APRIL 1999 Part 3
I fear we are in for another cold wet spring, a drizzly miserable May. No. Please, no. That would make three in a row. I understand that weather is cyclical, and that these springs will be repaid with warm dry springs in the future. But I might get hit by a car. An asteroid might hit; the mantle might burst and the magma bubble up and consume all. I've never liked the postulate "Life is short, eat dessert first" because it implies that someone might shoot you in the head twixt the appetizer and main course, or you might pitch over into your bernaise sauce of a massive infarction. But life is short, and spring is a reprise of youth & promise; given the brevity of the green seasons here in Minnesota, a cold dark spring is a pox on everyone's mood, an insult, a frosty speculum, a slap in the face and a kick in the nuts. SUN! I WANT SUN!

I think I complained about this last year, and I know I complained about this two years ago - I have the radio show tapes to prove it - and I probably complained about it in 97. Wow: Three years of Bleats.


Hmm: gosh. Given the flame-out rate of daily websites, I wonder if this puts me in some august club of perpetual blather-peddlars.

I await my gilded award.

Good day at Lileks Manor; my wife learned today that she won her state Supreme Court case. That's a large leafy laurel, and she's quite tickled. Five-two decision, too. It happened while she was on her business trip, so she didn't know anything about it until she got back to work. I wish I'd known; it would have been fun to meet her at the airport last night with the news. Instead, she came home to dead plants and a confused dog. I had completely neglected to water the greenery, so the house looked like an Agent Orange testing facility; the dog was utterly plussed upon seeing her again: he figured she was dead. Gone. This is the dog's lot in life: the dead regularly spring from the grave and expect you to act like everything's normal.

But everything is normal now. I went to work, wrote a million words, edited them down to 24 inches. I wrote a barking screed about my paper's decision to drop The Norm, a comic strip I really enjoyed. Of all the strips to drop, I wouldn't have chosen that one; any strip that puts the characters in Hopper's "Nighthawks" and has a character who owns an iMac is a strip I like. It was replaced with a strip called "Boondocks," which has an interesting drawing style - I've seen some non-strip examples of the artist's work, and he's pretty good. But there's an interesting racial subtext in this matter. "The Boondocks" concerns the adventures of four black inner-city children relocated to a rich white suburb. One of the kids, Huey, is described as a radical scholar; I can only guess he's named after Huey Newton, revolutionary & drug dealer. (I may be wrong. And Calvin and Hobbes aren't named after philosophers, and Arlo and Janis aren't named after 60s rock icons.) There's Jazmin DuBois, whose parents initiated the NAACP lawsuit that forcibly integrated the suburb. (That's an entirely different issue I'd like to see explained; as it stands, it suggests that housing prices in and of themselves are unconstitutional.) Her name is an obvious reference, and she's probably meant to stand in for the Talented Tenth; her biracial heritage sets her up for tension with Huey, who seems to think she's not acting black enough. Then there's a younger kid who is "obsessed with gangster culture;" in one of the strips that ran in the Source, his first impulse upon landing in suburban is to carjack a neighbor's whip and head back to the hood.

Based on what I've seen of the strip, I'm glad we're running it, just because it's nervy. It has more currency than Family Circus - not that such an accomplishment would be difficult; the Dead Sea Scrolls are more current than the Family Circus. I just wish the paper hadn't canceled The Norm to run it. Norm's best friend Ford is a black man, a professional; they talked about sports and women and Star Wars, and race just didn't seem to be the dominant factor in their friendship. It would have been a nice counterweight to a strip where a black kid's first question upon entering the suburbs is "where are all the liquor stores?" One can argue about which character most accurately describes what it's like to be black in America; one can write book-length theses on the politics of comics pages. One person can read a comic strip where the black kid threatens to beat the white kid to death for expressing interest in his hair, and understand that these sentiments would go unnoticed in a strip without the racial overtones. (It's pure Bloom County, this strip.) Another person can read the same strip and wonder what sort of stereotypes are being reinforced. Gee, I guess all REAL blacks are sullen thugs.

You have to be stupid not to see how the author undercuts & gently ridicules his character's radicalism; likewise, you have to be stupid not to see how the undercutting is a necessary trick that makes the messages more palatable.

As I said, I'm glad we're running the strip. But bring back the Norm! There's room for all. Can't we all just get along?

Stupid question.

