Saturday, March 14, 2015

They Climb Mountains, Don't They?

Laird Christopher submerges himself into his dearest diversion for a third time amongst the merry assembly of the George Washington Ball, as presented by the Williamsburg Heritage Dancers.

Is it a ball, or is it dance boot camp?

I wonder as I go through the pre-ball ritual of hurriedly learning 20 dances in two-and-a-half hours. On paper, it looks so intimidating. Even the easy dances look difficult. At least two of these dances I have done before, but I can't remember how. YouTube demonstrations provide a bit of comfort, but I need to see the dance from the way it will appear to me as I'm working through the set, not necessarily looking at it from the outside.

I'm in my kilt and my Missouri sweater for the rehearsal, and to my great relief, my companions in the dance remember your humble servant.

"Good to see you from parts afar!"

We spend a few minutes catching up before the onslaught begins, the quick run through of the dances so we can at least be familiar if we can't be completely polished. In the big leagues of English Country Dancing -- which this is -- callers seldom call a dance all the way through, if they call at all. Memory and teamwork are crucial, and I'm placing a lot of trust in the people around me to help with the tough parts.

An advanced dance breaks down in confusion, and your humble servant is lost in it, trying to find my place as my partner points and corrects. Dance master for children I may aspire to be, but dance master among grown-ups I am surely not. My partner is reassuring when she reads the agony in my countenance. "It's not your fault. We had so many new people."

With so many dances, I can afford to sit out one without feeling I have deprived myself of the full experience. I choose this one.

The George Washington Ball remains one of my favourites because I can dress up in my 18th Century finery to the hilt and find myself surrounded by those who do the same. This year, I have a big decision to make: gold outfit or blue? I have worn my 1740's gold outfit for the last two years, which I adore very much. Now I feel a need to change things up.

The blue 1770's ball outfit of satin jacquard is beautiful and radiant, but it has become very unforgiving -- or maybe it just seems that way. The coat is fine, but the breeches press tight. I almost hesitate to bow low, fearing I will split my pants. Even though I have modified the buttons and gusset in back to accommodate the realities of weight gain from being around for (2)43 years, the inconvenient truth remains -- I am likely getting too big for my breeches. If all else fails, I have a stark white pair that will suffice in a pinch. I also have my kilt.

However, over the past week in my other life and time, I have worked 40 hours in four days, including three double shifts. The net effect is a crash diet. I figure I dropped at least five pounds, like a prize fighter sweating off pounds before the official weigh-in. The breeches still fit tightly, but they're not choking me. My red baldric -- a symbol of my travels as a dancing emissary -- and the big tricorn complete the look.

"This is how they dress in Arizona!" a friend compliments as I enter the venue with a bow. I gladly point out the coat is unlined, built for comfort of the blistering Arizona heat as well as the heat of passionate dancing.

The passion starts with a minuet. Once again, I'm mostly faking it because my feet don't want to move with grace in those heavy buckled shoes. The lady I have invited to join me doesn't quite know it either. "It doesn't matter," I reassure, "as long as we look elegant."

We do our best, knowing we probably wouldn't pass muster in the court of King George III. What I can't accomplish with my feet, I can substitute with my hands. My tricorn comes off my head, and I hold it out with regal affectation. That's the way I dance, but it's not the way some people would prefer.

"Put your hand down," a gentleman has mildly corrected just hours earlier in practice. I can't help but feel mildly dismayed. Among my dancing companions in Arizona, and in those opportunities where I have taught young ladies and gentleman as a dancing master, affectations are heartily welcomed as an expression of radiant joy. It also kickstarts the wee ones' imaginations, putting them mentally in the powdered wigs and breeches where they would otherwise lack the look. I know people turn up their nose at this, but they haven't danced in our village.

Time accelerates. One dance speeds into the next, and then the next, and then the next after that. We are flying through the evening's selections. I do not sit out until the very end of the first half, where I pass on "Miss De Jersey's Memorial." I am thinking this is the dance that dissolved into disaster just a few hours earlier. On paper, it looks just as intimidating. I am loathe to turn down any dancing challenge, but I am thinking of my fellow dancing companions -- especially the ladies -- and I prefer not to cause disorder and confusion.

After the break, and two cups of strong coffee, I find out I'm wrong. I am soon standing in a set for "Barham Down," and it is too late to step out as the caller reviews the steps. My partner, fortunately, knows this dance well. So do my dancing companions. For the next five minutes, they point and direct and toss your humble servant around like a ship in stormy waters as I try to navigate on my own. Many of us in the line are imperfect, but we are quite merry about it, and some shriek in bursts of excitement upon a sudden turn or change of direction.

"We did it!" I exclaim to my partner, who is equally appreciative with a period-incorrect double high-five. "Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!"

I am tossed around again through "Monticello," a dance where both my partner and I are confused on a key figure, meaning we must quickly reset ourselves when we cannot resolve the problem. These are the times that try the gentleman's soul -- frustration and confusion and the errors. By a great miracle, the problem does not spread throughout the set. We survive to dance again with no hard feelings.

The minutes accelerate once more, and we are soon in Jack's Maggot (the "maggot" part being 18th Century terminology for an idea, not a slimy pest). During the hands-across figures, where we turn in a star, my free hand is raised in an open joyous display of those discouraged affectations. Mine is the only raised hand in the room, although a lady or two will briefly indulge me.

"I don't care if I am tossed from every ballroom in Virginia," I whisper in the passion of the moment. "I shall let my light shine through! I shall teach this to the wee ones!"

In a rush the night is over. Twenty-one different dances have come and gone, and I have danced twenty of them -- with as many different ladies as possible, as is tradition and custom. That's a scorecard of accomplishment.


Throughout the evening, I talk with others about other dances at other times. People on the East Coast, and especially Virginia, have the opportunity to attend balls similar to this one multiple times a year, and in the full attire, just like this. Your humble servant, on the other hand, only has time and budget for one, and it's worth it.

Yet in the afterglow of the evening, when we are all mingling and enjoying snacks in an adjoining room, I see part of myself as abnormal. My dancing friends are amazed I have traveled cross-country to be here. Some have traveled a few hundred miles, but I have journeyed the farthest. The expense is significant. I confront myself with the possibility that I am a junkie looking for a fix. What is wrong with me?

In times of distress and doubt, sitting silently among my dancing companions, I must reach back to GOD and to reason. Some climb mountains. Some people sail. Some travel. Some geek out at the "cons." I dance in a tricorn. A conventional passion it's not, especially for a man. It's something I lament in a discussion with some young dancing friends.

"Why don't we have any equivalent of Jane Austen for the young aspiring elegant gentleman?"

"We have Horatio Hornblower," one suggests.

"True," I say. "But I don't think he loved to dance like Austen did."

And what about Mr. Darcy, another points out.

"I don't think men read Jane Austen for him," I observe. At least none of the men I know do, unless they're unwilling to admit it.

We agree a better source for gentlemanly inspiration is sorely needed... if only to prod more men into dancing at the balls. In Colonial times, they could've played cards apart from the cavorting. Not anymore.

The next day, at a meeting of the local Jane Austen Society, an opportunity presents itself.

