Sunday, July 21, 2013
Early observations on an experimental family e-library and e-bookclub using Kindles
Instapundit Glenn Reynolds writes today that his Kindle Paperwhite has "replaced [his] iPad as [his] favorite device for reading Kindle books":
The backlighting is the key. It’s light, battery lasts a long time (longer than the iPad), it charges quickly (faster than the iPad), and it’s very clear and easy to read in all kinds of light, from bright sunshine to a dark room. And of course, it’s much, much cheaper [than an iPad].
To all of which, I say: Ditto. I bought one of the first Paperwhites last fall, and I like mine so much that I made this product the basis for a family e-book club.
Specifically, I've given four Kindle Paperwhites, plus two older Kindle models I'd purchased in 2010 and 2011, to my four college-age kids and two of their best friends. All these devices are associated with my Amazon Prime account, and as the group's sponsor I encourage the members to make responsible e-book purchases through Amazon using their devices. Those purchases are of course billed to my Amazon account — like many parents, I've never regretted buying books for my kids! — and each purchase generates an emailed invoice to me, which helps me keep track of new additions to our collective e-library and its ongoing costs.
Here's how the Kindle system multiplies the already formidable convenience and economics of e-books for a family e-library, though:
Most of Amazon's Kindle books include licensing rights for multiple copies of e-books to be downloaded simultaneously to six different devices. (The precise number is set by the publisher of each book, I gather — I wonder if that was another one of Apple's ideas or something the publishers insisted upon on their own?) Not everyone in our group can simultaneously be reading the same book, then. But then again, six copies at any one time is quite a few: What home library has as many as six copies of on-dead-trees books available for simultaneous checkout? When you remove a copy from one Kindle or other e-reader device, it automatically frees up the license rights for another free and nearly-instant download on any of my account's devices, so even the six-copy limitation turns out to have a trivial and rare effect on us.
And although we have a total of seven Kindle devices among us, there are actually more e-readers than that associated with my account. With the Kindles' autosync via WiFi capability, I also use my smartphone and a free Amazon Kindle app as an additional e-reader — which lets me pick up with the same book I'm reading on my Paperwhite on my smartphone, in exactly the same spot, whenever I happen to find myself standing in line or eating out alone.
(I opted to forgo the more expensive Paperwhite models with the built-in 3G wireless capability to augment the built-in WiFi. However, my smartphone can sync using either 4G or WiFi, and my Paperwhite back home will sync to where I leave off reading on my phone too. We don't think our group members need, or would much use, wireless on our Paperwhites, but YMMV and for some of you the additional cost may be justified.)
As I'd hoped, many of the books that one of us buys are ending up being read by more than one of us — and sometimes (e.g., the Game of Thrones series) by all or almost all of us. And as I'd also hoped, we're trading book recommendations and discussing books more frequently. Our "family book club" doesn't have meetings or circulate memos; instead these shared books become evolving, continual topics of occasional conversation whenever any two or more of us happen to feel like chatting (in person, on Facebook, or wherever) about something we've just read.
For those who worry that this might be "cheating" or that they'll get sued under the DMCA: I haven't studied the fine print in Amazon's sales and licensing agreements, but I emailed Amazon's customer support folks about my family book club plan before buying the additional Paperwhites last December. They replied that Amazon is perfectly happy to sell on those terms, which include the understanding that I'm maintaining financial responsibility for the purchases made by the responsible young adults to whom I've entrusted what are, legally, still "my Kindles" and "my [licensing rights to Amazon-purchased] e-books."
Finally: my older daughter just returned from a month's volunteer work in Nepal, where her internet access was limited and infrequent. She reports that she got more use and more satisfaction out of her Kindle than from any other gadget she had with her.
So far, then, I've been very happy with this ongoing plan and the return I'm getting on my investment. These Kindles don't suck at all. If you decide to buy one, I recommend doing it through either Instapundit's site or your other favorite blogger who's an Amazon Associates participant. (I'm not any longer; Beldarblog is nonprofit for the additional freedom that buys me with respect to "fair use" copyright issues.)
