Saturday, July 28, 2007

Life And Death On The Evening News

The deadly collision of two news choppers over Phoenix during a car chase dusted off a dark memory from my producing stint at KRGV in Weslaco, Texas. I present it here not to exploit a tragedy, but to hopefully give you some insight on how newsrooms manage to get the news on the air in the midst of a newsroom disaster.

In 1995, I lost a friend and colleague, Roy Pena, after a train crashed into a station car being driven by his photographer, Joe Davila. It happened at a railroad crossing in Brownsville obscured by trees. You can't see an approaching train until it's nearly upon you, too late for evasive action.

From my journal of October 21, 1995:
It happened around 3pm today. I got a call from somebody saying they'd seen one of our news units hit by a train in Brownsville on 802. I couldn't believe it... it had to be a mistake. Maybe Roy and Joe had rolled up to the scene of an accident and the person just got confused.

But at the same time, Nydia [our newsroom intern] was on the phone with somebody saying the same thing. And he was a friend of Mr. D. Pretty soon, Julian answered another call on the same topic.

Now, I was worried. I called out over the two-way. "KHD-76, Base to Roy and Joe."

No answer.

"KHD-76, Base to Roy and Joe."

Still, nothing. I had Nydia run Joe's beeper. We also tried to get ahold of Eddie [another Brownsville photographer] to get him out there. He was soon on his way.

A few minutes later, I got a call from a Brownsville fire station and my fears were realized. They had sent out two trucks and the jaws of life out to the scene.
I phoned my news director and he was soon on the way to Brownsville. About 15 minutes later, Eddie phoned in.
His voice trembled like that of the reporter who told the world the Hindenburg was burning.

"He looks bad, man." He told me Roy had a couple of broken legs along with head and stomach injuries. "It was a f-----g train, man!"

He said it'd hit on Roy's side. Roy was in deep trouble.

Now I was shaking like crazy. Nydia and Julian [a tape editor] were both trying to calm me down.
The word spread quickly. People started coming in, including one of the anchors, the assistant news director, a tape editor, and another photographer. Getting ahold of Joe's family took a personal visit by another staffer, as the phone number we had for them had been disconnected.
Eddie called around 7:30 to tell me that they'd called a code blue while working on Roy... which meant his vital signs were slipping away. At about 8pm... in the middle of Nydia, Tony, Matt, Lorenzo and everybody else who was there... I got the call I knew was coming but didn't want to come. Roy was dead.
I managed to write Roy's obituary, which was delivered by our anchor with dignity and class, devoid of any grisly details.
I could hear Saul's voice tremble as he read it. "He was only 22."
I wonder sometimes how I went about my job that day. I figure it was the shock, the disbelief in all of it coupled with the professionalism that required me to get my work done for our viewers expecting a newscast, family tragedy or not. I also knew Roy would have wanted it that way.
What really breaks me up the most is that I never said anything to Roy that day. I'd talked with Joe about what they'd covered, but I decided to leave the two of them alone until they were ready with scripts... since we had no early show, I felt like they deserved a break from some of the producer nagging they're usually accustomed to. Roy had called earlier in the day and talked with Nydia because he was having problems with the computer. I'd told Nydia to tell him to try rebooting it but hadn't taken the call myself.
I also didn't want Roy to hear any frustration in my voice with our up-and-down computers in Brownsville over the phone. But I could've talked to him. I could have at least said hello before goodbye.

Nearly twelve years later, the shadow of Roy's death is still over me. After he passed away, I started making sure I told my parents I loved them before hanging up the phone.

No doubt the employees of KNXV and KTVK are showing their love, as are their competitors. I hope it will also ignite a serious discussion about safety when multiple news choppers are in the air. I am amazed this has not happened in Los Angeles, where car chase coverage is the norm. Pilots are constantly looking around them, keeping track of at least two or three other choppers as well as the action on the ground. As far as we know, all the Phoenix pilots followed procedures, but the crash still happened. This should be the time to put competitive pressures aside and work out a pool system for high-speed pursuits, perhaps a "first there" rule where the station that gets to the scene first covers the story and then provides the video to the others via microwave or tape.

I know the pool idea is not attractive to many news directors, or else stations would be doing it already. But TV news departments use pool video on many occasions, most notably during trials where only one camera is allowed in the court. The networks have pooled video for presidential coverage for years. Did we really need five TV helicopters to follow one car yesterday? Given the loss and grief Phoenix newsrooms are going through right now, it's high time somebody starts talking prevention.

Reel To Reel: Hairspray

Let's see y'all groove to this!

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah
Rated: PG
Red Flags: One Or Two Naughty Words, One Or Two Suggestive Scenes

In the Hairspray universe of 1962 Baltimore, segregation is square, and not much more than that. No black and white restrooms or drinking fountains. No baton beatings, no Bull Connors -- just bad hair days. This sanitized version of the civil rights struggle fits neatly into a high-energy, high-gloss, poppy musical comedy about dreams and differences where out is the new in, and the sock hop cruises Motown.

Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky), a plump Pollyanna, has got as many moves as she does pounds. She longs to dance on the Corny Collins show, an American Bandstand clone that feels more like the Mickey Mouse Club with a beat and no concern for the ozone layer. Ah, but Mickey never had "Negro Day." Getting on television means something better than doing laundry like her bloated mother Edna -- played in drag by John Travolta as a nod to John Waters' 1988 original film and the Broadway production -- or running a gag shop like her father Wilbur (Walken).

