APRIL 1997 Part 2
Well, go figure. I spent an entire week obsessing about what I'm going to say on the radio. I accumulate two hours of material, good enough for one show, and then I worry some more: after this show is done, I will have to do another. And another. And another. How can I possibly keep this up? Instead of spending all day wondering what I will write, now I'm thinking about what I will say. The difference is that you can spend two hours polishing 500 words. But in radio, 500 words won't get you a quarter of the way to the next break.

 

And then I read a newspaper article - in the paper where I used to run - by a media critic lamenting the fact that KSTP doesn't have any local female hosts. The critic notes that a spot did open up, and they filled it with a "middle-aged, white, conservative male." Namely, me. It sounds as if I am some bulbous dyspeptic washed-out Pat Buchanan clone who's going to spend the late hours bitching about the Vince Foster coverup. The critic tosses me a few nice words - there was nothing personal in the piece, and I did appreciate the plug and compliments he gave me - but he concludes by asking qualified women to write the station and send in their tapes, presumably so they can have my job. It's the second time in the last month I've been peed on in the press before I actually started the job.

It's funny, really. I mean, slam me if I'm lame on the air, but at least let me get there. I have the feeling that the critic, had he been offered the job, would not have turned it down because he bore the wrong gender. Not to say he's envious - I have no idea. But principle is a easy flag to wave when you've no stake in the fight.

The relief I felt upon reading the article was tremendous. I don't know why. I just smiled and had the feeling that everything was going to be okay. I would go on the air and advertise for female co-hosts to raise the estrogen levels to the proper balance, and that would be a nice start for the show.

So I drove to the studio, met my producer. Big funny guy. We make each other laugh and we share the same pop culture references: perfect. We talk for half an hour; I plow through the wire stories, have a cup of coffee. Ten o'clock rolls around, I step into the studio, and I notice something unusual: my pulse rate is dead normal. Before most shows when I substitute, there's the little pre-show thrum. But I'm calmer than I have ever been.

The show starts.

Two hours later, I have used exactly one of the 21 items I'd prepared. Full bank of callers for most of the show - lots of KSTP regulars welcoming me back into the fold. At the end of the show, I'm elated - that was exactly the show I wanted to do. This is going to work after all. I walk outside to the car, grinning: I have my own show again. And this is going to be fun.

 

04/09

Two shows under the belt, and it feels comfortable. Today, for perhaps the first time in a week, I did not think about what I would do on the radio. I just went about my day. And a damn stupid useless cold day it was, too; mid-thirties. Dismal, tulip-killing, grass-discouraging thirties. On the daily walk around the lake there were great sheets of ice piled up on the shore, about the size of Paul Bunyon's dandruff flakes; they looked immutable, permanent. The sun was bright and high but weak as Lutheran coffee. I almost believed spring was here, last week; I prowled the stores for T-shirts and new tennis shoes, wondered if I'd have a skin tint by taxtime. And then this. I leave the house looking like the Michelin man, wearing winter boots that look like I have a job cleaning septic tanks.

But spring will come, and the same chemical that makes women forget the pain of childbirth will make me forget winter until the next December, when I'm looking up at the gray clouds pressing down like an anesthesiologist's mask, and I think: uh-oh. I remember this. This hurts.

 

Jasper is at my feet right now, grumbling. We're in the basement, where I now go after the show to type on the laptop, have a drink and ramp down. It's peculiar to come off the show all full of zest and tang and then manually winch myself down into a bedtime mood. It's like winning the Oscar and then having to go home and go to bed.

Unbelievable radio moment tonight, one of those things you can't script. I'd been having fun with Fargo-Moorhead, and got a call from someone defending the honor of Moorhead. She mentioned the triumphs of the high school team (the Spuds!) and I admitted that my first girlfriend was a Spud herself. As the call progressed, it became apparent that this indeed was that exact same girlfriend from nearly a quarter century ago, swimming up from the depthless sea of the talk radio audience to have sport with me. I couldn't believe it. Yea, I was grateful; that's one of the moments you flag the tape and use as a promo.

