Monday, April 01, 2002

A weekend night. In my past I would have expected a Saturday night would be spent someplace witheringly hip, crammed with peers six deep at the bar waiting for a drink, running over the thoughts of the dateless single. Do these shoes strike the right balance between sexual availability and high standards? Is she noticing my triceps? How come he’s with her? Why is everyone talking when no one can hear a thing? Why is the most coveted seat here a place at the bar, when it means you have your back to all the action? When you’re single it’s almost preferable to be unhappy in a crowd - at home, "human contact" consists of bumping into the bookcase and getting brained by a falling volume of Tolstoi. In a bar there's a chance happiness might drop down next to you and ask you for a light. (Which is what happened to me, more or less.) But now that I'm married with child and dog, Jasperwood is infinitely preferable to a bar. I control the music. I control the pour. I am reasonably sure that the bathroom around the corner does not have a pool of water one inch deep on the floor, with wads of unspooled toilet paper floating like fields of albino kelp. The only thing this house has in common with a hip nightclub is this: when I’m in the bathroom, women frequently barge in here, too.

I was always amused when that happened. And I wonder if any of the Dworkinites ever wondered why women in America felt comfortable barging into a bathroom where most of the men have had a few drinks and six have their penises already in their hands. And nothing ever happened, of course. The women eliminated testosterone on contact. Guys looked at the floor, the wall - if they were in medias res, they especially looked at the wall - and said nothing.

Wisdom I hope to pass on to my daughter: don’t ever go to a bar where you wouldn’t feel comfortable using the men’s room.

Anyway. Now there is comfort in the quiet of the kitchen after the family’s gone to sleep. You hear the conversations the house has when no one else is talking. The fridge, moron that it is, periodically hums a single note for a minute or two, then, satisfied with itself, stops and composes its next tuneless song. I hear the dog sigh in the next room, one of those bored snorts through the snout that signals his acceptance of the day’s end. The pipes are gargling. It’s a conversation, sure, but it’s like the conversation of three people at supper who are also reading the newspaper. Private thoughts and public noises.

The TV on the other side of the room is on, but silent. I get the gist. Now it shows people burning American flags - oh, keep it up, lads. Then it’s the Pope, bent in pained prayer with the expression of the humblest sinner in God’s great realm. Then Arafat with his stupid, stupid eyes, and that mess of a mouth that looks like he coughed up his liver. A shot of a mass rally in some Arab country, full of banners whose words look like an orgy of swords.

A small Easter basket sits on the table - one bunny, one egg for each of us. Even the dog. And one more for whoever wants to claim it. You, them, anyone who can hold it without wanting to crush it in their fist.

I fixed the leaking fridge today: spent an hour holding a hair drier over a pea embedded in the glacier at the bottom of the freezer. This pea, the repairman had explained, blocked the drain. So I heated the ice until I could get at the pea . . . only to find that that there was no drain. Just a pea. Poked around until I found the actual drain, blasted the ice into water. That’s my job: State Changer. “What did you do this weekend?” “Changed H20 from a solid to a liquid state.” “Well! Bully for you, then! Huzzah the Changer of States!”

These jobs would feel more important if I wore a cape, and had some sort of insignia on my chest.

Banal as the household duty was, I had to do it - I’d spent the morning at the postcard convention, which cost a few hundred husband points. Twice a year it comes to town, and twice a year I join the throng of the narrow, stooped obsessives who’ve come to find a Real Photo card of a Rumley Oil-Pull Thresher in a pre-WW1 North Dakota wheat field. Not barley - got enough of those. Wheat. I heard one fellow ask for “street scenes that included a Studebaker.” God help him.

After a few hours the small room is hot and stuffed and has a faint rank aroma - there must be some smell, some chemical exuded by people On The Hunt, anxious to find that one perfect card. I sat next to a guy who brought along a list (bound, laminated, kept in a binder) of what he had, and he consulted it every time he found something in his category. (Big Letter Place-Name Cards.) Another woman collected pre-Sundblom Santas. When I asked a dealer if he had any North Dakotas, he gave me a box and noted “There are a lot of Fred Olsons in there.”

