JUNE 1999 Part 1
Saw the Mummy, expecting an amusing yet scary summer movie. It was neither, but its deficiencies were not so gross as to bore me or make me check my watch. A nifty balancing act, really - had the comedy been 7% less effective, it would have been unbearable; had the comedy been 4% better, it would have actually been amusing. It was a movie that showed signs at every turn of possibly stinking, and while you wouldn’t have been surprised if it actually did suddenly stink, it never did - and when it was good, it never dispelled the suspicion that very soon it might stink - possibly. Whereas Indiana Jones movies had one foot in the old Saturday serials, this one had one foot in the Indiana Jones movies, a copy of a copy. It still had much to recommend it - the first five minutes bought a lot of good will for me; the female lead (can’t remember the name, something hyphenated and British) was immensely appealing without being memorable, and mannered without being annoying; the special effects were a knockout, and Brendan Fraser (?) made the whole film work. He seemed to be performing in a much funnier movie than the one we were watching, and he could also pull out the swashbuckling persona without contradicting the goofy face he’d made a second before. It’s his movie - and I don’t think he had any lines longer than seven words.

At least I was reminded of the lessons of old Mummy movies: ancient Egyptians knew everything, common modern Egyptians are venal if they’re thin, comic if they’re fat, superstitious if they’re nameless laborers, and trustworthy only if they have Western accents and wear suits. There was one actor- a member of the usual Ancient Society Who Protect the Secrets - who I hadn’t seen since “The Living Daylights,” where he played an Afghani rebel. In this movie he looked like Jimmy Page, right down to a cheekbone tattoo that would have belonged on the ZOSO cover.

We saw the movie at the Mall of America, which I really, really detest. It’s not the size; it’s not the commerciality. I like big things and I give a big thumbs up to consumer culture, if only because the people who rail against it give me hives. There was a guy in front of me at the concession stand (and what are they conceding, exactly? Nothing) who was telling his date the truth about the Romans: they didn’t respect the environment, and that’s why they fell. “They had a big famine. Babylon, too. You ever read any history?” She shook her head no. He went on to explain how the land on which the Mall stood had once been forest, man. Forest. And now there’s, like, stores and highways and parking lots, man. I wanted to grab him by his raggedy shirt and say it used to be the floor of an ocean too, man, and for millions of years there were trees where there used to be trilobites, man, so trees must be evil, right? But I couldn’t remember whether the ancient lakes got as far as Bloomington.

No, it’s the people at the Mall I can’t stand. Not the volume but the type. Crude loud dolts who bring eight-year-old kids to see a scary movie, who talk during the film, walk around the lobby swearing at the top of their lungs, exude this damp sullen casual hate that has come to stand for Cool. The mall theaters are a shabby factory for stuffing noise in the heads of the proles, and I always want to get out of there as soon as possible.

Friday night we watched “Saving Private Ryan.”

“Shakespeare in Love” beat “Ryan?”

Right. Sure. Mm-hmm.

Saturday - sat out, finished “Freedomland” by Richard Price. I like Price, but this one was a chore. Nothing happened and it took 721 pages for it to happen. Went to the Giant Swede’s house for Memorial Day BBQ, the first gathering of the year - much fun. Much meat. Went home, watched the penultimate DS9. Ended up laying in the grass at two AM with the dog, watching a satellite pass overhead. First night of the year I’ve laid in the grass on a humid summer night, looking up at the stars, and on the first time out I saw one move. Laid there until it was lost in the moon’s penumbra. A sweet silent moment.
Then Jasper sneezed in my ear. Went upstairs and Q-tipped dogsnot; bed. Sleep. A fine May weekend: now summer begins again.

Oh, the temptation. This is awful. Imagine if you’re a big Star Wars fan, and George Lucas invites you to see The Phantom Menace 5 days before it’s released to the theaters. One caveat: there’s no music, and there aren’t any sounds during the special effects sequences.

Do you go?