That's my life now: waiting for good moments to promo the show, so people will hear it, tune in, and help me make more good moments for promos. Repeat until canceled. At the liquor store today I asked the manager if he did any radio advertising - we have a hi-there nodding acquaintance, and I wanted to see if he'd be interested in becoming a sponsor. It felt . . . obscene. It felt immodest. This is why I'm not in sales - I can't walk up to someone, gladhand them and convince them that their best interest is magically coincidental with my need for their money. People who can do this have souls of armor and skin like wet shag rugs.

The dog is still grumbling. I have no idea why. A few little whines, then a back-of-the-throat mutter, a sigh. One of those inimitable, woe-is-me, abandon-all-hope dog sighs of utter disappointment. It's now modulating to a peeping whine of small distress. A statistic I read the other day said cats make 100 sounds, and dogs only ten. Nonsense. Dog speech is far more articulate than cat talk; dogs over the course of the centuries have picked up human sounds, I think. I've never had a cat ask me a question, whereas dogs have learned the rising inflection-at-the-end-of-the-utterance sound that indicates uncertainty.

There's the downside of domestication, right here: you're at the feet of the alpha dog, attempting to tell him you need to void your bladder, and he's typing idle thoughts on your communicative skills. Okay. We'll go outside now. I'm calm. I'm relaxed. I'm no longer thinking about tonight's show.

Now I'm thinking about tomorrow's.

04/10

Apologies to the small segment of the world that reads this page and listens to my show - there will be unavoidable duplication of material. When I say something on the air that I've posted on the Bleat, I feel slightly guilty, as though I'm trying to get away with something. Sometimes you come up with a phrase that just works right, and you want to use it until everyone's heard it. Last night, for example, I remarked that I should have realized as a youth that Elton John was not all that heterosexual, that "he wasn't exactly the straightest arrow in the quiver." That line tickled me so much I filed it away for future use. But I hate using stock lines as though they had just occurred to me; it seems dishonest. And it seems equally dishonest to be blathering away on the air and suddenly pull out a line I spent a minute crafting.

On the other hand, radio is voracious. You talk and talk and there's still more talking to do, and you eat everything you've ever thought just to keep it moving to the next commercial break. So there will be overlap between the Diner (the name of my show) and the Bleat.

Such as the rest of today's installment.

Today I did the bills, the usual rip-and-write where I try to see the Amount Due without looking at the Date Due. Sometimes I catch sight of the due date, and if I'm a few days behind I fudge the date on the check - as if I will be granted dispensation for illegibility. Today's batch of bills was alarmingly large, but it turns out I hadn't been avoiding them - I just had a stack of warranties, subscription cards and other it-can-wait material. I discovered, to my surprise, that I have joined a book club. My fault. They caught me in a expansive mood. Some people have a few drinks and have affairs, or crash their car; I join a book club. It's a book club for graphic artists. I must have really been thinking highly of myself when I sent that one in. Next up: I'll subscribe to Professional Musician, based on the fact that I can double-click on the icon for my MIDI program.

 

I mailed the bills at Byerly's, the strenuously upscale grocery store. When I got the stamps I did the thing I hate to do in public: I licked the envelope, not the stamp. You never know what sort of tubercular soul has hacked into his hand before giving the clerk money; you never know if the clerk is using that hand to tear off your stamps. I'm not inordinately concerned with germs - reasonably so, but I don't feel tempted to open up a slit in my abdomen and spray Lysol into my duodenum because there might be e.coli there. But just as I don't lick my change, I don't lick my stamps.

 

An old woman was watching, and she gave me a look of utter bafflement. She either thought I had postal dyslexia, or she realized in an instant that she could have avoided a lifetime of colds had she not licked the stamps. I wanted to explain myself, but you just don't approach purple-haired matrons and say "let me tell you why I lick the way I do." Especially not at Byerly's.

