SEPTEMBER 1999 Part 3
It was the last weekend of summer. Sure, everything is beginning to hoist the banners of fall; the hostas, the vines, the leaves, all have tradeddeep vivid green for an unquiet color, a verdant hue that dreams restlessly of sullen brown and idiot orange . . . okay, enough overwriting. Fact: the world is still green. Eight-six percent green. The tree across the street has gone full-tilt fall, but the columnar maple hasn’t varied its hue a notch. The big oak at the end of the block has caught fire on the upper branches, true. The vines are mostly green, but it’s a tired tint; the leaves that have turned red and orange have a revolutionary look to them. They burn with new ideas. And the ideas will spread.

Can you tell I’m reading a book about France circa 1789? It’s called “Citizens,” and it’s an exceptional volume. The author makes a persuasive argument - instead of portraying the French Revolution as a historical inevitability, the product of brute titanic forces colliding - monarchy vs. the people, freedom vs. serfdom, etc. - he draws a detailed picture of the cultural trends of pre-revolutionary France, and shows how the revolutionary impulse arose from the collision & intertwining of these trends. He has no ideological axe to grind; he’s not trying to exalt the Masses or find the roots of the Terror in commodity prices. An offhand swipe at supply-side economics and laissez-faire ideas as practiced in the latter 20th cent betrays his position on the political spectrum, but it’s balanced by equally skeptical, and often more coruscating, digs at the vaporous pronouncements of the philosophes.

What the author (Simon Shama) does best is remind us that people are people, human nature is generally immutable, and hence pop culture have certain characteristics no matter what era you examine. Today I read a chapter on the ballooning craze, and it made for a neat comparison with the moon-shot documentary I’m watching. In both cases, you had Right Stuff pilots - military background, buzz-cut sangfroid, derring-do, rakish grins for the ladies in the audience, great feats of scientific accomplishment. The day the big balloon set off from the courtyard of Versailles was just like the day Apollo lifted off. The roads were clogged, necks were craned, mouths agape, eyes wide.

That was my weekend accomplishment: reading. But I read outside, and that’s the key: Saturday was warm, almost hot, and lent itself to one last long interlude of reading on the porch. Shorts, tanktop, fizzy water, a good thick book. And it was warm into the night as well. What seems your due in summer, what seems to be the right of all, becomes a precious boon in September. Shorts and a tanktop at 11 PM? Praise God. We grilled steaks, had corn on the cob, played with Jasper on the dappled lawn. You don’t notice all the leaves that have fallen when the sun is high and the sun is hot. Saturday: perfect.

Sunday: perfect. Read more, did housework, drove at sunset to an Indian restaurant for some inflamed vindaloo. We were both in second gear today - Sara has one of those low-level colds that everyone seems to have, and I seem to be equally plagued; fuzzy, dry throat, eyes that feel as though I’ve won a staring contest with a wood chipper. I might well spend tomorrow in the sack, lounging around the house, recharging - if I feel as dross-draped tomorrow morning as I do now, then I’m staying home.

Thus ends an ordinary Bleat, but: the long-promised Institute update is posted. I had intendedto get “Dateline: Kennel” up in the summer, but it was one of those sites that was easier to conceive than it was to write. It’s a minor addition to the Institute, but it has its pleasures.

Enjoy: as ever, no charge.

It is remarkably easy to irritate a dog. I don’t mean by the usual methods - punishment, dominance, arbitrary castration. This evening I woke from my accustomed nap to find the accustomed sight: a snout an inch from mine, darkbrown dog-eyes staring intently at me, waiting for something to happen. I got up, walked around the bed, and I had the spring & bounce to my step that said Fun! Play! Jasper bounded to the floor, barked. I ran around to the other side of the bed, and he jumped up in a great bounding leap that makes me fear he’ll hit the ceiling fan. I went around the bed again. He hit the floor. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat until dog catches on; vary length traversed to the door; repeat until dog no longer trusts that you’re actually going to leave the room, but waits until you turn the corner before he hits the floor again.

