Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays!

We are staying home for Christmas this year. Between significant anniversaries, family transitions, and Christmastime funerals,* we have traveled for entirely too many years running. It is wonderful to be with family, but 1500 miles of driving, a week away from home, and the inevitable accompanying colds and flu get to be a little much after a while.

Staying home means having the time to decorate the house, send cards, cook, and generally enjoy the season, at least in theory. We did manage to decorate this year, and we have definitely been enjoying the season. Christmas at home virtually guarantees a stress-free holiday.

I'm sure we will be back on the road next year. Which helps me appreciate this week even more. And no matter what holiday (or none) you celebrate at this time of year, the turning of the year has its own weird magic. With the dead of winter staring us in the face, it's a natural time to look forward and back at the same time.

Whether you are fighting the holiday rush, fighting over the last glass of wine at the family gathering, or nestled snug in your home, have a Merry and Happy, and whatever else you can manage.

* Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marking Time

Civilization is all about mediating our baser instincts with layers of ritual and indirection. Let's face it, many (if not all) of our relationships are based on what someone else can do for us, as long as the price is not too odious. But when we strip away enough of the dance to simply trade sex for cash, the veneer gets too thin for most people's tastes.*

Another place the veneer can get pretty thin is the timesheet. From the time I was fifteen, I was compelled to punch in, sign in, or log in at every job I worked, accounting for my time to the minute initially, and later to the quarter hour. Like toddlers getting haircuts, new workers generally find this practice horribly degrading and painful, and it often takes several years for the indignation to fade. This is because they see it for what it is.

After about thirty years of this, I found my indignation returning. I'm sure this is partially because of the type of jobs I was doing, and the accompanying changes in expectations. Dairy Queen paid me $2.50 for every hour that I spent cooking, mopping, waiting on customers, and making out with Nancy Jacuzzi in the walk-in cooler. After I clocked out, they stopped paying me, and I effectively stopped being an employee. They really didn't care much what I did, as long as I wasn't wearing the little paper hat.

Inexorably, job by job, that social contract changed. I was still expected to account for every minute that I was on the job, but employers expected more. Loyalty, concern for company property and welfare, unpaid overtime, appropriate wardrobe, abstinence from certain extra-curricular activities, and "other duties as directed" are routinely expected by employers, with no real change in attitude toward the employee. Admittedly, they pay more than Dairy Queen, but as the punchline to the old joke goes, "Now we know what you are, we're just haggling on price." In the most extreme cases, we essentially rent the best years of our lives to someone else. The final straw for me was my CEO calling on a Saturday afternoon, asking why I had not responded to the e-mail she sent two hours before.

The last four years have been the first of my professional career without timesheets, and it is hard to describe the difference. People still tell me what to do and expect me to be at work, but I feel much more in control of my own priorities and actions. Our focus is on results, not what people do with every minute of their day.

In the end, the real difference is probably inconsequential. I'm still doing what someone else wants in exchange for money. But the extra layer of indirection makes it easier to pretend we are all in it together.

* Mine included, in case you're wondering. On the occasions I've been compelled to visit "gentleman's clubs" for bachelor parties, I generally keep to myself, try not to touch anything, and leave as soon as possible. I think they are the saddest places on Earth. A stripper actually asked me once if I was "afraid of titties." True story.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Attitude is everything

A million years ago when I sold things for a living, the phrase "attitude is everything" was doled out like roofies at an NFL after-party. It made sense, right? You can't control anything but how you approach what happens, so might as well be positive.

While there is truth in the sentiment, I eventually realized that it was a euphemism for, "This job sucks like nothing has ever sucked before, and if you don't want to end up curled in the fetal position or staring down the business end of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, you had better get with the maximum false enthusiasm." Many of my co-workers combined this advice with heavy drinking, drug abuse, serial adultery, and/or stealing audacious amounts of company property and cash. I opted to quit instead, got divorced (different story), and went back to college.

I was really just never any good at the fervor-on-demand thing. The best I could achieve was an "Eeyore on Plavix" vibe that just tended to confuse people. I managed my early career(s) with the strategy of proving myself smarter than everyone else, certain that they would eventually realize my inherent superiority and put me in charge of things. Every occasion that I was proven right, and no apology was forthcoming, I considered to be a personal affront, and another token for my necklace of petulance. I would tell all who would listen that my bad attitude was earned.

I eventually learned that, earned or not, churlishness was not paying off the way I expected. It turns out that people are less grateful having their errors pointed out than one might think, and nothing good ever comes of winning an argument with the boss. They like it even less when you throw it back at them later. I relearn this lesson almost daily, but I'm getting better at catching myself before I utter some synonym for, "Told you so," rather than wishing I hadn't said it.

I found it also helps immensely to work with people you respect. It's a bonus if most of them are smarter than you. It took me the better part of thirty years to arrange that. Now all I have to do is remember what it was I was hoping to accomplish.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Only human

Working at a large university, I see several women a day wearing various forms of hijab to signify their modesty as Muslims. I found myself musing today that most people in our country could use a little more of the attitude that we are part of something larger than ourselves, and that perhaps fulfilling our own desires is not the most important thing in the universe. What could be wrong with that?

Here's what. Since Islam seems to be a touchy subject with some people lately, and since frankly I don't know enough about it to do anything but make a fool of myself, let's talk about the religion in whose bosom my soul was rocked as a child. That couldn't possibly upset anyone, right?

Somewhere around 2000 years ago, if I remember my "The Bible" correctly,  an itinerant carpenter wandered the countryside telling people that they should be nice to one another, with the implied message that if we all tend to our own failings we will have much less time to fret about those of our neighbors. There were reports that he performed a few miracles, presumably to head off any questions regarding his moral authority. If I remember my Douglas Adams correctly, the powers that be nailed him to a tree for his trouble.

Barely a thousand years later we had hordes of His disciples delivering His love to the increasingly ironically named Holy Land on the point of a sword. Granted, the Crusades are actually quite complicated in the who did what to whom department, but the idea of two vast armies waging war under the banner of religion should work to illustrate my point. Which is not that religion is bad and only leads to evil and genocide.

My point, if I ever manage to get to it, is that it doesn't seem to be enough for people to be a part of something larger. We seem to have a need to make that big thing do something, which is where the trouble starts. Somehow it's not enough to dress modestly because we wish to be respectful, or to pray for our friends and family because it makes us all feel better. Prayers of the righteous need to be answered, and other people are in desperate need of being "saved" from their beliefs. If you want a Mercedes, "name it and claim it" in his name, and it shall be yours. If someone wants to build a different kind of church in your town, you need to do something about that. I haven't been to seminary, but I have a hard time believing that this is what Jesus had in mind.

I suppose this all goes back to our tribal identity, or some other academic humanistic liberal propaganda concept. We treat whatever group we are in like a football team. Our Ladies' Auxiliary can kick your Ladies' Auxiliary's ass. And once we've named it we've got to claim it, and deliver on the ass-kicking. Could it be that it's this pressure to deliver that starts us down the slippery slope of doing or thinking things we would never justify on our own, all in the name of the home team?

We forgive our teammates for -- or pretend we don't see -- things that will get a wandering Samaritan stoned to death in the town square. At least until someone notices out loud that the emperor has no clothes, and we are suddenly hit with the realization that it doesn't matter what school you coach, or to which party you belong, or who your daddy is. Wrong is wrong, and now what am I going to do with all of this shame?

It's a shame we can't just be satisfied with wearing the hijab, the cross, or the school colors, Someone should do something about that.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Movie Sunday: Thor

Image from here

This movie sucked. Don't waste your time. As a childhood fan of the comic book, I found just about everything that happened after the first ten minutes or so to be a betrayal of the Thunder God I knew. Thor was possibly the most imperfect of Marvel's anti-heroes, and this film was stock studio junk. He didn't even hammer much of anything.

