I’m now officially sick of the X-Files. I’ve loved this show for years, but I find myself more frustrated and annoyed than interested. So: maybe Mulder’s sister wasn’t captured by aliens, but spirited away by old ghosts! That’s a definite possibility! One or the other! Next season: Samantha was stolen by Lucky the Leprechaun. A three-parter while Mulder attempts to wrest the secrets of the Alien Shillelagh from the Smoking Man! All brought to you by the 10 Watt Bulb Company, reminding you that the most mundane conversation seems terribly important when it’s conducted in the lowest possible light, and by Ambient Dust, Inc, makers of suspended office particulate for over six seasons.

Not to spoil anything - and I won’t - but there was a development in the character’s lives that ought to have registered more than it did, but just seemed as if it was spent as a mid-show attention gooser. It’s the X-Files equivalent of the death of Sarek, if you really want to get down and get geeky. When an important secondary character dies, they get to go in the last half hour at the least, before the last commercial at best, before the penultimate commercial at least. Off screen and before the bottom of the hour break? Please.

I’ll tell you where it allllll fell apart: with the Syndicate, that’s where. The minute the story arc left the intrigues of the US Gov and got into that hugger-mugger of the Syndicate, the possibilities for cryptic BS because endless. When it was just the government covering up Roswell, it was a simple binary matter: aliens, yes or no? Government knowledge, yes or no? Complicity, yes or no? But I’m sorry: old men sitting around talking in vaguely Swiss accents about The Plan does not hold my attention forever, and now that the story seems to be chewing the scraps left over from the Sixth Sense buffet, I am thiiiiis close to saying farewell.

Which, of course, I never will; I’ll be in line for the sixth movie. You know, the even ones are always good.

Went to supper
last night at the Big Bowl, a restaurant that serves “fresh Asian cuisine.” A nice change from all those “stale Oriental” places we frequent. It was okay - I’d go back, but I wouldn’t push old ladies out of the way to get there. Previously we’d met the Giant Swedes and Mr. & Mrs. Crazy Uke for a movie; the only one on which we could all agree was Toy Story 2. It was okay, if you like unceasingly imaginative, brilliantly directed, expertly voiced comedies with the occasional musical interlude that could draw tears from a dead desert lizard. I walked out the same way I walked out of every other Pixar movie: red-eyed with sore jaw muscles. It was Jess’ song that did it, really. Dip the knife in honey and drive it right into the breastbone: same effect.

Years ago, when computers were a’bornin’, all the sages predicted that they’d regiment the world, reshape us in their image. It’s interesting to note that the few movies given over entirely to the computer’s tools A) feature mostly non-humans, and B) end up telling stories more human, more true, than 99.9 of the absolute star-shaped crap extruded by the nozzles of the Hollywood Fun Factory.

I saw three movies this weekend, each of which used technology for greater and lesser effects. Toy Story 2 was the work of adults, for everyone. I saw - for the second time - the Matrix, which I hadn’t been interested in seeing a second time. I don’t know why; I was mightily impressed by it, knocked out like everyone else, but I was always aware that it meant more to others than it meant to me. I got it - inasmuch as there’s something there to get - but the film’s real devotees are the dispossessed, the social awkward, the ones whose eyes opened wide when Morpheus said “you’ve felt all your life that this world was wrong.” Or words to that effect. When you’re a dateless gawky teen or pissed-off early 20something flailing for a handhold, that line says: you’re right. you see more. You know more and feel deeper than the others. The world is a lie.

Of course, it isn’t, and there’s really no lessons one can take from the Matrix. But it’s a great movie. One more ounce of metaphysics and it would have been stupid; one less ounce, it would have been empty slam-bang eye candy. Never more cryptic than it had to be. There are precious few great dystopian sci-fi movies, and that’s one of them - as well as a perfect cultural snapshot of the end of the 90s. It’s the Metropolis of the early Internet years.

