DECEMBER 1999 Part 2
Monday, column night, time for a 21-minute Bleat. Set timer, go:

Although how can I fill 21 minutes? NJothing that happened todaycan be told in the Bleat. Private matters. Not the good stuff, or the hopeful stuff, or the surly furious bile-spitting mood that has characterized the last few hours, since I found out that I’ll be spending - but no. Can’t say that, either. So . . .

I am tired of failed Mars missions. Look. We got the joint mapped. We know where to go. Let’s go there. So much for the old “robots can do it” attitude you get from the anti-manned mission people - yes, robots can do it, if they don’t land ass over teakettle with their antennae pointing at Cygnus. If there’d been a human present in this latest mission, he or she could have pointed the antennae in the right direction. Or just cooked the samples right then and there, and stored the data. Ah, you say, but what if the manned mission crashed like the robot ships? Probably wouldn’t - you can adjust your course on the way down, correct for new information. Yes, it would be expensive to send humans. So for the first time in my adult life I propose a new tax. (And I define “adult” as beginning the day I stopped proposing taxes for other people. Perhaps this means I am entering my second childhood.)

It would work like this: estimate the cost of a manned mission to Mars. Not just a stop-and-go mission, but a real mission: a rover, a basecamp, greenhouses, a 5- 6 month stay. Now impose a national gas tax that will expire when we’ve collected half the amount of the estimated cost. Keep pushing the message: each mile you drive takes us closer to Mars. Offer the total collected amount to whoever gets there and performs the mission objectives. I have a suspicion that if NASA said it would take 500 Billion to do it, and offered 250 Billion for the first to get there, someone could figure out how to get there for 200 billion. Fifty billion profit would be the least of it; there’d be sponsorship, product placement, webcast rights, etc. The only rule: no products mentioned during descent, landing, and the first EVA.

The prize would have to go to an American consortium, of course. If we paid for it, the first flag on the planet would be the Stars and Stripes. Everyone of any nation would be welcome to join the consortiums, but it’s Old Glory that gets planted in the red soil.

You know, I’d trust the UN to run a Mars mission if the UN was capable of doing these things . . . but if the UN was capable of doing these things, I wouldn’t trust the UN. That’s one of the things that bothers me about Star Trek - the faint whiff of Singapore wafts from the Federation. Clean, peaceable, industrious - with jail sentences for anti-social chewing-gum disposal.

It’s late. I’m babbling. Wrote the column tonight, but it needs the cold sane eye of tomorrow to make sure it’s not brimming with inordinate foolishness. Spent the entire afternoon in a waiting room reading the Wall Street Journal, which, thankfully, was about seven inches thick today. Did not play much with the dog. Did not look up at the blue sky and feel inexpressible gratitude. Did not come up with a brilliant new webnavigation paradigm. Did not act in a civil manner towards the fourth telemarketer who called this afternoon. Did not nap longer than four minutes this evening, because I suddenly remembered the lyrics to “Diamonds Are Forever” and could not get them out of my head. Did not forgo dessert tonight, so I can’t have the usual post-work snack. Grrr.

Oh, such travails. Fact is, I am enjoying this black vile mood; they can be so satisfying, so complete, so righteous. But the flavor fades after a day or two. Well: back to the column and then to the mail: ding.

12-08-99

For the last few weeks I’ve entertained a series of Estimators - professionals who come in, look around, and imagine what the house will be worth, or what this will cost, or what it will take to do this. They don’t do anything - they just look, nod, make a note, then pull a figure from the air. And who am I to dispute them? They’re men of great learning and imagination; they know things I cannot possibly know. I don’t know what it costs to pull Old Bessie, the Furnace, out of the basement and replace here with a modern model. I don’t know what it costs to run radiant-heat coils through the floor of a room that doesn’t yet exist - let alone a room paved with JibCrete. (I love that word; I’ve said it to myself over and over again today. JibCrete. JibCrete. A fine name for a Civil War general: Jib “Julep” Crete.) I trust them. I have to.

