redux; the uselessness of mornings; letters to the editor; the Time
Machine; remember. And new Flotsam.
Ice storm Friday - everything shellacked. Snow on Saturday,
temps in the single digits, a wind that felt as though the world had turned
its face from the sun for good and let the stars pick our bones white.
Jasper was limping after half a block’s walk - there’s little as sad as a
beast attempting to do his business squatting with one good front foot. If
I’ve going to live in Antarctica, dammit, I want penguins, and lots of them
- this brutal cold requires comic relief. All we have are crows. They
assemble in the trees over Jasperwood by the hundred, demanding that
something die already.
I cannot wait for spring. It’s nice to be alive, but it would be nicer for
the world to share the sentiment.
Sundays I get up an hour earlier and take care of Gnat. Usually
working on five hours of sleep. Coffee: verboten, since I
want to head back to sleep whenever my wife gets up. It’s her time to sleep
as long as she wants, to catch up on the week’s slumber deficit. Then I get
to go to he spare bedroom where the bed’s as soft as the lighting in a
Maxfield Parrish painting. And I sleep as long as I like. In the old days
when I woke on the stoop of noon, I always felt abashed and lazy - if I’d
gotten up at a normal hour, I’d be running around the lake, splitting wood,
etc. Now I know better. When I wake at six I am disinclined to do anything
but shovel in some processed grains and read the paper. So Sundays are the
best: I’m up early enough to feel human, not some sort of night-trog whose
skin would sizzle if touched by the dawn, AND I get to return to the barge
of Lethe and trail my fingers in the waters of sleep until one o’clock in the
afternoon. Unconsciousness: that’s living.
Sunday morning must be the slowest period for new American internet
content; when the browser starts up and loads the home page, I’m almost
hoping that InstantMan didn’t post anything this morning, just for his
sake, and just because seven posts before seven AM would indicate that the
site is actually run by a brain in a jar. There’s just nothing new on
Sunday morning, which is the obverse of the print world: Sunday is when the
old media drops a daisy-cutter on your steps. This morning’s paper was read
start to finish, except for my column, of course; why bother? The editorial
page had a piece from the New York Times from some Dutch professor noting
the ominous parallels between Orwell’s world of perpetual, undefined war
and today’s five-month old war. Very convincing. Made me want to scuttle
off to the side so the telescreen couldn’t see me and write something the
diary I have hidden in the wall. My favorite moment: the professor assured
us that Europe was sympathetic to our grief, and noted that after 9/11 he
had sat in silence at his desk for three whole minutes. After which, of
course, Al Qaeda disbanded.
There was also a letter from someone complaining about the language used by
a military official describing the effect of the Operation Anaconda on the
Taliban / Al Qaeda fighters: “We bodyslammed them,” he said, and the letter
writer - who I see quite clearly as a gaunt man in a thick Danish
turtleneck sweaters, sandals over gray socks, wire-rimmed glasses perched
on a thin beak - worried what horrible effect this language would have on
our youth, what it taught our young men.
This fellow probably doesn’t realize it, but he’s closer to Orwell’s 1984
than anything the government is doing, at least as far as Orwell’s ideas on
the use of language to delineate that which the mind can conceive. The
letter-writer seems to think that language that describes the outcome of
war in terms that have a robust endorsement of "our side" (as
he'd put it) leads to the emotions and mindset that produces war itself -
so we should use words that discourage young boys from finding any positive
attribute to a successful conclusion of a military campaign. Perversely,
Satisfaction in victory = thoughtcrime.
Were there guys like this in the 40s? Probably. I heard a lady on a call-in
show today insist that Gore would have solved this problem without war, and
accused the show’s host of supporting the war because he was a Jew first,
an American second, and beholden to the agenda of International Zionism.
You always have people like this, and they say much more about themselves
than the party or ideology they purportedly represent. (I have many friends
who are devout members of beliefs I do not share who are nevertheless
untroubled by bodyslammed Al Qaeda.) But I don’t think that newspapers in
the 40s believed it was a necessary part of their job to air anti-anti-Nazi
sentiment every day, just for balance’s sake. You can decide if that’s for
good or ill. But then I read, for example, this little squib from the LA
A student troupe canceled a Sunday performance at an American Red Cross
luncheon after the charity barred it from using the words "God"
Seventh- and eighth-graders from the Orange County High School of the Arts
had planned to sing a medley of "America the Beautiful,"
"Prayer of the Children," and "God Bless the U.S.A."
