NOVEMBER 1999 Part 2
As I sat at my desk Friday morning, shivering, guts aroil, head spinning and limbs quivering like fresh-raked harp strings, I thought: I’m too sick to scan. What a pity. The entire day, free, and I couldn’t lean over to work the scanner without my gorge bolting up my throat. It was the 24-hour bug, or the intestinal flu; I can remember two or three other such bouts, all characterized by the same symptoms: a miserable night, an immobile day, grateful love of soup, false cheer at the end of the day, and a cessation of agony after one spin of the earth. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a 24 hour bug, frankly. In most cases it’s probably food poisoning of some sort. Whatever it is, there are better ways to spend a weekend.

It began - and no, there will be no details - on Thursday night, where I woke up in the middle of the night with insistent distress. I’d been having weird dreams about Roller Coaster Tycoon, the game I’d played that evening. Well,. I’d awakened the night before from the same dream: pay it no mind. But this was . . . different. Half an hour later the main difference was confirmed. I remember thinking, as I thudded down the stairs at 3 AM, that a good vigorous heave tended to blow out the capillaries in your eyeballs, and that was bad: I had to do TV tomorrow.

The next morning I woke up weary and damn near dead; made it halfway through the morning walk with Jasper. Staggered home, canceled all appointments, told the paper I wouldn’t have a Sunday column. Laid down on the sofa. And there I stayed all day. Watched TV. Drank fizzy lime water. Just like childhood, with more channels. Watched “Lost in Space,” and despaired anew: what crap. Watched a few minutes of Springer et al - it was devoted to women who learned, on camera, that their boyfriends were having gay affairs. Lots of whooping from the audience, particularly when one lad lit in to her for being unable to provide what her boyfriend needed. He was particularly cruel. She looked so deeply hurt, and so unusually humiliated, that I wanted to get up, fly to Jerry Springer’s office, and throw up in his lap. But I could only muster one out of two.

In fact I could barely stand at all. Part of the problem with the stomach flu, of course, is that you can’t eat, which makes you weak. And of course I had a class-A lack-of-coffee headache going. I slept. Woke to watch Judge Judy: one hour of stern scowls. God bless her. One hour of good Simpsons. God bless them. Slumber. Sara came home with soup. God bless Marge. I mean Sara. Never has mere broth been such a comfort. I curled up on the sofa again and watched “A Shot in the Dark,” which is the first Clouseau movie. It is slow and mildly funny; the story isn’t very good, but Sellars is Sellars. Sara slept - she has the flu as well, but it’s the other kind that’s going around. Another weekend in the plague house.

I did not get up from the sofa for the entire duration of the movie. That hasn’t happened since they invented the pause button.

We watched “Gods and Monsters,” which was, well, okay. I had expected more monstrousness, more high arch bitchiness from Mr. Whale. It was sad and creepy and touching and pathetic, and I kept thinking that if I wasn’t sick, on the sofa, seeing the movie at a 45 degree angle, limbs aching, joints aflame, I might have enjoyed it more.

Went to sleep. Endured sheet-soaking sweats, buteach time I woke in the stifling room, I thought: I’m winning! And finally I woke and thought: I WON! In the morning I leaped from bed three hours ahead of schedule, full of clean clear energy: Healed! Cured! A new man! Let’s eat pizza! And for the rest of the day I had boundless spirits. Amazing. It was in the high 50s, lovely, and I drove off on errands. Bought a new watch with the glee of a man who’s just gotten good news on his biopsy; shopped for groceries, bought beer, headed home for a good weekend night.

We watched the last episode of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and were sad to see it end. An exceptional series. Sara tottered off to bed, still fatigued from her struggle with the flu; I stayed up for a while. Had another piece of pizza. Regretted it. Instantly. Went to bed with vague worries.

Woke up in slow motion. Felt schmozzled most of the morning; had the same musty-headedness you feel in the first few days of a cold. But it was a lovely day again - 64 degrees, on November 7. Astonishing. Rallied, and walked to the hardware store with Jasper. Everyone was out with mutts and pups and babies and kids; a family had commandeered the baseball diamond at Dog Heaven for a game of kickball; they’d set up chairs, brought the coolers. People were paused on the sidewalk above, looking down into the bowl of the park, watching them play. Their dog chased the ball wherever it was batted, thinking this was all great sport. Which of course it was. For everyone.

