JULY 1999 Part 1
Ricky Martin is on the cover of New York magazine this week. When I pulled it out of my mailbox I realized something unnerving: he has the same exact smile in every single photo I’ve never seen. It’s a weird perfect sex-robot smile that’s utterly prefab; it’s not an expression, it’s a setting. I see it on all the tabloids. It seems to have replaced Rosie O’Donnell’s pucker-lipped OOooh! expression, which after 40 views started to look like a shot of a cat’s ass with hemorrhoids.

I spilled Snapple all over the New York magazine a few minutes ago, which is why I noticed this. I’m a Snapple winner, incidentally - the cap said I’d won two free bottles, and bade me to check the rules on the inside of the label. The label was glued on with industrial epoxy, of course, so by the time I got it off I’d shredded the rules, knocked the bottle over and spilled Kiwi-Strawberry all over the counter. I gather that I have to mail the cap somewhere to get a certificate good for two free Snapples. I won’t. And of course, they’re counting on that.

This day should be marked down as one of constant, brain-boiling frustration, but it’s summer, and I’m in too good a mood. Now that I think of it, nearly everything went wrong. But there’s still 90 minutes left in the day, and anything can happen.

Had a fellow from the phone company come to install a new jack in the basement, which is now slated for completion & occupation around 2002. Nice guy. KSTP fan, even. He put the phone jack two inches from the floor, which I suppose is standard; the molding I’m going to put up, of course, is three inches tall. So I have to slice a hunk out of the molding. I should have warned him, I guess, or pointed out that the heaps of molding leaning up against the wall were not actually painted firewood. My fault. Still, I nearly wept when I saw it. But now I have a phone in the basement! How exotic. I do not, however, have a new phone jack in the upstairs studio, as planned; he informed me that such a thing was - and I think this is a technical term they use in the phone business - “Impossible.” If I wanted someone to come in, install a new junction box on the side of the house and drill a line through the wall, well, we could do that, of course. But it seemed like a lot of work for a few more kps on the modem. So I’ll continue to use my dirty, noisy old line, and wait until I get the satellite modem someday.
Which will be the day I get the satellite TV, the new super-fast halogen oven, the DVD player, and all the other toys I somehow manage to live without.
I wonder if there’s a point you hit where you finally decide you have enough technology. I’d have a dish for TV except that it means I’d have to keep cable for local channels, and despite the wonders of the dish world, I just don’t want one more remote. Especially when I don’t watch that much TV anymore, anyone. Well, I watch a little: a few nights ago I caught the end of a super-hard-boiled movie with Kirk Douglas & Barbara Stanwyck; he played a bright-eyed lush, and she was a weepy yet nasty killer-dame whose biggest problem, as far as I could tell, was that she was always filmed in soft focus, and her husband Kirk was in sharp focus. I came in just as Van Heflin was laying down the law. What an odd actor - he always looks as though he’s trying to decide if he just had a stroke, and his name sounds incomplete, as though he couldn’t afford a real first name and had to settle for a second-hand honorific. Anyway, at the end Kirk and Barbara shot themselves, crumpling in a nice graceful swoon. The End.

Spent part of this lovely evening under the toilet, installing all-new hardware. What a nightmare. It works, and for the first time in a long time I don’t hear the trickling Chanson de Commode. Everything leaked until I screwed it all tighter than tight, which I’m certain stripped all the plastic threads and made the next repair job impossible. I’ll have to move, that’s all there is to it.

Then I sat down to work on the Fargo site, trying to resist the temptation to slit my wrists. It’s become so unbearably depressing I can’t hardly work at it, but tonight version #2,102 hit a break-through. I decided on a font. Whoo-hoo. See, when you’re doing a page that covers 80 years of history, any font that fits the first era looks stupid in the last era, and if you adjust your fonts for each era you add to the download time. Plus, I couldn’t settle on a color scheme, and believe me, I’ve gone through dozens. Dozens. Today it hit me:


Of course! Nice, neutral gray. So I whipped together a test, tweaked, set it aside, looked at again, and thought: yaawwwwnnnn. But too bad. I’m done with this thing. It’s going to be gray and you’re going to like it.

Now all I have to do is layout and write 60 pages.

I woke this morning with three obligations burning bright in the forebrain like neon signs in Times Square: COLUMN. BBC. ALMANAC. Each was discrete; no way I could pass off one on the other. In a pinch I could swipe an old column idea and retread it to the Beeb, but that wouldn’t be right; I hate repeating myself, because it feels like GLARING PROOF my imagination has deserted me. And every day - every damn day - has to be proof that the machinery not only still works, but works better than the day before.
This is why I never read anything I write. I don’t want to confront the evidence that I was demonstrably better a year ago, or two years ago. I have to assume I was acceptable then, and can do better now. Otherwise I’m either slacking, coasting, or heading downhill, and none of those are helpful notions. I pity Will Smith and I pity Barry Sonnefeld, or whatever the director of Wild Wild West’s name is; had they my emotional constitution, they’d be thin miserable slabs of quivering meat for the next year, stewing in failure and marinating in the deep soaking juices of ineptitude.
In reality, both will get several million dollars later this year to do something even worse.
I’m in the wrong business.
Read a batch of reviews of WWW today, and I’m pleased to learn all the prelim buzz was exact. I could tell from the trailers that the movie stunk, but it wasn’t so much the trailers themselves that revealed the paucity of the enterprise, it was the audience’s reaction. Movie audiences around this part of the world rarely cheer, and rarely react to any trailer with anything other than stubborn amusement: yeah, right, you wish. But when people want to see a particular film, or a trailer thrills them, there’s a different kind of silence in the theater - you hear a quiet buzz of delight, as if you’re hearing nerve endings pop like Reddenbacher kernels. Most trailers try so hard to hit you over the head that it’s a badge of honor to remain unmoved. But there are exceptions: this year I recall two previews that made the audience light up in that strange silent fizzy fashion: the Matrix and the Mummy. I felt this odd charge go through the theater, and I thought: those films are going to make a billion dollars.
Whereas during the WWW previews, the audience seemed to be actively disliking the film on general principle, rejecting it because they were SUPPOSED to like it, expected to accept it uncritically. Nope. Whatever was wrong with this film screamed from every frame of the preview, and the audience picked it up instantly.