When the call goes out for a new dancer, Turnblad quickly finds her girth disqualifies her. Mainly, though, it's the sneer of station manager Velma Von Tussle (Pfeiffer), so manipulative and waspy she could get stuck in a no-pest strip. Her equally tart daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) is a shoo-in to retain her crown of Miss Hairspray and lead dancer. A detention at school provides the back door, where Tracy meets Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) -- one of those "Negroes" who gives her a new groove. Corny catches some of that action when he sees Tracy dance at a hop, and she's on the tube with visions of stardom and kicking down the black-white barrier.

Hairspray is mostly music, and it rocks from the opening frames, seamlessly integrating sixties R&B with the teeny-bop of yesteryear. "Good Morning Baltimore," the opening number, is one of the film's strongest pieces, perfectly setting up Tracy's character as the sizable visionary. Nikki Blonsky carries this picture with gallons of infectious charm and genuineness, although I must admit bias because she reminds me of a wonderful person I work with. And yes, she does her own singing. John Travolta's dragged-out Edna is not played up more than a few required fat-suit jiggles. And Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, the record-store owner and "Negro Day" host, is simply flawless. Her performance of "I Know Where I've Been" is my favorite song of the movie.

People will apply the "feel-good" label to this film, perhaps disparagingly and unfairly. I say there's a natural feel-good that comes from films with wit, style, honest emotions and energy, and a forced feel-good from pictures with greeting-card sentiment and Hollywood plot machines. Musical comedy also has a way of massaging loaded subjects like race relations. And me, of all people, should know how dancing brings people together.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Highland Moments

Dearest readers, while I await photos from last weekend's Celtic Fest in Flagstaff, allow me a few word snapshots.

* Opening morning at Foxglenn Park: Kilts everywhere. Tents everywhere. Pirates are everywhere too and are welcomed with open arms. Why pirates here? Many of them came from Scotland and Ireland. Captain Bartholomew Burgundy makes a return appearance. His first impression: "Ah never sawr so much green in th' middlela desert!"

* The 1745 Jacobite Society, of which I am a member, is encamped on the far end of the field. Celtic music drifts over from one of two performance tents. Bagpipes skirl in another direction, accompanying the Highland dancers. But right in front of us are the caber and stone tossers, giving new meaning to the words heavy lifting -- all in kilts.

* My official Highland look: Royal Stewart tartan, puffy Jacobite shirt, Cameron kilt pin (for me Queen Mum's side of the family), white hose with Stewart flashes and buckled shoes, but I've ditched the balmoral for a blue Jacobite bonnet with a white cockade, the mark of a man loyal to the Bonnie Prince. "Are you in the White Rose society?" somebody asks at the hotel. It's a lot better than being asked if my tricorn is a pirate hat.

* The French flintlock musket is back in my hands again and it fires like a charm, almost every time. Our fearless leader, on the other hand, keeps having trouble with his ancient pistol. At least with the musket, I have the bayonet if it fails to fire. Oh soggy Loch, I forgot it...

* What's a "farb?" It's a re-enactor's term for something not period-correct, like drinking water from a plastic bottle instead of a tin cup. I have to watch how I hydrate, secretly taking a pour into the proper drinking apparatus.

* Sixty bucks is a lot to pay for a decent sporran, but the quality is worth it. No purse jokes. I've heard 'em all.

* I knew rain was coming, and it did -- three times on Saturday. The first shower chased all of us into the tent, which was filled with pirates in addition to highlanders, and we had to wait out not just the rain, but marble-sized hail. It bounced off the grass, a sea of white dots leaping over the blades of grass until it settled. We got another shower two hours later, and then one just before closing time. Unfortunately, rain soaked two of our wonderful French aristocratic sympathizers, leaving the Count and Countess soggy from wig to toe to pannier. Alliances do come with sacrifices.

* The best place to be in the Celtic parade: behind the belly dancers. Unlike my Fourth of July exploits, I kept formation this time and didn't shout a single "Huzzah!" Of course, I was a little distracted.

* Careful around those Highland lasses -- they know how to fence... or they're learning.

* The Wicked Tinkers absolutely jam. I knew it would be impossible to listen to their rollicking style of Celtic tribal music without jigging, and I was right. Hearing them play "Wallop The Cat" is an experience that defies description. Especially enjoyable: watching them twirl their kilts up, an uplifting spectacle rewarded by the audience with tosses of dollar coins attached to blue ribbons. If you've heard the "first prize" story, you know the reference. If you haven't, ask a Scotsman.

All Things Bright And Beautiful

Say what you want about the pope, but he's definitely no flat-earther.

DOWN TO EARTH. In the clash between creation and evolution, Pope Benedict XVI is calling for bilateral coexistence.

“They are presented as alternatives that exclude each other,” the pope said. “This clash is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”

He said evolution did not answer all the questions: “Above all it does not answer the great philosophical question, ‘Where does everything come from?’”
I think we know the answer, and it's not Wal-Mart... or Darwin.

MORE JOBS AMERICANS WON'T DO. Why march on a picket line when you can pay somebody else to do it? In Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, a carpenters' union is hiring the homeless.

From the Washington Post:
They're hired feet, or, as the union calls them, temporary workers, paid $8 an hour to picket. Many were recruited from homeless shelters or transitional houses. Several have recently been released from prison. Others are between jobs.

"It's about the cash," said Tina Shaw, 44, who lives in a House of Ruth women's shelter and has walked the line at various sites. "We're against low wages, but I'm here for the cash."
That $8, we observe, is well above minimum wage. Did it ever occur to the union they might not need higher wages if they weren't paying higher wages to their picketers?

