Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Czar's Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere, Nicholas II is smiling.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Kind Hearts And Clarinets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knock, Knock...

"Who's There?"

"The Mormon."

"The Mormon who?"

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

(Insert rimshot here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 28, 2013

A Card-Carrying Newbie

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Main Event (Sort Of)

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



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

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

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

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

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

She motioned to me. "Call the office!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bought And Paid For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Go with the nice thugs, Christopher."

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

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

Mom put him on Master Charge.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Weekly Lesson In Humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Were you just skipping?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 24, 2013

Your Mother Should Know

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

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

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

"But I'm your mother!"

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

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

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

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Now, How Much Would You Pay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh, no.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Bus Rider's Guide To Columbia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How much you got left from your paycheck?"

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

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

Friday, June 21, 2013

That's Showbiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The King Abdicates The Throne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Can I draw it?" I asked.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Eat The Paste!

A Kindergarten classroom at Robinson School, circa 1978.

"Now when you have this, you're going to paste these two together like this."

"Ewwww. Chris is going to eat the paste!"


"He eats the paste!"

The teacher lowers her voice to a loud whisper. "You're not going to eat the paste, are you?"

A snaggle-toothed grin creeps onto the face of the curly-headed kid sitting at the table next to three girls. The target of their concern sits in the middle, lumped into a Fleischmann's margarine cup. That is the first mistake.

If you want to break a kid of a questionable habit, don't make it attractive. Kindergarten paste looks like butter. It sort of tastes like it too. I don't know what was in there, but my recollections square with one recipe I found on the 'net:
1 Cup Flour
1 Cup Sugar
4 Cups Water
1 tsp. Alum
30 drops of clove oil
Mmmm, tasty. I'm not sure about the Alum, although it's supposed to keep moisture out. But one teaspoon, meh.

Young children have a storied reputation of eating beyond the kitchen table. In that way, they're not that much different than dogs. One of my young nieces used to eat crayons. Now you know why Crayola puts "Non-Toxic" on the box.

You don't want the kids slurping down Elmer's Glue, so you have to come up with a stomach-friendly adhesive. But does it have to taste so good? Maybe put some curry powder into the recipe, or Tobasco sauce or cayenne peppers. That'll break a bad habit, but it could also start another one. The kids don't need to be daring each other to spread it onto their tongues.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What I Learned From Richard Simmons

Many of you consider Richard Simmons the Clown Prince of Weight Loss, and you're right. He'll tell you you're right. ABC News' Nightline saw something more, and they gave Simmons a sizable segment back in 2009. I never forgot it, simply because Simmons has a few lessons for life, slim or otherwise.

Have a mission. GOD gives us tools and gifts, but HE leaves it to us to find and use them. Richard found his gift in motivation. He told Nightline: "I don't have to work anymore. I don't have to make a phone call anymore, I don't have to do one more leg lift. This is my passion and this is my mission. And I've never deterred from it. And people have watched me over the years do what I do and you can't fake this. Either you really care about what you do or you don't. ... I eat, breathe, sleep, do everything for this, and it makes me happy." On the surface, it sounds hedonistic, until you see what he actually does.

Simmons starts his day on the phone, making calls to people with mass quantities of poundage to shed and convincing them they can do it. His eyes fix upon a photo of the other person on the line, as if he's talking to him or her in person. At 60+ years, he's still looking younger and buffer than a man his age should expect. He's still making TV appearances, going on the road, and making weight-loss videos.

Know where you've been. Simmons has been there and done that. ABC reported that he "grew up large but not in charge in New Orleans, surrounded by the caloricly colossal Creole restaurants of the French Quarter. Before a nurse's intervention got him healthy and looking trim, he'd put away enough to become a 250-pound teen."

He got it off. He kept it off. He's become a star at helping others keep it off. But for all his success, he's still teaching fitness classes at the Beverly Hills studio he founded back in 1974. And he only charges $12 for the chance to sweat off the pounds with him. That's $12 in Beverly Hills.

Don't waste time on those who aren't plugged into your mission. I've seen Simmons on The Late Show with David Letterman take more than a few cheap shots. It would be one thing if success had spoiled the fitness guru, but in the context of everything else, the jokes bomb. Simmons just brushes it off and gets on.

He even took ribbing for donning a suit and tie, instead of his trademark tank top, when he went before Congress to testify on childhood obesity. "I have to tell you I was a bit afraid that they would laugh at me," Simmons told ABC News. "'Cause they see me on television and they see me crazy and silly, and I wanted to make sure that they knew the other side of Richard Simmons and I put a suit on when I went to Washington and people told me I looked good. And I sounded good and I made sense. And that is going to be my legacy for the rest of my life."

Know that GOD will help you, if you help others. "I will hang it up when everyone is healthy, when everyone is a perfect ideal weight," he told Nightline. "And then I'll open up restaurants. Huge Italian feasts. ... When people don't need me anymore and GOD has asked me to come back. That's when I will stop."

Hebrews 6:10 (NIV) puts it another way: "GOD is not unjust; HE will not forget your work and the love you have shown HIM as you have helped HIS people and continue to help them."

