MARCH 1999 Part 3
Okay, I’m back from Mexico. I read six books instead of posting the Bleat. Here’s my report:

Doctor Lady Gets Huge, Goes Nuts and Kills Her Kids by Ann Rule. Not as good as Ms. Rule’s previous happy little glimpses into the lives of sociopaths. It had Ms. Rule’s accustomed attention to detail, which is to say it was as thorough as an autopsy, but the villain wasn’t a sociopath. She was just plain nuts. There was a nice Lucretia Borgia touch, though. This was the book for the plane ride.
Enigma, by Robert Harris. Exceptional. A suspense novel set in the crypto unit during WWII, with a guest appearance by Alan Turing. Few books make mathematics sexy and exciting, and this wasn’t one of them, thank God. It was set in a dreary world of cold huts and cheap flats, of wartime deprivations, British sexual repression, old boy what-what-haw-haw-blimey-mate lies and blather. Harris is very good at describing the lives of sad failed people living in permanently overcast worlds. This book didn’t get the attention of “Fatherland,” but it was just as good, and probably better.
Siberian Night, by Robin White. Eh. A mystery set in the oil fields of Siberia. The author had spent time in Siberia and had been a roughneck as well, so he knew his territory. (His bio, one of those back-jacket write-ups that make you want to strangle the author, also noted that he was now a practicing architect, and flew planes for a hobby. And what have YOU done with your life so far?) It kept me reading, but I didn’t eat it up with gratitude and fascination. One good character: one. And he was a secondary figure. After a while I tired of all the Siberian aphorisms - I really doubt that the majority of conversations there begin and end with “In Siberia, life is . . . (fill in appropriately weary yet proud yet beaten yet ruefully amused Russian sentiment.) The ending - one of those set pieces where you get the entire cast of characters in one place with guns - just took forever.
Dust, by Charles Pelligrino. Here was a pick-me-up: ecological catastrophe wipes out the entire human race. Due to some deep-set instruction encoded long ago in the DNA of insects, all the bugs die off. the author posits a fascinating reason - since the earth swings through a big asteroid belt every 35 million years, and since those stones generally unleash big whoop-ass on Momma Gaia, the bugs have learned to go dormant before the rocks hit and wipe out the rest of the ecosystem. The political and economic effects a bug die-off would have are fleshed out with varying degrees of success. The science part of the book was top-notch - Pelligrino is a scientist, and as his bio noted, he was the first person to suggest cloning dinosaurs from the blood of amberized insects. HIM! NOT THAT CRICHTON HACK! But the author has a treeeeemendous ego, and it spilled over into the book in odd ways. He also had a habit of putting his friends in the book and using their real names - when a bat researchers got eaten by rampaging vampire bats, for example, the character’s name was the same as the bat expert the author thanked in the afterward. Everytime a new character was introduced, I checked the afterward to see if it was a real person. Usually was.
The chief villain of the book was - shudder - a talk radio host, and the author’s descriptions of the radio man’s ranting was utterly wrong, just wrong. Cartoony. He has a tin ear for that sort of thing.
Still, I read it all the way through through. I like science novels.

Mars, by Ben Bova. This was the big one, the brick-thick novel that was supposed to last three days. Lasted two. It’s a Michneresque account of the first trip to Mars. (Note: that is not necessarily a compliment.) The earth-side political battles seemed trumped up, and most of the characters were cliches (the suave Englishman, the stolid Russian, etc) and the writing was serviceable. Still, I liked it.

But I finished it on Wednesday, leaving me without any more books. So I went to the library, which was located right by the safety-deposit boxes. An interesting graveyard of sun-bleached books, current as the latest Clancy, old as some forgotten action and spy series from the 60s and 70s. I found two:

Trunk Music, by Michael Connally. Good, good mystery. He’s Block without all the mooning alky rhapsodies. That held my attention for the afternoon and evening and through this morning, after which I started

The Golden Orange, by Joseph Wambaugh. Crap. The sort of book authors write when they’re convinced that ever word that spills from their pen is pure genius. So I put it back and got

The Undertaker’s Widow, by Philip Margolin. I thought it would hold me over on the plane, and since I’ll never forget a mesmerizing drive to and from Fargo while listening to one of his audiobooks, I thought this would be the same dense piece of tremulous dread. It is not. I may finish it; I may not.

