DECEMBER 1999 Part 1
I don’t like it. I DON’T like it. I DON’T LIKE it. I -

I am repeating myself. But it’s satisfying and curiously cathartic. I am looking at the plans for Lileks Manor - stately Lileks Manor! - and I have decided that I just don’t like them. It’s not my house. That’s not to say it won’t be, and that this plan cannot be salvaged, but there are certain elements that seem fixed and unavoidable. The sofa does not have its back to a wall. This is no small thing. The sofa MUST have its back to a wall. This is not fun.

It really isn’t.

But. There’s no gun to my head; I don’t have to do this. The problem, however, is that I prefer cozy, closed spaces, not open flowing dribbly arena-rooms. I may have to put my foot down and INSIST that walls be erected - here, here, and here. Also here. Enclose the sofa in four walls! With a door and windows so I can get in and out and watch TV. And square up those windows! Tighten it up! Get rid of that trim! I ain’t payin’ for some whoorhouse here!  This is a respectable establishment!


It’s affecting my dreams. I swear I spent half the night redesigning the porch, over and over again. It’s affecting my dog walks; now I walk down alleys, looking at the backs of other people’s houses, judging their additions, wondering how they get by with two square yards of yard. I imagine everyone goes through this phase; they just say NO, and stay put, or move, or think that their objections are due to some stubborn inability to Imagine the Glory that the remodelers keep describing.

Cold day, again, but I really shouldn’t be surprised; it is winter. No physical signs of it - the ground is empty, the trees scratch the wind with vacant limbs. Not even any leaves to blow around anymore. A thin crust of ice forms on the creek in the morning, but it’s gone by noon. The world doesn’t feel like it’s waiting for snow anymore. In previous years, we’d have a week or two of this before winter trundled in and set up shop. But the last few years it’s dry, it’s barren, it’s the last few bars of autumn played without cease. They are, unfortunately, the least interesting part of the melody.

Went to work. Wrote a column. It’s a five piece week; three down, two to go. I hate to think of it that way, and I really don’t; these are not obligations, but opportunities. The day this becomes a chore will the day I finally lose all touch with reality. And it will be the day I start to write my own obituary: should I ever see the job as an obligation, I am setting myself up to be knocked off by those who see it as an opportunity. So I don’t. Today was one of those days where everything comes easily, and I hope the rest of the week goes the same way; I’ve neglected to throw out good topics the last few weeks, and I’m paying for it now. Oh, I’ve enough letters to run - I have 1,457 unused letters. Really. That’s today’s count. Since I run two or three a day, I’m set for a long, long time. But I want to keep moving forward.

You know, now that I think of it, life has become exceedingly narrow and banal lately. The weather and early darkness proscribes your life, narrows things, reduces the day to small tunnels of duty and habit. Nothing unusual has happened in a long, long while, which might explain the dial-tone nature of recent Bleats. Well, this will change; it always does. Thus concludes an utter drama-free, eventless day. Not bad, not good - just a standard ration enlivened by a dozen different details - a magazine article, a good cartoon, an exchange of nonsense at the office, a fine dark cup ofcoffee, the sight of the Christmas lights greeting me as I drove up to the house, the sight of the same as I walked the dog tonight, the stance Jasper assumed in the video store when he knew a treat was imminent, the way he disobediently stood on his hind legs and put his paws on the counter to see if more treats were possible, the entertainment I got out of the Half-Life expansion pack game tonight, the brief rill of anticipation I got this morning upon learning that local channels will be available on dish networks, which I will watch on the sofa.

Which will not have its back to the wall.


12-02-99 I keep walking past the copy of Esquire in the Star-Trib library, and I keep fuming at the cover. 100 things a man should do before he dies, the cover says. One of them, according to the cover, is Sharon Stone. This leads a fellow to believe that there are 99 other impossible things contained within the magazine. Why buy it? Why bother? Number two is probably “Fly out of SPECTRE HQ using a jet pack.” Number 37 might be “Build the world’s tallest building and then pee off the observation deck.” I don’t even like Sharon Stone. Don’t tell me what I have to do before I die. As long as we’re at it, stop telling what is required to be a Man. Esquire for years has been a floundering mess - in the early 80s it was full of hymns and laments, like someone who’s found his old Little League mitt in the attic and is about to burst into tears. Now it wants to be Maxim for guys who are seven years away from expanding prostates.

