MARCH 1999 Part 1
Doorbell, seven PM. A young girl holding open a bag.

“Trick or treat?” I asked. I could think of no other reason for an urchin to appear on the stoop with a bag. But she was delivering the Girl Scout Cookies my wife had ordered. I invited her inside - she stood in the foyer with her mom while Jasper dog sniffed and wagged his tail at the furious rate: stranger, food, no threat - a potentially fabulous combination. I gave her ten dollars, bade them goodnight and examined the cookies.

The boxes have shrunk, again. And the cookies are smaller. And I have no idea who that Girl Scout was, anyway - a neighbor kid? No: I know the neighbor kids. Probably airlifted in from some suburb where there aren’t any sidewalks and the walkways are half a mile long, and no one answers the door without dialing 9-1 on the phone, finger poised over the last 1.

What a mess. My studio has gotten to the point where I have to carve out small twisty goat paths to get around - every available flat space is heaped with paper, scattered with sundries. Just noticed that a dead smoke detector battery has been resting beside the iMac for oh, a month, maybe more. Is it even dead? Might it have been a fresh battery whose charge is now called into question, now that it’s been ripped from its plastic enclosure? Never know: it’s gone. There’s a bent paperclip which, before I bought the new non-Apple iMac keyboard, I used to restart the computer - great design, Mr. Jobs, nice work. A page-a-day calendar that’s two days behind. A folder from the Toy Fair on which I’ve written a few appointments. Two paychecks from KSTP. Some postcards, the manual for Caesar III (to hell with that game! To hell with Rome! I tell you, it’s an impossible scenario. These damn sims are set up on the Rosanne Rosanadana model: it’s always something. If it’s not the gods pitching a fit, it’s inadequate access to libraries, even though there’s one right down the street. I’m tired of it.) A Coke can from yesterday, or from January; can’t tell. Notes from a BBC interview two weeks ago. A CD-ROM from a Quake expansion pack - haven’t played that in months, and have no idea how it rotated to the top of the heap. A stack of bills and mutual fund reports; a heap of change beneath a stuffed animal from the Toy Fair. One dead pen from the Swedish company Enkoping, a tool manufacturer founded by a great-great relative of my wife. (He invented the crescent wrench. Really.) An Elvis Costello CD. And that’s just the main desk. The floor still has the travel bags from the New York trip. The corner of the room still has the boxes the PC came in - can’t throw them away, oh no: must break them down into the prescribed shape and recycle them.

Then there’s the basement.

Then there’s the desk at work.

Then there’s the e-mail box.

Then there’s the e-mail box at work.

At some point this spring I’m going to get everything perfect; I’m going to clean and sort and make all things tidy, then spray them with shellac and freeze the tableau for all time.

Did I mention the dead phone? All the phones are unplugged, because they either wake me up during the nightly nap, or they require a plug that’s in use by other machinery. This morning - early this morning - I got a call from the Washington bureau, alerting me to a new e-mail address for sending my column. Since I’d been playing Caesar before going to bed, the Massive Microsoft Stereo system was plugged in, and since the phone line is connected to the PC & the Microsoft Phone, the message came booming out of the stereo speakers at about 100db. The Voice of God. That’ll get you out of bed.

Once up, I went through the usual robotic morning motions - eat paper coffee shave walkdog shower dress coffee gone - and went to the office, where I wrote. And wrote some more. Walked downtown at the appointed hour, zippering the jacket against a wind that had nothing whatesoever do with spring. Returned, edited, finished, home.
It’s odd: I’ve written, and published, three pieces in the last two days and I don’t feel as if I’ve accomplished a thing. Conforming to duty is not an accomplishment. Surpassing the demands of duty is an accomplishment. Example: cleaning your desk when you don’t have to.

Hmm. I think I’ll upload this and watch Hawaii 5-0. I don’t have to do that. But I will, just to show I can go the extra mile.

After watching half the Barbara Walters / Monica Lewinsky interview, a few early observations:

1. Ms. Walters’ fabled difficulty with the letter “r” means that she probably shouldn’t use a sentence containing the word “Shirt.” When she said “Bill Clinton took his shirt off” in that famous Wawa voice, I blinked hard and fast, thinking I’d heard something quite unexpected.

