Sunday, July 30, 2006

Goodbye (sigh) Again!

I'm really getting tired of saying goodbye to people. Less than a month after Kris Pickel left us, I'm waving to Kaushal Patel, our weekend anchor and weekday reporter for the last two years.

Kaushal meant business from day one. The earliest encounter I remember with her was when I filled in for the weekend producer. She strode over to get a look at the rundown, something her predecessor never did. She would make suggestions and ask about stories. I didn't have to justify my existence, but it's nice having somebody who wants to be involved with the broadcast.

In the short time we have known Kaushal, she has left a mark here. If we want to talk about memorable moments, my favorite is from 2005.

Randy Garsee, an anchor known for hitting reporters with the occasional oddball question said this to Kaushal on the air after she completed a live report on the search for mountain lions in Sabino Canyon:

"Are mountain lions, like bulls, attracted to the color red?"

A few seconds of silence passed.

"I'm sorry?" she asked innocently.

"Are they attracted to red, like you're wearing?"

Actually Kaushal's top was more pink than red, but she got the joke.

"Um, you know, Arizona Game and Fish has not said anything like that." She wrapped up the report again with another advisory to people coming to the canyon.

Randy admitted he was putting her on -- again, live on the air: "When Kris is not here, I just kind of get out of control."

Kaushal is trading the desert for the big "D," working at Viacom-owned KTXA as they launch a prime-time news block similar to KCAL in Los Angeles. Welcome to the majors, Kaushal! Enjoy the barbecue...

Back On The Air

Forty-eight hours plus off the air tells you who your friends are.

Early Thursday morning, lightning struck the main Tucson Mountain transmitter of KOLD News 13, frying our signal output. Those of you who watch us on Cox and Comcast cable likely never knew what happened. But if you rely on DirecTV, Dish or rabbit ears, you found dead air where Channel 13 should be. And you let us know about it in droves.

Hundreds of calls poured into our station from people who wanted to know 1) if we knew we were off the air (we did) and 2) when would we be back on. A large contigent of you wanted to know if we would regain our signal before or after "Big Brother." The best we could tell you is, "We're working on it."

And that's the truth. If it were only as easy as running down to Pep Boys and picking up a few replacement parts. But transmitters are highly specialized pieces of equipment, and when a part goes bad, the replacement is flying in from somewhere across the country. The problem worsens as the transmitter ages, technology progresses, and spare parts get harder to find. Saturday, more than two days after the blackening bolt, a team of engineers resurrected the old Harris on the mountain.

But that wasn't before we heard scores of your comments. Many were civil and understanding. Some of you weren't. A few folks cursed out people who had nothing to do with the problem. One guy said he'd never watch us again, the most laughable threat I've ever heard. Has anyone ever made good on that threat?

We also heard comments along these lines:

"We love Channel 13!"

"Your're our favorite station!"

"We really like your news."

"We like Chuck George!" Chuck, by the way, went to grab some dinner one night during the outage and immediately found himself pelted by questions about what was going on with our signal.

So those of you without cable, we're back on. We're sorry we were gone. If the dead air frustrated you, just imagine the frustration for all of us here at the station who work round the clock and yet are enslaved to the ways of nature. That lightning bolt hit us right in the heart, in more ways in one. As much as you love watching our shows, we love bringing them to you. If the word of the 10pm newscast producer means anything, know that we are working on ways to prevent a repeat of what happened. I can't elaborate because our plan of action will be determined by others.

Thank you for your patience and support, wherever you're tuning in.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Reel To Reel: Miami Vice

"Vice" with more vices.

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx
Rated: R
Red Flags: Intense Violence, Moderate Language, Sexual Situations, Male & Female Nudity

Michael Mann executive produced the original Miami Vice, one of the coolest TV shows ever. The movie version, which he penned and directed, turns up the coolness and kills the lights. Detectives Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Foxx) work harder and more dangerously with little time for wit or style. We see no mention of Crockett's pet alligator. He doesn't even say "pal" once.

The picture opens with a federal drug sting gone bad. Two agents are gunned down along with the family of a trusted confidential informant. Somebody has been leaking information about federal anti-narcotics operations to drug runners. But that somebody could be anywhere from the FBI to the Coast Guard. Out of the loop, Crockett and Tubbs go undercover to expose both the leak and the operations of a drug lord.

Like 2004's Collateral, Mann's picture owns the night and throws in some bursts of lightning and thunder as it submerges us into its world of shadowy figures, skillfully illuminated. Handheld cameras give you the feeling you're walking alongside the principals. Fast cars are there, but so are "go-fast" boats. So is a generous helping of sex, as Crockett hooks up with the smoking hot Cuban-Asian girlfriend of a drug-and-arms kingpin.

Most of the film is smugglers' chess as Crockett and Tubbs deal and counter-deal as dope runners in a tangled operation I won't try to describe. Mann's dialogue requires your undivided attention to understand what's going on, for his characters aren't written down for audience consumption. They talk like the dopers and cops they are, with nuance and understanding of things left unsaid which don't need repetition. Even with Crockett's sidebar romance, the film stays focused on the bust, not even allowing time for a title sequence at the beginning. That may be Miami Vice's only real flaw -- it's a little too procedural, too dark, too gritty.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Lightning Round:
From Dope To Hope

A startling discovery in the cycling world has us pondering greater implications for mankind... and a few evil schemes.

TOO MUCH OF A MAN? Tour de France winner Floyd Landis tested positive for too much testosterone in his system. Landis maintains he's innocent. The world awaits another test on a backup sample of his bodily fluids.

From the AP:
Under World Anti-Doping Agency regulations, a ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone greater than 4:1 is considered a positive result and subject to investigation. The threshold was recently lowered from 6:1. The most likely natural ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in humans is 1:1.
A four-to-one ratio seems quite generous. I assume The Incredible Hulk and most of the WWE rate at least 10:1. We at The Lightning Round would also like to test the leaders of Israel and Hezbollah right now.