"Who here has not done English Country Dancing?" our dance mistress asks. A young lady in an Empire dress raises her hand -- the only raised hand in the room.

"This is your chance, Dancing Master!" a newfound lady friend next to me goads, vocalizing my thoughts.

She is a most graceful and measured pupil, a receptive and quick study. And she embraces affectations.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Who Really "Loves" America Anyway?

People are still grousing about former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani's doubts on whether President Obama really loves America, or at least loves it in the same way as Americans who say they love America. While the right laps up this musing and the left decries it, I'll let you in on a dirty little secret: I'm not sure a lot of people in power really love America, either.

Let's start with the most glaring example: as I write this, Congress has just kicked the can down the road on funding the Department of Homeland Security, passing a short-term bill to avoid a partial shutdown for one measly week. Presumably, this is time to find more votes to pass a longer-term bill. This Congress got here because it can't resist tacking divisive riders onto must-pass legislation. It can't resist throwing temper tantrums at all the wrong times. The Senate got stuck on a DHS funding bill because Republicans insisted on attaching language that rolled back President Obama's executive actions on immigration. Two different issues got rolled into one. Give Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell some credit for getting a clue and pushing a clean funding bill through the Senate. Now it's stalled out in the House because conservatives insist on an executive rollback which they don't have the votes to ram through.

Stuck in the middle of this are tens of thousands of DHS employees who may have to work without pay or get furloughed because of this political playground. Art Del Cueto, president of the Border Patrol union in southern Arizona told Tucson News Now, "We send politicians to Washington to solve problems, not to use agents and their families as political pawns for their policy warfare." Mr. Cueto gets it; why doesn't Congress?

As I have said before, Congress could solve many gridlock problems if it did two things: 1) dump the filibuster and 2) give the president the line-item veto. I don't expect either one to happen because power is what congresspeople crave. It's like telling your dog to go neuter himself. Congress would rather have these shutdown threats and temper tantrums. I say they love power more than they love America. (Props to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has just come out and said the Senate needs to ditch filibusters.)

Next in our rogues gallery: talk radio and television. Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and others in their vein may claim they love America. But I'll tell you another dirty little secret -- they love it mostly because it gives them the ability to make money. At least Rush Limbaugh admits it, and he did so in his first book, The Way Things Ought To Be. He says on page 22...
"I do not look upon my show as a chance to advance an agenda. I do not view it as an opportunity to register more Republican voters or to expand the number of conservatives in the country. I don't view my radio who as a forum for conservative activism of any kind."
And further down the page...
"You might be wondering if this means that I don't really care about my beliefs, that I am simply using them to attract like-minded people. Wrong-o. To the contrary, they are my heart and soul, the essence of my being, and I never betray them or misrepresent them in the pursuit of audience, other than when I am doing satire and parody... Still, I am first a broadcaster, bound by the dictates and requirements of broadcasting, as I take to air each day. The important thing to remember is that I also have the freedom to be myself, which means that sharing my passions and beliefs, as well as my commentary on events, is a very close second on the list of reasons why I chose to be on radio and TV."
In other words, when it comes down to ideology or entertainment value, entertainment is going to win out every time, even though he also realises how much weight he carries as a conservative opinion leader.

I've heard the others. Sean Hannity thinks the right can do no wrong. I'm amazed Mark Levin hasn't had a heart attack on air from his ceaseless rants. They are selling a product -- themselves -- and people are buying with audience and ad dollars. Their success depends not on taking an ideological position that is necessarily beneficial or desiring to make America work better; it's about delivering what people want.

Always remember this: talk-show hosts are not elected to their positions. They have the great freedom to espouse because they have all of the platform with few responsibilities beyond ratings and FCC regulations. Their audience does not vote on them at least every two years. They do not have to logroll, negotiate, deal or vote on any bills. They do not have to step in to help constituents. I wonder how many of them would badmouth politicians as much if they had to do their work, even if it didn't change them ideologically. I wonder how much time they would devote to telling us how much America bites because of the people in Washington.

And before you ask me, I do know about Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Alan Colmes, Ed Schultz and the Rev. Al Sharpton. I don't consider them in the same league of talkers because they don't draw the same kinds of numbers. I submit they have their jobs more out of charity, because somebody in a position of power decided the media needed more liberal voices. It's a noble cause, but it isn't making them filthy rich. Progressive shows certainly aren't helping low-rated MSNBC, which would not be airing them if it didn't have NBC money to lean on.

Up next, political parties: anybody who thinks their leadership loves America hasn't heard about dark money. It's dirty secrets time again: if the Republicans and Democrats really, truly loved America as much as they claim, they would get rid of it. But they can't, because they need it. Those dark dollars do the dirty work of bashing the other guy during campaign season, and they don't have to spend a dime. That's a hard deal to walk away from. The Supreme Court may say it's legal, and it's a matter of free speech, but not everything that's legal is beneficial. During the last election cycle, I heard more about how much the candidates stunk rather than how much they accomplished.

It doesn't stop there. Here in Arizona, we underwent a congressional redistricting process that was based mainly on drawing competitive districts -- ones where either a Democrat or Republican had a reasonable shot at winning. This led to some funky geography, where northern Arizona was lumped in with parts of southern Arizona, and Cochise County ranches were lumped in with Tucson. I call it gerrymandering; the parties call it "fairness." Ask former congressman Ron Barber how fair it was for him to have to straddle the conservatism of Cochise County with the liberalism of Tucson. He ended up alienating at least one chunk of his district on the tough votes and the compromises he had to make. His reward for toughing it out was to get booted by a razor-thin margin.

Barber didn't lose because he was unpopular or committed some grievous legislative sin. He lost because he was forced to do a job that should have been handled by two different elected officials. He lost because the parties wanted what was fair to them, rather than what was fair to the voters. The overriding irony is that Arizonans are increasingly ditching party affiliations, making attempts to create competitive districts absurd. If the D's and R's loved America as much as they claim, they'd abandon this farce.

I can't close without pulling out a mirror. How much do we really love America? Somebody had to vote all these people into office. Maybe you and I didn't vote for that guy, but somebody did. To whoever that somebody is: Are you voting on the basis of what's practical, workable and real rather than what's ideologically holy? Are you voting on what you can get versus what America can get back? Are you voting your values to such an extreme that one rotten tree means the entire forest has to go? Are you doing your homework and understanding the issues? And are you afraid to write in, "None of the above" if none of the candidates is right for the vote after you've gone through this analysis? Love takes work; ask any married couple or parent.

Judge Judy has said about divorced parents, "You need to love your children more than you hate each other." Congress should listen and heed. So should a lot of people. Many times love is tender, but it also needs to be tough. Love means doing what's right even when it's not easy or downright painful. Love means caring about the greater good of others. We can still wave flags, salute our military, wear three-cornered hats and play fifes, but it's got to go further. We've got to sacrifice. We've got to admit to ourselves ideological purity and combat politics are not the answer. We've got to swallow some of our own pride in the name of national pride.

It's all doable, but do we love America enough to do it?

