Ahhh. The new office furniture arrived, and I’m no longer typing on some cheap piece of Office Max particle-board krep; I’m typing on Mission style particle-board krep. Not entirely - the top of the desk is Real Wood, but the rest is the furniture equivalent of seeds & stems. Fine. The desk set I really wanted was a Stickley set that cost about 97 quadrillion samoleons; no. For two nights running I’ve had a dream wherein I discover that my monthly mortgage payment is $15,000. In last night’s version I went to ask mobsters for the money. They were having a big sit-down to settle some disputes, and I interceded, suggested that we all put our guns on the floor before we discussed business. They agreed. (To my surprise, I had a pistol as well.) Later the room filled up with assorted family members - make that Family members - and some old doddering don got up and gave an interminable speech about Honor; I retrieved my gun and left in the middle of it. And woke, thinking: damn. Didn’t get the money.

Sunday night. I have many things to do, including boning up on current events - I’m auditioning for a spot on a quizzz show tomorrow, and while I am certain I won’t make the cut, I don’t want to make a fool of myself. I’m up on current affairs as a matter of course, but it’s those little details that trip you up - the president’s name, the exact pronunciation of “Britain,” that sort of thing. This means I need to get sleep, which means I have to go to bed early, but . . .

But. I have a new basement to break in. I don’t know what it is with men and basements, but I love my new basement. It’s actually inhabitable, as opposed to the silverfish paradise I had at Lileks Manor. This one has two built-ins - a shelf for books, and a big slot for a big TV. I filled the TV slot on Saturday with a cheap 27”er - I remember when I got my first 27” TV - we were moving from our deluxe apartment in the sky to a crummy flat by the DC Zoo, where you could hear large birds engage in noisy copulation all night. My compensation for the move was a larger TV, and it cost 700. Now, at Audio King, you can get one for $259. And it has BlackMask technology and double-comb DuraFilter screens and RectaLinear picture positioning and all the other krep that means nothing to anyone. The Giant Swede helped me wrestle it into the house, and I’m pleased to say I got it out of the box and up into its slot on my own, although I was certain that my vertebrae were shooting out of my back like clay pigeons in a skeet-shooting competition. I hooked it up to the satellite, called DirecTV for activation, and voila.

Now: the only reason it’s there is because there’s a large TV-shaped hole in the built-in. I had to put a TV there. I’m thinking ahead to the time when Gnat will want to sit on the floor and watch The Little Mermaid for the bazillionth time; since the basement will be her playground, this will be her TV. But for now the basement is Mine! All mine! I filled the shelves with the DVDs and set up all my Simpsons figurines. The previous owners filled the shelves with ten years of National Geographics; I have Barney Gumble with a beer mug in his hand.

Speaking of which: While going through boxes last night in the basement, I came across a stack of Life in Hell cartoons, the work of Mr. Groening prior to the Simpsons. I was reminded of some salient points about the man’s work:

1. All that Akbar & Jeff stuff is not only dull, it’s lazy

2. He did exactly 1 (one) funny single panel in his lifetime: “If you drink, don’t drill” - all the others are tendentious

3. His best work was waaay behind him by Simpsons time, and even now it’s rather slight, but I have a soft spot for some of it

4. The Simpsons may have sprung from his imagination, but they only flourished when handed off to nimbler, cleverer people. I don’t think Groening himself would deny that, and I will forever be in his debt for coming up with the characters in the first place. And yea, I have chuckled much over his work. I just wish he wasn’t one of those millionaires who wants to keep my taxes as high as possible. It reminds me of a fellow at the paper who will get on the radio and rail against the greed of the rich, often while sitting by his pool.

5. The first episode where the Simpsons really because the Simpsons, I thiink, was the ep where Homer got the job as a mascot in Capitol City. Everything was just a little sharper and more delightful - the parody of the big-city song, sung by Tony Bennett, for example, was a sort of sophistication that was utterly beyond the smartasses of SNL.

Well, I could go on and on about the Simpsons - so I will:

6. Shows that bored me when I saw them on Sunday now often amuse me when I see them on the daily rerun. The pressure’s off to be HILARIOUS, so they’re just enjoyable.

7. I live and work among people who don’t watch the show, which is probably a good thing, and keeps the incessant quoting to a minimum. Recently at work there was an immense build-up for the send-off party of someone who no one really knew; my reaction to learning he’d quit was “No! Not Lenny!” which is about as obscure a reference as you can get.

