JUNE 1997 Part 2
If you don't like the weather, goes the tiresome adage, wait; it'll change. But what if you like the weather? When I left the house Saturday for a dog walk, I heard crackles on my headphones, saw a dark blue blur on the horizon and a slight nip to the NW wind. A brief storm skirting the city, I figured. Still warm enough to go shirtless. Another perfect day: off we went.

Jasper was on his second walk of the day, the first having been with my wife this morning. That stroll took a traumatic turn: a German Nazidog gave the old play-bow, inviting sport, and Jasper of course responded. But the other dog's idea of play was to pin his playmate to the ground and rip him to bloody ribbons. From where my wife stood, the dog appeared to be tearing out Jasper's guts in an eye-rolling frenzy. But it was all for show, and no harm was done. Still, Jasper was quiet when he came home, and sat in the shade behind some ferns. When I took him out for another walk, he didn't exactly leap to the idea. But of course he came.

When we were a quarter of the way around the lake, the radio station crackled out and didn't come back. I wondered if lightning had struck the transmitter, and I had a vision of Jeremy frantically going to backup so the world could hear the great wisdom and incomparable entertainment of the Jack & Lori show. A third of the way around, the sky was now dark to the north and sunny to the south; sailboats still sped on the lake, the occasional starter-pistol crack signaling the start of another race. A few drops fell. Big drops. Then a few more. It's just the edge, I thought, looking up. It'll miss us.

A few minutes later the sky was black, pelting great sheets of rain. Everyone had fled the beach for the shelter of the pavilion. By the snack stand people were two deep under the eaves, with one moron reserving a dry spot for his bike. People were crammed inside the snack stand like Londoners piled into the Underground during the Blitz. We're going to be wet, I told Jasper: nothing we can do. Let's keep going.

And then the wind came up. A cold, cold wind. I was wet and I had no shirt. The temperature had dropped 20 degrees since we left the house. I suddenly got that uh-oh sensation common to Himalayan amateurs.I looked to the lake: the boats were gone. Invisible behind the rain. A few were making for land, coming out of the rain with swollen sails. The wind increased and the rain started to pound cold and hard, slantwise now.

Then the hail started to fall.

That's when we ran. I never run. I don't jog. But I found the spirit, fast. With one hand shielding my eyes we ran the entire west side of the lake, hail stinging on my skin, bouncing off Jasper's head. That's a Minnesota summer: sunshine on your shoulders, hailstones on your nipples. A few other runners passed us, faces twisted in misery; one man was shielding a baby carriage. And still it hailed. Fifteen minutes later the hail ceased, replaced with moderate rain. We staggered home a half an hour after the rain began, soaked and whimpering. I walked straight to a hot shower, lightheaded and almost delirious; I called loudly for a TWIZZLER to replenish my energy, and Sara brought me one. I stood under the hot water eating a Twizzler. By the time I was warm again, the storm had passed. The sun was out and it was hot again.

There was a pile of hail on my tanning chair, a nice heap of ice. But it was gone in an hour.

 

Sunday was better start to finish, leaving out a bout of SCSI ID problems and JavaScript errors. Went to a garden party in the afternoon; stood around talking to a man who wrote software for airline reservation systems, as well as the mother of Mrs. Giant Swede, and the Giant Swede's next door neighbors. (I don't know why, but it's pleasant to be on a first-name basis with your friends' neighbors.) Left for home, and sat in the backyard reading "The Death and Life of American Cities," which I have attempted to read for about 15 years; finally it clicked. Then Sara gave me a task: change the fabric we'd ordered. Yesterday afternoon we went to Dayton's and ordered a rocking chair, which meant poring over the fabric samples for the fiftieth time, and as usual, making our fiftieth final selection. At some point between then and now she had decided against that fabric. I wish I knew when it happened - in a dream, when she woke, as she was walking the dog. But at some point the error of our selection was apparent, and in need of rectification. I was appointed.

The sales clerk met me in the fabric room. "In a stunning turn of events," I announced, "my wife has decided on a different fabric." The clerk started giggling. A portly lady at another table gave me a brief glare. I went through the samples until I found the one that was quite possibly the right one, at least for today, and the clerk made the proper changes in the form.