And that is what I’ve been doing for the last week.

And more: tanning, eating, drinking, tanning, snorkeling, and buying hamburgers for street dogs. I've been doing it in Mexico, which is why there haven't been any Bleat updates. Check the ABOUT section for an account of the trip, if you like.

Went to visit an aged relation at the Springfield Retirement Castle, or whatever the exact name is. Nice place, well-appointed; almost like a regular apartment building downstairs. Once you get upstairs, though, it's Sing-Sing for the Aged. A sign in the group room caught my eye:
Today is: Sunday March 29
The Season is: Spring
Scattered here and there were decorations left over from St. Pat's a thin man with an utterly empty expression sat slumped beneath a banner that blared ERIN GO BRAGH. The decorations seem out of place, mementos from another world that never makes it through the front door. It's as if the real world is a big noisy war on the other side of the mountains, and the decorations a crack in the plaster from a stray bullet.
We went for dinner, and my wife warned me that the meal might well be liver and onions. When we got upstairs to meet Great-Aunt Lee, she was already seated for supper. (Which was liver and onions.) A woman across the table with an enormous fountain of orange hair done up in a Bride of Frankenstein coiffure was staring at her meal: three round mounds of green paste. Naturally, the ceiling lights were set on movie-premier strength. Horribly bright. Horribly quiet. Spare me this fate, I thought, as ever, and then I realized that I probably won't end up here. There were no men at all. As you looked around the room you saw the old law of actuarial tables borne out in the slack expressions of two dozen widows.

Great-Aunt Lee is 87, and that always surprises me - up until a few years ago she was spry and alert, ten years younger in spirit and attitude. We took her downstairs to the private dining room - she's won dinner for two guests on her birthday - and a waiter handed us a menu. Fifty percent of the supper options consisted of liver and onions. We had the chicken and talked of this and that, then took a little tour. Saw the birds: there's a small aviary on on floor. All the birds were in their nests for the evening; each little doorway showed five glowering faces. Lee's previous nursing home had an aviary as well, and I had the same thought then: it's nice, and gives the residents something to look at, but it's a microcosm of their own place. All these beautiful brittle creatures walled off and sealed away.

Back to the room. Back past some cantankerous seniors, herded like children by the staff. In Lee's room were some recent examples of a crafts class - coloring book pictures hung on the wall, emblems of dexterity that must provide some pride. One picture was a woman in a smart hat and coat from the 30s - will people of my generation spend their last days coloring bell-bottomed jeans and flopped crocheted hats? Serves them right if they do.

A whole life, edited down to that linoleum cell. Spending each day in a fog of memories and confusion, awakened every morning by the careless laughter of the attendants. She wants to go home, but there isn't any home to go to anymore.

Last night - or rather, this morning - I came across a movie I haven't seen since I first clapped eyes on it in '75: Dog Day Afternoon. At the time I was mightily impressed by the film, but when you're 17 and you get to see a movie where they say the F word, you're impressed by your own adult cosmopolitan sophistication. Or at least that was the case in the mid-70s in NoDak.

After seeing the movie again, these thoughts:

1. No one plays Al Pacino like Al Pacino. He's Valentino crossed with Marty Feldman - pop-eyed, charismatic, oily (did they have no Clinique clarifying astringents in the 70s?) and "ethnic" in a way Hollywood would soon abandon in favor of other stereotypes.

2. New York in the 70s was utter hell, just a big hot craphole. You can smell bankruptcy and sociopathy like a hot wave off the asphalt every time Pacino steps out of the bank and surfs the roar of his adoring public. Everything looks like it's about to fall apart, and the people look like coke-fried morons who are cursed to live in a pre-Jerry Springer age, and thus must live their messy lives without the sanctification of the TV camera.