Then re-enter room and run to the other side of the bed.

This produced a fit of barking that was just plain peeved: stop SCREWING with me. So we got on the floor and battled. Some people say that dogs are great training devices for having kids, but I disagree. When you wrestle with a kid, you have to check your strength. If in the course of a battle with your dog you crack skulls with the greatest possible force, no one cries.

All of this seemed a natural part of the day. But just an hour earlier, as I put away the plates from supper, I noticed that there was a furry quadruped in the room, regarding me with great interest, and I thought: There’s a brown small beast in my kitchen expecting a meal.

How . . . odd. How odd that it’s normal.

Normal is what I am back to, if I can fracture the grammar to express the truth. Spent most of the day in a gauzy fog, fending off the vapors of this cold-that-is-not-a-cold. Issued two good strong sneezes today, each of which seemed to presage the big Cold To Come, but nothing followed the expulsions. I should have known as much. Colds begin with a wet serrated band of distress in the middle of the throat, and proceed upwards and downwards. Colds that begin in the muscles and the head are odd strange not-colds, wannabee bugs that lack the elaborate repertoire of their rhinovirii cousins. Around three the symptoms lifted, and I was a new man. Prior to that I wrote 17 inches of column; I almost fear to see what fevered bilge I pumped out.

Home. I was in the middle of making my prefab turkey feast when the doorbell rang. It was the home remodelers. How nice to see them! How unusual for them to appear a week early! I’d penciled them in for the 27th, but here they were. Someone screwed up. Quite possibly, and quite likely, me. Since they required the presence of both parties, man and wife, I could only give them a cursory tour and get a cursory estimate. I’m looking at a doubling of my mortgage payment.

It’s a lot of money. But. I did not buy this house as an investment. I bought it to live in it.

So I’ll do it. So the nightmare begins. Where willwe live when the reconstruction takes place? Can we find a two-month apartment that lets us bring barky bounding Jasper Dog? And will this require me to buy an iBook?

Yes, Yes, and no, but as long as we’re piling on the Yeses, I’m putting in my order. I’ll take one in blue.

It’s 12:15 AM, and I’ve two hours of work left to do. My wife has made a rare request I cannot turn down, and it involves much Photoshop tweaking,printing, and CD burning I would much rather browse the mail and head downstairs for a day-ending interlude of TV and popcorn with the dog, but duty calls. So: a 15-minute Bleat. Set the timer: go.

A busy day, one of those days where you have to grab your intellectual and metaphysical diversions on the fly. Sped to work, arranged the column; ran an errand in the middle of the afternoon. It was warm - no, amend that; it was sunny, with the illusion of warmth. We get acclimated to incremental chilliness this time of year; what would have been an occasion for shivering and mock teeth-chattering a month ago seems like a tropical boon today. Sixty something. In long solemn pants and long-sleeved shirts and a tie, it felt hot. It’s all relative. Stopped off at the Banana Republic on the way back to investigate some fall jackets, and saw some new styles I liked. Until I tried them on, that is - they were cut straight and narrow, flat blunt lines down to mid-thigh. They made me look like an English 4th grader. They had one style I liked, which naturally was unavailable in my size. Calls were made to area stores. It did not exist any more. I’d missed the chance.

“I’ll just have to hunt down the guy who bought it,” I said, “and rip it from his his scrawny frame.”

The clerk - a Black fellow who was twice my size and 400% cooler than I will ever be - nodded indulgently. “I guess you will,” he said.

I appreciated that.

Back to work. Banged out the column, spitting out the ideas & images that had accumulated during the walk. Went downstairs to the book room to see if there were any new books I might want to review. There were not. There were, however, 9,000,000 new books for review, but most of them were dross, crap, gassy memoirs, transgressive tales of boundary-smashing bravery, etc. No slight intended against lesbians, but I really have no interest in someone’s fight to reclaim the word “husband” for her female partner, particularly if the fight takes 200 pages and contains neither cars, guns, or rockets. Nor am I interested in books about animal mind-reading, biographies of gopher-photographers, disquisitions on the metaphysics of cyberspace identity-shifting, or thumb-sucker accounts of the post-bubble Japanese id.

