JUNE 1999 Part 5
I had something to say yesterday; I had lots to say Friday, but it all gurgled out a hole in the bottom of my brain. Let me think: Friday was a good day, hot; the column arrived and departed with delightful ease. I spent the night reading on the porch - finished the Autobiography of Stalin, which was exceptional, and started a sci-fi novel called 01-01-00, which was not. It began as a techo-thriller and ended up as a metaphysical Mayan treatise. I’m tired of hearing how enlightened the Maya were. Okay, they had good calendars. So does the butcher every Christmas.

Come sunset I worked on the Fargo web page, turning version #126, then gave it up, again, and returned to the Fargo novel. A thousand words in 90 minutes - that’s 1/60th the distance. No one dead so far, but there’s a dead body between words 4000 and 5000, so I hope that satisfies the BLOODTHIRSTY JACKALS in the publishing business.

Ah: Fireworks in the distance. Jasper lifts up his head, and the ears go flat; he hates fireworks. All dogs do. I wonder why. A passing plane makes a long loud noise like some gigantic beast roaring in fury, and it doesn’t bother him at all; let one stray cracker pop five blocks away, and he gets nervous.

Memo to self: give main character dog. Also, drinking habit.

Anyway. Saturday it was hot, tropically hot, muggy and soporific. A good day to work on the basement, then. So I went downstairs, started sawing the molding. My wife noticed that it looked - well, it looked a little big, didn’t it? Like floor molding, not ceiling molding? Just an observation, she said, but well, didn’t I think it looked a little, well, big?

I went to Home Depot for some smaller molding. (I’m not stupid.) Bought 30 feet, then went to the local hardware store for primer and sandpaper; anything I can buy there, I will. Went home and primed the molding in the garage, then watched in horror as a sudden breeze dumped dirt all over the wet paint. Oh, well. Nothing’s perfect. And this basement will be a magnificent proof of that proposition.

Dinner at a local Italian cafe that recently opened; small - about as wide as the phone book, and loud; sounded like fifty monkeys copulating on a tin roof in there. Exquisite food, though. We went to Dairy Queen later, the first time of the season; had cones and watched the day smolder down. When we got home, everyone took naps, then up! Coffee! Read! Sara took Jasper for a walk while I finished the stupid book. I watched a taped episode of Cops, redid the Fargo web site design again - then realized she’d been gone for a while. An hour. And it was dark, and had been dark for 30 minutes. I started to get nervous . . . ten minutes passed, and now I was imagining the worst. I walked up and down the alley a few times, around the block, expecting to hear the jangle of the dog’s chain . . . nothing. I thought, as I always do, that I should have fliers ready-made on the computer in case of lost wife or, more likely, lost dog . . .but then they’d suspect me from the start, wouldn’t they? Of course, they always suspect the husband, and how could I prove I didn’t do anything?

I’M INNOCENT! I wanted to scream.

The neighbors would say: we saw him pacing the alley.

Damn: should have gone on-line. There’s my alibi! I was on the net. But anyone could connect and then go commit a murder. Unless your browser stayed at the same address for an hour . . . note to self: possible murder mystery; character writes script that automatically simulates continuous surfing while he commits the murder.

I put on a different pair of shorts - more respectable than the ratty old workout shorts circa 1986 I’d been wearing - and was heading out the front door when they arrived back. Whew. I was so furious that she’d been gone so long I strangled her right there. Whoa! The irony! Now I was guilty.

Well, no. You can’t be mad in these situations. Relief turns to happiness turns to gentle chastening.

We watched an X-Files episode I’d taped but never watched (Mondays, wherein Mulder and Scully keep reliving the same day over and over again until Data sends a message to break the loop, thereby preventing the Enterprise from colliding with Frasier.) (That’ll make sense to about three people, but I hope they enjoy it.)

Sunday: painted the molding. Again. Drove to KSTP, cut a prerecorded Diner; felt good, once I was back in the groove. It’ll feel better once we’re in a proper studio, but it fell together exactly as planned, and, well, you can’t top it when teamwork works: not only did we develop a few small running bits, but at the end the Chef and I said the exact same phrase in the exact same intonation, and I’m sure everyone will think it was planned. It wasn’t.

Spent the evening reading the new Stephen King book, “Hearts in Atlantis,” and no, it’s not out yet. Hah! Not until September. But I have an advance copy. Stupid name, but so far, great book. It’s not that he’s a great writer, although he isn’t bad or even mediocre - he’s an average writer, in the sense that his prose rarely makes you give a low whistle of admiration, click your tongue or smile with the pleasure of encountering a well-wrought phrase. It’s the story, and to a lesser extent, the characters. The man is an exceptionally good storyteller, and that’s really the point of the whole enterprise. Not fireworks, not poppyfields of fragrant prose, but the story. He’s writing about childhood here, a subject he does better than others, and 110 pages into it, absolutely nothing bad has happened. In fact I have no idea what this book is about. And I don’t care. It’s good, and now I’m going to pour another lemonade and enjoy it some more.