AM Radio news: the Hit Parade of the Dead. Whenever you hear a song in the newscast at the top of the hour, it means someone kicked the bucket. Driving home today, listening to KSTP, I heard the network feed play a few bars of Al Hirt’s “Java,” and I thought: damn, Al’s dead. And so he was. My dad bought that record; I can still see the 45 label - burnt orange with black letters. The odd thing about the song, now that I think about it, is that it starts with this strange, almost-pentatonic hoedown riff which is usually associated with the violin - and then it turns into a trumpet song. Go figure.

For reasons I can’t recall I once looked up Al Hirt in our paper’s photo archives, and discovered he had two incarnations: plump & successful, and failed & grotesquely obese. At a certain point in his career the poised and polished studio portraits were replaced by grainy wire service pictures: Al, face obscured with greasy lank hair, is hospitalized for Systemic Largeness. Alarmingly Grizzled Al meets the press, mumu-clad, to tout his new diet regimen. Al Hirt, draped in a sheet but smaller than Gibraltar, returns to the stage. Poor fellow. Well, he had a seven-decade run, and his clear jaunty style has been immortalized on a few key records. He may not have had any popular profile in the last quarter century, but few are the artists whose death requires that his hit be played at the top of the hour. What are they going to do when Sean Combs dies? Play “Every Breath You Take?”

I should be downstairs sitting in front of the TV, yielding the occasional blurry beer-burp, paging through the cable channels until I hit a documentary on Egypt. Or the Nazis. Or a Joe-Bob movie. It’s been a while since I sat in the big chair and let the tepid wind of TV paste me in place; I miss it. As it is, I just get a few snatches at the end of the day, and by then it’s all iron-bosomed women selling fitness machines, or fleshy pundits bitching on the cable news shows. I haven’t done a damn thing tonight of consequence - oh, I tried; scanned and tweaked and threw together some graphics for the May version of the site. Read a chunk of the massive and vaguely engaging Hitler biography by Ian Kershaw. Best feature of the book: a grade-school picture of little Hitler, arms crossed in defiance, an imperious glower on his puny mug. A distasteful bastard from the get-go. If ever the future sends back an agent to strangle him in his youth, it will be an easy assignment: the kid’s face just bleeds blank contempt.

Went to the coin store today as part of my afternoon stroll. The proprietor has filled his shelves with all sorts of dusty treats - it’s like a little museum. Tickets for the Minnesota vs. Michigan football game from 1935. A bookmark given to people who toured the NBC studios when Radio City opened. An old Monopoly game. Currency from all over the world. I love it. I go there twice a week, look at the items I want to buy, then I leave. Eventually I buy them. Tomorrow I will drop forty bucks on what someone might consider rusty junk - but to me it’s a bit of history heading for the lip of the dam, and it’s up to me to rescue it.

Part of the pleasure of collecting things, I’m convinced, is not looking at what you’ve collected. You deny yourself the fruits of your own efforts, because you worry that you’ll spoil the pleasure if you pore over your items every day. You imagine some perfect autumn evening with a roaring fire, a snifter of something potent and amber, your scrapbook in your lap, relishing the details of your diligent search. But that never happens. The joy is in the hunt, the acquisition, the fixing of the purchase in the collection - and then you forget about it. I was amazed to discover tonight that I have a postcard of the Toy Fair building from 1913, as well as before-and-after views of the corner of 5th and 42nd, where one of my favorite (and generally ignored) skyscraper stands.

I mention this because I just noticed that the Zoned Squares of my bookshelves are getting sloppy. I have three Crate & Barrel shelves made up of 10 squares each, and half the real estate is devoted to a theme. Each represents a passing mania, filled with residue of a passing fancy. One has old Zippos. Another contains old political convention stuff - tickets from 1892, ribbons from ‘52. There’s a batch of things with vague 50s connotations - an old A&W Root Beer mug, a perfectly preserved Dairy Queen cup from the mid-50s (Lord knows how that survived) a Holiday Inn ashtray, a painted 7-Up bottle. One square is devoted to Cozumel - shells, bottled sand, drink stirrers, a few pesos, painted fish, a Day of the Dead skeleton, a bottle of cerveza Leon. Another square is devoted to boyhood: Tom Swift novels, some fireworks, an ancient cracked Spider-Man comic book, an inert transistor radio, and a Star Trek communicator I made when I was 12.

As I add to each theme, the tableau gets messier, more crowded. There are Cozumel matches and a Toy Fair commemorative ViewMaster sitting on top of a display case containing Actual Titanic Coal. I will arrange all these items carefully, well aware that whatever order I impose will be tossed out the moment the collections pass from my hands. Then it’s all up to someone else to reorder the jetsam of my idle fascinations into a shape that fits their world view.

The more you collect, the more you understand why warty gouty plutocrats bequeath their collections to museums, and stipulate that no one shall sunder the assemblage. What man hath joined together, let no man set apart.