Warm day. Bright, sunny, clement, surely not the December of myth and lore. Came back from the morning walk and found the neighbor’s dog in my yard, again. So we all played for a while. I administered Simultaneous Jerky - each dog must receive the same thing at the same time - then told Maggie to go home. She did. Jasper followed me inside, tail high: hah! I win! I went to the office, finished up the game review, and generally acted surly. No reason. Wednesday. Everything felt vacant, although not unpleasantly so. Went home, fixed dinner, retooled the house plans again, redesigned the main index page for the website . . . then I recalled what I’d said to the grocery store clerk. He’d asked how it was going, and I said great - workday’s over. But even as I said it, I thought: no it’s not. On the contrary. The workday never feels like it’s over. It rarely has the crunch and pressure of the 9-5 grind, but on the other hand every hour has the aroma of duty. I have to be working on SOMETHING, or. . . or what?

I turned off the computer, went downstairs, and popped in a DVD. Watched “Aliens,” for perhaps the 937th time. But this was my first DVD viewing, and of course that makes all the difference. It had 17 minutes additional footage. “Aliens” is one of those movies where I’d be delirious to find it had 170 additional minutes; I love this movie, and it holds up time and again. Future sociologists will enjoy looking over these four movies, and finding the cultural messages in each -believe me, they’re loaded with them. The original movie (1979) had a multiracial crew surrounded by industrial machinery, picked off one by one by the unslakable hatred of a foreigner. Iranian hostage crisis, anyone? Post-Vietnam syndrome, mayhap? And in true post JFK-American style, the captain gets eaten early in the show. John Wayne and all other heroes are, by ‘79, dead. At least the movie ended with the most beautiful piece of music Howard Hanson ever wrote - his 2nd symphony. A perfect coda.

The third movie, which teeters right on the edge of being a piece of crap but has enough ballast to keep it from falling over, is straight out of the age of AIDS. Sex, in the form of Ripley, is disruption and death. The fruits of conception are, for Ripley, a horror requiring self-immolation - in the posture of Christ, no less. It is an off-putting, dank movie that sunders the audience’s bond in the first few minutes by killing almost everyone we liked, and it finishes the job at the end by bringing back a hero from the second movie and making him a villain. I feel the same way about this the way I felt about Mission: Impossible’s treatment of Jim Phelps: you stupid, stupid bastards. Thanks for nothing.

The fourth movie is a perfect symbol of fat and happy culture with lots of money, a full tank of gas and no road map whatsoever. Loud, stupid, unimaginative, cynical, heartless. Typical.

But the second is my favorite, perhaps because I have a warm spot for the 80s. Reviewers have, in retrospect, called it the Reagan Aliens movie, and they have a point: it’s beefed-up / gung-ho / jingo theater from wall to wall, but it’s anything but a mindless military paean. As an action movie, it’s peerless. It might be the best of its genre. As storytelling, it hits every base except romance, although it even gets close there: in one of the end scenes where Ripley and Hicks trade first names, it’s the military version of the food-eating scene in “9 1/2 weeks.” The evil meet an evil end; the weak are allowed to redeem themselves. It’s old-style storytelling, and it’s very satisfying. Thank George Lucas for making it permissible to do this again.

The movie, however, is not a Reagan-era military parable; it’s actually about Vietnam.. The Marines - the Colonial Marines - are sent to a far-off place, where their technology is useless against an implacable, low-tech foe. They’re led by a greenhorn CO who gives orders from the rear. In the end they nuke the joint and get out. Okay, the Vietnam analogy breaks down here. And I wouldn’t have thought of it at all, except that the DVD had an interview with Cameron where he said he was lifting the scenario and characters from Vietnam archetypes. So there.

In any case, cultural historians will love this film for its treatment of shifting sex roles. There’s Vasquez, the buff profane Latina who’s muy macha than most of the guys; I’m not sure if she was the first muscular female role in big movies, but I do recall the awe and hushed admiration of many a fellow after seeing the movie. Wow: women with biceps. Cool. But it’s Ripley, of course, who character crossed all the roles. She was all gal - two underwear shots just to reassure us - but she could fire a gun AND care for a child AND operate heavy machinery AND make the final conflict all about hissy-fit bitch-slapping AND fierce maternal fury. At the end of the film, you had the family of the future: the maleunconscious from painkillers, mother, daughter, and the helpful torso of a mechanical creature. (Maybe Bishop, at this point, was a child, in which case Ripley’s nuclear family had 1.5 children.)

For me, it ends with the last scene. The third and fourth movie didn’t happen. Ripley and Hicks made it home and adopted Newt and mounted Bishop on a lawn-mower chassis. And if Ripley had a baby, and it was a Caesarean, they didn’t saw open her sternum.

