So I’m walking Gnat back to the X-Ray room, and the technician asks what I think she swallowed.

“I don’t think she swallowed anything,” I said. “We’re typical overreacting yuppie parents.”

It seemed to catch the tech off-guard; she burst out laughing.

“We see a lot of that,” she said.

“Might as well be honest. It’s what you’d say after we left, anyway.”

The X-ray room was dark and cozy. There was a stuffed turkey in the corner and a gigantic Phillips X-ray machine in the center, looking like a device for carving up little girls. A thin red light played on the table, and for a moment I channeled my inner Gert Frobe; I wanted to walk out of the room in a tux, holding a cigar, trailing a deathless clip. (Which would be dubbed later.) Do you expect me to squawk, Daddy? No, my dear, I expect you to cry!

But she didn’t. Brave? Beyond brave. After she examined the turkey, she watched solemnly as Mommy and Daddy put on giant lead aprons as if were about to paint. Then I put her on the table, and the machine . . . came . . . down. She wasn’t scared. She was interested. A little trepidation, yes, but Mommy was on one side and Daddy was on the other, so she could hold our hands while the big machine descended. Click; done. Good job!

We were looking for a toothpick.

It began this morning,
when little Gnat performed a rather desultory hurl. I heard a loud burp, and looked up from the breakfast table, expecting her to say “Scuse me,” as she’s been taught. But no apology was forthcoming. Lucky Charms were forthcoming. Oh, my. I cleaned everything up as quickly as possible, and once the table was clean it was time to enbarfen the coach anew. This was also swabbed and 409d and Olde Englished and CarpetMaster StainSprayed, and then Gnat crawled in my lap and watched Rolie Polie Olie for an hour. (“You done with your puter?” she asked. I said I was. “Turn your puter off.” So I did.)

My wife had gone back to sleep when she handed Gnat off, and I learned that this was actually the second episode of the day. And later, upon making up the crib, we discovered it was the third such liqueous oration. We had a sick little girl.

Or did we? She was in high spirits by eleven, and hungry as well. We had a brunch with wife’s father & sister & her husband, and Gnat put it away and kept it down. The worst was passed.

After she’d gone down for a nap, my wife told me her suspicion: if it wasn’t a bug, then perhaps she’d eaten a toothpick at the party the previous night. They’d served little chunks of chicken on toothpicks. Maybe she’d eaten one.

I doubted this, since the human throat is coded to reject pointed wooden objects. You try to swallow one on purpose. But what if she’d chewed it up and swallowed it? Stranger things have happened; Jasper ate a knitting needle once, after all. So my wife called the triage nurse, and they said we should bring her in. They always say that. Call up and say you think your child was struck by a micrometorite - she has a small bruise on her head, and I can’t imagine why, unless it was a micrometeorite - and they’ll say bring her in.

When she woke from her nap we said “we’re going to see the Tummy Doctor!” like it was a trip to Disneyfarginland.

“It’ll be scary?” she asked.

No, no. It’ll be fun! You can play doctor. We went to the Children’s Hospital, got right in, and began the day-long process of waiting, waiting, waiting for someone cheerful to come in and get to work scaring this tiny pink person. First a nurse took her blood pressure and heart rate; Gnat took it all very well, without complaint; she even mimicked the sound of a heartbeat as the nurse moved the stethoscope around her chest. Boom boom. Boom boom. The basics completed, we wandered around, got some dinosaur toys, and brought them back to the room to play. The dinosaurs went to the park. To the ice cream store. To the grocery for Dinosaur Cereal. To the school. The Dinosaurs had a race. The Dinosaurs went to the doctor. She was in fine spirits, all happy and alert; if she had a bug, it was gone, and if she had a polished wooden skewer in her stomach, she certainly wasn’t acting like it.

The doctor came after half an hour and did an exam, but it’s like working on dogs; the patient’s inability to describe their discomfort and the overall opacity of their flesh makes a diagnosis difficult, so it was off to the X-Ray room. Gnat knew X-rays from her alphabet books (if there had been a xylophone in the room as well, she wouldn’t have been a bit surprised) so it didn’t take much explanation. And as I noted, she bore it well.

There was no real drama here, no gut-punched moments of dread, so we weren’t walking into walls, avoiding eye contact, tapping the emergency reserves of false cheer. No matter: seeing your little girl on the cold bed of a diagnostic machine enfolds your entire stomach in one cold clammy hand and squeezes it like a cow teat. Never mind the marvelous technology of the last 50 years - you’re back to the caves, watching a little one burn from fever, and you feel just as helpless.

It made me think of “The Blood of the Lamb,” a book by the now-forgotten comic genius, Peter De Vries. He was a New Yorker cartoon editor who had a vogue in the 50s and 60s for his suburban farces - and I know that makes him sound like some sort of har-de-har Updike or Cheever. He was smarter than the latter and as smart as the former, and one of the greatest pure comic stylists of the postwar era. His work usually involved clever residents of East Coast exurbs contemplating infidelity, or overly smart men panting after overly smart or overly sensuous women.

