Thursday, October 29, 2009

May I Have A Treat.... Please!

The British authority on etiquette, Debrett's, is out with a short guide on tasteful trick-or-treating. While all of us could stand to raise our bar higher in the name of a better society, some suggestions will leave those goblins and ghouls scratching their skeleton bones:
"Trick or treat?" should be used as an ice-breaking formula, not a real threat. Halloween fun should never feel menacing.
Good luck distilling all the macabre out of the season, but at the least, I guess this rules out the opening rhyme: "Trick or treat! Smell my feet! Give me something good to eat!"
Children should not be too greedy - if they are offered treats, make sure that they don't take too many and remember to say thank you.
The easy workaround: don't hand them the entire bowl, fercryingoutloud. My system involves grabbing a handful of candies from the bowl, which is kept out of sight. I kindly deposit one in each bag held out to me. Most kids will offer a word of gratitude, sometimes at the prompting of their elders. But they at least show appreciation in their faces, even if they don't vocalize it.
Stay safe. Make absolutely sure that children don't stray beyond agreed boundaries and wander into streets where they are knocking on strangers' doors.
When I was but a wee lad, my peers used to see how many square blocks they could cover. That was before the Internet enabled us to see how many registered sex fiends lived in the neighborhood. Some parents would use the two-bag system: one for treats from homes they knew, the other for those they didn't. Why even take that chance?
Remember, some households may not be as welcoming as others. If there's no answer, don't repeatedly ring the doorbell - move onto another house instead.
This also means not tee-peeing the shrubbery or spray-painting "Trick!" on the garage door.
If you don't mind giving out treats, but would prefer not to have visitors, leave some sweets or chocolate on your front door step and let trick or treaters help themselves.
Now what did they just tell you about handing kids the entire bowl?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Rush, Race, And The Chain

For the .01 percent of those who care how I feel about the Rush/Rams drama, I can tell you this: for a person who admits he likes to "yank the media's chain," he seems to have an awfully hard time when people yank back.

He has a legitimate beef with those who falsely claim he once supported slavery and Martin Luther King's assassin. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

But in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he makes this curious claim:
The sports media elicited comments from a handful of players, none of whom I can recall ever meeting. Among other things, at least one said he would never play for a team I was involved in given my racial views. My racial views? You mean, my belief in a colorblind society where every individual is treated as a precious human being without regard to his race? Where football players should earn as much as they can and keep as much as they can, regardless of race? Those controversial racial views?
I say "curious," because he talks a lot about politics and race for his professed color-blindness. Like here, when Rush takes a swipe at both the media and the Obama presidency:

And here: "[I]n Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering.."

And here: Obama "wants us to have the same health care and plan that he had in Kenya" and "wants to be the black FDR"

A Huffington Post article asserts many more racist comments, but I'm not sure whether they're racist or just more of Limbaugh's chain-yanking.

But he can't get away from -- nor did he try to discredit -- his statement that the "NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons."

Limbaugh once said during the Clinton administration, "You live by the soundbite; you die by the soundbite." His bid to be part-owner of the St. Louis Rams just died by the soundbite and he says it's not fair. Feeling that chain yet, Rush?

UPDATE: I neglected to mention that the Rev. Al Sharpton is threatening to sue Limbaugh for asserting in the WSJ piece that Sharpton "played a leading role in the 1991 Crown Heights riot (he called neighborhood Jews "diamond merchants") and 1995 Freddie's Fashion Mart riot." Limbaugh offers nothing to back up those claims -- just as Limbaugh's critics can't find anything to back up the slavery statement. If you're going to launch a counter-attack, you better go into battle with some ammunition, not blanks.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Reel To Reel: Where The Wild Things Are

Arthouse cinema for the young and those who remember youth.

