Of all the accouterments of the season, the most loathsome is the string of Christmas lights. Each light has a maddened hatred of its brother - lest one bulb touch another, and they will instantly fling into total combat, ensnaring themselves and their neighbors into an spiky knot that makes the Gordian version look like a single limp Spaghetti-O. I managed to unravel six strands from last year, and by the time I got them out to the tree they had not only reformed into a plastic porcupine but assimilated my Walkman cords as well. It’s all you can do to keep from throwing them to the ground, stamping on them until your feet bleed, chopping down the tree they were supposed to adorn, and converting to some puritan sect that regards Christmas as blasphemy.

And then there’s the tree stand. This year we got the tree up without the usual discord. It’s tilted. No, it’s not. Yes, it is. Okay, now how is it. Worse. It can’t be. It is. Okay, now how is it. Now it’s tilted to the right. Why don’t we leave it as it is, and advertise it as the Mystery Gravity Spot Tree. Ornaments run uphill! Garlands tilt as if by magic!

This year we got it right the first time. Didn’t decorate the tree, though. I like to let them sit for a day or so, and wonder what will happen to them next. It’s all rather traumatic for a tree - they get chopped down, stacked like dead bodies (I’d say “like cordwood,” but that’s how they always describe dead bodies) then stood on end in a lot for the amusement of the ruling bipeds, or “The Moveable Ones,” as the trees call us. Then they get strapped to a car and hauled into the house - where everything else is made of dead trees. It’s like Ed Gein’s Lampshade Outlet. So I let them be for a day, just to concentrate their minds. What comes next? What? I put them close to the fireplace so they can see the lumber and the poker, too.

Then a few days later, we adorn them with baubles and coo in admiration. Then a few weeks later - out on the street! They go screaming, casting bushels of needles in fear and despair. I thought you loved me! I thought we belonged together! If you’re feeling particularly cruel, you prop them up on end in the snowbank like a real live tree.

Trees. It’s so easy to mess with their minds, it’s not even fair.

I wasn’t in the mood to do the lights or get a tree. It doesn’t feel like Christmas, or the holidays, and it won’t until we get snow. Last year it didn’t snow until the week before, and it felt like just another cold dark month. Of course, this mood can be changed in an instant with Charlie Brown Christmas music, which makes most of us feel festive, old, sad and very young, all at the same time in equal amounts.

In the Sunday paper came a supplement for mMode, the AT&T Wireless whachamacallit that promises to change my life and fill it with unending quantities of games, stock quotes, and Elton John songs. (Really: he was the cover-guy for the supplement.) This mMode thing is a marketing clusterfarg; no one knows what it means. We all got the i prefix, the e prefix; we knew what that meant. Internet. Electronic. Something like that. But the m prefix means what? Does mMode mean I’m supposed to hum the first m and shout the capitalized one?

The cover of the brochure says ”Elton John’s Greatest Hits - now on mMode” and this encapsulates their failure perfectly. Elton is done, spent, over, passe. Not the future. His “greatest hits” are not exactly a rare commodity. “Now on mMode” - I have no idea what this means. The cover says that mMode is something I can do with my wireless phone - but who wants to listen to Elton on their mobile phone? Is that what mMode is - piping has-been musicians through a tinny, static-filled handset?

Of course, I know what mMode is, and I know what they’re trying to do. Upsell me some services I didn’t know I didn’t want. First mistake: the name.It's dDumb. Second mistake: using the stupid name as an umbrella term for disparate services, such as email, phone-based cameras, phone-based games, and not incidentally, phone-based phones. Third mistake: pricing by the KB. No matter how generous our cellphone plan, most of us feel as though the meter’s running; adding another meter, namely bandwidth charges, chokes this chick before it pecks out of the shell. Fourth mistake: silly-ass services, such as Amazon.com music recommendations. A cellphone that alerts me to Amazon.com deals on Elton John compilations is not my dream; it is my nightmare. If my phone makes me dismiss a screen that offers a monophonic sample of Snoop Dogg in order to make a call, I will end up throwing it out the car window.

