Thursday, January 31, 2013

Failure To Win The Hispanic Vote Is Not An Option

In a Republican strategy session room...

"Okay people, listen up. Forget the party platform. As of now we are improvising a new mission--"

Click. POP! Zzzz...

"Uh, we'll get a bulb for that."

"It's called How Do We Get More Hispanics Into The GOP? We got midterms less than two years away. Now, do we go for a direct amnesty program?"

Grumbles. Chatter. Anxiousness.

"No. No. No. I say path to citizenship. It's the option with the least question marks."

"I agree with Jerry. We do a DREAM-like program, provide a process for the young illegals, make them go to the back of the immigration line."

"The party will not support an option that ignores law and order! We go back to the drawing board, do an about-face, hammer the jobs angle. And besides, we don't have enough time to rebuild the base."

"You're talking about time. We're talking about losing votes here."

"Look, we don't even know how much support we can count on in 2014. If we continue to take the hard line--"

"This party blows up and we die!"

"That is not the argument here!"

"I'm not gonna sugar-coat this for you."

"Okay, everybody settle down. Now law and order has worked pretty well for us. But from what the numbers are telling us, more than two-thirds of the Latino vote went for the other side in the last election. We continue to alienate that demographic, we could blow the whole works again. I'm not gonna take that chance -- it's just too risky. So let's consider the hard line dead. Now border enforcement has only got so much power, so that leaves us with the path to citizenship. We put a sensible plan together with the other side, pick up a chunk of Hispanic votes, get as many Republicans back into office as fast as we can."

"Uh, I'd like to know what the Tea Party thinks about this."

"We can't guarantee support. Illegal immigrants are supposed to be landing back in Mexico, not in the immigration line."

"Well, unfortunately, they're not landing in Mexico. I don't care what our policies are designed to do. I wanna know what they can do. So let's get on it."

With loving apologies to the cast and crew of Apollo 13.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Truth Hurts

I wrote the following essay for a high-school composition class back in 1988. You are reading the original paper, word for word.

When I came into my seventh-grade science class Friday afternoon, I wasn't thinking about dissecting a cow's eye. Instead, I was thinking about getting out of school and going home. When I saw a box full of cows' eyes sitting by the door, I casually joked about it: "Ohhhh, I think I'm gonna be sick!" I never really considered the possibility that this statement might be true.

Our science class was learning about the human eye. As part of our study, we were to break up into lab groups, and each group would cut open a cow eye to examine its contents. I had never dissected anything before, but I knew I would have to -- sooner or later. Before that day, the thought of having to do a dissection hadn't bothered me.

Mr. Schroer, our teacher, began class by taking an eye out of the box and holding it up for everyone to see. He gave us instructions on how to cut open the eyes and told us what we were to look for. All the while, he continued to hold the eye up in the air while he pointed at it. Every so often, he rotated the eye around in his fingers to make sure the entire class could see it.

I gave him my full attention while he talked, but I couldn't help staring at that eye as he held it up in the air. The way he held it with one hand and turned it with his fingers made it seem... ALIVE!

I began to get a dizzy feeling in my head. My face lost its color, and everything else became foggy. I couldn't hear clearly anymore. My stomach and legs seemed to pull at the upper half of my body, persuading it to fall to the floor. Trying to ignore the situation did not help -- with every passing second I grew dizzier and dizzier. It didn't occur to me at the time, but I was on the verge of fainting.

Mr. Schroer must have spotted my pale face while he was passing out eyes to the lab groups, because he took me outside into the hall. I was surprised I could even walk -- I felt so weak.

"Do you know you look pale?" he said to me outside the classroom.

I nodded my head. Actually, I really didn't know what I looked like, but I took his word for it.

"Let's go back inside and continue," he calmly said as he reached for the door.

I couldn't go back in there. I didn't care what he said; I didn't want to do it. The thought of returning to the classroom made me feel even worse. In my weakness I slid down the wall to the floor. Suddenly, I began to regurgitate my lunch all over the place.

My teacher helped me up and led me down the hall to the school clinic. All along the way I vomited, leaving a visible trail as I walked. By the time we got to our destination there was nothing more for me to lose.

My mother came and promptly took me home, even though I could've continued on until the end of the day. On the drive home, I explained to her everything that had happened to me. She slowly shook her head back and forth as she drove. "Christopher, you'll never be a doctor," she said.

I had no problem with that.

In the years since then, I've had to do many more dissections in school. Every time I have had to sit down, as that dizzy feeling always returned. I never thought of it as shameful or cowardly. It was something that just happened, something I couldn't help. But out of all those times, nothing ever compared to the shock I felt that first time. It was the shock of finding out something about myself that I had never thought to be true -- I wasn't as strong as I thought I was.

If you're asking, I got a perfect "A" on this assignment.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

We're Gonna Send A Hoe To Pedro... No, Wait!

Mention "VBS" to me, and my first association with those letters is "Visual Basic Script" or "Visual Basic Source," not "Vacation Bible School." But I've heard some of my Christian friends talk about it in those letters, so I have to keep reminding myself. The first word of the term can be misleading: it refers to the school happening during summer vacation, when there's not supposed to be school. That also makes the term an aspiring oxymoron.

We'll forget the semantics and move on to my recollections of VBS at the Presbyterian Church of my youth. It's one week of songs, crafts, 16-millimeter movies, and some food, all culminating in some presentation during next Sunday's service.

No VBS is without a theme. I wish I could remember what themes Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church in Raytown embraced over a slice of my boyhood, but I do remember one involved adding a paper rainbow to the top of a Kansas City Royals baseball cap.

What's memorable is that at least one of these themes involved starving children in a third world country. On the first day of one session, one of the leaders held up a picture of some boy, whom I shall call Pedro because I forget his real name, and talked about how tough it was for Pedro to farm because of the drought.

Mind you, we are years from Sam Kinison's explosive rant on third-world hunger: "You're living in a [bleepin'] desert! Move!" We are also years from white middle-class youth absorbing hip-hop slang. So at this time, it is completely possible for the little children to sing, "We're going to send a hoe to Pedro" without them collapsing into snickers. If such a chorus were attempted today, a red-faced worship leader would quickly shoo the kids off to crafts and make a mental note of yet another word rendered unusable by popular culture.

I hated VBS. I hated the dumb songs, the throwaway crafts and the focus on kids in other nations who needed food when we had starving kids in Kansas City. Why weren't we helping them? Even at a young age, my still-forming mind must've detected something inherently wrong with sending charity to peoples who were suffering mainly because of their oppressive governments. You want aid? Let's send in air support to bomb the heck out of the regime that's keeping you poor.

Nowadays, it's much different. My church runs a VBS focused on helping children learn about GOD and how to live for HIM, which is the way it should be. The kids get to make a mess like on Double Dare. We don't do pseudo-missionary work; our mission is to reach the majority of people in Tucson who aren't coming to church and get them in the door. By reaching the kids, you reach the parents.

Elsewhere, VBS is taking on a slicker look. In my youth, church teams would have to brainstorm ideas for a theme. Now you can buy a VBS kit online like the ones I found here. They have cooler titles like "Power Lab" and "Kingdom Rock." No Pedro anywhere, unless somebody comes in one of those Napoleon Dynamite shirts.

Church school has come a long way since my scoundrel youth. I'm glad because we don't need more youth disconnected from the church, wondering what they're doing singing about other kids they don't know for a GOD they know they should love but aren't sure why.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Super Size Isn't Everything

"Don't you ever eat?"

People ask that from time to time when they see me blow off lunch breaks. I can run on vapor like a pro, consuming maybe two meals a day or just one. A full stomach slows me down, and slow doesn't make deadlines in a newsroom.

My co-workers at KRGV can tell you about the flip side of that. I was known for consuming gobs of Big Macs. The McDonald's down the street would sell them ridiculously cheap and I would grab a couple every night.

"I can't understand it," one of my anchors said. "I eat a Big Mac, I'll gain 10 pounds. You eat one and you lose three."

They couldn't understand how this skinny guy could put down fast food and not die of a heart attack. People keep telling me I need to see the documentary Super Size Me. I still haven't. It's not like I'm trying to become the next Don Gorske.

My parents will tell you how I could inhale McDonald's fries as a kid. They were both appetizer and dessert: a large before the burger and then another large afterward. When I worked at the Golden Arches for a few months in the summer of 1989, I somehow managed to keep myself from chomping up the burgers tossed from the production bin. That was during a previous policy of them making food ahead of time and throwing it out after so many minutes had elapsed.

One time a McDonald's worker handed me an obnoxiously large order of fries through the drive-through window.

"We accidentally made this and we don't want to throw it out," she said.

It was a large drink cup overflowing with fries. This particular location offered a size reserved for gluttons, one step up from the "Super Size" order. I figured they were giving it to me as some sort of valued customer award. Yes, I ate it all.

But I never stuff myself silly on the job... except when somebody brings in Domino's.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thus Sayeth The Dog

Your dog can't talk to you, but that's not going to stop him from trying. The next time he yawns, watch carefully, and you might catch a tenacity to form words.

"Rrrr... rowr-wa rohr roah!"

My aunt's Brittney Spaniel, Libby, got disturbingly close to holding a conversation. She would yawn and human syllables would fall out as the exertion of fatigue contorted her mouth and throat.

Most of the time, it's less dramatic. My Dad's Springer, Toby, would just walk up to the Queen Mother and grunt.


"You already ate!" Mom would scold this beast constantly looking for a handout.