Excess testosterone, we are told, can be blamed for men behaving badly. Reflecting on this for a few moments brings us to an insightful question: what if we could reduce the level of testosterone in the world's most belligerent countries?

Forget nukes. Don't bother bombing. Mothball the missles. Get me on the phone with the lab and we'll whip up a substace to dial down the guy-hormone like a thermostat. We need to get this into the water quickly, before Earth goes to hell. Get it into Hassan Nasrallah's toothpaste. Slip it into Ehud Olmert's eyedrops. I want them leeched of their manhood within 48 hours.

They won't even know what hit them. They'll wake up one morning and suddenly freak out at the cost of munitions when the bathtub needs reglazing. Puzzled citizens will congregate in ruins of neighborhoods, not merely because the bombing has stopped, but also because Barry Manilow's latest album actually sounds appealing.

The man who controls testosterone is the man who rules the world. It's more diabolocal than the schemes of any James Bond villian. Who cares if we're neutering men? Meterosexuals, "emos,".... heck, men are neutering themselves, anyway.

SIDE SHOW. In a world of tension, rocket attacks, global warming, poverty, despotism and more, the diplomats of the world still have time to put on their own version of America's Got Talent. Even Condi Rice, concert pianist, got into the act.

Kim Jong Il, had to cancel, unfortunately. He was slated to cover Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me."

TECHNICAL FOUL. PBS fired childrens' show host Melanie Martinez after getting a look at her in a video spoof called Technical Virgin.

From the AP:
Airing for three hours each evening, "The Good Night Show" airs soothing stories and cartoons designed to get an audience of 2-to-5- year-olds ready for bed. Each night, Martinez guides a puppet character into dreamland.
Obviously, PBS didn't want a diversion into Fantasyland.

LEGALLY INSANE. A jury found child-drowner Andrea Yates not guilty by reason of insanity in her second trial. Before you start grumbling about who was really insane, Al's Morning Meeting reminds us the insanity defense "has been around for centuries."

From via AMM:
The standard for insanity in the courts was determined to be such that a "man must be totally deprived of his understanding and memory so as not to know what he is doing, no more than an infant, brute or a wild beast" (Melton, 1997, p. 190). This "wild beast" standard was the insanity requirement of England's courts for over a hundred years and any defendant who attempted to use the defense had to prove he or she lacked the minimum understanding of a wild animal or infant.
So if a lion can can solve a binomial equation and you can't, do they commit you?

HORSEPLAY. Less than a month after the world-famous World Cup headbutt, jockey Paul O'Neill gave his horse the in-your-face treatment. O'Neill later apologized, but he claimed the horse dumped him before a race.

From the BBC:
"When I got to the start he headed straight for a car with me, stopped five feet from the car, whipped round and dropped me."
Our horse whisperer at The Lightning Round has translated the above animal action as such: "No way man, I heard about Barbaro!"

POINT AND CLICK. Finally, we couldn't ignore these pictures of a "cursor kite" from Make magazine. At last, the world is your web page.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

So You Wanna Be A TV News Producer?

Houston TV producer Mike McGuff of KTRK interviews me on his blog about what TV newscast producers do, how I got my start in the business, and what you need to know if you decide to sit in the control room instead of in front of the camera.

You'll also read about meeting the great Arizona Wildcat basketball coach Lute Olson... on bended knees.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Saying So Long To The Dynamic Duo

Two of my favorite people on Earth are leaving Tucson -- KOLD News 13 anchor Kris Pickel and her husband, KOLD News 13 photographer Carl Lemon. Having worked with them for the last 6 1/2 years, it's the farewell I hoped I would never have to say.

When I arrived at KOLD in January 2000, I stepped into a station lifting itself from bad ownership and ratings challenges. Kris had been with the station three years and was clicking with Randy Garsee as part of the weeknight 6 and 10 news team. I produced on weekends, filling in during the week. I felt extra heat on my rear. Management fired my predecessor, a person who believed she could slack her way through stacking a newscast, so I had to prove this mysterious stranger imported from Texas bore no resemblance. I also had to tweak my news philosophy and ramp up my writing output. I won Kris' support quickly. During the early sessions of cranking out scripts for her, she slipped me instant messages through the newsroom computer system: "Your writing is excellent!" Those encouraged me, especially having dealt with two difficult anchors at my previous station.

From the start, Kris' go-getter attitude stood out. She liked anchoring and reporting, something former news director Carolyn Kane found essential. Mrs. Kane didn't hire anchors to solely sit at a desk. "You've got Kris, too," she reminded me when I filled in on late newscasts and we went over the nightside crews. True to form, Kris ran on breaking news stories several times. If you have ever seen Kris report live on breaking news, you know she's the stuff.

When part of the Tucson Convention Center caught fire during a movie shoot in December 2004, I sent her to the scene for the 10pm newscast. She was the only Tucson anchor live on the scene. She owned the coverage, right down to the moment when she and a Tucson firefighter showed us a burned fragment of the TCC on live television. During that memorable moment, we also saw KVOA's microwave truck in the background, leaving the premises. The competition was cutting and running while we were still developing the story.

Kris and I have had occasional disagreements on news issues, but she never ripped me apart. In 6 1/2 years, I can count on one hand the number of times I have angered her. And then, the spat never lasted long. No lingering grudges, no simmering resentment.

You find the same qualities in her husband Carl, an ace with a camera and overflowing with creativity. He doesn't need prodding to find new ways of telling a story in pictures.

One Saturday night in 2000, he shot a short feature on a Mexican folkloric dance troupe. He asked what images I was looking for, and I remember doing my poor imitation of the signature shot I wanted: stamping my feet while clenching an imaginary frilly dress. Make sure we saw that, I think I said. But I also wanted some of the other dances on the card.