Friday, August 31, 2012
Proud papa Beldar brags on his son Adam Dyer
The University of Houston Honors College has an excellent program for exceptional students at this Tier One university, and it's been very good to my family: My older son, Kevin, is already an alumnus of the program (and he's now an entering "1L" at the University of Houston Law Center this fall). My older daughter, Sarah, is within sight of completing her degree in elementary education through the Honors College, aiming toward a career path as an educator that was blazed by my sister, my mother, and my paternal grandfather. My younger son, Adam, is now entering his sophomore year in the Honors College. My youngest, Molly, still has a year left at Bellaire High School — and although she's fortunate to have a great many attractive college choices, it's not unlikely that she too may be seeking a spot in the Honors College fairly soon.
My ex and I, and all four of our children, were therefore very gratified that based on faculty nominations made among last year's entering freshmen, Adam was named among fifteen or so "Outstanding First Year Honors Students" at the Honors College's 2012 Fall Convocation.
Honors College Dean William Monroe said this of Adam at tonight's awards ceremony in the ballroom of the Hilton on the UH campus:
In addition to being an outstanding contributor in his nominator [Prof.] Ted Estess' class, Adam also served on Alpha Team's student committee to select the best Human Situation lectures of Fall 2012 [referring to a required two-semester Honors College seminar that "stud[ies] our cultural heritage by examining texts from the Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Christian and Islamic cultures of antiquity"] — all the while ... showing promise of doing truly distinguished work as an undergraduate at the University of Houston. In the words of Dr. Estess, [writing] tonight from Colorado: "Adam, we salute you for what you have done, but we put you on notice that we are expecting a great deal more in the coming years." Adam is a creative writing major from Bellaire High School with a National Merit Scholarship.
Adam is committed to obtaining a broad liberal arts education through the Honors College, and he'll continue studying creative writing this fall. But he's adjusting his major to also include computer science because (1) every starving artist needs a day job and (2) it's quite likely that his creative goals will end up involving computers and software in at least some important aspects. He's just a swell kid, and while his mom and I and his siblings are always proud of Adam just for being who he is, tonight was another of the many occasions on which we are all extra proud.
Adam jokes after the ceremony:
Every award must come with a certificate suitable for framing, no? But this one is indeed worth the cost of a frame:
Big sister Sarah (left) reacts to Adam's award:
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Review: Beldar & kids see "Contagion"
My son Adam, his college roommate Erik, and my daughters Sarah and Molly joined me today for a Saturday movie matinee.
We saw "Contagion," described in its promotional materials as a "thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak." Its marketing tag-lines: "Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone." And "Nothing spreads like fear." So I basically expected this to be another variation on previous Hollywood movies about fictional pandemics like "The Andromeda Strain" and "28 Days Later ...." Adam predicted, from the movie poster: "This will be a movie about people being scared and talking on cell phones."
I was wrong, and Adam was only partly right. This was one of the oddest and most peculiar films I've ever watched, actually, precisely because it violated most of Hollywood's most cherished plot conventions. But nevertheless — and, very likely, because of those breaks with tradition — it is a very good movie. My kids, Erik, and I all gave it a solid "thumbs up."
I don't mean to suggest that "Contagion" is lacking all of Hollywood's usual arts. The cinematography is excellent, and the musical score is unobtrusive yet effective. It has a bunch of big-name actors — including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, and a deliciously despicable Jude Law (as "the Internet and all that's wrong with it"). They all give very tight, controlled, and quiet performances, and several actors play roles that are utterly contrary to those in which we're accustomed to seeing them. I have had a crush on Gwyneth Paltrow since "Shakespeare in Love," for instance, but no one's crush on her is likely to be enhanced by this movie.
"Contagion" does have heroes and villains, and tiny bits of romantic and familial love, along with small portions of suspense and violence. But the heroes are very, very life-sized, not Hollywood-style larger than life. The villains are ordinary people making selfish, petty choices, only a few of which could be described as "evil." Many of the most important plot developments take place offscreen or are only hinted at. There are no chase scenes, no miraculous escapes, no improbable coincidences revealed through the hero's cunning. The cars don't explode and the airplanes don't crash.
