Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Living Wake

Photo Courtesy

For the second time in less than a week, I've lost a friend in Tucson's traditional dance community. Craig Tinney, guitarist for The Privy Tippers, passed away this week in his sleep at the chronological age of 60, but a real age of many years younger. As many of you know, a motorcycle accident last year left Craig paralyzed from the neck down, but his heart was anything but crippled, even as he rolled around in a specialized wheelchair.

I got to know Craig from his gigs with We Make History, playing our Civil War and Christmas balls. Then I started coming to TFTM's Saturday contra dances, and as I saw him on the floor in his colorful shirts, he saw me in my colorful historic outfits. He especially liked it when I wore my Highland attire. "Put some swords down for this man!" he said of my kilt and plaids. One time he plucked out a Scottish tune during the pre-dance warm-up, and I did an impromptu Highland Fling.

A few weeks ago TFTM put on a special music and dance benefit for Craig, which blossomed into a festival of music and joy. Outside, people gathered and jammed with the bluegrass musicians. Inside the main theater, bands were playing every 20 minutes. People put their signatures to a silent auction inside the gallery. And upstairs in the cabaret, just about every inch of floor was occupied with contra dancers, including myself. As the dancing continued, I started to feel the warmth -– just like at the We Make History balls.

So did Craig. Friends crowded around him all day, and I finally got to see him after the dancing. He was in the green room surrounded by more of his close companions. I came dressed as a Scotsman in his honor. He noticed me and recalled for the gathered how I was so enthusiastic at the balls, dressing up and bringing my joy to the floor.

“GOD didn't just put us here to be good,” he said. “GOD put us here to be happy.”

Craig had been learning to be happy again, through the paralysis and nights in the hospital and through the frustration that he couldn't even shrug his shoulders. Inside of him I knew he longed to strum again. His presence and conversation brought tears to my eyes as he talked about recovery. He sometimes wished GOD would take him away, but now he was surrounded by his friends who were submerged with him in their mutual love of music and dance, and all was right.

They raised a lot of money for him. He needed $5,000 for a hospital bed. They got it and then some. I'm sure the silent auction and the food sales brought in a lot of cash as well.

After the benefit, I walked down the street to where I had parked and noticed a line standing outside Bring's Funeral Home, presumably part of some memorial. I couldn't help but think of the irony. Craig could've died from that accident, but he lived longer, much longer, and here we were, having a living wake for him while he was still alive to see it and know how much he was loved. I never expected he would leave us so soon.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Last Waltz

"Hi, Christopher."

"Hi. I'm sorry I didn't return your call sooner. I had a busy night last night."

"I wanted to tell you Peggy died yesterday."

The unbelievable revelation hit me just as suddenly as my dear friend left this earth. She couldn't be gone. Not now. Not possibly. I knew she had heart trouble and a chest scar to show for it, but this defied reality.

And then it didn't, not after losing two grandparents to sudden cardiac failures. Again, again, it has taken someone I cared about.

I first met Peggy last year, when I was dabbling deeper in the Arizona Regency Society. They were starting weekly English country dance practices at the local libraries around Tucson, and the ladies finally coaxed me into getting out of my morning slacking and showing up. When I arrived that first Wednesday in November, we barely had enough people for a set dance. One of us had to recruit people poring over pages to put down their books and join us for a little 18th Century diversion. Peggy helped us grow quickly in a short period of time.

A couple of months later, we were aiming for our first big dance at the Tucson Scottish Rite Masonic Temple. The Masons were happy to lend us a room for a donation, and we were excited to have a venue with such appropriate historic ambiance.

Months of planning begot more than a few nervous moments. We all learned a few good lessons on event management. Peggy was there for us as treasurer and publicist, helping us all to get the word out to the right people. We stepped up our practice sessions. Peggy couldn't make every one of them, but she was there for many a Saturday evening when we rented the Tucson Ballet's studio for an hour and a half and refined our technique on "Mr. Beveridge's Maggot" and "Jenny's Market." I shared many dances with her. I had the honor of teaching her a Virginia Reel.

She had that quiet charm packaged in a warm smile. She, the Regency ladies, and I shared tea together several times. I still don't know how historically correct that would have been, but nobody found fault that I was often a lone gentleman among the fair ones, and especially not her. Thankfully, her husband didn't either.

The big dance came this past weekend. Peggy and The Mister dressed in their Regency finest and let grace envelop them and their children. We had a few glitches in our first prominent soiree, but nothing we couldn't forget about as long as we all kept dancing. It ended too soon for them. She began talking about the next dance almost immediately, planning and dreaming about it, just as we all did.

