Take this ironically or not, as you choose.
Turned a corner Friday night. We were sitting outside, discussing dire times, and in the distance I could hear the high school football game. At first I had the same reaction to the sounds as I’d had to the floodlights on the practice field the night before: as the lights had reminded me of the rescue operations in the Pit, now the screams of the crowd sounded like the cries of people in fear and distress; the pounding drums of the pep band sounded like muffled drums, and once again I ground my teeth at the way things had been redefined -

And then I thought, well, no. That may sound like something bad, but it’s not. It may wear the audio apparel of a terrorist attack, but fer chrissakes it’s a football game. I’m not going to live like this; I’m not going to start forcing every commonplace thing to jump in the black sack.

Later that night, standing on the porch, I heard a car go by with some kids whooping and shouting - the victors, apparently. A week ago I would have scowled. But now basic adolescent homecoming whoopery seemed almost, well, defiant. Good, I thought. Have your time. Enjoy it. And the next morning it struck me: our world isn’t going to end. The terrorists’ world as they know it now - that is going to end. Not now, not soon, but it will happen.

And so I am no longer afraid.

This is part of the seductive nature of Phoney War, I suppose. Drôle de guerre, Sitzkrieg - that tense interregnum between deployment and the start of the festivities. You get tired of being wary; you think that your anxiety has bought nothing you want or can use. And you relax, a little. Something will happen to jolt us all again, I’m sure, but it’s weekends like these that give you a sense of relief, a purchase on the future - I reseeded the lawn, got groceries, had a dinner party without the clammy hand of dread wrapped around my tailbone. It gets worse; it gets better; it gets worse again. At least when it gets worse it’s not that sapping ennui, that formless tiresome existential dread. There are no existentialists in foxholes.

Judging from some of my mail, I need to make a few points clear: I do not want, nor believe we are in, a war against Islam. A war on Syria, for example, should it come to that, is not a war on Islam. When the president states that an NBC (nuke, bio, chem - get used to hearing that shorthand tossed around) attack will result in a thermonuclear device detonated over Mecca, then it’s a war on Islam. But that’s not the case. For that matter, we could strive to replace many Middle Eastern regimes, and it would be a war for Islam - Saddam has the blood of dozens of clerics on his hands, if not hundreds. Undemocratic autocratic states tend to encourage militant Islam, since it often becomes the only outlet for social protest - and then the states crack down hard on that element for domestic reasons, and when they do I suspect they cast a broad net, and don't concern themselves with habeas corpus niceties. Islam deserves democracy. Why do so many believe otherwise?

Sudan is a good example of how this war isn't indiscriminate Paki-bashing - last I heard, Sudan had promised to hand over terrorist camp locations and the names of Usama’s lads in the region, as well as provide overflight permission. Consequently, the government - a uniquely unsavory brand of intolerant Islam - will probably be left alone. This isn't even a war against states that practice radical militant Islam domestically. One can argue that it should be, but it isn't. It's a war against those in the export business.

One thing is sure: at the height of the hostilities, there will be more mosques in America than there are churches and synagogues in Iran.

Finished the last season - I think - of the Royle Family, a British show I love more than I can say. The seasons seem to end with a family celebration, and this was no different; they also end with the main character - the acerbic and loveably loutish Jim - expressing an emotion with a clarity and joy that’s like nothing he’s done before, but absolutely right, completely in character. I’m nothing like these people; I’ve barely one or two familiar points of references, and I can hardly understand a bludy wehd what cooms outta they pah-holes, but I’m going to miss them like few other TV character’s I’ve known.

It’s late - the dishes remain to be rinsed from the dinner party, and I’d better get to them.

Everyone seems to have a little low-level bug today. SMALLPOX! IT’S SMALLPOX! Well, no. But now even colds are suspect. Of course, this house has seen plague before - the epidemic of ‘18 surely passed through this neighborhood. Maybe someone sweated it out right in this room.

History is full of cold comforts.

And Minnesota is full of cold, period. Today was a good October day - crisp air, bright sunshine; the tree at the end of the block that went red first has now shed all its leaves, as if it had been suddenly startled, the tree equivalent of peeing your pants. How you scare a tree, I don’t know. Well, you can paint the orange X on its trunk, which marks it for removal - that’ll do it. Or you can creep up behind and shout FUNGUS-BEARING BEETLE INFESTATION! Don’t know. Haven’t tried, frankly. It was too cold to water the new seedlings, which are now wondering why I hath abandoned them in this their hour of germination, but I didn’t want them to freeze in their cradle. It was too cold to sit on the cliff tonight without a jacket. And it’s cold in the house. Getting the furnace working is a challenge - I’m sure it works, and I’m sure by fiddling with all the geegaws down in the furnace room I can coax warmth out of the machinery, but heating up this entire pile from a dead start is a daunting task, I think. Well. That’s why God made flannel.