It’s dated now, and since he never had a large national audience or many movies based on his work, he's mostly forgotten. “Reuben, Reuben,” a movie that starred Tom Conti and was a fictionalized account of a Dylan Thomas book tour, was one De Vries movie; “How Do I Love Thee,” a Jackie Gleason vehicle from 1970, is another. Then there’s “The Tunnel of Love” from 1958, starring Richard Widmark and Doris Day [!], directed by Gene Kelly [!!]. IMDB.com is not kind to the last two.

No one filmed “Blood of the Lamb,” and you can see why. It is an almost unbearable autobiographical novel about a man who loses his young daughter to leukemia. The jaunty clever voice of the previous novels is gone, leaving the seriousness that was always in the soul of his work. Googling around tonight I found a site with this summary:

"When one physician says to him at the hospital, "God bless you both," Wanderhope rejoins, "You believe in him?" And the doctor answers, "And in man, which is a hell of a lot harder" (p. 197). Wanderhope's tentative movement toward religious consolations during this period seems stronger by contrast with the belligerent bitterness of Stein, a companion father whose daughter is in the same ward as Carol. To the affirmation of God by another parent Stein retorts, "What baffles me . . . is the comfort people find in the idea that somebody dealt this mess. Blind and meaningless chance seem to me so much more congenial…. Prove to me that there is a God and I will really begin to despair."

In the novel, the daughter’s leukemia is in remission - then the hospital ward is swept by some sort of septic infection, and the child dies. Dies. Wanderhope has brought a cake to celebrate her remission, and leaves the hospital in stunned despair; he ends up in a nearby church, staring at a large crucifix over the altar - and then Wanderhope throws the cake in Jesus’ face. Pies him like a silent-movie comedian. “Blood” is not a comic book, and this not a comic moment, but it’s a quintessentially comic act penned by a comic novelist, and you can’t ignore the context. It works. It doesn’t work. It’s perfect; it’s contrived. I can’t make up my mind - and the fact that I read it 20 years ago and still think of it today tells you much about the novel. It just aches.

One more quote:

"Strife between the sexes seems to me one of the pities of the world. People doing to each other what life does to both, and to us all, seems to me like the conduct of those two French noblemen who fought a duel on a battlefield on which enemy shells were raining."

Last night, unaware of the barfapalooza awaiting, I sat down to see what the TiVo had culled. Bless its heart: “The Odd Couple,” the original version. We’re all so past “The Odd Couple,” because the movie sequel was toe-cheese, and the reruns made us all sick to death of Tony Frickin’ Randall, and we feel bad about Jack Klugman, and it’s all part of that 70s TV cud we’re tired of chewing. The original movie, though: that’s something else.

Right? I mean, it has to be; I remember it fondly. It has Herb Edelman in it! John “Rigel Redjack” Ferrante! It has the one true Oscar and the one true Felix. It has a Neal Hefti score we’ve all heard so many times that we never listen to it anymore - it never occurs to us to hear Oscar in the first part (da dum da da da duuuuum, da da daaa, da da daaaaa, daaaa) and Felix in the nervous harpsichord reply (chinga! chinga! chinga! chinga! chinga! chinga! chinga! ching!) It’s one of the most recognizable themes from the 60s, and familiarity has made it into a thing we hear instead of a thing we listen to. There’s melancholy in the music, and mocking bemusement, and sympathy - probably the best thing Hefti ever did.

And I knew every note, because I bought the soundtrack to “The Odd Couple” for 99 cents at Woolworth’s downtown when I was in junior high. (Cover illo: Jack Davis. Of course.) The soundtrack padded out both sides by including long swatches of dialogue, which I duly memorized and studied and internalized - 30 years later on a December night, I was able to recite it as it unfolded. Comic gold!


Right? Hah hah? Funny?

Sure. But. First you have to realize this: in the American pantheon of comic archetypes, there’s Bugs, and there’s Daffy. In this case Oscar is Bugs. Felix is Daffy. As Bill Murray said, we all want to think we are Bugs, but we secretly fear we are Daffy. And now I know that my transformation to Daffy / Felix status is complete - for Christ’s sake the other day I pointed out to my wife that using the sponge on the metal front of the fridge left marks, and here! Try this Stainless Steel Cleaner Spray I bought! I don’t wake the house at 2 AM honking to clear my nose, or seize up from back spasms or upbraid my confreres over their inability to identify kitchen implements, but -

Let’s be honest here; the only Oscaresque trait I have is a love of cigars, and even those I smoke outside. Otherwise the ashes get everywhere.

