AUGUST 1999 Part 1
Went to a christening today of the Giant Swedes’ new progeny. It was held at a church down the street, a grand Lutheran cathedral with so manymembers four policemen have to direct traffic every Sunday. As I was looking over the list ofpastors, I was reminded that the man who baptized me was one of the senior pastors - so I asked one of the many helpful church ladies if he was around. He was. It was a delightful reunion - he’s a man of great cheer with a down-to-earth manner. He remembered me, and said that when he read the column in the paper he always thought back to my baptism, and regretted not drowning me on the spot. He remembered my family, what my dad did, who his siblings were. After almost 40 years. So on the day I was to stand as a godparent for the Giant Swedes, I met the man who gave me the holy dunk four decades ago.

The service had lots of songs, no liturgy; since I didn’t know any of the hymns, I read the Bible, which was conveniently located in the pew next to the songbooks. It had been a while since I paged through the Good Book, so I turned to Leviticus. And right there in the pew I faced an interesting dilemma. As a godparent I was obligated to ensure that little Jonathan was brought up in the tenets of the faith should something happen to his parents, but no way was I going to enforce Leviticus. It’s the same old problem: reconciling the capricious, furious, endlessly detailed Old Testament God with the New Testament’s expansive and forgiving version. Leviticus consisted largely of detailed edicts about worship rituals - how to slaughter calves, where to sprinkle the blood, what gets burned first, how to recognize leprosy, why you are unclean if you touch the bed of a menstruating woman, etc. It had the famous prohibition against homosexuality, which I noted was preceded by a prohibition against wearing two kinds of fabric at the same time.
Well, the baby was wearing cotton and silk, so we were off to a bad start.
I read on and found one of the more interesting political passages, a challenge to Moses’ power as the main go-between. I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially, 250 members of one clan came to Moses, and said, what gives you the right to be the one who talks to Yahweh? Whereupon Moses said, well, let’s test it out tomorrow, see who’s in favor. The next morning all the members of the tribe of Korath stepped from their tents - wives, kids - and Moses said, if I’m not the spokesman, then nothing will happen, but if I am the chosen spokesman, then God will do something really unusual, such as open the ground and carry all these people down to Sheol alive, and close the ground over them. Whereupon the ground opened up and all the wives and children fell into the ground, and the ground swallowed them up. Then, if memory serves, the 250 men were blasted with fiery breath. Then - and I may be skipping around here - there was a plague that further underscored the Lord’s fury, and by the time they made the necessary sacrificial apologies, 14,000 people had died.
I skipped around again and found the story about enforcing rest on the Sabbath; the congregation of Israel found a man collecting sticks on the Sabbath, and since this was verboten, they asked the Lord what should be done with him. And they got a direct and instant answer: take him outside and stone him to death. Which they did.
So . . . when the father of the child who’s being christened gets called into work on a Sunday, do I command him to be stoned?
Of course not. And that’s the interesting part of Lutheranism: the new laws, in some cases, supplant and erase the old. They don’t make a big point of it, but that’s the general effect. This is why I’m grimly amused by people who accuse others of picking and choosing which religious laws they abide by. With the exception of the most observant sects of Judaism- folks who wear their beards trimmed in the manner set forth and wear the shawls with the blue thread - everyone picks and chooses.

If anything, you come away from an Old Testament reading with a certain sense of sadness; the God of the early books is a constant verbal presence. Forgive my disrespectful words, but you can’t shut Him up. He’s telling you how to cook, how to recognize with STDs, how to deal with Molech worshipers, how to dress, etc. And then He falls stone cold silent. People can claim to talk to God and hear Him speak back, or perceive God’s intention in this or that sign, but when these books said “the Lord Spoke,” they meant it literally: these are like transcripts Nightline advertises at the end of the show.