I picked up a book on the Apollo program.

Spellchecked the column, went home - listened to my usual drive-time radio host. He had an interview with Pat Buchanan. I am tired of Pat Buchanan. The host has unaccountably erupted into a fit of anti-anti-Buchanism that has colored the show for several weeks, and made for tiresome radio. This is about the 50th time he’s had old Pat on the show. Buchanan went off about Churchill’s Hitler strategy, and got so annoying and screechy I turned the channel. I don’t mind that Pat holds these particular opinions, wrong as they may be - it’s the host’s unwillingness to hold his fat feet to the fire on the issue that mystifies me. Buchanan gets heat just for being himself, which is not always right, but he also gets a pass with some because of the composition of his critical chorus, and that's just as stupid. As I said, I'm tired of him; he's just exhausting. You don't know where to start arguing.

So that was my moment of intellectual delectation - wandering the aisles of the supermarket,assembling dinner, arguing in my head with the treble-toned screed of Mr. B. Bought beer, went home, ate food, napped, woke, kissed wife, and was pitched -

DING

(Pitched into aforementioned computer project, which now requires my attention. Later; tomorrow; good day)

Just a wretched day, and I say that with a midnight grin. Last night I was up until three outputting graphics for my wife’s office project. Couldn’t get the printer nozzles aligned; couldn’t get the right quality;couldn’t do anything but keep the entire house awake. The printer sounds like a constipated rhino trying to excrete a plugged-in bandsaw, so every attempt to produce a page made a hideous noise. I gave up around 2:30, burned a CD and left her a note to take it to Kinko’s. Tried to upload the Bleat and get mail, but my ISP has been flaky the last two weeks: no go. Went to bed at 3, fuming.

Got up - ran a few more nozzle-blasting diagnostics, and managed to print off some usable graphics. This meant I had to drive to St. Paul to deliver the stuff to my wife. Fine. Bleary-eyed and foul-minded, I got on the highway and drove east, only to encounter a massive traffic jam over the Mississippi. Oy. Squirted off the road, took side streets - hanging behind people incapable of driving more than 17 MPH - and headed towards University. But betwixt me and my destination laid a dozen construction projects - traffic was detoured, detained, delayed, stopped dead. When I finally made it to the Snelling ramp to 94 I discovered the ramp no longer exists; another detour. In St. Paul I learned that every street has been reduced to one lane of grumbly rubble, thanks to a happy confluence of building construction, street resurfacing, and utility work. It all needs to be done, of course, and it’ll be done in time for winter, when everything will slow down because of ice.

Dropped off the material; learned that my wife was having a wretched day of her own, albeit for different reasons. Went to the office. Did nothing for two hours except read the paper and the wires - read an editorial in our paper about that Utilitarian bastard Singer, and I was so infuriated I fired off an intranet e-mail to its author. Grrr. But I have to give him credit for giving me the chance to be angry about utilitarianism; haven’t had that pleasure since college. Then I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. One column is 24 inches; I wrote 74. Pretty much did the week’s work right there.

Went outside to enjoy the day: the last day of summer was hot and bright, and deserved praise and attendance. Down the street I noticed a car in the intersection, askew, empty, and smoking. It burst into flames. I thought: well, someone’s day is worse than mine. Maybe the car will explode! It was a raging ball of stinky plastic smoke by the time the fire engines showed up, but it did not detonate. Damn. Back to work.

Bought sandwiches at Subway - automatic summer reflex - and went home. Jasper was overjoyed to see me; we wrestled and barked and did the usual pack-scent-conmingling ceremony. It’s odd - we taught him how to “give me a hug,” which means he puts his paws on your shoulder in a familial embrace. What humans mean by this is different from its dog meaning; such a gesture would be an expression of dominance in dog lingo. But he’s come to see it as part of the welcome-home ritual - and the happier he is to see me, the stronger the embrace. Interesting.