Going Rate: Worth a full-priced admission. Too deep for very young children but fine for teens and tweens.
Starring: Max Records, Voices Of James Gandofini, Benecio Del Toro, Forest Whitaker
Rated: PG (could actually be a hard G)
Red Flags: Some fantasy violence and childhood rough-housing, one mild curse word

Director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) immediately gets props for keeping Maurice Sendak's classic children's book from degrading into another hyperactive CGI kid flick. Where The Wild Things Are is a dark H.R. Pufnstuf, embodying childhood angst and imagination while retaining some warmth. And yes, it is wild, just like its protagonist Max (Records) -- a 9-year-old prone to fits of fatastical acting up -- as he tries to create the world of his dreams in a fantasy land inhabited by giant furry creatures.

Max is struggling for control in his life, absent a father at home and a mother preoccupied with work and a boyfriend. He gets into a snowball fight with his sisters' friends, who destroy Max's igloo and part of his soul with it. Then he learns at school that the sun will eventually burn itself out -- not in his lifetime, of course, but that's a point never made clear. Mom has time to sip wine with her boyfriend and serve frozen corn, but not to see a fort Max has constructed in his room, which eventually leads to an outburst. Max runs off into the night wearing some sort of animal suit with whiskers. He dashes into the woods and finds, likely in his imagination, a boat which takes him to an island inhabited by the aforementioned creatures.

They are a grumpy lot, a bunch of aimless, oversized dwarfs badly in need of a Snow White, or at least a few meds. Max steps in, and before anybody can eat him, he claims he has all sorts of powers and abilities. The Wild Things' de facto leader, Carol (Gandofini, still giving off that Tony Soprano vibe), quickly takes a liking to the boy and crowns him king. The coronation ceremony consists of running wild in the forest until everybody's out of breath and sleeping in a gigantic pile.

"This is all yours," Carol says to the boy. "You're the owner of this world."

Carol shows Max his plan for a huge city. Max counters with a vision of a huge fort and underground tunnels with some sort of lookout post and "our own detective agency." Actually it looks like an gigantic wasps' nest made out of twigs, but that's not really important. At first, construction hums along as the boy and the beasts feel empowered and part of something huge. But then cracks start to show, as egos and feelings collide. Max comes to realize building the perfect world isn't as easy as Walt Disney's mantra: "If you can dream it, you can do it."

All of the Wild Things in this film were designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop and polished with CGI to help their expressions. You know people are inside of the costumes, even though they look so real. That's exactly Jonze's point: the wildness of our imaginations are still tethered to humanity, because we're thinking as humans, not animals. Max can conjure up big furry monsters, but they're just hairy grown-ups, occupied with faults and feelings and frailties. If it's hard being a kid, being a grown-up isn't any easier.

Director Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers have greatly expanded upon Sendak's book while staying respectful to it (Sendak is also one of the film's producers). At times, the picture lacks velocity, but you can say the same thing about Max. It's not a kids' movie, or even a family film, as much as a film about childhood imagination.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Convincing recollections of honourable people at the Pride & Prejudice Ball as presented by We Make History.

From the journal of Lt. Christopher Francis, HMS Victory
(Click any picture for a larger view!)


“My gloves!”

The realization descends upon the Lieutenant as he is barely a mile away from his temporary quarters. On other occasions, he might dwell not upon the oversight, but circumstances and courtesies extend to his fingertips. He turns about and retrieves the needed accouterments, hoping the delay will not result in a untimely arrival.

Walking into the grand hall, his gate is halted by the number of ladies in their bright gowns, all of pastel colour, milling about and seeking refreshment. The gentlemen are represented but a mere shadow in the assembled elegance.

The Host greets the young seaman, “Captain in His Majesty's Navy.” The gold-trimmed bicorn certainly conveys that impression. The Lieutenant is of the persuasion not to make corrections this evening, owing to his own aspirations of commanding the ship, the HMS Victory, beyond carrying out the orders of his superiors.

So many ladies, he wonders to himself. His eyes drift towards a particularly fashionable group seated to his side, dressed in sparkling satin, a few adorned with stylish plumes. The Lieutenant wastes no time bowing to them in a regal manner, chapeau in his arm.

“A fine display of beauty,” he remarks.

Yet he seeks another.

“Has anyone seen Madame Noire?” he inquires.

“Yes, she is here,” a lady replies.

