Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review: "Avatar"

James Cameron has directed some of the biggest films in history. He is responsible for The Terminator and its first (and best) sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, and he personally won 3 of the 11 Oscars awarded to Titanic. He also produced an excellent IMAX 3-D documentary Ghosts of the Abyss about exploration of the Titanic wreckage that I thought was superior to his big-budget fictionalization about the doomed ocean liner. Cameron has been absent from the screen for several years now while mounting his biggest spectacle yet, Avatar. Cameron is credited as writer and director, and as with his other productions he is deeply involved with virtually every aspect of production. This is his third feature film in a row that has supposedly set a record for its budget (reportedly between $200 and $300 million dollars) and as with most of his other films, there is a lot of tech up there on the screen. I read many reviews (probably too many) of the film before seeing it, with opinions ranging from "this is the most amazing film EVER" to the derisive description "Dancing With Smurfs." As a result, I expected to be both wowed and underwhelmed. And sure enough, that's what happened.
The story takes place on a distant moon, Pandora, which contains a valuable mineral called "unobtanium." (Subtlety is not one of Cameron's strengths as a storyteller.) A mining company is desperate to get to the biggest underground deposit, located under a massive tree that is the home of a tribe of Na'vi, Pandora's 10-foot tall blue-skinned humanoids. Jake Sully, the story's hero, is a former US Marine whose battle injuries have left him in a wheelchair. Despite having no training for the program, he is selected to operate his late twin brother's avatar, a genetically-modified Na'vi drone which acts as a sort of virtual-reality body in which the operator can interact with the natives in the poisonous-to-humans atmosphere. The avatars are part of a program, headed by chain-smoking scientist Sigourney Weaver, to study and understand the Na'vi though the corporation's militaristic security operations chief sees them as a way to get intel that can be used to overthrow the primitives. Through his avatar, Jake falls in love with his new-found mobility, the spectacular environment, the chief's daughter...you get the idea. Rather than gather information, he decides he wants to join the tribe.
The environment of Pandora is quite impressive: the CGI-rendered world is magnificent in its detail and execution. The bright, phosphorescent colors are a bit overwhelming after a while and the effect is what I would describe as "convincing" rather than "realistic." Pandora's lower gravity presumably is what allows for its incredibly large plants, creatures, and floating mountains, all of which do provide a suitably alien setting, especially when seen in an IMAX 3-D theater. The 3-D photography still suffers at times from the motion blur common to 3-D films, but the effect of true depth is the best I have ever seen. The glasses do become a bit annoying during the over 2 hour 40 minute running time. Some of the aerial sequences are genuinely breathtaking, and as a whole this film is the only one that rivals this summer's Star Trek for realism.
Part of the realism involves the Na'vi themselves, created through the most detailed and painstaking motion-capture yet used in a movie. The details of the characters' mouths, noses, and eyes make for very convincing characters and it is easy to believe that you are seeing a close representation of the actors who play the Na'vi. As a technical achievement, I'm not sure there is much that would improve it.
As a story, there are problems. If you have seen Dances With Wolves, you won't be surprised by a single element of the plot. For all the time, effort, and money that went into this film it is disappointing that Cameron didn't take another couple of weeks or bring in other writers to flesh out what is essentially a bad cowboys-good Indians action flick. As I wrote earlier, Cameron is not good at being subtle. We are told how vitally important it is to the "company" that unobtanium be acquired, but my reaction throughout the entire film was "so what?" It was difficult to believe that anyone would invest so many resources and risk so much destruction for this stuff. Maybe that's the point of the story, but if I'd been told the stuff could cure cancer or cause the growth of giant, delicious radishes I would have found the motivation of the villains more believable.
The villains. If a story doesn't have good villains, its success as a story is likely to be compromised. The bad guys in this movie, a gung-ho former Colonel and the corporate manager, are so one-dimensional that I was waiting for a "soon Metropolis will feel the sting of my death ray" monologue. From the moment they appear on screen, there is no doubt: these guys exist only to make bad decisions and be hated by the viewer. They want to destroy the Na'vi, because bad guys like explosions and hate kittens. When the battle tactic of "fight terror with terror" is mentioned, it is a jolt not just because it is an obvious "James Cameron commenting on modern warfare" moment but because there is no aspect of the plot up to that moment that in any way resembles terrorism. It falls into the narrative trap of "every war is Vietnam" and "modern armies bad, primitive armies good" (unless the good guys are using modern weapons they swiped from the bad guys) because the narrative is now making an important statement rather than letting the story unfold in an organic manner.
That's a shame, because despite my misgivings after seeing the film's overly-long trailer several weeks ago, I wanted to get wrapped up in the story. The effect was similar to experiencing a great roller coaster ride, only to be told at the end-by the person operating the ride-that cutting down trees to make room for roller coasters is bad. I appreciate the message, but do you have to be that heavy-handed?
The romance story is actually well-done, and the explanation for why the Na'vi are so dependant upon their environment made the almost literal "tree hugging" aspect of the story consistent and plausible within the realm of the film. In some ways that aspect of the film works better than the rather simplistic teen romance of Titanic, which also was visually spectacular but suffered from having a cartoony bad guy. It seems to me that Cameron is at his best when the antagonist is an amoral killing machine or an impersonal group of flesh-eating aliens, but at his worst when he tries to write conflict between humans (or Na'vi). While we can accept that robots from the future have no motivation other than the orders given by the programmer, humans don't work that way. It's a shame that a movie with such convincing 3-D effects should have unconvincing 1-D characters.
But don't get the wrong idea if it seems I'm being a bit harsh--Avatar is an adrenaline-packed experience with some truly exciting action sequences and amazing visuals. If you are even considering seeing it, GO. Despite its shortcomings, it is a landmark film, a testament to what a whole lot of time, money, and technology can do to create a world that previously only existed in the imagination. Watching this on even a good television in your living room would be like watching a video of the aforementioned roller coaster: it may technically look the same, but it won't match the experience of being there.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holiday Thoughts

*This has been something of a frustrating period for me. I'm glad to have a couple of weeks to get away from work (paid vacation!) and visit family and friends, but I also spent nearly two whole days of my hard-earned leave sitting in the Philadelphia airport waiting for the snow to stop. This caused me to miss lunch with some friends in Atlanta, as well as attending an NFL game with my family. Weather is one of those things you can't control, but as Calvin said, "I'm still going to gripe about it."

*I don't really buy the whole "war on Christmas" that a lot of people complain about. I don't think that there is really a major cultural movement to stop people from celebrating Christmas. The holiday is too popular, too ingrained in the culture, and too much money is involved for it to be swept under the rug. However, there is a war on many of the things that Christmas represents: goodwill to those with whom we disagree, the recognition of our common failings in the light of better ideals, the importance of people over things. These have been under assault for a long time.

*Every year, there is an effort by someone to get some sort of holiday symbol removed from public property. They like to invoke the First Amendment, claiming that a nativity scene in front of a building is "government endorsement of a religion." Well, government should be a reflection of its people and if the majority think that it isn't an imposition, that should settle it. The "establishment clause" means that the government can't officially sponsor, or be sponsored by, a church. It does not mean that members of the government can't express their solidarity with others of similar beliefs. When people want trees and mangers taken away, it says more about their selfishness and insecurity than it does about the people celebrating a time-honored tradition.

*Yes, most Christians know Jesus wasn't born in December. We know that Yule was a pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Stop trying to take our joy from us by pointing it out in a snarky, holier-than-thou manner. It just makes you look like a jerk. People who believe Christmas is important are the same type of people who founded the nation that allows you to live your life of non-belief quite comfortably, so stop complaining about how the culture of freedom that you enjoy inconveniences you because you're tired of looking at manger scenes.

*Some people oppose massive legislative bills because they are rushed through without time to be properly evaluated, and then they vote for the bill anyway because they got a deal too good to pass up. Some others plan to vote for it, but will hold out until they manage to extort as much as possible from the taxpayers. Neither speaks well for a person's character. So why do we keep electing them?

*The trick with taking vacation in the hopes of seeing people is that everyone is on vacation, so they all have plans and commitments. Thus, it is difficult to actually get together with the people you wanted to see. Like I said...frustrating.

*I did discover that there is a Chick-Fil-A in the Philadelphia airport. Yep....closed on Sunday.

