Monday, February 26, 2007

The Day After The Oscars

Surveying the punditry from last night's Oscarcast, everyone agrees the show ran way too long. I agree. L.A. Weekly's Nikki Finke is foaming at the sequins, saying "It was lacking in razzle-dazzle. It had no trash and flash." Tom Shales of The Washington Post graded it "alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) a bore and a horror."

Bore, maybe. But horror? If Scorsese lost for Best Director, that would be horror. Without replaying the entire ceremony, I submit some snapshot thoughts:

* Ellen DeGeneres may be a great talk show host, but she's too cute and not funny enough. The improvised bit with Steven Spielberg taking a digital photo of her and Scorsese was a hoot, though.

* How the heck did Melissa Ethridge's "I Need To Wake Up" beat three songs from Dreamgirls? Was the Academy using Diebold voting machines?

* I wish the Academy would create (and announce) a streaming-video site where we could see the nominees for the short-subject films, animated and live action. Year after year, these awards go out to films 95% percent of America hasn't seen, with no way to see them.

* Dump some production numbers. Will Ferrell and Jack Black are no song-and-dance team. The Pilobolus Dance Theatre was intriguing, but it just padded out time. Don't get me started on the half-hour red carpet show or the opening interview montage with the nominees. Keep the Dreamgirls songs.

* An Inconvenient Truth winning for Best Documentary Feature surprised nobody. Pan's Labryinth losing Best Foreign-Language film was a Brink's job.

* Despite what you heard, Celene Dion's "World Premiere" of composer Ennio Morricone's "I Knew I Loved You" was anything but. The song is from Sergio Leone's 1984 gangster epic Once Upon A Time In America. The words to the music are the only thing that premiered. Snarks Shales: "Unfortunately it sounded like the theme from Titanic and every other song she sang."

* Forest Whitaker is now the hottest property in Hollywood after winning for The Last King Of Scotland.

* Happy Feet wins Best Animated Film. March Of The Penguins won in last year's Documentary Feature category. The Academy clearly has what the comic strip "Bloom County" used to call "penguin lust."

* Maybe we can shave a half hour off the Oscars by handing out the Sound Mixing and Sound Editing awards off camera. How many people know the difference, anyway?

* Jennifer Hudson's Best Supporting Actress win for Dreamgirls proves American Idol's Simon doesn't know Jack.

* Even with Al Gore, the entire show went out of its way to come off apolitical. Gore stressed the global warming battle was a winnable fight. Ethridge declared it a nonpartisan issue. It's as if the thought police were waiting offstage to drag them away should they bash Republicans.

* Someone explain to me how Borat's improvised pranks qualify for the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

* Best Blooper: Will Smith's son accidentally started reading ahead to the next category in the teleprompter before his cohort Abigail Breslin presented the award for Best Animated Short film. It came off funnier and more genuine than most of the evening's scripted jokes.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Shut Up And Teach

I learned to read in elementary school, conquered math in middle school, and refined my writing in high school. But I didn't learn how to think until I got into college. In order for that to happen, somebody had to challenge my beliefs. That's called teaching. Apparently some Arizona legislators call it treason.

WE INSTRUCT, YOU DECIDE. Arizona is considering a bill to keep politics out of public schools.

From the AP:
A proposed state law would prohibit any instructor in a public school or college from advocating or opposing a political candidate or one side of a social, political or cultural issue that is part of a partisan debate.

A group of Arizona lawmakers concluded Thursday [Feb. 15] that classrooms should not be forums for schoolteachers and college professors to espouse political opinions.
For the record, no college professor or high school teacher ever tried to indoctrinate me or pass out campaign buttons. We had classroom debates, but the teachers stayed out. But apparently, lawmakers fear teachers will flunk students who disagree with their political beliefs. I ask, how many times has this reallyhappened?

I also detect some lingering resentment towards the Tucson Unified School District, which was called on the carpet last year after immigrant-rights activist Dolores Huerta spoke to students. She said, among other things, "Republicans hate Latinos."

It's the unwritten commandment wafting through the state capitol: Thou shalt not insult a Republican in Arizona. But thou shalt also remember the First Amendment.

TAKING THE "V" OUT OF "TV". Irrationally cracking down on sex and dirty words isn't enough for the FCC. Now it's going after violence on the tube. And cable may not be exempt.

From ArsTechnica:
"The pressure to do something on this is building right now," Commissioner Michael Copps told the AP. "People really feel strongly about this issue all across this land. This is not a red state or a blue state issue."
It is a constitutional issue, however -- and a logistical one.
Another challenge would be coming up with a workable definition of violence. Profanity and sex are arguably simple: provide broadcasters a list of words that cannot be uttered and body parts that cannot be shown, and you're all set. Violence is another matter. Would reports in prime-time news magazines like 60 Minutes and 20/20 be exempt? What about a full-court brawl during a basketball game like the one the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets engaged in late last year? It's a minefield, to say the least.
And blowing up broadcasters with fines won't solve the problem.

