AUGUST 1999 Part 2
Saturday was a strange, unfriendly day. The skies clouded over, but it wasn’t a solid unmovable lid of gray - it was like being an ant under the boots of a marching army, with the clouds moving along at a set pace all day. Sun! Then clouds. Sun! Hot; steamy. Take off the shirt . . . clouds. Brrr. Aroundsix it rained, a sudden and violent burst that gave no sign or signal; it was as if the clouds just threw up. It was over in a minute. Sun! Hot, sticky . . . clouds. Cool. All day. All night. Sunday began just as inauspiciously, but by one the sun was strong, and it’s been a perfect day.

Cut the lawn, which I like to do. I like the smell of gas and grass; I like visiting parts of my lawn I’d never otherwise step upon. Set out the sprinkler, my newfangled sprinkler with a special timer: you can set it for time or amount of water, and then it shuts off. Of course, this just means that water sprays out of the faucet on the side of the house, since it doesn’t actually turn the water off. So I never use that function. But today I turned it on, and: nothing. I saw a thin spray shooting from the connector, so I shut off the water, walked over, tightened it, walked back, turned on the water, and: nothing. Repeat. Finally I discovered that the timer on the sprinkler was set to “OFF.” And I cursed myself: why did I buy a sprinkler that had an OFF button? Who needs an OFF button on a sprinkler?

Sat on the front steps, watching the sprinkler bless the lawn with a practiced motions of a preoccupied priest. Watched the usual parade - dogs and joggers, bike riders, people just taking the air. Hey! That’s my air! Give it back! A few spandexed power-walkers. Everything looked green and perfect; the planes overhead caught the sun, running like a finger of mercury along their silvered hulls. I just love this place.

Went indoors to do chores. Put up two pictures my wife bought at the Uptown Art Festival; one’s a pastel chalk sketch of a stone bridge in fall, the other a photo of a sun-bleached adobe staircase taken somewhere in adobe-land. Then I got out the power drill and hrr-hrrrred a few plant hangers in the porch. I’ll have to post some pictures of that place - this year might be Sara’s best year yet. It’s like living in the rain forest. Sad to think they won’t last -

- but that’s months away. Three months. Although today I noticed the lawn is spattered with leaves. In just a few weeks all the green will start to look exhausted, like some one’s who’s held a smile too long.

Rented, and saw, Pleasantville. Peculiar movie - two movies, really, one of which was irritating and pompous, the other breezy and amusing. Modern kids go back into a black and white 50s sitcom; fine premise, and they got the look of the old shows just right. Black and white and a million shades in between. (When color finally worked its way into this world it actually looked garish and cheap, like a bad singing voice spoiling the perfection of a silent movie.) But then the movie became a political allegory, at which point it degenerated into a smug and simplistic tirade against the Bad Old Past, the boring stifling world of conformity that enlightened souls so considerately tore apart. The 50s are a convenient whipping boy, seen through modern eyes, but the movies always seem like their beating a horse because it’s not a Jeep.

Pleasantville began with a horrible picture of modern life - parents who don’t care about their kids, kids raised by TV, sexually transmitted diseases rampant - and then tries to convince us that promiscuity and extra-marital affairs are good, because they’re honest. The very world the main characters lived in was a direct result of the world they made when they went back in the past.

The most telling moment, for me, was when the mayor, a big evil authority figure, finally lost his control and yelled - at which point he too turned into color. Repression of one’s emotions is unnatural, hence inauthentic. Let it all hang out, baby. Criminey. And after that, everyone files outside to find that the entire world is in color; it’s supposed to be an oooh-aahh moment. But now the little town looks utterly ordinary. At this point the movie has stumbled over its own metaphors - since we all live in the world of color, the world of black and white looks beautiful. Color looks like Paradise, Lost. (The postlapsarian message was played out elsewhere in the film, where a girl gives the hero . . . an apple. In the garden. Okay, got it.)