Also saw Godzilla - my wife was at the theatah with a few girlfriends, so I decided to eat pizza, turn up the volume and watch things get knocked down in grand fine fashion. Let me be clear: I cannot forgive a movie that destroys the Flatiron and Chrysler building because the army has bad aim. I was even sad to see the PanAm building get trashed. (Yes, I know, it’s not Pan Am, it’s Met Life. And the GE building isn’t the RCA building, and Sixth Av is really the Avenue of the Americas, and Hillary Clinton is a Yankeesfan.) I could accept these things in a better movie - maybe. This was not that movie. It was KREP! in all directions, with the exception of Jean Reno, who did nothing but be Jean Reno when required; this elevated the movie several notches nevertheless.

So then: Godzilla, movie with many computer effects but no brains: bad. Matrix, with many computer effects and more brains than heart: cool. Toy Story, with nothing but computer effects and a proper balance of brains and heart: perfect. Big Bowl, with a careful balance of sweet and sour: $32 per couple. With appetizers.

It was a very good weekend.


Another egg-timer Bleat, this being Monday. Ten minutes: go.

Sun today, lots of it.
The snow feels old and tired. There’s still lots of it, and it’s still white; doesn’t wear that filthy coat of crusty dirt it’ll don in late March, but it feels like rotten Styrofoam when you walk on it. Always a good sign. Confident snow is heaped high, fluffy, composed of innumerable citizens; it’s like the Chinese Army, overwhelming you with sheer numbers. More flakes on the ground than stars in the sky. Your foot sinks deep into the drift; you struggle, stagger, shake out your cuff when you get home. But now it’s warm and wet, and worried; you pack it down with every step, and if you drive your heel into the floor of the forest you see dirt. Everything’s white; everything’s still winter. But on days like today you hear the snow squeak and you remember: we always win this war.

We always lose it again six months later, but it’s an interesting battle. It’s not like World War One, where a million men die to move the lines on the map an inch. The war of the seasons is predicated on total victory.

I should open a resort in Mexico called “Dunkirk,” and open it up only when the first blizzard hits the plain.

Ordinary day. Worked on a game review; I’ll be sick of this game soon, so I had to write the review now before it gets boring. It’s “The Sims,” a people simulator. You can set up households, fill them with people, and watch them live their lives. You can spend an evening instructing silicon constructs to use the bathroom, eat pizza and watch television. It’s really quite interesting, and you come to care for these creatures in an odd way. For the last day I’ve been working on a Sim who lives a lonely, spartan life, but is determined to advance in the world. For days and days (sim time) I had him study his books, practice his skills, prepare himself for career advancement. But he became horribly depressed - no fun, no social interaction. I instructed him to invite a neighbor over; she’s quite a dish. They got along well - but he was so exhausted from overwork and insufficient food that he passed out on the kitchen floor in the middle of a conversation. She left. He got up and stamped his feet in fury, pulling his hair in angry humiliation. Then he just went to bed.

It’s really quite fun. As with any sim, of course, the program reflects the biases of the authors, and it’s interesting to see what they omit. Play is important, as is socializing, romance, relaxation, career advancement, procreation. But the metaphysical component is strictly utilitarian. There are no weekends; Sims never go to church. Neither do I, for that matter, but I would like some of my Sims to go to church; it would be a comfort for some of them.

The list of omissions goes on - the Sims are apolitical; there are no cars, only car pools (and the cars are all beat-up rusty quasi-Bel Airs; what is this, Havana?), etc. On the other hand, some of the characters’ actions are alarmingly real. When I bought my bachelor nerd a microwave, he made everything from the microwave. When I provided him with a gas grill, he made hamburgers for breakfast. He made them for the babe next door, too.

She didn’t like them. Then I instructed him to tickle her.

She hasn’t been back since.

More tomorrow; back to the evening’s column, and mail, and eventually the Thrilling Conclusion of the movie I started watching last night. It’s . . . a love story that takes place on a doomed ship in a bygone era. It’s “The Poseidon Adventure.” I’ve seen it before. This time I’m amusing myself by watching it standing on my head. Changes everything!




And so the day evaporates with a dozen things undone; a score of emails out the door while several score come in. I played a game for twenty minutes - grabbed some fleeting glee; knocked heads with the dog, deleted web logs, took Jasper out to pee. Looked at the stack of piled-up bills and vowed I’d pay them tomorrow; vetted magazines for recycling day: parting really is sweet sorrow when you’ve paid good cash for glossy mags and haven’t really read them. One last look - that New Yorker has an illustration by Steadman. Ralph? He’s still around? Or is that Gerald Scarfe? They’ve similar styles. Amphetamine pens. Both English, good for a larf.

