Oh, joy. Today I got the Mac stored away in the desk’s computer bay. When the furniture arrived last month, I’d set it up as best as I thought I could, but I must have been hopped up on goofballs; did it all wrong. There was a computer bay - with a locking door! - but it had but one narrow apeture in the back, and my monitor has a thick-headed cable that wouldn’t fit through the hole. So I lived with a nest of cables - looked like a barbershop floor after a hydra had come in for a buzzcut. Today I discovered that the entire back panel of the bay comes off, so I disconnected and reconnected the following:

USB keyboard cable; monitor cable; two speaker cables; firewire video input; digital camera input; printer cable; scanner cable; power cables scanner and printer; power cable for USB hub; ethernet cable; power cable for subwoofer; USB cable for same; computer power cable; three phone lines.

When I turn it all on I expect some sort of interdimensional vortex to appear.

Never does. Probably a good thing. Those things work in both directions, and if there’s a home office on the other side from someone in my position, there would be twice as many Duplo blocks underfoot.

Duplo: If it’s a choking hazard, your kid’s too damn big!

My kid, being Gnat, and myself, had the whole day together again. We went to the office so I could get some material for home-working, and that occasioned the usual awwwwing from friends & coworkers. (And the intersecting subset of coworker friends.) She stood all by herself today, without aid of chair or table - just figured it out. I glanced over at her, and she was standing in the middle of the room. It’s a little disconcerting, frankly; it’s like she’s been possessed, and I expect the creature to start speaking English in an wavery voice: WE ARE LEGION!

Really? My dad was VFW; I never did get the distinction -


Oh, Post 666, eh?

But she fell without issuing a taunt from the pits of hell, so I relaxed.

This house has a great doorknocker - a metal hand holding a ball. You hear it anywhere. It makes Jasper go stark raving bezoomy, but that’s his job: doorbell elaborator. This time it was FedEx, delivering the latest booty from Amazon. Simpsons toys. Er, dolls. Er, Figurines. The other day at Shinder’s I’d seen the new line: Sea Captain, Kent Brockman, Martin Prince, Bumblebee Man, ay ay. When I saw them on the shelf I was reminded that I’d preordered, and I thought - should I get Martin? No. I’m not buying every damn character. Let my collection be my referendum on the best characters, and the strongest second-stringers. I spent ten years being Martin Prince as a boy; no need to pay eight bucks to relive the experience.

So I open up the box from Amazon: Kent Brockman, Bumblebee Man . . . Martin Prince.

Ay ay ay. What was I thinking? Would Sea Captain still be there? Off to Shinders. There he was, squinting from the briney depths of the blister pack. I brought it up to the clerk and said, simply, “Yar.”

The clerk said nothing. On the way out I handed it to Gnat, who beamed at the Cap’n. “He hates the sea,” I said, “an’ everything in it.”

“Eye,” she said, pointing to his big bulbous non-squinty eye.

“Eye,” I said, adding, “Yar.”
. .
Impulse purchase: a Pottery Barn CD. Usually the very idea of a CD put out by a foofoo furniture store gives me the hives - these places drain the essence out of everything they touch. They’ll sell “retro” cocktail kits for people who like the idea of cocktails - especially ones that have to be shaken, how Nick-and-Nora! - but they rear back in horror when someone actually has a good stiff one, let alone fires up a cheroot within a fifty yard range. We’re so worried about dying that we’ve forgotten how to live!

Wow: from random sentence to rote reflexive contempt in one graf.

Must be the cocktail!

No. I just got ahead of myself there. But the main point, slender as it is, stands: Pottery Barn is for people who Behave. So a Pottery Barn-approved CD of Latin music will probably be careful and clever, with all the edges sanded off. Background music for chopping your organic tomatillos while your hips move exactly one inch from side to side.

God! I hate everyone like me!

Sorry. Got ahead of myself there again. There was one song on the CD I wanted: “Jump in the Line” by Harry Belafonte, which I know only from one context. In fact I’d never known the name of the song, or who sang it, but as soon as I saw the title I instantly saw the end of one of my favorite movies: Winona Ryder floating in the air while three dead football players danced on the stairs behind her. Simple, funny, a perfect summation of the movie & an actual heartfelt moment, given the context; Tim Burton is probably incapable of something like that again.

