Saturday, December 28, 2013

Greed Is Good, But Girls And Drugs Are Better

Reel To Reel: The Wolf Of Wall Street

Going Rate: Worth matinee price, if you have the stomach for it
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner
Rated: R (but really deserves an NC-17)
Red Flags: Graphic scenes of sex, graphic talk about sex, graphic use of cocaine and quaaludes, copious use of the "f" word -- more than 500 times. Not for teenagers, and not for many adults either, unless you are seeking to teach or learn a twisted lesson on how money and power corrupt absolutely.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a three-hour orgy of money, sex and drugs -- but mostly sex in gratuitously unashamed bursts interspersed with scenes of drug abuse and gritty frat-boy conversations about money and how to make it.  Directed by the great Martin Scorsese, people will remember it more for its unrestrained hedonism rather than its subject:  real-life stock hustler Jordan Belfort, who did two years in prison on charges of manipulating markets by pushing nearly worthless stock as part of a scheme to make his cronies rich on the backs of anybody pushing a dollar his way.

We meet Belfort (DiCaprio) head-on as somebody who loves everything in excess, and he narrates his rise to ruthless power broker from a phone-punching cold caller.  Turned on by both the excitement and courseness of the stock game, and with some disgustingly frank advice from a supervisor, he does okay for himself until Black Monday of 1987 leaves him without a job.  Through a newspaper ad, he finds the only place hiring stockbrokers is a storefront brokerage house pumping penny stocks for outrageous commissions.  Belfort's hard-driving selling skills quickly earn him money and respect, and with a newfound partner, Donnie Azhoff (Hill), he starts the Stratton Oakmont brokerage inside an auto-repair garage.  We see Belfort train a gallery of people who, to quote Gordon Gekko, "wouldn't know preferred stock from livestock" using a script designed to help them close even the most wary of investors in one phone call.

Stratton Oakmont quickly expands, as does its decadence.  Belfort gladly rewards his associates with booze and hookers, charging a lot of it to an American Express account.  Its employees wallow in depravity as the sales office becomes a circus of hard selling and insatiable indulgence, where signs tell people not to have sex in the bathrooms between certain hours.  Outside work, it only gets bigger and bolder as Belfort holds huge parties with even more Neandrathal behavior.  One scene is devoted to an office conversation about throwing midgets at a target for an office promotion.  Amazingly, nobody seems to draw any lines -- unless they're lines of cocaine -- leaving me to wonder whether Belfort attracted these kinds of boors or created them on the job.  He brings in his father Max (Reiner) to help keep some semblance of order, but his role is largely to wander through the picture in disbelief at the massive degradation of standards and deal with the lawyers.

But the office antics are nothing compared to Belfort's big vices:  sex and drugs.  He tears through cocaine and quaaludes multiple times a day, as do his pals, often in conjunction with lewd acts with women, which the film throws at us glibly and without remorse.  At times, the film gets so wound up in its lust and ludes that it loses its focus from a tale of excess to just excess. Nowhere do we see the effects of Belfort's firm on investors, who were mostly super-rich, and the film hints they could afford a rip-off or two.

Stratton Oakmont can't rake in millions of dollars on penny stocks and IPO fraud without somebody getting hurt, and eventually the feds take notice.  FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) stays on Belfort's tail, but can't move in for the kill as the firm's employees confound or block investigators.  Belfort decides it's time to move money offshore, resulting in logistical problems that signal the beginning of the end of this corrupt Roman Empire of the financial world.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a longer, crasser version of Scorsese's Casino, which was also crass, but its crassness was redeemed by its compelling characters and brisk pacing.  Take nothing away from Leonardo DiCaprio, though.  He envelops Jordan Belfort to the hilt, occasionally showing a hint of humanity, but mostly showing his overpowering greed which makes Gordon Gekko look like a two-bit broker. His twisted, hard-charging speeches on salesmanship are one of the film's few redeeming qualities, but even that seems to be pushing it. Everybody else in this film is along for the corrupt ride, save for possibly Jonah Hill, whose relationship with the title character gets to expand outside of wild parties.

I needed a shower after I saw this. I also needed to avert my eyes several times (Psalm 101:3: "I will set no worthless thing before my eyes") to edit out the most egregious displays of sexual vileness. Fortunately, my Royal Father and Queen Mother watched American Hustle a few screens away in the same multiplex.  Having read some advanced write-ups, I warned them this is not a film I would be comfortable seeing with my parents.  I was correct.  Some scenes seem more apropos for a porn flick than a Scorsese flick.  How this film dodged an NC-17 rating baffles me, leaving me to conclude it got in just under the wire, somehow convincing the MPAA that its sex wasn't excessive enough or long enough to warrant an adults-only certification.  That's a sales job Belfort would be proud of.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Altar Is Open

On this Christmas Eve, I present to you a true story from August 2011, of finding GOD in a storefront church.

The church on 4th Street in Flagstaff evades us. Nearly hidden in a strip mall, we overshoot it by about three streets, ending up at the top of the hill where the bigger churches stand.

We are hitting the streets in Scottish mode, dressing in our tartan finery on the summer morning after a Highland ball. I choose my red Royal Stewart kilt outfit and blue Jacobite bonnet with the red-and-white diced hose, and she matches it with her tartan dress and red shawl.

We finally locate the New Testament Christian Church in the middle of strip mall, right next to the shell of an old printing company. A man in a suit waves to us as we pull up to the door next to a homemade sign hanging in the window.

Madame and I glance at each other.

"Do you have a bad vibe about this place?" she asks.


Not a bad vibe, but a curious feeling. If GOD is working through this couple to lead us to this micro-church, maybe there is a reason we need to be here.

"GOD led us here," I said.

That man in the suit, Pastor Leonard, welcomes us into a small room of white walls and metal folding chairs with hymnals resting on the end of each row. A worn console piano stands in one corner. The pulpit stands in the other. In front of both of them, a prayer altar waits, presumably with room for two, flanked with boxes of tissue.

Madame and I quickly find seats, and the hymnals immediately attract her attention. Pastor Leonard's wife engages my lady in conversation as Madame flashes back to the church of her youth, that old-time religion with the prayer books instead of the praise band. I quickly deduce Pastor Leonard's wife is the one who had handed Madame the business card last month at the Flagstaff Celtic Festival that is our invitation for this morning.

"A lot of people arrive at the last minute," Pastor Leonard observes as the 11:00 service time draws nearer.

Two more women enter, one with a baby. They sit across from us, quiet and unfazed by this strange couple in bright Scottish dress.

Pastor Leonard starts things off with a prayer, a very charismatic prayer, the kind where people stand up and hold their hands up as the leader radiates with passion towards Heaven. I have not ever experienced anything like it in any church, not the Presbyterian Church of my youth, or the Cool Church of my present, or the other churches I have visited at one time or another. Feeling a bit awkward about it at first, I dive in with my hands out.

Our pastor switches to the role of music director as he sits down at the battered piano and invites us to turn to "Washed In The Blood," one of those old-time Gospel favorites. His voice booms through the microphone as the console instrument resonates powerful chords at full volume -- joyful noises, even if he makes some changes.

"I had to change the key on that," he admits with a humble, aw-shucks demeanor. "One of the keys doesn't work on that piano."

He soon makes another role change, to that of usher, as he collects the offering... from all four of us parishioners in the room.

Those other people who Pastor Leonard thought might show at the last minute have not arrived. He is preaching to his wife, his daughter, two ladies, one baby, Madame, and myself. This is more prayer meeting than worship service, but our Pastor goes on undaunted by the numbers, confident in his mission as he plunges into his teaching from the book of Isaiah, on what it means to be "Washed In The Blood" of CHRIST, as we had just sung.

Over the next half hour, he delivers a teaching of one part sermon and one part blue-collar stand-up act.

"But Pastor Leonard," he calls, his voice morphing into a high-pitched wail to imitate those people who think they are faithful but aren't, or weren't sure if they were.

And yet, he doesn't sound like an evangelist nor a televangelist, but rather just a guy who's own fire for GOD wants everybody to know it in his own way, freely admitting he had made lots of sinful choices before Getting Right With GOD. It's a refreshing honesty, or maybe it sounds fresh because we're sitting so close to it. It's GOD straight up in my face, undiluted, unhindered by what others would call a safe distance or an indoor voice.

As he winds down his sermon, he invites us again to pray with him, charismatically and to have our own conversations with GOD, especially if we feel we have unfinished business with HIM.

"And if you wish to come up here," he said, "the altar is open."

"Do you want to reaffirm?" Pastor Leonard's wife says.

