JULY 1999 Part 3
07.14.99 Ahh, a day off. Nothing to do but walk around the lake, sit in the sun and read, listen to the radio. No office, no commute, no trip to the grocery store. So I called the office this morning and said I’d be taking the day off - in the parlance of the Strib, I would not be writing today. That’s what the paper says when a columnist begs off: Such Andsuch did not write today. It’s technically inaccurate; the columnist didn’t write yesterday, which is why there’s nothing in the paper today. Small point, but it bugs me.
Anyway. I was all set for a nice fine day at home, and then three things happened:
1. It clouded over.
2. I got bored.
3. I got an idea.
For some peculiar reason, the idea came to me in Atex format. I visualize column ideas as glowing green letters on a black screen; novel ideas come as black letters on white pages. Go figure. Since the day had turned dreary, I went to the office, and en route I lost all enthusiasm for the idea. But a second one occurred to me at a stop light, and it was a big brass-band idea with thumping drums and tootling fifes. Once at my computer I typed it all out, poured out every last drop. Read it over. It stunk.
Well. I wrote a column anyway, or at least hammered the scaffolding together. So tomorrow, if it’s nice, I’ll have my day off. And I have no doubt that I’ll end up at the office in the afternoon, and thereafter go to the grocery store.
Which I did today, of course. I’m always out of something. Today it was breakfast cereal. This morning I had yet another bowl of Raisin Bran, and as usual it was a sodden mass indistinguishable from wet shredded newspaper. So after work I bought a nice sack of Marshmallow Mateys, and some jalapeno bean dip. That was it. Bean dip and ersatz Lucky Charms. There’s a day-starter. Went home, ate, decided to nap, since I’d had only six hours of sleep the previous night. Turned on the air conditioner, laid down. . . think nice thoughts. . . bzzzzzz. The AC unit was making a horrible racket, so I adjusted the settings . . . bzzzz. Eventually discovered it was a loose pane of glass vibrating madly like the wings of a robot woodpecker. I turned the unit to the fan setting.
tink . . . tink . . .tink .
The chain on the ceiling fan was clinking against the light globe, stirred by the AC fan. I turned the AC fan off, kept the ceiling fan on for white noise.
tink . . . tink . . . tink . . .
Ahh, to hell with it. I’d been face down in bed for seven minutes, and was now more awake and alert than I’d been all day. To hell with it. I got up and got to work.

You might note a few changes here as I fine tune the design. I have not yet checked the mail, and I fear the worst; please be assured that all positive comments will be answered this week, and all negative answers will go into the dreaded Mail 2 Answer folder, which at last count still held 77 letters left over when I killed AOL. I mean to get to them, someday. And of course I never will. Forgive me.

Anyway, the writings section has now been upgraded to the 4.0 design, or ruined completely, depending on your point of view. As I keep remembering, it’s not enough to design for various resolutions and browsers; you have to remember that some people have their default font set higher than, well, the usual default, and that some people have half the screen taken up with navigation buttons . . . again, I despair.

Well, I’ll live.

Tomorrow: the day off. If it’s sunny. I’ll have even less to say then than I have today, but rest assured, I’ll say it anyway.


Was Alan Sillitoe angry? I can’t remember. I know Kingsley Amis was. Angry, and young. And a man. In the 50s there were a batch of English authors who were grouped as the Angry Young Men, and I think the luminaries were Kingsley Amis, Sillitoe, and John Braine. Sillitoe wrote “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” which I’ve never read, and “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” which I read today. Some sunny days I head out to the lawn to sit on the porch or bask in the sun, and I’m without a current book - so I go to the backlist, the library, and pull out something that might merit rereading. What I recalled of the book was the opening scene, where the hero drinks seven gins and 11 pints of beer, falls down the stairs, then throws up on people.
It’s funny, but not so funny that you think you’re going to be reading a funny novel. It’s a smart book, smarter than its hero but not by much; at least it never judges him. Oh my GOD

(Two hours later)
I just remembered that I owe City Pages a piece about my years at that alternative paper. It’s a tough thing to write, since I had no Years, just a few afternoons twice a month when I handed in my column. But I promised, so I wrote something. I’ll have to fix it tomorrow, since it’s a self-indulgent mess right now, but since most of the stuff I wrote for CP was a self-indulgent mess, perhaps I’m right on track.