Friday, January 30, 2015

2010: The Year We Made More Wildly Speculative Predictions

What you are about to read was originally set to run in December 2009. I never finished the piece, and it rattled around in the bottom of my draft pile for five years. The Lightning Round is my now-discontinued weekly news satire, where I pulled my favorite eyebrow-raising stories of the past seven days and paired them with observations, jibes and mildly snide asides. After about a year, I discontinued the feature, feeling other people were doing it better and more timely. I offered a few special editions, including a year-end predictions list. Here's a look back at 2010 as I thought it might be. You can glean who was making headlines at the time, but amazingly, some of these predictions still hold freshness five years later.

* * *

The folks in your Lightning Round office, left with little to do on their continuing pencils-and-keyboards-down furlough begged and pleaded for a year-end scrap. Fortunately, CEO Eugene Thornhump IV, one of the few bigshots who didn't lose money to Bernard Madoff this year, was in a giving mood. So he allowed them to go back to work for this list of things that might happen when the calendar rolls over, provided somebody hasn't sold it to raise money for the Arizona State Treasury.

* The Transportation Security Administration, in a fit of overreaction, suddenly orders people to place both their shoes and their underwear into the x-ray machine. By summer, the TSA adopts a new trusted-flier rule where those wearing bikini briefs can bypass the security check. Al-Qaida sympathizers develop a bomb that can be mounted in the belly button.

* Arizona lawmakers, shocked to discover their beloved state is turning into California, develop new plan to close the $1 billion plus budget gap: auctioning off the state's mountains, saguaros, the Grand Canyon and Sheriff Joe Arpaio on eBay.

* Tucson City Leaders, unable to close their own budget gap, sell the Old Pueblo to the Chinese. Mayor Bob Walkup hails the deal as a landmark trade agreement.

* The NFL promises new initiatives to prevent concussions and changes its name to the National Flag-Football League.

* In spite of a stimulus plan, bank bailouts, automaker bailouts, shovel-ready projects, a jobs summit and a beer summit, America's economy improves from "absolutely stinky" to "heavily noxious." The Obama Administration launches a new economic plan consisting of secretly extorting loan guarantees from North Korea by producing a picture of Kim Jung Il with Sarah Palin.

* Still unable to close the budget deficit, Arizona revenue officials are ordered to fan out across the state and try "shaking people upside down, very, very hard."

* Brett Favre retires again only to un-retire again and change his sport to pro frisbee.

* Tiger Woods returns to golf after telling fans he's been "tamed" by a certain surgical procedure usually reserved for pets.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

For Those Who Need And Those Who Have

Last year on 30/30, I presented a collection of prayers offered by my beloved Grandfather Francis as a church leader, as gathered by my Dearest Aunt Susan, who has held onto them for years. Since then, she found a few more of his prayers, and she mailed them to me. Just like the originals, they were jotted down on scraps of paper torn from a notebook or a pad. One is also on the back of a "shopping list" memo. Underneath two of them, my aunt attached sticky notes.

One says, "Christopher, I like this one."

Above, Grandfather Francis writes:
We pray, OUR FATHER, for all who are in trouble; for the sick, the poor, the afflicted, for any good cause. Bless the lonely, those who suffer, weep and struggle alone. Grant that they may find companionship and comfort in THEE. Since every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, we thank THEE sincerely and heartily for the good things we enjoy. May this prayer, O LORD, find acceptance with THEE through JESUS CHRIST, who taught us to pray OUR FATHER..."
The other note says, "This one, too!"
HEAVENLY FATHER, for all THOU hast given and all hast forgiven we thank THEE.

For every gift of nature and thy great salvation through CHRIST, we thank THEE.

For every thing by which THOU hast brought good to our lives, we thank THEE.

For our power of understanding, of loving, of sharing friendships, we thank THEE.

Help us, O FATHER, to live and work with the cheer of a grateful spirit, overcoming all trouble by the patience of hope and the wisdom of love. So may we share the fellowship of all who follow CHRIST. These things we ask in JESUS' name who taught us to pray OUR FATHER..."
Grandfather Francis always knew what was important and who was important, distilling it down to the basics. Many of us don't pray with all the "thees," "thys," and "thous," but your humble servant hopes we get the other parts in. I will if you will.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

That Hair Boy

"Where does your son get that curly hair?"

"From his father," answers the Queen Mother.

Yet the Royal Father forgot to pass on one important gene: the one that allowed him to control that mop. Tangles and twists are normal. Mother's acceptance of them is not.

"Christopher, your hair looks like a fright wig."

I comb. She combs. I comb and she combs again. Still, that mess.

"We're gonna get you a buzz cut," the Royal Father jokes when he observes too much topping. But it's not as bad as my brother's hair, which grows even longer when he's in high school. Dad says he can pick him out from afar by looking for the person with the "toadstool."

For me, the main problem is getting the strands to lie flat on top. One time, in grade school, the Queen Mother gets the idea to spray my curls with The Dry Look.

What they don't tell you in the commercials is that the stuff smells like perfume. I go to school and people want to sniff my head.

But no matter how bad it is on top, it's better than what's coming in on bottom. As you all know, when boys go through puberty, more strands of hair start growing in places they're really not needed. I stare at the truth in the bathtub, and my little brother discovers it when he barges in to get something because the bathroom door has no lock.

"Hey, Harry."

It's embarrassing. Puberty is hard enough: that barrage of hormonal maturity including the pimples. But that hair. At least nobody has to see it.

Then one day, one of my friends comes up to me during Youth Club at church, somebody who also knows my brother.

"Hi, Harry."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Few Frames Into The Future

"Hi. Uh, what's that?"

"Oh, that's my personal body camera."


"I figure what's good for police is good for me, too. You never know when somebody's going to accuse you of saying something or assaulting somebody."


"It's getting pretty tough. People say stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and people put words in your mouth. You know that Mark Twain saying that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth is putting on its shoes? I figure I need to do a pre-emptive strike."

"By constantly recording everything?"

"We take selfies, don't we?"

"Yeah, but..."

"If it saves me from having to get my reputation back, it's worth it. Flash memory is pretty cheap. I can store about 24 hours on one card at decent quality with one camera and download it to my PC before I go to bed. Then I just pick it up in the morning, strap it on, press record, and away I go."

"Aren't you concerned about privacy rights?"

"Oh that. Did you see the patch on my shirt above my camera?"

"No, let me see that. 'All conversations are recorded for quality assurance?'"

"It helps to put a positive spin on it."

"I... I..."

"I know what you mean. But this is the world we live in, where our word doesn't mean anything and people believe whatever they read online. Technology is our savior."

"So we're all going to go around with little cameras on our bodies, constantly recording everything?"

"It would sure end a lot of headaches."

"But this is like Big Brother. It's like wiretapping!"

"Wiretapping is when the other guy doesn't know. With me, everybody knows, and everybody's warned."

"What about consent?"

"Consent? We don't care what other people think about our actions anymore, so consent is overrated."


"Try not to think about the down side of it too much. We'll have a reliable verification system for what we say and do. We'll think before we act, and we'll watch what we say."

"If we say anything."

"C'mon, silence is golden, right?"

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Junk Man

If you told me at age 10 I would be making regular rounds of thrift stores when I was 43, I would say you've misread my genes. At least four summers of going up to see my aunt and uncle in New England and getting dragged to more antique places than a technically-oriented child should bear should argue against any affinity for collectables. Most other families would go to Disney World.