Searching a few moments more, he finds her wearing a bright white gown topped in a lace wrap. She is elegant and yet protective of her modesty, admitting to the Lieutenant that her best labours are still in need of correction. He does not care. He persuades her not to dwell upon any errant stitches. She is mannered, kind and honourable towards him, and that is what he desires most.

Gradually, the multitudes drift from the grand hall into the ballroom, some a bit anxious, others laughing in anticipation. A scattered couple practices a few stately steps. In a corner, couples pose in front of a mechanical picture-making device recently developed in Germany, handled with precision by the Hostess, who persuades one and all to let the curious device record their glowing countenances.

Across the room, a lady tends to the flowing locks of a naval officer in a blue-and-gold uniform. He sits with trepidation, perhaps a bit distressed over the scene, but smiles as his attendant ties a ponytail to compliment his huge and fashionable bicorn.

The Host calls the gathered forth to pay tribute to Our Nation, and then invites all to join him and a young princess in the Grand Promenade. He parades barely the length of the ballroom before the eager guests join in, a bit premature but not dishonourable in the least.

“They do not need to be persuaded to dance,” the Lieutenant remarks.

Indeed, the Host reminds the gentlemen to do their duties when ladies are in want of a dance, not “standing about stupidly” in the manner of a certain Mr. Darcy.

The line of couples envelopes the perimeter of the room, and the Host executes a few naval maneuvers in leading the procession into a spiral and out again. As the couples loop around one another, the Lieutenant and his superior meet face to face.

“Admiral,” the young officer greets.

“Captain,” the other corrects with a smile of friendship.

Indeed, everyone is dressed above themselves. A group of enthusiastic young players, desiring to improve their art in the theatre, show their desire for elegance as they step forth.

One circle, then two, then three are formed for the first dance of the evening, a mixer by the curious name of “I Care Not For These Ladies.” The Lieutenant and Madame advance to the most inner circle – “Peers only!” -- and prepare to make merry.

The Host explains the steps, and the gathered walk through them, leading up to an elegant but complex figure: a half-turn with one hand to the partner, followed by another half-turn to a partner beyond, followed by a full turn with two hands to another partner beyond that. Many are unsure of the progression, and the Host leads them through it several times.

Even the Lieutenant, himself a veteran of both battle and ballroom, finds himself a bit confused. He follows the motions, arriving face to face with a lady who also reveals her unease. “Do not worry, My Lady,” he reassures. “We shall learn together. Enjoy the dance and each other's company.”

A few more rehearsals, and the Lieutenant and Madame are satisfied they are ready to progress. Yet the Host is unconvinced that all are comfortable with the figures. He is persuaded that perhaps the evening should begin with something rudimentary yet elegant.

“A different dance,” he announces. “Hole In The Wall!”

Disappointment of not completing the dance disappears at once for the Lieutenant and his lady. “I love ‘Hole In The Wall!’” she smiles as the couples rearrange themselves into long sets.

The sailor persuades himself to volunteer for head couple of one set, sensing experience is in need. A ragged line of couples forms behind them. When the Host calls on the young sailor to assemble his “crew,” he turns in shock to find two long sets of couples both trying to share him and Madame as head. He hastily waves and gestures down the line, straightening the dancers as best he can while realizing many have never danced in a set before now.

Once again, the Host leads through the figures: first couples casting off around the second couples, second couples casting back around the first, and then some changing of places before a circle halfway round and another cast-off by the first couples to progress. This time, the motions take root with the gathered, and soon they are dancing to music in happy elegance. Most every available space for dancing is occupied. Couples casting off carefully squeeze between others with as much courtesy as possible.

They progress all the way up and down the set, learning the mechanics of their journey as the Host steadfastly announces every move over the melodies of the flute and violin. No one shall be lost or in need of a prompt. When he accidentally skips a figure, the dancers continue on with the correct step, to the delight of the caller: “You are smarter than me!”

The Host offers up another set dance, “The Doubtful Shepherd.” Not wanting to neglect his gentlemanly duties, the officer seeks out a young lady. The prospective dancers are not hard to spot, standing on the side of the ballroom, eyes wandering back and forth yet showing no hint of longing or desperation… at least, not yet.

