DECEMBER 1999 Part 3
Monday night, more rushed than usual; all sorts of contrusions going on. I ripped up tonight’s column halfway through and began another, and was no more than 99 words into it when I knock an entire beer into the keyboard. So no everything smells like a bar rag in my studio. To make matters worse, there is nothing that makes matters worse. It would be nice to say AND THEN! and come up with something really annoying, but that’s it - false-start column, beer-spill. Although that’s enough.

Went to the Mall of America this afternoon. I’ve felt bad that I’ve been unable to generate anything remotely Christmassy for the column, and figured a good bellyflop into mall culture would help. It did. Not. I only go there once a year to shop; I hate the place, although I enjoy certain stores. I always expect that I’ll fulfill every shopping need, quickly, with brisk chipper enthusiasm, but after I’d made an entire pass around the top floor I was empty-handed. Panic starts to gnaw at the margins at this point, so I went to a store and bought SOMETHING just to have a bag to carry. Once the pump was primed, everything else was easy. Had a solitary supper at Johnny Rockets - creature of habit that I am, I always eat there on my Christmas expeditions - and read the New York Times. Content. Happy. It’s a fine simple pleasure: good french fries, the A section of the Times, six bags of gifts on the adjacent stool, Christmas still 10 days ahead. Afterwards I wandered into Nordstroms, which was deserted; everyone had decamped for home, and the store had that day-before-the-day-before feeling I always enjoy in late December. The pianist on the ground floor began to play the “Skating Song” from the Charlie Brown Christmas special, and I swear every adult in the building slowed, gave a small sad smile and tumbled back thirty years.

Worked for me; I bought something.

Home. Took a seventeen minute nap, got up, made coffee and got to work. It’s a five-piece week, and I’d best get back to work. If you missed yesterday's Bleat, I can assure you this: it's much longer than this one. Is it just as substantial? You be the judge.


Could I have five million dollars, please? That’s all. No more. And I’ll return what I don’t need.

I got An Idea today. One of those dot-com ideas. It was the most amazing thing; it fell on my head like a can of Beefaroni dropped from a third-floor balcony. I wasn’t even thinking of internet startups, or get-rich schemes, or anything of the sort. I was replaying yesterday’s shopping excursion to the mall, actually. But all at once I saw the idea, the web page, and even the domain name. I literally stopped on the street. In rapid succession I built the brand, developed partners, and sold out to AOL. Within a block I was already suing former partners. It was exhilerating.

Fired up the office computer, did a search on the domain name. It was available, which suggested no one else has had this idea yet - although that seems highly unlikely. It’s just too fargin’ obvious. Did some web searches: nope. No such thing anywhere.


The phone rang. It was my wife, with a question, and as I was answering her query I realized that the very fact that she had to ask this question proved the need for the site I’d just invented. It was an astonishing bit of synchronicity. I thought: there’s your Wall Street Journal anecdote, right there. That’s the story you tell the interviewer when he or she asks when you knew this idea would make it.

I picked up the phone and called a company that does hard-core coding on commercial websites; they’re in. “Hey, I got a great idea for a business. I can’t tell you what it is and I can’t pay you for working on it. Interested?” “Count me in!”

I LOVE the 90s.

But where will I get the money? Then I remembered that I am one phone call away from a fellow who has, literally, half a billion dollars. If all goes as planned I will incorporate by Friday, sell the idea to a portal next Wednesday, and pocket 40 million by year’s end.

Spent the night playing the computer version of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” which I have to review tomorrow for the paper. I won two imaginary millions. Big deal. I made twenty times that today. In fictional dollars, that is.

Actually, this is a curse, because now I have to follow through. I am certain at some point soon I’ll run into someone else’s implementation of the idea, but I keep coming back to the same realization: if this thing was out there, I’d have heard of it. I spend all day on the damn web, but no one is pushing this idea. Anyone who’s even close has it all backwards.

Like all great money-making net ventures, the idea is blissfully simple. No inventory. All services are free. The customers provide the commodity.

