it, and I will only take it out for slow turns round the lake. It will never be my car; it will always be Dad's. But the family hasn't used it since my sister's wedding, and someday when my sister's daughter is married, I want to toss my brother-in-law the keys and tell him to take his child to the chapel.

 

On a related note, Ford announced yesterday it would no longer make the Probe. I haven't the heart to break the news to my own black batmobile. It's going to have enough trouble welcoming the Chevy into the pack. The Probe is an Alpha car. Even if its driver isn't.


Chaos theory, as originally described in layman's terms, held that one small insignificant gesture could have widespread, unforeseen consequences. A butterfly beating its wings in Brazil, for example, leads to a tornado in Iowa. (Great. Now find that butterfly and kill it.) But the theory doesn't just work for meteorology. It also works for interior design.

Shopping for a home furnishings several months ago, we found a plastic shower curtain printed with bright tropical fish. We bought it. A few feet away were some yellow towels whose hue matched one of the fish, and of course we had to have them, lest the specter of an unintegrated bathroom haunt us. The towels cost $20 each. (More for the bathmat, which we also bought.) Once these were in place my wife decided we had to paint. A workman was hired to replaster the bathroom ($80), and then my wife painted the walls blue - matching, of course, the blue in the shower curtain. (Cost of paint: $16.99) A trip to Pier One got us two actual starfish, dried, preserved and framed behind glass. ($12.99 each.) We then spent about forty dollars on paints and sponges, and my wife spent several weekend impressing an eye-level frieze of fishes along the wall. The bathroom was now completely, utterly integrated.

As soon as it was done, the shower curtain began to rip.

I went back for a replacement, and was told they no longer carried that item. The usual logic: It was so popular that we refuse to restock it. In fact we burned down the factory, marched the designers out back, shot them in the head and buried them in a deep trench to make sure no one ever gets that product again: that's how successful it was.

Fish items keep coming, through. A few months ago I noticed my wife had bought a new soap dispenser - a clear plastic bottle with tropical fish on the label, and tropical fish swimming inside the soap on a plastic insert. Very nice. The soap ran out a while ago, and I've been getting along with pump-spittle for a few days. Today I made a note to buy a refill. Here's where the whole crafty brilliance of American marketing dovetails with the Chaos theory of home design.

It was on the top shelf: Softsoap Antibacterial Aquarium Series Soap, Refill size. It was flanked by two other brands of clear soap, sold in identical volume. I read the label: "Soafsoap Aquarium Series combines enchanting designs from the sea with dermatologist-tested Softsoap Antibacterial liquid soap."

No doubt it did. But on another level, this made as much sense as, say, "Valvoline Venetian 1040W Motor Oil. Combines romantic pictures of the City of Canals with road-tested petrochemical lubricant." In short: Soap does not need a theme. Soap is a theme. I can see plastering this nonsense on the original dispenser, but this was a refill container of clear soap. Colorless soap. But unless I filled my dispenser with soap from a bottle that says AQUARIUM SERIES I'm committing some sort of surficant miscegenation.

It was also the only variety described as "antibacterial." Apparently regular soap is probacterial. When Ivory says it's 99 44/100 % pure, they must mean that it's 56/100% filth-breeding manure.

I had to laugh at the ridiculous attempt to make me buy this stuff, and yea, laugh I did. Of course, I also bought it. Any product design that spends so much energy to create a need and fill it deserves my support.

Cost of the original dispenser plus the refill: $11.00.

Cost of the shower curtain that started it all: $9.99.

 


Day one of spring, and one degree shy of fifty. Water everywhere, loose water, roaming gangs of water molecules, a mob of water. No, I'm not drunk, or writing more poorly than usual. Just happy. On the way back from the lake - which, incidentally, is on its way back to being a lake - I saw the water running down the alley driveway heading for the drain wiht guilty speed; it had that quicksilver haste you only get in spring. As if the snow knows the jig is up. Time to take it on the lam.

These are dangerous thoughts. Spring is here, but in Minnesota it takes a while to kick winter's rotten ass out the door. Mount Jasper - the mound of snow in the backyard created when some handyman cleaned off my roof is now three and a half feet tall, down from its original six. (It's named, of course, for the dog, who enjoyed climbing to the top and striking a Byronic pose.) It's now crusty and jagged, pocked with drip-wells from the overhang, sooty with blown dirt and random dung. But it's dying. The glacier on the lawn was two feet thick last week, and today I could stamp my foot down hard and plant my heel in the dirt. The tree has buds, and small hard commas are forming on the tips of the lilac bush branches.

Oddly enough, I don't have spring fever. That's probably why I'm enjoying this. I have so much on my mind nowadays that the slow crawl of the world towards spring is like a game on TV I'm watching from the corner of my eye. The right team is winning, so I don't have to worry about the individual plays.

The last time I was able to walk around in shorts and nothing else, it was the middle of October. The last great warm day, they said on the radio, so Jasper and I went for a walk. I'd gotten a phone call that morning from home, telling me that Mom had taken a tumble in the night and was now in the hospital for a while. I was driving up to Fargo the next day. I had no idea how her fall was related to her cancer, and seemed unlikely this was the Start of the End, as we had long feared. But she wasn't well and she wouldn't ever get any better. Jasper and I walked through the Bird Sanctuary by the lake, a deserted expanse of tall grass with no people (and no birds.) I listened to Dvorak on my headphones. In the middle of the field I just had to sit down on the ground and bawl. Jasper sat and waited, and then we continued. We went to Lake Calhoun, dipped our feet in the water for the last time of the year, skirted Lakewood Cemetery, the trees all brown and gold, and passed through the empty Rose Garden. At the end of the three-hour walk my skin had the faint scent of the sun.

It was fifty the next day, and forty-five by the time I reached Fargo.

Now the worst has passed, and it just gets better. Until it gets worse again. And then it gets better. Repeat until dead, or you move to Arizona.

.