Five: launching too soon. I admire the idea; I will welcome it, some day. I like to take pictures. I like to take movies, listen to music while mobile, make calls, play games. But I am utterly certain that the devices they are offering, and the service on which they depend, is inferior in every way to the tools I have now. My iPod: more capacity, no bandwidth charges. My camcorder: high-quality video, and reasonable quality stills. My camera: high quality pictures. My cellphone: it’ll do. I would rather tote four devices that perform separate functions extremely well than carry one device that does everything poorly.

When there is a device the size of a pack of smokes that takes an hour of digital video, 64 4-megapixel photos, holds 1,000 MP3s and makes crystal-clear phone calls, AND it sells for under $500, I’ll buy it. (And please: give it a name that sounds like brand-name: Kumquat, or IceCube, or Whistler. Something that people can convert to hipster shorthand: wait a minute, gotta grab my Quat.) And I’ll let you in on a secret: if you also develop some cheap, thin medium that displays text and pictures, can be rolled up and stuck in a coat pocket or filed in a bulging briefcase, AND it connects to the Quat or the Cube to download articles from magazines and newspapers, I’ll pay for content. Not a lot - but I’ll pay for portability and convenience.

Why? Because I’m in a cab, on the train, in a food court at the mall, and I want something to read. I don’t want to read the six lines of display on my cellphone when I can read a newspaper - which is 100 pages thick, contains dozens of stories I didn’t know I wanted to read, costs a few coins, and NEVER CRASHES.

But they think I want to play Tony Hawk Proskater 4 on my cellphone for 20 bucks a month. The biggest punchline is on the back of the insert - it’s a CRAAAZY gen-Z guy with his clubby-striped tie wrapped around his forehead like a Japanese fashion accessory; he has the requisite hipster-nerd black-frame glasses, and he’s howling with delight over his mMode enabled life. He’s holding the phone close to the camera so we see how wide our horizons will open once we, too, sign up.

What’s on the screen?


I’ve so little time to sit down and read these days that the few things I do finish stick with me as much as they stick out. I read the entire Atlantic Monthly this weekend - a wonderfully dark short story about the Lourdes Apparition, the famous piece on JFK’s physical ailments (if he hadn’t been assassinated and had served a second term, by the last few years they would have been propping him up in front of the mike like the pseudo-Fuhrer in that Star Trek Nazi episode) and a story on Bobby Fischer, Nut. I read the last one at 7 AM on Saturday morning, because the paperboy threw the Strib over the fence, and I didn’t find it for three hours. So there I was, awake, with nothing to read. (Except for Glenn and Blair, the blogosphere usually doesn’t quicken until late morning.) I also polished off a depressing piece in the Weekly Standard about anti-American sentiment in Europe, and it made me wonder:

How long until America is hit by European terrorists?

Maybe it’s a stupid question. Probably so. But anti-Americanism in Europe is starting to resemble Islamic nutballism. Like a religion unhinged, it is desperately intense, gripped with eschatological certainties and devoted to an unswerving belief in a caricature that bears little resemblance to the actual nature of its enemy. Like Islamicists, the anti-Americans despise the Jews, although the latter group wouldn’t get their hands dirty getting rid of them. They’d prefer the Jews went up in the attic for a while, sat quietly, and waited for the sound of boots on the steps. (Someone else’s boots.)

What’s to stop these moronistas from launching terror attacks on Le Satan Gigantique?

Huge, fragrant, burning wads of pot, I suspect. Ideological incoherence. But let’s just posit that somewhere in this undisciplined mob of anti-globo goofballs there are a few men possessed of a miserable certainty, a few dozen folk who want Americans to suffer for the horrors they have visited on the world. (Big Macs, Adam Sandler, inferior cellular-service paradigms.) One bomb in Herald Square, one communiqué to the New York Times on behalf of the Bove Brigade, and now the equation changes.

What would be the European response?

Among the diplomats, Sincere Regrets, of course. (We hear about that famous Brazilian Butterfly whose wings set off a cyclone on the other side of the world; no one ever wonders about the impact on the weather of the breeze stirred up by the gently-shaken wattles of a Deeply Troubled EU diplomat. They’re probably responsible for 70% of our summertime tornadoes.) But we’d hear the same vicious pleasure the European left-wing press spit out in the months after 9/11. It wouldn’t be indicative of general European opinion, of course. The American Street - or, more accurately, the American Cul-de-sac - wouldn’t believe that Europe was rising against us. But isn’t it odd how many in America have had their opinions on the Europeans change over the last year. You can’t blame a concerted effort by American media to demonize Perfidious Belgium; we’ve just absorbed a hundred small stories, reached a new conclusion.