I ate my sandwich and went to make coffee. There was no coffee. We were out of coffee. This is like being Lou Reed and finding the Heroin Jar empty. Well: since Sara would be home soon, and would require a nap, and since I had go get more paper to complete the print job, let’s just GO. Back in the car. Got paper, went to Caribou and sat outside drinking Kona, reading about the French Revolution.

Next to me was a mom and a daughter and mom’s friend. Mom knew a few of the teens who worked at the coffee shop; mom clearly regarded herself as a Hip & With-It Mom would could Relate to Teens, probably because she regarded any manifestation of maturity as a sign of age, of unhipness, of sexless useless irrelevance. So she whistled at the boys and brayed slang at the girls. She was nicely attired, dripping with money, bulbous and piggy with a donkey laugh. Her daughter, who was a few years younger than the kids mom was chatting up, was thin, quiet, and heartbreakingly beautiful. She stared at the table while her mom prattled on, the perfect picture of utter mortification. Mom: shutup. Mom: please. Mom: SHUT - UP.

I read my French Revolution book, which just gets better and better. The sun set. The sky darkened. The air was still humane, warm and fragrant despite pig-mom’s noisy poison. I had a refill. And I had another. Went to Shinder’s bookstore - fought my way through throngs of Pokemon addled youth - found nothing of interest, and went home.

When I got back to Lileks Manor I noticed the house was dark, and not in the came-home-ate-took-a-nap sense. My wife hadn’t been home yet. Not good. As I got out of the Defiant, the neighbor across the street called me over: Sara had been locked out of the house, and gone across the street for refuge. Her day had been even worse than mine, and had ended with no supper, no home, no nap, no nothing. But sitting in the neighbor’s living room, laughing over a consolation prize of chablis, recounting the dramas of the summer’s last day, she had quickly found her equilibrium. As had I an hour before.

Sometimes, all’s well that ends. Period. A wretched day of endless irritation, yes. But: warm. Sunny. Bright and humane. It contained Real Dog, actual Writing, much web work, and included a brief intense foray into French history. Plus: a car caught on fire! And even now I have the window open to let the breeze waft in.

A good day. A very good day.

Except for that SONOFABITCH who cut in front of me on the highway. Him I’d hang from the yardarm.

Note to self: buy yardarm.

I feel like someone tapping out a distress signal on a sinking ship, or using a field phone to call HQ and tell them our position’s been overrun. I have no idea if this Bleat will make it to the web, since my ISP no longerseems to work after midnight. Last night was the third night in a row - no way in. Was it my Mac’s fault? Try the PC. Didn’t work on the Dell, either. Perhaps some sort of utility work in the city is at fault? Maybe no one can get out to the net beyond? Well, that’s what 100 free AOL Hour discs are for. I loaded AOL, signed up - with every intention of leaving before I’m charged, mind you - and got right through.

And hit another brick wall. While registering, AOL informed me that my credit card number was already in their file. It gave me a number to call (“It” being AOL, which in my mind has come to resemble some great Jabba-like fecal-smeared pile of swollen, crusty flesh) and kicked me off. I called the number. A helpful tech in Arizona “released” me, as she put it; and told me to sign on again. I did. Same thing. By now the original purpose - test the lines - has been supplanted by the new goal of getting on AOL, which admittedly is a rather meager and depressing objective. I called the number once more, got a sprightly tech who had far more cheer and enthusiasm than her job required. She “released” me again. I signed on successfully, and wandered around the arid empty world of AOL for a while, remembering how much I’d come to dislike it.