I always saw it the way Neil Simon intended: a character study of Felix through Oscar’s eyes. But this time I saw it not as a comedy but a pathetic tragedy: Felix’s banishment from his children, wife and home is the end of his world. I sat there thinking: two men, cut off from their kids, alone in a world of poker and boozy hi-ho bravado - when you think about it, there’s nothing funny about this at all.

When the X-ray machine turns on it groans softly, clicks once, and falls silent.

“I fixed?” Gnat said. “All better?”

“You’re fine,” we told her, and helped her get dressed. Back to the waiting room to wait. Soon the doctor came in with the X-rays - no toothpicks. She had a simple stomach bug - some fluids, lots of rest. Nothing to worry about.

We drove to St. Paul to see Wesley’s new house - he bought a 1925 house in MacGroveland, and he’s the third owner. He will rescue it from the indignities the renters visited upon it, scour off 40 years of neglect the Widow Johnson never noticed, and make it a fine happy house. Gnat ran up and down the stairs and played with the big kids, hiding in closets, pretending to be a pirate. We all decided to hit the St. Clair Broiler for supper, so off we went. En route Gnat made mention of “Lady and Trampoline,” the Disney video she’d seen at the party the night before. (“Lady and the Tramp,” of course.) She’d loved it, and wanted to see it again, and I said I’d get it on the way home.

At the Broiler the kids colored and played tic-tac-toe while the parents chatted. Gnat is enamored of the Giant Swedes’ kids, and lights up when they play with her: friends! My friends! At one point, however, she insisted that she had to get down and walk around the restaurant, so my wife followed behind as Gnat tottered about, inspecting the world...

Barrrrup -

No scuse me followed -

Rupe-a-rama; spew city.

This is parenthood: every single thought and care and worry and fear and joy of the day is forgotten, because you’re in a restaurant bathroom washing out the rags so the dishwasher doesn’t have to deal with your kid’s barf. You see something in the rag you can’t identify; you bring the bits out to your wife, who frowns in alarm, and then says; oh, those are the grapes from brunch.

Oh, well, mystery solved.

On the way home you stop at the video store for Lady and Trampoline, a movie you loved as a kid. In fact you had the soundtrack. In fact you can repeat some dialogue now, 33 years later, can’t you? There’s only so much room in a human heart, Tramp says. A baby moves in, the dog moves out.

Later that night, sitting at the kitchen table, hearing the dog sigh for no reason you can think of, you know Tramp was wrong. There’s endless room in a human heart. Build three rooms or three million, and they’ll have the same tenants: Love. Fear. And Hope.

And isn't it odd how two of those tenants always end up sharing a room.


Argh. Let’s sum it up:

* Al Roker and film crew coming over tomorrow to shoot a story on my book.

* Wife was hit by the bug that laid Gnat low for a day. As the pediatrician said, they’ve been seeing an incredible number of patients slain by gastrointestinal fungoo in the last two weeks; that cruise-ship virus has hit the town hard, and half the citizenry is gripping the rim of the American Standard and yodeling out a meal or two. It’s not pretty. If it hits me tonight, tomorrow is off.

* Because I have Al et al showing up tomorrow, I have to prepare in advance several dishes from my book. Of course, I cannot cook, so this is difficult - I am living in the panic dream where you’re going on stage in five minutes, and you haven’t memorized your lines. I need time to make this stuff, but my wife is on the sofa with a trash can close at hand, so I have less no-Gnat time to get this done.

* I had to write my Strib column this afternoon instead of tomorrow, since I won’t be heading to work, and I have to write my Newhouse column tonight, and it has to be golden, since there’ll be no time for morning rewrites.

* At 11:37 this morning, the microwave died. In the middle of nuking some Easy Mac, it just - quit. Fell silent without the usual triple-beep fanfare that signals success. I looked around the room to see if the rest of the devices had gone blank; no, it wasn’t a power failure. I hauled it from its niche, plugged it into another outlet: nothing. Piece of crap! Judas Eye-chariot on a crutch! It’s eleven months old, and it’s DEAD?

Last year my old beloved microwave fell ill. Oh, it still nuked as good as ever, but the keypad had gone mute. When you pushed a button it didn’t beep anymore, and you had no aural analog to your input; you couldn’t tell if you were punching the correct numbers. I’d had this microwave since DC; I bought it when we moved from Fortress Lileks to the smelly apartment by the zoo, the place that always reeked of cheap cigars, and was right by the cages occupied by large birds noted for the loud sounds they made during copulation. It looked great - pearlescent oval buttons, smart interface, sleek contours . . . sigh. With great regret I replaced it with a cheap $99 Target model from Emerson, and my wife took the old unit to her workplace breakroom. (Yes, in the lavish, overfunded world of the Attorney General’s office, they still have to rely on donated electronics. Imagine that.)

As it turned out, I had somehow punched in a series of numbers that disabled the beeps. When I unplugged the unit for transport, it reset the interface, and when it was plugged in at its new home it happily beeped hello.