I only wrote about this one because it's about the only movie we've watched lately. Biscuit and I have both been surfing from deadline to deadline since sometime in August. I've managed an hour here and there to wander the virtual wasteland, but our TV time has been mostly streaming BBC (big fans of Midsomer Murders), and we haven't had the motivation or time to go see anything at the theater.

I've got a couple more things coming up in December, but I'm hoping my time will loosen up enough to be able to write a little more. I'm not going to apologize for not blogging lately, since this is something I do for myself. But a colleague of mine likes to say that writing is thinking, and this is a type of thinking I miss when I don't have time for it.

Oh, we did see a documentary called The Parking Lot Movie that was quite funky and enjoyable, in the same way that sitting in a haze-filled room in college bumming cigarettes from each other was enjoyable. It probably cost 1% of what Thor did to produce, and it's a lot better.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Movie Sunday: The Player

The Player is Robert Altman's satirical gem that confirms everything we never wanted to believe about Hollywood, and by extension ourselves, since we are all fascinated with Hollywood, and if you love movies you should consider it your responsibility to see it, like Elephant Man, or Schindler's List. Personally, I haven't seen it in years, but I'm sure it's still excellent, and I couldn't exactly write a "Movie Sunday" about a short-lived television series, could I? Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.

You may have noticed a paucity of posts from me lately. If I'm not blogging regularly, it usually means that I'm either writing a paper or writing software, which are my other creative outlets, and enjoy the advantage that I get paid (though not particularly well) to do them. You can usually tell when it's a paper because the silence will be preceded by a frenzy of posts signifying my desire to do anything but get to the task at hand. Procrastination is not required for software writing, as it's one of my very favorite activities.

Oh dear, it seems we've gotten badly off track. The point is that I haven't had a lot of time to watch movies lately. What television time I have had has been split between HBO (DVD) and BBC (streaming) television series. A few weeks ago we watched The Comeback, a 2005 HBO series co-created and starred in by Lisa Kudrow.  While The Comeback isn't exactly a movie, it only lasted one season, and the thirteen half-hour episodes hang together nicely as a story. Taken together, they are probably not any longer than the last two Harry Potter movies, and almost as intense.

I would submit that The Comeback is the rightful heir to The Player for at least two reasons. First, it will make you slightly ashamed for being a consumer of 90% of the shallow, derivative, intentionally non-creative crap that our entertainment industry churns out every year. Second, the satire is so biting and unblinking that it's initially hard to watch.

The concept of the show is that Lisa Kudrow's character was the star of a moderately successful sitcom twenty years ago, and The Comeback is a reality show about her trying to build a new career. She seems like such a waste of skin that you initially just want her to go away. I suspect this is why the series only lasted a single season. By the end of the second episode, I was not sure we would even want to watch the second DVD.  Everyone on the show except the housekeeper was whiny, self-absorbed, hypocritical, uninteresting, and unlikable.

Somewhere around Episode Five I started to get it. I think part of it is that the show got better. People found their characters, the writers found their story, and it all flowed a little better. But more importantly, we started to see the humanity in these people, and we begin to care about them in spite of themselves. By the end of the series we find ourselves pulling hard for Kudrow's character to succeed.

If you watch reality television, I charge you to watch The Comeback. Like most learning experiences, it  may not be easy at first, but it might be worth it.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Did you get a little shiver when you saw the title of this post? I'm sitting in a room with 28 sweating college students right now, proctoring a computer science midterm exam as a favor for a colleague, and all I can think is that I'm glad I'm at the front of the room. I spend a lot of time around college students, and they are never this quiet and intense simultaneously. In fact, I'm not sure anything in civilian adult life produces the same sort of crisis of concentration as a hard, important exam, unless it's impending nuclear meltdown, or maybe blue lights in the rear view.

It's a little disconcerting to think about all the ways that education is disconnected from the skills we need in life today. It probably worked well enough when the idea was to produce good factory workers. Sit down, shut up, line up straight and don't share with your neighbor helped prepare people for a life of mentally unengaged drone work.*

Using these same techniques to produce creative information workers may be less effective. When I talk to business owners and managers, I hear repeatedly how they need people who can collaborate effectively, communicate, and think outside the box. That's about the time the buzzwords really start to fly and my attention starts to drift.

There is a growing movement among the academic elites to bring art, music, and drama back into the fold of serious learning, partially because people with these degrees are succeeding in all sorts of technical areas, flying in the face of everything their parents tried to tell them. At the same time, the unemployment lines are saying hello to engineers and MBA's for the first time in a very long time. This is all happening while schools and communities continue to cut funding for arts and humanities, so that they can focus on teaching kids to pass a written test.

I don't really have a point. I was just looking for something to keep me from watching these kids suffer for an hour and a half. Also, did you know that computer science students almost all have really nice mechanical pencils? Except for the ones who take exams in ink. They are the ones who scare me.

*This is in no way meant to disparage manual labor or industrial work. I have done enough of it in my life to have great respect for what I still think of as "working people." But this sort of thing does tend to be repetitive, and there is usually plenty of mental space for daydreaming. Just like in school.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My dirty little secret

Hello, my name is Chris, and I'm a gamer.

It's been forty-eight hours since I last gamed.

Over the past few weeks I have created a super-intelligence that will rule the world, restored the Illuminati to power, and destroyed the global communications network, plunging the world into a new dark age.  I have killed or incapacitated hundreds of terrorists, shadow government soldiers, cyborgs, mercenaries, karkians, greasels, and greys (don't ask), as well as a few innocent bystanders, policemen, health care professionals, and rats.

They are still with me. When I close my eyes I see them. They appear in the sights of my tricked out sniper rifle. I can feel the comfortable kick of the assault shotgun, and hear the thrilling "whoosh" of the rockets from my GEP gun. The unsolved puzzles and paths not taken float through my mind like ghosts.

It all began innocently enough, stopping at the Carousel Sandwich Shoppe for a few games of pinball every day on my walk home from junior high.*  Before I knew it, I was pinballing at every opportunity, slipping away from friends and family in restaurants and shopping centers for "a quick game." I even watched Tommy. Twice. There is a rumor from my sophomore year of college that four or five guys took a bunch of windowpane and shattered the record high scores on all of the machines in our dorm in a single night. I can't comment on rumors, but I do remember seeing a guy playing the Gottleib's Quick Draw one-handed, and doing quite well.

I don't remember my exact high score on this machine, but I rolled over the counters on at least one occasion. 
Pictures from here.

During my senior year of high school, the Minute Man hamburger joint and teen hangout near my house installed Battle Tanks, an early arcade game where you shot wireframe polygons at other wireframe polygons shaped like tanks. Pyramids and squares provided cover. Quarters flowed like water as I sought to master this new and wonderful genre. But video games were still rare and expensive conversation pieces, and pinball ruled for several more years.

It was a Sunday night about five years later, in what they would now call a sports bar on Northwest Highway in Dallas that I sat down at the coffee table version of Pong that heralded the coming revolution. Within another year I owned an Atari 2600, and the future ex and I spent countless hours jousting, repelling space invaders, destroying asteroids, and responding to whatever other challenges came along. I'm pretty sure Missile Command is the primary cause of the chronic pain in the back of my left hand.

Real char-broiled burgers with grated cheddar and BBQ sauce. 
And a back room full of pool  and pinball. What more could a teenage boy ask? 
Picture from here

A couple of years later I was managing a community center in a bedroom community, and talked the powers that be into installing a video arcade. The idea was that it would keep the kids in the center after school instead of them being on the street, and would generate much needed income. I spent the better part of four years mastering Donkey Kong, Tron, Galaga, and twenty or thirty more "classic" arcade games.

I managed to kick the habit for a couple of years, mostly due to constant relocation, even more constant working, and a lack of disposable income. The next revelation came in 1988 when we brought home a Packard Bell 500 XT computer with a screaming 8 megahertz processor, 14" amber monitor, and a giant 20 mb hard drive. The machine came with Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy games loaded, which kept the now-very-soon-to-be-ex occupied, but my life changed (again) for good when I bought a copy of Zork** at the local software and dot-matrix printer store. I wandered into dark places and was eaten by grues on many nights until approaching dawn drove me to bed. The richness of a game that presented puzzles to solve, that I could talk to, and that always offered a different adventure in the next round was like a drug to me, and in some ways set the course of my life since I first typed "open mailbox." I had to know how this was possible. How could such a wondrous machine be built?

