AUGUST 1999 Part 3
Saturday night, one-thirty AM. Sara has a bug, and is sleeping; I’m finishing up a rousing episode of scanning. She rented a movie about tango dancing, but it turned out to be a haughty subtitled European affair, and neither of us could feigninterest. So Idecided to dive into the tottering stack of cookbooks and start preparing the Gallery 3.0 - I can talk about it, promise it, but until I slap paper on glass it’s not going to happen. I scanned enough for eleven updates tonight. Much more to come, of course; this update is going to be a big whomping addition, just like the last. It will debut in March, just like the last.

And then that’s it. I think I will have to buy additional server space for this one; I’m running up against my 100 MB limit. Damn: that’s a big web site. I’d feel proud, but of course 90 MB of it is probably pictures. Anyway, when the Gallery 3 is done, that’s it. Finis. By March I’ll have added 14 new Mpls sites; Fargo will be done; Dogs will be done; the upcoming Permanent Collection of Impermanent Art will be done. What’s left?

The Dinkytown site, I guess.

But that’s it!

Exceptional day, Saturday. The margins were tinged by the same looming grimness I felt last night, making me wonder if that ridiculous spurt of spirits has come to an end. Probably. And it’s no doubt due to the slight small changes in the weather - the summer has that wan exhausted quality, and as much as I love fall, the end of summer and the end of green always depresses me. There is something mindless and eternal about a blaring July afternoon that lets you wallow in the present, bake and baste and react to little more than the sun and the light and the swirl of life around you. Fall is introspection; fall is history; fall is an old man going up the stairs.

But. It was a fine day nonetheless. I sat outside and read most of the book about the Clinton’s marriage. I knew 95% of it, so it wasn’t a jaw-dropping shocker. Nevertheless, it was a jaw-dropping shocker. Around two I decided I would paint the ceiling of the basement - the usual weekly stab at finishing that interminable project - and I did the basics; touch-up work comes tomorrow. When I was done I realized I’d now have to paint a wall I’d previously thought would be best left alone. It never ends. No doubt I will have to do the adjacent utility rooms. And then tunnel into the neighbor’s house and do his basement. At this rate - one session of lack-spirit daubing per week - I’ll finish in December.

We went to Stillwater for dinner. The yearly pilgrimmage. Ducked into an antique mall to see if they had anything interesting, and of course they did; I bought four ancient pop bottles to add to my collection. (Upon returning home, I discovered that my collection had previously numbered three.) Supper was at the Dock Cafe. The waitress was indifferent, sort of a rough draft of Sarah Jessica Parker, and she had a nose stud. It protruded into her nostril and made it look as if she had a thin booger caught in her nose. Very attractive. The view was tremendous - the bridge, the paddlewheels, the boats, the broad blue river; the food was what you might expect in a place where the view is tremendous. Meaning, even if it stinks, you’re reasonably satisfied, because the view was tremendous. It was good to get away from the usual Usual, of course, and see a different part of the state.

Outside the window on the deck, 15 feet away, were our neighbors from down the street.

It’s a small world. But it has a TREMENDOUS view.

We walked along the shore for a while, watched the bridge go up, and watched the bridge go down. Had ice cream and coffee. You cannot possibly imagine a more Yuppiesque Saturday evening. But so what? The coffee’s long voided, the bottles put on the shelf, the meal forgotten, but the simple memory of walking along the Mississippi holding my wife’s hand will stick. If I take two things from 1999, that’ll be one.

Home to the dog, who was just delighted to see us.

Most of the stuff in these antique stores is junk, but sometimes you find poignent junk; in a shelf brimming with unsorted detritus I found a “Cheerleader’s Wallet” that had a name of a sports team, and a girl’s name, each spelled out in adhesive letters no doubt supplied by the wallet maker. Mass-produced, yet intensely personal - this had been THE objet de jour for some young woman circa 1964. And now it’s in a box of junk pawed over by strangers. It makes me cast a wary look to the left, to the shelves of items I’ve accumulated, things I’ve brought together to say this and that about my interests. All of them will eventually be returned to the Great River of Needable Items. When you buy something you’re just paying rent. Everything belongs to someone else eventually - except yourself, the day, the memory of the moment you were standing by the river with your wife, an ancient object wrapped and bagged in the other hand, watching the water roll south to the sea.

No, they can’t take that away from me!

Not that they’re trying. Not that it even has a dollar value. But it’s one of the many things in life both common and priceless.

(NOTE: there was, contrary to warnings, a Bleat last Friday; hit the previous link below to go there.)

Note to really, really bored people with RealAudio: I’ll be co-hosting a radio show on KSTP AM 1500 Tuesday night, 8 PM CST to 10. The other host is Dave Metheny, a co-worker at the Strib. I’ll be theguy who talks faster.