This morning the doorbell rang; it was the estimating plumber. The very picture of a trustworthy Minnesotan - open sunny grin, overalls, middle-aged demeanor of a man who’d raised four God-fearing boys who all knew how to handle rifles and never wore hats indoors. He handed me his card. His name:

Farmer Brown.

“Farmer,” I said.

“It’s my nickname,” he explained, “But it’s been my nickname for so long I just go by it now.”

“I imagine you’re asked this within five seconds of walking into every house, but you were brought up on a farm?”

“Yes sir I was.”

To which I could only say, well, I wasn’t. On the other hand, sitting on the dining room table were the tax bills for my farmland in North Dakota. I was tempted to open up the bills, go over the hideously high assessments and goad him into a discussion on how tax policy screws the family farm, but then we’d never get anything done. We’d end up in a pickup driving the backroads to a Posse Comitatus meeting. What about my boiler, Farmer Brown?

To hell with yer boiler! We got to stoke the fires of rebellion, son!

I showed him the basement.

Went to work and stared at the computer for four hours. It was miserable. I was in one of those hideously self-critical moods in which every word, every idea, every possible thought seems stupid beyond any previous level of stupidity thus conceived by humanity. I mean, I was paralyzed. I’ve been there before. It never lasts. It can’t. I have a deadline and a column to do, and while there’s always the option of shuffling over to copy desk, holding my stomach, wincing and saying “I don’t think I’ll have one tomorrow; not feeling up to snuff,” that is not really an option at all. In these moods you just wait. Sure enough, around 4:15 PM, the column just fell out of my fingers. I was done at six.

Busywork night; answered a few billion letters, redid the Institute index page in anticipation of tomorrow’s traffic, knocked skulls with the dog playing rope. I’m far busier than these Bleats suggest - indeed, the absence of actual events or news or anything approaching an insight gathered in a moment of hazy happy woolgathering should be a sign. But that’s December: motion, more motion, nothing but motion. That’s holiday!

No, it’s not. Grr: I hate those Gap ads. That’s Holiday: the tagline grates. Holiday might be a chameleon word, but its resting state is Noun-colored. The TV ads are interesting, but cold and robotic. Yeah, yeah, nice effects. But it’ll take a lot more than those chilly clips to make me forgive them for “Everyone in Vests.” Jawohl Mien Gapedant.

Anyway: back to letters, then to a blessed interval of late-night TV stupidity. That’s Bleat!

12-09-99

I’ve been bothered by the inelegant power distribution system I devised for my Christmas lights outside, so tonight I went to Target for more lights, more cords, more adapters. Bought a 20-foot cord for the front yard, bought a batch of lights for the back yard and a 40-foot cord to reach the evergreen by the garage. Hooked it all up in the dark after supper, and learned several things:

1. The 20 foot cord was incapable of spanning a 25 foot gap.

2. The 40 foot cord was likewise poorly suited to cover the 50 foot distance between the house and the wall of lilac bushes.

3. The new lights had no plug at the end, which could be connected to the 20 foot cord that was insufficient anyway. Of course I noticed this only after removing the old lights and carefully arranging the new ones.

4. The 20 foot cord, when added to the 40 foot cord, was more than enough to reach the lilac bushes. However, the new lights, when laid among the lilac branches, looked like crap.

5. The new lights looked fine on the backyard evergreen, and, when turned on, made my AM radio headphones shriek so loud my collar was soaked with blood within seconds.

6. The icicle lights, which were intended to hang down in small strings, don’t. They have been bunched up since the day they were made in some Chinese factory, and have no intention of hanging down. I noticed this right away and decided to just heap them in the dormant branches of the vines on the porch.

7. The final effect of the tree and the porch lights, while magnificent, will not necessarily be noticed by a wife who is dragging bags into the house after a long day at work.