The years after this road to Damascus experience saw hundreds -- no thousands -- of hours spent with Leisure Suit Larry, SpaceQuest, Aces of both the Pacific and Europe, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Doom, Myst, Riven, LightHouse, Empires, Schism, Fallout, and countless others, driving, flying, solving puzzles, jumping chasms, turning valves, building and destroying civilizations. Through it all, gritty-eyed, sleep deprived, distracted, and various levels of unprepared for my day's activities, I kept my secret from all but those closest to me. I didn't talk about games, go to LAN parties, or join gamer groups. Mostly because I was a grownup. Oh, and the shame thing.

It's been close to ten years since I seriously played a game. I just can't afford to waste 40% of my time on fictitious adventures anymore. And I can't stay up like I used to could.***  But now Fate -- or perhaps the Goliath Corporation -- has rolled a twenty and thrown games into my professional path in a big way. Perhaps I will finally be able to put my enthusiasm to work in some productive way. Or perhaps I will learn why obsessions make bad professions. The one thing I do know is that I'm going to be spending more time than I have in a long time thinking about games.

So wish me luck. And if you see a dragon sneaking up behind me, give a little yell or something.

* This is an institution they had in the olden days that covered grades 7-9. Apparently, it didn't really catch on. The middle school concept came along when I was in 9th grade, but they didn't completely get rid of junior highs in my town for another decade or so.

**You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

*** Sometimes spelled use-ta-could. It's a legitimate Southern word. Look it up.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fear itself

Stephen King's house in Bangor, Maine. 

Remember when you moved into your current house or apartment, and how unsettling it was to go to sleep there for the first few nights? Or is that just me? New noises, odd lights, and unfamiliar surroundings all seem to combine to awaken some deep and primitive insecurity that leaves me feeling as exposed and vulnerable as if I were sleeping on the side of the highway.*

This phenomenon was probably more pronounced than usual when we moved into this house a decade ago. It's big, it's old, and it's oddly shaped, so it made lots of noises and I was forever getting lost in it at first. The quietness of the street seems to make the noises all that much louder, and the streetlight at the foot of our driveway throws odd shadows through the front windows. Frankly, it was terrifying.

Of course, we accommodate quickly, so the anxiety faded in a few days, and now eleven years later I feel more secure in our old boomerang-shaped house than just about anywhere else in the world. At least until two nights ago.

That was when Biscuit woke me around 3:30 AM saying that someone had just pounded loudly on our front door. I don't know if you've ever had the experience of waking to a sudden loud or frightening noise, but it will get your heart going nicely. We wandered the house, peeking furtively out of windows, finding neither prowler nor any indication of anything unusual. We both eventually slept a little more, but it made for a long night and a long next day.

Maybe she dreamed the noise. Maybe not. The fact that I didn't hear it doesn't mean much. I once slept through a tree falling on my house.** The part that is interesting to me is how quickly that first night feeling can return, and our safest refuge once again seem as insubstantial as a house made of straw.

Our monkey brains are excellent at papering over our more primitive systems, so by the next night all was back to normal, and I once again slept the sleep of the dead. Though I'm still a little more attuned to the odd creak or shuffle.

Stephen King once said that what really frightened him was the thought of an unexpected hand closing over his as he fumbled for the light switch in the dark. I think I know exactly what he means.

* I've slept on the side of the highway. I don't recommend it.

** True story. Though in my defense, it wasn't a really big tree.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Movie Sunday: Worlds Fastest Indian

Image from here

This funky little kiwi treat is a biographical story about Burt Munro, a New Zealander who was eccentric fifty years ago, and today would probably have a diagnosis and a prescription for Zoloft. Munro bought an Indian motorcycle as a young man and spent the rest of his life obsessed with trying to make it go faster. Seemingly oblivious to the wild inappropriateness of an elderly man trying to drive 200 miles per hour -- in street clothes -- on a 30 year old motorcycle, he did all he could on the beach at home and then set off for the Bonneville salt flats.

Condensing and simplifying Munro's story for the movie makes it palatable for a broader audience, if a little predictable. Anthony Hopkins does a creditable job in the lead, but the true star of this DVD is a short documentary featuring the real Burt Munro. As talented as he is, I don't think Hopkins -- or anyone with "Sir" in front of their name -- can really communicate the simple, single-minded obsession with metal and speed that seems to make up about 95% of Munro's personality. If the smell of oily metal or driving too fast to believe you are still alive makes up some part of your past, this story will likely resonate with you.

Don't expect big plot twists or Oscar-winning performances, but if you have a weakness for two-wheeled speed or welding, you might want to give World's Fastest Indian a go.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Road Stories: The day the music died

About halfway through my road career I worked for a few months on Linda Ronstadt's Born in the USA tour. Whatever you may think of Ronstadt's work, it's hard to overstate her popularity at that time, and her influence on all sorts of music. Besides her undeniable position as the first female rock superstar, she exposed large audiences to the work of people like Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello, and introduced a new generation to the likes of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. Her refusal to perform within one of the prescribed formats influenced a number of subsequent performers to "play what the music demanded."

Linda was already having intermittent struggles with her weight by this time, 
but she was always down to fighting weight for the start of a tour. 
She rocked this Cub Scout uniform, and it was her favorite concert outfit for a while. 
Picture from here.

Linda also had the most astounding singing voice I have ever heard. There are a number of women who have been able to belt out a song over the years. But whether your favorite is Aretha, Annie Lennox,  Mariah Carey (shudder), the little fat one from the Dixie Chicks, or someone else, none of them combine the power and clarity of Linda Ronstadt. Not only was her octave range impressive, she could carry crystal pure notes from a stage whisper to a volume level I still can't believe a human can make, seemingly effortlessly. I would have sworn there were times I could hear her singing over the PA during a concert, as improbable as I know that to be. Linda says Maria Callas was better, but I never heard her, so I couldn't say.

Besides the technical quality of her voice, her interpretation of songs ranged from very good to goose-bump producing. The ballads -- like Blue Bayou and Alison -- would have the house so quiet that her voice seemed to fill your head, though everyone's favorite was undoubtedly her cover of The Eagles' Desperado. I watched the show every night from a spotlight perch about twenty feet up in the lighting rig, and I will admit to wiping a few tears during that song on several occasions.

But it was the rock songs, like It's So Easy, That'll Be the Day, and You're No Good that really showcased her with the band. And it was a good band. Waddy Wachtel on guitar, Dan Dugmore on pedal steel and guitar, Andrew Gold on keyboards, and (I think) Russ Kunkel on drums and Kenny Edwards playing bass.* Many of these people played together for other musicians, all had played on her album, and they sounded great.

For about the first thirty days, this was one of the best tours I was ever on. Linda and the band were having a great time, feeding off of each other's energy, moving around on stage, improvising -- you know, all the stuff we used to go to concerts to see. They loved it, the crowds loved it, and even the crusty old roadies loved it, though we would only admit that among ourselves.

This is from the tour before mine, and the lighting is terrible.
That's probably why they hired us.

The fun all ended when Peter Asher showed up about a month into the tour. Peter was Linda's record producer, and an influential force in music. He was the Peter of the 60's duo Peter and Gordon, before becoming A&R man for The Beatles' Apple records. He quit Apple to manage James Taylor, and produced some of the biggest albums of the 1970's. He was also a major wiener.

After watching one performance, Peter stamped his little feet, called the band and road management team together for a meeting, and read them the riot act. The gist of his diatribe was that this was not the Linda Ronstadt and Her Band Do Anything They Feel Like Doing Tour, it was the Linda Ronstadt Living in the USA tour, and people came to see the songs performed like they heard them on the records. He told Linda to remain at her microphone stand, ordered the rest of the band to "stay in their lights," and forbade any sort of improvisation or shenanigans.

