JULY 1999 Part 2
Four minutes, maybe five. I’ve enough fuel left in the tank to keep the eyelids open and the dendrites flaming for a short quick burst of work here, and then it’s sleep, glorious sleep. I got to bed late last night -what else is new? There was a Twilight Zone marathon on Sci-fi, and this one featured William Demerest. Uncle Charlie as a wife-beater. Well, I had to see how that one came out. Still can’t quite figure out how he got a career - busted nose, elephant ears, teeth like a graveyard fence and no discernible acting skills other than an ability to memorize lines. Still, it was fun to watch. The real evil in the episode resided in Sterling Holloway, who had a cameo. Now think of it: who else was an evil character in a 60s TV show? Right: John Fiedler, who played Mr. Hengis, Rigellian gynophobe, in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold.” (“Die, die, everybody die. Redjack redjackredjack!”)

Who are the main voices in the original Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon?
Sterling Holloway; John Fieldler.

No wonder kids today are so messed up.

You know, as much as I loved the subsequent iterations of Trek, I’ll never be able to name an episode like I can with the original series. The other day I passed the TV; Trek was on the Sci-Fi channel, and I saw Bones get on the transporter pad. Spock and Kirk hung back and looked at him with concern, and I thought: “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.” Bones is fatally ill but feels good enough to go on an away mission.

Pathetic.

Me, I mean.

I had hoped to have the new web site, such as it is, up tonight, but I spent all my time on the phone. Called the subcontractor who’s threatening the lien for last summer’s botched porch rebuilding. Learned there are a few other customers of the contracting company who are also unsatisfied, unfulfilled, and facing liens. Seven, to be exact. I got their names and numbers and made some calls, and lord, did people have stories. Flaming mad. Listening to these people was like flossing with barbed wire - it hurt, but I felt cleaner afterwards. We are all bound by fury and liens now; we are all comrades. The more I thought about it and talked, the more I felt my sympathies shift to the fellow who’s putting the lien on my property. In the end, of course, righteous anger and righteous righteousness will count for little; I believe the contractor will lose his license, declare bankruptcy, and skate. Someone has to lose.

But who loses the most? If I pay, I do so with a snarl, but I can afford it; the guy who’s dunning me is owed $25 grand by the contractor. The contractor will lose his business, credit rating, good name and self-respect: he will have FAILURE ever hanging off his soul like a pustulent carbuncle, and from what I understand he’s the sort of fellow who’d be humiliated by that. I actually have the least to lose; could be worse.
Spoken like a man who can absorb the loss. If I was the guy who owed the subcontractor $11k, I’d be less philosophical.

Lovely day. Hot. Sleepy. At the peak of my phone fury I put all the paperwork aside and went to the creek with Jasper. He snapped at fireflies. Trust the dog to remind you what counts: summer, dusk, ephemeral spirits, and a satisfying crap in the underbrush. I’m taking his word for that last one. And now I go to bed.

07.08.99
Well. I now know the quickest way to start a conversation: ask people if they’d had problems with building contractors. It’s the middle-aged version of old folks’ health tales. I’m surprised no one sells bumper stickers that read ASK ME ABOUT MY CONTRACTOR PROBLEMS. I spent half the day on the phone, soliciting tales of woe from my fellow members of the Pending Lien club, and learned:

A. For many people, the loss of innocence & faith in humanity can be directly tied to their rec room remodeling;

B. Everyone in this case is shading the truth; this all makes Rashomon look like a Flintstones cartoon;

C. There will be no lien. Or so I learned from a conversation with one of the Pending Lien club, who happened to be . . . a real estate lawyer. The subcontractor made several mistakes and errors too technical to report here, but he has no basis for filing anything. But!

D. He can anyway! Part of today’s phone journey consisted of a maddening odyssey through the state bureaucracy to find out liens; naturally, I was shunted from person to person, a miserable electron looking for something to orbit; after seven people I got a surly clerk who channeled all the bureaucrats I ever met in Washington DC city government: a sullen woman who had no time for any of the people who paid her salary, and wanted to get rid of me ASAP so she could go return to her real work, which was complaining with co-workers about people who called. I was specific and polite; I did not tell a rambling story; I asked concise questions. And I got bupkis. I got surly bupkis.

There’s a name for a character in a novel: Shirley Bupkis.