She especially fancied the last dance, the "Duke of Kent's Waltz." It is one of my favorites as well, with its beautifully flowing movements and courtly airs to three-quarter time. It leaves the right kind of person longing for those times of powdered wigs and three-cornered hats, bows and curtsies, honor and civility, manners and kindness, sense and sensibility.

It is my theory that people who enjoy this kind of dancing -- especially those who dress in period attire and dance -- enjoy it because it balances out what is ugly, unfair, and unkempt in the world surrounding them. I strongly believe GOD uses our love of it to do HIS work. I don't know if Peggy believed that, but she had to believe she was part of something that made the world better.

Now she's gone, and we're left to ask ourselves why... why her. Once again, I believe Satan knows exactly where to hit us when he attacks. He wouldn't come after us for nothing. It's going to take some time for the loss to soak in, just as it always does. I suppose we'll feel obligated to leave an empty chair at tea, or an empty place in the set for her, just to keep her in our hearts.

We love you Peggy. We shall dance on.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father Geek

I wasn't born with nerd instincts. I learned them from Dad and his love of electronics.

My voyage into geekdom started in the early 80's, when Dad bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I. It was the most expensive thing RS had in the catalog, with a whopping 16K of memory -- that's 16K bytes, not megabytes -- a black-and-white display, and a cassette tape player for storage. Playing games meant sticking the tape in the deck and typing CLOAD. Two stars (**) would flash in the top right hand of the screen. If I got a READY prompt after that, I was ready to run. If I got a checksum error or the annoying ?SN ERROR, I had to rewind the tape and try again. The volume and tone settings needed adjustment from tape to tape.

A couple of years later, Dad decided to upgrade. Instead of going back to the Shack, he found a backroom computer supply company in North Kansas City that operated out of a dusty, wood-paneled office. They sold him a third-party expansion interface, a green-screen monitor, two 5.25" floppy disk drives, and a dot-matrix printer. None of this was cheap, but it was cheaper than the Tandy equipment and I gather more reliable. My cousin in the PC retailing business found a stack of TRS-80 game tapes lying around and sent them over.

In the 5th Grade, I bought a paperback book called BASIC Fun -- which is still available -- and finally learned to program. As I was getting good at it, Dad made another upgrade.

The TRS-80 went out the door and was replaced with a Sanyo MBC-1000. Never heard of it? Neither had most of the kids at school, who were flipping on Commodore 64's or TI-99's or TRS-80's. The machine was designed for business, not pleasure. It came with CP/M for OS and WordStar. But it was a lemon.

Something in the disk drive refused to spin up. I would turn it on and wait for it to boot. It took maybe 10 minutes, maybe half an hour. We should've tossed it. Instead, we sent it back to the place we'd bought it in Boston for repairs. The system behaved itself for them and they sent it back. Again, it lagged on the boot. Dad, frustrated, finally kicked it back to them and demanded a refund. The company talked him into another upgrade for about the same money: The MBC-3000.

The new machine was more obscure and a lot bigger, so big UPS wouldn't take it; it had to come via Flying Tigers air freight. The 70-poundish machine nearly didn't fit on the desk, but it worked. I used WordStar to do my 6th Grade reports on ancient Rome and started a novel on it. I kept on programming. Dad also bought me a tiny, inexpensive Timex/Sinclair 1000, which ended up in my bedroom, hooked up to my TV. I still have a tape full of programs for it.

Then came the Mac, the original Macintosh with 128K RAM, one 3.5" floppy, one mouse, and a $2495 price tag slashed down to something more palatable because somebody at Midwest Typewriter in Kansas City knew my grandfather. MacWrite took on more of my writings, including another attempt at a novel plus a screenplay. Multiplan managed Mother's gradebook from her high school literature, Spanish and English classes. Dad bought Microsoft BASIC, and I developed a version of the Boggle word game for it. I asked for and got Turbo Pascal one Christmas only to realize developing serious Macintosh software was a lot tougher outside the BASIC world.

"We bought another computer."

"Oh... have mercy."

That preceding agony was from Mother, upon learning Dad had picked up an Apple //c in addition to the Mac. This with two kids who were both planning on college. Mom learned to love it though, more or less, when she used AppleWorks to type up tests and her monster final assignment for her Masters degree in Education. It sat in the upstairs study, on a tray across from the Mac, which Dad upgraded to an SE with a built-in hard drive. The Mac SE went flaky at times, so I stuck primarily with the //c.

