It’s not pathetic to spend New Year’s Eve sitting alone watching “Behind the Music” reruns. Really. If that’s all the night had been, yes, that would have been wrist-slittingly bad, but it was just how things worked out - everyone had left the house or fallen asleep by eleven. Had over two couples with children of Gnat’s general age, and we all had beverage and pizzas while the children played. We tried to keep a collective eye on them, but this didn’t work: apparently, it also takes a village to ignore the fact that the 3 year old is putting a steak knife into a wall socket. By some odd turn of events, though, the men floated off from the group and coalesced around two tall brown bottles in the kitchen, where we solved and damned the world in equal measures.

I had certainly earned a night off from dadhood; I’d not only had Gnat all day, but had cleaned the house, prepared all the cheeses and meats, hit the liquor store for supplies, gone to the mall for a few gifts and some new glassware, gone to the grocery store and fought through traffic and congestion in the market aisles that made me wonder if people thought this was the end of the world, not the year. Drove home, wrapped gifts, fed Gnat, started the fire, laid out the food, cured cancer, etc. (To really stock up husband points, I washed the dishes, put away all the toys and cleared the counters when it was all done. Daddy can pretty much do whatever he likes with all that under his belt.) Everyone was gone by 10:30; my wife was asleep shortly thereafter.

It is the Cycle of Life, my friend:

Early adulthood: damn. I’m spending New Year’s Eve drinking alone and playing “Leather Goddeses of Phobos” text adventure on my 286.

Later 20shood: awright! Hot date for New Year’s Eve! Finally!

Swingin’ professional 30shood: to which fabulous party shall we wear our smashingly hip black outfits tonight?

Early contented 40shood: Awright! Let’s have a nip of Glenlivet and play “Halo” on my X-box!

I watched the celebration in New York, which I hadn’t done in years - I’ve never enjoyed New Year’s Eve. Never understood the attraction, and the claustrophobe in me - the one screaming I! can’t! breathe! in! here! - does not want to spend a night packed in the middle of half a million drunks imported specially for the occasion. But this was different. Three and a half months ago, I doubted this sort of thing would happen soon - maybe never again, for that matter; maybe by the end of the year smallpox would havekilled us all, and New York would be a ghost town. Well, we made it, not to sound too melodramatic. There was something very American about watching Rudy give his successor the oath of office in Times Square at midnight while Frank Sinatra's ghost sang "New York New York" from a hundred hidden voiceboxes - the usual confluence of theater and showbiz,yes, but it meant something this time, and just made you realize again how much meant so little before.

Then the new mayor waved to the crowd, 97 percent of which were from out of town. He needed a hat. He is a man whose lack of charisma is exceeded only by his incessant grinnyness, and he should wear a hat. It would be trademark. It would be something to doff. It would set him apart. If I were a hack New York tabloid columnist I’d start calling him “Hatless Mike.” Because, as a hack tabloid columnist, I'd usually be drunk, in that man-of-the-people way.

A few minutes after the ball dropped in Times Square, they switched to a feed from Ground Zero, just to provide context. Wiped the grin right off my face, it did, and I wonder if other stations did the same.

I went upstairs, answered some mail, finished the new main page interface, went down to the Battle Bridge and slaughtered exquisitely rendered aliens, the stepped outside to greet the New Year like a true Minnesotan: freezing my ass off. I could hear the fireworks from the riverside celebration - big bombs, the kind you can feel in your gut from miles away - which means, I suppose, that they liquified the immediate audience on contact. Pity. Wonder if that was in the papers today. Then a neighbor lit off some bottle rockets - they wobbled up fat and slow shedding sparks, concluding with a “report,” as the fireworks lingo has it. One after the other, crack crack crack, nailing the new year up in place.

Jasper, naturally, spent the rest of the evening in the closet in the middle of the house, fearful that the fireworks would start again. Poor puppy. Poor unplacable puppy. I give him a hug and make soothing sounds but he has that unmistakable look of canine unease, and there’s nothing I can do.

Then a little TV. Which brings us to Behind the Music, the famous VH-1 show that proves, week in and week out, that most musicians are utterly inept at life, and the successful ones often more so. I had tivo’d a marathon for the hell of it, and I fast-forwarded through most. Best “coming up” line, for the Doobie Brothers:

“Next: America’s ‘feel-good’ band . . . doesn’t.”

I never bought a Doobie Brothers album, but as a adolescent in the 70s you couldn’t escape them, and they were pretty good musicians before the entire band deteriorated into rhythm & snooze. At the end, of course, there’s the inevitable “older but wiser, everyone has reformed for another album” segment, and the song played - written by the original guitarist - was indisguishable from their early work, the stuff that made them famous. And no one bought it.

