Marooned in the middle of the morning, waiting for the car to be fixed. I feel cranky. I am cranky.

I’m at Starbucks, which might explain it. I’m of two minds on the place. On one hand, I like some of the graphics.  This place is preferable to the cheap ancient crumbling strip mall it replaced, that’s certain;  now the block consists of  condos with retail on the ground floor. (I’m in the suburbs, incidentally.) On the other hand, nearly everything particular about Starbucks annoys me. The best example is the music playing right now: free-form babbling jazz which I guarantee you is not enjoyed by 90% of the patrons here. It’s the sort of performance where they’ll play “Salt Peanuts” as the penultimate number, but only as long as everyone understands that this is playful irony, and separate from otherwise deadly business of modern jazz. But it sets the tone, which is Hip and Cool and somehow ineffably correct, and that’s what annoys me about Starbucks. The aura of boundless self-satisfaction. It’s as if everything has to be saturated with Ethics. The bottled water is called “Ethos,” for heaven’s sake. The BOTTLED WATER. I guess I’m supposed to believe it’s fair-trade /shade-filtered.

I don’t like the coffee much, either.

Sorry; there I go again, having an opinion about everything. You know what set me off? There are two official Starbucks CDs available for sale at the cash register, so you can bring that Starbucks ambience home to enhance your lifestyle, and feel as though you’re the sort of person who sits around in hip cafes listening to someone fart through a fluglehorn. One of the CDS? The Doors. Or rather an homage to the Doors in celebration of their 40th anniversary. The Doors. God help me. Because Jim Morrison was a poet, maaaan. No, he was a spooky weirdo with a naturally deep voice and pouty lips, and his lyrics are deep and meaningful only if you are in high school and draw your name on your jeans and dot the “i” with a heart.

No, I didn’t get enough sleep; thanks for asking. But you know what I’d really prefer to this place? A coffee shop. A coffee shop with a counter and a stool and a giant sugar shaker, the kind with the metal flap over the top that’s always encrusted with granulated residue. A napkin dispenser heavy enough so you can pull out the napkin without tipping it over. The smell of bacon and eggs. The sort of place where the toast always disappoints. A coffee shop. I’d even take Muzak. In fact I’d welcome it, especially the weightless string-soaked drifty-minded drivel that makes most people think of being in a hospital gift shop with their parents a very long time ago, and being vaguely concerned about Grandma. Yes, a coffee shop, where, oddly  enough, one never shops for coffee, because there’s only one variety, and it comes from a Bunn-0-Matic and there isn’t any decaf. You want decaf, they bring hot water in a dented metal pail with a loose lid with a foil packet of Sanka crystals. Cigarettes and Mantovani; pickle slices and white-bread grilled-cheese sandwiches skewered with toothpicks wearing crinkly cellophane tu-tus.

My phone just rang; it was the repair shop. They can’t get the rear quarter-panel exactly flush, try as they might. Well, let’s go look.


It’ll do. On the way back to the shop I nearly froze; the temperature must have dropped 15 degrees per hour this morning, which wasn’t good: I sent Gnat off to school in a skirt. She wanted to wear a skirt, and it was supposed to be warm. Well: only one thing to do, and that’s drive some pants over to the school. First I ran the Element through Mr. Car Wash, then hit the highway. Light traffic: I made it from the burbs to home in less time than it took to listen to Benny Goodman Orchestra’s 1938 performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” at Carnegie Hall. It’s great driving music – that thump  ba-da bum budada Krupa  beat just hypes you up, even when you barely hear it. And sometimes it’s not meant to be heard, just understood: when the piano player (Jess Stacy) takes a solo, he plays this strange and beautiful passage that sounds like a farewell to the old world and a rueful hello to the new. It’s bluesy & barroom at first, but turns into something sad and elegiac in a blink of an eye. It’s very American, for three reasons: it wraps up the old and new in the space of a measure; it has the wrong notes that sound so right, and underneath it all is this throbbing insistent beat urging the pianist on: tear it apart and put it back together, man. And then all the cats join in, and you get a sense of what that must have felt like when the roof came off.