Shake shake shake Sonora shake your body line / Shake shake shake Sonora / shake it all the time/ Work Work Work Sonora work your body line /Work Work Work Sonora work it all the time

Jump in the Line, rock your body in time (Okay! I believe you!) Jump in the Line, rock your body on line

Ahh, I’m grinning as I type & listen. I’m talking about “Beetlejuice,” one of the great American comedies of the 80s, right up there with “Back to the Future,” “King of Comedy” and the “Ghostbuster” scenes that had Bill Murray. All these movies seem quaint now; you don’t get the feeling that someone was calculating every moment for correct demographic appeal. At the time, of course, we were all convinced that movies were soulless machines, man, just Hollywood product, man, and “Back to the Future” was a symptom of everything wrong with movies. It had product tie-ins (note the Pepsi cans) a song by Huey Fargin’ Lewis, and Alex Keaton from that TV show, whatever it was called. Yawn. (This being the prevailing line among the boho crowd, I kept my opinion to myself; I thought, and still think, that it’s one of the most perfectly constructed comedies since the screwball days.)

Anyway. I also bought a lamp, and potpourri. This is my life as a man: I’m a woman. Sorry, there’s no other way to put it. Not one of my male friends has ever bought potpourri. But in the afternoon I turn into an Edina housewife. After work I put Gnat in the car, went to the Galleria, checked out Smith & Boosey or Boosey & Hawkins or whatever that upscale garden store is called - I was looking for some pots for the mantle, since I don’t like the pots we have now. (Lest ever I forget how good life is in these United States, I must remember that I have time and mental space to have an opinion on my mantlepiece pots.) At the Pottery Barn I got a lamp for my study - a manly lamp!
Damn manly! Then I bought potpourri, because there’s a certain aroma in the entryway I cannot banish. Plus, Gnat, pointed at the flowers on the display, and said Pff! (“Pretty flowers.”) (A phrase she learned, God help her, from a Froot Loops counting book.) I let her smell all the potpourris, and she seemed startled by the aromas - she hadn’t really thought much about smells up to now. It was like watching an adult suddenly cultivate a new sense, like the ability to taste light.

The dogwood made quite an impression on her, so I bought it and let her carry it around. Which meant she threw it to the floor every four feet. So I took it back, gave her a stuffed duck. DUT! On the way back to the car I had the lamp (boxed) balanced on one hip, a bag carrying the potpourri, the CD, and the retro cocktail shaker (just kidding. You want them shaken? Jump up and down. Run up the stairs) in the other hand, somehow pushing the stroller. Down went DUT every six feet. Stop, bend, shift purchases, pick up DUT, advance, then give her DUT when she starts to complain because DUT has left her field of vision. Repeat SEVEN TIMES until you’re at the car.

Shake shake shake my daughter shake your yellow DUT Shake shake shake my daughter / shake it like a nut / Hurl Hurl Hurl my daughter / hurl it in the air / laugh laugh laugh my daughter / cause it’s down there.

Squirm in your chair! Drop your DUT on the ground! (Okay, I retrieve it.)
Squirm in your chair! Drop your DUT on the ground! (Okay, I retrieve it.) Squirm in your chair! Drop your DUT on the ground! (Okay, I retrieve it.)
.. ..
Another day, another pissy letter from an architect. Today’s mail brought a missive that was as silly as it was snitty, and if I’d been half the cruel man I sometimes long to be I’d have run the entire damn thing in my column, last name and all, with the email suffix indicating the sender’s architectural firm. Once again, the author chided me for not wanting adventurous architecture, but he seized on my assertion that - get this - buildings ought to fit in. If you’re building in the warehouse district, for example, you should keep the plain honest brick vernacular in mind, and not build a fargin’ spaceport. If you’re building on campus, try not to erect a Ferris wheel. And so forth. He called my attachment to contextual sensitivity “architectural fascism,” which right there ought to have rung every warning bell in the tower. (Sorry, not the tower; in the New World of Architecture, bells will be put in the basement, because only staid hidebound traditionalists put them in towers.) He also went off on a rhapsody of urban diversity - oh, the people you meet! Pierced rastas side by side with suited AmEx execs! African American men spontaneously bursting into song on the bus! It sounded like some kid from the sticks on his first day in New York, running around doing Jets-style ballet moves - look, an Italian greengrocer! Look, Jewish newspapers! Look! Negros! I’m here! I’m finally here! His point: Because we live in a place devoted to diversity (by which he means Minneapolis) we ought to have architecture that’s likewise diverse. A meaningless parallel. It would be like saying “because everyone has the same civil rights, all buildings must be uniformly Gothic.” Once again, the architect couldn’t cite one building or one architect that supposedly blew apart my supposed argument. I’ve sent a few of these people excruciatingly detailed rebuttals, and no one has written back to continue the argument. I think they assume I don’t know what I’m talking about, and are a little unnerved to find out that I do. Or at least I know more than the average onlooker, anyway.

