MAY 1999 Part 4
ID4 was on TV tonight. Having not seen it since the obligatory trip to the theaters two years ago, I sat down to see if my initial impressions were correct. They were. It’s a very good bad movie. Not so-bad-it’s-fun bad - it never tips completely into eye-rolling oh-come-ON badness, because you’re carried along by the narrative momentum inherent in any end-of-the-world movie. It has the requisite cliches:

1. If you’re drunk and get a good idea, you instantly sober up. Jeff Goldblum gets the idea for the virus while falling-over-drunk, but is able to write the code in minutes once he realizes what must be done.

2. Comic relief is essential in a movie about the destruction of the planet. Harvey Fierstein, who can both mince and waddle simultaneously, did not belong in this movie. Will Smith - seen at the start of a long and bulletproof career - should not have made a quip after subduing the alien foe; for God’s sake, he’s just seen all his friends DIE, his city destroyed. “Talk about a Close Encounter!” Comic relief was the movie’s bane; it lacked gravitas in all the personal moments. At the end, when the bad guys are defeated, everyone’s so damn cheerful you’d think the planet has just lost Omaha and a couple of the Canary Islands.

3. The aliens will subdue us by blowing up the cities. Why? They’re here for the resources; why not deploy the big ultrasonic flesh-dissolving beam? Does the same job and leaves everything intact for recycling.

Watching on the small screen, I realized what made it work: Bill Pullman. Take his performance as the president out of the film, and it’s a Sci-Fi Channel movie of the week. In every scene he seems to be contending with fear, defeat, defiance, hope, horror and despair, and he never lets much of it show - it’s all whirling behind the presidential mask. I recall listening to talk-show hosts debate whether the character was Hollywood’s attempt to burnish Bill Clinton; after all, some callers suggested, the movie president was a war hero, a devoted husband, and a bad liar - everything Clinton isn’t! Therefore he’s supposed to be Clinton! Uhhh. . . .right. I think Pullman’s president was a Republican, based on Will Smith’s girlfriend’s admission that she didn’t vote for him. I don’t want to make any stereotypical assertions here - there are many many Blacks who vote GOP - but she was also a single-mother exotic dancer, and as such I don’t think she represents the general GOP demographic.

Went to a wedding on Saturday, a wedding on my wife’s side. Co-worker of hers. The church - St. Mark’s in St. Paul - was a building I may have passed once or twice, but it never registered as one of the cities’ great cathedrals. Well. I had to winch my jaw up off the floor when we entered - it was vast. The open space seemed to give the individual a glimpse of the height of heaven - or, depending on your perspective, grind the individual under the millstone of its grandeur. The style was that 20th century Clean Medieval - not too many fussy French filigrees, good stern pillars, timbered vault. The stained-glass windows were the most extraordinary feature, hundreds of panes each showing a detail of the life of the saints. The Medieval version of Cable TV, one saint per channel.

It was built in 1918, a tribute to Dark-Ages agrarian piety erected while Europe chewed itself up with mechanized warfare. Impressive as the structure was, it left me cold; I never have a spiritual moment in church. I can have ten dozen epiphanies sitting in the grass watching clouds with the dog at my side; in church, I feel the same old stifling hand of ritual & routine clamp over my face. It’s the opposite for others, obviously; other people take comfort treading the same slow steps of the liturgy, the procession of the service moving over the well-worn path. But it does nothing for me. I don’t like organ music. It’s all wax and dust and songs that are never in my range.

But it works for some, and I’m glad they like it; I don’t share their enthusiasm, but I don’t demean it. I do, however, bristle when told I have to go to church to have a spiritual life. To me, that’s like saying you can’t read books anywhere except a library.

Watched “Elizabeth” last night, a movie about the Virgin Queen’s early reign; it seemed to have the entire cast of “Shakespeare in Love,” except for the French woman, who I just realized was in “Ridicule,” a movie about aristocratic French society. (I stopped the tape last night and asked my wife: where did we see that actress before? Couldn’t figure it out. It just came to me now; I stuck my head in the bedroom, where my wife is reading prior to slumber, and I said “Ridicule!” Let that one sit for a while until she too had the ah-hah moment.) “Elizabeth” was a good movie - sturdy, smart, not overly exciting but worth the time and money.