Dead-on perfect summer day. Hot, a touch of water in the air, blue skies: eternal summer. Walked the dog and mowed the lawn; sat outside and read. Went to work and cranked out a game review, then wrote Wednesday’s column a day early - meaning tomorrow will be one of those wretched days where I stare at the column, tweak it until I hate it, then rip it up and start anew at 4 PM. Came home, slapped meat on the grill, read the papers on the porch. Wrote another column. Played piano. Just got done pacing around the backyard talking with the Dark Chef about past and future Diner shows. Dead-on perfect summer day.

The dog was a bad dog. By human terms, anyway; by dog terms, he was a dog, period. He found a dead possum in the woods, and rubbed himself all over it. Came home with a sickly sweet reek like a zombie covered in crap and Karo syrup. It took ten minutes of hosing to disperse. Can’t get the smell out of his collar, either. Now he’s in the spare room on the guest bed, awake, eyes glinting in the dark. Peeved. What a curious beast. He must have a dozen places to sleep in the house - his bag in the downstairs bathroom, the sofa, his chair in the sunroom, a corner of the piano room, the end of the bed, the steps, the square of carpet in my studio; why one room over the next? Why this place instead of that one? Perhaps because, in his own dim way, he is as displeased with us as we were with him. Here he finds this exquisite smell, and we take it away. Barbarians.

Poked around someone else’s house Sunday. We’re not in the market to buy, but there was a house around the corner that was about our size, and went for almost twice what we paid. My wife wanted to see if it had some fabulous aspect that made it worth so much - besides the two-car attached garage, which is as rare in this neighborhood as a swimming pool or a five acre lot. So we looked. It’s like legally sanctioned peeping - come in, take off your shoes, look in their drawers, examine their closets.
The owners had moved, or at least moved most of their stuff - the house was pared down to a minimum of furniture. In the basement I saw the family name on a plaque, and a drawing of a character I thought I recognized - yes, it was the robot from the Wizard of Oz. Mr. Tin, or something like that. Interesting choice of family symbols . . . next to it was an award from a Minnesota Fantasy Writer’s Guild, or something like that. Ah hah: the fellow was a writer. Upstairs I found his writing room, and looked for books with his name. None. But in the adjacent empty room on a shelf, a stack of paperbacks - anthologies from the 60s and 70s. He was in all of them. I’d never heard of the fellow, but I’m not too schooled in that genre. If I could guess, I’d say he made more on the sale of his house than he did on any particular book. (He published 30, the realtor told me.) (The realtor was a writer himself, and in fact had heard me give a speech at a local college a few years ago. It’s a very small town.) That’s the writing business: your books lose value as they age, and the pile of sticks and stones in which you write your works becomes more and more valuable. At the end you’re forgotten, and rich. If he lived in the house for 20, 25 years, he’ll make a quarter-mil on the sale of the house. And all he had to do was paint it now and then.

It’s a rough business. I’ll do a web search for him tonight. I hope he made it. Some people don’t make it into the web, because their books aren’t in print, they don’t have that one fan who loves their work AND makes web sites, or they just didn’t get the critical mass of readership or professional esteem that gets you an entry in some grey-backgrounded college page. It’s a shame; what gets on the web determines what the future remembers. I hope he’s there.

Ahh, I’ll probably get a hundred hits.

(Addendum: I got Zero.)Whee-hah: that felt good. Did live radio tonight for the first time in four months, and the first time in the new KSTP studios. Didn’t do much, since I was mostly there as a button-pushed and format enforcer for Dave Matheny, who was having hisinauguration into talk radio. Dave arranged all the content and the guests; it was his show, and I probably interrupted more than I should have. What made me happy was the least important element of the show - getting in and out of spots, hitting the top of the hour. The most elementary rudiments of radio professionalism require an ability to talk right up to the top of the hour, give the legal ID and leave half the hairbreath of a cricket’s whisper between the time you shut up and the top-of-the-hour news. Whenever I do that I feel like I’ve shot par. Well, had four - four! - opportunities tonight, including two bottom-of-the-hour tosses to the local news. Nailed ‘em all.

It is an exceedingly small thing to be proud of, but as I said, I’m not a professional, and I haven’t done this in a while. I had worried that everything I knew about radio would evaporate in a new location, that the new studio wouldn’t feel like KSTP. But it did. Right down to the same old yellow-foam headphones I’d worn. In the last few weeks I did my show, I remember the overwhelming weariness I felt, but tonight it was like the good days of the 97 Diners - hearing the bumper music come up, leaning it the mike, eager to go.

I’m hooked again.

