OCTOBER 1999 Part 3
A buncha plastic crickets gettin’ jiggy on a paper-mache landscape: that’s the long-buried memory of racial purging to which British citizens are extremely susceptible. That’s the message I got from last night’s late late late night viewing of “Five Million Years to the Earth,” a 60s Brit sci-fi “classic” I taped for later viewing. See, they found this Martian spacecraft while excavating a subway extension - sorry, a tube extension - and this spacecraft made people go goggle-eyed and stagger around, possessed with images of hive purification rites. But thanks to the stern bearded efforts of Dr. Quatermass, and his colleague Reginald Perrin, they were able to invent - on the spot! - a helmet that videotaped the hallucinations. And the videotape showed armies of plastic crickets jumping up and down amongst superimposed explosions.

A rather good movie, actually. I liked it. The end was startling for its day; the heroes, having vanquished evil, do not engage in the usual whee-hah celebration, but stand around panting with empty haunted expressions while the credits rolled. Very effective . . . but the credits go on, and on, and eventually the heroes look stupid, as if they are waiting for the movie to end so they can go to the local for a pint and a nice leg of mutton.

A few nights ago I saw “The Fall of the House of Usher,” with Vincent Price. Cheesy, but it had its Gothic moments. An amusing reminder of the era when the name POE on a film meant - horror! Unspeakable dread! Most of the film consisted of people warning other people that bad things had happened in the past (horrid things; unspeakable things) and that eventually this would lead to the collapse of the House of Usher. Personally, when the house started to collapse, I’d suspect lax construction, not Unspeakable Evil. Sure enough, the house literally fell. Roll credits. Then Roger Corman came on, sitting in a director’s chair, imparting a few “insider” tips about the filming of this masterpiece. I couldn’t tell from his smile whether he was proud of this crap, or winking with pleasure that he now had a campy sort of respect.

Not to make it sound as if I’m just sitting around, watching TV. On the contrary. A few stolen moments here and there. I’ve been working all night on a project, and I have another project to do after I finish this bleat; I have a Monday deadline for a certain project that means I’ll -

- Just got a phone call from my Dad. A nice reminder of eternal unchanging Fargo. The Bison aren’t as good this year. Weather’s been nice. One of his brothers came up for a spell. Leaves need raking. Same old wonderful same old.

Anyway. What was I saying? Right - busy. At least this time it’s busyness with an endpoint; I’ll find out in nine days whether this frantic flurry will amount to anything. Momentous news might be in the offing. Then again, it might not.

Warm again. Not hot; cold in the morning, cheek-stinging cold, but soft warmth by noon. The mornings are now practice sessions for winter. Grim thin winds ahead; the leaves are doomed, the trees rot from the top down; green has surrendered the world to luscious decay. But it’s still a perfect fall - the porch is still alive with blooming flowers; one flower decided to cast a contrary vote, and is producing a dozen fresh blossoms. This could all change in a day - one cold snap kills color fast. Fall is your preview of old age - the direction of things is indisputable, but everything moves at a different pace, and the most alarming changes have their own curious compensations. When you wake one morning and find the mums frosted with ice and fresh snow, there’s a specific beauty to those blasted blossoms, and a reminder of something you knew all along:
It always comes back to this.

But then it goes back to green. And now I go back to work. If I finish by midnight, and answer only 30 letters, I can get in a little TV before sleep. And maybe some popcorn, too: bought some butter-flavored salt today. I saw it in the store, and was startled - the same brand I used in Fargo 25 years ago. Same package design. Same bright unnatural unbutter yellow. Same old wonderful same old.
I wouldn’t take pleasure in that if everything didn’t seem to be on the verge of complete and utter change . . . but that’s another Bleat, and I’ll write it when it’s time.

It’s another egg-timer Bleat: 22 minutes, no more, no less. I have work aplentyto do - in fact, I’m looking at a weekend spent lashed to the machinery, printing and writing and writing and printing, with a few stolen moments of entertainment to take my mind off the immensity of the job ahead. I had this weary feeling upon leaving the house this week - I knew when I came home after a two-piece day I’d be working on other matters until one AM, twitching and flinching everytime the barrel of the Monday Deadline bit into my temple . . . I just sagged. Went to the office and sought out pizza. Life always has a compensation available; sometimes the appearance of a sauce-heavy pizza slowly revolving in a brightly-lit glass kiosk can provide one with the joy required to get through the day.