Monday, June 17, 2013

No, Guys, That's Not For Sharing

Last week on 30/30, I reiterated my advice to young ladies about why they should leave their clothes on anytime a camera is around, no matter how much they trust the person behind the lens. I soon heard reaction pro and con on this post.

The con: Where do I, as a man, get off lecturing ladies on modesty? And secondly, what did I do to stop the up-the-skirt picture at school that was going around when I heard about it? (That picture was going around at a different school, where I would not have been able to stop it.)

The pro: Why should it matter if a man lectures a woman on modesty? The gender of the lecturer isn't the point -- the point is that it's good advice.

The con: Why am I not speaking to the men on this topic instead of the ladies, since men are the chief source of the problem?

It's a fair argument. My thoughts going into the writing of the piece was a belief that not enough men are standing up and telling women we don't want you engaging in this kind of behavior, given the mixed messages floating around them in our society. But guys aren't off the hook. They never were -- it's just the focus of that column wasn't on them.

So guys, I'm going to deal with you now. Notice I'm not calling you gentlemen at this point, because real gentlemen don't even think about engaging about this kind of behavior. (I find it ironic that "Gentlemen's Clubs" are called such when true gentlemen would never be seen there.) Real gentlemen, you may leave the page. Everybody else, read and heed.

Guys, you may think it's studly to score and share a few naked pictures of some girl. And I can't understand why you think that, because your worth as a guy drops with each press of the shutter and the Send button. Let's think this out: how many girls want to be with a guy who could potentially subject them to humiliation?

But you're not thinking about that. Your testosterone is controlling your brain cells, and unfortunately, some of you are still getting dates because of the paradox of some girls wanting to be around bad boys. When you're young and invincible and don't have to strike out into the world to start building your life, you think character flaws are mere pockmarks on your armor.

Then you get into the world at large, the one outside of high school and college, and you learn you don't have a free ride anymore. Your equivalent of the Amish rumspringge is over and you need to plant a stake. I'll give you one guess at where employers are getting a chunk of information about your life. It's the "f" word, not the one you probably casually drop as "a meaningless intensive" -- as Webster's politely calls it -- but the one that just turned into the paper trail for your scoundrel youth.

Maybe you're moderately smart enough not to be so brazen with social media. You say you're not dumb enough to get caught doing that. You say, hey, it's just a "guy thing," just like going to those aforementioned clubs. I've got a response for that: Numbers 32:23, which says, (NIV) "You may be sure that your sin will find you out." The context of this verse is Moses telling the nation of Israel that they can't follow GOD half-way. And a lack of decency falls under that category, as mentioned in 2 Corinthians 6 (NIV): "Come out from them and be separate, says the LORD. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you."

This is where some of you say you don't believe in GOD. To which I say, what about believing in your wife, the one you said you would honor and cherish when you married her? This is either your current one, or the one you wish to have, but you will end up alienating either of them because you just can't practice self-control. Maybe those girls who loved bad boys thought it was cool in school, but now they're also planting stakes and don't have time for juvenile delinquency. They've matured; you haven't.

GOD is right about sin finding you out. Lightning may not come out of the sky to strike you down, but sooner or later, you will deal with the consequences whether you believe in HIM or not. You will deal with the anger of the ladies whose lives you messed up with nude pictures. You will deal with their blame. You may even deal with their lawsuits. And they will not want to deal with your excuses saying, "I was just having fun," or "She didn't mind."

It's not fun. It's not fair. It's not edifying. It's dirty pictures. Delete them.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Are We There Yet?

One bright October day a few years ago, while I was visiting my parents in California, Dad had this bright idea of taking a day trip from Upland to Edwards Air Force Base, then the spaceport in Mojave, and coming back down through Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear. It looked good on paper.

We get to Edwards AFB and find that there's no public tour, which I could've guessed, since it is a military installation. About the only thing you can see is a B-1 on display just outside the main gate. We get to the spaceport and find a tiny park for a visitors' center. I find out there through a kiosk that you can tour Edwards, but it has to be arranged in advance. Perhaps another time. As for the spaceport, about the only thing on display is the X-plane. Dad gets plenty of pictures of that and we go on our merry way. We stop at the Burger King to relieve ourselves, one of several bathroom stops we'll make throughout the day. Too much coffee.

During the break, Dad snaps a few pictures of a desolate, depressing, sad old second-hand store across the street. It's lousy business but good art. I snap a few Blackberry photos of him taking pictures along with the house on the corner with Bible verses and a model of JESUS carrying a cross on the roof. I can't tell if it's a church, a mission, or a house of an extremely fervent Believer.

The road to lake Arrowhead winds up into the mountains and into the clouds. At a certain point on California 18, it grows foggier and foggier with no clue if you're still on the right road. Thus it is when we get to Crestline and get lost. We can't tell if we're on 18 anymore. Dad goes around and doubles back.

We stop and ask a woman chopping wood on the side of the road how to get to Lake Arrowhead. She barely speaks English. One moment, she says, and she calls forth another man who barely speaks English. He tells us to turn around and go down and back and up again. I'm not sure we trust him.