His predecessor Cinnamon possessed a progressive verbal dexterity. When she needed to go out, she would walk over to the gate separating upstairs from downstairs and sit. If you didn't notice her, she would let out a high-pitched "sheee." If you didn't let her out after that, a "warrf," "arf" and another "shee-sheee-shee" followed.

Cinnamon knew the language, and Mom knew Cinnamon. The Brittney would go into her whimpering act to go outside and Her Royal Momminess would stop the Royal Father from getting the door.

"She wants another bone!" Mom would say, referring to those "Bonz" treats Cinnamon would get after coming back in, snacks she preferred over her dog food. By this time we had her on Science Diet for her main course, and she hated it. We switched her food mainly because the vet recommended we buy it, and wouldn't you know he also sold it. Never do business with a huckster vet.

Sparky, the Dalmatian of my Grandfather and Grandmother Francis, didn't speak much because he was too busy eating. He would make his rounds among the house trash cans at least once a day, chewing up toilet paper and who knew what else. Bits of it would turn up on the floor.

"Did you leave that there?" my aunt would ask him.

Sparky would growl softly.

I firmly believe dogs develop cast-iron stomachs for all they can ingest, but Sparky ate enough hazardous materials to kill half a dozen people. The following is a verified list of what this dog ate:

  • Toilet paper
  • Any paper
  • Birthday cake
  • Cotter pins off Grandpa's Volkswagen beetle
  • Wingnuts from an unknown source
  • A whole can of motor oil -- we didn't have to worm him for a month after that
  • A needle and thread
  • Pancakes
  • Cantaloupes
  • Ice Cream
  • Change off the dresser
  • A 20-dollar bill, almost
  • Christmas tree tinsel (which he couldn't pass -- don't even ask how we got it out)

To be sure, Cinnamon had her notorious dietary habits; she once ate an entire loaf of bread in the back of the car during a trip from St. Louis to Kansas City. Towards the end of her life, she loved to travel, whining to the Queen Mother to be taken along just about anywhere.

"She's just a big baby," Mom said when I ask why the dog was in the back of the car one day when she picked me up from work.

Towards the end of their lives, dogs will let you know exactly what they're feeling. And just like with humans, they're often gone before you can offer a last word. That's the way it was with Cinnamon and Toby. Not even a famous last bark.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Frat Boys In Khaki

Scouting is supposed to build character in young men. My troop turned them into frat boys.

It's unknown how that troop, the one that met at a church in Raytown, Missouri, turned into a group that could've hung out at Delta House. I could blame testosterone. I could blame a few well-placed punks. But it's all speculation.

Doing forensics on my memories, however, I see a trend emerging: lack of leadership. Before each troop meeting, the adult leaders would stand in the parking lot smoking, drinking Big Gulps, and cracking dirty jokes, heaping the operation on the Eagle Scouts. They needed to put in some leadership time, and we were a motley crew.

After earning my "God And Country"
It wasn't unusual to see two guys get into a fistfight in a corner of the room beneath a table. Somebody would burp during roll call.  Another guy would pass gas during an awards ceremony. Somebody would throw up on the front table for no discernible reason. You can imagine how campouts went. One session had little outdoor activity; most of the guys were in the bunkhouse diddling with hand-held electronic games. Remember: these are Boy Scouts.

A rummage-sale fundraiser nearly went sideways. The gang uncovered a stack of crummy LP's and proceeded to make them into smash hits.

"Hey, I found a cracked record!" one of the Scouts yelled as he flung it into the air. It hit the church parking lot with a crackle.

Other records followed, flying into the air and crashing all over the asphalt. One Scout figured out how to make an LP perform a touch-and-go landing, throwing it so it skimmed the surface before rising back into the air. We got one stuck on the church's roof. The adult leaders were right next to us, and either they condoned this madness or couldn't stop it.

A few of us still managed to do some decent community service and earn merit badges. I shoveled woodchips for a nature trail in the miserable Missouri summer-humidified heat along the road to my God And Country honor. I'm told it's the equivalent of Eagle Scout. I felt it was the equivalent of probation by the time I got through, and someone pinned the giant red-and-white cross medal on my uniform.

When I hit puberty, my interest in Scouting waned. I only did it for the neat uniform, I figured. I should've gotten into historical re-enactment instead at that age -- if I'd only known about it.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Running For My Life

Stepping outside Apartment 79 at Peppertree complex in north McAllen, Texas, I locked the door for the last time in the dim morning.

"So long," I said. "You've served me well." All the belongings I hadn't shoved into the back of a Mayflower van were now in the back of my Chevy Celebrity, including the dirty laundry on the front passenger seat. I considered it a crude theft deterrent. I'd left a batch of tamales in the freezer for the next occupant.

So it happened on December 18th, 1999, that I began the next chapter of my life driving off into the fog. I wasn't looking back as I booked it for San Antonio, hoping to complete the first leg of my journey from the Rio Grande Valley to Tucson before noon.

Eleven months earlier, I knew I wanted out. I had just been promoted off my weekend producing shift at KRGV in Weslaco and promoted into a new set of problems: egos, amateurs, technicalities, and mostly tempers. Longtime News Director Rick Diaz, the man who hired me, had just retired. Rising to the top was his assistant, who could be either Jekyll or Hyde depending on his mood. I saw both sides of him, but mostly the Hyde, along with the rest of the newsroom.

"If I become News Director here," he once told me, "half the station would quit and I'd fire the other half. But I'd keep you though."

Some encouragement. I wouldn't see much of it from him. After he moved into Rick's old office, I suspect he also started taking on the tasks our General Manager couldn't press Mr. D into doing. That just made the new boss crabbier.

When the competition launched a retooled newscast on a new set, I strolled into the News Director's office after the 6:00 broadcast. I had some legitimate bragging points about the show, including stories with exclusive video.

"Get the anchors off of the damn set!" the boss barked at me as soon as he sawy

No hi, no hello.

He had other gripes, out loud, to nowhere in particular except our new assistant news director, the lady who had mentored and taken me under her wing for the last five years.

"How did we ever stop saying Top Story?" he griped, referring to the competition's branding on the first story of the newscast.

"Because we talked about this with [the consultant]," she said. “You remember the long conversation we had where we decided we wanted to be Big Story?

"Oh [forget] John; I’m the committee now," he growled in my direction. "I’m making the decisions here."

"So that means we’re Top Story now?” my mentor asked.

"Yes that means we’re Top Story!"

"Okay, okay," she said, waving her hands, trying to mellow him out. "We’re just trying to be clear here."

My mentor softly told me I was probably going to have to go back to the old way of doing things.

"Okay," I said. But I left with a parting mumble: "I don’t have to take this."

After he ripped into me for an honest mistake, I'd had enough. He called me a "namby-pamby" and made a vulgar comparison to breastfeeding off my assistant news director. In a lot of places, yelling at somebody like that would be grounds for termination. But since people seemed to accept it as the boss being the boss, and because I needed to eat, all I could do was sit there and take it... and then look for another job.

I warned my mentor that night I was on the way out. She understood. She felt for me, but she knew she couldn't do a lot to help. Besides, the guy was whipping a lot of other people into shape.

Or like me, they just felt bullied. I admitted it sheepishly to one of our junior reporters one night after I landed the job at KOLD in Tucson several months later.

"Oh Pico," she said, rolling her eyes and calling me by newsroom nickname, "that's why everybody's leaving. He's not a leader."

When I went into his office to give my notice, I hadn't said a word before he grumbled: "You can't quit."

Oh yeah?

I spoke my part and then watched him grumble some more from behind his desk while he opened his mail -- maybe it was time for me to go, and I would have to be less tense and not let other people aggravate me... sure, sure sure. He barely took his eyes off the letters in front of him, griping parenthetically -- "No, we don't want that service!" -- as his eyes scanned them over.

Stepping out of his office, our assignment editor shook my hand. I didn't have to tell him what I'd done.

Now I was headed north out of the Valley, growing more confident with each passing mile. As the Saturday dawn broke over Texas, I passed through towns coming out of their slumber. I made it into San Antonio a half-hour ahead of schedule and I phoned home to keep my parents posted. I would call them many times during the trip, filing "Road Reports" on their answering machine if they weren't home.

I gassed up in Segovia, grabbed a bite at the DQ drive-through in Sonora, ate on the road and tried to stay patient and alert while driving through the dusty no-man’s land of West Texas. Only one radio station was on the dial for about 100 miles, and the tape deck didn't work.

Every so often, I would see someone broke down on Interstate 10 as I pushed west, but I kept pushing. One of my anchors had given me an emergency road kit as a going-away present, and I hoped I wouldn't have to use it. I hoped to make it into El Paso by 10pm. I did it at 6, so I decided to press on into Las Cruces before bedding down at a Hampton Inn, scoring a room without a reservation.

Sunday morning rose to find me on the road again, passing through the snow-capped Rocky Mountains as I completed the final leg of the trip. I was on vacation, but with something better waiting at the end of the trip.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Devil Uses Master Lock

When I moved with my family from Kansas City to St. Louis in 1989, I found myself with a new identity, and a mild nuisance.

About halfway through my senior year, some joker started writing "666" on my locker. I would wipe it off, and the writing would return: "Satan" or "666." I'm not sure what inspired the epithet. As a target of bullying, I've heard and experienced much worse. But I wondered if this was the prelude to something more dastardly, and so I went to a counselor about it.

"We're moving you to another locker," he said without hesitation, snarling beneath his voice. "There's no excuse for that kind of harassment."

Within minutes, he had assigned me to a clean locker. The writing ceased.

