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Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 1999 /8 Teves, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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My runaway mind

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT HAPPENED AGAIN just the other day, during the heat wave. It's been that kind of "winter'' in these parts. I can't even remember what a snowflake looks like.

There are days, like in the kind of December, that make you want to turn on the air conditioning, when the Southern mind finally has had it and just goes walking out the door to do its own thing, think its own thoughts, lose its own way. Occasionally it sends back postcards with snippy remarks, as if to even old scores. The last one dealt with Martha Stewart. There's no telling what will set a mind off. Too much coffee is my theory.

It seems the mind has had it with the Martha Stewart syndrome. She's the pluperfect homemaker/designer/twit who recommended that homeowners leave precisely an inch of snow on their lawn when shoveling. Or was it precisely a quarter of an inch? Obsessive minds want to know. Call it the science of exterior decorating.

In these snowless climes, we have to make do with fallen foliage. I can hardly wait these fall evenings to get home and arrange all the pin oak leaves on the lawn, in the car, in the house, in everybody's hair, in perfect parallel lines. North to South. Simply use a compass and rearrange daily.

The suggestion about an even level of the white stuff was maddeningly typical of Ms. Perfect Homemaker. But even if her devotees wanted to follow that advice, where would they find the snow in these latitudes? Who could afford to import a quarter-inch of snow from Chicago to manicure every little inch of the law?

If I had that kind of money, I'd rather put it in something really enjoyable, like barbecue for all. Messy, juicy barbecue, running with sauce and accompanied with baked beans and slaw -- all of it one big, delicious stain waiting to happen. Martha Stewart would be horrified. I would be delighted. So would my mind.

A culture that pays the slightest attention to Martha Stewart is rotten to the perfectly decorated core, but here I've gone and obsessed about her for whole paragraphs -- a chunk of run-on prose big enough to choke a good-sized horse. Or at least my errant mind has. It has, as they say, a mind of its own. I disclaim any responsibility for it on mixed-up days like this, when it should be cold and blustery, and instead Little Rock feels like Nassau in the Bahamas.

Nor is my mind finished with Martha Stewart. It has just begun to obsess. As someone with an abundance of sense and no pretensions once summed up the matter: "Slapping Martha Stewart around ... it's a good thing.''

Reading her words of wisdom and condescension leaves one with an irresistible impulse (isn't that a defense in this court?) to find a four-wheel-drive vehicle, head up to her perfectly trimmed lawn in Connecticut or wherever, with its precise quarter-inch of snow, and cut some good-sized doughnuts in it. But not without first rolling her perfectly sculpted trees.

Here on this tropical December morn, I should be doing my best to sound as dignified as David Broder, bless his heart, but my mind is stuck in S.J. Perelman mode.

The last time it obsessed like this was after seeing some French film that was supposed to elevate my ordinarily bourgeois sensibilities. It may have been Jules et Jim, a True Masterpiece of the Cinematic Art, so magnificently understated that you felt as if you were watching it in your sleep, or maybe underwater.

Or maybe it was an Ingmar Bergman film that consisted entirely of interlocking couples sitting around talking for hours, for days, maybe years ... in Swedish. One of them always has a beard.

Walking out of that little art movie theater in Columbia, Mo., back in college, or maybe it was the old Thalia on the Upper West Side when December was still what December should be, sighing a deep Gallic sigh and slipping on overcoats with everybody else who was supposed to be Deeply Moved and Forever Changed, I was beset by a, yes, irresistible impulse: I realized I had to get to the nearest bowling alley as soon as possible and start filling up on pepperoni pizza. Preferably washed down with some nationally distributed, totally pasteurized beer without a trace of charming local character. A Bud, maybe, or was it Schlitz back then?

Anyway, I never wanted to hear about Jules et Jim again. Both of 'em could go drown for all I cared, which is pretty much what happens in the film -- in a typical example of French lakeside driving. If only they had taken Martha Stewart with them.

Where is my mind? I could've sworn I had it a moment ago. Here it should be hard at work deciphering the latest presidential debate between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Talk about a Jules et Jim moment; either one could have played a title role in that delicate ballet, especially the ponderous Bradley. Or maybe he's out of an Ingmar Bergman talkie.

As for the vice president, aka Poor Al, he's been positively caffeinated of late. He'd have to be toned down to fit the languorous pace of a Truffaut film, the kind that goes on for a millennium or two without anything of consequence actually happening. Or is that the Clinton administration?

Meanwhile, wandering delirious somewhere out there in the December heat, like an out-of-body Woody Allen, my mind keeps sending back uninhibited questions, as if it had been reading too many newspaper headlines.

How would Martha Stewart handle this --- ignore these communiques from my wayward id? Cover them up with a quarter-inch of sublimation? And why does my careening mind, whenever it gets out of its cage, sound eerily like some correspondent from the avant-garde? Is it because the news has merged with the theater of the absurd?

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