FEBRUARY 1999 Part 2

Should I buy the shiny metallic jeans, or the leopard-print thong? Can't decide. Probably . . . neither. Got a catalog today from International Male. I had ordered my swimsuit for last year's Mexican vacation from their website, since none of the local stores had any suits and the other catalogs had suits that went from knee to navel - baggy items designed to obscure those trips to the buffet for helping #3. The web site had a suit that matched the color of my snorkel flippers, and might I just add this is the definition here of Western Civilization: not only do we have massive machines to fly us to warm locales, and not only do we have an economy that allows the middle class to dash off to tropical locales to peer at the fishes, but we have an overriding Fashion Imperative that ensures you can buy swimsuits from a California mailorder company that match exactly the flippers you bought in a Minnesota scuba supply shop.

Anyway, I bought two suits, and now they send me catalogs full of the most ridiculous clothes I've ever seen. It's like Fredericks of Hollywood for men. It all looks like leisurewear for Charles Nelson Reilly's houseboy. I can imagine my wife's expression if one night I modeled my new 4-inch clogs and satin thong. But honey! It's the latest thing!

Now I know how she feels when the Victoria's Secret catalogs push garter belts and corsets.

Tomorrow I address the toughest audience I have faced in a while: fourth graders. I'm supposed to read at the local school for some event called the Read-A-Thon, where the kids get points for the number of books they've consumed. The school dropped off a couple of books for me to read. I'm alarmed: they do not seem to be fourth-grade books. One has, as its age range, 5 and up. I'm no expert with kids, but it seems that something of interest to a kindergartner is of little interest to a fourth grader. I dimly recall my own tenure in the days of Mrs. Powers, and we fourth graders held the kinderkids in frank contempt.
"Don't frown at them," my wife just said. Frowning is one of my standard facial postures, usually indicating Seriousness or Thought.
This is going to be rough.
But not as rough as placating Romans. I'm reviewing Caesar III, a great sim game. It's essentially Sim City with Romans, and a bitchy, demanding lot they are. Always dying of plague or demanding more food. I ran out of money early on, and had to appeal to Caesar, but luckily he's hammered, and gave me more money. Really: I got an animation of a Caesar lolling on his throne with a cup in hand, and a slurred voice said he'd cut loose some funds for me. I can't understand why more people don't move into my city. Plenty of jobs, plenty of houses, high wages, many doctors - for all the good those leech-waving quacks will do - and a couple of theaters with good bloody entertainment to pacify the groundlings. I have many farms, docks, public squares, and shrines for all the gods. Oy, those gods: periodically I am informed that one of those immortal maniacs is having a bad hair day and is taking it out on my city. I have no idea how to accommodate them. I have workers digging for marble to build them bigger temples, but the egomaniacal bastards insist on sinking my ships and burning my granaries because my devotion does not meet their exacting standards.
It's always fun when disease sweeps through a neighborhood - skulls appear over the houses. That'll depress property values.
When I first played the game I used the default settings, and it was on high speed; every action, be it building a road or zoning for houses, instantly produced a reaction that needed mending, and I was the cliched one-legged-man in an ass-kicking contest. Relaxing? No. Here I am in my off hours, playing, but in the back of my head I know I have to review this, and in the front of my head I'm desperately trying to meet the needs of my tiny citizens. Rome wasn't built in a day, says the adage - but after 17 minutes I had sweaty palms keeping up with everything.
It will take a while to figure it out, and unfortunately I left all my cheats at the office, but I will soon get the hang of the game and build vast sprawling gleaming cities full of happy Romans.

Good day at the office. Dog show piece: check, done, edited, gone. Ellroy review: check, done, edited, gone. Did the column. Called Newhouse, edited that column. Tuesday: four pieces done. Came home. Had leftover tandoori chicken, napped, got up, played game, then wrote Tech column for paper. Check. Almost done with the bulk of the week's work; only two more columns, TV, BBC and Diner to go. Tomorrow night I am going to treat myself by actually watching Star Trek on the same night it's aired.