*My deepest gratitude to the USO, which provides an area in many airports for traveling members of the armed services to relax, have free food and beverages, check email, sleep, etc. during layovers, especially when flights are delayed. It makes a difficult trip much easier. Thanks.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thanksgiving Across the Border

Thanksgiving weekend is the single biggest travel weekend of the year in the United States. Because of this, air travel is more expensive and good seats are harder to find. Because of this, I did not travel back home to Tennessee for Thanksgiving this year, nor did I visit friends and family in Georgia. (For the first time in four years, I also did not play in the pit orchestra for Columbus (GA) Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.) So instead, I took a road trip.
Jeff, a friend of mine who served with me in the bands at Ft. Benning and Ft. McPherson, told me a while back that he had the urge to go visit Montreal, the largest city in the Canadian Francophone province of Quebec. So once I decided that flying was out of the question and that it's less than a four-hour drive from Watertown, NY to Montreal, we decided to use the four-day weekend to hang out in Canada.
Thursday afternoon I crossed the border about twenty-six miles from where I live and work. I arrived at the airport just in time to pick up Jeff after he retrieved his baggage, and we headed for the Best Western Europa in downtown Montreal. After checking in and unloading, we bundled up for a walk around the area. The hotel had an ideal location, near several shops and restaurants and close to the city's Metro subway system. (We were also just down the street from Centre Bell, the arena that is home to the fabled Montreal Canadiens hockey team, but attending a game was not on the agenda this weekend. Which is fine, because we probably couldn't have gotten tickets.) We ate at a food court in an underground mall, and I was surprised by the way that many people there casually and randomly switch between speaking English and French. Montreal is what I'd call "comfortably bilingual," and many people there seem comfortable using either language. That was fine for me, as I haven't attempted to speak French regularly since I took 200-level French my freshman year in college. Jeff's French is better than mine, probably because he used to be stationed in Europe. No doubt I'd have a harder time in other Quebec cities where the population is more adamant about speaking only French. Several locals also seemed to think Jeff was from France because of his accent, which was noticeably different from the rather bizarre accent that the Quebecois have. (Actually Jeff's family is from Thailand.) We wrapped up the evening at a local pub, Les 3 Brasseurs, where Jeff bought one of their custom glasses to add to his collection.
Friday was mostly spent shopping (Jeff says it's easier to find things in his diminutive size in Canada than in the US), browsing bookstores, and trying to avoid the constant rain. I suggested going to Le Tour Montreal, the world's tallest inclined tower. It is located next to Stade Olympique (Olympic Stadium), built for the 1976 Summer Olympics and former home to the Montreal Expos baseball team (now the Washington Nationals). This made for our first trip on Montreal's excellent Metro system, the smoothest subway I've ever ridden. Upon exiting the train, we saw a partitioned area that looked like a ticket line for the tower. Instead, it was a ticket line for people getting the H1N1 Flu Vaccine, and once we realized that we were about to get shots, it took quite a bit of us repeating "pas de vaccine!" to convince the workers that we were there as tourists, not patients. We finally made our way out of the station, which is actually located under the stadium, and walked all the way around to the tower. We decided to go back the next day, as we were told the weather was causing near zero visibility. We took the train to Vieux Montreal, the old part of the city with brick streets and old stone buildings. After exploring a fascinating shop with lots of Renaissance-themed items, we ate at a very upscale restaurant with excellent salmon and hot fresh bread. To sample the city's nightlife, we chose a club within reasonable walking distance from the hotel and stood in line (in the rain, with umbrellas) for quite a while before we got in. It reminded me of why I don't go clubbing much--too loud, too crowded, and I have more skill with ballroom dancing than club dancing--but it did give me a chance to confirm that there are a lot of good-looking women in Montreal.
Saturday began with a trip to Chinatown and a meal at one of the local Chinese restaurants, which was excellent, though I found myself amused by the prospect of ordering in French at a Chinese establishment. From there we walked to the pier area and got a lot of pictures--the sun was out and much more pleasant than Friday's unending rain! We returned to the tower, finally getting to ride the inclined elevator to the top and enjoy the spectacular near-360-degree view of the city and of mountains and hills in the distance. (One can also get a dizzying view of the formerly-sort-of-retractable-roof of the stadium, suspended by cables connected to the tower.) After this, we used our comprehensive-package tickets to the adjacent Biodome, an indoor nature museum built in the fomer Olympic Velodrome. The Biodome contains a fascinating array of monkeys, fish, trees, and birds (one of whom used me as a "target," if you will, to Jeff's great amusement) and is worth a trip if you're in the area. Just don't wear any expensive clothing. Trust me.
Saturday night, we went to a production at the city's most notable church, the Basilique Notre- Dame de Montreal. It was an audio-visual presentation of the history of the founding of Montreal and the building of the church. (Notre Dame carries the honorific of Basilica because it is not a cathedral; it does not have the correct shape for one.) After the presentation, we took some time to admire the architectural magnificence of the Basilica and the detail that can be found all over the building. Dinner was at St. Hubert, a chicken-oriented restaurant that had outstanding chicken pot pie and HD screens showing the hockey game taking place a block from the hotel. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Montreal Jazz Festival building, home to the Festival and a relaxing place to sit at the bar and relax after a long day.
Sunday, I drove Jeff back to the airport for his flight to Georgia, and I drove back after stopping at McDonald's to order some breakfast (in French, of course). This was my first extended trip to Canada, and with the relatively short travel distance I'll have to go back to Montreal soon and enjoy more of what the North American continent's most Continental city has to offer.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's All About the M&M's

We have all heard stories of the ridiculous excesses enjoyed by wealthy celebrities. (In fact, my sister works in the entertainment industry and has some amusing ones, but you'll have to ask her about them; I won't repeat them here.) One of the most famous "stupid famous tricks" is probably the legendary bowl of M&M's that were required by the Dutch masters of stadium rock, Van Halen. The group didn't just want M&M's; they actually had a contract that mandated that there be no brown M&M's in the bowl. Given that the brown ones were for years the most prevalent color in a bag of M&M's, that's a pretty hefty demand and a whole lot of candy-sifting for some backstage flunky. However, the requirement actually did have a reason. I'll link to the factually-verified article available at Snopes.com. [Incidentally, that's a good website for most any rumor you hear or read about. Verify before you forward that amazing email!]

Essentially, the band had very specific technical requirements for their stage and sound equipment, particularly with very heavy speakers and lighting rigs. It was a matter of safety for the band and the audience that those requirements be met by the host venue. The M&M clause was inserted into the contract in a very innocuous manner in a very inconspicuous place, meaning that a careful reading of the contract was necessary to see it. If the band showed up and saw brown M&M's, they immediately knew their technical requirements had not been read and that there was likely something wrong with the venue. What initially seems like a typical case of immature-because-we-can prima donna star behavior actually served a very real and serious purpose.

I mention this because when we have lawmakers who want to pass legislation that is over 2,000 pages long with only a matter of days to review the specifics, and as such bills affect your health care, it might be worth knowing whether or not someone wants brown M&M's.

Image taken from the M&M webpage.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Album Review: The Lost Boys, "Rogues In A Nation"--Renaissance Rock!

Way back in 2006 when I was stationed at Ft. Benning, I went with some friends to the Georgia Renaissance Festival and it was there that I discovered one of the most entertaining and creative bands I've ever heard: The Lost Boys. They present themselves as "the original rock band from 1599," and typically wear their characteristic performing outfits of teal kilts. (At least once per show they mock the men in the audience as a bunch of "lads in pants.") Their music is a mixture of original material, Shakespeare texts set to original tunes, renditions of Renaissance-era songs, modernized versions of Renaissance songs, and parodies of popular music with Renaissance-type lyrics. The group has undergone a few personnel changes over the years but consistently relies on the leadership of guitarist/fiddler/vocalist Matthew Trautwein.

In one of my earlier posts I reviewed another Trautwein project, the Karma Lingo release "Breath of God." Four members of Karma Lingo made up the original Lost Boys lineup that in 2001 produced their first CD, "Rogues In A Nation." Naturally, in keeping with the fanciful nature of the band, the members all play characters in addition to playing music. Trautwein plays String, so called because of his predilection for playing multiple stringed instruments. Kelley Yearout is Clarence the Destroyer, guitarist and tenor vocalist. Charles Holmes portrays Johnny Ozbourne, who sings and plays bass. The group's drummer and fourth vocalist is Michael Starr, played by Michael Guss. Along for the ride is Merlin (Perry Rintye), whose magic allows for the use of modern drums and electric guitars on certain tracks.

