FEBRUARY 1999 Part 3
What? Huh? Where - where did that weekend go? Slipped past me somehow, sluiced between my fingers like mercury. The weekend, of course, consists of the time from 3 PM Saturday, when the radio show is over, to 1 PM Sunday, when I start doing the chores. Back to the machinery on Sunday night, writing for the week ahead. To complicate matters, we're missing one power cord. How this happened, I don't know - but my wife wanted to work on her computer tonight, which meant stealing the power cord from the Basement Mac. When I went to work on the Basement Mac I took the cord from the Auxiliary Mac, since the PC was running the game I'm reviewing. When I'm done down here I'll have to take this power cord back up to the Auxiliary Mac to transfer the files to the iMac.

The day when the computer is a machine like a furnace or water heater, integrated with the infrastructure of the house, can't come fast enough for me.

Went to the computer store with the Giant Swede today, and visited the Mac section. For all of CompUSA's store-within-a-store pro-Mac policy, the results are still pathetic. They had five of the fruity iMacs, but they were all empty machines with no CRT. You could pick them up and toss them like beach balls. At least the hard drives weren't named W#(RJW(#J, or the desktops littered with customer scat, but I still did my duty and cleaned up the desktops of the machines that were running. Then we had coffee, argued, and went next door to Shinder's. Finally saw the Sports Illlustrated Swimsuit issue, the one with no swimsuits. They're literally painted on. It's almost a Zen exercise. The few items of ac ual clothes shown had credits and prices, of course - it's good to know that I can, if I want, order that indistinguishable cotton T-shirt that costs $195. The smaller the item, the greater the price; I expect to see next year a swimsuit made entirely out of braided strands of cotton molecules, three microns thick, with a price of $4,089.

This morning began with the barking alarm clock. My wife made breakfast, and then bade the dog to wake me up. He bounded upstairs and stood at the bedside and barked until I got up, probably because he knew he would get no scraps until I'd eaten. The intelligence of these beasts never fails to amaze me. Try telling any other companion animal - I hate that term, but it's apt - to go get someone, and see what happens: nothing. Tell it to a canny dog, and off they go. Friday night I was torturing Jasper with a little stuffed animal I got at the Toy Fair - a Limited Edition Toy Fair Big Blue Dog toy that gave a merry bark when you pressed his nose, and said Oh-oh when you pressed it again. He'd shown no interest in the thing for days, but now was intrigued. Carried it around, bit it gently so it talked, licked it. Around bedtime I had to take it away so we could sleep, and Jasper whined and whined.

"Hey," I said, sharply. "Do you want to go to your kennel?"

Ears flat. He looked at the door then looked away then laid his head down and breathed heavily through his nose, which is a dog's way of whining in a whisper. I put the toy under the bed.

Today I mimicked the sound the toy made, and he perked up his ears, ran to the side of the bed and looked for the little blue dog. That's an impressive series of connections for an animal to make - interpretation, deduction, conclusion. Smart dog.

Finished the Mir book. A Mir computer sim game would be a riot - 3D, of course, with something always going wrong. Fires. Invasive medical tests. Boredom. Arguments with the ground. Every few months, a hellish docking maneuver, or a terrifying EVA. The Russians are indeed adept at mastering any problem that comes up, but those problems arise only because they are so horribly screwed-up to begin with. I mean, someone who falls asleep every night and sets the house on fire because he was smoking in bed becomes skilled at putting out blazes, but the praise for that skill would be a bit misplaced. Perhaps the most touching scene in the book comes a month after the collision with the supply ship - an event that nearly killed them all. The astro- and cosmonauts all gather around a tiny TV to watch Apollo 13 for entertainment. And they figure, correctly, that things could be worse.
The worst part of the book is the realization that we're building a space station with these morons. Oy.

One of those ordinary days where the rote march of duty and habit make every moment utterly, completely, predictable. Where you find yourself saying: hmm. I've done this before. Experience suggests I will do this again. Have I been replaced by a robot, following some perfect program? Perhaps.