Okay, more later. Now I have to get back to work - which, in this case, is reviewing the new Myst game. It’s about a fellow who has been screwed over by the brothers, and is hiding out in a lovely place, plotting revenge.

I think it goes without saying that I’m the ideal man to review the game. As I’ll explain tomorrow.
.. ..
What a peculiar life. Today I auditioned for a radio quiz show. It’s a national program. I’ve heard it before, and always thought: my, what clever sorts they are. And now I was being asked to be A Clever Sort myself, which is always deadly when you’re doing it A) on command, and B) under the assumption that you are A Clever Sort. I have always found that my best radio shows were done when I had a certain equilibrium of confidence and trepidation; my worst shows were done when completely, utterly sure that Brilliance was about to follow. (When it didn’t, it threw me off my game and made me reach too far for effect.) This time the day had been full of contrusions, and frankly the audition was the last thing on my mind when I sat down in front of the microphone.

Nice studio. No coffee allowed, though. Pathetic. Why, in my day <coot rant> a fellow could smoke in the booth, and drink coffee. And if you wanted to tie off, slap a vein until it wriggled like a garden snake and plunge the old spike in, filling your body with rich heroiny goodness, why, you could do that too, and no one would think a thing of it. Why, we had a meth lab in the transformer room back at the old AM place, by crikey, and that was just fine with folks. </coot rant> Nowadays it’s all clean and careful, I suppose, and it’s not as if I would have smoked, anyway. But I’m always glad I was present at the end of two great traditions: I was working in a newsroom when we put out the paper using manual typewriters, and I was a latenight radio guy when you could smoke on the air.


Friends, you just - can’t - imagine the joy of lighting one up and cracking the mike. Too bad I smoked such wussy-weed brands; the job called for Chesterfields, at the very least. I always had three cups going: a cup of water for an ashtray, a cup of coffee (believe it or not, I took in both the caf and decaf urns to the booth and tapped both throughout the show) and a small jug of milk, which is the worst thing for your voice, but provided some sort of comfort.

So today I’m in a bright clean new studio, empty table before me, hands on my lap like a good little boy, thinking: things changed with great finality, and very quickly at that.

The show was a mock run-through, with two other auditioneers, each of us in a different booth in a different city. The producer explained that this would feel a little unnatural, having a conversation with people you can’t see - but I thought, well, no, I’ve been doing this for 16 years off and on. Not a problem. The audition, I suspect, had several purposes - to see if you stunk, to see if you hogged the mike with your craptacular observations, to see how well you played with unexpected tangents, and to see whether you were up on current events. I know how I felt about the audition: it was wonderful fun. As for how I did, we’ll see. It all depends what they want.

Playing the Myst 3 game. Last night I was all set to plunge into the swirling romance of the game, and I spent half an hour figuring out why it crashed my system. (Graphics card conflict, of course.) When I finally played it I was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions - it reminded me of that whole depressing my-career-is-toast period after I was bounced from the Myst book project. It reminded me of the stupifying boredom and aggravation of Riven. And then, after the first fly-by of the first Age, with the theme music cleverly echoing the haunting pizzicato theme of the first Myst game, I thought: well, let’s let bygones be bygones. I’m enjoying it. I just wish I could enjoy it more. It’s like being dead and watching your spouse have a happy second marriage. Great for her, but, well, you’re a tad conflicted about it just the same.

Well, not like that, exactly.

Back to work - column night.
.. ..
Lovely day, more or less. I slept well, enjoyed my morning with Gnat, enjoyed my time at work, and enjoyed shopping for groceries. Everything was just enjoyable. I enjoyed jettisoning my dinner plans when I saw the lobster ravioli in the frozen food section. I enjoyed giving in to a rare need for cookies, and bought some enjoyable pre-made dough with that hellish little flour-imp on the label. I did not enjoy learning, at the checkout, that I had read the wrong price for the lobster ravioli, but I contented myself with the enjoyment I would surely get when I had it for supper. (It sucked.) I enjoyed arranging items in the utility drawer in the kitchen, too. I’d bought one of those bins with a dozen slots, each of which is dedicated to something unique by ends up getting full of something else until they all contain an equal number of coins, rubber bands, dead keys and stamps that are one cent short of modern usefulness. The bin came with stickers you could put in the drawers, to remind you what they’re supposed to be used for, but I hesitated - in the end, they’d just be proof that disorder conquers all. You’d see rawhide twists in the scissors bin, and think: it’s hopeless.