"But we took you there," the Queen Mother once reminded me when I gently reminded her of some past family vacations, the way kids do when they're quietly scratching some old itches. "And we took you to Williamsburg," she added. All true. But that came after all those voyages into the past, many years before I would dive into history.

When you're young, you're not thinking about that quilt that will look cute in the den, with that chair, or that dry-sink that can go in the dining room, or that pewter mug that will look good on a shelf somewhere. When you have a room, not a home, and your thoughts are on growing up, not growing old, what's past is not a part of your present.

But the antique shop of my youth is nothing like the thrift store of my middle age -- a place where I can score, save, and repurpose. My thesis is people can't tell $100 slacks from a $10 pair from Walmart. Eventually those pricey slacks end up donated to Goodwill or Savers, and that's when they find their way into my hands for five bucks a pair. Nobody knows.

Here is where the Queen Mother cringes at her gainfully-employed son living like he's on welfare.

"I'm going over to Goodwill," I tell her one time while visiting home in California and looking to make my "junk run" as I call it.

"Christopher, if you need clothes," she begins, wary and a bit alarmed.

"The bookstore, mother, the bookstore!" I clarify with authority.

Down the street from Francis Western Command sits a Goodwill bookstore, where yesterday's bestsellers go for pennies on the dollar. But I'm not looking for a cooled hot novel; I'm trying to see if there's any fairly recent volumes on Microsoft Visual Basic.

Old textbooks never die. They just go to the thrift store, and it is where I have picked up several cheap tomes to add to my historical and technical knowledge base. A coursebook that once sold for $50 is going for $4.99, or less if I pick up at Savers on one of their customer appreciation days.

If I need comfortable, broken in shorts, I'm heading for the clothing rack. And I'm always on the lookout for historic garb. After a day of poking around Bisbee and Sierra Vista looking for hidden treasures, I made an outside chance stop at a thrift shop and picked up a Medieval tunic for less than ten bucks. I was looking to put together a Renaissance outfit, and I'd just made the deal of the century. Whoever threw it out probably didn't knew what they had. Doing some Internet research among period clothiers, it has to be worth at least $50.

But the quintessential thrift store is Bookmans -- one of Tucson's treasures. It's the store where you can bring in a stack of magazines and trade up to a DVD. You can sell old stereo equipment for a shelf full of books, trade CD's to your heart's content, and get retro game systems on the cheap. It's the place to go if you need a good used guitar, or if you're looking to invest in a synthesizer without breaking the bank. I once salivated over a Yamaha DX7 someone pawned, only passing on it because I can't play as well as I can dream. It sat in Bookmans for a month, and I'm surprised it lasted that long.

"It's just too expensive anymore," Madame Sherri reassures me when I talk about shopping second-hand, and how others shake their heads at me when I tell them about it. Both of us are used to living frugally.

You won't see me buying wooden candle holders or ceramic trinkets. But I've gotten mileage out of a discarded TV set and wooden hangers.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Deadly At 1,000 Yards

Reel To Reel: American Sniper

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Battle Violence, Strong Language

Navy SEAL Chris Kyle killed 255 people in his military career, with about half of those officially confirmed by the military. He protected soldiers and civilians alike from Iraqi insurgents and rogues only to be cut down by a veteran he was trying to help. His compatriots called him a legend. Michael Moore just called him a coward -- not directly, but closely enough by slamming snipers in a tweet. I'm not going to discuss "that guy." Let's just stick to Bradley Cooper's interpretation of Kyle, which stands out as a haunting portrait of a man devoted to duty, honor, and country at the expense of his his family life and his mental health.

What drives Kyle? Patriotism. Justice. The need to protect America. But you can't pin it on any one thing. Kyle was more complicated than this film can describe, and yet it tries admirably and succeeds in many ways. We see him as a young boy and get the foundations of his moral code as he beats the tar out of a schoolyard bully. Yet this man is no model citizen as we see in his cowboy lifestyle until he sees terrorism playing itself out on television and decides he needs to be part of the solution.

We see Kyle go through SEAL training with a steely resolve and eventually establish himself as an ace shooter. He kills people. He kills a lot of them. "I was just protecting my guys, they were trying to kill... our soldiers and I," he tells a Navy doctor. "I'm willing to meet my CREATOR and answer for every shot that I took." Yet we see his volume of kills is not without consequences. One might think killing would get easier for Kyle with each successful shot, but it ends up complicating a moral ambiguity that silently gnaws at him against the backdrop of his marriage and growing family.

He is home between several of tours of duty, but the battle is still on his mind. His wife Taya (Miller) can't understand his devotion to the service and why he won't talk about what goes on at work. She comes to the point of wanting him to end it all, especially after she gets an unexpected exposure to the realities of war during a routine phone call from the front.

Cooper is fantastic in this movie because he doesn't seem like he's acting at all. He talks like the kind of focused, quietly strong veteran I have seen time and time again in soundbites as part of my job. Director Clint Eastwood moves the story along, and even though we feel like we don't know the half of Chris Kyle as described in the book that begat this film, we know enough to make us care.

Okay, I guess I am going to have to discuss what "that guy" and other have said. The notion somebody like Chris Kyle is not a hero because servicepeople simply follow orders is ludicrous. We have an all-volunteer military, meaning all those boots on the ground and in the commanders ranks stepped up to do this of their own volition, willingly putting themselves on the line to do the job a lot of people -- your humble servant included -- just don't have the guts to do. That's heroic in itself. Again, Kyle killed people who would've killed soldiers and civilians. That's heroic. Kyle did not bask in the honors lauded upon him or lift himself above others. That's heroic, too.

I've also heard the ridiculous suggestion this movie glorifies war. Have the people saying this even seen this picture in all its widescreen bloody starkness? See the film and make up your own mind. That's a freedom generations of military have died for.

The Tapes

Before the Internet came into our homes and when computerized bulletin board systems remained largely the domain of geeks, one of my hometown newspapers -- the Raytown Dispatch-Tribune -- tried an analog version of Facebook. They called it "The Tapes."

You called the paper's 24-hour automated answering machine, and an unidentified voice greeted you: "Thank you for calling The Tapes. We really do care." The voice instructed you to speak your opinion for publication. "But don't use your real name, which we can't do. Instead, make up a pseudonym."

Every Wednesday, the editors dumped their answering machine output into a full page of opinions signed with names like "Tired Of It," "Proud NOT To Be Union," "Never Again," and "Yeah, Me, The Lousy Cop."

People vented to the tapes about everything...

"Why is Save Mart charging $4.00 for whole head lettuce?"

"I don't care what my husband says, Italians are good people."

"Who is this guy on here? Man, I thought I was calling for pizza."

"I just know it. The Royals are gonna blow it in the ninth inning..."

"To the lady driving in front of me who hit the turtle. You didn't try to move sideways. You didn't try to slow down. I went back and picked up what was left of the turtle."

"How do you get fruit juice stains out of carpeting?"

"This is to the person known as The Other Woman. I want you to know how horrible you've made it on my family."