Thus we venture up the hill and into a real estate office. A lonesome old solitary man sits there, the kind who looks like he should be the grandfatherly security guard standing inside a bank.

“How do we get to Lake Arrowhead?” Mom asks.

“Which way did you come from?” the old man answers.

He spells it out for mom while I poke around the dark, cobwebbed, western-themed office with wood paneling and empty desks everywhere. Stuff sits on shelves that probably hasn't been moved since the 1970's or longer. I find a gigantic Bible sitting underneath a mirror on a shelf stashed up against a wall. It is dusty, untouched. Dad and I both need to use the restroom. This is no country for old men or full bladders.

The kindly gent continues explaining after he directs us upstairs into the attic where the necessary lies. It is a graveyard of holiday decorations and Halloween knick-knacks, curiously not on display yet.

We thank him and proceed to carry out the directions, which are still unclear. We go down the hill and up it again, just like he says. And we're still lost. No signs to point us to Lake Arrowhead, no signs to tell us if we're still on California 18. Nothing but road and cars and fog. Too much fog.

Coming to a fork in the road -- and there are many -- we flag down the driver of a white pick-up.

“You lost?” she asks.

We're confused, actually. But this time, we get better directions. Two lefts and a right, and we're finally out of Crestline and on the way to Lake Arrowhead.

Oktoberfest is going when we get there, but there's no brats or beer. We have lunch at the Golden Arches and spend about an hour rubbernecking and visiting the shops. It's a little nippy and getting late. The trip to Big Bear will have to take place another time, and I'm all right with that. I'm tired and feeling icky from too much coffee. We find the 210 without a problem and are back home by 7. It's not a day wasted, but it is a day prolonged.

Women often complain men don't ask for directions. Often that's not the problem. The problem arises when you try to do too much and find one complication leading to another. Fortunately, my Royal Father knows when to get out of the way and let the Royal Mother get us out of the swamp. I prefer to sit in the back seat, just like I did as a child on family vacation, and let the grown-ups hash it out.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Bert And Ernie Aren't Gay*

*and shame on the adult who told you they were
One evening, when I was at work in the newsroom, and a Charlie Brown special was running on TV, a colleague of mine asked: "When you were a kid, didn't you think Peppermint Patty and Marcie were, you know?"

"No, I didn't think that."

Her face fell. "You didn't?"

"No, I didn't."

"But they were always together!"

"Look," I explained, incredulous. "Charles Schulz would've never gone for that. He was a Rockefeller Republican."

"What about Bert and Erie?"

"Never. They were best friends. I never thought anybody was gay. Look, when you're a kid, you don't worry about adult issues."

And if you're an adult, you don't saddle with your children with them. Childhood is the place to learn, grow, and enjoy the morning of life, not get caught up in the evening rush of concerns above young comprehension. When the ruckus erupted a few years ago about childrens' books in the vein of "Heather Has Two Mommies," I bristled not merely because of the subject matter, but because kids don't deserve to have an issue like this dumped into their laps publicly.

I get just as angry when people bring young children to political protests -- left-wing, right-wing, anti-war, anti-abortion, anti-deportation, anti-gun, anti-anything. It's no different than when politicians use kids as political pawns, as Arizona congressman John Shaedegg did so obnoxiously in 2009. It's disturbing to watch adults take advantage of children who aren't old enough to vote, let alone understand the issues.

I'm bold enough to say it: I consider political manipulation of a child a form of abuse. It may not hurt or sting, but robs the child of childhood time. It's a cheap attempt to play with our emotions. It's a psychological low blow.

Some kids are precocious enough to want to become politically active ahead of time. Fine then, but it's up to the adults to guide them in the journey, making sure they learn to evaluate opinions against facts. And please don't let them listen to partisan talk radio, left or right.

Today's youngsters are tomorrow's leaders. But that's tomorrow. Today they're kids, and they deserve to be kids for as long as their innocence clocks will allow. When they discover the real world, they can ask you about Bert and Ernie and Patty and Marcie. And you can tell them the truth, that Charles Schulz never showed parents in any "Peanuts" strip, and Bert and Ernie were best friends.

Friday, June 14, 2013

It's A Bird! It's A Plane! It's A Guy In Body Armor!

Reel To Reel: Man Of Steel

Going Rate: Worth full price admission (3D adds little)
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild language, fantasy violence

For me, Christopher Reeve will always be Superman. He played the role with poetry, humanity and charisma. So it's hard for your humble reviewer to be objective about the ambitious reboot from producer Christopher Nolan, who successfully reimagined the Batman franchise and gave us the highly intelligent thriller Inception. Team him up with director Zach Snyder, and maybe we've got something -- but only if the film is more like Snyder's 300 and less like the fanboy-tainted Watchmen.

Man of Steel seeks to change our image of Superman from the squeaky-clean American hero embodied by Reeve and George Reeves and morph him into a vulnerable, conflicted figure while amping up the messianic themes of the Superman story that got watered down from the 1978 film. It ditches the bright blue-and-red tights for something resembling chain-mail armor, with a similarly-clad supporting cast who inhabit elongated spaceships that look like something I should bait with a No-Pest Strip.