The opening title track is derived from a Robert Burns poem about the percieved treachery that led to the union of Scotland and England in 1707. The LB's perform it with harmonized singing against the pounding and thumping of frame drums. "The Diamond" showcases Clarence as well as the energy that can be produced with all-acoustic instrumentation. After Merlin makes an appearance, the group performs a String original, "Little Gypsy," that sound like something the Beatles would have done were they a Renaissance-fair band. String's "Maidens Sing! (with Johnny on lead)," "Wake Up Sleepy Town" and Michael's "True Love of Mine" (with outstanding vocals from Michael and Clarence) are other fine originals on this recording. Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona provides the lyric for String's "Who Is Sylvia?" This track, entirely a capella, is one of my favorites on the recording, both beautiful and mysterious. String also has a vocal and guitar setting of Shakespeare's poem "As It Fell Upon a Day." The Boys share vocal turns on an original rocker, "Lazy Susan," that takes a particular joy in the art of the near-double-entendre: "Sally is a chambermaid, we love to watch her strip....the dirty linens off the bed..." The group's vocal prowess is again showcased on "serious" tunes like the traditional "Burning of Auchindown" and the playful "I Love You." The album closes with two parodies: "Ode to an Unfetter'd Fowl" opens with a four-part harmony setting of Lynyrd Skynyrd's ubiquitous "Free Bird," and the Knack's "My Sharona" is altered to tell the events of Shakespeare's Othello in "Desdemona." (Be sure to listen for the quiet, sneaky verse at the end.)

Word has it that the group is in the process of modifying the original disc, replacing the parodies with new material to end some legal hassles. Copies of the original can still be found at CDBaby or a live performance, so get one while you can! I highly recommend this disc as an introduction to the group. Not only is the performance and production excellent, but it is a whole lot of fun. Check out the band's website for the latest news on their performances and recordings. More to follow in future blogs....

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Last month, I took a break from work and returned to my recent home of Atlanta to visit friends and participate in one of my newest hobbies: ballroom dancing. I had virtually no skill at dancing prior to February of 2009, and the argument could be made that I had virtually no skill at dancing for several months afterward.
It all started in January of 2009 when I joined a singles' activity group called Events and Adventures. The first event that I did with this group was a tango lesson at a local ballroom dance studio. My prior dancing attempts had mostly involved swing, and for some reason I had a mental block about how to do the steps because the pattern didn't (in my mind) fit the music. Tango, however, was more like the marching band-type of regimented movement that I was used to and I picked it up much more quickly. I suppose I should note that I got into ballroom for the same reason that many men do: it is a very good way to meet women.
Another E&A event a few weeks later was at another studio near Roswell, the Daza Dance Studio. It is much nicer than the other studio, and they hold dance parties every Friday and Saturday night. Also...lots of attractive women teach and study there. After a couple of visits to Daza, I decided that it was time to take some lessons and actually learn how to lead. Like many things in life, dancing is more fun if you actually know something about what you are doing. I was fortunate to have a teacher named Natalie; she has several wonderful traits, namely she is sweet, beautiful, and demanding. Also, she used to live in Nashville like I did, so we had that in common. Over the course of the next few months, my regular lessons and party attendance began to pay off and I made a lot of progress. Natalie encouraged me to enter a competition, and after a couple of false starts I managed to commit to the Hotlanta competition in October. The big obstacle, of course, was my untimely relocation to upstate New York in early September, but I managed to take some personal leave and return to Atlanta for a couple of days of intense "re-learning" and rehearsal before the competition started.
I competed in the Pro/Am Bronze phase on the mornings of Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16. Natalie convinced me to enter 18 different events: bronze-level is divided into beginner, intermediate, and full categories and we would dance six styles in each of those. Thursday was "rhythm day" and involved cha-cha, rumba, and east-coast swing. (Yes...swing.) Friday was "smooth day" and the steps were waltz, tango, and foxtrot. It was a bit odd being judged on the dance floor and having to move around with a giant number pinned to the back of my shirt, but I suppose my training as a performing musician helped not only with my sense of pulse but learning to deal with performance anxiety. The results were better than I expected: I placed 2nd in six categories (all at the intermediate level) and 1st in the remaining 12 categories, beginner/intermediate/full. (I should remind you that this was the lowest level of the competition..no big trophies or recognition. The awards were discount vouchers for next year's competition!) Still, I did well in my first ballroom dance competition, something I could not have even imagined happening eight months ago. Of course, it wasn't just about doing the steps and getting certificates. It was also about spending time with some great friends that I've made over the past few months and having fun on the dance floor. A big thanks to the people at the Daza studio for providing such a welcoming environment, and especially to Natalie for convincing me that I could do it. It was fun!

Note: more pictures can be found on my Facebook page.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Film Review: Michael Jackson's This Is It

I didn't realize until today that I've gone over a month without posting. That's what moving to a new town and taking a two-week vacation will do to you. I'll talk about my vacation in my next post (most likely).

When I was growing up, Michael Jackson was the biggest celebrity in the world. He had the biggest-selling album, the most-watched videos (I still remember how my sister and I were scared half to death by the sight of MJ turning into a werewolf, then a zombie, in his landmark Thriller video), and everyone wanted to learn how to do the moonwalk. (But no one made it look as effortless and cool as Jackson did.) Then over the years, Jackson became progressively more strange. His face was changing due to obvious (and poorly-done) plastic surgery, there were reports of bizarre behavior with young children, and each new release seemed more like a desperate attempt to get the world's attention and recreate the success of his "Thriller" album.

But the world remembered its love for Jackson after his sudden death on June 25 of this year. He had been preparing for a series of shows in London, a spectacle titled "This Is It" which would cap his live performing career. Footage of the rehearsals has been combined with pre-produced "stage screen video" to give us Michael Jackson's This Is It, a documentary glimpse of what could have been. The film is directed by Kenny Ortega, best known for his work on Dirty Dancing and Newsies, who was the stage director for the show. I went partly out of curiosity, partly because the film is supposed to have a limited theatrical run, and partly out of a sense of cultural obligation, the "need to know" what seeing this film in a theater was like.

It opens with interviews of the dancers during tryouts, all of whom idolize Jackson and are happy just to have the chance to be considered. In fact, throughout the film we are treated to interviews with the dancers, singers, musicians, effects producers, costume designers, all of whom speak glowingly of the experience of working with and for the Michael Jackson. Multiple times we are shown how much of a perfectionist Jackson was, as he lovingly criticizes the band for not quite getting the groove right, or the technicians for having his in-ear monitor turned up too loud. It is also clear from the rehearsal footage that Jackson's sense of timing was incredible, and he had an amazing ability to focus on the most minute of details, be they musical or visual. During the musical numbers, often compiled from several different days of rehearsal and sometimes shown split-screen to allow us to see different dance maneuvers and costume ideas, Jackson and his troupe execute some impressive dance moves and stage effects. Occasionally the ensemble looks a bit rough, but no doubt that would have been fixed by opening night.

Michael Jackson was a showman, and he's at his best when he's putting on a great show. "Smooth Criminal" cleverly has MJ inserted into shots from numerous black-and-white noir films before he leaps onto the stage in an explosion of machine gun fire. "Thriller" utilizes impressive make-up and costumes in a re-imagination of the famous video. In fact, the popular line dances from "Thriller" and "Beat It" are recreated step by step for this production. "Wanna Be Starting Something," the opening number, uses in-stage hydraulic lifts to give the effect of dancers leaping out of the floor. Jackson's musicians and singers are quite impressive, especially lead guitarist Orianthi Panagaris (showcased in "Beat It" doing a more-than-admirable job of mimicking Eddie van Halen's finger-tapping guitar solo) and Judith Hill (I think?) who shares the stage in the duet "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." The only number that didn't quite do it for me was "Earth Song;" the production is impressive but the environmental message just seemed a bit heavy-handed for me. Still, it's clear that Jackson is passionate about the issue and that it was a cornerstone of the show for him.

The film is largely rehearsal footage, so odd stopping points, repetition of sequences, and constant adjustments by Jackson and his creative team are part of the deal. Numerous times he drops lyrics to the songs, ostensibly to concentrate on the choreography. Even so, Jackson's voice was still in very fine form and at times dancers half his age struggle to keep up with his energy and precision. At no point does Jackson look like someone close to death, and many times it is easy to see that he is enjoying himself when everything "clicks."

