Alley, downtown Mpls 011302
Frustration, friends, is when you’ve just screwed up the escape to the shuttlecraft for the seventeenth time in a row, and have to start once more at the beginning. I was bitterly cursing Halo last night, since an error at the end of the route meant you had to start again, and “again” was a long ways back. You have six minutes to drive a vehicle through an improbably large space station while everyone and his squat mutant uncle is firing at you - to say nothing of the peculiar wobbling Jimmy Glicks that explode when you run them over. Twice I was literally one second from safety when I was blown up by the Runaway Nuclear Reaction - see also, Alien, Aliens, More Aliens, Jeezum Crow Will You Look at All Those Aliens, The Doomsday Machine [Trek episode] The Search for Spock ST:3, Abbott and Costello Meet the Aliens, Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, Glitter [director's cut] Beverly Hills Alien 3, and Mel Brooks' Bursing Sternums.

Last night I decided to try it one more time, and with every muscle in knots I found to my amazement that I was going to make it. Ten seconds to spare at a point where I'd just had two. Run. Run. Run - like the dream where you cannot run as fast as you like, run -

Made it! And now I have my life back.

You’re always surprised how drained you feel after a really good bout of gaming; you’ve been tensing and unclenching for an hour. This is also known as Charles Atlas’ “dynamic tension” - muscles, working against muscles! Every gamer ought to be buffed out - and under that protective layer of Dorito residue, they probably are.

Found a cheap host - and I mean, cheap. How one firm can charge $500 for something and another charges $15, I’ve no idea. Maybe I misread the site, and they only offer “wib” hosting, or “wab” hosting, and after I’ve handed over my credit card number I’ll get a card in the mail inviting me to bring my wub on over, provided it is in a kennel and has all its shots. We’ll see. Tomorrow I’m switching hosts, and will begin the wretched task of moving this monster from one set of whirring platters to another. The site will live in Wisconsin instead of Atlanta, and I’m going to miss that Southern aspect; I don’t know why, but there was something cool about knowing that my site sat in a clean white room in Georgia.

I’ll be taking the week off to do this. The site will still be up, although there might be a day or two when she hiccups and there’s nothing, but don’t worry. It will not only be back by the weekend, Friday at the latest, but it will be so new and im-fargin’-proved you will not believe it. Long-lost sites will be up (except for Interiors; not yet) and new stuff added. All of Flotsam Cove, from day one. Curious Lucre. The Bureau of Corporate Allegory. Microfilm Follies. And! the hardly-at-all awaited University of Minnesota site. Minneapolis Modern, which is all nifty 50s and 60s stuff, including the Deadburb series and other delights, is ready to roll for the summer, as is The American Gas Station; the entire Dayalets vitamin series will be added to the Institute in May, etc. Four hundred MB of storage space, unlimited bandwidth: finally. Finally!

I feel like sticking it to my old host by putting up warez and MP3s, but I am not that sort of man.


Is this thing on?

I don’t remember if I made it clear that there would be no updates until Friday, while I move the site to the new host. On the other hand, the move is not going as smoothly as anticipated. I suppose I should be happy that the new host does not seem to have any actual staff, just an answering machine. They’re passing the savings along to me! And I am a bit nervous about this “unlimited bandwidth” proclamation, since another plan offers “unlimited storage,” and I’m sure that there is, in fact, a limit; if I tried to put a 1.3 terabyte JPEG on the site, I’d hear from them. Well, it’s a stopgap measure, and one year with them is cheaper than one month with the other guys, so we’ll see.

Watching the New York documentary by Ric “Jerry Van” Burns. Last night was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire story, and it made me think: if I’d lived back then, there would be no excuses for having the politics I have today. Of course, contexts are different, at least domestically. Nowadays, if someone locked the firedoors to a 10th-floor factory to keep the union organizers out, and a fire killed 150 young women, and the owners were set free because there was no law specifically forbidding the locking of fire doors, and no law requiring that fire escapes actually support the weight of three human beings without collapsing, I would not fold the paper with a satisfied harumph and say jolly good, that’ll teach those bolshies about the rule of law.