After the baptism it ham sandwiches and segregation: women inside, men on the porch. Lovely day. The baby slept; the Giant Swede’s 2 year old wandered about being delightful. When Andrij gave the blessing before the meal - a Uke Orthodox blessing complete with triplicate invocation, something that sounded mysterious in the context of the breezy Lutheranism we’d all heard that day - there was silence in the room save for his voice, and then the melodious collision of the windchimes sounded on the porch. Well, I thought, that could well be the voice of God today, if you were so inclined to believe that. And with family and friends all gathered around, new life bundled in a blanket waving his fists up at the ceiling, the commonplace miracle of amity binding all these disparate souls together - well, there was no reason not to believe it. So I did.
So I gather sticks on Sunday now and then. So stone me.

I am giving myself but 12 minutes to bang out this Bleat, because I have a bevy of duties to do this day, chief among which is finding and extirpating whatever neuron was responsible for that burst of alliteration. It’s been a fine day - woke up to discover that I’d left my keys in wife’s car, so Icouldn’t go to work. Well, I could - there are busses and cabs and sidewalks that reach from here to the office, but I decided to work at home, since there were no pressing obligations. So I wrote. And wrote.
And called, and called, and called the tech support line at this company whose product I’m trying to review. The number, which was frequently busy, dumped me into an answering machine every time, and for some odd reason I really didn’t think they’d call me back. Ever. Not in this or subsequent lifetimes. Oh, maybe in subsequent lifetimes; perhaps a reincarnated tech support person will call a reincarnated me in the year 4025 (if man is still alive; if this company does survive) and tell me to trash the preferences, reinstall and restart, but then neither of us will know what the other is talking about.

So I decided to take it to the top. I called the corporate office, asked for media relations, explained my predicament and got the phone numbers in Georgia of two of the product’s developers. Got the first one on his cellphone, driving along the congested roads of Atlanta. This is the modern world: I can’t get this damn video digitizer to work, so I send my voice pinging off a bird in the sky, down to an antennae, off to a phone in a big car where a guy teleconference with someone else and sends me suggestions.. The Miracles of Today! Except that this product doesn’t work, the phone connection was full of static and disconnected in the middle of the advice. None of his suggestions worked - they were all things I’d tried - so I went up to ladder to the next guy, a real wirehead sitting in a windowless office somewhere in Atlanta.

We got along famously. It was just a hoot; he was a Machead too, so we slipped into AppleTalk - well, no, not really, now that I think of it. We slipped into Apple-Speak. Made terribly witty inside jokes. Labored over this sucker for 20 minutes until we discovered the problem. Shazam! My QuickTime plugin had been corrupted! It was a leprous, chancrous, pustulent boil of evil and perfidy! I replaced it, and all was fine.

Hoorah. Made brats on the grill: delicious, although I burned off the top layer of my tongue with the first bite, something that renders subsequent bites superfluous, as I could no longer taste anything. Might as well throw it in the blender and drink it down.

Hmm: there’s a column idea.

Memo to self: Brat Smoothies.

Sara came home, went running - nothing I did, that’s just what she does when the weather’s great. She comes and goes. I ran to the computer store, now that I had my keys, and bought CD labelers; my giant long-range plan is to put everything, and I mean everything, on CDs, thereby assuring my data will be safe, intact, and readable for at least 3 more years.

It would be better just to print it all off and stick in the safe deposit box. But that wouldn’t be fun. Better to pop for a Bondi-blue CD burner that matches my computer.

Well. No mail tonight, I’m afraid; be patient, please. I have every intention of

DING! My 12 minutes are up. A manana~

Okay, once again: 12 minutes. Maybe fifteen. It’s very late at night now, later than usual for a bleating; the night’s schedule was shoved back two hours by National Night Out, that officially sanctioned interlude of neighborly fellow-feelingdesigned to drive out the crack dealers, muggers, rapists, burglars and criminals that otherwise stalk our streets. I’m sure it’s a great idea in some parts of town, where people don’t get to see each other too often, and dusk means relinquishing the streets and walks to the bad guys, but around here EVERY night is National Night Out. There’s always someone walking up and down the street, pushing a baby carriage, walking dogs, taking the airs. Kids skipping from one friend’s house to the next, gawky coltish girls waiting for guys to walk by, skateboarding gradeschoolers. If anything, we need a night where we all have a rest from one another.