Got the new Brian Setzer disc. I love this guy. He’s temporarily shelved the Orchestra and gone back to a three piece, except this time the band members are good ‘n’ sober, and can play like hell. It’s all whang & twang, with a heavy country influence; a few songs are old standards reworked and disguised and made brand new, like a classic car with a kustom flaming paint job. As a friend noted at work, you can just tell he’s having fun when he plays. It just explodes out of the speaker and runs around the room. Setzer is 41 now, but there’s no mopery, no bitterness, no Reaching for the Grand Statement - just hot jumping All-American music, sizzling like fresh fries dumped in a plastic basket and rollerskated out . . . to the rolled-down window of your soul. Okay, I went to far with that one. But I enjoyed doing it!

I love this guy precisely because it’s NOT deep. Because it’s NOT serious. Although in a way it is; Setzer is channeling a deep deep vein of American culture, and while he knows it, and has an absolute dead-on instinctive grasp of what he’s doing, he’s not one of those tiresome Theorists or Purists or Completists who wants everyone to sit very still and listen to the record, dammit - oh, you talked, I’ll have to start it over again. This probably frustrates music critics, who often end up 30 years older than their target audience, and who depend on the musicians to provide intellectual cover. Critics love Elvis Costello, for example. (I used to be the world’s largest EC fan, and I still love his earlier, funnier work, but after a while it just got to be overly clever wankery that provided fewer and fewer pleasures. But Costello is a smart fellow with an exhaustive knowledge of pop music. Doesn’t mean he can capture the essence of what he knows; it just means he can refer to it musically with authority. He did a country album, for example, that’s just awful, because he studied the music as opposed to getting inside of it and inhabiting its whee-ha spirit & boozy lachrymose self-pity.

In one of my Cruisin’ discs there’s a Bo Diddly tune called “Say Man” or something like that - essentially two guys playing the dozens over a bodiddley beat. There’s a little piano riff I recognized from “Lover’s Walk” from Costello’s “Trust,” and the difference between the two is instructive - the Diddly tune uses the riff almost as a percussion, and the Costello version brings it forward, makes it a chilly little strut holding up an insubstantial song. The former has soul; the latter lacks.

But I’ll give Elvis this. Like Setzer, he probably won’t lend his name to a baby playpen. At Babiesrus the other day I saw a playpen done in cheery pastels with animal squiggles - and I’d have bought it, were it not a member of the fargin’ JOHN LENNON CHILDREN’S LINE. Look. The Beatles were a fine band. Some talented lads. I’m sorry Mr. Lennon met a tragic horrible end - but enough about Yoko. I just don’t subscribe to the notion that he was the Genius of the Age, or that his napkin squiggles are anything more than clever doodles, or that there’s some sort of ethical nimbus of Lennony goodness floating over his work. His best work was waaay behind him; he squandered his talent with drugs, and I’m not going to plop my daughter on the autograph of a man who usually reeked of cigarettes and probably had vomit breath throughout the entire 70s. The Beatles were great, yes, but I’ll take “Rockaway Beach” over “Hey Jude,” and I’ll take the first few albums over anything else they did. “No Reply” is better than “Taxman.” I’ll take first galvanizing chord of “Hard Day’s Night” over the entirety of “I am the Walrus.”

And none of it beats anything by Gershwin. So, to conclude: Gershwin > Setzer > Beatles > Elvis Costello > Leo Sayer.

I threw that in so we could agree on something.
.. ..
Warning: I’m going somewhere with this, but it’s not far, and it might not be worth the travel time.

I always loved the Peter Rabbit stories, perhaps because of the uncanny aptness of the drawings: if Bunnies had a civilization, a child thinks, they’d look like they did in the books. Plus, the PR stories had Mr. MacGregor, who scared the hell out a kid - you honestly felt he’d kill the bunnies if he had the chance. Not just spank them, or wound their self-esteem, or give them a time-out, but impale them on the rusty tine of a pitchfork. The best children’s stories always have some form of evil & violence that cannot be reasoned with, only avoided or defeated. Winged monkeys, Oh-ee-oh marching guards, etc.

Real bunnies are nothing like Peter, as I’ve learned since we moved here. There are bunnies everywhere, small ones with tiny ears and an utter absence of buckteeth. They’re cute when they spring away, but of course they’re usually springing away in sheer fear of Jasper, who loves to chase them. (No squirrels here - just bunnies. For a dog, it’s like the next level of a video game.)