Unionization was necessary; it was literally a matter of life and death. The horrible conditions of the sweatshops was not an indictment of capitalism per se, but of the morals of the men who lived in those time. (Any economic system is capable of such exploitation and incremental brutality, inasmuch as any economic system is made up of human beings.) Fire codes, building codes, inspection, all the things we take for granted were fought by some who argued for the sanctity of private property and industry, and I think they tainted the concepts for two, three, four generations. That’s what frustrates me today - the attitude that we have not progressed a jot since the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, and that unsafe conditions and managerial brutality are the norm. You can’t address real injustice if you start with this premise, because the clash of fundamental preconceptions precludes any compromise. (Besides, anyone who’s worked in an industry OSHA affects knows the molecular detail of regulatory world today - and how the desire to regulate, however well intentioned, doesn’t always produce a safer workplace.)

But it also got me thinking about globalization - which I support, in general, but only with the caveat that America companies bring American values to offshore plants. (Heh heh.) Do I want to buy sneakers from a plant that makes 14 year olds work 10 hour shifts and fires them for talking? No. Do I think that the wisdom of accumulated experience can help other countries leapfrog that nasty phase of industrialization where a large unskilled & uneducated work force is gradually, painfully, slowly enriched and enlightened by the ancillary benefits of a booming economy? Damned if I know. I don’t. But like I said: American values. By which I mean 21st century values, which come from a century of hard-fought worker activism extracting concessions from management.

On the other hand . . . if the alternative is no job, no money, no food -

On the other hand, that’s a justification for exploitation . . .

On the other hand, I remember when we had a Vietnamese woman staying with us; she was pleased to report that her children now had white paper to draw on, not brown paper, and this was a sign of prosperity for her. (She was a surgeon.) It would seem to be arrogant American cultural imperialism at its worst to insist that her countrymen cannot work 10 hours a day, when that’s the only way they’re going to get the extra sou for a down payment on a moped to take the contents of the garden plot to market to make more money to buy a 17” TV, or new pots, or whatever.

On the other hand, I know this issue cannot be summed up in chants, posters, or large insulting puppets, which is why I did not march in New York. What’s interesting to remember is how New York reacted to the Triangle horror. Two hundred people die in a Shanghai fireworks explosion, and that’s that. Something unique and - yes, decent - in the American value system saw the shame in this story, and it changed the city & hence the world. And it put an immigrant kid into the Governor’s chair, too.

Well. Just rambling here. I’m just reminded that political definitions are fluid, and shift with the times. At least they’d better. Screw labels and screw parties; what counts is doing good, and lucky is the man or woman who lives in a time when those words shine bright and uncontested.

Hmm. This new host is not working out. I have a bad feeling about this, as every character feels compelled to mention in every George Lucas-penned script, with the possible exception of Wolfman Jack and Yoda, who only said “bad feeling about this have I,” but you’d have verbal dyslexia too if a man named Oz had his hand up your ass. But I digress. It is my understanding that a savvy webhost ensures that people will get to your site if they don’t type www., even though URLs without that prefix look oddly headless. When I typed in the URL of the hoster I was investigating, it 404d - and the page belonged to a larger web-hosting telecommunications company whose logo was a twin of the smaller company. Same small town, too. While the technical specs looked good - clean-room, redundancy to spare, back-up power system, white-coated lab techs with black glasses checking things off clipboards, Cylon sentries, etc. - it seemed obvious that the smaller company was using these facilities. Fine - but the larger company’s prices for web hosting were ten times as much, i.e., normal. So . . .the smaller guy charges $14.99 from me and gets charged $360 for the bandwidth? In 1999, maybe. Not today.
(In an email, the salesperson said the two companies were partners. Oh.)

I couldn’t get anyone on the phone - also a bad sign; they asked me to leave my name and number. Oh, yes, please contact me at your convenience. They had a live-help email program, which sent back messages saying No One Is Here Right Now. It was like phoning the office of Generalissimo Franco. No archaic dictator is available to take your call. Please wait for the next available 30s holdover fascist archetype. Most damning was the “about” page, which contained typos and touted the Wisdom and Vision of the company’s founder - right away, I suspected the founder wrote the page. So I emailed the sales link, and asked how long it would take to switch the domain over from Interland to their servers; I explained that I wanted a few days leeway to get the site up before it went live, and this reply came back:

Just fill out a sign up form, and that will get the process done and on its way. The sooner you fill out that, the sooner your site will be active.

