Saturday, December 30, 2006

Reel To Reel: The Good Shepherd

A spy saga sans soul.

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Billy Crudup
Rated: R
Red Flags: Violence, Mild Language, Four Scenes Of Sexuality

Director Robert DeNiro should know how to make a good movie. He's been in plenty of them. The Good Shepherd would be a good movie if it weren't so long and brooding. What DeNiro has made is a sprawling spooky spook picture awash in shadows and spy games as it jumps back and forth in time and space and fails to explain its motivations.

Damon stars as Edward Wilson, a laconic Yale student turned spy after he's recruited into the Skull and Bones society -- the ultra-secret fraternity that grooms political big shots. Wilson cuts his teeth by exposing a Nazi front organization on campus. That opens to door to intelligence work in WWII England and later with the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. The film's plot revolves around Wilson trying to uncover a leak that led to disaster in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

All of this spy work takes Wilson far from his wife Margaret, a.k.a. "Clover" (Jolie) and his son. Their marriage exists in name only, and Edward's relationship with his boy hardly moves any emotional needles. Wilson's spy contacts show more warmth. He still has feelings for another woman he met in college.

But it's hard to see if Damon has any feelings at all. His character is so dedicated to duty and country, it reduces him to a soulless operative. Wilson is one-dimensional, and one dimension is stretching it. He carries a flat, lifeless expression through most of the picture. This is the kind of person who walks into City Hall with a warped perspective and fully-loaded assault rifle.

All of this could be forgiven if the film delved into what motivates Wilson's character and probed whether great spooks are born or made. We never really know what he gets out of spy work besides some secret sense of pride. I'm not sure he even gets that. Again and again we are reminded of the lonely and unrewarding aspects of intelligence work. Enough already. Many minutes could have been shaved out of the picture by eliminating the plodding moodiness.

One critic compared The Good Shepherd to The Godfather, perhaps seizing on the birth of dangerous organizations as a common denominator. I simply don't see the comparison. The mob picture and its sequel had genuine emotional depth, something sorely lacking in this latest spy flick.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Lightning Round:
The Ford Foundation

We are suspending our usual format this week to offer a few reflections upon the passing of President Gerald Ford. As this page hits the blog, the official memorials are just beginning, ones which will include services in California, Washington D.C., and Michigan. They will unfold with the magnitude and dignity befitting a president but with subtle distinctions. A motorcade will carry Ford's casket instead of a horse-drawn caisson. Your blogmaster finds it a fitting metaphor.

THE PARDON. Gerald Ford found himself appointed vice-president, and then Commander in Chief -- two executive positions soiled by Watergate and sorely in need of a trusted, uncorrupted leader. Even though the governmental processes set in motion by a "third-rate burglary" proved the system of checks and balances worked, the rule of law triumphed with a Pyhrric victory. Ford's gargantuan task lay in convincing a nation all vestiges of an imperial presidency left when Richard Nixon stepped onto Marine One for the last time.

Ford proved he fit the job description within weeks, cementing his legacy by pardoning Nixon. Voters held it against him in 1976, when he tried to win the office he inherited. But the 38th President put any aspirations aside.

From an AP report by Larry Margasak:
Ford knew the pardon could damage his election chances.

"I'm aware of that," Ford recalled snapping at a cautious aide. "It could easily cost me the next election if I run again. But damn it, I don't need the polls to tell me whether I'm right or wrong."
"If I run again," he said. He was already at peace with leaving office.

And he had support. Many agreed Nixon had already been tried, convicted and punished in the courts of media and public opinion. Anything more would needlessly salt wounds. The nation didn't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore, and that was good enough.

THE PRATFALLS. The Nixon pardon did not alone seal Ford's electoral fate. Many people still remember two major slips -- one physical, one verbal -- that left him wounded.

Many of us remember the fall down the stairs of Air Force One, parodied relentlessly by Chevy Chase in Saturday Night Live's infancy. And many Ford backers winced when he said the Soviets weren't dominating Eastern Europe.

Still, Ford's everyman qualities refreshed people. From Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times:
Sure, he might not have had the intellect of other presidents. Lyndon Johnson speculated that Ford had played too much football without a helmet.

Barry Goldwater once took him to task for being a dull speaker.

But when Nixon resigned, we didn't want anyone flashy. We wanted someone who was honest, who would avoid doing anything drastic and would keep the Cold War cold.

"His ordinariness was welcome," wrote historian Laura Kalman in To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents.
So what if he lost his balance every so often?

THE PERSON. Over and over again, as the tributes and reflections pour in, a characterizaton of Ford repeats itelf: decency. A "decent man." People speak of him with an honest and unwavering respect. Googling "Ford and decency" brings up thousands of articles.

Here is a segment of one, from the Arizona Republic:
Ford was an unelected executive whose popularity plummeted with the Nixon pardon. He presided over a nation wounded by politics and war, one that was deep in the throes of rising inflation and near-negative growth. Yet, aided by both sides of the political aisle, he served undisputed as the nation's commander in chief. Politics then did stop at the water's edge.
Said Republican Sen. Jon Kyl:
"Having known him for many years, I can say that he was an extraordinarily decent and honorable man who enjoyed his public service. The nation is forever grateful for the reassuring leadership that President Ford provided at a crucial time."
Said Republican Sen. John McCain:
"A man of great moral character and patriotism, he led our country during a time of great distress, and saw us safely through our troubles with grace and courage."
Said Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva, an unabashed liberal:
"Former President Ford stepped into the presidency during a very turbulent time for our country. He handled a very delicate situation, with a grace and humility that is expected of our commander in chief."
Tinges of wistfulness emerge in the condolences, cloaked statements about what democracy should be and what it isn't in our current political environment. The president nobody elected was the president everybody needed. He had no great doctrine or vision or urgency to leave a legacy. He simply provided steady leadership.

THE PONDERINGS. We can argue about whether voters get the presidents they deserve or deserve the presidents they get. We can write books of lamentations on political moderation. We can take cheap shots at the Bush Administration and crow, "At least nobody died when Ford said the Russians weren't running Poland!" We can dream. We can wish and pray for honorable statesmen, leaders of uncompromised integrity who love democracy more than life itself.

The reality is we don't see those people in Washington's spotlight. Okay, maybe Barack Obama, perhaps John McCain, but who else comes to mind?

But before you cry too many tears for your beloved country, remember this: a great number of our leaders go about their lives with the honor and integrity we expect of them. They do their homework, understand the issues, vote with a balance of knowledge and conscience, and still win reelection without sacrificing their souls to the almighty campaign dollar. And we are proud of them. Gerald Ford would be, too.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Reel To Reel: We Are Marshall

It's more than a game.

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, David Strathairn
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language, Football Violence

Calling We Are Marshall a football movie is like calling Rocky (or the more timely Rocky Balboa) a boxing movie. It's not even fair to call it a sports movie. It is a movie about a town left heartbroken by the death of 75 people in a plane crash: nearly the entire football team of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, including the coaches, athletic director, and several boosters. At times it is emotionally raw and overwhelmingly sad. Even the film's triumphant moments are laced with tinges of sadness. The Marshall football disaster in November 1970 remains one of the worst sports tragedies ever, yet it is one that many have either forgotten or never heard about until now.

The film begins with Marshall University's tough loss to East Carolina followed by the unthinkable. Even as the town is mired in grief, acting university president Donald Dedmon (Strathairn) makes the gutsy decision to go ahead with the football program. No coach with Marshall connections will touch the job. But Jack Lengyel (McConaughey), coach at a small college in Wooster, Ohio, senses an opportunity to help a town heal.

Lengyel is bombastic and full of energy, a person who smacks of Attention Deficit Disorder back when it was called hyperactivity. Life is simply an extension of football, with a play for every situation. When he comes to town with a folksy swagger, it's easy to see him as disrespectful to Marshall's state of shock. "Don't talk about my son like you knew him," says a football father to Lengyl at one point. But the new coach is determined to rebuild the program however he can.

The new leader of the Thundering Herd soon finds collective grief is just the beginning of his challenges. Promising recruits sign with other schools, and Marshall must fight to get an NCAA waiver to play freshmen. Coaches siphon players from other sports to round out the team, and football returns, albeit under a long shadow.

Director McG (known to his parents as Joseph McGinty Nichol) shows he can handle the depth and emotion of the material with nuance, setting this film leagues apart from his over-the-top Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Still, he keeps the film moving, often to the beat of period classic rock, and he does his best to avoid falling into the sports movie cliche trap, even with the compulsory elements of the Big Emotional Speech and the Great Victory At The End. The film keeps a comfortable focus, limiting most of its screen time to Coach Lengyel, assistant Red Dawson (Fox), and team captain Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie). In many ways, the film is more about Lengyel than the team itself as he works to prove that the hope of an entire town is not dead.