“Ah hah,” I said, not knowing what the hell he was talking about. And sure enough, there were. Many cards were stamped FRED OLSON, and I gather he rolled his own - homemade postcards of life on the farm in the olden days. There’s no limit to what I don’t know; one card I have, a panorama of Fargo, was stamped PERRINE in the corner - turns out that was a famous North Dakota collector whose collection was dispersed to the world when she died. That’s the lovely thing about collections - they bring together these disparate bits of jetsam, but only for a while - then a surviving relation who neither shares your tastes nor respects the assemblage tosses it up into the wind - and it blows away, free to reform again in a different combination in the hands of someone else.

Helped my in-laws move into their new house today. They’re on the other side of the creek now instead of being exiled in a post-war burb; the new house, being one block south of 54th, is part of the post-Depression building spurt that got kneecapped by WW2. The house still has its 1940 details, right down to the most excellent tileage in the bathroom and some linoleum in the basement that nearly made me weep. (If they’d had patterned boxers in 1940, this was what Bogey would have worn.) I did my old trick for dating the house: if the toilet’s the original item, flip over the tank lid and look for the date stamp. I don’t know where I learned that, or why they did it - they don’t seem to do it much anymore, but old toilet lids bore the month, date and year of manufacture. Sure enough: Dec. 22, 1940.

This always impresses people, but only for six or seven seconds. I always seem to expect applause, which says something about me, I’m afraid.

Rule of moving: no matter how big the couch and how small the door, you can get the first one through the second. At some point it seems as though you’re going to have to reshape the laws of physics and shimmy the sofa into a different dimension, one where you can still get a good grip on the leg but pass it right through the solid mass of the door frame like a stiff breeze through a fine mesh screen,. But you always find a way. You sweat and curse and mash your fingers, but yea you persevere, because it is your duty, and because there is always beer at the end of it all. (Unless you are moving a Frenchman, in which case there is a remarkable chablis.) It was supposed to take an hour, and of course it took three. It’s left me bone weary and sore, and it’s time to sink on the sofa and let the bad brackish news of the day wash over me like medical waste.

May you live in interesting times. Used to be people delighted in reminding you, with a wry knowing smile, that this was a curse. No one has to remind us now. We never really expected how interesting times would get, did we?

Tuesday, April 02, 2002

. Usually the Bleats written Monday night are short and harried, since I have a column to write. There’s nothing worse than calling up the rough draft of the column on a Tuesday morn and finding nothing but ranting word-hash. Used to be I had alllll day to fix it, but no more. At least I have an easy topic this time: the end of Speedy Gonzalez. It’s a light topic, but the international news is so unrelentingly grim I don’t feel like cracking wise about the Israeli situation. Even if I could find a humorous angle, I would deserve a public caning for using it.

Yet we have a huge Bleat. Why? Well, the following I began as a short little essay on old media, and it snowballed - so here it is. No weather stories today (even though it snowed six inches: pure cruelty, that) or Gnat tales (even though today we played “kitchen” on her Sesame Street stovetop, and she took out each item from her bin of tiny pots and pans, saying “and now” for each item. Lethally cute.) And no Target tales, even though I went there today, confronted the wall of half-off candy, and thought: that’s quite enough pink and purple, thank you. Quite enough.

Anyway, here goes:

I don’t know if there are any aspiring journalists in the audience; if so, two words of advice.

1. Leave J-school. Now. There is absolutely nothing you will learn that does you any good. Go work at the school paper. If you don’t have 25 actual clips by the time you leave the University, you will have squandered tens of thousands of dollars, and if you do get a job, you will find yourself wondering how post-structural dialectic multivariant viewpoint paradigms can possibly apply to this story on the sewer board you have to do. (It doesn’t. Just write.)