BATTLE OF THE BOOKERS. First, 15-year-old old Jennifer Mee was besieged by hiccups. Now she's besiged by the media. The Florida teenager got caught in the crossfire of the morning show wars when ABC's "Good Morning America" tried to wrangle her story after she appeared on NBC's "Today" show. A GMA booker called Mee's home 57 times last Sunday and slipped a note under her hotel door. Other talk shows are lining up.

From the St. Petersburg Times:
"We went to the media for one reason only, but now I just feel like she is being used," Jennifer's stepfather, Chris Robidoux said about reaching out for help.

"She's not for sale. She's a human being."
And she still has the hiccups.

YOU AGAIN? 911 operators in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin have seen their own deluge of phone calls -- more than 100 prank calls from an 8-year-old girl on a cell phone. She will not be charged with a crime.

From UPI:
"At this point, the matter was corrected," [a Sheriff's department spokesman] said. "We'll leave it for the parents to deal with."
Or not.

EXCUSES, EXCUSES. Since "the dog ate it" doesn't work anymore, Job Profiles provides some ones that might.

A sampling:
* Too worried about genocide in obscure African nations to focus on homework
* Didn’t you see the flash of the nuclear explosion? I was duct taping my windows shut.
* The nice man with the sign says the end is HERE. No one does homework on the eve of the apocalypse.
* The two lights were lit above the clock tower in the center of campus, which if I’m not mistaken means the British are coming by sea, and there is another reason not to do homework.
You just may get points for originality, if nothing else.

Monday, February 19, 2007

In His Excellency's Loyal Service

Hail To The Chief! We Make History honors the Father Of A Nation and A Fine Dancer on his 275th Birthday* with the enthusiastic assistance of The Continental Line.
(*but we stopped counting at 200)

From the journal of Private Christopher Francis
Photographic Assistance by Private Michael C.

(Click any photo for a larger view!)

Shoulder to shoulder. Left before right. This hand above that. Everything has a procedure, and my aim is to follow it precisely.

“I’ve never been in a color guard before,” I admit as I clasp the flagpole in my hands. The Star-Spangled Banner drapes down to tips of my fingers. This part does not worry me.

The challenge lies in matching my cadence to three fellow soldiers of General Washington’s Continental Line. As my own mother is fond of pointing out, I tend to walk fast.

His Excellency welcomes the assembled guests at the front of the room as we wait at the ready, in our tricorns and uniforms. Up close, one can see the nuances of four different tailors. Yet from a distance, we flow together perfectly in our red, white and blue.

“Forward, march!”

We move as one, and I hold the line as I hold the flag, coming to a halt before the group of some fifty ladies and gentlemen in a heartfelt tribute to our liberated nation and its many liberties -- freedom of assembly, to name but one.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, Under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all…”

In the unison recitation of the Pledge and the singing of our National Anthem with the American Flag in my hands, I doubt I have ever participated in a more patriotic moment.

Placing the flag in the stand before the crowd, my duty is complete and part of me exhales, only to lament later not adding more military finesse and precision to my solo part of the ceremony. Shouldn’t I have saluted somewhere in this? Should I have added a snap of my feet? Everything has a procedure. Yet General Washington is satisfied, and my cadence is about to evolve from marching to dancing.

The charming schoolteacher Miss Kay is looking out for me.

“Do you have a partner for the procession?” she asks. She has someone already lined up.

After a bit of confusion as to whether I am supposed to be escorting someone else, I introduce myself to beautiful woman in blue with a low bow. She graciously accepts my invitation, and we’re soon promenading around the room, getting a better look at the colorful fashions and ubiquitous newcomers taking their first steps back in time.

Our first dance is entitled, “I Care Not For These Ladies,” the most whimsically misleading English Country Dance title I have ever heard as the ladies and gentlemen circulate in a round. I meet and greet at least a half-dozen partners, sharing a few turns and some fancy steps before its time to move on.

This night, I must keep a promise to a beautiful young daughter of a fellow soldier.

“I owe you a dance,” I say to her before the evening commences. I have owed her that dance since December. “I intend to pay my debt or suffer the consequences.”

Yet when the line dances commence, others keep reaching her first. Other times, she disappears from my sight. Where is she?

But I can’t linger on the floor too long in waiting. The guest list measures many names shorter than in previous soirĂ©es, and the available partners disappear like the sunlight of a February day. Now is the time to use those fast feet, paired with a sharp eye for a partnerless lady. Do your duty, soldier. Seek out that one on the floor with a countenance exuding dismay or desperation, visible all the way from the other side of the room.

“The woman in blue,” a fellow Continental hints to me at one point. “She’s sat out the last two dances.” Why is it always the women in blue? She’s taken before I can rescue her.

“Girls keep running away,” one gentleman says during a break for refreshments. I cannot understand why. Even though he is dressed one hundred years forward in time, in the garb of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, he is still very much a Virginia gentleman and the justification for any fear escapes my comprehension.