"A montage!" he suggested. Yeah, that was it. The story occupied a mere 25 seconds of air, but that montage made every second count.

Hard news often looks like art through Carl's camera: a silhouette of rescuers pulling someone out of a flooded wash, the light coming from the beams of rescue vehicles. A rancher talking with a reporter against a sunset as if Sergio Leone had lined up the shot. The framing. The lighting. The bursts of sound.

"Either you're going to win, or the moment's going to win," I once heard him tell an intern who wanted to get into news photography. Carl wins most of the time, and even when he doesn't, he does. Photographers often grumble about aging or buggy equipment, but Carl makes it work and meets his deadlines. I have never had to "float" any of his stories because of delays.

Put Carl and Kris together and they're dynamite. They work together all the time on stories, but my vote for masterpiece comes from 2001. They put together a 17-minute special report on the use of force by Tucson Police on rioting basketball fans after the Arizona Wildcats lost the NCAA championship. Fourth Avenue degraded into mob rule. Officers fired tear gas and "stingballs" into the crowd after fans set fires and turned over cars. Several people filed complaints about police tactics, including one University of Arizona freshman who lost an eye to a less-lethal projectile.

"Decide for yourself," Kris told viewers. "Did police abuse their power or take effective measures to bring a violent situation under control?"

The report played a role in the revision of TPD's riot-control policies. And it won Kris and Carl an Edward R. Murrow award -- at least one league above an Emmy.

One day two months ago, Kris asked to talk to me just after I arrived for work. She led me out to the parking lot.

"Am I in trouble?" I asked.

"No," she laughed. "That would've been, 'Francis, get over here!'"

Once we were by the photographers' vehicles, she dropped it on me.

"I'm giving my notice today."

My mouth fell open and my insides hollowed out. Half my molecules locked up while the others plunged into mourning. I couldn't do anything but stare, dumbstruck, as my eyes began to water.

She wanted me and a few select others to know before the official announcement. I thought the day might come, but I brushed it off: Surely Kris had too much going for her in Tucson to up and leave.

Kris loves Tucson, but she also loves her two young boys, and she wants more for them... more time with family. For this she is trading her crown as Tucson's News Queen for an anchoring and reporting job at KOVR in Sacramento. Carl will also trade stations but remain behind the camera. It takes a lot to sacrifice contentment for the benefit of your children. Kris and Carl surprise me not. They are people of principle and character.

"When you stop caring, it's time to leave," Kris once told me about the news business. I have stayed. Kris and Carl are staying, just in a different city, and they will continue to pour professionalism into their work, just as before.

And yet the poet Robert Frost tells us "Nothing gold can stay." The verse applies to so many things, for life's only true constant is change, no matter how much we wish or pray it isn't. In broadcast news, moving on and moving up is how the game is played. But this doesn't inoculate you against the pain of saying goodbye to your endearing colleagues when they head off to new opportunities -- even if it's not really goodbye, just "send me an email."

Sacramento, you're getting two of the best in the business.

The Lightning Round:
Put Your Back Into Your Work

PR folks tell politicians to live with the rule, "the camera is always on." But the microphone was also on this week, and eyebrows raised by a four-letter word hit the ceiling when they saw a certain executive action...

RUBBED THE WRONG WAY. President Bush gave a quick back rub to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the G8 summit, and the video is all over the place. The action barely lasts a second, long enough for Merkel to throw her hands up. Now, if she hadn't thrown her hands up, do you believe this clip would be making such a fuss?

How soon we forget another political rule: "You scratch my back, I scratch yours."

For a few others, especially Ted Kennedy, buying dinner is involved.

FIRST THING, LET'S RENAME ALL THE LAWYERS. The American Trial Lawyers Association is rebranding itself as the American Association For Justice. Spokeswoman Chris Mather says the new name "reflects whose side we're on in the fight for justice."

Notice the new name includes neither "trial" nor "lawyer."

From The West Virginia Record:
Lisa A. Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, called the vote "an astounding admission of the unpopularity of trial lawyers in America."

"But the sad fact is that trial lawyers have no one to blame but themselves for their low esteem," she said Wednesday in a written statement. "Decades of abuse of the civil justice system by some of their members have created a sue-happy litigation climate that results in lost jobs, higher consumer prices, and ultimately, little justice for anyone-even the victims that they represent."
That should answer the question of whether a name change is enough. But while we're tweaking terminology, we're thinking of a few other name changes congruent with the Association's new vision of the majesty of law.

Prosecutor -- will now be known as "Advocate Of Justice" (or, "A.J." for short)

Public Defender -- now, "Advocate Of The Accused" (or, "Double-A")

Lawyers in civil trials -- just "Advocate"

Judge -- "Master Of The Court" (or, "M.C.")

Jury -- "Council Of Decision" ("C.D.")

Plaintiff -- "Summoner Of Justice"

Defendant -- "Respondent Of Accusations" ("Respondent" is used already in many jurisdictions. Why not glorify it a little more?)

REAL MINUTEMEN WEAR TRICORNS (CONTINUED). They keep good watch on the border, but not on their dollars and cents, according to a Washington Times story. The paper can't verify the numbers provided by founder Chris Simcox. And why do they need to funnel it through conservative commentator Alan Keyes' organization?

This much is certain -- the money isn't going into their border fences.

FAKING IT. When you need to tell a big lie about where you've been on vacation, a Russian company is here to serve you.

For $500, here's what you get from Persey Tours, according to the L.A. Times and Fox News:
...They go out of their way to provide vacation vouchers like ticket stubs, doctored photos, souvenirs and forged hotel receipts...
We at The Lightning Round are wondering if this is a former KGB paperwork-doctoring outfit looking for post-Cold War opportunities.