Left intact is the crux of the backstory: The planet Krypton is about to blow up, and it also faces a military coup that pits leading scientist Jor-El (Crowe) against the ruthless General Zod (Shannon). Jor-El must send his son away to Earth as both a gift to humanity and a way of preserving the Kryptonian race. The new film adds more dimension to this premise with themes of free will versus state authority, not to mention a new perspective on natural childbirth.

We see flashbacks of Kal-El (Cavill) growing up as Clark Kent in Smallville, Kansas, struggling to understand why he's got super powers the other kids don't. His Earth father Jonathan (Costner) warns him to keep his abilities secret because he's the kind of person that will end up changing the world once word gets out. Still, young Clark can't help but come to the rescue, saving his school bus from disaster as one of many miracles. It's important to note Clark is anything but the mild-mannered reporter in the horned-rimmed glasses we've become accustomed to. Here he's a drifter, floating from one job to the next as he tries to figure out his purpose.

Enter Lois Lane (Adams), star reporter for the Daily Planet, who is more the belabored beat writer than the pretty print princess of Margot Kidder's interpretation. While Lane is chasing a lead on a military expedition in the Arctic, she runs across Kent who is about to discover his true identity. I like how this picture disposes of the whole secret-identity device, replacing it with a joint pursuit of the truth. Indeed, Lane becomes central to Superman's mission as he is forced to confront Zod when he tries to conquer Earth.

Any Superman reboot had better have good villains. Forget about Lex Luthor, even though Gene Hackman played him with such smarmy charm. Michael Shannon's Zod has depth and grit, unlike Terence Stamp, who rolled like a Shakespeare-company reject. Is it any wonder that guy was sentenced to eternity in a flying mirror? Crowe's Jor-El seems to channel Obi-Wan Kenobe more than anything else. I keep expecting him to tell his son to use The Force.

The new Superman doesn't waste time plucking cats out of trees or busting petty criminals. He gets right to the epic battle with Zod, something we originally had to wait for in Superman II. The remake puts the original showdown to shame. In westerns, brawls will usually trash a bar. Here the hero and villain trash most of downtown Smallville and much of Metropolis in running, flying fisticuffs of such freewheeling, over-the-top mayhem they risk becoming self-parody.

Yeah, this isn't the Superman of my youth, where Clark Kent had to change into the suit by flying around in a revolving door. It's darker, more violent, more apocalyptic than the superhero movies I grew up with. I won't forget those old movies, but Nolan and Snyder's version isn't forgettable either, which is more than I can say for 2006's Superman Returns.

Hola, Mi Amiga!

Out of the dozen computers I or my family have owned, my favorite remains the Commodore Amiga. The system still stands out from the pack, although the rest of the computing world will still see it as a glorified game machine.

I actually owned two models. My first was an Amiga 500, a Motorola 68000 machine bought off a young student in Kansas who had loaded it up with lots of extras, including the monitor, a digitizing camera, an audio sampling device, a modem, an extra floppy drive, a printer and stacks of software -- some of which he'd copied from a friend in the computer business. The system cost me about $1000. It could've easily sold for twice that.

The 500, as did all the Amiga systems, came with built-in multitasking. To switch programs, you clicked a box in the corner of the screen, or grabbed it with your mouse and pulled it down to reveal what else was running. Neat. But what was neater, for me, was its graphics and video capabilities. The previous owner threw in a genlock, a device that overlaid the Amiga's graphics onto a television signal. Instantly, I had a $5000 television CG system on my desk. This was 1989, more than a decade before digital video production became cheap and ubiquitous on PC's. I used the Amiga's graphics to help Dad produce a couple of training videos for his job.

A lot of the games went unplayed, but I had gobs of them: Chessmaster 3000, Universal Military Simulator, The Three Stooges, to name a meager few. I bought the original SimCity for Amiga. Through the modem, I improved the software line-up with oodles of freebies and utilities. At college, I was able to grab some hard-to-find freeware through networks linked to the mainframe when grabbing files from the Internet was nearly unheard of among most people.

A few years later, I added a hard drive from Great Valley Products. It snapped onto the left side of the 500 and also included slots for memory. Dad happened to have a couple of DRAM sticks he wasn't using, and they worked flawlessly.

I wished the rest of the system did. The external floppy choked from time to time. The mouse cord had a short in it, and it needed to be replaced. WordPerfect on the Amiga was less than perfect; it nearly ate one of my college term papers. I later replaced that software with much-stabler ProWrite. But I never seemed to find a stable power supply. They kept going bad, putting out enough power to turn the machine on but not to run the disk drives. Replacing them cost a chunk of change.

The external hard drive's power supply started flaking out as well, prompting a curious diagnosis from a technician with Great Valley Products in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania: "Maybe you have bad power in your house."

How could that be? The house was barely two years old at the time, and the power wasn't damaging any other electronics.