12-03-99 I have the horrible feeling that I’ve already missed two Christmas parties I was supposed to attend. I have an equally horrible feeling that both are tomorrow. There’s a 15th anniversary party for Almanac, which is probably tomorrow night; can’t miss that. And there’s my friend Wesley’s company party, which might have been tonight. If both are tomorrow it will be a long day of wide strained grins. I propose a new device to be marketed expressly for the holiday season: a harness, cinched at the waist and neck. A thick strap will holds one arm up, so you can clasp a drink; small metal arms attached to the neck-cinch will pull your face back in a holiday grin, and a small cattleprod located near the spinal column will keep you circulating throughout the room. I realize that this would not be for everyone - can’t be, lest all parties consist of people with their faces spread back, flinging themselves around the room as they follow the dictates of the prod.

But some variant on this would be welcome. The Party Suit. I think I’ll take this up in the column on Sunday.

Warm today. Middle-upper forties. Unthinkable for December, but that’s two such Decembers in a row. Why, in the old days, it was damn cold. Damn cold! And by “old days” I mean 95, 96, when I came back after four years in tropical DC. I remember making Christmas cookies, and putting the trays outside to freeze the excess cookies. Today they’d just melt. As I walked outside this morning with Jasper, the roofers a few doors down had the radio loud; they were all standing around drinking Pepsi and smoking cigarettes, laughing, having a grand old time. Practically summer! But it’s wrong. Every day feels wrong. Every day feels as if we have been hipchecked into a parallel dimension where everything’s the same except the standard median temperature. It’s not Christmas without snow. There’s not a true Minnesotan who’d trade a white Christmas for a warm December 25th.

Tonight the Rudolph special was on; I saw it as I passed the TV. Hardly registered. It was like seeing the Charlie Brown Halloween cartoon in April: eh? Huh? I wish I’d stopped and watched it, but every inch of my mood is so resolutely unHolidayish that I’ve no desire to marinate myself in what was, in childhood, a holy moment. Of course, it was probably a holy moment for two years, maybe three. There’s the first time you see it, where you don’t understand everything but you understand the basics,. the simple emotional arc of the story: sad, alone, friends, happy, escape, scared/ brave, trouble, we win!, family, presents. The next time you see it you pick up the details of the story; the next year you pick up the details of the show itself, the physical details of the models and faces. the next year you see it and love it because you’ve always seen it and loved it. And you never quite let it go. I don’t know anyone worth talking to who sneers at the Rudolph special, or the Charlie Brown special. They’re exempt from criticism.

There’s always one year in childhood where you remember that there’s more after the end - after the commercial, there’s the part where Rudolph and Santa toss the misfit toys out of the sleigh while the credits roll. There’s more! Of course, after that, it’s never a surprise.

A perfect definition of adulthood: even though you know there’s something more to come, the impact is lessened each time you expect it.

12-06-99How smart is Jasper Dog? Always a good question, but a difficult one - human intelligence is not dog intelligence. They have no need to be smart in most of the ways we’re smart; they’re built for other jobs. Still, every year I find the opportunity for a memory test. As you’ll see.

Every year when we decorate the tree, I find some holiday items in the boxes - a collection of CDs, for example. Mostly vocal music from the 40s, 50s, 60s; I finally threw out that ghastly Mannheim Steamroller collection. That stuff is so calculated and robotic it’s like music for department store window automatons. Give me some finger-snappin’ Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Sam Cooke, Nat King. (His version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is quite possibly the best; it spells out all the sadness in the song - and there is no sadder Christmas song - without getting maudlin.) The disc also has a Les Brown version of “Nutcracker Suite,” which swings & grooves and just does NOT work, not at all. Anyway - every year when we open the boxes and get out the ornaments, we quiz each other on where we were when we got this bulb, or this item, or this one. Every year I add another Star Trek ship to the tree, although this year Sara seemed to suggest I move them to the sides, and the back, because the tree fairly sags under the weight of officially sanctioned Paramount merchandise. I also have some NASA craft, each of which talk when you turn the tree on; between the Trek and the NASA craft, every time I turn on the lights there’s half a dozen pre-recorded messages from outer space coming from the boughs.

Among the items is a squeeze toy for the dog. It’s Santa. It is named, as you might expect, Santa. I put it in a heap of the dog’s toys, which consisted of a frisbee, the hedgehog, and a brand new rope. Later I asked Jasper to find Santa. Where’s Santa? Find Santa.

He came back with . . . Santa.

He did the same thing last year, too. There are all sorts of explanations - he went for the one that smelled different, the one that was new. But the rope was new, too. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that he saw the Santa toy, and remembered. After a year. Smart dog.

Will he remember after ten years, if, Dog willing, he lives that long? After all, Sara and I have our own memories bound up in each ornament, including the Potentially Symbolic House ornament. It was a gift from my parents, a little Hallmark hearth that says “Our First Christmas.” That stuff usually makes me gag - excess saccharine - but not in this case. The hearth glows with an ersatz fire. One year that fire will not work. It will be broken. Every year before I plug it in, I say “the fire may have gone out. This means nothing, and it certainly isn’t the case, anyway.” And then I give her a kiss.