But out they go. Newspapers too. Four bags of words and pictures - murder tales and garage sales and governmental strictures, all fresh and new the day the paper left the noisy presses. Goodbye unfinished op-ed stories. Wait - this story of Dinesh’s bears a close rereading. I like Mr. DeSouza. Why recycle what’s not been used? Perhaps it’s all a ruse, a means to make me feel so good about my civic function. So I separate the cans and pulp without any compunction.


But. That’s Tuesday night. Or rather every other Tuesday night. Come home tired with with no more works. I wrote a column this morning, went to work, wrote another. Supper. Nap. Up; kiss wife; begin the evening duties. Ordinary life.

If only it had more poetry.

The following will mean something to some persistent internet habitues.

I called The Booth today. I do this every so often, maybe once every other month. It clears the mind. It puts things in perspective. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to astral projection.

The Booth, of course, is a simple phone booth in the Mohave desert. A long time ago, someone posted a web page about The Booth, and I forget the particulars, how he discovered it. (I have the page bookmarked, and if I linked to external sites, I’d link to this one.) He made a trip to the Booth to hang it up, since someone had taken the phone off the hook and driven away. Accompanied by a large and questionable fellow, they drove a great distance into the desert, found The Booth, and hung up the phone. The story was posted on the net, and found by those who spend their days looking for things like that. You can plug any sort of metaphysical concept into their quest - and the fact that they went to hang up a phone makes it particularly networthy.

Anyway. Every other month I find the number in my papers on my desk, and call the Booth. I like to imagine the phone ringing in an empty desert. It’s . . . clarifying.

I remembered today that I wanted to call The Booth from the Gobbler, just to tie a few strings together, so I called the number to make sure it was working.

Someone answered on the second ring.

I was . . . astonished. “Is this The Booth?” I stammered.

“It’s the booth!” said a cheerful female voice. “Hi!”

“Who are you?”

She said she was one of five people en route to Vegas; they’d made a pilgrimage to The Booth.

“Has anyone else called?”

“Five people!” she said. “In ten minutes! One was from France and one was from Germany, too.”

We chatted about the weather here and there, and the importance of the Booth; I thanked her for answering and hung up.

Someone answered the phone at The Booth. I don’t know why, but that just thrills the hell out of me. And I realized something else. Five calls in ten minutes? The phone must ring all the time, thousands of people making the old rusty bell jangle in the empty air, thousands of strangers trying a door knob in a dark room, none of them seeing the person before them or the person behind.

Someone had answered the phone at The Booth.

Which means that somewhere in the world, someone else called the number, hoping to make the bell ring in the desert afternoon . . . and they got a busy signal.

That person might well be cheered by a busy signal: why, he’s not alone at all; he’s part of the part of the world that points their voice down the narrow wire to this strange location. A busy signal means you’re not alone.

I don’t want to call the Booth tomorrow. I don’t want anyone to answer. I don’t want someone to always be there. Sometimes I just want it to be me and the bell, a phone someone might answer. But today I talked to a complete stranger in a famous phone booth while I looked at a picture of the Booth on my computer screen. There are days I curse all my unruly machines. There are days I just want to kiss them.


One of those weeks where I am, for some peculiar reason, in demand. As I have noted here before, the secret to being In Demand is to be Available. Secret # 2: be cheap. I have all these things to do, and none of them fatten the purse. TV on Friday. Radio interview tomorrow night. Radio interview earlier today. Sunday night I have to emcee a concert at Orchestra Hall, which is fun, in a terrifying sort of way; nothing I do quite equals the paralyzing moment of walking on stage and seeing that vast auditorium filled to the rafters. They’re not there to see me, which makes it all okay, and by now the audiences realize that I will be brief, and that makes them well-disposed to my appearance. It’s the damnedest thing, though - when the PA system calls my name, and I reach for the big door to walk out on that hallowed stage, I always wonder how the hell this happened. What am I doing here? Just 14 hours ago I was sitting on the sofa watching TV, and that seemed the natural state of affairs. Now I'm in a tux on a stage. I don't recall asking for this, yet it happens, again, and again.