So many things to discuss tonight and so little time or inclination to do so; it’s Bombay-hot in the studio right now, and the computer fans are whining like small beaten dogs. The beer bottle is sweating profusely, the leaves on the vines that smother the window screen like Othello’s pillow aren’t stirring at all. Hot. I like it, but it’s hot. Last night it was practically bare-nekkid hot at 2:30 AM, and I probably should have put on more clothes before I dealt with the police. But events just . . . happened. A car alarm down the street had piercing the quilt of humid slumber since 11 PM; when it started shrieking again at 2 AM I decided to investigate. Put on a beloved & ragged pair of shorts from 1986 (men cannot bear to part with certain cotton garments from certain eras; this particular item has an emotional connection to my life in Uptown in the mid 80s, and I take it as a point of pride that I can still wear the things) and a tank top, and walked down the alley. The car turned out to be a small SUV, parked on a cross street outside a house that blazed with lights. The house’s windows were open. This wasn’t a good sign. (I know these people; they’re the owners of Raina, the uberdoberman in the Jasper section.) (No, that’s not a link; I’m too tired and it’s late.)
So I walked home and called 911. The dispatcher said they were aware of the alarm and had dispatched a car. God bless Minneapolis, I thought: life here is so good, so tranquil, that when you call to report a car alarm they know what you’re talking about. Of course, they’d read my address on the screen, and the dispatcher had probably handled a few calls on the matter, but still. So I walked down the alley again, and found an officer bent over the hood of the beeping car.
I walked around to his side and said “Officer.”
He jumped four feet in the air.
It’s a wonder he didn’t shoot me.
I would have.
He knocked on the door, flashlighted the windows, pronounced the residents idiots. Not in so many words, really, but when I said it was odd that they’d gone away and left windows open, he muttered “you’d be amazed what people leave open in this neighborhood.” Meaning: this neighborhood has almost zero crime, which emboldens people to leave windows open, which is stupid, because it invites crime, which doesn’t happen anyway, BUT IT COULD.
He wasn’t happy with me at all, wondering what the hell I was doing at 2:15 AM in 1986 shorts; I explained I’d made the call, and was worried. Having no other information of note to add, I thanked him and left.
And went to bed. The alarm never sounded again.

Today: hot. A day off! I sat outside and read, then went to work. There’s nothing like going to work on your day off to give you direction, give you purpose. Really. I had been checking my e-mail (I’m still 70 letters behind; forgive me) and found a note that triggered a column idea. I knew that if I stayed home I’d never write it, so I went to work for an hour, banged out the piece, and then drove home through rush-hour traffic. It felt like a real day. Jasper gave me the standard hey-you’re-home! greeting, even though I’d only been gone for two hours.

I did not stop at the grocery store, which was an accomplishment. Tomorrow: I go back to work . . . and find a column already written, since I’ve gone to work on both my days off and written stuff. But it all makes for an easy week, and I like it this way. Summer is rare, heat is fleeting; I want to enjoy it while I can, and so I do. The end. Thirty.


It’s a little past eleven at night, and still in the 80s. A small breeze is trying to get through the vines outside my window, to no avail. The vines have a strange attitude toward the house; they cool the porch, shrouding it with thousands of green palms, and the branches - now thumb-thick - wrap the house like a precious, breakable object. But I think the vines believe they own the house more than I do, that they have a closer, more intimate relationship to its pith and flesh. I can see why they believe that - the tendrils dig into the stucco, hold the house with its million-fingered hand, cradling it, covering the windows like a parent shielding the eyes of a child from something it shouldn’t see. In the fall when I take down the screens I have to rip away the vines, and the result is a big empty rectangle in the foliage. Looks like a family portrait that’s had someone airbrushed out.