“Would you honour me with a dance?” the Lieutenant offers with a bow, sweeping off his bicorn and hoping the strands of hair upon his head do not fall over his face. His new partner accepts graciously, and they are soon cavorting in a three couple set, the gentlemen and ladies taking turns prancing around each other in a line between stately turns.

During a pause for refreshments, the Lieutenant locates the Captain to pay him regards.

“So glad you are able to join us for this diversion given the battle versus that scoundrel Napoleon!” the young officer greets.

The Captain pays him regard, noting that he shall be victorious, “if they don’t sink my ship.”

They feel little persuasion to share tales of epic sea battles as they stand near several admiring ladies.

“Is there a vicar of the Church of England here?” the Host asks, having announced the engagements of two young couples. Seeing none -- as Mr. Collins is nowhere to be found -- he proceeds to honour them with the next dance: “Haste To The Wedding.”

The Lieutenant and Madame spring to the head of a set, the officer warm with anticipation of a dance he learned long ago in the former colony of Virginia. The couples link into stars of four and circles, then passing around each other before clapping hands and casting off down the line. Some continue clapping to the rhythm as others cast off.

“Come, Let’s Be Merry,” is the title of the next dance, although one of the honoured couples suggest that title be changed to “Come, Let’s Be Married.” Here, the Lieutenant is torn. He wishes to offer a dance to other ladies but his heart persuades him to share another of his favourites with Madame. They head up a set of three, soon to be joined by the two honoured couples in what promises to be a quite lively arrangement. The Host notices a set of experienced dancers is before him, and he encourages them to come onto the stage.

Madame and the Lieutenant exchange glances. He knows she is a bit uneasy at the notion of demonstrating her moves before the entire ballroom, but she offers no protest and trusts in her partner’s skill to lead her through.

And so, the Host directs the attention of the assembled to the demonstration set, namely the first gentleman, the “one with the hat,” as the Lieutenant faces upwards and takes hands with his lady, backing up to turn her around to face the other couples. They give honours, bowing and curtsying before facing up again, and then turning around and backing up once more to repeat the honours.

“Cast off to the middle,” the Host directs, “and then to the bottom.”

The Lieutenant and Madame follow through and prepare for the next stately step up the center: either a graceful lead with inside hands joined or a sashay, or perhaps a waltzing round. The young officer chooses the first method, and his lady learns the steps with little difficulty. They cast off again to the middle of the set and circle round with the others before turning with two hands back to place, leaving the dance to begin anew.

The Host calls for the music, and soon all are following the leads of the dancers on stage.

“Let us pick up the tempo,” the Host directs to the pair of musicians.

Once more the couples turn and bow, cast and lead, circle and turn.

“Let us pick up the tempo a little more.”

The Lieutenant and his friends in the dance concentrate on their moves, tarrying not to study the efforts of those on the floor below them. They are setting the example, and it is successful, as the Host calls for another increase in tempo until all are satisfied and merry beyond measure.

A waltz follows, as does more merriment. Some students of the dance practice their box step. Others favour the round and twirl about. A few choose two steps and no more. The sailor and his lady decide to offer a symphony of close steps and twirling capers, turning round about and setting to each other before drawing towards one another for a graceful coda.

The Lieutenant lets no dance pass him by, seeking more young ladies for “Christ Church Bells” and “The Fields Of Frost And Snow.” One partner displays an almost acrobatic skill of turning and casting off, leaving the officer to twirl about to mirror her liveliness all the way down the long line. Gentility may be in fashion, but youth begets exuberance, and he strives to recall that time of his life when he could cast all worry to the wind.

Indeed the wind might be carrying off some of the assembled, as several names drawn for prizes of chocolate and literature have not a claimant in sight. The Host wonders if the “Press Gangs” of His Majesty’s Navy are forcibly persuading a few more conscripts in the ongoing fight against Napoleon.

“I push, I don’t press!” the Lieutenant replies aloud.

All are present for the Pumpkin Dance, however. The standard calls for a lady or a gentleman to pass the pumpkin off to someone by his side before sashaying off. In practice, many choose to pass the pumpkin to those waiting in line before skipping off in groups of three. It matters not to the Host, who at last enjoys an opportunity to partake of a dance.