On to M. C. Hammer, whose story was played like a Shakespearian Tragedy. (Thou Canst Touch This!) Look, I know the guy did good works. I know he was a role model, and that he gave a lot back to his community. But here’s the short version: guy earns $35 million by talking fast while wearing pants borrowed from “I Dream of Jeannie” and then loses it all because he put the entire state of California on his payroll and builds one of those stupidly big houses furnished with gaudy junk that looks like the stuff you get at the rent-to-own store. I mean, if I’d made a ton of money off one song based in a famous riff someone else wrote, I’d conduct a full-scale investigation to see if I actually had talent myself, and in the meantime I’d put something away in municipal bonds. Then came Hammer’s Bowie period, where he changed persona - first he was a Hard Core Gansta complete with knit cap and ugly parka (I never could figure out the appeal of this clothing style; to me it looked like Straight Outta Fargo, not the ‘hood) and when this failed, he had his Oiled Hedonist period - they played clips from “Two Pumps and a Bump,” in which Hammer was wearing only a Speedo that appeared to be stuffed with the forearm of Andre the Giant.

On to Genesis. Longtime readers of the Bleat know that I have an inexcusable affection for these progs, partly because they did some good stuff. The key to the band’s success was its collaborative process - alone, each member produced works of wearying banality and pretension, but together they made some interesting and complex music that was actually a pleasure to listen to. For me, anyway. Trouble is, no one in the band started hoovering kilos of coke, or crawled inside a bottle; level-headed blokes, all, and this makes for a boring Behind The Music episode. The main guitarist quit - because he had stage fright. Then Peter Gabriel quit -to make music that was about 50 lightyears ahead of where Genesis ended up going. Then Steve Hackett - a great colorist, but no great shakes as a solo artist - quit to follow his own brave route to relative poverty. Then Phil Collins quit when one single drum riff from “In the Air Tonight” (bum-bum bum bum bum-bum buh buh bum-bum-bum) made him 750 billion dollars. At the end you had just Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, and remembering that Rutherford had been playing the bass with floor pedals while using his hands to play guitar, I expected the narrator to announce that Genesis now faced its biggest challege: Mike Rutherford’s feet had left the band. “We auditioned 480 bassists,” said Tony Banks, “but eventually realized that the audience knew the songs so well they could just all hum together in the lower register and provide the missing notes. We’ve always considered the audience the 9th member of the band, anyway.”

To be fair, the show concluded with Mr. Banks admitting that they were utterly played out, and it would be pathetic to continue. Or words to that effect.

And then I went to bed. America’s tired happy man . . . was.


For a guy who doesn’t watch much TV, I watch a lot of TV. I just don’t watch network shows. When I have time to watch TV, I either want to watch a movie, or a documentary, or a documentary about a movie, or “Wildest Police Videos.” Really. I love a good grainy chase down a Georgia road, waiting for the moment when the drunk misses a turn and drives off the Talahachee bri-idge. Of course, he won’t be killed. No one is ever killed in “Wildest Police Videos.” As the narrator (real former cop John Bunnel, who was a real cop once on, well, “Cops”) always says: “Amazingly, no one in the car met his Maker - but they did meet the judge.” I’m not kidding. A few nights ago they played a chase that summed up everything you’d want in a Police Video, subset Wildest: an escaped Alzheimer patient driving 80 MPH down the wrong side of a divided highway. He clips a van full of children with such speed that his front axle flies off, then he T-bones another car, slides sideways and hits one of those disposable little Jimmys, the Bic lighter of SUVs. Sure enough: “Amazingly, no one was injured in the accident.”

How? How in God’s name is this possible? Is there a race of Iron People living among us? Was everyone related to Bruce Willis’ character in Unbreakable?

In any case, I’ve seen them all, so last night I wandered over to one of the spinach channels to see if they had a good documentary. This time it was “Great Pharoahs of Egypt,” as opposed to the great Pharoahs of Belgium, I guess. I love learning about ancient Egypt, but I have to see these things ten times before the info sticks. You have about a half-dozen Dynasties, each of which contained a hundred kings who all looked exactly the same. For all I know all these documentaries use the same footage: the Pyramids at dusk, a sculpture of a Pharoah’s head shot against a black background, rotating clockwise (counter-clockwise for odd-numbered dynasties) and slow pans over walls carved with inscrutible pictographs, most of which probably contain recipes for beer and prayers to Anubus, that He May Grant Us Passage And Incidentally Stop Humping Our Leg, Please. I lost interest during the reign of two Pharoahs named Peeps, because I saw gigantic yellow confections sitting on the throne explaining to a scribe “it’s spelled p-e-p-y-s, but it’s pronounced - ah, to hell with it.”