A day of great energy in general, most of it generated by some peculiar interior engine I neither stoked nor governed. I got to work, looked at the column I’d written the previous day, and didn’t even bother to fix it - I just shoved it over to Friday and banged out a new one. Then I fainted around three PM. Well, not fainted, but I suddenly got swoony, and realized I’d eaten exactly 300 calories in the last 15 hours. Whoops. Inhaled some peanuts, finished the column, went home and ate a gargantuan supper: ahhh. Walked Jasper. Since he usually expects my wife to take him out, he did not regard this walk as The Walk, and hence was content to go home early without doing what dogs need to do. Big mistake.

Off to the studio; did the aforementioned things. Drove home in a rare mood, sunroof open, windows down, music playing very, very loud. I never play the music loud when driving around neighborhoods - it’s impolite. But on the freeway, already loud with the idiot drone of the multitudinous wheels, you can, and you should, release the docking clamps on your sense of civic obligation. Since I live in a town where freeways are, most hours, free - meaning, you can not only see the speed limit but raise it - I have frequent access to the now-rare pleasure of driving fast to loud music. Such a mixture of mood, weather, music and speed comes rare nowadays, and when it does, it’s delightful. If I could bottle the mood and sell it I’d put the liquor boys out of business in a week.

That’s today. Spent the remaining hours of the night talking with my wife on the porch, and taking Jasper into the woods for one last chance. Nothing. Possibly because he heaved all over a rug this morning. I could spend the rest of the night working on projects, or answering e-mail - it’s piling up again, alas - but instead I am going to upload and downshift, and spend a nice hour pasted on the sofa watching MST3K, content in the knowledge that tomorrow I’ll write another column - and the work’s week will be done by 4 PM Wednesday. Except for the BBC. Except for TV on Friday. Except for -

Oh, never mind. It’ll get done. It always does.

I pulled a knife on a co-worker today. He came by to tell a joke, which he does once a week. Every office has a guy who has The Joke Du Jour - in some instances, it’s delivered with hammy bonhomie; in others, it’s told in sly confidence. This fellow is of the latter variety, which gives thejoke-telling a certain conspiratorial atmosphere. He usually has good ones, and even if they’re lame or ripe, he sells them well. What makes people tell jokes? What makes them walk over to someone else and pass along this odd scrap of japery? The same impulse that makes us take grim pleasure in passing along bad news that happened to other people. We like to let others know we know something they don’t, whether it’s news of an earthquake or a good punchline.

I’m not saying that’s bad; it’s human. And I cannot fault this fellow for being the office joke-teller, because as I said, he does it well. I can’t really tell jokes. My friend Dridj the Crazy Uke - there’s a man who can tell a joke. And since he’s in real estate, he has ten million of them. Guys who deal with money always have the best and latest jokes. Why? Perhaps because they spend so much time on the phone with other swingin’-dick dollar commandos, and a good crude ice-breaker is part of the culture. But when Dridj drops a good one in my lap, I can only tell it twice - once when I imitate his delivery, once in my overly ornate retelling. Then it vanishes.

But the joke-tellers, they never forget.

“So did you know the Titanic carried a shipment of condiments?” Peter said, leaning over my cubicle. No introduction, no hello - the set-up of the joke is the introduction, it is the hello.

“Why, no,” I said, adopting a mask of fascination. When I smell a joke coming I instantly adopt the role of the vaudeville straight man, all exaggerated curiosity.

“It had thousands of gallons of mayonnaise,” he said. “It was supposed to be delivered to Mexico.”

“But of course the ship hit the iceberg, and we all know what happened. But to this day in Mexico they remember that event every year, and they call it -”

That’s when I picked up my Harwood State Bank letter opener, which is sharpened to a bright point, and bolted from my chair; I assumed the knife-fighter’s crouch. “No,” I said. “I don’t want you to say it.”

He backed away.

I chased him down the aisle, waving my letter opener.

“I saw that punchline coming from across the Atlantic,” I shouted, and he laughed and turned the corner. I saw him run into someone else and immediately begin a spiel - no doubt telling that hapless victim the joke. I’d broken the unspoken rule, after all. No matter how bad it is, you let the teller drop the punchline. You can groan afterwards, you can berate them, but you let them tell it. For some reason this punchline made me pull a knife.

I hate puns.

Cloudy rainy day, with a mild interlude of sun around supper. I woke early and listened to the trashman’s serenade - bottles, bags, bricks, whining motors, cranky gears, huffing engines . . . BEEP BEEP BEEP. Figured I’d never get back to sleep. I did, but the sleep that follows such an interruption is never what it should be. Got to work and decided to write another column, so I did; I now have the rough drafts for Friday and Sunday done. This is bad. I’ll look at them tomorrow and hate them, intensely, but then five o’clock will come and I’ll sigh, shrug, and decide my reputation, whatever it is, will not be irreparably ruined by either piece.