Madame and I turn to each other. We didn't need to say a word.

Seconds later we kneel at that altar built for two, Madame in her plaid dress, me in my kilt, hands folded, heads bowed, Pastor Leonard singing with all his might as he plays the piano, his wife praying with exaltation and encouraging us to speak up so GOD could hear us. The tissue waits for us, but we won't need it.

The only things I can ask of GOD in that moment is for HIM to forgive me, to use me, to guide me. That's all I can see from where I kneel. Anything else seems self-serving in that moment, surrounded by strangers praying for us, not minding our clothes. It washes over me like a second baptism. I can tell Madame is hungry for it. She needs it. I need it.

The two women and the child leave shortly after the service. I can't tell if they've learned anything or made any connection with their MAKER, but Madame and I stay and talk with our newfound pastoral friends for what seems like half an hour as we share our lives and our love of history, particularly Scottish history on this day.

Eventually Madame and I climb back into the car.

"Remember what I told you?" I say. "GOD guided us here for a reason."

The reason stood clear: A church is not merely a building, but a group of people gathered in GOD's name. It's not about the pulpit or anything else up front, but the effort we put into understanding what GOD is trying to say to us, and the willingness of people to take up the mission of helping us along the way.

EPILOGUE: Sadly, the little storefront church is gone now. I have not been able to find Pastor Leonard or his wife, but I am sure GOD is taking care of them and leading them on to the next missionary assignment.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Everybody Wants A Piece Of The Action

Reel To Reel: American Hustle

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro (cameo)
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong language, brief spurts of violence, several scenes of sexuality or near-sex with only partial nudity

American Hustle is a darkly comic extravaganza where everybody's angling to get someplace better by nearly any means possible. But mainly, it's about two budding con artists in the late 1970's trying to pull off the biggest job of their lives, with the feds, the mob, and their lovers hovering around them. And yes, they flaunt those tacky disco outfits, the ones people can't believe were once so chic.

Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) owns a chain of dry-cleaning stores in New York City, but through years of acquired street smarts, he's making his real money fencing pilfered artwork and running a loan scam. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Adams), an ex-stripper who's hustled her way into Cosmopolitan magazine and has serious acting chops. They fall in love, but when Rosenfeld nearly blows up their romance in a moment of honesty about his finance racket, Prosser comes back to him with an angle of her own. She poses as Lady Edith Greensly, a dignified English woman with banking connections.

The two of them form a mutually beneficial partnership to shake money out of desperate people until they get caught hustling undercover FBI agent Richie DeMaso (Cooper). The agent offers Rosenfeld and his lady a deal to save their hides: help the feds take down financial fraudsters. Irving comes up with a sting involving a fake sheik to front money for bogus investments. Agent DeMaso's aspirations soon grow bigger when he finds out he can potentially bust politicians and even a mob kingpin.

As the scheme grows bigger, egos inflate, and the danger level rises as Rosenfeld and Prosser's relationship sours. DeMaso develops the hots for the English lady who's going to help him become an FBI star. Irving seems to be on the losing end, setting things up to see them spiral out of control, endangering his adopted son and his estranged loose-cannon wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) -- who could blow the whole operation.

Irving doesn't seem like a con man to us. He's more of a beleaguered businessman trying to work his way out of a bad deal without losing his leisure suit. Irv ends up befriending one of his marks, Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner), a New Jersey pol who has a big heart but needs developers and their money to get Atlantic City's newly-approved gaming industry rolling. Sydney is the more dangerous hustler, a casual seductress who leaves you unsure if she's playing you, even as she describes how she plans to play other people. Agent DeMaso is the pitiful soul, living in a run-down apartment with his dotty mother and a token fiancee while secretly wearing curlers to keep his hair in that hip 70's do. Robert De Nero even makes a short but memorable appearance in a key scene.

This picture kept reminding me of Martin Scorsese's Casino, with its multiple narrative tracks, its tangled web of criminals and love interests, and a world we know is going to come crashing down. But whereas Casino gets more frenetic as the film wears on, American Hustle remembers to breathe and let its compelling characters be compelling. Bale says much of the film was improvised, giving it freshness and energy. I didn't spot a weak performance anywhere.

The movie is loosely based on Abscam, the FBI sting which enlisted the help of a convicted con artist to snare a U.S. senator and several congressmen on bribery charges in the late 1970's. As originally scripted, the picture stuck closer to the true-life characters, but director David O. Russell smartly realized it wouldn't be as fun. He re-wrote it to crank up the intrigue and the danger levels, and it works as an ensemble caper film. Only this isn't about a con, but people trying to con themselves into thinking they can get what they want, any way they can.

One last note: those of you in Southern Arizona, be watching for a line from the fake sheik in this film. You'll know it when you hear it. And it might just have you applauding like several in the audience did when they heard it, myself included.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Fear And Loathing In Panem

Reel To Reel: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mostly bloodless gladiator-style competition, mild language, some mildly suggestive scenes including a woman stripping off her dress in an elevator in front of two people without you seeing the naughty bits, which begs that question, "Was this trip really necessary?"

Admit it. You want to see Effie Trinket (Banks), that handler whom taste forgot, thrown into the bloodsport death match of Suzanne Collins' novels instead of the innocent children who are "reaped" to serve the tradition of a corrupt regime. Let's see those frilly ruffles, styled hair, and lip gloss save her egregious bouffancy. Oh, but it's not to be, at least not yet.

The seeds are there, though, and that's primarily what the second edition of The Hunger Games trilogy is, seeds. The film is a continuation of its blockbuster prequel while planting for the conclusion. It's a two-hour, twenty-six minute transitory movie that plays like a loose remix of the original with a few new twists here and there.

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are on a victory tour through the districts of Panem after winning the 74th Hunger Games in an unexpected display of love -- or is it defiance? President Snow (Sutherland) thinks its the latter, and he warns Everdeen that if she really loves Peeta, she better prove it or her family will pay. Katniss and Peeta go through with the charade, but Kat still has a thing for Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth). But all's fair in love and war. Riots are already breaking out in some districts. Katniss soon realizes she has touched off the start of a rebellion against the ruling elite when they go off-script in a speech and a man is beaten in front of her.

The Capitol rulers step up the heat against insurrection as only they know how to do. More beatings. More crackdowns. That'll solve everything. And still the games go on, with new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) stepping in for the man who, let us say, took a permanent leave of absence. Heavensbee has President Snow's ear, and he knows a few things about PR. He suggests a twist in the 75th games, known as the "quarter-quell:" instead of reaping tributes from the general citizenry, why not have an all-star competition drawn from previous winners? We immediately know what that means. Just when Katniss and Peeta thought they were out, they're sucked in again, back to the arena and the reality that they might not make it out.

I will say this again: My chief problem with the Hunger Games universe is understanding how the grossly hedonistic, tackily-dressed citizenry of the Capitol could've won the war that put them in charge. I gather the current generation didn't have to actually fight that war, but I think of that line from Sheriff Buford T. Justice in Smokey And The Bandit: "There is no way, son, that you could've come from my genes." Consider, also, President Snow, who wouldn't have a lick of intimidatory power if he didn't control gangs of thugs. By himself, he has as much menace as a miniature Schnauzer.

Getting beyond that, Catching Fire is two fighters punching for range before mixing it up. Both the state and the germinating rebellion are figuring out what they can do, and we're watching them from both corners. This means the movie drags at times. You won't hear people complaining, though, because part of the Hunger Games' appeal is to get caught up in the universe and its parallels to the corruption in our own. While this second installment is not overtly political, we'll be snarking about one-percenters, elitism and the working class. And we'll come up with some ways we want to see Effie offed in the finale.

Friday, October 4, 2013

In Space, No One Can Throw You A Life Preserver

Reel To Reel: Gravity

Going Rate: Worth full price in 3-D and then some
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Two Disturbing Human Images (I don't count scenes of peril as a red flag, but they're too intense for young children)

When 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in 1968, it enveloped audiences with an astoundingly original view of the universe coupled with hints of where we came from, and where we were going. Gravity is every bit as stunning and original, but on a terrifying scale. Yet this film has its influences: along with 2001, it draws from Marooned, Apollo 13, and Alien along with Alfred Hitchcock's non-sci-fi classic Rope. Director Alfonso Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with his son, turns the beautiful void of space into a claustrophobic deathtrap that reminds you of the dangerous of space exploration.