But it was fun. It was a premature block party, which always falls the second Saturday of Labor Day. This one didn’t have the sad farewell-to-summer feeling that the block parties have - those always end with the adults sitting in the middle of the street around a bonfire while the kids scamper in the margins, and the dogs scavenge among the scraps; cigars, beer, merry bleary chat. When it’s over we all know summer’s done. Not so tonight; the party broke up around nine, and the night was still warm, with a promise of a warm day ahead. And four more weeks of the same. But in other respects, it was just like a block party, right down to the gut-sick dog at my feet right now. Somehow I try to keep him from snapping up the delectables that drop from the plates; somehow he succeeds in filling his belly with meats and sweets. We’ve already made one midnight trip to the creek for urgent evacuations, and I’ve no doubt that come three AM he’ll whine us awake again.

After all the food and dessert had been consumed, I brought out a recent purchase - an original city assayer’s map of our neighborhood from 1903. It’s a remarkable object - all the streets are the same as they are today, the creek follows the same path, albeit with a few more jagged turns. But there are no houses. The city is empty. Four, maybe six houses in 50 blocks. Everyone crowded around to examine the map, find their lot; we all marveled at the empty blocks, paved and platted, waiting for the very structures that now surrounded us, structures that wouldn’t be built for 20 years after the map was made.

Work was work; wrote a tech column and a column column. Around one PM I felt the inspiration machinery seize up, and I spent the rest of the afternoon thumping it like an old TV, waiting for the static to resolve into a picture. Which it did. Drove home, wrestled the porch table into the street and began the merry evening.

When it was done I spent a productive hour on the machinery, slamming together the next batch of additions to the Mpls site. My new motto: Perfection is Not Required. It’s always been my motto, I guess, but now it’s codified as the official motto. No more agonizing over designs: just do it. Now I have to answer 67 letters and then tie myself to the sofa for 45 minutes of mandatory TV, just to wipe the brain clean and prepare me for sleep. I hope to God the Maude Marathon is over on TV Land. Bea Arthur frightens me. All that hideous certainty. Her weasily husband. Then there’s Conrad Bains. Of course, there’s Adrienne Barbeau, but even she is alarming in retrospect; the size of her bosoms seemed matched by the size of her canine teeth. If she sneezed hard she would have exploded herself.

Off to work.

Howard Stern was canceled in this market today. He was bested by a local morning host, who is not exactly a paragon of civilized discourse, but is - well, I don’t know what he is, because I don’t listen.I’m just glad Howard is gone. I’ll never forget sitting in the back seat of a cab in New York, heading into the midtown tunnel, listening to the King of All Me browbeat a woman caller who was born in Africa, and was taking him to task for characterizing all Africans as spear-toting savages. She spoke English with a French lilt, which meant she already spoke twice as many languages as her interlocutor, but Stern had only one thing in mind: getting her to answer his question, which was “do you still eat monkeys?” A dank man of low character. Begone.

Beautiful day and a beautiful night, although the latter has been sullied by some sort of low-level bug, the kind of general malaise-inflictor my wife gets from time to time. We call it a Sara Bug - how ingenious! - due the uniformity of the symptoms and predictable duration: five days of fatigue, itchy throat, muscular fatigue. It’s a cold that never erupts into all the rhinovirus symptoms. She had it last week. Tonight after supper I felt the need for a nap, and I could not wake up afterwards. Slept for a hard oaken hour and have felt schmozzled ever since. Perhaps it’s a bug. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I stayed up too late last night, again, as usual. There’s always something on TV to plant its dull hook in my palate and play me for a half an hour before the line snaps.