Wake. Breakfast with the A section of the paper; Madeline Albright is on the front page, frustrated with the Serbs. Well, we're all frustrated with the Serbs. B section and coffee. Shave, click on the radio; Dr. Laura is beating someone into a thin paste of failure and immorality. Realize that the validity of some of her ideas notwithstanding, she is a tremendously unpleasant person, and the supplicant tone of some of the callers is incomprehensible; also mysterious is why she rips off the heads of people who come to her with high hopes and good will. Click off Dr. Laura.

Walk dog. The creek is frozen, as are the sidewalks and back pathways; avoid slipping down the bank and cracking skull on tree stump. Ahh, something new: the park lads have made an unusual mid-winter culling of dead branches and trunks. Looks like a bomb went off and scattered the sundered arms of the forest citizens. Pick up dog crap in the plastic sleeve the paper came in. Deposit in waste can that's brimming with dog crap in plastic newspaper sleeves. Make note to pity the person who has to empty this bin. Home.

Give dog a rawhide stick. Dog is happy, although he expects it. Shower and dress, leave house, return to house for ID badge, leave. Park on street, plug the meter, enter front door - BEEP! as the security badge tags me, entering my egress into the computer system. Up to the desk, hi-ho to the cubicle mates, turn on computer, wait: wait: wait: password, wait, password, online. Siphon last night's work off website, format, trim, spellcheck, file: I've been at work 17 minutes and I've filed the first piece of the week. Lunch!

Which is chicken. And coffee and a banana and raisins. Surf web while eating, then haul up the Toy Fair piece. Hack and trim and write for four hours. Leave. Grocery store for coffee (Millstone, one-third French Roast, 2/3rds Columbian) Frosty Paws dog treats, Jell-O Fat Free Pudding (Vanilla-Chocolate assortment) and meat of indeterminate origin. Pick up beer - same brand, Oregon Nut Brown Ale. Home. Cook, read Wall Street Journal A section over meal, B section with dessert. Nap. Wake. Work. Walk past TV, and -

That's . . . Alfred Hitchcock! I didn't know that was running again. Well. Sit down, watch Hitchcock. This is a complete and total deviation from schedule! It almost feels immoral. Wife arrives home halfway through, leading to dilemma: if I tape the Hitchcock for later viewing, why, then I won't watch Hawaii 5-0, and that is PART OF THE ROUTINE. Decide to cast fate to wind, tape it for later. Dinner conversation with wife, then back to work. Wife walks dog. Upon return, we play rope, then dog gets Frosty Paws. Sit down at Basement Mac, write Newhouse column as per Monday night routine.

Later, I will finish column, polish, upload, and watch Hitchcock. Tomorrow, the exact same thing.


Now, I don't know how to deviate from this and still get done what needs to be done; I also know I would mope if each day was a kaleidoscope of different events, that I would miss the Ordered nature of life. It's all about getting my butt in front of a keyboard at the right times of the day so I can afford to sit down at 1 AM and say: ahhhh. Dog in lap, popcorn in hand, 47 minutes of relaxation ahead before it all starts again.
Which it will, dammit. And thank heaven for that.

Each day suggests spring, in an offhand way. Something theoretical, interesting to consider, but not likely to be proved any time soon. It's tantalizing - bright skies, no snow, sun with a little more power than the day before; daylight on the drive home. I was walking down the street today and I could imagine not summer, not spring, but the day when you know spring is next, a sure thing, a guarantee. And that's usually the day before the big snow storm.

It's not that I am sick of winter - there's been so little to be sick of. What snow remains is just dirty granite. There are a few floes moored on the lawns, hard crusty bergs the dog can barely gnaw. The creek is rock-hard still but the sheets of ice that cover the walkways crack under your feet. Puddles and mud at night, with no daytime cold to seal them solid again. It's really been an average winter - ten inches less snow than usual, but we can make that up in two days. And I wish we would. There's always the nagging fear that unless we get a good storm in Feb or early March, we will pay in April, and there's nothing like an April snowstorm to prove that otherwise idiotic trope of Eliot.

