|APRIL 1997 Part 1|
| Snow, then sleet, then rain. All in the course of an hour. On the south leg of the lake I looked to see downtown, and it was gone - a scrim of gray had dropped down behind the far trees, and none of the towers were visible. The houses were obscured. The only view was the inky fractals of the empty trees crowding along the shore.
At least the snow itself is leaving. The glaciers on the boulevard are receding, leaving behind crusty heaps with serrated edges. Another month of confused weather, and then the sun starts to shout.
It's Jasper Dog's birthday today, and there's no more meaningless holiday. I wasn't there to watch the gooey whelp squirt from the womb, and he surely has no knowledge of what it means to have a birthday. For that matter, neither do I. There is no particular achievement in it, merely the recognition that another year has passed without getting pithed by Fate. But still, he is my dog, and I considered doing something that give him the canine version of the overstimulated sugar-rush that characterizes real children's birthday.
Today I bought the meatiest food I could find, mixed in a little sausage and warmed it up to fresh-guts temperature; after that he got a Frosty Paws, a frozen treat for dogs. It tastes like beefy ice cream - I tried it once - and it's his favorite. The word "frostipoz" stops him in his tracks; the actually presence of an open Frosty Paws container at his feet makes him delirious. After this I gave him a fluffy squeak toy in the shape of a squirrel - again, his favorite. I'm sure of that because he's already ruined two previous incarnations. It has a long soft tail, a body the exact size as the cheeky tree-rats who torment him, and when you bite it, it makes an anguished screech like the cries of the dying. Jasper walked around the house with the squirrel in his mouth for half an hour, tail wagging at a speed not observable by human eyes, and then he insisted we play with it. He hasn't put it down all evening. Jasper is a happy dog.
My wife is a happy wife; she won her court case, and a bad guy now stays behind bars for a few more weeks. Nowadays, you take that as a victory. Not the murderer will stay in jail forever but the murderer will not get out this month.
I am not a happy person at the moment, as I have no idea what The Item in the gossip column will say on Sunday, or indeed, whether it will be there. This is the flip side of having one of those fun breezy lives where you're on TV, radio, in the newspapers - the bad side is that the moment something naughty or out-of-the-ordinary happens, the whole apparatus turns on you, simply because it's entertaining for most people with normal lives to find public figures with their tits in the wringer. I've been through this before. It's part of the business, I suppose, but it seems disproportionate to the crime - of which there is none - and my stature in town. I don't make my living by finding malicious fault or spiteful glee in others' misdoings; for Chrissakes, I write dog stories and tales of being a thick-thumbed unhandyman husband. I'd guess the overwhelming majority of people who read the newspaper item have no idea who I am - but if they are introduced to me in that gossip item, they will take away one line, and it will follow me like the smell of old vegetables.
Perhaps Garrison Keillor is correct about the provincialism of this town. If I am a celebrity, then they need more celebrities. Real celebrities - pretty folk photographed stepping from black cars en route to some rabble-proofed event. Of course, I hate to throw in my lot with Keillor, who was peeved when the press reported that he'd dumped his long-time girlfriend for a Danish language coach.
I'M NOT TRYING TO GET LAID. I'M JUST TRYING TO GET A JOB.
The news value in that escapes me.
Of course, the newspaper got it all wrong. I was actually hired by the Strib, although I have no proof, and they will deny everything because the CIA got to them; the FBI got to them; their phones are now covered with tinfoil so they are immune to my thought-beams when I call them. But the story MUST BE TOLD.
For years now, I have been having an ongoing conversation with the Star Tribune. My doctor says the conversation would stop if I took the Thorazine, but he thinks I'm deluded. Hah! Sometimes I get the messages through the headlines; sometimes I'm certain the columnists are talking directly to me, that they know everything that goes on in my brain. (I definitely know this is the case with Syl Jones.) Of course this is a plot by the Strib; otherwise, why do they put the paper on my door every day? Why the secret messages sent in little yellow envelopes that pretend to be invoices? They want me. Every day, that's the answer to the Cryptogram: WE WANT YOU JAMES. Then I ran into the editor-in-chief on the street a while ago, and he waved in my direction; I naturally took this as a sign that I would be hired, and the voices would stop. It would be good if I was hired and the voices stopped. For starters, the Cryptogram would be challenging again.