Group director Cherilyn Bacon said a Red Cross representative told her the
lyrics might offend some of those attending.
These things would not have happened in WW2 - again, you can ponder the
matter and figure out why, but the fact is that no one would have thought
to make this complaint. The nation was at war; the idea that singing a
patriotic medley that contained “God” and “Prayer” would be divisive and
offensive and cannot be allowed at a RED CROSS MEETING would have struck
most people as absolute lunacy. I know there are people who think
that the Red Cross decision is a good thing, that we’re better off because
the kids didn’t sing “God Bless the USA,” but all I can do is plead
ignorance because the reason escapes me completely.
I can, however, find another charity.
Saturday my wife wanted to see a movie. Pick one, I said, bravely. She
does not impose chik-flik tastes on me, and I do not drag her to noisy
action films - mainly because she knows better, and I’m mostly bored with
action films these days anyway. She chose “The Time Machine,” which stunned
me. My little white raisin ! Young men dream of marrying women who look
like my wife and want to see the Time Machine. I was a bit trepidacious,
however, since all the reviews had sniffed or yawned, and Jabba the Knowles
seemed ready to plunge a shiv into his thorax in disappointment. To be
honest, these sorts of movie no longer appeal to the 14 year old in me,
because they’re not really movies at all. They’re visual firehoses that pin
you in your seat, often against your will; you don’t so much watch them as
struggle against them, and it’s exhausting.
The Mummy Returns, for example, operated on the idea that unless the
audience’s hemorrhoids were briskly rubbed with a pumice stone every four
minutes, we would fall asleep. So it was a noisy, calamitous mess with no
pacing, no drama, no characters - nuthin’ but mummies, mummies, mummies.
Lots o’ mummies. I loved the first one despite itself, but the second
confirmed what most movies confirm these days: they don’t trust me. They
beat me because they love me and they try to make it up by giving me more,
more, more. I’d feared that the Time Machine would be the same thing - but
what the hell, it was only 90 minutes long.
Why not? It looks great, but the CGI didn’t have that chilly gee-whiz
feeling you get sometimes; turn-of-the-century New York, teeming with
people and horses, looked absolutely real, and the artifice was secondary
to the scene, not the point of it. The characters, simply drawn, were
strong and good; the music swelled and rumbled and sobbed and sighed as
required; the few nods to the original were clever and concise. Action?
Sure - in small doses at first. "The Time Machine" didn’t have
its first big noisy set-piece until the movie was half over, and it kicked
the pace up nicely. The battle with the bad guy was not interminable and
preposterous - oh, look, he’s sustained his seventh blow to the head
with an iron rod; oh, good, he’s shaking it off and punching harder than
Reviews have compared it unfavorably to the original, which the reviewers
all seem to remember not as adults but impressionable children. True, it’s
a great boy’s movie for a Saturday afternoon. Having seen it recently,
however, it may be in a better position to compare. There’s very little
drama to the story, since it’s told entirely in flashback. Rod Taylor is
perfectly cast as Rod Taylor, but he doesn’t seem too much like a scientist
(although for the 50s, when scientists were Strong-Jawed Men of Action,
he’s perfect.) The Eloi, those dead-headed blonde-bons who shuffled off
into the slaughterhouse when the quittin’ time whistle blew, were so stupid
and annoying you wanted to see them eaten. Hell, you’d want the Tabasco
concession in Morlockville, because they must have tasted rather dull.
It’s a fun movie, but this one wanted to be smarter, I think. And it
worked. I’ll give you a few examples: the Morlock - who are just plain
nasty looking here - hunt their prey by tagging them with blowdarts. Our
Hero pulls one out, sniffs the goo on the dart, makes a face; later, as the
Moorlock charge through the forest looking for the Eloi they’ve shot, their
noses wrinkle furiously until they find the one they’re looking for. A
lesser movie - which, by Hollywood’s odd logic, is the greater number of
movies - would have Our Hero mutter “scent! Of course, they’re
tracking them by scent!” But the movie leaves the detail
unexplained. It trusts that you get it. Now, this is no big thing; it’s a
very small thing, but that's the spirit of the entire film. No elbows in
fingers in the eye. The action scenes are edited coherently, and all the
stuff that could have smelled like typical 70s sci-fi - the library
hologram that survives for 800,000 years, the artifacts of old New York dug
up by the primitives of the future - aren’t as lame as you’d expect. I know
this is faint praise - not as lame as Logan’s Run! - but
having read so many bored and dismissive reviews, and not being a bitter
fanboy who’s going to spend an evening despairing at the Great Lost
Opportunity, and speaking simply as a moviegoer who was braced for the
worst, I don’t regret a dime of my $7.50.