Came home, did household duties - cleaned the floor, put up the storm windows, fixed a few things, then crashed on the sofa for an hour. ZZZZZ. Woke upunrefreshed and ate a meager bowl of soup for supper. Did a lot of scanning. I mean, a lot of scanning. There’s a huge new website coming up that will please very few, but I have the server space, so what the hell. Now I have to finish reading “From Bauhaus to Our House,” which I reread every year or so; I’m interviewing Tom Wolfe tomorrow, and I want to be on my toes for the architecture portion of the interview.

All better. Not perfect, but mostly. Please: no cards or flowers.

11-09-99 I was informed I would have 22 minutes to talk to Tom Wolfe. I’d expected twenty, so this was a boon. I felt guilty taking his time at all; when you’re on tour, on the circuit, every stop includes a session with a local scribbler, a gruesome half-hour of forced conversation and retread anecdotes, performed with whatever graciousness you can muster at the moment. He had a lecture to do; he had a reception to attend; prefacing that with one-third of an hour with some gratified yahoo cannot be a merry prospect. Surely the reception would be the worst part, though - all those people, all those eager toothy smiles, all those warm admiring glowing beaming faces. Had any of them read the books? Perhaps a third read Bonfire; not a bad ratio. Perhaps a tenth owned “A Man in Full,” although they didn’t finish it . . . but they loved “The Right Stuff”! And no doubt there would be the obligatory Fan with his patchy beard and worn tweed jacket lurking on the periphery, tapping his foot, scowling at the benefactors who’d earned a place on the head table. He’d read EVERYTHING, and had Many Questions, and was intent on proving that he had read everything and beheld the world through the exact same prism as the honored guest.

That’s what you have to face to earn the paycheck. But it’s a nice paycheck.

At a certain point, however, you’re used to nice paychecks, and the evening stretches ahead like a series of low hurdles to be vaulted, one after the other, one after the other, one after the other unto midnight and the cold clean sheets of a hotel bed. I was the first hurdle.

Mr. Wolfe entered the synagogue. He was tall and thin, parchment wrapped around bird bones. Five people flowed forward and formed a semi-circular flattery guild. The arranger of the event held back; I stayed back behind her. This was the handshake moment for the first tier of movers, shakers and arrangers. Mr. Wolfe murmured that he was pleased to meet you, and pleased to meet you. At one point someone turned and said my name and waved me over; I stepped forward, shook his hand, and said I was honored to meet him.

“James Lileks,” he said. “Didn’t you have a book out recently?”

Time stopped; the earth ceased to rotate. But then I regained myself, and wanted to look at his handler and give him the thumbs up: nice advance work. “I had one out a few years ago,” I said. “A collection of essays -”

“Ah, well, that’s recently for me.”

“But I just sold one to Random House for the spring list of the year after.”

“Really! What is it?” I told him and he pronounced it a delightful idea. The handler moved us up the corridor to the interview room; the Five melted away.

“I apologize for the weather,” I said. “It’s usually warmer.” Hah hah! A joke. It was 74 today.

“I was looking at the weather map on television,” he said, “and it showed that Fargo, North Dakota had the same temperature as Jackson Mississippi.” He shook his head, marveling. “Fargo!”

“My home town.”

He gave me an indescribable expression: really. Do tell. “So was the movie accurate, then?”

“Don’t get me started.”

We sat down and began talking, and I managed to conduct the worst interview I’ve ever done - inasmuch as there’s nothing I can pull out and put in the paper. I should have asked the punchy stupid questions - So, what would you call this decade? Do we still have the Right Stuff? Who should play the lead in the movie version of your latest book? But we talked about architecture and deconstructionism, fer Chrissakes, and whether or not the abandonment of the concept of objective reality was changing the society outside the universities, and how American artistic clericies had destroyed the arts by slavish idolatry of European styles.

“Music, for example,” he said. “The Europeans loved Gershwin, Ellington, Grofe - it was all new to them, a break from their own dreary serialists -”

“And we said fine, we’ll trade you them for Schoenberg,” I said.

“Right! Like a football draft. We gave our best players away.”

And so it went. Of course, any gracious fellow will humor the locals, and express sadness that our conversation should close so soon . . . but like a strip-bar patron who made lingering eye contact with a table dancer, I think we really connected!

Well, no. Well, yes. Well, maybe. Who knows? I didn’t embarass myself; I’m sure of that.