Needless to say, that ended the good times. The music was still high quality, but the spark was gone. That tour became what most of the rest of them were -- a wagon train trek across the country. Each day ran into the next, all of us doing what had to be done, but looking forward to the day when we wouldn't have to do it again.

I didn't know it at the time, but that was one of the early shots in the annihilation of the concert as an artistic form of expression. Within a year, virtually every performer under major industry management was having their concerts packaged the way Linda's was packaged, namely as a set piece regurgitation of their recorded music. A couple of years after that, tape assist to fill in background tracks became common, which eliminated any ability to vary even the tempo of a song.

Music is a product now, carefully designed, produced, packaged, and marketed. Virtually all creativity and innovation is gone from the mainstream, and we are left with whatever Sony, Viacom, and the rest believe the bulk of us will continue to pay for. I know there are still people out there doing it from the heart, but music industrialization makes it ever harder for an old fart like me to find them. And it's a shame that most people will never have the opportunity to see their favorite musicians cut loose and have some fun.

* It was a long time ago, and for some reason many of my memories of that period are somewhat fuzzy. I put it down to sleep deprivation.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Just in case you still thought your vote matters

After 16,000 or so Republicans in the 30th most populous state in the country paid $30.00 each to tell us who they would vote for if the Iowa Caucuses were held today, the Republican presidential field is apparently already down to three candidates. I would like to think that neither the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, nor the Wicked Witch of the Midwest could win the general election, but I thought the same thing about a washed up actor in 1979. Keep stirring the economic malaise and fold in a foreign policy disaster or two in the next year, and I suspect Charlie Sheen could get elected with the right campaign staff.

So why is it that an election that happens fifteen months from now is already 90% half-decided*? The answer is -- say it with me -- money, of course. Now that the Supreme Court has declared corporations to be people, apparently in direct contradiction to the inconvenient fact that corporations were specifically created to be not people, and tacked on the double bonus of unlimited campaign contributions and no one having to tell where they got the bags of money, it's a new day. Campaign commercials have already started airing in my state, which hasn't gone Democratic since 1996, and where McCain/Palin took almost 60% of the votes in 2008. It seems like the Republicans could run about three commercials a day starting next November 1st and be confident of winning, but I guess they've got money to burn.

At least the three candidates who are apparently still standing. The rest will have to live on their government salaries and farm subsidies. It's going to be an interesting fifteen months. And by interesting, I mean I'm sure I'm going to want to eat a gun by the time it's over. Luckily, Louisiana is working on a law to allow concealed weapons on college campuses, so I may have the option.

* Thanks Yogi. They really don't make them like you anymore.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

You might be a redneck

I keep the iPod on shuffle when I'm driving, often at volumes higher than is probably appropriate for a man my age. On long road trips, this can help achieve the mile-devouring light trance that (I assume) is familiar to everyone who drives long distances.

Six hours into a seven hour drive yesterday I was pulled from reverie by a familiar screaming guitar solo. My first thought was, "Wow, I love this song!" A few seconds later I realized it was "Free Bird."


I was a little embarrassed for myself initially. Then I decided I didn't care. Seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on July 4th of my senior year was one of the great experiences of my young life. The drive back was the most memorable part of the day, but it was all good.*  You can change where you live, but you can never change where you're from.

I didn't go the full Beavis in the car. I mean, I was on a public highway. But I cranked it loud enough to thump the rear deck, and you definitely would have seen my head bob once or twice.

I guess it's true that some birds you cannot change.

* Except apparently for the purple punch. Several announcements were made that concert-goers were to avoid the purple punch.

Friday, August 12, 2011


If you have a dollar, and you lose ten percent one day, you will have 90 cents.

If you gain ten percent the next day, you will have 99 cents.

If this continues long enough, you will be out of money.

I'm still a little upset at my friend the nuclear engineer and part time financial manager who pointed this out to me.

You're welcome.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Movie Sunday: 633 Squadron

Image from here

I know this one is not going to have what you would call broad appeal, but I'm writing it anyway.

My parents came of age during World War II. I don't think it's possible for us to understand the impact that it had on their generation and culture. "What did you do in the War?" was a common question even during my childhood, a full twenty years later. And WWII movies were still a booming business in 1964, when 633 Squadron was released.

The film is based on a 1956 novel of the same name, which draws from several real events and missions during WWII.  It holds the distinction of being the first aviation film shot in color and Panavision.

633 Squadron tells the story of a group of fighter-bomber pilots training for and executing a special, especially dangerous mission. The squadron flies the de Havilland Mosquito, one of the most amazing and beautiful airplanes of the era.*  The Mosquito was one of the fastest planes of any kind in the war, made possible by its twin Rolls Royce Merlin engines and the fact that it was made largely of wood.  Yes, wood. The light weight and high power made it particularly graceful in flight, and it was well-loved by its two man flight crews.

de Havilland Mosquito in flight. Picture from here

The plot and characters of 633 Squadron are somewhat typical of the time. Cliff Robertson does a credible job as the hard-bitten cynical wing commander, and Maria Perschy is delicious as "the woman" (every good war movie of the day seemed to have exactly one).  There is a bit of ironic tragedy, and the film is made late enough that a bit of the horror of war is beginning to seep through the glory and righteousness typical of earlier war films, but it's not exactly Apocalypse Now.**

The real star of this movie is the Mosquito. The film includes a great deal of footage of real Mosquitoes in flight over beautiful Scottish countryside, and the planes are mesmerizing to someone who built as many models as I did as a child. George Lucas credits the primary action sequence in this movie with inspiring the "trench scene" in Star Wars.

So if you like old war movies, or are a fan of planes of the era, you should check out 633 Squadron. It's currently streaming on Netflix.

* The Supermarine Spitfire, Vought Corsair, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and the North American P-51 Mustang round out my childhood top five. But the Mosquito was always my favorite.

** Also, you should watch Apocalypse Now, if somehow you have managed not to see it. Awesome movie.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Don't call me a "liberal"

I try not to write about politics any more than I can help, but recent events have agitated me to the point that I can't actually hold my tongue (or my fingers, I guess) anymore.

It seems that every time I get into a discussion with more rightward-leaning friends or acquaintances, or witness such a discussion secondhand, the phrase "you liberals are all the same" will eventually be fired, turning the discourse from the topic at hand to a question of ideology. Of course, in this case the ideological divide is pre-framed between patriotic, God-fearing Americans who believe people should take responsibility for their actions and live within their means, and homosexual socialist muslim-atheist abortion peddlers who want to drown us all in crack babies, taxes, and bureaucratic red tape. An extreme -- though sadly not unique -- example appeared yesterday on in the comments to an article on the Texas drought.

As you can see, reactionary idiotic rudeness is not limited to any single political viewpoint.

This is usually the point at which I disengage from the conversation. But just to be on the record, I want to state unequivocally that I am not a "liberal." Yes, it's true that I am happy that government exists, that they make sure our railroad tracks are all the same size, and that no one feeds us dog meat and calls it beef.* I believe in liberal ideals like "science" and "education," and I somehow manage to see the economy as a part of our environment, instead of the other way around. I like roads, and bridges, and schools, and I think I'm glad they are not all built and controlled by private companies. At least not yet.

Speaking of roads, bridges, and schools, people build fortunes using our public roads and bridges, the government-developed internet, and labor from our public schools, colleges, and universities. Their overseas interests are protected by our federally funded armed forces. I take some issue with those same people acting like they did it all themselves, and that any attempt to reclaim some of their profits to continue funding that infrastructure is somehow immoral.

And admittedly I find it a little difficult to blame all of our problems on the poor. True, they did trick the banks into signing them up for those subprime mortgages and ruin our economy, but I think that may have been a lucky shot. Mostly they seem to work hard and die early. Oh, that's right. They clog our emergency rooms and raise health care costs. And fill our privatized prisons. I almost forgot.