I have before me the last two episodes of Deep Space Nine, which mean more to me than Episode One. I got the tape from the paper’s TV critic today, with the promise that I’d write 17 inches on the finale for Saturday’s paper. It made my day: a perfect pristine copy to watch, unsullied by VCR static, signal cutouts, or - God forbid - severe weather alerts. But tonight I noticed that the tape label said “unsweetened.” I can only guess what that means. No music? No effects? Perhaps it just doesn’t have the commercial outros (that’s broadcast lingo, the opposite of intros). If that’s the case, I know what I’ll be doing tonight.

The piece I’m writing - well, it’s not working. How do you sum up seven years of TV for people who don’t care about it? Well, you don’t. So how do you sum it up for people who do care? You shouldn’t: they know already. I’m trying to make it amusing to the casual viewer, and state my controversial case: DS9 has provided the best Trek ever. Best battles, best Klingon stories, best politics, best pathos, best stupid malfunctioning Holodeck stories, best love stories, best enemies. I’m glad I stuck with it.

Today it was 51 degrees. Only 27 degrees below normal. I knew this was coming, and girded myself for grim fury, so I was not in a murderous spirit the whole day long. Close, though. June First ought not to feel like October first, but warmth returns tomorrow. It rained, of course. I don’t know if things can get any greener; it’s almost as if they’re about to topple over into some color that’s greener than green, some unnamed color we never saw before. Very lush and lovely and TO HELL WITH IT ALREADY.

Sorry: that’s it. Nothing more to say and no reason to keep saying it. I wrote my column for the Backfence, and that’s my contribution to the pool of unessential public micturations today, so: thirty.

Does anyone still write - well, no, of course they don’t. That was the old newspaper mark for the end of a story:


I used that back in the Daily days, back at the absolute tail end of the typewriter era of journalism. No one writes 30 at the end of their stories anymore, so no one says “30” when they want to indicate their point is done, over, concluded. Or, to put it another way: few people under 30 knows what 30 means. The modern equivalent, taken from HTML, is /, but you can’t say that.

“That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Right leaning slash.”

Doesn’t have the same impact.

Anyway, back to writing about the / of DS9.


The phone rang; there was a brief pause indicating that a telemarketer a thousand miles away was about to come on the line and give me a monotonal pitch for something I didn’t want, he didn’t like, and no one needed. I should have hung up, but I didn’t. This was the exact text of the conversation:

“HI THERE!” said an impossibly chirpy voice. “This is Donna, callin’ from Branson Missouri! How y’all doin’ there in Minnesota today?”

“Fine,” I said, investing the word with as much bemusement and wariness as I could.

“Great! Well, I got some good news and some fabulous news! Ah’m not callin’ to sell you a newspaper or try t’ git you to change your long distance. How ‘bout that? That’s good news!”

“Well, since I work for a newspaper, trying to sell me one would be a useless proposition, and the last time I changed long distance I got a free airline ticket, but what’s on your mind?”

There was a brief pause.

“Well! Ah’m calling from Branson. Y’all know about Branson?”

“Yes, and it’s for my father’s demographic bracket, not mine. When I’m his age I’m sure I’ll want to jump in a bus and drive two days to hear fiddlers, but not now.”

“Can’t git you there now?”



I did not watch the special sneak preview of the DS9 finale last night. My fears were right - “unsweetened” meant no music, no sound effects. It was peculiar; it felt like eavesdropping. The show opened with two of the characters in bed, and without the thrum and whoosh and ambient bleeps you hear all the time on the show, the scene felt indecent - far more intimate than it’ll be once they put in the music and sound. I gave it back to the paper’s TV critic today, and complained about the lack of music and sound FX.

“That’s how we get every show,” he noted.

No wonder critics hate everything.

Warmer today than yesterday, cooler than tomorrow, but the summer’s shot. Long range forecast: cooler than average. Look, I’m not asking for 98 degrees every day. Just let me wear shorts until sundown. That’s all. Too much to ask? (Yes.)