This is a documentary in the truest sense: it is a record of "something that happened," and much of what we are allowed to see was never intended for the public eye. (I say this as a contrast to recent "documentaries" that are full of staged moments, propaganda, and manipulated footage.) If you are a fan of Michael Jackson, or you enjoy some of his music, or you want to see what surely would have been a great stage spectacle, I recommend you go to the theater and see This Is It on the big screen while you still have a chance.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Anything Is Excusable...If You're Really Good at Something Else

We are all familiar with the stories of professional athletes, musicians, actors, and other celebrities who get caught driving while intoxicated, or using illegal drugs, or abusing another person, but a few weeks or months later there they are, back on the stage, screen, stadium, or wherever they make a living. It is commonly believed that these people manage to get cases dropped and sentences suspended because they are famous and can afford the best lawyers. Frequently these people set up charities or fund-raisers somehow related to their offense in order to make it clear that "that isn't the real me that did that." In recent weeks, the most high-profile example of this was Michael Vick, formerly quarterback of Virginia Tech and the Atlanta Falcons, who spent the better part of two years in prison for his involvement in a dogfighting ring that abused and killed a number of dogs. Despite having served his prison time and been out of the professional game for two whole seasons, many fans of the NFL were outraged when the Philadelphia Eagles signed Vick to a new contract. Despite having done the legally mandated sentence for the crime he committed, his reputation has been forever stained, and he will always be remembered for what he did off the field as he will for his athletic prowess.

In the past couple of days, another much older crime has been back in the news. Film director Roman Polanski, famous as the director of the crime classic Chinatown and his more recent historical Holocaust drama The Pianist (for which he won a Best Director Oscar) has not set foot in the United States since 1978 because in 1977 he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. He met her at a party, and took her to another room where he gave her champagne and Quaaludes, a depressive drug known for its capacity to cause extreme muscle relaxation. He then forced himself upon her despite her protests to go home. After being arrested and agreeing to a plea-bargain deal for the single crime of unlawful sex with a minor, he fled the country, reportedly fearing that the judge would not honor the plea bargain and would instead charge him with several crimes to incur a much stronger sentence than the few weeks that he had agreed to spend in prison.

Since that time, Polanski has lived in Europe. He is regarded as a cultural hero in France and Poland, and critics worldwide acclaim his skill as a director. His victim, now in her forties, reached a civil agreement with him for an undisclosed amount and to her credit has been willing to forgive him. But things changed when Polanski landed in Switzerland, which has a treaty with the United States for extradition of criminals. The Swiss authorities arrested Polanski and now many in France, Poland, and Hollywood are clamoring for his release. They have said the incident shows a "dark side" of American international relations. Many probably think that a crime that happened so long ago should be forgotten. No doubt many film buffs are inspired by a director whose success now comes without reliance on the traditional Hollywood system.

For those who know the story, Polanski had endured incredible hardships before his brush with the law. He is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and he saw family members die under the Nazi regime. Years later, his wife and unborn child were brutally slain by members of Charles Manson's "family" in the notorious "Helter Skelter" murders. I certainly am not unsympathetic to someone who has experienced such grotesque examples of what humans can do to each other. But being a victim of violence does not excuse a man for perpetrating violence on others.

He raped a little girl. He drugged her so it would be easier. He ran from what he knew were the just consequences of his actions. And he still thinks he should be allowed to keep running. What would it say about our criminal justice system if we just let him go? What kind of nation doggedly pursues those who sell drugs, engage in insider trading on the stock market, and people who steal music online, but decides that child rapists should get a pass because they're trendy and living in Europe? Our justice system recognizes that there is a place for leniency--after the perpetrator has demonstrated remorse and reformation by serving at least part of his sentence. Roman Polanski has spent 30 years refusing to face justice for what he did, and using his artistry as a filmmaker as an excuse that the normal rules don't apply to him. According to a lot of the cultural elite, that's just fine.

Maybe it's time to consider paroling Charles Manson. After all, I understand he was quite the poet.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Point of Departure

"We cannot allow ourselves to be the victims of the decisions that we make."

I read that quote in an article by a professional musician about the importance of choosing to practice and develop one's skills or to goof off and face the prospect of not having a job. I do have a job, but choosing my job has had some unintended consequences.

As most of you probably know, I'm an Army bandsman. I am enlisted in the Army, hold a rank (Staff Sergeant, if you must know), receive regular benefits, and go through normal training that is required of anyone in the US Army. My specific job is to play in one of the numerous bands located at US Army posts around the world, and I play (of course) trombone.

Since January of 2008, I had a job that I loved. I was playing in the Army Ground Forces Band at Ft. McPherson, which is located in Atlanta, Georgia. I liked being in Atlanta and getting to experience the things that such a large city has to offer. I was making a lot of friends, going to Major League Baseball games, taking ballroom dancing lessons (go ahead and laugh, guys; a lot of very attractive women appreciate a man who can dance), playing in my unit's Brass Quintet and traveling with them on recruiting tours to places like Nashville, New Orleans, Lexington, Knoxville, Baton Rouge, Ft. Campbell, and Ft. Bragg, and generally having a good time.

But in April, I got notice that I had been designated for reassignment--less than two years after arriving in Atlanta--to Ft. Drum, New York. (Ft. Drum is located on the other side of the state from New York City, and is forty miles closer to Canada than it is to the nearest big city, Syracuse.) Ft. Drum is the home of the 10th Mountain Division, and is well-known for getting a lot of snow. I'll be playing in the 10th Mountain Division Band, of course.

Needless to say, I'm not too happy about this turn of events. I've avoided talking about, writing about it, and many of my friends didn't even know until just days before I moved away. I had no intention to keep people in the dark; my reasons for concealing my upcoming move were totally selfish. I hate long, drawn-out goodbyes and the last thing I wanted was to be constantly reminded that I was going away. By telling very few people outside of my work environment, I could "escape" reality by being around people who would treat me the same as always, blissfully ignorant that I'd be leaving. So if anyone is angry at me about that...I'm sorry. I was wrong, and I hope I never do it again.

So I've been at Ft. Drum about half a week now, doing all the inprocessing and logistical wrangling that comes with moving over a thousand miles away and trying to find a new place to live. I've met a few nice people, and nearby Watertown, NY does have a Best Buy, Home Depot, Cracker Barrel, Applebee's, Borders, and a couple of music shops. Unfortunately, it does not have all the great friends that I've come to know in Atlanta, Columbus (Georgia), and Nashville, all of which were close-by last week and now are over a day's drive away.

I don't know how long I'll be here, but rest assured if I can think up a good way to move closer to home, I will. Until then, I'm sure I'll find some productive things to do up here, and I'm sure there is a "reason" why I had to make this move. I chose this form of employment, and while I'm not happy about it I know that moves like this are part of the territory when you work for the Department of Defense.

See you soon....

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Car Control Movement!

Most people I know own a car. Many own several cars. It's pretty much expected that to get around any area of the United States, you need to have a car, especially if you don't live in a major metropolitan area (such as New York) that has extensive public transit.

However, a whole lot of people have cars but don't know how to use them. I base this on my experiences living in diverse places like Nashville, Albuquerque, and Atlanta, and my visits to parts of Florida, New York, and Virginia. There are far too many people on the road who don't know when or how to use a turn signal, don't check the blindspot before changing lanes, and don't understand why the "passing lane" or "fast lane" was given those titles. I witness numerous occasions each week where a clueless motorist could be prosecuted for what I call FTMP--Failure to Merge Properly. I haven't yet mentioned the Creepers, those poor souls who drive around any turn as slowly as they possibly can. Or the Cloggers, the aformentioned folks who drive at or below the speed limit in the far left lane. (In Germany, you get ticketed and fined for that on the Autobahn!)

I mention this because driving is dangerous. More people are killed every year in car accidents than in plane crashes or skydiving accidents. Those deaths include motorcyclists and pedestrians. Before the development of the modern automobile, the term "roadkill" had no meaning. By most statistical measurements that I could find, even the number of accidental gunshot wounds is eclipsed by the number of auto deaths. I believe this is worth mentioning because while the Constitution guarantees a right to "keep and bear arms," the Constitution gives no such protection to a particular form of transportation. Driving is a privilege, not a right. It's because of this that I propose a new socio-political movement, the Car Control Movement!

I would love to see protestors outside the Capitol campaigning for justice for all those injured or killed in avoidable traffic accidents. I believe that those applying for drivers licenses be subjected to a thorough background check to make sure they've never experienced road rage. The drivers test that you had when you got your first permit? Child's play. The whole system should be revamped so that all new drivers have GRE-level nightmares before they take it. Cops should be allowed to issue one warning for FTMP, after which it is a criminal offense.