Let’s just dream here for a minute . . . it would be greatly amusing if this actually worked, and I netted a merry sum for the idea. Very little would change except for the location and size of my house. I would buy a lot on Lake Harriet, knock something down and build something else. I would keep the column. I would -

Well, no. Enough. I stopped thinking about it, and made supper. Read the paper. Went upstairs and turned on the computer . . . designed the home page for the idea . . . oh, sure, like that’s the first thing I need to do. Took anap and slept right through a show a friend had recommended I watch. Woke, then carefully, painstakingly, lovingly, did the Christmas design for Played funny-money fantasies with Regis.

Tomorrow I will call the half-billionaire, and if I get through it will be 20 hours from conception to the first connection with the money. In modern terms, I’m already late. I’m doomed. Someone, please, buy me out now. Save from all I fear is to come.


Stayed up late last night watching “The Hunt for Red October,” and enjoyed it completely. Why, it makes one damn near nostalgic for the days when the Sovs were the enemies, even though the film was released a few months after the rubble from the Berlin Wall was being swept up. read some online reviews today, and noted that many critics found fault with Sam Neill’s Russian accent. Hah! Sam has impeccable Russian credentials, as I will soon prove.

Ordinary day; wrote a computer game review, edited it, wrote half of tomorrow’s column, left the office. Cold. Brisk. It was about 14 above, and I made a mental note: buy gloves. Went home and fixed a fine, fine supper of circular tuna fillets and pommes a la rustique (tuna burgers and country-style french fried potatoes.) An hour later Sara came home, and I made the same thing again for her. Jasper got many french fries. He believes this is his due. The alertness of his expression when food is at stake is amazing, and the object is always the same: secure the food-item, then secure the subsequent food item. Chewing, taste, swallowing - all ancillary topics. Sara took Jasper for his evening walk, and I sat down to read the New Yorker.

There was an article on Richard Strauss, a composer I have never liked. The author said he was “a perverse hero for a perverse age,” and I dropped the magazine in boredom. Ah, yes, the 20th century, the perverse age, a time that can only be accurately understood by examining its more dubious characters. Nevermind that millions smiled at Rogers and Astaire; we must look at some Weimar strip-tease artiste if we really want to understand this Perverse Century. Never Parrish or Rockwell, only Hirst and Schnabel. Never McMead/Kim/White, only Graves. Never King, only Gertie Stein. I’m not making an argument for philistinism here, but it is the worst sort of self-congratulation to assume that we have lived in the Most Perverse Century of them all, and must necessarily examine the voices that stand in opposition to culture to understand what the culture was about.

Strauss . . . there was something wrong with the man, and I think he knew it. And was proud of it. I have never liked his work - there’s a showy emptiness that bores me, and a shrill pyromaniacal weirdness that keeps me from embracing any of the works. This article confirmed what I had thought, but included some interesting lines. My favorite - a description of an opera plot which perfectly describes why I don’t like opera: “Guntram kills the husband in an act of self-defense and is put on trial by the shadowy singing society to which he belongs.”
If I’d been Guntram, I wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face.
On and on the article goes, detailing Strauss’ patty-cake sessions with the Nazi regime, which is enough to give me the cheevers; I can no more listen to “Also Sprach” than I can listen to Wagner operas, because I keep seeing Aryan archetypes staring steely glares at the Jew-free future. But here’s the line I loved:
“The translation of Wilde’s ‘Salome’ that Strauss used was made by Hedwig Lachmann, the wife of the anarchist philosopher Gustav Landauer, who would later become Commissar for Education and Enlightenment in the short-lived Soviet Republic of Bavaria. By a quirk of cultural history, Lachmann and Landauer were the grandparents of the director Mike Nichols.”

So Strauss knew Bavarian Soviets Lachmann and Landauer, who sired the person who sired Mike Nichols, who directed Dustin Hoffman in a movie, and Hoffman appeared in “Sphere,” based on a book by Crichton, whose “Jurassic Park” was also made into amovie starring Sam Neill, who played a Soviet in “Red October.” In fact, he played a man named "Borodin" - named after a Russian composer.

Oh, but it gets stranger. Nichols worked with Elaine May, who directed “Ishtar,” which featured Warren Beatty, who later used the song “Slow Boat to China” in one of his movies. So? Well, Chinese election contributions to the DNC were investigated by Sen. Fred Thompson - who played a BOAT ADMIRAL in “Red October.”