You know how I know that I haven’t even begun to approach the art of collecting seriously? No duplicates. Nothing is for sale. I’ve nothing to trade. If I own it, I want it, and I’m not letting go.

Well, maybe the transistor radio. I’d swap that for an Al Hirt recording of “Java.” If I collected that sort of thing. Which I don’t. Yet.

There’s an Entertainment Weekly on the toilet tank (hmm: that could be a Police lyric: There’s an Entertainment Weekly on the toilet tank / that’s my soul up there) with Julia Roberts on the cover. Another summer, another failed Julia Roberts movie. Have I seen any of them. ANY of them? No. Yes: Pelican Brief. Saw it in Washington, sitting upstairs in the faded yet still somewhat glamorous Uptown theater. I remember it was beautifully shot and somewhat ridiculous, and I recall that Ms. Roberts was one of those movie stars who are stars because we’re told she’s a star; otherwise, why would she be in these expensive, ultra-hyped movies? Personally, I think she looks peculiar, like a wax mask that’s just begun to feel the effects of high heat. On the cover of Entertainment Weekly (hmm: a Dr. Hook lyric) she wears the standard-issue high-watt smile as an utterly disinterested Hugh Grant plants a dry kiss on her cheek. This is the image that’s supposed to make me buy the magazine, visit the website, see the movie. Why? Because they are Stars, and because they’re prettier than me.

Well, sorry, but it takes a bit more than that. Hugh Grant I can never forgive; anyone who cheats on Elizabeth Hurley is an utter poltroon, and I’ve no wish to toss coins in his coffer. I can’t think of any actor or actress whose presence in a film is sufficient to make me cough up seven bucks. Okay, Selma Hayek. But even then I’d only rent the movie. On 99 cent Tuesdays. I wish the studios would return to the star system, and force their slaves to appear in formulaic vehicles at the rate of six a year; however hackneyed the stories may have been, by God they were stories, and the more the actor is forced to submit to the dictates of a detailed plot the less likely the audience is forced to sit through a movie designed solely to showcase the actress’s cheekbones.

There I go again: the modern world SUCKS! It was better when everything was BETTER! No, no. I prefer the modern world.

Although I’d request some deletions, if I had the power. The paper today had a review of the Marilyn Manson concert. Perhaps the reviewer - a fellow in his mid-40s - fears that castigating this crap will earn him a ticket to Fogeyville, so he tried to assure the readership that he wasn’t one of those scary fascists who’d pave over the brilliant indispensable fountain of Social Protest that is rock and roll. Sure, Manson leads his crowd in a Hitler-rally salute; sure, he lights a cross on fire; sure, he stages a cop-killing. Okay, so it’s not . . . subtle, but at least he’s telling kids to challenge institutions.

Twaddle. Fatuous nonsense. Challenging then institutions has become an institution - perhaps the only unassailable institution left. The nation’s media are infested with baby-boomer-era waddle-assed rock critics who dare not criticize his crap, lest Nixon rise from the grave and confiscate their Woodstock soundtrack.

There is nothing more pathetic than someone justifying a hate rally because it makes a vague distant sympathetic twinge to their college-era hatred of The Man. And it’s soooo PC. By all means, piss on the flag, on preachers, on cops: that’s brave. That’s daring. (I’ll bet that if someone broke into Mr. Manson’s house, he wouldn’t dial 911 - he’d call a critic to defend him. Right? ) I’d love to see a critic attend a concert where the singer pantomimes the assassination of an abortion doctor, or leads the crowd in a Free McVeigh chant. Then we’d be treated to an interminable thumb-sucker about the deep strains of hate in America.

I am giving this more anger than it deserves; only 8K people showed up, and Manson is losing popularity, and no, I don’t blame him for Littleton. I’m just tired of the twin imperatives of pop culture:

1. If Julia Roberts is in a movie, I should see it, and

2. Rock is a vital, if unfocused, agent of political change.

Julia Roberts has too many teeth. Rock hasn’t been politically valid since the Clash, and they were wrong, anyway. Shut up and dance, as we used to say in the days of Stiff Records.

Unbelievably lovely day. I bailed out of work early, having put two pieces in the paper today, and walked around the lake with the dog. The AM band on my Walkman died, so I went to MPR, which was interviewing kids about their Feelings in the Wake of Littleton. They were earnest and impassioned and articulate and altogether predictable. One post-high-school kid talked about things were different in the past, when kids didn’t have access to guns. I thought of the rifles hanging in my basement in Fargo. I thought of the conversation I had with a friend at work, who was describing how one could order a machine gun by mail order in the 40s.