Anyway. I learned that anyone can put a lien on anyone, although there are certain steps they have to do afterwards. And I can, if I choose, sue someone for Slander of Title. What a great idea: you, sir, have slandered my title! My seconds will call on you tomorrow. Well, enough. I’ve spent the whole day

(pause for 27 minute phone conversation)

--just got off the phone with another participant in this drama. All that remains now is for the owner of the company to call me and cuss me out. Given the immense reservoirs of bile I’ve detected today, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

Lovely day, again. Hot, again. Went to work, did the review of Descent 3 - great game, really fine stuff; I could have written the entire review about the opening scenes. Lately I’ve found myself more interested in the scenes that start computer games than most movies I see; at some point, someone’s going to realize that the game is superfluous, and just sell little mini-movies for computers.

Fixed a fine chicken dinner on the grill, although the grill’s automatic lighting mechanism appears to be broken. Sue! I’ll sue! Napped, then finished one Jim Thompson novel on the porch and started another. Played frisbee with the dog. Spent an hour scanning material for the upcoming revamped web site. I could throw it all together and toss it up tonight, but this is Version 4.0, a stem-to-sterm overhaul, and I want it to be right. So be patient. Not that it really matters.

Now I am going to attack the pile of mail, and read more Thompson, then match wits with the frightened, brainy contestants of Jeopardy. And I will prevail.

07.09.99
Ozzie and Harriet and Norman Rockwell, Beaver Cleaver, et. al.: reviled & scorned, all of them, hooted down by the right-thinking progressive elements eager to point out the flaws and horrid errors in American culture. I must read it every day: well, this isn’t an Ozzie and Harriet world, and it never was. I thought of this today when a co-worker pointed out a news story on the recovery of some Norman Rockwell paintings, one of which was valued over a million dollars. Yes, it is cheesy, sentimental stuff. But this afternoon I was reading an article about an artist who uses his own excrement as a medium - blobs and blobs of sculptured offal, safely hidden under layers of lacquer. It commands quite a price.

The intelligentsia has a dilemma: they know in their hearts that this stuff is, literally, figuratively, and conceptually shit. But they can’t admit it without casting all of post-Abstract Impression art as rarefied nonsense; once you refuse to accept a piece of art by rejecting its conceptual foundation, you call into question all art that relies on concept & philosophy to stake its claim to aesthetic worth. And then what are we left with? Norman Rockwell! Horror!

Well, Rockwell wasn’t a bad painter. In the pre-photographic world, he would have been at the bottom of the top of the heap. We praise him now because he was a good practioner of a dying art, a painter at a time when photos were swamping the world of canvas and oils. I’m not going to defend him as a genius, because he had contemporaries who were better, and the 20th century abounds in commercial illustrators whose abilities were, in retrospect, astonishing. I also read today an article on Maxfield Parrish, a longtime favorite of mine; it’s amusing to think he was considered lowbrow.

Well, no, it’s not surprising at all. Consider the time. In the 20s, modernism was the avant-garde; they were laboring to throw off 500 years of dead tradition. They wanted machine art for a machine age. Everytime I look at the skyscraper frames downtown, their skeletons rising naked, I recall the architect who said that it was a sin to cover those frameworks with fussy classical details; that naked frame was what the building was. Show it! Be blunt! Be honest! And of course that viewpoint won out in the end, resulting in hundreds of buildings so soul-crushingly dull that when architects started playing with the rooflines in the 80s, people nearly expired from gratitude. No more flat roofs and boxy buildings? Thank God.

But at the time the culture needed a shake-up, and it got it. Parrish was for housewives; Leger was for the forward-thinking comrade who saw the truth of the age to come. Mondrian, for example. (Another one of my favorites; if I had to choose four painters from this century, they’d be Parrish, Mondrian, Feininger, Hanblom.) He believed that his work would provide objects of contemplation for modern laborers. We would all trudge home from our factory jobs, ascend in elevators to our unadorned non-bourgeous worker housing, sit in hard chairs and contemplate the rigorous intellectual honesty of a Mondrian grid.

B.S.

I like it anyway.

Point is: what was lowbrow in 1920s is highbrow today, because high culture has deserted us, and low culture has become so truly low it is beneath contempt. For some perverse reason I read a batch of comments on the aint-it-cool-news message board about “South Park,” and I’m amused: there seems to be a great legion of morons out there who believe that the movie strikes some great resonant blow for freedom of expression, when it’s just one long titter over naughty words. I don’t like South Park. I’ve watched it, and I laughed at it, but I never liked laughing at it, so I made a point to avoid it. It’s a cartoon for people who think farting in church is a commentary on organized religion.

I was looking through the newspaper archives the other day - July 4, 1929. A bookseller was arrested for selling three copies of Bocaccio’s Decameron. Now a movie like South Park BLU gets released in 1000+ theaters. So please, don’t tell me the filmmakers are being brave, or making great blows against hidebound decency. If the world they presume to be fighting actually existed, they’d all be in jail.