His movements were old and careful; his demeanor the epitome of civility and graciousness. But he had an expression of goofy goggle-eyed confusion he used when describing stupid ideas - it was unstudied and genuine and took 30 years off him when he made it. You realized you were seeing the same screwy face he’d made when he was 13, describing something weird or dumb to his friends.

It was an honor and a pleasure to have time to talk with the man. If I can flatter myself I believe he would not groan if he had to sit next to me at the dinner table.

As long as it wasn’t one of those seven-course affairs.

11-10-99It’s another 12 minute Bleat tonight - I’ve been sitting in front of the screen for six hours, and I really need some TV. Lots of TV. A good stern dose of idiocy to plane off the edges, the pointless little edges that crop up everywhere when you’re busy doing busywork. So: start.

Went to Barnes and Noble to find a copy of New York: 1900, a book about the architecture of Gotham from 1900 - 1915. It’s part of a series of big black expensive books - I have 1930 and 1960 in hardcover, but I didn’t have 1900. They had 1880, which is the latest addition to the series. I am not interested in New York architecture in 1880; it’s too small. So I ordered 1900 and left . . . wandered down the street to a used bookstore that specializes in fine books and fine prints. Would they have a copy? Why, yes. In perfect condition. I bought it, then went back to B&N to cancel my order.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I found the book just down the street. And it’s mint.”

“Probably one of ours,” the clerk said with a rueful smile.

“One of - you don’t mean -”

“Yes, there’s a regular traffic from here to there. Books just walk down the street, it seems.” He sighed. “It’s hard to keep tight security in a store with so many books.”

I looked at my package, now tainted. He was right: it had probably been boosted by some crackhead who thought thick = expensive.

“I feel bad,” I said.

“It’s alright,” he said.

I needed the book for information on several buildings - I’m finishing up a much unneeded site on old New York Skyscraper postcards, part of a larger site that will house most of my postcard collection. I did a web search on New York Postcards and found nothing but sellers, so I think - once again - I have this obvious niche to myself. I’m sure there’s probably some fabulous site out there I’m just duplicating, but what the hell. The site has four areas - motels, diners & restaurants, New York, and World’s Fairs. It’ll be up soon. Something for everything.

Back to the office, although I had to drag myself indoors - it was 75 today, just spectacular. Unheard of. The high for today should have been the attic of the forties. Last night’s low was ten degrees higher than the daily high. We’re even supposed to get a thunderstorm tonight, and that would be a perfect cap to this period of warm weather. Winter would be better if there was thunder and lightning, instead of the cold dead smothering silence of wet snow falling without surcease. Anyway: fired up the computer, prowled around, and discovered yet another Mahir tribute page. I found the original Mahir page a while ago, and have noted with astonishment how it became an instant Web Classic; these memes spread with quicksilver alacrity nowadays, and what is the possession of a small group one day is common currency the next. This is why I love the web - I may hate the Hampster Dance (I STILL can’t get that theme out of my head. Roger. . . Roger someone. Dang me, King of the Road, etc. Don’t tell me. I’ll remember at 3 AM this morning) but I love the way it spawns a billion knockoffs; it’s the opposite of white corpuscles. The web surrounds an idea, and instead of smothering it with overexposure, reconfigures it until it dies of excessive creativity.

If you don’t know the Mahir story, just go to Yahoo and do a search for Mahir; I’m sure it’ll turn up a dozen items.

I had the the cold snout of the dog in my face this morning. Since Sara’s on a business trip, Jasper isn’t getting fed at his usual time, so he gets in bed and stares at me until I wake. He doesn’t wake me - that would be disrespectful - but he is there to ensure that the moment I’m up, I’m aware of the gravity of the situation. He caught a mole today - one long graceful pounce, a high arc ending in a two-paw thrust into the leaves. Very much like a fox. I don’t know of any other dogs around here who are so attuned to the life ofmoles and mice; he spends every trip in the woods shoving his snout deep in the leaves to ferret out the little beasts. It would be cute if it didn’t end in squeaking death. I pull him away when I can, but sometimes I’m too late. Today I was too late. One less mole. One happy dog. See? he seemed to say. If you hadn’t gotten up, I could have fed myself. But please: let’s not let it come to that.

Ding: thirty.

11-15-99 It’s back. Apologies for last week’s Bleatlessness; the phones were down in Lileks Manor, but all is well again.