The premise is simple. A team of astronauts are in the middle of a routine space shuttle mission -- as close to routine as space flight can get -- when their shuttle is pelted by debris from a satellite explosion. NASA and others have warned us about the risks of flying space junk: it doesn't float aimlessly; it hurls around the Earth at thousands of miles per hour, meaning any fragment larger than a baseball can do serious damage to orbiting spacecraft. Suddenly the routine mission becomes a survival mission, led by space ace Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and newbie Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock). Kowalski is the cool pro who knows all the moves, and gets to show a few as he flies around on an experimental jetpack during the film's opening scene.

About that scene: it is one continuous shot that runs at least five minutes long. I didn't time it, but it probably runs longer than that. The second shot also runs several minutes long. These are the kinds of long shots Hitchcock used so effectively in Rope, ones people more often attribute to Brian De Palma, but I'd like to see De Palma pull off this flawless blend of special effects and tension. Cuarón knows exactly when to let his shots breathe for the maximum effect. He also embraces the scientific reality that crashes don't make a noise outside of Earth. The result is an unnervingly silent, uninterrupted realism hyphenated by Bullock's breathing and sparse dialogue in a performance that's a lock for an Oscar nomination, and it's a crime if doesn't get one. We feel ourselves floating next to the characters, even inside their space helmets in some sequences before seamlessly venturing out again.

Delving deeper into this film's technical brilliance and hair-raising plot would deflate the bulk of its tension. I can only tell you it does things we have not seen done before on film because technology has finally caught up with imagination. reports the filmmakers used a compositing system to create the space flight scenes which involved putting the actors in a specially-lit box to capture their faces, which were combined with the computer graphics. Yet for all this wizardry, the picture maintains a minimalist structure and a tight narrative. Cuarón shows remarkable restraint for this genre, where pictures try to out-do each other with their scope, relevance, or explosions. Instead, he focuses on the minutia; a small electrical fire on a space station has a freshness to it. Ordinary objects like pens drift around the actors, not only justifying the 3-D component, but reinforce the haunting sense that everything is coming apart around us.

Yes, this film is that good. I thought 2004's Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow was that good too. Do any of you remember that film now? I think I've only applied the term "Instant Classic" to one other film, Minority Report. That film earned it at the time, but times have changed, and now the sci-fi bar just lifted a lot higher.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fast And Loud

Reel To Reel: Rush

Going Rate: Worth full price
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl
Rated: R
Red Flags: Adult language, several lusty sex scenes

Formula One racing takes a backseat to NASCAR in terms of popularity in the United States. So it's good that Rush is more about competitive drive, much in the vein of Chariots Of Fire, except this film is a briskly-paced thriller that won't put people to sleep.

We first meet James Hunt (Hemsworth), a driver with Austin Powers' DNA in 1970's England. He's a boozing, womanizing speed freak who lets the good times roll. Hunt is doing laps on the Formula Three circuit -- racing's equivalent of the minor leagues -- when he spins out alongside Austrian racer Niki Lauda (Brühl), a disciplined racer from a blue-blood family with the personality of tire tread. Thus begins a rivalry that will lead up to a climactic 1976 season.

Lauda buys his way into racing though a bank loan after a falling-out with his father, eventually joining the Ferrari team and moving up to Formula One, but he has to haggle his way into the driver's seat. The wealthy financier of Hunt's racing team takes a page from the Lauda book and buys into racing's big leagues without the need for sponsors. Both drivers make pit stops for ladies: Hunt scores supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), and Lauda picks up Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara) after a social outing flames out.

On the track, Hunt is the. risk-taker. He merrily flirts with death, something that helps him flirt with the ladies, and he'll push the bounds of safety and sanity. Lauda is the brains, figuring out how to make cars run faster and trying to race smarter while staying alive. We see reminders Formula One racing devours its own in deadly crashes and fires, and still these race on.

Rush shows us the intensity of Formula One with crisply photographed race sequences and montages that guide us through Hunt and Lara's quest for the championship, which like NASCAR, works on a point system accumulated over an entire season of racing. For the uninitiated, it could be like trying to comprehend the BCS. Director Ron Howard also re-uses a technique that worked well in Apollo 13: use snippets of sportscasters and reporters as a stealth narrative track.

Off the raceways, Hunt faces sharp curves. His racing team folds, leaving him to scramble for another. He sputters in his marriage to Suzy, who can handle a husband who boozes, cheats or speeds, but not all three. Lauda begins winning races after changes in Formula One rules force Hunt's team to reconfigure his car. Both drivers keep throttling up. Eventually, somebody's gonna spin out again.

I saw Rush with my Royal Father, racing fan for as long as I can remember. Although it was my Uncle Bob who ended up getting behind the wheel on the track, Dad also did some rallying. My racing career never developed beyond the Pinewood Derby in Cub Scouts. But like I mentioned, your enjoyment of this film is not dependent on your affinity for racing. Ron Howard has crafted a highly-watchable sports film that's not really a sports film or a racing film. It's an accelerated run through the lives of two people who love fast cars, danger, winning, and beating the competition.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

State Of The (Dis)union

Your humble servant imagines what he would say to a joint session of Congress.

"Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, members of Congress, I thank you for this opportunity to speak to you on this day, in the midst of a national crisis. I further thank you for allowing me to do so wearing my Colonial regalia and my three-cornered hat. I love GOD, my country, and my heritage.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, here is the state of our union:  we are hurtling towards dictatorship and we deserve it.

"I'm not going to lecture you on the challenges of democracy or the so-called American Experiment. I am speaking to you candidly and directly, because that's the way men talk when they need to pound something through the walls of another man's cranium. If I couch it subtly, I have no guarantee you will refrain from reaching for your smartphones to get in a quick round of Candy Crush.

"I'll give you a quick history lesson. A little more than 200 years ago, President George Washington warned us about the problems of political parties behaving the way you do. You remember George, don't you? He's on those bills you toss around like Kleenex. Anyway, he said in his farewell address from the presidency: 'The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

"Allow me to translate: keep pulling this garbage, guys, and people will wish they had a king again. Think I'm kidding? When saddled with a dysfunctional, bickering, over-partisan, anti-social Congress for long enough, they'd rather have an authoritarian who can act decisively.  People will run the risk of putting a despot in power because they're tired of the alternative. We're getting there faster than you'd like to admit. President Washington saw this coming, but y'all didn't listen. I get to say 'y'all,' having lived in Texas five years.

"I once read a blog post by an Arizona politician saying one of the most important skills of public office is knowing how to count. In last year's election, we counted 51 percent of the vote for President Obama and 47 percent for Governor Romney. We counted 231 seats in the House for Republicans and 201 for Democrats. We counted 53 seats in the Senate for Democrats and 45 for Republicans. Pretty close.

"The rational takeaway is this country is more purple than red or blue, and that our collective best interests lie in a coalition that is amenable to a country largely split down the middle. But no, this is Congress. The people in this chamber don't think rationally. Those who did got run out of here, or they saw the light, and they escaped with their hides intact.

"The raw numbers, the fact so many voted for you, and yet so many also voted against you doesn't inspire a lick of humility. From your warped perspective, you refuse to consider the possibility that your particular party may not be the glimmering beam of hope, and it may not be ruling by Divine Right -- or Left. So your rationalization becomes that the people who voted for the other guys must be ignorant, or the votes must be fraudulent. No way, no votin' way could these people actually know for whom they're casting a ballot. They're the hicks in the sticks, or the bums in the slums. They're LIV's - low-information voters. They're in flyover country, the left coast, the Bible Belt, or Hollyweird. And so you excuse yourself from considering the merits of what the voters are trying to tell you by dismissing the vote as tainted. This is despite your best efforts to rig the game through gerrymandering. In the old Soviet Union, people who didn't see Communism as the best thing since indoor plumbing got sent to the gulags. Be honest with yourself, Representatives and Senators. Aren't there people in your constituency you've dreamed of seeing locked up?

"It gets worse. After you've dehumanized your opposing constituents, it's not much of a stretch to dehumanize your opposing colleagues. Commanders do this in war to make it easier for soldiers to shoot the enemy. You've transformed politics into war, holy war. The greatest jihad threatening this republic comes not from Al-Qaida but from Al-Congress.

"You can tell me you took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, but let's get real. This present holy war has nothing to do with the Constitution, or freedom, or liberty, or the rights of the people, or any noble superlative you want to throw at me. This is about one thing: power.

"You crave power. You eat it up. You want seconds and thirds. You are not content to have a slice of the pie when you think you can own the bakery. And because of your warped perspective and thin margins of either victory or loss, you are convinced you can do it if you just crank it up another couple of notches.  The cooler heads that would've stopped you in the old days aren't around anymore. In every war, we have collateral damage, and you've managed to decimate the moderates. Their chief role now is to lament the mess while ducking for cover.