Let us hope it is not a playful tossle of the hair intimidating them. One such dance, “Away To The Camp,” all but requires it as the ladies and gentlemen parade around each other in one of the figures and daintily tickle and pinch each others’ locks. My hair is not yet at ponytail length, but my curls get a generous tweak.

I offer a couple of dances to some shy young folk. They dance as well as those triple their age, and they love every moment. Even during a pause in the festivities, many continue dancing about, as does one wee lass who cavorts straight up to me. I launch into an extemporaneous jig. We both share a Miracle Moment, capering together in the middle of an otherwise barren dance floor.

“Do you ever get a feeling of butterflies in you when you dance with someone?” she asks.

“I get that all the time.”

“Well, I only get that when I dance with that boy over there,” she explains, indicating a precocious and lively patriot lad.

No doubt it is more than butterflies.

“That’s a good feeling,” I say.

Other butterflies flutter within me. I still must repay my debt. If I don’t, I am bound to some sort of reprimand. The punishment remains undetermined, but I have no doubt it will involve some sort of a jig. However, I finally find the lady I owe, and we agree the next dance shall settle it.

Setting things right will have to wait a bit longer, however, for lined up on the ballroom floor are thirteen American Belles, fine ladies representing thirteen new states.

I am called to duty again, to help present these paradigms of beauty and character to the assembled guests in a courtly promenade for photographs and admiration. With only four of us on the Line, each of us enjoy three opportunities to escort a lady. One lucky patriot enjoys a fourth!

Now, let me settle that debt…

“You’re outranked,” a fellow Continental teases. He’s a Lieutenant. He’s also her father. “But I will defer to the private.”

I am thankful for his graciousness. It allows me to share a beautiful, waltz-like number with her -- one that involves changing places across the set several times white staring straight into her eyes. Here come those butterflies again. She is clearly an excellent dancer, much better than I will ever be on this evening. I try my best to be worthy of her grace, stepping in elegance, my arms extended outward as we round each other. I am a soldier, a gentleman, a Virginian, one who has danced all his life… or at least nine balls. And if fulfilling those high standards are not enough motivation, General Washington is dancing right next to us in the set. Compared to his impeccable skill, any mistake on my part will magnify fivefold. I pass the test, my debt repaid, my partner pleased.

But to my frustration, I still end up missing the mark on other dances I thought I would have mastered by this point. What should be a graceful pivot in "Come, Let's Be Merry" displays all the grace of a broken see-saw. Later, I am chosen to demonstrate an alleman left and right with our gracious caller and dancing master only to find my hands don’t link up with my partner’s the way they’re supposed to -- much to the amusement of the ballroom.

And then, in a time-shortened Virginia Reel, I execute the opening turns and passes without fault only to mysteriously find myself discombobulated when the moment of reeling arrives. I nearly start reeling with the wrong side until my fellow Continentals and His Excellency graciously set me back on the right path. And I call myself a Virginian! I should know this like my own face! I have danced for twenty and thirty minutes in these reels with nary an error. What is wrong with me?

I later thank my dancing companions for bearing with me through my deficiencies. “It happens to everyone,” the Lieutenant comforts.

That is true. And I must not forget, we are all laughing together, not at each other. I am not back in elementary school, reliving the nightmare of square dancing. But I shall not be satisfied until I dance a flawless reel at the next ball!

I know His Excellency will not be satisfied until everyone does their homework. He draws several names for prizes, but only a couple of winners have a historical fact at the ready, as stated in the rules. The rest prefer to jig -- or sing -- taking an alternate way out. We hear no mention of the General taking command of the Continentals in 1775. Nobody speaks of his accepting Lord Cornwallis’ surrender in 1781… although a lone British regular in the hall likely prefers it that way.

Many things are worth dancing about, especially birthdays. A round of “Happy Birthday” simply will not suffice amongst 18th Century celebrants, especially one celebrating her 16th birthday. Thus she enjoys a moment as the center of attention while we sing and dance in a circle around her…

“For she’s a jolly good fellow! For she’s a jolly good fellow! For she’s a jolly good fellow -- whom nobody can deny!”

We invite others with February birthdays to join her in the center for a joyous encore. You could sing that song of everyone in the room -- everyone jolly, good fellows, enjoying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When the final waltz arrives, it is always with a bit of sadness. I share the last dance with a young lass, who is not intimidated by this Yankee Doodle Dandy and his basic waltzing ability. She twirls when she wants, if she wants. I merely follow and smile and bow to my partner with words of gratitude.

“You’re a much better waltzer than I am.”

Private Christopher, I think, you have so much to learn and so many willing to teach.

It is obvious the Revolution is not over. We are leading a new one, looking back to move forward. Most times, we will not carry muskets or wear uniforms. And sadly, for most people, the stories of our American Belles will escape attention as the rest of the world obsesses on the wreckage of other peoples’ lives. We’ve got a long fight ahead of us. But with a little inspiration, a lot of heart, a generous spirit, and a clear sense of purpose, victory shall be ours! Huzzah!