Perhaps these historical dramas are so popular because no one knows history, and hence the audience doesn’t know how it’s all going to come out. Will Elizabeth be murdered in the first year of her reign? Will she take a husband? Will she ever have problems with Spain? Who knows?

One of the kind benefits of “Gates of Fire,” the novel I just finished reading, was that it assured the reader up front that everyone involved in the battle died. So we were spared running up against our own ignorance of ancient Greek history. I finished that novel Friday night, sitting out back on the deck with a cup of coffee and the setting sun. Sara was pruning the bushes; the dog was rolling in the grass; I was blinking back Manly Tears as the novel concluded. No question: best book I’ve read in a year, maybe two. It has about five climactic scenes at the end, each of which has less action than the last, and each of which packs a punch greater than the scene before it. Nice work.

Sunday: cold. Rain. Mowed the lawn in a jacket, shivering. But the sun came out at the end of the day, perhaps a promise of a fine warm week. We’ll see. Five straight days of sun, that’s all I ask. Okay, Four.

Three. That’s as low as I go.

This will be very short. In fact it shouldn’t be at all. I’ve been at the machinery all night tonight - first working on a column, then participating in an online architecture forum, then back to the column. I’m tired of sitting and tired of writing. The forum was fun, though - it was a discussion on the annual American Institute of Architects awards. God knows why I was invited; when it comes to architecture, I have no expertise, only opinions. Generally correct opinions, but still. The awards concentrated, as they often do, on Small and Precious projects of undeniable merit. I wished they’d have some great vast fist-shaking-at-the-heavens project, something loaded with gall and hubris, a building that said YES BY GOD we stride the planet and we’re damn happy about it. But no: sheds. Cottages. A HAY RACK, for God’s sake. It was a great hay rack, I’ll give it that, but still: a hay rack? A HAY RACK?

An essay in Architectural Record explained that the judges didn’t seem to find merit in the year’s crop of office buildings, malls, strip malls or hotels - i.e., 99% of the buildings 99% of the people spend 99% of their public time inhabiting. Whether the ignored these buildings or couldn’t find any good ones, I couldn’t tell. But the essay was full of relief that Modernism had survived, and flourished, if only in these small, isolated fragments. I agree: they’re all fine examples of Modernism, and this year’s crop was a good argument for the Modernist style. But it seemed as if they were ashamed that anyone was actually building anything as declasse and outre and unseemly as a skyscraper nowadays. The good old days of shoving a fist into the crotch of heaven - gone. You look at the skyline of Manhattan in the 20s, and the buildings have the same spirit - tallest? World’s tallest? Yeah, I got your world’s tallest, right here. Compare that to the deferential midgets sprouting in downtown Minneapolis nowadays; it’s as if they’re afraid to hurt the other buildings’ feelings by being too tall. The 1900s start with the drive for height and end with a frickin’ hay rack.

And another thing! Who says Genocide is a bad idea? As much as I love Deep Space Nine, and will weep hot tears when it ends, I’m getting sick and tired of everyone puffing up their purple outrage-bladders over the attempt of Section 31 to kill all the Founders by biological warfare. For God’s sake! This is a hive-mind race bent on the utter enslavement of Everyone and the eradication of all life on Earth! A stern wedgie is not going to get their attention!

Argh. More skyscrapers! More biological warfare! That’s what I say.

Actually, less coffee. I think I’ll upload and go relax. Tomorrow’s another day, and it should be warm, sunny, and full of HAYRACK LOVING WEASELS -

-> transmission interrupted!

Better; closer. Getting there. Windy: if this was the age of hats, which it isn’t, the sky would have been full of homburgs and fedoras. Pity it’s not the age of hats; I think a hat is one of those things that tells a man he’s a man. It’s not coincidence that men stopped wearing hats, and pop culture figure starting grabbing their crotches. If they’d had hats, they wouldn’t need to gather their jewels in their fists. Just a theory. Doesn’t explain Madonna doing the cojones-clutch in the “Express Yourself” video, though. No, it does: she was dressed in a man’s suit, but was hatless. I rest my case.

Caps don’t count. Nor do those ugly silly floppy crocheted things that had a brief vogue, which thank God is now over: I saw a rack of previously hip caps slumped in the 50% off shelf in a department store today, looking like sloughed-off skins of unfashionable caterpillars. Another ugly trend, dead: good.