The movie celebrates the mob, uses mob passions to make us love a man who's holding people at gunpoint. When Pacino does his famous Attica! ATTICA! rant outside the bank, and the crowd cheers, it's a great scene, with all these scarlet undertones of revolution. But comparing the brutal repression of a prison riot to a scene where cops are NOT SHOOTING at a man who's holding innocent people at gunpoint is fatuous. The movie uses the crowd's excitement to bond the viewer with the hero, and it's a morally disingenuous trick. In retrospect, it's appalling. You listen to the bray of the crowd and the imprecations of the hero, and you think: goodbye, rule of law; hello, guillotine

As an impressionable youth I'm sure I rooted for Al Pacino's character, even though his actions were reprehensible. The director makes him sympathetic, and makes the audience complicit in his crime; the entire movie induces Stockholm Syndrome, and we identify with the captor - partly because he's such a Nice Guy. Mixed-up, sure, but what interesting person isn't? It's a hallmark of the period - screwed-up neurotic people are better than well-balanced people; they experience life more deeply.

3. The real enemy is The Man. At several points in the film the cops have the gall to attempt a rescue of the hostages. Tsk. Tsk. Even when The Man puts on a human face - in this case, Charles Durning as a perpetually consternated intermediary - this face will soon be replaced by an implacable foe who represents the True Face of The Man. When the FBI takes over, we lose Durning's earnest sweaty humanity and get a grim Darryl-Gates clone. This is the enemy - the enemy of the lovably confused bank robber in all of us.

4. Lance Hendrickson has a small role. He smiles and his complexion is clear.

5. For all its faults, the movie seemed to be about real people and a real place. It makes contemporary movies look like cartoons. Which they generally are. It's as if gravity and truth were leached out of the moviemaker's craft a frame at a time, replaced with Dolby bombast. What happened?

Today: utterly ordinary. Work. Column. Came home to an ecstatic greeting from the dog, uncommonly joyful, but it wasn't love, just relief. He really, really, really had to go. After the leaping and yipping and licking he trotted to the door, whined; I let him out, and he did what needed to be done. Afterwards he sat on the snowbank, whined some more, whimpered, then threw his head back and gave a long mournful howl. Why, I have no idea. All these millennia, and dogs are still unfathomable friends.

Cleaned the house today, as befits my job as a modern male. Did four loads of laundry, polished the furniture, cleaned the bathrooms, mopped the floor, and vacuumed. My wife was at the office. I was thinking of the roles in my parents' days, and the roles we have today, and I thought: my, we certainly changed things quickly. 4000 years of social roles upended in the span of a generation. Not that I mind: I got to listen to the radio and hum and steal a few minutes to play games, and talk to the dog. I don't know what women were complaining about. Go on, go to the office. I'm happy to stay at home.
Of course, I know better. When I was working at home, I loved it, but it did feel isolated. Much better to be downtown. Even on the days where I really don't have to go into the office, I go there. The best part of the day is coming home, and that requires that you leave it. Going down the street to mail a letter doesn't count.

Did not watch "Futurama" tonight. I probably should have, but nothing in the previews seemed particularly amusing (aside from the brick-dropping sightgag from the BarneyBot) and the reviewers all seemed to be leaning over backwards to be kind and mildly enthusiastic. Why? Because he's the Father of the Simpsons. Okay, fine, he did create it, but that show's success had more to do with the exceptionally clever writing of others. Proof: Groening's own solo project, "Life in Hell," has not been funny for seven years. Akbar and Jeff make the Family Circus look like Bloom County. Plus, I read another interview with Mr. Groening that left a bad taste in my mouth - essentially, I'm an idiot because I vote for people who believe in tax cuts. I love it when millionaires lecture me about how much money they think I shouldn't have.

Saturday I went to the post card show with the Giant Swede, because I am a geek. On the way into the hotel parking lot a car cut in front of us, and the driver heaved a beer bottle out the window. It was 11:00 AM. We saw a police car speed up behind and pull the car over in the lot, and as we parked, we debated: did the cop see the beer bottle? Perhaps they should know about it. So we walked over, two Tax-Paying Citizens ready to lend a hand. By the time we got to the squad car, three more cars had converged. Stolen car, it turned out. Two young women led away in handcuffs, arguing and feigning complete ignorance. Does anyone ever think that a protestation of guiltlessness will make the cops take off the cuffs and let you go? Don't these people watch Cops? I've learned many things from Cops: protests get you nowhere; half-truths get you in trouble; everyone who runs from the police says they were scared, and everyone pulled over for drunk driving said they had exactly two beers.