Hello? Anyone home? A key detail for making a sale is to listen to what your customer wants to know. I had the sudden conviction that founder on the About page was Mr. Sales, too.

Too good to be true. Happily, a Bleat reader has stepped into the void and offered an alternative - actually, several have, and I bless you all; when I catch up on my mail I’ll thank you.

So. Even though I said I was taking the week off, I’m obviously not; I am depending on people who click here by force of habit or come through Tim Blair’s Blogwatch to fill this suddenly empty auditorium. I’m just writing this while I scan some new stuff for the Cove. A writer tonight asked where I got all this crap, and the answer is boring: I found it in an antique store or the newspaper archive, or someone gave it to me. I have a friend named George who passes along things he finds; his wife, who also scours thrift stores, is almost singlehandedly responsible for Interior Desecrators’ raw material. And people mail me stuff every week, as well. Cecil has his Teeming Millions; I have my Georges. Today, a co-worker joined the Army of Georges by handing me a scrapbook he bought at a garage sale - a 1930s children’s composition book that was filled in the 40s and 50s with cake recipes. (Aunt Jenny makes a down-home appearance, bless her childless heart, but Calvin remains dead.) The book has no clue to its owner’s identity, just multiplication tables and penmanship practice. It also had a church bulletin from the Westby-Coon Prairie Lutheran Parish, H. O. Aasen, Pastor, dated June 25 1950, saved for some inscrutible reason , and the names sound like a roll call of my North Dakota childhood: Pastor Aasen, Rev. Andreason, Rev. Jensenon, Rev. Ulvilden, and the ushers Rudy Nustad, James Sveen, Leif Flugstad, Janet Hagen.) I scanned what I could for the Cove, and when I took the book off the glass a piece of paper fluttered out - a receipt, as Aunt Jen would call it, for fudge fluff cake. On the other side, however, something quite different.

Westby Youth Makes Supreme Sacrifice at Korean War Front said the headline.

I wonder if my paper would say such a thing today, given it can’t even bring itself to call those who blow up nailbombs in wedding parties as “terrorists.” There’s a picture from high school of Cpl. Russell Haakenson.

Mr. and Mrs. Emil Haakenson, siding on a farm north of this city, received a telegram on Tuesday brnging the sad news that their son, Cpl. Russell Haakenson, 19, had been killed in action in Korean on Friday, October 13. . . .

. . .He was born at Westby on October 27, 1930, and grew to manhood here. He was a member of the 1949 graduating class of Westby High School. During high school days he was an active participant in agriculture activities and FFA work. He is survived by his parents, three brothers Earl and Merle, Westby, and Verlin, South Dakota. The last letter the parents had from Russell was written on October 4; he was apparently getting along fine at that time.

One can only wonder if Russell enlisted because he felt left out - when your brothers are named Earl, Merle and Verlin, a name like "Russ" might be a subtle sign you’re the one the family wants to seek his fortunes in the great world beyond. The Social Security databases have nothing on Merle or Verlin; Earl shows up, but his SS number code refers to his profession, not his place of birth. (Railroaders got special codes, for reasons I’m sure someone will explain to me tomorrow.)

Westby is in Wisconsin, and there’s a “Haakenson Agribusiness” in Westby today, according to Google. I’m tempted to call them and see if it’s the same, but I believe I know the answer. I hope it’s them. I’d like to mail them this yellowed scrap.

It’s important to remember this sort of stuff. Whenever your life seems annoying, think of someone who grew up on a farm in the Depression, then put on a uniform and left home, only to wake up on Friday the 13th in Korea and take a bullet.

And the next time someone in a Pentagon press briefing asks about the possibility of American casualties, remember this: the day Cpl. Russell Haakenson died, it was commonplace enough that his death was noted on the backside of a fudge cake recipe.

So let’s remember him today.