Then I few weeks later, I saw this above the lock: "You can run, but you can't hide from SATAN!"

I couldn't win. But at least it stopped with the words. I never did find the culprit, although I did catch somebody saying as I passed in the hall, "There's Lucifer right there."

In middle school, somebody learned my locker combination. Blessedly, he didn't pilfer my goods, so comparatively speaking, I was ahead. I also didn't share the locker with anybody else, so I didn't have to worry about putting them through the muck.

Once in middle school, some girl accidentally dropped her math book in my locker while the door was open and didn't realize it. I thought it belonged to my locker partner and didn't touch it. She ended up paying for it when she thought it was lost for good. Then I picked it up, realizing I really didn't actually have a locker partner at all, and found out it was hers. She nearly wrung my neck.

Nowadays, because lockers can be used to hide all sorts of mischief including incendiary devices, schools are disabling them and making kids haul their books around. Apparently, an aching back is better than a smoking pile of rubble.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Little Boy And The N-Word

The recent controversy over the movie Django Unchained and the n-word centers around realism and whether people -- even actors -- should be using that word, even if it was used in the antebellum South. I first heard it in post-bellum Missouri, on the school bus.

I'm not sure who started saying it first, but I remember hearing 1st and 2nd Grade kids say it on the way home.

"Who's sayin' [n-word] back there?" the bus driver would bark every so often, in addition to half a dozen other commands or intimidating interrogatories: "Turn around and face the front!" "Are you getting off here, [so-and-so]?" "Who has the gas cap?"

Kids would unhesitatingly call each other the name, even repeating it out loud to nobody in particular. I passed by one girl who seemed to be chanting it: "[N-word], [n-word], [n-word]."

It didn't matter whether somebody was actually black. One bully said to me, "You little [n-word]!"

My Queen Mother set me straight the first time I tested it out on my little brother. I didn't know what it really meant or how ugly it was. This word seemed to come out of nowhere, hitting school all of the sudden like the flu bug. Only now have I figured out how it got into my peers' lexicon: Roots.

That 1977 blockbuster miniseries that allowed us to have a national moment of clarity and humility on slavery and race wasn't shy about using the n-word on national television. Robert Reed -- Mr. Brady, fercryinoutloud -- even used it, and if kids hear something on TV, they'll be talking about it on the playground.

By high school, most of us knew better, and so did the adults. But it didn't stop black kids from using it on each other, even in a comparative context. I once heard one African-American kid say to his friend about a certain particularly dark-complected kid, "Man, that's a black [n-word]!" Some even argue there's a difference between the n-word with an "a" on the end versus and "r." One college professor told me African-Americans who used that word were trying to appropriate it as their own to take its sting away.

Psychologist and civil rights leader Dr. Alvin Poussaint along with Bill Cosby call all the rationalizations garbage:
“Gangsta rap promotes the widespread use of the N-word to sell CDs among people of all ethnic groups. In fact, the audience for gangsta rap is made up predominantly of white youth, who get a vicarious thrill from participating in a black thug fantasy.... Black youth, as well as some misguided adults, have defended the use of the N-word, suggesting they are somehow making it a positive term. Don’t fall for that nonsense. The N-word is a vile symbol of our oppression by slave masters.”
My dear friend Madame Noire knows that to an angering degree.

"I've been called the n-word, spearchucker, jigaboo, darkie, sambo," she once told me in a voice that brought out the pain of growing up not only black, but mixed-race black, where black people tell you you're too white, and white people tell you to be blacker.

If my peers had heard Madame talking about that word, they wouldn't use it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Westbound And Down

In 2001, I needed to replace my aging, pre-owned 1986 Chevy Celebrity. The old Chevy had more than 100,000 miles under the hood, and although the engine was built like a tank, the A/C was getting too expensive to keep patching, and the roof was sagging in even after I'd tacked it up with staples. The tape deck didn't work anymore, and plugging something into the cigarette lighter blew a fuse. While the seats generally looked good, they'd gotten a deep scrubbing after a bout of carsickness.

My Royal Father recommended I check out the KIA dealer because their cars came with a 10-year warranty. I strolled onto a lot and set my eyes upon a forest-green Rio sedan almost instantly. Some automotive sage surely said, "We don't choose our cars; they choose us." A few days later, when the paperwork was done and the car was spiffed up, I drove it off the lot.

As one of the lowest-priced cars on the market, the Rio lacked many standard features, including metal. Outside of the engine, nearly everything on the car was either plastic or seemed like plastic. Even the seat fabric felt a little like plastic. But it ran, and it ran well. The car made many trips from Tucson to Los Angeles and back, along with a few trips to Las Vegas.

During one of those trips, I got a rude reminder of another missing feature: cruise control. While driving U.S. 89 northwest of Kingman, it's easy to let speed creep up. The road is long and flat, and besides a few mountains, you're looking at telephone poles. Heaven forbid a good song is playing on the radio because you'll be rocking and rolling instead of looking at the speedometer. Then you'll be looking at blue and red lights in the rear-view mirror.

It happened to me about a decade ago. An Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper pulled me over for doing 104 in a 75 miles-per-hour zone. But rather than being angry with my obvious lack of discretion on the gas pedal, he was impressed with the little Rio's performance.

"What is that under the hood, a four-cylinder?" he asked as he scoped the car out, smiling.

He wrote up the ticket and explained my options. "This is Criminal Speeding, which is technically an arrestable offense. But I really don't want to take you to jail." He handed the citation over with its $200 fine and cut me loose to get to Vegas.

After talking to attorneys to go over my options and possibly fight the ticket, I ended up cutting a plea deal with the Mojave County District Attorney during a visit to Vegas a few months later. I asked to get the citation reduced to a civil infraction I could get dismissed with defensive driving class, but the assistant D.A. wouldn't have it. He did cut the fine in half. My insurance rates took a hit, but I changed companies, and remarkably, because they couldn't find the ticket in their system, they gave me a better rate than I had to begin with.

The Rio ran for more than 170,000 miles, going through numerous replacement parts and three compressors before finally breaking down in 2011. The guaranteed-for-life timing belt slipped off, causing the engine to throw a rod. The cost of repairing it was better spent on a new ride, so I bid farewell to the poor old car, forest green paint now peeling and sandblasted from the Arizona desert. I moved up to a hot red KIA Spectra, pre-owned but built a little tougher. Oh, the places we'll go...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Blame The Libertarians!

[Satire button: ON]

As this nation begins the second term of the Obama Administration with much less enthusiasm than the first, with half of America hating the other half, with our Congress incapable of making a prudent budget decision, and everybody pointing fingers in all imaginable directions away from themselves, let me kindly join the scapegoating bash. I know exactly who to blame for this mess. Let's chuck it all on the Libertarian Party.

Some background is necessary. The Libertarian Party established itself on December 11, 1971 -- just a few days before the birth of your humble servant. In 41 years, they have successfully elected hundreds of people to local and state offices, but they have yet to crack Congress.

A few years ago, when some of my colleagues were covering political debates, they found themselves surprised and a little refreshed by the comments coming from Libertarian candidates. Indeed, they support principles many people believe in: limited government, free markets, social equality, and marijuana legalization. That last one gets plenty of attention, but you wouldn't know it. In fact, many voters don't know anything about them. They don't play to win: they don't run television ads and they largely campaign silently.

"It's just because they're a bunch of anarchists," a friend of mine says. Not exactly. In fact, the LP has been fighting that stereotype for years. But it it's pretty hard to fight from outside the political ring.

Up to now, I've avoided mentioning Ron Paul, that Republican presidential candidate who still claims he's a Libertarian for life. He knows the LP doesn't win national elections. As an undisputed Republican In Name Only, he still runs like a Libertarian, mostly on the cheap, even though millions of Internet users gladly hand over their hard-earned money as donations to his doomed campaign.

The irony is millions of Americans are clamoring for an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. Moderates are tired of being thrown under the bus and then dragged out and dusted off whenever somebody needs to build a coalition. Third parties have come and shriveled, including Ross Perot's Reform Party and the Modern Whig Party. The Green Party is hanging in there. The Americans Elect Party got onto ballots in the last election but is not getting much traction. And then there's the Libertarians. With four decades and regional successes under its belt, why can't the party capitalize on its name recognition and experience? They don't have to, they don't want to, they're the LP, which is also short for "Losing Perennially."

The Tea Party has been around for only a fraction of the Libertarians' existence, and already they've launched people into Congress. Of course, piggybacking on the Republican Party helps. Please don't tell me, "The Tea Party is not a party; it's a caucus." Well then they should call themselves the Tea Caucus. Or maybe the Republicans can tell them to go form their own cottonpickin' party like everybody else -- just don't take any campaign advice from the LP.

Of course, you won't see the GOP doing that. The Tea Party could actually become a viable third party, and the Republicans still remember what Ross Perot did to them in 1992. And besides, the elephants are fractured enough as it is. Or maybe the Tea Party would wither as it struggled to replace the GOP's long-established funding and organizational structure with one of its own. Don't ask me to guess: we have Political Science professors who spend a lot of years studying this stuff and they're still wrong.

But let's blame the Libertarians for the mess in Washington. They continue to convince us this nation can't support a third party by their half-hearted efforts. There's a difference between playing to win and just playing around.

[Satire button: OFF]

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Those Girls Have All The Fun

Cheerleading is not a sport or an activity. It's a privilege. No, it's an honor. Wait, it's something else.