Actually, that’s why A. O. Smith made operating manuals, but I’m in no mood to read one.

Took down the flag at sunset, since it’s not properly illuminated. I’m not going to be a self-deputized (you know, if you skip the third vowel you get “Self-Deputzed,” which could mean something else, like Mia Fallow dumping Woody Allen, for example.) member of the Flag Police, tut-tutting for someone hanging a slightly faded flag at 43 degrees. If I miss sundown by a half hour, I don’t think I’ll be sent tumbling to Bad Patriot Hell. I do, however, fold it correctly. You can’t just hang it up like a bathtowel, or crumple it into a heap. What surprises me is this: I know how to fold it correctly. I’ve no idea where I learned this. It’s possible we had flag instruction in grade school. Possibly I learned it in the Cub Scouts. Whenever the lesson was made, it stuck.

There was a flag in the corner of the schoolroom. I’m sure there are flags in schoolrooms today - not all, perhaps, but some. The tiled wall; the pencil sharpener by the door; the shelf in the back with the obligatory class turtle; the odd desks with their hard swollen metal udder, a semi-ovoid shape that made it impossible to store anything neatly, because it would all slide into a dense mass of paper, erasers, chewed pencils, crayon nubs. Four rows of five students. McKinley Elementary - imagine that, named after a president. Fifties infrastructure at the end of town, holding down the corner of what seemed a block as vast as the Fields of Mars. I remember few adventures, few stories, just scenes - writing NIXON WON on the blackboard the day after the election. Mr. Kahl pantomiming a fifth-grade lesson. The cold finger of the thermometer on my tongue in the nurse’s office. The hook on the ceiling of the gym - the PhysEd teacher would attach a pole to the hook, and the boys would have to shimmy up. The wood hurt your hands going up and it hurt your hands coming down. We spend seven years in elementary school, which is longer than many people spend in jobs or houses or marriages; where did the memories of daily life go? It’s not as if the brain is a 2GB drive; you don’t have to erase third grade to remember last year. It’s all back in the brain somewhere, perhaps; all the memories of the endless days when the school was a warm safe place of familiar routines and comforting smells.

In a way, I hope they never find a way to unlock those memories. I don’t think one could bear it. To be small, and safe, and loved, and remember the ordinary sight of Mom setting the table for noon lunch, see the clock that sat on the counter for years before it was replaced one day while you were at college, to see the utter homely normality of a good childhood would be like seeing paradise from which you had been gently and firmly, evicted.

So, I guess I don’t have to make home movies of Gnat anymore, eh? Only cause her grief!

Remind me to buy more tape tomorrow.
Man! It’s boiling in here! I’ve had the heat on for an hour, and it’s pitchfork & brimstone temp in every room. Obviously, I learned how to turn the furnace on - resorted to the fargin’ manual, I’m afraid. And learned nothing. First step: TURN OFF POWER. This seemed counterproductive, but it was meant to prevent “damage to property and loss of life” - i.e., boiler go boom. I was supposed to turn it off, wait five minutes, then check for the aroma of gas. Having just boiled three eggs upstairs, I was a tad desensitized to the smell, so I gave it fifteen minutes, so the gas could really accumulate, I guess. The manual said I should get on the floor to check for gas, and there I was kneeling, arms outstretched, thinking: if bin Ladin came in right now he’d be inflamed - observe the infidel praying to his machine! And me without a scimitar, too.

Still no pilot light, though. This unit was equipped with an “intermittant pilot light,” which I took to mean it came on as needed. In the old house the pilot light burned year ‘round, the flame at the tomb of the Unknown Utility Customer. But the manual forbade me to light the light myself, lest it result in - altogether now - “damage to property and loss of life.” They really ought to say “loss of YOUR life,” since I don’t think a stranger fifty blocks south is going to keel over unexpectedly. But how to turn it on? I followed some wires along a pipe to . . . a switch. Duh. Well, it had no label, and it was on the other side of the room, so it wasn’t exactly the most intuitive placement. (It is now, of course.) I turned it on - phoomph! Ten minutes later the boiler room was as hot as, well, a boiler room, and fifty minutes later the house had the warm cozy aroma of a Minnesota house in fall. Can’t beat it. And, I’m happy to report, the Great Room warms up promptly too - I’d worried that it would be a chilly cave, but it’s friendly and snug.