So I went back to the Pioneer Press with my list of dissatisfactions. They listened politely for seven hours, but then I fell asleep and they were able to wrestle the shotgun away from me. I was thus discharged, although - as my union representative points out - I did not actually fire the gun, so it's unclear as to whether they had grounds to can me.
That's the truth. Whatever else you read in the paper is a FILTHY LIE.
At least it boosted traffic to my web site.
Speaking of which: welcome to anyone who dropped by on the gossip columnist's recommendation. The icons on the right side of the page will take you to various writings and bandwidth-clogging pictures. (I'm in the middle of redesigning the whole site, so some of the sections have a look that's inconsistent with the blue theme of this page. You probably don't care, but I do.) FRESH WORDS this week contains the infamous Star Wars column I wrote for America Online; it generated an astounding 227 pieces of hate mail. (Although 174 were from one person.)There's a piece I wrote for Sunday's Washington Post, and a photograph that practically BEGS Paramount Pictures to sue me. It would seem to compromise an illegal posting of copyrighted material - i.e., a Star Trek picture - but the issue is complicated by one small detail, as you will see.
My friend the Giant Swede picked me up for our usual Saturday afternoon peregrination - a trip to the computer store, followed by high-fat junk food and a gallon of coffee - but I was in such a luridly bad mood that I spent the entire time staring dark holes into his dashboard. He quoted the old Oscar Wilde line: the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. I reminded him that Oscar Wilde also probably said "I'd like to be roughly buggered, even if it means jail time," so I wasn't putting much stock in his aphorisms today. Then I nearly went off at the clerk at the McDonald's, where I had the conversation that absolutely drives me crazy:
"I'd like a medium fries."
"Don' have medium. Small large."
This is a lie. If I'd ordered a large, she would have asked me if I wanted to Supersize it, thereby admitting there is another size. So I asked the clerk, kindly:
"Do you have a size called Supersized?"
She said that they did.
"How many sizes does that make, then?"
"Three," she glared. You bastard. You've tricked me with your devilish logic.
"I'll have the one in the middle," I said. Kindly.
I wouldn't fuss if my request for medium wasn't met with sharp contempt & brusque dismissal for anyone so stupid that they think there's a medium size. I can understand hating your job; I was a waiter for many years. But I tried not to take it out on the customers - it's bad for business. When everyone behind the counter acts like this, the customer can reasonably assume that there's one guy in the backroom whose sole job is to spit on the hamburgers.
Watched War of the Worlds tonight, a movie far superior to "Independence Day." It's pretty grim, and contains actual suspense. It's also a perfect primer for the differences between the 50s and the 90s. Like ID4, the hero attempts to find his girlfriend amidst the carnage - except in WOTW, he hasn't even kissed her yet. Like ID4, the civilized world is blown to bits, but in WOTW it happens at the end of the movie, which gives you a nice sense of a catastrophe escalated beyond human control. Most telling: at the end of the movie, with the world literally crashing down around the hero's head, he tries to find his girlfriend by searching the churches. The only happy ending the movie seems to be moving towards is having the protagonists find each other so they can hug in a sanctuary before falling masonry caves in their skulls.
But the minute the Martians blow out a stained-glass window, it's over for them - their ships whine down like cars with a blown timing belt and they die from bacteria that "God in His wisdom" put on the earth.
The whole hierarchy of society is apparent in the movie - first small-town society, which approaches the newcomers with tentative steps and is summarily obliterated; then government, which isn't up to the task either; then the military, which fails; the science, which isn't given a chance because the mob destroys the equipment, then God, who steps in and smites the Martians. It's a nifty social document. It gave me nightmares as a child. I forgot ID4 by the time we got the car in the garage.
To put it bluntly: it was a phone-to-the-bathroom day. I'll explain. Yesterday there was an unnerving item in the gossip column in the local paper concerning my employment status, and today, I figured, would be round two, all the aftershock phone calls that ripple down the wires when you're suddenly public news. I was expecting Serious Phone Calls from Interested Parties, and consequently I could never be more than four rings away from the phone. I have a portable. I took it to the bathroom and prayed no one called me while I was otherwise engaged.