"Help! I need to find the book with the nursery rhyme that goes, 'There once was an elephant, who wanted to use the telephant...'"

"We are new to this town and we want to find a church that preaches against sin. So many of the ones around here just seem like get-acquainted groups."

"Have any of you people got that call from that woman who asks you to guess her name?"

"I got that call and had it traced. They told me it was coming from the Gladstone area..."

"I told that woman to go back to reading her Bible and hung up."

"I just heard this awful song by Guns 'N' Roses. It was off their album G'N'R Lies..."

"VD is rampant because we have so many hot-pants teenagers around here."

My personal favorite:

"I heard a woman screaming next door this morning and I called police. It turns out she was in the throngs of love with somebody. I'm glad you're all right, but you scared me!"

To this day, I can't believe the paper made an entire page into a graffiti wall. Yet for all its freewheeling, this page still had an editor, meaning trolls, haters, and libelers never made it in. I never missed reading it, this gossipy guilty pleasure masquerading as community journalism.

I still say you could do something like it in the print world. Let people email their comments in, confidentiality assured, pass them through a minimally-invasive editor, and you've got something. Maybe.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Steal This Stationery!

In the trash compactor that used to be my boyhood room, I kept a semi-prized collection: hotel stationery. Either I swiped it during family vacations, or somebody brought it back for me (namely Grandma & Grandpa Lawson). I recall -- or I can probably guess -- having at least the following sheets and envelopes:

Holiday Inn Durango, CO
Holiday Inn Goodland, Kansas (now defunct)
Best Western "Buffalo Inn," Goodland, Kansas (also long gone)
Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge, Springfield, Missouri
Holiday Inn Albuquerque
Best Western Lake Estes, Estes Park, Colorado
Holiday Inn, Terre Haute, Indiana (and I picked up the cable guide as a bonus)
La Quinta Inn, Ft. Worth, Texas
The Waikaikian, Hawaii
MGM Grand, Las Vegas
Hilton, Las Vegas
Howard Johnson's, Rolla, Missouri
Best Western East, Indianapolis, Indiana
Koala Inn, Near Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Marriott Inn, Atlanta
Camelot Inn, Tulsa, Oklahoma (now sadly defunct)

It's there for the taking, usually buried in a drawer next to the Gideon Bible, two or three letterheads paired with two or three envelopes. I would snag it early in our stay and stuff it into my little briefcase. Eventually it would wind up in a shoebox back home -- just another thing to drive the Royal Mother crazy.

"I'm going to go through this room with a shovel!" she once grumbled.

"Don't touch my stationery!" I protested.

And mercifully, she didn't. That box followed me at least into my teenage years. I don't know where it went after that. Either it got thrown out due to a mandatory clean-up-your-room order or just maturity. I should've kept it. Some of those letterheads were printed with beautiful two-color etchings, making them likely worth something to some collector besides your humble boy servant.

I can't tell you when I quit swiping sheets. I think it happened after I turned 13. What's amazing is that petty stationery pilfering is not a gateway drug. I can honestly tell you I didn't graduate to taking the towels, although I have made off with several shampoo and conditioners bottles. During a stay at a luxury inn in Williamsburg in 2012, I had a whole basket of goodies waiting for me, including an eye mask -- but no stationery.

However, I will tell you the people at the Western Village Motor Inn in Salida, Colorado are probably still looking for that kid who made off with a Mountain Bell telephone book.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Down In The Basement Of Tornado Alley

My parents thought I would grow up to be a TV weathercaster, given my fascination with severe storms and how TV covered them. Growing up during the 1970's and 80's, I saw the technology improved every year.

Back in 1970's Kansas City, when TV needed to get a warning on, the weathercasters cut in and voiced over a "Tornado Warning" slide every time. I would hear Fred Broski or Dan Henry or Dave Dusik working with only the National Weather Service information. TV Radar didn't come to town until KMBC unveiled "Weatherdial Radar," a low-tech, yellow-and-black radar picture that was supposedly transmitted to the station over phone lines (hence the "dial" part). They upgraded a few years later to "Weathertrack Radar," which added color to differentiate storm intensity and more accuracy. The other stations eventually caught up, more or less.

But my real fascination started in the early 1980's, when TV stations started adding icons down in the corner of the screen when the weather turned bad. It started in the Topeka area, when WIBW added a simple [W] to the lower-right-hand corner. That "W" could be any kind of Tornado or Severe Thunderstorm "Watch." A few years later, Kansas City stations started adding icons saying "Tornado Watch" or "Severe Thunderstorm Watch." KCTV had a Severe Thunderstorm Watch icon so big, it had to have led people to call in and grumble. That simple [W] did have advantages.

On the radio, KMBZ tried an eerie audible icon. During a Tornado Watch, it would play a short high-pitched whistle about once a minute. Annoying for some, scary for others.

Sooner or later, a Tornado Warning gets issued, and the weathercaster comes on to tell you to get to the basement. Raytown is fortunate in dodging the twisters more times than fortune should allow.

"Has a tornado ever hit Raytown?" I asked the Queen Mother as a child.

"We had the Ruskin Heights Tornado," Her Majesty replied, "but that was back in the 50's. That was a big sucker."

"I remember I could see it coming down out of the clouds," said Queen Grandmother Lawson. She also told me how the Queen Mother, then a young princess, wanted to watch Lucille Ball on TV rather than get to the basement.

Most of the time in Raytown, we didn't have to. But on one stormy night in the mid 1970's, before my kid brother was born, Her Majesty and I ventured down there when a warning blasted out.

"We'll just be down here until the wind blows all the trees down," she said casually, hiding whatever real danger was out there. I remember patiently waiting about a half-hour in the light of the basement until the storm let up.

Mother and I walked back up the concrete steps to the playroom, and then the family room to look outside. Lightning danced across the sky, but we heard no rain or thunder. "It's just lightning," she told me, declaring it safe for us inside.

"Do you want to watch Baretta?" she asked.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Life Less Televised

We are sitting at a long table at a Birmingham restaurant, a group of operations people, producers, and newsroom folk from several stations. We are in town to get schooled on the next version of our news computer system, but for now, we are enjoying Southern comfort food. And as TV people do, we talk about TV and the shows we love when we're not doing news.

Game Of Thrones comes up a lot. So does Breaking Bad. So do a lot of other shows. And then somebody queries me.

"Well," I scratch out. "I'm a big fan of Hell's Kitchen. I like MasterChef." That's enough to satisfy the question. I'm glad, because the complete truth requires more exposition.

It goes like this: after working nights for more than a decade and not watching primetime television, I never developed an affinity for it, and I never missed it. Even when I shifted to working days, I never found reasons to set a DVR. I never owned a DVR; I rigged my VHS VCR to record The Sopranos as needed.

Sounds like sacrilege, no? Imagine a TV news producer who doesn't watch TV! I prefer to call it a separation of work and life.

When I come home from work, I want to leave a lot of it there. But still, I'm spend time reading print journalism. News articles and blogs on the 'net are my prime time schedule three nights out of the week. Other times I'm with my friends at church or capering about in a kilt with my Scottish dancing friends.