Anyway. Off to the show. The Giant Swede was looking for airplane cards, stuff he can hang on the wall at his Northwest Airlines office; I was looking for the usual oddities from Mpls and Fargo. The room had this ammoniac tang of nervous sweat: must get cards! Must complete collection! Must get there first! I found many prizes, including a 1911 panorama card (unfolded! Mint!) of Fargo's Broadway. I never knew Fargo had so many postcards. For that matter, I didn't know Fargo had a trolley system until I saw the cars on the old cards. Naturally, they will all be scanned and used for a website, because there's no good historical reference for Fargo on the web. None. Guess it's up to me, then.

War, again. I've spent half the day listening to experts, pundits, radio callers both informed and otherwise, hosts that ranged the gamut from knowledgeable to, well, popular. I am glad of many things right now, chief among them that I am not a soldier who's spent the last 8 years watching the military turn into an underfunded group-therapy session (hilarious, if disheartening, article in the Wall Street Journal today, describing co-ed boot camp; the men are permitted to help the women over the obstacles that require upper body strength, but they can only touch them on the legs - regs prohibit giving them a shove on the glutes or the thighs.) I am also glad I am a typical ahistorical American. History! Who needs it? It's a pack of tricks played on the dead, written by the victors, and it's bunk, to quote Ford, Voltaire, and some other solon whose name escapes me. Not that I'm uninterested in history: on the contrary. But it doesn't breathe down my neck or press on my chest like earth in a deep grave. I have no desire to kill someone because their relative gave my relative a hangnail in 1037.

Easy for me to say, of course; I'm not scrabbling for a square yard of fertile liebensraum amidst a field of stones and salt. But even if I was, I'd like to think I would subscribe to RodneyKingism, and just get along. That requires that everyone else be equally inclined to live and let live, though, and that's never the case.

The flip side of cheery American ahistorical perspective, unfortunately, is believing you can solve intractable problems. We can pacify and secure Kosovo, just as we could have defeated and occupied North Vietnam. The cost, however, is great, and it immediately produces other problems that are worse. This is not going to be fun. It should, however, make the presidential election very, very interesting.

On the other hand, it's spring. I peered at a few trees on the morning walk, and hallelujah: buds. Tiny pinhead buds. Mud everywhere in the creek; the dog practically sinks to his - elbows? - when he strays off the path. What remains of the winter snow is a hard surly crust, dense dirty floes adrift in the empty brown lawns. It wasn't that bad a winter. It didn't seem that long, that deep. But the longer you live the shorter they get. This is not good news. The longer you live, the shorter everything is. Someone explained this to me once this way: as you age, a year becomes an ever-shortened percentage of your life. When you're five, a year is 20 percent of your life. When you're 20, a year is 1/20th. And so on: repeat until dead. That's why you feel time accelerating; that's why the measured trot of the months turns into a pounding gallop of years. The days have the same stately pace, the weeks feel a bit shorter, the months smaller, the seasons quicker. It's all perception.

But you can step outside of this if you like. If you try. The week in Mexico lasted a month. The week since Mexico lasted four days. Time slowed on the vacation, because we slowed ourselves. If I was to quit all my jobs and rise at dawn I'm sure everything would resume the pace it had in my 20s.

And I'd be just as broke, too.

Mhrmgh. Since it was still warm out, I walked - walked! Just like the old days! - to the Lyndale nexus. Had a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s, a mug the size of an oil drum, and read some od David Horowitz’s new collection. Might as well call this one the Contractural Obligation book, because it’s nothing but retreads. Walked home. Sat outside and read some more until the book attained terminal dullness. Now I’m going to hunt for jumper cables. Surely I have those. Is it possible I’ve lived here for 23 years and borrowed cables, never owning them?