"So now we arrive at another startlingly sad conclusion: you really don't care about America. You say you do, but we all know actions and rhetoric exist on different planes. I'm sure of this because there are a few specific actions you could take to convince us you care more about this republic than your power, and yet you have not done any of these things.

"First, you refuse to junk the filibuster. It's a procedural dirty trick you can't part with because it gives you power when you're in the minority. Even when you complain about the other guy using it, you know there will come a time when you will use it. Both parties have griped about it, but none of you want to get rid of it. The irony is nobody has to do any actual filibustering.  The lack of 60 votes to end debate works better than anybody talking their face off.  And I hate to break this to y'all, but on those rare occasions when you pull an all-nighter, you're not Jimmy Stewart's noble Mr. Smith; you're some sore loser stalling for time.

"Second, you refuse to give the president the line-item veto. As thus, you protect your power to pork up budgets or hold them hostage. The president is powerless to carve out the waste.  Before you start worrying about that whole checks-and-balances thing, need I remind you the vetoed parts would get sent back to you for up-or-down votes to override. We'll see what's pork, and you'll be on the record for where you stand.

"Third, you find ways to exempt yourself from your own bills. You barely read your own bills, but I shall mercifully avoid ripping you on that one. Still, the net result is that you don't put yourself under the full weight of your own authority, thus protecting the power you crave.

"Mr. President, I'm not letting you of the hook, either. If it makes you feel any better, I'm not letting your predecessors off. All of you have had opportunities to be the adult in the room and push Congress to do the above three things. But you want to play the game, because you know you can run against Congress to your advantage.

"I know some people who remember when United States Senators used to be appointed, not elected. I bet a few of them wish that were still the case. Maybe, just maybe, by picking somebody of character, tact, and maturity, we could start cleaning this mess up. We can only dream.

"So let me boil this down for you: keep it up, and this government will collapse. Maybe not in your term, maybe not in the next term, maybe not in the next guy's term, but it will collapse, because that's the net result of congresspeople who love power above everything and hate their constituents. It they don't hate their own constituents, they hate they other guy's constituents, the ones who elected this guy or that guy, whom they also hate, and who won't let them have what they want.

"And finally, I have a word for the millions of American voters watching this. We've got to do better. I know we didn't create the deadlocks and the filibusters and the jihads now infecting this place like cancer, and I'm sorry that you have had to suffer for them, but we have a role to play in the solution. How many times have you gone into the voting booth and held your nose? You have looked at a long list of rotten choices and thought, 'Well, I gotta vote for somebody.' No, you don't. You'll notice each office up for election has a blank line for a write-in candidate. This is your opportunity to write in 'None Of The Above.' Your vote is your voice. You owe it to yourself and your nation to say what you're really thinking. If nobody is worthy of your vote, it's time to mark it down.

"Mr. and Ms. American Voter, don't let these guys in Washington try to talk you out of this by warning of dire consequences for our republic if you vote your honest mind. You can't do anything worse to this nation than what they're doing right now. And frankly, they dread looking up at the returns on Election Night and seeing more people voting for nobody than for the somebody they thought they were.

"I believe GOD has Blessed this nation. I believe HE will continue to Bless this nation if we let wisdom rule in place of ego. One day, I'm hoping Congress will once again overwhelmingly attract the best and the brightest who now avoid this cesspool for good reason. Negotiation and coalitions will once again rule. We'll say "The Distinguished Gentlemen" in the floor debates and mean it. We'll have showdowns, but we'll have boundaries. We'll be proud of our lawmakers for a change. We'll want our children to grow up to be Representatives and Senators.

"Until then, we can pray and we can work. But we can't shrug it off and say, 'These things happen in cycles,' because eventually we'll run out of time."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Don't Bother Me While I Think Different

Reel To Reel: Jobs

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Moderate language, some brief drug use

I still remember when my Royal Father brought home one of the first-generation Macintoshes in the summer of 1984. The Mac's sleek and meager footprint replaced a gargantuan Sanyo MBC-3000 that hogged the computer desk. Back then, I didn't think of it as the beginning of a revolution. Other systems, including IBM clones, had a few Mac-like software packages culled from the system's dreadfully expensive big sister Lisa. The original Mac cost $2,495, a pretty sizable chunk of change to take a leap into a new, untested frontier of personal computing.

And for Apple's Steve Jobs, personal computing meant personal, but only he understood it. That's what Jobs wants us to remember in this Cliffs Notes biopic that focuses on Jobs' ambition to build great machines while leaving out the other dimensions of his life. Ashton Kutcher is a dead ringer for Jobs, appearance wise. Yet he fails to help us understand Jobs on a deeper level, often times leaving the titular character hovering in a state between mad genius and maddening jerk.

The picture opens with a greying Jobs announcing the now-iconic iPod before quickly flashing back to his long-haired, drug-infused barefoot college days. Did Jobs think better because he dropped LSD? I think not, but we see young Steve in a whirlwind spiritual journey that plays out like an acid trip. Then there's the "now, what" moment. After a life-changing experience in India, we don't really follow why Jobs would want to come back home and team up with people to program computer software.

Jobs ends up at Atari, where he alienates himself from his staff, only to get his own project, and get bailed out by uber-geek Steve Wozniak (Gad). Woz has the chips, but Jobs has the hard drive. As Apple fanboys know by heart, the two started the company in Jobs' garage after failing to convince companies like Hewlett-Packard why anybody would want a personal computer. Ah, but the computer is a creative device, Jobs is trying to make people understand. It's not the system, it's what you can do with it. We follow Jobs as he builds Apple only to be thrown out of it as his creative vision doesn't jibe with stockholders' vision. Note to self: when I build a company, never take it public.

So many other aspects of Jobs' life and career are either glossed over or ignored, mainly his strained relationships with family, including daughter Lisa (who inspired the name of Apple's innovative Spruce Goose machine). This makes it harder for us to understand his maniacal, almost religious, demands for loyalty and vision. We hardly see his feud with Microsoft's Bill Gates, which he later patched up, nor do we see much of what made him decide to create the iPod or the iPad.

Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography is the better choice for anybody who wants to understand the real Steve Jobs, or what drove him. It wasn't about the inner geek or the acid trips -- that's for sure.

Monday, August 5, 2013

No Joy In Mudville

Want to know why people have turned off baseball? Just look at the Alex Rodriguez drug scandal, if you're not already sick of it. What galls me isn't that he doped, or refused to admit he doped, it's that he still thinks he's too cool to take his lumps, unlike his all-star colleagues Nelson Cruz, Everth Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta and nine others who are agreeing to at least 50 games on suspension without a fight.

Those guys could have appealed, but they didn't. They knew they were busted and accepted reality. Not A-Rod. His people have been working behind the scenes, trying to cut him a deal to preserve his playing time and what's left of his $62 million contract. Here's where Major League Baseball fouled -- they actually negotiated with these people.

You can argue to me that's no different than plea-bargaining in the criminal justice system. But that's law. This is baseball, Major League Baseball, an organization that -- unlike the NFL, NBA, and NHL -- has been chronically unable to effectively deal with its performance-enhancing drug problems. The doping should've essentially ended after the fallout from Jose Cansecos' tell-all Juiced. Instead, players simply found new ways to game the game and the managers running it. Now Team A-Rod is trying to game the sanctions.

So far, he's swinging at air. He got the equivalent of 211 games out -- the rest of the season plus all of next season -- but the numbers are academic. The appeals process means Rodriguez could potentially play through the rest of this season because a decision from an arbitrator isn't expected until at least November. And A-Rod has some powerful bargaining chips: he hasn't played this season until now because of injury rehab, and he hasn't failed any drug tests. An arbitrator could slice the suspension down, buying arguments that could include claims of excess given the circumstances, and that MLB is making A-Rod its whipping boy because he's a unlikable creature with a filthy-rich paycheck. Like I said, it's baseball, not law.

Commissioner Bud Selig resisted the temptation to go nuclear and bench Rodriguez without recourse under its equivalent of the double-secret-probation clause:  Major League Baseball can deal swiftly with people who pose a threat to the game's integrity. Yes, I just used "Major League Baseball" and "integrity" in the same sentence. I'll wait while you stop laughing. As much as I would've liked to see Selig hit a home run on A-Rod's behind, the commissioner did the math. He knew the hurtin' he could deal to the Yankees' star wouldn't be worth the hurtin' he'd get from MLB's players union, which would probably take him to court and saddle him with more labor headaches for years to come, the kind of headaches that lead to strikes and convince more people to give up watching baseball.