So what’s my point?

1. Modernism was inevitable and necessary. But every revolution becomes an institution, and cultural revolutions that take their energy from dissolving cultural norms eventually end up making heroes out of people who literally peddle shit. At this point another revolution is required.

2. I was walking Jasper Dog tonight. Passed a neighbor playing catch with his little boy. Walked through the creek; went to the baseball diamond and watched a little league game. Kids were splashing in the adjacent pool, parents watching while they talked to other parents. At one point Jasper just sat and sniffed the air; I sat down next to him, and to my surprise he just laid his head in my lap, content, happy. An Ozzie and Harriet, Norman Rockwell setting. There is a simple, marvelous truth to these tableaus. But no one has the courage to admit it anymore, lest they appear simple-minded. Brave people animate movies where Satan has anal sex; true artists seek the truth in dung. Hey: no one’s seen a soul lately, but we all meet Mr. Hankey on a regular basis.

What’s really peculiar is this: I’d guess that 96% of the populace believes the culture has run off the rails - but they’re terrified of being called rubes by the other 4 percent. And they fear that a Rockwell world means they might have to behave in ways they don’t want to. A South Park world has a sure-fire enticement: it’s not shocked by things you wouldn’t even consider doing.

The South Park movie has a song called “Uncle Fucker,” as I mentioned.

Entertainment Weekly says it’s suitable for kids 15 and up.

Have a nice weekend.

07.12.99
Friday night I decided to vaporize this Franklin I’ve had in my wallet for a month. While Sara napped I hopped in the Defiant and sped to the computer store, where I bought a game and laid down big Ben - $56 in change came back. I went across the parking lot to Circuit City to buy a CD; I’d heard this song on the radio and I was certain it was by Garbage; it was. Bought the CD, then stood outside undressing the jewel case. It fought me at every step. First there’s the shrink-wrap, which is sealed with industrial epoxy, then the stupid little sticker on top of the CD, which is both flimsy and heavily glued, so you end up shredding it off in small slivers. (I noted that the trash can by the store’s door wore a bristly beard of sticker slivers, placed on its lip by customers who’d struggled as I was struggling now.) Got back in the Defiant, played the CD: whoa. It’s always nice to find you can still connect to popular music; you feel younger & hipper & brighter. (Looking at the CD booklet, I noticed that one of the band members looks older than me.) I drove to Shinders, bought geekporn (PC Gamer, MacAddict) then dropped into Target to get a new shower radio.

They had two varieties - one looked like it was slide down the spout and break, and the other had a clock and date function. Just what I need to know while showering: the date. For that matter, I don’t need the time; I’m blind in the shower, and can’t see the numbers. But it was a nice solid unit, nowhere near as cool as the old Sony, but of course that’s not made anymore.

I got in line that had suffered one of those inexplicable stalls - busted register, new checker, I don’t know. The fellow in front of me was steaming and glowering, shifting from foot to foot, the very picture of an impatient customer. Having been that fellow myself from time to time, I noted how silly it looked, and vowed to remember that next time. Which of course I won’t. Finally the line started moving again, and the suburban twit at the head tried to use her debit card for $3.40 worth of flip-flops. It didn’t take, so she had to write out a check. For $3.40. Sigh. Then Mr. Impatient, who by now appeared to be Mr. Deranged - he had that sunburned look of the Constant Walker, the sort of fellow who spends all days striding the streets, muttering Popeye monologues. Dirty fingers. His shirt said COACH.

“Where you think they make these T-Shirts?” he said to the checker as she beeped them past the scanner.

“I don’t know,” she smiled. She was new. Late 40s. Well-groomed, glasses, unglamorous, kind. Conjecture: She’d married early, had two kids; both were grown now, and she had all this time on her hands; why not check at Target for a few hours each week? The employee discount would come in handy.

“China!” said Coach. “Poor little pickaninnies workin’ their Malaysian fingers to the bone so I can have a cheap cotton T-shirt.” He expelled a gust of contempt. “China.”

He’d mangled three ethnic groups in his postulate, and I wanted to say: actually, they’re probably made in Guam. But I kept silent. He paid with a Target credit card - another delay, another series of inscrutable beeps from the machine - and eventually he stamped off trailing fury and BO.

Me, I had cash money, so everything went quite quickly.