I do have one carp. There’s an anti-technology theme that runs through the
movie, with Men of Science wondering whether we will Go Too Far, where all
this technological advancement will take us. Just once I’d like one of the
noble primitives squatting around the fire to wonder where all this
technological insufficiency will take them. “I mean, Mumba, will there come
a day when we will wish we had a way to stay in one place, rather than roam
the land fleeing winter and wolves? Will we perhaps think that there are
ways to order society beyond bloodlines and brute force? Perhaps we could
invent a way to bring down a mastodon with one blow, instead of having our
warriors crushed and impaled every time we venture forth to secure
sustenance? Might we not be going far enough?”
I won’t hold my breath.
Okay, I have one other carp. The moon blows up (this is not a spoiler -
this is the sort of movie that doesn’t have surprises) and the debris
surrounds the earth. From what I’ve read, this would be catastrophic for
us, since the moon keeps the poles from wobbling uncontrollably. In fact as
the moon moves away from the earth, its stabilizing influence will wane,
and the earth will be like a top in the death throes of its Nijinski spin.
Eight hundred thousand years out, I think the planet would be inhabitable
even if the moon just moseyed off the ranch on its own accord; blasted into
bits, it would not have the density required to make the earth behave.
See, I can accept lasers in 1900, but atomized moons? Forget it! What do
they think I am, an IDIOT?
I am recording the 9/11 show to watch later. I don’t want to watch it at
all. I have my own version. I have a six-minute edit of the footage that
begins with shaky - very shaky - camcorder shots of the house, the TV, and
Gnat playing while the towers burn. It brings the moment home more than
anything else - the combination of her idle happiness and the horror on the
TV, the awful vertiginous feeling that the whole world was tipping over.
Which is exactly was it was doing, of course. And does to this day whether
we feel it or not.
March 12, 2002
1. The fridge has a little alcove that supplies ice (cubed, or E-Z Melt
Crushed) and water on command. A little light comes on, too, so you don’t
fear getting up in the middle of the night and mistaking the alcove for the
bathroom. Why did ice shoot out of the toilet when I flushed? And why am
I standing on this chair? Oh no! Not again!
Wife notes that the water spout no longer works. Husband agrees to look
2. Afghan war begins; Kabul falls; Christmas comes; spout fails to heal
3. Water leaks from bottom of fridge. Not good. Husband swabs water,
mentally sets aside money for new fridge
4. Wife notes that a working water spout would be a good Valentine’s Day
5. Husband calls service bureau the last week of February. They agree to
send someone ‘round the beginning of March
6. Repairman leaves note on answering machine explaining that he cannot
find house; service call canceled
7. Husband calls service bureau, stays on the line until dispatcher agrees
that yes, the street does exist, and is clearly marked on the city atlas
all repairmen have. Promises a call the next day
8. Tall gaunt young repairman pulls fridge from its cove, announces that
the solenoid is broken, and blames the leakage on a stuck pea in the
freezer drain. Offers to blow-dry it out for $80 an hour. Estimated time of
job: One hour. Husband declines, and opines that the lack of a pea-defeating
screen over drain a major design flaw. “They’re all like this,” says the
repairman, who no doubt financed a new 64” TV last year with the proceeds
from his blow-drying pea-extraction sessions. He promises he will return
when the solenoid arrives.
9. Solenoid arrives in a box with the service bureau’s phone number written
in big red letters. Box sits in mud room for five days
10. Call is made; repairman arrives a day later. He is early, God bless
him. He spends much time on the floor grunting, then calls the service
bureau. Seems the new solenoid has a different connection paradigm than the
old ones. It’s not threaded. The home office assures him that this is the
right part. “They’re all like this now,” he tells Husband. He fixes it,
then has Husband try the water. Nothing. The water’s traveling to the
reservoir, but nothing is coming out. “Okay,” he says, “I think I know the
problem”. He removes the bottom bin, and finds the reservoir is frozen
solid. “I’m not surprised,” Husband says. “Anything I put down there
“And here’s why,” repairman says. He points to a vent on the bottom which
allows air from the freezer to chill the bottom compartment. “It’s on
“What’s the point of that?” I - er, Husband asks, holding a baby who is
putting her fingers in his nose. “Cold air settles; why bring more cold air
into the bottom?”