A friend of mine, who shall be called "Anna" here to protect her from unnecessary and unintentional side effects of my snarking, was one of the best debaters on my high-school speech and forensics team. Unlike your humble servant, she sailed through Lincoln-Douglas one-on-one matches without breaking a sweat. The young lady stood as a paragon of refinement all the way through to her enunciation. She was the only girl I knew who pronounced the slang word "bummin'" as "bumming" -- with the "g."

Anna mastered everything she touched, and scholarships rain down on a girl that good. At least that was the goal. Somewhere in her college preparatory gameplan, some adviser told her having a killer affirmative case and making A's wasn't going to get her into the money. No, she had to do... CHEERLEADING!

(Cue the thunder sound effect and the wicked laugh.)

Anna tried out, picked up the poms, slid into that small pleated skirt, and got in line with the Raytown South High School Cardettes. She could handle it; I never doubted it. But seeing her performing high kicks at pep rallies only reinforced my belief she didn't belong there. She was too good for this.

I see some of you frothing, "What's wrong with cheerleaders?" Nothing, on the face. In High School Utopia, cheerleading should be a purely celebratory activity, where the focus is pumping people up and helping them bask in the mirth of that 58-0 clobbering of Tipping Rock Preparatory Academy. Raytown South also gave the young ladies plenty of squads to join. Even the wrestlers got their own cheerleading squad: the "Grapplettes."

But rumors go around, about this and that involving some cheerleader. That's par for high school, but Anna didn't need that. I also recoiled at how the Ray-South girls always seemed to cheer in a low voice that made me think they were taking male hormone injections.

The guys got a few slots as "Yell Leaders," that official term of the time. And once a year, when the athletic department swapped roles for the "Powder Puff" flag-football game, a few young males worked up the courage to put on those pleated short skirts and walk through the halls while the cheer squad donned football jerseys.

Anna did her duty and walked to graduation with a stack of scholarships, enough to put two people through college. I still wonder if she enjoyed it or purely went through the motions. I'd love to be completely wrong about it all. Anna, if you're reading this, and you can prove to me I was wrong, I'll happily put my Scottish kilt on and dance a high kick with you.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Die, Honky, Die!

Reel To Reel:  Django Unchained

Going Rate:  Full price for Quentin Tarantino fans, rental for all others
Starring:  Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio
Rated:  R (borderline NC-17)
Red Flags:  Graphic and intense violence and inhumanity, including highly bloody shootings and torture of slaves. This film is not for young people and not for many adults, either.

Director Quentin Tarantino loves two film sub-genres above all: spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation. Django Unchained is a blaxploitation film masquerading as a spaghetti western, and a particularly black blaxploitation film with its themes of black comedy, black liberation and black revenge. If it had come out 40 years earlier, people in theaters with enormous Afros would be yelling, "Right on, Jango! You stick it to The Man!"

Django (Foxx) is a slave being herded through a forest in the antebellum South, when out of nowhere comes Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a dentist driving a funny wagon with bobbing tooth on top. When Dr. Schultz stops the group to inquire of Django, we quickly see how good a shot the doctor is for somebody who supposedly pulls teeth. He frees Django for a specific purpose: Schultz is really a bounty hunter, and he's looking for three men in Texas with a big price on their head. He doesn't know their faces, but Django does, since all three of them beat and oppressed him and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who was sold to another master.

We don't know why the good dentist became a bounty hunter, or why somebody so polite and caring is able to kill people so easily other than saying it's what he does. But we do know he hates slavery, and he offers to help Django find Broomhilda after dispensing with their other duties. It turns out Django is a natural for the bounty-hunting trade. He's a good shot and a good actor, willing to do what it takes to get access. I will never forget a scene of Foxx wearing foppish 18th Century-style knee breeches and white stockings in order to disguise himself as a "valet" while accompanying Dr. Schultz to one plantation.

Eventually they learn Broomhilda is in the possession of Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), owner of the conveniently-named Candieland plantation, a place we're told every slave hears about at one time or another. Candie doesn't just buy slaves for his fields, he buys slaves who fight other slaves to the death for his entertainment in the parlor while he smokes and cheers them on. Schultz and Django realize they won't be able to buy Broomhilda's freedom outright, so they pay a visit to Candie on the ruse of scouting for quality slave fighters.

Django Unchained draws its villains as nearly stereotypical goons, with plantation owners looking like lost members of Colonel Sanders' family. But the film saves its wickedest, most disgusting character for Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Stephen, Candie's top slave who talks with the mouth of Ordell in Tarantino's Jackie Brown. He is the kind of person you hear labeled "Oreo" and "Uncle Tom," the slur reserved for a sell-out black who oppresses his own people while enjoying favor and privilege from the white race. He exposes Schultz' and Django's plan to get Broomhilda, and that eventually leads to a cascade of bloody violence Tarantino loves to present.

Part of the exercise of watching a Tarantino film is discovering what films influenced it. In addition to spaghetti westerns, several scenes reminded me of Blazing Saddles, including a hilarious prelude to a raid where members of the raiding party complain about the bags over their heads not fitting properly. And while you can argue about whether Django glorifies violence, it certainly glorifies film violence, with blood splashing out of charters' bullet wounds as in Sam Peckinpah's films and people who don't just die, they die screaming and crying.

Many of you have heard about this film's use of the n-word, which is uttered more than 100 times. Tarantino and others have pushed back against the controversy, saying the word was common in slavery America, and I reluctantly agree. If Lincoln, released a couple of weeks earlier, aims to heal this nation's Civil War and slavery wounds, Django Unchained delights in putting more buckshot in our national behind. It can't resist rubbing our noses in the muck of white racism and white sadism, telling us how horrible we once were to the people we dragged out of Africa.

I will admit to you I'm a fan of Quentin Tarantino. I love the film-geek sensibilities he brings to his productions. I liked Inglorious Basterds even with its violence because it delivered so much inhumanity to those who were so inhumane. But I found Django Unchained harder to watch because now he's treading on our own troubled history as Americans are still working to atone for the sins of their ancestors. And personally, it's hard watching the beauty of the antebellum South juxtaposed with its brutality. The era of the hoopskirt is also the era of the whip.

Blazing Saddles made points about bigotry and cretinism 40 years ago in a comically refreshing way, even with the use of the n-word. It shocked you, but it also made fun of racism's stupidity. That's why it holds up so well nearly 40 years later. We'll come back four decades from now and see if Tarantino's film is something film scholars study or dismiss.


On a Saturday in June, rain pours down upon a rag-tag group of Cub Scouts as they paddle canoes down the Elk River in southwestern Missouri. Our vessels are filling with water. I'm soaking and cold, and there nowhere to take cover. My father and I can only row on and hope we -- and Dad's camera equipment -- don't sink.

Around the bend we come to a canyon, where high on a cliff sits a beautiful lodge, dry and spacious, with a sign: "Ginger Blue Canoe Camp." Oh, how I wished I was there.

If you want to know why I don't camp out when I travel east for historical pursuits, this is why. Cub Scouting exposed me to more than enough elements, including too much testosterone. Man up, you say. Fair enough, but that's a little hard for somebody who hasn't reached puberty.

Father-son outings like this are supposed to build family ties and weld relationships, from the time we pitch camp in the early afternoon, to taking that canoe out for three or four hours in the semi-solitude of the waters, to the night by the fire and a slumber under the stars with scrambled eggs awaiting in the morning from a Coleman grill.

That's the Norman Rockwell version. Here's the reality:

  • Four hours on the road from Kansas City on mostly two-lane highway.
  • A dome tent that's not quite designed for our body shapes.
  • Nearly losing my shoes after getting in the canoe (but fortunately finding them later).
  • Mosquitos.
  • Contending with jokesters who treat the canoe like a bumper car, ramming you and shouting, "Whiplash! Whiplash!"
  • The rain.
  • Losing our Chips Ahoy cookies to the rain.
  • Camp showers that don't work.
  • A sweaty night in the tent.
  • Hearing that guy with that air mattress in the next tent over panting into the fill valve at 4am.

One go-around should've taught me, but I went on several of these trips. I figured I owed it to my father, if not myself, to stay in the game. This was the time of my life when I was discovering I was more house-nerd than naturalist. And still, I ended up at Scout Camp for a long weekend when I hit my Webelos years.

I wish I'd said, "Mom, Dad, I'm done with this. I don't like it, and I don't fit in with the guys that do. Find me a computer camp instead." Mom would've understood instantly. Her version of camping, dictated to me a wee lad: "Traveling in a Winnebago and staying at the Holiday Inn at night."

Friday, January 18, 2013

The First Time I Saw Texas

My first TV news producing job out of college nearly took me to Kearney, Nebraska. Instead, I ended up in Weslaco, Texas, at powerhouse station KRGV. I had never been to Texas, and I had never even heard of Weslaco before then-news director Rick Diaz called me in July of 1994 after seeing one of my audition tapes. He'd gotten it through a consultant who doubled as a headhunter.

On August 3, 1994, I made the journey in two hops: From my St. Louis home to Houston, and from there to McAllen International Airport. I walked out of the gate in my dark blue suit, looking around to see if anybody had a card in their hand labeled "Francis." I saw nothing of the sort, so I kept on walking, down the row of gates scanning for somebody who might be looking for me. Maybe I should've worn a Cardinals baseball cap.

My first face-to-face encounter with "Mr. D" could've come straight from a spy film. He was leaning against a column near the airport entrance, reading a newspaper. He peered up to spot me looking around.

"Would you be Chris Francis?" he asked.

Soon we were in his private news vehicle, and he was describing how the lower Rio Grande Valley was going through a boom because of NAFTA. Shopping centers were going up all over the place in McAllen, it seemed.