I tried wearing a fedora in the early 90s; looked like a member of the Lollipop Guild going for a job interview. Too short to pull it off. And it looked out of place in the modern world, a strenuous affectation: Look at Me! I’m wearing a hat like Bogart! The art is lost, and even if it was the style of the day, I’d look stupid - so I should be glad the age of hats has passed. But I’m not. It was a part of the Manly Art, the modus operandi of Guyhood - before Guyhood was defined as being a grunty grinning doofus with a riding lawn mower and a La-Z-Boy. What am I SAYING? I should be happy that age has passed, that the roles have been expanded; if I’d grown up in the 30s or 20s, I would have been regularly beaten by kids who were on their way to earning their hats. Probably would have ended up wearing a beret and waiting for psychoanalysis to get popular.

Well, blame the 60s; that’s always handy. That’s when gender roles began to be redefined - women were now told what they could do, and men were told what they couldn’t do. Manliness took on a toxic taint. The ideal of masculinity in the early 70s, when I was growing up, was a guy who cried during a TV movie about a guy who cried because he never saw his father cry. Millions of young men duly learned to cry, emulated Sensitive Men, wept openly in front of women, and discovered that this filled sensible women with a feeling of pity & revulsion. It’s one thing to be an unfeeling slab of whiskery disdain; it’s another to be sobbing through a box of Kleenex every night because you once saw Dad run over a squirrel by mistake.

Read a review in the New Republic of Germaine Greer’s new book; it made me want to read the actual text, just to see if it’s as hideous as described. It sounds like the SCUM manifesto - another book that paints all men as murdering warlike brutes who relax by snapping puppy necks while raping 11-year olds. Greer slams the medical establishment for pushing pap smears - they make women afraid! - and then she celebrates African cultural traditions such as genital mutilation. Celebrates and approves. She’s a barmy lunatic, from the sound of it, but I’ve no doubt that if she came to town she’d be ushered in with trumpets and garlands. Once you’re a cultural hero among the right people, it’s almost impossible for anyone to pull you off your pedestal.

Spent the night on SimCity, just for the fun of it. Prior to that I sat on the deck and read Richard Price’s latest novel, Freedomland; he’s good. Very very good. Now to upload & rot the brain with some cable: last night it was a documentary on ants. It was quite informative, but contained one too many shots of the moist undulating queen’s egg sack for my taste; it was like looking at Rosie O’Donnell’s gallbladder in action. Perhaps tonight it will be a documentary on wolves; I love those. Lots of shots of tumbling cubs. Oddly enough, I don’t have the desire to snap their necks - but then again, I don’t wear a hat.

It’s just such an odd life. Tomorrow I have to go to a suburban hotel and pretend to be an employee of a company for which I do not work. They’re having the annual meeting, and I’m going to stand up in the middle of the speech and ask questions. And I volunteered for this. A friend of mine runs a business theater production company; they handle corporate meetings. He needed a ringer to bolt from the audience and fling softballs at the CEO, so I’m the man.

Well, it’ll break up the routine, and the routine needs breaking. I haven’t done anything Different in a while; haven’t had any challenges, any variations from the beloved routine. This will qualify. Friday night I do the TV show, too - so at 7:10 PM Friday night I will be heading home howling & happy, ready for a long indolent weekend and the start of summer.

Hot again today. I was right: three straight days of sun and the memory of cold wet May evaporates. Grilled some chicken soaked in tandoori spices - which is a little like saying “chicken soaked in an oven marinade,” but that’s what the package said; tandoori spices. I don’t know if it’s because Minnesotans think tandoori is a spice, or the grocery store that packaged the food thought that WE thought tandoori was a spice, even though anyone who’s going to buy it knows better. In any case, it was good. Made a batch of Basmati rice, imported from India; I’m glad India no longer has trouble feeding its population, or I’d wonder why they were exporting rice when famine stalked their land. Washed it all down with spring water, which was on sale today: two 6-packs for three bucks. Well. You can’t beat that. Stock up for the Y2K panic! I actually stood there in the store, thinking, is it too soon to lay a little water aside just in case? Probably. On the other hand, what about those Nostradamus predictions? End of the World in July. In which case, I’d better get four six packs. But who needs water if it’s the end of the world? Get two.

