APRIL 1997 Part 3
Gorgeous day, fifties, strong sun you could feel through your shirt. On the walk today Jasper insisted on sitting down and just enjoying the smell off the lake. Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the decaying walleyes. After the walk, a little stick-tossing and a mad game of chase, I headed to the tax preparer. This was my first year letting someone else do the taxes; after last year - when I miscalculated the estimated payments and had to pay a penalty equal to a year's salary in Singapore - I was not to be trusted with this matter again. I went in with the same nervous dread that accompanies a dentist's appointment. Can't just drop off the stuff and come back later - no, like a dentist's appointment, you have to be there. The tax preparer looked at everything I had for my side of the finances, and said that since my wife's information was much simpler, we'd start with her: what did her W-2 say?

 

And then it struck me, it struck me with the full and complete horror. I had every single document I needed except my wife's W-2. The whole mess unrolled before my eyes - I had promised that I'd seek a professional this year, I'd made the appointment for April 8 - plenty of time! Then I'd canceled when a deadline loomed, rescheduled for the 14th - plenty of time! No more frantic race to the post office this year, honey.I'm in control.

I was not in control. I had lost her W-2. I could see it all. Frantic calls to her office. Desperate attempts to file an extension. Doghouse looks for a day. I was doomed. I was absolutely doomed, because I'd screwed up. I'd turned on the halogen light with the paper over the bulb.

After we did my taxes, I went home to see if by some miracle her W-2 had appeared in the drawer where I kept the tax items. Of course, it wasn't there. I looked in the chest where she kept her paperwork: forget it. I looked on her desk - and there, in a stack of papers, I saw W-2 peeking out. Salvation!

Best of all - it wasn't my fault. She hadn't given me the W-2.

Why - this might even be her fault.

Remember, any instance in which my wife is actually at fault happens about as often as Hale-Bopp comet. The Hubble telescope can probably pick up the early moments of her next Fault, stirring on the edge of the galaxy; it'll be here in a few million years. I had actual proof of something that could be a Fault. It was coin to spend as I pleased.

I called the tax preparer, gave her the numbers. A few hours later she said I could pick up my return. We did a little post-game analysis - did I have any penalties? Yes; yes I did. I slumped. The Penalty would wipe out the Fault.

"Penalty of . . . forty-seven dollars."

Peanuts! I've never been so happy to pay taxes in my wife. I danced out of the office,

Later that night I recounted the story to my wife; she frowned slightly. "You didn't ask me for the W-2," she began, but she realized this violated her own sense of fair play, and she said that precious word:

"Ooops!"

It's a small victory, but you take them when you can. Particularly when the war is so much fun.

04/16

Hi, I'm James, and I am a moron. Around two-fifteen AM last night I was going though a stack of URLs people had sent me over the last few days, and I found a site devoted to celebrity news. Very slick, nice graphics, a long load time that indicates it was assembled by some whiz kids who thought everyone has a T1 line. I read the story, and said - and I quote - whoa.

It read:

Has MTV bombshell 'Singled Out' Lileks?

Jenny McCarthy may have picked a winner in her personal dating game.The relentlessly kooky ex-host of MTV's "Singled Out" has been seen nibbling salad and sipping Chardonnay at Olive Garden with James Lileks, a mysterious Humorist from Minneapolis, Minnesota McCarthy and Lileks were also spotted "in quiet backstage consultation" after a recent episode of McCarthy's high-class, new MTV comedy show.James and I are business friends, nothing more" McCarthy told reporters. "Besides, I have totally zero time for anyone in my life but me."

 

In my dim sleepy state I figured it out. The guy who's writing her autobiography is a local author; we've met and had fine chats. I figure he's having me on in some inscrutable way, for reasons I cannot fathom. So I promptly send the URL to everyone I know. Then I go back to the site to read it again. I read the item below the Jenny McCarthy story:

Uh oh.

I read on.

Hanks to get $17 million for "Apollo" sequel

Tom Hanks will earn at least $17 million for starring in the sequel to ApolloXIII, which will open next Christmas. TheTouchhome Pictures film, titled "Apollo XIIIII," will tell the story of a secret space safari to seek signs of past life on the moon. Hanks and his fellow astronauts, including Sigourney Weaver and Johnny Quest, will camp out on the dark side of the moon and discover things far more scary than rocks and old golf balls.

 

I now have to face the fact that I actually thought this had a small chance of being real, and that I have alerted everyone to my dunderheadedness. So I sent everyone a NEVER MIND letter and slunk off to bed, dreading my mailbox in the morning. Most correspondents were kind; one was in awe at how deeply I had been hooked. I'll never believe anything on the web again.

On the other hand, it was fodder for the show. Everything's fodder for the show. Tonight's was average, and if this is average, I'm happy. The first 20 minutes always feel creaky, though; I think tomorrow I'll announce that the show is now two hours long, and start first with the second hour, eliminating the first hour entirely.