So today I have to go get a new microwave, because I need it for cooking. First Gnat and I go to Warner-Stellian, a bootique appliance store around the corner from our house. You can tell they don’t work on commission; no one helps you. They’re all on the phone. I was there for five minutes, and no one said hey! Any questions? So I left, engraving the walls and merchandise with the laser-beam stare of A Customer Spurned, and went to Target. Huzzah, a sale on microwaves. Huzzah again, only $79.00.

The same unit I bought 11 months ago.

No. No, no. It’s like the stereo issue I described a few weeks ago - if something goes south, and you have to replace it, there should be a little extra bonus, some new appliance thrill. So I found another microwave that had a completely blank front, with the buttons hidden inside the door. Very nice. Bad news: it was the $79.00 model with a different interface.

If I’d had more time I would have shopped around, but I’d just called my wife at work and discovered she was in heave-ho hell, and I had to get to the grocery store to buy radishes for Al Roker.

We’ve all been there.

Anyway - I have to finish my Trent Lott column (bottom line: moron. Thanks for making me agree with Al Sharpton. Step down as Majority Leader. Thank you, come again) and do the second layer of Jell-o in a few minutes, so that’s it for tonight. By way of compensation for a small lame Bleat, there’s a matchbook, and today’s Backfence. Selah.

I was standing in the living room, waiting for my cue, looking into the dim entryway: there stood Al Roker, idling in neutral, waiting for the signal. Five, four, three, two, one: I went to the door, again, and Al came out of the entryway, again, and said Hi, James, how are you? again, and I said Good to see you, Al! again, and we walked towards the kitchen like old pals. Again.

This take went well, so now we had to do the “coming around the corner” shot. Remember where you were when you disappeared into the hall; reassume positions, wait, then resume the exact level of cheer you had before. The cameraman backed up, went wide, and framed us at the kitchen table where we beheld the impossible: the Gallery of Regrettable Food, come to life for a program on the Food Channel.

Pigs’ feet in Jell-O. Aspics. Quivery molds. Glop in a pot with a latticework cheese cover. The infamous wriggling wieners in beans. Seven-Up pancakes. And the interview began.

It would make for a gripping Bleat if I told the tale of a domineering, imperious TV star throwing elbows and pitching fits, berating subordinates, shouting abuse to some unseen lackey at the other end of the cellphone tether, treating the onlookers like dust-bunnies. But Mr. Roker in person is the same thing as you see on TV - a cheerful fellow. A nice guy. He turns it up from six to nine when the cameras roll, but he’s on when the cameras are off, too. You have to love a guy who does sight-gags for the crew when nothing's rolling. Sure, it could be a sign of desperate insecurity, a tiresome need to don the lampshade at every party and demand attention. The guy wants to make people laugh at the retail level, and you can find all sorts of reasons why that's worthy of your sneers. And your reason for doing that would be what, exactly?

We made small talk while waiting for our segment to start- talked about his kids, my kid, Jasperwood. In his mind: I'm talking with this guy. In my mind: you are a nationally famous television personality, and I am a local semi-demi-print-media entity, and I am flattered by the assumption of collegiality. Look, Ma! I'm having rote banter with a Today show weatherman! But when we did the interview we shifted into TV MODE, and that was when we really seemed to connect. (Because, of course, we were pretending to be old friends, which makes it easy to be new ones.) Everything was improvised, and we started feeding off each other’s shtick until we hit that telepathic stage that usually signals the shoot is going well. We staged a duel to see who could chew this food without spewing. No dare was made; it was all done with gestures, eye contact, small amounts of mugging. Followed by large amounts of the same.

When we cut from this long long take, the producer just exploded with relief, really, because up until then we didn’t know if we had anything. We had a lot of bad food. We had a trip to the supermarket to buy Lard and Suet and canned spinach and other types of heave-ho gorge bothering foodstuffs; we had FOUR FARGIN' HOURS of cooking in the kitchen to make this crap. But the interview cinched the bit. Then we had to do it again, for reaction shots and different angles and close-ups, and this time I gave different answers to all the questions and this led to more shtick. Believe me, you’ll see what I mean when this thing airs next June; watch for the Simultaneous Maniacal Laughter segment. The cameras weren’t running when we did the Monty Python Spam Song at the top of our lungs, alas.