As the ladies and gentlemen catch their breaths, the moment of the final waltz is upon them. Their energy is not muted, and many of the young continue to prance about even as the music suggests otherwise. They could dance all night, the Lieutenant observes. They would if given the opportunity, eventually slowing into the last figures of genteel charm before streaming back into the world they know  a world that has failed to notice them in many ways, failed to take note of their honour. And yet, it is there, and it is offered as a gift for others who wish to receive it. No British officer can instill it; it must be desired.

The young officer thinks of this when a group of modern-day ladies spot his uniform and approach him in the night during the journey to a post-ball feast.

“Can we take a picture with you?” they persuade.

He thinks for a moment.

“Let me retrieve my bicorn.”

Click here for more impressions from the elegant and merry group!

NEXT: The Free And The Brave

Friday, October 9, 2009

An Evening With Miss Austen

My Dear Friends, I have given you tastes all week long of a night in the Regency life.

Now, how about a main course?

Here is a montage of the 2005 Jane Austen Evening, presented by the Society for Manners and Merriment, and recorded by Walter Nelson:

See you at the Pride And Prejudice Ball!

Sur-prize, Sur-prize

One week after President Obama lost his bid to bring the Olympics to Chicago, he's getting a heckuva consolation prize: The Nobel Peace Prize.

According to Reuters:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Obama for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples," citing his fledgling push for nuclear disarmament and his outreach to the Muslim world.

Obama has been widely credited with improving America's global image after the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, who alienated both friends and foes with go-it-alone policies like the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
And here the article points us to the real reason: the Nobel Committee is saying 9 months of President Obama have been better than 8 years of President George W. Bush.

I am more than willing to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt, but every award I know honors people for their body of work, not the environment of hope they create. Think of all the awards we could give ourselves based on great expectations. Imagine all the prizes the George W. Bush Administration would have won in the months after 9/11 based on the sympathy the world had for us. Bono of U2 has done more than Obama over the course of his career, if your only criteria is setting an atmosphere of good feelings.

At least President Obama recognizes the stakes just got higher:
"I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments but rather an affirmation of American leadership," he said in the White House Rose Garden. "I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."
Just to remind you, he's still got Iraq on his plate, along with troop-strength decisions in Afghanistan, a nuclear crisis in Iran and North Korea, nuttiness from Venezuela, and whatever Russia's doing these days.

My friend Peter says this about Obama's Prize: "I compare it to giving Lindsey Lohan an Oscar in anticipation of some future comeback."

A lot of us don't really care who wins an Oscar anymore, as evidenced by declining ratings for the Academy Awards. The Nobel Peace Prize is now losing that luster. The awards for medicine still have some of my personal respect, and hopefully that will continue.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Baile, Baile!

Dearest Friends, I am hopeful that some of our Spanish friends from the Old Pueblo might be joining us at the Pride & Prejudice Ball. If they do, I certainly desire this dance be called in their honour: "The Spaniard."

Here it is as performed at The Netherfield Ball in Pittsburgh this past April:

As you can see, it is a dance with few figures. I especially enjoy the first few moves, in which you "set" to your corner. Put simply, you get to do a little dance to one side and then the other before turning back to place. This is where it is wise to leave some room in the sets between couples to accommodate as much liveliness as possible. Notice also how the lead couples walk down the set and back. Technically, you're supposed to walk down and then skip back. I have done this with my free hand raised, which has led to some period-incorrect high-fives down the set in the past. One might expect that from contra dancing, but not from us -- ahem -- refined English ladies and gentlemen... or merry Russians:

How do you say "Huzzah!" in Russian?

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Oh, Well!

Dearest Capering Friends, I gather many impressions of Regency dancing come from the Pride & Prejudice features, but they are a pittance compared to this: a great hall filled with happy ladies and gents in period attire, as far as the eye can see, stepping to music and guided by a caller so that none are confused or lost.

Of course, we don't have to dream. Here is "Well Hall" as performed at St. George`s Hall, in Liverpool, England.