The ice is off the lake, and sailboats were out today. A jot of rain, and everything will green up. At this time of year around here, "green" becomes a verb, and it's future perfect. The lilac bushes are budding; tulips are shoving up through the soil, and daffodils have already shouldered aside the dead bodies of the crocuses slain in last week's cold snap. Some of the lawn is still green from last year, but it's a odd dead green, a sort of Shroud-of-Turin impression of the dead lawn, soon to resurrect. Not soon enough. I want to walk around the garden and slap everything to life, find that small clump of snow hiding in the shadows and beat it with an axe, smear myself with MiracleGro and stand in the yard shouting What are you all waiting for? Let's go! We got heaven to make here and time's wasting!

It will be too short, as usual - five months of bliss before we're kicked back into the freezer again, but spring here is like the moments following childbirth - some chemical is secreted in the Minnesotan's brain that makes us all forget the interminable misery that preceded the joy.

But we're not there yet. Almost, but not yet. Push, dammit! PUSH!

04/17

Had lunch today with Mitch Perlstein, a fine fellow, head of the Center for the American Experiment. It's a conservative think tank in Minnesota, which is a little like a mosque in Vatican City. We had lunch at the Nankin, which in Minneapolis' past was the main Chinese restaurant - and at a time when "Chinese" meant "chop suey" and "chow mein." We had the buffet, which for all I know consisted of chop suey and chow mein. There were deep-fried cylinders - eggrolls, I think - and deep-fried triangles, which contained something vaguely fishy. One bin seemed to contain deep-fried batter. Chunks of tasty batter, deep-fried and coated with deep-fried crumbs. Another pan of glistening meat with rice and bright peas, and then - for dessert - deep-fried bread. I loved it all. Add some of that Chinese mustard (contents: gasoline) and soy sauce, and it was gooood eating. I also felt as if I would spit small fat globules out of my pores if anyone poked me.

After the lunch and a tour of the offices, I went over to the record store for music for the show. I bought a great album of swank lounge classics, big broad finger-popping numbers with a hubba-hubba swing. Sped home, took Jasper around the lake. He found perhaps the biggest stick of the season - it was twice as long as he was, and when he gripped it in his jaw he looked like one of the flying Wallendas doing a tightrope act. He gave it up after a while, but not before he nearly jammed it into the spokes of a passing bicyclist. It would have been something to see - a grim panting whippet-thin wraith in spandex tossed in the air, the stick helicoptering through the air into the bushes, Jasper looking stunned, me wondering whether to apologize or run.

 

Stayed up way too late last night. I watched a little of the TV I've taped, and then stumbled upon a boxing match. Two stiffs, but the announcers did their best. Sizing up one fighter, they gave his strengths and weaknesses. "Strengths: can kill a man with his little finger. Has a reach of seven feet. Weakness: Lacks discipline; easily confused; slightly less intelligent than a fistful of wet cardboard." And the other guy: Strengths: Clever strategist. Good baritone. Weaknesses: no power."

Now, in boxing, you'd think the absence of power would be a handicap. Sure enough, the no-power guy rained blows on his adversary, but he might as well have attempted to slap him unconscious with bags of cotton candy. I watched a few rounds in that blurry groggy state where you can't marshal the energy to turn off the TV, let alone get up and walk to bed. Then I turned it off and bellyflopped into Nod.

Good day, really. Cold, but good. At 12:20 I was flying down the highway in an exceptional mood, having just nailed the show cold, if I can say so. Full phone banks at 11:30 PM: that just doesn't happen. But it does. And so I drove fast and rolled down the window and played the radio as loud as it would go. I'm not an Elvis man, but he was singing "Blue Suede Shoes," and at the time it was the best song in the world.

Jasper is having a dream. His paws are twitching - the pads opening and closing - and his nostrils flex as though he's drinking something in. Dogs would dream not in color but in smell, I guess. His eyelids are flickering in canine REM. Now it's passed; the drama is over. Maybe he's dreaming of squirrels or high-haunched poodles with a come-hither yip. Or maybe he's thinking of the stick at the lake. I know the feeling: once you get something in your mouth and it's fun to bite, you just don't want to drop it. You want to chew it 'til it's gone.

04/18

Summer of 1987: the car had a flat tire. I'd hit a metal edge of a sewer grate and blown the tube, and now I couldn't get to work - which, at the time, was an afternoon talk show on KSTP. My producer came for me, and we did the show; the next week I had my local city councilperson as a guest, and I harangued her about this shoddy curb. A week later a crew showed up and fixed it. Eventually she ended up as a talk show host on KSTP, and I moved on.