The day began with a call from someone asking if I was James Lileks. I admitted that I was. "Fine," said a clear steady female voice. "I have a story that concerns my involuntary commitment to a mental hospital, and involves Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush's treasonous conduct in the Gulf War."
"Ah," I said. I looked at the clock. It was early. Jasper was sleeping in the warm spot vacated by my wife a half an hour before; he rolled over and yawned. "I don't really think that's my, ah, my beat. But good luck finding a journalist who'll help you."
"And thank you!" she chirped, and hung up.
I went downstairs and made breakfast: ersatz Lucky Charms. A few months ago I finally declared the breakfast cereal industry my enemy, and starting buying cheap knock-off brands that came in bags. Malt-o-Meal makes a series of cereals that are the sugary equivalent of Imposter Fragrances; they are all the products of reverse engineering, clean-room experiments to reproduce the Sugar Smack or the perfect Cap'n Crunch nugget. The packages are decorated with second-rate clowns and capering animals, but the product is nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, and they're cheaper. The Lucky Charms knock-off is called Marshmallow Mateys, and the package features a grinning parrot with a patch over one eye. Great idea, right? So Quaker Oats copied it, making knock-offs of the knock-offs. Their version of Marshmallow Mateys is Mallow Safari - one of those phrases that would mean absolutely nothing to anyone 70 years ago. I had a new bag. I ripped it open with great force and cast half the contents onto the counter. This had the makings of an excellent day.
For the rest of the morning the phone was silent. I took Jasper around the lake, where he found a desiccated stick he'd probably dropped in November, now just revealed by the retreating snow banks. He carried it like Arthur coming home with Excalibur. Once we returned to Lileks Manor, the phone calls began.
The agent, with a fax offering advice.
The media columnist for one of the free weeklies. He interviewed me once - a thin pale guy with long hair. I read him all the time, as he is fair, thorough, fun to read, and a genuine writer, as opposed to a glib hack who will sustain the whole counterculture posture until the big papers crook a finger and invite him to prostitute himself in the big soft bed of daily journalism. This can be dangerous - when you talk to a reporter who you feel has integrity, you're inclined to speak freely, and then you find yourself coming off poorly in an article written by someone you respect. At which point you have to dig deep for new reservoirs of self-delusion.
We talked for ten minutes or so. Jasper regarded me intently from his chair. That's a design defect in dogs: inability to grasp the concept of phones. As long as I was talking, he peered at me waiting for the few phonemes he understands. He had no idea I was talking to what was, at this moment in the daily, my own version of an alpha dog: someone who can spin this moment in my career for good or ill or neither. Of course, speech baffles dogs in general. My idea of a cruel joke is to look Jasper in the eyes and say every word he knows. All 40 of them. He gets a look like the astronaut at the end of 2001, when he's flying through the special effects: Whoa.
I went upstairs after the call concluded, and noticed a police car pulling up in front of my house. For a second I actually believed that they were coming because of the gossip column item. I watched them from the upstairs window - they went to a house across the street, crouched down and crept to the back yard. I saw a neighbor across the street peering at them, so I called her on the phone, and we compared notes on our vantage points. False signal from an alarm system, it turned out. The neighbor and I chatted about the newspaper piece, and agreed that people were just too damn curious about other people. Barbara Flanagan was old Minneapolis, CJ was new Minneapolis. (Note to non-Mplsians: local reference. Sorry.)
Then my editor at the Washington Post called, and said he liked the piece I sent him last night. Yay. We swapped unspeakable jokes and laughed a great deal, and I hung up feeling good.
Then the editor who fired me called to laugh about the item in the gossip column. We had a good chuckle and an interesting conversation. It was a tad odd to be swapping jokey banter, but not unwelcome. I hung up the phone and looked at Jasper and told him that I was tired of phone calls for today. He gave me the interested, inscrutable look of a dog that either says I understand or is food imminent? No doubt the latter. For the rest of the day when I went to the can, I didn't take the phone. The machine could pick it up.