We Are Marshall is on my list of the best football movies ever, up there with Friday Night Lights and North Dallas Forty. It does for football what The Natural did for baseball or Hoosiers for basketball. It's about time. I'm amazed the story of the Marshall football tragedy and re-birth didn't make it to the screen earlier, but the wait was worth it.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Returning The Gifts Of Freedom

We at The Lightning Round constantly monitor the shortsighted, gradual surrenders of liberty in the name of security. Another survey gives us reason for concern.

USE THEM OR LOSE THEM. USA Today reports wilting support for the First Amendment among youth, according to a study funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation:
The new survey finds that 45% of students, up from 35%, believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Yet questions about specific freedoms show that support for some speech and press freedoms is essentially unchanged or up slightly:

• 30% (down from 32%) say the press has too much freedom.

• 69% (down from 70%) say musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that may be offensive to others.

• 54% (up from 51%) say newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval.

• 64% (up from 58%) say high school student newspapers should be allowed to report controversial subjects without the approval of authorities.
The numbers appear to be moving in the right direction, but 54% is much too low for our patriotic persuasions.

Perhaps an educational experiment is in order, in the spirit of the landmark classroom test devised by elementary-school teacher Jane Elliott to teach students about the stigma racism. Perhaps if we took away MTV, banned iPods, MySpace, and blogs for a few days, and installed filters on all classroom computers to limit students' surfing to a few government-approved websites, maybe we'd see a few more minds change.

The Lightning Round honestly believes experience is the best teacher, especially when it comes to our heritage and the rights that evolved from it.

OFF KILTER. Thousands of Scottish troops are sharing kilts because of a shortage of the ceremonial tartans. The problem isn't in the material, it's in the bureaucracy.

From the AP:
New kilts are needed for all Scottish soldiers following the August 2006 merger of centuries-old regiments into a single Royal Regiment of Scotland.

"A planned deployment of kilts will be agreed with the Royal Regiment of Scotland on a roll-out basis with ... the full program being completed by January 2008," a Ministry of Defense spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
And a proper Scottish kilt isn't stamped out in seconds.
The 320 kilts provided so far have been supplied by Argyll Bagpipes and Kilts on a trial basis. The full contract is worth up to $1.95 million, taking two years to complete and will involve 15,000 yards of fabric.
Why not just order something from Sport Kilt?

TOO MUCH A MAN. Indian runner Shanti Sounderajan has lost her silver medal from the Asian Games because she failed a gender test.

From the AP:
There are no compulsory gender tests during events sanctioned by track and field's international ruling body, but athletes may be asked to take a gender test. The medical evaluation panel usually includes a gynecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist and internal medicine specialist.

An Indian athletics official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said Sounderajan almost certainly never had sex-change surgery.

Instead, the official said Sounderajan appeared to have "abnormal chromosomes." The official also said the test revealed more Y chromosomes than allowed.
Obviously peeking under her shorts wasn't conclusive enough.

IN THEIR RIGHT MINDS. UPS has a driving tip designed to speed up deliveries in the hectic holiday season: no left turns. The idea is you waste precious seconds sitting around for cross traffic to clear, rather than going with the flow -- even if you have to loop around a block to get where you're going.

That's a rule many Tucsonans have learned already, especially on Grant Road.

THE HEAVE-HO. You can look like Santa. You can dress like Santa. You can even wear Santa's red-and-white cap. Just don't tell kids at Walt Disney World you're Santa, or Magic Kingdom management will treat you like J.D. Worley.

From WKMG-TV in Orlando, FL:
"Kids wanted to hug me and that was great," Worley said. "It felt good."

However, someone complained to Disney officials that some man in a red shirt was pretending to be Santa Claus on park property, reporter Craig Patrick said.

"Her statement was to me was that I either needed to alter my appearance, the way I look, or leave the park because I was impersonating Santa Claus," Worley said.

Worley said he removed his hat but still drew attention.

"I look this way 24/7, 365 days a year," Worley said. "This is me."

A Disney spokesman said Worley did not just look like Santa but when he was asked, he said he was Santa and that is why he got in trouble, the [WKMG] report said.
We at The Lightning Round aren't sure if Mickey and pals will be getting the coal, but Disney's official response -- that they were just trying to protect the magic of the holiday -- hits us a bit odd.

Our patent-pending Corporate Spin Stabilizer translated the above comment as follows: "We have a monopoly on magic in the Magic Kingdom. Please respect our turf."

KING OF THE LAWN. Finally, snow castles shouldn't be a problem in the Midwest for the annual Christmas Vacation backyard battle. The rest of us -- especially here in our home state of Arizona -- are going to need some help.

Mr. McGroovy's happily provides it with instructions for building a castle out of cardboard boxes -- and where to get free boxes too!

Merry Christmas from The Lightning Round!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Town Without Pity

The Christmas season brings friends and families together, but not in Snohomish, Washington, where an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer describes how an entire town has abandoned, ignored, or threatened 16-year-old Brett Karch. His offense was having the gall to nearly lose his leg when a ceremonial cannon malfunctioned at a Snohomish High School football game.

From the article:
According to Karch's medical records, security guards notified police after Karch received disturbing phone calls and visits from parents and students, some of whom threatened to "break his other leg" or worse, if he didn't keep quiet about the accident. Hospital staff had to move him to a secure room where they monitored visitors.

Callers and visitors told Karch they would "make sure his other leg got blown off," and that "there would be retaliation" if the family cooperated in an investigation that could end the cannon tradition, said Mary Bissel, Karch's mother. "That's when I kind of got a little upset," Karch said.

The threats also included mention the family would be "banned from the town," Bissell said. She's been warned not to talk to a lawyer, or reporters.
For the record, the Karch family has retained an attorney, mainly for help wading through legal forms. She has not sued -- not yet.

Karch is a member of the ROTC. He knows how to pack a cannon, and a retired Marine supervised the preparations. As far as we know, Karch did nothing wrong, save for expecting a little sympathy. One get-well card suggested students were more concerned about the destroyed cannon than Karch's mangled leg:
"Football wouldn't be the same without the big boom at kickoff," wrote one student in a get-well card.
Even as Karch recovers, well-wishers are hard to find.
Since his discharge from the hospital on Oct. 23, Karch has had only three visitors -- two of them [from the ROTC]. And despite invitations to school friends, not a single person other than family attended his 16th birthday celebration in November, Bissell said.
No doubt Karch has wondered at times why that cannon didn't kill him outright instead of leaving him in loneliness. But he has no time to mourn.
The persistent hostility, and loss of friendships, make him sad, but he's trying not to dwell on it.

He's working hard during weekly physical and occupational therapy sessions, hoping to regain enough function to qualify for the military.
Surely Karch's soon-to-be comrades in the military will give him the sense of respect and honor. He's earned a Purple Heart even before stepping on the battlefield, unlike the football field where Snohomish High School played on even as Karch was carried off in an ambulance.

If he had died instantly, would they have even called a time-out?

At least God and your family love you, Brett, even if nobody else does.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Do They Know It's Christmas?

The fine, merry staffers of your Lightning Round possess ample evidence refuting claims of the so-called "War On Christmas," which we submit is a wholesale exaggeration promoted by talk-show hosts with too much dead air to fill. Unfortunately for us, something came along this week which gave credence to the critics and spiked our holiday punch with a jigger of foolishness.

WHO SPEAKS FOR THE TREES? Many of you have heard the sad saga of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport's Christmas Trees -- the ones that were removed after a complaint from a rabbi who wanted a menorah installed as well, and then reinstated when he dropped the threat of a lawsuit. For everybody else, here's the executive summary.

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
"I think the whole thing is ridiculous and really out of proportion," [the rabbi Elazar] Bogomilsky said shortly before the port made its announcement to reinstall the trees. "People should turn to the Port of Seattle and say, 'Wait a minute, what are you doing? Return the trees and give people the spirit of the holiday back.' Right now, nobody's happy."
We feel the good rabbi should have said that to himself before waving a lawyer in the face of airport authorities.
The tree removal marked an unprecedented interruption to a longstanding holiday tradition at the airport. But the question of whether a menorah should be displayed publicly is hardly new to organizations of local Jews; neither is there agreement in the Jewish community over the practice.

Although some irate people criticized Jews in general for the actions of Bogomilsky, "most of the Jewish community does not really support the putting up of public menorahs," said Rabbi Anson Laytner, executive director of the greater Seattle chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
So it appears Rabbi Bogomilsky didn't even have a united front behind him. On the other hand, people would've gladly backed the Port Commission had they the ornaments to let this go to court.
E-mail messages and other comments to the Port of Seattle were running 99 to 1 in opposition to the removal of the Christmas trees, Port Commissioner John Creighton said.