Our first stop was the McAllen bureau, one of two KRGV has in the Valley. The area has so many communities to cover in four counties, it's almost like the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. He introduced me to Sandra, bureau chief and crime-story specialist, and as they talked shop, I got wind of the kind of stories I would be filling newscasts with: a lot of crime, a lot of trials, a lot of action. The border would never be an "issues" market like central Nebraska, and I didn't mind whatsoever. I was more intrigued than alarmed.

I wouldn't have a lot of competition either. At the time, KRGV was pummeling the CBS affiliate, the only other station in town that did TV news. The NBC station tried news twice and failed both times.

After lunch with the assistant news director, Mr. D let me shadow Robert, one of the associate producers who also worked as a news photographer. I followed him around as he typed out a rundown put together by Jenny, the 6 and 10pm news producer (who's now news director there) and load up the "supers" -- those little titles with names and locations for video -- into the Chyron.

A lot of people would back away at playing around with a Chyron Infinit! But I was licking my chops: "I get to play with the toys?" It's a very user-friendly machine, although having a nerd background helps. I learned how to put in supers with very little assistance. I even got to run it during a newscast while Robert ran to the back to tune in a live shot, another of his responsibilities.

Mr. D loved the fact I was a "hacker" type. He didn't ask many questions when he quizzed me on my news judgment: "What would be the first thing you would do if you heard about a plane crash?" I told him I would get confirmation, and he agreed, but he wanted to make sure I was sending a live truck first. I was still learning on the job, but Mr. D didn't mind.

I also didn't mind the newsroom was still using Selectric typewriters, carbon-pack scripts, and a paper teleprompter in the computer age. I was already used to it at KOMU, where the newsroom automation left a lot to be desired.

After more shadowing, Rick dropped me off at my hotel room down the street. The boy at the front desk thought he saw a familiar face.

"Rick Diaz?" he asked. "Oh, I thought you looked like him!"

I didn't know the depth of Mr. D's fame at the time. He wasn't just a news director and 6pm anchor, he was a living legend. Rick started at the station in the 1960's and worked his way into the anchor chair at a time when Hispanic anchors nearly didn't exist, even in a heavily-Hispanic border town. Mr. D was our Walter Cronkite. And like all star anchors, he had his own sign-off line: "Good night, y que pasan muy buenos noches!"

After a good night's sleep, an employee picked me up and returned to the station one last time to chat up the crew -- many of whom were already rooting for me to get the job. As he dropped me off at McAllen International, he said he'd have his answer for me in about a week.

"But if you come here," he added. "We'd like you to stay at least a year."

"You give me two weeks to get down here," I said, "and I'll give you that year."

I ended up giving him five-and-a-half years.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Alcohol, Tobacco And Grandparents

Jack Daniels got my Grandpa Lawson through the worst of winter. Ezra Brooks got Grandma Lawson through a horrible headache. Grandpa Francis loved his cigars and pipes. Grandma Francis loved the smell of them. Grandpa Lawson could fall asleep with a Roi-Tan in his mouth.

I rarely saw Grandpa L. without his cigar. You could smell it throughout the house even if he didn't have one lit up. Puffing away in his favorite chair by the front door, he would lull himself to sleep and the stogie would hang loose in his mouth.

"Orton," Grandma Lawson would say, "If you're going to go to sleep, take that cigar out of your mouth!" He didn't always do it, and she was consistently washing ash off his shirts.

He loved his cigars and his Budweiser. I remember he would have about a can a day, almost up until the day of his death. He loved the regular variety, never any "lite" stuff, and certainly not the 3.2% beer that used to be sold in our parts. He told Mother it tasted "watery."

One time when Grandma and Grandpa took us grandkids out to Fuddruckers in Kansas City, Grandpa L. noticed something wrong with his brew.

"That bottle didn't seem like it had very much beer in it," he said to Grandma. "Did you take a swig out of it?"

"Orton, why would I drink your beer?" she protested in her what-the-heck-are-you-thinking voice.

She didn't like Budweiser, but she found a need for bourbon every so often. After falling and hitting her head, she relied on strategically sipped Ezra in addition to a few pain meds.

"Don't laugh," she told me when I snickered at the bottle. "That's what got your grandmother through the pain." Doctors will tell you alcohol and prescription drugs don't mix, but Grandma exercised caution.

Grandpa needed a few shots himself after helping us shovel snow off the driveway. We'd bring him in and give him a bottle of Jack Daniel's. "It gets your heart started again," Mother said.

Over on my father's side of the family, Grandpa Francis would load up his pipe with Borkum Riff tobacco and smoke in front of the television. Grandma never gave him grief about his smoking. On the contrary, she wound up giving him a pipe for Christmas shortly after he'd quietly given it up.

"When did you do that?" she asked.

"When you had heart trouble, Martha," he replied.

He might've found a spare occasion to light up before I lost him. Grandpa Lawson wanted to smoke a mini-cigar when his doctors warned him not to. I didn't mind either way. They could smoke and drink prudently and I loved them all.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I Survived Hurricane Bret

"There's nothing like a hurricane for news coverage," a reporter friend once said. "You won't believe the amount of stories you get out of a hurricane." She was right, but you can't apply that statement to Hurricane Bret, the superstorm that let the Rio Grande Valley off with a slap when it hit the Rio Grande Valley in August 1999.

I was the 6:00 and 10:00 producer at KRGV when Bret moved in. It would be my first time dealing with a hurricane; we'd had near-misses over the past five years, but not ever a direct hit. The news department would hold hurricane planning meetings in June to talk about the things we were prepared to do but would never do, and that was that.

This time, Bret had me nervous. It wasn't weakening. It wasn't recurving. We were going to get hit and that was that. I expected I would have to sleep at the station and pull some long hours. What especially stunk was that it was hitting on a weekend, robbing most of us of a couple of days off.

Bret spun offshore on Saturday night, but I came in early to help produce our shows. In my nervous state of mind, I barfed all over the front seat of the car driving in. Our weekend producers, who normally would be executing our coverage, found themselves subjugated to mere assistants as my executive producer and I planned the newscasts and whatever else we needed.

"We love you, Ruth, but we have to take over here."

Hurricane coverage is divided into three acts: the preparation, the impact and the aftermath. We had the preparation out of the way. Now we were stuck in the second act, waiting for it to hit with a Category 4 slam. But the storm was moving more to the north than the northwest, meaning the eye could miss the Valley entirely. Our bosses let me go home to sleep late Saturday night while the storm still spun offshore, leaving me to wonder, what next?

When I woke up Sunday morning and flipped on the TV, the storm was starting to make the turn towards land way north of the area. Bret was weaker but still dropping a lot of rain, and our anchor team soon reported a ceiling had collapsed at a store in McAllen. I drove into work and hit the ground running.

I can't remember how I handled the next few hours because I was on autopilot, lining up stories and live shots and getting news on the air. We were live everywhere we could be, even out our back door, where one of the meteorologists held a microphone into the air to point out the unmistakable drone of a hurricane. Willacy County got the worst of it as far as our coverage area was concerned, but the eye hit in Kenedy County, where there's more cattle than people. I call that Providence.

On Monday, the back side of Bret started tearing into us -- those "feeder bands" the weather guys talk about on TV. A line of severe thunderstorms pushed through the Valley, dropping a tornado near our studios in Weslaco. We went live on the air as it unfolded, and one of our camera people rushed outside to grab video of the wall clouds falling down.

"There it is, there it is!"

Inside, the legendary Tim Smith, in his calm and professional manner, guided viewers through warnings and statements rolling in from the National Weather Service. Our tower camera pointed live at the developing funnel.

"A tornado has been spotted near Weslaco," he said, quoting from the official bulletin. "A tornado has been spotted outside the Channel 5 studios," he added.

High winds blew open the doors to our weather terrace and rain threatened our studio equipment. Our general manager, the legendary Ray Alexander, jumped in to help the camera crew, holding a cable and helping where he could. The storm finally moved on, leaving us alive and still standing.

Then during the 10:00 news, just as we had polished off the wrap-up of all the days storminess, we went into another round... or two... or three. Two more tornado warnings came down with lots of rain, and we stayed on the air for four straight hours of live special reports.

I had a photographer shoot video of flooding in Weslaco and we were talking live to Weslaco Police on the phone, along with the Texas Department of Public Safety, Accu-Weather, and the Willacy County Sheriff’s department. With no other lead producers to help, I ran around getting tape, lining up phone interviews, and directing my associates to call up graphics and add new lines to previous ones.

In addition, I'm trying to get a morning newscast started because I’m not sure if those producers are going to make it in on time with all the flooding. In our parking lot, water is up to bumpers. And yet, Providence spares us again, we dry out, and the waters part for our morning team. I leave around 3 in the morning, having had all I could handle.

The next day we finally moved into the final act, surveying the damage and what we would be getting out of the state and federal government's disaster relief coffers. Bret did indeed let us off with a slap, but it was still a hard one. A few weeks later, after we had moved back to "other news," a box of t-shirts arrived at the station, and our assistant news director handed them out.

"I SURVIVED HURRICANE BRET" they read, over our "Eyewitness News" logo. Survived, yes. Survived through all the challenges thrown at us. Survived even though there wasn't a clear plan in place on who would be doing what and when. Survived even though one of our producers managed to slip out of town for a weekend hurricane party, leaving us holding the grunt work. Survived, yes.