No, I’m not reading too much into it, and no, it wasn’t a bad movie; many nice scenes and clever touches. But it ignored its own lessons and conclusions, and just wasn’t as deep as it thought it was. In the latter hours of the movie (it felt about four hours long) one of the aggravated citizens puts a sign in his store window: NO COLOREDS. At this point I felt free to critique the movie as a political & cultural allegory, but I realized that they had made an awful mistake: they were equating the right of 50s teens to have sex with the effort of blacks to break down government-sanctioned laws that deprived them of their constitutional rights. Uh-uh. Not analogous. Not even close.

The movie was set in 1958, according to the calendar. Well, I have a newspaper from 1958 right here - August 9, 1958. My mom saved it, because it was the day she spent in the hospital forcing out a squalling rutabaga named James Robert. I used to call my mom at 8:27 AM to thank her; can’t do that anymore, of course. But I will anyway. Just don’t have to use the phone anymore. I am out of my mind. That’s what it said on the front page of the newspaper’s web site today. Upper left-hand corner; it linked to an archive of my columns. James Lileks is Out of His Mind, it said. That’s me!A Wild And Cah-razy guy! Just a looooose cannon. Who knows what he’ll do next? Right below it said Aug. 9, which of course is the day of Nixonian departure, secondary Japanese irradiation and my own appearance as a wet mad rutabaga.

Sorry about yesterday - if you couldn’t get to the site in the morning, it wasn’t my fault. A quick call to my ISP fixed matters, but no explanation was tendered. An act of God, I guess. Which is to say, God assumed human form for the first time in 2000 years, appeared in the room where the servers are kept, made some changes to the directories, then went to lunch.

Cloudy day, and cool; intermittent rain. Walked Jasper this morning in a miserable drizzle that eventually turned into a morose downpour - sullen skies and heavy petulant raindrops, slapping the creek with idle bored malice. Went to work, did things, allowed myself a birthday hamburger. With cheese, even. Watched with distress as the chef busied himself with other customers, leaving my burger to burn. By the time I got it to my desk it still had the seared aroma of abused beef. Damn tasty nevertheless.

Went to Home Depot to buy a door. It’s an odd purchase, not one you make all the time. Hello, where is the door aisle? Thank you. And there they were, dozens of styles. The clerk was helpful, although he instantly shifted into Door Jargon. “That’s the six plate,” he said, pointing to a door with - count ‘em - six beveled variations in its topography. It seemed a bit much.

“Have any two plates?” I said. He looked at me as though I requesting some rare Persian vase not seen in these parts since before the War. As if he was considering letting me into the back room, where a man of taste and discernment might secure a two-plate . . . for a price.

But no. “You’d have to call to the factory,” he said in a tone of wary uncertainty. “It’d take some time.”

I bought the six plate. Actually, I just bought an Estimate, for $35; in a week, an Estimator will appear and measure the space, then disappear for another month. Eventually someone will put in the door. I’ve been through this with Home Depot before. The last Estimator they sent was nine feet tall and had 7 fingers. Everything he measured turned out wrong, but then again he was a big fellow. An inch to him was a millimeter to us.

Back in the car. Cloudy, drizzly, dank, autumnal. Just didn’t feel festive. Went to the computer store for supplies; ran into the sister of a high-school classmate, and advised her on monitors for Macs. I turned on all the dark Macs, arranged the icons and gave the hard drives names. I always do that. CompUSA bastards couldn’t care less. Went to Circuit City and bought myself a present: a wireless headphone. It sends signals through walls! Now I can sit outside on the porch and listen to TV. Which I have no intention of doing. Actually, I can walk to the kitchen and make popcorn without having the extension cord on the headphones snap off, whip around the room and crack a pane in the window.

Which I almost did last night. Made popcorn while I watched the last MST3K. Very sad. No: Bittersweet. It ended just right - a small Mary Tyler Moore reference, a few short scenes to tie it up, then a final shot that just made you weep. I have only the X-Files now. I’ve been careless in my TV viewing; I’ve accumulated no new shows. All I can hope is that some cable channel starts running Homicide, so I can give that show the attention I always meant to give it. I’d start watching St. Elsewhere, but it reminds me too much of working at the Valli. It’s so very 80s - the music, the hairstyles, the fonts on the credits. One of these days I’m going to give serious attention to the 80s again - right now, they’re an agreeable blur, carefully sorted and selected to reflect well on myself and the times, but I should get out all the old journals and marinate myself in the truth.