I’m actually looking forward to the year it does go out; proving the fire’s cessation has no metaphorical implications sounds like a lot of fun.

So the tree is up. No snow. Temps above freezing. Oh, well - the tree is up and that helps. The exterior lights are up, although I’m still toying with the design. It’s a work in progress. I’m unhappy with the inelegant power-distribution system; more extension cords are needed.

Weekend - saw “Arlington Road,” which was a real day-brightener. Not recommended. Cable-flipping later, I saw parts of Species II, which I strenuously recommend be confiscated and burned, and “Dusk ‘Til Dawn,” a Tarantino vampire movie. That says it all:Tarantino vampire movie. I loved most of City on Fire - sorry, Reservoir Dogs - except when it just reveled in its sadism; the rest of his work I couldn’t care less about. Enough hip-talking criminals in black suits. And please: no more Quentin the Actor. Wally Cox had more screen presence.

Otherwise, the usual; housework, fine meals, just the happy ordinary counterpoint of being at home with wife and mutt. Got some postcards; screwed around with the web site; played Half-Life Opposing Force until my eardrums bled, did laundry and DID NOT FORGET THE DRIER SHEETS ONCE. This perhaps is the greatest accomplishment of the weekend. Proof to my wife that I am, after all, intelligent. Or at least capable of training.

12-07-99Monday, column night, time for a 21-minute Bleat. Set timer, go:

Although how can I fill 21 minutes? Nothing that happened todaycan be told in the Bleat. Private matters. Not the good stuff, or the hopeful stuff, or the surly furious bile-spitting mood that has characterized the last few hours, since I found out that I’ll be spending - but no. Can’t say that, either. So . . .

I am tired of failed Mars missions. Look. We got the joint mapped. We know where to go. Let’s go there. So much for the old “robots can do it” attitude you get from the anti-manned mission people - yes, robots can do it, if they don’t land ass over teakettle with their antennae pointing at Cygnus. If there’d been a human present in this latest mission, he or she could have pointed the antennae in the right direction. Or just cooked the samples right then and there, and stored the data. Ah, you say, but what if the manned mission crashed like the robot ships? Probably wouldn’t - you can adjust your course on the way down, correct for new information. Yes, it would be expensive to send humans. So for the first time in my adult life I propose a new tax. (And I define “adult” as beginning the day I stopped proposing taxes for other people. Perhaps this means I am entering my second childhood.)

It would work like this: estimate the cost of a manned mission to Mars. Not just a stop-and-go mission, but a real mission: a rover, a basecamp, greenhouses, a 5- 6 month stay. Now impose a national gas tax that will expire when we’ve collected half the amount of the estimated cost. Keep pushing the message: each mile you drive takes us closer to Mars. Offer the total collected amount to whoever gets there and performs the mission objectives. I have a suspicion that if NASA said it would take 500 Billion to do it, and offered 250 Billion for the first to get there, someone could figure out how to get there for 200 billion. Fifty billion profit would be the least of it; there’d be sponsorship, product placement, webcast rights, etc. The only rule: no products mentioned during descent, landing, and the first EVA.

The prize would have to go to an American consortium, of course. If we paid for it, the first flag on the planet would be the Stars and Stripes. Everyone of any nation would be welcome to join the consortiums, but it’s Old Glory that gets planted in the red soil.

You know, I’d trust the UN to run a Mars mission if the UN was capable of doing these things . . . but if the UN was capable of doing these things, I wouldn’t trust the UN. That’s one of the things that bothers me about Star Trek - the faint whiff of Singapore wafts from the Federation. Clean, peaceable, industrious - with jail sentences for anti-social chewing-gum disposal.

It’s late. I’m babbling. Wrote the column tonight, but it needs the cold sane eye of tomorrow to make sure it’s not brimming with inordinate foolishness. Spent the entire afternoon in a waiting room reading the Wall Street Journal, which, thankfully, was about seven inches thick today. Did not play much with the dog. Did not look up at the blue sky and feel inexpressible gratitude. Did not come up with a brilliant new webnavigation paradigm. Did not act in a civil manner towards the fourth telemarketer who called this afternoon. Did not nap longer than four minutes this evening, because I suddenly remembered the lyrics to “Diamonds Are Forever” and could not get them out of my head. Did not forgo dessert tonight, so I can’t have the usual post-work snack. Grrr.

Oh, such travails. Fact is, I am enjoying this black vile mood; they can be so satisfying, so complete, so righteous. But the flavor fades after a day or two. Well: back to the column and then to the mail: ding.