By the end of high school, I was saving up to buy my own computer, and I sunk hundreds of dollars into a used Amiga 500. That machine would accompany me to college -- after Dad and I solved various problems with power supplies. I must have gone through at least 3 of them, and I never understood why they kept going bad. Dad, meanwhile, moved into the PC world, where he has remained. I joined him there when I realized the Amiga had everything going for it except for software and parts. I bought my first Pentium computer in 1994 for an astounding $2300 -- without the monitor.

All of this started with Dad's geekdom. I had the gene, but he brought it from recessive to dominant, perhaps starting in my toddler years, when he bought me a Casio pocket calculator for Christmas because I wouldn't stop playing with his expensive TI, the one with the colorful 70's-chic orange, white, and blue buttons.

Dad's latest upgrade was moving to an LCD screen. I'm still serving as his tech support person. In my closet is a Timex/Sinclair similar to the one I had as a kid and a TRS-80 Color Computer I bought off my best friend, which probably belongs in a museum somewhere. Dad still has a few aging floppy disks lying around and has been looking to buy an old NeXT cube computer. I'm running TRS-80 and Apple ][ emulators on my quad-core AMD PC, which sits next to an second-generation iMac here at FrancisPage Central Command. The latter was rescued from the waste pile at my brother's job. The wireless router came from a trash bin at Dad's workplace. A wrench on one antenna brought it back up to spec. And Mom is still trying to understand the bond of men and their machines.

Friday, June 18, 2010

One For Our Old Pueblo Friends

At the upcoming Arizona Regency And Victorian Society summer ball, I suggested we add a dance to honour our Spanish friends guarding the Tucson Presidio. Thus, "The Spaniard" made the set list, as danced by some caperers in St. Louis.

I do hope some of those Spaniards might join us, por favor.

See you at the dance manana.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Hole Thing

A favourite dance of my friends in the Arizona Regency And Victorian Society -- and one that will also be featured at the coming ball -- is "Hole In The Wall."

I was heartened to find this was also one of George Washington's favourites as well. And what dance celebrating Jane Austen would be complete without it?

Here it is danced in Becoming Jane. I have featured this clip before, but this version improves the orchestration.

Such a beautiful dance... so beautiful that a group of four students recreated it for an English project, right in the comfort of the living room:

Perhaps we should call this version "Hole In The Sofa," but who is complaining?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Laughter In The Camp

Once again, I shall attempt to prove Miss Austen's thesis that any savage can dance as we approach the summer ball for the Arizona Regency And Victorian Society.

When the Sons Of The American Revolution branch in Azuza, California, set up camp, they invited their dancing friends, who led their modern-day guests in a round of "The Comical Fellow."

Not bad for beginners. And note the smiles!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Make Haste!

One of my favourite dances, and one that will be on the set list for the Arizona Regency And Victorian Society summer ball, is "Haste To The Wedding." Your Humble Servant learned it in Williamsburg. It is both easy and lively, as you can see from the dancers at a ball in New York City this past February:

And if that is not lively enough for you, try the morris dance version:

I assure you, Dearest Dancing Friends, we will not step into the realm of jingle bells and handkerchiefs. Well, at least not yet.

Monday, June 14, 2010

You Can Ring My Bell

"Any savage can dance," the great Miss Austen wrote.

And so, Dearest Dancing Friends, I give you my pledge: the great majority of the dances on the card for the Arizona Regency And Victorian Society summer ball can be learned in mere minutes.

See for yourself as our Renaissance friends at OSU walk through and dance another selection for our upcoming ball: "Christchurch Bells."

"See, lots of fun! Come and join us!"

Hear, hear.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Step Into The Garden

My Dearest Dancing Friends, a new ball is nearly upon us: a summer ball to be held in Tucson by the Arizona Regency And Victorian Society this coming Saturday.

Your Humble Servant is privy to the set list, and one of the dances we shall partake of is Draper's Gardens, a simple yet genteel diversion in three-quarter time.

Here it is, as performed at The Regency Exhibition Ball in Lansing, Michigan, April 2008.

And another version, danced at the ORS Winter Ball:

You simply must adore the historic attire, if nothing else!

More dances from the set list shall follow. Dance on, my friends!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Reel To Reel: The Kung Fu Karate Kid

There's a new kid in town.

Going Rate: Worth full admission.
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Martial arts violence, some mild language

The new Karate Kid is not merely the old Karate Kid transplanted to China and out of the 80's. Great. I'm tired of Hollywood suits taking perfectly good movies and remaking them rather than admit they're out of bankable ideas. The basic outline is still there: mom moves kid to new town, kid gets bullied, kid learns karate -- excuse me, kung fu -- from kindly master, kid fights bully in big tournament. But this do-over offers more emotion and depth in all the right places. It's as if the producers listened to the late Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi in the original, who said, "Karate here," tapping his head, "karate here," tapping his heart, "karate never here," tapping his belt.