I have a few indulgences: the aforementioned cooking shows and Bar Rescue. But that's it. My real life is much more interesting and lively outside the cable box. I have told others real reality will never equal virtual reality.

But on this night, I don't feel like soapboxing it to the table, and it's not the right audience. Anyway, I have previously told a conference room full of aspiring journalists to make sure they find a life outside the business, in whatever way they can. Those who don't are doomed to the fishbowl life, not one of the person who's constantly observed, but one who is constantly observing without doing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Statin' The Union

A lot of you didn't watch last night's presidential address. It's the TV equivalent of "Too long; didn't read." Tell you what: let's break things down and insert a few reality checks among the lofty speechifying. Be forewarned: some of these may teeter on the edge of snarkiness, but there's a a point to this, I promise you...
Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?
Yeah, if it gets people elected.
Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet? Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another — or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?
See above.
Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way. We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.
Unless Congress overrides that.
That’s what middle-class economics is — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success — we want everyone to contribute to our success.
Unless you make the rules -- then you exempt yourself from the rules.
To give working families a fair shot, we’ll still need more employers to see beyond next quarter’s earnings and recognize that investing in their workforce is in their company’s long-term interest. We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice. But things like child care and sick leave and equal pay; things like lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage  -- these ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families. That is a fact.
This is also a fact: fairness to a politician and fairness to normal people are two different things.
By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future.
Unless they join the military, like many parents of the youngest, brightest, and strivingest Americans are secretly hoping.
Let’s close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America. Let’s use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home. Let’s simplify the system and let a small business owner file based on her actual bank statement, instead of the number of accountants she can afford. And let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college. We need a tax code that truly helps working Americans trying to get a leg up in the new economy, and we can achieve that together. said tax code can be promptly loused up again to benefit those whom we need to vote for us.
When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.
Let's make sure the only thing they'll want after we get finished with them is mercy.
And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.
Because saying we're going to kill them like Raid is so passe.
That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.
Coulda fooled me.
The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security.
And the people in the northeast are saying, "We're still freezin' our tushes off!"
You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America  --  but a United States of America. I said this because I had seen it in my own life...
And you weren't working in Washington at that time.
Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws  -- of which there are many  --  but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it. I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.
And they still think you're wrong, too. Fair enough.
There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision. Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.
Oh you can imagine a lot... but doing? Meh.
A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.
Yeah, but that doesn't win elections! And it's not as much fun!
A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.
Until those young people figure out they're being hustled and decided to stay as far away as they can from Washington.
I have no more campaigns to run. My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol — to do what I believe is best for America. If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.
Until two years from now, when the candidates will tell you how much it bites.
We’ve laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter  --  together  --  and let’s start the work right now.
Yes! We need fodder for all the 2016 dark money ads!

And now the promised point: I have very low expectations of any major change towards making government work more efficiently, more civilly, and more frugally. As I have said before, Congress could do a lot simply by giving the president a line-item veto and nuking all filibusters. It won't. President Obama can talk a good game about how we need to be servant leaders, but in Washington, nice guys finish last.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Going Postal

The Post Office lost $5.5 billion in 2014, and I know part of the reason why. I go to the mailery down the street on a Saturday morning, when nobody is at the counter, and all that works (or doesn't) is an automated postage machine.

Years ago, the cash-bleeding geniuses who placed these devices in post offices simultaneously removed the vending machines for stamps, envelopes, postcards and other supplies. Those old machines worked like the familiar ones for candy and soft drinks: put in your money, make a selection, see it drop into the slot. The new ones electrify bureaucracy, displaying layers upon layers of menus to make a simple purchase –- like buying stamps.

A few seasons ago, during the Christmas rush, a postal worker tried to tame the long line snaking from the counter by encouraging us to try out the post office’s response to the ATM.

“Too many questions,” I replied to the postal worker. “Bring back the old machine.”

The beleaguered postmistress returned a glance like I had just told her I would rather use the Pony Express before sighing and acknowledging that, yes, the system was a little bit finicky.

On this day, I need stamps. Actually, just one. But that’s an impossibility for Post-Office Depression, as I call this machine. Stamps are doable, but the minimum order is three. Did I mention that those convenient single-stamp dispensers of the olden days are gone, too?

I shoot for three, the machine takes my money, prints out a receipt, and drops absolutely nothing into the bin where I’m supposed to receive three stamps.

Because it’s Saturday, nobody’s at the counter. I take the next step: trying to raise somebody’s attention on the mail room. I ring the bell at the parcel claim window, the top half of a door which is conveniently closed and locked to keep the minions in the back from having to deal with the customers up front. Nobody answers on the first ring. I ring the bell again. This time, I don’t even hear the bell. Either it’s designed to only ring once per customer, or a minion decided to turn it off, not wanting to be bothered with actually having to deal with somebody.

I am not going to go away quietly – not after getting ripped off. I rap on the door. I rap on it again. I wait and wait. Somebody is going to have to deal with this issue. Finally somebody opens the door and asks if I need something. Here now I see at least four half-horrified postal minions who can’t understand how somebody managed to break their monotony of the Saturday morning delivery.

I calmly explain the situation to the head minion, showing the receipt that actually did print. “The thing is,” I add, “I’m concerned other people are going to have to use this machine and they will also get ripped off.”

“Hang on,” he says. “Uh, let me see if I have the key.”

He disappears into the back, finds the key, and opens up the machine to see if those printed stamps got stuck in the gears of Post-Office Depression. Nothing falls from the mechanism, leaving him baffled.

“Huh,” he says. “Let me see if I can get you some stamps.”

Once again, Head Minion disappears and looks for the stamps. I wait a few minutes before he once again presents himself in the window.

“Uh, there’s a problem,” he mutters. “They’ve locked all the stamps up and I can’t get to them.”

I’m dumbstruck. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“Yeah. If you come back on Monday, I can get you the stamps.”

“That’s not going to do me any good,” I explain, holding up the letter I’m trying to mail across the country. “This needs to go out today.”

I feel nothing but pity for this guy. He honestly wants to help, but he’s tied up in the spaghetti of postal rules and regulations designed for anything but customer service. Still, he tries.

“Well, I think I can put it in a penalty envelope, and I’ll still get you the stamps.”

“What’s a penalty envelope?”

“It’s something where they have to pay the postage.”

I’m not sure if it will work, but I’m willing to try it. “Could they make your life any more difficult?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “Yeah, they could.”

Jumping forward one hour later, I redeemed a $5 gift certificate at Best Buy for a Blu-Ray disc costing $4.99. The cash register threw a fit, blurting: “Gift Certificate in excess of purchase.” A penny for its thoughts, and that’s even though the total price of the purchase with tax comes out to $5.60. The fine print says the certificate can’t be applied to even a smidgen of tax, unlike the other gift cards this big-boxer doles out, meaning the entire transaction will fail, even though I’m more than willing to pay the difference.

“Do you maybe want a stick of gum to go with that?” says the lady behind the counter. “Maybe a potato chip?”

“Why can’t we just make it work?” I say. A penny for my thoughts.

She calls over a manager, and in contrast to the Post Office, he performs a contortion act with the system rivaling Cirque de Soleil, punching in override codes and cryptic explanations like, “PENNYUP.” He deftly removes a bottle of spring water from the refrigerator and places it with my order.