I don’t mind. Let them think what they like. It gives the studio privacy, and on the hottest day the sunlight feels cool and green. Birds nest in the branches, and each spring I hear the chicks twitter, hear the worried throaty warbly mutter of the parents as they guard the brood. Vines add age to a building, too, give it an august presence, a learned mien. When I went to the University of Iowa in the summer of 74 for high school speech camp, I loved the ancient ivy-covered buildings; they seemed to be wise old repositories of truth and beauty. They’d earned their ivy.

God, I’d kill for a breeze right now. Give me a chain saw. Enough with these parasitical weeds. I want cross ventilation.

I just finished a cup of coffee; I passed the pot downstairs, and it was still burning - well, why not. Nothing to get up for tomorrow, and I have to stay up tonight and take a whack at the e-mail. (The daily ration is now 4:1, meaning four new letters for every one answered . . . but I’ll get to them all. That’s one of my new vows: all letters will be answered.) It was a very good day, capping off a very good week - a vacation week, I suppose, inasmuch as I skipped Wednesday’s column. I did go in to work every day, and today I wrote two columns - Friday’s and Sunday’s. Counting the Bleats, I wrote 10 pieces this week. Ah, there’s my father’s influence, or rather, the influence of myself trying to answer the questions my father never asked, but I always suspected he thought: is this really work? I count pieces written like he counts deliveries made, gallons hauled.

Anyway. Ten pieces. But no novel. My fault: I’ve been playing Kingpin. It’s a well-designed game, but it keeps doing things that make me dislike it. Stupid, gratuitous stuff. Take away the naughty language and it’s just another shooter; unlike Half-Life, which I played with sweaty hands and thumping heart, this is just the same old walk-shoot-kill-save-powerup-repeat. Great graphics. But you could say the same about the Nazis, I suppose.

No, I’m not comparing it to the Nazis. Just that graphics alone don’t compensate for ethical shortcomings. Which ought to be self-evident. But I guarantee most gamer mag reviews of the game will say the same thing: it’s deplorable that the game allows you to shoot women’s heads off, but man, what incredible graphics. I’m playing it because I’m reviewing it; this is one of my jobs. But it’s not much fun, and it’s a great waste of talent. Oddly enough, the game’s designer seems to sense this - the game is preceded by an editorial about violence and adult content, and you have to read the edit before you can play the game. As I said to a friend, it’s not a ReadMe, it’s a ForgiveMe.

Finished watching “Ocean’s Eleven” last night. The Rat Pack was the Beatles for middle-aged men in the early 60s, meaning, everyone of them had a different character aspect you could admire. Sinatra: cold hard swingin’ cool, baby. Dean Martin: languid drunk devil-may-care ease. Peter Lawford: British class, albeit spineless and unearned. (In other words: British class.) Sammy Davis Jr.: hip Black soul, without any of the problems that came from being Black. Sammy was one of the boys, after all. Of course, the movie never showed Sammy trying to get a drink in the casinos; that would have been interesting. But one scene I found interesting: a highway patrolman stops Sammy’s garbage truck (that was his job, of course; janitor) and tells him to get moving. Sammy’s response, in voice and manner, was Yessuh, yessuh, Ah’s a Be a-movin’ on, Suh. I mean, it was a big bright magnificent screw-you, you sun-baked cracker-ass redneck mutha. Given the time of the film - 1960 - this was impressive, and given the popularity of the movie, and the way it insisted you root for the crooks, it was meant to make people in Minot, North Dakota cheer Sammy Davis Jr. for parodying respect, for repaying white authority with contempt. Interesting.

And then there was Joey Bishop. Everyone wanted to be the other guys in the movie, but in their hearts they knew they were Joey Bishop.