This morning I was sitting on the floor with Gnat, reading her a book about baby animals. You’re invited to touch the various simulated animal skins - the downy baby chick, the leathery baby elephant, the velvety calf, the surprisingly painful baby porcupine, etc. I saw Jasper get up from the steps, trots over to the garden; he was batting at something with his paws and stepping back in surprise, which is usually his response to something that’s 97 percent dead. I put Gnat in her Playskool Jail and went to investigate: there was a dead little bunny under a bush. I brought Jasper in, since he’d want nothing more than to chew the corpse for a while then lick Gnat’s hand, which she would put right into her mouth, and before you knew it she’d have Rabbitosis.

So. Back inside. Back to the book with the soft fake bunny fur. Jasper whined and whined and whined, nose to the glass: hey, there’s carrion out there. Lemme at it. For the next hour he was just distressed - c’mon! Some other dog will get it! No fair! I hate you! I made lunch, which got his attention; I threw him a scrap of pastrami, which took his mind off the bunny for a minute. Then I saw Gnat heading across the room to go lick the back of the stereo receiver, or some such deadly errand; I walked to the door to scoop her up, which prompted Jasper to remember that there was, literally, DEAD MEAT! out there as well as DEAD MEAT! in here on the counter, and he began to pace back and forth between counter and door, counter and door. I sat in the middle of the room, and since it was time for the stroll, I asked if Jasper would like to go for a walk. Which he did. Now he walked between me, the counter, the door, and me, the counter, the door, in this endless unbreakable loop of dog programming

40: GOTO 10

If I’d chained him to a mill I could have ground diamonds into dust.

So we went for a walk. He decided to do his business at the top of a rather steep hill, too, which meant that each densely compacted cylinder, cooking in the kiln all night and day, rolled down the hill. Which stunned him; hey, this stuff was supposed to stay put. That was the whole point. I had the baby carriage pointed up the hill, the dog at the end of the leash going in the other direction, a Rumpelstiltskin posture familiar to any parent. Times like these I think ahead to winter, and yea, I shudder.

I didn’t let him out of the house the entire day. He stood by the back door. Waiting. Waiting. When I went to work he didn’t follow me down and out. When I came home he was by the door. I went out to check, figuring that the crows had taken the dead bunny away; they’re like the motorcycle riders in the Cocteau version of Orpheus, spiriting away expired bunnies to the underworld. (Which, when you think of it, has got to be just PACKED. Fargin’ bunnies everywhere.) The bunny was gone.

I let Jasper out. It was now ten hours since The Bunny Incident. He trotted right to the spot. . . sniffed, and followed a trail to the edge of the fence. I looked on the other side, half-expecting to find a miniature tunnel a la the Great Escape. Nothing. End of story.

Then I noticed that there was something in the small roosting nest I’d put up on the fence. I peered in, half expecting a bird; it was the instructions for how to use the nest. Instructions! How hard could it be, exactly? I pulled out the paper -


-eh? I pulled again -

bzzzzzz! And I saw a bee the size of my thumb in the nest, waving feelers at me angrily. Move along, bub, this is my crib.

Nature has its off days, and this was one of them.
Colo..r ..
So I’m at Dayton’s Home Store, looking for something to hide the Shameful TV. Right now it’s in the living room, a big blank glass expanse that tells the entire world what low-class people we are: a TV! In the living room! Where it could be watched! Sorry, but I insist. I will not have my living room turned into a place where, twice a year, we sit and have coffee with guests for ten minutes before everyone manages to end up in the kitchen. I like to watch movies; I like to watch them as they were meant to be seen - widescreen - and the TV is going to be in the living room.

Even though I originally bought it for the basement.

So I’m at the store, with Gnat in a stroller. I go to the Mission Department, where we bought our furniture many years ago. There’s a clerk - I’m sorry, a home furnishings consultant. I say hello, tell her that we have that set over there, and I’m looking for a Mission style entertainment center.

“Oh, we don’t have one. There aren’t any in that line.” She says this as if I’d asked her for fresh fish, or a colostomy bag full of goldfish.

“Yes - but - something Mission, anyway, since pieces from different lines can blend together nicely.”

“I don’t think we have any. We might have some over in the entertainment centers, but I don’t know.”

“Do you have any catalogs that have such items?”

“There aren’t any in the catalogs, no.”