“They all have this feature now,” he says. “This model, anyway. I can
blow-dry it out for you -”
Husband declines, and asks, quite sensibly, whether the solenoid was the
problem. Repairman agrees that there’s no way he can charge for the part or
the labor. The only problem is whether the Screen will accept it. Upon
interrogation if seems he is talking about the computer terminal in his
vehicle. This Screen appears to be the final arbiter of billing matters. He
calls the home office, and asks how he can subtract the part from the bill
in a way that the Screen will accept. There is much consultation. Husband
imagines the old days, when a fellow could write a few words on an invoice,
like NO CHARGE, and that would be it. But the Screen is an angry god, and
must be assuaged.
Repairman gives up. “Don’t worry, you won’t be charged,” he says. He gives
a merry farewell and walks gingerly down the ice-covered steps to the
Husband realizes he will have to empty out the fridge and spend two hours
blow-drying the fridge.
He gets a glass of water from the tap.
The first of many.
Later, driving back from Target, I give Gnat the cell phone to play
with. While she’s pushing buttons it makes an angry beep, a sound I’ve
never heard before - it’s the phone’s version of the sound the dog makes
when she twists his ears. I look at the Screen: a message. From the cell
phone company. My automatic payment has been declined. This is not good. It
can’t be because my card is overdrawn, because I carry no balances on
credit cards. If it’s not a house or a car, and I can’t pay for it this
month, I don’t buy it. We are the sort of customers credit card companies
hate, but I can live with that. I was pretty sure the phone was on the
Amex, which is famous for never declining anything as long as you’re in
good standing, which I was. Unless my identity had been hijacked! I called
Amex, and learned that the phone company had an erroneous expiration date,
hence the decline; they assured me my account was in “exemplary” condition.
That’s why I like Amex. They have British-accented customer service reps
who use words like “exemplary.” So I called the cell phone company.
1. “Due to a network error, your call could not be completed. Please try
again.” I did.
2. Got through, plowed through the menus, selected the option that seemed
close to my problem, was put on hold. Was assured repeatedly that my call
was so important they would rather stuff hungry weevils up their urethras
than disappoint me, so hang on. Wait five minutes. Cordless phone beeps
twice, valiantly signaling its imminent death. You - go on - without me
(coff) I’ll - be fine. Pick up wall phone; am now tethered to wall as Gnat
decides to leave room to go play with the fireplace tongs. Recording tells
me that they would sooner see their friends and families flayed and sprayed
with lemon juice than fail to solve my problem, so stay on the line. Click-
Dead empty silence.
Do do dwee! If you’d like to make a call -
Hang up. Try again. Wait. This time I get a human who solves my problem
with good cheer.
Total elapsed time of repairman visit: one hour.
Total elapsed time of phone problem: 45 minutes.
Number of books read recently: zero.
I wonder why.
Watched the 9/11 documentary last night.
Who knew falling bodies made such a noise?
Who, having seen the bodies hit, could ever sleep again without hearing the
How many good men are going to eat the barrel in six years just to make the
March 13, 2002
will be dull. Not much in the tank tonight; typical Tuesday, with two
columns under the belt and naught but the desire to sink on the sofa and
watch a “Blind Date” marathon. I’ve finished the cover for the symphony -
and yes, it’s still en route; everyone who expressed an interest will get
an email from the Minnesota Youth Symphony soon, and I hope you cough up
the ten-spot for the disc. The opportunity to encourage talent like this
comes along once or twice every fifty years, and you’ll be in on the ground
“In on the ground floor.” Oh, we’re writing at the peak of our ability
Also worked on a small little site that has no home yet - it’s a series of
scans from wartime British men’s mags. Great covers, stunningly dull
photos, cheesecake nudity and ads for hair creams that don’t stain your
pillow. I think I’m going to put up a WW2 site for all the curious wartime
ephemera; I’d intended to put the Brit stuff into the imminent Institute
addition - yes, the Institute will suffer its annual big-deal hoo-hah
upgrade, with a section devoted to 50s & 60s “men’s” mags; it’s called
”Stagworld.” And you will be stunned. It’s that bad.