Sat on the porch after supper and read the new biography of old J. P. Morgan. I read an excerpt in the New Yorker, and it was good, so when the book appeared in the free pile at the paper, I snatched it up. Unfortunately, it follows the same path as all biographies: The first chapter is a detailed account of some pivotal event in the subject’s latter years, and then after 10 pages we are pitched to the beginning of the story, thrown back to the subject’s great-great-great grandfathers. You know it’s going to be 60 pages before the fellow in the first chapter shows up again, and even then he’ll be an infant. Some day I’m going to write a parody biography, where the second chapter begins “The earth, mostly molten rock, began to cool” and then drag the reader through 3 billion years of planetary history before we even get to unicellular organisms.

Now I have to write a TV monologue for Friday, so I’m off.

(Cinco de Mayo.)

(See? You’d pull a knife, too.)

Walked the dog tonight, and I didn’t wear my headphones. I wanted to hear the natural sounds, see things without having a political argument rage in my ears, pay more attention to what the dog wasnoting. Also, I forgot my headphones at work. But I’m glad I did. Having walked through the neighborhood a hundred and eleven times per year, there are no surprises left - but there always are, every time, if you just pay attention. Suddenly that house you never noticed looks different - startling blue shutters; new? The house with the second floor porch is occupied this time, lazy voices drifting through the screen, the text of their discussion caught behind the screen like bits of vegetable in a colander.

And then a kid in Pokemon T-shirt bikes past you on the sidewalk, and his eyes are flat, empty and dead. You think: there are few things on earth as dangerous as the wrong kind of 12-year old boy. He was probably just bored, or thinking about something, or aggravated that he had to drive around with his little brother - who was a few yards behind, legs pumping furiously to keep up - but there was something vacant and piggish in that look that gave me the creeps.

Pokemon. I had just been reading the new biography of J. Pierpont Morgan; the author had been describing his last year in junior high. The students had to give declamations on a subject of their choosing - the virtues of representative democracy, the causes of Bonapartism, etc. Morgan, of course, went to a good private school, but I’m not sure whether the bairns of the rich have to stand and declaim nowadays. Does it matter? Does literacy matter, if the means to achieve it consist of rote drills and dry Latin (the students were reading Virgil in grade school. Virgil!) and other dusty tortures that leave no more than a dry crust of knowledge, easily picked off and flicked away? After all, Pokemon teaches all sorts of skills - spatial, hand-eye, imagination usage, etc.

Boil it down even more: does literacy assure civilization? Of course not. But you can’t have the latter without the former. You need to know words as they exist on a page as well as the way they exist in the air. When you know a word from its tenure on paper, it fixes a meaning to that word, and language requires meaning. Without understanding of words in both contexts, meaning is easily persuaded to be something else.

That was the face I saw float by: the dead dull eyes of someone who apprehends the world through images, and little more.

I could be wrong.

I hope so.

We found many dogs on the walk tonight, along with the usual variety of owners. Some people just don’t want to believe their dogs are dogs. They ascribe all sorts of emotions and intentions to dogs that simply aren’t there. Dogs are not furry humans. I’m as guilty as most, but at least I think I know what motivates my dog, what gets his interest, and what his general intentions are. When one dog owner told her dog she could go over to Jasper and give him a few kisses - meaning, snout sniffs - I groaned to myself. The exchange, as Jasper knew it, had nothing to do with affection; it was a rote transmission of information. Sex, pack ID, food, heat status. Not that he’ll ever do anything with the info; the modern dog’s life consists of accumulating vast amounts of worthless information, since he doesn’t have to defend territory, fight for food, ply the political realms of pack order. But he does it nevertheless, because he’s a dog.

I don’t know if he knows he’s Jasper. I don’t know if any dog knows their name, in the sense that we know our names. I think a name is a sound that the dog interprets as a heads-up: hey, this sound means that soon there will be information concerning you.

Maybe not. He knows our names, and recognizes them in different contexts. But I’m reasonably sure that I mean more to him as a collection of aromas. That’s the language of dogs, and humans are - well, illiterates.

Proof: as I was writing that last sentence, I heard a calamitous barking from the back door. Jasper was sounding the alarm in a big, big way. I went downstairs; he was unnaturally agitated, and sprang outside with fury and purpose. I got a weapon and went out back, half expecting to find someone crouched in the garage. No one was there. Probably a possum, or a bunny bounding across the wet grass. Or a squirrel or a cat. Each has its own loud announcing scent I’ll never know, and surely won’t know from a distance of 100 feet. What frightens me is the look in the dog’s eye when he caught the scent - alert, smart, all resources engaged. He looked up to me for instructions, put a paw on the door, anxious to do his job. All business.

In short, he looked ten times smarted than Piggy on the bike. If I’d called his name, he probably wouldn’t have responded. He was, after all, wearing headphones.