On the other hand, I'm okay living in an armed society, but I don't try to kid myself into thinking that it makes us safer. I think people should work if they can, though I also think it would be great if we could help create jobs for those on the edges.

I think government is best that happens closest to the people. I don't believe that government -- especially central government -- should regulate our personal behavior, child-rearing, morality, or religion to the extent that they do. And I'm more than willing to debate what level of social safety net we will provide, and what level of food, shelter, and medical services should be guaranteed to those who cannot afford to pay.

But what part of thinking that government should stay out of people's medical decisions advances the idea of the nanny state? Why is government subsidizing higher populations, crappier food, or overseas companies in my interest as an American? Why is it so patriotic to give away our shared resources to multinational corporations, allow them to do whatever damage they desire exploiting them, and then socialize the cost of cleaning up their mess? And what part of "small government" requires us to maintain a military presence in over 130 countries?

European social democracies -- as we know, the most evil of all forms of government -- tend to have taxes about twice as high as what we pay (or are supposed to pay) in the U.S. But every business owner knows what they are getting in exchange for that money. They don't have to pay health insurance premiums. They don't pay for retirement benefits or disability insurance. They don't pay separately for infrastructure that the government provides. They pay less for well qualified workers than comparable American companies, even though the cost of living is higher.

What do we get in return for our tax money? The biggest chunk goes to hospitals and doctors who work around the clock to help eighty-eight year olds survive to be eighty-eight and a half. It goes to pharmaceutical companies that sell drugs here for ten times what is paid in other countries for the same compound, because insurance will pay it. The prices are justified to cover their R&D costs, because no one can live without a cure for Restless Leg Syndrome, Low-T, or any of the other made-up ailments about which we are supposed to "ask our doctor." The truth is that in their rush to be the first to market, pharmaceutical companies pay for full scale trials of huge numbers of drugs that turn out to be neither safe nor effective, instead of taking the slower but massively less expensive route of small preliminary trials. It's far easier to make up ailments for drugs that make it through the process than it is to create drugs from scratch that treat something we care about.

The next biggest chunk goes to defense contractors to develop advanced weapons that will never be needed, perform studies that show we need them, build computer and communications systems to control them, and (increasingly) provide private soldiers to supplement our depleted armed forces. We burn tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of gallons of fuel per day to drop $20,000 bombs from $50 million dollar airplanes onto sheep herders and farmers who live mostly without electricity. Increasingly, this work is done by fighter pilots in bunkers in the U.S. flying unmanned drones a world away. The percentage of our country's defense budget that goes to soldiers and their families is pitifully small.

For that matter, why is it only about money? Surveys and studies consistently find that -- beyond a certain subsistence level -- money is not what makes people happy. It's family, and fellowship, and good health. Safe streets and good schools. Culture, nature, and a sense of belonging. Why aren't we pursuing these things as a nation, as well as economic growth?

Please ask yourself these questions. I would love to hear any answers that don't involve personal insults or vague cultural stereotypes. Just don't call me a liberal.

* I'm disgusted enough at the stuff they do let people feed us.  Mechanically separated chicken anyone? I would hate to think what would happen if government were much smaller. Also, before the Civil War, every railroad company laid tracks of whatever size fit their own locomotives. It was only possible to drive to the edge of their territory without moving everything to a different train.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Miss Manners

Image from here

Biscuit has been reading The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness : a Complete Handbook for the use of the Lady in Polite Society, on her Kindle. It was written by a Florence Hartley around 1873, it was free, and it is apparently a laugh riot. Almost every night she regales me with some helpful hint for planning a soirée, arranging one's calendar for receiving callers, or addressing invitations for ladies of every situation. That is, as long as your situations are limited to rich and single or rich and married. Maybe rich and widowed; she didn't read that part.

I used to read the local newspaper most every day, back when people did that sort of thing. I would scour the front section pretty thoroughly, skim the local, sports, and entertainment sections, generally saving the comics and columns for last. One of my favorite columns -- after Dave Barry, of course -- was Miss Manners.

I never read Miss Manners as a youth, assuming that it was all about which fork to use, and whether white could be worn after Labor Day. I started reading in the 1980's when every twenty-something with a Volvo* believed they were only days from being invited to the Carringtons' for cocktails and sex. So we all had to buy Cuisinarts, wear LaCoste and Docksiders, and learn which was the proper spoon for snorting cocaine.

I was generally well-mannered. My parents had made sure I knew to say please and thank you, and not to spit in mixed company or fart at the table. My father was a big believer in chivalry, and tried to make sure I treated women with respect. They even sent me to cotillion. But my paternal grandfather was a working class house builder and my mother's father was a subsistence farmer and country schoolteacher. Neither of my parents probably ever saw a teaspoon growing up, much less a fish knife or finger bowl. I definitely had a few things to learn before I was ready for dinner at Sardi's.

Image from here

Imagine my surprise when I learned that most of Judith Martin's column was not dedicated to the arcane niceties of upper crust society at all. Sure, there were questions about whether fried chicken could be eaten with the fingers,** but most of the questions were split between examples of people trying to exert more control over others than is proper ("How do I ask people to give me cash for my wedding?"), and people asking impolite questions ("How do I ask a friend if they are pregnant/gay/happy with the present I gave them?). Our Miss Manners always took the offender firmly -- but politely -- to task, whether it was the "Gentle Reader," or the party from whom the writer had taken offense.

It was her response to impolite questions that stuck with me the most. This is partly because I hadn't really thought of innocent questions as potentially impolite before, and because restraint from such inquiries seems to be so commonly honored in the breach. It is striking how much of what we think of as politeness and good manners is specifically engineered to avoid such interrogations.

Many of the people who wrote feeling offended had actually been guilty of asking such questions or trying to find a polite way to do so. Our patient columnist pointed out repeatedly that a question is an aggressive type of speech -- a sort of command in reverse. It says "tell me what I want to know," and can place significant pressure on the recipient, causing immediate friction and often eliciting a defensive response. In many cases, the questioner receives an answer they do not wish to hear. "Does this make me look fat?" is a classic example.

This applies almost universally to any form of the question, "Why?" (or "why not?"). I have tried to think of an occasion when this might be appropriate, and the only possibility I can come up with might be, "Why would you ask me that?"  The "why" question is invariably asked in response to information that the questioner does not wish to accept on its face. The explanation will probably be impossible to politely express, none of the questioner's business, or more likely, both. It's a child's question, and it is difficult not to be patronizing in one's answer.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned is that there is virtually always a (more) polite way to provide someone with an opportunity to salve our insecurities, satisfy our curiosity, or fulfill whatever other motivation we have for asking questions. Instead of asking, "Do you like my haircut?" a person can simply remark that they have had a haircut, leaving their companion free to either offer a compliment (if they like it) or (otherwise) bring up their own hair appointment the following week. If you can't think of a polite way to provide a hint, the question is probably not appropriate, no matter how close a friend is your companion. The polite way will not always get the result you want, but you are more likely to get what you are due, and less likely to cause offense in either direction.

I focused on this practice for years, but I'm afraid I may have lost some of the habit recently. Curiosity is a necessary trait for a researcher, and questions are our stock in trade. It is easy to blur the line between "Why did you write it this way?" and "What on Earth made you buy those shoes?"

Also, you should not be too nice to your servants. Apparently, it spoils them.

* The term "yuppie" is a good example of the attitude of the time. "Young, upwardly mobile professional" was another way of saying "middle class nobody who thinks they are on the way to becoming a fabulously well to do person of consequence." Today we tend to call such people "in foreclosure."

** I don't exactly recall the answer, but I think it centered on what sort of dinnerware was provided. It still seems to be a matter of some dispute.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Movie Sunday: Animal Kingdom

Image from here

Some of you know I have a weakness for Australian movies, and this is a good one. It's sort of Napoleon Dynamite meets The Town. Not Napoleon Dynamite because it's funny; because it's not funny at all. But our protagonist is a mostly awkward, mostly silent teenager who lives with his grandmother. And who we want to succeed, while everything we know about the world tells us that he will not.