It will be difficult for the domestic editorialists to blame the attack on American foreign policy in Europe. They will make a few faint stabs, talk about McDonald’s and cultural imperialism and the Troubling Realities of Globalization that likewise motivate the nonviolent, and murmur encouragement to carry on the struggle to reform America without giving credence to the acts of the Bove Brigade. But their heart won’t be in it. They’ll feel betrayed, and peeved: this just makes things so much more difficult. This isn’t helping.

Nothing would change overnight; nothing does. It would take a few attacks to wake up Americans - and the end result of that would be indifference and withdrawal. It would, in other words, accelerate what will probably happen anyway: the separation of that intangible bond between America and Europe. They’ll be just another continent, like South America, neither friend nor foe. And should their bacon need saving - bacon from pigs fed only non-GM feed, hand-trimmed by butchers to EU specs - then the American response would probably be a short bark of humorless amusement: as if.

By “Europe” I mean Western Europe. Eastern Europe is probably much more dependable and friendly.

Wonder how that happened.

Yes, Virginia, there is a matchbook. And as for the source of this week’s Bleat pictures - well, you’ll just have to wait. Or, as a previous Bush instructed us: watch, and learn.

And here is winter, delivered intact: snow overnight, temps in the teens. Tonight I was walking Jasper Dog around the block, and the weatherperson said it would hit five below tonight. The headphone cord froze stiff before I was halfway up the block, dangling from my head like ossified spaghetti. Almost time for gloves, I think.

Went back to Target to exchange some lights. I’d bought the wrong kind. I always buy the wrong kind. Halfway through the yearly yard-illumination project I usually veto whatever scheme I’d designed; just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, no lighting project survives contact with the evergreens. There are three aspects to my design: the pathetic backyard display, which concentrates on the lower bushes and ignores three stately threes I cannot be bothered to adorn. There’s the side bank of small evergreens, half of which I’ve done, and the front lawn birches. Last year I did them up in gold lights, and I remember the day well: it was three days into the antibiotics that would dispel the pneumonia, and I was sweating like a butcher in July. In the intervening year the birches have grown so rapidly there’s no hope of getting lights to the top. I also installed a big red floodlight that was meant to look Festive, but has the unfortunate effect of painting the house the color of blood; it’s like seeing things through Jack-The-Ripper-Vision.

I pass neighbor’s houses and see a modest array of lights on some bushes, and I admire their restraint. Not me. When I’m going to do a half-assed job I go all out.

This will have to be short, since I think we’re having a house guest tonight. A cousin of my wife’s called from Chicago - he was heading west, but delays meant he’d miss his Mpls connection and have to overnight here. Fine with me - he’s a great guy, a researcher in neurological chemistry who spends years figuring out which parts of mice brain light up when they smell female hormones. I’m not one of those coots who sniffs at government funding of such research - why, ten million to study the adhesive properties of housefly feet? Ridiculous! I support giving money to absent-minded scientists with pockets full of pencil stubs and cigarette butts, the sort of guys who can be found at a coffee shop writing algebra on a shirt cuff, the eggheads whose TV have an inch-thick pall of dust on the tube, and who unwind by listening to Van Cliburn recordings on a monaural turntable. Whether this sort of cliché actually exists anymore I’ve no idea, but I’d like to think so; I have a long-standing attachment to the idea of the Eccentric, the clueless Cuthbert Calculus who cannot remember where he put his keys but can always find Orion in the night sky.

This goes back to childhood misconceptions, of course; we all grew up with the notion of The Scientist working in his Laboratory. (If he was a good scientist, it was a lab; if he was an eeevil scientist, it was a la-BORE-a-tory.) When the scientist was on the verge of something, it was invariably described as His Greatest Experiment - and once the Experiment worked, it was His Greatest Invention. These were the four pillars of Knowledge: Scientist, Laboratory, Experiment, Invention. That the end result was usually Frankenstein was irrelevant; what mattered was the unending efforts of men in white coats peering at test tubes.