"I've had that problem in my house," he added. I faintly recall him saying I needed to get some sort of line conditioner, another expensive proposition.

The point was moot, because I was moving up to an Amiga 3000, the 68030 flavor. It ran without any headaches, although I had to give up the 500's awesome monitor, which doubled as a razor-sharp TV display. This system followed me through the remainder of college all the way to my first real-world job.

Through the years, Commodore faded into the sunset, and finding support for machine got harder. At the University of Missouri, I found a small but dedicated users group and a Commodore dealer -- which I fortunately never needed. In McAllen, Texas, the most I had was one guy in a messy, second-floor computer shop. I saw him to ask about a RAM upgrade, but I feared I was walking into the shade-tree computer shop.

With sadness, I kissed the 3000 goodbye in December of 1994 and prepared to move to a first-generation Pentium 90 PC, which I would purchase a few months later. It cost $2300 without a monitor, printer, modem, or extra drive. I was now in the IBM ranks... but it wasn't as much fun.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What I Learned From Gordon Ramsay

Right now, I only consider two programs as appointment television: Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, both helmed by the colorfully foul superstar chef Gordon Ramsay. I believe in negative reinforcement. Repulsion is as powerful a motivator as inspiration. I've only regularly watched Ramsay at work for about a year, but it's enough for a few takeaways.

You can be honest, but you don't have to be brutal. I've seen Ramsay compare at least half a dozen dishes to various forms of excrement. Even if they did look or taste like that, somebody will one day ask the Michelin chef if he actually has tasted excrement. (Maybe they already have and I just haven't seen it.) Say it's dry, it's bland, it's runny, it's overcooked, it's raw, it's disgusting. Don't tell me I should be scooping it up with a shovel.

Leading a kitchen is like leading an battalion. Before I started watching Kitchen Nightmares, I never know about restaurant expediters -- those who bark out dishes to the cooks and prod them to get plates out. They are the drill sergeants of the kitchen, and though annoying, they get the job done. Ramsey demands the restaurant owners he works with learn to lead. Most of all, they need to communicate. I've had my own troubles with communicating to reporters. I pray for GOD to help me with that. But somewhere in my mind, I hear Gordon, pointing at me and saying, "There's your battalion!"

You have to provide an experience, not just a meal. Gordon has told restaurant owners they have to have serve what people can't make themselves. Simple dishes won't do, unless they're simply "stunning." The service, the presentation and the flavor all has to come together. Right now in broadcast news, we are learning to compete with so-called distracted viewers who text and surf the 'net on their smartphones while watching TV. Holding their attention is not easy. My colleagues and myself are learning new ways of thinking and presentation.

If you lose your passion, what's the point? Gordon can see who's cooking to win and who's just simmering. My friend and colleague Kris Pickel once told me about the news business, "When you stop caring, it's time to get out." This is perhaps my biggest challenge. During 2011, I nearly quit the business. The mass shooting that injured Gabby Giffords, a deadly crash involving a Sheriff's helicopter, a pipe-busting deep freeze, and a devastating wildfire all happened within in the first six months of the year, and I couldn't turn it off like people outside the business. Fortunately, I got the chance to move off the night shift and onto the day shift before I threw in the towel. It was the best thing I could've done short of quitting. I'm confident the people who know me see renewal.

I have never sampled any of Gordon Ramsay's dishes. Maybe if I get back to Las Vegas and one of his restaurants, I'll try one. But it's not about the food, it's about the chef. Ramsay told a CBS reporter who asked him about his cursing that people don't understand his passion. I wished somebody would've asked, "Do you eat with that mouth?"

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lens Cap Off, Clothes On

Young Ladies, I've written before about why you should never ever allow yourself to appear nude in front of a camera. But some of you forget, and I keep seeing stories about sexting, as naked pictures keep flying back and forth via phones and Facebook. I know modesty went out with petticoats, but let's push character issues aside for a moment and focus on the real-world issues you probably haven't played out.

First, once these pictures are out on the 'net, they might as well be public. Anything that can be passed from phone to phone can be shared with other phones and other people. Even if you swear your boyfriend will never ever share those photos, the odds aren't in your favor when you break up. If your father gets a look at your Blackberry, you're done. If your boyfriend's mother checks out his Galaxy, he's toast. Parents do look, even when you think they don't, thanks to software called StealthGenie or good-ol'-fashioned nosiness. Ladies, the pictures will get out, and they're gonna find out.

Second, once those pictures are out, it is impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube. This was true in the analog world of my high-school youth, when one girl -- whom I suspect was inebriated -- decided to stick a pocket camera up her dress at a party.

"The photo has been going around school for a couple of weeks," a friend said. He pointed to another friend. "I put your name on the waiting list."

If she was a willing yet intoxicated participant in the beginning, she had to be frustrated in the end if she chased that photo down. She couldn't take back the looks.

Get nude in front of the camera once, maybe twice, maybe in a lovesick fog, and you can write it off as a mistake. We all make them. But you can't change how people think about you. You can't undo your parents' shock and anger. You can't undo your friends' floozy jokes. You can only hope your judgment will be better.