(Well, there’s supposed to be a soundclip here, but it's taking time to process. The window below will work some day, but not today. Try the link above later today, if you’re truly curious about the music.)

I got some pants and dropped them off at school. Thank the stars: she was in music class, so she was spared the horrible embarrassment of having Daddy show up with pants. Then I went home, wrote a column, did the Diner – it’s an hour-long extravanganza, although 41 minutes were previously recorded. In 1997, actually.

I’m enjoying all the reviews of “300,” which is one of those rare movies I’ll see in a theater. I’ll probably go around noon so I have the place to myself. One local review was surprised that the movie didn’t make the usual nod to anti-war sentiments, as these sorts of movies are obligated to do. Because that’s what made “The Longest Day” so interesting, you know: the guy in the landing craft who argued that the Germans were just set up by arms manufacturers, and this was really just a pointless conflict ginned up by international bankers.

Entertainment Weekly had this quote from the director:

“When someone in a movie says, ‘We’re going to fight for freedom,’ that’s now a dirty word,” says Snyder. “Europeans totally feel that way. If you mention democracy or freedom, you’re an imperialist or a fascist. That’s crazy to me.”

That’s the problem with libertie egalitie fraternitie, perhaps; egalitie eats the last one first, then has the first one for a snack.

Drudge just put up some interesting headlines:

VIDEO: John Edwards On Global Warming: 'It'll make world war look like heaven'...

ABCNEWS Climate Reporter: 'Scientists tell us civilization as we know it is over'...

Over. Done. Wow.

I think such opinions are absolutely daft, but I've learned my lesson and will not Question Authority today. I will note that much of this seems to exhibit an almost pornographic luxuriation in bad news, and it seems to stem from an previously well-concealed well of misanthropy; it’s as if they have a new and improved reason to hate humanity, not just for the sins unique & particular to the West, but for its mulish refusal to do everything that needs to be done right now to build paradise here on Earth. It’s not that difficult, people! Losing faith in humanity, and especially those cultures that have done the most to advance humanity, has its comforts; the cynic never has to live with disappointment. Professional misanthropes will always have great appeal to that thin enlightened sliver of humanity find comfort in detesting the rest of the species.

Over lunch I read the local free newspaper; the editorial page had two opinion pieces. One disparaged dog sweaters. I have no love for dog sweaters either, but they don’t immediately make me think about the disparities between the First and Third Worlds, and they don’t bring to mind Club of Rome predictions, either. But I lack the author’s  piercing ability to connect the dots:

They say you can judge a society by how they treat their dead. But they never saw dogs wearing sweaters. Running around Lake Calhoun on a brisk winter evening, I passed a well-to-do dog, so it would seem; his sweater was of much finer material than mine. But that was not all. This dog wore little coverings on each of his four paws.

Although I had remembered my shoes, I had foolishly left my gloves at home, and cast a somewhat spiteful and jealous glance in his direction. He merely looked away, turning his wet nose up toward his human walking companion as if to say, “can I get a little hat?”

I’ve never heard of the idea of judging a society on how they treat the dead. It makes for interesting sociological studies, but I think the question of how they treat the living is more germane, particularly if they show special skill in turning the living into the dead. I also imagine that those in the society-judging racket confine their judgments to societies which spend too much money on coffins and flowers, especially if a television network recently did a hidden-camera expose of the sales tactics used to push upgraded copper trim on the burial vault.  Those are the cultures that need some good ol’ judgin’.

I should also note that I have lived in the vicinity of Lake Calhoun for many years, and the number of dogs I’ve seen with sweaters numbers between six and ten; in all the years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, and passed the locals walking their dogs on bitter nights, the number of dogs with boots and sweaters equals exactly zero. I tried to put books on my dog once when the temps were ninety below, but that was in 1996, and I don't believe I've tried since. But of course it’s the battle of the anecdotal evidence, and hardly goes to his main point:

In Mexico recently, I noticed that the dogs do not wear sweaters. Of course, Mexico has much warmer winters than Minnesota, but local dogs were not clad in swim trunks, flip-flops or other climate-appropriate clothing either. Besides, many of the rather mangy looking fellows did not have collars, leashes or even owners, so far as I could see.

