Maybe it was his last day, and he didn’t care anymore. Maybe he was tired, and his fingers coded the wrong sequence of numbers. Perhaps there had been so many seasonal items to enter in the database that this one just slipped by, and later that night he realized that he’d forgotten to input the SKU for Hershey’s Holiday Silver & Gold Foil Kisses. He laid in bed, thinking of the coworkers who’d curse his name - if they knew it, of course - as they crooked the mike to their mouths and asked for a pricecheck at aisle 13. The rest of the people in the line would groan; they’d be peeved at the woman ahead of them in line who just HAD to buy something that didn’t scan correctly. (She should have known, somehow.) Dang.

On the other hand, who’d know? And on the other other hand, who ever thanked him for every item that did scan without incident? No bonus this year, no time off - just a mass-produced card from the head office that wished him some sort of nonsectarian elevation of spirits, and best hopes for the year to come. Ah yes. The year to come, and all it would entail: the soul-crushing, wrist-twingeing, eyeball-straining, tension-headache, crick-in-the-back, throbbing ‘roids year to come, spent hunched over a terminal typing 20-digit strings of numbers for people who never thanked him for his daily toil, and only cursed him when once a year his weary digits hit 6 instead of 7.

Let those unentered Foil Kisses be his gift, then. His protest. His way of saying: I am alive! I am a man! Attention must be paid! Let them call for a price-check on aisle 13, and perhaps they’ll be chastened by the realization that they only have to do that once or twice a day. If that.

He slept soundly, he did. And who could fault him?

Weeks later, I’m in Cub on New Year’s Day. Why? Because my wife decided to throw a dinner party. Why? Because mon frere-in-law and his daughter, visiting from France, need someone to cook for them. Why? Because frere-in-law’s wife, who is my wife’s sister, just had a baby, and she’s still in the hospital. My wife decides to make coq au vin, and sends me to the only grocery store open in the Twin Cities, a Cub in St. Paul on University. It’s 4:30. I’m starving. And because the dinner guests are French, we won’t be eating until 1 AM, or something. I fortify myself with two sliders from a White Castle drive-through, park at Cub, gird my loins, and enter the fray.

I buy the salad, the thyme, the pearl onions, the bread, the chick -

Hmm. There’s no chicken. There are Family Packs of drumsticks, but no frying chickens. The entire poultry area has a definite Soviet flavor - just a few items strewn around a long empty chiller. Since one needs coq to make coq au vin, I realized that my errand is in jeopardy. So I put everything back and drove to the Rainbow store, which was open when I passed it. But that was half an hour ago. The lot is empty. The store is closed. The party is broken. The night is fubared. Back to the Cub. I fill up the cart again, and head back to the Chicken aisle, somehow expecting that the Tyson Fairy has swept through, waved her wand and made hundreds of decapitated, gutted, plucked and sundered birds soaked in the fecal stew appear for my dining pleasure.

No. I ask a butcher if there’s anymore chicken. “All outta chicken,” he says: words you rarely hear. He assures me that tomorrow the chiller shelves with creak with birds, but that does me no good now. But - hey - ahah! I remember that I have a pound of chicken in the deep freeze; that’ll have to do. I fill out the shopping list, and head for the checkout.

Since this is the only open grocery store within ten miles, the lines are, well, ten miles long. It’s hard to tell which line belongs to which register, but I notice that one line keeps shedding customers. People are walking away from this line. Why? Ah: it’s the Self-Service line. Fifteen item minimum. Perfect!

The very idea of a self-service grocery checkout is strange and wonderful. The trust! The power! But it’s somewhat unnerving - when the cashier scans the item, and the machine issues the approving bleep, it somehow transfers ownership of that item to you. Seen in this light, the cashier’s role is symbolic - so why can’t you do it yourself? Perhaps because it feels hubristic. Who am I, that I should have the power to scan and release? How did I earn this trust, anyway? Is this indeed our retail future - a frictionless exchange of plastic and prerecorded pleasantries?

It’s amazing how many stupid & pretentious ideas you get when you stand in the Express Self-Serve Checkout for TWENTY SEVEN MINUTES.

I’m not kidding. Every other line on either side emptied out and was refilled three times, four. And still our line moved not. The obstacle were twofold, one set of patrons per terminal in the line. Unsure what to do, they took to stabbing the screen at random until the green light on the aisle-pole turned to red, which summoned a clerk to release the machine. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

One fellow kept attempting to scan a bag of Hersey’s Holiday Foil Kisses, over and over and over again, only to be informed that this item was not in the database. The terminal , speaking in a female voice, said this without regret, censure or pleasure; it was just one of those things that happened, and it was neither bad nor good. It simple was. This is what hell is like: an eternity spent before a touchscreen, hearing it say:

The item you have requested
Is not available. Please try again.