Jaden Smith -- son of Will Smith -- plays the titular character Dru, a streetwise but culturally naive 12-year-old who moves to China from Detroit with his widowed mother after she's transferred. Dru doesn't know much Chinese, nor does he want to learn. Fortunately, the kids in his new neighborhood know enough English, including Meiying (Wenwen Han), a girl who quickly takes a liking to him on his first day in Beijing. That's enough to irk neighborhood bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) and his crew of kung fu punks. Dru gets his behind kicked once and then again when he tries to even the score.

Mr. Han (Chan) steps into the Mr. Miyagi role as the reserved maintenance man in Dru's apartment complex who saves Dru from a gang beatdown. After a fabulous sequence that proves the aging Chan has a lot of fight left in him, he offers to go to Cheng's ruthless kung fu instructor, hoping the master will order the student to behave. Only he winds up getting Dru in deeper, putting him into an open kung fu tournament that we all can see will leave Dru facing Cheng one-on-one. Han becomes Dru's teacher with a style that shows him kung fu isn't just the way one fights, it's the way one lives, even in something as rote as picking up and putting on your jacket -- which Dru does countless times as a means of showing him the basic moves he'll need.

Making our hero younger and more vulnerable is one of many ways this film improves upon the original. It's easier to accept Jaden Smith as a victim, given his innocence and the propensity of bullying victims to be in either elementary or junior high school. The young Smith has come a long way from his first big role in The Pursuit Of Happyness where he could just get away with being a cute kid. Jaden had to put sweat into this role and it shows. Wonder who taught him that?

I'm also impressed with Jackie Chan's performance. He shows a cool restraint in this film unlike anything I've seen from him before. Chan doesn't have Mr. Miyagi's ancient wit, but he gets to show another dimension of his acting abilities. He and Smith share a heartbreaking scene together where Mr. Han talks about a tragedy in his life.

One more big improvement: this film is shot almost entirely in China, and it's visually stunning, from the imperial Forbidden City to the allies and rooftops of Bejing. Submerging Smith's character into this heightens his outsider status.

Will this film replace the original in our hearts and minds? Not for me, but maybe for the kids who haven't seen Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita on video. Oh, and about the title: yes, I have heard your complaints about why this film is called The Karate Kid instead of The Kung Fu Kid. One sequence shows Dru taking a karate lesson from an instructional video. So deal with it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Buck, Buck, Buck... BALK!

I'm having trouble getting my hands around the concept of a balk in baseball, or an illegal pitch in softball, which I'm going to call a balk even though the umpires don't. A balk cost the Arizona Diamondbacks a game to Los Angeles last week. Several balk calls helped doom the Arizona Wildcat softball team in their opening game of the NCAA regionals in Oklahoma City, leaving head coach Mike Candrea rightfully miffed.

Put simply, a balk results from a pitcher making some sort of weird move, or stepping off the "rubber" at the wrong time, or faking a throw to somebody. I can understand umpires and batters not wanting a fake pitch, but I can't think of a good reason why the pitcher's position during the pitch or before the pitch should make a difference just as long as said pitcher doesn't come charging off the mound with the ball. Some baseball purist will come out of the dugout and wring my neck, but I still won't get it. One person told me the balk rule is there because illegal moves affect the batter's timing, but so does a wicked fastball.

I just got an idea. Why don't we train a major league pitcher with Cirque du Soleil? Let him contort his body into ten different positions before he releases the ball. If it doesn't frustrate the batters, it will at least lead to more bunts. Maybe it will speed up the game like some people want, without getting rid of a couple of innings or taking away a few outs.

Reel To Reel: Robin Hood

The boys from the original 'hood.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, William Hurt
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Ye olde violence and pillaging and a few naughty bits 'o bawdiness

It's thirteenth century England, and there's not a tight in sight. Leather, yes. Chain mail, absolutely. However, those romantic images of some Errol Flynn hero swinging from vines and bidding you welcome to Sherwood Forest are gone, gone, gone. Russell Crowe's Robin Hood is the Batman Begins of its subject matter, the reboot movie that seeks in some way to correct everything that came before it, from Flynn's to Kevin Costner's interpretations. The film is billed as the birth of the legend, sticking closer to history than those other movies, right down to the absence of tights.