PLAYING GOD? IN SAMUEL WE TRUST. Samuel L. Jackson will be the voice of The Almighty in a new audiobook version of the New Testament. We think he's got the juice for it, especially after his memorable speech in Pulp Fiction derived from Ezekiel 25:17:
"...And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!"
Then again, this is the same guy who utters in the upcoming movie Snakes On A Plane, "I've had it with these m%$&^#@ing snakes on this m%$&^#@ing plane!"

Ten Commandments material, he's not. But some think so.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Citizen FrancisPage

Brad Poole writes about the potential pitfalls of blogs in Today's Tucson Citizen. I voluntarily contributed information to the story through inquiries posted at Speed Of Thought, afraid of seeing another blog-bash story hit the streets.

From the story:
"You publish insightful, intelligent content, you will attract an insightful, intelligent audience. Push flamebait, and feel the fire," Francis said in answer to a blog post seeking comment for this story.


Francis uses his blog to let people - especially family and friends - see a side of him they don't see in his everyday life and to unleash his muse through writing.

"In a way, it's therapeutic," he said.
My take: He gets it, although I was left with the impression blogging is more dangerous than it really is. I don't agree with the skull-and-crossbones illustration of blogging, although Captain Bartholomew Burgundy might!

Blogging, as Jeff Jarvis has said, is a conversation. And if you're rude, belligerent, or violent in your discourse, you can expect the same in return. That's no different than oral or written communication, which have been around forever. Blogs, like everything else, can be used for good or evil purposes. You have the rabble-rousers like Kos, Wonkette, Huffington, et al., but you also have the apolitical types: people who blog about their families, their hobbies, movies, comic books, anything Star Wars. And somewhere out there you'll find a variation of what were once the seven most dreaded words on the Internet: "Here are some pictures of my cat."

I Know It's Here Somewhere!

Not finding everything when you click the "Life & Timelines" and "NYC Diaries" buttons? You should see what you're missing!

We've just fixed some major bug-a-boos. The buttons for "Life & Timelines" and "NYC Diaries" now should be working properly and listing all the content for those items. Because Blogger does not support tagging/categories (for reasons only they know), I have had to hack a solution using Blogger's search function for both of those features. Turns out the hack lasts only so long.

So... Life & Timelines now has its own special -- and better-looking -- page. NYC Diaries should bring up the complete listing of my New York City trip through Technorati. So if you've visited both those areas recently and felt shortchanged, come on back!

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Reel To Reel: Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

One pirate reviews another in the latest chapter of Disney's swashbuckling franchise.

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Ye Olde Violence, Spinetingling Images

I'm taking a cue from KOLD News 13's Reel Life Movie Reviews and enlisting a privateer friend to handle the critical functions. You probably know him already. Ladies and Gentlemen, Captain Bartholomew Burgundy...

Your ReviewerThank ye so much, mate. 'Tis rare I and me crew get a diversion, with business bein' so unpredictable. Just th' other day we plundered a ship we were led to believe was full've spices. Turned out to be Starbucks coffee. Wha' these landlubbers put 'tween their lips! But I gotta admit I fancy th' chocolate latte.

Anyway, all'vus tip our hats t' Johnny Depp. After all, he's made all of us proud t' be pirates! As Cap'n Jack Sparrow, 'e brought us all some glory, even if he carries 'imself about a little odd. He's a man after me own heart, a gentleman deep down. I just marvel at 'ow he gets out of all of 'is predicaments with nary a scratch on 'im.

And wot predicaments! In this film, 'is soul is doomed unless 'e can find something more valuable than any treasure 'e's ever sought. Me mate Christopher advises not t' give too many plot details away, but I can tell ye he procures some aid from 'is old mates Will Turner, played by that han'some Orlando Bloom, and Elizabeth Swann, that charming lady Keira Knightley. Mind ye, I wouldn' get too saucy with her. She c'n handle a sword better than half me crew! And of cours', th' cap'ns own crew is back along with the Black Pearl.

If ye sign on for action, by blazes, ye'll get it here. I sawr run-ins with savages. I witnessed me favorite Cap'n get out of bein' roasted in a way th' had all th' crew of the Wayward Star a-cacklin' wit' laughter. I sawr a three-way sword fight involvin' -- of all things -- a paddle wheel! But I gotta tell ye also, what 'ad us all mesmerized was the sight of 'ol Cap'n Davy Jones. I mean, we've all 'eard of him, right? But none of us 've ever seen him. So there he is up there, one of the most horrific works'a flesh I ever sawr, all slimy an' snaky with a crew to match. Two've me men nearly ran out of th' theatre!

Ol' Davy wants Cap'n Jack's soul to serve 'im as a shipmate, and 'tis not like 'e has a choice. Poor Jack's been condemned with th' Black Spot, ye see, and if ye read Treasure Island, tha' pirate textbook all the young bucs read, ye know it's a death sentence. But wait, as the' say, there's even more. Under th' sea lives a huge, tentacled beast scarier th'n any fleet of warships I ever set me eye upon. Ye know, I guess 'tis a nod to the' old gian' squid of legend, tho' I never seen one.

As for Will and Elizabeth, th'er set t' be married, but skullduggery gets in the way from a ruthless trader who wants t' control all the seas and all the shippin'. Sometimes 'tis hard to tell who's pirate and who's not, see? He has Will and Elizabeth arrested, and 'e demands Will bring 'im Cap'n Jack's compass, which doesn' really work like any compass we've ever used. In exchange, he offers Cap'n Jack a chance to go legit as a privateer -- like me. I would tell Jack 'tis not a bad livin' really. Ye still gets to be a pirate, but ye work for the Crown an' gets royal benefits an' all. 'Tis leagues better than' goin' it alone!

All 'n all, I and me crew loved this picture! It has everything a great pirate movie needs: swashbucklin', skullduggery, sailin' and Sparrow! We can' hardly wait for th' third picture next year!

So tha's it, mate. Anythin' ye want to add?