* * *

“I really like your outfit!” calls a teenage girl standing from a second floor balcony.

I am walking back through the motel room parking lot in my full Continental regalia, haversack over my shoulder, tricorn atop my head, uplifted and renewed from an after-ball feast and some time with friends in the late hours.

“Thank you!” I offer with a smile and an elegant bow.

I explain where I have been and what I have done. If I were not tired and she were not holding an empty bottle, I would offer to teach her a few steps from the past.

She thinks it is cool. Yea, victory shall be ours.

Click here for more memories, more photos and our tribute to the beautiful American Belles!

COMING IN MARCH: A Tribute To The Ladies Of Virginia... Even In The Darkest Hours Of A Nation

Friday, February 16, 2007

Voter Tantrums

In my salad days of reporting, I heard a political scientist declare we were "overworking the American voter," forcing too many ballot items before them and deluging them with initiatives. Arizona and California are notorious for offloading issues onto the electorate, especially silly ones -- like that million-dollar voter lottery Arizonans rejected last November. However, it's nice to see some other folks getting into the game.

GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY -- OR ELSE! A group promoting same-sex marriage is trying to get a new item on Washington's ballot: Initiative 957 would require heterosexual couples to have children within three years or see their marriages annulled. It would also force couples to prove they can procreate before they can marry.

Crazy? That's just what the Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance wants you to think.

From the AP:
"Our intention is not to actually put this into law," he said. "All we want is to get this on the ballot and cause people to talk about it."

The group's Web site gives another reason: "And at the very least, it should be good fun to see the social conservatives who have long screamed that marriage exists for the sole purpose of procreation be forced to choke on their own rhetoric."
It's unlikely the initiative will pass, but if it does, it would also face a Washington Supreme Court challenge, forcing the same justices who banned same-sex marriage to consider whether procreation and marriage go hand in hand.

If we want to use the ballot process for hissy fits, your Lightning Round staff offers these items:

* "Three Strikes And You're Out Act" -- an initiative preventing people who have been divorced three times from marrying again. We see it especially useful in Hollywood.

* "Not In Front Of The Kids Act" -- preventing people with children from getting divorced until the young ones have moved out of the house

* "True Love Waits Act" -- requires a 30-day waiting period for marriage licenses. Already, Vegas wedding chapels are lining up opposition. But hey, it worked with handguns, didn't it?

EAT UP. To this day, my beloved Queen Mother says I need to eat more and will lovingly push food my way. In that spirit, a high-end London restaurant is offering free meals to skinny models.

From Reuters:
Bumpkin restaurant in trendy Notting Hill is offering models with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 18 the opportunity to gorge on fish pies, lamb burgers, king prawns and scallops.

"If I could recommend a dish to a size zero model, it would be a charter pie containing leeks, chicken and bacon; it's enough to keep you warm and energized all day," Bumpkin general manager Dariush Nejad said in a statement on Monday.
Of course, this is all a by-product of the debate surrounding social x-rays on the runway after the deaths of two Latin American models. However, we're not told if any mother figure is around to make sure everybody cleans their plate.

HOW NOW SOUSED COW? A Cornish cattle farmer is letting his herd quaff beer -- up to 40 pints a day. Darren Pluess says the beef is better for it.

From the Manchester Evening News:
Mr Pluess claims the result is fatty well-marbled meat and burgers from the herd fetch up to £40 in restaurants.

"You can't really taste the beer, it just tastes like really, really good beef," he said.

"The cows were kept relaxed and happy by being fed beer and having massages.

"The result of this royal treatment is a quality of beef and a taste like no other.

"Due to the cows being so very relaxed a rich, succulent and tender beef is created."
Those massages come from giant self-service brushes on the shed walls that provide a back rub, so exorcise those dirty thoughts.

And we want to know, how's the milk?

HOME GROWN. Don't bother sending any of Mr. Pluess' products to Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana. They're charbroiled over Japanese beef in the Senate Dining Room.

From the AP:
"We were puzzled that the United States Senate Dining Room featured Japanese beef instead of homegrown Montana beef," they wrote [to the restaurant's general manager], adding that Montana cattle "graze on the high plains and in the mountain valleys so their beef is natural, delicious and healthy."
But the real issue here is hard feelings: the Japanese banned U.S. beef imports for several years in the mad cow disease scare, resuming only after intense begging from Congress.

No word on whether Senators Baucus and Tester had Freedom Fries with their meals.

SERVING WITH A CONDITION. West Virginia legislator Ron Thompson may be the first politican to run to rehab and stay in office at the same time. He has been AWOL from the state capitol for months. Voters still re-elected him, but colleagues declared Thompson's House of Delegates seat vacant after he missed his swearing-in. But they reversed themselves when they got a note from his psychiatrist.