Richard The Lionhearted (Danny Huston) has gone from fighting in the Crusades to fighting the French. He does not make it through the film's first hour, leaving his country in debt and in the hands of King John (Oscar Issac), a womanizing weakling who's taken a French mistress. His New Majesty reasons, why borrow when you can tax and sets up Godfrey (Mark Strong) as Earl Marshal, his collector. Now we have a pair of big problems: one, much of England is already being taxed to the hilt. And two, Godfrey's secretly working with the French to soften England up for invasion.

Our hero Robin Longstride -- he's not in the Hood yet -- is going rogue from the King's Army with the beginnings of his gang of merry men when he runs across the mortally wounded knight Sir Robert of Locksley (Douglas Hodge). Robin promises Sir Robert he will return the knight's sword back to his father Walter (von Sydow) in the oppressively-taxed Nottingham. Where's their Tea Party movement? Robin follows through on his word, and Walter encourages him to pose as the dead chevalier and wife of Lady -- don't call her Maid -- Marion (Blanchett) in order to protect his land from confiscation by the crown, or the Sheriff of Nottingham (Hurt). It's going to take more than just good aim with a bow and arrow to get through this one. Time to start stealing from the rich, and giving to the poor.

Indeed, two patriotic vibes are running through the picture: a homage to the overtaxed and a cry for limits on the king's power. Beyond that, you've got a gritty and gory period-correct hybrid of swashbuckler and political thriller with the mandatory Big Battle At The End featuring the French landing in England with 1200's-era personnel carriers a la D-Day -- if such vessels existed. I dunno. It's the first time I've seen anything like them.

I wouldn't say director Ridley Scott is trying to remake Gladiator, although I know a lot of you will get that feeling. Or maybe it's just because so many of these rebooted historical epics are so gritty, it makes you wish somebody would do another film like A Knight's Tale, after you've rented Errol Flynn's Robin Hood.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What Really Happened During The Obama/Brewer Summit

Governor Jan Brewer got 30 minutes with President Obama yesterday. The official White House readout is here.

The "cordial" discussion didn't lead to any major breakthroughs. We do not have an authorized transcript for you. However, one of your Lightning Round staffers managed to overhear the conversation and slipped us the following account:

"Good afternoon, Madame Governor."

"Good afternoon, Mr. President."

"Bummer about the Suns."

"Well, you know, Kobe Bryant. But let's get down to business. You're sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the border. I really need more, like 5 or 6 thousand. And we could use some drones. And that border fence needs to get finished. We're taking bets at the Capitol on whether the Freedom Tower is going to get built before it's done."

"I'm spending $500 million for you, too. Don't forget that."

"How can I not? You guys know how to spend money. But I need more people, more boots guarding the line."

"To plug up the border, right? Sort of like a 'junk shot' thing?"

"Well, yeah. Come to think of it, maybe if we dumped all that oil along the border, it'd be too gooey for the illegals to get through."

"You'd have to ask BP about that."

"I'll put it on my agenda. Oh, and thank you for working me in around Paul McCartney."

"You're welcome. For the record, I just want to reiterate that the only real solution to this is immigration reform, and we're working on that."

"But not too hard, I see."

"Yeah, that health care bill was a serious you-know-what. I've only got enough in me for one fight a year. And it's an election year. Speaking of that, what's up with this lawsuit against health care reform?"

"I dunno. You tell me what's up with this lawsuit you're going to file against SB1070."

"Touche. But I can't really talk about that, since it's all up to Justice."

"It's nice that you got people to do that for you. My guy Goddard won't sue for anything anymore."

"Have you tried some friendly persuasion?"

"Like what?"

"Oh, maybe a better job offer. Look, I know some people--"

"Er, Mr. President, I'm good."

"Fine then. You thirsty?"

"Are we having beers?"

"Anything you want, Madame Governor. I had the guys bring in a case of Sonoran 100."

"Thanks, but I'll stick to the water for now. I want to be clear on this last point. We wouldn't be in this mess if the Federal Government had been living up to its responsibilities to secure the border. I have police and sheriff's departments who are having to deal with drug and crime problems because the immigrants keep on getting through."

"I understand your concerns, Madame Governor. But as you know, asking the feds to do something is like asking Heinz to make fast-flow ketchup. Government moves at the speed it does because we can't move any faster. Why do you think health care took so long?"

"I figured as much."

"Look, I got another appointment, but I thank you for your time."


"Nah, something else. But I want you to know that we ought to be working together on this."

"I'll certainly try, Mr. President. And I invite you to come to Arizona one of these days and see the border for yourself. You're not boycotting us yet, are you?"

"No. Michelle loves the spas. Oh and one more thing."


"What's the deal with your hair?"

"This? Oh, I thought I'd try that Rose Mofford thing."

"Just don't try that Sarah Palin thing."

"You betcha."