I am going to enjoy this summer. I am going to relax. I am going to take it easy. It will not speed by in a blur of work. Enough. I need to stop and breathe.

Filed eighty inches of copy today: a column and the Toy Fair story. Having written many Toy Fair stories before, this one wrote itself - in fact I had the nagging fear that I'd written the last lines once before, but that was for Newhouse, and who knows if anyone ran that one. I was done by two, or at least had most of the work under my belt, so I took a walk down to Hennepin. The Shubert theater is gone. Or rather, moved around the corner. It's the damnedest thing - one day it's sitting in its usual spot, then it's up on jacks, then it's a block away. It's like watching an iceberg run from the authorities. Quite an engineering feat, and utterly pointless. There's no reason they couldn't have incorporated the theater into the new Block E Entertainment proposal, and I'm sure that whatever they do build on that spot will be many millions of indistinguishable banality. It's our Times Square, or was; Block E was the block of Sin, with bars and porno shops and cheap musty theaters. Hennepin Av. is better than it was years ago, but it will never be what it was 60 years past. The old entertainment district was done privately, one theater at a time, every marquee jostling the other in competition. The new complex will be solid, of a piece, with the maternal blessing of the city government sanctifying it, and of course underwriting it. Largely populated at night by sullen loud semi-feral youths, probably. They were talking about putting in a Nike World: gee, there's entertainment. Buy shoes so you can walk to the other part of the building where people can admire your shoes.
But I'm being a snob. One of the oldest extant buildings in Times Square was a shoe store - corner of 44th, I think. There are busts of the stars of the 20s on the second floor, now hidden behind big neon signs. Nothing changes, really.

Got a call today on the answering machine - short and terrifying. It was the Publisher's Secretary. Could I call her back? GULP. There are only two possibilities when the big boss calls: praise or death. If I had screwed up somehow, I imagine it would fall to someone else to fire me, but if a Stern Talking-To was needed, I imagine it would come from up high, if the offense was truly grave. Turns out he just wants to have lunch. Whew. That settled, I edited the pieces and turned them in with the standard Jean-Luc Moment: I type in the destination on the computer, hit EXECUTE and point an index finger at the screen: engage.

Home. Supper, deep happy nap, then an hour of Alfred Hitchcock starring Peter Lawford and Harcourt Fenton Harry C. Carmel Mudd. Walked Jasper in the dark. Walked home past all the houses glowing, with a faint perfume of woodsmoke in the air. No gloves, no hat, no cold, no spring. Not yet. Not yet.

Tonight on the Alfred Hitchcock Hour was a curious teleplay: Memo From Purgatory, a story of a writer who infiltrates a gang of juvenile delinquents. All the West Side Story cliches - greaser kids in collared shirts twitching to anonymous sax-driven rock & roll in a grimy malt shop while the sad balding proprietor cowers in the corner polishing a glass. Lots of sneering and glinting switchblades. Everyone is supposed to look dangerous, but they all look like Chess Club members. My interest was piqued during the credits: Written by Harlan Ellison. Based on an autobiography by Harlan Ellison. Starring James Caan. Starring . . . Walter Koenig. There he was in his pre-Chekov days, but with an oddly Chekovian accent that came and went. He looked about as vicious as a Furby.

Back then, I guess, you could tell gang members from regular kids because the gang members all had nice jackets with the name of their gang printed on the back. Their clubhouse had a huge banner with the gang's name, too: BARONS. And there were saucy mottos written on the walls of the clubhouse: THIS WAY OUT. Or, my favorite: YEAH! written in slanting script. Ah, flaming youth. I lost interest halfway through when it was apparent Caan mistook utter inertness for Brandoesque nihilism; he wasn't just as dull as watching paint dry, but as watching dry paint fade.