2. When researching a column, it is not necessary to keep an open mind. Opinion columns are, by their nature, unfair. You have a point of view, and you’re going to present your favorite facts to bolster your view. An evenhanded column is a boring column. Save the pretense of objectivity for news stories - you only have 700 words, so get in close and work the kidneys. However: when contacting someone to get info for a column, use the power of persuasion. Do not write an email like this, which came yesterday from Alex Beam of the Boston Globe:

James, weren't you once a talented humor writer? Why are you churning out this web dreck? I can't tell if these bleats about Rod Serling or the Palestinians are diluting your humor work, because I can't claim to know it well enough, but I certainly have my suspicions.

Feel free to respond: I am writing a column (deadline: Monday 11 am) on bloggers who might benefit from a less arduous writing schedule.

Alex Beam, Boston Globe

The piece might appear today, Tuesday. I’ll be curious to see if I’m in it. If I am, I’ll reprint the letter I sent him, and you can compare the two.

I just love the subject matter: writers who should write less. Den Beste turns out more solid work in a week than most professional journalists in a month, and his cogitations are invariably more informative than most “think pieces,” and much more pointed than the bag of wet blunt twigs you find on any editorial page. It’s not because his site is some hermetically sealed isolation ward, impervious to dissent - it has a discussion board, which is not only akin to the letters page of a paper, but goes old media one better: people can argue about the letters, too. That sort of dynamism is not only absent in newspapers, it uses the very tool that sets newspapers apart: the word. TV relies on pictures; radio on emotive voices. Blogs are about words, period, and you stand or fall on how well you use them.

For a print columnist who writes, oh, say, twice a week to sniff at those who pump out ten tons of spirited commentary for free reminds me of some baggy-pants third-rate vaudevillian rolling his eyes at the people streaming into a nickelodeon. Oh, sure, they have moving pictures of a train robbery, but nothing beats a pie in the face.

Here’s the secret: people on the web are not paid to be important. They usually aren’t paid at all, of course, but the point of putting up a blog isn’t to be Influential, or to Redefine the Dialogue, or any other of the hoary old clichés. People put up blogs because they have something to say. If they post six times a day and three posts blow chunks, so what? Better that than a columnist whose every piece is stooped with the awful weight of its author’s ego. (I’m not referring to any columnist in particular; choose your favorite.) In any case, the number of “amateurs” who warrant repeat business is amazing. Just found, via InstantMan, an Israeli blog. It’s on my list of daily visits. Took one click to put him in the bookmarks. For a newspaper to do this, several things would have to happen:

* The space would have to come out of the limited news hole for international news, because unlike the web, print space is finite.

* If the feature ran five times a week, it would have to go on the same page - which would draw instant complaints from the layout folk, who are constantly dealing with the shifting array of ads that redefine each page on a daily basis.

* Someone in graphics would have to put together a small logo, and the feature would have to be shortened to permit an editor’s note that explained what this feature was; that note would run every day for a month, perhaps permanently.

* A Palestinian blog would have to run on the same day, or every other day.

That’s assuming newspapers would do something like this, which they won’t. They’re more likely to send the senior foreign reporter - if they have one, of course - or an editorialist on a tour of Israel. He or she would interview top officials - repeating the views and press releases we get in the NYT & WaPo - and would swing though Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, quoting whenever possible any people from the paper's hometown who happened to be there as well. (The all-important local angle, without which we presume our audience will turn the page. War in the Middle East? Boring . . . hey, there’s a choir group from Eagan there now! Well, that changes everything. This I gotta read.) The piece will run one to two weeks later as a series, with a logo and a title. Under Fire, or Holy Land, Unholy Terror. It will have five parts, it will have great photos, it will be submitted for a Pulitzer, and it will lose.