Still, 13 players suspended today does not constitute success on commissioner Bud Selig's efforts to clean up the game. In all, 17 players have been punished for their connections to the Florida clinic that helped them dope. The clinic is closed, and apart from A-Rod's appeal, this scandal is over. But the doping isn't. It isn't because the majors are still trying to rebuild from the disastrous 1994 aborted season, and the players' union can still call some crucial shots, which gets in the way of Selig and others putting the fear of the baseball gods into any potential artificially-enhanced slugger.

The union is backing Rodriguez. But maybe it should just back off. New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden reports MLB players are getting so sick of dope and dopers tainting the game, they're willing to consider letting front offices rip up the contracts for PED cheats. Hitting the wallet harder may be exactly the message that will keep players away from the juice. I don't expect the union to throw A-Rod under the bus, but I would find it refreshing if it got out of the way.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Marky Mark And The Wild Bunch

Reel To Reel: 2 Guns

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Bill Paxton, Edward James Olmos
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong language, intense action violence, brief frontal nudity

It's difficult to write about 2 Guns because the entire movie is a labyrinth of plot twists intended to set up the big payoff scene teased in the theater poster. Beyond that, it's a serviceable buddy-buddy action comedy, although only one buddy is having the fun.

I can tell you the plot involves a bank heist in a Texas border town that goes better than expected, or worse than expected, depending on your perspective. The two robbers, Trench (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg), are small-time drug runners hitting back against a Mexican kingpin who welched on a cocaine deal. When Papi (Olmos) fails to deliver the product, the two decide to hit Papi's drug money stash in a safe deposit box. Only they find getting Papi's money comes with a lot more headaches than they expected. Soon they're not only wanted by the kingpin's thugs and the police, but also each other. I'll leave it at that.

Denzel Washington is so good in so many roles, and here he's the straightman to Wahlberg's manic faux-homeboy wiseguy who likes to wink at women. I like how Denzel's Trench doesn't feel the need to lighten anything up. Stig, however, conveniently seems to forget he's white, as if Wahlberg suddenly had a flashback to his rapper days with the Funky Bunch. I remember working at Six Flags over Mid-America in the mid-90's when he played a show and called out, "Who's got my kiss?" at one point during a break. That Stig, he's down with the ladies. So is Trench, to be sure, to a hottie played by Paula Patton. I can tell you without spoilers it's Trench who ultimately gets more girl action.

Olmos' role as a cartel baddie surprised me. Here is somebody who has pushed for America to overcome Latino stereotypes, who pointed out the horror of Mexican-American gang life in American Me, and he's playing a foul-mouthed drug lord who talks about the size of his prize bull's organs of increase. I can't tell Olmos what roles to pick, but when I see him here, is it really unfair for people to wonder if this guy was hurting for a paycheck? He told Fox News Latino he actually ends up being one of the good guys, but that logic is about as twisted as this film's pretzel plot.

Let me try something. Rather than delve into any more performances, I'm going to give you the movie's remaining notable elements, and you can try sticking them together to see if you can divulge the plot before you see it.

  • The DEA
  • The CIA
  • The U.S. Navy
  • The local cops
  • Mounds of cash
  • Loads of weapons
  • A stampede of bulls
  • Russian Roulette
  • Illegal immigrants
  • Donuts
  • Gas fires
  • A hotel suite

Got all that? Good. See you at the movies.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Just Dying To Find Out

Reel To Reel: The Wolverine

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Will Yun Lee, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hal Yamanouchi, Tao Okamoto
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild language, intense action violence and swordplay
ADVISORY: Stay through the credits for a bonus scene. I didn't. :(

Unlike 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the new Wolverine flick plays like a series of setups for a series of fight scenes, including the Big One At The End which could've come off the cutting-room floor of Transformers. I like Hugh Jackman, and I like him as Wolverine, but this film doesn't give him much range beyond slashing and hallucinating.

As I have discussed before, mutants like Wolverine are just about immortal, which explains how the Warrior Formerly Known As Logan is able to save a Japanese officer Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. While shielding his captor, his body shakes off a nuclear meltdown. Gotta love that immortality. We're not really sure why Logan has a desire to let this one live other than some basic humanity and a basic need to develop the rest of the picture.

Decades later, we find Logan living in the woods as the standard-issue retired superhero mutant after the breakup of the X-Men. He doesn't get around much, except to avoid the bears and pick up some basic rations. He constantly wakes up from nightmares about his dead love Jean (Famke Janssen). Even in this off-the-grid existence, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), one of Yashida's associates, tracks him down and urges him to go back with her to Japan. Turns out the Japanese officer is now the dying mogul of a technology behemoth. He'd like to say goodbye to the man who saved his life before he loses it.

We know it's not that simple. Logan gets caught in a messy power struggle involving Yashida, his daughter Mariko (Okamoto), his son Shingen (Sanada), yakuza, samurais, ninjas, and lot of talk about family honor. And if that's not bad enough, the former Wolverine finds he's losing his immortality after what's supposed to be a tantalizing prospect from Yashida: wouldn't it be great to live a normal life for a change? Let me put it to you this way: if you were unbreakable and staring at a shriveling man with one foot in the grave, how would you answer?

The film is full of lightning-fast martial-arts kicking and swordplay, along with a fight on top of a bullet train that's only believable because we've suspended our disbelief so many times for the sake of CGI. Yes, Logan ends up in the sack with another girl along the way. And no, he's not the only mutant in this film.

As I reflect upon all the film's lasting images, of all its ninjas and samurai and yakuza, the film walks a fine line between paying tribute to Japanese culture and stereotyping it. In one way, it's a nice step up from martial arts B-movies. Otherwise, I didn't find a whole lot to get excited about. For me, the X-Men films are great when they promote their social themes as much as their kick-butt antics. While there's a compulsory element of that here, it's a very thin one, and it falls flat.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Czar's Revenge

It's final-day flashback time! I wrote the following commentary for The Eureka High Bugle back in January, 1990. I've slightly rearranged a paragraph and tweaked a few words to make up for some layout and copy-editing mistakes that got into the paper, but otherwise, it's printed here word for word.

Some 80 years ago, Vladimir Illich Lenin was spreading the Communist doctrine in the streets, and the Russians, suffering under Czar Nicholas II, were more than willing to listen. It seemed so bright -- this thing called Communism -- so wonderful. At last the people would be taking control. They believed a perfect society was in the making.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." It's 1990, and the Soviet economy is headed for a crash landing under Mikhail Gorbachev's perestrokia. Lenis is probably walking around in Heaven right now with a bag over his head, provided he even made it there in the first place.

Communism, it seems, is about to die a violent death after only 80 years in existence. Even Feudalism lasted longer than that. Czar Nicholas has had his revenge.

Not too long ago, the Soviet parliament rejected a proposal to create two-party system within the government. It's amazing the Communists would consider such a measure. It's even more amazing that they continue to have such faith in the party under a tightly-controlled economy to stop the freefall. But that's wishful thinking under Gorbachev. "Gorby" will admit there's some problems with his reforms, but he's not going to admit defeat. Neither will the Communist Party by allowing the formation of a second party and an alternate idealism.

As for the Soviet citizens, a recent poll is saying that many Russians want to return to something other than Russia's present state of rapid socio-economic unraveling. The going is getting tough, and the tough won't get going.

And what about the Soviet satellites? Unless you've been living in a state of suspended animation for the past five months, it's unnecessary to say how the spirit of democracy has taken a heavy chip out of the Eastern Bloc. For awhile, it seemed that Romania was the last holdout.

Nicolae "I-Am-A-Soldier-For-Socialism" Ceausescu ruled with an iron hand, and perhaps an iron head as well. He was a strict Stalinist, and it looked as if nobody would put him to the test. Then, out of nowhere, the people got even. Enough oppressive rule! Enough bulldozing of our villages! Give us liberty or give us death!

The revolution broke out and Ceausescu fled, only to be captured and given a shotgun trial -- literally. But what really symbolized the Romanians' craving for freedom occurred when an official at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest raised the American flag the morning the dictator fled. Instantly, he and the entire U.S.A. were stars as crowds around the embassy began to cheer and yell wildly. Playing on their emotions, the man ran back into the embassy and came out with a picture of President Bush. The crowds then began chanting, "Bush! Bush!" The people knew democracy when they saw it.

To bring all of this into focus, Communism will die trying to save itself from its imminent demise. Only two options seem to remain: give up peacefully, or let people power build and learn the meaning of reform the hard way.