Sure. One of the strengths of this picture is it doesn't ride entirely on Johnny Depp's performance. You have to give the screenwriters props here. They could have made this film all Sparrow, all the time. I love watching Captain Jack, but that pirate swagger works only so long. Instead, they created a world of sea monsters, myths and legends come to life. And yes, Captain Burgundy, I too liked Captain Jack's escape from the restless natives. It is the closest thing I have ever seen to a live-action Road Runner cartoon.

Aye. And admit it to me, mate, ye fancy some of them three-cornered hats?

Yeah, that's true. But I like yours better -- especially that bow.

'Tis a cockcade!

Whatever it is, it looks like you won first prize.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Lightning Round:
You Can't Handle The Truth!

This week, we've noticed a flurry of stories involving falsehoods.

KEN LAY -- MARTYR? Some people actually mourn the death of Ken Lay, but not as grandly as one clergyman.

According to Reuters:
The Reverend Dr. Bill Lawson compared Lay with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus Christ, and said his name would eventually be cleared.

"He was taken out of the world right at the right time," he said. "History has a way of vindicating people who have been wronged."
We notice the good Reverend conveniently forgets Jesus and Dr. King sacrificed their lives for the good of others while Lay hung his company out to dry while enriching himself.

I expect to see a new bumper sticker soon: "Ken Lay died when he lied!"

TELL ME LIES, TELL ME SWEET LITTLE LIES. A lot of us don't seem to mind casual, non-destructive fibbing according to an AP-Ipsos poll. Two-thirds of the respondents said white lies were all right.

From the AP:
Four out of ten who were surveyed say it's OK to exaggerate a story to make it more interesting. About a third say it's all right to lie about a sick day off from work. And about a third saying lying about your age is fine -- if you're just vain and not trying to dodge laws about the drinking age.
So I guess this excuse works: "Sorry I called in sick yesterday. This ravishing blonde gave me the fiercest cold I've ever had. She thought I was 18."

RIGHTING THE WRONGED. Eventually, those truly wronged do have their name cleared -- people like Grace Sherwood, accused of witchcraft in 1706 Virginia. She stood trial by water and floated, convincing colonists she was guilty because the pure water rejected her evil spirit. This week, on the 300th anniversary of her trial, Virginia's governor pardoned her.

Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg have been Sherwood's jury for years as part of an interactive play, "Cry Witch".

I took part in one of those trials during a visit in 2004. We were allowed to ask questions, but we were also instructed by the historical interpreters to use the law of 1706, not the law of present day, in rendering our verdict. Shackled by that restriction, we were left with little choice but to convict. And we didn't feel very good about it afterward.

DIGITAL DISASTER TIME. Homeland Security is updating the Emergency Broadcast System so it can send messages to cell phones, Web sites, and wireless devices. As you know, the system has been tested countless times, but never used on a national scale.

Still unclear: whether you'll answer your phone and hear a voice saying: "This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. If this had been an actual emergency you would've been instructed where to run and hide."

BLOG SAFELY. A part-time faculty member at the University of Arizona resigned after a blog bashing match went too far and too personal. Debroah Frisch, a liberal who admits she likes to taunt conservative bloggers, made this statement to one of them: "You live in Colorado. Hope nobody JonBenets your baby," referring to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

Angry e-mail poured into the U of A. Frisch claims it was a "sick joke." Sick is correct.

A reminder to everybody out there blogging and commenting -- practice your honors. A blog post is not worth losing your job over... or anything else, either.

Friday, July 7, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Greed Kills

Do not fret, newshounds. While we have been taking a scenic tour of California, your blogmaster has been keeping up with several big stories.

LAY-ED TO REST. Convicted corporate con man Ken Lay assumed room temperature this past week. The official cause of death is a heart attack, which assumes he had a heart to begin with.

Lay's death has provoked anger -- how dare he die! How dare he escape justice! His demise also raises doubts about whether the government can ever get its hands on any of Lay's money. But it doesn't stop suits against his estate, which would have happened anyway. And after the legal bills, it's highly unlikely anybody would have gotten any decent chunk of cash out of him, dead or alive.

We can go back and forth about the religious implications. According to the Palm Beach Post, Lay at one point said: "God in fact is in control." We seethe at the unfairness of it all, the possibility that Ken Lay actually made it to Heaven while the victims of Enron's crimes go through Hell on Earth. We shall see what kind of funeral he gets.

But for now, I leave you with some verses from the musical Wicked:
"No one mourns the wicked.
No one cries, "They won't return!"
No one lays a lilly on their grave.
The good man scorns the wicked.
Through their lives, our children learn:
What we miss when we misbehave.
And goodness knows, the wicked's lives are lonely,
Goodness knows, the wicked die alone...
Nothing grows for the wicked,
They reap only what they've sown."
THE ROCKETS' RED GLARE. Perhaps feeling left out of Fourth of July celebrations, North Korea launched seven missiles this week, including one that might have been aimed for Hawaii.

While the rest of the world decides what to do about Kim Jong Il, or as my Dad calls him, "Pajama Boy," I can only recall the image of him presented to the world in Team America: World Police -- a buffoonish madman commie who can't pronounce the letter L.

If he wasn't playing with nukes, we'd give him a timeout in the corner.

MEXICAN STANDOFF. Felipe Calderon is the official winner of Mexico's presidential race -- for now. His left-wing rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is not conceding defeat.

Vultures of the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential debacle are circling. But The Lightning Round reminds you, we have no butterfly ballots. And "dangling chad" refers to the act of hanging Chadisco by his feet from the balcony to get him to vote for the PRI.

AND THE WORD WAS... Several new words are joining Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

Among them:
google (v.) -- To use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web

mouse potato (n.) -- a person who spends a great deal of time using a computer

wave pool (n.) -- a large swimming pool equipped with a machine for making waves

According to KCBS Radio, "podcast" just missed making the cut because it hadn't been in use long enough. As one Webster staff member described it, getting into the dictionary is a lot like getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame. You have to have staying power.