The thing is, people respect a gun. It's designed to destroy stuff. That is its purpose. Cars, on the other hand, are not designed to destroy things, but they are capable of it anyway. A friend of mine once referred to cars as "big bullets," and I think that's an appropriate description. Our society needs to learn to respect cars the way it respects weapons, probably more because more people own cars than guns. But instead, too many people treat a car like a big, fast toy. Statistically, your odds are better of dying in a car crash than being killed parachuting from an airplane. Most of the people who are on the road right now won't jump, but they will drive. And the strongest advocate of federal gun control probably drives to an office somewhere everyday on a highway filled with inattentive, poorly-trained, drowsy, cell-phone-using maniacs with keys.

The Car Control Movement--because it shouldn't come down to seatbelts and airbags.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What's On My Mind Today...

*I came across a headline that said "Fans Shocked By Kevin Federline's Weight Gain." The most shocking part of this headline? K-Fed has fans.

*Google Maps is often like Google: it gives you a whole lot of information, but not necessarily anything useful for what you need to do. (Especially if navigating Atlanta's labyrinth of streets with their often ridiculously thick traffic and unpredictable construction schedules.)

*Most Americans pronounce "Boston" as if it rhymes with "Austin," yet the two words don't share any vowels. One of the wonderful peculiarities of English.

*Speaking of which, many vowel sounds in English are represented in pronunciation guides with a character known as the "schwa." (represented by the upside down "e") I've often wondered why they didn't just make the schwa a letter.
*Also, you may be surprised to learn that Austin, TX is the southernmost state capital in the continental United States. I suppose that it is a result of pre-telephone days, when it could make a great difference to shorten communication by even a day or two, that Florida's capital of Tallahassee is in the far northern part of the state and Alaska's capital of Juneau is in the far southern part of the state--closer to surrounding territories (and to Washington, D.C.) but not convenient to the majority of residents in those states.
*It is a testament to the mindset of conspiracy theorists that a lack of evidence for their beliefs does not dissuade them, and a preponderance of evidence against their beliefs does not convince them.
*Why is it that people who don't like baseball have to make a big deal of how much they hate baseball whenever it is introduced as a subject of conversation? As if not liking anything is a reason to behave like a jerk.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Album Review: Karma Lingo, "Breath of God"--A FANTASTIC Debut

"All of us, a feather flying on wings of grace...This spirit wind, the Breath of God..."
I came across this CD as the result of attending performances of another local Atlanta band, The Lost Boys. (More on them in another blog!) As it turns out, The Lost Boys were formed from another band called Karma Lingo. The lineup has changed through the years, but this CD is the first one released by the group and contains six members: Matthew Trautwein (multi-instruments, notably guitar and violin), Kelley Yearout (guitar), Michael Guss (drums/percussion), Charles Holmes (bass), Sarah Onsager (keyboards), and Nancy Myers (keyboards). All of the members sing as well. (The men in the group formed the original Lost Boys troupe...again, more about them some other time.)

On the whole, this recording would best be described as "progressive rock," and I'd say it's one of the most inventive progressive rock albums I've ever heard. Though Trautwein wrote or co-wrote most of the material, there are fine contributions both in composition and performance from the other members of the group. Holmes gives a suitably anguished vocal performance on the relatively simple "Run Down," Onsager is seductive in "Power Over You" and endearing in "Bad Sky," Yearout is uplifting on "Open Door" and "She Is Afraid" (hearing the current KL lineup perform this song is what convinced me to buy the CD). "Hand to the Flame" sounds like a cross between 70's-era Styx or Kansas and Hungarian gypsy music. A prog rock opus like this one would be the last place you'd expect to hear the driving blues of "Ain't Nothin' But A Thing," but surprisingly it fits right in. Trautwein opens and closes the album with his songs "A Point of Departure" and the epic, 11-minute meditation on existential angst "Feathers On the Breath of God," the latter of which he has claimed as the finest thing he's ever written. He possesses an incredibly wide vocal range and these songs showcase his skills as a powerful singer.

Despite the relatively simple packaging, the production quality of the recording is excellent. It certainly shows no sign of being recorded in someone's basement like many independent productions. The instrumental skill of the performers is also evident throughout, with many long interludes that propel the music forward rather then seeming self-indulgent. Originally released in 1999, this music has aged far better than most of the popular music of ten years ago. I highly recommend it, especially if you favor the music of Kansas, Rush, Styx, Yes, or Emerson Lake & Palmer. The CD is available online at CDBaby.com and the band's website is here.

The Jumble

It's been a while since my last post, so I'll take a stab at writing things that are somewhat random and unrelated to each other.

*I did finally see the Space Shuttle launch last Wednesday...on television. I'm contemplating plans to go to the scheduled August 18 launch of Discovery.

*Earlier this week we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin's historic first extravehicular activity on the moon. As a lifelong fan of the space program, I've seen numerous videos and documentaries of the event and done much reading on the subject. Unfortunately, there are still misinformed malcontents who believe that the moon landings were faked. (Whoopi Goldberg, you should be ashamed of yourself! I expect someone who appears on Star Trek: The Next Generation to be more open-minded about the capabilities of our astronauts and rocket engineers.) If you suspect that the Apollo missions were an elaborately-staged Hollywood production (or you know someone who does), I'd direct you to an excellent, entertaining, and informative website: http://www.clavius.org/. It contains a thorough rebuttal of popular conspiracy arguments, as well as a lot of information about the planning of the missions, the equipment used, and the people who made it happen. (OK, I'm a nerd, so I think that it's fun reading.)

*Most people who have watched the moon landings have heard them narrated by Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchor who passed away just a couple of days before the Apollo 11 anniversary. (One reason why the CBS version is so popular is not just because of Cronkite's professional demeanor, but also because ABC and NBC seem to have lost the tapes of their coverage.) It is difficult to imagine a voice other than his describing the moment that forever altered humanity's path of exploration. A fitting comment on his legacy can be found in Ron Howard's Apollo 13, which opens with narration by Cronkite recorded especially for the film.

*It is possible to oppose health care legislation without opposing the idea of fixing the health care industry. (Really, calling it health care reform is a bit of a misnomer, since the bulk of the discussion is about health insurance.) Too many big players in this discussion take a ridiculous all-or-nothing approach: "If you don't support this bill, then you want to maintain the status quo! You clearly don't care about the needs of the poor and uninsured!!!" Well, those who truly care about the poor and uninsured understand that hastily-written, quickly-passed bad law will be more destructive to everyone in the long run. Those who criticized the previous administration for "rushing to war with Iraq" should display a more patient attitude towards the political process, rather than screaming for a massive overhaul to be passed NOW NOW NOW!!! The whole purpose of having three branches of government is to slow things down to reduce the passing of bills that will do more harm than good, regardless of the initial intent of the policy.

*When you leave your home late for work, you place yourself at the mercy of all the other foolish drivers on the road.

*If you love energetic, hard-driving, bluesy, guitar-driven rock music, go see ZZ Top. I'm not a huge longtime fan, but they put on a great show. And yes, the beards are real. Also, they did appear to be wearing Cheap Sunglasses.
*In keeping with the topic of the moon and space exploration, a legendary film dealing with the subject is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The bulk of the film deals with a mission to Jupitar by a fictitious Discovery spacecraft. The onboard computer, HAL 9000, is often mistakenly thought to be named "one letter ahead" of electronics giant IBM. 2001 co-screenwriter (and book author) Arthur C. Clarke has maintained that the term is actually short for "heuristic algorithm," a fancy term that means the computer is programmed to act human. The similarity to IBM is simply a coincidence. (Source: The Lost Worlds of 2001 by Arthur C. Clarke, published by Signet)
Photo courtesy NASA.gov

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Once Again

Latest Shuttle Launch Update

Second verse, same as the first. I won't be able to make it to Wednesday's attempt, which probably means the weather will cooperate. I can't stand the thought of that much driving again this week; also, I have tickets to tomorrow night's Aerosmith/ZZ Top concert in Atlanta. In fact, I have two tickets and can't find anyone to use the second. This just isn't my week.
(Image from NASA.gov)

Monday, July 13, 2009

More Scrubbing

(Image courtesy NASA.gov)

My second and third attempts to view a launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

I headed down to St. Petersburg on Friday, July 10 to stay the night at my grandmother's. We enjoyed the evening's baseball game at Tropicana Field, with the Tampa Bay Rays defeating the Oakland A's 6-0. Saturday afternoon I left the Gulf Coast for the Space Coast to see the 7:39 pm launch.