 

I loved tonight's show. The audience, as usual, did not disappoint. Tonight's question in the Great Experiment - whereby I attempt to prove my theory that there is nothing I know that the audience does not also know - was twofold: name the composer of most of the Warner Brothers cartoon soundtracks, and name the late German Romantic composer whose first two symphonies were numbered 0 and 00. They got them both. The second question (Anton Bruckner) was answered by a trumpet player for the Minnesota Orchestra, and we talked classical music for ten minutes. It's amazing, the variety of people who listen. A long-distance trucker, a retired professor, an Irish fellow whose uncle worked in the yards where the Titanic was built, a second-shift packer of lead lures. It's such a hoot. 50,000 watts catching that late-night atmospheric skip that dumps my voice in odd spots all over the Midwest. What a privilege.

 

Can't wait until we go RealAudio, so the entire globe can hear every third word. Just like listening to the show - providing your radio has a short in the cord.

04/11

Thirty minutes from station to basement. I get off the air, throw my stuff in my backpack, do a brief post-show confab with my producer,and then it's down the highway with the music turned loud. Tiptoe in the house, meet the happy prancing dog, do the greeting rituals, pour a jot of Maker's Mark in a glass, head downstairs and fire up the computer: thirty minutes exactly. Let's RELAX! C'MON! TIME'S A' WASTING!

I am certain there are bad nights ahead; I'll be happy if I hit one just to get it out of the way. Tonight was not a bad night. Tonight was perfect. Again. Any talk show where I'm talking breakfast cereal with one caller and then discussing whether John O'Hara was better than Fitzgerald is my kind of show. At eleven thirty I had a full bank of calls, which is, in my experience, phenomenal. People like the show. I got an e-mail from someone in Nebraska who picks us up late at night, and I read his letter on the air - as well as delivered a small testimonial to Nebraska. He called. I was talking about the old flooded homestead in Harwood, North Dakota; my cousin from Harwood called. You simply can't get that from any other medium.

The audience is, as ever, astonishing; tonight's Experiment consisted of two questions: who animated the Quisp and Quake commercials? And which state was Jay Gatsby born in? (Today was the anniversary of the publication of "Gatsby.") They got them both, right off the bat. So we alternated talk of cereal and literature. It's like getting paid for being the host of a massive dinner party.

In the early days of the Bleat I described how I sometimes try to chat with the sales clerks, usually with disastrous results. Today was another example. I was buying some lounge music CDs for the show (big band bumper music the first hour, cheesy swingin' lounge music the second. I have the idea that the Diner - that's the name of the show, and the loose definition of where this conversation takes place - exists somewhere between 1947 and 1959) and I noticed a sign behind the counter:

All sales personnel shall scan-release AS the customer receives the product, NOT BEFORE or AFTER. Failure to comply will result in disciplinary action or termination.

The clerk gave me my purchase, and I said: "Did you scan release that AS I got it?"

He gave me that look of depthless incomprehension that tells me I did it again. And he actually said: "Huh?"

I pointed to the sign. "Seems like a lot of trouble."

He read the sign.

"I don't know what that means," he said.

"I think it means you take off the anti-shoplifting tag as you're giving it to me."

He just looked at the sign. He had a whitehead the size of a pencil eraser on his face, and the slightly forlorn facial expression you find on BEFORE pictures in hair-restoration clinic ads. Then he brightened. "It's always some rule they got!"

"Hard to keep 'em straight," I said, seizing on this unexpected burst of fellow-feeling.

"Always something!" he grinned in concurrence.

"Well, as long as I don't set off the alarms, we're fine."

"I guess!" he beamed.