Screw ‘em!

Twice! With a rusty augur!

It’s been - well, I was going to say a rough day, but that would be nonsense. It’s been a great day. Health, food, sun, family, dog, beer. Doesn’t get any better. Within the subset of Fabulous Days, however, it’s been busy. Two columns. I almost like the top for the Newhouse column, based entirely on a news story that said the economy was “in a funk”:

start If the economy is in a funk, why aren’t we dancing? Funk means booty-shaking get-down party-all-night goodness. We should be lucky to have a funky economy. No, the current economy should be described being in “a grunge,” or other such terms. “Forecasters said the economy was shaking off its minor-key heavy-metal power ballad phase; with the new rate cuts, the economy should be experiencing a light polka by midyear, with a complete and robust funk following by 4Q 02. Alan Greenspan issued a note of caution, saying he expected the economy to ‘get down’ through 3Q 02, but that ‘a big pimpin’ economy was still a matter of conjecture at this point.’ Analysts had also expected Greenspan to wave his hands in the air like he just don’t care, but he only waved three fingers, and did so with an expression that seemed to indicate he was not wholly indifferent.” end

That was last night. This morning I edited, uploaded, tended to Gnat, fed Gnat, compressed & dubbed the audition tape to 8mm, then stepped it down to VHS, then did it again when the first version screwed up. I winced at every step. I look like an idiot in these monologs. The material is stupid. I’m stupid. The book is stupid. I’m never going to be on the Tonight Show; they’re going to sit through this tape with faces that make Rushmore look like Jerry Lewis in the first hour of the telethon.

Speaking of which: last night I saw an old “What’s My Line,” which once again convinced me it’s fixed. (“Do you work with balls” “Yes.” “Do you do your work in front of other people?” “Yes.” “Are you a seal trainer?” DING DING DING.) One of the panellists was a young Jerry Lewis, who did LAADEEE schtick throughout it all but went dead serious at the end and made a plea for Muscular Dystrophy. The man’s got a track record on this particular issue. The special guest, who everyone had to interview while wearing blindfolds, was Walt Disney. Ol’ Uncle Walt. He was always a reassuring presence in my childhood, but distant, remote. The Wonderful World of Disney always began and ended in his office, and to a little kid like me this somehow made him the President of Sunday night. I’ve caught a few of those on the Disney channel late at night as well - there’s the Scarecrow, who scared the krep out of me, and the occasional cartoon that serves to remind us what an incredible animation staff Disney had in the 30s and 40s. Unfortunately, many of the clips are unbearably saccharine, and they always try to work in bare baby asses. Really: watch for it. Even at the end of the adagio in the Beethoven 5 segment of Fantasia, a little cherub’s arse turns into a heart, which is kitschy-crawly-creepy in the extreme.

Well, that paragraph is the very definition of topic drift, eh?

Other news today: the Early Show appearance in September fell through, so I’m not going to New York to be on TV. The producers liked the book, but the ubergruppen producer didn’t think that the book was appropriate for their audience. And since they have seven viewers, all of whom they presumably know by name, they’d be in a position to judge such a thing. (Meow.) Now we put our sights on the evening shows, but I’m not putting much stock in that happening. This made me feel . . . depressed. The book is going to fail, I thought. No one will buy it or like it or review it: damn. Then I read a chapter of “Stalingrad” and put things in perspective a little.

Then I went inside and shot a few dozen photos, and of all the things I did today - two columns, one audition tape, supper - this is my favorite.
.. ..
She walked: three steps. Gnat’s been staggering along for some time now, holding on to my fingers and ordering her stubby little limbs to lurch forward with Frankenstein grace. Today I took my hands away, and she stepped - once, twice, three times, which makes it official. That’s walking. (Then she fell on her butt.) And there was great rejoicing! Now I have to put up gates on the stairs, although I think I should just swaddler her in bubblewrap and put pillows on the landing. Far more attractive.

Hot again, but not hot for long. This week marks the start of the State Fair, which is always characterized by two types of weather: an alarmingly cold day, usually punctuated by hard mocking rain, and a series of punishingly hot days that turn the entire fairgrounds into a roiling sea of sweat and grease and ordure, with the occasional note of roasted corn and vomit threading through the humid air. I can’t wait.

Actually, I can. I’m not even sure I’ll make it to the fair this year, although I’d like to make a quick run to shoot some movies. There’s a peculiar emotion I’m not keen to revisit, one that strikes every year at fairtime. I’m usually returning from some job - a story, a radio show - and I find myself waiting for the bus at the U of M shuttle lot. It’s a clear blue day, and there are a dozen cylindrical grain elevators at the edge of the asphalt desert. looming like tombs left by Flaxus the Great, or Barley The Elder, or some other fabled king of yore. There’s no one else around. It’s hot; the summer appears to be at its peak, but everything, I know, is over. One of those points where you wonder just what you’ve accomplished since the last time you were here.