In fact [mild SPOILER ALERT: left-click & drag your cursor from here to the following paragraph to read this text]: It is a movie in which there are many, many deaths, and they begin sooner than you'd expect — but we only see a few of them onscreen. Those few onscreen deaths are powerful; and it was obviously the deliberate and artful choice of the filmmakers to make those many, many offscreen deaths seem remote and unreal in comparison.
Indeed, the plot doesn't rely on the typical Hollywood dramatic arc at all. Without employing the "mock documentary" or "reality TV" devices that Hollywood often uses, "Contagion" absolutely succeeds in seeming more real than most movies due to its relentless suppression of typical Hollywood gimmicks and clichés — and that is the key to its entire impact on the viewer, I think.
"Contagion" is grim, but not relentlessly so, and without ever being gruesome. The closest thing to snappy dialog was this epithet flung at Jude Law's character: "Blogging is not writing. It's just graffiti with punctuation." (Some of us bloggers are better at punctuation than others, but I suppose that doesn't undercut the gist of that assertion.)
Yet "Contagion" manages to speak to the human condition. It highlights our interdependency; if anything, it may overstate our resiliency. No one will ever mistake "Contagion" for the "feel-good summer movie of 2011," so don't go see it if you need cheering up or even if you're just looking for light entertainment. But we liked it, and I'm frankly amazed that Hollywood can turn a profit on a film that runs this strongly against type.
Monday, August 22, 2011
UPDATE (Mon Aug 22 @ 8:00pm): From Ryan's statement today on his congressional campaign website:
I sincerely appreciate the support from those eager to chart a brighter future for the next generation. While humbled by the encouragement, I have not changed my mind, and therefore I am not seeking our party's nomination for President. I remain hopeful that our party will nominate a candidate committed to a pro-growth agenda of reform that restores the promise and prosperity of our exceptional nation. I remain grateful to those I serve in Southern Wisconsin for the unique opportunity to advance this effort in Congress.
Not quite Shermanesque, but close enough that in context, I'm persuaded that he means it.
Being stubborn, though, and as my own personal motion for reconsideration, I just sent $20.12 to Ryan's reelection warchest.
UPDATE (Mon Aug 22 @ 8:35pm): I'm reprinting here, without blockquoting them, some comments I've left on a post by Aaron Worthing at Patterico's:
I respect Chairman Ryan’s decision, although I’m very disappointed by it....
I’m really sad today, for my party and my country. I know Chairman Ryan has already devoted his life to public service, and that his family has already paid a price for that. And anyone with the burning passion in his or her belly to be POTUS has to be at least slightly insane; Ryan is the most sane politician I’ve ever seen, but I had hopes he might still respond to a draft, and I thought was sensed that coalescing this week.
I know Rick Perry’s record and I believe I know what he’s made of, and I believe he would be a fine president, but I’m not yet convinced he can overcome the anti-Texas/anti-Dubya bigotry in a national election in 2012. I’ll probably get aboard his campaign bandwagon anyway. But frankly, the kind of bigotry that the Dems will exploit and encourage if Perry gets the nomination is a lot harder to fight with facts and education than the “Mediscare” tactics they’d have used against Ryan. So I’m going to take the week to mumble and mutter and confuse my dog (who thinks I’m mad at her, which then makes me feel guilty, and appropriately so). She cuts me more slack than I’m due, so I beg that of the rest of you too today....
[Actually, who I owe the biggest apology to is my daughter Molly, for upon seeing the first report of Ryan's announcement this afternoon, I got distracted looking for confirmation, and I was therefore late picking her up. Molly cuts me more slack than I'm due, too. And yes, I see the irony in my being late to pick up my daughter while being disappointed that Paul Ryan won't subject his much younger children to the stresses of a POTUS campaign.]
