The boundless innovation of American food technology has reached its apogee, right here: UNCRUSTABLES. They’re frozen pre-made circular PB&J sandwiches with no crusts. About 57 cents each with a coupon, which represents a profit of 53 cents or so. My hat is doffed: this is genius.

Gnat hasn’t entered that phase of life where Crusts are viewed as Satan’s Scabs, something one cannot touch without losing your mortal soul. But we use one of them all-natch’ral peener butters. No, I do not have to go to the co-op, scoop it from a flyblown communal vat with a wooden spoon, put it in my reusable crock and carry it to the barter-counter with the handy hemp handle. This brand of all natural PB is made by Smuckers. (Always wondered if they really knew how odd their ad campaign sounds: With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good. By this logic, Dodgammed Sassmole Skithead Futtersmuckers would taste even better.) Because it doesn’t have the usual chemicals that permit normal peanut butters to sit in the cupboard for three presidential terms, we have to keep it in the fridge. And as we all know, cold peanut butter has the same effect on fresh bread as a belt sander has on a titmouse. There’s just nothing left.

So these Uncrustables, these circular divots with their pre-measured portions and neatly crimped perimeter, are a godsend. But I noticed one horrible omission: no microwave instructions. This is the 21st century. Everything has microwave instructions. (The only thing I don’t want to have microwave instructions is my microwave, since I expect I can intuit its interface in a matter of seconds.) The package suggests that you thaw them out ahead of time.

Like I’ve time for that. This presumes that you will know, in advance, whether today is a peanut-butter-and-jelly day - admittedly, not a tough call with kids. So now in the morning I just toss one on the counter - konk - and I let it thaw, secure in the knowledge that she I wants it, it’ll be there.

Of course, she didn’t want it, and here’s why.

This morning
we went to her gym class. I want Gnat to love gym class as much as I hated gym class, because my discomfort brought me no particular joy. (It will be sweet karmic payback if she turns out to be a jock.) The teacher is a hoot - he rattles off a string of patter that goes so far over the children’s head he might as well be reciting Polynesian palindromes. “That’s one of life’s mysteries,” he said to a child; “that, and the meaning of Martinizing.” Later when we were playing with small megaphones, he began the session by announcing “the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” adding “that’s from Pygmalion.” And so forth. He also addressed the children by lopping off the last syllable and appending “-chik” to the end. Gnatchik. Quite a show.

The gym was located in a storefront in a suburban strip mall some distance from Jasperwood - meaning, 15 minutes on the highway at 65 MPH. I don’t get out there very often, and when I do I always feel as if I’m in another part of the country entirely, some strange city where straight streets that meet at right angles have been banned, or perhaps not invented. Every road curves and winds and bends and swoops; few streets have numbered names. You lose your place, you are doomed. (Last time I got lost out here I drove until I ran out of city, and ended up in one of those unpopulated areas where you see street signs that say “267th street” - as if you’re now in the Invisible District.) So I asked for directions to our next objective, Eden Prairie Center.

EPC was the last big regional mall constructed in the burbs, not counting the Mall of America. I attended opening day some 20+ years ago, because I’ve always been fascinated by malls, and it’s always interesting to see a place where the Hallmark store is over here, rather than over there. Malls have temperaments and personalities and strange tribal auras; when you enter some malls you get the feeling right away that this is not your place. Some malls you pity. Some malls feel as if they pity you. The Georgetown Mall in DC made me feel at home right away - it’s a bizarre faux-Victorian interior that looked like it had been designed by someone who lived in a Thomas Kinkaid painting and commuted to his day job in a Dickens novel, but it worked. Ridgedale, out in hoity-toity Minnetonka, always made me feel as if I had dirt on my hands and dung on my shoes.

All malls get made over after a few decades, and EPC sorely needed a redesign. I never went back after my first visit, mostly because it was too far away, but partly because it was Everymall - same featureless corridors, same tiny oases of greenery with some backless benches, same anesthetizing Muzak. Just another beige-and-brown habitrail. No thanks. The mall struggled for years, since it was built before the area really filled up. Even though Eden Prairie is now one of the more prosperous suburbs, the mall still had problems; it felt old and haggard, a big dull block of 70s suburban design you left as soon as you could.

I’d read about its recent overhaul - a $70 million facelift, and I’d wondered what it looked like . . . but, well, I knew. Sleek, bright, modern, clean, just like the renovated Southdale. Right?

We entered by the food court door. “Food Court” doesn’t really do the space justice: it’s a great semicircular hall, lit by large windows. In the middle, a flagstone fireplace that towered two stories tall. It’s the first thing you see - the copper mantle, the inviting fire, the improbably huge pile of stones. You’ve never seen this in a mall before. I was impressed. Then I noticed the furniture. The light fixtures. The signage.

It’s an Arts-and-Crafts / Mission shopping mall.