Took a brisk 10 minute nap, which recharged me completely, and then sat down to read on the porch. I’m glad my porch faces the back yard. All these New Urbanist manifestos aside, front porches are bad for reading when the street is lively - all those kids and dogs and passersby. Who can concentrate? So I sit in the back, which is quiet, except for the planes passing overhead. Who can concentrate? So I went inside to sit out the nightly landings, and scanned a bunch of 20s clipart for next months’ web site. The 20s stuff won’t fit with the 50s and 60s themes elsewhere, but, well, who cares. It’s the last month for the 3.0 version of the site, anyway; the site is due for a stem-to-stern overhaul, and it’ll get it in July.

Last night’s late-night TV: a documentary on Cleopatra, lushly illustrated with many baroque paintings of Cleopatra, all of which looked nothing like Cleopatra. Looked like big fleshy Roman-nosed well-marbled matrons. I flicked between that and a movie, “The Mouse That Roared,” which was strenuously unamusing. One of those gruesome 60s farces where the soundtrack constantly threatens mocking pratfall trumpets: wah-wah-wah-waaaaah. Weariness came down like a sledgehammer and I went to bed.

Tomorrow should be interesting. Different. A column, a corporate meeting, then the BBC interview, sleep, a column, TV, and the reward for it all: Pizza. That’s what I have to think about for the next two days: Your labors shall be rewarded with pizza, and staying up until three goofing off.

Good Lord. I’m still in junior high.

A cliche, a cliche: my kingdom for a cliche! I need an ending for my Almanac monologue, and it’s not coming; it’s not there. And already the thing is too long with too many hairpin turns; I keep forgetting that you have to be DIRECT on television, straight, uncomplicated. I write these things late at night, and when I show up the next day and watch my baroque sentences scroll up on the teleprompter in the tech rehearsal, I want to cry: why I do I do this to myself? Tomorrow will be no different.
Today was different, and thank heavens: didn’t leave the office at two for the inspirational walk, listening to the radio, visiting the same spots, treading the same streets, saming the same same. I went up to the northwestern suburbs to be a shill in a corporate meeting. As I mentioned in yesterday’s Bleat, a friend of mine runs a company that puts on corporate meetings - they handle the lighting, the video, Powerpoint demonstrations, etc. He needed a ringer to stand up and ask questions of the boss, give him some transitional interludes to break up the speech. Now, my experience in corporate meetings has left me with two lessons:

1. No one wants to be there.
2. Anyone who does ask questions is a brown-noser angling for attention.

So I pitched this to the CEO: let me be an arse-smooching dork. When he opens the floor for questions, let me say this:

“Hi, I’m new to the company, and I’m still figuring out the corporate culture. Is this the kind of place where I can get ahead fast by asking you some softball questions that make you look good?”

He gave a short sharp bark of approval. Ah: my kind of boss. I would then follow up by saying “You know, it’s a beautiful day outside, and it’s almost the weekend, but I think I speak for everyone when I say I’d love nothing more than an elaborate PowerPoint presentation on corporate communications.”

So that’s what I said. Sat in the auditorium with 400 other people, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for the cue, thinking: what the hell am I DOING here? But as ever, the waiting is the worst part; performing is easy. We did several exchanges, and the CEO - a dapper Scot - played along perfectly. At the end of his speech I ducked out the door and headed home, thinking: well, that was different, and different is good.

Then I drove to the same Subway sandwich place I visit every Thursday and bought the same sandwich and went to the same grocery store to get Frosty Paws for Jasper so he can have the same treat he always has ever night, and then I had supper reading the Wall Street Journal - as usual - and napped at the usual time.

Different is good, but routine has its comforts, too.

The BBC didn’t call tonight for the interview, meaning someone screwed up and called me at the office. No doubt the office answering machine will have worried, then petulant, messages from young Beebers; they make this mistake every three months or so. Oh, well. I spent an hour crafting a perfect SimCity, only to see it fail for traffic congestion; screw ‘em. I’m tired of the Sims. Ungrateful bastards. Can’t walk a block to the subway station? Fine: watch me send your entire city to the recycling bin. Scream all you like, protest and pray: death shall take you all. I shouldn’t play these games. I behave like an omnipotent Robert Moses. If that isn’t a redundancy.