From The (WV) State Journal:
According to the doctor’s letter, Ron Thompson has been suffering for some time from a medical condition that has prevented him from performing his legislative duties and taking the oath of office. The doctor told the speaker that he expects Ron Thompson to make a full recovery and eventually be able to fulfill his obligations to the Legislature and his constituents.
The specifics of that condition remain a mystery, but our Lightning Round amateur diagnosis points to an obsession with Thomas Jefferson, specifically his undocumented, mis-attributed mantra: "That government is best which governs least."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Don't Be Lonely

"Do you see marriage in your future?" a friend asked not long ago.

"No," I said, my mind wandering through the muck of uncertainty. "But maybe my mission in life doesn't involve marriage. I don't want to rush things."

That was only half the truth. The other half: I'm not even dating. I haven't dated since college, and the one relationship I had dissolved in the pain of the past.

I met Jessica at a night out while at Mizzou. A couple of dorms held an ice skating outing one Friday night, and I couldn't resist the lure of cold ice and good times -- anything to divert my attention from exams approaching in the distance.

Jessica was a sophomore. I was a senior. She was a plump, lively girl, about a head shorter than me.

From my journal of December 3, 1993:
We're both from St. Louis, and she sort've knew me already from Six Flags [my summer job] and a class that shares the same room as one of my CS classes. She talks a mile a minute, which might drive some people crazy, but it doesn't bother me at all. We skated together tonight and had a great time.
Jessica came over to my dorm room the next day with tea to take some of the edge off the study crunch.
The more I told her about the finals situation, the more she became convinced I needed more than tea. She gave me a back massage this afternoon. She's really good, on account she plans to study physical therapy. That massage really mellowed me out. I also read over a draft of a paper she'd written for a learning strategies class, and I basically tightened and refined her sentences, not bothering to mess with structure.
A few nights later, she came over again. We talked... we slow danced in the dark... and then we kissed. Passionately.

"Have you ever kissed anybody before?" she asked.

"Not like that," I replied, embarrassed because I'd told her I wasn't after a physical relationship.

Neither of us were ready for one, anyway -- especially Jessica. The night of the big kiss, she revealed to me the evil of a previous boyfriend, one who had his way with her in high school. She hesitated to call it date rape, but her description left no doubt it was. I refused to let her accept any guilt or let the guy off easy, but her handling of the incident bothered me. She had told an aunt and some people at the campus Women's Center but not her parents. Knowing her father would go after the ex with full prosecutorial force, she didn't want to relive it on the witness stand. The pain stayed bottled up within her.

"I feel safe around you," she said to me as we held each other.

I felt helpless. A few days later, she called and told me of holding a knife and not trusting herself with it. I begged her to come clean to her parents, telling her I couldn't do anything more to help her. Both of us survived that scare, but she kept the secret.

We went out again, to the fading St. Louis Center over Christmas Break. And then it was over -- an amicable parting. We lost track of each other, and I knew it was for the best. I feared being an emotional trigger for her, and as much as I wanted to help her, I didn't think I was the right person. I would be graduating soon anyway, off into the real world, and this was no time to start a long-term relationship.

I have never had another girlfriend since then. I've been too busy grinding out a living on nights and weekends. I've attended at least four weddings among my newsroom peers. I've seen at least three others collapse.

I spend ten hours a day staring at a computer screen, cramming my head with information, talking on the phone, chasing down video, churning out scripts all to feed this hungry beast called a 10pm newscast. It's hardly attractive, yet it's what I do. The day isn't even over, even when it's over, as the necessary adrenaline fails to wear off. Hours evaporate as your humble servant downshifts with some web surfing only to find himself in a state of dark restlessness, desperate for a few hours in the land of his dreams.

What lady would tolerate such emptiness and odd hours? Why should she?

My parents don't nag me about marriage anymore. They know better. And with my brother married and raising a family, they've got grandkids. Still they fantasize, imagining me tying the knot with some beautiful girl met through some historical diversion and holding a colonial-style wedding. They imagine me in a tricorn and breeches instead of a tux.

Over the past year, I have shared many wonderful moments with fine women, but that's all they were -- moments. No numbers were exchanged, no dates attempted. My path is solo. At times I wish it weren't so, notably last year during my first full night in New York City, when an inexplicable sadness crept in. Amazing sights surrounded me, and nobody stood by my side to share the moment. I remember also a Saturday night sight from my youth in Kansas City, wandering the Country Club Plaza where it seemed like I was the only single person in the world.

The words of the kindly schoolteacher Miss Kay come back to me: "Don't be lonely."

I know, Miss Kay, and I count the blessings of several friendships. However, I won't be on the giving or receiving end of flowers this Valentine's Day. That is the reality I live with given this mad career choice and my own uncertainties. If the proverbial right girl is out there, I haven't met her yet. If I never meet her, so be it. "Love is patient," we are told, even if that sentiment doesn't fit on a candy heart.

Friday, February 9, 2007

In Space, No One Can Hear You Plead Insanity

It took awhile, but our art department finally got around to anointing us with our official logo. Ooooo. Not only is it nice to look at, but our headline writer also marvels at the space savings up top.