Off to the computer store for a cable, and then to Circuit City to look at digital phones. I am hesitant to get one - Sara needs one, for safety and convenience, but I really don't want the leash. I don't want to take it with me everywhere. And if you don't take it everywhere, what's the point? On one hand, I like the image of rolling down the road in the new convertible, well-dressed, chatting into the phone, but then again, I don't like the image. I would be mistaking myself for an ad for cellular phones, or a course in how to be a yuppie cliche. I don't have the convertible yet. I may not buy the convertible. And most cellular conversations I've seen the Giant Swede have with his wife consist of shouting back grocery lists.

Ah, the convertible. Saw it yesterday; I'm thiiiiis close to saying yes. We went to a dealership to look at a zippy Escort - two words that had been mutually exclusive until they dropped a new engine in the thing. It was fast, and handled itself with a nice confident crispness, but the clutch was stiff and the engine had the high keening whine I associate with microwave ovens. I came to my senses and asked to see the Mustang. They had a few - one was the All-Leather model (leather seats, leather wheel covers, leather-lined trunk, leather airbags, leather gaskets, etc) and cost about a billion dollars. The wife of the man who owned the dealership was currently driving it around. The other was a nice green model with an interior color scheme best described as "deal-killing beige." It looked like the inside of a bleached peanut.

I have come to the conclusion that I will have to get something ridiculously fast. On the way back from the station Friday night, the Probe was running like a youngster, just eating the road with sheer sure glee. The radio was playing "I Fought the Law" and I was as happy as you can get, right in that smooth bright zone where your car and yourself are one solid machine. I'm not trading that for a tin box. Just can't.

 

(Brief Bleat today; apologies. Came home from the show and had a large computer nightmare, when a disc that my wife had used to write her brief appeared to have crashed. The inevitable result was happy, but it took some time and much gnashing of teeth. So then, to something I dashed off this afternoon:)

Revisited a childhood pleasure the other day. In a gift store I saw a display of balsa-wood airplanes. Either they'd disappeared for a few decades, or I'd ceased to note them. But here they were now: the glider and the very cool rubber-band-powered propeller model. I bought the latter for $2.50, and went home to assemble it. The wood, as I remembered, was thin and delicate, like starched butterfly wings. First you put on the cockpit, then the rear stabilizer, then you threaded the wing through the fuselage. Careful, careful: you have to pull the wing, not push it, and if you use the thumb-and-two-fingers technique the wing will snap in your hand. Then the engine. You thread the landing assembly into the nose piece and stick it on the front, then attach the rubber band and start winding.

It's probably been 25 years since I made one of these, and as soon as I started to wind I instantly recalled an identical image from summers long gone: the winding band turning itself into a row of double knots. It is a perfect picture of the first week of June: the plane in your hand, the rubber band taut with potential energy, the prop stilled with a finger, waiting for the launch, waiting for flight.

Of course, you launch it and it dives into the ground. Then you adjust the wings, try it again. It soars up on an Icarus flight path and then noses over, flutters down. It careens like it had been shot in a dogfight and cartwheels across the lawn. It never exactly flies right. And then you consider setting it on fire and flying it. That would be cool.

This time was no different. I couldn't get it to fly right, and finally was content just to look at the plane as a talisman of previous summers. Of previous summer failures, to be more accurate.

 

Zagnutium, key to the universe!

One of those shows that defies description, but I'll try. (Skip ahead if hearing a text recap of a radio show you didn't hear sounds like something really, really boring. But you'll miss the Truth of Zagnutium.)