People rail against my paper, and I freely admit its faults, but as papers go I think it’s one of the best. We have a lefty local columnist, Doug Grow, who I read all the time - he’s solid, fair, clear as glass, never stoops to common-man schtick, does his legwork, and always finds a story no one else does. He's indispensible to understanding the town. Our foreign affairs writer is smart, scrupulous, careful and learned; whenever I pass his desk I always feel as if he is spinning spiderwebs out of steel cables. We put international news above the fold and salt the features section with transvestites when needed. We have the best travel section outside of the Times, thanks to two extraordinary writers, and we devote three pages per week to religious matters, including a column that reviews churches. God knows the place drives me nuts sometimes, but I always wanted to be a Strib man and I’m happy & proud I am.


The newspaper is a lecture. The web is a conversation.

As many have noted, that conversation depends on recycling and dissecting the lectures of the daily papers; take them away and blogs would be the equivalent of ham radio operators saying “hello? hello? I am in Westphalia. Hello?” Blogs need papers. But newspapers don't seem to realize how they feed this new medium - instead of taking advantage of it, they treat it like a school of minnows nibbling on their toes. And Gulliver was no doubt amused by the Lilliputians until he woke up and found himself tied by a thousand small ropes.

So what do newspapers have going for them? Physicality. Presence. Persistence. Raise your hands: who saved a newspaper from Sept. 12? And who printed off an archive of website from that day? Reading a website will never have the same solid satisfaction as reading a paper, which is the old medium’s great advantage. If only they didn’t feel as if their heft and institutional weight conferred credibility or ingenuity, because it doesn’t.

Again, I exempt my paper - conversations with the upper muckity mucks tell me they take the web quite seriously, and they’re looking ahead. Way ahead. Columnists, however, are often of a different opinion. Union-secured cushy jobs will do that to you. Shoot me if my work ever smells like it’s happened to me.

If I ever start a paper, Clueless writes the foreign affairs column, Layne handles the city beat, Welch has the roving-reporter job, Tom Tomorrow runs the comic section (which carries Treacher, of course). MediaMinded runs the slots - that's the type of editor I want as the last line of defense. InstantMan runs the edit page - and you can forget about your Ivins and Wills and Friedmans and Teepens on the edit page - it’s all Blair, VodkaP, C. Johnson, Aspara, Farber, Galt, and a dozen other worthies, with Justin “I am smoking in such a provocative fashion” Raimondo tossed in for balance and comic relief.

Who wouldn’t buy that paper? Who wouldn’t want to read it? Who wouldn’t climb over their mother to be in it?

Me, I’ll be up in the publisher’s office, window cracked open so I can enjoy a cigar in the summer, laptop on the desk, working on a strategy to lose millions on an interactive mousepad that wirelessly connects to the web and uploads URLs to our proprietary mice. Doesn’t matter that no one by then will use mousepads, since optical mice will have long become the standard.

They’ll change their habits to accommodate old media. Yes they will.
Yes, indeed.


Wednesday, April 03, 2002

my spellchecker does not know “blogosphere,” and offers “Taliban” as a substitute for “Sullivan.” Corrections have been made. Wise to the ways of dull square wood, however, it recognized “Beam.”

For the last few weeks I’ve had the vague suspicion that I had agreed to some sort of bookstore appearance in April. All I remembered about the engagement was a piece of paper on my desk that said April 4 - that’s it. Nothing more. That’s all I wrote. It was the CROATOAN of memo-pad scribbles, enigmatic and hauntingly inscrutable. I figured that as the date approached, I’d look into it. Well, today I get to work and fish out the piece of paper. It says April 3. And it says “Food piece.”

Oh. Right. I’d agreed to write something for the food section, and whatever it was, it was due in 16 hours. Damn. Well, what of this public appearance, then? I looked at the phone; the message light was burning; I had a sudden stab of horror that the event was yesterday, that the answering machine would contain five calls - the first humorous and mildly worried (but jokingly so), the second and third increasingly annoyed, the fourth scathing, and the fifth nothing but ambient sound of people milling around in a bookstore. Maybe I could claim Michaelmooreitis, and insist I’d been detained by the fascist police on the way in - since 9/11 you know, they've kept a close eye on book signings.