Which led me to believe one of two things: either the dogs in Mexico have so evolved that they have become a self-sufficient race independent of humans and with their own system of government, though founded on somewhat laissez-faire principles; or, the dogs could not afford sweaters, which is to say, Mexico cannot so easily afford to sweater its dogs.

Possibly so, and I’m sure the people who put sweaters on their dogs are to blame, in a cosmic sense. Mexico is poor because someone who lives in the vicinity of Lake Calhoun makes a good living as a real estate lawyer. Let’s jump to the punchline:

Evolution used to shape people, but today, we have a hand in guiding our own evolution, and every thing living or otherwise we come in contact with. Except we loosely call it “progress,” and often it's reduced to whatever is shinier than its predecessor.

Doc, give me that new heart-valve replacement they invented. It’s shiny!

We seek to control what we can, to unnaturally shape ourselves, our food and even craft our companions in whatever image most suits who we believe we are or believe we want to be. Unfortunately, our current evolution is based on finite resources, and when they run dry, we may have to get back to basics. It seems unlikely that there will be leftover material for sweatering our dogs.

Ah: our finite resources. Like cotton, I guess. And silicon.  And human ingenuity.

Is it just me, or does the author seem to yearn for the day when our resources run out – just to show those guys who put dogs in sweaters? I’d guess the author is in his 20s, which makes it all the more odd. I saw this when I was young as well: optimism is for idiots. Smart people know we’re too dumb to save ourselves. Things will run out. Soylent Red for everyone, Solylent Green on Fridays.

The piece goes on for another paragraph or two, and we learn that the author is appalled by people who camp out for Playstations.

In less developed regions of the world, there were no lines for Play Stations. The dogs are still largely sweaterless. Someday, will the standard to which we hold our own allow the dogs of nations everywhere to ask, “can I get a little hat?”

Perhaps; they may also ask “can I get a little editing.” But that wasn’t the piece that intrigued me. It was this, a meditation on having one’s tree marked by graffiti artists. I read it with care & fascination, since the author was clearly incensed by the act of vandalism. But that’s not enough for a piece like this; you have to connect to a greater idea, and that reveals your view of the world. The piece, I figured, would either find sympathy for the taggers, or represent one of those epiphanies in which right-thinking urban dwellers snap and abandon all pretense of caring ANY MORE about these vandals. Because they ruined a TREE.

Which way did she go? Here’s the penultimate graf:

I feel for a life that is so desperate to make a mark that making an ugly, illegal, and devastating one is better than making none at all. I feel for lives caught up in proving who walks on which streets as signs of manhood and achievement. I feel keenly, especially since I live in a neighborhood where this is impossible to ignore, my own privilege and luck in life. At least I have a tree.

See, I don’t feel for them. I feel for the people they victimize, the parents to whom they bring anguish, the children they make and abandon. By the time they’re spraying trees with gang signs I’m pretty much out of the empathy business. They hit the garages around here the other night, and yes: at least people have a garage. But I also have a nose, and that fact doesn’t entitle anyone to punch it. A month ago some miscreants chopped up some statues of children in a park, and tried to sell the metal for scrap. They were arrested. I wrote a column expressing the desire that they be sent to jail. I got a few letters agreeing with me, and a few passionate angry letters that blamed a heartless government that cut programs. I was heretofore unaware of a government initiative aimed at convincing people not to chop up public statues of children for drug money. I was also unaware that these programs were the lone bulwark against statue-hacking.

Here’s the payoff: there’s one more paragraph on the tree-taggers.

Still, I feel in some way that I witnessed an innocent being assaulted. I wince when I see that scrawled paint on the elm trunk. Just one more thing, along with the hole in the ozone and the melting polar ice cap and the dwindling number of polar bears that makes one so proud to be a human being.

Becaiuse that's what some people think of when they think of the accomplishments of mankind. Not a space probe carrying Bach into the black or in-utero surgery that saves babies. Polar bears. I swear, when some people hear that civilization is over, a small voice deep in the dark cranny of their heart surely whispers: good. 

See? Cranky. Better tomorrow as the weekend approaches - see you Friday!