Later that night I finally got around to reading today's paper, and I realized why the crazy woman had called me about her conspiracy story. There was a syndicated column on the Star-Tribune editorial page about the fringe elements who follow the Vince Foster story. It was my column from last week.
So I've been in the paper two days in a row now. Once for what I wrote and once for what I did.
The phone will be quiet tomorrow, I think.
I feel a cold coming. My throat is fine, my ears are clear, my nose is as dry as the LA river. But I know it's there. When a parole violator sees a cop car pull up in front of his house, he doesn't have to hear the doorbell ring to know he's in trouble. My head is foggy, and my muscles feel slack. There's a slight prick of pressure in my ears. Based on this, I deduce that a cold is coming. Also, my wife is on the sofa honking into her 400th Kleenex of the evening, which confirms my suspicions.
It's rare that I get her colds; I never get them. She had colds all the time in Washington DC, because that city is the world's crossroads of disease. Every embassy was full of people loaded with their nation's variant of the rhinovirus, and these germs were spread by the bike messengers who flitted from office to office delivering press releases, statistical abstracts, and disease. I'm amazed I didn't get ebola while I was there, or at least pluck some tropical rot from the floating miasma of imported bacterium.
Yesterday my wife bought some generic Nyquil, a store-brand substitute in a cheap package. A close comparison of the ingredients on the Walgreen label and the real Nyquil label indicated no difference, so why pay more? I'll tell you why: Because the cheap stuff doesn't work. Real Nyquil must contain some secret ingredient (besides liquor) that knocks her out - when she takes it before bed I have expect to find her on the bathroom floor, a cup in her hand like Socrates after a hemlock cordial. The cheap stuff contained no such ingredient. She tossed and turned all night to the point that the sheets were wound in knots that would baffle a sailor. At one point I was kicked awake by this thrashing dynamo; the dog at the foot of the bed was grunting and kicking his paws in some dream of endless chase, and I considered rolling out of bed with my hands at my side so my head would hit the floor and knock me unconscious. It was the only way to assure sleep.
Maybe it's not a cold. Maybe I'm just tired. Stress and strain and exercise combined with a lack of sleep. I stayed up last night until 2:30 AM watching an old old World War One movie "All Quiet on the Western Front." When I told this fact to my wife, she asked the sensible question: not how was it, but how many times have you seen it before? (Five.) It's a great film, and not just as a historical artifact; the battle scenes still scare the bejesus out of you. If you can remove your modern-day glasses, forget every movie you've ever watched and see it in the context of its age, its innovations - the editing, the long tracking shots - are even more impressive. As the first great anti-war movie, it's also a perfect example of the limited impact art has on society. (Exhibit A: World War Two.)
Here's the curious thing: as a movie, a talkie, with archetypes straight out of any war film today, it seems to belong to the dim flickering early days of the modern era - i.e., the era with TV and movies with cool explosions. We don't see many motion-picture documentaries of WWI, and what footage we do see is scratchy, silent, lacking in action, and contains horses. Horses! Any war with horses might as well be medieval.
But "All Quiet" was shot in 1929 - eleven years after the war ended. It wasn't ancient history to its audience. The distance between the audience and the events described was smaller than the distance between today and "Ferris Buehler's Day Off." History is never as far away as it seems. For example, someone who was my age the year I was born was himself born in 1919. Of course, he probably died in the influenza epidemic, but you get my point.
Good, because I don't. It's the cold talking. I'm delirious.
Many thanks to all the idiots who wrote me hate mail about the Star Wars piece. I wrote an essay based on what this mail Says About the Youth of Today, and it will be in the Washington Post a week from this Sunday, March 15. Those not lucky enough to be in the Bosnywash corridor can read it at www.washingtonpost.com. That was the good news of the day. Of course I am still in employment limbo in the local market, and tomorrow one of the weekly papers will print a story on my condition. Can't wait for that. The good news is that I've had the same swept-back hairstyle for ten years, so any ancient file photo they use will be accurate, and flattering.