Speaking of space, NASA astronaut turned attempted first-degree murder suspect Lisa Nowak is giving praise to the tabloid gods for the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Rag-mags had more than enough to work with on Nowak: sex, space, diapers, a folding knife, garbage bags, and rubber tubing. You need a humdinger of a tale to top that. But even though she's off the front page, the legal heat's still on, and the laywers are in pre-game mode.

OUT OF THIS WORLD. Oh the stories to be told. And Nowak's defense attorney Donald Lykkebak had one for the judge at his client's arraignment:

"What we have here is a desperate woman who wants to have a conversation with another woman. She didn't shoot her. She didn't stab her. She didn't do anything except spray her with pepper spray."
If that didn't work... there was the tubing. And what about that stuff they found in Nowak's duffle bag? According to video from CNN, Lykkebak said this:
"These things were in the duffel bag. And they didn't leave the duffel bag... And there is no evidence she intended to do anything other than have a talk.
Defense lawyers specialize in raising reasonable doubts, reasonable or not. Take this example from last week's stealth-marketing scare in Boston involving light-up devices advertising a cartoon show. Said Michael Rich, the attorney for the two men charged in the panic attack:
"I saw the devices before they were put up. It never occurred to me that it would be anything anyone would be worried about with these devices."
So when did a Lite Brite suddenly become a weapon of mass destruction? But silly us, this is a post 9/11 world.

CRIME 101. Given the heightened awareness we've all been told to possess, an assignment by a Scottsdale, Arizona criminology teacher should've vanished from the lesson plan long ago. But it remained -- until now.

From the AP:
After staged incidents resulted in calls to police the past two years, a Desert Mountain High School assignment that requires students to act out and videotape a mock crime will no longer be required.

Scottsdale Unified School District spokeswoman Marijke Van Fleet said Monday that school officials decided to eliminate the assignment that led to last month's arrests of three students.
Police have responded to a mock kidnapping and a mock carjacking. And we thought our homework was tough. I guess playing "Clue" just doesn't cut it anymore...

CURED. Disgraced pastor Rev. Ted Haggard claims he's cured of homosexuality. We're automatically skeptical of that claim, but the early signs indicate he's making (pun alert) a good-faith effort.

From the Denver Post:
In [an email] message, Haggard revealed that he and his wife, Gayle, intend to leave Colorado Springs and pursue master's degrees [in psychology] through online courses.

Haggard mentioned Missouri and Iowa as possible destinations. Another oversight board member, the Rev. Mike Ware of Westminster, said the group recommended the move out of town, and the Haggards agreed.

"This is a good place for Ted," Ware said. "It's hard to heal in Colorado Springs right now. It's like an open wound. He needs to get somewhere he can get the wound healed."
We note Rev. Haggard came to Arizona for treatment, which is quickly becoming the state of choice for public figures running to rehab. The list includes ex-congressman Mark Foley and Rush Limbaugh. But with the sordid past behind him, Rev. Haggard earns a nod for at least wanting to help others in a lower-key manner.
"Many of us that go into the healing, helping professions do so out of some sort of dysfunction or traumatic event in our lives, and we want to do what we can to help other people avoid what we've gone through," [Focus On The Family's H.B. London] said. "He is certainly gifted and intelligent and has an intuitive side to him. And he has life experience. Those are good credentials."
But if we see him in a Snickers ad, it's back to therapy.

LOST. A Malaysian woman is back home, 25 years after taking the wrong bus.

From UPI:
Jaeyana Beuraheng told her eight children she accidentally boarded a bus bound for Bangkok instead of Malaysia, and once there she boarded a second incorrect bus because she could not read or speak Thai or English, The Times of London reported Wednesday.
Beuraheng ended up begging and wound up in jail because of the language barrier. When three students from her home village met up with her, they helped her get home.

It's something to think about the next time I ride New York's MTA. Getting stuck in Brooklyn wouldn't be bad. Just keep me out of Queens.

AIR PELOSI. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is defending her request for a bigger plane to fly her and family non-stop to home base in San Francisco. The White House is backing her up.

She's trying to blame the mess on Donald Rumsfeld. But she's also having second thoughts.

From the Washington Times:
"I don't even like having the security," Pelosi said. "I would rather travel on the plane with my friends to get some work done. I like my freedom, but there are certain sacrifices you have to make when you are speaker of the House."
In an interview on Fox News, Pelosi said the plane request was not hers.
"I wish I didn't have to have so much security, because I like my freedom of mobility," she said, adding that she would be willing to fly commercial aviation. "I'm not asking to go on that plane. If you need to take me there for security purposes, you're going to have to get a plane that goes across the country."
We detect more than a few Republicans are calling for the history-making speaker to make history again and go on the first-ever House Speaker Road Trip.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS. You may have heard about the ancient Romeo and Juliet discovered in Italy. But what caught our eyes is this story's placement on one our favorite websites, the Drudge Report.