My new mortal enemy: the toilet. I gave it new hardware, installed a new ballcock (cue the Beavis sniggers: heh heh. He said . . . hardware) and it still mutters and gurgles all night and all day. I give up. Today I visited an antique store and saw a gorgeous pristine toilet

Let’s repeat that phrase: gorgeous pristine toilet. How rare those three words find themselves yoked together. The first two are frequent companions, but the third rarely finds himself in their company.

Anyway, it was a great toilet. Seafoam green. With a matching sink. I wanted it, but where would I put it? In my Ironically Kitschy Retro Bathroom? Perhaps, but I have no such room. I am planning an Earnestly Retro Basement, but it has no sewer outlets. End of story.

Well . . . no, no. I can’t. Too much money and I don’t like 7-Up. See, I went to this antique store this afternoon on a friend’s recommendation; he’d e-mailed me about an old 7-Up pop machine they had. A little cleaning, a little paint, it’d be a great addition to my Earnestly Retro Basement. The store was tucked off a main drag on an industrial dead end. It was stuffed to the rafters with crap - Old Crap, Other People’s Crap, Distressed Crap, Vintage Crap, Deco Crap, Bins of Loose Crap, Carefully Arranged Crap, Heavy Crap, and, in the back, Large Immobile Crap. The pop machine was cool, but not $495 cool. If it had been a Coke machine, I would have bought it, but five bills for 7-Up? No. Two, but not five.

Everything in the store was ruined, rusty, battered, broken and overpriced. You get the feeling you’re in some Mad Max post-apocalyptic period; the factories are bombed, the mills shut down, the entire economic and industrial infrastructure gone, so a doorknob goes for nine bucks. No thanks.

I left, drove south to a big warehouse grocery store to get supper. I hate this place, and I’m not sure I went there. Change of pace, perhaps. Reminding myself why I don’t go there more often. They have low low prices, but you have to bag your own groceries. I don’t like to bag my own groceries, unless there’s the contrary expectation. At my usual grocery store, I’ll bag my own if the cashier is harried and the line snakes back ten yards. No problem; just helping out. But at the Cub Store it’s all about diminished expectations - you bag your own because you’re saving pennies on your beans and buns, and pennies matter. Well, pennies don’t matter to me, not now. They may some day; they did, once. They don’t now. So I’m thinking: there should be a special line for people who are willing to pay an extra surcharge to have things bagged for them. But if there was such a line, I wouldn’t go to it, because it would strike me as an extravagance. The spendthrift line. At Lund’s, higher prices and full service are The Norm; they suffuse the entire building. Spend! Enjoy! But when the dominant ethos is bare-bones pricing, prodigal behavior is unseemly.
Besides, I hate to be waited on. I hate deference. When I was a waiter, when I was a convenience store clerk, my customers were equals, peers. Comrades! You gave them courtesy and civility, and if they mistook that for admission of some lower stature in the pecking order, well, that was their failing.

This is not to say I am innately patient or Mr. Good Cheer in the grocery line; I am not. I fume and sigh heavily when things to do not proceed at the pace I would like. But for the entire half-hour I was in the store I heard an endless robot-bird chorus of beeps, beeps, beeps of the items fed past the laser-eyed scanner, and I kept thinking what it would be like to stand for eight hours and feed barcodes to the bloodshot eye. I’d go nuts after a week. I couldn’t take it. But take it they did.

While my items were being toted up, the two preceding customers were taking their time, their time, their slow molasses time bagging their goods, and I thought: hurry up. I don’t want to stand behind you whilst you bag. Get a move on. One of the patrons was a scraggle-haired woman in a cheap striped shirt; the other was a tall broad man who’d complained bitterly about the Quaker Oats Grits; his container leaked after he bought it. (“Damn!”) I watched them both bag with slow underwater movements. They both bought bulk. They both bought staples. I watched my goods parade down the conveyor, fine meats and tiny bottles of sauce, precious vegetables, foil-wrapped dog treats, a bottle of frou-frou Guava pop. And I thought: well, It’s so easy to be happy with your classless life when everyone around you belongs to your class. It’s so easy to say you hate deference when you get it any day you want.

Some days, you tote it all up and you feel ashamed for feeling peevish. About anything. So my toilet runs; so the pop machine was 7-up instead of Coke. I have my wife and my dog, food and a home and a job I love, and I’m just plain blessed, just plain lucky.

I used the plastic bags for my purchases, not the paper ones. The paper bags didn’t have handles. En route to the car one of the bags ruptured and a Snapple bottle detonated on the ground.

Lucky, I reminded myself. Really: Lucky.

At five AM I woke to the radio . . . yelling, echoing, bouncing off the tile . . .figured my wife had got up early and was listening to the shower radio. But she was right beside me. Hmm. I went to the bathroom. The shower radio had turned itself on. I hit the POWER button. Nothing. Hit the BAND button. Nothing. It kept chattering away. I turned it down and put it atop the toilet tank and went back to sleep.