But the film stinks. I read a review today that summed it up perfectly: the gang’s all here, but no one really does anything. The first half of the movie is all clockwork exposition, dully executed, and the caper itself has little dramatic zing. The camera never moves; it’s just one static shot after another. But it’s hilarious to see how the movie tiptoes around the mob - why, after the casinos are hit, the owners bring in an outsider to settle matters - Cesar Romero, sleek and urbane, the Joker out of makeup, a guy who knows who to call in the Outfit. But no one ever breathes a word about Bugsy, Traficante, anyone.

In fact, Vegas looks quaint. Homey. It looks like Fargo looks now. I would have like to have seen Vegas at its worst, meaning its best; as much as the stumbling mumbly swagger of those Rat Pack bastards appalls me now, I would like to spend one night in their shoes, and two nights out of them. Ah, to be tall, well-dressed, on stage, half in the bag, Pall Mall in one hand, gin in the other, a loud laughing crowd braying in the dusky penumbra beyond the footlights, a blaring band behind me, my buddies aligned left and right, money in my pocket, Angie upstairs in the jacuzzi, bad-back Jack K. on the phone for favors, knowing that tomorrow was just more sun and love and liquored glory: sure. I’d take that for a night. This was the last gasp of masculinity, the last bastion of guyhood before it was overrun. And given what manhood had become, it deserved to be routed. It was like a big rotten gourd, and it was kicked apart by a weak sandaled foot. But there’s something to be said for wearing a suit and tie and a hat, firing up a Lucky heedless of the cost, calling for a drink and aiming a song at the back of the room. What the hell.

As the dominant mode of masculine behavior, it lacks. But when lost entirely, that’s not good. Me, I would have liked to have been Dean. I don’t know why. I’m not tall and I’m not Italian.

Maybe that’s why. Of course that’s why.


Dad came into town today, by surprise; we had supper at the Lincoln Del. He likes that place. I used to. It’s a perfect piece of 70s restaurant design, very modern for its time, hideously dated now. There are paintings of sad and happy clowns on the wall. I usually don’t like to eat with clowns watching. But there was no non-clown option. The waitress seemed to have been imported from a classic New York Deli; she had all of the indifference, but none of the competence. I suffered through this exchange:
Dad: I’ll have the cajun chicken. Can I get the fruit with that?
Waitress: You want soup or salad?
Dad: Can I get the fresh fruit?
Waitress: You want fruit instead of the salad?
Me, pointing to menu: It says you have choice of soup or salad, and choice of potato or fresh fruit.
Waitress: Okay. You want soup or salad?
Dad: Salad.
Waitress: Frenchthousanislanhouse?
Dad: (after a few seconds of decoding) Thousand Island.
Waitress: Okay, you want potato or fresh fruit?
At this point I plunged a fork into her arm. At least I wanted to. She was one of those waitresses who never gives any indication she’s heard anything you asked. Ask for mustard, and it may arrive. It may not. Keep in mind that I am good to wait staff; I was a waiter for seven years, and it takes a lot to get on my bad side. This woman got on my bad side in 47 seconds.

Perfect day; not much to say about it, other than frame it, hang it, and name it July. Warm, a touch of humidity, blue skies, lovely sunset. We’ve had enough of those lately, and just as I predicted everyone’s forgotten the chill of June. It only takes two weeks of stern heat in July to make everyone think it’s been perfect since the snow melted. It’s a good thing, this self-deception; we actually grow tired of warm weather in August, and pray for cool September. And we get it, too - which instantly makes us want warm weather again, and then we get that, as well. Looking ahead like this gives me comfort, makes it all seem like a big long scheme, a favorite book I reread even though I know the plot and the ending. But life is never lived like that. We like to think of the year as a house we’ve just bought, with 12 rooms to explore; really, it’s a bonfire, with every day another stick tossed in the blaze.