HIT THE TAB. If your Lightning Round executive editor ever needs a reminder to keep his spirit free of spirits, I need only look at the bar tab run up by a Middle Eastern banker from one of London's high-end nightclubs:

As reported by the Daily Mail:
- One Methuselah (equivalent in size to eight normal-size bottles) of Cristal champagne costing £30,000
- 28 bottles of Dom Perignon champagne costing £17,300
- 40 bottles of Cristal champagne costing £15,360
- Two Jeroboams (equivalent in size to four normal bottles) of Cristal champagne costing £9,600
- Nine Magnums (twice the size of a normal bottle) of Dom Perignon champagne costing £6,900
- A Methuselah of Belvedere vodka costing £1,400
- A Magnum of Grey Goose vodka costing £380
- A bottle of Absolut vodka costing £220
- Six cans of Coke and 17 Red Bulls costing £94.50
- Eight bottles of still water costing £52
- A bottle of Pinot Grigio white wine costing £25

Unsurprisingly, as more and more bottles of alcohol appeared, the original group of 16 were joined by many more people, until a 'full-blown party' was taking place in the club's VIP area.

It was nearly 5am on Sunday when the businessman finally called it a day and stumbled out of the club. Total cost of the evening, including service charge: £105,805.28.
By the way, that "service charge" came to £10,382.74. The tax: £13,951.03. We haven't even talked about the hangover.

As one of our cranky staffers said, "It's not th' parts, it's the labor where they git ya!"

THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING. Disney is now banning smoking in its films, and discouraging it in releases under the Touchstone and Miramax labels.

From the Financial Times:
The Disney move is the latest blow Hollywood has dealt the tobacco industry and comes weeks after the Motion Picture Association of America, responsible for the film ratings system, said it would consider smoking alongside other factors, such as violence or sexual content, when rating a film.
In fact, we hear they're creating a new rating for films with smoking: L&M. And it's still okay for Mickey and Minnie to take a drag on the back lot between camera setups.

FLATTERMATIC. Washington artist Tom Greaves has come up with the Compliment Machine.

From the AP:
People walking by a bright red-and-white striped box on a busy street in the nation's capital may be surprised to hear a reassuring voice say, "You have nice eyes."
Or, "People are drawn to your positive energy."
Almost sounds like the Pick-Up-O-Matic.

GRIM RE-PURRRRR. Here's one cat you definitely don't want crossing your path if you want to live. Oscar, a feline who lives in a Providence, Rhode Island, nursing home, seems to know who's about to die and curls up next to them hours before they exit this world.

From the AP:
After about six months, the staff noticed Oscar would make his own rounds, just like the doctors and nurses. He'd sniff and observe patients, then sit beside people who would wind up dying in a few hours.

[Dr. David] Dosa said Oscar seems to take his work seriously and is generally aloof. "This is not a cat that's friendly to people," he said.
Oscar has been accurate in about 25 cases, and Dr. Dosa has written about him in an article for the New England Journal of Medicine. Nobody's sure how Oscar tells the living from the dying, but he's appreciated for it:
Oscar recently received a wall plaque publicly commending his "compassionate hospice care."
FUNNY BUSINESS. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has his own motivational program, and you don't have to buy a book to learn it. Just read it here from LifeHacker.

Friday, July 20, 2007

One Nation, Underage And Divisible

Get out of that canoe and pull those shorts down from the flagpole. America's youth are doing some serious camping, even if it's a bit campy.

KID STUFF. Producers of the upcoming CBS reality show Kid Nation were able to turn 40 kids loose on a wild-west ghost town in New Mexico with no parents, no teachers, and (amazingly) no trouble because they classified the production as a summer camp.

From TV Week:
Kids were on the show for seven days a week, for up to 40 days, and were responsible for cooking their own meals. Though there were no teachers or parents (aside from a few at the start of the shoot), an array of physicians and an emergency medical technician were available at all times.

In addition to shooting in a state that didn’t govern child labor on TV shows, the producers legally characterized the show in a unique way to avoid complaints that kids were overworked.
The premise of the show is whether the kids can succeed where others have failed. Your Lightning Round has heard of this concept before. They're called communes.

LITTLE GOONS. As the NHL tries to clean up hockey's image, Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard is teaching young puck-slappers how to brawl at a one-day camp that has some parents whistling a foul.

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribute:
But the Boogaards take umbrage with the disapproval. Their intent, Derek said, is not to create teenage bruisers.

"A lot of times when people don't understand something, they don't like it," he said. "We're not teaching kids how to fight and how to hurt people. We're teaching kids how to protect themselves so they don't get hurt on the ice."
But they do get hurt.
Sure, there were cuts and bruises. Ryan Hawkins actually arrived with a bloody left hand, a fresh gash from a Wednesday power-skating class. He complained to his dad that his hand was preventing him from grabbing on to another's jersey, saying, "I'll probably lose." Pops, only half-kiddingly, told him, "Suck it up."
Yeah, or I'll bop ya!

SIZE MATTERS. Randy Newman sang in satire, "Short people got no reason to live." Those words came to mind when we read the latest research about America facing a height deficit compared to northern European countries.

From the AP:
Height differences translate into real benefits. A number of studies have shown that disease and malnutrition early in life increase a person's chances of developing heart disease and other life-shortening conditions later on. Though tall people are more likely to get cancer, they suffer less mortality overall than short people.
However, the study failed to mention Americans are still growing -- just from side to side.