Somewhere, Nicholas II is smiling.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Kind Hearts And Clarinets

On the list of things I'd wish I'd done differently as a child, high on the list is learning the clarinet. I might as well have taken up the accordion. I can't figure out a single reason why I chose that instrument other than to bond with my Royal Father, who played it as a kid and did better than your humble servant. All it did was add to my nerd factor.

Yes, I know: Benny Goodman, Woody Allen (yes, he plays it), and who knows who else. But they are they and they aren't me.

I should've followed my curiosity: fooling around on the piano, which has led to fooling around with synthesizers at various points in my life, and I still do from time to time. I can turn my PC into a Prophet-5, a Hammond T., a DX7, an ARP Pro Soloist, or a Mellotron. Ditto for my iPad. I have played "smart chords" on GarageBand and keep up, more or less, while others play acoustically. I still don't know piano, but it's on my bucket list. Tony Banks of Genesis is my keyboard hero, so don't be surprised if you a Facebook photo of me leaning over a synth stack, bobbing my head like he used to do in concert.

I could've gone for drums. My parents are probably glad I didn't, although for a higher price, computerized drum pads are widely available that won't wake up the neighbors. Getting them into an apartment -- another challenge.

People see me in a kilt and ask if I play bagpipes. In a word, no. What they don't know is that the pipes have a high rate of attrition. Before you can even put your hands on the bag, your teachers will require you to spend at least a year on a practice chanter -- a sort of kazoo that thinks its a recorder and got too close to a set of pipes. Master the chanter, and you're ready for the next level.

A young lad in my college dorm played the pipes. Every so often, one could hear the Highlands of Scotland in the University of Missouri. He would stand outside and pace as he played in a slow, melancholy march.

"I love the pipes," said one girl who observed him. "That sound reminds me of Sting."

For the person with no time to learn a lot of fingering, I would recommend the electric kazoo. They play like a kazoo, but plug in like a guitar, meaning the full range of effects pedals are at your disposal. I just added this to my bucket list.

Knock, Knock...

"Who's There?"

"The Mormon."

"The Mormon who?"

"The Mor-money I make off of you, the better my chances of going to Florida with my class!"

(Insert rimshot here.)

A few of my friends have learned to put small signs on their door saying, "Please no religious or commercial solicitation." I should've learned that the moment I moved into Apartment 252 at midtown Tucson's Fox Bay in 2000.

Up to now, the only people who came knocking on my door were magazine salespeople, students looking to earn points and bucks for some leadership trip. One person came around selling a magic citrus cleaning solution. That's how I ended up with subscriptions to Spin magazine and a bottle of Tropic-Solve under my bathroom sink.

I wasn't ready for the LDS missionaries. They always work in pairs, always on foot or on bicycles, always in those white shirts and ties. They are out nearly year-round, proselytizing to anybody with a door. I wonder what their success ratio is, but I gather the hard numbers don't matter in the bigger picture.

So on a blistering summer day, they gave a friendly tap at my meager entrance. At that time, I was largely a Christian in name only, years before I got right with GOD and started reading the Bible nearly every day, but I had enough humanity to invite them in so they could at least cool down.

They gave me their sales pitch. They talked about John 3:16, the "football verse," as one of them (and many others) called it. They prayed with me. They gave me their book. They asked when they could come back. I gave them a date and a time when I didn't think I'd be home.

But as things turned out, I was. And I knew I didn't want a second visit. So when they knocked a second time, I pretended I was asleep on the couch. I don't know if they looked through the window next to the door and saw me playing possum. Either way, they didn't come back a third time. I still have their book. I never read it, but it's still in my bookcase, just in case somebody asks me some question about Mormonism and I need to do some homework.

If I get another visit from the LDS, I'll simply tell them, "Go in peace. We can debate your book versus what the Bible says. But I don't want to. You're not going to convince me, and I'm not going to convince you. Why waste each other's time? And for cryin' out loud, get your elders to let you wear shorts in Arizona!"

But don't go off before I give you a Cool Church card. I dare you to go. Dare ya!

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Card-Carrying Newbie

Debit cards are everywhere now, but in 1994, they were on the cutting edge of banking. People hadn't thought of using an ATM card like a credit card, and that also applied to the ATM machines.

I didn't have a bank account when I arrived in McAllen, Texas. My cash supply came from the green Mark Twain Bank Visa debit card, drawn from a financial institution in Fenton, Missouri. It worked so much like a credit card, I didn't tell cashiers it was, unless I needed to. They took the card, ran it through, and it worked.

I didn't carry travelers checks, and I knew not to carry wads of cash. So the Mark Twain card was the only way to get gas, groceries and grub, at least until I could get an account set up at either Texas Commerce Bank or Texas State Bank. I didn't know which was better, but as long as the green card worked, I had both time and money.

Eventually, I needed to get some greenbacks. So I walked up to a Texas Commerce Bank ATM and stuck the card in. The ATM examined it and said I hadn't inserted it correctly, but it wouldn't give it back. I went inside the branch to talk to Customer Service.

"Once it holds your card, it's destroyed."


"You'll have to contact your bank to get it back."


I explained to the lady that the card was my lifeline, having just moved here from St. Louis, and I didn't have a bank account here yet, because I didn't have a permanent address. And not every place will take a check, anyway. Besides, I said, that card is compatible with Cirrus tellers, including yours, so it shouldn't be giving me trouble.

She did some calling told me I needed to see a guy named Jaime who service the ATM and get the card back from him at the main branch on 10th Street. She left a message for him on the phone.

I decided to go there myself and talk to him, and fortunately, I got better service from him than anybody at the smaller branch. He said it wouldn't be a problem to get the card back -- just come by tomorrow by 1pm and get it.

Moving on, I tried to cash a check at a place up the street. The clerk turned me away -- sorry, no personal checks cashed after 2pm. I'd never heard of a time limit until then.

The next day, I got the magic card back, and within a week, I'd set up an account at Texas State Bank. The card episode narrowed my decision down quickly. TSB only offered a straight ATM card -- not a debit card -- but it worked.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Main Event (Sort Of)

On an Autumn Friday, I walk down my high school's hallway and right into trouble.



I can only hear the tinkling of glass and the gasp of the crowds. When I round the corner, all my questions are answered. Crumpled on the floor are two belligerent figures in a headlock, pounding each other with their shirts rolled halfway up. I deconstruct their surroundings like a crime scene as the crowd looks on: an open locker, a trail of spilt chocolate milk, a broken window. No blood anywhere. A principal soon arrives to break up the fight and start interrogating the two contenders.

I later hear this fight was hours in the making as the instigator plotted his strategy over lunch. "He was saying, 'Should I hit him from behind or should I just go right into him?'" That might explain the milk. I still couldn't get over the broken window and how nobody got cut.

Thus it was for most of the fights I witnessed in high school, which were often short, anti-climactic and peculiar. A kid in gym class walks through the locker room with a blood stained face like nothing has happened. A boy runs down the hall holding a bleeding hand after being stabbed with a comb. Two guys hit and run down the hall between classes; blink and you'll miss them. Two girls do the same. A fight in the middle of a crowd is more NHL than MMA, with neither person able to get the other one's shirt off.

But the championship bout in the ring of awkwardness goes to a dust-up in my freshman typing class.  People were coming back from lunch, and the two instigators were first in the door. It started with a shoving match, as so many of them do, and soon they were clenched in combat, shoving typewriters aside.

A beleaguered substitute teacher saw it and made a limp attempt to ring the bell. "Hey! Hey! Oh, somebody break them up."

She motioned to me. "Call the office!"

I carefully strode over to the intercom button as the two aggressors shoved each other into a neutral corner.

"Office," crackled the voice through the giant grey speaker.

"We need a principal in here!" said the flustered fill-in.

The two kept pounding each other until they either gave out or somebody else broke them up -- I forget which. The summoned principal arrived and escorted them to the office shortly before class resumed.

Having the first set of eyes on the combat, my peers soon pried for information the next day: "Is it true they were throwing typewriters at each other?"

Rumors are so cute when they're young. "No. But they did shove a few back."

The regular typing teacher, now back at the helm, saw it as a teaching moment. "You know, if you all break something in here, you have to pay for it," she warned the class.

That could end up being an unintended improvement, with the rooms aging fleet of IBM Selectrics dating back to the 1960's.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bought And Paid For

While searching for something on my Queen Mother and Royal Father's kitchen counter during a recent trip back home, I ran across the accompanying paperwork. They had barely ascended to the throne when the stork came calling. So upon my birth in December 1971, it turns out my parents financed me like a car.