Al Roker knows all the Monty Python songs. He can even do the Camelot song from “Holy Grail.” <darthvadervoice> Impressive. </darthvadervoice>

Fun! Fun! Right? Yes. But: there is nothing as boring as TV. You plot and plan and block and tweak the lights, all for a 10-second bit. Then you do it again. You can never tell how you’re doing by the crew’s reaction; the crew is there to hoover it up and get it right. The producer is always moving along to the next thing with nervous urgency, so you get a constant sense of inadequacy. Hours pass, and you’ve no idea what’s in the can; you only know the end is nowhere in sight, and you’re already tired of this. So tired. Dead tired. Tired and bored. Bored and hungry. But then you have to shoot again, and it’s back on the trampoline. No human endeavor has the same ratio of product / exhaustion as TV. A guy on an assembly line is tired after eight hours, but he’s helped to build a hundred cars; After eight hours of shooting TV you have four minutes of film, half of which consists of someone dumping meat into a pot, or chopping celery. And you’re whipped. I mean, it’s nine o’clock now and I am toast.

Al had to go to dinner; he was on a tight schedule. He’d gotten up at 4:30 AM to do the Today show, then flown to Mpls, come straight to Jasperwood; now he was off to the hotel, then to the warehouse district for supper, then up in the morning to the Mall to do the Today show with Mariah Carey. I pick up Gnat to say goodbye to Uncle Al.

“Who do you like better,” he asks. “Olie, or Zowie?”

“Olie,” she grins.

Al does a note-perfect imitation of the Dad character from Rolie Polie Olie; Gnat is greatly amused. She is utterly charmed, and waves bye-bye.

We stood outside on the cliff chatting for a while.

“When you show up at a place,” I said, “and it’s already lit and your path is blocked - ”

“Then life is good,” he grinned. He’s right; this is what it means to be famous and successful. When you show up, everything begins. People you’ve never met have spent hours smoothing the path you will walk. Some folk never take this for granted; they’re the ones who thank the crew when they show up and thank the crew by name when they leave. That was Al Roker. Helluva guy!

Yes, yes, I know: a celebrity was nice to me so he must be a great guy! But sometimes they are great guys.

He’s a great guy.

But we’re not done yet. We have Act Four to do. The Buffet. Al is gone, but now we bring in the Common People, the friends who’ve agreed to sample these horrible foods. They’re all perfect. Funny as hell. Quips and riffs galore; one guest even eats the pig’s feet in gelatine.

The producer is now in producer-heaven. Forty minutes of this, and we’re done; strike the set, scrape the crap into the garbage, do the dishes, bid the crew farewell, and sit down. One day spent making Regrettable Food; one entire day spent performing for the Food Network, all because of a website I put up in 1997.

I’m almost hesitant to put up the Stagland site in the new Institute of Official Cheer; it’s slated for book-status in ‘05, and this means I’ll be shooting a piece in a Reno brothel with Geraldo in ‘06.

Oh, this bleat could have been so much better, but ladies and gentlemen: I am whipped. I could tell you what I think of Trent Lott - do you care? Short version: stupid fargin' bastiche; step down as Majority leader NOW, please, and spare us all your grinning banalities. I did my Newhouse column on this last night, and today I did the edits with the Washington bureau on the cellphone while running to the store to get cottage cheese for the 7-up pancakes. I hung up the phone as I pulled into the parking lot, thinking: okay, national column's done, local column's done, now I need cottage cheese to feed Al Roker.

It's a wonderful life, and none of this would have happened if you folks hadn't visited the site and/or bought the book. Thanks! I owe you for everything, really, and all I can do to repay you is pump out this drivel on a daily basis for free.

(deep bow.)

(deep sleep.)

.. Trent LOTT! Trent LOTT! Trent LOTT!

Tired of this story yet? I was tired of it when I wrote about it Monday, and the only line I liked in my column was aimed at those who defended Lott out of party loyalty. “Saying ‘My party right or wrong is like saying ‘My Kennedy drunk or sober.’” As I wrote that, I was certain someone else had. Possibly me.

In the world of plagiarism law, I believe there’s something called parallel development; it means that many people will simultaneously give birth to the same idea, because it’s rather obvious. I began my column by writing “Out, Out, Damned Lott,” and did a little peacock-preen walk around the room, congratulating myself for that; then I got online and found that Postrel had tossed it out already, almost as an aside.

It’s not who says it first; it’s who says it in a forum that reaches the most people.

And . . . dang. In a rare act of second-guessing, I have just removed 1200 words on this matter, because I was babbling about a particular quip that has sluiced through the blogworld and entered the realm of Print, and in retrospect my comments were lazy, presumptive, and could get me sued in Australia. It’s now seven minutes to midnight, and I really, really want to bathe in the healing glow of some cathode rays before I nail -30- to the end of this day. So I’ll have to go with the Bleat I snipped for another day. Here you go:

Jesse Walker of Reason has a good blog, and he wrote this:

RECYCLED FRAUD: In the leadup to the Gulf War, propagandists invented a story of Iraqi soldiers ripping Kuwaiti babies out of incubators. The tale helped make the other side seem unalterably barbaric, and thus softened the road to intervention. After the war was over, the hoax was uncovered.