Not tonight. Things to do; column to write. I spent an hour animating a portion of a picture of the old Minnesota Theater - it had a four-story tower that, I’m sure, had animated lights. So I tried to recreate them for an upcoming web site. It took 127 frames, and that’s just one part. It’ll take 700K to do the entire building, and who’s going to sit still for that download?

Cable modems can’t be ubiquitous fast enough, I say.

Hey: I have birthday cookies downstairs waiting. To hell with drawing in light bulbs in the marquee of a 70- year old building. I’m going to go have some sugar.

E plebnista: it’s not just for Yangs, but for Comms, too.

I finally got my wireless headphones working. They sound like . . . wireless headphones. Missingsome important but not vital portions of the audio spectrum. Prone to hiss, although that can presumably be adjusted. I tuned the signal in, then went outside to experience the ultra-modern joy of listening to television while standing in the back yard.

No! Only the chief can see the E Plebnista!

I groaned. I was inaugurating the headphones with one of the worst Trek episodes ever, Omega Glory. Exhibit B in the case against Gene Roddenberry, Genius. (Exhibit A: he wanted Troi to have six breasts.) It’s telling that this dog of an episode was one of the first ones he wrote, and one of the last ones they did. It’s pure Great Bird, right down to the fatuous speech at the end, and as a bonus it has a character named Wesley. (Roddenberry’s middle name.) I didn’t see it all, but I believe someone even says “we were at the Academy together,” which is Trek’s version of “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Anyway, the headphones work.

I dreamed last night that I counseled David Letterman on how to work when you were depressed. Oddly enough, the role of David was played by the fellow who played Letterman in the HBO movie about the late-night wars. He struck me as a far more authentic Dave than the real thing. Then I was in another scenario entirely: I had to give a sermon at church, which was located in the ground floor of a large, old skyscraper. I decided to go to the top floor and write my sermon, but once there I discovered it was an old swimming pool. So I bobbed around in an innertube for a while. Naturally, this made me late for the sermon, which I hadn’t written - one of those standard-issue late-for-class-and-naked dreams where panic and flop sweat soak every corner of every frame. I got in the elevator, which promptly snapped its cables and plummeted down. Whereupon I awoke, panting.

But: the sun was pouring in the window; I could tell it was a warm day, and a good one. Cereal! Coffee! Newspaper! Into the woods with Jasper dog.

I have completed the meaningless and huge animation of the Minnesota theater marquee. I don’t know why I did this - probably because I had the time and the tools. No doubt it would have been easier, and smaller, in some fancy new graphics package; I had to do it the old fashioned way, one cell at a time. There are one hundred separate animation frames in this thing, and frankly, it does not entirely stink. You’re welcome to see it here - at 38kps it was a three-minute download for me, and you have something to look at while you wait, too. Your mileage may vary. The page links to nothing else - it’s just a preview of the Minnesota Theater site, coming soon. If this bores you, bear with me; I always get the urban-archeology itch in the summer. When the weather turns grim I turn to pop culture history, which always has the promise of spring. Or sugar. Or fat.

I visited a site today that made me weep - Scanty content; it seems to be mostly a flash / shock archive showcase. But it was soooo purty. So clean. I see sites like these, and yea, I despair. The site linked me to another Flash portfolio, - a knockout bit of work. Said absolutely nothing, other than “hire us to create a fabulous site like this for you,” which I suppose is sufficient. I envy these young pups; there are days I feel like the trailing edge, dealing out thick clunky stop-motion animation while the brisk laughing greyhounds speed past trailing the aroma of exotic plugins.

Then again, this is a hobby, not a job. But the static nature of this site drives me nuts. It’s mired in 1998.

So I have an odd choice: spend a month learning Flash, or spend a month developing content. Style or substance.

A false distinction, of course.