That's why it needs to be better before the shutter clicks. The pain does not equal the mirth or the thrill of adventure. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Joshua 17:9 (NIV): "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Love, friendship, ego, arrogance -- they all deceive.

So resist, ladies, not merely because it weakens your character, but because you can't hit Control-Z on the effects.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Penny For Your Door

A simple, low-cost prank or revenge tactic in my college dorm was know as "pennying." Without getting into the specifics on a somewhat family-friendly blog, I will simply tell you it's a maneuver involving one-cent coins that leaves your target trapped inside his or her room with no way to get the door open short of a sledgehammer.

I first learned of the tactic one night of my freshman year, when I sat in 7th floor lounge of Hatch Hall at the University of Missouri, reading a true-crime book when the usual gang of jokesters ran in.

"Phase One is complete," their leader said, removing a woolen scarf from around his face. "Now we move on to Phase Two."

He looked around the room at his floormates. "I pennied that door harder than I ever had in my life." He was talking about the Resident Assistant's room on the all-girl floor above us. She had a rotten reputation, rightly or wrongly. Fearless Leader was beginning the first of what was to be several covert operations involving people doors, property or both.

"I oughta be in the Marines!" he bragged.

As his team reassembled, they decided they needed to go back in and stir up more trouble. So they slipped back under their scarves and masking, shuffling up the stairs. From the lounge I heard screaming, shouting and pounding as they hammered the R.A.'s door at 11pm. Within half an hour, my own covert surveillance revealed the girls had gathered around the door, trying to see if they could get it open without calling the Fire Department.

She never knew Fearless Leader was behind it. He even anonymously called her room, just to ruffle her feathers. Her boyfriend went on the prowl looking for the culprit but never found him.

Next year, a friend of mine across the hall got pennied in twice and somehow managed to escape. I somehow dodged the copper curse.

The flip side: these pranks could've been far worse. Some dorms are not that much different than frat houses. Get a bunch of boys together in a small place, and testosterone rules, even in a so-called "honors" dorm. Besides the pennies, I observed furniture capers, domestic disturbances, casual drug use, copious smoking, liberal drinking and freestyle flatulence.

A group of Physics students would sit at one of the lounge tables after dinner and do their homework together. As X approached Y, air approached the exhaust system and vented with no comment from the dutifully assembled.

Later, the cigarette gang would take over, filling half the room with a cloud of grey smoke descending from the ceiling like a cancerous fog.

"I think the smoke's getting a little thick in here," one said, yet nobody bothered to open a window.

Not that I really cared. Welcome to college. Check the door.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Hustler Of Pomme de Terre

I learned the game politely called pocket billiards from my best friend Brad while we were both in elementary school. He had a table in the basement, and we gave those clay balls a workout. I had to keep one eye on Brad while the other was on the cue ball. He had a habit of giggling and shoving balls into the side pockets.

His family invited me down to their home at Pomme de Terre Lake, located about 50 miles north of Springfield, Missouri. I learned to cast a fishing line for the trip using a Tinkertoy practice lure, but we never got around to the real thing. We preferred water-skiing on his dad's speedboat rather than angling for a few bass, and I didn't eat fish anyway.

As this was the early 1980's, video game arcades were popping up all over the place. The lake had one such establishment: The Blue Moon Arcade. Brad and I went there between the boating and an ice cream social at a friend's house down the street. It housed mostly second-tier games like Kickman, but the main attraction was the pool room, with its red-felted deluxe table, and a local shark eager to take on all comers.

He wasn't that much older than me. But he'd been around: he carried a two-piece Busch beer pool cue and a sly grin. I carried a baby face and the naivety of a fifth-grader who didn't know a bank shot from a bank loan. Given the lameness of the video-game selection and his friendly persona, I was game.

What happened next had faded over the course of many years, but I recall the house hustler had no problem sinking shots. Your humble billiard novice, however, had trouble merely driving two balls to a cushion on the break. Brad's Mom didn't seem to mind. She sat there, entertained, probably making sure we weren't going to make side bets.

Busch Cue Man played a workable game of eight-ball. But if you have a rudimentary knowledge of eight-ball, you know the floor can drop out from under you with one errant pocket of the wrong ball at the right time. It happened. To him.

The eight ball went right in, just as he was beginning to savor another easy victory.

"You beat me," he gasped, color draining from his face as he clenched his Busch cue like a security blanket.

I should've bet something -- maybe not his cue, but something more fun like making him cast a fishing line with a cue ball lure.

The Blue Moon Arcade didn't last much longer, crashing with the end of the video game craze. My pool exploits moved to our house playroom, when we acquired a table from Grandpa Francis. Those balls took a beating. I took more losses than I can remember, and played many solo games to forget. But the legend of beating the Blue Moon Hustler is whispered among the trees of Pomme de Terre, if only in my dreams.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Trouble With The Curve

You've probably heard schools are phasing out cursive writing, and it's about time. Apart from my signature, I've barely written in cursive for years.