Now, with another Gulf War on the horizon, HBO is reviving the incubator story in its docudrama Live from Baghdad, as though the debunking had never happened. When an antiwar outlet does something this dishonest, you can be sure the axis of warbloggery will be all over it. Where are you, guys?

Perhaps because no one had seen it? Granted, that doesn’t stop most of us, me included; I’ve been a proud halfcocked gun-jumper for nigh on twenny years, son, and I don’t intend t’ slow down in mah ole age just on accounta someone thinks I should wait for all the facts to come in. If it walks like a duck, looks like a quacks like a duck, I do not have to wait for DNA to prove it’s a duck, and I certainly don’t have to call it a canard in deference to French sensibilities. Are we clear?

No? Probably because even I don’t know what I’m talking about at this point.

We know now that the incubator story was false. We should have been suspicious of the story in the first place, given what we know about the gentile and refined nature of the Republican Guard; as it turns out, they were perfect gentlemen, often saying “Please” and “Thank you” and “No, after you” during a gang rape. At the time I supported a war to retrieve the incubators, and had I known the truth I would have been perfectly comfortable to impose crippling sanctions that would not only have starved Iraqis, but Kuwaitis too. And I’d be happy to keep Kuwaiti crude off the market as well, whatever the cost. I’d gladly pay four cents more a gallon for a decade, just to keep from rewarding the people who thought up that incubator story.

In short, I’m on board. I’m more outraged by the incubator story than I was by the invasion itself, which seems the morally correct position to take.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a reason that the show didn’t debunk the story; it’s set in a time when the story had not been debunked. I know, I know; a weasely technicality, but hear me out. “Live From Baghdad” takes place in the early portion of the war. CNN reports on the hearings where the incubator story was delivered, tearfully, by a Kuwaiti shill ; we see our Hero, Bob Wiener - a name that suggests a jaunty suburban circumcisionist - watching the story in his Baghdad hotel room. The scene lasts about seven seconds. Half an hour later, the CNN team is taken to Kuwait City on an Iraqi-sponsored press junket; they are taken to the hospital from which the incubators were supposedly taken, and a Kuwaiti doctor insists that the incubators are still there.

He’s very nervous, though, and our heroes comment on the fact that he’s clearly frightened. Ergo, he’s lying? Maybe that’s what they believed. Perhaps that’s what the viewer is supposed to conclude. But you could also read it another way: this guy’s country has been invaded by the Scowling Angry Mustache Brigade, and now the Ministry of Putting Thumbtacks Through Your Fingernails has set up a press conference in your hospital and they expect you to do the right thing. Under these conditions, most people would find their lunch running down their pant leg if they were asked to name their favorite color, let alone read a prepared line from the occupiers. Even if you knew it to be true.

So should the producers have tacked on a disclaimer in the credits?

The Kuwaiti incubator story was later proved to be false.

Sure. And while you’re at it:

The character played by Helena Bonham-Carter did not look like Helena Bonham-Carter. As if.

Richard Russo is even more of an asshat that he appears to be in this show.

“Tremors” was not showing in a Kuwaiti movie theater when the tanks rolled in, because Kevin Bacon has been banned in the Islamic world for his last name’s proximity to pork products.

Peter Arnett did not look like Bruce McGill; Peter Arnett looked like Peter Boyle, but he’s too old now.

You could go on and on, and you probably should, just to keep movies honest. Take “Thirteen Days” the account of the Cuber Missile Crisis - it shows JFK in typical vigah mode; given what we now know, there should be some note that a chemical analysis of JFK’s blood would find it indistinguishable from an inventory of Winona Ryder’s purse. As for “Bowling for Columbine,” it would be commercially ruinous to add a disclaimer reel, so perhaps you could just station someone near a large bell in the front row, and he’d give the bell and smart hard tap whenever Moore treated the truth like Silly Putty.

I should stop here, because I don’t like these tit-for-tat fits - your complaint is irrelevant because I have a similar one! - but I’m not going to get torqued over this. It’s a movie; it’s a dramatization. There’s a scene, for example, in which a bomb blast knocks our intrepid CNN crew all over the room. Didn’t really happen, it turns out. But no one at alternet seems worried about that one. It’s almost like they’re ruining the alternet for everyone.

The only thing I took away from the movie was the profound sense of injustice I feel when I realize that I live in a world without more Michael Keaton movies. We’re going to have to wait 10 years, I think - then he’ll get a role that will remind everyone how good he is, and he’ll be in ten movies in three years. If it can happen to a lumpy bloat-jowled thetan-choked hack like Travolta, it can happen to Keaton. It had better.