"As a public officials, we need to do the right thing, not the popular thing," he said. "In this case, I think the right thing is the popular thing."
But it's all over now, save for a promise to negotiate and collaborate on holiday cheer for next year.

We at The Lightning Round believe the whole yuletide fracas could have been avoided with a little change in mentality. First, an expression of one's faith does not rob another of theirs. Secondly, an expression of Christmas tidings does not condemn non-Christians. Thirdly, overreaction against traditions and symbols which embody the spirit and meaning of the season is not only sad, it cheapens genuine claims of religious prejudice elsewhere in the world -- which frankly don't involve Christmas trees.

POLITICAL INTRIGUE. Many a Democrat is wringing his hands this week, hoping and praying for the health of South Dakota senator Tim Johnson beyond the obvious reasons. If Sen. Johnson can't continue in office, they lose control of the Senate.

Already, some are floating conspiracy theories -- even in jest. As Joy Behar suggested on Thursday's The View:
"Is there such a thing as a man-made stroke? In other words, did someone do this to him?"
At least nobody's blaming Karl Rove... or John Kerry.

BALLIN'. The NBA is switching back to leather basketballs on New Year's Day, ditching Spaulding's microfiber replacement. Players said it was too soft and sticky and bounced differently. As we noted here, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban commissioned a study backing up many players' claims. But the factor that may have put the old ball back in the net is... you guessed it, litigation.

From the Chicago Tribune:
The NBA Players Association filed an unfair labor practice charge over the change, which annoyed many players because they claimed they had little voice in the matter.
Hopefully this will keep the government's hands off basketballs.

DOES HE HAVE A BOARDING PASS? Ohio State quarterback Tony Smith had to ship his Heisman Trophy home because airport security wouldn't let him take it on the plane.

We at The Lightning Round never got that Homeland Security memo warning about terrorists bearing trophies, but we suspect a more practical explanation is at hand.

From the AP:
Eddie George, the last Buckeye to win the Heisman in 1995, had his trophy get stuck in an airport X-ray machine, losing the tip of its right index finger and bending the middle finger.
Nice to see that X-ray technician got the finger from Mr. Heisman.

BLIND FAITH. Texas State Representative Edmund Kuempel has introduced a bill that would let the blind hunt.

From Reuters:
Under the bill, blind hunters would be required to have a sighted hunter with them and would be allowed to use laser sights and other devices that are currently not allowed.

A blind person can shoot a rifle by mounting an offset pistol scope on the side of the rifle instead of on top," said Terry Erwin, the Austin-based Hunter Education Coordinator with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"This allows their companion behind them to peer over their shoulder and help them sight it, but the blind person can pull the trigger," he told Reuters.
Unfortunately, it comes too late to help Dick Cheney's friends.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Celebrating 35 Years... And The Blessings Of Life

I was originally going to write to you this day about healing from a dark birthday in 1981, when I fell and broke my arm while at a roller-skating party. I had invited my entire grade-school class, and I had only been on the rink for 15 minutes when a couple of boys chasing each other ran into me. My right arm hit the floor... and the party was over.

Instead of cake and presents that afternoon, I received local anesthetic and cheesy jokes from nurses. I dealt with pain. I dealt with sadness. I also dealt with a feeling of doom, that my life was not meant for the kind of happiness others enjoyed, something I would carry into my later years.

But today, I see no need. Not after what I call a Miracle Moment.

I wore my gold-trimmed tricorn to work today, openly expressing the joy of another birthday. (Yes, it's the same one Captain Burgundy wore.) Dan Marries snapped the picture you see here, of studio crew member Nolan stylishly delivering me some birthday well wishes during a lull in the evening shift. While I am thankful and grateful for that moment, the one that highlighted this day came several hours earlier, when an elementary school class toured the newsroom.

They asked me some questions about what a news producer does, and I gladly gave them answers. But undoubtedly, somebody asked the obvious query:

"Why are you wearing that hat?"

"I usually don't, but today is my birthday, and this is how I'm celebrating."

Without prompting or prodding, at least half this class of 30 or more instantly broke into a spontaneous rendition of "Happy Birthday," with others joining in as the song progressed.

I keep thinking back to this moment, realizing how blessed -- not cursed -- I am to be alive. It seems pointless to dwell on the heartbreak of youth when so much has happened in the past year to heal it. Yet it is that heartbreak that underscores the joy and gives it meaning.

Life is worth living, and I couldn't ask for a better birthday present.

Friday, December 8, 2006

The Lightning Round:
The Truth Shall Set You Free (Unless You Lie Like A Rug)

This week the Iraq Study Group came out with the conclusion most of us already knew: "stay the course" is a bloody mess. Some truths are obvious. Others require prosecutorial persuasion.

IT'S AN ACT. Pete Costello is accused of faking mental retardation -- or at least exaggerating it -- for 20 years. Along the way, his mom collected thousands of dollars in disability benefits.

From the AP:
In meetings with Social Security officials and psychologists, [Costello] appeared mentally retarded and unable to communicate. His mother insisted he couldn't read or write, shower, take care of himself or drive a car.

But now prosecutors said it was all a huge fraud, and they have video of Costello contesting a traffic ticket to prove it.
We at The Lightning Round are hearing the foundation of the Costellos' defense: "Those evil Democrats exploited us to further their welfare-state agenda -- just like they did with Michael J. Fox!"

HIS DIS-HONOR. The former mayor of Appalachia, Tennessee has pleaded guilty to 243 felonies, including corruption and vote rigging. According to the AP, prosecutors say Ben Cooper "masterminded a scheme to buy votes with beer, cigarettes and even pork rinds."

At most, he'll go to prison for a little less than two years as part of a plea agreement.

And then he'll start a job with Diebold.

GIVING IT ALL AWAY. Charity has its limits, at least for two of the worlds richest people. Unlike the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, which have long outlived their founders, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will spend all its money no later than 50 years following the death of the longest serving trustee, according to the Wall Street Journal.

After that, the needy of the world will just have to survive on Windows upgrades.

THE WHIFF OF DISCONTENT. The people behind the "Got Milk" campaign added cookies to the mix, specifically, the smell of cookies to several milk ads at bus stops in San Francisco.

From the AP:
The technology that creates the scent is very similar to that used in magazine ads. Scented adhesives are placed throughout the interior of the bus shelters, including under the benches.
But wouldn't you know, somebody had to complain. From KGO-TV:
But the company with the advertising contract for the city's bus shelters has ordered the strips be taken down.

Muni (the bus company) got complaints from advocates who worried the scent would taunt the homeless and also from people concerned about allergic reactions.
Taunting the homeless? With the smell of cookies?

Forgive me for sounding like Scrooge this time of year, but are there no bakeries, no restaurants? Establishments which emit the tempting taunting odor of food?

IT'S ABOUT NOTHING. British mathematician Dr. James Anderson says he's solved the problem of not being able to divide by zero by creating a new number: "nullity."

From BBC:
"Imagine you're landing on an aeroplane and the automatic pilot's working," he suggests. "If it divides by zero and the computer stops working -- you're in big trouble. If your heart pacemaker divides by zero, you're dead."
I didn't know a pacemaker needed to divide in the first place. But anyway, Dr. Anderson's solution isn't a solution to other math experts. Writes one commenter on the BBC site:
The "problem" of a computer with divide-by-zero errors is not a problem, it's a feature. It's not something you need to or even want to fix. You could easily design a computer that doesn't have an error in that situation if that's what you want. Replacing the error condition with a new symbol accomplishes nothing. The program still has to deal with the issue in order to present a real-world result to the user.
If you have ten apples and divide them among zero people, are you left with ten apples (because there's no people to divide them among) or none (because zero is nothing)? My high-school algebra textbook called division by zero "undefined" -- and now you see there's a good reason why it's undefined. How do you like them apples?

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Ink On Your Face

You're going to make mistakes as a TV news producer -- spelling errors, fact errors, technical errors. Most of the time, they're minute and forgivable. But for crying out loud, don't do what a producer in Baltimore did. WJZ ran a "news" item saying Michael Richards appeared in blackface at a celebrity roast for Whoopi Goldberg.

From the Baltimore Sun:
WJZ's story, broadcast at least twice yesterday afternoon in breaking-news style by anchor Sally Thorner, was attributed to But WJZ's news department was apparently unaware that every story on the Web site satirizes Hollywood.
It didn't take me five seconds to figure that out.