Spring of 1997: the car doesn't work. It has a tendency to overhead, so I'd left the hood up - and after five hours, with the cylinder head stone-cold, it still couldn't muster the will to turn over. On the way out to the car I'd thought: wouldn't it be ironic if on this night, when Sara has the other car, the Probe doesn't start? And yea, verily, so it came to pass. One brief hot sluice of panic: How the hell am I going to get to work? I had one hour before I was on the air. It takes 30 minutes to get to the station. Most people, when they're late, they give the old so-sorry rueful duck of the head, and get on with the day; if I'm late, there is a conspicuous absence of me. I discover that I am a vital part of my show.

I call the Giant Swede and beg a ride. He zooms up in the Saab rocket, and off we go at a hellacious pace, riding everyone's bumper up 35 W to highway 36. I actually end up in the studio earlier than I normally do.

I gave the Giant Swede a tour of the station, and since he's a faithful listener he enjoyed seeing the shop. A few cups of coffee to further jangle the nerves, and WHAM, we're on.

Sara came to get me at midnight, and I gave her a tour of the studio. It's fun to see people's expressions when they see a Real Radio Station - it's an odd cramped word factory full of inscrutable machinery, the little curtained room in the Wizard's hall where the levers and dials run the big shouting head. (I had the same feeling when I went to see Minnesota Public Radio's operation.) It is a cool place to work, really - for all the humming banks of equipment, gigantic tape reels, closets of tubes and wires, it all comes down to one chair, one microphone, one pair of headphones, one person. The entire operation - sales staff, generators, the tall towers with the red lights blinking a stately tempo - is devoted to turning the aspirations of an individual into money.

Tonight's audience, as usual, was astonishing. I inaugurated a new feature where I review the catalogs that come in the mail, and I had fun with a Rubbermaid Industrial Container catalog. Two calls from people who used one of the products I described. Earlier I asked what Martin Luther used to throw at the devil when he saw Old Scratch in the corner of his room. All the lines lit up. An air travel question provoked a caller from Wyoming. I've never had this much fun in radio; if the car wouldn't start I'd walk the 30 miles to the station.

 

The Chinese restaurant I described in yesterday's Bleat filed for bankruptcy hours after I left it. I take no responsibility.

 

Talked to my father in Fargo tonight; the homestead is dry but the farmland is submerged. All my land is under water. He said he took the plane up to look around - the Red River stretches twenty miles wide now, an event that happens twice in a millennium. (Or so they say. Records from 1297 are spotty at best.) He still has snow in the backyard. Biblical inundation and snow: April in the plains.

Back in 1969 we had a flood in Fargo, and Dad's station was deep under water. I remember driving past and thinking Cool! Different! But how he must have worried. You can't make money when the waters come. The station was still new then, still clean, a fresh white outpost on the edge of the new interstate; it must have been awful to watch the water swallow it whole and drown your livelihood. I found a photo, and the colors are washed out, the details faded. The worst thing in a man's life ends up as a notch on a pole describing a historic crest. And eventually the pole leans; kids rock it back and forth on their way home from school. The sign fades and people forget.

I really should be there. If only to look at the water and say nothing.

04/19

Friday now feels like Friday. For the last three years Friday has meant no more or less than any other day; I worked at home, and so the whole idea of hearing the quitting-time whistle and sliding down the dino's tail for the weekend was foreign. My last protracted office job, in DC, contained four years of Friday, and that usually meant a double ration of Jim Beam at six, leaving me in a deceptive state of fuzzy elation. Most nights I walked home, a thirty minute haul from dead soulless downtown DC through prissy gentrified Dupont Circle, up the incline of Columbia Road - God's Stairmaster, I called it - and into the blaring trash-strewn enclave where I lived. The combination of exercise and distaste usually left me sober by the time I got home. Some nights we would assemble some co-workers for a night out, and stand on the street with our hands out like hooks waiting for a cab to come and yank us off to supper. That was Friday.

Now that I actually have a Mon-Fri job, Friday tastes like Friday - but even though I have that fin de semain spirit at six PM, it's misplaced: I still have to go to work Friday doesn't start until Friday is over. At midnight, my Friday begins.

Week two - my longest, protracted stint on radio in ten years - ended with something I never thought I would see: full phone banks at 11:45 PM on Friday. (And I wasn't doing abortion or gun control, the desperate host's friends.) I'm happy if all the lights are blinking at 11:10 on a Wednesday, but to get that many callers on a Friday night was astonishing. It was one of those nights where I packed up my papers and notes 20 minutes before the show ended, because I knew I wouldn't need any of the Emergency Backup Filler Material. Now it's done, and I can have a normal weekend. I'll spend it looking for bumper music.