“Well,” I said, “I get the point. Thank you.” And off we went. This was the exact opposite of good salesmanship: what you want does not exist and I will make no attempts to disprove that fact. Fine.

Now, let me put this mundane tale in context. Rude clerk; waste of time; extra trip; another frustrating episode in my search. The very fact that I have such a boring story is a sign of how blessed I feel these days. Here’s why.

My job requires not time, but effort. Not hours chained to a machine, but a specific set of words by a specific set of time. Don’t think I don’t know how unusual this is, and while I don’t want to use the word “lucky” - it suggests that the Career Leprechaun just decided to hit me with the columnist sheleleigh - I know I am, well, lucky. Twenty years of practicing to do THIS got me THIS, and I am grateful.

But I’m also grateful for an utterly unexpected side-effect. I work at home a lot, and that means lots of time with Gnat. Most of the morning and half the afternoon. I work at the kitchen table while she explores her world - tumbles down the stairs, falls headfirst on a marble floor, topples into an open toilet. None of those things happened, of course, because I’m constantly stopping work and retrieving her before something dire ensues. In the afternoon, however, I strap her in the stroller, and we go explore or run errands. It’s become my favorite part of the day.

Yesterday we went downtown. It was a sunny day, so I just decided to walk around downtown and let her see new things. I cannot imagine what that little mind makes of a 57 story building. It was the biggest thing she’d ever seen - so big it just simply would make no sense; she would have no context, no way to apprehend what it was. A big glass building reflecting another building would be like a sky filled with giant clouds, or a tree, or the TV close up. I almost expected awe, but awe comes later, I think. You have to know a few things first. You have to know that you know something, so you have context, so you know that you don’t know something. She sang her la-la-la-la song at the Foshay tower, but she sings that when she’s ripping up magazines, too.

We stopped off in the IDS center, and went to Williams Sonoma. They’d grilled some chicken with the new Mexican Fontera sauces, a line I use for cooking. I had some chicken and vegetables, washed it down with some lime juice, chatted with the staff - all three of whom clustered around Gnat and grinned and cooed. Had a conversation with one clerk about the virtues of downtown; she was a newcomer to the era, and I told her about the other end of the street - now a wasteland of parking lots, but once the epicenter of commercial Minneapolis. Gnat pulled on my press badge, let it go and watched it retract on the string, over and over. It’s hard to exactly say why, but I think I was about as happy then as I’d ever been, because this fine quiet collection of civilized moments was just so ordinary, and THAT’S something to be grateful for. There are some afternoons when I’m at the Galleria, pushing the cart, me and a dozen dozen Edina housewives in the same situation, and I just want to sing, and then frown: Citizens! Let us never take this for granted, lest it slip from our fingers. Your life is not measured in receipts from the Coach store! This life of honeyed ease blinds you to the fact this is not the norm on this planet by a looooong shot. Be not smug! Be ye humble!

But I’d get tossed out for being hopped up on goofballs, I suppose.

So today we’re at the corner of 4th street and 14th av SE in Dinkytown; I wanted to take Gnat to the old campus, sit in the grass and take some pictures. The corner looked exactly as it did 22 years ago when I was in college - different stores in the buildings, but otherwise the same. This intersection is burned into my brain; I stood there waiting for the light to change for years. (Long light.) It was always the start to the march to the campus, which meant many things - a test, a class I loved, a meeting with a prof, a trip to the Daily to hand in my latest column. Always something waiting on the other side of the railroad tracks, inside the gates. Ah, the alma mater. Ah, youth. Ah, bright college days -

Nonsense. I suddenly got a good jolt of undiluted memory, a reminder what I’d usually felt in those days: penury, romantic misery, self-doubt, passing elation, desire to stop smoking, desire to have another cigarette, weariness over the upcoming 11 pm - 7 AM shift at the Valli, pleasure over the knowledge that an hour with a pot of coffee and a pack of Kents and a good book awaited in the afternoon, but - generally, subtly, pervasively - fear & doubt that I was ever going to find my place in this world.

That led to this, of course, and that’s the source of my happiness: it worked. I kept at it, I didn’t screw up when I got some breaks, and it worked. I went to the grass, got my daughter out of her seat, held her up against the sky and twirled her around until she was laughing, and I nearly bawled my head off. It’s not that it’s important to realize this sort of thing once in a while. It’s important to realize it every - single - day.

And I do. Except Tuesdays. Tuesdays I have to turn in two pieces. Tuesdays suck.