Entering the office today I saw the 20th anniversary issue of City Pages, the alternative weekly I wrote for in the late 80s. I contributed a piece for the anniversary edition, just a small squib on how a call from that paper yanked me out of my menial job and got me back on track. The cover of the paper had 50 lines from stories written over the past two decades, and my eye fastened on one sentence fragment - I thought, that’s mine. Or rather, I hope it’s mine, because it sounds like me, or rather what I would like to sound like. If not, I’m a lesser writer than that fellow, so I hope it’s me. (It was. Even though I hadn’t read the piece in 15 years, I knew it like a mother knows her children.) In the roundup of the previous decades, I was represented with a couple of excerpts, one of which predicted the future of the paper I work for now. Very snarky. The editor of the edition described my columns as “purposefully inoffensive,” and I appreciated that. It suggests that I could be off-putting, nasty, divisive and stridently political if I wanted to be, but that I made the decision to reach the widest possible audience by finding some sort of common ground, expressed through narrow first-person essays. And if that’s what he meant, he’s right.

There was the obligatory chart, indicating what was trendy in what year. 1979: Garrison Keillor. 1989: James Lileks. 1999: Jesse Ventura.
Hah! Well, I’m glad I’m not trendy; now I can fail in quiet unobserved solitude. And while it’s nice to be in that company, I feel as though I am a small handcart flanked by diesel engines. Then again, Keillor probably knows he will never, ever be on the cover of Time again. Every week’s edition is proof that he is less than he was before. I’ll never make Time either, but between the web, the column, Newhouse and the BBC, I probably reach as many people as he did in his early days. I don’t want buzz, and I don’t want momentum; they fade, they ebb, they leave you becalmed and wondering why today is not exponentially more important than the day before.

While I was looking through the papers from Aug 3, 1929 today, I noted a small note on the bottom of the front page: Mr. Wixner, Humorist, Dies. He was either 39 or 69 or 89 - it was a bad blurry bit of microfiche. He was important enough to merit a front page obit, however brief, but absolutely no one knows who he is today. I have the feeling I will soon try to find out, and then championing Wixner will be a personal cause celebre. A minor minor player, a footnote. Hey: it beats failure and obscurity. And I can laugh about being Wixner because I am not failed or completely obscure. And I could be more than Wixner next year. Maybe not. It doesn’t seem that important anymore. I will pass up no opportunities and I will always try to do more, but if this is the level of success and attention I’m going to get, well, it’s more than 99% of the people in the writing game get. I never forget that.

Walked around downtown today, took pictures; now that the new digitizer is working fine, I’m working on amassing a dozen additions to the Mpls site. One week’s work buys me three months of Monday updates, and that time will be spent on the Gallery 3.0. I also designed the labels for my archived CDs, and that was amusing - copying old styles of 45s and 78s. Which reminds me: it’s time to burn a disc. What fun the modern world can be.

This morning I laid out a web page while shaving. I think this is a testament to something, although I don’t know what. I had the electric razor in my lefthand, and I ground it into my jaw as I laid out the Minnesota Theater page. That’s multitasking. It’s enough to make me stick with the electric, although I’m sure I’ll be going back to blades, as I always do. Every five years, I have a fling with a motorized face-smoother, and then I go back to lathering and scraping. This razor has gotten somewhat dull, and one of the screens broke, as they always seem to do, eventually. And when an electric razor draws blood, the result is a sink basin that looks like Jackson Pollack went nuts with a Squeeze-Pleeze ketchup bottle.
I keep losing my place when I shave. When you lather up, you know where you are: if there’s no lather on your face, you’ve done that part. You’ve no such guidelines with an electric; it’s like you’re painting a house blindfolded. But you can’t lay out web pages and shave with a blade. I’ll have to think about this.