Hot morning; began with soupy clouds, which burned off before noon. Bright dazzling noon, then a new front rolled in and stole 15 degrees off the temperature. July, at it’s 62: grrr. But the sun returned; the evening was clement, and I sat on the deck in shorts. I have been promised 90 degree temps this weekend, and I’d damn well better get them.

Friday’s full - a column and a TV monologue, then pizza & a three day weekend. Glory hallelujah: this may be summer’s end, as my mother sadly said about the fourth, but if it’s hot, full of friends & meat & explosives I can think of no better way to end it.

It’s almost one AM and it’s almost 95 degrees. Coolest point of the day, I believe. There’s a breeze running through the trees, rustling through the shrubs, but it has no punch, no enthusiasm; it’s like a cocktail stirrer listlessly clinking the ice cubes in a drink, making motion for the sake of motion. All the guests have left and the dishes that didn’t fit in the dishwasher are piled on the counter; the chairs have been put away, the floor mopped, the kitchen reset to domestic mode. Party’s over; Fourth’s concluded. Summer has three acts. Act Two just finished.
To rave reviews and standing ovations, I’m happy to say. This was one of the better examples of the holiday. They vary not a whit from year to year in setting and menu; always the porch, always the meat both tubular and circular, always the percussive interlude of illicit explosives, then a long talk into morning with whoever’s stayed around the round green table. But this year was perfect. The guests all clicked; I was delighted to find folks from disparate aspects of my life standing on the lawn laughing and hooting like old pals. We avoided the tendentious political arguments of the past - we just ate and drank and blew stuff up. Then the evening was edited down to nine, then six, then four, each group with its own character and stories and topics. Food, sex, light rail, home towns, department stores, domestic repairs, lingerie.

In the broiling sun I edged the lawn, a filthy thankless job I always do in midsummer. Whirrrrr ping! Replace line. Whirrrrrrrr ping! Replace line. Repeat until irregular jagged wound roughly parallels sidewalk. Jasper sat in the shade and panted, miserable; I was dressed in the legal minimum and was still soaked through; imagine what it would be like draped in anchored fur. But he wouldn’t go inside where it was cool. In fact, the entire day was a dog’s nightmare; mean heat with firecrackers. And Jasper, like any dog, fears firecrackers. Last night one of the neighbor kids had a sparkler, and Jasper practically dragged us inside, away from the DANGER. Tonight was the worst - no matter what room he was put in, he cried - he had to be with the pack, even if the pack was STUPID enough not to heed his warnings. So Sara took him for a walk. But even though he was mostly absent during domestic pyrotechnics, the neighbors had their own shows; he was so nervous he couldn’t even eat a Frosty Paws, which is perhaps the ultimate signal of canine distress. It’s enough to make your heart break when a dog just puts his head in your hands and closes his eyes. The world is breaking apart in a fury of noise and smoke; all hope is abandoned.

On the other hand, he got an entire hamburger, half a bratwurst and two pieces of bacon.
Life could be worse.

The weekend:
Friday was a blur: ran to work, banged out the column, sped to KSTP, cut a promo, drove to St. Paul to do the Almanac monologue. I had an hour in St. Paul to kill, so I poked through an antique store and found some exceptionally necessary items. Went to the TV station, changed clothes, shaved, got miked up, milled around killing time with a cup of coffee, chatted with Senator Wellstone, who was preoccupied, or just highly bored with my line of chatter; probably the latter. So I talked with his wife. Then, showtime: 3, 2, 1, LIVE. Did the show, drove home to pizza; spent the night reading on the porch.

That’s the definition of an 87% perfect day.

Saturday was hot, furiously hot, and full of fuming rage: a letter arrived, certified mail, from one of the subcontractors who’d worked on the porch last summer. He hadn’t been paid, so he was billing me - pay up, or get a lien slapped on my property.
Hmm. Well. To put this in fine legal terms: screw him. I’m guessing this is one of the dolts who did such an abominable job on the porch the first time that a new crew had to come in, tear it down, and rebuild. He wasn’t paid because he did micturationally penurious work. This was the team that left construction debris on my lawn for six weeks, and took a month and a half to finish a 4 day job, and he has the NERVE to threaten to put a lien on MY HOUSE?

Well. He will not succeed. The battle is joined. He has misjudged his foe. I have allll day to spend in court and my wife is an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Minnesota, so my legal counsel is free.

This might even be fun.