I arrived early enough to grab lunch at Subway before turning toward Jetty Park, the location in Port Canaveral that I had chosen for my viewing spot. As I neared the park entrance, I saw the recently posted sign: Launch postponed. After some deliberation, I decided my best option was to stay the night and see the launch Sunday evening. I drove inland a few miles to Cocoa (NOTE: there is a reason why Cocoa Beach is a more popular travel destination than Cocoa) and got a cheap motel room. Fortunately they had cable and I was able to pass the hours watching Discovery's Mythbusters marathon. I also had to stop at a CVS Pharmacy and Dollar General to get some clothes and toiletries, as I had foolishly left most of my luggage on the other side of the state.

Sunday, I got breakfast from the next-door Burger King and attended services at a nearby church. I refilled the car, checked the tires, and drove up and down Cocoa Beach before getting lunch (again) at Subway and spending some time in a Radisson lobby reading one of my books. When I got back to the Jetty Park entrance, I discovered that the park was closed due to full capacity. I turned around and took the north Port Canaveral exit to see what I could find. I found what may have been the best viewing area outside Kennedy Space Center--the road outside Cape Canaveral AFB is right across the lake from the launch site, with a head-on view of the Shuttle several miles away. I spent the next 3.5 hours reading, walking up and down the road, taking some pictures, double-checking the view with my binoculars, and talking with other spectators. As the deadline approached, so did an ominous, dark series of clouds from the west. Sure enough, about 20 minutes before the launch time the announcement was made on the radio that the stormy weather was inside the 20-mile radius and the launch had to be postponed. I spent much of the next four hours sitting through horribly backed-up traffic past Orlando.

So, I'm about to leave St. Petersburg with plans to see tonight's 6:51 pm launch attempt and then drive back to Atlanta. They say the weather should be much better today. Never before have I spent such time, money, and effort to experience....nothing.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

We Hardly Knew You

In recent days the entertainment community has been shocked by the deaths of several celebrities. The passing of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Billy Mays, Karl Malden, and Steve McNair has reminded us all that no one, no matter how popular or seemingly invincible (that was the title of a Jackson album, by the way) can undo their own mortality. Some of these deaths, while sad, are not totally unexpected. McMahon and Malden were well-advanced in age, and Fawcett had been battling cancer for months. And in the case of Mays, it is not unheard of for seemingly healthy people to have heart problems. What shocks us about the deaths of Jackson and McNair are the way that hidden problems have been revealed by the stars' untimely passing.

In a way, Michael Jackson was lost years ago. I suspect that the majority of his mourners remember not the frail, facially disfigured, out-of-touch tabloid creature of recent years but rather the magnetic showman with sharp dance moves, soaring vocal ability, and a gift for catchy, feel-good dance pop. I still remember how nearly everyone at my school spent hours trying to master his signature "moonwalk" maneuver, and it was normal to desire a red leather jacket with decorative but functionally useless zippers, and the way my sister and I were scared witless by the Thriller video revelation that Jackson was both a werewolf and a zombie. With his demand for perfection in the studio and his search for innovative ways to market himself (his video for "Billie Jean" was the first by a black artist on MTV, the Thriller short film revolutionized music videos with its 14-minute length and feature-film quality sets and make-up) he spent years between the release of projects, and every release was treated as an event. Feature film directors John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers, Thriller, Black or White) and Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed, Bad) were hired to shoot his videos. Think of the influence he's had: Alfonso Ribeiro ("Silver Spoons," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air") got his start as a moonwalking kid in a Pepsi commercial which featured Jackson. Siblings Jermaine and Janet no doubt owe name recognition to his success. The CGI "morph" that is common for special effects these days was pioneered in the Black or White video. He proved that in the video age a black artist could be successful with all audiences. Ferris Bueller's Day Off lampooned the Thriller line dance (in fact, it could be argued that the modern line dance was inspired by the sequences in that and the "Beat It" video). "Weird Al" Yankovic's major breakthrough came with his inspired shot-for-shot parody "Eat It," and he later copied "Bad" with "Fat." (He even went so far as to mimic the Bad album cover with Even Worse.) Paul McCartney shared the charts with Jackson on "Say Say Say" and "The Girl is Mine," and Eddie Van Halen's most famous guitar solo may be the one he played on "Beat It." Most casual listeners associate industry producing legend Quincy Jones with the albums he produce for Jackson. It makes one want to forget how multiple surgeries and a bizarre skin condition altered his appearance, and how his charitable work with children was marred by his sleepover invitations and resulting molestation lawsuits. Even though his showbiz friends spoke highly of his character, drive, and motivation, interviews and his increasingly strange behavior made it clear that however talented he was, he clearly was out of touch with reality. It now seems that his need to fulfill the demands of being Michael Jackson and his inability to deal with the stress and attention have led to his tragic early demise.

Steve McNair seems to have succumbed to an all-too-common condition of celebrities: they won't catch me. While his time as a quarterback for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens was largely marked by amazing improvisation on the field, clutch plays, and a willingness to play through nearly any injury, McNair cultivated an off-the-field image of a family man and devoted public servant who cared for his wife and four children and ran youth football camps. In the hours following his shocking and violent death, it now seems that he was pursuing some type of relationship with a waitress sixteen years his junior. He frequently visited an apartment where she lived, and she drove a Cadillac registered in both their names. While police are still assembling the puzzle, it is clear that McNair was not living the type of life that his fans expected. I can understand that the adjustment to post-competition life is difficult for many pro athletes, and that an attractive, friendly young woman is a strong temptation for most men, even when they are devoted to their families. But it is a shame that someone who was so much a part of Nashville's rise as a major football city and who inspired so many young (and old!) fans has left us under such mystifying circumstances.

Even heroes are human.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


I didn't mean to go so long without posting, but I've been busy recently and it's taken a while to sort out what I wanted to write about next. Firstly, today is my parents' anniversary--40 years! I'm thankful to have had both of them setting such a great example for me to follow.

Now to the main topic of the post.

Some people just love to meddle. There are those who take charge because someone needs to, and then there are those who taken charge because they need to. The boss is the one in charge; someone who is bossy acts like he's in charge. A lot of meddlesome people go into politics, because it's a venue for them to act like they are in control.

Sometimes people meddle with the best of intentions; this does not mean that their meddling is good. I'd use the No Child Left Behind act as a good example. The purpose was a laudable one: a federally-funded system to improve academic achievement across the board. More money would be pumped into public school systems than ever before, incentives would be given for better performance, regular testing would be mandatory. I was a teacher once upon a time, and I witnessed some of the resulting problems. Part of the problem was that many teachers are not well-trained at the college level, and NCLB did not do much to change that. Another part of the problem was that schools dropped some programs, especially those in the arts, to focus on the math and science areas that were emphasized by NCLB. Given that many students flourish in the arts, and that developing skills in the visual, dramatic, and musical arts enhances performance in the more rigid "academic" disciplines, the greater focus in a few areas did not necessarily result in better comprehension in those areas. Perhaps the biggest problem was the greater importance of testing--students had to pass major exams to move on to the next level, and schools needed to have large percentages making certain test scores. Thus, schools began teaching to the test rather than teaching in the manner that best allowed the teachers and students to progress properly through the material.

Again, I'm not faulting the intent of NCLB; I'm faulting the fact that it resulted in a forced system of education that eventually prohibited the improvement that it was supposed to foster. Lots of people who work in education complain about the extra burdens that NCLB has placed on school systems. Many who lean toward the Democratic Party blame former President George W. Bush because he was a strong advocate of the NCLB bill, though they conveniently forget that the bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). In my mind, both parties deserve the blame because both parties were responsible for drafting and then passing a bill that, in hindsight, wasn't very good.

Now, let's look at what's been going on in recent weeks.

This past Friday (June 26, 2009) the House of Representatives passed HR 2454, aka the Waxman-Markey bill, aka the Cap-and-Trade bill. The bill passed by seven votes, with eight of those votes coming from Republicans and the rest from Democrats. The purpose of the bill is to encourage businesses to reduce emissions from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses by taxing those who produce those gasses beyond a certain amount. Businesses that produce less than the cap amount will be allowed to sell credits to other companies that exceed them, so there is an incentive to reduce as much as possible. Of course, some businesses do not have the technology or budget to reduce their emissions. In many cases the technology may not exist now, or ever. Remember, every time you exhale you produce carbon dioxide, so there is the potential that at some point in time you individually will contribute more than your fair share, and the government will have the power to tax you for it. The point being, the cost of doing business will go up. After all, even if a company can reduce emissions for making a product, they still have to package, ship, and market it. The cost of producing gasoline will almost certainly go up, so the cost of shipping will also go up. Anything you buy that is shipped from point A to point B will thus be increased in price. (NOTE: almost everything you buy has to be shipped, and if it involves components that come from overseas, that will mean far more expensive costs for transporting it, whether by sea or air.) The increased price of doing business (without providing any increase in business profits) means business will have to lay off workers. This will create a drain on unemployment benefits, as well as reducing profits even further since the unemployed generally do not buy as many luxury items. Many companies will move their operations overseas to other nations that are not required to comply with the restrictions imposed by the US Congress. Regardless of how well-intentioned this bill is, the eventual result could be disastrous for our economy. Remember, the members of Congress are largely not business owners, nor are they scientists who understand the nuances of engineering more environmentally-friendly systems, nor are they climatologists who understand the extremely complex machine that is our planetary ecosystem. An environment with so many interconnected variables does not fall in line simply because lawmakers say it is supposed to.