Of course it is. If I applied my save-often mindset to things other than computers, I’d be in great shape.

Spring? Sure, why not. It hit 70 today. Jasper Mountain - the big bank of snow that slid off the porch and heaped up five feet high - is nearly gone, edited by the sun into a dense dirty glacier seven inches thick. Three days ago it was heaped up two feet, a filthy amoeba that smothered my tanning chair and was trying to swallow the gas grill. Now it’s gone. The grass smells like it has ideas; the trees are starting to look like postlapsarian Adam + Eve: for lo, they saw that they were naked, and they were ashamed.

But it’s windy. Turned a corner today and was immobilized. Really: couldn’t move. A gust stopped me dead, and would have pitched me into the street if I hadn’t braced myself and leaned into it. But my work ID badge took off - it’s on a coiled retractable cord - and it flew out like a kite tail. The wind has lessened, but it’s still there, banging the neighbor’s backyard fence door (that thing has been clapping and banging for FOUR years now, but I’d miss the sound if it was ever secured) and tossing up the panels on the porch roof. The panels I had replaced last year. On the porch I had redone last year. The job that took forever and resulted in a porch that, to this day, creaks like the bones of an old man strapped to a vibrating motel bed. The porch that I paid SIX GRAND to fix and resulted in a roof that DIDN’T LAST SEVEN MONTHS before it busted and the NAME OF THE CONTRACTORS IS TOOLBOX ETC.

Ah. That felt good. I’m sure once I call them and tell them that their work is flapping in the wind, they will hasten over to repair it. The owner is a conscientious fellow.


Took the dog for a walk in the park this evening after dinner - I was still wearing work clothes, and that was a huge mistake. We ran into the 6:00 pack - a group of dogs whose constituency shifts every night depending on who’s there. Always a few regulars. Everyone knows Jasper Dog, because he is very cute and very annoying: bark bark bark BARK. Jasper demands that the other dogs conform to his desires: chase! Run! Fight! Chase! RunChaseRun! Stick! BALL! When the action slackens - as it often does with so many dogs milling around - he barks and BARKS his irritation. None of the other dogs bark. It gets embarrassing. I feel bad for him, in a way; the other dogs are Dogs, big comfy galumphing rugs, and he never seems to completely fit in. He’s smarter than the other dogs, but he acts like a chess-club geek with the jocks.

There were two black labs - one adult, one adorable puppy who was an absolute love sponge. She found a mussel in the creek, and dragged it to shore, clambering over rocks that must have seemed as big as Gibraltar. It was a good thing to have in your mouth - smelly, slimy, forbidden. The owner made her drop it. Her packmate lab picked it up; the owner made him drop it, and flicked it onto a rock. Bacchus, the gigantic mastiff, bounded over and picked it up. DROP! Bacchus dropped, and the item was flicked into the whirling waters. The dogs must have despaired: such a treasure, treated like garbage. They consoled themselves with a round of butt-sniffing and headed back into the mud.

Picked up supper at the new neighborhood Subway. I like the new decor: they’ve dropped the blowups of newspaper stories heralding the submerged railway system (Now a Businessman Can Have Lunch At Home and Return to His Office) and replaced it with a montage of early 20th Century New York skyscrapers. While I wait I can say hail to old friends: Singer Building, Met Life, etc. But of course there’s no waiting at Subway, no woolgathering while they assemble your order; it’s a constant interrogation. What do you want? Six inch or Twelve? Whole Wheat or White? What do you want on it? Lettuce? Oil? Mayo? Any Chips? Drink? It’s the only fast-food place where you have to walk the cook through the process. The clerk attempted to stuff both sandwiches in one bag - which would have been fine if the purchase hadn’t included two bags of Baked Ruffles. I almost expected her to get out a pole and poke the chips into the bag. And then she stuffed a fistful of napkins on top of the chips. If it had been a bad day I would have taken the bag and swung it into the wall, completely atomizing the chips, and shouted “There! Happy?”

But it was a good day. Sun, dogs, southern wind, the ignominious death of the snow. Time for April; time for spring.