Now that I mention it: I have one picture on my desk, a postcard from the “This is America . . . Keep It Free” series of chipper 50s propaganda. It has a fellow in a white coat holding a test tube over a bunsen burner. The text: “This is America . . . where free enterprise encourages men to invent, create, and improve. Where American genius brings good living to a nation. This is your America - keep it free!”

O how we laughed at these sentiments when I was growing up; O how we mocked them. Probably because this sort of patriotic kitsch is so irony-deficient, so square-jawed, so earnest. It is a rather silly card.

But I can’t argue with a single word, either.

Just got the call - the Scientist is en route! Time to rig up the guest bed.

It rises on chains all the way through the skylight. He’ll feel right at home!
Today: smart rats, bellicose roosters, smallpox and big media.

I signed off on a small bleat last night, noting a relative was coming over to spend the night - he’d missed his plane and needed a spot to camp. The relative was my cousin-in-law - one of the more vague and easily-sundered family bonds; no one ever sings “He ain’t heavy, he’s my cousin-in-law.” But I’m proud to be related, however tangentially. I’ve known him since he was a smart articulate teen who was going to Change the World. And as it turns out, he will. I haven’t seen him in four years. I asked: how’s the research into the brain chemistry of sexually active mice going? and he said: great. So we picked up where we left off years ago, driving south from his Grandmother’s funeral, smoking cigarettes and arguing about cranial electicity and free will.

To sum up what I learned: they’re doing wonderful things with rat amygdalas nowadays. The experiments he described are a futurist’s dream and a bioethicist’s nightmare - biological storage media, biological computer processors. I don’t know how many years away we are from commercial application, but I fully expect to have a personal cyborg by the time I retire. Thank you, rats! After a hundred years of extracting your brains and grinding them into Smarty Slushies, we’ll almost be even for the plague.

He had to get up at 4:30 to catch a plane; we stayed up until 1. Ah youth.

Before he turned in I checked the DVD player in the basement where he slept; Gnat has a habit of turning it on to see her favorite cartoon (A Silly Symphony about Easter Bunnies. It’s as saccharine as most of the SS, and contains another example of a truly bizarre Disney motif: one of the bunnies dips his butt in paint and presses it against an egg, leaving a heart shape. That image pops up in another Silly Symphony, and of course there’s the famous moment in “Fantasia” where a cherub watches a centaur couple wander into the woods to mate. The cherub draws the curtains over the scene, then sticks his head through the curtains to spy on the rutting couple; the cherub’s butt and tapered feet morph into a heart. Someone in the studio was a serious keister man, if you ask me. )

Anyway. Gnat turns on the DVD player, and it calls up the submenu for the cartoon she likes. There’s a cheery little 30s ditty taken from one of the cartoon’s soundtrack, and it repeats every thirty seconds. Some nights when I’m at the kitchen table and the house is quiet, I hear it coming from the basement, a faint little whisper from a ghostly orchestra; it’s one of those “Shining” moments, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a ghostly bartender encouraging me to correct my family for their disobedience. I wouldn’t want our houseguest to hear the music trickling from the speakers and wonder whether the disembodied spirits of the Little Rascals would soon coast from the furnace room and play out some ghastly translucent tableau. Otay! I trapped in undead limbo world! Likewise, the computer in my wife’s office has been playing a Dr. Suess ABC program for a week or so, unheard; today I turned up the speakers to let Gnat play with the program, and it was already running. It had been running for days with the sound off and the monitor powered down, retelling the story over and over.

Slather a thick paste of mouse brains on that machine! Let it think for itself!

As long as I’m on the subject:

The Silly Symphonies are interesting as cultural time capsules and examples of the animator’s art, but I’ve never been a thrall to Mickey. The cartoons lack the cheerful mayhem and all-American brio of Warner Brothers cartoons, and they are incapable of the over-the-top inventiveness of Tex Avery’s MGM work. They’re side-scrollers in an Unreal Tournament genre. But the details are interesting. In one cartoon, BlueBlue Dog (as she inexplicably calls Pluto) adopts some baby chicks - they hatch in his doghouse and imprint on him, much to the distress of their biological mother. She calls upon the local tough-guy rooster to beat the crap out of Pluto and get her chicks back. When we first see the rooster, he’s gargling some water, and he’s bleary-eyed; obviously, he just got up after a long boozy night. The hen flies into him, demanding he do something, and he gets the standard why-I-oughta expression. Then he performs two cartoon rituals: he hauls his stomach up into his chest, and cocks his hat forward. This was always the prerequisite act before a fight: you push your hat forward. You also shadow box in a way that involves brushing your nose with your thumb.