Observation of no particular merit, meaning or originality: little on the web today is connected to anyone’s name. We know the names of a few players who are behind this or that, but even though styles of presentation arise on the web, get copied and pass into general usage, the name of the designer is lost, never used. I was looking at a building on Hennepin avenue the other day, shooting pictures for a web site; it’s an utterly ordinary office building from 1922, built by an auto dealer who had ambitions to expand into banking. (He did - his bank was later bought by Northwestern, which eventually closed the branch. In the mid80s the lobby was a Zantigo’s fast-food Mexican restaurant, with a big shiny vault back by the coolers.) Most of the details were classical, standard-issue Beaux-Arts. But one floor had some medallions right out of Louis Sullivan; around the corner, some startling designs cribbed right from Rennie Macintosh. You could look at the designs, the idea, the shape of the line, and trace it right back to a particular artist. In film you can detect a director’s signature touches; writing of course bears the flavor and aroma of authors with notable styles. But outside the community of web developers, it’s difficult to know who does what.

Well, I do this, and now it's time to do something else: popcorn, a book, and the dog's head on my lap. There are a million crickets outside tonight. Better than a million inside, of course; that gets annoying. You have to brush them off the food and every step brings a sickening crunch -

Let me start again.

From the window I hear innumerable crickets, chirrruping fast, a breathless recitavo that soundsagitated and uneasy. Sometimes the crickets’ tempo is leisurely, content, almost the gait of a horse trotting home to the barn for oats and soft hay. Tonight their legs are sawing so fast it’s a wonder they don’t catch fire. This speaks of a warm evening, which it is, but perhaps the crickets smell the storm that’s coming; I’d like to think so. Like performers in an outdoor concert eying the gathering clouds, they’re picking up the tempo just a bit.

I hope it’s a storm. Thunder, lightning. That would make today a perfect summer day. Bright and warm - I spent the noon hour outside reading, drinking water, swatting skeeters. Wandered into work and wrote most of tomorrow’s column, even though I’ll rip most of it up and start all over again. Took a call from the Minnesota Orchestra, which just wanted to let me know something disturbing: last month I wrote a column about the Minnesota Orchestra being purchased in a hostile takeover by the Cleveland Orchestra. The merged orchestra would be named MinClevOrch, and would lay off all the violas and farm out the second-violin work to third-world orchestras. It was, to say the least, a joke. All the people I quoted were either 19th century classical music critics or classical music publishers. At the end of the segment I said that this was, of course, not true, but that given the wave of takeovers of Minnesota companies, I expected it any day now.

Several dozen people have called the Minnesota Orchestra wondering if it’s true.

Including a city councilman from Osseo.

The Orchestra spokesman was kind, but concerned, and his voice had a chastening, please-don’t-do-that-again tone. (Which guarantees that I will.) Since I got a few calls myself, mostly from kindly old women, I can’t unload on these morons in my column without alienating the kindly old women. And I don’t want to do that. But really. My God. In a way, it’s touching; there are still people out there who believe that if something is in the paper, it must be true, even though my column is stuffed with confabulations stem to stern. Well, Sunday I will write a column about Martians landing and incinerating people with their death ray.

Left work, drove home at speeds well above the posted limit, stopped for a sandwich, hugged the stinky dog, then settled down to an evening of reading on the porch. The vines in the porch caught the sunset light in a fashion that made me fetch the video camera - which, of course, was out of juice. I got the spare battery, which had a few minutes of power left. Shot some flowers, took pictures of the porch in full summer glory. Then went up to digitize. The digitizer program did not work. Again. It has corrupted QuickTime once more. So I reinstalled QT, rebooted. The system hung upon hitting the desktop. So now I’m running without extensions, which means this page might not make it to the net tonight at all. A clean install of everything is needed, no doubt. Well. It goes without saying that I haven’t backed everything up on the CDs as intended. Am I going to spend my weekend doing this? Nay, brother, nay. No, sister, no. I am going to frolic in the sun, because that sunset light I described before hit the vines at 8 pm. Last time I noticed that light and noticed the clock, it was nine. Summer slips away, but it does so with such beauty.