Gnat wakes up so early - HOW EARLY DOES SHE WAKE? - that
the sky is as black as a miner’s nostril. Five AM, every morning. She
wakes, cries, calls our names in a piercing wail, then falls silent for
five minutes. As soon as her telepathic abilities discern that we have
reattained REM sleep, she cries again. Thus is the hour between five and
six spent. Eventually my wife stumbles off to get her and nap in the big
dark room while I try to sleep on the hard clammy altar of tenebrous
daybreak. Now the child has decided that evening should be extended as
well; tonight she refuses to go to bed. It’s 9:17 and she is wide-staring
awake, playing with her Junior Doctor kit.
Time to check the stool for half-dissolved coffee beans.
The world’s most sleep-scorning baby has the world’s worst father. Here’s a
record of recent head injuries:
1. Gnat wants a banana. I give her a banana. I realize I have just violated
the no-ambulatory-foodstuffs rule, and attempt to retrieve said banana; she
flees laughing, stumbles, cracks her head on the woodwork of the wall.
Duration of wails: one minute. It’s solved by going into the living room to
2. Thirty seconds after the cessation of tears, Jasper brushes past Gnat,
who is standing by the coffee table; she loses her balance and goes down
like a sash weight, glancing off the edge of the table. Duration of wails:
two minutes. General tenor: inconsolable.
3. This morning: she is sitting at her little chair at her little table,
and attempts to get up; she hooks a foot in the chairleg and does a classic
Chevy-chase onto the floor. Duration of wails: 30 seconds.
4. This afternoon: walking across the floor, she steps on a piece of
drawing paper and does the Rumpelstiltskin splits, culminating with a
noggin-conk on the hardwood floor. It’s almost a cheerleader move. Demi
Moore had to practice for a month to do that one for a movie role. Damage:
minor, but she’s tired, which leads to far more distress than the situation
requires. I give her hugs and a pony ride and she is happy. We decide to go
upstairs and play with Lego.
5. She crawls up the stairs, with me behind as usual. On the first landing
she attempts to stand, but one leg is an unhelpful position, and she bonks
her head on the landing. Duration of wails: 45 seconds, ended by a trip to
the Lego room and the promise of Danish delights.
6. Half an hour later, I’m at the table, and she’s drawing. She toddles
over and grins wide: her mouth is full of Cheerios, stuffed like a miser’s
mattress. I show no alarm, but remove them with one brisk sweep of the
finger. Duration of wails: one minute. Not technically a head injury.
7. Ten minutes later she runs over to her table, trips on a rug, falls
over, grazing her head on the table as she dives. By now I think she’s just
sick and tired of this, and wails out of annoyance. Daddy! Gravity bad!
Projected career: comic relief in the Ice Capades.
I know this sounds horrible, but any parent will understand.
In every one of these situations I was right there, no more than 18 inches
away, and in each case there was nothing I could do. Every day she clips
her brainpan on something, and even if I swaddled every item in the house
in six inches of foam rubber and paved Jasperwood with thick quilts, she’d
just fall into a wall, because she’s at that stage when she bangs her head
more than her butt.
I always try to balance concern and sympathy with the gravity of the manner
- if every bumped head is rewarded with a cookie and a smothering hug and
the affirmation that the world is cruel and unjust, the tears get more
theatrical as the months go on. Or so I suspect. There’s a fine line
between comforting and indulging, and I think we’ll be better off in the
long run if she knows that comforting is not a license for indefinite self-pity.
You can’t tell a 20-month old to suck it up and play hurt, of course - but
after a while you know when the tears are being produced by some sort of
tear-generating program activated by the presence of tears themselves; the
child is crying not because she'shurt or scared, but because she's crying.
And at that point you can introduce some bracing element - play, a game, a
surprising funny noise, a phrase you keep in reserve because it always
makes the child laugh.
Today’s magic phrase: poo-poo puppy. She knows what Poo is (as opposed to
the entirely separate concept of Pooh, which has a tripartite definition of
the juice with Pooh on the box, the cereal with Pooh on the box, and Pooh
himself) and when I called Jasper a Poo-Poo Puppy she laughed until she was
breathless. It’s her first joke. Certain words have always made her laugh,
but using disparate words in combination to produce laughter is the very
essence of the Joke.
Jasper just gives us a downcast look. I am not a poo-poo puppy. I am a
mighty wolf, even though I am reduced to hanging around this whelp’s chair
waiting for a piece of macaroni to be flung down like some Olympian boon. I
am so a wolf. I am.