While this fellow battled the terminal, the patrons at the other three terminals bollixed up their screens as well. Four poles, four red lights. The manager appears, and her magic key and Merlinesque index finger free everyone up to continue. The fellow in front of me continues his quest to buy Hersey’s Holiday Foil Kisses, and seizes up the machine again. The patrons of this line, which now stretches back to the aisle where they store the charcoal briquettes and water-softener salt, is about to fall on the fellow and rip him to pieces, but he has two kids, so we stay our hand. Finally he flings the Hersey’s Holiday Foil Kisses down in disgust, spends the next six minutes fumbling with the pay screens, and leaves trailing a hot cloud of fury.

And now it’s my turn. Show time, boy. I scan all my items quickly. They’re all in the database. Then I realize I have a bag of coffee beans - what to do? What to do? I drop them on the scanner plate, thinking: if they’ve thought this through, then this is also a scale. It is! Six ounces. But six ounces of what? WHAT? The line grows restive! I’ve not stabbed the screen in five seconds, and that’s enough to make them switch to Instant Hate Rays, which will start burning off my epidermis in mere seconds . . . think! Think! Ah - there’s an “SELECT ITEM” button on the screen. I hit it - and what do I get but a series of icons for popular items bought in bulk, none of which are coffee. (A demographic insight, that.) Tick - tick - tick - hate rates powering up - I see a button for a keypad; I hit it, typed COF, and lo: the button for MILLSTONE BULK is number two. Victory! Hit the TOTAL button! Pay, and begone.

Skin of my teeth, that one.

The next guy walks up, squints at the screen, and says: “Damn.”

I didn’t check to see if he had Hersey’s Holiday Foil Kisses, but if someone in that row had a cart full of ice cream, and was an hour behind preparation for an impromptu party for 16, I guarantee the cart was heaped with Kisses. That’s just how it works. Especially on the first day of the year. It’s the world’s way of reminding you how things work. You might never learn who’s really the boss of this realm, but now and then you need to be reminded that it’s most definitely not you.

Unless you’re the guy who enters the product codes in the database. You are the boss of all of us.

The hiatus was well-spent; it was, in Gnat’s earnest words, “The Best Christmas Ever!” It began on Christmas Eve with a stint on Ian Punnitt’s radio show, then moved to work - I love to work on Christmas Eve; there’s something so . . . grown-up about being at the office, then coming home a la Bob Crachet with some chestnuts and a goose.

I need to interrupt here: I’m at the kitchen table, listening to the satellite feed of the Big Band music channel, and the last seven songs have been bumper music we used on the Diner radio show. Seven in a row. A sign that the Diner returns in 03? In Ian’s time slot? Why, yes, of course. Of course.

Anyway - Christmas Eve and Day were wonderful (Oy: nine tunes in a row.) None of last year’s clammy dread and tentative gaiety. New Year’s Eve was spent at the Giant Swede’s house; we sat around watching the tots play, toasting the times with fine spirits, and the sense of gratitude and satisfaction was overwhelming. Everyone was just stupid with happiness, frankly. I can’t remember a year in which the holidays had the same punch, the same sense of exhilaration. It’s the kids who do it for you. They remind what it’s like to be a child at Christmas, and make you glad you’re an adult, because you not only have the memory of what it feels like to great the season with hope and wonder, you have an Amex card.

I’d intended this Bleat to be so much more - a triumphal account of the Big New Site with its Myriad Additions, but we had a dinner party tonight and I couldn’t upload half what I’d intended. This site is so farked that my 404 page doesn’t work - for reasons I cannot understand, it just won’t show the graphics it’s supposed to show. So I’m hesitant to provide links to the new stuff, or even admit that there’s anything new. As with all site redesigns, this one followed the usual pattern: I fell in love with the new idea, applied it all over the place, grew bored with it halfway through the redesign, hated it by the time I was done, and loathed it by the time I had to upload it. Later this week I’ll link to what’s new - in the meantime, forgive the 404s and bear with me.

And happy new year! Thanks for showing up; much appreciated. Welcome to Year Seven of the Bleat: here we go again.

Kill your poodles.

I’ve had this phrase in my head all day, thanks to a dream. I 'd been hired at the Pioneer Press on a provisional basis - I had to produce some high-quality work or I’d be canned. After two days on the job the editor barged into my cubicle, and announced I was fired. Really, really fired. Extremely fired, like never-work-again fired. He’d read the piece I was working on, and took issue with the lede: “kill your poodles.” It made no sense. There were no poodles in the story. In fact, the entire story was disjointed and unreadable. I was FIRED!