I knew after that I didn't want to deal with hurricanes anymore, at least the way I had to deal with Bret. I was already looking for a way out of the Rio Grande Valley before the storm. Now I had more motivation to move on.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Silent Lunch

1989. I'm a senior at a different high school than the one I entered as a freshman, and I'm eating alone: brown bag, one sandwich plus dessert. At least five empty chairs surround me.

The year is running smoothly, if not spectacularly. Making the move from Kansas City to St. Louis with my family has given me a shot at a new identity and a chance to ditch some baggage.

However, I'm still in high school, and I'm still dealing with high schoolers.

"Are you gay?" one kid asks on my first day.

"No," I answer with finality, trying not to sound annoyed.

"Well, I just thought with your looks, you'd be surrounded by girls."

He couldn't even allow me a full day to get my bearings. In truth, girls weren't on the list. I had college-level physics, advanced algebra, geography, American literature, history and composition classes. I didn't have time.

But soon, my solo lunch was augmented by a small group of young ladies. I never objected to them taking seats at my table. I never interrupted their girl talk. In fact, I never said anything.

They would chew and gab and I would watch them, content in my private feast. I can't remember whether I felt it rude to speak up, or fearful of the result. Memories of girls spurning me were still guiding my actions -- or repressing them.

This went on for months before I graduated and took a summer job at Six Flags Over Mid-America before entering Mizzou. Part of my Six Flag stint involved "spieling," calling racing games over a microphone like they were a micro Kentucky Derby. One of the lunch ladies noticed and shared the result with her friends when school resumed.

"We couldn't believe it," she told me. "I told them you were doing all this spieling."

Some people have modes like computers -- quiet mode and active mode -- and other people can't understand how they can both exist in the same person. It's not abnormal. Introverts, I have heard, will wordlessly explore a social situation and then wade into it when they're ready. People make the mistake of trying to force introverts to socialize, and it degenerates into awkwardness.

"But isn't sitting at a lunch table surrounded by (pretty) girls without saying anything awkward, too?"

Well, yes. But remember, it's a mode, not a problem.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Viral Infection With Beady Eyes

Besides a dog and two sets of tropical fish, a contingent of gerbils adorned my childhood home. It began with a pair and grew until a sudden massacre permanently reduced the numbers. Younger brother Michael brought them in when I was going through high school. I told him they looked like mice, and the squeaking of their exercise wheel drove me nuts. That soon proved the least of the headaches.

Gerbils treat birth control like Dirty Harry treats gun control. So every few weeks, we would look inside the repurposed aquarium lined with cedar chips and find a blob of squirming matter.

"Michael," my mom would call, half exasperated. "Babies!"

"Again?" Michael answered.

Laws of mass and space eventually caught up with the growing family, and they needed a bigger home. Dad's solution was to design and build a luxury two-story gerbil enclosure, complete with a ramp upstairs, out of material bought from a Kansas City company called Fantastic Plastics. Now they had three times the space to play and reproduce.

We can tell when gerbils are getting ready to mate -- at least one of them goes into a stomping ritual with a hind leg. Sometimes we could catch it and break up the love affair, but when you have to go to work and school, it's impossible to constantly chaperone. So two gerbils begat a dozen.

Then we had to move them, all of them, while moving ourselves from Kansas City to St. Louis. Their luxury abode made the trip in the back of our stationwagon, and although two of them escaped when we opened the rear hatch, we managed to grab them. Another got out in our temporary apartment home and lived behind the refrigerator for a week.

The small white furball added to the confinement stress of Cinnamon, our Brittany Spaniel. Already deprived the free run of her homeland yard, she panted and whined at the rogue rodent and its siblings back in the plastic palace. When we moved to our new home, dog and furballs both moved to the basement for an uneasy bilaterial co-existence.

"She's gonna get those gerbils!" Mom kept telling Michael as Cinn would pant in front of the cage. I forget what defensive measures, if any, my brother took. He curtailed the breeding by giving same-sex gerbil couples to his friends, but eventually, it didn't matter.

The gerbil massacre of Four Oaks Drive happened suddenly, wiping out all but a few who managed to escape the ravages of canine teeth. I didn't look at the tipped-over cage or the crime scene, but we would never again face a population explosion.

Michael would later bring a rabbit into our home -- one rabbit.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

You'll Ruin Your Eyesight, Kid

It's well after midnight on a summer day in Kansas City, Missouri. I'm tucked in bed, watching the late movie -- on WTTE, Channel 28 in Columbus, Ohio. I don't know why it's coming in on this particular night, or why I'm not picking up any other distant stations. I would expect KDNL in St. Louis and WAND in Decatur, Illinois to pop up on the dial.

Pulling in long-distance television became a boyhood hobby in the early 1980's. I grew curious when we started picking up KQTV in St. Joseph, Missouri on the big Zenith downstairs, connected to an outdoor antenna mounted on the chimney. I had a much smaller Midland color set with rabbit ears in my bedroom, but that was enough. One summer night, with some fine-tuning knob adjustments and antenna fidgeting, I picked up WIBW and KTSB from Topeka, about 75 miles west.

Those stations I could pick up just about any night. Under the right atmospheric conditions which caused tropospheric propogation (like severe weather), I could do much better. Pretty soon I picked up KOAM in Pittsburg, Kansas and KODE in Joplin, Missouri. Then came KETV in Omaha, KTVH (now KWCH) in Wichita, KRCG in Jefferson City, KCBJ (now KMIZ) in Columbia, Missouri, and KOMU -- site of my future first TV broadcast news gig.

TV-DX, as it's known, irritated Mom because of all the snowy, static-filled pictures I was watching: "You're going to hurt your eyes!" I was too young to care, and I was getting better at making the big DX catches. By the time I was in High School, I'd logged Iowa Public Television, KHGI in Kearney, Nebraska and WFLD, WPWR and WCIU in Chicago along with about two dozen other stations. My little brother's GE television proved more sensitive to distant signals than my Capehart, so I would use his set to do some of my work. Sometimes a Canadian or Mexican station would blast in on Channel 2, but I could never verify the call because the signal was too wavy. So for record-keeping purposes, Columbus' WTTE stands as my reception record.

When I moved to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I would occasionally pick up the Corpus Christi stations on the little Capehart, and maybe San Antonio, Houston or Waco. When I moved to Tucson, my TV-DX days were done because that Capehart was finished.

Digital TV has ended a lot of TV-DX reception because of the difficulties of decoding a weak digital signal. TV tuners reject the signal rather than throw it up on the screen in a pixelated, scrambled jumble. The hobby isn't dead, gathering from the Worldwide TV-FM DX Association website, just a little more challenging.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Only Thing That Stops A Bad Guy With A Gun Is A Good Guy With A Gun

Reel To Reel: Gangster Squad

Going Rate: Worth matinee price or rental
Starring: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Emma Stone, Nick Nolte
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic intense machine-gun violence and mob executions, strong language, attempted rape

The mob has failed to do any decent business in Los Angeles since the 1940's, and based-on-true-events Gangster Squad argues it's largely because of a team of ruthless police officers working off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush -- except when they're blowing the heck out of everything. Indeed, Gangster Squad wants to be another L.A. Confidential or The Untouchables. Those two films had style, class, and characters we cared about. This one has a lot of style, a lot of firepower, and little else.

Mickey Cohen (Penn) is building a criminal empire in the post-war City of Angels. He's got the dope hustle and the girls for sale. Now he's looking to own bookmaking, and there's apparently nobody he can't bribe or kill. He's got a token girl, Grace (Stone), because every gangster needs a girl.

Along comes Sgt. John O'Mara (Brolin), the prototypical One Good Cop who can't be bought. Battle-hardened from World War II, he likes going to war against criminals because he does it well. It doesn't sit well with his wife, but just a few moments later in another scene, there she is helping him pick out members of a gangster wrecking crew. Sgt. O'Mara gets the go-ahead from L.A.P.D.'s police chief (Nolte) to bust up Cohen's operation by nearly any means necessary, which means burning, shooting and blowing up lots of things is okay, but simply taking Cohen out is not enough.

Sarge's wife tells him to think outside the elite cops on the force, so we get a cast of characters: the urban cop Coleman (Anthony Mackie), cowboy sharpshooter Max (Robert Patrick), sidekick Natividad (Michael Peña), and wire wizard Conway (Giovanni Riblisi) along with O'Mara's sergeant buddy Jerry (Gosling), who happens to be involved with Grace -- ta-DAH!

The film barely gives us time to get to know its characters. Penn can be menacing, but he can also jump off the cliff into "dese, dem, and dose" gangster parody. With six people on O'Mara's team, that's a lot of people to keep track of. The Untouchables realized a team of four was enough and gave each member a clearly defined purpose.

Even though it pauses to let us take in the flavor of 1940's L.A., the picture wanders from one shootout to the next. In what's becoming movie cliche, scenes of intense gunfire or burning are slowed down because it's somehow supposed to make them more stylish. Even a scene of the squad roughing up a mob goon is overchoreographed for art's sake. And once again, the Law of Movie Weapons is in force: that is, the bad guys with the automatic weapons who shoot the most bullets will have the lousiest aim compared to the good guys with the revolvers and shotguns who hit whatever they point at.

Gangster Squad is coming out barely a month after the Newtown school shootings, and I wonder if that's contributing to some of its negative reviews. The film is already dealing with lousy timing and art imitating life: its release date was pushed back from September to allow the cast and crew to replace a scene depicting a shooting inside a movie theater. In fact, the film's trailer with a clip of that scene hit the screen in the Aurora, Colorado theater shortly before the gunfire began. As I go to blog, pic is doing decent B.O., but we shall see if it has legs despite the crix nix.