Not so this time, though. Oh, it was good pizza. It even had a brand name: Pizza Hut. Yes, our office cafeteria is speckled with brand names; this week Starbucks coffee appeared. There’s a big display with a hanging sign, assuring us that the employees PROUDLY BREW Starbucks coffee. I doubt it. I don’t think hearts beat faster and chests swell when it’s time to make the Starbucks. It’s fine coffee, and like everything else in the cafeteria, it’s well made with cheer and good will. But I don’t expect any of them to burst into spontaneous patriotic oaths when they make the Starbucks. If anything, it’s just one more damn thing to clean up at the end of the day.

Most of the forest has Tree-Pattern Baldness now. The tops are bare. Even trees whose leaves are in transition - each leaf individually painted, red bleeding into green - sport empty boughs above. A few trees have lost their leaves altogether, and it’s always a shock to see a stand of trees stripped to their bones. They look like X-rays. The virtue of the forest is its density - even in winter, the limbs and sticks and twigs weave a woody scrim that keeps the eye from leaping straight into the blue; even in winter the roof of this abandoned cathedral blocks more sky than it admits inside. But we’re a few days past peak color, and it all accelerates from here. One day, many leaves; two days of high rude winds later, few leaves. A cold weekend is coming; something tells me that the lawns will be thick with unraked leaves when the first snow falls and stays. All I want is one warm Saturday when I can mow the lawn and say goodbye - a day where you have to wear a jacket, but you take it off after a little exertion.

Interesting, and ridiculous, piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. The author was attempting to find the Deeper Meaning in Chicagoan’s blase reaction to a proposed skyscraper. It would be the world’s tallest. This does not seem to inspire anyone anymore, the author said, and he had a theory: we are in the post-monstrosity age, where scale scope and size no longer impress our enlightened sensibility. He cited the proposed destruction of all the Chicago projects as proof that we’re turning away from our modernist fascination with crushing inhuman scale, and reappraising the virtues of human-scaled architecture. He’s right and he’s wrong. By citing the size of the projects as the contributing factor to their lawless atmosphere, he forgot that Chicago is full of condos and apartment buildings four times taller than the projects, and these buildings aren’t brimming with brigandry. The absence of streets, green space and communal areas does not necessarily breed pathologies. It’s amazing how much crime does NOT break out when people have good jobs and a mortgage. But you don’t even need that. The Chicago projects were, for years, safe sane places, because they screened the tenants. If the condos on the Miracle Mile admitted all applicants, eventually they’d be freefire zones too.

But the failure of the skyscraper to excite the modern imagination is not a good thing. The author of the piece celebrated the return of four-story housing projects - okay, fine. But no one oohs or ahhs or feels a Starbuck-brewing surge of pride when they see four-story houses. No low-rise development has the visceral impact of the Manhattan skyline. Nothing gives me such a lift as my daily view of the Norwest tower lancing the sky as I slide off the freeway. These buildings, however, express a competitive ethic, and that is something American culture has been told it must distrust. Among the new crop of Minneapolis buildings, everything is medium-sized, deferential, low, non-partisan. We have citizens groups composed of downtown dwellers who show up at zoning meetings and demand that the developers lop five stories off their buildings.

If the same ethos had been at work in the 20s, New York would be a collection of stunted thumbs. Hubris and vanity make for fabulous cities. Desire and power leave monuments that lift the spirits of the pedestrian long after the person they were meant to acclaim is dust in a box.

If every building under construction in Minneapolis had been combined into one, it would have been the tallest building in the world. And people would have complained - too dense, too much traffic, and oh, that shadow falling across the city like a dark finger sweeping across the placid sundial of adjacent neighborhoods. . . hey hey ho ho, build your buildings really low. There would be editorials criticizing a society that built the tallest building but did not provide adequate housing for the poor. Shame trumps hubris nowadays.

It’s not a good thing. Not at all. I believe in cities - dense, messy, compacted cities where every morning the sun paints the crowns of tall stone towers. If I had to live in a suburb and work in a suburban office park, and the only tall structure was the Burger King sign, I’d slit my throat with a sharpened Amex card. But that’s just my opinion - I’ll not force on others, and I don’t judge those who feel differently. Although I will say that the skyline of Minneapolis is perfect, and people who want to live in super-dense cities like New York are NUTS.

On the other hand, though DING
Time’s up. Back to work.

Ah, what a perfectly delightful weekend. Did I say perfectly delightful? I meantdelightfully perfect. Sailing on the lake, taking the horses into the woods, walking hand in hand down the path, kicking at leaves, hearing the tinkly snap of discarded crack pipes beneath our feet; you can’t ask for more.

But I must stop lying. Begone, delusions.