Looks like somebody could use a few more hugs.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Reel To Reel: Alpha Dog

Yo, dog! This is all messed up, man.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Bruce Willis, Justin Timberlake, Sharon Stone, Emile Hirsch
Rated: R (should be NC-17)
Red Flags: Strong Language (more than 300 f-bombs!), Graphic Sexuality And Nudity, Violence

"You wanna' know what this is all about?" says the father of a drug-dealing son wanted for kidnapping and murder conspiracy, "you can say this is about drugs or guns or bad decisions, whatever you like. But this whole thing is about parenting. And taking care of your children."

"Taking care" is a highly flexible term, as we see in Alpha Dog, a film reminiscent of 1995's Kids, with its wallowing in a cesspool of teen drugs, sex, and violence. That film left out the parents. Alpha Dog brings them in as contributors to delinquency, unindicted co-conspirators. We quickly learn the father (Willis) is suspected of being his son's major dope supplier. That obviously counts as family values.

The movie is lifted from the true story of Jesse James Hollywood, who became one of the youngest people ever to make the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. He is currently awaiting trial in California. The names in the movie are changed for legal reasons, but the sequence of events comes straight from the case files.

Emilie Hirch plays Hollywood in the role of Johnny Truelove, a rising drug kingpin with enough cash and juice for his own pad, constantly surrounded by homeboys, hangers-on, and loose girls in a continuous "gangsta" orgy interrupted only by drug deals which we don't see. Truelove even has his own servant whom his crew belittle for a few yuks between beers and bong hits.

One of Johnny's clients is Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a guy who looks like he's doing more drugs than he's selling. His eyes are constantly dilated (Foster took glaucoma drops during filming to get that effect) and he is always a few words away from an explosive outburst. Jake owes Johnny $1200 for a drug debt. When he shows up one night and can't pay it off, the war is on. After a couple of escalating strikes, Johnny goes to confront Jake but ends up kidnapping his 15-year-old half brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) instead.

Zack and Jake come from an affluent family. Jake is a bad seed his father would rather not deal with. Zack has been raised as a good little boy by a mother (Stone) who likely got parenting advice from Desperate Housewives' Bree Van De Kamp as we hear about "homework parties" -- with hats. The kid brother is tired of the structure and Norman Rockwell existence and secretly craves Jake's lifestyle, which he's already slipping into by smoking weed.

One day, Zack goes out for a walk after a fight with his parents. That's when Johnny and his gang grab him, thinking they can use him as a bargaining chip. For the next few days, Zack gets a sweet taste of the decadence of suburban homies -- hanging out, doing dope, taking care of weed and playing video games. It's Stockholm Syndrome in the Inland Empire. Johnny soon finds he's in over his head, as the kidnapping fails to make Jake settle up and leaves him with one deadly option.

Alpha Dog is cringingly profane, but constantly intriguing. The film makes you wonder how kids from good families crash and burn, and you soon see the reason. Every parent in the film, with the exception of Stone's character, is either stoned, clueless, indifferent, or lawless. Tough love is not in their vocabulary. They would rather be friends to their children than protectors, or they simply don't know how to be protectors. Their children have some sense of morality, but it surfaces too late -- too many drugs, too much drinking, too much referring to women as female dogs. Watching Zack drift down into it is one of the film's strong points.

Johnny becomes the victim of his own lawlessness, turning from cool kingpin to scared fugitive. Yet from the outset, his charisma seems weak for a major player. He sounds a little too white and nerdy, somebody with only a little more street cred than Kevin Federline. Johnny's pal Frankie, played by an astonishingly solid Justin Timberlake, could crush him out like a Marlboro.

Parts of the film are shot pseudo-documentary style, including an emotional scene with Zack's mother who talks about the aftermath of her son's death in Palm Springs. Normally this might be a distraction, but the sparingly short clips all work. The film also keeps a running count of witnesses to Zack's kidnapping and captivity, as if it's a prosecution's exhibit -- which in some way, it is. Writer-director Nick Cassavetes had extensive access to investigative files. This caused legal bumps in the case and almost kept the film off the screen.

The movie reaffirms timeless warnings about what children become if parents aren't strong role models -- yada, yada, yada. We've seen it before. Alpha Dog's main problem is that it plays too much like a rap video and not enough like a morality play -- which it clearly wants to be.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Lightning Round:
Hey Joe! I Heard You Shot Your Mouth Off...

We took a vote here at headquarters on which season people would prefer start earlier: Christmas Season or Campaign Season? The results weren't even close. We'd rather be merry, especially when the presidential preliminaries resemble the opening rounds of American Idol.

LOOSE LIPS SINK CAMPAIGNS. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware may have borrowed John Kerry's tongue. Hence his now-infamous comments about fellow Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, as reported in the New York Observer and captured in a YouTube clip:
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy... I mean, that's a storybook, man."
Your Humble Servant here at the Lightning Round learned in journalism school that you never use the word "articulate" in any description of an African-American leader. The reason? Use of such word carries negative connontations about the rest of the race, even if you never meant to take a swipe at anybody. If the senator had simply stopped with that word, we could argue about political correctness run amok. Biden, however, poured gas on the fire: "bright," "clean," "nice-looking guy." Huuuuh boy.

