Okay, here's the thing. I recognize that, for someone I claim to hate, I spend an awful lot of time reading his work. And I realize that the two of us have an awful lot in common (although not as much as we used to, given that I no longer live in Minnesota with a lovely little girl and a woman who barely tolerates me). And I really don't wish the guy any direct harm (unlike, say, Charles Johnson, whose flattening by a meteor would bring me great joy). But I've really just locked in on him because he's easily accessible, a frequent updater, and a cartoonish crank about both culture and politics, as opposed to the Town Hall crowd, who tend to pick one or the other. Also unlike the rest of the clowns of the babbling right, he actually had a long way to fall -- once upon a sometime, LiLi was actually a respected humorist, and not in the Dave Barry "famous despite not being very funny" sense, but in the "can actually make me laugh" sense. Jonah Goldberg and Cal Thomas may be bigger tools than James Lileks, but they didn't start out as people whose work I was genuinely interested in; schmucks they were born and schmucks they will remain. What makes Lileks so compelling is the tragedy of his fall from grace, the squandering of actual talent, the fatal flaw that has consumed his life like the heroes of antiquity. In his case, you can state uneqivocally that the terrorists won: before September 11th, 2001, his blog was a continual source of amusement. After that day, he descended further and further into a cocoon of crankitude; perhaps it was instilled by that horror, or perhaps it was always there and just needed to come out, but the last five years have seen him go from a skilled humor writer and an adept cultural observer to a fussy old coot who can't stand to have anything at the wrong angle. I've read his site every day for at least a year, and in 2006, I can count the number of times he was actually funny on one hand -- and yet, in a strange way, he gets funnier every day. That, bewildered readers, is the nature of my obsession with James Lileks.
Which puts me in an odd position regarding his future. He's sweating bullets now that the Star-Tribune has been sold, fearful that he'll get shitcanned. (My guess? Not likely. He's a pretty popular fixture in that rag.) And that would mean the end of his blog, because, as he puts it, every word he writes will have to pay. I know the feeling, or I did once. The downside of this is that his blog would go away, and I'd be deprived of his hilarious bitching about how the clerks at McDonald's never get his order right, or how he doesn't like the lettering on the cups at his coffee shop, or how Star Wars is the single good thing that happened between 1970 and 1979. The upside is that he'd start doing more and more right-wing opinion pieces (that's where the money is these days for Jim), and I could blissfully unremember the days when he was really funny, and start thinking of him the same way I do his buddy Hugh Hewitt: an easily ignored blowhard in love with the sound of his own complaining.
Anyway, today is the penultimate chapter of his remarkably self-centered Christmas-in-Arizona recap (tellingly, his wife only appears once in the five installments of the series, and then only to tell him to shut up). In classic Lileks fashion, he finds the time to praise the big-box, generic stores and restaurants that he loves to frequent while simultaenously finding the time to complain about the actual people in them who make his life so miserable. Oh, to live in a post-neutron bomb world!
In the evening everyone went to a movie, but I had a pounding headache that would not profit from a Ben Stiller film in which things blow up or fall down, so I wandered around the mall. It was a “lifestyle center,” which meant it had no roof. These places are touted as the future of retail, if not the present, and I can see why; unlike the enclosed regional mall, they seem to pose less of an investment for the shopper. You go to a mall, you’re committed. You’d better do something there. But a lifestyle center is much more seductive, possibly because the definition between outside and inside is blurred. You don’t really enter it or leave it, and in this sense it seems much more like traditional downtowns. I like them.
So, there you have it: the man who constantly laments the de-charming of culture and the loss of the uniqueness and individuality of '40s and '50s consumer society loves "lifestyle center" malls, because they don't have roofs, and thus are just like traditional downtowns, except for the fact that there aren't any locally owned stores, or housing, or government buildings, or interesting architecture.
Everyone scurried from awning to store – except the Youts, who were too cool to exhibit haste in any form. I waited for my party under an umbrella and watched the Youts, and what an unpleasant batch of rats and tramps they were, too. Really: the girls were all forty pounds of plaster poured into a gallon Ziploc bag and topped with crocheted hats (! In 2006?) and their dates were usually nasty little hatchet-faced characters you’d expect to find coughing up blood in an abandoned Times Square tenement in 1967.
DARN KIDS TODAY. DARN THEM. LAWN, OFF, DARN KIDS, DARN. Jesus, man. I mean, okay, I hate teenagers myself, but could this be any more of a stereotype of the cranky old fuck who just, like, doesn't get where the young people are coming from today, man? This time, they're not even failing to give him the correct burger, or sprawled out at an Arby's with an insolent posture and no reading material. They're making him mad just by existing. Someone had a moody adolescence!
Every so often your impression of America coincides exactly with the caricature of its worst critics, and as I looked into the Cold Stone Creamery, watching a dozen people of generous girth staring blankly out the window as they lapped at ice-cream cones the size of the Olympic torch, I felt . . . alone.
Because, you know, it's the fat people buying ice cream that provide America's critics with their caricatures. Not at all the James Lilekses of this country, with their scorn for the poor, with their kneejerk hatred of taxation, with their cultural provincialism and shamefaced religiosity and twitchy loathing of all things European, with their trickledown economics and their endless lust for chain-store uniformity and support of an unjust war based in pure irrational fear. James Lileks may be an utter cartoon of the leveling effect of American culture and of the rootless plenty-plaint of the overpriveleged upper-middle class, but he's not who people should be making fun of, because he's thin!
The next day we went to dinner with my father-in-law and his lovely wife. Gnat was miserable about the prospect, since it would be a Fancy Place in which no fun could be had and the meal consisted of snails served by contemptuous butlers. Or so she seemed to think. When I told her it was the Olive Garden she perked right up. The place was packed, as it always is, everywhere, anytime. You could built 9000 more Macaroni Grills and space them every seventeen yards and the line would go out the door. I had a pasta dish that would have fed Napoleon’s army, but only the portion in retreat from Moscow; let’s not exaggerate. The meatballs were large as well; drill three holes and they’d belong in a bowling alley. It was good and filling and the wine was red and agreeably coarse. Conversation was grand and Gnat enjoyed herself as well. Thus ended the last night.
Olive Garden. THE END