Surely the House members know all the details of this bill, right?

Ummm.....no. At around 3 am Friday morning, a 300-page amendment was added to the bill. The bill was already around 1,000 pages before the amendment. You no doubt are aware how long it takes to read a 1,000-page novel. (NOTE: most novels are written so as to be somewhat easy and interesting to read; Congressional resolutions tend to be much more detailed and and dryly descriptive. One does not breeze through them in a couple of days like many do for a Harry Potter novel.) How many Representatives, who have to deal with their personal lives, sleep, eating, listening to messages from their constituents (after all, that is why they're representatives, right???), and the particulars of doing Congressional business have time to read a 300-page amendment the same day that they vote on a 1,000-page bill?

That's right...they just passed a massive resolution that is intended to fundamentally alter forever the way business operates in this country, and it is a statistical certainty that NONE of them knows all the details of that resolution. Notice how I haven't even tried to address the numerous studies that show that this bill won't actually make much of a measurable difference in the environment, which is supposed to be the whole point of passing it in the first place.

Are you scared yet? Because your health care is next on the agenda. Remember how well NCLB worked? Sen. Kennedy is the major sponsor for health care reform. (Just so you know.)

Why should we worry? People who meddle always have the best intentions...right?

P.S. The Cap-and-Trade bill is not law, because it must now pass the Senate before it can be signed by the President. If you have issues with this legislation, now is the time to contact your Senators (remember, there are always two!) about it.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


It's four:twenty-something in the morning, so why am I up, half-conscious, writing a new blog entry? I am at my grandmother's condo in St. Petersburg, FL. I got here yesterday after a long drive from Atlanta. While it's always nice to come to sunny Florida for some downtime and visit my grandmother, I had an ulterior motive for this trip.

Nearly as long as I've been alive, I've wanted to watch a Space Shuttle launch. I still remember getting up early when I was in kindergarten to see the very first launch of Columbia way back when. Whenever I've been able to get to a television to see a launch or landing, I make sure to watch. I love the space program and the innovation, determination, and courage that it represents. But I've never actually made it to Florida to see a launch in person. Since they are ending the Shuttle program after next year, I'm determined to see a launch of the vehicle that introduced me to America's space program. I was sure that the June 13, 2009 launch of Endeavor would be my chance.

But no. Some sort of fuel system venting leak has resulted in NASA scrubbing the launch for at least 96 hours. I have to be back at work on Monday, so my best hope for this one is that they hold it off until the next launch window in July when I'm on a longer vacation break. However, if that doesn't work then the next launch is scheduled for August....


(Image from NASA TV)

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Wisdom of the White Male

As a follow-up to my earlier post "Blind," I give you this article by Leigh Scott from BigHollywood.
The Wisdom of the White Male

Shared via AddThis

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Just Yesterday Morning They Let Me Know You Were Gone

There were two murders that caught my attention this week.

George Tiller, a doctor in Kansas who was known nationally for his performance of late-term abortions, was murdered in his church by a deranged gunman. While I am appalled at the number of abortions (babies terminated) that this man performed (estimates put the number around 60,000) I am even more angered at the fact that this man was killed in a place of worship, a sanctuary for all sinners (anyone reading or writing this blog) to find the grace of God. I am shocked that his family and friends were there to watch it happen. And I'm dismayed that so many in the pro-choice (pro-abortion) crowd think that this type of action is a reflection on the feelings of the pro-life (anti-abortion) movement. All the same, this man's murderer likely has done tremendous harm to the cause he would claim to support. This story has been in the news, gets thousands of hits on Google, and the President has issued a statement about it.

Pvt. William Long, 23, was killed at an Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas on Monday. Another soldier was injured in the drive-by shooting; a suspect has been arrested. Pvt. Long had just finished basic combat training and was home helping with his local recruiting office before continuing his training and service. He took an oath to defend the Constitution, to obey the orders of the President and the officers appointed over him. He no doubt had a lot to look forward to. I used to play in the band for weekly graduation ceremonies at Ft. Benning, performing for thousands of soldiers and their friends and families. I could have played at this man's graduation were I still doing that job. Yet some nutjob gunned him down, here, at home, on our soil. It is tragic when we lose a soldier overseas in combat. How tragic is it when another American targets a soldier who isn't even serving in a combat zone? Who has no weapon, no body armor, no expectation that anyone nearby is dangerous?

This story has recieved much less media attention, though I can't imagine why. I'm still waiting for Pvt. Long's Commander-in-Chief to issue a statement.

UPDATE--JUNE 4, 2009: The President's statement on George Tiller, issued Sunday:

I am shocked and outraged by the murder of Dr. George Tiller as he attended church services this morning. However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence.

Now here is his statement about William Long, issued Wednesday (that's two days after the incident):

I am deeply saddened by this senseless act of violence against two brave young soldiers who were doing their part to strengthen our armed forces and keep our country safe. I would like to wish Quinton Ezeagwula a speedy recovery, and to offer my condolences and prayers to William Long's family as the mourn the loss of their son.


We generally don't think of blindness as an inherently good quality to have. Sure, we recognize that blindness may very well have led to the acute auditory discernment that helped make Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles the phenomenal musicians that they were, but given the choice none of us would take blindness over our eyesight. We have the choice of "optional blindness," i.e. closing our eyes, and we can end that whenever it becomes inconvenient.

We frequently use "blind" as an epithet. Those who don't agree with our point of view are considered "blind." "You're just blind to the truth!" we say. "Hey ref, are you BLIND?!" we scream at the official who missed a call that would benefit our team. Or we use it as hyperbole: "This problem is so obvious a blind man could see it."

Yet we uphold blindness as a virtue in one area: justice. Justice must be blind. Justice must be based on principle, on truth, on an unyielding standard equally applied to all regardless of external characteristics which have no moral value. Blind justice. This is why courthouses across America have statues of Justice as a blindfolded woman holding the scales to weigh evidence.

We are aware that our history is full of examples where justice has not been applied blindly: discrimination for economic, sexual, and racial reasons is easy to find with a little research. Our laws, both local and federal, have undergone amendments and revisions to adjust for a growing understanding that people must be judged on their actions, the "content of their character," as Dr. King would say, and not on their skin color, property holdings, fame, political affiliation, or gender.

Now, I've met people who think I'm a racist. I know that they think that way because they've told me. "But I'm not a racist!" I protest. "Well, you just don't realize it because you've grown up that way," they retort. What else is there to add? I'm a southern white male. Of course I'm racist. (One of these people grew up in the north, and apparently this opinion of southerners is quite common in her neck of the woods. They know it's true, so evidence to the contrary is pointless.) Now, I've served in the Army under a lieutenant of Korean descent, a black commander, a black sergeant major, two black first sergeants, plus a commander and a first sergeant who were female, in addition to having had roommates who were from Japan and Mexico, respectively. I managed to get along just fine with all these people and treated them as I would anyone of my own background. At no point did I ever suspect that ethnic heritage or economic upbringing or gender were responsible for any bad, or good, decisions that were made by any of those people. Most of those people are folks that I hope to serve with or work with again someday. They are people of good character. (Alright....one really got on my nerves, but that's because he had no people skills. He managed to irritate everyone. But again, by irritating everyone he showed no favoritism, and that is a commendable trait. Sort of.) And I was brought up to judge people based on the content of their character, not their looks.