Ran through the endless emails, looking for something on the event - ah hah. It was Thursday. Seven PM, the “Bound to be Read” bookstore in St. Paul. I still have no idea what I’m supposed to talk about, so I’ll have to check the flier on the way in. Thus relieved, I sat down to write the day’s column.

A co-worker drifted by, and noted “saw you on Romanesko.”

Huh? Oh. Right. Gulp. The Boston Globe Controversy! The story that split the firmament of the blogosphere like a blow from Vulcan’s hammer! I fired up the browser, which has Romanesko bookmarked. (My office PC has different bookmarks than my home machinery; when I open the office browser it feels like slipping into a different suit of clothes, and finding things in the pocket I’d forgotten about.) Sure enough, the Globe story was all over the place, with the teeming motes of the web pointing out the Beam in Alex’s eye. What - a - hoot.

Conspicuous flaming idiocy is often treated by bloggers like a shank of meat thrown into Blofeld’s piraña pool (“You Only Live Twice,” my favorite of all the Bond films) but this one just refuted itself; it was like one of those biodegradable camping crap-bags that collects the offal AND returns it to nature. Its inexplicable lede set the tone (“Aimez-vous blog?” Aimez-vous blog? A dull lede is bad enough, but a dull lede in French? I kept repeating it to myself until it sounded like Amy Vu Blog, the name of a second-generation Laotian webdiarist. Hell, I’d love to read that) and its hilarious misreading of Bjorn’s April Fools page was delicious. A masterpiece of the genre.

But something struck me at the end - the idea, often expressed by those who feel the need to put webloggers in their place, that everyone links to everyone else in orgy of conspicuous congratulation. True: the blog world swaps a lot of spit. But anyone who’s spent any time with writers knows that this is the exact opposite of writer “communities” as they’re usually defined. Writers are often cliquish, jealous, brimming with spite and gossip, always looking for a fresh spine into which they can sink the shiv, always fearful of the next new thing who’ll make them look old. Intellectual centers often have Famous Author Feuds - in the old days, you expected to pick up the Times and learn that Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer had shot each other to death in a Soho alley.

The most notable dispute I can recall from the blogworld is whether bloggers were devoting sufficient scorn to the Bush administration’s steel tariffs.

One other point: I still wonder why he went after me, since this isn’t a blog. It doesn’t use any of the handy templates, it’s updated but once a day, and even . . . though . . . it . . . should, it . . . rarely . . . links . . . to anyone. (See above: writers, bitter competitive nature of.) It’s telling that he purposefully misrepresented what I wrote, reducing the little comments on the Twilight Zone to a single word (“overrated”) and judging the post-Passover massacre piece on its opening lines alone. Perhaps if I’d written that in French.

In any case, I thank everyone who wrote notes of support, or cc’d a letter they sent to the paper, and I continue to thank everyone who visit this page expecting no more than the patented parade of mundanities, domestic homilies, and spurts of hot foaming bile. I’m having fun; it sounds like you’re having fun. Whatever compelled this fellow to stomp up and down the block kicking over lemonade stands is anyone’s guess. But we’re all the better for it! The Boston Globe has spoken, and Andrew Sullivan will think twice next time he wants to write about a movie he saw.

As promised, here’s the full exchange of letters. Sullivan got a snarky letter too, and he declined to print it, noting it was intended as personal correspondence. In my hubris I think this may have been a gentle chiding for my public airing of the exchange, but I had my reasons; it was clear this fellow had his mind made up, and if he acted like a groin-prong about my site and trashed my reply, I wanted to show how he’d started the conversation. So, once again, here’s his letter, and my response.

James, weren't you once a talented humor writer? Why are you churning out this web dreck? I can't tell if these bleats about Rod Serling or the Palestinians are diluting your humor work, because I can't claim to know it well enough, but I certainly have my suspicions.