Took my wife’s car to the garage, which is only open weekdays and closes at 5:30. I asked the fellow at the counter why they didn’t open on Saturday, since that’s when most folk can coordinate dropping off a car without too much logistical complications.

“Well, the guys need a day off,” he said.

I wanted to say: get more guys, but I’d forgotten: the service industry is not here to do anything as debasing as, say, serve. They exist to balance their needs against the rapacious demands of the consumer, and if we reach a happy medium, hoorah. I left the car and trudged 20 blocks back home,where we began the longest day imaginable: nine carless hours of unrelieved care of a toddler.

Gnat amuses herself well, and will play with her Rolie Polie Olie dolls and crayons for half an hour; she will stare zombified by TV for 20 minutes when Elmo is on (and there’s occasionally a moment in an Elmo episode where the guy’s voice loses its Elmosity for a half-second, and it’s creepy and disconcerting; all of a sudden happy innocent Elmo seems like some horrid pervy deception; it's like smelling liquor on Bozo's breath.) Around ten I had visited every blog on my bookmark, and decided to do something productive: let's polish the wood cabinets. I had a bottle of Pledge Orange Oil Wood Polish, which I'd purchased at Target alone with the Pledge Fresh Orange Dry-Sheet Static-cling Swiffer refill sheets. (That sentence will look as nonsensical 500 years from now as Chaucer does today.) Orange has apparently replaced Lemon as the signifier of woodly goodness, and as a sensation-addled consumer intoxicated by the lure of the new, I applaud it. I like the bright saturated orange of the bottles on the shelf. Lemon - that’s oldthink, brother! I can’t wait to use up my stupid old lemon-scent Olde Englishe polishing cloths, which just scream of the ancien regime of wood care paradigms. So I sprayed & rubbed & buffed until the entire kitchen smelled like someone had detonated a clementine the size of Orson Welles' left breast. A few minutes later Gnat came toddling over, and whoop! she did a classic banana-peel pratfall; when I went over to give her a tickle I noticed that the floor was slick as freshly-Zamboni’d ice. I’d gotten Pledge all over the place, and it had made the floor completely treacherous. I was tempted to throw Jasper’s hedgehog across the room and watch him skid out the door, down the steps and out onto the lawn. But I love him too much to do that.

Gnat helped me wipe down the appliances as well, and by “help” I mean she demanded all the towels I was using, and got in the way. I gave her a towel of her own, and she staggered off around the corner, got a crayon, drew a line on the wall, and then used her towel to wipe it off. These ($*#$#$ crayons are making my life miserable - if she’s not drawing goatees and handlebar mustaches on her face, she’s eating them - and while I’m not worried when I see cerulean blue in the pampers, little flecks of red make you wonder if she’s shedding organ parts.

Finished another slab of that New York doc by Burns the Lesser (although I prefer him to his brother, who seems to think he has discovered his subjects anew. Look! Our flashlights have pierced this long-seal’d tomb, and what do our torches reveal? Jazz!). This segment concerned New York in the 20s, something I know a little about; it’s one of those inexplicable interests of mine that goes back to mid teenhood. So I knew where the program was going before it got there. Al Smith offered a role in the Empire State Building project while in the bathroom: check. Secret unfurling of the Chrysler building mast: check. The show lavished more time on Al Smith than he deserved - I’d have preferred more on architecture, speakeasy culture, radio or other mass media - but I loved the old footage of that old pol Al working the crowds. A bygone type of man, alas. Gold-crowned teeth stained from constant cigar consumption, a sweaty hank of hair plastered to his light-bulb skull, a raspy braying voice that could vault without effort the happy cries of inebriated constituents. How in God’s name did they expect him to win a national election?