And people wonder why I don’t like Strauss.


It was the annual Holiday Meal at work today. Which holiday? Well, let’s not say. Snowman Holiday! JingleDay! Reindeermas! I made a list of what I expected to find on the buffet table: a plate of vegetables, a token salad, then bubbling vats of chicken, ziti, meatballs in BBQ sauce, and, at the end, bathed in the holy red light of the warming lamp, a prime rib the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

And that’s exactly what we had. But I had to wait all day to get it. I had lunch at home today - wrote some of the column this morning, then shipped it in via computer, showed up at the office after the Holiday Meal had been served. Since the second seating began at 5:30, I figured I’d sup at the office. Went upstairs, got my plate, said hello to thee and thou in the halls. When I finished I looked at my computer - there was a new message - it read “Did you stay late today so you could eat two meals?”

It was anonymous. Meant, no doubt, as a harmless jape. But it reminds me that for all the talk of Big Brother - i.e., The Boss - monitoring our actions at work, nothing compares to the level of surveillance employees perform on one another. Ask any boss who spends all their time gabbing on the phone, who takes three hour lunches, who gets boxes from Amazon once a week - most bosses won’t have a clue. Ask certain employees, and they’ll dish so much dirt that if you dumped it on Manhattan, people on the 87th floor of the Empire State Building could open their window, climb out, and go for a stroll.

Of course, the bosses know if you’re visiting Nasty Sites, or Time-Wasting Sites. Perhaps the webmasters at work sift through the lists of URLs to see where people go; I would, if I were them. But of course a string of numbers tells one nothing; it’s the cache that counts. It’s the cache that kills. Every day I wander into a site that unfurls some horribly regrettable picture I cannot possibly justify, and I’ve become quite adept at backing out at the first sign of cleavage. Not exactly a skill I ever thought I’d have to master.

Cold day; single digits. It lacks but snow to be a perfect winter day, and without the snow it just seems cruel. Mean. I took the walk through downtown as usual, and headed with regret for the skyways. Encountered the usual mix of downtown citizens - the thick slow supplicants who plod in and out of the government center, and regard meeting with their designated bureaucrat as the equivalent of a day’s work; the nervy worried men in good suits who never look at anyone, as though they fear everyone can read trade secrets in their eyes; the wandering knots of idle women and their trailing broods, who are either ignored or yelled at, depending on mom’s whim; swaggering young men who cruise the skyways looking as though they’ve figured out something no one else has, and the rest of us are just plain suckers. Old women hunched like commas, shopping downtown because they have always shopped downtown - why, it wouldn’t be Christmas without that nice piece of pie at the Dayton’s restaurant. The cold drives everyone indoors, and we all file through the bright wide hallways of the skyway system, mere plankton heading for the maws of the department stores.

I didn’t shop. Perhaps tomorrow. This is the Christmas that isn’t - snowless, no Fargo. Eh.

Wrote the column, went home, walked Jasper in the hard black cold while I figured out what I’d say on the BBC tonight. Went home; had coffee; did the Beeb, then returned to the Millenniiuumm essay I’m doing for the paper. I don’t know where it’s going, but I haven’t really pulled on the reins yet - just letting it go where it pleases. Tomorrow I anticipate a good column, a good pizza, a good movie, and a good night with wife, dog, and the fireplace. Maybe I’ll watch “It’s A Wonderful Life”on DVD - the new Special Edition disk allows you to selectively remove Sam Wainright’s irritating “hee-haw” sound, as well as replace Zazu’s voice with a more adept child actor.

Just kidding.

Oh, no.

Oh, no: just got another idea - a Christmas story idea. I used to write Christmas stories for the Daily; I could have done so for the Strib if I’d gotten this idea earlier. Damn. Too late. Well, I’ll have to write it anyway; perhaps I can excerpt it in my column.

It’s A Wonderful Christmas Carol, with Mr. Potter as Scrooge.

Stay tuned.