I just noticed the fan in my window has started to stir.

And the crickets are quiet.

Here it comes.

No bleat tomorrow: it’s our anniversary, the 10th. A decade of being married to my lovely wife. Since it's a Thursday and school night, we’ll probably save the celebration for later. But I am not going to be up in the studio typing and tweaking tomorrow. At least, sunset on the porch, toasts and reminiscing. See you Monday.

Well, I’ll post a Bleat anyway, despite yesterday’s warning that I might not. Which means I’ll probably have an audience of five. But a grateful five.

Around eight
tonight it was almost dark; a thickgreasy caul had been pulled over the sun, and night came an hour earlier. The sidewalk was freckled with raindrops. Sara went to walk the dog, and a minute later: kaboom. They both came back soaked; the dog shook himself so hard he nearly threw himself into a wall. A thunderstorm is rolling around outside now, one of those distracted and confused storms that issues a few tentative rumbles, because it thinks that’s what it’s supposed to do. Ah: I take that back. Just got one of those crackling bolts that breaks from one point of the compass and concludes on the other. Nature’s version of a Pink Floyd album. Whoa! The sounds move from one side to the other! The air is clean, if cool. It’s a good summer evening.

And a good summer day, even with the clouds. I didn’t accomplish as much as I should have, but then again I’m comparing myself to some mythical dynamo who writes 5000 words before noon. I always hate reading stories of authors who rise at dawn and write for three hours, then end their day’s labors with lunch. I envy them; I can’t do that. Well, no, I can. I could. One of the nicest things about my Strib job is learning I can write at any time. I used to think I needed the night, needed the deadline of sleep; the entire day was spent waiting to write, waiting for that hole in the diurnal hurricane so I could work. No more. But I envy those early writers because they’re done at noon. Done! But then what would I do?


Or plink away at Photoshop. I’m very proud of myself tonight. I had an idea for the banner for the IDS site: clouds floating through blue letters, just like they float along the brilliant blue glass of the tower. I made the clouds, picked out the font, and was constructing the animation, when I thought: ahhh, screw it. And then I whipped up a banner for the Lumber exchange. Elapsed time: one hour.

Strolled downtown today to wander around the Farmer’s Market, look for anniversary items. My wife and I have agreed, quite easily, not to exchange gifts; we’re just not the sort of people who express sentiment with the ritual exchange of objects. Fresh flowers and a hug & kiss is perfectly fine. (Except for Christmas, where I get her all the things she would never get herself.) But I wanted to get some flowers, and there are a dozen vendors on the mall every Thursday. Stopped off at Shinders, the magazine store; as usual, it stunk of BO, stale cigarettes, antiperspirant, and shame. The center of the store is the porn domain, with swinging doors that mark the passage of each patron with a creaky screech. I picked up a copy of PC Accelerator, my favorite computer magazine - it had Jeri Ryan on the cover. Got in line behind a small straggly-haired guy with dirty wire-rimmed glasses; he was buying Black Women Swimsuit Quarterly. He left and I put my purchase on the counter, suddenly feeling as though I was buying Seven of Nine Leotard Monthly. Hot shame burned behind my ears. The clerk, an overly pierced young fellow who had more metal hanging from his body than you’ll find in the US Mint, gave me the usual blank nod.

“Star Trek Voyeur,” he said, reading the headline on the magazine. He laughed. “Man, I’d do her.”

“It’s a great magazine,” I said. Translation: I’m buying it for the articles. BUT I WAS.


Back to the Mall, pick out the flowers. Back to the office, bang out the column. Left at six, having spent the last hour ripping up everything and writing new stuff. As ever, I don’t know why I come into work before four; everything gets done in one 80-minute window.

The weekend looks good - I’ll be painting the basement ceiling, which means the basement project is lurching towards conclusion. Again. I bought special ceiling paint - that’s what it says on the can. Apparently it resists gravity better than normal wall paint. I also have floor paint. Everything’s specialized nowadays. At Shinders I saw a magazine devoted entirely to Yo-Yos. But no Black Swimsuit Model Yo-Yo PC Quarterlys.