This was one of the . . . worst weekends in recent memory. Let me give you a timetable:

Friday: home at seven. Eat pizza. Go to computer store for ink and paper. Begin working at 8:45. Finish at 3:00 AM.

Saturday: Begin working at 11. Break at six. Back to work at seven; finish at 3:30 AM. Turn on TV and find nothing to watch but a stupid Star Trek cartoon. A CARTOON, fer chrisseks.

Sunday: Begin working at 11. No breaks. At 12:15 the printer declares it has no more color ink. Regard as sign from God. Quit.

I have barely moved from this chair, this desk; if all works well, and the weekend’s labors actually result in something, I will regard this as some fabled session of nonstop brilliance, a time when I put my shoulder to the wheel and the wheel threw sparks. If any of this had been fun, it would have been - well, fun. But it was the worst sort of busywork; every minute felt like I was trying to untie wet knots while someone jabbed a gun at my temple. My shoulders ache and my eyes feel like egg yolks rubbed on a sandy beach . . . but it’s done.

For the moment.

I will at some point stop being evasive and reveal the details. Right now it’s 12:32; tomorrow is Monday - back to work! I have a few more things to print off - the black-ink tank is still good for another 10 pages - so I’ll leave with you with one of those sites I did a few months ago in preparation for a day when the Bleat consisted of nothing but a thin weak muffled weeping. Go HERE to see an old destroyed movie theater.

You know, today I found myself with one hand on the iMac running the printing monitor, the other hand on the oldMac, running the scanner; the scanner was whining and the printer was grunting and I was the MASTER of TWO MACHINES (while the PC took incoming phone calls!) and I thought: this is just the sort of multi-cool computer nerdvana I dreamed of 15 years ago.

And 15 years from now, I’ll look back and smile. If . . . but I can say no more. Just leave me to massage my gnarled and aching digits.

This is the other side of autumn - petty rain, stinging rain, sodden mats of leaves inthe woods, clouds rolling slow overhead like tumbleweeds clothed in drier lint. It’s not the sort of day that spells autumn’s end; it just feels like the day where you see the end of it all, not the splendid beginning. Driving home today I could imagine a few trees holding out until the end, their leaves still caught in transitional hues as the snow snapped them off one by one. Shudder. In a perfect year, the trees are bare before winter comes. Every season ought to be the author of its own drama, the director of its own plot; you want autumn to have the chance to strike the set on its own. If they could prove that the first snowflake drifted down the second the last leaf cast off from the branch, I’d be happy.

That said, a good day. Did some business this morning, handing in the gigantic project that ate the last weekend; went to the office for a delicious chicken sandwich. All hail horseradish, the burned chick-breast’s friends. I also had the monthly ration of onion rings, although I forgot to ask for the warm ones. I got the cold ones. Nothing beats hot onion rings. Most anything beats cold onion rings.

Phone rings: it’s a guy who read my Mac piece in the paper, describing a few new Apple products. He wanted me to lay off on the negative comments - why, a friend of his, a PC guy, had called him up and cawed over the piece, particularly the comments about how Apple is doomed.

“Listen, pal,” I said. I actually said that: pal. I wish I’d been wearing a fedora. “I have a letter opener in my hand it’s about one inch from my chest and I’m about to plunge it in unless you tell me you’re kidding.”

A co-worker came over and made don’t-plunge-in-the-letteropener! gestures. Guess I’d brayed a little too loudly.

“No, no, I get it,” the caller said, “but I had to tell him to read the piece to understand it!”

To explain: my Mac column began by noting that all Mac articles in major papers must contain a warning that Apple has .000000001 percent of the market and is doomed to fail and die, so I wrote that Apple was indeed doomed: eventually the sun would go nova, and incinerate the planet, boil off the oceans, and melt these nifty G4s. Or the universe might collapse and crush the new iMacs, even though they have cool graphite shells.
Not everyone understood that I was kidding.
Indeed: after I hung up the phone I checked my mail, and there was a letter from a fellow who wondered just what I meant by this, and chastised me for singling out Apple as a company that would lose big time in any Sol-nova environment.
It’s enough to make you weep.

Over the last three nights I’ve watched TV at an hour TV is not meant to be watched. Like I mentioned yesterday: any time where you’re reduced to watching the Star Trek cartoons, you’re in bad shape, because they all stink. All of them. Anyone who makes a claim otherwise needs to withdraw their orange hairy hand from the Doritos bag and leave the house. But I saw something that made me stay up late; what was it? . . . not the Love Avenue infomercial starring Casey Kasem’s frightening daughter . . . ah! It was an A&E bio on Picasso. What a cad. I love the gloss they apply to these old goats. He was a man of passion! Of art! No single woman could contain his soul! I’m looking at this from a different perspective, thinking: the only reason this old satyr got the curvy babes was because he was PICASSO. If he’d been Morty Abrahmson from Teaneck, a 61-year old chain-smoker in a tight tiny swimsuit, none of these women would have given him a second look.