Well, I have ten minutes to fix the monologue; then it’s time for Art Bell, who supposedly will be telling why he’s been taking extended leaves. I’m tired of Art; his show used to be guilty fun, but lately it’s just grim doom with ABBA bumper music. So I’ll upload the mono, go to work, write a column, do the show, then fly home to wife & pizza & dog & hearth, ready for the infinite weekend. Can’t wait. Summer’s over the minute it begins, of course, so in a way this weekend is the real start of autumn, and hence winter.

Good Lord, am I suddenly depressed.

But winter presages spring! So technically this weekend is the start of next spring! Ahh. Better. I’m happy again.

Dad didn’t talk about the war. None of them did - not the uncles who came back, not the aunts and moms who stayed home and waited for the mail or the knock on the door, not the grandparents who puts stars in the window. The war was a black-and-white movie that played late at night after the kids went to bed; the war was a series of dusty books in the basement, a picture on the wall in the utility room, a harmonica, medals in the bedroom bureau. The war was a story he did not want to tell, not now, not yet.
But I always knew he’d been in it. Everyone’s dad had been in the war, or so it seemed; that’s what dads did before they became dads. I figure every kid had a picture of a ship in the basement. Our house’s patron ship was the FBI, the Fightin’ Block Island, a small aircraft carrier on which my dad spent the latter part of his tour in the Pacific theater of operations. The picture was not a shrine or an icon; I never caught him looking at it with a faraway look. It was a part of the domestic scenery like the antlers on the wall and the rifles in the rack. And the uniform in plastic in the back of the basement closet.

At Christmas he played the harmonica. An occasion for rolled eyes and familiar jokes: Dad’s going to maul his the Marine Band harmonica, make it wheeze a discordant carol. We made gentle fun of him, as kids will, but we loved to hear him play - it was uncharacteristic for Dad to pick up any instrument and play it without clowning around for a laugh, and besides, he could play it just fine. But didn’t all the dads play the harmonica? It was just another thing dads did.

He kept the harmonica in his bureau drawer. One day I went looking for it - can’t remember why; I needed it for some project - and I found a small tray with some medals. What they represented, I had no idea. There were some bars as well, each color a codeword I didn’t understand. When I asked Dad what they were, he said they were from the war, and that closed the discussion - gently, but firmly.

Only in the last few years has he opened up.

One night while down in the bowels of the ship - he was a machinist’s mate - they sounded general quarters, and closed the watertight doors. He heard them clank shut, one after the other, sealing him in, sealing him under the water in a cold iron room.

One day while up on the deck the Zeros came, and he went to his battle station. He manned the gun; one buddy fed the belt, the other cooled the barrel. A plane passed by; he etched a response in the big blue sky. When his gun fell quiet he looked left, and he looked right: on either side his friends lay dead.

One afternoon he swapped places with a guy, fixed it so the other guy would be on his ship, and he’d be on the Block Island. Figured he’d see more action. The ship he was supposed to be on went down, and took four brothers with it. All named Sullivan.

One Christmas he remembers well: water still as glass, sky blaring bright with unfamiliar stars. He took out his harmonica and played Silent Night for the rest of the boys.

Did they like it?

Oh, sure, ‘cause, well, everyone was thinking of home. Thinking of Christmas.

It took me five years to get those stories out.

Four years ago I went down to Harmony. It’s a small town in southern Minnesota. The Post Office was premiering its annual Xmas stamp in Harmony that year, and I was invited to come down and make a speech for the occasion. Brass bands, local dignitaries, the whole small town array of earnest patriotic pomp. I was standing in the hall of the high school, waiting for the event to start; a tall white-haired old Swede peered at me, came over, examined my nametag.

I know your Dad, he said. We were on the Block Island together.

They hadn’t seen each other in decades, my dad and this guy, but I was Ralph’s son, and that meant we had a bond, a history. I was in his debt. Christ, we’re all in their debt, every one of us. Our fathers saved the world.

Great Grandfather Charles Newton, GAR, wounded at Gettysburg.

Ralph James Lileks, U.S. Navy, World War Two.

Thank you.

Thank you.

We owe you this day, and every free day that follows.