Feel free to respond: I am writing a column (deadline: Monday 11 am) on bloggers who might benefit from a less arduous writing schedule.

My reply:

Oh, no. You're not going to write one of those clueless old-media "blogging phenomenon" stories, are you?

My Bleats are just end-of-the-day remarks. That's all. It's a more conversational format than newspapers provide. People visit the site, explore the various pop-culture & urban archeology sites I've put up on the web. Sometimes they buy my book, which is tasty gravy. They write letters about my dog photos. They tell me about a date they had in a cafe located in one of the buildings in my New York postcard section. And so on. It's all very neighborly and informal, and there's a connection with the readership I've never found in daily journalism.

As for the dilution of my "talent" - I write a thrice-weekly humor column for the StarTrib, and a weekly nationally syndicated political humor column for Newhouse. The website also has some purportedly humorous aspects outside of the bleat - there's "The Screed," a dissection of other notable opinions; it gets about 100,00 hits per installment. There's "The Institute of Official Cheer," a humorous site that spawned a book: "The Gallery of Regrettable Food,"published last year by Random / Crown (now it its fourth printing, huzzah). Crown will also publish in '03 another book based on the site called "Interior Desecrators." And that's just 1/8th of the entire site.

None of this is any mystery to anyone who's visited the site and looked around.

You did visit more than six or seven pages, didn't you?

I don't have an "arduous" writing schedule; I just write what I want when I want, which is the great joy of the web - a bottomless news hole and an audience that can weave a bond with an author through the accumulation of daily details, odd tangents, personal gripes. (Granted, I'm not writing about deathless issues such as the movie rights for the story of a Providence mayor, but now and then a few notes on the war just slip in for the few dozen readers interested in the subject.) Note: this was a reference to one of Beam’s column.

Sometimes the bleat is meant to amuse. Sometimes not. The standards are low and loose, which just makes for a different tone. (I would not, for example, expect paying customers to cough up two bits for my meandering thoughts on the Twilight Zone, anymore than I would expect my newspaper column readers to pay for a column that *began* with two grafs of quotes * someone else* wrote about David Letterman.) Another reference to a column of Beam’s. If you're going to judge the entire project on a few days' entries, well, go ahead, I guess, but you're a little late to the party.

That's the kind answer. The short answer, based on your first two sentences, is an Elvis Costello quote: I wish you luck with a capital F. Perhaps I misread your tone; maybe it's that famous Boston charm. But when you contact me re: writers who should write less, I can only assume the worst. I realize that the tendentious & humorless tone of this letter proves your "web dreck" and "diluted humor talent" angle, but something tells me I'd be ill-served if I cracked wise, too.

If you were just being breezy, well, no offense taken, but I'd work on the query-letter tone. You really can get more flies with honey than a thumb in the eye.



(Note: it gets better! Ms. Postrel also posted her reply to Beam here,and as usual she's bang-on.)

Friday, April 05, 2002
(AAAAAHHHHGHGGH. Email still hosed - can't send, but I can get - and OY how I'm getting it. Bless everyone who wrote yeterday about the Grandma's Camera feature - 220+ tonight alone! And I can't respond! Alas, I may never, and for that I truly apologize. May I cool my heels in purgatory for the time it would take to give each and every one of you the response you deserve. We now return yuo to your regularly scheduled Bleat.)