Gorgeous. No more clumps of benches around some anemic ferns - now it has vast carpeted expanses with Stickley-styled chairs, and lights that look as if they came from Frank Lloyd Wright’s shop. It’s the best-looking mall I’ve ever seen. And it’s just delicious that the most successful and substantial expression of this century-old style should be a shopping mall built on a farmer’s fields. Downtown Mpls has four malls, and each is a sloughed-off skin of whatever modern idea slithered through town that year. (Two are good; two aren’t) If you want something that truly binds the present to the past - well, you have to go to the burbs.

This perhaps is the sole gift of 60s and 70s modernism - its utter blankness, its stupid insistence that ornament was a detail and the devil therefore resided therein, makes them excellent candidates for gutting. (Yes, I know what Mies said: God is in the details. Given the nature of his buildings, this means we can only conclude that God is dead.) When you strip them down you lose nothing, and whatever you add is generally an improvement. Today’s trip made me dig out a newspaper clipping I’d been meaning to write about - it’s a page from a Philippine paper sent by a bleat reader in Manila. (!)

The article was a paean to the 1960s shopping centers of Manila suburbs. There was Greenhills, White Plains, Blue Ridge and . . . Wack Wack. The first three names were taken from the US suburban communities they hoped to emulate - but as the article points out, “Greenhills has no hills and is actually very flat, White Plains is hilly and Blue Ridge was brown (at least when not many trees were growing.) . . . the Greenhills Commercial Center was the second Philippine example of a classic suburban mall, an island of consumption surrounded by a sea of parking.” Later the chain fast-food places came: “I remember there was a Taco Bell and a Tom Sawyer’s Kitchen,” the journalist wrote.

In Manila.

The photographs in the paper didn’t scan well, so I can’t show you what the buildings looked like - but trust me, this was high 60s modernism at its best, with bowling alleys straight out of California, stark signage, cantilevered overhangs. The author of the piece recalls these spaces with the same nostalgic rue I have towards West Acres, the featureless giganto-box that spawned the suburban exodus in my home town, and killed downtown dead.

According to the architectural theories of the day, the Philippine people should have embraced these structures, since they were the International Style, a pure style that vaulted over the shabby trivialities of local culture and proclaimed the New Vision that would unite us all. But they failed, as they usually do; local culture always reasserts itself. The article described how one mall was gutted, painted bright orange, and turned into a mixed-use complex with two screens and a food court. The Greenhills mall was converted into a bazaar that recalled the dense jostling markets of the urban center.

I have a soft spot for 60s California-style modernism, but I can imagine being a Manila citizen, looking at this imported THING and wondering what the Tom Smuckin’ Sawyer this has to do with my culture.

I just stepped outside to consult with a cigar, and I realized where all this was leading, the idea I was circling. The Mission style was the vanguard of its day, as was the International Style, as was the Mall design of the 70s; they were all a taste of things to come presented for our approval.

But now we don’t know what the future is supposed to look like.

Ever seen the front of those machines they use to bore subway tunnels? Concentric rings of sharp teeth gobbling and moving, gobbling and moving. That’s the culture we live in now - it consumes today as it bores towards tomorrow, and it’s always fixed on the next six inches it needs to eat. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as if we stopped looking ten, twenty years ahead, stopped conjuring up these worlds in which everything looked new and improved. If that’s so: why?

Perhaps it’s because the present makes those old visions of the future look infantile and silly. We’re not wearing one-piece jumpsuits and taking meals from a pill-dispensing machines, or flying off to work on jetpacks. We have the stuff that counts. We have computers and communicators; we have a global information network, a space station, robot war machines, cybernetic implants. And we still wear jeans and eat hamburgers, and Elvis had a number one song in Airstrip One last year.

The very idea of the future is undergoing a renovation - it’s not a city on the other side of a wall. The best lesson may be this: there is no wall. In the end the very idea of “The Future” may turn out to be a 20th century conceit, the reason the globe churned itself up fighting one rancid conception of utopia after the other. The future is back to being what it always was: an accumulation of tomorrows, not a wholesale refutation of today.

Now we’re fighting the ultimate futurists: men who concept of the future denies the idea of progress. Their future is a snake biting its tail. Our future: sitting in an early 20th century chair in a mid-century mall connecting to the wireless network with your laptop to make revisions on a project due next summer. It’s not necessarily an inspiring vision; it does not seek to remake mankind and perfect its impurities. It does not promise heaven on earth. But this only means that tens of millions won’t be sacrificed in a lunatic attempt to bring it about.

What does this have to do with Uncrustables? Ahhhh, nothing. We got back from the mall, and I gave Gnat the thawed out bread-puck. She wanted Macaroni and Cheese. I ate the Uncrustable. Good? Smuck, yeah. Smuckin’ A!
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