Obama is brushing it off, according to the Washington Times:
Mr. Obama dismissed the remarks as the Delaware senator just "being Joe."

"He certainly didn't intend to offend, and I'll leave it at that," he told reporters who asked whether Mr. Biden had apologized.
Biden tried to clear things up:
Reporters on the conference call peppered Mr. Biden with questions about the Obama remarks, and he said the "clean" word probably came from an old saying his mother used: "Clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack." He described Mr. Obama as "crisp and clear."
We remind you Biden dropped out of the 1988 Presidential Race after he got caught lifting remarks from a British pol. No matter whose words he's using -- his, his mother's, or somebody else's -- we strongly suspect he'll soon be using one more: "withdraw."

RUMOR CONTROL. As Super Bowl Sunday approaches, we would like to dispel some recurring legends surrounding the Big Game. However, the Chicago Tribune did it for us:
Two-thirds of all avocados sold in the United States are purchased for consumption during the Super Bowl.

Water department officials across the country fearfully await the "halftime flush," when millions run to the bathroom at once, pushing water systems to the brink of calamity.

Lingerie sales jump in the days before the Super Bowl as women look for ways to woo their significant others away from the big game.

False, false and false (and slightly sexist).
And don't forget the one about domestic violence on game day.

GROWTH SPURT. This, unfortunately, is no urban legend. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine indicates certain shampoos and soaps with laventer and tea oils can make young boys grow breasts. Three boys -- ages 4, 7, and 10 -- raised alarm when they raised their shirts.

From the AP:
The three boys were brought to their doctors with overdeveloped breasts that looked like those of girls in early puberty. They were sore in one case. For each boy, doctors could tie the problem only to their use over several months of the natural-oil products.

The researchers suspected that the oils might be upsetting the boys' hormonal balance.
We often wonder whether young boys actually have a hormonal balance, but let's not drift. Thankfully, the problem goes away once you stop using the suspect soaps. Sorry, Playtex, no new market here.

PUT THAT IN YOUR PIPE AND... Drug company Alexza is developing "smokable" painkillers for faster relief.

From Reuters:
The company's lead product is a vaporized version of an old drug called prochlorperazine, which Alexza is developing for migraine headaches but is currently used in liquid, oral or suppository form to treat severe nausea.

While it is sometimes given intravenously in hospitals to treat patients with acute migraines, the drug is inconvenient to deliver.

Alexza is hoping to provide similar results but in such a way that patients can carry the delivery device -- an inhaler that looks like a miniature hip flask -- in a pocketbook or the glove compartment of a car.

The device contains a battery-powered package that heats a thin coating of drug to create a vapor that can be sucked into the lungs.
We already have a smokable painkiller. Proponents of medical marijuana claim anti-nausea and painkiller pills don't work, and smoking reefer is the only thing that does. Truth be told, you could make the same claim about crack... or banana peels.

So now we have an interesting question before us. If the smokable painkiller makes the market, do the proponents of medicinal pot lose their strongest argument?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

We're Going To Have To Float That Live Shot

A crew with WDJT in Milwaukee is alive, but their microwave truck is down after it fell through thin ice (click to see photo). We're told the driver mistakenly thought he was still on the road. The station later pulled the truck out, and now station engineers are trying to see if they can salvage any of the thousands of dollars worth of electronics inside, which may or may not include the following:

* Microwave transmitter and amplifier
* IFB system (the in-ear device that lets reporters hear producers snarling at them, "Wrap it up!")
* Videotape editor
* Various TV monitors
* Cell phones

When I worked in the Rio Grande Valley, I had to deal with several mishaps involving live trucks. Often photographers driving the trucks would venture out into colonias for some story. Those who know colonias know these ramshackle wildcat subdivisions often lack paved roads. So the live units would get stuck in the mud and we'd have to call up a tow truck.

The microwave masts took a lot of abuse. One election night, a photographer drove under a low-hanging tree branch and ripped off the transmitting dish. Another dish came off during high winds. One photog stripped part of the siding off a fast-food restaurant during a turn, forgetting he was driving "Unit 11" -- our behemoth production van rivaling the size of a UPS truck. People got behind the wheel and thought they were driving a tank. The damage added up.

When one driver ended up ripping out the mast, our general manager called a staff meeting. "I'm sick of the truck gettin' torn up," he said in his displaced Louisiana drawl. "You think we can report this to our insurance company? They'd cancel our damn insurance!"

New rules went into effect, and a few people ended up with suspensions. I'm not sure whether the Milwaukee crew's jobs are on thin ice after this incident [rim shot], but I expect everybody's gonna get a dose of re-training on the live truck once it's dried out and repaired. At least it looks like the mast survived.