It snowed last night: six inches. Wet heavy snow, malleable, nature's Play-Doh. When I took Jasper for the daily walk around the lake I kicked myself for not bringing a camera - every branch and twig of the trees wore a thick bead of white. Absolutely gorgeous. By noon the sun was knocking the snow from the trees - one clump struck Jasper square on the head as we walked home, and he stopped, looked up in astonishment and barked: squirrels. Surely squirrels were behind this perfidy. That's probably what he dreams about: squirrels in the high trees chattering abuse. In his dreams I'm sure he kills them good and dead. I understand. The difference between his dreams and mine is that I don't rip out the intestines of people who have done me wrong.
Give me a few more weeks of local unemployment, though, and that might change.
Damn! Also, Hooray. I carried around a small parcel of dread today, since the Reader was going to run a piece on my Situation. I expected at best a cold appraisal of the situation, and feared that the writer might take a chunk out of my hide for my writing style, my subject matter, my political beliefs, my taste in footwear, anything. With the alternative press, you never know. Maybe it would be a small item at the end of column. Or maybe on the front page there'd be a little box: Lileks Gets Himself Fired, pg. 5. Who knows? After the day's walk around the lake - bright sky, arctic air - I fired up the Probe and drove in search of a copy.
First, errands. I went to the watch repair counter at Dayton's to have a skilled technician insert a new battery in my watch. I can't get the damn thing open. You need a piece of tungsten steel the breadth of a human hair to pry the back off. (It's like the Swatch watch, where the cover for the battery has been specially designed so that no American coin can fit into the groove and turn the cover.) The repairman took my watch and said to stop back in 15 minutes.
"How will I know when 15 minutes are up?" I asked. "You have my watch."
The look on his face said that he had never really thought about that before. He gave me a big grin and pointed to the display case. There were about three hundred watches behind the glass.
"Use these!" he said.
I wandered around the store for a while. In the kitchen department I investigated a great advance in coffeemakers: a machine that grinds that beans and automatically dumps the resultant go-powder into the basket for brewing. It had more moving parts than a Grandfather-clock assembly line; the manufacturers felt compelled to plaster THREE YEAR WARRANTY all over the box just to assure us that it probably wouldn't break down soon. The box also touted the device as "programmable" - did this mean I could command it to grind my beans at some future point?
"I don't know," said the clerk, brow furrowed. "That's a good question."
"Well, it's really not important," I said. "I can grind the beans before I go to bed."
"No, it matters," said the clerk. "The whole point is to have fresh ground coffee."
"But it's only eight hours," I said. "It's not like Folger's, where you don't know if the beans were ground during the Bush administration."
He gave me a blank look, wondering why I had introduced the Bush administration into the subject of coffee. I like fresh coffee, but asking a machine to wake itself before I did and grind the beans seemed unnecessary. As long as he seemed eager to please, though, let's press the issue.
"How tall is it?"
"Don't know," he said, with the same self-castigating tone that had accompanied his failure to answer the grind query. "I'll get a tape measurer."
It was 14 1/2 inches. I frowned, suggesting this was a deal-killer, and thanked him for his time.
But I had to buy something, after all that hubbub. Close by was a display of summer glassware - plastic tumblers with tulips, glasses cast in the colors of Monet's later palette. I felt a sudden surge of nostalgia for vodka. In the summer I keep a bottle of vodka in the freezer; it's my warm-weather potion, and I could see myself sipping Absolut from these glasses. I bought four. I did the same thing last year - depressed by interminable March, I had bought four tulip-printed tumblers as talismans that would ensure the arrival of warm, fragrant vodka-drinking weather. And then I had bought new shoes. I remembered that day, and the sense of enthusiasm I'd felt about spring. Whereas today I was nervous and depressed. Maybe the shoes were the crucial part.
I went down to shoes. There they were: the same ones I'd purchased last year, with a few styling changes. The clerk explained the difference: last year the BASS logo was stitched into canvas. This year it's on white plastic.
I had a vision of my future, endlessly repeated, buying tumblers and deck shoes each March, each item tweaked just enough to make me think I was a modern, with-it fella.
I didn't buy the shoes. Got the watch, bought a sack of coffee at the Anti-Starbucks store, then got groceries at the new warehouse store by the mall. In the frozen foods aisle I encountered a woman who was pitching a fit because her husband wanted to buy a Tyson chicken product, and Tyson wasn't a union shop. She'd have nothing to do with them. There was a copy of TV Guide in her basket - which is odd; most people save that for the end of the trip - and I was tempted to tell her that the listings were not assembled by union labor. (As a former TV Guide editor, I know that for a fact.) But it would have ruined her day. Anyone who makes sure to get the TV Guide probably doesn't many other options for reading material.