I’ve noted before the dreary lameness of PBS’ animated shows - from "Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat with Mother Issues" to "Franklin, the Vaguely Depressed Preadolescent Turtle." Don’t get me started on Sesame Street - the live-action segments shot on location always seem to hail from some ancient pre-80s New York, and I half-expect Serpico to pop up and hopscotch with the children in some rusty decaying playground. The muppet-centric bits are fine, though. I especially enjoy the levels of reference in the Count, a felt-swathed vampire whose voice and clothing hark back to a 1930s cliché of Middle European ancestry, which itself was probably based on WWI-era cultural assumptions. (Time reduces these accents to simple concepts: a Lugosi accent no longer has the connotations of aristocracy, effete interbreeding, cultural arrogance and an unsettling sense of dangerous Slavosity. Now it’s just campy bloodsuckery. Likewise, the Viennese accent now means one thing: the voice of a bearded cigar-sucker listening to someone on a couch describe their childhood. Und you hate your muzzer, yes? Perhaps in 100 years a Brooklyn accent from the Bugs Bunny era will make people think only of pugnacious rabbits.) Anyway, the Noggin channel has remade itself as the Slightly Less Drivel-Pumping Noggin Network, and added a few features. One is called “Little Planets.” It’s computer animated, and well-done, but it was the theme song that made me look up from my laptop.

It was unmistakably British. And not in a way that we even think of as British. When I think of English music, I either think of Holst, with his great ruddy gusto and hand-over-heart themes in The Planets, or the elongated passages in a Vaughn Williams score, or the oom-pah beat of the music hall tradition. (About which I know next to nothing, but I know it when I hear it - “It’s Not Cricket” by Squeeze, for example, sounds like a music-hall tune; you can almost see some bulbous grease-painted yob with baggy trousers bouncing around the footlights.) But this new British style is based in synthpop, and is notable for absolute simplicity and clarity of melody. Tunes that sound so elemental you’re surprised no one ever thought about it before.

The joy of the web: I waited for the credits, hit the pause button at the end, and googled the name of the animators: Pepper’s Ghost. (Something tells me Pepper was a dog. Do dogs have ghosts? Do dogs have souls? But we’ll get to that.) Sure enough: Brits. For the entire day I couldn’t get the tune out of mind, and I didn’t even know exactly what it was; I was humming the outlines where the notes would go next time I heard it again.

The pain of the web: I would have liked to learn more about the animation studio, but “this site makes extensive use of Flash.” Please wait while the entire Oxford English Dictionary downloads.

The miracle of the web: perhaps thanks to a note I put at the end of the bleat yesterday, I did not show up at a bookstore tonight with a busted lip. I was driving up Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. A Yukon, which is a vehicle the size of modestly priced house, turned right on red, in front of me. I braked. The Graf Yukon was moving at a stately pace, below the speed limit, and I thought: if you’re going to get in front of me, fine, but let’s hasten things along. Apparently I was too close to the fellow’s rear - which in vehicular terms was half a football length from his actual ass - and he slammed on the brakes. He stopped. In traffic. That’s never good. That’s just not good. Nothing good-related ever comes of that. Then he went forward a few feet. And stopped. Down goes the window. Head goes out the window. I made the universal gesture for “you got in front of me, pal,” which of course is a series of incomprehensible hand gestures, one of which might have been offensive in a culture that regards the showing of the side of one’s hand as taboo. He responded with a gesture of remarkable unambiguity. I waited. He pulled over. I attempted to pass. He shot back in front of me. And stopped.

I let him go. Not that I ever had him, of course. At the end block I turned and dallied in some side streets, expecting the Yukon to come blasting through a snowdrift and T-bone me into a body cast. But no.

I was early for the booksigning, so I wandered around Victoria Crossing. It’s an urbanist’s dream - four 20s era commercial buildings rehabbed and stuffed with independent stores and a smattering of Starbuckery, plus one big new building that blends nicely with its aged relations. I used to live around here. Used to play this video game at Billy’s: Commando. Stuff popped up. You shot it. Hours of fun. It had a moral subroutine in the program, too - periodically nurses would appear to cart off the wounded, and if you shot a nurse the game responded with an overwhelming number of angry enemies, so even the most sociopathic player learned to avoid shooting medical personnel as a practical matter. And sometimes that’s all you could hope for.