I have no idea what any of this means, but these actions are so deeply ingrained in my mind that when I walk over to someone’s desk to argue about something, I feel as if I should push my hat forward. And maybe roll up my sleeve to reveal an anchor tattoo.

There are a few hidden tracks on the DVD, and one of them features Uncle Walt talking about cartoons, or fairy tales, or the rich satisfying flavor of a Winston, or the advantages of cryogenic storage, etc. I have the same reaction now I did then: he’s not my uncle. He always seems like some sort of super-principal in charge of cartoons, and I never really trusted him - he was as equally happy to introduce a cartoon as one of those disappointing crappy nature films. If Uncle Walt was really on my side he would have apologized for the Trials of Happy Beaver, or Springtime for the Vole Family.


Just kidding. Anyway, our houseguest hit the hay at one, I went up to sleep; Jasper barked to let everyone know that the cab was here; Gnat woke in hysterics at six because her door was open, which always freaks her out. I got up at seven, rose from my bed feeling like I was composed of rusty ill-joined Tinker Toys, and began the day. Finished the Newhouse column, went to work and wrote another, gathered Gnat from her Nana’s, made another crappy pasta dish, had a bad nap. Tonight I’ve been working on the Mpls website, which is the last big piece to finish for the redesign, for v. 9.0. I don’t expect anyone to plow through the site again; I just want it to be complete and fresh, so it doesn’t give off the aroma of a project that was begun with great enthusiasm and abandoned two years ago. I’ve added pages to every single site on lileks.com, and I’m finally proud of the thing. Sort of.

Drudge linked to a story that says a Russian scientist sent up Saddam the pox, and that if we zig for great justice he might unleash the bugs on us. It reminded me of the book “Biohazard” by Ken Alibek, a Soviet defector who wrote about the USSR’s secret bioweapons division. Alibek talked about the political pressures that kept Biopreparat going, and how these quotidian bureaucratic joustings led to Gorbachev signing off on an program to weaponize smallpox. I think of that whenever I recall Gorby’s visit to our fair town, and how everyone ran after his limo as it passed as if there was a Beatle in the trunk. Yes, those treaties worked so very well. Thanks for the erupting pustules, blotch-head.

But if we do face a smallpox outbreak after we attack Iraq, I expect the local chapter of Women Against Military Madness to blame the administration - just as they would have protested if the US had preemptively bombed the sites where we believed the smallpox was kept. And I expect the Indymidiots to scream that any quarantines are a cover for martial law, during which the entire staff of the Village Voice will be carted off and sent to the Idaho Gulag.

The evil that results from confronting evil will our fault, of course.

Hey, we started it.

If there is a smallpox outbreak, I’ll tell you what I don’t need. I don’t need Maureen Dowd freaking out. I don’t need New York-based columnists and reporters hauling out the anthrax template and sounding as though they are soiling their drawers as they report the stories. They’ve prospered for years by magnifying small events into national significance - well, this would be a case of global significance, and it’s going to require level heads and resolute voices. If there’s a riot at a Manhattan inoculation center, report it - but if the vast majority of the country is queuing calmly in school gyms and armories, baring an arm, cracking nervous jokes, expressing fears with the brittle laughter you find in the Midwest when people are hard up against it, tell that story, and tell it often. Sometimes the story isn’t the riot; it’s the lack of riots in a hundred different places. People are going to turn to the news for reassurance as well as information, and at the risk of sounding like a traitor to my profession, it will be a chance for the media to act as if they have a stake in this nation.

Does this mean they should lie to us? No. Ignore bad news? No. But if the outbreak is confined to the East Coast, and there’s an unconfirmed rumor of a smallpox case in Salt Lake City, don’t worry about being first with the story. We’re going to be scared. We’re going to need the truth, not the rumors. Filter, distill, report. And spare us the fellow from the Economic Institute of Economic Economists who will describe the ruin soon to befall the economy; we’ll all be making our own decisions about going to work, to the mall, to the grocery store, and that fellow’s observations will be useless at best and depressing at worst. For that matter, burn your Rolodexes. Think of who you might put on the air to babble for six minutes, and repeat these four syllables: DC Sniper. The big media looked like an idiot when that case was done, and it was a crime confined to a few counties on the Eastern Seaboard.