One night on Pottersville. That’s all I want. One night with money in one pocket and a blackjack in the other. (Just in case.) “It’s a Wonderful Life” is playing downstairs - I can hear George Bailey running through Bedford Falls, merrychristmasing every inanimate object in sight. We all want to life in Bedford Falls . . . but we all would like a night in Pottersville.

“I must’ve gotten hold of some bad liquor,” George says at one point. That’s 40s-speak for “I’m trippin’,” and far more evocative, if you ask me. The very concept of Bad Liquor is lost on us today; nowadays George would wonder if someone slipped him a hash brownie.
Now they’re all singing. I haven’t watched a moment of the movie, but if I walked downstairs and looked at the TV I am certain I would burst into tears. It’s probably a Pavlovian response at this point.

It snowed last night - lots of snow, permanent snow. Looks and feels like winter again.

Spent the weekend at my desk, so there’s little to report. There’s nothing so boring as a productive weekend. Ran errands today with the Giant Swede, both of us in titanically bad moods; the kvetching assumed heroic dimensions, and was quite amusing & gratifying. Both of us feel as though we’ve been stuffed into the Holiday Robotic Exoskeleton, and are watching helplessly as our limbs prance and jerk to someone else’s instructions.

Watched many movies this weekend. Saw “Boogie Nights,” which I had been prepared to dislike, since it had been praised to the rafters, and had been described as “Altmanesque.” Meaning, a shapeless, meandering mess. Well, it wasn’t the tightest piece of filmmaking I’ve ever seen, but I enjoyed it a great deal - quite funny, and it has a generous heart. One of those movies that could have gone on for another 3 hours, as far as I was concerned - but that’s because I saw it over two nights, in the comfort of my home. It’s different when you’re in the theater, your butt is numb and you have to take your second leak of the showing. And please: spare me the praise over that opening tracking shot. Yes, it’s long. Yes, lots of things happen. But I watched it three times, and it gets flabbier every time you see it. But given the age of the director - and the fact that he wrote the thing, too - it’s all quite an accomplishment, and I look forward to Magnolia.

Saw “Entrapment,” which was pure Hollywood crap. For some reason I now enjoy saying “CRAP” at these movies in a loud voice, with a Russian accent: Eet iss KRRREP! This was expensive krep, and insincere, overblown krep at that. It did, however, remind me that I used to live above Sean Connery’s illegitimate son. Really. Or rather, maybe. He never called himself that in my presence, but he must have mentioned it to one of the nubile little gummi-girls who lived in the building; one of them told it to me. He looked the part, but didn’t play it up. I would have given it no credibility whatsoever if I hadn’t mentioned it to a friend’s girlfriend, who was a stewardess for Northwest; she said that once or twice a year, she waited on Sean Connery in first class, destination Minneapolis. Since there was never anything in the papers or TV about his appearance in town, I thought: hmm.
Then one day a stretch limo pulled up to the building. I saw it from my kitchen window. The guy who lived below me ran out the door and into the limo.
Settled that.

Also saw Ronin, which I didn’t know was a Frankenheimer film. Good movie, but it was 27% thicker and gnarlier than it needed to be. I was happy to see Victor the Cleaner from La Femme Nikita; here he played Vincent the Cleaner. DeNiro did little, but still satisfied. It reminded me of the last movie Franketc. made - a Sharon Stone film about murky things taking place in unidentifiable European locations, a movie - like Ronin - that seemed far more serious and dramatic than it was. “Ronin” had car chases, and car chases bore me. Car chases in European cities bore me even more, because it is unlikely that anyone could do 80 MPH for fifty blocks in your average European capital.There are only three good car chases: “Bullit,” which was the best, “French Connection,” which was harrowing, and “To Live and Die in LA,” which was the first movie where someone drove the wrong way on a highway. That was one of the most unpleasant movies I’ve ever seen; it really doesn’t have any reason to exist. But it’s good, really good, in a cold amoral fashion, and it has a high 1980s sheen that probably influenced a thousand lesser films.

Well. Time to answer some mail - the usual ten letters out, forty letters in - and prepare for the week ahead. It snowed! That’s the best news of the day, I suppose. I think. I’m sure. Really. Honest.