Moral of the story: don't believe everything you read on the Web. And don't use it to fill news time.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Reel To Reel: Deja Vu

We've seen this before somewhere, but better.

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Mild Language, Slight Female Nudity

Deja Vu's premise is not too far removed from Minority Report, which used technology to see crimes before they happened. But whereas the latter gave us much to ponder, the former doesn't want us to think too much. So, the most intriguing aspect of the film is ruined by sloppy execution.

You can't blame it on Denzel Washington. As always, he turns in a charismatic performance as an ATF agent assigned to investigate the terrorist bombing of a New Orleans ferry with hundreds of sailors and their families on board. One would think Washington would tire of these roles, but who cares as long as he plays them so well? Agent Doug Carlin doesn't need a lot of time to get what he needs from a crime scene, which makes him a quick recruit for a specialized investigative unit.

This team of sleuths possesses a killer tool: a massive, heavily guarded computer system nicknamed "Snow White" that constantly processes information from satellites and heat imaging cameras to show what was going on four days ago as it happened. Even in the movie universe it's hard to believe, although somebody will probably tell me the CIA or the NSA has such processing power at its fingertips. Sure enough, Carlin soon finds this technology involves more science than cameras.

Without revealing the plot point, I will simply say it is forced upon us in a way that made no sense to me. When Carlin argues with the members of the Snow White team about this point, it's almost like he's arguing with the writers of the screenplay to give him something that makes sense.

A couple of scenes stand out, including one where Washington's character chases a car he can see on the highways four days ago, making this the trippiest pursuit I've ever seen on film. But unfortunately, many of Washington's actions seem motivated only by a line in the screenplay and not his character. This film reteams him with director Tony Scott from Man On Fire, which also featured a theme of a lone crusader. Unfortunately, Scott can't seem to make the rest of the movie work around Washington, leaving him to go through the motions while we struggle to understand why.

Reel To Reel: Casino Royale

Bond's back and blond.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence, Some Brief Sex, Male Nudity

As much as I like Pierce Brosnan, and as much as I like him as 007, I have to admit the James Bond franchise was going stale. The only things keeping this series going besides Brosnan's looks were his one-liners and the cool spy toys.

So the producers rebooted with Daniel Craig, who up to his crowning as the new Bond was known for his role in Layer Cake, a movie I have not seen. Whether they made the right choice will take more than one film to answer. From what I saw on the screen, he's giving us more grit than grins, putting him more in tune with Ian Fleming's vision of Bond. He's less hormonal but still can turn on the charm. But Craig's most memorable feature is his piercing blue eyes. They can melt hearts or break bones as required.

Casino Royale returns to Ian Fleming's original material, placing Bond in a big-money poker game -- which conveniently is no-limit Hold-'Em, cashing in on the current craze. He's playing against terrorist financier extrordinaire Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), which makes the World Series of Poker look like the Friday night game at Larry's. Bankrolling Bond is royal financier Vesper Lynd (Green), who quickly becomes 007's desire. She's no disposable Bond girl, matching his wit measure for measure.

But come on, we all go to these films for the action, and Casino delivers. The most remarkable sequence is a long foot chase early in the film which winds all over a construction site as Bond chases a bombmaker onto a construction crane. I wonder if CGI lowered the danger level of some stunts, but it sure doesn't look like it.

Bond shows signs of vulnerablity throughout the film, a refreshing change from previous outings as Bond catches up to brethren like XXX and The Bourne Identity. However, I still miss "R" -- "Q's" successor played in previous films by John Cleese. It is obvious Eon Productions is trying to get away from some old routines -- just don't get too far away.

Friday, December 1, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Dollars And Sentences

A hue and cry echoes through Tucson in the wee hours of the morning among the unsuitably temperate: "Global warming? Ha!" Drop the thermometer below zero Celsius on any night and we'll happily give Al Gore a slice of inconvenient truth. But your Lightning Round offers these morsels instead...

SHOW ME THE MONEY. A federal judge ruled this week paper money discriminates against the blind, because all the bills feel the same.

From the AP:
U.S. District Judge James Robertson ordered the Treasury Department to come up with ways for the blind to tell bills apart. He said he wouldn't tell officials how to fix the problem, but he ordered them to begin working on it.

The American Council of the Blind has proposed several options, including printing bills of differing sizes, adding embossed dots or foil to the paper or using raised ink.
The Treasury Department says changing bills for the blind would cost too much and thwart anti-counterfitting efforts. But cost is a relative term.
In court documents, government attorneys said changing the way money feels would be expensive. Cost estimates ranged from $75 million in equipment upgrades and $9 million annual expenses for punching holes in bills to $178 million in one-time charges and $50 million annual expenses for printing bills of varying sizes.
Nine million a year to punch holes in paper! How do I get on board that money train?

LOOSE LIPS. A San Francisco psychologist is out with a book suggesting what many have long suspected: women talk more than men.

From the London Daily Mail:
In The Female Mind, Dr. Luan Brizendine says women devote more brain cells to talking than men.

And, if that wasn't enough, the simple act of talking triggers a flood of brain chemicals which give women a rush similar to that felt by heroin addicts when they get a high.

Dr. Brizendine, a self-proclaimed feminist, says the differences can be traced back to the womb, where the sex hormone testosterone moulds the developing male brain.
And it appears the good doctor, like the staff here at The Lightning Round, firmly believes in the dangers of testosterone.
There are, however, advantages to being the strong, silent type. Dr Brizendine explains that testosterone also reduces the size of the section of the brain involved in hearing - allowing men to become "deaf" to the most logical of arguments put forward by their wives and girlfriends.
And wait, we hear another of those suspicions about men may be true.
But what the male brain may lack in converstation and emotion, they more than make up with in their ability to think about sex.

Dr. Brizendine says the brain's "sex processor" - the areas responsible for sexual thoughts - is twice as big as in men than in women, perhaps explaining why men are stereotyped as having sex on the mind.
Now it all makes sense. Men are too busy thinking about sex to talk, and women have to talk more to get into their, ahem, preoccupied heads.

MIGHTY MINI POWER RANGER. A 4-year-old in Durham, NC saved his sister from a gun-wielding robber by using some charisma and a quick change into Mighty Morphin' Power Ranger costume.

From the News & Observer:
The robber was holding a gun to 5-year-old Mary Long's head when a 3-foot-tall Mighty Morphin Power Ranger leapt into the room.

"Get away from my family," 4-year-old Stevie Long shouted, punctuating his screams with swipes of his plastic sword and hearty "yah, yahs."
The startled robber and his partner took off with some loot from Stevie's mother's purse but left the family unharmed.
Evans said family members are struggling to help their children understand their ordeal. A counselor said Stevie needs to improve his distinction between fantasy and reality, said Heather Evans, Stevie's aunt.
Oh, we think Stevie knows reality all too well. And the reality is, he's got guts.

TAKE THE WAFFLES AND RUN. An International House of Pancakes in Quincy, Massachusetts flipped off its customers by asking for their drivers' licenses before they were seated. The policy came after an abundance of what is politely called "dine 'n dash," although Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr prefers a more vernacular term.

From the AP:
"(I said,) 'You want my license? I'm going for pancakes, I'm not buying the Hope diamond,' and they refused to seat us," John Russo said. He said he's been a victim of identity theft in the past and wasn't comfortable with the idea.

"The security guard had at least 40 licenses in his hand. Identity theft is rampant. I wouldn't want to give my license, with my address or Social Security number to anyone that I'm not familiar with that ... I'm going just for breakfast," Russo said.
IHOP's corporate office smelled the burning bacon and immediately ended the policy.

We at The Lightning Round note IHOP's 24-hour kitchen attracts some characters and more than a few drunks. IHOP is the convenient after-the-after-party, a way to flush out your system at 4am if you still remember how to use a fork. In one Friday night sit-down last month, we observed a few women devoting 70 percent of their available table space to beading materials, sliding together a few lines before the late plate. And we felt a little anxious gossiping with the relatives wondering if the couple in the booth next door was lifting the conversation like a wallet on Bourbon Street.

So it's back to the drawing board to solve the shrinking problem. Short of harvesting your credit card number up front or chaining you to the table, we don't see a customer-friendly solution.

RUN THROUGH. About two hours north of Mexico City, you can find out what it's like to be smuggled into the U.S. illegally. WOAI-TV reports of a private park in Ixmiquilpan, Mexico where you pay fifteen bucks to run through an obstacle course of riverbeds and underground tunnels while mock Border Patrol agents chase you.

From WOAI's Randy Beamer:
And many of the people who run this park know exactly what it's like as they have crossed illegally. But they insist this is not to train others to do it, but to discourage them. And to get those in a position of power in Mexico to make changes so people won't want or need to leave.