And then I thought - for once - for the first time in the day - why . . .on a day of such surpassing beauty, with the sky above a canopy of faultless azure, the lake an indigo pool, the branches and lawns erupting with prolix vegetation, why -

Why am I troubling myself with these disputations?

I switched to music stations. Rock, jazz, and classical for the rest of the walk. The dog ran into the water and barked at ducks and I remembered, with great relief, that this is paradise, and this is my home.

Millennial indicator: a reader wrote to our paper’s Mr. Fixit column asking about some frightening predictions by Nostradamus. Thirty years ago they asked Fixit how to fix downspouts; now they want to know if the seventh seal will be cracking open anytime soon. The Weekly World News has been practically guaranteeing the end of the world for the last few year; this week’s cover foretells the Hottest Summer Ever. (Last winter, of course, was trumpeted as the Coldest Winter Ever, and it was not, anywhere; penguins were sniffing crocuses in February.) But if you have a few vestigial antennae given to quivering at changes in the metaphysical ether, you have to be intrigued by the latest interpretation of Nostie’s final quatrains: war in the Balkans will culminate in massive big-time war in July, leading to the defeat of a tyrant whose name starts with M. Oh, and this period shall have been preceded by three years / 7 months of peace, which goes back directly to the Dayton accords. Uh oh.

I’m disinclined to believe Nostradamus, for any number of reasons. I believe in free will, and that means the future is, as the pop group Modern Love intoned, open wide. Calendrical obsessions are absent in the Bible; the prophets deal in signs and portents, but none of them care what year it happens to be. Probably because they didn’t know and/or didn’t care what year it was. Plus, Nostradamus’ prediction requires the Ghost of Genghis Khan to return in 1999, and I don’t see some yurt-born scourge threatening the world any time soon.

If indeed the entire future could be read by one man staring into a bowl of water, that’s a problem. Predestination means there’s no free will. St. Augustine had a nifty work-around for this - he said that God denied himself foreknowledge of an event until it happened, at which point He said: Oh, right, I knew that was going to happen. It’s the big conflict at the heart of Western mysticism - predestination clashes with a religion based on the notion that salvation is reached by choosing a particular path. Unless you believe that the nature of the choice is predestined, and you are predestined to conform to the image of Yertle.

Yes, Yertle. There’s a late-night TV spot I see during Hawaii 5-0, for the BVOV. The Believers Voice of Victory, or Beevov. Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. The first part shows Mr. Copeland working his way to a fine dry froth, and cuts away too soon - it’s a great example of incremental rhetorical elevation, bumping up the energy level a half degree with every word, always leaving something in reserve. Certainly beats the buffoon on the other late-night spots, some silver-haired quack named Jesse (WHAAA! WATER-WALKIN’ DISCIPLES!) who rants at the same pitch without surcease. Anyway, Kenneth is followed in the spot by his wife Gloria, who is a dull duck; she says: “if you want to know what your destiny is, I’ll tell you what it is, you are destined to conform to the image of Jesus.” Except that her lips do not say Jesus. She’s saying something else. They dubbed in Jesus. It looks to me like she’s saying Yertle.

Maybe not. But I don’t buy predestination. I don’t buy the end of the world. On the other hand: I was sitting outside today on a brilliant spring day, looking at the glory of the world, and I thought: if there is but eight months left on this frayed thin skein, I’ll be present at the end of the world, and whatever else one can say: that will be something to see.

I just hope that no one in heaven wears stupid T-Shirts that say “I Survived the End of the World.”

The vines want to eat the house. When we moved into Lileks Manor they had a firm grip on the south half of the place; now they’ve drawn a green woody screen over the front as well. The south window of my studio has always been obscured by leaves, and I like that - it rustles in the breeze, provides homes for birds, filters the light. In the autumn it turns russet, copper, bronze - and then the empty branches cradle the newborn drifts of snow. How very lovely. But a few years ago I noticed the vines were appearing at the perimeter of my east window - just a few fingers, nothing much. Last year the vine crossed the entire window, like a time-lapse animation of the growth of the railroads. Spaced every six inches are little sucking hands that grip the perforations of the screen; they cannot be dislodged without a fight. This year I will probably lose all view of the street. The vines will surround the house . . . and then begin to squeeze, squeeeeeze, until the masonry cracks and the floors buckle, and then one night as the digestive juices pour into the bedroom we’ll realize that a predator has been stalking us over the years, waiting, waitin


Sorry. That was Jasper, typing. We’re having ;?R$Agtr,
Dammit! We’re having a dog incident here. He came upstairs and flipped over in the old familiar love-me posture, and I duly responded with the litany of dominance: I gave him a good sniff, growled, breathed on his nose and bit his neck. That worked for about 2 minutes, then it was back to flipping and whining. A minute ago he lost patience and got up, put his paws on the keyboard and barked a demand: play!