Home. Read in the porch, played frisbee with Jasper in the sunset. Absolutely perfect day and a wonderful night - which I promptly ruined by going upstairs to the machinery after dark and working on this design. So I quit, played the new game, made a few feints at conversation with my wife - but she’s so deep into trial preparation I could have exploded in a shower of meat and bone and it wouldn’t immediately register. Poor duck. The world’s most dedicated public servant.

Saturday: perfect again. Laid outside in the sun and finished “The Rip-Off” by Jim Thompson; pretty good, albeit hampered by that certain something that both defines Thompson’s style and keeps him from greatness. Can’t put my finger on it. Late at night I stumbled across Monty Python on A&E, and was delighted to reacquaint myself with the old friends. Haven’t seen these episodes in years, and it all holds up as well as ever. (Except for Gilliam’s animations, which are mostly tiresome. I love his movies, but the animation never did much for me.) The episodes were followed by “And Now for Something Completely Different,” the movie, which squeezed all the juice out of each and every bit. These guys are still my heroes: they were equally adept at comic writing and comic acting, two completely different skills. As an actor, at least, Idle is the least of the lot, Palin the best, and Cleese the best at being Cleese, which is a skill unto itself. Much fun.

Sunday: housework, sunshine, housework, a huge Indian feast, nap, sunshine, sunset, frisbee, now this. Now uploading. Forgive me, for I know not what I do.

07.13.99
As I suspected, it’s all screwed up. When I called up this new version on my PC at work, I noted that the 640X480 resolution doesn’t really display the left-hand frame to its fullest advantage. My response to the world: change your resolution. I’m sick of accommodating the techno laggards.

Like me.

My PC at work can go to higher resolutions, but it displays colors in startling 2 bit glory. I tell you, it’s enough to send me to the barricades, fist pumping in the air: web standards NOW!

I’ll fix it all. It will all be fine. Just not today.

Just got a call from home; Dad returned last night’s call. He’s peeved at the FAA. Seems they turned him down for his pilot’s license because of his sight, even though his sight hasn’t changed at all.
“Can you get glasses?” I asked.
“Glasses don’t help,” he said. Mystified what sort of condition would be unameliorable to glasses, I asked what was the matter with his eyes.
“It’s my right eye,” he said. “I got hit in the eye by a baseball when I was ten.
“And? What happened?”
“Well, I can’t see much out of it.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
“In the Navy,” he continued, “I scored the best of my group on the rifle range, too.”
I finally found my voice.
“You’ve been blind -”
“Well, nearly.”
“Nearly blind in one eye since you were ten?”
“Yah.”
“And I’m just finding this out now.”
He chuckled.
The things you learn.

He’d beeped into a conversation with my wife, who’s down in Wisconsin taking witness testimony. She had a bad day, then a good day. The former part was due to a road-enraged buttwipe driver who swerved in front of her, earned himself a honk, and then got out of his truck at a stoplight and came back to her car. At which point he saw her expression, and thought better of it. I could have warned him. People who only know my wife as a gracious soul are sometimes surprised when they encounter the Italian side of her temperament. The worst part of it is that she’s never unjustly inflamed. When she’s mad, she’s right. Which is why I never, ever argue with her in these states. I’d lose. Not worth it.

Perfect day: hot, hot. Sunny. Sat outside for a while, watched a jet pierce a high giant cloud like a bird flying through the window of a vast vaulted cathedral. Wrote a review of a book about Stalin. Went to work, polished said review, left. While making dinner I got a call from an aide to a Georgia Congressman; they’d like me to come out to DC and address a group of 54 Congressmen who meet weekly to discuss Issues and Themes. Red-meat stuff, and I was literally kneading red meat in my hands as we spoke. I’ll go; should be fun. Probably the only chance I’ll get to address Congress, or a significant part thereof.

Grilled the burgers, napped, took Jasper on a long walk to the lake. Been too long since we’ve been there; been too busy to go to the water. We sat on the shore and watched the sun slide down - looked like an inverted match, with the sun glowing hot, the flame rippling in the watery reflection. We didn’t play Frisbee; I’ve been working all night, and when Sara’s gone, he just sits in his chair and waits for things to return to normal. I will upload now and perhaps finish watching the movie I taped last night - Ocean’s Eleven, that Rat Pack classic. Watched half of it last night with a feeling of horror; there’s something toxic in nearly every frame. Watching the Rat Pack joke about slavery with Sammy Davis Jr. grinning in the margins makes you feel highly ooky, to use the Addams Family term. (And yes, I’ve seen the Rat Pack movie on HBO. I liked it, because I don’t like them.)

I have just decided to take the day off tomorrow. I haven’t missed a column since the second week of March, and I think I could use a day to recharge. And so I will.

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