"You were not unwanted," Her Majesty points out. "Just unplanned."

In 1971, the Queen Mother was making a meager salary as a teacher. The Royal Father was about to take on a job in my uncle's pharmacy. They weren't starving peasants, but they weren't exactly raking it in. With no health insurance to cover delivery costs, some payment agreement was needed to get me home from the hospital.

Her Majesty put $150 down on me and agreed to pay the rest of the $386.90 balance in a 12-month installment plan of $34.19 a month. Notice the interest rate of 11.5 percent. That's about what I paid on my 2001 Kia Rio. They didn't even negotiate with whoever was behind the desk. I don't even think their loan guy did the four-quadrant worksheet. It also didn't include the doctor bill, proving once again it's not the parts but the labor that gets you.

"You could've done worse," I observed. "You could've put me on lay-away."

"We told you that if you weren't a good boy, we were going to take you back to the hospital," Her Majesty replied.

But what would've happened in the event of a default? Sure, $34 is nothing, but this is in 1971 dollars. I imagine I would cost triple to quadruple per month today. And how, exactly, do you repossess a child? Did Independence Sanitarium and Hospital have Rocko and Lefty on call to take me away?

"Go with the nice thugs, Christopher."

I was born in the hospital part, for those of you still snickering. I imagine I would've needed the sanitarium part.

Several years later, when another prince came into the family, Mom and Dad were ready. Well, sorta. They had better insurance in place, but they still needed to make a sizable payment on my brother's birth.

Mom put him on Master Charge.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Weekly Lesson In Humility

I remember a Peanuts poster where Charlie Brown says, "The more I learn, the more I learn how much I have to learn!" Thus it is with a diversion I have been practicing for a little more than a year: Scottish Country Dancing.

Once a week, I put on a kilt, an 18th Century weskit and dancing ghillies and prance about like a merry Scotsman -- or try. This isn't the Highland dancing you may be thinking about -- hands above the head, prancing in place. It's more like the English dancing you see in Pride And Prejudice: organized sets of people cavorting about, but not all at the same time. "SCD" speeds things up and adds fancier steps.

"In English dance we glide," one instructor once told me. "In Scottish, we fly!"

And when I land, it's sometimes in the middle of confusion. Scottish dance adds more complicated figures, many of them diagonal in nature or counter-intuitive to what I learned from the English. Dancers can fly in and out of the set, twirl among each other or their partners and still make it back to place. Timing is crucial. The key to making the complex figures work is hitting the right mark on the right beat, because everybody else is using your position as a guide. Get there too early or too late and chaos blooms from the garden of precision. One more thing: the steps in these dances aren't called. You have to know them, just like those Colonials did.

I'm glad I know "Mairi's Wedding" without help:

I first toyed with learning Scottish dance a few years ago after attending a Scottish ball in Tucson with Madame Sherri. We ended up dragged all over the place, into reels and diagonals and figures I'd never heard of, much less walked through. The dreaded mirror reel (that's a "hey" for you English dancers) nearly plunged the two of us into irrecoverable frustration. But we danced on. My work hours at the time made learning Scottish dance impossible. But when those changed, I finally decided to broaden my horizons.

Since March of last year, I have been learning the ways of the Scottish Dancing Force through the Tucson branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society, a network of highly-organized, highly-enthusiastic, and, compared to your humble servant on a challenging night, highly skilled. Might I also add they are a highly encouraging group?

Let's start with the steps. In English, you need only walk. In Scottish, three steps are the basis of everything else: the skip-change, the strathspey, and the (elusive) pas-de-basque. If one needs to crawl before one can walk, one must skip-change before moving on to the strathspey. It took many weeks for me to figure out the skip-change, that elusive foundation step which involves skipping on alternate feet. I cracked it by surprise one evening before practice where I just began doing it out of the blue, without putting much effort into it. I'd even tried skip-changing at work when I could keep it hidden from others, perhaps during a quick trip to the water fountain. But I still got caught sometimes.

"Were you just skipping?"

The strathspey is best visualized as a skip-change slowed down to a more elegant pace, but my Colonial English instincts keep wanting to kick in so that I offer a bit too much of a hop, as if I'm dancing a minuet with the Queen of Versailles at a fancy ball in 1754. Fantasy plays a huge role in my tackling the learning curve. Many people will come to practice in shorts or slacks, but I have to have the kilt, puffy shirt and weskit, living vicariously through the 1700's if it will improve my technique. It's also more French, like so much of Scottish Country Dancing. That's what many don't realize. The French influenced Scottish dancing because the Scottish royalty spent many years exiled in France. They brought more than the crown back with them.

And then there's the pas-de-basque. The dreaded pas-de-basque. The step people work on for years before nailing. The step that looks like it's two beats or four beats, when it's really three beats. One-two-three, two-two-three. Where's the four? I hear a four in the music. I see it in the figure. It is hidden, elusive and taunting.

One of my beloved instructors recommends learning this step to the opening bars of Queen's "We Will Rock You." The stomp-stomp-clap has the perfect cadence needed for instructional purposes at a beginner-friendly tempo. I can do it at that tempo, just not at twice the speed in the heat of the dance. "Just focus on getting the three beats," my Scottish dancing Jedi masters coaxed. I'm still working on it.

After the first few months of dancing, I met with a bit of reality: even though my enthusiasm was there, I just wasn't ready to take on for the advanced dances yet. The RSCDS has quality-control standards, and I had to remember that with humility.

"Part of it is your shoes," one instructor mentioned, indicating the dress shoes that got me around so well at work. "They're just too heavy."

I needed dancing ghillies. I needed them badly. But as I asked around for the best places and practices for acquiring a pair, a friend in the dance offered a gift and a miracle: a pair of ghillies, used, but still very much wearable. They lightened my load, and I was soon prancing about with the ballast gone.

A week later, out of nowhere, a lady offered her observation: "I haven't seen you dance for several months and you've come a long way!"

The complement stunned me. "Thank you My Lady! But I can't get my pas-de-basques."

"Well, you heard [the instructor]. It took her a heck of a long time to learn it, too!”

"GOD Bless You, My Lady!" I replied with a courtly bow.

One year after I began my latest dance journey, I attended a ball in Phoenix with their RSCDS branch. I had a couple of meltdowns when a figure threw me, but we kept going.

And I managed to pull off the Reel of the 51st Highland Division with few, if any, errors. Watch closely and you can see me counting the phrases:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Your Mother Should Know

My dearest Queen Mother was both upset and relieved by my post a few months ago on Facebook:
THANK YOU, GOD, FOR WATCHING OVER ME: On a way to a wedding this evening, a SUV missed sideswiping me by "that much." On the way home from it in the dark on Old Soldier Trail, I was able to avoid hitting a coyote that darted right in front of me. GOD is Great.
To which Her Majesty replied:
Why didn't you tell me! That's why I don't like to talk to people who are driving! Love from your worried mom!
To which I told later told her on the phone that I didn't need to add to her compulsive worrying. My Queen Mother worries constantly and consistently. She inherited the trait from my Queen Grandmother, who used to think every ambulance siren somehow involved her offspring.

"We're not going to tell Grandma about this," Mother would often say to my brother and I for those minor crises that were best patched up and forgotten. But she didn't realize that procedure would turn on her when the kids grew up and she became a grandparent. I have selectively withheld information on matters beyond her control until the danger has passed and all could be revealed. I reckon my brother has, too. Yet Her Majesty can't understand why she's been left out of the loop on some things.

"The rules you make as a parent don't change when you become a grandparent," I explained.

"But I'm your mother!"

Yes, and the Queen Mother told her young princes that certain information was top secret. And her loyal, loving subjects have decided she's got enough on her plate, mainly dealing with classfulls of testosterone with little backing.

Occasionally, I'll get a question similar to, "What other things have you not told me?" It's pretty self-defeating, like asking the people who didn't show up for the meeting to raise their hands. But when the time is right, certain information will be revealed, like getting ticketed for criminal speeding outside Las Vegas or trying to escape harassment in high school.

Some stories I have withheld because telling them at the time would not be as satisfying than after the fact. The classic example was when I attended my first We Make History Ball. I had told Mother I was participating in a historic event, but I did not disclose much more than that, wanting to tell a better story. She ended up reading it on this blog and asking questions later.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Now, How Much Would You Pay?

In early 1993, when we are living in our three-year-old home outside St. Louis, Mom breaks the door handle on the three-year-old dishwasher she's trying to get it open. The handle pushes in and sticks without unlocking the door, and she can hear something snap inside.