Thursday night; alone. My wife is out with her sister, who’s in town for a few days. They went rollerblading around the lake this afternoon, and got home just as I arrived at Lileks Manor; to any casual observer, the house must have seemed like some Midwest adjunct of Playboy Mansion, with two spandex-clad women speeding up the walk on wheeled feet. It was one of those moments where I wonder why my wife married me - I mean, I’m sure she had good reasons, but sometimes the contrast between my incipient gnomishness and her jaw-dropping pulchritude is alarming, and I want to wave a hand in front of her face and see if she is, in fact, blind.

We talked for a while, then off they went. Just me and the dog. Jasper, who is unusually stinky, insisted on heading towards Dog Heaven tonight for his walk, so we wandered all over creation. Actually, all over Lynnhurst Terrace. I found an ad in a 1922 newspaper for this part of town, trying to get people to settle out here in the hinterburbs. Lots were going for $425; minimum payment, $1.50 a month. A month! “Bring a few dollars,” the ad said. “You might want to buy.” As I walked through the neighborhood tonight I tried to imagine it as an empty place - a few thin trees, streets without houses, sidewalks without people. It’s astonishing how it built up so fast - it took all of 14 years for the area to completely fill up, and most development stopped with the Crash. (Although there is one house from the mid30s a few blocks away, a white streamlined machine-for-living I’d give a kidney to own.) A block and a half south of my house was the city limits. I live at the end of Minneapolis, and now it’s the center of the center. As we crossed the creek, I stopped and gaped - the fading light of the sun had coated the steeple of Oak Grove church in golden light, and the steeple itself seemed to rise from a forest of trees; in the foreground, the meandering stream, emerging from the shadow of the stone bridge that vaulted the water. There are days I believe I live in the most beautiful city in the country, and this is one of them. What made the sight even more impressive was its commonplace nature; all around here, the eye falls on an artless arrangement of stone and foliage, sky and water, buildings and flowers, wife and spandex.

Sorry; can’t get that particular image out of my mind. Nor have I any intention of making it go away.

Felt like crap most of the morning, but inexplicably sprang to life at 1 PM. The Bug, if that’s what it was, passed. I took a walk downtown for no other reason that I like to; threaded through the Farmer’s Market on Nicollet, drinking in all the rich loamy smells, the breads, the acrid stink of a marijuana stogie (instinctively jerked my nose away, lest I get THC in the bloodstream. Ah, how times have changed.) One of the booths, manned by Vietnamese or Hmong, had a rather plaintive and yet assertive name:


Up the block, a giant elephant was hugging the corner of Dayton’s department store. It’s a plastic model, erected for the annual Trunk Show (get it? Sigh) and it’s huge. There’s also construction on the corner that blocks off traffic, so nearly everyone has to bend as they pass and crouch under the elephant’s ass. And no one looks at the elephant. They are all trying hard to be blase urbanites: an elephant; yawn. One young man smacked the elephant’s rear with his hand in a friendly gesture, and I had to grin. That’s the spirit.

Well, the weekend looms; one more column, and I’m done for a while. I have a new Half-Life level to play now, and a Star Trek to watch later, if it’s any good. Probably won’t be - Sci-Fi is playing the 3rd season, and that means I missed, once again, my favorite episode of them all, “The Doomsday Machine.” Last night I turned on the TV 7 minutes into the show, and saw the cast in the transporter room; someone said “solid rock” and I knew exactly which episode it was - the aliens who live in glowing spheres take over the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Dr. Pulaski. There are two kinds of episodes - ones that use the mushy music, and ones that use the grim suspenseful music (dum-da-da-daaaaa, dum-da-da-DA-da! [duh-dum duh-da dum-dum Da-dum, duh-dum duh-da duh-dum Da-dum] - you know what I mean.) This was a mushy one. Tonight will probably be “Patterns of Force,” if they use the original sequence. I think it has Klingons. I’ll be there.