"We try to portray it" one woman tells me in spanish " they'll stay here to work to help our culture and our traditions survive."
Maybe if the Mexican government would "portray" a little less corruption, we wouldn't have to worry.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Christmas Past

I suppose you’ll be wanting the whole evening off for a We Make History Victorian Christmas celebration guaranteed to make even Ebenezer smile -- no ghosts required.

As experienced by Christopher Francis
Photographs By Michael Cynecki
(click any one for a bigger view)

Funny how one cufflink can turn you from Crachit into Scrooge. That salvation of sleeves refuses to cooperate with my ruffled shirt, constantly undoing itself as I prepare to slip away in time with time slipping away. Why is it always buttons, or their cousins, that test my patience?

Enough, I decide. I’m wearing my other shirt, plain and unruffled but fully buttoned and reliable. Now where in blazes is my bowtie?

Emerging into the ballroom in my top hat, tail coat, and red waistcoat, I find myself in a scene more reminiscent of 1861 Virginia than 1840 London, with the gentlemen of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry in full dress uniform. They welcome the arriving guests and put out the call for more recruits. Those Yankee aggressors must be stopped.

A charming schoolteacher arrives with some extra holiday cheer, greeting me with a joyous hug as she passes out decorated jingle bells which we happily place on our jackets, or in my case, in my hat.

Our gracious host and hostess calls us together after an hour of meeting and greeting and sets the scene for the Victorian era, the time of Charles Dickens, a time of dignity, charm, and manners in which a gentleman was the servant of a lady… and men did not dance with their hats on.

So much for worrying about that top hat sitting too low upon my head.

As I doff my headpiece and the traditional promenade begins, my schoolteacher friend has already sought out my first dancing partner of the evening.

“The blue, the blue, the blue!” she whispers to me.

My eyes dart amongst the crowd. Several ladies wear blue. Which one is it?

“The blue, the blue!” my advisor continues as she hastily orients my gaze in the right direction.

I find her standing next to another lady in the corner, not sure at all if she has already accepted another invitation. But I bow to her and ask, and she accepts without hesitation. The satisfied schoolteacher signals success with a raised thumb.

The lines of couples snake about the ballroom as we parade around, more than a simple single circle can handle. We need two for the first dance, a merry mixer where ladies and gentlemen switch partners at least a dozen times, an opportunity to exchange greetings as well as hands.

When the set dances begin, so begins my time-tested ritual of seeking out a new partner. I wander onto the floor, pacing slowly, looking for the nearest lady who I can surmise is desiring a dance, my hands clasped in front of me in anticipation she is near.

“You look lost,” observes a lady behind me.

I turn around to find her alone, smiling.

“I am seeking an available partner,” I say, quickly following it up with a bow before she can surmise the wrong impression, “and I gather you are available?”

Even as a guest of six previous balls, I still consider myself somewhere between a beginner and an expert when it comes to set dancing. So when we end up as head couple to begin the dance, I know I have to prove my worth. But more than that, I have to convince my partner as well as the others along the line that any mistakes are no cause for alarm. Do not fret. Do not panic. Continue on with the joy of the dance in your heart and all deviations will fade like snowflakes into the white drifts of winter. “You’re doing fine!” I coach. And at the end, I bow deeply and offer my thanks and compliments on my partner’s dancing, which require no embellishment.

Sometimes a problem will arise, however, where words will not suffice. During a lively set of “Speed The Plow,” my partner suddenly dashes from the line with a hurried, unintelligible explanation, leaving me facing open space. I have no problems improvising, but at some point, I might have to sashay by myself, a challenge I at least feel up to. Fortunately, my partner rejoins the set only a few moves later. A hoop problem with her skirt, she explains. I understand immediately and welcome her back with no shred of offense taken. After all, I know all too well about wardrobe malfunctions.

We require many waltzes to help cool ourselves down, if nothing else, as the sweet sweat of celebration runs down many foreheads and guests fan themselves a welcome breeze.

I know the gloom of being left out, cast aside, and sidelined from a happy diversion. So when I approach two charming ladies who stand together in seeking a partner for a waltz, I cannot bring myself to simply choose one. One offers to step aside, but I will not have it.

“We can dance as three,” I say, and that we did, in a small circle. In and out, in and out -- beautiful, elegant, simple.

“Not too fast,” I offer. “Enjoy the moment.”

Later, I share a waltz with a fine young lady.

Do not look at the others, I think. Set your eyes upon the countenance of this beautiful dancer you have chosen. Feel the warmth of her smile as you share this moment of elegance and peace in three-quarter time. Worry not about your technique or feel yourself inadequate to the Fred Astaires of the world. Step simply. Step as one. Step as friends.

She smiles, and I know she will remember the moment.

And now, the Virginia Reel. Start the clock.

My partner is a novice, but she quickly picks it up. And for those times of doubt after the caller turns us loose, I provide some unobtrusive hand signals for the next figure to reassure my dancing companions as we work our way through it.

But to nobody’s surprise, the figures are the easy part. The reel’s real challenge is endurance. Five minutes elapse… then ten… then twelve. We swing through it all, offering no hint of fatigue. Some record is on the line. Could this one beat the mark set at the 1861 Remembrance Ball? I cannot recall what the mark was, even though I danced in that marathon reel myself. Legend says thirty minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, the music ends and we honor our partners, winded but satisfied.

“Anything worth doing once is worth doing again!” our host proclaims, and an hour or so later, we repeat the reel, this time for thirteen minutes. Put it in the books.

If we could reel for half an hour, we could surely do the Candy Cane Dance for twice as long. Lines upon lines of ladies and gentlemen sashay down the rows of couples moving towards three chairs to be occupied by three people. One will hold a candy cane in the center, pass it to someone either on their left or right, leaving the person on their opposite side as their desired partner to sweep off their feet. We have performed it with fans, with pineapples, with pumpkins, but the candy canes, albeit large, cannot take the pressure of our merriment and crumble from hand to hand.

Hey, ya wanna piece of this?

The ladies and gentlemen of the 1st Virginia gather together for a story of Christmas from Richmond.

“My husband tells me that the ladies’ chorale will be hosting a benefit to raise funds for medical supplies for the troops.”

No male chorus exists to support them, but the ladies suggest the recruits give it a go.

One private is skeptical. “No doubt your intentions are the best, but I’m afraid after hearing some of us gentlemen sing that it might be the audience who would require the medical supplies.”

Nonetheless, the men belt out a working rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

“Now ladies,” a sergeant says, “let us see if you might be able to top that.”

“Sergeant, you wouldn’t have issued that challenge if you had ever heard my daughters sing. We made a brave effort, but the day shall be theirs.”

At once, his daughters launch into a soaring harmony, enhanced by the echoing acoustics of the hall.

“Once in royal David’s City,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed…”

To call their voices perfect is only faint praise. Their flawless melody brings pause to everyone it touches, aiming for the heart by way of the ear, a rainbow of tone and tempo. They continue for six verses, drawing in harmonizers as the song builds to its conclusion and fades with grace.

“Bravo! Bravo!” several of us cry in praise of this choir of angels who have somehow made their way to Earth for one night.

We sing more carols this evening, culminating in “Silent Night.” Our host invites us to reflect upon the words and their meaning as they purse our lips. In that moment of collective song, all of us are touched -- reminded of who we are, why we are here, where we are headed, and how to get there.

I think of the gifts I have received this year, all the unforgettable moments of seven balls, two picnics, and one historic weekend, spent with people I am proud to call my friends… no, family. I think of all of us going about our other lives and times, taking lessons from the ballroom back into the world and improving it.

In January, after my first ball, I wrote: “I felt like a better person, someone more well-mannered and wiser, and I didn't want to let go of it.”

I didn’t. It consumed me in a manner I had not imagined, this desire to live as an honorable person born out of curiosity, loneliness, and a deep longing to heal emotional scars from my younger years. Society is flooded with motivational devices, but never did I imagine the past could be the key to the future. My only hope is that I have brought as much joy and service to others as I have received. It is a continuing mission, one I know I can always improve upon.

It took many years, but God finally reached me. I have always been faithful, but I never truly felt His Love until now. I can’t think of a better Christmas gift, one given to all of us.

Each ball may end, the year may end, but the journeys into the past do not. History repeats, and I’m grateful that it does.

Merry Christmas to All! And see more of this evening's Christmas cheer HERE!

COMING IN JANUARY: In Her Majesty's Elegant Service

Gone For A Soldier

A story of the American Heritage Festival, as told through a recruit of General Washington’s Continental Line.