If we all have to spend a few weeks in the house, we’re going to be watching a lot of TV, and we’re going to want people on the TV to act like people. Don’t give us Geraldo; don’t give us Dan Rather recycling Texas homilies about chilblains and armadillo fever; don’t worry if your eyes look red and your face looks drawn. Forget everything you know about TV news - the portentous opening line, the handoff to your anchormate, the ominous toss to the reporter on remote.

Wing it. Nothing you've ever done prepares you for this, so forget your training. It has no use here. Talk to us.

It’s interesting how a year ago the very notion of smallpox made my bowels loosen; now I’m thinking about the proper approach the media should take.

It’s going to be an interesting Christmas.

Remember the line about the rough beast, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, how the best minds are irresolute, the worst are filled with terrible certainties, and the center cannot hold, and all the rest of the sentiments that signal a miserable surrender to a slough of mud, blood and shit. I don’t think that’s our future. I think our center will hold. I think our center will compact to the density of a neutron star.

In a way I’m terrified. But I’m not afraid. I’m not sure what the distinction is, but I know there’s a difference. And it gives me hope enough to shove the issue in my back pocket, head out the door in the morning with tot in my arms, and think about what will make her Christmas special. We all live in two places these days -the daily world, and the place of conjecture. Believe me, it’s better than living in a world where the two become fused, where conjecture becomes the headlines.

I spent most of my life living under the Nuclear Threat, the fears of horrid planetary death. Fear of Smallpox? Yes, I can pencil you in.

Does Monday work for you?

This was to be Friday’s graphic, but I moved it up a day. I leave it to you to figure out why.

I never thought I’d write these words, but: Al Roker is coming to my house for dinner!

Let that one sink in.

Ready? Okay. Al Roker, the ever-cheerful weatherman who had his stomach stapled and shed a unit of weight one might we well call a “Willard,” has a food show on the Food Network. The producers stumbled onto the Gallery of Regrettable Food website, and since Al was coming to Mpls, they wondered if there might not be a little story here. Well, no author turns down the chance to pump some life into a book that’s been out for a year; of course I agreed. Next week a film crew will come to Jasperwood and shoot some segments of your host cooking Regrettable Food; Al will appear at the end of the day, we’ll shoot a dinner sequence in which I serve up a procession of inedibles to some friends, and it’ll all show up on cable in a month or two.

This is my life: long periods of unremarkable routine punctuated with peculiar, outsized moments. I’ve been meaning to get some art for the mantelpieces in the kitchen / family room, but now I really have to get something, because a film crew is coming. I hadn’t thought about getting a haircut on Friday, but now I have to, because a film crew is coming. New dining room table? Yes! A film crew is coming! Reshingle the house! Train the dog to say Aw Wokaw! Get out the caustic lye and engrave the Food Network logo in the lawn - a film crew is coming!

It all goes back to one book, one pamphlet, one sheaf of paper my mother kept for reasons I'll never know. It was a recipe book left by the Welcome Wagon when we moved into the house on in 1962; when I found the pamphlet 34 years later and thought “this would be an interesting addition to my pathetic, content-deficient home page” I had no idea that the end result would be a book, let alone Al Roker in my kitchen.

For the dinner guests, I invited my copy editor at the paper, our TV critic (who will be tagging along with Al the next day), my wife of course, and Gnat’s Nana, whose canny thrift-store found many of the cookbooks that up the Gallery. I’ll post all the relevant information when the show airs, so you’ll not only see your host’s labored attempts at spontaneous japery, you’ll see the kitchen table at which the Bleat is written and uploaded nightly. Yes, yes, big whoop, but still: fun, no? Stay tuned.