Stopped off at the stamp store for some postcards on Saturday. (Somewhere in America, someone stopped off at the postcard store for stamps.) There were three philatelists bent over their books, Fred the ursine proprietor kindly assisting a couple of kids who'd come in for their first stamp album. Me, I'm by the door pawing through a box of postcards, looking for that one slender sliver of history to pop out and leap into my collection. Ah ha! A postcard of the New York Life Insurance Building in Minneapolis, gone lo these many years, brother to the building across from the Toy Fair HQ in Manhattan. It was sent in 1913, and had slumbered who knows how long between a postcard from California and another from Spain. Now it's mine.
Fred was explaining to the little girl how to soak stamps off their envelopes.
"I like soaking," he said. "It's one of my favorite things to do."
He was speaking to the kid at kid-level, but he was right. Every hobby has some small simple aspect that gives you great satisfaction, some rote action so focused it drives everything else out of your head. Of course, I am not a stamp geek: hah, got better things to do than soak some stupid stamp.
Like arranging my postcards of the World's Fair in order of the construction of the pavilions, for example.

What a cultured weekend that was. Shakespeare, the symphony, the Guthrie. Beats last weekend, when all I did was walk around Manhattan.
Saturday night we saw "Shakespeare in Love," starring a white Prince as Shagspere, and Gwlynlth or whatever Paltrowe as his mistress. Great fun, well done, and sprinkled throughout with anachronisms to make it slide down like champagne for modern audiences. (Although if you know the first thing about Shakespeare, it's not a joke when Shakespeare tells a jealous suitor that his name is really Christopher Marlowe, because you know just where that plot line is leading: right into the eyeball.) I had feared the movie would be full of that weary self-importance you get in theater movies, as if the most important thing in the world is putting on the damn play, but in this case it was important - it's about the greatest author of all time, so whether or not the play gets put on is a matter of high importance. A little long, but not too much.

Today Sara went to the Guthrie with friends to see some memoir play wherein the characters sit around in an apartment in Peron-era Argentina and talk about art until play's end, at which point no one is arrested. I would have gone -well, no, I wouldn't have. But even if I'd wanted to I had to emcee the Minnesota Youth Orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall, again. Seems like I just did it. And in April I'll do it again. It feels almost comfortable now to walk out on the stage and start to talk; no preshow palpitations this time. But it's still daunting - what an enormous room it is, with its three tiers of balconies ringing the hall, and faces peering from every chair. It's not that I fear disappointing anyone - their expectations of me are zero; I'm just the chatter between entertainment - but you don't want to make a fool of yourself. As ever, I got comfortable enough as the afternoon went on, and was able to extemp the last two speeches without notes.

The orchestras, in particular the last one, were wonderful; age notwithstanding they're the equal of any amateur adult ensemble in the country and the equal of half the smaller professional ones as well.

From the stage to the grocery store. Never shop in a good mood - you buy everything. Got home and finished the laundry, still wearing my Master of Ceremony suit, singing to the dog - good mood, as I said. I used to be happier when I dreaded these things more; the feeling of RELIEF when it was over was like laughing gas, but now it's just mild, standard euphoria.

Some take a big thick plank of wood and HIT ME in the brainpan before I drive myself NUTS rearranging this FRICKIN' Gallery of Regrettable Food. Ripped up the index page again tonight, spent three miserable eye-watering hours constructing a splash graphic that looks like a 50s diner sign. Argh. I love it; I do. But I know that in a month I will hate it. In fact I hate it a little already.

Ordinary Monday, and then some - had to polish the dog show feature so it's ready to roll on Wednesday. It's the second feature on the page, so it's not a big deal. But I realized today that I have two features this week, one tech column, one computer game review, one Mac @ work piece, one book review . . .and three columns of my own. (Plus Newhouse, an Almanac monologue, the BBC, and the Diner.) O Ye Ulcer, Sing.

Took a little jaunt downtown to the coin store today; the proprietor had called me and said he had some 1933 World's Fair stuff for me. I was eager to see what he had, since my collection consists of a few pitiful scraps of paper - postcards, bus maps, and that's it. Well. He'd bought a variety of items he though I'd want, and I didn't want most of them. Kitsch and crap, mostly. the 1933 World's Fair was even more architecturally audacious than the '39 version, and it's still unsung - perhaps because it had no dominating motif like the Perisphere and Trylon from the '39 edition. It didn't have the Futurama. The very name - A Century of Progress! - looks back as much as it does forward, and it was tied to Chicago, not the World. But from the pictures I've seen it was an incredibly cool place. Wouldn't guess it from the stuff I saw today, though. Ashtrays with Indian Chiefs, whetstones with a World's Fair Medallion embedded in the middle, a Century of Progress Juicer.
There was also a small coin bank decorated with the buildings. I'd seen it last week in an antique store in Chelsea. I held it up, squinted.
"I saw this last week in New York," I mused. Ah, the jet-set collector, scrutinizing items from Gotham to the Heartland, his connoisseur's eye undimmed by time or travel.
"How much did they want?" he asked.
I arched an eyebrow: well, I can't tell you that, now, can I? If you don't know what it's worth, well . . .
I bought two paperweights. Didn't haggle. I'm sure I got took.
"You want those?" he said. "Those were the last things I thought you'd want."
They cost the sum I get for doing a TV monologue. It works out nicely. I talk, they give me a piece of paper, and I turn it into 66-year-old glass objects.