I guess that rules out my (dated) suggestion.

smurf (v., adj., n.) -- all-purpose word substitutable for approximately 2,000 verbs and 2,000 adjectives ("Wanna smurf around?", "That's a smurfy new bikini!") and possibly a few nouns. Use as a meaningless intensive is also acceptable ("What the smurf was that?").

Thursday, July 6, 2006

The California Diaries - Day 6: The Long And Winding Road

Dad added some brake fluid to the car this morning before we left Monterey. He figures all those hills and grades in Yosemite probably gave the brakes more of a workout than usual. The brake light was slow to go off, so we took precautions.

This is the second time I’ve cruised with my parents down the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). You can see the ocean from dozens of vistas.

The wind is intense... and cold. In some spots I can barely stand up, much less hold the camera steady.

We try to do some store and gallery browsing in Carmel-By-The-Sea, but Dad couldn’t find a place to park. Worse, delivery trucks keep blocking the streets. If only Clint Eastwood, former mayor and former Dirty Harry were still running things here…

And tonight we’re back in Upland, after a long and slightly sunburned day on the road.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

The California Diaries - Day 5: From The Lake To The Ocean

Emerald Bay is bringing back memories for my mother, of vacations long ago when she was a Lawson, not yet a Francis.

Up the road from the state park, a roadside motel triggers another flashback.

“There it is.”

Dad quickly pulls over. We take a couple of photos.

“We had a nice two-story room with a fireplace,” she says. My cousin kept trying to start a fire in the fireplace by wrapping logs with toilet paper.

“Did it work?” I ask.

“No, but we used all the toilet paper.”

Most of the day is spent on the road, on I-80 through Sacramento and then down through San Jose to Monterey. The pines and redwoods and mountains vanish from my car window, turning into a parade of highway exits.

This is yet another time I separate myself from the outside world with my iPod. Mom and Dad might have the cheesy AM standards station on in the front, but in the back I have at least six hours’ worth of classic rock, classic soul, movie scores, a couple of show tunes and oodles of Genesis tracks, pre and post Phil Collins.

With a lunch break in the middle, we roll into Monterrey around 4pm. Finding the motel becomes a problem. We make one turnoff, then another, but can’t find Fremont Street. Mom finally calls the motel and asks for directions.

“We’re a little lost,” she says.

It’s almost like saying you’re a little intoxicated.

We find the motel and then find our way to Cannery Row. It’s my first trip here, but it’s the second for Mom and Dad.

The water is too cool for me to want to dip into, but I have some moments to stand in the sand and meditate on the gulls and waves and sailboats in the distance.

We hit the shops. Dinner comes from an Italian place down the street from Bubba Gump’s.

Our server leads us out to a table overlooking Monterey Bay – a table for two.

“Oh, I didn’t know he was with you,” the perplexed staffer says, even though I was standing right by Mom and Dad.

Am I vanishing?

She scoots a couple of tables together and solves the problem.

Some more window shopping comes after the meal, poking around the unique establishments of Cannery Row. It’s getting cooler and Mom still can’t believe I’m not wearing a sweater.

“I have a thick skin,” I explain to her. Actually, it’s not as thick as it used to be, but that’s another blog post...

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

The California Diaries - Day 4: O Beautiful For Spacious Skies

O beautiful for spacious skies, for purple mountain majesty in the northeastern quadrant of Yosemite National Park.

O beautiful for waters clear, for tufts of snow in summer.

O beautiful for family dear.

O beautiful for roadside restaurants. The Mobil Restaurant overlooking Mono Lake must be northern California’s best kept secret. Yes, Mobil once had restaurants.

We dig into sandwiches from the Whoa Nellie Deli. Mom swears she’s had the best chicken sandwich ever. It’s all good. And while you dine in the lush green picnic area and watch the cooks grill just outside the kitchen door, you can feast your eyes on the lake and puzzle on why a trapeze set is next to the unleaded pumps.

The Mobil restaurant is indeed a dying piece of Americana, just like Stuckey’s, just like Nickerson Farms or Sambo’s or Howard Johnson’s.

I’m proudly wearing my tricorn hat this Independence Day, but a lot of people still don’t get the reference to American heritage.

“Arrrrrr,” says a gentleman wearing a pith helmet as I walk for the deli entrance.

I repeat the standard correction: “It’s not a pirate hat. It’s a patriot hat!”

This would be one of at least half a dozen corrections I would make throughout the day to people shouting “Where’s the booty?” and other piratical compliments. Only one woman -- one -- correctly surmised the colonial connection.

The road trip continues into the mountains of the Inyo National Forest.

We also pass through several small towns with cottage motels decorated in flags and red, white, and blue bunting. Crowds gather outside the town hall in Mono City. This is the America of Frank Capra, of George M. Cohen and Norman Rockwell. This is what we imagine it should be, and indeed, for just one day, it is.

The beach on the south end of Lake Tahoe is unsurprisingly packed. So are the casinos just up the way, across the state line in Nevada. I’m unable to win any decent money on slots or video poker. But when you play only pennies, you lose only pennies. Dad goes through $10 at the blackjack tables in a flash.

We all return to the sand and surf and scout out a location for the fireworks show. Every square inch of sand is occupied by blankets or people. An armada of boats fills the lake. As Captain Bartholomew Burgundy would say, “Lahst time ah soir that many boats, we was about to boye raided!” We wait until 9:45 for the big bangs.

The show, synchronized to music from a local radio station, includes several types of blasts I’ve never seen before, including smiley faces and sparklers that descend slowly on parachutes. It all lasts about fifteen minutes.

The walk back to the motel, the streets filling up with drunks. It may be a night punctuated by the screams of drunkenness and revelry. We can only hope we’re far from the madding crowd.