I wonder if the year would feel different if we had four months instead of 12. Today, August 31st seems like a long time away, but if today was, say, Summer 79th, Summer 120th wouldn’t seem that distant. Maybe it would. It’s all relative. I’m just babbling.

This being Monday night, time is short; I have to finish a column now, the second of the day. Tomorrow it’s rain, and that’s fine; I’ll be laboring away indoors all day anyway. If only it would rain tonight, while I’m still up; there’s nothing I like more than sitting on the porch with only the small strings of lights burning, listening to the rain fall on the roof, patter through the leaves. The smell of the air after rain is a rare perfume, and I miss it.

Just realized I haven’t yet looked down the street and imagined it all covered with snow. That horrible vision usually strikes around this time of the year. Proof I’m well-adjusted, then. Or just so introspective this summer I’m not paying attention to my surroundings. The latter, no doubt.

Walking along the creek this morning I saw a For-Sale sign in front of a house I’d long admired. It was just the sort of house we’d been looking for - a little bigger, stuccoed, with red clay tile, a view of the creek, and best of all, right around the corner from our house. Wouldn’t have to leave the neighborhood. I took a flier, noticed the price, swallowed hard, and decided to give it a look.

For the rest of the day I thought about the house. Could I afford it? Yes. The mortgage interest deduction would be a blessing for my tax liability. (One more reason for a flat-rate tax - there’s something ridiculous about buying more house than you want or need because you’d rather give the money to the banks than the ravening Fed. I mean, as it is, I’m penalized for not paying more mortgage interest. Stupid.) Did I want to move? If the house was right, sure. Did I want the horrors that inevitably ensue from a move? No, and no again. But.

We went to see it at seven. As I walked up the sidewalk I noticed that one of the big tall trees was dying, and even though I pass that tree daily, I thought: I’d have to pay to have that taken away. The doorknocker expressed a religious concept whose devotional level I do not share. The doormat was something I’d seen in the Public Radio gift catalog. The realtor let us in, and I was amazed: this was our house. If you took our house, put it into House Photoshop and resized it by 165%, you’d have this house. Same layout, just . . . bigger.

Living room: nice, airy. Wood floors. Ditto the dining room. Then the kitchen: and here was the real deal-killer. Bamboo-patterned wallpaper, brown cupboards, early 80 appliances. But, I thought, I renovated a kitchen once, I can do it again. Downstairs: serviceable. Pin-neat. Upstairs: more wallpaper. Lots of it. I toted up six rooms I’d have to redo. The main bathroom had been subjected to an utter 70s browning - dark burly brown everywhere, including the tile. Well, I could hack it off and replace it . . .

And so on. Buying a house is a strange thing - you get to enter a stranger’s house and judge every aspect of their life, from their books to their curtains and plates and choice in knick-knacks. Sometimes these items seem to gang up, turn on you: they all say We Own This Place, Not You. If you can’t strip it all away and picture it as your own, it’s a lost cause. If the place had been $125K less, maybe we’d have bought it. But you can’t expect a seller to drop his price by $125K because you think he made regrettable tile choices a quarter century ago.

We went home, shaking our heads. When you decide you don’t want a house, then you turn on it, expressing AMAZEMENT and SURPRISE that they didn’t decorate it to your specifications. I can see why it hadn’t changed in many years - the family had many kids, and everyone got used to it the way it was. There were a few incremental improvements, markers of a time when Mom put her foot down and got her way, or the family had a windfall. But that’s the problem with houses in this neighborhood: people stay forever, and when they finally leave the last thing they did to the joint looks dated. I mean, even I regret the sage &
beige sponged walls in my studio, and if I ever sell this place I’ll paint the walls white before anyone comes in. Sage is the seafoam green of 1995.

Somehow while thinking of the house I managed to write a column. A wet soggy column for a wet humid day. Finished the Fargo hotels site, and now it’s on to the Stores site. Tomorrow promises heat and humidity - indeed, we’re in for ten days of heat and humidity. Who-hoo!

The house didn’t have air conditioning, either.