2. Ms. Lewinsky still loves Bill Clinton. Still. She just lights up when talking about that hunka hunka smokin’ love.

3. Ms. Lewinsky is morally unmoored. (Or, as her interlocutor would have put it, “mowawy unmowed.”) She has a vague idea that something someone did was wrong, but she can’t quite put her finger on it - after all, it was all for Love, and how can that be wrong?

4. Her prime accomplishment thus far in life seems to be the acceptance of herself as “a sensuous person.” If her clitoris is in her kneecap, perhaps. She says this with pride, a naive pride, as if it’s an adult accomplishment instead of something you hope someone will say about you when they sign your yearbook.

5. She’s a kid. A spoiled rich kid, who ate too many Oreos when her screwball self-absorbed parents divorced and destroyed her sense of security.

6. She is a perfect modern American, in that her desire for attention exceeds any sense of shame, and that the purpose of her life is to feel good about herself - not through accomplishment, but by repeating self-help bromides until they block out all contradictory thoughts. She will probably feel good about this interview, because she looked dewy and cute.

7. I no more care how she feels about Ken Starr than I care how Al Capone felt about Eliot Ness.

A perfect March day, and that’s not a compliment. I don’t like March - the very name of the month sounds flat, rude and abrasive, like one of those sharp esophagus belches - Maaaarch. Blue blank sky, nothing but piles of grit on the boulevard. Went to the KSTP main office today, toured the new studios. Or rather the construction site. I hate them. I can already tell it’s going to be nice. State of the art. Beige and calm and efficient. No thanks. I love that old cube out on highway 61; it’s ground zero for the Hubbard empire, the place where KSTP was first plugged in 75 years ago, and there’s history in every brick. The interior was redone in the 80s, and still has a vague Miami-Vice era feel; glass block, early post-modern light fixtures. Subsequent generations of hosts and staff have worn the glamour down, of course; the carpet doesn’t fit, the walls are marred, and it feels abandoned. It is abandoned, in a way; the sales staff is in the new building now, and half the desks are unmanned. It feels like an outpost for an empire in retreat.

The new place is simply too nice, though. I like the scrappy old digs. But I’m mired in routine, stuck in the familiar and the predictable. Can’t imagine broadcasting from any place other than that familiar and beloved narrow booth, because that’s where I started, and that’s where - well, no. Can’t say that yet. But everything I’ve ever done on radio I’ve done at that narrow counter - same mike. Same headphones. Every week I find a new fancy pair of Sonys hooked up for the previous show, and every week I disconnect them and fish around for the familiar old stained yellow cheap headphones I’d been wearing since 86.

Well, the more things change, the more you have to find new places to park. It will be a sad day when I say good bye to the old studio. But the Diner, of course, will always be right where it is, off old Highway 23, on the shores of Lake DeLelac.

The dog is shouting the news: my wife’s back from tennis, the pack is whole again; time to go downstairs.

Blur, just a blur. The entire day: one mad rocket ride. Woke late, which always starts a day in fine style - you bolt up from bed cursing, flinging back the sheets, mentally calculating what’s required to hew to schedule - reduce the amount of cereal in the bowl by 47%, walk the dog to the bridge and back instead of through the woods, shave while reading the Metro section, drive to work at 79 MPH.

I was supposed to meet a visiting friend at the office and give him my keys so he could write a piece for the Post on my computer, so that meant a brisk rejiggering of the cords and cables. Which put me behind schedule by 87 seconds! Well, I’ll make it up on the freeway. Drove to work at 81 MPH. Found a parking space, fumbled for quarters, dropped a few on the floor - which put me behind again! and as I was scraping the coins off the ground, I realized that while oversleeping I’d been dreaming about an X-Files episode, and it wasn’t even one I liked.

Things calmed down. I wrote my column, hit the usual afternoon post-lunch torpor where the brain idles down to about 500 RPMs and lugs when you try to shift it to second. My friend never came by - he decided to write his piece at the hotel business center. It brought to mind my own experience a few years ago in New York, when I was covering an Internet expo - the laptop died in the middle of the night as I was writing my story, and it took with it all my work. I wrote the piece on hotel stationery then woke early and banged it into a wheezy steam-powered 386 in the hotel’s Business Center - actually a closet with a suspicious Russian immigrant concierge posted nearby, glaring at me the entire time as if I had arranged this entire trip so I could steal the hotel’s computer. Never mind that the room cost more than the computer was worth.