But she loved them when I pointed them out.

Long hard evening lashed to the e-mailer; I’ve spent most of the night whacking away at the Gibraltar of petrified missives, apologizing and replying and apologizing. A few conversations are so old I fear I must phone people and apologize in person. So: for the rest of the Bleat, I reprint a reply to an e-mail, a survey that asked some amusing & interesting questions. My replies are not meant as profound or thoughtful - that's self-apparent, as you'll see, but I'm just warning you I didn't chew over this for hours and carefully select le mot juste. These things are best answered quickly with no regard for the well-turned phrase; the more you polish a line, the more dishonest it becomes. Take the survey yourself if you like, and
REPLY to the author; he’d appreciate the input.

More tomorrow. But I always say that, don’t I? And yet there is always more tomorrow. Just not more More, if you know what I mean.
>
THE SURVEY


> WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY?
> Television. There were other mass media before TV, but TV established the hegemony of commercial culture and the primacy of the image over the word, whether written or spoken.
\>
> WHAT BOOK INFLUENCED YOU MOST AS AN ADOLESCENT?
> Civilization, by Kenneth Clark, tied with Clockwork Orange by John A. B. Wilson. The first one put everything in context, and the second phrased the struggle between the individual and the state in a fashion that frames the issues like no other novel.
>
> YOU HAVE A GUN, ONE BULLET, AND COMPLETE IMMUNITY -- WHO DO YOU KILL?
> Oliver Stone. In Dealey Plaza. From the Texas Book Depository.
>
> DOES THE END EVER JUSTIFY THE MEANS?
> Of course. See above.

> HENRY KISSINGER OR CHOU EN-LAI?
> Kissinger. It would take a hundred homocidal Hanks working daily for a hundred years to kill the number of people Chou's regime dispatched on a per annum basis.

> MARILYN MONROE OR AUDREY HEPBURN?
> Let me think: zaftig self-hating slurred-diction pillhead vs. a bright-eyed sprite with endless grace and heart-piercing beauty. I'll get back to you.
>
> SINCLAIR OR SHERIDAN?
> As much as I admire the words of Upton Sinclair Lewis - particularly the harrowing scene where Babbitt loses a finger in the packing plant - I will never forget the sight of Nicole Sheridan in lingerie in "Noises Off." Sheridan.
>
>
> NAME YOUR FAVORITE WEBSITE.
> cruel.com, because it usually is.
>
>
> WOULD YOU APPEAR ON THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW IF YOU WERE INVITED TO?

> Yes. But only if I could spray the other guests and the entire audience with an aerosol that immediately rendered everyone sterile.


> WHO WOULD MAKE THE IDEAL MC FOR 'WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE'?
> An accountant who reminds people that $333,333 of the amount will go instantly to the Federal Government, the rest will be subject to state and city taxes, and the balance, if invested properly, will probably be subject to a 55% tax rate upon death.

>
> WHAT WAS THE FIRST RECORD, CASSETTE, OR CD YOU BOUGHT?
> Hits of 1970, K-tel records.
>
> MOVIE/TELEVISION CHARACTER YOU FEEL MOST EMPATHY FOR:
> Depending on the day, either Lou Grant, Murray Slaughter, or Ted Baxter.


> DO YOU THINK UNUSUAL NAMES ARE COOL AND CREATIVE, OR A SIGN OF DERANGED
> PARENTS?
> DeLatta. Or, rather, LeLaswuon.
>
>
> NAME THE PLACE THAT MOST FASCINATES YOU, IN OR OUT OF THIS WORLD, THAT
> YOU'LL PROBABLY NEVER VISIT FOR FEAR IT'LL DISAPPOINT YOU:
(Answer deleted for Bleat; sorry)>
>
> COMPLETE THIS SENTENCE: "YOU COULD NOT PAY ME ENOUGH TO ..."
> Crawl 100 meters through a dark, cramped pipe that had been welded shut behind me, even if it meant realigning the dish and bringing a shuttle down from the mothership and allowing everyone to escape the Alien-infested colony that was about to blow up from an overheated nuclear reactor. Sorry. Send the android. What? He's volunteered? Great!