From the battlefield journals of Christopher Francis
Photos by Michael Cynecki
(Click any one for a larger view)

A spontaneous cheer arose from the throngs of children as the commandants of His Excellency took the wide, grassy battlefield. Flanked by wind-lifted flags, the troops fell into line with the dignity befitting soldiers: the Continental Line in their red, white and blue uniforms; the allies from Spain in their blue and gold; and a few militia. An ornately dressed French officer accompanied them.

“Today,” General Washington proclaimed to the warriors and spectators, “we have the chance to strike a decisive blow for freedom.”

The redcoats soon marched into place, supported by a few turncoats -- militia urged at the last minute to switch allegiances and even the sides. His Excellency and the Frenchman walked to the center of the theatre of combat in the noonday sun to discuss a possible aversion of hostilities, although everyone understood the hopelessness of such formality.

I stood with the Americans at this parley, a man of four and thirty who had traveled more than a hundred miles, temporarily abandoning my other life as a journalist to serve the noble causes of liberty and education.

Those in my township saw me off at dawn, emerging from my second-story apartment clad in white breeches, puffy shirt and knee-high stockings. Two women at the foot of the stairs halted their coffee-and-cigarette hyphenated conversation as they observed me on the landing, placing a three-cornered hat on my head and smiling at their befuddled gazes.

“I’ll explain in a moment,” I said before descending to them, taking care not to slip in my pewter-buckled shoes.

“Don’t you look cute, Chris!” said the tenant of the residence below.

“I’m going to Phoenix to educate some children in history,” their Colonial acquaintance offered with pride before strolling off to his modern carriage.

Now I stood silent as the conversation between the commanders deteriorated by the word. The British commander would have none of the rabble standing before him, especially not the Frenchman.

“This froggy,” the redcoat sneered, brushing off the alliance between the General and the Gauls.

Very well then. It would come to blows. I returned with the commanders to the line of patriots and promised myself I would not die this day, even if a bayonet should charge me.

The British carried muskets. I carried a flag.

= = =

Two years ago, I stood behind the safety line, watching the combat unfold before me as a curious spectator. I did the same the next year, and upon the conclusion of those battles, I determined I could not -- and would not -- merely watch again.

The path to the battlefield wound through several social adventures, divergent in time and place. I perceived myself more gentleman than soldier, but I gathered many of my ancestors found themselves in the same situation, taking up arms when confronted by tyranny even though they had never dreamed of shedding another man’s blood. That was provided, of course, they had arms to take up.

In July, four months before battle, I placed an order for a musket and expected it would meet my hands in time for at least a few practice shots. Weeks elapsed, and the French firearm under Indian craftsmanship failed to arrive. The delay frustrated the middleman as much as the buyer. No explanation surfaced for the holdup other than copious holidays in the faraway land.

The possibility of arriving on the battlefield unarmed disturbed me, but surrender was out of the question. I possessed the Continental uniform, tailored to exact dimensions by expert tailors. They required numerous precise measurements, which required me to perform numerous feats of dexterity with a tape measure. But lo, the result: a colorful vesture I could not wait to wear, topped with a black-and-white tricorn hat decorated with a huge cockade.

As for the musket, I found a solution in a Brown Bess I could borrow from a fellow patriot who would arrive later. Yet with hostilities sure to arise long before then, I informed General Washington I held myself open to other ideas: “I’ll chase those wretched redcoats with a pitchfork if I have to!”

= = =

The opening shots from the British immediately felled the three Spanish allies. Those redcoats made better shots than I realized, even over the sizable distance between the lines.

“They always shoot the flag-bearers,” a colleague had informed me.

My safety and the standard I held now depended on the half-dozen men under General Washington’s command.

“Fire at will!” he ordered, and the controlled sequence of volleys loosened.

Musket fire crackled from both sides. Jets of smoke zinged from muzzles -- sans balls, of course -- punctuated by the frightening flashes of flame all along the line… except for the weapon of the French officer next to me. Powder from cartridge after cartridge flowed into the pan and down the barrel with no incendiary result, just a click. Other Continentals soon found themselves plagued by misfires. The British fired and advanced with no sign of weapons trouble.

“Let’s give them a volley,” General Washington commanded.

The troops opened up on their foes with dismal results. Now we had no choice but to charge. Rushing the redcoats, they surrendered before a bayonet pierced a single ounce of flesh. Hands went up, weapons went down, and the battle ceased. Somehow the patriots won this round, against all odds and all weapons, much to the joy of the children on the sidelines.


Like waking up from a deep sleep, our fallen comrades arose, brushed themselves off, and fell into line again as the young spectators cheered an American victory. Huzzahs for the patriots. A cheer for the redcoats. Honors for the Catalonian allies, the militia and mountain men, and the French officer.

Now another volley hit us: the questions from the children. I soon noticed they preferred one more than others.

“Did you die?”

“I am still standing, no?” the Frenchman replied.

“Not today,” I said. “Some musket balls came close. Tomorrow, I might not be so lucky.”

I made note of a small scab on my right hand. I knew not where it came from, but I could surmise a period guess to convey a sense of danger. “That was from a bayonet.”

Children swarmed around me as my fellow Continentals fell out to leap forward along the timeline for the next skirmish.

“Is that flag heavy?”

“Not really.”

“Are those stockings comfortable?”

“Yes, more than any trousers I’ve ever worn.”

“Are you a redcoat?”

“No. Don’t let the red facings on my coat fool you.”

“Can I wear your hat?”

“Yes, for a moment.”

“Can we take your picture?”

I would pose several times for the wee folk, letting them gather round while smiling and striking a proud pose with the sun in my eyes. I would also sign several autographs. I beamed with happiness to be their hero for this moment, having taught them something about their heritage.

One child had something more in mind.

“I challenge you to a dance-off!”

In the brief showdown between capers of 1776 and 1976, no distinct winner emerged, but my spirited jig left the youngster in stitches.

= = =

I have never seen so many children fascinated at a hole in the ground, I thought as multitudes of children crowded around a work in progress: an 18th Century camp kitchen. The trench still needed three holes in the side and three more in the top -- pits for fire and chimneys for it to rise.

A Connecticut militiaman and his son took turns digging, breaking a sweat early in the morning, but they summoned me for help and a momentary respite from tossing aside shovelfuls of dirt. I jumped into the pit without hesitation and went to war with the soil. Heaving lumps of earth reminded me of back-weary campaigns against driveway snow during many a Missouri winter.

Waves of children crashed into the camp as the Connecticut duo explained the mechanics and use of this six-foot long by two-foot deep hole.

“Is it a grave?” one child asked.

New groups of children arrived and the spiel began again until the militiaman extended an invitation to me.

“You can explain what we’re doing.”

Me? Now?

Uncertainty of all the facts gnawed at me, but I started repeating the ones I picked up moments ago.

“This is an 18th Century camp kitchen,” I began. The words labored from my mouth as I checked every one of them for accuracy.

“They’re digging three holes in the side here. That’s where the fire is going to be built. They’ll dig more holes on the top, and the flame will come through there, and you will put your kettle on top to cook. The reason it’s built like this is to protect the fire from the wind and rain.”

After a few rounds with different groups of children, I hit a stride. The youngsters could not tell how green this recruit was in his red, white, and blue.

“The life of a Revolutionary War soldier wasn’t all marching and drilling.”

The militiaman and his son continued their labors as water poured down their foreheads, stopping only to inspect their work and answer a few questions. They reached for their bayonets.

“General Washington doesn’t like us to use these for digging,” the father explained. “But they make excellent vent picks.”

One hour of digging and picking, and the kitchen stood ready for service. But a flint failed to start a suitable fire.

“We’re going to cheat a little,” said the militiaman, turning to an oil lamp.

A fellow Continental observed the process with a teacher friend who had brought her class.

“Hey, I learned something new today,” he said. “You know what the difference between a pot and a kettle is?”


“A kettle has straight sides. A pot has a curved side, like a pot belly.”

I had never thought of that, either -- another new fact to pick up and pass on. On this day, the children would learn as much as I.

= = =

Christophe!” the French commander called to me at sunset, advising I should seek a certain gentleman for some brief instruction in the proper firing of a musket.

The lesson took place behind the Confederate encampment. We used a rifle different than the flintlock I would fire the next day, but nearly the same procedure applied.

Set the lock here. Reach for a cartridge. Tear it open with your teeth. Not too deep, or you’ll eat gunpowder. Put a little in the pan. Close the frizzen. Put the rest in the barrel. Set the hammer all the way back.

“Fire in the hole!” I shouted before pulling the trigger, mimicking the warning I had heard my instructor give in the camp.

Click. Thoom! A flash of fire and smoke burst forth from the muzzle.