Watched the X-Files last night. And I'm still confused. Less so, and more so. I get all the alien-rebel-Syndicate hugger-mugger, but I have to wonder what the hell that movie was all about - does the black oil turn people into gooey alien monsters, as in the movie? Why strike a deal with the Syndicate instead of just taking over? Why should the aliens care about a hybrid? I'd pose these questions in alt.fan but they'd bite my head off for using the wrong acronym. And I know the basic lingo - Moose and Squirrel in peril from Ratboy! - but I'm sure I'd be unmasked as a hapless lurker.

It was easier in the days of Mannix, I tell you.

CGB, incidentally, stands for Covert Government Bastard. I'm sure of that.

Went back to school today. Read for the fourth grade at the local school. They're having a Read-A-thon, wherein they get credit for every book they read. A rambunctious and bright group, still eager to learn and show off what they know. Only three or four of the 30 kids seemed to have tuned out - meaning, almost already lost to school, period. You could see sad trouble in their faces, this odd dim distant look. But the rest were bright and nearly all thrust their hands in the air when asked a question. I had a couple of killer points to show how important it was to read: they could get a job like mine, where I got every computer game in the world to review.

"When I go home," I said, "I get to play games as homework."

I also noted that the newspaper's cafeteria had pizza every day and ice cream machines and ten kinds of pop.

Then I read some of "The Stinky Cheese Man," and we came up with alternative endings for the stories. They ranged from "And then Michael Jordon saved them" to an amazingly elaborate scenario from a young girl who just spun one detail after the other out of the skein of her own imagination. That kid will rule the world. Or at least the ones who slumped in their seat, eyes dull and brains in idle.

Any minute now I expect Caesar to demand my head. That dissolute bastard. Here I am, working my fingers to bleached bones, and he sits there in Rome getting hammered on the fruits of my vineyards.

I've finally figured out this Caesar 3 game, and it's too much fun. It's one of those stay-up-all-night games. Took me a while to figure out how to get everything working, but suddenly my city has taken off, and for the first time Jaspernium has 2000 residents. It also has a huge debt to Rome, meaning that any second now I'll get a message from slurry-voiced Caesar chewing me out. All the Romans have British accents, incidentally. Cockney, even. Takes away from the realism.

Yes, the realism of tiny toga-clad animated figures scurrying around a computer screen.

This was the downside of the Ideal Job I pitched to the kids today: I have to play this game. Granted, there are worse fates, but like a music reviewer who fondly remembers the days when he didn't necessarily have to have a Blinding Insight when he listened to an album, but could merely enjoy it, I find myself playing the game in order to review it. And once I've reviewed it, I don't play it again. I figured out my SimCity problems, for example - I was running it through my video card, which killed performance. (That's the good thing about being a reviewer; you can call the product reps and get instant tech advice.) But I've no time to revisit the game. The lash falls! The overseer shouts! Move along!

Tonight my wife and I were playing rope with the dog. It's the same drill every night: post-walk, we play rope. I sit on the kitchen floor, my wife sits in the sunroom chair, and we throw the rope back and forth. The dog chases it. He rarely gets it, he just chases it. I'm thinking about all the things I have to do this week, this hideous interminable workload. I look at my wife and she has a faraway robotic expression.
"Thinking about work?" I say.

"Of course," she says.

And we toss the rope, utterly preoccupied, while the stupidest creature in the house does the smartest thing of all: lives for the fun of the moment.