Whirlpool sends out a repairman to have a look. A fat, long-haired, grungy looking guy walks in and fools around with it for about an hour before locating a snapped pin in the handle -- which should have been twice as long to begin with. He replaces it, and all is well.

The total cost of this repair job: $75. Yes, $75 for a broken pin. That's after a coupon for 10 percent off a service call.

Looking back at it, it's hard to justify that much money for a little pin that could fit in a watch. I break down the costs. Some of it had to be labor, but it's only one hour's worth. During that hour, Mom thinks the guy is going to have a heart attack as he gets down on the floor and wheezes as he looks under the washer during his diagnosis. I wanted to call up the consumer investigation squad at KSDK and complain.

I've found ways to do certain maintenance jobs myself, especially on my car. Fluid changes I leave to a pro, but there's no excuse to let somebody else change an air filter when it just pops in and out in less than five minutes. I walk into Walmart, look up the part number, buy it, and do it for half the price of a garage. I also do my own air conditioning recharges. It's easier for me than changing a tire.

When I still owned my dear departed Kia Rio, I went through a number of compressors in the hard Arizona heat. Most auto-repair chains will charge more than $1000 for a new compressor, plus labor, plus hoses and some other things they have to install in order to validate their corporate warranty. I found an ace mechanic in Tucson who would gladly install parts from a junkyard-- ahem, recycler to cut the cost. A $1200 job shrunk to $300 that way, and I was able to get through the summer months. I had an option to buy a $3000 recycled engine when the poor Kia threw a timing belt and clunked out, but by that time, I was ready for a new car after 171,000 miles of service.

"This car's been well maintained!" a mechanic told me recently as I took it in for a radiator flush. "The only thing I found in the inspection was a dirty air filter. I can put a new one in for 25 bucks!"

Uh, no.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Bus Rider's Guide To Columbia

I didn't have a car for my first three years at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I didn't need one until I had to haul out to KOMU-TV, located on Highway 63 south of campus.

"We put it out there to keep it out of the politics of the university," an adviser explained when I asked why the MU-owned station was out in the boonies of Boone County. "We have professors coming by KBIA [the MU-owned radio station] trying to mess with the record selection."

Until then, I got around Columbia just fine on a red Raleigh Pursuit 10-speed. I didn't use it on reporting assignments, not wanting to get my slacks dirty with bicycle grease or sweat. I also didn't want to crash onto somebody's car, like what nearly happened in my first week at Mizzou. My brakes weren't working as well as they should've been, and my front tire collided with a driver's front fender, tipping me upwards and nearly turning me into a new hood ornament. I still remember her mouth open a mile wide. But no scratches or bruises developed, and we both continued on to morning classes.

Out on my leisure, I pedaled for miles upon miles from campus to the the Business Loop near I-70 to Columbia Mall and back through residential Columbia to campus. That worked for the warm months, but when things turned cold, stormy or snowy, I had another option: walking or making a short bike trip a few blocks north to catch the CATS bus.

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Wabash Station is an old, rustic train depot now serving as a bus stop. Fares were cheap: $1 got me where I needed to go, mainly to Columbia Mall to catch an occasional movie or do some shopping. The attendants at Wabash are user-friendly, even though one gave me an awkward response when I handed her a fiver for a bus ticket.

"Got anything smaller?" she asked from behind the bars of the ticket cage.

"Nope," I replied. I wanted to add, Sheesh, do you think I'd give you a five if I had anything less. I got onto the bus with $4.50 in quarters stuffing my wallet. I got them changed back to bills at Columbia Mall's customer service counter.

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Riding the bus is one of life's great equalizers. It puts you in contact with people you never see and will never meet. It's where I learned how bad the economy was in November 1992. Three women had just gotten on board after a day of shopping for Christmas gifts with limited funds. One was giving her two children a pair of "Uno" card games -- a smart choice considering she originally planned to give them both giant candy canes that wouldn't last long.

"After they use it up, that's it," she said.

"I remember Kammy's first Christmas," another woman said. "All we had on the tree was bows."

"How much you got left from your paycheck?"

The wheels on the bus turn round and round as the conversation turns to other matters and I drift off into a short nap...

"...She's trying to get her Pell Grant back... but I don't want her going out and getting drunk... I tell her to get a job..."

Friday, June 21, 2013

That's Showbiz

"You've never seen a place, like Showbiz Pizza Place..."

I still remember the first commercial, clear as day: pizza and video games in the awesome early 80's.

"We'll serve you a pizza, second to none. So come for the pizza, stay for the fun!

The first Showbiz Pizza in the nation opened in 1990, not far from my backyard in Independence, Missouri, at I-70 and Noland Road. I persuaded my folks to take me there for my birthday and bring a couple of friends.

They had Skee-Ball and Pac-Man and Space Invaders, all feeding on tokens which you could buy in bulk. Five dollars bought six dollars worth of tokens. My friend Brad mastered Skee-Ball while I put the ball in the 'net above. Steve taught me the nuances of Pac-Man as it was breaking out into a worldwide phenomenon.

They served pizza in four-inch by four-inch squares, and it was actually pretty good, and pretty meaty. In front of us, Billy Bob and the Rock-A-Fire Explosion -- an all-star cast of animatronic puppets -- entertained us with covers of moldy 50's classics and a tribute to the early days of Michael Jackson.

I loved it because this was one of the few times my parents allowed me to pump their hard-earned money into mindless entertainment. This was the innocent age of arcade gaming, before 50 shades of Mortal Kombat invaded the playspace. Showbiz didn't mind being old-school. Atari's rudimentary Night Driver sat peacefully across from Asteroids. Wizard of Wor and Tempest shared the same galaxy. Showbiz even found a way to make an Apple ][+ into a coin-operated machine by serving up "Lemonade," that game we used to play on the classroom computer.

Then the video game boom crashed hard. Showbiz started plugging their pizza. All those locations they opened started closing, but the Noland Road location hung on for many years after I grew up and moved away. It's still there now, but as Chuck E. Cheese's, transformed into its chief 1980's rival.

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Many years later, when my Royal Father turned the benchmark age of 50, guess where the guys from his office took him? To a Showbiz in St. Louis, where they racked up Skee-Ball tickets.

I miss the old-school arcade. I miss the pizza.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The King Abdicates The Throne

As a teenager, I resolved I wasn't going to take a burger-flipping job as I could help it. When I was 15, I tried for gig at a call center in Raytown. A girl in one of my classes got a job at that age. I didn't.

The next year, I ended up with a sacking job at the local Food Barn, now called the Apple Market:

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One year later, before heading off to Boys' State, I thought I had a job lined up at the Burger King down the road. Okay, it was a burger-flipping job, but my mind discerned it from the Golden Arches. I also didn't want to see any more of my hard-earned pay siphoned off by dues for a union that protected the jerks and discouraged the dutiful.

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The interview gave me more insight than I expected as the assistant manager set the ground rules.

"If you make any racial jokes, you're out the door," she said, going down a list of terminable offenses. "I know three people who are out the door right now. One of them is stealing from me."

I gave her my work ethic: I'm dependable, I'm reliable, and I can prove it.

"Sounds like you got your head on straight." She gave me a start date and a BK polo shirt with pants. The start date came around, and I came in to start my first day. Another manager greeted me behind the counter.

"Here's the deal," he said. "This store is being bought back by the company. So be here next Monday, when we're having a meeting to go over it. You'll go through all the paperwork you've done up to now. That's it. Have a soda on me on the way out!"

"Can I draw it?" I asked.


I ambled up to the post-mix machine and poured a Coke with too much ice and not enough cola.

Next Monday's meeting drew out the gang of cooks and counter jockeys to the plastic dining-room tables, as a Burger King corporate manager explained what was going on.

"I'm so glad the company is buying it back," a woman next to me sighed as she listed to the spiel. I penned through the applications and attachments once more. And then I asked, when's my real start date?

"Uh, we're not sure," the manager said. "Give us a call next week." I was off to Boys' State and a little nervous. But I took him at his word.

When I got back, I followed up with the phone call.

"Why don't you come in on Monday at 2?"

I put on my uniform, and Mom drove me to work. When we rolled into the parking lot, the alarm bells started going off. A sign on the door said "Closed For Remodeling."

Corporate hadn't just bought it back, they'd cut their losses. I could've spit venom. The bosses left me hanging, and I had no recourse except to call some regional office and complain about what happened. Whoever was on the other end of the line didn't know what was going on. I never even got an apology. Three weeks of applying and patience proved fruitless, and I wanted to burn that BK polo.

A couple of weeks later, I found another job... at McDonald's.