Had a small physical today. To my astonishment, my blood pressure was normal. My heart rate was strong and fine, my eyes better than average - with my glasses, of course; without them I can't see my eyelashes - and my hearing was preternaturally keen. I can hear gnats blink. Also took a carpal-tunnel test, and was not surprised but relieved to find that I have mitts of steel. Then a drug test, in case my employers are worried I might start babbling about Zagnutium. There's something peculiar about handing a middle-aged woman a vial of urine. I had worried about not producing enough for the test, which is a worry you don't often have: do I have enough urine in me to meet their needs? But my fears were baseless. "Here's my urine," I said cheerfully, handing the sample to the nurse. "My bladder's as good as my ears!" It's an odd procedure - you can't flush or wash your hands, even though a middle-aged mom figure is standing right outside the door. For that matter I couldn't put the seat down. It was a confusing inversion of every habit beaten into the male brain.

Next, a 15-step process of sealing the thing up - I had to initial every step, affix a wax seal and stamp it with my ring, etc. Then it went into the special Locked Urine Sample Closet until a special courier - whose job consists solely of shuttling pee around to labs - came and fetched it. It was all quite pleasant, and we laughed merrily throughout the exam. I wanted to shake her hand on the way out, but given what we'd just done, I figured it wasn't necessary.

 

Weeks ago, in a conversation about deceased candy bars, a caller brought up Zagnut, and said he knew where to find some. True to his word, he dropped off five bars a week later; we tried them on the air. Each bite ended up as a small unchewable nodule of brickle. End of story.

Until tonight, when I was discussing an early 20th-century meteor explosion in a Siberian forest (I have no idea why) and how some had once thought the explosion was caused by anti-matter. Perhaps, I said, it was a bit of chewed Zagnut - incredibly dense, moving at high speed. A caller then wondered if the expelled bits of Zagnut rose to space, where they assembled into large balls and reentered the atmosphere when the gravitational pull was sufficient to yank them from orbit. Another caller well-schooled in physics put a new spin on it all, and suggested the Zagnut bits were not rising of their own accord but in fact engaged in Heisenbergian "quantum tunneling." Which led me to wonder whether Zagnut was a fuel we could use to facilitate space travel. Maybe it's an element: Zagnutium.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if some benevolent alien race was freely distributing the tools for space travel in the form of confections. It made sense. It was simpler than handing out knowledge with humming black monoliths. And what's the biggest candy company? The secretive, privately-held MARS company. Their biggest seller? MILKY WAY. (One caller noted that their amusement over our inability to crack the Zagnut secrets led to another bar, Snickers.) And so it went, interspersed with other topics.

Then Jeremy, the producer, found a good helicopter sound, and we brainstormed over the break: maybe I'm not supposed to be talking about Zagnutium; maybe the black helicopters don't like it. So we did a helicopter bit. Another caller picked up on it, and pretended to be yanked away in mid-call. The wife of the physicist called to announce her husband had been working on Zagnutium and determined it might be another element. By now Jeremy had found a good spaceship sound, and we decided that I would be abducted at the end of the show. True to his role as the believer in deep insidious Illuminati conspiracy, Jeremy warned me on the air of retribution, and I laughed it off: what, a spaceships' gonna get me? I'm so scared of the big spaceship. A few calls about old soda pop and the decline of Nesbitt's, some comic book talk, and then the callers started anticipating the bit. Honest to God, they called in with sightings of a large spacecraft moving north.

At the end of the show there was a great rumble; if we'd been FM, it would have knocked pictures from walls. I stepped outside the Diner, looked up and gaped, shouted in horror - and then there was the sound of a beam of some strange origin, and the engines of a massive rocket. Jeremy had to close the show, and did the last minute crowing about how he'd been proven right.

The best shows end with something horrible happening to me.

I can only hope it sounds as fun as it is to do. You have to half-believe this stuff while you're doing it - I get up, walk around the booth, talk to people who aren't there, stare up at spacecraft. What a hoot. It wouldn't work in the middle of the afternoon, but for midnight radio it ain't bad. Not at all.

 

The neighborhood newspaper arrived today, and as usual, depressed me after a few pages. It's a bi-weekly record of people's inability to identify and solve problems. A story on the plague of graffiti in this paper will get the headline "Art or Blight?" Asif the scrawls of sullen subliterate youth marking out territory with the finesse of a dog shooting a shaft of pee on a bush is something we should savor and appreciate. There was a few lines of sputtering and peeping from business owners who don't like having other people's names painted on their walls in four-foot letters, but the article inevitably concludes with the usual suspects: the social worker bemoaning our fixation on the symptom, not the malady of a society that refuses to hand out free canvases and art materials to anyone, and the tagger who proclaims it to be art and hence unstoppable.