In classic Mr. Spacely fashion, he asked if I had anything to say for myself. I said I did. I called up the story, and demonstrated that it was a perfectly coherent feature piece - he’d read my rough outline, not the actual story. As for the poodles, well, it was a piece of advice I got from a writing coach years ago. He had advised me to edit out the prose I liked the most. If I was proud of a phrase or a particular paragraph, well, my pride was probably a sign that I’d overwritten. What I thought was a lean greyhound was most likely a frilly, useless poodle.

“’Kill your poodles,’ he said. ‘And he won the Pulitzer Prize.’”

Nice comeback. I was still fired. But I do appreciate the message from my subconscious, and I offer it to the world at large: cast a sober eye upon your poodles. And kill them. And forgive the ones who prance around on this site. I am overrun with poodles. The joint is lousy with 'em. Killin' poodles here would be a fulltime job.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that Johnny Walker, purveyor of blended intoxicants, had sent a DVD along with my New Yorker. Finally got around to examining it tonight, and after a lengthy load it gave me a page of legalese. It’s mostly boilerplate absolving them from anything, anytime, anywhere, for anybody, on any machine, for any reason. If the disc ejected itself with such force it took off the dog’s head, that was my problem. If any programs on this disc inadvertently recounted an ancient spell that caused eyeless hellworms to uncoil from my floorboards and drag me down to the netherworld, thereafter to be entombed in the smoldering dung of N’Dh’Shurog, the Thousand-teat’d Goat Lord, that was pretty much my problem. And so forth. But I kept reading, because I fully expected to see - well, this:

Information about your usage of this compact disk is being tracked and reported to MOD STUDIOS for our internal use about trends in consumer tastes. No other personal information about you is being collected. Use of this information is only for MOD STUDIOS and the advertisers and sponsors of this disc. None of the information collected is being sold to outside parties.

Not “will be sold” but “is being sold.” Noted. You know what, MOD? No. I don’t agree, and I won’t watch your disk. I don’t want you to hide a little cookie on my computer and report back to SPECTRE. And this isn’t coming from someone who’s particularly paranoid about these things, either. Here’s the deal: I probably would have granted information if you’d asked When I’m done, pop up a little screen that says this: Mind if we send a small message to the fine folks at Johnny Walker next time you’re online, and tell them which movies you watched? It’ll help them figure out what people enjoyed or didn’t like. We won’t know who you are, and we don’t care. If we could we’d send you a piece of pie as our way of saying thanks - but we wouldn’t know where to send it. Anyway, thanks.

Something like that would make me more likely to say “sure” - why, it would only seem fair, after they’d given me all this free entertainment. Marketers love “opt out” because it means they get more information, since most people don’t notice and don’t opt out. But what they gain in information they lose in good will, or at least the potential good will that comes when you choose “opt in” as your default.

I know nothing about MOD STUDIOS - their website is unnervingly reserved - but I do know that if I see their name on anything, I won't run it. They snitch. They tattle. I say it's spyware, and to hell with it.

MOVIE TIME! Saw the new Star Trek movie. Let’s just say that putting Wesley Crusher in the first six minutes of the movie was as cruel as it was dismaying; what better way to advertise to the fans that nothing they think, feel, want or believe matters at all? Hell, why not bring back Joe Piscopo as the Outrageous Okuna, set the movie on that Nubian planet and have everyone turn into little kids for two hours? For God’s sake, Data SINGS in the first scene, which is a true Warp-the-Shark moment.

I had read one review, on AICN; Jabba the Knowles had hated the movie. Hated it. The talkbackers were in their usual sux/rox binary mode, dumping all over it. I’d resigned myself to seeing it on DVD in six months. But today I had a few hours without work or Gnat interceding, and I thought: what the hell. I’ve seen them all in the theater. This was possibly the last Trek movie for a long time, so I’d better say goodbye.

There really isn’t anywhere else for the franchise to go, I’m afraid. All the stories are played out, which is why I enjoy “Enterprise” - none of the stories have even begun. But the future is over. Here's why:

* Deep Space Nine had the big whomping intragalatic war to end all wars, and if you missed that one, you missed story arcs and battle sequences that surpass anything the movies have ever done, and that includes Star Wars. DS9 took two years to tell a war story - sixty hours of interwoven tales. In Star Wars you can set individual movies in a larger context, but Star Trek never assumes the audience knows the context, so they can’t drop the ship & crew in the middle of the Dominion War.