The Queen Mother Reads Her Subjects' Epistles

As I have explained before, my Queen Mother teaches high-school Spanish to a motley crew at a Southern California Catholic institution with a reputatation for being a jock school. Many things that should not be tolerated are brushed aside for the sake of protecting the football/basketball/whatever team, or these days, the flow of tuition money. No body, no booty.

However, I can't honestly point the finger at one school or one class. The duel of wills encompasses every teacher in every classroom to some degree. One of Nature's Indisputable Facts reveals for every student commmitted to learning, at least one other is committed to simply occupying mass.

Nowhere was that more obvious than when Mom taught an high-school English class in Kansas City. She required the students to keep a writing journal, and a few of those entries are "freewrites." The rules are simple: write for one minute on any topic that's on your mind. It doesn't have to make sense. Just write.

I used to sneak a look at some of those journals when Mom brought them home to grade. I saw evidence of frustration...

Look at her, her hand is moving! What is she writing about?


I forgot my homework for next hour. Oh well, I'll just borrow (so-and-so's) paper and copy it.

Guns 'N' Roses...

Where do we go now? Where do we go now? Sweet child 'o mine.

...and the usual complaints about how boring the class was and how boring my Queen Mother was. She would shake her head, dole out the grades, keep calm and carry on.

One day though, she caught two girls in an unassigned freewrite: a note passed back and forth, the most advanced form of secret classroom communication known before the advent of text messaging. Mom glanced over it and found the boilerplate griping, but her eyes paused at one sentence: "Wouldn't a toke feel real good right about now?"

"A toke?" I asked in my teenage naiveity.

"You haven't heard of that?" she puzzled. "That's a marijuana cigarette." She told me about that old song by the Kansas City duo Brewer & Shipley, "One Toke Over The Line."

"I may be a square," she said. "But I know what a toke is."

"Did you read it out loud?" I queried.

"No, I showed it to her parents at conference time."

Not surprisingly, they denied their daughter inhaled anything but air.

Her Royal Majesty, fortuantely, has never had to deal with any class-A dope fiends. Cheaters and copycats, always, but she is blessed to enjoy enough appreciative students to make the job worthwhile, or at least get her through to the day where she will repair to the Crown's Estate and finish out her years without having to grade another notebook.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Not-So-Great Debater

Some activities in my life are mere gateways to other ones. I like Revolutionary War re-enacting more than Civil War re-enacting, and historic dancing more than historic battles. But I do all of it to be a team player and round out my expertise.

And so it went when I joined the Raytown South High School debate team. I preferred the individual speech events: Humorous Interpretation, Dramatic Interpretation, Original Oratory, Extemporaneous Speaking and so forth, but everybody who did "I.E.'s" had to do debate, and before I dipped my toe into oasis, I had to wander through the minefield.

High-school debate falls into "cross-ex" duo competition or Lincoln-Douglas style one-on-one matches. In my reclusive youth, I didn't have a partner, so I went solo. Lincoln-Douglas style is heady stuff for intellectually developing teenagers. Try coming up with an affirmative or negative case on the following topics:

RESOLVED: That the arts contribute more to humanity to the sciences

RESOLVED: That a parliamentary form of government better supports the values of the Constitution.

RESOLVED: That a candidate's public record is more important than his personal reputation.

It's the stuff of William F. Buckley's "Firing Line" -- and I didn't watch "Firing Line." The topics dealt with values and concepts and abstractions I couldn't wrap my brain around. I couldn't see the counter-arguments because I couldn't see the original arguments. I had to learn the format on my own; our class hadn't gotten around to studying Lincoln-Douglas before the first Novice L-D tournament.

So on a dim Saturday morning in October of 1986, I sat on a cold school bus on our way to my first tournament in St. Joseph, north of Kansas City, nervous and ill at ease in my stomach. A bumpy road and limited shock absorption does little to quell that. My anxieties poured from my mouth and onto the floor.

"Hey! Does somebody have a breath mint back there?" somebody yelled as people pulled their feet up into their seats.

Voided but still queasy, I made it to my first round, and inexplicably, I won it. It ended up being my only victory of the four-round day. I couldn't keep track of the arguments because I couldn't visualize them. I couldn't visualize them because I didn't understand them. I didn't understand them because I had not dealt with them in real life. Taking notes during the opponents arguments barely helped: I still dropped points because I couldn't see them. I wandered through a maze of rhetoric blindfolded, not even knowing if I was asking the right questions of my competition or getting the right answers.

"I didn't know what I was doing," said one novice debater to me after cleaning my clock. Oh, I think you did, I thought.

The refrain would play out at tournaments to come: anxiety, a win here and there, but mostly relief when it was all over and we headed to lunch. I would later find redemption in the individual events, where I had a script and a clear direction -- and I could win.

We grew into a family, with a tournament just about every weekend. It felt like being on tour in a rock-and-roll band, playing gig after gig, going a little bit wild on the side and then getting back home, exhausted but satisfied. The fellowship made it all work.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Cream Puff Defense League

One of my middle-school gym teachers used to swat kids on the behind with a huge wooden paddle if they got out of line. To their relief, he didn't make them say, "Thank you sir, may I have another?"

This same teacher also displayed a unique talent for breaking up fights. When two semi-tough characters started roughhousing for fun, he stepped in and socked one of them dead in the face.

"Those who clown around get clowned with!" he bellowed.

Neither of these incidents made it into the files of child protective authorities. But I was blessed with foresight, and cursed with the temerity to exhibit it.

Two and a half decades ago, in another middle-school gym class, another teacher told us why he put us through multiple exercises to warm up.

"What does that protect us from?" he asked.

I raised my hand.


"Lawsuits?" I replied, to the guffaws of my peers.

The teacher corrected, "It protects us from cream puffs." He mocked the voice of a helicopter parent: "Oh, I don't want Johnny to play so rough! That parent is raising a real cream puff."

Kindly forgive me, sir. I didn't know cream puffs were a plague upon the land, to be eliminated like the Hittites and Jebusites. For days, I endured the mocking of others who yelled to me: "Any lawsuits lately?"

They wouldn't laugh at my answer now, not with schools facing lawsuits over curriculum, prayers, and father-daughter dances. Gym class seems to escape the legal crosshairs, but gym students don't get a paddle or a punch anymore from the teacher. Those cream puffs? They could come with legal representation.

I personally believe every school in the country should keep a lawyer on retainer who does nothing but defend against and dispose of the nuisance suits. Preferably, each school will find the ugliest-looking litigator possible. Psychological warfare saves both fees and courtroom time, in addition to allowing the attorney to find a legal way to tell a over-litigious parent to go get bent.

I wish my school gym classes were more like workout classes, led by somebody like Billy Blanks or even Richard Simmons, helping kids slim down and burn fat. Don't tell me that's for girls. We've got too many chubby children. Forget dodgeball. Let's tailor a version of that "Insanity" workout for eighth-graders and get them buff in 30 days. Not only will we curb the unproven cream-puff dilemma, we'll help the young lads pick up girls.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Looking For Lightning

Upscale hotels offer baby-sitting services, and my parents used them three times when my brother and I were wee lads. Two of those times were during a stay at the old MGM Grand Hotel (the one that later burned) in 1977. During a two-night span, while Mom and Dad went off to pull slot machine handles or attend to ceremonies related to a pharmacists' convention, two different ladies attended to us.

The first was a standard-issue grandmotherly-type. For reasons I don't remember, she let us get away with marking up the bathroom mirror with a white crayon.

"You know, some maids don't like that," I remember her saying. Mom ended up cleaning it off.

Our second sitter hailed from India. We could barely understand her through her accent, but we knew enough to back off when we tried to play with the clock radio in the room.

A year later, convention business took us to Atlanta. We spent the first night at a deplorable Holiday Inn with stained carpet and questionable linens.

"This feels like chicken feathers," Dad said of the pillows.

The next evening took us to a high-rise Marriott. We ate room-service pancakes for breakfast, and after dinner, a lady kept her eyes on us for a few hours.

This time, we didn't mark up any furniture, but I was intrigued by her story of what was going on at another hotel not far away. She told us about this adventurous floor, full of strange and wonderful sights, most forgotten to my memory. But I do remember her talking about some kind of a fake-weather room, a "lightning room."

Naturally, I had to go there. I begged Mom and Dad to take me there, to the Hilton down the street. We looked all over. We asked the managers. My parents asked me what I heard. I told them what I heard. We made it to an upper-floor restaurant.

"Well, we have a fountain with lightning in it, but that's it."

That sitter was full of it, we concluded.

Now, I wonder if what she was talking about was really the now-defunct World Of Sid & Marty Krofft, an indoor amusement park housed inside Atlanta's Omni International complex. The park served as the backdrop for the first season of the Krofft Supershow from 1976 to 1977.

Among the attractions was an indoor circus and a life-sized pinball machine. I see no evidence of a lightning room, but my young ears could've easily heard it wrong. In any event, the Krofft's world ended due to a bad neighborhood and competition from Six Flags Over Georgia.

Today CNN occupies the space with newsrooms and sets, but they at least left the gigantic escalator that once led into the park. If I'm a good boy, maybe I'll ride it someday.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I Wish I Could Turn It Off

Shortly after 11am two years ago today, the following email went out to the entire staff of KOLD as a frantic few newsroom employees made phone calls:

Hi there-

This is an urgent message--- we need all hands on deck immediately!!!! Everyone needs to come in to work immediately. This is especially important for main line talent. Come dressed for work.