Buried inside, in the crime notes section, is a cheery note of a man who got his head caved in six blocks up the street by someone who belonged to "an up and coming gang." This happened right across from the nice little Italian restaurant we frequent, a place that was forbidden to serve liquor because, horrors, people might come there and drink it. And you don't want to attract that dangerous fusilli-and-merlot crowd.

I noted a nice little splash of graffiti on a sign in the creek today: "CK" it said, with the "C" crossed out. If I remember my Thugee Iconography, that means "Crip Killer." Last year we had a rash of these, and I actually called a cop down to take a look at it. He assured me it was just a bunch of kids playing at being gangsters. Real gangsters didn't hang around the park, because no one here bought crack. Perhaps the up-and-coming gang is selling espresso beans, or sunblock.

Another story in the paper concerned the uproar when the City Council approved a liquor license for a little bistro on Lagoon, in Uptown. The local bluenoses promptly stepped in and demanded its revocation, because they hadn't been consulted, and they have a no-new-liquor license policy. Understandable; I can see where someone in a nice residential neighborhood wouldn't want a bright blaring TGIF next door. But this is a pricey French cafe, next to a movie theater, across from a Perkins and a McDonald's, around the corner from a cop shop - in short, in the heart of a commercial and entertainment district. A few pages later, the Linden Hills neighborhood is once again fretting over how to keep people from coming to their community and shopping; a page after that, a brief note how the oldest coffee roaster in Linden Hills has declared bankruptcy, not long after someone had them shut down because the roaster was violating clean-air standards. Imagine that: the smell of roasting coffee wafting through your streets.

 

The kicker, however, was a small note about the new regulations the City Council has passed on home businesses. Like, for example, me. I can no longer have any more than five clients to my house in one day, and I cannot have more that three in the house at any one time. Unbelievable. They could probably use the law to go after gang members, if they were so inclined.

Meanwhile: Lyndale avenue is a rutted goat path with potholes reminiscent of Noriega's complexion, unpaved because they're still trying to figure out how to upgrade this major artery and implement "calming" - meaning, less cars, and slower cars.

The enemy, according to my neighborhood paper, is clear: commerce and automobiles. So parking around the entire west shore of the lake is eliminated, and replaced with a diamond lane for bikes, unused except by some haughty whippets who want trucks to bring them their bikes from the factory and then disappear entirely, thank you. Neighborhood saloons - dim little slivers that serve a local clientele, where people meet to watch a game or have a beer after softballs - presumably are magnets for loutish fools, so all the local snugs must be zoned out of existence. When Lyndale is "calmed," declining traffic pushes the tottering local supermarket out of business, no doubt there will be another neighborhood committee empaneled to find creative uses for the space. Perhaps hang banners from the dead hulk of the store for the local kids to use as canvases for their hieroglyphics.

Grrrrrrr.

Other than that, it was a gorgeous day and life is good. I love this city. Really. But cities are noise and people and commerce and all sorts of messy things, and these goddamn idiots are trying to make it as peaceful and boring as a suburban culdesac.

Rant mode disengaged. I'm going to go look at the moon.

 

Don't blame me for a Bleatless Thursday - the AOL website server was down when I tried to update the page, and by the time it staggered back on its feet the day was mostly over. On their behalf, apologies.

A day of outages, now that I think of it - the power went off in our neighborhood tonight, the effect of a hundred thousand air conditioners being turned on. Everyone got home at exactly 6:15, for that's when the image of Homer Simpson disappeared from my screen, replaced with an eerie calm. I checked the fuses, doing what I always do when the power's off and I suspect the fusebox: I went downstairs and tugged on the chain for the light bulb so I could see the fusebox. Doh. Next step: call Northern States Power and hear someone say they're aware of the problem, thank you. I got a lady who asked what the matter was, and when I said my entire neighborhood is bereft of juice, she snorted: "first I've heard of it," she said. After some checking, she said the power would be back at 1900 something. "I don't understand military time," she muttered. What would that be, 1900?"