It’s busted. But it won’t shut up. Turn the volume up and it starts singing again. I just put in a new battery, too. Well, out it goes, into the trash . . . into the garbage truck tomorrow, then off to the landfill . . .entombed forever, singing to itself until the battery runs down. For some reason it chose to live its last few weeks as an FM radio - it was tired of talk radio, perhaps, and like a swan decided it would issue a beautiful song as it expired.

I could set the dial to an FM talk station . . . but that would be cruel.

Lovely day: mid 70s, just hot enough, blue skies . . .but a slight mild September wind I can do without. Well, they say it’ll be 90 by Sunday, and a thunderstorm is supposed to roll through tonight. I’ll be up, waiting - overslept on my nap, so I expect I’ll be greeting 3 AM with wide bright eyes.

Stephen King can write, but he’s at his best when he isn’t trying, when he just opens up a vein and splashes all over the page. His new book has Literary Merit written all over it, and I’m not having much fun. The first novella is quite good - at 350+ pages, it would have made a fine stand-alone title. It’s a combination of “It,” “Stand By Me,” the midway scene from “Dead Zone” and the Dark Tower series (which I don’t read; never got close to those books.) The rest of the stories are vaguely connected, inasmuch as certain names stitch each one together. But it doesn’t quite work. When you’re reading a King book the characters seems better that they really are; the story inflates the archetypes to fit the needs of the tale. They have their catch phrases and identifying signifiers, but when the story’s over they lose their individuality; they turn into another plastic soldier in the author’s overflowing toybox. Usually. Sometimes he really nails it, and given that he writes three 500 page books per year, we can excuse the occasional lapse. If only one of these books yields a memorable character, he’s still whomping the track record for 98.7% of the working authors out there. But when you’re writing a narrative of interconnected stories, you need strong characters. King’s books are often strong events masquerading as strong characters, and that hobbles him here.

Still, there’s something wrong with this book. It’s about the 60s, a subject that bores me dead, so I’m automatically disinclined to fall into the stories like I might. The first book, as I noted, is good; it’s about childhood, and King is at his best when writing about recollected youth. The subsequent chapters seem cramped, forced, and sour. They’re all tales of redemption, but the emotions and experiences seem borrowed, and the politics are facile. Okay, it was a bad war. Shouldn’t have happened. We should have withdrawn at the earliest possible opportunity and let the whole country experience the joys of collective labor from ‘64 on.

Kosovo is different, of course.

Although damned if I can figure out why. Maybe because it’s in Europe and white people are involved. We can’t have bad things happen in Europe. Sudan can go screw itself, ditto East Timor, and if Vietnam has spent the last three decades watching everyone else extend their life expectancy, well, who cares.

At one point in the book the straw-man tight-tuckus ROTC nerd trots out the Domino Theory, and King’s hero replies that if the Communists - sorry, the “other side;” they’re never Communists - were capable of conquering SE Asia, then maybe they ought to. Okay, fine, it’s an instructive point of character development, but the statement hangs there, unchallenged. So either the character is an idiot, or the author is. That’s like saying that if the Soviets were capable of possessing Eastern Europe, well, then they should, because war is bad for children and other living things.

Literature is under no obligation to make a reasoned argument or favor opposing ideas, but a book weakens its point when it ducks the point, and assumes all right-thinking people will nod like churchgoers when the pastor says scowly things about Satan. In any case, it’s not any fun, and it’s not instructive. The book even retreads the hoariest old cliche: the Vietnam Vet Haunted by Guilt and Plagued by Flashbacks. I’m sure there too, too many of those; every war turns out legions of men who never lose the bruise, never forget. But this archetype sets up the Permanently Damaged Vet as a moral avatar who surpasses all other vets; i.e., if you’re not dragging the war behind you every step of every day like Morley’s footlocker, you’re somehow less of a man, a smaller, dimmer soul.

The book is full of false distinctions; facing down a college dean over a painted peace symbol is seen as an act of courage equivalent to storming Normandy, for example. It’s one of those stand-up-and-cheer scenes that made me stay seated and look ahead to see how long this chapter had left. Enough! ENOUGH! ENOUGH CROSBY STILLS AND FARGIN’ NASH! ENOUGH PRETENDING THAT THE DEATH TOLL AT KENT STATE WAS EQUIVALENT TO THE STALIN PURGES!

Yes, the boomers lived through history. But so do we all. It’s not that I mind King revisiting the 60s - it’s the assumption that this is the only era of the 20th century that had cool music and sex and Important Issues. He starts with an image of pre-war America, with a certain set of social strictures, a nervy jangling power, a received set of moral absolutes; at the end, he makes an apology for vulgarity, violence, self-pity and narcisstic vanity, even though every sentence aches with the loss of the world his characters have decided to trash. Go figure.

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