The other day I got out some old DVDs of Gnat’s early months. In the November 00 disc the picture stopped, stuttered, broke up - then lurched forward, only to degrade entirely. The player dumped me back to the Sony DVD screen, and displayed the helpful error code of 13:00. I took the disc out to perform a delicate repair - e.g., rub it against my shirt - and it was as hot as a pancake fresh off the griddle. Uh oh. I tried it in another machine - same problem. So I’m cursing myself now: I’ve one copy of this 60-minute project, and it appears to be hosed. Hosed! Hosed, I tells ya! It’s the downside of the modern era - in the old days people took pictures, dumped them into boxes, and left it at that. Now we store hundreds of thousands of pictures on shiny little discs, but when they go down they take everything with them. The problem, I believe, was the nice shiny label I put on the disc. The added weight contrudes with the playback, I think. Or it traps heat. I don’t know. I shouldn’t have to know.

I made me realize that my eggs / basket ratio was askew. Solution? Of course: redo two years of home movies.

Not as hard as it sounds. I backed everything up on tape as well. IMovie accepts these backups not as a solid block of video; it reads each clip as a clip, with the transitions and effects incorporated into the clips themselves. Dumping a movie back into the computer is as easy as dumping the video from disk to tape.

If I was using Windows, I’m sure Filmy the Camera would help me set up a wizard that helped me start a task based on one of 68 preset assumptions.

So I’m in the middle of another big Redundancy Program akin to last year’s Project Hard Copy. Again, the operating assumption: Jasperwood will burn to the ground, so I’d better have an offsite record of my life. This means I’m revisiting 2000 - I have to watch every movie to make sure I’m getting the right backup, not an early build. It’s humbling; my early stuff is rough. All the novice errors are on display - shots are held too long, no master shots, excessive zoom. But I figured it out pretty quickly, and you know what? I’m pretty good at this. I quickly adapted my shooting style to match the tools on my computer. I’ve looked at video editing programs on PCs, and I’ll tell you the difference right now: iMovie is the equivalent of those rubbery sleeves technicians use to manipulate hazardous materials. The interface is the glass window through which you look; the sleeves are the program.

PC consumer-level video editing programs are like the Skil-Cranes at the State Fair arcade. You don’t spend your time on the object you want to pick up. You spend your time mastering the stupid crane.

Next year when we start posting movies on the web at startribune.com you’ll see what I mean -

Ah, but I’ve said too much.

Jaybus Chroist, it’s 12:17. Why am I typing when I could be watching Judge Judy cut off someone’s head with her tongue? Good night.
You can only take so many smallpox stories in a day before it starts to affect your Christmas shopping plans. First stage: fear be damned, it’s going to be a wonderful Christmas, so let’s start slapping the plastic. Stage two: if we’re going to be covered with exploding pustules by February, maybe there’s no point in sticking to a budget. Get the 60th anniversary Waring Blender with the Classic Styling and Burst-of-Power One-Touch Pulse Function, even though it's $40 more. Today we crush ice, for tomorrow we die. Stage three: let’s just sit in the basement and watch cartoons. Stage four: child, go to sleep, so Daddy can start drinking heavily. ‘Kay?

Well, what are you going to do. You just do. Gnat and I went to the Galleria today to shop, and yes, I expect applause; Christmas shopping with a toddler is not easy, especially when they know that this mall contains a toy store.

Go toy store?

Not yet, hon.

Go toy store?

Not yet, hon.

Go toy store?

Not yet, hon.

Go toy store?

Not yet, hon.

Ged out! Ged out of stroller!

Not yet, hon.

Ged OUT!

Let’s go downstairs to the books.

I don wan go downstairs.

We can take the elevator.

I don wan take edevador.

You can push the button.

Oh! That would be fun.

So we went down to the children’s book section of Barnes and Noble. I was looking for gift ideas; she seemed to like the Curious George backpack - it looks as if the little fellow is clinging to your back. Very cute. It would be different if he had red eyes and sharp teeth, of course; if the bag looked like that, I’d train Gnat to run around screaming whenever she put it on, shouting GED OFF! GED OFF MONKEY! Just for fun. After we had read a few books I realized I’d had little to eat, so we went to the adjacent Starbucks cafe and had a bar under a picture of, well, a bar: a dim stylized boozenook with a literary luminary at every table. Placid Faulkner, looking exactly as he appeared in "Barton Fink." Pale wormy Eliot. Fitzgerald, cigarette in one hand, looking as if he was apologizing to Zelda, who frankly had heard it all before. Chandler, grimly chewing his pipe. (I was pleased to see him in the pantheon; now everyone loves Raymond.) There was a late-middle-aged woman at the next table, a classic Minnesotan female entering matronhood; curly graying hair, sensible glasses, sensible shoes, sensible sweater. She had a stack of magazines, and I snuck a peak: Sewing World? Casserole Quarterly? Crone Review?

They were all about scuba diving.

Well, stupid me. As I’ve said about assumptions:
they make an ass out of u, and mptions. (Yes, that’s a recycled line; in the future when I willingly repeat myself, I will color-code the lines in red.) After we finished our bar we continued down the mall.