Then there’s the morning TV. Cartoons, alas. And I say alas because the stuff aired in the morning is bilge and drivel - I fear the day Gnat is interested in this stuff, because it’s incredibly boring. Ollie, of course, is different; Ollie gets more brilliant the more I watch it. But before PBS gets another dime out of me, I want a written explanation for “Sagwa,” a cartoon about Chinese cats. Granted, it’s educational - I have learned that cats can not only talk to bats, but do so at length without providing the slightest amount of drama or amusement. It’s so inert, so inexplicably slack, that it must be aimed at parents who want to spoil cartoons for their children. I grew up with cartoons the way cartoons were meant to be: mice jabbing hatpins into the anuses of venal felines, tie-wearing bears confounding federal employees, squirrel-and-moose teams foiling Communist plots. “Sagwa” seems too lame to even have a moral, let alone a plot. It’s followed by “Sherlock Bear,” the very name of which sounds Simpsonesqe. I only saw a few minutes - the titular Bear, presumably endowed with superior deductive skills but lacking the telltale deerstalker cap, was talking to a little girl; they both had novocaine expressions and flat careful voices. It’s all meant to assure parents that no real entertainment value follows, so it’s safe to plop the tot in front of this stuff. Maybe after ten minutes Sherlock turns on the girl and disembowels her and rips out her throat, shouting Alimentary, my dear Watson!

Sorry. That just came to me, and I was powerless to resist.

S. Bear and Sagwa are preferable to Jay Jay the Jet Plane, which is essentially Thomas the Tank Engine in the air - with wings and engines, of course; otherwise Thomas would fall to certain death. For those who haven’t seen this show, the planes all have big rubbery human faces in the front. Jay Jay looks like Bill Clinton. The entire show is unspeakable.

I don’t know what was in the coffee this morning, but I wrote a ton at the kitchen table and reorganized all the cupboards and drawers. In the old days, “cleaning” meant squirting 409 on a counter, wiping it off, realizing that the jam stains were not going to come up in my lifetime, and changing the kitchen bulbs to a lower wattage so no one would notice. Now “cleaning” means vacuuming the cupboards and wondering whether to arrange the vodkas we got for housewarming by height or price. (Height. There is a correlation between bottle height and quality, but only in the world of vodkas.) The final true sign that I had been swamped by a confluence of the manic cycle and a tight puckered spasm of anal retentiveness: I took Gnat to Target and bought 25 yards of non-stick drawer liner, because the organizing units I bought a few months ago moved ALL OVER THE PLACE when I opened a drawer.

I make this sound more . . . unbalanced than it actually was. It all comes from love of Jasperwood. When I have some free time, and Gnat’s amusing herself with a puppet show, and I’ve finished writing and I’ve read every blog on my morning route AND reloaded instapundit three times, I clean. I sort. I arrange. It gives me ideas; I think things through while I position the steak sauces from most-used to spiciest; I wake up the laptop and write things down. How this will affect my daughter, I’d love to know - I am the Voice of Authority around here, the One Who Denies as opposed to the One Who Relents. My wife will let her play with an empty 2-qt juice carton if she wants, but I see the calamitous breakdown of authority where Gnat screams in protest because she cannot dump a full carton on the floor. This is a necessary dynamic, but Gnat has the additional element of a Daddy who rails at the Lies of Windex: no-streak, my cold white butt.


The reason I love the web, and this particular thing here especially, is this: half my mail addresses yesterday’s rant, and the other concerns a bad cartoon about a PBS cat.

Today I got my hands on an incredible collection of WW2 civil defense manuals. Perfect condition, all retrieved from a dumpster at the U of M. (The highlights will be added to Flotsam Cove eventually.) Some of the manuals are for governments, telling them how to hide factories or describing new theories in railway yard concealment; there’s liberal use of a wonderful word now in disuse: falsework. There are lovely charts on how to bomb factories - choose a clear day, wait, squint, count to ten - and they underscore how low-tech the war seems to modern eyes. Apart from the boys and girls working on Enigma, WW2 was a war of slide rules, eyeballs and old-fashioned wind-sniffing. Most chilling item: a booklet describing the organization of a local board for processing the aftermath of an attack. It was published in Washington - yet one page that gives a sample sheet on How To Report Damage lists streets from Minneapolis. And it includes a line about the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown, with the blunt notation: plane through roof.