I’m very sure that [Ryan's] decision wasn’t based on a failure to consider and weigh all the relevant factors. He’s been quite literally toe-to-toe with Obama, and I’m sure he can easily imagine himself in Obama’s shoes, doing a vastly better job for the country. And I know he’s confident in his own abilities and in his core philosophy. His ego is in tight control, but he does have one, and he’s not unaware of his relative strengths and weaknesses as a potential presidential candidate.
I’m reasonably sure that among the people who’ve been encouraging him to run, he received credible assurances of support, including serious promises of the sort of fund-raising that would have immediately made him competitive with Romney or Perry on that score.
I think large numbers of Republicans would have become enthusiastic supporters when they heard him speak in primary debates. By no means was this too late a date for him to join the race.
I’m sure he will do his very best as a non-candidate, but still as a leader of his party at the center of its most consequential current power (i.e., as head of the House Budget Committee) to affect the election. But that’s a distant runner-up to the influence he could have had as a candidate, even if he didn’t get the nomination, and not even in the same league as the influence he could have had as the GOP nominee.
And I’m still hopeful that whoever does get the nomination will look to him as a potential Veep choice.
Monday, May 30, 2011
My four-legged bit of Westeros
I've been recording HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, but I only began watching yesterday. I'd already read all the books in the still-unfinished series, but it didn't occur to me until just now that I have my own "direwolf" of sorts — although officially, my dog Weiss is more of a Dyer Wolf.
Yes, she's a very friendly dog, but check out that dentition!
Thursday, April 07, 2011
"How many you have? Ten kids, you say? [Stand-up comic's smirking head-shake & double-take] Well, you definitely need a hybrid van then!"
I have no fault to find, and indeed find much that's praiseworthy, in Barack Obama as a good husband and family man. In the former respect, he's a blessed contrast to the last Democratic president, and in both respects Obama's completely in sync with his immediate predecessor. I stipulate, again, that the Obama children are absolutely adorable, so much so that they're each worth at least a million votes to his ticket again in 2012.
However, regarding Obama's comments this week in response to a voter with 10 children who was pressing him on skyrocketing gas prices and their effects on the voter's family budget — good coverage here, here, and here:
It's not so obvious from the transcript, but it's very obvious from the video (at 2:16) that President Obama thinks a family with 10 children must be part of some deviant subspecies of humanity, and certainly can't be as enlightened and cool as he and Michelle are with their politically and demographically correct 2.0 children.
My first thought on watching his smirking superiority: "I wonder how that's gonna play in the various Kennedy households?"
I have four kids. That's considered a "jumbo" family these days, but if things had worked out a little differently, I can easily imagine having had several more. There are few joys of parenthood — or of life — greater than watching your older children interact with, and help rear, your younger ones.
And my four — although each vibrantly different from one another, and each of them absolutely terrific — are as tight with one another, as supportive and loving of one another, as I can possibly imagine. What they do for each other is helping them grow into adults who are capable of raising strong families of their own. And it gives me not only great pleasure to observe, but great comfort: I know they will be there for each other long after my ex and I are gone. Regardless of one's spiritual views and faith, they are our earthly immortality.
There are trade-offs, of course, and I'm not criticizing anyone who chooses a smaller family, or to have no children at all. By why mock someone who has 10 children? Why not instead lead a round of applause for someone with the love and courage to embrace the challenges and joys of a large family?
I have a hard time relating to this man as a human being. Completely apart from politics, I just like him less and less the more I see of him.
Friday, March 25, 2011
Good parent, terrible wife/husband?
InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds links this not terribly insightful piece from something called "Shine from Yahoo!®" called "Mom Confession: I'm a Terrible Wife." Its author writes, "I'm a very good mother. But I'm a terrible wife." By way of commentary, Prof. Reynolds adds:
Being a good wife is part of being a good mother. If you’re a terrible wife, you’re not actually being a good mother.
That bit of punditry should have come with a tsunami warning. Prof. Reynolds' remark is going to spark a lot of debate, including some very vehement disagreement.
By definition, his comment doesn't include ex-wives, nor husbands of any variety. But I would be inclined to amend his statement to broaden it to say instead:
If you're a parent, and your kid has another parent with whom you're regularly failing to cooperate, then neither of you is being a good parent — regardless of whether you are now, or ever were, married, and regardless of whether either of you is, or ever was, a good spouse.