"Seven PM," I said.

"Right."

I laid down for the post-meal nap, confident that the return of power would wake me up: I'd turned on every radio in the house, so a good blast of KSTP would rouse me. And it did. I made coffee, then reset every clock in the house. Which was the signal for the power to go out again. It had stayed on long enough to brew a pot of jake, and that's all that really mattered. I sat outside and watched the sunset. When the power finally clicked on an hour later, I was in the alley, and heard little peeping sounds from all the open windows as people reset their microwaves.

I drank my coffee - far too much of it, and far too strong - and drove distractedly to the station, listening to an interview with Alan Simpson. He sounds like a devious version of my father-in-law, and he had a pretty good Beavis & Butthead impersonation for a septuagenarian. The speech was about Social Security, and was so damned dry you could hear heads hit the plates at the National Press Club, but it was informative and hugely depressing.

There was a gargantuan lobster in the break room at the studio, compliments of Ruth's Chris Steak House. They'd brought it for Jason Lewis. The entire station stunk of fish. But there was something specifically for me: a classic bottle of Nesbitt's soda, with a black painted label, dropped off by a listener after one of our discussions of discontinued pop. I assembled my material, and went into the booth.

And yea, I did sucketh air for nigh on 45 minutes. One of those shows where I am seemingly observing myself from a distance, and not liking what I see or hear. I couldn't prod a single call out of the audience and I knew it. It got better in the second hour, although to my mortification a caller from Wyoming said I was coming in loud and clear. Of all nights for that to happen.

Tomorrow night should be fun: I will announce then what I am announcing here, albeit with the same maddening obliqueness: the Other Opportunity is, as of Friday, official dead certain, and it is now The Job. I start in July. Three more weeks like this one, with long days under the sun reading novels (read two Nathaniel West novellas yesterday, and as usual they depressed the hell out of me; I think I'll wait five years before reading them again. Read a brisk James Elroy thriller today, and it cheered me up with its pedal-to-the-floor pace and style) and walks around the lake, and then two months of Summer + Day Job - a combination I've not had since I walked away from Newhouse.

Nice little prehistoric vignette I'm looking at now - Jasper is in the backyard (I'm on the screen porch) silhouetted against one of the lights in the garden, looking like a wolf that's come to the camp fire for a snack. I'm sure the first grunting human who threw the first dog a bone had a name; I wonder how long it took them to give the dog a name, and what they must have thought the first time they called the name and the dog came running.

Good thing it wasn't cows who came on command, or I'd have a big lowing Bossie in the backyard.

 

We have birds, baby birds: four ugly bald sparrows, spattered with white fuzz that looks like the stuff that grows in an old man's ears. The nest is in a thick vine outside a second-story window, so I can peer in and watch their progress. So far, they just squirm and open their blind beaks to the sun, waiting for mom to come back and dump the grub. I'm rooting for them, and I stay away from the nest as much as possible - if Mom's sitting on the nest when I approach the window, off she goes. Strikes me as a curious behavior - oughtn't she try to stay and peck my eyes out? Or at least chatter and scold? No: off she flies.

As if yesterday's contrusion at the shopping mall was insufficient to get my dander up, I spent the afternoon at the Mall of America, the Megamall, SprawlMall, HugeDale. I hate that place; I truly, truly hate it, but it has one of my favorite restaurants. And I figured that there would be dozens of stores with my clothing size. I was mistaken, of course. At a store devoted entirely to Dockers, I had this exchange:

"What's the smallest size you have?"

"Twenty-nine waist."

"Does Dockers make a 28?"

"Yes, they do."

"But you don't carry them."

"No, we don't."

I looked around the store. It's a big store.

"You would seem to have the room."

"We get a few in, but they sell out real quick."

Here was an excellent opportunity to expose the conundrum. She said they get a few smalls, BUT they sell out quickly - as though the alacrity with which the product moves somehow demonstrates the reason they don't carry them. But I said nothing.