Friday - did the column, went on walk downtown to get computer mags. Saw a new issue of STUFF, which is the gadget version of Maxim; I remembered that they were going to do something on the Gallery of Regrettable Food. And indeed they did. A nice little box and the plain root URL: lileks.com. That was satisfying. Went home, tossed down dinner, off to the movies: we saw “The Sixth Sense.” Very, very good - slow, but it repayed the viewer for sticking with it. Every single minute was imbued with silent thrumming dread; it was as if the entire movie was pitched just a few degrees below the threshold of panic, low enough so you weren’t in a state of constant jumpiness, but high enough so you were always on edge. I figured out The Twist 20 minutes into the movie, but discarded the idea and decided just to go along with the movie. I completely forgot about The Twist. Near the end of the movie I figured out The Twist again, and this time it hit me like a sack of rocks; my mind raced backwards through the entire movie, finding evidence everywhere.  A fine piece of work.

Sunday I did a rare afternoon interview on BBC5 for a different show - it was a round-table discussion on food safety. I was the American voice. I thought it would be a free-swinging, give-and-take dust-up with some cantankerous Brits, so imagine my horror when they announced the rest of the lineup - a British undersecretary for trade, the Brussels Minister for Public Safety, a South African official . . . and me! I had been contacted last week by a Beeber who got my name from the producers of the show I usually do on Thursdays; she wanted to know what I thought of Food Safety Issues, and whether the EU ought to establish something along the lines of our FDA. She hit me at the sweet moment when caffeine and happiness intersect, and I blathered on about how the political pressures nowadays are much more complex than they were in 1907 - today, pseudoscience and/or public misinformation might lead a European FDA go ban genetically modified tomatoes, for example. That’s different than the story in 1907, when they were concerned about people’s thumbs being chopped off in the packing plants and shipped off in a can of filthy chili.
“As a chef,” she said, “do you feel America’s food is safe?”
“As a chef?” I asked.
“You are a chef.”
“I’m a newspaper columnist.”

There was a moment of mutual bafflement. I explained how I came to the BBC’s attention two years ago, through the Gallery of Regrettable Food, and that I was just a critic - an amateur critic - of food pictures.

“But I loved your answer just now,” she said. “Would you like to come on?”

What the hell. So I did the show, and found myself arguing with the Belgian minister, because he was upset about dioxin in eggshells.

“I don’t mean to advocate drinking a 12-oz. glass of dioxin every morning,” I said, “but we’ve more to fear from improperly prepared safe food than unsafe food. We had 76 million cases of food-related illness in America last year, according to the CDC; 77% were from improper handling of food in restaurants, 20% from improper handling at home, and only 3% from the food itself. Given that the elderly or those with a compromised immune system can be killed - killed! - in a few days by a dose of e.coli, I think that’s what you have to worry about.”

I was the only fellow in the 23 minute debate who quoted statistics at all.

And I took ‘em right out of the edition of USA WEEKEND that came with my morning paper. So there I am at my desk, trying not to laugh, reading from USA Today to a Belgian with a COMPLETE air of authority. And I thought:
How the hell did this happen?

Oh well. It did, and for that I'm glad. I don't know why, exactly, but I am.

Off to Orchestra Hall. It was the first concert for the Minnesota Youth Symphony, and it would seem I am now their MC until I quit or get called up on a morals charge. This year the concerts are held at night, which makes for an infinitesimal amount of additional pressure; there’s something watching people in good dark suits file into Orchestra Hall on a dark night, the lights of the city above bright and heroic, the long line of red taillights heading into the ramps, that gives one pause: damn, I have to get up in front of all these folks.
And there’s always that first moment, walking out on the big stage, looking at a full floor and three tiers of balconies, when you just feel . . . alone. Why, it’s as if every eye is on you! And they are! But as I’ve said, mine is an enviable position - no one is there to hear me; no one expects anything, and the less I do, the happier they are. Tonight went especially well. They laughed at all the right places, and I threw away the script after the first appearance and just winged it. When it goes well - when you find yourself just standing there in front of all those people and the words are right there, right where you want them to be - well, it’s fun.

So today I emceed a concert at the venerable Orchestra Hall and debated food safety with a Belgian minister on the BBC. Another hugely peculiar day.

Last week I tossed together a new site, which you’ll find today in American Postcards. It’s about . . . postcards. (From America.) Today we have New York City, but not those glossy shots with a gigantic apple floating over Manhattan; these are pictures of early, early skyscrapers. If you looked at the site before it was finished, you might want to give it another look; the interface has been redesigned, and there are now 46 postcards up. Next week: motels.

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