“Eureka!” I cried, eyes wide and mouth open in joyous satisfaction. “That’s the first time I’ve ever fired a musket.”

“Rifle,” my instructor happily corrected.

= = =

A mist of smoke from cannons and campfires loomed over the twilight battlefield. The commanders had decided on a skirmish at dusk, and the Union forces had invited me into the fray, adding some red and white to their blue even though I was still unarmed.

With the public now gone, the rules and timelines would both bend this evening. Japanese fighters from World War II fell into line with the Confederates. An Allied gunner and his automatic weapon joined with Grant’s forces, and he quickly fell to his stomach, making a long crawl to penetrate enemy lines.

A patriotic boy slipped me a toy musket as I set off behind a mountain man to flank the rebel troops. Both of us knew a lack of cover would doom the operation to failure.

“What do we do?” the mountain man grinned as the men in gray approached.

We decided to keep walking until the 1st Virginia unleashed their opening volley.

“Let’s die,” the leader of the hopeless plot declared, and both of us tumbled to the ground.

The rebels yelled and cannon fire exploded, shaking the ground with every blast. I stared straight into space as stars emerged from the blanket of darkness.

“You really look dead,” an observer pointed out as he passed by the two fallen fighters with a camera in hand.

Yet we had enough life to crack inside jokes as the battle played out, chuckling at the creative anachronism and wondering about mixing and matching soldiers from other eras. Sizable patches of smoke hung over the battlefield when we resurrected ourselves, the fog of war.

“We gotta do this again.”

= = =

The British formed in front of us, always second on the battlefield. We stood as we did before: the Continentals on one side, Catalonians on the other, our French ally in the ranks, and a cannon primed to fire.

The redcoats sent a contingent to the center of the field to discuss terms, but they mainly wanted our surrender.

“Give them our answer from Pennsylvania!” shouted General Washington.

The cannon was lit. Nothing.

Crestfallen, we would have to talk with the lobsterbacks after all.

As the officers ran through the formalities, all I could think about was the loaned Brown Bess on my shoulder and the steps for firing it. Rolled cartridges of black powder waited inside a hip pack. My gaze hung on the redcoats in front of me.

A year of exploration and curiosity had culminated in this moment, stoked by travels to Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown, a dance every so often, and a determination to conduct life in a manner befitting the better bred. Now the next step laid in front of me, and I reminded myself, even in this predetermined battle, this could be the day that I die.

“Load and prime!”

I pulled back the hammer halfway and opened the musket frizzen. My right hand dug for a powder cartridge. I tore off the paper end with my teeth, making sure I spit the wad out with the gusto of a whole-hearted soldier. My hands trembled, though, as I filled the pan with a touch of powder, snapped down the frizzen and poured the rest of the charge down the barrel.

“Come to the ready!”

I aimed for the nearest redcoat. Any of them would do, whether I could see the whites of their eyes or not.


My finger pulled the trigger, and to my intense relief and satisfaction, the pan flashed and white smoke exploded from the muzzle.

“Load and prime!”

The process sped up as I repeated it. The redcoats refused to surrender, and I couldn’t waste time as I squeezed off more shots, falling behind my brothers in arms but still firing. The others on the line shouted the praises of our French and Spanish allies. In the rush to keep up with the rest of the line, I bit off too much of a charge and ended up spitting powder out of my mouth along with the wrapper. I did not think I would have enough left for the gun. A click from the trigger confirmed it.

“Load and prime!”

I went through the motions again, adding more powder to the barrel and the pan… wait. What am I doing? I have put too much in there! I promised my family, my friends, and my colleagues in my other life and time I would return with all ten of my fingers.



A huge cloud of smoke poured out, but my limbs remained unscathed.

“A double dose for you!” I shouted to the redcoats.

The cannon started working, finally, as we traded shots with the British. But it did not hold them off. They kept advancing, and I could not tell who was living or dying, but I knew this battle -- adapted from an actual skirmish -- was not ours to win.

The General ordered us to retreat, our numbers thinned. I survived to fight again, and His Excellency promised the crowd we would receive drilling from Baron von Steuben before the next battle. The barrel of the borrowed Brown Bess still smoked from firing all but one of my shots, so I declared a personal victory.

We returned to do battle again after a quick lunch, this time with some cunning and misdirection thrown into the plan. Our militia men would fire and fall back, serving as the bait to draw the British forward into a trap, at which time the Continentals and allies would unleash their black-powdered wrath upon them.

It worked beautifully. The second battle found me getting the commands down, and my timing at firing shots with the rest of the line improved. We set off at least two or three good volleys, but I heard talk of running with bayonets.


We didn’t have time to fix any bayonets. I never heard the order to. I chased after the redcoats with a glorious grunt.

General Washington delivered an insider’s command: “Somebody needs to take a hit.”

A loyalist militiaman knelt with his rifle not fifty feet in front of me. A puff of smoke bloomed from his piece… and down I went.

Death came quick and merciful -- no time to fester on the field of battle and reflect on the price of liberty, facing towards Heaven and consoling myself that the cause of the righteous would not die with me as the life drained from my body.


The crowds of spectators applauded and cheered as I arose, swept the grass from my breeches, and fell back into line with my fellow Continentals. Three cheers for the Spaniards. Three cheers for the French. Three cheers for our worthy adversaries -- small cheers.

Questions followed, and I answered many of them about the musket. The spiel had firmed itself in my mind by now, and although my first official day on the battlefield continued, I spoke with the confidence of a seasoned soldier. A group lingered around me after my fellow linesmen departed for the next battle on the timeline.

= = =

“What are your plans for dinner?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

I had no cooking supplies, no foodstuffs, no mess kit except for a tin cup purchased only that morning. I had no tent, relying on the hospitality of a nearby inn. The realization sunk in that I needed a lot more than just a musket of my own, something I had not wanted to admit around seasoned re-enactors who had been doing this for years.

“We’re having lamb,” the Connecticut militiaman offered. Lamb with asparagus, bread, peach cobbler and lemonade, served in period-correct style. His family was putting the camp kitchen I helped build to use, and he invited me to share in the feast.

That was only the beginning. Before we sat down to dinner, he had donated the beginnings of what I needed: a tin plate, a wooden bowl, a spoon, and a lead mug which came with a warning: “Don’t drink out of it too often. You’ll go stupid.”

Our Catalonian friends soon joined us with Spanish stew, and we all enjoyed a twilight meal next to the well-performing fire trench helmed by its talented chefs. The lamb bathed my mouth in flavor, a welcome surprise having never tasted that delicacy before. I enjoyed every bite while sharing warm conversation and sipping the double-lemony lemonade. The cobbler took longer to cook than we expected, but the wait proved worthy. For a Continental private, I ate like an officer, the generosity of the militiaman’s family catching me by surprise and humbling me beyond words save for the ones of gratitude I spoke with an 18th-century bow and deep appreciation. Thanksgiving dinner had come early. And after this feast, I still had room for pie offered by the gracious Catalonians.

Across the camp, candelabras glistened from a long table and bursts of laughter pierced the night air as the Officers’ Social came to life. Campfires dotted the encampment, bathing the tents in an orange glow as the long day of battles and demonstrations wound down and the soldiers swapped stories of life. Music from a guitar floated through my ears. Capes covered arms as the wind chilled underneath the starry sky. I put some thoughts to paper by the light of an oil lamp, but curiosity would not allow me to sit still the entire night.

As I soaked in some tales of the Wild West from a nearby tent, I noticed the officers approaching, merry from an evening of fine food and drink. General Washington and President Lincoln were in excellent company with General Grant and a host of military leaders from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a collusion of friends in history united in a common mission to enlighten the future.

“Are you a wandering minstrel?” General Washington asked as he caught a glimpse of me.

“A wandering writer,” I smiled.

The gathering halted by the eighteenth-century encampments, where an officer presented His Excellency with a gift: a medallion of General Washington taking command of this troops.

“You have opened the gates and they can’t be closed again,” an officer praised, noting how the work of We Make History marked a fresh and uplifting new start in the future of recreating the past in Arizona.

I heard His Excellency repeat a maxim of service I have often heard: “If we will live a life giving what we have to give, we will not only enrich our own lives but enrich the lives of others.”

Others soon gathered around, and an early Christmas celebration manifested itself with caroling and the peace of good will towards all under the stars.

“You look exhausted,” General Washington observed of me in the dim of night.

Exhausted, yes, exhausted physically and emotionally. In the course of a single day, I had re-enacted two battles, firing a musket for the first time in my life via the generosity of another. I saw children and adults fascinated and brimming with questions. Several re-enactors offered generous invitations to join up with their units. I broke bread with newfound friends. I heard numerous and fascinating historical accounts, more than I would ever recall. And this day had followed a day of enlightening excited youngsters and taking my first opportunity to teach as a living historian.