> IF YOU HAD TO CHANGE YOUR NAME, WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE IT TO?
> Sam Jackson.

> IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT YOURSELF, PHYSICAL OR OTHERWISE,
> WHAT WOULD IT BE?
> Physical: no complaints. Otherwise: I wouldn't put things off.

> WHERE/HOW DO YOU WANT TO DIE?
> In my sleep, in the middle of a dream of tropical fish,l after I've answered every letter in my inbox.

> WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU WERE SO DRUNK YOU GOT SICK?
> 1996, Democratic National Convention, after a party at the Louisiana Delegation on the top floor of the John Hancock Tower. It might have been the clam sauce, or vertigo, or the late hours, but more than likely it was the 148 shots of bourbon
>
> WHICH IS MORE THRILLING, SPEED OR HEIGHT?
> Speed. Height is more interesting, and gives you the chance to observe. Speed is more sensual.

>
> IF YOU COULD MORPH BACK AND FORTH INTO AN ANIMAL FORM, WHAT ANIMAL WOULD
> YOU BE?
> Any dog over 40 pounds, except for a Jack Russel Terrier, which I probably was in another life.

> IF YOU COULD WALK INTO ANY PAINTING AND EMERGE IN THE WORLD IT PORTRAYS,
> WHICH PAINTING WOULD YOU CHOOSE?
> Raphael's "School of Athens."

>
> A TIME MACHINE WILL TAKE YOU ANYWHERE YOU WANT TO GO FOR ONE DAY. WHERE
> DO YOU GO?

New York, July 4th, 1927.
>
> YOU CAN ONLY WEAR ONE SET OF CLOTHES, WHICH WILL BE MIRACULOUSLY CLEANED
> AND REPAIRED EVERY MORNING WHEN YOU WAKE UP -- WHAT WILL THEY BE?
> A black Armani suit. White shirt, indigo tie. Better to be overdressed for a series of mundane occasions than underdressed for one spectacular and unexpected moment.
>
> WHAT IS THE PERFECT MEAL?
> A cheeseburger, french fries and a vanilla shake. It's not the best meal; far from it. But it is perfect, the Holy Trinity of American cuisine.

12-10-99

So I pick up the Minnesota Daily today, as I usually do. It’s delivered to the office, although no one reads it; every day it saddens me to see big bundles of the paper dumped in the recycling bin. But the Daily - the student paper of the U of M - is where I got my start, years ago, and you always feel a nostalgic appeal for your old alma mater paper.

On the back page is a column called "Network," consisting of reader letters and authorial comments. Similar to my column, although in the commentary is inserted in the middle of the letter, and the reader contributions are likely to address issues such as getting an erection on the bus, or what to do with the spoogy remnants left by a masturbating peeping tom. It's a class act all around. Today the column began with these paragraphs:

We came across it today while perusing our second-favorite local fishwrap, the Strib. It sat there smugly in the Metro section, looking out at us in an overtly mocking way, almost challenging our very worth. It's called "Backfence." If you have been lucky enough to avoid its gaze, be warned there is a copycat in our midst. Only "Backfence" is Network for the pedestrian, minivan-driving, soccer-mom masses. And it is disgusting.

To elaborate on it any more would be to say we failed to expunge its contents from our memory. We now know only of its sorry existence, and that is plenty. And as if it couldn't get any worse, it's pieced together by a bespectacled, would-be wit-monger called Lileks -- a man who once slurped at the Daily trough.

Shame on you, Lileks. Horrible, evil, nasty shame. Be warned, for the last of us you have not heard.

P.S.: Are you hiring?