Monday, July 3, 2006

The California Diaries - Day 3: Take A Walk

Dusty morning light cuts through the Mariposa Grove trees as we start our second day at Yosemite. We aren’t a tenth of a mile into the trail when nature comes out to greet us.

Deer me! A mule deer and a doe cross in front of us, coming out for some breakfast.

“I think I would want to live in a National Park,” Mom says. “People take pictures of you instead of pot shots.”

But out of earshot, in the woods…

“Are those people gone yet, Jane?”


“Crimony, can’t we go anywhere without being watched?”

“We’re on retainer here.”

“Yeah, but I would like to get a decent meal without looking over my tail and seeing yet another fat tourist with a Sony CyberShot.”

“Just do what I do, Sal, put your butt to the camera. They don’t take butt shots.”

The walk up the Mariposa Grove trails to the top measures at least five miles, with winding muddy paths. We make our way from tree to tree.

Our destination is the museum up the hill. It’s closed. But at least we find the restrooms and a drinking fountain. Mom, Dad, and I wait for a tram to take us back down. When it doesn’t come, we start the long walk back down.

The return trip is more treacherous: a steep grade, dropoffs, narrow shoulders on the trail and way too many muddy patches. A log bridges a hairpin turn, something out of a Roadrunner cartoon, where you can walk slowly on the path or try the log and risk plunging into the depths.

“Go out there and I’ll take your picture,” Mom eggs me on.

“If I slip, I’ll rack myself,” I point out.

“Well, Dad can go out there.”

“He’ll break the log.”

Mom and I successfully dodge mud patches using logs and branches somebody has laid over them. Balance is everything. Mom credits Girl Scouts. For me, it's the poise of a few 18th Century dance moves.

I can’t understand why, but Mom says I’m kicking up too much dust, more dust than Pig-Pen. My shoes don’t have much tread left on them. I figure they’ve gone at least 40,000 miles.

Dad is going to make his 10,000 step goal early. He hits it before we get back to the parking lot.

The wait for the shuttle bus after lunch takes 20 minutes.

Boarding time takes three minutes more, with sucking it in and moving to the back of this rolling sardine can on the day before Independence Day.

And not two minutes into the trip to our next destination – Curry Village – we have an unscheduled stop.

Our bus driver has just clipped the mirror on a car. You can’t blame her. People are parked sloppily in parallel all over the shoulders of this park, with the lots, like the campgrounds, full.

Another minute or two of waiting and the doors swing open again. We’re back on our feet, as is everybody else while traffic clogs up behind this bus. We’ll be lucky if we can catch another one anytime soon.

Five minutes later, we’re on another bus, still packed like fish. Mom and Dad are standing in the aisles. I’m crouched up on some sort of plastic riser over the wheel well. I don’t know what it’s for, but it’s sure not a seat. I pull my legs up so other people can get on and off, so I end up riding in something resembling a fetal position. Majestic sights do bring out your inner child.

We finally make it to Curry Village, where the game plan is to rent one of those rafts Mom talked about yesterday. We see them stacked up and waiting. And we see a line. It doesn’t take us long to find out that all the raft trips have been sold out for the day.

Now Dad’s frustrated. All that walking, all that messing around with the busses, all that waiting and all for nothing. And it’s only 3:30. I guess we get back to the sights on foot. Time to get back on the bus again.

We do some shopping at the Visitors’ Center, get some refreshments and decide to check out Bridalveil Fall from a closer perspective.

I can’t resist the mist.

Maybe we can’t float down the river, but this will work. No paddle needed. Just put your face into that spray and absorb the awesome power of nature and evaporative cooling.

And maybe we've relearned that lesson about visiting a popular tourist attraction on the day before the Fourth Of July. Don't. That was the message when we were jammed packed into Walt Disney World in July 1986. But we're optimists, aren't we?

Sunday, July 2, 2006

The California Diaries - Day 2: Getting The Picture At Yosemite

I’m really not awake until I see the view of the Yosemite Valley. Now my eyes are open, marveling the trees and mountains that lead off into the hazy distance, as if the Promised Land lies beyond them. I could spend all day here wandering in the wilderness with my eyes and two cameras.

I would have plenty of company and plenty of lenses following me around. More cameras are at this particular pullout than at a presidential news conference as tourists take turns busting off shots and the obligatory group photos. Mom gets a request to shoot a couple of shots.

Down the road stands El Capitan, accompanied by the whisper of tumbling water from Bridalveil Fall.

“Why don’t you wear sunglasses?” Mom asks. “You’ll look all squinty-eyed.”

“Well, so does Clint Eastwood.”

People are pulling over again, whipping out cameras and camcorders. My Sony Digital8 and my Canon PowerShot A520, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. But Dad’s heavy artillery, the Mamiya 645, won’t fire off. This time, it’s not the crank; it’s the battery.

Dad digs around in his camera bag -- no spare. He’s getting irritable. I’m getting irritable of his irritability. Let’s move on down the road.

We get our first glance of Yosemite Falls, more spectacular than what I just came from.

Dad switches to the Nikon 8008 35mm SLR, and while he fools with that, Mom and I are off to the foot bridge over the Merced River, walking down the bike path as waves of cyclists pass us by, forgetting they need to show a little speed restraint on a shared pathway.

The river flows briskly but not raging, enough to draw several rafts along without paddling. Mom is convinced she wants to rent one. I wonder about the three of us in lifejackets playing Row, Row, Row Your Boat while trout swim beneath us in the clear water.

Dad catches up with us. He’s doing better now that his Mamiya has come back to life following a battery jiggle. He’s enjoying the scenery so far but lodging one objection: “Too many people.”

“You guys are stopped on an active road! Please step aside!” yells some guy on a bike as we walk on the shared foot-bike path back to the car, obviously not a park ranger. He’s riding at the front with three people behind him, barreling through like he’s Homeland Security. How I would love to throw a tire iron into his front wheel right now and marvel at the resulting physics.