Such a grand display deserves an encore. So here is "Auretti`s Dutch Skipper:"

Note all the laughter through the number, as some couples find themselves a bit out of sorts. It is no matter. We are not here to judge but to dance! So it shall be at the Pride & Prejudice Ball!

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dance, Darcy, Dance!

Dearest Friends, I believe we must have some conversation about the dancing in the BBC Pride And Prejudice miniseries. No doubt the DVD will be viewed many times this week by those anticipating the upcoming ball.

So let us turn to a favourite scene of many, in which Mr. Darcy ventures a caper:

I am sure a few fancy the 2005 movie version, which does not want for liveliness:

And here is a montage of dances from both versions, which you must venture to click because the poster desired not to let me embed it.

You might want to comment on the size of the hall... or perhaps the number of couples...

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Black Is Beautiful

While you size up that pair of leggings, we continue our countdown to the Pride & Prejudice Ball with another of my favourites, "The Black Nag," danced by Regency Rejigged at the 2009 Chippenham Folk Festival:

It is another dance I have found easy to learn. But, Dearest Friends, I must admit this dance dates back long before Jane Austen's time. In fact, you might find it in that book by John Playford. A few of my Renaissance friends know it quite well, and they are quite happy to demonstrate:

Now I have heard real Regency dancers, ahem, would not have even approached anything in the Playford book, but as for my historical friends and myself, we tend to think a little broader on the timeline. Otherwise, we would often deprive ourselves of some of our favourite capers, not to mention the waltz!

So come now, let us not be too fussy. I am willing to wager more than a few of Austen's contemporaries had a wistful desire for the oldies but goodies. Elegance never goes out of style, no?

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Let's Get This Soiree Started

Greetings once again, my friends!

The Pride & Prejudice Ball is less than half a fortnight away, and faithful readers of this continuing epistle know what that means: time once again to immerse you into my dearest diversion. So all this week, I will be presenting for your pleasure some of my favourite dances from the Regency era, that time of Jane Austen, Thomas Jefferson, Beau Brummel and that scoundrel Napoleon.

Dearest Readers, I do know that many of you find the longways set a bit intimidating, threatening even. Oh, but fear not! I will begin with an easy yet elegant dance that is close to my heart.

From the Emerald City Regency Ball, here is the Duke Of Kent's Waltz:

Bravo! Now here is another rendition from the Society for Manners and Merriment, and please forgive the darkness.

And finally, a brief snippet from the The Quadrille Club, who throw in a genteel promenade:

Your humble servant is especially fond of the balance (pronounced "Bal-uh-say") step in the middle. It has a certain courtly charm, even if notions of liberty are running wild through this world...

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Why Chicago Lost

Before the spin doctors completely fold and mutilate the analysis of why Chicago lost the 2016 Olympics bid, here's my analysis:

* This isn't about Chicago losing as much as Rio winning. I believe the International Olympic Committee was stoked about bringing the games to South America for the first time ever. Rio's carnival atmosphere also plays right into that multicultural look and feel the Committee is looking for. You look at the pitch reel for Chicago (which was shown during the selection show as broadcast on CNN) and it looks like the Windy City is selling the Blues Brothers Olympics. It sounded too, well, American. The IOC just doesn't dig that beat.

* We've had plenty of Games. The U.S.A. has hosted Olympics four times in the last three decades (Lake Placid, 1980; Los Angeles, 1984; Atlanta, 1996; Salt Lake City, 2006). You can't say the IOC hasn't thrown us some love.

* I don't believe the theory of lingering resentment against the U.S. dating back to the Moscow Boycott. Where was that resentment when we landed the Games in 1996 and 2006? If there's any resentment, it may be more for the U.S.'s heavy dependence on corporate sponsorship, which a lot of people see as tacky.

* For all of the above reasons, this is not a referendum on President Obama. Flying to Denmark for a last-minute pitch, however, looked a little desperate.

All things considered, Chicago losing is not a bad thing at all. Support for the Olympics was less than solid in the first place, and we haven't even touched the gigantic cost factors. Ask somebody in Montreal about The Big Owe. As for publicity and tourism, why not stick with the Blues Brothers?