March 14, 2002
Today: the meaning
of life; the meaning of literature; the meaning of music; Luca$ sux!
surely not the first to note this, and doubtless not the last, but
I am haunted by the possibility that the hokey-pokey is, indeed, what it’s
all about. We’ve been doing the hokey-pokey today, and every time I sing
the revelation that this dance is the summation of human wants and desires,
I get a little queasy. That’s one hell of a message to teach your child. But
what of love, good works, adding to the accumulated ingenuity of mankind,
al dente pasta with fresh tomato sauce, fast cars with manual
transmissions, flowers in the spring, newly-mown grass in the summer and
the bittersweet beauty of the fall, to say nothing of the peaceful
unanimity of a snow-covered world? Nope. Hokey-pokey. That’s it.
What’s more, the hokey-pokey itself is not defined. Think of it: you put
you foot in. You put your foot out. You put your foot in, and you shake it
all about. You do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around; that’s what
it’s all about. I defy anyone to find the actual hokey-pokey in that
sequence. It’s not the foot-putting; it’s not the turning yourself around.
Perhaps it’s the circular wagging motion of one’s index fingers, which
makes the lesson even more depressing: it’s the gesture we used in high
school to indicate ironic enthusiasm. The hokey-pokey means no more than "big
A deeply cynical man wrote this song; a deeply cynical man.
This worries Stephen King as well, I think. There’s a
King-penned X-Files about a killer doll from Beyond the Grave, or something
like that, and periodically a 45 record player starts up of its own accord
and plays the Hokey-Pokey song. It’s the sort of detail familiar to King’s
work - something innocuous and slightly camp that gets subtly possessed by
a malevolence you can’t quite identify. I was thinking about this tonight
out on the cliff over a Partagas, and was reminded that King has a
short-story anthology coming up. Probably his New Yorker pieces. (It’s
always fun when people sniff at King, and I ask if they’ve read his New
Yorker fiction - they get this strange look that says uh oh, I’m about
to admit I don’t read the New Yorker, which no literary person dare
confess.) I haven’t read the last few novels, but I’ve kept up on his short
fiction; it’s very good. Why shouldn’t it be? He’s an incredible writer.
And I say this as a bona fide college English major. Should anyone in the
future want to figure out post-Watergate American culture, they’ll get more
from 50 pages of “Christine” than the entirely of Raymond Carver’s output.
(You want to learn how Americans speak, at least choose books where they
actually TALK TO EACH OTHER.) Sure, some of the stuff tries a little too
hard, and some of the books can wear you down, but there’s that generosity
of spirit I love in an artist, the desire to produce and produce and
produce, to fail now and then and hit it out of the park the next time.
America’s “serious” authors are usually no fun at all, and yes, fun is an
important part of art - as much as beauty, to name another discredited
ideal. I’ve read a lot of Updike, but the books evaporated like rubbing
alcohol. I tried some latter Mailer, but it was like watching an old man
dribble alphabet soup. The books that stay with me without exception are
the ones written by “genre” authors - crime, horror, sci-fi - because
they’re freed from the obligations of Literature. Nothing seizes up one’s
ability to Comment Our Our Times like the necessity to Comment
On Our Times. Genre writers usually sneak up on truth from behind, or drive
past it and throw a beer can at its head. They dress it up in a funny costume
and give it a walk-on part. Mostly they just write, because they want to.
Modern lit often strikes me as a Gehry funhouse, applauded for its dazzling
skin and insular disregard for the forms of daily life. Genre works are
tract houses where the really interesting people live.
Name me a recent serious novel written about the experience of Black men in
America. I’m trying; can’t come up with one. I’m sure there have been a
few. But none compare to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins detective series -
they’re funny, bleak, harrowing, and just plain heartbreaking. (“Serious”
authors seem incapable of creating characters as vivid as Mosley’s Mouse,
whose charismatic menace makes you actually lean forward as you read.)
Caleb Carr - before he inexplicably turned into a truly dreadful polemicist
- brought 19th century New York to live in amazing detail, all in the
service of a slasher story; James Ellroy’s fevered rants have constructed a
brutal parallel history and redefined the moral structure of the old noir thriller;
no mean feat.
I’d like to think historians will study these books to gauge the
temperature of the times, but they may well be blinded by institutional
prejudice against the common low arts - as if a book that sells 7,000
copies says more about the times than one that sells 70,000.
Went to Circuit City today with Gnat in the stroller.