THESE EYES. Not since the infamous Runaway Bride story has somebody with wild eyes attracted so many looks. Our newest 15-minuter is a man caught with an incredulous stare at press conference held by Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the gab session, a guy got up and started throwing propaganda leaflets. Needless to say, he caught several peepers, including two very big ones belonging to the gentleman sitting next to him. Ironically, the paper pusher projected quite the mellow countenance, as mellow as possible for a person who knows he's probably doomed to Siberia... or worse. has its sights on the story, with copious parodied pictures.

ADVENTURES IN CONSERVATIVELAND. A reporter for the UK's Independent newspaper went on a cruise sponsored by National Review magazine. Those in tight with the neocon right, he observed, are living in an alternate reality:

From AlterNet:
I am travelling on a bright white cruise ship with two restaurants, five bars, a casino - and 500 readers of the National Review. Here, the Iraq war has been "an amazing success". Global warming is not happening. The solitary black person claims, "If the Ku Klux Klan supports equal rights, then God bless them." And I have nowhere to run.
Your Lightning Round wonders what a Mother Jones cruise might be like: constant talk of impeachment, Al Gore, U.S. imperialism, punishing the oil industry, yada, yada, yada....

Don't people go on cruises to escape the agony around them?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Reel To Reel: Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix

Deeper, darker and shorter, too.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Fantasy Violence, One Brief Bloody Attack

It has been at least two years since I read the book adapted into the latest Harry Potter movie, and that gave me a chance to look at this film as a film and not an adaptation. As a film, it works just fine, but I know a lot got left on the cutting room floor. The run time of only 2 hours and 18 minutes proves it. I think the makers of the Harry Potter franchise have finally realized they can produce a film that retains the magic and wonder of the novels without a need to slavishly follow every page. Thus, the fifth Potter film is a marvel of economy. It distills subplots down to the bare essentials, making heavy uses of montages and quick cuts. It keeps things moving.

What remains is more than enough for a picture. Harry (Radcliffe) is troubled by disturbing visions as he enters another year at Hogwarts School for Wizardry and Witchcraft. He's dogged by allegations he's fibbing about the return of evil wizard Voldemort, even though he saw the Dark-Lord-who-will-not-be-named himself. This time, you-know-who is trying to get into Harry's mind. But watching out for him is the Order of the Phoenix, a confederation of wizards including Harry's beloved Godfather Sirius Black (Oldman). On the other hand, the school is getting yet another new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), whose last name suggests exactly who she is: a conceited, high-strung, pretty-in-pink busybody who may be channeling a stereotype of Hillary Clinton. But more importantly, she's High Inquisitor, someone brought in to "address the falling standards at Hogwarts," as Ministry head Cornelius Fudge puts it.

Umbridge, like many of her colleagues, isn't convinced you-know-who is back. Worse, she shows no effective desire to educate her budding witches and wizards to defend themselves against his evil powers. Just read it out of the textbook, she tells students, in a "secure, risk-free way." Harry and his friends decide it's up to themselves and form their own class, meeting in secret and learning defensive spells from Harry while Umbridge throws her weight around with directives that alienate just about everybody. Her rule changes fill an entire wall of the school and several shots of film. The Order of the Phoenix suspects Voldemort is after something he didn't have the last time around, something Harry has not been told about. All of this is leading up to yet another showdown between good and evil.

Harry is also showing more signs of his teenage angst and love ambitions, sharing a deep kiss with his girlfriend Cho Chang (Katie Leung). That's as far as the love part gets, but don't worry, we still have plenty of angst. Much of Phoenix plays like teen psychodrama with some special effects thrown in. You can't call this picture a family movie. We don't even have the Quiddich sequences to lighten things up, even though Ron Weasley's older twin brothers get some yuks in. The film is comfortable with its darkness, even if it scares the kids. And with the PG-13 rating, this is no kid flick.

Could the next Potter film earn an R? I don't think so, but the framework is there. Watching Harry and his pals grow up on the screen, I remember seeing the first film in the series, then seeing it again. It came out two months after the 9/11 attacks. We all badly needed an escape into a fun and magical world back then. Now I wonder if we want to remain in it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

We Are Not Casual

Your Lightning Round understands composition is everything when it comes to the perfect portrait. But some people push it.

TAKE IT OFF. According to a preview for a BBC documentary, Queen Elizabeth II found celebrity shooter Annie Leibovitz a royal pain when Her Majesty was asked to remove her crown during a photo session.

From the London Daily Mail:
...Leibovitz sizes up the Queen in her full regalia and ventures: "I think it will look better without the crown, because the garter robe is so..."

Before the photographer can finish saying "extraordinary", the Queen raises her eyebrows, fixes the snapper with an icy stare, and snaps: "Less dressy? What do you think this is?" pointing to what she is wearing.

TV cameras follow the Queen storming off with an official lifting the large train of her blue velvet cape off the floor as the Queen tells her lady-in-waiting: "I'm not changing anything. I've had enough dressing like this thank you very much."
The BBC later admitted the last shot of the Queen walking out was actually from her walking to the shoot.

In any event, Leibovitz is lucky she didn't end up in Tower of London, as one commenter noted. At least she had the sense not to ask Her Majesty to remove anything else.

EXCUSES, EXCUSES. Raise your hand. Repeat after me. "I... state your name... do solemnly swear... I will not use any kind of laughably dysfunctional excuses... when I am called to serve on a jury... such as the ones made by a Cape Cod man, who is now facing perjury charges for some gross weaseling.

The AP reported this exchange between Daniel Ellis and Barnstable Superior Court Judge Gary Nickerson:
"You say on your form that you're not a fan of homosexuals," Nickerson said.

"That I'm a racist," Ellis interrupted.

"I'm frequently found to be a liar, too. I can't really help it," Ellis added.

"I'm sorry?" Nickerson said.