I pull out my billfold and offer to settle the tax difference, but the clerk declines.

“You’re all good,” she smiles. “All is well.” As it should be for a corporation that makes money instead of losing it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

You Don't Need A Coming-Out Party! You're A Man!

Back in June 2013 on these pages, I lamented an imbalance in young fantasies: why do we have so many young ladies who love being princesses without an equivalent number with princely or knightly dreams? Although I was mildly relieved to see some more knight costumes at Savers this past Halloween, I have since learned the problem is even worse than I considered.

In Japan, a lady can now have a groom-optional wedding, according to several sources including the UK Sunday Express, which reports:
Travel company Cera Travel in Kyoto, a city in southern Japan, has launched "Solo Weddings", which they claim are perfect for women looking for the thrill and romance of a wedding, without actually having to tie the knot.

The two-day trip offers singletons a chance to enjoy all the fun and glamour of the special day, including spending their wedding night in a fancy hotel.
And wait, there's more: you can even have a stand-in disposable groom for the pictures. I read this and immediately flashed back to a 2012 commencement speech from Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr., who said in part:
So here we are... commencement... life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent... during halftime... on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)
You ever notice we don't have magazines called Modern Groom or Grooms? We don't have a Groomzillas or Say Yes To The Tux cable show. The entire wedding industry caters to one side of the nuptials.

When I first made that observation on Facebook, a friend observed we've been having these kinds of groomless ceremonies for years: they're called Quinceañeras. Fifteen-year-old girls in Hispanic families celebrate becoming a lady by dressing up like brides, going through a mass and a reception with a court of honor instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen, eating and dancing the night away. In keeping with historic tradition, it's strictly a female rite of passage. What about the boys? In the book Once Upon a Quinceañera, author Julia Alvarez gives us a traditional mindset that boys are born men, but girls turn into women at 15. That's the silliest statement about maturity I've heard since someone warned me coffee would stunt my growth.

You can argue debutante balls are essentially the same thing multiplied, even though they have a noble purpose. Historically, they have introduced marriage-eligible ladies to society, and in our current times, they honor young ladies with a commitment to service. Yet I don't see the equivalent for the young servant-hearted gentlemen seeking marriage. Yes, I know gentlemen do have a role in debutante balls, but they're the functional equivalent of asterisks. Who's presenting them to society?

This disparity angers me. It plays right into the stereotype that young men don't want or need a moment of glamor or regality in their lives. We assume they don't need to be built up, honored, prayed for, lavished, bowed or curtsied to. They don't need a ceremony where their family and friends share how much they are loved and valued, and how their beloved expect great things from them in adulthood. They don't need a coronation like the ladies because they're guys, and guys don't ask to be coronated -- not even on their own wedding days!

Or do they? As many of you know, Jewish boys celebrate becoming men at 13 with a Bar Mitzvah. (Girls get a Bat Mitzvah at 12 or 13.) It is both a rite of passage and a time to party. Christians are adapting this tradition into what is known as a Bar Barakah, and your humble servant was honoured to be part of one in November of 2012.

A Tucson family invited me to lead several historic dances as part of the party following the ceremony of blessing and a dinner. As I wrote in my journal:
The most memorable moment wasn't the dinner or the dancing, it was watching [the young boy's] parents and his sister get up one at a time and tell him how much they loved him and challenged him to live his life for GOD. Seeing it emotionally drained me, as it did [the honoree] and several others. I don't think there was a dry eye in the room at one point.
That included the climax of the ceremony, where the boy crossed from one side of a model bridge he helped build to the other where his friends and family were waiting to hug him.

We still have a way to go before we see male Quinceañeras or male debutante balls. But also I hear some guys get "15" parties, so I sense demand will drive supply. Why should the young ladies have all the fun? I hope we'll someday see prince parties or balls featuring young noblemen, honored as people of maturity and worth, ready for a commitment -- maybe to a young lady, maybe to something else, but ready nonetheless.

But if it gets to the point of bride-optional weddings... uh, that's just tacky.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Industrial Arts

Don't call it "shop class." That's a term reserved for those blow-off classes in middle school people don't want their kids taking because they're the functional equivalent of basket weaving. But it's shop class.

The objective is to make something functional, like a small wooden bookshelf, a wrought-iron candle holder, a plastic letter opener, or a step stool. Getting there involves the techniques used in the workshop, by skilled tradespeople before robots take all their jobs. But let us not be fooled: putting certain young people around squaring shears, drills, vice grips and buffers will turn shop class into a little shop of horrors.

Listen to the instructions of one of my shop Industrial Arts teachers and you may safely deduce the kinds of hijinks which go on:

"When you take one of these rods out of the pile, flip it out on the floor and drag it to your desk for cleaning with a paper towel. Do not wipe it on my pants with that scungy grease."

"How many people heard me say, 'Waste those pop rivets!?'"

"Please leave the arm on this paper cutter up so it doesn't come up and bang somebody in the eye."

"If you're not to the point of having all these pieces cut out, you're hurtin'."

"This other teacher made a nice industrial drawing, and look what you did to it!"

"I will not baby-sit."

"Are you gonna leave it like that, with all that scungy grease?"

Fortunately, we're not on a production deadline, because between the goofing around of a select few people, it's a wonder we get anything done without blowing up the school. Nowadays, at one charter high school here in Tucson, kids build off-road vehicles. And at another, they design software. High school is so cool at these places, I sometimes wish I could back up and go through it again there. Someday these kids are going to build a spec house as an advanced-placement class and we'll all be wondering, "What just happened?"

That would have never happened in my day. Not with kids coming into the work area burping in three different octaves.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Pranks Ink-orporated

No tale of the old one-room 1800's schoolhouses is complete without the revelation that young boys would tease young girls sitting in front of them by dipping their pigtails in the inkwell conveniently located inside the desktop so close to their hair. Make it easy, make it tempting, and kids will find a way to make trouble.

As writing technology improves, the prank morphs into guerilla warfare. People destroy purple ball-point pens, leave the ink to bleed all over their desks and walk away, endangering the next kid to sit there during an multiple-class high-school day.

"Could you switch this desk with that one?" my Spanish teacher asks me one day when I happen to get to class early. I move a splotched mess of a work environment with a clean specimen and wait.

The boy who sits there next is soon wondering how his desk ended up being the messy one. "My pen broke," he explains to the teacher when confronted with the hairy eyeball. I don't think she bought it.

I know my seventh-grade math teacher didn't. One day he walks up and down the rows of desks looking for ink-stained wretchedness.

"If I see any more broken pens, it's a detention!" he grumbles.

I hated how magic marker and ink stains never came out of my hands as a kid. Softsoap lacked the necessary power. Whatever industrial concoction they put in the school soap dispenser proved to be a cruel joke. Only Lava made any headway, and good luck getting that at school.

Some kids didn't mind marking anything up. In Kindergarten, a guy hashes a pencil onto the wall next to the sharpener. The teacher leads him out and leads him back with Ajax in his hand.

"You know what that is?"

Nod. Nod.

"You know where you got that from?"