Reading Po Bronson’s new book, the Nudist on the Late Shift. It’s about Silicon Valley - nonfiction, as opposed to his last novel on the same subject. (The novel was pretty good.) So far I get the idea that Silicon Valley is a money-crazed empty place of great potential, full of the limbs and sundered flesh of young smart people who toss themselves headlong into its diffuse machinery. Okay; noted. I love reading about the history of technology, but nowadays everything moves so fast that it’s out of date by the time it reaches old-media outlets such as books. Still, it’s a good read; Bronson has a smart yet facile style, or a facile yet smart style, and it’ll do. Summer demands a constant supply of books for the evening hours - can’t go inside; that would be a sin. So I sit on the porch and read while the sun slides down.
Then I go upstairs and sit in front of the computer and wait for the ideas to come. They are not coming. I don’t mean writing ideas - always a billion of those. None of them any good, but at least they still flow freely. No, I mean graphics ideas. Web ideas. I am working my way through this site to repair all the deficiencies and errors, and I’m just . . . tired of it. I got an idea today to do a site on old Minneapolis movie theaters, and I probably will do it this summer, but only when the mood strikes. If in six months I decide that this is not a temporary lull but a full-blown enthusiasm shut-down, and I’m done with the web, then so be it: I left radio because I had done everything I wanted to do and was starting to repeat myself, and the web might turn out the same way. I’m still looking for a new enthusiasm, in other words.

Nude chain-saw juggling!


We all know that New Media trumps the old, that the net beats the wounded-mastodon model of publishing & information dissemination. Right? Well, no; not yet. It all comes down to the bathroom. Years and years ago Knight-Ridder created an online news service, VuText, well before the ubiquity of the PC & the net. It died a miserable death, and one of the eulogies nailed the problem that still plagues the internet today: you couldn’t take VuText to the bathroom to read. Ever since I read that, my standard for New Media success has been simple. Does it equal everything a magazine provides for a six-minute retreat? Portability, color, lightness, variety of subject matter, and dispensibility.
I have no doubt that bathrooms of the future will contain phone jacks. Why not? You find yourself without reading material, you just unroll your portable document reader, download what you want, and read it. this document reader has to be sturdy; when I’m walking around the office with a magazine, I sometimes find I’ve rolled it up, and I’m banging it against my leg to the beat of a song I heard on the way to work. And it has to be cheap, really cheap, clip-on sunglasses cheap. At that point, New Media trumps Old. Not until.

Proof we’re not in a New Media age: I am trying to convert the Gallery of Regrettable Food to a book proposal. In other words, I’m using computers to convert old printed material to new printed material, in the hopes that a printed-material distributor will convert it to even newer printed material - which will then be marketed on the Internet. This makes no sense. It’s a waste of ink. It’s a waste of trees. The pages simply don’t want to clamber down into the confines of a 8 X 11 piece of paper, and since everything was rescaled & tweaked for 72 DPI they print worse than they look on the screen. I ought to be able to shoot the url to the editors, and leave it at that.
Maybe I will.

Warm today; actual June. Met a good dog in the woods, a black collie-lab that had been rescued from the pound. A happy smart dog, nine months old - makes you want to track down whoever dropped him off at the pound and throttle them. I chatted with the owner while the dogs engaged in studious butt sniffing; it’s the strangest part of dog ownership, really. You have nice civilized discussions about your beasts while they bury their snouts in each other hindquarters. I wonder what they can possibly learn from that, other than identity (which they forget, eventually) - oh, so you’re on Purina One, eh? I get licorice. Can you tell? Later we met an old, old, old dog that had just gone under the knife and had a “mass” removed. Ten years old, but still alert. He had no idea he’d dodged a bullet.

But none of us do. In the paper today was a story of a big star, 7500 light years away, which has unaccountably gotten brighter. It could be that it was just burning off the dust from its last eruption; could be it just did this for reasons we don’t know. It might collapse into a black hole. Or it could go hypernova and pollute the neighborhood with gamma rays. I asked the writer of the story if he’d pulled punches in describing what the scientists had said - after all, if something that big and that close let loose with a gamma burst, we’re all dead. He did say that one of the scientists said “this would be a great start to a disaster movie” - meaning, the opening scene where some astronomers look at the sky and think, uh oh. Unfortunately, Bruce Willis cannot ride up and save us from gamma rays. I’m sure it won’t happen. But it is an interesting reminder of human insignificance. The universe consists of two things: Damoclean swords, and gravity. Sooner or later time buries itself in your brainpan, up to the hilt. It is useless to speculate when, let alone why; what counts is filling up the intervening moments by converting web pages to sellable manuscripts.