“Come with us,” the General offered. “You are family now.”

Oh, how I knew it. How blessed was I. How blessed was this hobby I had chosen and its practitioners, a blessing reaffirmed the next day when The Rev. George Whitefield -- an outstanding clergyman with an unmistakable gift for oratory -- drew us together for morning prayers and hymns in a nearby field. During the course of his sermon, he spoke of the meaning of names and how many were chosen in reverence to God.

I recalled the meaning of mine in Greek: Christopher -- the bearer of Christ.

Tears streamed down my cheeks.

= = =

The fourth and final Revolutionary War skirmish repeated the scenario of using the militia to draw the British into a trap. Again it worked. The final score for the weekend: Patriots 3, Redcoats 1 -- not exactly fair to both sides, but more than fair when the crowds were expecting American victories.

Afterwards, my turn came to leap forward a century on the timeline. The friend who lent me the Brown Bess lent me a Union army uniform, cartridge case, belt, haversack, bayonet, and rifle, and I fell in with Grant’s forces.

I quickly found my manual of arms a comedy of errors. During the commands “left shoulder arms” and “protect arms” and “support arms,” either my hands or my rifle were not quite in the correct position, so I would manipulate the rifle to the correct position, then manipulate my hands, then eye the soldier next to me and make adjustments.

The recruit on my left helped immensely as we marched onto the field of battle.

“It helps to think of every command as three positions,” he told me and showed me how it worked. It may have helped him, but I don’t think it helped me. I needed to drill more than anything else, looking sloppy as I readjusted my hands with every command.

“I’ll never get the hang of this,” I mumbled during one march.

“It gets easier,” my comrade replied.

I had never fired a Civil War-era rifle before, but I picked up the procedure on the field. In some ways, I found it easier than the Bess, pouring the whole cartridge of powder down the barrel without sparing some for the pan. A percussion cap set it off, something not too dissimilar from the ones I used to shoot off as a kid. But as I would soon find, those caps were a pain… in more ways than one.

During the first volley unleashed with the Yanks, my ears rang and a chill ran through my body. I knew I was in trouble when I saw my comrades sticking plugs into the sides of their heads. The other problem: those metal caps refused to stay on. The helpful recruit recommended squeezing each one together a little. I tried it, and one time I squeezed the cap into a unusable crushed lump. Sometimes I would reach for a cap and dig out two stuck together, or they would fall out of my hands and into the thick grass. I lost two caps in a row that way. Meanwhile, my fellow recruits came to the ready and fired effortlessly.

I was out of step, out of sequence with the rest of the unit and it annoyed me terribly. I thought of what it would mean in actual battle. I would not survive 10 minutes in the ranks of Lee or Grant. But then again, perhaps my historic persona was drafted, no professional soldier by any means, no ace with a rifle nor any overwhelming desire to handle a firearm. I am sure I had more than a few historical brethren in that respect -- good people, poor soldiers, the rifles like butter in their fingers.

Never have I served in any military unit in any capacity. My dexterity with a rifle would incur the wrath of any drill sergeant laced with a sizable earful of spittle. Here, I was lucky to get off with friendly words of advice from fellow re-enactors who have learned their lessons on the battlefield.

“You’re holding your rifle there,” one Union commander informed me as he saw the stock of the rifle slipping into my armpit. “If there would have been a real ball in there, you would’ve felt that kick like a mule.”

I had felt it before, long ago in the Boy Scouts, when I fired a black powder rifle and the recoil stabbed me in the shoulders.

“It backfired!” I cried.

The adult leaders laughed about it around the campfire after supper, not minding I was in earshot.

We lost one battle to the rebels, the 1st Virginia even taking one of our cannons and mounting it in victory as we marched into retreat. We would take them out in the next skirmish, one where my borrowed brimmed hat would blow off my head on the battlefield while I ran after a rebel.

I hardly knew what I was doing, and yet my commanders and comrades were glad I was along to fill out the dwindling ranks of re-enactors. The crowds did not mind either as they applauded the blue and the gray.

The afternoon dissolved into evening, and I switched back into my eighteenth-century attire for a remaining hour at camp, the spectators leaving and the participants packing up. I made my rounds of goodbyes and thank-yous and see-you-soons and slipped back into my modern-day self-driven carriage.

Three days of living in the past, now concluded. Or maybe not.

I thought my newsroom colleagues would get a kick out of seeing me in the full uniform of the Continental Line, so I made a stop there on the way home, even though I was tired, achy and coughing from residual effects of dust and gunsmoke.

And I wanted them to see it -- wanted them to understand my love for living in the past and what it did for others.

To my surprise, the general manager, the general in my other life and time, had dropped by for a Sunday visit. From across the workplace, he grinned as he saw a figure approaching in red, white and blue, topped with a tricorn hat.

“Mr. Arnold!” I greeted, still in my 18th Century mannerisms as I presented myself to him, a humbled soldier fresh from the battlefield, eager to tell a tale of fighting for liberty.

More from this remarkable weekend at!

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Lightning Round:

Once upon a time before the Internet, the night before Black Friday meant sitting around with the newspaper inserts and drooling over the sales with the cranberry ice still fresh on your lips. Now, it's up from the table and out to the stores. Shopping has gone the way of the 24-hour news cycle: always on, always open. Closed for Thanksgiving? Not if people are opening their wallets.

Those spare morsels of Pilgrim Feast can wait. You'll be eating them through mid-December, anyway. So in that spirit -- and also because the combination of eating and shopping has shagged us out -- the staff of The Lightning Round present a few stories and sites we've been meaning to talk about but pushed aside.

THE SECRET LIVES OF DELIVERY DRIVERS. They do more than just deliver hot slices. According to Cortney Philip, pizza delivery drivers are the people to ask if you want to know the inside dope before moving into a neighborhood. They go where real estate agents don't, often times risking their safety to get it there hot and fresh. They also do more drugs than you expect, and some often end up driving for life.

Says Philip:
As a non-drug user, it took me awhile to adjust to this particular aspect of pizza delivery. I’ve seen just about every form of illegal and legal drug ingested during my days as a pizza delivery driver. Drugs flow freely through the back rooms of pizza shops, and many pizza delivery drivers double as dealers to their friends. The pizza that arrives at your door may have been made by someone on cocaine, taken out of the oven by someone on prescription pain pills, and delivered by someone who smoked pot on the way to your house.
Mmmm... wait a minute, that's not parseman cheese!

DREAMLAND. Many teenagers sleep 'till noon, and some sleep for a fortnight. The problem is a rare disorder called Kleine Levin Syndrome, which keeps you sawing logs for up to two weeks at a stretch.

Every four months or so, [Spencer] Spearin climbs into bed and sleeps for days or longer... "I might not be with you for a couple weeks," Spearin said. "I missed my birthday. I missed my graduation. I can't remember what I ate yesterday. I can't remember what I did yesterday."
What's more, people with the syndrome don't just lie there.
During the dream-like state, most patients only get up to use the bathroom or eat -- often enormous amounts of food.
So not only will you wake up confused, you'll have gained ten pounds.

A LA CART. In the continuing game of advertisers seeking out new territory because you've ignored billboards, zapped TV ads, dialed through radio spots, and turned the page, the new frontier is shopping carts. True, those have had ads for years, but not with video.

Meet MediaCart, the video screen on a shopping cart. Looks like I'm going back to the bag.

LIFTING THE VEIL. As I have pointed out before, moderate Muslims are suffering because radicals have stolen and corrupted the faith. But Haroon Siddiqui goes further, saying the problem is more complex than you think:
One of the strangest aspects of the post-9/11 world is that, despite all the talk about Muslim terrorism, there is hardly any exploration of the complex causes of Muslim rage. Muslims are in a state of crisis, but their most daunting problems are not religious. They are geopolitical, economic and social — problems that have caused widespread Muslim despair and, in some cases, militancy, both of which are expressed in the religious terminology that Muslim masses relate to.
Siddiqui's article is enlightening reading, delving much deeper than the standard-issue "they hate us because they hate what we stand for" explanation without sympathizing with terrorists.

FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE. This time of year, many FM stations flip their formats to Christmas music, but if you want a gift that will last you all year long, check out KCDX in Florence, Arizona, available over the Internet and also on 103.1 FM if you live in the eastern Phoenix area.

What will you hear? Loads of eclectic rock and roll, deep album cuts, and songs people just don't play on the radio. You may know Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade Of Pale," but how about "Simple Sister?" When was the last time you heard the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays?" Think of it as a classic rock station with a college-radio mentality -- and without commercials. Merry Christmas!