I nearly ran out of the store. But I walked, over to the Computer MegaSuperMonstroMall. (Meaning, 10 Mac products instead of 4.) I bought a SCSI adapter to hook the Zip drive up to the Powerbook, since syncing files over AppleTalk is about as fast as shoving cold syrup up a pipette. One purchase. The cash register receipt was about as long as my femur. Then I drove to get the evening's foodstuffs: I had lemon-pepper fish fillets at home, so I thought I'd get some lemon-pepper pasta. Went home, cooked it up, tossed the pasta in lemon juice, olive oil, and pepper, thinking it would all be a nice consistent melange of A) lemon and B) pepper. It was inedible. My cheeks sucked in so fast I have bruises on the inside of my mouth.

Tomorrow: I order pizza. And then I go to work at night and talk to Nebraska.

04/12

Ah! Finally: a bad show. No one agrees, but I felt it in my guts: a bad show. Or at least less than stellar. It was the fault of Friday, the fault of the callers, mostly my fault. I just ran the first hour wrong. But I learned: never get overconfident after a good show, because the next one will sputter out after fifteen minutes and you're looking at an hour and 45 to fill with half your material gone. I think Friday shows will generally feel odd.

In a nostalgic throwback to the early years of owning Lileks Manor, I painted today. When I first got the house I painted everything: the sunroom, the hallway, the entire kitchen with cupboards, two upstairs bedrooms, the dining room, and one of the bedrooms again. Fond memories are attached to each project - the initial flush of house-proud delight over the first few efforts; the hell of the kitchen; the grim work of flensing the wallpapered room, arms draped with gluey strips of butter-hued paper; the early fall job on the bedroom, listening to KSTP; the early spring dining room, with the plastic everywhere for weeks and a new puppy sniffing at the drifts of paint chips I'd hacked from the many-paned windows. Oy.

I hit the wall on house-renovation a year ago, but today was a small job. We replaced the kitchen light fixtures, doing away with the Mary-Tyler-Moore era hanging globes with crisp silver retro pendants. One of the lights had a smaller base than its predecessor, leaving a big ring of bare plaster. So I primed it. A small job. A few minor brush strokes, nothing more. Would I drop a glob of paint on the floor that I would step in and track all over the house? Of course. And I did.

Just for old time's sake.

Interesting subject at the end of the show tonight: the show's direction. A caller implored me to find a direction. My direction, as far as I can map it out, is no direction, and I said so. Just a two-hour ramble. I mean, I found a "this day in history" item about the 1927 premier of a ballet that employed an airplane propeller as an instrument; I opined that this was not a good idea, since the dancers might lose their place and back into the propeller, resulting in a shower of meat on the first five rows. This lead to a conversation with a caller about the composer Alan Hovanness. Ten minutes before I'd been talking about espionage in the cereal industry; fifteen minutes before that, whether Felix Unger was gay; fifteen minutes before that, a talk with a Target clerk about the desirability of cybernetically implanting the scanning gun in her hand. Once you impose "direction," once you focus on a Topic to the exclusion of all others, you choke off spontaneity. This prompted a flurry of calls- full banks at the end of the show, a blessing - about the Direction question. One woman said she'd listened to the station for six years and never called, but was calling now to tell me not to get a direction. Another guy said I had to think about attracting ad revenue, and hence I needed Direction, a peg, a hook, a theme - otherwise I was just "a show about nothing, like Seinfeld." (I pointed out that "Seinfeld" gets about $700,000 per minute of advertising.)

I'll think about it. But I like the lack of direction. I like the long slow meander to midnight, punctuated with swing music and swank cheesy cocktail lounge tunes. (One caller said I had the best bumper music on the station, which pleased me - I mean, no one else is playing Connie Francis' "Brazilian Hand Dance," Ann-Margret's "Thirteen Men" or other lost gems.) It's a good show. Too bad it won't last as long as everyone thinks it does.

Last week I comforted myself with the thought that it wasn't permanent, just a gig until the station found a Regular Serious Host to fill the 10 to 1 AM spot. But last night I dreamed that I showed up at the station and the place was full of angry women clutching audition tapes, applying for my job. I was stunned and unhappy. I did not want to lose the show.