I can’t think of any reason not to. Life is short and the vines are relentless; you grab your joy where you can.

Okay, I love my local grocery store, right. But I asked - and asked politely! for a coffee grinder for nonflavored beans. They said they’d get right on it. They did not get on it. Haven’t even gotten near it, as far as I can tell. Must I put up with the dusty excreta of other people’s bad bean choices? Must my own special blend be contaminated by the Kaluha-flavored White Russian blend? Must I sip my carefully brewed java and detect a lurking note of hazelnut?

How long must I put up with this?

Of course, my “special blend” consists of one two-second pour from the Columbian beans, a two-second pour of the French Roast, and a couple half-hearted spurts from other bins. I try to shake up the bag, but the beans are layered like a parfait, so one bag of beans yields coffees that change taste as the week goes on. But at least I buy my beans at the grocery store - if nothing else, it means I am successfully reversing my mid-90s affections of coffee snobbery. Sure, the beans at the boutique stores are good. But one day I was reduced by exigency to buy at the grocery store, and lo: I discovered that Millstone was perfectly good coffee. I didn’t grind it at the store, of course - God forbid. I ground it at home, every day. Then one morning, fingering the grounds out of the Krups mill, I thought: aw, to hell with this. I ground it at the store, risking Cinnamon-Mint flavors from the common mill.

The other day I bought some of my old standby, Chock Full O’Nuts. (The Heavenly Coffee!) It was perfectly fine. In fact it was good. Very good.

At this rate I’ll be buying Folger’s red barrels by year’s end.

Sunday, Orchestra Hall: was Master of Ceremonies for the Minnesota Youth Symphony, again. It’s becoming quite familiar, and hence I have no breathless accounts of what it’s like to step out on the broad wood stage and face the sea of people, look up at the tiers upon tiers of faces, all thinking the same thought: make it quick. I will note that whereas I once prepared diligently for these occasions, writing out my speeches and practicing them the night before, pacing and worrying - well, now I just wing it. Not saying I’m better at it, just more relaxed.

It’s good practice. For what, I don’t know; probably nothing.

The orchestras were good as usual - the last group tackled the Wagner symphonic suite from the operas. I’d winnow the entire Ring cycle down to the forging-of-the-ring sound effect (CLANK! Kbwhmmmmmm) and the Death of Siefried. That’s the best of the batch - miserable, magesterial, exultant, somber, epic.

But it’s Nazi music. I can’t shake the image of Hitler nodding approvingly to all this pagan roaring glory, all this death-soaked Teutonic soap opera shoutings. Now, it’s unfair to taint Wagner with the idiots who appreciated his work for the wrong reasons, even though old Dick himself would have written the Zyklon-B March if they’d caught him in the right mood. But it’s NAZI MUSIC. There’s not another German composer who makes me think this. Even when I hear some of the old Nazi-symp conductors sawing away at a German composition, I don’t think Adolf. But Wagner gives me feelings that give me the creeps.

Also on the menu: Victory at Sea, by Richard Rogers, the soundtrack to the TV show about the PTO in World War Two. The soundtrack of my dad’s teen years in the Navy, in other words. There was a sequence in the middle I found myself singing along with, even though the piece wasn’t familiar to me. da-da-da-da-dahhhh . . . .da-da-da-da-dahhhh . . . .da-da-da-da-dahhhh . . . .Beauty and the Beast.

I mean, it was a complete swipe. I could hear Angela Lansbury warbling this tune, and it was originally meant to accompany shots of warships at repose. Go figure.

Lovely weekend. Hot sweet sun. Warm walks in the park. The best two months of the year - May and June - come next, and for the first time in two years I will have both my evenings and my Saturdays to enjoy them. But there is - sob - sorrow in this season; Deep Space Nine is ending. This weekend I watched three shows in a row, one a night. Seven years! I remember sitting in the chair at Fortress Lileks in DC watching the first show of the series, and sitting in the same chair enduring the first two seasons. Then it got good. Very, very good. Star Wars returns with loud trumpets while DS9 quietly exits. The latter means more to me than the former. But neither mean more than they should.

Meaning, there are other things in life, like May, and June, and pitching a fit because they don’t have an unflavored coffee grinder. Always something to look forward to.