 

On the news today I heard that the Fargo dike gave way, and a North Fargo high school was flooded. I picked up the phone and punched the home numbers - the high school is two blocks from my house. No answer. No answer at my sister's place. I called the station, and Harvey the Bookkeeper told me it was Oak Grove, the private school, that was flooded. Whew. Not that I have great nostalgia for my old high school - that whole period seems to have been performed by something with less sense and more hair, someone I hardly remember, someone whose handwriting doesn't look like mine at all. Most of what I recall embarrasses me. But the high school stands on the old fairgrounds, where I first took a ferris wheel on a slow high spin in the sky. Where I swam at the municipal pool in the summer. If it's flooded, it's partly because I'm not there to help sandbag. I don't know why I feel like I'm a draft dodger watching the war from Canada, but I do.

 

Another salvo from the Star Wars Virgin Brigade. I was taunted by one of the pasty children as I was doing some 'net research, and he thought his words cut deep: "I put your piece on my web site. Oh yeah you don't know what the web is do you."

I eventually responded that I was well aware of the web, and that I was now leaving the web to rejoin real life, and I suggested he do the same.

"THIS IS REAL LIFE YOU BABOON!" he wrote back.

That's the most amusing - and alarming - thing I'd heard all day. He believes in Chewbacca. Of course, the people who listen to the show after mine believe in the Hale-Bopp spaceship.

I believe it's the weekend. I have a Harold Lloyd movie on tape, and I'm going to stay up until three watching it. Just because I can.

 

04/21

Well, that was a manly day of manly effort. Hewed wood, carried water, anti-aliased some graphics. It was the first weekend that felt like spring - Sunday the air had the warmth interwoven with the breeze, not a hot sun bouncing off a cool wind. You could catch the scent of grass and wet earth in the air. In the fall, when it gets to be this temperature, we all put on long pants, because it's getting cold. In the spring, at 60 degrees, we put on the shorts because it's getting warm.

I put up the screens, never a pleasant task. I have to get up on the ladder, unhinge the glass panes and totter backwards down the ladder holding the glass - it's a silent-movie comedy scene waiting to happen. I also decided to take out the dead tree that sits in the corner by the porch, and that meant hacking out roots that curled around the foundation of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Then I started to take off some planks from the porch to repair them, and discovered that one corner of the porch is almost completely rotted away. It will be easy to fix. About as easy as fixing the muffler on a car with four flats and no jack.

Did one page of the Diner web site today, violating nearly all my rules: it takes longer than 30 seconds to load, and has a whomping 250K wav people can summon up if they please. I probably would have had the whole site up this weekend, but I realized that I don't have my producer's bio - in fact, I've been so self-absorbed with the show I haven't asked him any questions about himself. I feel like some foppish dilettante who doesn't know whether his butler is married. We'll rectify this tomorrow; if things are slow I want to make my interrogation of him a regular feature. We will learn his character entirely through his answer to open-ended philosophical questions.

 

The flood stories have now switched to Grand Forks, away from Fargo; since I have no connection to GF other than a few high-school memories of an extremely depressing brown prairie town of dead snow and squat brick buildings, it doesn't nail me the way the Fargo stories did. But in fact it's worse. Of all things to happen in the middle of a flood, the downtown caught fire. First a blizzard in the midst of a flood, and now a fire; next the plague of locusts, and the death of all first-born sons. If there was some extraordinary boon to living in GF - say, gold coins pattered from the sky every Thursday - I could imagine people living there. But it's cold all the time and it's not a pretty town. I'm probably too unkind; I'm sure it has its bucolic views, but so did Buchenwald if you looked at the sky. And now whole neighborhoods are gone - the water's up to the eaves. Everyone's house is a private stateroom on a foundered ship.

Why does anyone live there? Well, you have to understand that a flood doesn't happen often. In fact, one of the virtues of North Dakota life is that nothing happens often. The good things happen enough, and the bad things happen rarely. People live there because you can open the window and breathe the air without getting a chestful of bus-perfume; the grates on the sidewalk don't blow up gusts of electrified-bum-pee like they do in New York, and everything is so clean you can eat off it. (Unfortunately, all there is to eat is Swedish Meatballs.) It's big enough so you can't walk from the center of town to the edge in less than an hour, but you can drive to the fields in ten minutes. Kids are safe and the worst of the world seems very far away.

And then this happens: the old slow vein in the middle of town rises up and swallows everything. You fear the world that's out beyond, but then your own world turns on you. It's like being afraid of lions all your life, and one day the trusty family dog bites your nose off.

Time to call home, and see if the dike at the farm is holding. In the great flood of 1897, there was another house at the farm, and I imagine they sandbagged it. That was Grandpa and Grandma's house, and it's gone now ten years, knocked down because everyone who lived there had died or moved, and the cost of upkeep outweighed the sentimental value. We erase more than the water ever could, really. I don't know why we're surprised when the water follows our example.

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