I don’t think I need fear that question this time.

There’s another annual moment I’ve missed this summer: standing at the edge of town at sunset, looking out over the prairie. Where I grew up, you could get to the edge of town in a minute or two, if you pedalled hard. You could stand right on the border between fields and town, and wonder: what was out there?

Well, Jamestown, for one; that’s where the state mental hospital was located. So it wasn’t all that mysterious. But years later - and years ago - I was lucky enough to spend a summer alone in the South, driving from town to town for Northrup King, and while I’m sure I got mightily sick of sitting in the van eating supper at a Comet drive-in, damn! I’d give anything to do it again, tomorrow. These were old Comets, too - space-age architecture gone to seed, neon tubes popping and buzzing, frycooks blowing joints while listening to Lynnrd Skynnrd. But still: sunset, edge of town, smell of exhaust and burgers, long road behind and long road ahead. You need that every summer, and the more you don’t get it the more you need it.

And the more you’re probably disappointed when you get it again. Which is a lesson in itself.
.. ..
Yesterday my office PC was “refreshed,” which makes it sound as though they took it outside in the shade and poured a Coke into the ventilation slits. It’s an ancient piece of krep, and like many machines at the paper, is beholden to a legacy system that was showing its age when they used it to plot Gemini trajectories. “Refreshment” wiped the drive and reinstalled the necessary software. Well. The necessary software didn’t work today, which led to an interesting dilemma:

I have a three-hour window to write my columns. It doesn’t take three hours to write them. It shouldn’t. We should all wince when columnists boast of how quickly they write their work, because in 99% of the cases, you can tell. Most columnists are coasters supreme - they either get the job too early and burn out hard, or they get it late and decide to just take it easy from here on. Some continue to work as hard as ever, and actually dig up stories and interview people, as opposed to interviewing one’s self and discovering - quel surprise! - that you’re quite a brilliant chap on the subject. It’s a natural assumption to make, of course. Why would they give you a column if your thoughts & insights weren’t golden most of the time? But it’s the easiest thing to do, and it leads to sloppy thinking. Especially if your audience has self-edited itself down to the sycophants.

So you have to guard against this stuff. Always assume that half your audience reads you like they read Fred Bassett, amusing themselves by toting up your daily deficiences. You have to be happy when it comes easily, and you have to worry when it comes easily. You have to learn that a piece that writes itself might not be the most Perfect Column Ever, but merely the misimpression left by a good night’s sleep and that tall Americano you just slammed back. Likewise, the column that took forever, that required constant polishing and tweaking until each paragraph seemed to sing - well, that might well be your worst, too.

Better to assume that you’re reasonably good at this, but you’re liable to suck hard unless you pay attention every column, every graf, every line. Never cut yourself an inch of slack. Regard every column as a chance to atone for the last one. That’s how I look at it, anyway. All this is just a preamble to a little boast, the sort of thing that will probably make me wince tomorrow when I recall making it, especially if the column turns out to be a gigantic misfire or a grindingly ordinary heap of blather, but: I wrote today’s column in 27 minutes. Frant-o-type extraordiniare. My computer didn’t work, so the boys from tech support convened to plumb its guts and make it work. Three of ‘em. Eggheads in a huddle. I paced and paced, watching the clock tick down - had to be home to relieve the sitter at an ironclad hour. Two hours. Then 90 minutes. Then a verdict: it’s really, really broken. Find another computer. I found one, but it had one of those two-part hilly Microsoft keyboards, and I always feel like I’m groping a robot’s breasts when I use those stupid things. I found another keyboard, plugged it in, created the file, and thought: I have no idea what to write about.

Then: ping: idea. So I started to type, and I just hammered away for half an hour. Pure improv. When I was done I had ten more inches than I needed. Whew: send to the desk, and head for home.

What’s my point? No point. This is what you should be able to do in this business, if required, because it’s not calculus. It’s not translating Latin into Urdu. You’re hired to write: so write. I only mention this because it was so damn fun to write that column today; you get into a groove where it seems as if you’re just taking dictation. I know so many people who have a job, do a job, but don’t love the job; when I left the office today, head still buzzing from all the stupid little annoyances, I had to stop and remind myself what a joy it had been to just yank the chocks and let it go. I love my job; I just do.

And now I’ve just proved another rule of my professon: nothing is as boring as writing about writing.