The book signing was at a big new bookstore called Bound to be Read. Apparently I was supposed to give a chat, too. In the old days I prepared these things, and that never worked - better to have a few points in your head and just do it. At ten to seven there were more seats than people, and I relaxed a bit: ahh, a quiet little conclave. But when I went back all the 35 + seats were taken - all these folks, some of which had the book in hand, waiting for me to say something. One of those moments in which you really, really wish you were an expert in something, instead of a Blatherer About Scanned Stuff. But they were a friendly crowd. And they grew in number - at one point I looked to the periphery, and saw people standing - and a few minutes later I saw the management bringing out more chairs. And here I am yapping about 70s interior design, my knowledge of which stems entirely from simplistic humiliation of a few Better Homes and Gardens design books.


Well, it went fine, and there were questions at the end - a good sign. (When there’s dead silence and a hasty muttering rush for the exit, you know exactly how bad you were.) To my astonishment, there were questions about this site, the Bleat, its dramatis personae. One fellow had an 8-week-old baby, and when I inquired about the child he grinned and said the boy was a future suitor for the Gnat. I’ll tell you why this is so odd: all of my life my work has been written on one machine, then printed on paper. Actual physical proof. This web thing could easily be a solipsistic hallucination - I write in one program, put the words in another, do that “uploading thing” where the work is “transferred” to a distant “server.” Yes, uf cuss. And you belief zis server is trying to kill you? No, doc, it makes it possible for me to see what I just wrote in another program, called a browser. Und you belief zat everyone elz is rrreading zis, zis bleat as vell? Well, sometimes people come up to me in the grocery store and say they do. Innnnteresting.

I mean, this is all so self-contained that it’s strange to see and hear people who are sitting right there, breathing in and out, holding their offspring, asking questions about the blogworld as well as the book.

The feeling of strangeness is quickly replaced by delight, of course.

I am one lucky SOB. People queued up afterwards for autographs, and a few said they’d followed the byline since college. Wow. This was how I wanted it to be, and it is. One - lucky - SOB.

Then Michael Moore in a cop uniform waded in with a flashlight and busted up the event. Only fair, I suppose.

A few people commented on yesterday’s Grandma’s Camera feature, which was deeply gratifying - there’ll be more of those pictures eventually. I want to find some pictures of one of the yard dogs that hung around the family farm, because one of those dogs I owe a great debt. When I was six there was a badger in the culvert. As I wrote those words I realized that they have had a certain ominous meaning to me all my life; a badger in the culvert brings back a day when the dog was barking hard at a pipe in the culvert, and upon investigation my Uncle discovered a nasty creature hissing back into the flashlight’s glare. They must have feared that the badger was rabid, because my Uncle fetched the shotgun and bang, the badger, my friend, was blowin’ in the wind. It did not traumatize me; I must have understood that this was a Thing that Needed to be Done.

The next week I wrote my first story, an account of the Badger in the Culvert. Very straightforward: illustration at the top, words at the bottom. A few sparse pages, a simple tale: the dog barks, the adults investigate, we all discover the Scary Badger, weaponry is deployed, and the badger alas is no more. It’s a sign of those times that writing about gunplay did not land me in the counselor’s office for a week, or lead to the confiscation of my precious colored pencils.) I’ve forgotten the event itself, but I’ve never forgotten writing about it. And for all this I thank the dog, the spotted black and white mutt whose two-tone hue gave him the inevitable name of Pepper.

So everything I write is a tip of the hat to Pepper’s Ghost, I suppose.

Do dogs have souls? Maybe not in the sense we reserve for ourselves, but in other sense: memory. That’s where they go, and it’s good enough for them. I thought of this driving home tonight, when I worried that I'd be coming home late, and Jasper's bark might wake the Gnat. Ahhhh, let him bark, I thought. That's his job and he does it well. I thought of some other dogs I've known, and how it's necessary to recollect them from time to time, and thank them for the honor of holding their ghosts until you relinguish your own.

Of course, when I got home he looked up from the sofa, shook his head and yawned. Toughest audience I'd had all day.

Long week? You’ve no idea - but thanks for the visits, and I’ll see you on Monday.

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