Apparently, though, there are too many people who stand to benefit from racial division to let it die away like it should have decades ago. Some think that the experiences of a Latina result in better judgment than the experiences of a white male. Some think that criticism of the people who make such statements is racist. Some think that judges of certain ethnic backgrounds should not be subjected to any scrutiny. Many of these same people had no problems publically assaulting the character of a black man with an excellent judicial record and sterling reputation because he didn't share their political views. They couldn't even find two people who could consistently defame this man, contrary to every other character witness produced, but all these years later it is virtually impossible to seperate Clarence Thomas's public image from that of Anita Hill. They slammed Miguel Estrada repeatedly as an extremist despite his distinguished record in the legal profession, and then held up his nomination with a filibuster, preventing him from even defending himself in a confirmation hearing. And these same people have the gall to warn off those who criticize a justice who claims, with no hint of irony, that the appellate court is where policy is made? (Go check the second and third articles of the U.S. Constitution; it is quite clear on the role of the courts, and in fact gives the courts the most limited powers in the government, partly because justices are appointed and not elected, thus they are only tangentially related to the representative government outlined in the document.) Perhaps she can explain her views and opinions better. Perhaps she can assuage concerns that she will rule based on her feelings and biases, rather than the clear statutes of the Constitution. She deserves a chance to make it clear that white males need have no worries that she will rule against them because of a prejudicial attitude. But her supporters should not expect her to get a free ride. The Democratic Party has shown no desire to coddle minorities nominated by Republicans. For the Republican opposition to lie down and roll over in this situation would show that they are governed by fear, not principle. They must be fair, but they must also be firm. They must be tough. They must not shirk their responsibility as "loyal opposition" to hold their opponents to rigorous standards for political appointments. To do otherwise would be...well....blind.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Quick and Random Thought

New words are regularly added to the English language. Few new words are as annoying, both in their overuse and the sound that they make, as "app" and "tweet." Yes, I know "tweet" isn't really a new word, but until recently no one ever used it with any regularity. I know "app" is short for "application," and I appreciate that many people find a four-syllable word like "application" cumbersome, but the person who decided that it would be catchy and acceptable to refer to anything as an "app" deserves to be whacked in the face with the branch of an apple tree.

Too bad there isn't an app for that.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Favorite TV Shows: Twin Peaks

Thanks to the wonder of Netflix, I've been able to revisit some shows I haven't seen in a long while. One of the most creative, bizarre, captivating, and baffling programs ever made was Twin Peaks, which aired between 1989-1991. It was only on for two seasons, though the first season only lasted for seven episodes, including the two-hour pilot. The series immediately developed a cult following after its premiere, and its cliffhanger episode endings, cinematic visual style, and recurring images of red drapes, owls, fir trees blowing in the wind, coffee, doughnuts, and a freakishly scary grey-haired man named Bob kept viewers riveted. Though the show seemed to center around a murder investigation in the small town of Twin Peaks, Washington, the theme was more about the lives of the residents of Twin Peaks, who all seem to know each other, and yet manage to conceal all manner of secrets. Creators Mark Frost and enigmatic filmmaker David Lynch (who appears in a few episodes as near-deaf FBI supervisor Gordon Cole and who also wrote the lyrics to songs featured in the show) managed to craft a surreal world with quirky yet unforgettable characters. The show's serial nature, darkly comic humor, twisting plot, and occasionally shocking violence paved the way for many shows that followed, including Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The plot concerned the murder of everybody's favorite prom queen/special ed tutor/meals on wheels organizer Laura Palmer (portrayed by Sheryl Lee, stunningly beautiful even when made up to look dead) who is discovered one morning lying by a lake and wrapped in plastic. When another girl, Ronette Pulaski is found emaciated and virtually catatonic across the state line, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called in to take the case. Cooper is squeaky-clean-cut but also prone to use unorthodox methods, following clues he sees in his dreams. In addition to his love of coffee "black as midnight on a moonless night" and doughnuts and cherry pie, Cooper constantly records tapes of his experiences to his unseen secretary Diane. (While going through a box of Laura's belongings, he begins an entry thusly: "Diane, I'm holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies...") Cooper is teamed with Sheriff Harry S. Truman ("should be easy to remember..."), a no-nonsense lawman who appreciates Cooper's skills even when not understanding his methods. During the investigation, we are introduced to the town's residents and their labyrinthine webs of secrets:

Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Laura's father, a lawyer whose devastation at his daughter's murder causes him to dance compulsively as he loses his sanity.
Benjamine Horne (Richard Beymer of West Side Story fame), local businessman who owns the hotel, the store, and a brothel across the Canadian border where many bad things happen. Laura worked in his store, and they had more than a professional relationship.
Josie Packard (Joan Chen), a Hong Kong immigrant who owns her late husband's sawmill. She's dating the sheriff and has shady dealings with Ben Horne.
Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie), Josie's sister-in-law who hates that Josie owns her brother's sawmill. She, too, has shady dealings (and a romance) with Ben. Her husband Pete (Jack Nance) discovered Laura's body.
Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), a daddy's girl with a devious streak, she's Ben's daughter and went to school with Laura. She has a crush on Cooper and her desire to help him solve the case causes her to put herself in dangerous situations.
Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), quarterback for the football team and Laura's boyfriend. He's secretly seeing waitress Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick) whose abusive husband, trucker Leo Johnson (Eric Da Re), has been doing drugs with Laura and is a prime suspect in the murder.
James Hurley (James Marshall), Laura's secret boyfriend, rides a Harley, wears leather, and looks a lot tougher than he acts. He vows, with Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), Laura's best friend, to solve the murder and soon the two of them realize they're in love. They team up with Laura's cousin Maddy Ferguson (also Sheryl Lee), who looks like Laura but with dark hair and glasses.
Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), James's uncle, runs the gas station and is a member of the Bookhouse Boys, a secret society that acts to stop evil when the law can't. He's had a long affair with Norma (Peggy Lipton), Shelly's employer at the RR Diner, whose husband Hank (Chris Mulkey) is in prison for the "accidental" death of Josie's husband. Ed's wife Nadine (Wendy Robie) wears an eyepatch, is a classic obsessive-compulsive, has super-human strength, and her devotion to Ed keeps him from pursuing his devotion to Norma.

Got all that?

I haven't even gotten to Andy (Harry Goaz), the monumentally stupid-but-lovable sheriff's deputy who may or may not be the father of ditzy receptionist Lucy's (Kimmy Robertson) baby. Or Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn, also of WSS), the town shrink who does magic tricks, wears muli-colored glasses, and was secretly conducting therapy sessions for Laura. Or the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson), an eccentric widow who hears messages from the log that she carries around. There are also appearances by a pre-SNL Molly Shannon as a foster child case worker, a pre-X-Files David Duchovny as Dennis/Denise, a DEA officer with a penchant for cross-dressing, and the gorgeous...well, I'll get to her later. Not to mention Philip Michael Gerrard (Al Strobel), a one-armed man (yes, Gerrard...one-armed man--it's a tribute to The Fugitive) who channels Mike, a demonic entity who tells Cooper about Bob (Frank Silva), the aforementioned really scary guy who keeps appearing to various townspeople in visions. Mike and Bob like to recite poems, too:
"Through the darkness of futures past,
the magician longs to see
one chance out between two worlds,
Fire...walk with me"

Or this one:

"I'll catch you in my death bag
You may think I've gone insane
But I promise
I will kill again"

The series began its downfall when the network pressured Frost and Lynch to actually solve the murder. Once that was done, other plots had to be devised to keep the show going, but none of them held the magnetic appeal of Laura's murder mystery. The second season lost a lot of steam halfway through, and by the time the season ended with one of the most maddening unresolved cliffhangers in television history, Twin Peaks had already been cancelled. A shame, since in addition to the cliffhanger they had recently introduced the character of Annie (Heather Graham), Norma's sister and Cooper's newfound love interest. More Heather Graham in prime-time would have been a good thing.

One thing that stands out about the show is its music. Angelo Badalamenti created a memorable and unique soundscape for Twin Peaks, a mixture of new wave synthesizers and smooth jazz with some rockabilly inflections. The theme song, with its ominous throbbing bass line, won a Grammy, and the soundtrack CD sold surprisingly well. Four songs, with Lynch's lyrics sung by Julee Cruise (who appears in a few episodes singing at the Roadhouse) were sung on the show: "Falling," essentially the theme song with words, "The Nightingale," "Into the Night," a genuinely creepy tune with a good "gotcha" moment thrown in, and "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart," which was used in the second season and was not included on the CD.

Sadly, aside from a few non-filmed projects like Cooper's tapes to Diane and Laura Palmer's Secret Diary (written by Lynch's daughter Jennifer), the only thing left for Peaks fans is the film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which was a critical and commercial failure, partly because it did little to resolve the disappointing ending to season two. Perhaps with the current trend of "rebooting" old shows (because apparently the creative community is afraid to get too creative these days) maybe we'll see a Twin Peaks revival that will provide desperate fans with some closure. Or at least explain what the appearance of that white horse was supposed to mean.