"Allo, Jaymes?" It was the BBC, as usual, for our Thursday night chat. "We called early because Rod's talking to a fellow who likes to eat dandelions, and thought you might want to talk about it when you're up." I said sure. I was put on hold and heard the program - an earnest fellow with that earnest greeny-granola voice describing the town's dandelion festival. They eat them, make beer out of them, even wine. Why, they're as nutritious as mother's milk. Etc. I don't doubt that the fellow's heart is in the right place when it comes to pesticide use against dandelions - I just prefer to mow the bastards over - but undue enthusiasm towards dandelions can, with some people, be a little . . . unnerving. (Not all. I've met some perfectly sane and balanced dandelion advocates.) But I have no love for the damn things, because they choke my lawn and leave behind a ghastly army of skull-headed plants. Anyway, when it came my time to speak, I just laid into the fellow's platform. I didn't make it personal - said I knew that type of person. "Like these pants? Made 'em out of dandelions! Here - have some dandelion cola! How about a dandelion salad with dandelion dressing? Let's go the dandelion store in my dandelion-powered car!"

It got cruel. "I don't use pesticides," I said. "I prefer to get on my knees with a tweezers and pull them out of the earth one at a time while wearing an ear trumpet so I can hear their tiny screams as they're pulled from the bosom of the verdant earth."

In short, I'd had a lot of coffee, and it was fun. Did the rest of my bit, and afterwards the producer came on the line.

She said they had forgotten to hang up on the dandelion guy. In the middle of my peroration they'd seen the light on the phone bank and realized his line was still connected, and when they picked it up he was still there . . . listening.

"Poor man," the producer gasped in that laughter-through-tears voice. "We bring him on to tell his story and he thinks this is his big moment for the town, for dandelions, and then . . ."
You know, my immediate reaction should have been sympathy, but it just wasn't. I spend my days trying to be nice and good, and I ought to feel sorry for the fellow; I know how I'd feel.

But I just laughed too. So I'll burn in hell, I guess.

Joined EBay today. Spent $1,203. Well, no, but I will, and soon. As I'm sure someone has pointed out, EBay is one big crackhouse for collectors. I found 30 pages devoted to World's Fair stuff, and put in a few bids. I was mortified to find the floor bid for one item at $5 , having paid $22 for a similar item just moments before. Literally: I picked up the two 1933 paperweights today at the coin store. (I buy World's Fair collectibles at the coin store, and postcards at the stamp store. Hmm.) While I was buying the stuff, a bedraggled woman came in. She put a coin on the counter.

"A friend gave this to me," she said. "What's it worth?" She was a ragged creature with makeup inexpertly applied, rat's nest hair, grab-bag clothes - from all appearances, a bag lady, but in her speech it was clear she was sound of mind. Just differently fashioned.

Bill the Coin-Store Man picked up the coin, peered at the markings. "One ounce of silver," he said. "That's . . . five dollars and 13 cents an ounce right now."

The woman had an expression I see everytime a neophyte comes in with an old coin: that's it? THAT'S IT?

"Could it be worth more later?" she said.

"Could be," Bill said. "Price changes every fifteen minutes."

Her eyes widened again. She foresaw, correctly, a life spent obsessively checking the price of silver. But still . . .

"So it could go up."

Bill shrugged.

I clearned my throat. "It could go down," I said.

Now a new variable had been introduced. She looked at the coin as though it was a talisman of poverty.

"I'll give you . . . five and a quarter," said Bill. This was pure charity on his part. The coin was a commemorative of little value beyond the price of silver. But her eyes narrowed: if he was willing to buy, then it must be worth something. Ahh, to hell with it: five bucks is five bucks.

He gave her the money. The five was an older note with a red seal instead of the accustomed green seal. They haven't been in circulation for a while but they have no worth beyond the denomination.

"What's this red mean?" she said.

"Means it's legal tender in the United States of America," Bill said cheerfully. This is typical Bill: he keeps all sorts of funky bills in his cash register. Today my change included the new Delaware quarter and a 1916 wheatback penny. Tomorrow he might give out two-dollar bills.

The woman almost backed out of the store - weird people! Weird money! Enough!

"I'll keep the coin for you if you change your mind," Bill said as she left.

"You know," I said, "she's convinced you just screwed her."

He was surprised: No! He's a fair fellow - sharp, to be sure, but he doesn't take advantage of people. The vast majority of his clientele knows the value of things, as he does. He doesn't screw the uninformed or neophyte. "The fact that you wanted it made her suspicious," I said. He shrugged, a quicker American version of the ancient shrug of the souk.

On my way out of the store, the woman was coming back in. I'll bet she wanted the coin. I'll have to ask tomorrow. Nothing makes something useless valuable like the notion that other people want it.

Hence, the success of EBay.