But there’s more! I also got a call today from the TV station where I used to do monologues on their political Friday show, Almanac. I hadn’t made any appearances in a while, because I frankly got tired of schlepping my tukus to the studio and capering around like noisome babble-monkey for forty-two dollars a pop, and I didn't have the cocoanuts to tell them I wasn’t in the mood to do it anymore. There are some people who will knock over Grandma and pay the producers $42 to be on TV, and I used to be one of them, I suppose. When I first started doing the monologues I was slaveringly grateful, but as the years wore on I discovered that it didn’t mean what it used to. No slight against the show - it’s a great program, smart and breezy and wonky in a peculiarly Minnesotan fashion. I just became unhappy with live broadcasts, because these small nervy segments brought out the worst in me. I punched everything too hard, channeling the anxiety into a performance that just felt off, no matter how much I liked the result. Whenever I did the show I felt as if I was revisiting the persona I had on TV in the late 80s, when I was so eager to BE someone, be NOTICED, be FUNNY.

But that’s just nonsense, now that I think of it. Truth is, I was just being myself. And that was the problem. I can’t watch myself on TV without thinking oh, shut up. Try to be 17% less pleased with yourself, okay? Criminey. It just drives me nuts - I shoot for Steven Wright, and end up manifesting my inner Jerry Lewis.

Well. The station wants me back - but they want to pre-tape the segments. Upon hearing this I did the Homer tongue-droop: awwwwgggghhh. Preeeee-taaaaped. That’s been my dream: doing some TV without the imperative of LIVE TV stabbing me in the ass and making me ramp it up to grab the audience. Now I can be cool. Controlled. Charlie-Rose serene.

And then after a few weeks they’ll think “man, he’s become a desiccated mollusk” and the calls will stop coming.

Stay tuned!

The truth is,
I’ve been hiding. It’s easier not to be on the radio, not to be on TV. Tonight while walking Jasper around the block I thought: what if I had to do a radio show tonight? and the old familiar coil of nerves and weariness and anticipatory thrills unwound in my guts. Then I thought: what if I had to co-host a show with my old friend Jeremy, the Dark Chef, the producer of the Diner? And a dozen ideas leapt to mind. This doesn’t reflect well on me at all. It says I want a collaborative effort I can dominate, and I shy from a solo effort whose flaws rest on my shoulders alone. That’s the worst possible read, I guess, and hence probably the honest one. To be successful in the jabbering media you have to think that people care what you say, and I’ve never been able to internalize that presumption; I feel as if I have to convince them anew every time to lend an ear. Not a bad motivation, but damn, it tires you out. Any wonder I’m content to spend my day with a two-year old and a dog? Easiest audience I ever had.

If I had the chance to co-host a radio show, I’d be back in a second. Sunday night at the Diner with the Dark Chef, spinning tunes and tales -

Well, I can dream.

Well, that’s enough self-revelation for one night.


Roker in five days. Bellus in two.
Imagine you’re going through an alphabet book, and it’s the letter A. The picture shows a breakfast tableau, with Daddy cooking up a meal. “Aaron asks for Applesauce,” says the caption. There are many items that begin with A, and Gnat names them all: Apples. Applesauce. Acorns. Airplane. Egg.

“No, honey, Egg begins with E.”

“A is for Egg.”

You try to explain that one. “No, A is for epple. E is for aig.”

$%)%#$ English language. Wait until we get to F, and I have to explain it’s for ghoti.

Watched “Uncle Saddam” last night. It’s a documentary on Mr. Bullseye, made by someone who had unusual access to Saddam’s world for a few weeks. I had a review tape, and HBO insists on putting a statement of intellectual property rights over the bottom 10th of the screen, making it impossible to read the subtitles. But only Saddam was subtitled, and I’d already read the money quotes. The only statements he made concerned personal hygiene (he’s for it) and the corruption of one of his interior ministers (he’s amused by it.) Everyone else spoke English. And everyone loved Saddam.

The documentary had a rushed quality, narrated with haste and edited with a sense of nervous urgency, as if the editor expected a knock on the door any minute. As an overview of Saddam’s family politics, it’s invaluable; we meet his wife, who was a Tami-Feh-Baquer-type, a squat overdone glam queen until Saddam publicly stepped out on her. Then she took up the veil and the frown, and slumps around exuding dowdy bile. We meet the charming sons, Uday and Qusay, described in glowing terms by a grinning little toady who will be played by Steve Buscemi in the movie version. We hear the tale of the defector who fled to Jordon, denounced Saddam - then grew homesick for the smell of the Tigris, accepted Saddam’s promise of amnesty, and took his family back to Iraq. (They’re dead.)