They have a new slogan: “We’re Right Here.” How many millions were spent
whittling that piece of wet balsam, I’ve no idea; it means nothing and
invites ridicule. It might make sense if the store changed location every
other week and was attempting to get our attention - no! Over here! I saw the
Rhino remastered Costello “This Year’s Model” double-CD, and bought it;
this makes the third time I’ve purchased the album. In the old days, when
you bought an album, it stayed bought - I can’t ever remember re-buying an
album for any reason, even if it had suffered a fatal gash. Now we buy them
over and over again, lured by new geegaws and crisper sound. (It does sound
better than the lousy old CBS CD.)
Also saw a new CD by Pat Metheny Group, and the display promised that Pat
was pushing the definitions of jazz. Oh, damn, I thought. Here
I thought he’d defined it so perfectly already; would this be more random
fretwork, angular discord and other difficult embellishments? I don’t mean
to sound as though I want everything boiled down to mush for my toothless
soul, but I love Metheny's straight-ahead stuff. I know he’s held in
bemusement among some hard-core types, mainly because the music does not
feel like a Q-tip dipped in caustic lye and jammed into your ear canal for
your own good. Mere NPR bumper music, some sniff. Well, sorry,
but I like it, and the consistent style over the years is something for
which I’m grateful. Yes, he makes experimental albums I like to lesser
degrees, but then he makes an album overflowing with melody again. (Imagine
if every other Woody Allen movie was as funny as Annie Hall - he’d be a
national treasure instead of a chamois-skinned cradle bandit.)
So I pop the CD in the slot on the way home, bracing myself for jazz pushed
to a new definition - and it was 1985 all over again. Same tone of the
guitar, same sitar accents in harmony like a dash of cilantro, same
breather patches on Lyle May’s synth, same elephant-bleat of the
synclavier, same wordless vocalizations, same same same, except all new. I
was overwhelmed with relief. Look: you find a fertile furrow, plow the
sucker until nothing comes up anymore. No one bitched at Beethoven because
he was still using a symphony orchestra in his later years. No one loves
the Ninth because it has no connection to the previous eight, and provides
a stunning break from a life’s work. Don’t get me wrong: it’s necessary to
take chances; that’s the only way you grow, banal and platitudinous as that
sounds. An artist doesn’t owe the audience something. But it’s a pleasure
when an artist realizes that this is what people want, and they have a good
reason for wanting it. So give it to ‘em. Why not? What’s the harm?
Saw the trailer for the next Star Wars movie. Wow. I’m hopeful
- but why? Is there any indication that Lucas has the gravity of spirit
these images suggest? One of the things that pissed me off about Ep 1 was
Lucas’ inability to find the epic tone in his story; he had some sort of
artistic dyslexia that made him unable to distinguish breadth from depth.
It’s possible the second installment will be just as lovely - and just as
Well, back to work; the CD cover is due at the printer’s
tomorrow. And I have another piece of paying work to finish. More than
anything, I just want to watch a little TV and do nothing - had Gnat for
eleven hours today, with only 50 minutes spent napping, and I’m overdrawn
on every personal account. I need about seven days worth of Mexico.
What I will get, according to the weather report tonight, is seven inches
(Doing hokey-pokey in grim satire of actual glee.)
March 15, 2002
snowing for eleven hours - and the skies just lit up with a flash of
lightning. Followed by, predictably, thunder. In a snowstorm. The flash
gave me a sudden spasm of duckencoveritis before I realized it is highly
unlikely anyone will nuke Minneapolis.
I know, I know: don’t give them any ideas. But in a way it’s unnerving,
because it makes you realize how many cities people wouldn’t really miss.
Omaha. Minneapolis. Des Moines. Hell, Milwaukee. We’re the Old World now;
as much as we pride ourselves on our high hip factor here in Minneapolis -
yes, really, we do - we’re monochrome Monacos, and the world can do without
us. New York, LA, Miami, Phoenix - that’s where the energy is, for ill or
for good. Chicago? When the United States fractures into Jerkistan (the
upper East Coast) Dixie (the south, minus Florida, which will have invaded
and consumed Cuba and renamed the island St. Elian), The People’s Republic
of Fog (Pac Norwest) and whatever the Southwest calls itself, the middle of
America - which will probably have a name as exciting as “The Nine-State
Area” or “The League of Meat” - will have Chicago as its Gotham, its Big
Bratwurst. Why not? It’s been training for the job for years. It has the
tall buildings. It has the massive rusty infrastructure, the ethnic food,
the neighborhood bars full of guys with thick red necks and buzz-cut gray
hair pounding down a shot between sips on a Winston, glaring at the TV up
in the corner. Chicago always struck me as the city New York used to be,
disassembled, carted west and reassembled without instructions. Some things
they got right; some they had to reinvent.