First stop: the laughably expensive soap store, where one bar of brick-hard soap goes for a sawbuck. Gnat took down four shaving kits and dumped their contents on the floor. I replaced the contents, and feeling guilty for bringing disorder to the carefully stocked shelves, I bought a few bars of "guest bathroom soap." They might as well be made of scented cement, since no one will ever dare use them.

Next: Sharper Image. I remember when this store used to be cool; you felt like Bond heading down to Q’s lab. Now it’s just a place for gawky looking CD players and strange air purifiers. The staff behaves as though they’ve been forced to watch a video called THE SHARPER IMAGE WAY ten dozen times, complete with eye-clamps and a nurse adding drops to their sore orbs. And now they act is as if the Sharper Image is the Key to the Future instead of a strange remnant from the age of Billy Idol.

The Toy Store. We played with everything. As usual, I bought a geegaw, since I always feel guilty using the store as a playroom for my spawnage. I’ve talked to many parents who feel the same way. It’s a great business model: fill the store up with expensive toys no one buys, and make your profit off the markup on small stuff parents buy our of shame for the havoc their kid wreaked.

Williams-Sonoma. Here I was struck by Sudden Mulling Spices Syndrome. It happens yearly: I see that green round tin, and I conjure up a night by the fire, sipping Mulled Spices, listening to Greensleeves. It never turns out that way - if I want something hot it’s going to be coffee, and the living room CD player won’t accept discs I burn on the Mac, and I never really find myself thinking “something mulled would be nice.” And so the tin goes in the back of the shelf, sitting on the tin from the previous year.

This year I learned my lesson. I bought the smaller tin.

And an infusion ball. It was on sale. So kill me. I also bought some pumpkin-spice pancake mix, because in addition to the Mulling Delusion I seem to believe that we’ll wake Christmas morning, head downstairs and have Special Pumpkin Pancakes. A holiday tradition! In all likelihood Gnat would cry I don like pumpkin pancakes! and demand cereal. But this year I’m going to try. And if the pumpkin pancakes suck? Well, that’ll be part of the tradition too. We all have to do our part. Ten years from now I'll just bring the tin down from the shelf and wave it around like a threat; Wife and Child will make mock gagging noises, and I'll get out the Bisquik.

Next, Restoration Hardware, a store I love and loathe in equal measures. They reveal me for the fool I am. I’ll find myself standing in the aisle, weighing the purchase of some matchbooks packaged to look like they came from a Parisian brasserie - only $14.00 . . . Gah! Argh! No! Fourteen dollars for matches! Screw you! Oh, look: Victorian-era fireplace poker polish; how Dickensian . . . Gah! Jaysus! Run away! They had a tree decorated in “rock and roll” ornaments - Gibson Flying V guitars, little record players with a music box that tinkled “Peggy Sue,” and a big silver saxophone tree-topper. Who tops their tree with a plastic sax? Who does their tree entirely in rock and roll ornaments? Phil Spector, maybe, and that seems an insufficient base to justify the labors of ten Chinese factories producing this crap.Gnat took the sax and walked through the store pretending to play it, to the gooey delight of the clerks. Aww!


AWWWW! I agreed, but I wasn't going to pay $15 for a plastic sax. Why, you could get faux French matches for that kind of money.

Pottery Barn Kids, aka the other toy stow. As we entered the store I felt a strange tension - all the clerks and patrons were looking around with furrowed brows and blank panicked faces, giving off spiky Reddy Kilowatt vibes. Eventually one woman shouted I SEE HIM! and ran out of the store. She returned with a two-year old boy. Big warm waves of relief flooded the room. Oh, I know the feeling; previously at Starbucks, Gnat had been on my right side, and I’d turned around to look at her - during which she scooted around behind me, so when I looked left and didn’t see her I looked right again, and didn’t see her, then looked left - whew.

You’re never used to not seeing them.

Time to go home. First we had to throw some pennies in the fountain, and make a wish. I had a penny for each of us. Make a wish, I said. Tell me what you’d like to do.

I wan go toy stow.

We’ve already gone to the toy store, honey.

I wan go odder toy stow.

Do you want to go home and watch silly bunnies?

Yes! That would be fun!

Then throw your penny in the water.

Plunk. As long as I had a wish to blow, I wished we didn’t get smallpox. Who knows? Maybe this works every 1,000,000,000 coins. Plunk. Anyway, we’re in Minnesota, for heaven’s sake. What’s the chance of an epidemic sneaking up on us without us seeing it coming.

Whas dat?

She was pointing to a big gold coin in the water. It’s against The Rules, wherever they may be written, to extract coins from the fountain, but I was curious. I threw in a quarter and took out the gold coin.

It was a Euro. A 50 Euro Cent coin dropped in an Edina fountain by God knows who who’d been God knows where. What’s the chance, indeed.

Some nights we share a little pudding cup after supper. Tonight we each had one of our own.
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