This afternoon I found myself in a radio booth doing an ISDN appearance on the Tod Mundt show (I may not be spelling that correctly; apologies.) It’s a syndicated show on the NPR network. A visitor to the Gallery of Regrettable Food had emailed him the URL for lileks.com, and he wanted to do a little interview. (Side note: the emailer also sent me some napkins embroidered with the icons of Smiley and Chefy, the mascots of the Institute of Official Cheer and the Gallery; amazing work, and they’re prized possessions.) The local NPR station is well-appointed - so well-appointed that every time I go there I vow anew never to give them another dollar. The booth had at least three internet terminals - I was able to click through my website as Tod asked questions about its various subsites. One of those Modern World Moments I love so much - twirling knobs, clicking, talking, making the computer screen jump to my commands. Exactly the world promised to me by Star Trek when I was 8, sitting in front of the Zenith. Even better, when you consider that the computer at the station didn’t make mechanical clicking sounds and say WORKING in a robot voice.

The interview was fun, but I felt lackluster. As soon as I was all revved up and comfy, it was done. As with most moments in life, one cannot call for do-overs.

It was good to be in downtown St. Paul, and sad as well - I got my first big newspaper job in St. Paul 12 years ago, and back then downtown had actual retail activity. Not a lot, but enough. Even then, though, one could see where it was all going. The streets did not bustle. The skyways were thinly populated. St. Paul ruined its downtown around the same time Minneapolis did, and for the same stupid reasons - but Minneapolis destroyed its peripheral history. St. Paul ripped out its own heart and never recovered. It’s better now - new museums, a colorful parking ramp (the downtowns of the Twin Cities have the finest parking ramps in the nation, I’m convinced of it) and two new office towers of middling aesthetic pleasures. But it still feels like the second city.

Well, it is the second city, which might explain it. I’m biased on this account - I used to live and work in St. Paul, and I still love the place, but I always knew I’d move back to Minneapolis. I’m glad I lived there. I can stand on a few corners around town and feel utterly at home.

The more corners like this you have in your life, the better.

Anyway: Downtown St. Paul was hit by the retail neutron bomb a few years ago. I had lunch in the World Trade Center, which could probably be successfully sued for three counts of false advertising on its name alone. The retail court - 100 % rented when I worked downtown - is an utter wasteland now, with a few food franchises, a coffee shop, a smokes & gum store. Three tiers of empty stores ringing the empty court, each storefront still professing the facades of their last incarnation. There used to be a magnificent noisy fountain in the atrium; kids used to come and ooh and ahh when it shot up to the roof of the room. I don't remember hearing the tell-tale plash of water today. Perhaps they shut it off: bad. Perhaps I reverted back to the old St. Paul neural pathways, and filed the sound away under expected ambient noise: good.

I know a few people who still work downtown St. Paul. My wife, for one. She was in meetings all day, so I didn’t see her. But as I walked out of the old Town Square shopping mall - now a government center - I looked down the street at the Pioneer Press building, and thought back to those merry days. Merry? Maybe; don’t know. It’s all a dim smear now. I turned north and headed towards the radio station - and standing across the street, waiting for the light, was Katherine, an old colleague from the paper, now the morning host for Minnesota Public Radio. It was the sort of moment you get in a small town. Past life is two blocks south, wife’s 14 floors up, old friend’s across the street.

Life long enough anywhere, and your day is full of these random conjunctions. That’s why I live here; that’s why I’ll never leave.


Woke to snow, the mean needling variety - snow moving sideways, drifting across the sidewalk like a guilty look. Cold fluffy snow that gets down your collar no matter how tightly you bundle up. Walked Jasper into the woods, where the snow had bleached the terrain a nice uniform white. But the creek still held yesterday’s heat - it was a strange green, almost the color of oxidized copper. Bruised, untrustworthy ice. Jasper, being only 45 pounds, could walk out on the ice without fear. I stayed on the bank. Doesn’t matter how fine a mood one has in the morning - you’re still quite sure that falling into freezing water would not improve the day.