Our story begins with our young hero greeting the paramedics. His mother has overdosed on heroin and left the story, as it were. He calls his grandmother, who he hasn't seen in years, and she brings him to live with her. At the same time we meet his four uncles, who are crooks. We know the grandmother is not like yours or mine when she kisses one of her boys square on the lips, for longer than anyone should feel comfortable kissing their mother. As is common with good Australian films, the story that follows is personal, engaging, and tight. There is very little wasted motion in this film.

There is a fair amount of violence, and not car chase and explosion kind of violence. This is unvarnished and in person, without swelling background music or pithy quips. If you're a fan of The Wire, you know the sort of thing I mean. If you don't squirm in your seat at least once during this movie, I might worry about you.

While the story is very good, the characters are better, both in the way they were envisioned and their  portrayals by the cast. Some of the interactions are mesmerizing. I wasn't surprised to learn that the story was apparently inspired by a real Australian crime family.

This is the first film from writer and director David Michôd, though I suspect we will hear more from him. It has been critically acclaimed as they say, from awards at Sundance to an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver for her portrayal of the grandmother. She probably should have won.

This is not exactly what I would call a date movie, but if you're in the mood for a good drama, and you don't mind losing a few characters along the way, give Animal Kingdom a try.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Terror in the Global Village

Biscuit and I have talked* on several occasions about the way that modern news media ensure we know about every middle class white child or young woman who ends up decaying in a shallow grave somewhere, or every one of the handful of shark attacks that happen every summer. This all promotes the impression that the world is a more dangerous place than it is. Or at least dangerous in a different way than it actually is. Two generations ago these stories would never have made it out of the local paper, unless the people involved were fabulously well-to-do, or famous. Most of the country is not within four or five degrees of separation from any one event.

Sadly, I think another effect of this constant flow of remote horror is that it desensitizes us. Attacks that happen a world away are sad and often shocking, but they don't really touch us where we live. The bus bombings in London, and the train bombings in -- where was that, Spain? Portugal? -- were abstract tragedies, brought to life only a little by video from the scene. People are being blown to bits every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it may as well be happening in Little Whinging.

It's different when things happen in a place -- or to people -- that we know. New Yorkers were affected by 9/11 to a degree that I don't think the rest of us can appreciate. I've met one person who has been shot, and he told me about it within ten minutes of the first time I laid eyes on him, despite the fact that it happened years before. And it made me really, really never want to get shot. If you know a place personally where something horrible happened, it tends to jump to mind every time you pass there, often for many years.

Most of you know that Biscuit and I visited Oslo a couple of months ago. It was without a doubt my favorite city** so far. We both loved the people, the architecture, and just the general vibe of the place. That doesn't make it our hometown by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely makes it more real to me. Oslo is not that big of a city, so when I heard the explosion was in the city center, I knew it couldn't be too far from where we had stayed. It turns out to be about three blocks.

In spite of how it may look, I'm not trying to make this about me. This tragedy has not affected me in any significant way. But I can't help think of the people we met there, and I feel for them. Unlike Nancy Grace and her followers, I don't generally get outraged when screwed up people I don't know do bad things to other people I don't know. But it is sad to know that the cute little Swedish waitress who made us feel so at home on our first night, and the old lady on the train who needed help with her bag, and all the rest, have all been deeply touched. Some are undoubtedly grieving for acquaintances or loved ones lost.

Fortunately for me, this is all happening a world away, and I will soon tire of the unending coverage of who this man was, why he did what he did, and all of the ridiculousness and conjecture. Within a few weeks it will be no more than a modification of the story of our trip. "We were in Oslo just a few weeks before that attack..."  I will quickly forget the way I feel today.

Norwegians won't be as fortunate. You can't go through this sort of thing in a city of that size without it leaving a mark. Ask the residents of Oklahoma City.

Oslo city center. I never really wanted to leave this greenspace, which runs for about five blocks. The Parliament building is visible through the trees.

* Or ranted. You say tom-ah-toe; I say people are stupid and I can't believe we have survived this long as a species.

** Displacing Vancouver, which held the title for over thirty years.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Out of Time

I guess it's natural for each of us to be comfortable in our own time. The world we grew up in is our baseline, and every year brings changes that make everything feel a tiny bit less natural. I think this is the main reason old people are cranky all the time. That, and the sore everything. Middle age has brought  not only an acceptance of mortality, but an appreciation of it as well.

There are usually a handful of changes that we treasure, though frankly I'm having a hard time coming up with any at the moment. It seems every advance during my life has been a double-edged sword, trading diversion, minor convenience, or economic efficiency for a more complicated life and erosion of our environment. I make my living from technology, and I'm not sure how we watched television before there was Google, but there are days I would gladly trade the whole thing for forty acres and a mule.

On the other hand, many of us long for some aspects of life that may have passed away before we were born*. Jimmy Buffett apparently wanted to be a pirate, and not the Somali kind. Mine is a world with space for solitude. The thought of walking for weeks without meeting another person carries great appeal for me at times.

There is a park in Northwest Arkansas that has been my favorite place in the world since I was a child. Part of what I liked about it then was that it was quite inaccessible and not very well known, so there were few visitors. The trails were long, mostly deserted, and so quiet you could hear gentle breezes blowing down the valley. It was a place where you instinctively spoke quietly.

There is an interstate within a few miles of it now, and it is covered with tourists during the summer, but last time I was there during winter it was still pretty deserted. I spend a few days there as often as I can, which usually ends up being only about once a decade. I walk, and climb, and sit, and walk some more. I don't exactly feel like I'm alone in the world, but I usually do get a chance to remember what it's like to be a human being.

Maybe this fall will be time for another visit. I've been looking for an excuse to buy a new pair of hiking boots, and I could certainly use the quiet. Did I mention there is no cell coverage, no television, and only one phone in the entire park?

*How else do you explain Renaissance fairs? And NASCAR?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Movie Sunday: Making your own

So I haven't had a lot of time for movie-watching lately. I taught a five day stop-motion animation camp for high school students last week, and most of the previous month was spent getting ready. For instance, I had to learn the first thing about stop motion animation.

We had fun, and the kids even learned a little. A couple of them really got into it, and the rest at least participated to some degree. Here are their final projects. Enjoy.

Group 1 consisted of three hyper-motivated boys who spent just about every minute of the camp working on this epic saga. I think they also learned the meaning of "scope creep."

Group 2 eventually* consisted of two boys with -- let's call it different work styles. Their spare but action-packed prison film was the only one that used all custom-built characters and sets.

Group 3 was the largest, with the oldest kids and (by the end) all four female members of the class. They gave everyone nicknames, and generally kept the camp from turning into a complete nerdfest. Their musical masterpiece pretty much speaks for itself.

I made a few little pieces myself, as well as sculpting a puppet head. Perhaps one day I will get a chance to post them. On the other hand, the camp reminded me of how long these things take, and how much time kids seem to be able to make for themselves. 

In addition to camp preparations, we've been busy watching BBC comedies. We watched all 28 episodes of Coupling over the long 4th of July weekend. It's sort of like Friends, but with more sex. We also watched Still Bill the other day, an excellent documentary on Bill Withers. If you like his music, or you like the idea of a regular person making it big and keeping their soul, I highly recommend it. I've been singing "A'int no Sunshine" under my breath for almost a week now.

* The group originally included a girl, but the boys learned the hard lesson that if you ignore women long enough they will go away.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fathers Day

When I get angry, or a find some significant piece of my world view collapsing around me, I work. I can't help it, it's one of those things I got from my father. We're passive-aggressive white protestants, what can I say? So, when on this fine Father's Day I found myself ready to tackle a serious project, I headed outside and my gaze landed on the plastic pond that the old man had given me several years ago. Like much of what I've gotten from him, I didn't ask for it, didn't particularly want it, but didn't seem to be able to leave it behind anywhere.