The information was cool, but there was something else that made me treat the material with a jot of added respect. Two summers ago I got inside the abandoned Armory, an old 30s building next to the Strib; the tour was arranged by a kid who read my column and the site, and had received permission to take photos out of his own curiousity; he invited me along because he thought, correctly, that I’d love a peek into these ancient ruins. He was about twice my size, nondescript in dress, your average 20ish college guy.

It was this kid who brought by the material to the paper today, but when I went down to the lobby I stopped dead: he was wearing a sailor’s suit, complete with small white cap and the kerchief tied around the neck. He’d enlisted. He did so prior to 9/11 - indeed, that was his induction date - and now he was training to be a submariner.

The fact of his enlistment wasn’t the surprise; I didn’t know him well enough to know his inclinations one way or the other. It just seemed like such a 40s moment (which made the items he gave me all the more interesting.) That’s what life must have been like over and over again - the sight of ordinary guys now standing straight in simple cloth armor, the sight of ordinary life militarized in the course of a month or two.

Submarining is probably safe in this war, since Al Qaeda’s depth charges probably consist of a guy with a lit stick of dynamite in his pocket and a cinder block in his arms.

I thanked him for the material, but thanked him more for his service. It’s odd: these days, being around someone in uniform can make you stand a little straighter - and feel a little smaller.

Went to a cigar store today in search of Schimmelpennicks (“Twice the consonants of ordinary cigars!”) the brackish little panatellas I enjoy from time to time. Turns out they were Anthony Burgess’ cigar, which explains . . . nothing, really. The cigar store was large, and you could tell it had absolutely no business at all. The clerk seemed stunned to have a customer. And he seemed crestfallen that he neither had what I wanted nor knew what it was. The store had that smell of failure to it, and sometimes you just want to get out, fast. I remember a small convenience store in Adams-Morgan - brand new, occupying a rehabbed basement, just up the street from the impossibly small Salvadoran C-store (it was the size of a 727 lavatory, and always had two people working and seventeen customers.) When this new store opened I went to investigate the beer prices; the owner was standing behind the counter with a desperate smile. There was no one else in the store. Something told me there hadn’t been anyone in the store for quite some time. He seemed as if he might cry if I didn’t buy anything. I could imagine his situation - he was Korean, and had probably borrowed the money from the mutual-aid investment rings that Korean immigrants used to set up shop in the US. So much rode on his store’s success, and here it was bleeding money in big river of red.

I couldn’t leave fast enough, and never went back. I couldn’t take the responsibility.

Addendum to the earlier discussion on Egypt, and the discussion about whether some cultures are better than others:

I’ve always wondered why the Egyptian society spent so much of their relatively short lifespans preparing for the afterlife. It seemed to be the first order of business for a new Pharoah: prepare your crypt. Phrank Si-natra probably sang the song: “Start buildin’ the tomb / I’m ruling today / I’ll make a big new tomb for me / in old Karnac / Reeead spells from (bum-bum) papyrus / I’ll rule with (bum bum) Osiris / It’s up to Jews / to hew / Karnaaaac!"

Actually, I don’t know if Jewish slaves worked on Karnac. For that matter, there’s dispute about how many slaves were involved - some say, and they’re probably right, that it was actually an honor to work on the big projects. You got beer and bread and you were serving the divine guy in the shiny house - not bad in those parts, in those days.

I understand why they were so concerned with the afterlife, of course - makes sense to concentrate on eternity if your life is short, but it also makes sense to carpe diem for the same reason. I’m just curious what pushes a culture in one direction or the other. The Romans seemed less inclined to worry about such things - perhaps because they were just more practical, perhaps because the leaders thought the Senate could vote you into heaven (although how many actually believed that, I don’t know; Juvenal wrote a snarky satire on the Senate’s deification of Claudius, which suggests that everyone knew the Senate’s decisions were not legally binding on the Gods.) The pyramids served other social functions, too - public works projects to keep the population busy, as well as objects around which a society could identify and define itself. But it still seems like a waste. Imagine if St. Peter in Rome had been built to house one single dead pope, and had been sealed up forever afterwards. Or better yet: imagine if the skyline of New York was exactly as we see it today, but every building housed a dead real estate developer, and no one could ever enter again. Something tells me that societies that build St. Peter’s and the Empire State Building are more flexible and capable of change; cultures that build the Pyramids just crash.

Single-use buildings: that makes the Pyraminds the architectural equivalent of Pampers. They last about as long, too.

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