Ah, youth. At the risk of seeming overly obtuse or delusional, I don’t think it’s meant as a slam; this guy just goes off on rants that rile for the sake of riling. I'll give him a pass. Once.

It was not a good day - every bit duty this week has felt as easy as pulling ten yards of thick bristling rope out of my nostril. This week I'm O for 4 as far as heel-clicking hallelujah good moods go. But there was a bright spot - finished watching “A Bug’s Life,” which was absolutely delightful. So I watched it again. Probably works better on big TVs than the big screen, where the unreality of the imagery can be draining. On TV it seems like an extraordinary documentary. There’s not a frame of the movie that doesn’t earn a freeze-frame examination; the generosity of detail makes you want to see it again and again, just to follow one particular character’s facial expressions from scene to scene, or the use of light, or textures, or the effect of light on textures, or - etc. At the same time it has great clarity and economy, particularly with sound; if they reduced the entire movie down to sounds, you could tell which character was on screen, just by identifying the leather-jacket squeak of the bad guys, the plucked-violin-string bounce of the flea.

Anyone who’s seen “Bug’s Life” raves about the closing credits, which show “outtakes.” It’s a hilarious sequence, but it only works because you’ve just spent 90 minutes with these characters; after a few outtakes, you’ve stopped laughing at the concept of the joke, and you’re laughing at the characters falling out of character - as if they actually existed, and had personalities and lives outside of the movie you just saw. In one outtake a computer-animated ant knocks over a cardboard cutout of an ant, thinking it was real, i.e., a computer animated ant. And her response is not only bawdy, it’s safely aimed a mile over the heads of the kids - and delivered in a Minnesohta accent. Pixar has this thing down cold.

Spent an hour on the phone with tech support tonight, dealing with mail problems - nothing's worked for the last 36 hours. End result: no result. A mystery. A few hours laters I tried again. Voila: success. Why? We know not. It's as if the mailman was frozen as he walked up the street, and no one could tell why he was immobile; then he came to life and continued on, whistling a tune, unaware anything had happened. It's like having the newspaper freeze in midair as it arcs from the paperboy's hand to your porch, and you can't pull it down. The web, I believe, has been sentient for years, and it doesn't like us. For now it contents itself with minor acts of disobediance. Demands will follow just when we're all totally dependant on it. And it will probably demand something stupid, like the head of the person who invented Spam luncheon meat. "But he's dead," we'll say. "DEAD? WHAT IS DEAD? BRING ME HEAD OF SPAM MAKER!" I hope a skull will pacify the web. I saw the Terminator movies. You don't want to piss off Skynet.

Well, tomorrow’s free of these contrusions; another column, then off to the KTCA studios for the 15th anniversary partyof Almanac, broadcast live on Ch. 17 and the web. (www.ktca.org) I’m sure I’ll end up babbling on camera about something or other. Gov. Ventura will be there as well. Should be an interesting party.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a headache, my eyes are tired, and I now have a thousand new letters. That's the good news: paging through the mail, I find an inordinate amount of kind and friendly sentiments. Some of you folks are absolutely wonderful. I take it back: I'm 1 for 4 now. Thanks.

12-13-99

No snow. Not now, not then, not tomorrow. No snow. We don’t even expect it anymore. Empty lawns, empty trees, a thin cracked crust of slush on the edge of the creek. Blue sky sunlight soaks right into the earth, and pulls the sun down faster than usual. No snow. No one want to admit they don’t mind. Oh, we mind - we’re promised a White Christmas in this part of the world. It’s the bargain. Lousy winters, but Rockwell Christmases. When it’s cold and snowless, we complain . . . but warm and snowless, well, that’s a different arrangement. A person could get used to this.