The "pond," two plastic basins and a box of pumpy stuff, has been with us for about a decade, stuffed in the corner of the shed for most of that time, more recently leaned against the fence. After Hurricane Gustav I noticed that the larger piece was a fair fit for a hole left by the uprooted gum tree that took out the old shed, and I dragged it up there to check. I even dug around a little at one point, but mostly it's just been sitting there, a big black vinyl reminder of my endless to-do list.

I thought I might dig around for a few minutes and make a little progress before going on to other things. There is very little that is more grounding than digging a hole. It is both physically demanding and undeniably objective. There are no shades of grey -- just a growing cavity and a matching pile of dirt.

So a few minutes turned into all day, and at the end of it both basins were (more or less) in the ground, filled with water, and the pump assembly was miraculously complete and working, despite having knocked around in an open box for ten years. There is, of course, much more to do. Landscaping and rock work, plants, and maybe a goldfish or two. I've actually made my to-do list longer by crossing off one thing. But it's a thing, and sometimes doing a thing has to be enough.

It will look better with some plants and stones. 
Hey, is that a tomato pergola in the background there?

The strangest thing about the whole episode is that I was out there at least four hours before it ever occurred to me that there might be a link between the day and my choice of project. I would be tempted to dismiss it as coincidence, but the tie is so clear that it's hard to buy. Fathers Day has been a strange sort of occasion for me since my father passed away, and I'm apparently still finding my way through this. Minds are awfully strange things, and I often suspect mine of being stranger than most.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Movie Sunday: Billy Jack

Image from here

When I put Billy Jack in my Netflix queue, I expected to enjoy an hour and a half ridiculing everything about it. For the most part, that's what I got. The costumes, dialog and plot are cheesy, the acting is mostly horrific, even by the standards of the day, and the sound quality is so bad that entire scenes are indecipherable. Most of the characters are so flat they could easily be replaced with cardboard cutouts. What surprised me was that the heart of the film, the thing that made it such a big deal during my early teenage years, more or less survived the forty years since the film's release.

Billy Jack is a time capsule from the 1960's, told without Woodstock or Apollo. It is a sober reminder of the open hostilities that once existed within our culture, with racism fueling many of the individual conflicts. I was transported back to a time when I often felt physically at risk because of the length of my hair, and knew there were places I could not go with some of my friends. I can't help thinking that we may be closer to that sort of widespread violent confrontation today than we have been at almost any time since. Except most of us no longer have the physical courage to get involved.

Billy Jack, played by Tom Laughlin, is a half-breed karate expert war hero pacifist shaman trainee who protects wild mustangs and a school full of hippies on an Indian reservation. Laughlin also directed and co-wrote the movie. Laughlin's real-life wife Delores Taylor plays the director of the school, defending her misfit and cast-off students against the local townspeople. The local townspeople are portrayed as a surprisingly diverse group, with opinions ranging from sympathetic to openly stabby and rapey.

The theme of pacifism and non-violence that supposedly makes up one side of the argument seems ridiculously naive today, and the idea that anyone could even believe it could work gave me a little twinge of nostalgia for the innocence of youth. Much of the critical pasting the film got in its time was because it's theme of non-violence was embedded in what was essentially a kung fu movie, before there were kung fu movies. All the lines I remember people reciting were about kicking dudes in the head, and trying (unsuccessfully) not to go berserk.

There were some bright spots. Taylor was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, and legend has it that Marlon Brando stood up and stopped a pre-release screening to tell the audience that her performance in one scene had set the bar for emotional realism and depth. It's hard to believe today, but watch a few movies from the time and it gets easier. And even as I laughed at the hair and the clothes and the characters, I found myself caring just a little about what happened to them, which I really didn't expect.

Oh, and Howard Hesseman has a mid-sized role in the film. So that was fun. It only took about five minutes of "who is that guy?" before I figured out it was my old friend Johnny Fever from WKRP.

Even if you don't see the movie, I think you owe it to yourself to check out the official Billy Jack website. I was afraid to click on anything, but it's definitely entertaining. Do it, or I'm going to take this right foot and put it upside your head, and there is not a thing you will be able to do about it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Airline Wars 2: The Royal (Dutch) Treatment

The day after our hellish American overnighter from Honolulu, we set out across the opposite ocean for Europe. After an hour and a half commuter flight to Atlanta, dinner at Arby's, and killing some time marveling at how big a bag of M&M's one could purchase at the Duty Free, we reported for our 10:45 pm KLM flight to Amsterdam.

The difference between KLM and American was apparent from the first second we saw the flight crew. All twelve or fourteen of them showed up as a group, as confident and purposeful in their powder blue raiments as if they were headed out to nuke a rogue comet. You could almost hear the theme music playing as they strode up the concourse, nodded to the swooning gate agents, and disappeared down the jetway.

The music stopped suddenly with that scratching record sound when we started to board, and my boarding pass triggered the little red light that said I wouldn't be sitting in seat 41G with Biscuit after all. We had booked the flight with Delta, and one problem with these international partnership arrangements seems to be that the reservation systems don't work together worth a damn. Fortunately, Biscuit batted the baby blues at the young man sitting in my former seat and he agreed to swap with me. The music was back on, especially when the doors closed and we realized that there was no one between us in our little cluster of three seats.

The economy seats in the Boeing 777 were not what I would call spacious, but there was three inches or so between my knees and the seat in front of me, which was three inches more than I had on the American 767. And the sides of the headrests could be pulled out to keep one's head from rolling side to side when trying to sleep. There was a pillow and blanket waiting in each seat when we got on the plane, and before the doors closed, the flight attendants distributed clip-on headphones to everyone for use with the video system in the seat back in front of us. There was a remote control embedded in each armrest, and after the safety briefing they explained how to use the remotes to watch movies or television, or play games. I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Hall Pass, as well as bits and pieces of a couple of other things, just to see if I would like them. This kept me busy and entertained for well over half the flight. Between movies I would tune in to the "where are we and how fast are we going" channel, which was fun and educational.

Just after we took off, and before each of the two hot meals we were served, the flight attendants distributed hot towels for a quick wipe-down of any road grime. Granted, the towels were paper, and not the scrubby little washcloths I remember from JAL back in the day, but it was still a welcome treat. Dinner was a sort of beef stew or chicken medallions, with veggies, bread, butter, crackers, cheese, and dessert. It was airline food, but some of the best airline food I've had in a while. Soft drinks, beer and wine were all complimentary. The beer was Heineken and the wine came in a carton, but it was still free.

Dinner was followed by a course of coffee or tea and biscuits (cookies to us Americans). The flight attendants retired after all the rubbish was collected, but quietly cruised the aisles every half hour until breakfast with trays of water, juice, and soft drinks. There was also a collection of snacks at each galley to which peckish passengers could help themselves. I snagged some cookies and a couple of little Twix bars on my mid-flight trip to the lavatory. As you might expect by now, one on one encounters with the flight attendants elicited expressions of helpful curiosity, in contrast to the hostile glances I received two nights before.

About an hour and a half before we landed, the crew started the process of waking us with another round of hot towels and beverage service. Hot breakfast came next, followed by more coffee, tea, and biscuits.  The little cookies were these awesome cinnamon shortbread numbers like you get on domestic flights sometimes, but with two of them stuck together with caramel. I liked them a lot. One smooth landing and short taxi later, we deplaned in Amsterdam, tired but amazed at how different two flights could feel.

KLM showed us that they didn't just rock the transatlantic flights when we took a 737 to Oslo a couple of hours later. They fed us each two sandwiches for lunch, as well as the same two rounds of beverage service and tea in a little less than two hours. And narrated the whole thing in three languages. I've been trying to figure out ever since this flight how I can get more of my domestic trips to connect through Schiphol airport.