I hate this store; you have to bag your own groceries. As a former convenience store clerk (my job prior to TV Guide) I have bagged all the groceries I ever want to bag. I feel a certain pleasure at falling back on old bagging-skills, but in general I'd rather have a sullen teen do it for me. But this store has a selection of dog treats unparalleled in the business. Not just biscuits and bones, but pig ears, cow femurs, pork snouts, assorted trachea. You can build your own ruminant with the raw materials they stock. They had a special on Pig Ear Fragments, small scraps of hacked-off ears cured and smoked to perfection. I bought half a pound.
Then the moment of truth: facing the Reader. There were always fresh copies at the Edina Liquor store next door. I walked over, took a deep breath, telling myself I wouldn't be on the cover, I wouldn't, I wouldn't. And if the article was really, really nasty I'd call the writer and ask what I ever did to him to deserve this.
There were no copies of the Reader available.
I drove home, made dinner, finished watching the movie that had kept me up past two last night. Sara came home at 7 with a copy of the Reader. I wasn't on the cover. I paged through the edition, heart thudding. Nothing. They didn't run anything.
What, I'm not good enough? I'm not news?
I was tempted to call the author and ask him: what did I ever do to deserve this?
Past midnight, listening to the last sad measures of a Pat Matheny album. The reviews I read of this disc were mostly sniffy dismissals, noting that the artist tended towards the melodious. As though he lacked the fiber to thrust another slab of shrieking atonality on an indifferent public. One reviewer said - and this was actually right on the money - that the music was tailor-made for NPR bumpers.
So? I wonder if these critics spend their final hours of the day listening to Pantera or Chemical Brothers, and are constitutionally unable to buy a record unless they feel the artist has a vague sense of solidarity with the conditions that produced the Shining Path. Any Metheny album has artistry, discipline, technique and beauty, every note hand-made. I can understand if someone doesn't like the whole pretty-jazz genre, but just because it has a melody doesn't mean it's the equivalent of Amy Grant whistling "God Bless America."
Four conversations with various emissaries of the journalism world today, only one of which I'm at liberty to relate. The last call I got today was from the author of the article that didn't run in yesterday's Reader. He had read yesterday's Bleat, in which I agonized over what the Reader might say, and ended up relieved & disheartened when they said nothing. He had but one question: Am I the most self-absorbed man on the planet?
It seems an odd question to put to someone who writes a public diary. No, I have dissolved the self in the endless river of time, and that's why I write about what I give my dog to eat. Of course I am is the obvious response, but self-absorption has a smelly little solipsitic aroma to it, as though I sit around the house staring at the cat's-cradle of my emotional health when I should be thinking up ways to reduce income inequality between the core cities and the suburbs.
I told the writer that I'd have to write about his call. If he felt compelled to call up the page and see what I wrote about him, that might indicate that I am not the only fellow red-lining the self-absorption meter. He has a good point, though. I am self-absorbed. At the start of my career I wrote in the first person because all my heroes did, and because I was one of the more interesting people I knew. (At least on paper. When other actual humans were involved, it got murky.) It became my accustomed style, and I'm glad: I have never gotten an angry call from my imagination accusing me of twisting a quote. You have more confidence in your source when you're making it all up.
Now I'm on record as a first-person writer, which isn't entirely accurate; I have banned first-person from my Newhouse column, if only as an exercise. The trick is to dole out the first-person sparingly, so your readers feel as though you're parting the curtain when you finally use the "I". That's my error. I had that seven-year fight with panic disorders, one of the top ten neurotic poor-poor-pitiful-me diseases, but if I wrote a long piece confessing to that nightmare, it would just look like a symptom of self-absorption.
I have ruined myself for the really grim pieces. If I never wrote about myself but suddenly came out with a piece about my prostate problems, for example, I'd be praised for courage and honesty.
(Note to people who linked here because Lycos said with 34% confidence that this was a prostate -related site: it isn't.)