Around four I went to the hotel to see how my friend was doing; he’d finished the piece, but had a problem: no way to ship it to Washington. It’s a perfect example of the virtues and pitfalls of the modern world. You have a wondrous machine that can transcribe your every thought, a nationwide web of wires that can speed your work across the country in the time it takes a cricket to blink, but without the right devices your work is just a series of magnetically arranged particles doomed to do nothing but spin eternally on a lonely hard drive. He was working on the business center PC, which had no modem. The adjacent Mac had a modem, but the boy at the desk said it was busted. Now, modems are testy beasts, but they are rarely busted. I fired up the Mac, twiddled and fiddled and got the modem working. Put the PC disk in the Mac, copied the file - All Praise the PC EXCHANGE extension - and sent the piece off to the Post. It was a fine story on Garrison Keillor’s Ventura parody novel. I got to add a few lines here and there for spice; check Friday’s WashPost web site to read the full version.

Now that I think of it, all this contrusion is really quite cool: hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians Friday will snap open their paper and read a story, and have no idea that two old friends were cursing and sweating in a garishly lit business center of the Minneapolis Marriot, trying to beat life into an archaic Mac modem so the great rapacious maw of the Post could be stoked.

Back to the office. Finished the column. Back home; made supper, burned the sausage so severely the house was as fogged as Bhopal for the better part of the evening. My friend showed up to stay the night - he had to extend his stay to get an interview with the governor’s wife - and we had supper. It took a few applications of Grand Marnier to sand off his mood. Did the weekly BBC interview then settled down for an evening of old-friend banter, to which I now return.

Short Bleat, I know, but old friends come first.

Local note: Diner patrons might want to visit this Saturday’s radio show for a special announcement. . . . .and the countdown to burnout enters the single digits.

Saturday night, disquiet. And relieved. It’s like this: At some point in 1997 I reached the apotheosis of Happiness; I had it all on one Friday night. That day I did the Almanac TV monologue, had a column in the paper, did a radio show at night. The trifecta! I probably drove home in a blurry state of exhilaration, knowing that I’d accomplished everything I had come back to Minneapolis to do.

In the days of Rome, when victors were accorded Triumphs, there was always someone standing behind the honored celebrity, whispering in his ear that this would pass. In my case there has been, since 1997, two such voices, each with their own message. One says: Relax. The other says: Shut up. In short - having assembled everything I wanted, I discovered the rewards were transitory and flavorless, and that I might be happier doing less. Saying less. Being less.

It would kill me not to be in the paper. That’s my job: writing. But everything else must be, has to be, gravy, and if the gravy’s making me sick, well, change diets. I finally hit the wall this week, took a look at what I’m doing and what I want, and started pulling the trigger. I quit the radio.
I was tired of the hours, tired of the show, tired of the medium and tired of myself.

That just about covers it.

The hours weren’t bad, but working 1-3 on Saturday afternoon is a medium-sized rock in the middle of the weekend road. Every Friday afternoon when I’d photocopy my Chase’s Almanac for the week to come, I’d have this weary sensation: eh, I have to work tomorrow.

And as much as I enjoyed it, well, work it was. Work in the sense that it had obligations and requirements, but work in the sense that I worried about it and wanted to do well. I was starting to feel as though I wasn’t doing well, and that bothered me. Calls were dropping off - not drastically, but noticeably. I wasn’t doing anything different; what was the problem?

Part of it was the previous show. When my show was cut to two hours, I was pleased - less work, same money! - but the predecessor program was so different in tone and temperament from mine that it killed my lead-in. I don’t blame them. In fact, I blame myself. If I’d done a show about THINGS - topics, politics, etc., I’d have had full banks of calls every week. But I never wanted to do that sort of show, because it would have been like every other popular show on the station. I wanted the Diner to be free-form and non-topical - while at the same time being strictly topical in its parody plots. Whatever happened in the last week was always reflected in the story of the week’s show, but the audience had to get it, had to see through the joke and get what we were referring to. (The jokes were always basic and transparent, so no one had to work to see what we were doing; I don’t want to make this sound like some brilliant act of devious allegory.)