"Mr. Larison," he says, acknowledging the principal, the one with the big paddle Mrs. Landers showed us once, back during a time when you could still spank kids at school without lawyers getting involved.

A sixth-grade teacher throws a controlled tantrum when somebody leaves crayons on the heater to melt. What's supposed to be a study hall turns into a session on communication and listening to the instructor, and how maybe, maybe part of it is her fault.

Then comes a major scandal. Who, who, WHO, is taking their Crayolas into the restroom to mark on the walls on the tile grout?

"You don't need to take your colors in there!" a teacher vents in exasperation.

They never find the culprit, just like they never find most of the people who write on the bathroom walls -- the social network of our young generation.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Two Dog Night

Let's see what happens when we put two Brittany Spaniels (back when they were still called spaniels) together in one back yard, one considerably younger than the other.

It happened in the mid-1980's, when my Aunt Susan brought Libby over for us to dog-sit while she went on vacation. We didn't think Cinnamon, fairly docile and going through middle age, would mind. Libby, however, was about three years old, getting spoiled and full of puppyisms. Either this would work or it wouldn't.

Libby bounds into the backyard to meet Cinnamon, and immediately these two girl dogs sniff each other out. Then they kiss... on the snouts... several times. Many dogs are territorial, but not Cinnamon. She doesn't mind the birds eating her dog food. We watch as the pair explore the yard with Cinnamon sniffing Libby's behind more than a reasonable amount of times.

"Cinnamon, I think you've smelled enough," the Queen Mother groused.

Despite friendly beginnings, Libby managed to wear poor old Cinnamon out. Our dog would find a place in the shade to lie down, and Libby would run over to her, licking her and trying to get her up. Cinnamon would get tired and growl back. Still, she did her best to keep her visitor entertained, letting Libby roughhouse with her as they wrestled and chewed each other on the mouths.

Libby always managed to jump on me and cling to my legs whenever I had to go out back to tend to her or Cinnamon, or get something else done out back. My aunt's dog had considerable leg strength. I can still remember her jumping several feet from a sitting position to kiss the Queen Mother in the face.

"Don't say the word 'walk' around her unless you intend to walk her," my aunt wrote in her instruction note. "She understands!"

And she can also spell. Grandfather Francis had to say "w-a-l-k" in front of us until Libby figured out how to put letters together and perk up her ears. But we didn't really have to take her out. She got more than enough exercise from annoying Cinnamon.

Cinn was probably glad to see her cousin leave and get her yard back, where she could roll around in the grass, chase squirrels, and bark at Champ next door without having to worry about the in-laws.

Some time later, when we brought Cinnamon over to my Grandfather and Grandmother Francis' for a visit, Libby didn't feel like repaying the favor, and we ended up separating the two before barking turned to biting. So much for family.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

One Measley Vacation

The current outbreak of measles connected with the Disneyland parks reminds me of that awful Christmas vacation in 1988, where I spent a week in bed looking the ugliest I had ever looked in my life and feeling just as bad. The doctor should've called it Revenge of the Chicken Pox.

I had my shots, like all good little boys and girls are supposed to before they enter school. But those shots wear off in the teenage years, and my travails on the Raytown South High debate team put me in contact with more than few communicable students from Blue Springs who happened to be dealing with their own outbreak.

It started deceptively. I remember going to the mall with my parents over break and feeling mildly sick, but I chalked it up to probably getting yet another cold. I had enough pep to go see The Naked Gun with the folks, but a few days after, that cold was draining me like no other I'd had. The Queen Mother, who also serves as the Royal Nurse, thought something else was going on. She started looking for other symptoms, and soon enough, we discovered a pinpoint rash on my chest.

"Ohhhhhh, he has it!" Her Majesty declared.

Nobody else in the family grew alarmed; they had either already had measles or had the shots. But your humble patient had to bear the horrifying red rash all over, the nausea, and all the side effects. We could treat the symptoms, but I mostly had to wait -- wait to fade, wait to regain my normal skin, which seemed at times a fantasy.

The fading came slowly, but it happened in time for me to return to school on time, right after New Year's Day. A teacher asked how my holiday was.

"Well, I had the measles."

She gasped. "You know I have to report that to the school nurse!"

"Go ahead," I said, knowing that nurse probably wouldn't be able to do anything more to stop that outbreak that made its way through me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Boy, Interrupted

When I read the story of 12-year-old Ronin Shimizu, who committed suicide last month after enduring consistent bullying for being a boy cheerleader among other things, I had two reactions. The first and obvious one is a stew of sadness and anger over how his school system failed him after complaint after complaint about the problem. The second is a wish for more children to have Ronin's level of guts.

If I had a chance to do my life over again, I would have started embracing Colonial and Scottish dance as a child and followed that passion right into adulthood. Kids picked on me already, and people would taunt me no matter what I did, so why not go all in? I could've donned the tricorn and kilts much earlier and set free a lot of internal repression I didn't realize I was carrying around.

I told my beloved Madame Noire this, and she replied, "But there weren't any groups like that around when you were a kid."

Maybe. But I could've found some.

The bullying of young Ronin makes even less sense when you think about the group he joined. What young boy wouldn't love being surrounded by beautiful smiling girls in bright uniforms? I bet you some of his bullies were secretly envious. But more than that, Ronin followed his passion, and he found kindred spirits.

When we help young boys deal with bullies, we often teach them how to defend themselves or tell them to "man up." We tell them nothing's wrong with them, but how far will we allow them to take it? Parents, be honest with me. If your 12-year-old boy wanted to join the cheerleading squad, would you let him? How about ballet? Or the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society? Or the Society for Creative Anachronism? Or a figure-skating group?

Every parent says they love their children and want to support them. Reality tells me a lot of parents don't want to bear the burden of having an unpopular sissy-boy. They would rather steer that child into being cool rather than dealing with the tears, fears and grunt work of being supportive. Ronin's parents knew their child, loved their child, and loved his heart. They didn't freak out about his aspirations. They didn't measure their success as parents by the hipness of their child. A friend of mine tells me about a father who found his son growing his hair long as a possible prelude to some classic sissy activity. He made that child get a buzz cut.

Parents, if you are raising a child to fit your personal aspirations, you are not raising a child. You are raising a trophy. You are creating something designed to sit on your mantle for boasting. When the child decides not to run your race, you grow bitter.

I remember talking to some friends of co-workers about a trip to New York City and enjoying the musical Wicked.

"Do you have anything from that show for my son?" one person asked. "He's a [homosexual slur]. He loves Broadway."

Shocked as I was, I gave him some Wicked swag to pass along, fairly confident that the son was only a homosexual slur in his father's eyes. I'll stick up for the child. I won't stick up for his father's loutish conclusions.

Ronin had a small circle of close friends, and although he showed a predominantly quiet side, he didn't fit neatly into the mold of introvert. When a child dies like this, we start looking for all the warning signs that came before it. I'm not sure Ronin gave us any.

Thus comes the guts. Whatever Ronin's support system was, it wasn't enough. They may have had his back privately, but not publicly. I'm inspired by the example of a squad of Queen Creek, Arizona high school football players who stepped up to defend a developmentally challenged girl. They made it clear: you mess with her, you mess with us. Ronin could have used his own special team.