It helped that the box containing “smugness” was shipped by mistake to San
Add this to the Bleat list of inexplicably persistent catchphrases: “Get
a horse.” I’ve talked about phrases that survive long after the original
context was forgotten, and things like Victrolas that still mean “record
player” to modern eyes (yesterday’s Bleat about the hokey pokey was
inspired by an Elmo cartoon, in which Andrea Martin puts a record on . . .
an old Victrola. Which means nothing to 2-year olds, but ensures they will
associate that device with music. How odd.) In the movie “The Time Machine”
there’s a scene about an newfangled automotive perambulator, and as the
operator chuffs his way into traffic, stalling and jerking, I thought: “get
a horse.” And someone in the movie says just that.
Apparently this is what people shouted at the first generation of car
drivers, who were usually found by the roadside staring befuddled at the
inscrutable metal beneath the hood, comical goggles draped around their
neck. But it’s a phrase that points to the technological pessimism of the
speaker - it’s like shouting “get a stenographer” to someone attempting to
You should see the old newspapers: they have automotive sections like
papers had tech sections in the latter 90s, or radio sections in the 20s:
this was high, high tech, and the target audience couldn’t get enough of
it. So given the enthusiasm for the car, the phrase “get a horse” was the
taunt of the past, the last gasp of the old order, one final jab of the
needle from people whose self-satisfaction was matched only by their lack
of foresight. And the phrase survives not as an example of boneheadedness,
either - it just . . . survives. Perhaps the phrase will stick around long
enough to be translated into terms we can’t yet imagine. When someone
invents a teleporter, and people end up as a pile of screaming hairy goo on
the other end, there’ll be someone to snicker “get a maglev Mach 2
And why did I mention this tonight? Because as I drifted off for my small
post-supper nap, I thought: what this country still needs is a
good five-cent cigar. Why the hell that fatuous yet inarguable quote is
still caroming around my brainpan I have no idea whatsoever. Some quotes
are like shrapnel - they embed themselves in the culture, the flesh grows
around them, and as long as they don’t pierce any vital organs they remain
as long as the body’s alive.
Today I noticed we had four unopened boxes of Colgate toothpaste in
a drawer, and I take full responsibility. I have a new scheme for household
maintenance: buy what you’re not out of yet. For example: after this
winter’s bout of the Eternal Grippe I bought both Dayquil and Nyquil, and
put them aside for the day (or ny) we would need them again. Likewise
Pepto-Bismol. And the real stuff, too, not “Papti-Bismuth” or
“Peptide-Bismalla” or any other store-brand knockoff. I don’t care if it
has the same ingredients; they have the mouth-feel of camel drool. I buy
light bulbs, batteries, extra boxes of tissue, shampoo, shaving cream,
razors. Should Western civilization collapse in a trice, I’m going to spend
the last month living like a gentleman. Roasting my neighbors on the grill
when the foodstuffs run out, yes, but I will shave before dinner.
It’s not hoarding, or some twisted psychological need to be assured of my
personal plenty; I don’t open the doors of the storage closets and bask in
the rows of goods. (Much.) It’s just part of the weekly provisioning trip
If I have two shampoo containers set aside, I am more likely to buy a third
so I will still have two when I restock the shower. Likewise, there was a
sale on Pooh Juice (made from freshly squeezed Pooh, I presume) that
persuaded me to bring home three slabs of shrink-wrapped juice container. Three
for Seven dollars! Of course, if you bought one, it would cost $2.333333, but
the sign makes a good argument. Three hundred for seven hundred dollars!
Well, let me back the truck up, then. With great satisfaction I delegated a
section of the cupboard to hold the Pooh Supply, and now that it’s half
gone I have to buy two more. The old ones must be brought to the front, of
course. And so it comes to pass than I spend a small but not insignificant
portion of the day on Pooh Rotation, as well as stacking Kemps Jr.
Blueberry Yogurt in the fridge according to expiration date.
Sounds frighteningly anal retentive, I know, but it’s what you do when you
have nine hours a day at home with the tot, and you’re tired of polishing
Can’t find the time to balance my checkbook, but my Pooh Juice supply is in
That’s enough for the week; go read the Backfence, which contains a
needlessly obscure rap-music joke based on the oft-quoted lyric “Life ain’t
nothin’ but bitches and hoes.” I couldn’t say it in a family newspaper, but
I can here.