The program also served sparkling flutes of Fitzgerald, our hometown boy who, like all famous hometown boys, ran away to Gotham. While Gatsby is a great novel, I don’t think it’s the quintessential 20s novel - it’s too dependent on its rarified milieu to speak for the age, only for those who didn’t have to go into the office. I prefer John O’Hara’s “Appointment at Samara,” which is far less sentimental and has a sweaty, clammy desperation that makes its hero’s damnation much more believable, and more effective. Who cares what happened to Gatsby? (A North Dakota boy like myself, I should add.) Who cares why he moons over Daisy? I suppose his distant sense of mystery and pleasant menace is supposed to make him an archetype for a glamorous era, but that could just be laziness or lack of imagination on Fitzgerald’s part. He built a book around a cipher, which is one of the reasons the book is endlessly discussed, and assigned in college English lit classes almost out of habit. You can make a nice academic career around explaining a cipher. O’Hara, on the other hand, seemed to think it was the author’s job to explain his characters to the readers, and hence his characters seem much more solid than Fitzgerald’s glimmering ghosts, O'Hara's scenes are full with merciless sunlight, not gauzy twilight and flattering shadows.

Hearing the excerpts of Fitzgerald’s work solemnly intoned over the shots of nighttime Manhattan, I remembered the one true thing about F. Scott Fitzgerald: man, was he hammered. Teased from their context and presented as epigrams, his observations have an alcoholic efflorescence, a certain bubbles-up-the-nose quality, but they’re sad and wistful at the same time; they’re both drunk AND hungover, and that’s what makes him good. To paraphrase Homer Simpson: Fitzgerald was the best argument for, and against, prohibition.

That he ended up a beer drunk is somehow sadder than if he’d been a whiskey hound. It’s as if he committed suicide with paper cuts.

You were walking Gnat along the parkway to the garage this afternoon. You were thinking of Fitzgerald. You were thinking of other such authors who were draped with the mantle of the Voice of Their Generation, and you thought of Jay McInerney, who wrote an entire novel in the second person: “Bright Lights, Big City.” That was a novel about the boom years of the 80s, which now seem lost in the explosion of tinsel that characterized the boom of the 90s. Two words make that book seem as distant as Gatsby: No Internet.

Of course they did a lot of coke. They didn’t have refresh buttons, so they had to make do.

Talked to my book editor today - I’ll be going to New York this spring to discuss Interior Desecrators, have lunch with potentates and endure liver-punishing Fitzgerald-like suppers with those who do not have to drive home, but can just slump drunkenly in the back of a cab. This will be even better than last year’s trip, since this time I am returning to a publishing house that is happy with me. Oh, my editors were always happy with me at the various houses, because they liked me and I liked them, but there’s a difference between your editor liking you and your House liking you. The fact that the Gallery debuted on 9/11 and sold out stunned everyone, including me, and so this trip has the whiff of a triumphal procession. Like Caligula returning from his great victory against Poseidon, for example.

I exaggerate greatly, but. Like Fitzgerald, like O’Hara, and many others whose company I do not belong, there is just something intoxicating when personal success is twinned with New York, however you define it and however short the moment. You can ascribe it, perhaps, to the physical compression of Manhattan - success in LA, for example, would seem diffuse and undefined, but when you look out your 54th story hotel room south at the Empire State Building, you get that king-of-the-world-ma feeling. It’s natural. It’s fun. It’s poison, too, because it’s so utterly fickle and fleeting, so utterly disconnected from the lives of the people who actually make up the city. If that’s how you define yourself, you crash hard eventually. (You’re a young author. You wrote a popular book. You were hailed the voice of your times. You dated models. You sucked ever thereafter.) But once a year it’s fun to stand at the window, open it up (that tells you what level of hotel I stay at) light a Partagas Sabrosa and think: this is what I dreamed of, and here it is.

I will go to the big Barnes and Noble off Madison Square, find my book, take it to the counter and ask the clerk if I can sign it; he’ll say sure, look for the sticker that says Autographed Copy, and then give me a look that says I might as well be from Mars.

Or North Dakota. Same difference.

Home alone at the moment. My wife is at the Guthrie theatah seeing Anthony and Cleopatra, which I believe is being staged in a new and challenging way: it’s set in ancient Rome and Egypt, and the characters are not used as stand-ins for 20th century ideological struggles. Very brave; I expect to hear of a hail of tomahtoes when the audience realizes that the theater is simply presenting the play as a play, instead of a Bold Cautionary Tale. (Although I did love the Dick 3 movie with Ian McKellen giving the “winter of discontent” speech at the urinal.) Since she’s gone all night that means I’ve not only taken care of Gnat in the morning, and the later afternoon, but done the whole play-bath-mush routine as well. Long day. Somewhere in the middle of it I went to work and wrote a column. And now I’m here.