"I said I'm frequently found to be a liar," Ellis replied.

"So, are you lying to me now?" Nickerson asked.

"Well, I don't know. I might be," was the response.

Ellis then admitted he really didn't want to serve on a jury.

"I have the distinct impression that you're intentionally trying to avoid jury service," Nickerson said.

"That's true," Ellis answered.
Monty Python couldn't have written it any better.

ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES. Looks like I'm a heathen. Pope Benedict XVI has approved a document saying the Catholic Church is the only true church, leaving other Christian churches as not true or "defective."

From the AP:
The statement brought swift criticism from Protestant leaders. "It makes us question whether we are indeed praying together for Christian unity," said the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a fellowship of 75 million Protestants in more than 100 countries.
The pontiff sees problems with other churches' family trees.
The other communities "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense" because they do not have apostolic succession — the ability to trace their bishops back to Christ's original apostles — and therefore their priestly ordinations are not valid, [the document] said.
However, Orthodox churches have got it right, sort of:
The document said Orthodox churches were indeed "churches" because they have apostolic succession and enjoyed "many elements of sanctification and of truth." But it said they do not recognize the primacy of the pope — a defect, or a "wound" that harmed them, it said.
Sounds a lot like "if you're not with us, you're against us." Come to think of it, Jesus wasn't Catholic, was he?

PUMPED UP. Two decades ago, Diana Ross sang "I Want Muscle." And now, from the Obvious Study Department comes research that proves it. UCLA researchers found guys with perkier pecs get the action. However, all is not lost for the rest of us.

From Reuters:
Women were more physically attracted to brawny men, especially for a fling. But when it comes to finding a long-term partner, they tend to pick a regular man over a mate with huge biceps.
Your Lightning Round has learned embattled Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villarigosa is using this story to explain his fling with a Latino newscaster.

ON A ROLL. Shouda checked the chain -- a 1.5 ton wrecking ball broke loose, rolling havoc in the college town of Meadville, Pennsylvania.

From the AP:
It smashed more than a dozen vehicles and injured three people as it bounced from curb to curb.

The ball slammed into the back of a car stopped at an intersection. The force caused a chain reaction with two other cars at the traffic light.
And somewhere, some aspiring terrorist is asking, "Where can I get one of those?"

Thursday, July 12, 2007

My Church Is Under Attack

Tucson Community Church, the church I have been attending since Easter weekend, is no cesspool of hatred, contrary to what you may infer from a recent article in the Arizona Daily Star and now another in Tucson Weekly. TCC's stance against homosexuality on its website is taking some serious heat from gay-rights organization Wingspan, which sent out a letter criticising the information on the site as "really uncool, deeply homophobic" lies. Wingspan accuses TCC of using distorted and scientifically questionable studies to back up its religious stance.

Indeed, some of the research cited by TCC comes from Paul Cameron, who was dropped from the American Psychological Association, American Sociological Association and Canadian Psychological Association for unsound methodologies, especially his contention that homosexuals have a much lower life expectancy.

But what is also troubling is the inference made by some letter writers and online commenters that TCC is fostering intolerance and bigotry.

In the two-and-a-half months I have been part of this church, I have not heard a single rant against homosexuality during any service. I have not heard a single rant, period. TCC is not a ranting church. And for the record, that web page in dispute says:
Please understand that at TCC, we love people and want to help them to be everything that God intended for them to be when He created them. This being the case, we have no desire with the following information to try and attack or hurt someone who is involved in homosexual sex – quite the contrary – our intention is first to try and help to set them free from the sin of homosexuality and the subsequent tragic consequences associated with homosexual sex – this is an act of love.
Doesn't sound like a rant to me -- especially compared to what Saxon Burns wrote in Tucson Weekly after attending a TCC service this past Sunday:
Naturally, my ears perked up when [Pastor David] McAllister talked about how he's been accused of being gay in the past.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been called a homosexual," he said. McAllister noted how ridiculous that idea was, considering that he's been married 27 years and has numerous children.

Yeah, right--ridiculous. Tell that to Ted Haggard or former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey.

Granted, McAllister didn't make my gaydar go off. He looked like a scary Backstreet Boy, wearing a green-and-blue collared shirt and oversized, JNCO-style jeans like the kids (used to) wear. Bleached-blond spikes jutted out from his scalp, and his craggy face seemed at odds with his youthful, buoyant way of speaking.
Technically, that's more snark than rant, but let that go. My point is that this whole debate is turning personal -- just like a lot of debates in our talk-radio world -- and it's branding TCC's parishioners with a label they don't deserve.

I don't think homosexuality is a normal orientation, but that does not mean I hate homosexuals. Every day, I work with several people who are homosexual, and I make an effort to treat them with the professionalism and respect they deserve because they do awesome work for us! I consider them friends. Yes, I am aware of the "some of my best friends are gay" cliche, an excuse long used by bigots, but this is the truth.

I do not think God put me on this earth to evangelize against homosexuality, in either a subtle or fiery manner. I don't think I'm a good evangelist, anyway. I believe God put me here to serve others. I believe He wants me to use what I have to help enlighten our society, to bring joy to people, to uplift others, and to leave this world better than I found it. I recently completed reading the book of Proverbs. It's filled with advice on living right for God and picking your battles:
Proverbs 22:24-25 (TEV) -- "Don't make friends with people who have hot, violent tempers. You might learn their habits and not be able to change."

22:29 -- "Show me a man who does a good job and I will show you a man who is better than most and worthy of the company of kings."

23:17 -- "Don't be envious of sinful people; let reverence for the LORD be the concern of your life."