In the first grade, I underwent rigorous penmanship practice, one letter at a time. I never understood why a cursive "Q" looked more like a "2", or why some cursive "P's" were puffy and others slender, with a small tab at the top. Lowercase "z" also looked too much like a "2," but I didn't get to complain about any of it.

Our teacher set a date for us to begin writing everything in cursive, only it came earlier than I thought.

"We start writing in cursive today, young man," Mrs. Wilson scolded me, right in the face.

When my peers and I went to church school, somebody would ask, "Do we have to write this in cursive?"

"Write it any way you want!" our church teachers would reassure us. Not only were they loving and reasonable people, I gather they also knew the ugly truth: college would destroy their handwriting, anyway.

It's hard to write quickly and legibly when taking notes from a motor-mouth professor. Some people can pull it off, but I can't. I had already reverted back to my sans-serif font in high school. Cursive came out only when I needed the handwriting equivalent of italics.

"Be particular about your handwriting," my third-grade teacher once told the entire class. I was, and I sure as shootin' wasn't adding any more unnecessary loops and flourishes.

"How are we supposed to learn how to sign our names?" one teacher asks. Well, we won't. We'll print our names neatly and legibly, just like we did at the top of our homework, allowing some verifier of our identities know it's really us in letters we can read rather than scribbles we can't. A printed signature is still handwritten, and it still has distinguishing characteristics that can match up with the rest of our markings. A "Q" will be a "Q" and a "Z" a "Z." And we'll hopefully re-allocate cursive teaching time towards forming complete, coherent sentences that read as beautiful as they used to look.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Where Are The Young Princes?

Try this experiment: go to Google and type in "girls who want to be princesses." Wait, I'll do it for you. Notice the plethora of links devoted to princess culture among the young ladies.

Now, try this search: "boys who want to be princes."

I'll pause while you either lament the dearth of relevant links or pick your jaw up off the floor. Near the top of the search results is a site called "My Princess Boy," run by a Seattle family whose 5-year-old son likes to dress up in frilly pink outfits and bling.

I hoped to see a few pictures of little boys dressed up like Prince William, Prince Charles, or at least Prince Charming. I didn't even get Prince Valiant. I'm glad I didn't see any dressed up as just Prince.

Parents of America, we have a serious problem. We have neglected to nurture the male equivalent in the royal hierarchy to the point where some young boys would rather wear dresses to get in on the culture of royal beauty and pampering. Don't blame it on Disney -- the studio has given us plenty of princes, including The Prince Of Egypt, Moses.

I've heard the explanation that young boys are more interested in superheroes than sword-carrying nobility. Perhaps, but it leaves few options for the young aspiring gent. Last Halloween, how many princess dresses did you see at the local costume place compared to tunics and wooden shields? We can't honestly make the comparison if we're not putting forth effort to give kids a choice.

I did another search: "boys who want to be knights." Again, disappointment. I found links related to the psychology of saving modern-day damsels in distress, but nothing to encourage the youth. The irony is that knights began their training at age 7, learning both chivalry and swordsmanship under the tutoring of a lord or knight. I found online classes for how to be a princess. Zilch for being a prince.

As a historical re-enactor who loves to dress up in knee breeches, stockings and a tricorn hat, I fully realize I am speaking to you from a biased perspective. I know my love of historical dress and manners are outside the norm. But that doesn't make it any less unfair for young boys who don't see themselves as Superman, Batman or Spider-Man.

I have this sinking gut feeling we don't see our media pushing a male equivalent to princess culture because it's too sissy. Take a look at so-called "meterosexuals," those men who take on characteristics that make people think they're gay when they're not. The way our culture is trending, it's acceptable to be perceived as gay. But woe to those seen as straight and sissy.

I'm not letting young princesses off the hook either. So much of the culture is material and self-serving. One mother told me about how she and others work to educate their daughters about the differences between Disney princesses and GOD's princesses -- GOD's princesses work to serve THEIR KING.

The homeschooling and historical groups I've been blessed to participate in are breaking this stereotype with a vengeance. They are fostering the development of young ladies and gentlemen without giving a toss about what the world thinks. The parents who make up these groups have instilled within their children that manners, kindness and respect are not archaic or sissy, they're what GOD asks of us.

I did one more Google search: "manners classes for kids." At last, sweet chivalry.

But I still want to see more kids in prince costumes.

Friday, June 7, 2013

"Wanna Go Looking For Cigarette Butts?"

I have some advice for new parents. If you one day catch your child smoking a cigarette, force them to roll their own using discarded butts left on the ground. It will quickly break the developing habit.

I speak with confidence after an experience from my scoundrel youth. One of my best friends in the fourth grade -- whom I am calling "Leon" -- and I were at his house, fooling around on a summer day while his parents were at work. His older sister entered the room.

"Leon, you wanna go looking for cigarette butts?"

They had developed this new ritual to obtain a forbidden smoke, but they needed to do some footwork. I followed them as they walked up the street, looking for every butt they could find with any tobacco left in it.

"Get those Marlboros," his sister directed. "Those are supposed to be the good ones."