Interesting what a week can do. Before I began I was drenched in flop sweat, wondering: What Have I Done? Now I know, and I can't wait to try it again, and again, and again until I get it right.

Never mind! Weekend. Sleep. Enough.

04/14

My wife has my number, as wives usually do; she knows my faults and peccadilloes. (Also known as "other faults.") Most glaring is my curious laziness - how I can keep busy all day yet accomplish nothing. It's as if I spent my day conducting an orchestra that really isn't there - at the end of the day my arms are tired but no sound has actually resulted. This laziness sometimes manifests itself in an ability to cut corners, take shortcuts instead of go around the block. She not only goes around the block, she has a map with the shortcuts marked so she's sure not to take them. This thoroughness is required of lawyers, and it was one of the things I first loved about her - it made her the first adult I'd ever dated. But it makes for interesting domestic contretemps. Her approach to a room with cobwebs in the corner is to get out a compressed-air gun and scour every inch of the room. I just put in dimmer lightbulbs so the corners of the room don't show.

Of course, I usually end up spending just as much time finding the lightbulbs, climbing up, installing them, etc as it would take to actually clean the room. So I'm not only lazy, I'm inefficient. This drives her nuts. I'm far better than I used to be, and I am generally responsible with the big stuff - i.e., I don't carry the mortgage payment around in my pocket for two weeks before I mail it.

When I actually do a household duty in her presence, I am careful to show I am performing it with an attention to detail that is usually found in a circumcision operation. So when I painted the ceiling by the new light fixture, I turned on the light to make sure I had a good view of my work area. I was mixing the paint, when I caught a faint whiff of smoke - I looked to the stove, where she was making dinner for the evening's party, and I didn't see anything burning. Then I looked at the light fixture. It was wrapped in paper to guard against drips and spills. The fixture, I suddenly recalled, had halogen bulbs.

It was on fire.

Okay! Swing into action! The old James would just sit around and wait for the house to burn, but the new James promptly extinguishes the fires he's set! I clambered up the ladder and pulled away the paper, threw it to the floor and stamped it out. It hadn't damaged the lamp, but now the white bowl in the fixture was full of ash, as though it was the funereal receptacle for cremated summer insects. She looked up at the lamp with an indescribably forlorn expression. The paper was gone. And I hadn't started painting yet.

When the bulb had cooled to the temperature of the sun's surface, I reattached the paper and started painting. I took special care to leave a segment unpainted, so when I asked her if it looked good she'd have something to point to, and satisfy herself that her supervisory skills had been necessary. Of course, I promptly told her that was my plan, which instantly ruined the effect. I'm too fond of her to live by subterfuge, especially when everything she suspects of me is correct.

Another weekend of gluttony behind me, another week of rye-cracker penance ahead. We had a dinner party last night, and Sara made ten tons of pasta, as if expecting every guest would undergo mitosis and she'd have to feed twice as many people. On top of the pasta went a cake that weighed about 20 pounds - dense enough that I thought it was made of collapsed stars. Since the party was a combination belated birthday celebration for four people and a belated congrats for me on the radio job, the icing needed to spell out the necessary sentiments was itself about five pounds. And then at the dinner table, one of the couples announced their engagement. Of the 11 people present, only three were not celebrating something.

One of them was my friend Rich from DC, my former editor at the Pioneer Press, now a writer at the Washington Post. We stayed up late and argued about ideological bias in the newspaper, then talked about Seinfeld, which was much more satisfying. I'm amused to find that I am less and less able to pitch myself fully into political discussions with the same old bile and brimstone; I still believe what I believe, but I no longer find it necessary to trot them out on the runway and have them turn and pout. This is a good thing, really. I don't feel the need to be conspicuously, publicly RIGHT anymore.It's enough to know what I know. Contradiction occurs often enough - no need to court it.

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