In the grocery store today I saw a new item, a new boon to the harried cook: instant mashed potatoes with instant gravy. The box had a nice heap of whipped potatoes with a lake of gravy, meaty lava in a neat white caldera. I was impressed, because this bespoke some new technological advance, some boon from NASA. But how did it work? Perhaps they'd embedded microscopic packets of gravy in the mix that ruptured when whipped, producing gravy. Or - more likely - they had applied the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which as I understand it means that a subatomic object changes states when observed. So the instructions would say "whip potatoes, peer intently until gravy appears." But if it was this technologically advanced, was it Y2K compliant? If I made mashed potatoes on the cusp of the new century, would it screw up and make jelly, or motor oil?

It made me want to get the old friendly packet of Gravy Mix, but I don't know how to make it. And I haven't the time. Looking at the mix I have the same feeling I got today in the bookstore when I saw the second volume of Solzhenitzen's novel on the Russian Revolution - it made Ayn Rand's books look like a Jack Chick pamphlet. And I haven't even read the first one yet. I haven't the time for him or gravy mixes. But they mixes stand there chastening: Mom would have made it from scratch. Why can't you?

I usually get the premade bottles of gravy (beef flavor, turkey flavor, chicken flavor; I keep looking for a tiny thimble-sized bottle of Cornish Game Hen flavor) because they're easier, but if this variety was even easier, well, who could resist? Then I noted the directions: you had to add water to the gravy concentrate, boil it, and serve. This was actually one more step than the premade bottles. Ah hah: by adding a step, the companies are placating those people who feel guilty they aren't giving their families Solzhenitzen gravy. Brilliant.

Well. A good day. Sure sign spring is en route: when I got up from my brief post-supper nap and went downstairs, the entire house was black as pitch. For a moment I thought the lights were out, but no: the lights had never been on. I'd cooked supper, read the paper and gone about my post-work routine without needing electrical light.
The governor was at the paper today, although I didn't see him. He was lunching in the Civic Dining Room by the cafeteria; a burly man with a curly wire leading to his ear stood outside with a GO AWAY expression. Ran into Paul Douglas, one of the local TV weathermen, and we stood outside and chatted a while. God help me, I turned the conversation to the weather. I'm surprised he didn't punch me out right there. I imagine he's tired of EVERY SINGLE CONVERSATION with EVERYONE turning to the weather at some point.

Tonight's Alfred Hitchcock - which I watch just to see which proto-stars are featured - had Peter Falk acting in a teleplay based on a V. S. Naipaul story. Mr. Falk is not a very good actor, although he put his persona to good use in Columbo. But that's all he has. He's sort of a hunched-over Jack Lemmon without the enunciation. In his early days, I gather, he was often cast as a tough, a bad guy - he surely was in this show - and you can see why: he comes across as utterly empty, devoid of heart and soul. I saw him in some 60s mob movie, where he played an enforcer, a psychopath in a hat who reveled in killing, and he was creepy there, too. He played a handyman / cab driver who was also a gospel preacher. His preaching consisted of shouting words with no particular conviction. But the female lead was interesting, if only from a style aspect: a la 1963, she had a blonde flip do and glasses, and she looked brainy and modern.

Performed a most undignified act today. I was at a drug store, and there were little plush animal toys on the counter. I picked one up, and the clerk said "pull the string!"
Excuse me?

"The string on his butt. Pull it." So I did. The creature vibrated - nearly leaped out of my hand.

My Strib press badge is attached to a little string, which is connected to a spool. I handed her the badge. "Pull it," I said. She extended it about three feet. I vibrated. I dare say I shook my booty.

Her laughter was an interesting mixture of amusement and sheer horror. But it's a good day when you feel stupid enough to twitch your hips in a drug store to mimic the stuffed animal toys. Trust me: it is.