"You could try the students department at Macy's," she suggested. I shot her a dark look.

"I prefer not to buy in the children's department," I said.

"No, no, students. Not children. They look just like the adult pants."

I then noticed she was absolutely tiny, perhaps a size .05. "Do they carry your size here?" I asked. She nodded. "Would you shop here if they didn't?"

"We have a deal on socks," she said, and I nearly hugged her. She was trying so hard.

I moved along to Nordstroms, where true the store's famous customer service policy, the clerks expressed great sympathy and sadness for not carrying my size. Off to Macy's: same story, compounded by a lack of my shirt size. They also didn't have my jacket size, 36R.

"It's the buyers," said a little gnome with a tape measure around his shoulders. He looked to be about a 36R himself.

Same thing at six more stores. Then Bloomingdales. Same thing. A clerk asked if I was finding everything, and I nearly shouted OF COURSE NOT.

"Oh, my," he said in a perfect John Fleck simper. "What can the matter be?" I explained, and he clucked sympathy. "I know how you feel."

He was about a 30/34, which is what every damn pair of pants in the store was.

"Oh, no you don't," I said. "Don't hand me that. Every pair of pants in this store is aimed at you."

He smiled, as though he liked that idea of hundreds of pairs of pants aimed at him, preferably occupied. "You're right," he said. "That's true."

I apologized, and explained that the tenth clerk of any shopping trip usually got my wrath. He helped me pick out a nice salmon-colored shirt.

Thus barred from standard department store couture, it was off to the Gap Triumvirate, the three dependable Gap-owned stores that carry my size.: Old Navy, which is the Gap, only cheaper, had my size, in a summer-weight khaki. (Meaning, thin and cheap.) Banana Republic, which is the Gap, only more expensive, had my size. Then the Gap itself, where an incandescently cheerful young woman helped me pick out some items.

As we rung up the stuff, I noted the music: "Car Wash." I noted how I'd heard 70s music in every store I'd been in.

"It's the thing nowadays," she said.

"I was there," I said, the old vet, feeling like someone who served during the Tet Offensive seeing a teen wipe their nose on an Army jacket. "It wasn't pretty."

"Do you want your receipt in the bag?"

I did.

Next, a stop at the Hot Sauce store. They have a testing area where you can sample salsas. I asked the clerk if they had some Garlic Tabasco available for sampling. He declined to make eye contact, turned away, and muttered "No, man, don' have any here. 'S over there, top shelf." He pointed across the store and went back to hating his life.

I didn't buy any. I walked away, thinking: do I ask too much? A little smile, however forced? A little accommodation of the customer? Isn't there a middle ground between having clerks fasten on your a lamprey and dog your every move, and clerks who grunt, shoot you the evil eye and turn away?

Off to the Twin Cities Diner to meet my wife for supper.

The waitress didn't like us. Just plain did not like us. When I asked if we would be getting some bread, she said "I was just going to bring it with your salad" in a tone that suggested I had been badgering her nonstop for the damn bread since I sat down, and had followed her into the kitchen shouting I DEMAND MY LOAVES! She sniffed at my request to exchange my bar coffee cup - clear glass with a tiny handle - for a nice ceramic mug. Mind you, I am a good customer - eye contact, minimum of BS, no tired jokes, thankyous for every service provided. But waves of bitchyism rolled off her at every exchange. The last straw came when I examined the bill, and saw I'd been charged for coffee I bought at the bar.

"Actually," I said, "I paid for the coffee at the bar, so -"

"You didn't tell me that. I'll take that right off."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I mean, yes, I'd failed to tell her that, and I take partial responsibility for this dreadful error, but as I recall my Waiter's Rules for Getting Good Tips, you never, ever make a point of informing the customer where they were WRONG over minor matters, particularly when they are being genial. You didn't tell me that. That one little inflection shaved a buck off the tip, and I told the host upon leaving that the food was exceptional but the service was "snippy."

And then we went home. My wife assured me that when I discussed these complaints, I didn't sound snippy. She tried to find a word that meant both "justified," "self-righteous" and "whiny," but couldn't. Thank God.

.