24:5-6 -- "Being wise is better than being strong; yes, knowledge is more important than strength. After all, you must make careful plans before you fight a battle, and the more good advice you get, the more likely you are to win."

29:11 -- "Stupid people express their anger openly, but sensible people are patient and hold it back."

18:12 -- "No one is respected unless he is humble; arrogant people are on the way to ruin."
Others may say I am failing to take a stand, but this is a stand. It is a stand for harmony. I have no interest as a Christian in getting into discussions over orientation where the end result is too often divisiveness, bitterness and contempt over something that has no resonance in my life other than its conflict with religious teaching. Homosexuality is not an issue in my relationship with God, and I do not intend to make it an issue. I know for sure any ranting I do won't make homosexuals straight.

I pray every day for wisdom. I thank God for my friends and coworkers every day -- gay or straight -- because together we accomplish great things and enrich each others' lives. I can't say what Jesus would have done in my situation. But I'm trying.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Reel To Reel: Live Free Or Die Hard

Cyber-crime is no match for a few well-placed explosions.

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Bruce Willis
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Blow-Up and Beat-Up Violence, Some Language, Mild Sexiness

"Over the top" is such a worn-out term to discuss action-film sequences. The definition mutates from blockbuster to blockbuster like a game filmmakers once played at recess. Now we have films that routinely and obediently bend physics, logic and human tolerance for pain. But golly, isn't it fun to watch.

It doesn't matter that the latest Die Hard installment unspools onto screens at least a decade after its predecessor. Detective John McClane (Willis) is a little brittle around the edges, but he can still kick your butt and make you enjoy it.

Live Free Or Die Hard also features a lot of people typing on keyboards, a lot of computer screens crammed with information, and searches that would make Google jealous as an ex-spook and some nerdy hench-hackers shut down the computer networks controlling the nation's traffic, security, planes, power and money. Strangely enough, somebody forgot to tell these guys about the Internet. The motivation for this sinister attack remains unfathomable for most of the picture, so the "somebody has to" excuse fits. Maybe Dr. Evil is bankrolling these guys. Cars crash, stocks crash, and the lights shut off across America. Told ya Windows was buggy.

McClane is assigned to protect hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) who contributed to the mess by writing a snippet of code that's designed to do something obtusely diabolical, even to geeks, just to prove that it can be done. Most other people would climb Pike's Peak. The baddies are out to kill him, just as they have all the other hackers who have contributed to the scheme, which nobody with a badge knows how to undo.

While Farrell has his geek freak-outs and compulsory elements of frantic keyboard tapping, McClane is using his low-tech tough-guy skills to creatively kill people or save his own life. An early scene involves clever work with a fire extinguisher. Fair enough. But it progresses from there to saving moves involving a fire hydrant, then a police cruiser, then a semi -- all versus some type of aircraft. By that time it's obvious even gravity can't stop Bruce Willis' character from either blowing something up or shooting something down and then walking away with a few cuts and muffled wisecracks. McClane devours pain. Pain is his friend. He takes the kinds of chances we saw in the Lethal Weapon pictures, the brainlessly crazy stunts audiences eat up.

Live Free Or Die Hard succeeds as pure rollercoaster entertainment because it's macho and stupid and incendiary in all the right places. It satisfies our need for overloaded sensory activity in THX. Those kinds of films make money, Die Hard or not.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Blessings Of Liberty

We Make History celebrates America's independence with feet to the ground and hearts to God.

From the Journal of Private Christopher Francis of the Continental Line
Photo Illustrations by his patriotic parents, David & Susan Francis
(click any photo for a larger view)

"A cheer for the USA!"

The crowd on our right responds to General Washington's command immediately, launching into patriotic hollers and hearty applause.

I'm working the left side: "Huzzah! Huzzah!"

My musket is in my right hand. My tricorn is in my left, waving about, stirring up freedom's fervor for the proud Americans lining the streets of Flagstaff.  They can't resist the sight of this Yankee Doodle Dandy goading them. I doubt many of them have even said the word "Huzzah" before.

Hands flutter miniature stars and stripes as our group passes by, a moving timeline with General Washington heading the Continental Line and General Lee leading a sizable contingent of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry. The charming ladies and energetic children walk alongside us, greeting the spectators and passing out fliers for the curious wondering what these time travelers are up to. I'm out of step with the two other members of my detachment: one flag bearer and one fellow Continental who's doing a much better job of staying in line with the colors and carrying himself as a soldier. I see the determination in his profile, a silent discipline bred from hours of drill and a devotion to a glorious and noble cause. But every so often, he too tips his hat to elicit joyful noises. "To Liberty!" Behind us, the Virginians show off their precision, wowing the crowds with their formation and authenticity, rifles over shoulders. They might as well be on the way to Picacho Peak.

  We know Governor Janet Napolitano is impressed. She seeks us out before the parade, posing for a quick picture and conducting a brief meet-and-greet session. I stand dumbfounded at how approachable she is with so many around her. No recognizable security detail accompanies her, no men in black suits and Ray-Bans, save for one guy in a tan utility vest with an earpiece. He looks more like a photographer.

 The governor gets a period send-off as she heads for her official parade car: "Hip hip, huzzah! Hip hip, huzzah! Hip hip, huzzah!"

 Cameras snap everywhere. Smiles pop out of faces and children leap up. Even those briefly soured by the escalating temperatures wave and salute us. I forget about the musket tiring my arm or the three layers of uniform soaking up my hydration. The parade route will take us less than a dozen blocks, practically a walk in the park.

 "A cheer for the USA!"