A stop at the Visitors’ Center is next, giving us some time to poke around in the Ansel Adams’ gallery, get cooled off a little and get some lunch.

Mom suggests renting a raft and Dad doesn’t seem enthusiastic, especially with him lugging around two different cameras and three different lenses and having to protect them from getting wet.

“What would be the point?” he asks.

“The fun of it,” Mom responds.

It’s time for a hike. The roar of Yosemite Falls lures us in, and it’s not more than half a mile before we stand on the creek bridge, in the wonderful wet mist alongside dozens of tourists. Just a slight change in the wind is enough to reward you with an extra helping of water vapor.

Mom and I climb up the rocks, slipping a little but getting an extra dose of the cool spray. Here’s another place I wouldn’t mind staying all day.

The walk to Mirror Lake is three miles. Dad’s doctor says he needs to get 10,000 steps a day. So we step to it, through the alternating dark and light of the woods, spotting a chipmunk or two and passing a few others. We find another stream, one with water clear enough to bottle and sell.

I keep wondering what the heck I’m going to do if we run into a bear, besides run. The more we walk, the deeper into the woods we get, and I’m thinking the lake has to be just up the way. Eventually I spot a glint of civilization and the silver shine of a row of parked cars. We’ve hiked all this way to get to a parking lot.

The crows are laughing above us.

To be sure, the lake is still up the trail. But this is where we get off. It’s after 4 in the afternoon, and it’s time to get rehydrated and back to the car.

Dad puts his gear in the back, only it’s taking a lot longer than it should. What should be a two-minute job blossoms into five minutes and then ten. Turns out he’s missing something.

“Two lens caps lost. I hate it when two caps get lost.”

He’s been poking all over the back of the car, looking for these two lens caps while we’re waiting to get on with it.

“Did you check your pockets?” Mom asks.

“Yes I did check my pockets,” Dad replies in that tone of annoyance he used to use with my brother and I when we were kids. “Give me credit for a little bit of intelligence. Not much, but a little.”

He keeps going through stuff in the back. Good grief, we’re never going to get out of this parking lot.

“You didn’t leave it at the creek up there?” I inquire.

Eventually he finds the caps… in his camera bag… just like he’d put them there.

“Note to self,” Mom says with amused exasperation. “Must kill your father.”

We drive up to Glacier Point, and it’s the big picture, the money shot. That Mamiya gets a roll-full.

While Dad collects images, Mom and I take in the scenery.

“9,000 steps,” announces Dad’s belt pedometer, the talking one from Brookstone. He’s getting there. The goal is in sight.

We spend about an hour wandering about the various views. I’ve ditched my cap back in the car, and my wild curly hair doesn’t want to behave for any pictures. Not that I care, anyway.

“Hey, it’s over 10,000!” I announce, pointing to Dad’s pedometer as we wrap things up.

The sun sets into the trees as we make our way back to the hotel for the night. Evening fades into a deep dark night as we roll back into Oakhurst. Again, the passing trees nearly lull me to sleep in the back of the car.

And Dad’s final step count: approximately 11,300, a new record for him.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

The California Diaries - Day 1: Into The Woods

Let us cast aside the smog of southern California for the mountain majesty up north in the Sequoia National Forest.

Dip your toes into the Kaweah River and the water is perfect. I could still feel it rushing by my toes hours later.

And then you start seeing the enormous trees as you drive into the Giant Forest. They’ve been here ten times longer than you have. They will be here long after you’re gone. I marvel at the sheer size and height, the deep reds. Fire, insects, drought, broken branches don’t harm these beings. They keep growing, invincible to adversity, almost thriving on it.

We roll on to the path leading to the General Sherman tree. The air is cool and calm. A few steps down the newly renovated walkway, the pine scent hits me. I remember to look up this time, up at the crowns of the trees and the majesty of the forest, up at the blue skies.

The General Sherman tree stands before us huge, but we don’t realize how huge until we see it closer and from every angle. I’m shooting off digital pictures and video. Dad, the camera guy, is armed with his bulky box shooter and it won’t fire off. The battery-powered winder is dead and he’s forgotten the hand crank. So I’m implored to shoot more pictures while he stews over what he’s missing.

Ah, digital photography – just point it, shoot it, preview it, laugh at it, delete it if you must.

We do some more walking and admiring of this enchanted forest. It’s a holiday weekend and tourists are all over the place, mostly speaking Japanese. Mom and Dad are thinking about taking out a giant pine cone. We’re not sure if we can. She grabs a couple and a little up the way we run into a ranger.

“Can we take these?” Mom asks.

“Only if you can eat ‘em,” comes the reply. “And they’re really not good.”

Another ranger gives the same message to a kid up the way from us, albeit less whimsically.

Step away from the pine cone! I think.

We hike all the way back up to the car so Dad can get the camera crank and then drive down to the disabled entrance to the path, which is closer to the tree so Dad can get the money shot. Mom and I sit in the car and wait. Fortunately, everything worked.

All of us grab some lunch up the road and then venture on to the General Grant Tree, the national Christmas tree. But I’ll be darned if anybody’s going to try and decorate it. Why would you want to, anyway?

It’s late in the afternoon and the sun’s rays are dodging the branches, cutting through them, slicing through the forest. Shade is everywhere, making a hat happily unnecessary.

We stop at a couple of mountain overlooks. Snow actually dots a few mountain tops. Snow in July. I picture what all of this must look like in the wintertime. Atop a rock I can see it, the ground in the two feet of slow, white powder crowning every needle of every branch. I look into the mountains and see the forest in a portrait of white and green with grey skies above. It’s all in my head but it’s amazingly beautiful.

Whole families are getting out to take a look. This one group has at least six kids and four adults. How in the heck did they fit them into that mid-size SUV?

The trees passing by me in the car almost lull me to sleep. Everything’s so green...