It all felt like “Scarface” on a national level. Except that “Scarface” didn’t have a nightly TV news broadcast, and Saddam does. I’m always fascinated by the way other cultures adopt the conventions of the nightly news - the upbeat urgent theme music, the catchy graphics. Gouged-Out-Eye Witness News! In the case of Iraq, you see a planet rotating in space, stopping when Iraq rolls around. The nation grows green - a taste of things to come, perhaps - and fills the screen; we see a famous statue of a mythological figure pouring water, no doubt a Baghdad landmark. It all seems so normal, so modern, so familiar - and it’s all in the service of a miserable, rotten man who spent his childhood shoving hot pokers into dogs and cats.

“Scarface” had a big ugly house, but Saddam has 30 or so. The documentary gave us a glimpse of his flair for monument building, and you couldn’t help but pause the tape and slo-mo it for a close look, since all these places will be smoking holes in a few weeks. There was even a brief interview with his Speer, a Frenchman (surprise!) who designs some of these palaces. And there was a segment on the mosque Saddam is building - bigger than anything anywhere else, of course, surrounded by an immense lake, and boasting an island imprinted with the rills of Saddam’s fingerprint.

There was, perhaps, 30 seconds of footage from a children’s hospital.

That’s all they got before the guides moved them along.

A little girl trailed an IV bag on the floor.

The floor was pitted and cracked. The camera zoomed in on a crushed cigarette butt.

Today while driving back from the grocery store I heard an interview with a Methodist leader who has announced that the upcoming war violates the wishes of Jesus. He wants the international community to put pressure on Saddam to reform, or perhaps resign at some unspecified date. How he expected this to be accomplished, he couldn’t say, but he was quite certain that using force to end the regime of Saddam made Baby Jeebus cry. Which specific scriptural exhortations did he have in mind? the host inquired. “We are told to turn the other cheek,” the religious leader said. “And blessed are the peacemakers.”

I’m picturing Jesus outside the Temple, waving a placard: VERILY VERILY LO LO, MONEYCHANGERS HAVE TO GO.

A caller to the radio show insisted that the Islamic world was justified in hating America, just as Blacks were justified in hating the Klan. The “US embargo” was killing Iraqi children every day. His stats were wrong - as we know from Matt Welch’s work - but his general premise, like those of the pedantic pastor, had no connection to reality. None. No one can look at the mosaics in one hallway of one wing of one of Saddam’s palaces and tell me that Iraq lacks for money. Even if Saddam had decided to screw the UN’s weapons-inspection program and ensure the perpetuation of the embargo, he has the scratch to buy whatever his nation needs. Medicine? Vaccines? Food? There’s always a Frenchman in a dim Marseilles office who’ll pass it along for a price.

I finally realized what makes Saddam such an unusual figure in the history of tyranny: he’s such a cheerful bastard. He has his stern Father-of-the-Motherland moments, but most of the time he’s grinning. Sure, there are trials and botherations; uneasy is the head that wears the porkpie crown. But over and over and over again we see the toothy beam of a man who loves his work.

In the Western view, he’s a sociopath - but I’m not sure that applies to the culture from which he sprang. He’s a product of a nasty clannish culture in which conscience and empathy are anomalies, and when that’s the case you’re guaranteed that the head man will be an SOB non pariel. It’s not that Saddam is abnormal - he’s entirely normal by the standards of his culture.

A man with the conscience - now there’s someone who’s mentally disturbed.

When the program was over, I felt as if I’d watched “Triumph of the Will” as filmed by Errol Morris, and it was 1939, and I knew that all those magnificent monuments were going to be destroyed by May 1940. I gave the tape to a friend, and I hope she plays it for her friend who thinks that the real problem in the world is Ariel Sharon. The sort of person who understands why a Canadian college defunds Hillel. The sort of person who understands why the EU would ban Kosher rituals. The sort of person who understands why some right-thinking Cali co-op grocery stores would start to drop Israeli products.

When Sharon builds his 30th palace and bars Palestinian children from hospitals, let me know.

One final point: if you’d lived under Saddam’s rule all your life, and you saw the Americans coming to kill him and his clan, and you believed in your heart this was really about oil . . . would that really matter? Would it matter to you at all?

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