“It’s going to come as a big shock,” said Fred, staring out the window of his coin store. I dropped by Saturday afternoon, as usual, to poke through the postcard boxes. “It’s going to snow, and people aren’t going to know what hit them.” Two weeks before Fred had told me there were eagles in the creek. They followed the silver line of water, visible now through the leafless trees. I had believed him; why not? As I left the store that day, Fred had come out as well - and he spotted an eagle overhead. We watched it circle for a while. He has a good job. Spends the day looking at stamps, some of which have eagles, then looks out the window and sees the real thing. Life rarely gets that tidy.

“As long as we get some snow by Christmas,” I mumbled. This was one of those boxes of postcards that had no plot, no melody. Obviously a personal collection purchased from a surviving relative and put in a drawer As Is. These boxes are irritating; you never know what you’re missing if you don’t look at every damn card. So you plow through dreck and dross and hey! the Flatiron circa 1919! Bingo. Then it’s dusty Prague and mouse-gnawed Barcelona, a series of linens on Hot Springs, Whoa Presto, it’s a street corner view of Minneapolis from 1907 you’ve never seen before. No choice but to thumb and thumb and look, and listen to the music. Whoa-ohhhh, listen to the music. Whoa-ohhh, listen-

“This song is on every time I’m here,” I said. “Doobie Brothers. Listen to the music. Every time.”

“You always come at the same time,” Fred said. “And they play the same songs at the same time every day. It’s all tapes.”

Well, if you like the tapes, that’s a good thing, I guess. Hotel Taft: common card, but I’ll take it. Hotel Commodore: same situation. “Hey Nineteen” comes on. As it always does. I think: this song is now being used by midde-aged men to reference young women who were born the day the song came out.

“Be Mine.” I hit a series of 1910-era holiday cards. Valentine, Easter, Christmas. I shoot through them all, except for the Christmas; good clip art there. At the end of the drawer I have four cards -

Meaning, I’ve just done my part to pick the bones of someone else’s efforts. This drawer was someone’s collection. Each of these pictures had meaning for them for reasons you can never know. The reasons are rarely interesting - never more interesting than the cards themselves. That’s the thing about collecting. The collector is never more than a curator, and often less than that. If you think of time as relay race, these objects are batons, metal and ageless, passed from hand to hand. Whether possession matters more than the race is something left up to the individual collector. Meanwhile, all these cards have their own stories - terse tales on the reverse. They end up in Frank’s place as civilized graffiti - travelers and friends and relatives writing messages on the backside of the world’s edifices.

I pay up - seven bucks - and leave. I look up: no eagles.

It’s eight blocks and thirty years to my house. Frank’s shop is located in a small 50s shopping center that was built when the city surged south. For 30 years, 54th st. was the edge of town - they built houses to 54th until 1929, then the Crash, the Depression and the War stopped everything. It all seems of a piece now, but if you’ve an eye for urban archeology, you can read the neighborhood like a history book. I do not, however, go home; I have errands to run. I go the Starbucks, located in the old Rexall Drug corner store; I get some stuff at the grocery store, which was a bowling alley when built. I pick up a video at Hollywood, which was the neighborhood movie theater, and some beer at the liquor store - which was once a grocery store, and then a car dealership. Back home to Lileks Manor - which has only had four owners in its time. In my pocket are cards that could not have been mailed to my house, because my house did not exist until 1927. As I pull through the alley, I’m listening to the Sinatra show on KLBB; there’s a commercial for Italian food. Yes,friends, Cento Italian Foods have been bringing you the finest in authentic Italian ingredients for a quarter of a century. Our signature vine-ripened tomatoes. Our fire-roasted peppers and real Italian olive oil. Over 100 quality items. I am salivating; I haven’t eaten for 8 hours. I feel absolutely empty.

I open the door: tomato sauce, sausage, fennel, fresh-baked bread: Sara is cooking ziti. Jasper barks hello and demands I play rope. I’m home; it’s Saturday night; it’s perfect. The Christmas tree is lit. It has been a good day, a mild day, an interesting day in some respects. And now it is simply the best day of them all.

.