 This clearly tops my Cub Scouting days, marching with the pack in our hometown parade for at least an hour. We trudged along fully uniformed and constantly dodging the deposits of horses. We drilled in a parking lot at least a week before and didn't use any of it. Every recruit of the 1st Virginia is under a strict order should they spot a charming relative of the opposite sex in the crowd: permission to fall out and honor said lady with a gentlemanly kiss.

This Continental has something slightly different in mind. I spot her on the right side of the street, amazed she quickly changed observation points several blocks. In a matter of minutes she has transferred from the start of the parade route to the end. Dashing past my fellow patriots, I walk right up to her. "For Liberty, for country," I say, sweeping off my tricorn into a bow, the best one I can make with a musket on my arm, "and my lady!"

My mother -- also known as the Queen Mother -- breaks into that contented smile peppered with laughter. "Thank you!" she says as I rise back and rejoin the line. My father is shooting off pictures with his reliable Nikon and my Sony Digital 8 camera.  But this moment shall remain only in our hearts.

I wanted to march with the patriots on Independence Day. My parents wanted to visit the Grand Canyon. So I talked them into combining the getaways with the full intention of introducing one family to the other.

"I want to meet face-to-face General Washington," Dad told me the night before.

"Oh you will," I replied. Summer heat hammers down on us beyond the finish line, but we're still soaking up the sunshine of the people we have passed as we climb a hill past the parade's end point. The spectators are behind us, but General Lee's army is breaking into a rendition of "The Bonnie Blue Flag" while the Continentals are working through "Yankee Doodle Dandy" without the words.

"Dahda, dahda, dah-de-dah, Dah-Dahda, dahda, da, da, Dahda, dahda, da da da Da dahda dahda da da..."

"We need a fife," I say.

General Washington spots an opportunity: "Want to do something period?" A couple sits on the porch of the house to our left, enjoying the morning shade and the remnants of the festivities. We cease as His Excellency greets them.

"We don't mean to disturb you, but we have been marching for a long distance," he prefaces before asking if they might have any liquid refreshment, or perhaps even a hose. Without a second thought, the kind Mrs. James rises and ducks into the house, emerging a minute later with a pitcher of water and a stack of cups. We agree to let the ladies draw from this fountain of sustainment. The gentlemen are all right. Scenes like this played out in our history, the General explains, as soldiers marched through the country with orders not to pillage. They relied on hospitality. The display of kindness heartened me. But how could she not turn down the finest ladies and gentlemen of Virginia and the Colonies?

 * * *

My parents accompany me to Old Main on the Northern Arizona University campus, navigating around construction and the confusing loops of unfamiliar territory. After a few wrong turns, we find shade and Arizona's connection to the man synonymous with American greatness.

The Washington Tree stands before us, a colorful and steadfast tribute to its namesake. It rose from a sprig taken from the tree in Cambridge, Massachusetts where His Excellency assumed command of the Continental Army.

He did not have a lengthy military resume at that time, our leader tells us. But still, he accepted the command.

He made the commitment, and although he would suffer many setbacks and defeats, the Continentals kept getting better and better until independence was sealed at Yorktown. And then, he led a nation. As the bells of noon toll out over Old Main, we all take a moment of prayer and reflection for our nation.

The living tribute stands in front of my living tribute as a colonial soldier, and it humbles me. It's the closest I will ever come to meeting His Excellency.

 Dear God, I pray, thank you for the blessings of liberty which we enjoy. Help me to use my abilities to always enlighten people as to their liberties. Let me never forsake this duty... Tears run down my cheeks, the cries of thanksgiving as I throw open my heart to the Almighty and plead once again for wisdom.

My words tremble with a desperate sadness, perhaps from the knowledge of how many people would willingly trade away their liberties for a deeper sense of protection. I also know I have my own troops to lead in my other life and time. Washington fought the British. I have to fight ignorance and the constant temptations of exploitation, bias and irrelevance. Others draw into the magnitude of the moment. I feel it all around me, lives touched, souls seeking comfort. A few moments of prayer will not suffice, so we join hands to sing the Doxology and offer a few more words in the open.

"May we always be vigilant in protecting our liberties from those who want to take them away from us," I say, my mind still clouded with emotion, words nearly choking out of me. "Let us not forget the sacrifices of others."

  "I pray for our children... " one lady offers.

"I pray for We Make History..." a gentleman adds.

A depressing fact surfaces once again. People have attacked us, our leader says, for reasons unstated but which we all know of. I once received an e-mail from someone wondering if I was involved in a "cult of re-enacting." I debunked his fears with a friendly and truthful explanation, which fortunately for me, he accepted. People still ask me if I have picked up a girlfriend after attending so many historic balls, not understanding that was never the point. But at least they understand why their patriot producer enjoys wearing three-cornered hats and offering a bow every now and then. At least, I pray they do.

We are the new rebels, rebelling against a society adrift, protesting in our own mannered and chivalrous way for a more chivalrous and mannered world. But our words are not angry or belligerent beyond the re-created skirmishes on the battlefield. We do not cast fingers or shake fists at our enemies. Instead, we offer them a hand to dance. Our actions are not born of hate, but of a deep love for the people around us. We spread our joy to everyone, a joy inspired by grace and civility, living the way Our Maker intended us to. In return, we gain a peace unknown to many.

After the prayers, we still feel the joy within us as we stand silent in a circle, the Holy Spirit alive in our hearts. "We are so blessed," our leader remarks. The moment is almost indescribable unless you are there to feel it. And by my side, my mother and father are feeling it. I have told them many times how We Make History has changed my life, giving their son a sense of purpose and leading him back to God. I wanted them to feel this deep sense of family, this love we share.