Next Time: Delta tries to keep up

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

American: Love it or leave it

I have endured four plane flights of over eight hours* in the last two weeks, and I feel like I had a rare chance to directly compare the current state of a few of the major carriers. Or at least the type of experience that their customers can expect. The first two legs were American from Dallas to Honolulu and back, the third was KLM (Royal Dutch to old farts like me) from Atlanta to Amsterdam, and the final leg was a Delta return from Amsterdam. The middle two were overnighters, which I found the most telling.

In the interest of full disclosure, I swore after several experiences in the late 70's that I would never fly American Airlines again if I had a choice. The general erosion of service in the airline industry led me to adopt the view that all of the domestic carriers are pretty much the same, but this last experience may cause me to renew my earlier vow.

Our first overnight adventure started at the Honolulu American counter, where we stood in line for almost an hour just to drop our bags. I will never understand how it took so long, but it set the tone. They told us at the gate before we boarded the American Boeing 767 that the flight was completely full, so we had that to look forward to. I was in seat 33C on the left aisle in the center section, and was struck not only by how little legroom there was in front of me, but how the footroom for the aisle seats was narrower than the others. I would inevitably have either a foot or a knee projecting into the aisle. It was not going to be a comfortable flight. Which is when the 750 pound couple (split more or less evenly) sat down in front of us. He pushed the seat onto my knees without even touching the button to recline, but of course he would recline the seat as far as it would go once the plane took off, crushing my legs unless I twisted sideways in my seat. I felt like I should be shampooing his hair, and there was no way for me to sit normally.

The flight attendants offered to sell us earphones so that we could hear the entertainment that would be displayed on the screens mounted every dozen rows or so in the center of the cabin ceiling. We were also given the option of purchasing snacks, from a $10 Boston Market sandwich to $3.50 for the one tennis ball size can of Pringles. Blankets and pillows were also available for purchase ($8.00), as well as beer, wine, and the right to board the plane early (which I would have to have selected at check-in). After serving the obligatory soft drinks -- with not so much as a tiny bag of pretzels -- they showed Cars II and a couple of episodes of some sitcom (I forget which), and shut down the entertainment for the duration. We are now about three hours into an eight hour flight.

Other than being admonished by the flight crew to keep our window shades down lest we see the sunrise, we didn't see or hear from the crew again until about an hour before landing. On the one occasion (about five hours in) that I extricated myself from my seat to wait 25 minutes for one dude to get out of the bathroom**, I found the flight attendants ensconced in the galley, gossiping merrily away. They looked at me as if I might be disturbing them, and I got the distinct impression that no one was going to vacate the jump seats for me cross to the starboard lavatory, no matter how long I stood there.

When we were about an hour from Dallas, the flight attendants came through the cabin winging little 3 oz. foil-topped containers of juice at everyone. I got two, but they were still frozen pretty solid. Biscuit only got one, but her's was at least liquid all the way through. They had a quick round of trying to unload the leftover snacks from the night before, and then turned on the seat belt sign and returned to the galleys. I'm not sure what they were doing back there. Maybe preparing to cross-check, whatever that is.

During the entire flight, I'm not sure I saw one of the flight crew smile, or say or do anything particularly nice to any of the passengers. In general, they seemed bored, tired, and a little pissed about the whole situation.

We landed without incident, flew home on a blissfully uncrowded commuter jet, and prepared to do it all over again.

Next Time: Dutch Treat

* Plus eight shorter legs of one to two hours thrown in for good measure. But it's the longer trips that really tell the tale.

** I was afraid to go in after he came out, lest some foul vapors overwhelm me. But this was not the case.  Actually, I don't know what he was doing in there for so long. I think he may have been joining the Mile High Club: Solo Edition.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Movie Sunday: Get Low

Image from here

What do you mean where have I been? We'll get to that later. It's movie time. Get Low is a strange story, and I'm still not sure whether I like the way the plot progresses. I won't say much more about that, because I think it's either sloppy or really clever, and if it's clever I don't want to ruin it for you.

Anyway, with the acting in this joint it doesn't really matter. I could watch these people for hours. I don't know how Robert Duvall can make a movie anymore without winning an Academy Award. He is simply brilliant in this role, bringing layer after layer of complexity to a character that seems at first to be a simple archetype we all know. And Sissy Spacek keeps up. The scenes of the two of them together are marvelous, and often painful to watch. You can see individual facial muscles twitch or relax as they react to each other and their own internal dialogues. It's the kind of control that surely can't be voluntary, but is undoubtedly purposeful.

Lucas Black (the kid from Sling Blade and American Gothic) may not be the most versatile actor on the planet, but when he finds a character that matches his sensibility, he fills it up. He plays the young idealist Buddy Robinson perfectly, and the intensity of his goodness even penetrates the lifetime of bitterness that Duval's character has steeped himself in. As Duval says at one point in the film, "For every one like me, there's one like you, son. I about forgot that."

Bill Murray rounds out the core cast, in a role that seems made for him. He has become an accomplished dramatic actor, even though I still have trouble believing it sometimes. I'm sure younger people who didn't have to suffer through his years on Saturday Night Live, and didn't see Stripes* multiple times, don't have this problem.

Get Low feels a lot like some of Clint Eastwood's films, Unforgiven and Gran Torino coming specfically to mind. It also reminds me a little of Paper Moon, though I couldn't tell you why. I don't know if we are seeing more of these life retrospective type films because audiences and fimmakers are growing older, or if I'm just noticing them more because I'm not as young as I used to be. It's subject matter that I think was once primarily the domain of playwrights. In fact, this film could easily be done as a play. It reminds me a little of an Edward Albee play I did a scene from many years ago, though the title escapes me at the moment.

If you are looking for car chases and stuff blowing up, this is probably not the right film for you. I noticed several of the IMDB comments were from idiots people who watched it based on good reviews, and found it boring or not funny. One guy complained that the photography was "too pretty for the story." I will agree that it was not particularly funny, but since it's a drama that didn't really bother me.  But if you are in the mood to watch some great acting, I definitely recommend Get Low.

* I haven't been able to look at a spatula the same since that movie.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Compulsive much?

Image from here

Sometime during my high school years my father's construction company remodeled the four story Arkansas Game and Fish Commission building in Little Rock. My summer job started just in time for one of the final tasks, which was hanging one hundred and ninety-six steel doors in the building. That's almost two hundred doors times three hinges per door times six screws per hinge, which is, well, a lot of screws.

After inspecting the completed remodel, the client insisted that we were not finished because the hinge screws on the doors were oriented in all different directions. Seriously. After a brief but lively argument between the client and my father, I and one other worker were assigned to go through the building and turn one-hundred ninety-six times eighteen screws a quarter turn or less so that the slots on all of them were perfectly vertical. It took two days.

It's funny the sorts of thoughts that wander through one's head while working systematically through a huge empty building with a screwdriver. Thoughts like, "Well, if they all have to be oriented some direction, they might as well be the same." Or a little later, "My, these sure do look nicer like this, all uniform and consistent." Every so often I would find one that was already vertical through sheer chance, and I would celebrate a little.

I guess you see by now where this is going. For many years I made sure that virtually every screw I tightened was oriented in some specific direction. Luckily for me, Henry Phillips' screw head* technology has almost universally replaced the slot head screw in everyday use, and the visual effect with the Phillips head  is not nearly as striking. The one notable exception has been electrical switch and outlet cover plates, which have retained the slotted screws until very recently.  So if you go through my house, you will notice that every screw on every cover is oriented exactly the same. How about yours?

You're welcome.

* As we all learned in school, the Phillips head screw was actually invented by John P. Thompson, who sold the rights to Phillips. It's always the money guys who get the credit.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Movie Sunday Back Next Week

Sorry, but we've been too tied up with home improvement projects this week to watch movies. Though we did see The King's Speech last night. It was good, even though I couldn't stop looking at Geoffrey Rush's nose. And I think living with Tim Burton is making Helena Bonham Carter even more strange than she was before, in a good way. It's probably doing wonders for him, too.

Okay, so we'll make this week's movie The King's Speech. See it if you haven't. I think it may have won some sort of award.

This will all be worth it when the painting is done.