One of the most overrated artists of the century, I think. Not that he was a hack or a no-talent - far from it. But there’s a touch of the Garth Brooks in old Pablo. A bit of the clever Bowie, always “reinventing” himself to stay fresh. He was lucky enough to come along at a time when all the old models were cheerfully dynamited daily, and he had talent - tremendous talent - that enabled him to shoulder his way into the vanguard and redefine what was New.  But the documentary showed one painting I’d never seen before, a study of one of his girlfriends; it was a pure classical portrait straight out of Ingres’ sketchbook, and my jaw dropped. The irony of his career is this: everything he fathered became irrelevant. The skill he valued least - representational portraiture - now appears to the modern eye to be more revolutionary, in its context, than any of his fractured prismatic Modern works.

Back to work - it’s Monday, and Monday’s work remains to be completed. To be followed by Tuesday’s work. Repeat until dead, fired, or retired. And I don’t expect two out of those three to befall me this week.

I hadn’t seen Paul in 16 years, but there he was: standing alongside of a building,waiting for a bus. The building did not exist the last time we met. It’s fifty-two stories tall. This is why humans are generally preferable to marble: people have memories; buildings just have addresses. This makes it easy to find buildings as the years pass, but they don’t always have much to say when you find them again. Paul had been one of the Dinkydale Deli coffeehouse hounds - a thin fellow who smoked stern cigarettes and read demanding literature. I think he had a mild case of Singing Detective’s disease, although he never spoke of it. Brilliant fellow - we used to sit and drink coffee and discuss Eastern European literature. Kafka, Musil, Bruno Schulz. In those days, the afternoons were spent on the Long Talk - from 2 PM afterwards, the Deli was a place to sit, smoke, drink coffee, and gnaw the old jerky of Western Civilization. I don’t miss the loneliness and doubt of those days, but I do miss the times when debating a point of critical interpretation could consume an afternoon.
“James?” said a voice as I walked past the USBank building. I looked - hey there! We stood and chatted, caught up, and talked about the French Revolution until his bus came. In fact I was still nattering on about it as he clambered aboard. Probably won’t see him again for another 16 years.

I take the daily walk downtown to spend money and see new things. Always something different - a few more floors added to the buildings under construction, a new window display in the department stores, a fresh spatter of pigeon guano on a ledge . . .didn’t say there was something good, just something different. On days like today we need something different. Days like today drag all Minnesotans back to an ancestral memory, an immutable eternal dead dull day drained of color or sun, devoid of green and mercy. We welcome & enjoy the stern fury of winter, because at least something happens: snow falls, traffic slows, the world turns into an albino blur. Spring is a promise every day keeps; fall is a wise sad lesson. But in between are days like today, which just plain suck.
Cold and empty. Downtown feels like crypt. The wind runs around the corner like a blowhard who can’t decide whether to talk your ear off or knock you down, and move on to someone else. Today the new department store windows featured Callista-thin statues modeling the Arctic Inspiration line - gray, white, white-grays, grayish whites. No thanks. As I said: days like today strike most Minnesotans as the raw natural state of the state, unembellished by the imagination of the seasons. There’s only one sensible response: buy new ties.

Dayton’s was having its demi-annual once a year sale, and all the ties were 25% off the normal price. (Which is 85% above cost, I’m sure.) My eye fell on four ties I simply had to have. I instantly recognized these as ties I had declined to buy the last time they’d had the sale. Yet today the ties begged to be bought. What had changed? I recognized one tie - why, it was a brownish version of the greenish version I’d bought in the spring. That’s what changed: the angle of the sun, the length of the day. These were dark ties, warm ties, somber ties: comfort ties. One of them had a fish-scale pattern that flashed like the skin of coral-reef citizens, and I had to get it, if only to pledge solidarity with my briny gill-mates.

I gathered up many, many ties, and some other items of daily necessity. I kept a running total in my head - since everything was 25% off, I had to keep recalculating, and adding tax. When I dumped it on the counter I imagined a sum, and wondered how close I’d be.