If you cannot make it, call Michelle.

Several people have been shot, including probably Gabby Giffords at a Congress on Your Corner event.

We need you now!!!!!

Thus began a 12-hour, non-stop, wall-to-wall day of coverage detailing the horrors of the mass shooting outside a Safeway which killed six people and injured 13 others.

I didn't learn about it from the e-mail. I had just come out of a creepy movie -- Black Swan -- and started the car, expecting to hear the Saturday morning computer talk-show on the radio. Instead, I heard what sounded like two of the local TV anchors talking about a shooting and the victims, including Giffords. I booked it for the station.

That day and the next week and a half played havoc with my pent-up emotions. Things like this don't happen in Tucson. During the height of the coverage, a friend called me on my cell phone to make sure I was all right. "This is just unreal," I told him.

People watching at home can turn off the set when the drama becomes too difficult. But news people -- just like the relatives of the victims and the first responders who cared for them -- have to keep dealing with a mass tragedy for days on end as we produce story after story in newscast after newscast, day after day. As much as I long to get away from the tragedy, I couldn't. None of us in the newsroom could.

After a week of the aftermath's toll on the newsroom staff, our general manager figured we could use some therapy. She brought in a forensic psychologist for group session with him on dealing with traumatic events.

"A lot of people come home to their wives or their husbands or their children or their dogs," I told him. "But me, I come home to four walls and darkness."

As I revealed it to him, my eyes began to leak the agony of six repressed days of grieving. I pulled a tissue from a box next to me and patted my eyes constantly. My voice hardly cracked, but mourning bled across my face and down my cheeks.

"Chris, we all love you and we're here for you," said one of my anchors.

The general manager sat across from me. She could see the quiet agony. I had hinted it to her earlier this week when I told her I might need to see somebody.

The doctor encouraged me to think forward beyond the deadlines to time away from the newsroom. I told him I'd been thinking about this trip to California I was going to do next week, "to pursue my dearest diversion."

That diversion was the Jane Austen Evening, which I attended with a yellow ribbon in my tricorn hat in honor of the shooting victims. Even in the midst of joy, I still had a pit in my stomach, thinking about the still-unfolding aftermath back home and Gabrielle Giffords transfer to a medical facility in Houston.

I was glad when the gunman took a plea deal and a life sentence a few months ago. I wanted this case closed, closed so we and everybody connected to the tragedy wouldn't have to circle back to the day -- thinking forward, just like that psychologist told us. I also talked to one of the Biblical counselors at church, who reminded me GOD gives us abilities for use in crises to help others through it. Even news people have a role to play. As Queen Esther found out, we are called "for such a time as this."

Monday, January 7, 2013

That Sink Sleeps With The Fishes

My father got his start in the pharmacy business through a drug store owned by my great-uncle Luther, and it's a miracle he didn't get clipped by a mob lackey working next door.

Main Street Pharmacy occupied what is now a health-food store at 4301 Main near downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

Site of the original "Main Street Pharmacy" (Source: Google/Picasa)
Luther ran the place with help from my dad, who was still in pharmacy school. Luther also ran up a considerable amount of debt, an albatross left for us to contend with when Luther suddenly died in December of 1971.

One of his creditors included Kansas City mob godfather Nick Civella. One of Nick's guys owned a pizza joint right across the street. Nick's guy was not exactly an armbreaker, but Civilla used him to launder money.

Not long after Luther passed away, Nick's boy walked into Main Street Pharmacy to settle up. He came alone, not packing heat or henchmen.

"Your Uncle Luther borrowed money from time to time," he informed Dad.

Dad told him the money was tied up in probate, meaning he'd have to wait on the lawyers, but if he brought in "a note," he could help. A note? For a mob money man? Paul's guy walked out without the money, and my Dad remarkably remained alive. I figure Luther's debt was pretty low on the list.

Civella had bigger issues. He was hooked up with the Teamsters to fund Vegas casinos, conveniently skimmed by the goodfellas. As Nicholas Pileggi documents in the book and movie Casino, Civella's organization gave away the skim through FBI wiretaps in another case. Civella, his brother Carl, and six others went to the slammer in 1983.

A few years after Luther's death, Dad got a call from ADT in the wee hours of the morning about a possible break-in. The pharmacy was okay; the pizza joint was in slices, blown apart by an explosion.

Again, Nick's guy came around. "Did you smell any gas?" he asked.

Crews poked through the ashes looking for trouble. Out of the rubble emerged a curious survivor: a stainless steel sink perfect for a large kitchen -- or Dad's darkroom.

The sink easily slid into a corner of the darkroom, right next to a longer grey plastic sink that accommodated four trays for black and white prints: developer, stop bath, fixer and wash. Unlike some of Luther's old possessions, some of which we found stuffed with hidden cash, the sink gave up no secrets.

"You wonder what they washed in there," Mom said.

Note: A previous version of this story unintentionally identified the wrong sink. You're now reading the correct version!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Treezilla Attacks

Now that the holidays are officially over, here's some advice to heed for next Christmas. When you're in Cosco and see one of those 9-foot pre-lit artificial trees, remember this: what you put up in December must come down in January.

I speak from several experiences of helping my parents take down a 9-foot pre-lit tree, something that should be easy once the ornaments are off. The tree is designed to disassemble into four parts. But when my parents tried taking it apart the first year after they bought it, it nearly ended their marriage. That tree just didn't want to come undone, and it still doesn't.

Because using WD-40 to lubricate the trunk is out of the question, "Treezilla" is tied up in a huge blanket every year and crammed into an alcove in our garage. The process is laborious and frustrating as we navigate it around the walls, out the front door, and into the garage, and it makes everybody crabby. It's tolerated because we only have to go through it once a year. But we've gone through it at least three times now, and the math is starting to catch up with us.

"No more 9-foot trees," I said to Mom after we finished stashing it away.

For years we had a Christmas tree that came together and apart branch by branch. Everything plugged into a central wooden post. It wore out after a couple of decades, and then Mom decided the fake tree wasn't full enough. We got a live tree one year, and even though it shed needles all over the place, when we were done with it, it went right out the back to await recycling: no dissembling, no blankets, no fuss.

Now we're stuck with an artificial tree that takes up more garage space than it should in the off-season. Mom and Dad insist they got a good deal on it, paying only about $200, but somebody forgot to tell them about the psychological cost of dealing with a Christmas albatross. When you're decorating for the holidays, your spirit, strength and endurance must find a happy median. It goes for all your other decs: house lights, wicker reindeer, full Nativity, plastic sleigh, lighted inflatable Santa on the roof. Eventually a time will come when you realize you can't do Christmas like you used to, and you really don't want to. You've gone from Cratchit to Scrooge.

Buy a tree, but for all that's holly, buy the right kind of tree. Santa doesn't care how full it is, but you will care when it swallows you whole.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hey Osama, We Know You're In There...

Reel To Reel: Zero Dark Thirty

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Jessica Chastain, James Gandolfini
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic depiction of "enhanced interrogation," war violence, language, a terror suspect's bare bottom

I didn't know the U.S. military had killed Terror Enemy #1 until I got a call from my parents that Sunday night in May of 2011.

"I know you're probably watching the news right now," Dad said.

"Oh? What?"

"They got Osama Bin Laden."

Only then did I turn on the TV and see it all over the place: the celebrations, the pundits, the president making the late-night announcement on the East Coast. We know how the story ended. Zero Dark Thirty is the dramatized story of how it began, starting with a chilling audio montage of phone calls and flight radio transmissions from 9/11 and winding through nearly a decade of searching, interrogation and frustration.

The movie is not a conventional spy thriller but a story of a beleaguered CIA operative, Maya (Chastain), trying to extract information from terrorist suspects and convince her higher-ups she's onto something. Her analysis of several interrogations reveals the key to finding "UBL" is a courier who relays his messages to Al-Qaida operatives. Now if this were a fictional Hollywood espionage flick, the courier would be located within a day by a room full of people banging away at computer keyboards with giant screens that can show us high-resolution photos of just about anything, anywhere.

If only the CIA had it so easy. Maya must contend with an agency skittish about being burned by the WMD debacle in Iraq and the Abu Gharib prisoner scandal. She has guts and a gut feeling she's on the right path, even though the hunt for Bin Laden is becoming more like an episode of The First 48 as the case goes cold. Maya leans on her superiors to do something, even marking on a supervisor's window the number of days that have gone by at the suspected Bin Laden compound without somebody doing something. James Gandofini has a memorable cameo as CIA Director Leon Panetta who still sounds more like Tony Soprano than Panetta.

The movie picks up considerable zip as it follows the mission to kill UBL. We go along for the hunt as Seal Team Six raids Bin Laden's three-story compound. I already knew many of the mission's details as revealed in the book No Easy Day, but seeing them play out on screen is riveting.

I admire director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) for keeping this film from picking up a battle-of-the-sexes theme, in which Maya would be pitted against some CIA boys' club. In fact, everyone is strictly business. We do not get any extended moralizing or patriotic milking. The film doesn't even cover the national jubilation in the aftermath of the kill. Let's just say it has a clearly defined mission, and it executes it well.

One final note: I know about the congressional claims that this picture misrepresents torture "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by CIA operatives on terror suspects. Specifically, some of your lawmakers aren't happy with the film's implication that we learned crucial information through waterboarding and other ways of making people talk. Frankly, I really don't care about the kinds of interrogation techniques the CIA used on terrorist scum, and I think millions of Americans don't either -- even if they don't want to publicly admit it.