"I know you're concerned about the kind of people I hang out with," I once told Mother in jest. 

"Honey, I'm concerned about you having anybody to hang out with at all," she responded.

Discussing the gathering is superfluous as we head to lunch in the family station wagon. Yet my father makes a discovery as he pulls out of the Old Main parking lot: "Did somebody pray for the car?"

The "Check Engine" light, a nagging worry all through our Flagstaff travels, has extinguished. Behold, another miracle moment!

De-colonializing myself at the motel room takes longer than I expect, and we make a few more wrong turns, but we make it to lunch at Cracker Barrel with the We Make History family, albeit marooned on a side table from our late arrival. Dad gets to meet General Washington, who encourages both of them to attend a ball. I know my father is a Civil War buff, but dancing is not his forte. Mother, maybe.

"If you can walk, you can dance," I remind them.

A gallery of more Independence Day photos awaits you here. Will you join us in our glorious, noble and happy cause? More about We Make History here!

Outta Site!

We at your Lighting Round are enjoying some R&R away from the news world. Rest assured, we're still getting a fix every now and then, but we figured now would be a good time to pass along a few websites we've bumped into, but haven't written about.

GIVE ME LIBERTY AND SELL EVERYTHING ELSE. On this Independence Week, we warn you about a gargantuanly bad idea masquerading as a patriotic endeavor. Backers of The Liberty Amendment promise "individual liberty, freedom and sovereignty of the people will be restored" by passing a constitutional amendment to force the government to liquidate any "business, professional, commercial, financial or industrial enterprise except as specified in the Constitution."

From the amendment's website:
It provides a three-year period for selling or liquidating more than 900 agencies and business-type enterprises presently operated by the Federal Government without constitutional authority. Sale of these enterprises will bring in enough money to substantially reduce the national debt. Annual budget spending by the government could be reduced by more than fifty percent. Revenue from excise taxes on goods and services, and on corporation incomes, will increase at least twenty percent, without increase of tax rates.
If you're an old-school Republican or Libertarian, this sounds enticing at first.

But this is brute-force downsizing. You don't have to work at a policy institute to comprehend the chaos of divesting and selling off hundreds of government agencies and throwing people out of their jobs. Social Security? Gone. Federal Disaster Aid? Gone. FDIC? Gone.

Also in trouble: the National Weather Service, NASA, NOAA, etc.

And let us not forget: even if you sold off all of the government's business, the revenue generated is a one-time event. And I serenely doubt it will make a lasting impression on our $8 trillion debt.

We get rid of the income tax and replace it with an excise tax. But we also eliminate a host of agencies that help protect our financial and physical well-being, like it or not.

Anyone feeling liberated by this?

LIVING LARGE. Leo Babauta offers a list of 39 ways to live and not merely exist.

From his article:
Too often we go through life on autopilot, going through the motions and having each day pass like the one before it.

That's fine, and comfortable, until you have gone through another year without having done anything, without having really lived life.
Too true. His suggestions range from the intriguing -- "Create a morning ritual" -- to the pedestrian -- "Get outside" -- to the obvious -- "Be positive" -- to the memorable -- "Kiss in the rain" -- to the emotional -- "When you suffer, suffer" -- to the contradictory -- "Do nothing."

We recommend you read the list, but don't try to follow every suggestion, and please ignore #33: "Stop watching the news."

LET'S MAKE LEMONADE! Remember the old Apple II "Lemonade" game you played in grade school? Try the new version, which runs in your browser and changes things up a bit.

LET'S REDRAW CONGRESSIONAL BOUNDARIES! It's a political statement posing as a game, but "The Redistricting Game" shows you the problems that go with drawing congressional districts. Maybe you can get your newly drawn district to vote for the Liberty Amendment!

LET'S LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE! The Foreign Service Institute has free language courses available on-line. We can't say if they're as good as Berlitz, but looks are free.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Fighting Words

This is why I don't listen to talk radio.

Just feast your eyes on the vitriol, snarkiness, threats, neurotic hyperbole and partisan grandstanding aimed at Sen. Jon Kyl whose only sin was helping craft what we thought was a workable immigration reform bill now DOA.

I have concluded it was simply a bad piece of legislation: too bloated and loaded with unreasonable expectations -- mainly expecting illegals to pay a fine and return to their home countries as a first step to real citizenship.

But come now, does participation in this doomed effort earn Kyl the scarlet T for "traitor?"

Our congressmen aren't there to only serve our whims. They study the problems we face as Americans and craft legislation to solve them, which sometimes means coming to grips with some hard realities -- like finding the immigration problem will not be solved by deportations and walls alone.

Granted, we have under-enforced immigration laws already on the books. But if you expect mass deportations and continuing raids on employers, you're living in the wrong country.

Bashing talk radio serves no productive end, but I'm sure many feel if you're not loud, you're not heard. We go on with our apolitical lives, politely hoping and praying for the wisdom of our leaders to see us through, all the while realizing the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that tunes the dial.

I'm still waiting to hear what kind of sanctions we're going to put on Mexico for failing to stop its bleeding population. El Presidente should writhe with embarrassment over a country people can't stop leaving. However, this is Mexico, infected with corruption and no one person able to cure it. Ask Vicente Fox.

Our lesson from this mess: no more huge, hulking fix-all bills. Deal with each issue individually -- and for all that's right, show some spine. No more of these so-called "test votes" which are actually votes on whether to vote or keep on talking.

Another lesson: if you seek compromise, be prepared for misery. Sen. Kyl ought to have that on a bumper sticker.