I have worked like a dog these last two days, so tonight I’m going to relax a little. Finish Max Payne, I hope. Watch some TV that does not have a news ticker on the bottom. Although the news still fascinates, of course - yesterday I was amused to note that the Taliban claimed to have massed 300,000 troops, which A) is doubtful, and B) is extremely stupid. Might as well just dress half the troops in red, half in white, and make everyone form concentric circles. An army that large in one spot can be taken out in one blow, more or less, and you don’t have to use nukes. If they’re not familiar with fuel-air explosives, they will be - if they indeed have 300,000 people in one spot ready to rumble, which they don’t.

Drastic mood shift: Gnat just said her first sentence. I was putting on her jammies, and Jasper jumped up on the bed. I quote:

Hi Boppie.

Thirteen months. Wow.

Hmmm. Just discovered a dead zone in the house - the addition, with baseboard heaters instead of big cast-iron sentinals in the corner, has no heat. Back to the boiler room to grab the pipes.

Which, of course, sounds salacious.

I’d love to learn what plumbers and furnace men use for double entendres.
Scenes from recent parenting:

1. Errand number one with Gnat. She’d not yet delivered the daily editorial, so I had to take The Diaper Bag. It is, God help me, an Ann Taylor diaper bag, so for the first time in my life I’m actually stylish. Wrong gender, but stylish nevertheless. We get to the store, to the absolute most distant point from home, and I hear a ripe rip in the backseat. Sigh. Into the carriage, into the mall, into the men’s room, praying it has one of those flat horrid petri-dish Klingon beds on which you can clean your baby. It does. Off go the shoes - the getting on of which took most of the morning - and off go the pants, the onesie, the diaper -

Nothing! False alarm; all clear. I get her dressed again, get the shoes back on - which is about as easy as forcing a domino sideways down a dog’s throat - and we continue shopping. Next stop: a different mall. I was looking for my book, and true to form B. Dalton’s didn’t have it yet. While I patrolled the aisles I detected the distinct aroma of a successful elimination, so we went to the Family Bathroom. En route she peeled off her shoes and socks, each of which required retracing our steps. Got her on the table. The straps were broken. Peeled off the layers. Two words: biological agents. This rivaled the famous Eruption at Lunds, where we had to leave an entire grocery cart of goods in place and go home, because people were keeling over and knocking down displays of cereals and chips. But I soldiered on. At the end of the day I had accomplished nothing, but spent three hours on Bowel Patrol. These were three hours my wife had to herself, so they were well spent.

I suppose.

2. Errand number two. Going to the grocery store. She wanted her cup of Num, which is her all-purpose word for food, in this case juice. I prepared a cup, gave it to her, hoisted her up with one arm and headed for the door feeling in my pocket for keys. I’d chosen the wrong top for the cup. She snapped it open and poured the entire container of cold juice down my back. Proof that instinct - pure base instinct - does not kick in, not when you’ve a baby in your arms. Mindful not to spill the juice on the floor, which would give the entire house the tacky sticky properies of a Post-It note, I bent forward and walked backwards up the stairs, letting the juice run down the back of my pants.

Man, does she OWE me. BIG time.

3. Coming back from the grocery store. She had an unhappy expression, and was fussing slightly - unusual, since she rarely fusses. She just appeared unhappy with the course of human events. I get the car in the garage, look in the rear-view mirror to say “We’re home!” Whereupon she throws up about a quart of toddler-spew with almost disdainful nonchalance. Noel Coward couldn’t have barfed with this much casual panache. At this point I figure that the whole “new car smell” thing is pretty much over. I get her out of her car seat, which is about as fun as fishing a piece of boneless cod from a fondue pot of lukewarm rupe, and now I’ve got the stuff all over my shirt.

I go upstairs, drop the groceries - which contain a big fat steak, much to Jasper’s interest - and go upstairs to change her. When I come back down Jasper is on his back, paws up, two yards away from the meat, apologizing in advance for even THINKING about it. I put her in her chair, give her a cup of NUM, this being milk, and fire up the grill. When I return I discover that this cup and lid had the same Odd Couple relationship as the other one, and she’s thrown it to the floor - where, of course, it detonated.

That’s one side of the ledger. It cannot compare to the other side, which is this: now when you say “Where’s your hair?” she grabs her hair and smiles.

I’ll take all of the above today it means I get that smile tomorrow.

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