Or walking the dog.

The purple flowers in the woods are gone. I don’t know what they were - weeds, I’m sure, but lovely. They had a week to speak, and now they’ve retreated behind an anonymous thicket of green. Spring is over. All the tricks and fancy gestures have been replaced by the smothering tyranny of dutiful Green, drinking up the sun and making more green. I’m not complaining, because my wife adds color and variety to the backyard, coding each square yard for sunlight and shade. The porch has hanging baskets again; in a month, it will be thick with flowers of exotic variety. In five months they will be gone - ah, but in four months and three weeks they’ll still be there. Barring any gamma bursts.

Pieta, Alex.

I haven’t been sleeping well. It takes forever to fall asleep nowadays. My mind races, and usually races away - when it alights on something pleasant, it finds some reason to change the subject. (Sorry, Alex: what is the Pieta.) It’s as if the most trivial and mundane of memories have been invested with an unbearable poignancy. Today in the skyway I passed a framed picture of Tigger in a print shop, and I thought: boy, if I bought this for a child who loved Winnie-the-Pooh, and found it years later when the kid had changed from adorable innocent to sullen condemnatory adolescent, this would just kill me, because the disparity between the child you raised and the individual he’d become would just be too much.
This is a clear sign that something’s not right. When you’re taking inanimate objects and extrapolating a point at which the object represents an emotion of heart-piercing bittersweetness, and you haven’t experienced any of the intervening emotions but just jumped to Sadsville - well, no. This is a sign the waters are sploshing unchecked into Depression Creek, carving out a nice wide river.
The last question on Jeopardy! last night was “Italian Colloquialisms,” or something like that, and the answer was “Pieta.” I got it. Then I went to bed, weary, hoping I wouldn’t toss for an hour.
It’s all chemical, and I’ll ride it out. Damned if I’m going to pop Prozac. If it’s manic-depression, it’s an exceedingly mild form; at least I do not believe, as many manic depressives do, that whatever extreme they are experiencing characterizes some truth about themselves, or life in general. When I catch myself sploshing in the dark trough, I know it isn’t the Whole Truth. And when I hit the happy heights, I usually think: gracious gloriosky, let’s enjoy the ride.
It’s a metronome that winds down and ends up at dead center, as they all do. Everyone rides the extremes of tick and tock at some point. Depends on when you get a lesson in Life. My mother’s death was not a volcano or a meteor explosion, even though it seemed like it at the time. It was a buckling of the plates deep under the ocean, something that sent wave after wave after wave smashing into the shore for months and years. We all spent the last years ignoring that anything was going to happen, pretending that everything was going to be fine, because that’s how she wanted it; now, I find myself seeing things from her perspective. The sword has dropped, the star has burst, and while you wait, you take stock, remember, regret, exult.

In the end, everything means too much - although the meaning is so personal it means nothing to others. I had, as a child, a Winnie-the-Pooh lamp, which I took to college as a campy joke. My mom didn’t want me to take it - she was afraid I’d lose it or ruin it, which I did. So what?

Tigger sat on the base of the lamp. That object meant something to her, but I couldn’t understand that then. It’s a stupid Pooh lamp! C’mon. Now I’m sitting here before a computer turning cookbooks into a book proposal, cookbooks from my mother’s collection. They meant nothing to her, and they mean a lot to
Hah! Jasper Dog just rolled over on his stomach, gave a neat tidy belch. He’s absolutely right. I’m going to go out on the porch and stick my puss in the flowers and uncap a beer; tomorrow night we’ll walk to the woods late at night and listen to the creek. I hope something happens - a twig snaps, a beast barks, a threatening shadow falls, something that jerks us out of conjecture and dumps us in the almighty Now. I’m tired of Then, and I’ll be There soon enough.

That’s my problem: not enough Now.