The clerk announced the final price. I was eight dollars off.
“I was eight dollars off,” I said.
“Really?” She looked at me with a vaguely confused expression. “I can add it up again -”
“No, that’s okay - I just did a general total, nothing specific -”
“Well, let me check to make sure the computer discounted everything.” She rescanned and peered and the screen, and discovered that the computer hadn’t discounted one of the ties. She retotaled: the bill was now eight dollars less.
“Wow,” she said. This was magic. This was genius. She looked down at the heap of ties and underwear and socks. “You were off by 17 cents.”
A better man would have admitted that I thought the bill would be eight dollars more, not less.
I was not that better man.

So what happens when you add a clinging mom and a cool blonde and a manly-man man together? Hideous waves of crazed avian assassins. I watched “The Birds” last night. I’ve seen the second half a dozen times. Never seen the first, or if I did, I’ve long forgotten it. I suspect this film is not held dear by Hitchcock scholars, because the main theme - When gulls Attack! - is regarded as rather banal, and because the lead female, Tippi Hendren, is not exactly Kelly or Bergman. She’s really awful; she acts as though someone is about to beat her the moment the camera stops rolling. From what I understand, someone did; Hitchcock put her through a grueling shoot, and she just wasn’t up to it. She was a soda-commercial pitchperson, for heaven’s sake. Probably didn’t regard herself as the perfect pure poised ice-blonde of Hitchcock’s dreams. It shows. Throughout the film she appears to have been given several novacaine enemas.
But. It’s a great movie, if only for one reason: it doesn’t explain anything. There’s no reason given for the birds’ attacks. None. And the reason for the birds’ attacks is obvious - it’s Tippi’s fault! Her cool sexuality is undermining the Order of Things! - but then that explanation leads to a dozen different questions as well. Is it the effect she has on the hero’s Mom? On the hero? Is it her own passion unleashed? Is she carrying Hartz Mountain cuttle-bones in her tailored jacket? You decide. It’s fascinating stuff, but by the end the entire movie seems designed to punish her for reasons we don’t know - I never noted this before, but when she goes upstairs (don’t go upstairs!) and opens the door (don’t open the door!) she is attacked by a flood of birds that pour from a canopied bed.

Okay, well, let’s think: what could that mean?

The film also contains Suzanne Pleshette, who at the time was 300 cartons away her current Camel-cured voice, and Rod Taylor, doing a pretty good American accent. I forget who the mother was, but I suspect it was a younger actress playing an older woman, a la Granny in “Beverly Hillbillies.” (I remember as a child seeing a picture of her without makeup, and I was stunned: Granny wasn’t a granny.) Veronica Cartwright played the younger daughter, and her acting style ranged from birch to plywood to oak. But all that mattered was the end, where the hero defends three generations of women - his mother, who’s widowed and hence (by the movie’s definition) post-sexual, the younger pre-sexual sister, and the sexually sexual Mystery Woman, who by now is insane. They all drive off into the sunrise, and you suspect nothing will be good for anyone anymore.

Hitchcock is one my favorite directors, but he was blunt and artless on too many occasions. The bird attacks must have struck contemporary audiences as frenetic & kinetic - to modern eyes, they seem as leisurely as a Merchant & Ivory dinnertime scene. They’re still a model of good editing. What seemed like a quick cut then looks like a lingering shot now, though, so you don’t know if Hitchcock’s decision to hold a particular image for a particular length of time was an artistic choice based on some immutable standard, or a reflection of the attention span of his day. Better minds than mine have debated the subject, I’m sure.

But he was clumsy. Continuity errors all over the place. Hokey rear-projection - a bane of the times, but one Hitchcock seemed content to live with.

I wonder if “The Birds” was the first exploding gas-station movie. I’ll wager that it was.

Great fun, in any case.

Warm day - by standards of late fall, anyway. A freeze has killed most of the porch plants; they’re keeled over, frosted and blasted and splayed in hideous poses. The plants near the house huddled close last night and stayed alive, and that’s good for something - when you have bright flowers on your porch in the third week of October, you count yourself lucky. An ordinary day all around - went to work, wrote a computer review, went home, had a Totino’s Party Pizza. Did not have a party, though. Napped. Woke and scanned, read some French Revolution history, walked the dog, played piano, tweaked the website here and there. Now I will iron and answer mail and amuse myself for a few more hours - Sara’s at an all-girl supper, so it’s just me and Jasper for a while.

Good news for those who care: the Diner Returns, on Halloween night. Another holiday edition. Nine to 12 PM - and it’ll be available on RealAudio, too. Three hours of palaver, and I’m really looking forward to it. Details to follow.

Back to work. Thursday and Friday - the busiest days of the week - await.