Drove to work;
visibility down to about three feet. Naturally, everyone drove 80 MPH. Wrote the column with alarming speed, based on an idea I got last night watching TV in the wee hours. TVLand is playing mid-1950s Alfred Hitchcocks, and I’ve been enjoying them even though they make me bleary the next day. The economy of plot and character feels bracing, compared to the blabby shape of many modern dramas. I like the monochrome bleakness, the persistence of hats, the brassy dames and smooth losers, and of course the stars: last night featured a young - well, younger - Lorne Greene, speaking in a subterranean rumble that made his Cartwright incarnation sound like the peepings of Pee Wee Herman. And it’s all bracketed by the droll & Saturnine orations of Mr. Hitch himself, dripping his sugared contempt on the TV medium and its commercial demands. I first encountered the Hitchcock show in Saturday night reruns in Fargo, part of the Thriller Chiller Theater, or whatever they called it. (Hitch, then Hammer.) They seemed like broadcasts from another world - a strange but recognizable world where men always wore suits, even indoors, and artists were always devil-may-care passionate people living on the sea shore, office life was a regimented hell of uniform desk, clackety tools, overbearing asses with thin ties and slump-shouldered men with battered hats. It seemed like a world that had been removed, forcibly, to make way for the inane and colorful world that was on the TV in 1973.
I got, and still get, a quiet thrill when I hear the music. Not the theme music - that’s a cliche by now. No, the music that introduced the episodes. A strange suspended chord with a drum’s muffled comment and the vague, confused interjection of a lost horn. It’s a perfect piece of music.

I study, and collect, incidental music. There’s a fellow at work who’s an expert on soundtracks, knows everything; he’s the true collector. My collection is mostly mental. Last Saturday night when we came back from the movies, I walked Jasper into the woods, listening to the radio. A commercial came on, and I recognized the music bed instantly. I sang along; I conducted it in the air with a gloved finger, and mimed the bass line.

Where had I heard that before? Where? I’d never heard it in any commercial. Think!

Eventually I got it: the music was used by a local movie theater chain before the coming attractions. You know the stuff - slides that asked you to throw away your trash, don’t smoke, and incidentally this theater is available for rentals. This music hadn’t been used in years, ever since the Candy Bar Band animated intro appeared. (A miracle of animation, really, and very clever, and everyone is SICK OF IT.) I used to sit in the theater and mentally hum the music, conduct it with a Gold’n Top’t-slick finger, and air-guitar the bass. As did 90% of the audience, consciously or otherwise. Then it left - and no one noted its absence.

And now it was back - rerecorded! And then it was gone.

I have the suspicion that everyone would recognize it if they heard it. You’d flash back 10 years. It’s sweet, cheerful, empty. We were all SICK OF IT eventually, and never noticed its passing. But like all production music, it’s eventually new again. A year ago I was sent for review a couple of CDs of 50s and 60s production music, released as a snarky hip post-modern confection. Since then I’ve heard the music in a dozen different commercials. It’s bright and weightless, and even though the ads use it for Ironic Effect, it still has the same effect. You move, you smile. Produce! Consume! Enjoy!

To quote a certain web site.

A good night. Did the BBC, and was happy with my performance. Listened to KSTP while I did some web work - called the host after the show was over, and talked for twenty minutes; we haven’t spoken for a while. He’s a fine fellow, and I miss working with him, even if “working with him” consisted of entering the studio for a few minutes of chat after his show and before mine. But there wascamaraderie in the old station in the evening hours. We were the night shift, and proud of it.

Wrote the TV monologue. Sara came back from her evening meeting; we caught up on the day, and then she stumbled to bed. The dog is in the bedroom with her now, content to slumber in the cozy dark room, so I won’t have company on the sofa. Last night I watched a documentary on the Golden Jackals of Africa - dogs nearly identical to Jasper. Fascinating stuff. He had his head on my lap and snored through it all. Good for him. A dog’s life is short; that’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s always Saturday.

And in a while, it’ll be my Saturday too. Good for us, I say; good for all of us.