In reality, the brand didn't matter. Kool, True, Maraboro, More, Carlton -- they'd all do. Leon and his sister picked up about two dozen spent smokes and headed back home to harvest the tobacco.

They carefully unwrapped the butts and squeezed out the tobacco one a piece of notepad, which they proceeded to roll up. Outside, Leon and his sister -- fourth grader and high schooler -- passed it back and forth. They offered me a drag; I passed. The putrid blue smoke coming out the other end turned me off. The potent smell made it into their basement, and Leon's sister tried covering it up with air freshener. I don't know what they did about their breaths. As far as I know, they never got caught.

Unfortunately, that experience wasn't enough to keep me away from a couple of drags later on, after I got out of college. When cigars became fashionable among the younger set, someone kindly donated a Baccarat stogie to me at a club while I was enjoying a beer. Alcohol and tobacco combined to leave me half-delirious on the dance floor. I don't remember how I made it home sober. That ended the cigar experiment.

Several years later, I experimented with a few Camels. I marveled at how I could get so much smoke out of one small puff without inhaling or coughing to death. At a friend's party, I stole off into a corner of the yard to work a cig all the way down to the tip before somebody called me back to the frivolity.

Picture this: a silhouetted lone figure emerges from a cloud of grey smoke, illuminated from behind by a floodlight. His hair is frizzy and sticking out all over the place, not from the cigarette, but it really doesn't matter. Another light eventually illuminates his face, revealing a grin of satisfaction, something those long-banned tobacco ads might have deemed "pure smoking satisfaction."

I can count the number of smokes I've taken on one hand, meaning I didn't develop a habit. Some people have told me they are "social smokers," meaning they only light up when they're at a party or some gathering where they would feel naked without a cancer stick. I don't understand how people think it calms the nerves. If anything, I would be afraid of hacking smoke all over the place.

Smoking killed Johnny Carson, Peter Jennings, Morton Downey Jr., Edward R. Murrow, Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey. So I marvel at how many of my broadcast TV colleagues continue to smoke, even if it's a quick puff or two in the parking lot every so often. I've seen people who didn't smoke get started, presumably to help them calm their nerves. I've seen news anchors and reporters smoke at parties, inevitably thinking they won't end up sounding like Marge Simpson in a few years.

A year ago, a new anti-smoking TV ad emerged starring a haggard woman with a hole in her throat to enable her to speak. If that doesn't gross you out, then go smoke up the entire tobacco stock of your nearest mini-mart and talk to me later -- if you can.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Night Rider

I used to call it "The Drive at Five." When driving to visit my parents in Upland, California, I'd get up before the crack of dawn to get on the road by 5am, rolling into the Inland Empire around 10am, depending on traffic and time changes. The journey works pretty well, and I have it down to a two-tank trip.

Then my work hours changed to dayside, and I started making those getaways right after I got done with the 5:00 news. It's the same game, just played a little different.

5:45 Hopefully be out the door. Hopefully not have a grumbling tummy, but that can be appeased with a quick run through the drive-through window. Otherwise, dinner is three hours off, at least.

7:15 If rush hour traffic is done, and some fool hasn't jack-knifed his semi along I-10, I'm rolling into Phoenix. To give you an idea of the size of this metro area, one of the biggest in the nation, realize that it takes at least one hour to drive from one edge of the area to the other.

8:00 Be out of Phoenix, driving into the West Valley, and my first large stretch of darkness. In the summer, the sun is setting. In the winter, the sun was down hours ago.

8:45 Debate whether to get gas at the Zip station 20 miles east of Quartzite or keep rolling. Given my new car's fuel efficiency, I prefer to keep going.

9:00 Debate whether to gas up at the Pilot in Quartzite and grab something from the Golden Arches right next door. If this were daytime, I might also sniff around at one of the swap meets in town. (Here's where I pause so you can make your "Sid" jokes.) Depending on my timing, I might catch the news on the radio from KJMB, one of the few family-owned FM radio stations still running network news at the top of the hour.

9:15 If passing on both above options, gas up at the Flying J on top of the hill in Ehrenberg. It's still my favorite truck stop on the Arizona-California line: clean restrooms, large drink selection, and a Wendy's. Grab grub after a 10-100 and roll on.

9:30 Roll into California and pass through the U.S.D.A. checkpoint. They're looking for fruit flies. They always wave me through. They wave everybody in a car through. Why even stop sedans?

9:35 Out of Blythe and into another dark stretch. It's spooky. It's late. I have a big soda.

10:30 Signs of life reappear around Twenty-Nine Palms. The town glistens along with the lights of the Spotlight 29 Casino. No time to stop and play.

11:00 More spookiness. Dozens of red lights flash in the distance atop the numerous wind turbines. It looks like a UFO invasion. This is the time to keep my head. In the past, I've had visions of people darting across the road. Or maybe those weren't visions. No, the soda isn't spiked.

11:45 In the home stretch. Upland is about half an hour away. The lights of L.A. are on the horizon.

12:30am Hopefully we're home now. Kiss the Queen Mother and Royal Father. Gawk a little about the trip. Collapse into bed.

You gotta have a system...