It’s the sort of thing that works well at night when people are sleepy, relaxed, drunk, wide-staring awake, and generally inclined by the dark to play. As time went on I realized it looked silly in the hard light of Saturday afternoon. The old nightly Diner had stories that arced over a week or two, and we built up a delightful backstory, a nice repertoire of silliness that the audience could reference, could use as a means to bond with the show. I should mention that this is not the ticket to mass audience, by any means; to pacify your patrons, you run the risk of alienating newcomers. I worried about that during the nightly shows. But I came to worry about it incessantly with the Saturday shows. Here I was with this nonsensical imaginary construct, and I didn’t know whether to exploit it hard or run away from it.

In short: the Diner didn’t belong on Saturday afternoons. I will never tire of the Diner. But it didn’t flourish in its transplantation, and if I couldn’t do it right, I didn’t want to do it anymore.

Plus, I’m tired of the medium. For the moment. I’ve always been proud that I wasn’t half bad on the do radio. Not that it’s a ridiculously difficult job - take a listen to half the morons who clutter the airwaves, and it’s apparent that anyone who loosens the governor between their brain and tongue can entertain people. But for every thousand people who get the radio bug as kids, staying up late to pull in distant stations, five or four get to make it on the air, and only one or two of those gets handed the mike to do something other than read weather or make double entendres between songs. And they go to school for it. I backed into it, got handed opportunities some trained professionals will never see, and learned the craft on the job. It’s odd, but I felt the proudest when I was able to do the things that radio professionals can do without thinking.

But - tragedy! - once I knew I could do it, the thrill of doing it lessened. I wasn’t setting out to prove every time that I was not an incompetent amateur.

Finally, I just got tired of hearing myself flap my lips, filling air space simply because there’s space to be filled. I’m better chattering in the empty air of late night when the expectations are lower, when meandering irrelevance is expected. The decision to quit came quickly - a few days after a good show, as a matter of fact. It had been fun and more Dineresque than usual, but I still felt peeved and bothered.

Wait a minute, I thought. Give it up, and you no longer have business cards that say “Talk Show Host.” No more picture in the lobby; no more invites to the bounteous Christmas party. And I thought: if I’m in this so I can stand in line with the Big Important TV people at the coat check every December, my priorities are completely screwed. If I’m doing a radio show I’ve come to regret just so I can say I have a radio show, something’s amiss. Kill it.

So I did. It felt sad and blunted and distant. (Part of this had to do with some news we got before the show, news that had nothing to do with the show but concerned a mutual friend and darkened the local mood.) To the end, though, Jeremy the Chef and I had what we always had - an instinctive collaborative bond & geeky delight in putting on a play no one would ever see. There was the usual private Diner moment - I was reading from a piece of paper (a blank sheet), extemporizing the content, and I handed it to him. Of course a sheet of glass 3 inches thick stands between us, but it didn’t even faze me that he had a piece of paper in his hand a few seconds later, and was looking at it. No one listening ever sees these things, but they hear the belief, stupid as that sounds.

I put all my stuff into a box - the CDs, the airchecks, tea from 98 when I had a sore throat, a sheaf of fallback material I never ever got to, and never would. I lugged the box into the control room to say goodbye.

Jeremy was busy slamming carts and preparing for the next show - an unusual contrusion of systems failure made for an insuperior goodbye, to put it in Diner lingo. But for a moment we both looked at that Box of Things, and it was nearly tears, right there.

I lugged the box down the hall. Through the door with its octagonal porthole. Stood outside, looked up at the letters: K S T P - and thought of day one. 1986.


Not a bad run. Not bad at all. And not the end of the run, either. Maybe. Perhaps. I will want to do something else; I will want to bring back the Diner in a different form - late night, weekend, pretaped, with characters, much music, constant ambient Diner sound. No callers. But if we do that, it’ll be constructed at the new place, the new studio. This was the end: no more broadcasting from the old brick cube.

Got in my car and drove away despondent. Drove in silence. Went to the postcard store.

There was a woman buying some postcards, and she peered at me.

“Almanac,” she said. “You’re on TV.”

She meant well, but when you love radio, that feels like an insult.