*The Borg? Eh. Remodulate this, Frankengeek.

* Thanks to Voyager, We’ve explored the other side of the galaxy, and discovered that it too is full of endomorphic jumpsuited humanoids with peculiar foreheads.

* The Klingons are now quaint; they’re like a big Renaissance Festival Planet where everyone has a hangover and a toothache.

* Anyone care about Giordi? Really? I mean, he’s a nice guy, but he’s so banal you know he’ll never die, because a Giordi Death Scene wouldn’t budge the needle on the Pathos-O-Meter. Same with Riker. Same with Troi. Same with Dr. Crusher. They were all fine as characters on a weekly TV show, but when you revisit them for two hours every other year, you realize how little you have invested in them. So much has happened to the characters, but they remain oddly unaffected by these cumulative experiences. Just like the Simpsons.

* Capt. Picard is now The Iconic Patrick Stewart, Professionally Bald Bestower of Theatrical Legitimacy on Comic-Book Dramas. We know what to expect. Good acting. Steeliness. Making it so. Engaging. Tea, Earl Gray, Hot. He’ll be in his ready room. Attack pattern Delpha. Reroute auxiliary power.

* Data? Don’t tell me, let me guess: at some point he will say something socially inappropriate, and when gently remonstrated, he will blink in blank-faced incomprehension. (While Riker grins.) And even though he’s an android, he’ll look, well, older than he did in 1987. Um . . . it’s a characteristic in his exovinyl, specifically added by Dr. Soong to make him age, and thus be more acceptable to his human comrades! Yes! That’s it! Of course.

* Romulans, aka the Asshole Vulcans. No one ever figured out what to do with Romulans; they never really had an impact on the Star Trek mythos. So much is unexplained. For all we know they have Spock’s body mummified in the Museum of Espionage, since the last time we saw Spock he was in the catacombs of Romulus, trying to wage peace. Yes, that worked out so very well; Nobel prizes all around.

I’ve seen it all, read it all. Been there, done that, hung the talking ornament on the Christmas tree. So the ship / the Federation / the Earth / is in peril? I’m guessing that shields will be down to six percent, warp drive will be offline, several smoke-spewing hoses will hang from the ceiling of the bridge, structural integrity will be failing, and people with tousled hair will stab keypads as the villain makes one . . . final . . . pass.

That, in a large nutshell, was Star Trek: Nemesis.

God, I loved it.

I know, it’s pathetic. Maybe it’s the same thing that happened with “Attack of the Clones” - subbasement expectations, deserted theater in the middle of the afternoon. It started out slow, and lame, and slowly lame, but after 20 minutes I just relaxed, raised the sails, and allowed myself to enjoy it. Why it got such hateful reviews from the faithful I do not understand - there was a grim sense of tremulous dread no other Trek film has ever had. For the first time, you believed that everyone on the bridge knew they were going to die. (And for good reason.) Credit goes to the Villain, who’s second only to Khan in my book. He’s John Hurt’s Caligula in a Vader outfit with Max Shrenk as his sidekick, and his relationship to Picard completely unstrings our good captain in the final scenes. There’s almost no dialogue in the climactic moments - no epic speeches, noble protestations, pithy quips or boastful rejoinders.

It wasn’t until the end when you realized that this was The End, really. This is where it should stop. I don’t want any more. It’s done. I was eleven when the original series went off the air, and I watched that last episode in a state of deep bummed-outedness. A few years later it reappeared in syndication, and I saw it all again - but then the local station dropped it and ran Mayberry RFarginD, and I didn’t even see the entire last episode they ran because I had to go do my paper route. I was so pissed. If I had a time machine I would go back to assure my d0rky self: hey, don’t worry. In 21 years you’ll be in Washington DC in the party room of your apartment complex, which you’ve rented to watch the end of the seventh season of the next Star Trek series.

Really? Really? SEVEN seasons?

Yes. And that’s not all. There will be four more Star Trek series in total, each lasting seven years.


Yes. And there will be movies.

How many?



Yes, ten. And the tenth one shall bring you peace, satiation, and closure.

O ghost of Geekdom to Come, tell me what else I might see in this wondrous future.

A Spider-Man movie, a Hulk movie, and a Daredevil movie, all within a 18-month period.

(Pause) Okay, now you’re just screwing with me.

I could nitpick all night, but: eh. I walked out of the theater into the bright light of the adult world, and I savored the movie all the way home. Sux? No. Rox. But let’s leave it at that. No more. Let the next generation just be the last.

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