And remembering how it used to be. Ahh, the old days. In 1989 I was one of the first, albeit one of the first 250,000. It was simple and clean and leagues ahead of citadel-based systems, inasmuch as it had icons! Wow! I stayed with AOL for many years, although I threw a snit during the great busy-signal debacle. I flirted with e-world - in fact, I was a beta tester for Apple’s e-world, and my final advice to them was simple: kill it. I mean, they licensed the AOL program & interface for that misbegotten project, assuring that whatever they invented would be just like AOL, with fewer people. I spent some time on Genie when the Internet was new, and I’ll never forget the first time the word INTERNET scrolled up in ASCII type on the screen. (USENET would have been more accurate, really.) Then I saw Mosaic running at the Washington Post, and I thought: this is it. This is where it’s alllll going to be.

And it is, except that I can’t GET THERE half the time. At work I have a speedy connection, but surfing at work always has the shadow of Big Brother falling on your keyboard - you never know if some tech in the bowels of the company is noting that you stumbled, however inadvertently, on the Jennifer Love Hewett Bosom Shrine. It’s fun to watch web newbies do a search for innocuous subjects and end up at a site devoted to transsexual pre-teen amputee sneezing fetishes; they hit the BACK button as though the vehemence of their click will somehow register in the records as revulsion.

Anyway. I’m having trouble accessing my site, and tech support is no help. Tech support is in West Virginia. I’ve called the local office, and I got a sys admin who sounded so baked I got a contact high listening to him breathe. I may be changing ISPs, and that means finding someone else who can host a 150MB website without charging me a billion dollars. (No, it’s not 150MB now, but it will be when I’m done.) So don’t expect a new Bleat on Monday - the site will be up, it just might not be updated.

Hot today, or at least hot by the standards of fall. Blue sky; pure, perfect. Wrote a column, then wandered downtown to see what I could see. It was Farmer’s Market day, so Nicollet was lined with merchants hawking fabulous vegetables. I noted a crane over the corpse of the Physicians & Sturgeons Building - demolition has begun. I watched the crane drop the wrecking ball on the 2-story commercial annex, pounding the roof with the plodding certainty of an idiot declaiming his ABCs. I’m of mixed feelings about the demolition of this structure. Mostly, I hate it. The Physicians & Sturgeons building is a classic downtown building - nothing unusual or beautiful, but humanely scaled and classically adorned. On the other hand, it flourished in the age of ineffective medicine - God knows how many hopeless diagnoses were given in those cloistered rooms, how many grim shrieking extractions were performed, how many inaccurate verdicts delivered. If bricks and mortar can soak up pain, think what the wrecking ball will release.

Of course, bricks and mortar can’t soak up pain, so it’s a rather stupid question.

The building will be replaced by a Target. Boo! Hiss! Right? No. I like Target. It’s a useful store. Downtown needs a mid-level retailer, and the drawings for the structure are fabulous - it’s not a grim suburban bunker, but a varied assemblage of storefronts, each of which has a unique retailer, and behind which will rest the Target. It’s a sure sign of how things change - when Penney’s came in to downtown in the 60s and took over the Syndicate Block, they wrapped the building in sheets of beige tin, and no one dared complain. Now Target, anticipating criticism of its very existence, takes pains to reconstruct an urban paradigm we haven’t seen for 70 years.

This is not a bad thing.

Tonight: did the BBC, played with Jasper, and finished two more ads for the Institute. I’ve been working on a big history of the Institute of Official Cheer, including ads for the Institute from the teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Why, I have no idea. But it’s fun. The project will debut in November, if you care. I have become unaccountably interested in the Institute as an actual, albeit faux, institution, and this means creating a history for the place. So far so good.

Except that the cold I mentioned at the start of the week, the cold that disappeared and left me alone, was just hiding under a river of adrenalin. Now that most of the week’s work is done, and the effect of three nights ofbad sleep are fully felt, the cold has decided to take the podium and state its case. Well. Fine. Go ahead. The last best great weekend of 1999 is just ahead. Cold or no cold, clear nose or clogged, this is the last shot of hot bright sun, green leaves and lush grass. After this weekend, it’s over, and that’s fine. It’s time for it to be over. As long as we know it’ll start up again, that is.

Without that promise this beauty would scarcely be bearable.

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