At the risk of writing the most boring sentence on the web today: I’ve been thinking about the clarinet lately. Last night the TiVo presented me with “Festival of Shorts,” one of the TCM sporadic features I’ve asked TiVo to fetch whenever it appears. These are one-reel movies from the days when your dime got you a double feature, a cartoon, a newsreel, another movie, six cartoons, etc. The Festival of Shorts had two music videos, one from 38 and one from 48. Several stray thoughts:

1. There is no more thankless job than “guitarist in a swing band.” In the films you always see a guy strumming away, and you’ll be damned if you can make out what he’s doing - unless you pay attention, and then you hear the guitarist working with the bass and drums, almost inconspicuous but indispensable. Unless the guitarist is Charlie Christian, of course - he plugged it in and stepped to the front.

2. The loss of the clarinet in pop music is one of the great small tragedies of our time. One of the films had Artie Shaw and his Orchestra, playing “Begin the Beguine.” It’s a perfect swing tune - that smooth sweet melody floating over the beat, stepping aside for the staccato comments of the brass. It’s so adult. It’s so grown up. It makes you a better person for three minutes. The clarinet, someone theorized, is the closest parallel to the human voice, and it once dominated pop music. Go back to Warner Bros. cartoons in the 30s, and you hear it everywhere, usually an alto, and it has this insinuating intimacy no other instrument can match - even from a tinny TV speaker, from a distance of 70 years, it still sounds like Grandpa is singing softly an inch from your ear.

Now and then when I hear this instrument, I think back to a friend from high school speech & debate who was a clarinet fiend; he loved that instrument, and it seemed, well, peculiar to those of us deeply steeped in Led Zep or Jefferson Starship. A few years after high school he visited me in Minneapolis, and we went to an afternoon matinee of “Alien,” and got scared stupid; went to Gluek’s bar afterwards, and after a beer or two he turned the conversation to other matters - I’ll never quite forget it. We were talking about Michelangelo, and he said “and you know, he was gay. A lot of people are gay.” Pause - big desperate smile - “Like me!” I was stunned - hadn’t really expected that - and flattered that I was one of the people he wanted to tell, since we were never all that close, just part of the same circle. But I had the feeling some people hadn’t handled the news well, and he either hoped I would, or thought I might.

It was the first time anyone had ever said that, and the last time, for that matter. What he wanted was for me to not care at all about it, which I didn’t, and thereafter we were better friends. He finished med school and became a pediatrician, and from all reports was loved by parents and patients alike. He died of AIDS in the early years of the epidemic - he had AIDS when it was still GRID - and I think of him from time to time when someone makes a clarinet sing.

I always wonder what draws people to some instruments - sometimes it’s the proximity of the instrument to the human voice, and sometimes perhaps it’s the distance from the same.

3. Hey! Macarena! Sorry - that’s the song iTunes just played. I do not share the usual hatred of the song, because to me it will always mean Chicago 96 Democratic National Convention, 3 AM, Michigan Avenue Bridge, heading back to the hotel, singing the song at high volume, except we changed the lyrics to Hey, Machiavelli. It’s germane here, though; in the video the old cabelleros who sang the tune wore tuxes, and that’s what the guys in the Festival of Shorts wore as well. Big large pale sweaty guys, their tuxes like sausage casings, swapping riffs & grins. Doesn’t matter whether they were really crude-talkin’ reefer fiends - when you got up before the public, you dressed like a man.

(iTunes just presented me with the new New Order remix of “Crystal,” which made me want to stand up & twitch, but my headphone cord is limited - so I plugged in the iPod to the main Mac, transferred all the New Order tunes in 30 seconds, then went outside to stand on the cliff and bop around. It’s dark, and no one can see up here anyway, so I can do the geeky bob all I like. Life is good at Jasperwood: my own private rave.)

Anyway. I miss those days, but they’re not entirely gone. Sunday I emcee another concert at Orchestra Hall, and I will put on the black uniform as usual. It would be uncivilized to do any less.
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