I never do remotely as well, under my own metrics for judging my performance as a father, as I think I ought to do. I'm constantly aware of my own failings. But at a bare minimum, I expect myself to cooperate actively and continuously and creatively with my ex to promote the best interests of the treasure we continue to share.
Monday, June 22, 2009
In memorium: James Dillard Dyer, Jr. (12/24/22 to 6/22/09)
[As written and released for publication in the Lamesa [Texas] Press-Reporter, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, and other west Texas publications, by his family:]
Lamesa native and life-long resident James Dillard Dyer, Jr. — a World War II veteran who became a long-time merchant and civic leader — died peacefully in his sleep during the early morning hours of Monday, June 22, 2009. He was 86 years old.
Born on Christmas Eve of 1922, J.D. Dyer, Jr. was the oldest son of prominent Lamesa school-teacher, postmaster, and merchant J.D. Dyer, Sr. and his wife Emma Lee Dyer. As a 1940 graduate of Lamesa High School, young Dyer — sometimes known to friends as “Jo-Do” due to his initials — had been president of his senior class and active in the high school band and debate. Dyer volunteered for the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Texas even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and through an accelerated curriculum, he earned both his Bachelor of Business Administration degree and his commission as an Ensign in the United States Naval Reserve on the same day — February 29, 1944.
Dyer was immediately activated to duty and assigned to the U.S.S. Zeilin (APA-3), an amphibious attack transport which served as a relief flagship for the Commander Amphibious Force, Pacific Fleet. Dyer caught up to the ship in March 1944, and he commanded one of its landing craft, putting troops ashore under fire, during the Battle of Guam in July 1944. “Tex” Dyer was among the junior officers on the bridge on January 13, 1945 — when the Zeilin survived a kamikaze strike that left dozens killed and wounded — and his service included both the invasion of Luzon in January and the landing of reinforcements at the Battle of Iwo Jima in March 1945. Slated to participate in the invasion of Japan, Dyer and the Zeilin were at Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands in August when the atomic bombs ended the war. After further service on the Zeilin moving troops from various Pacific bases to Okinawa and Korea, Dyer was released from active duty in February 1946 as a Lieutenant (Junior Grade). He attended several happy reunions of the crew and extended family of the “Mighty Z” during the 1980s and 1990s as America belatedly began to recognize properly what Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation.”
After brief stints with the Texas-New Mexico Pipeline Co. and the State Reserve Life Insurance Co., Dyer returned to Lamesa to take over his father’s business, then known as Dyer Hardware & Auto Supply. Over the next 30-odd years and at several locations, that business evolved to become Dyer Appliance and then Dyer Furniture & Appliance — selling iconic American brands like Zenith, Frigidaire, Maytag, and Sealy to generations of Dawson County families under the motto “We Service What We Sell.” Along with Karl Cayton and Paul Edgmon, Dyer was also a founding principal in the original Lamesa Cable T.V. Company.
Dyer married Lamesa native Helen F. Pope in 1947, and together they reared their daughter and two sons before they divorced. In 1974, Dyer married Odessa L. Williamson of Levelland. Before her death in 2003, J.D. and Odessa led an active retired life that included many international tours with the “Flying Longhorns” of the U.T. Ex-Students’ Association (of which they were both Life Members). Dyer’s hobbies in his later years included the planting and care of what became the formidable orchard surrounding his home on Skyline Drive.
Service — through city government, and through civic and charitable organizations — played a continuous and vital part of J.D. Dyer’s life. He served on the Lamesa City Council from 1955-1958 and as Mayor of Lamesa from 1958-1959. A multi-decade member of the Lamesa Chamber of Commerce, Dyer served as its President in 1969. Dyer also served in leadership roles over the years in various local and regional organizations to promote the development of U.S. Highway 87 and to secure clean, safe drinking water for Lamesa and its surrounding area. Dyer was also among the original organizers and continual supporters of the Lamesa High School Golden Tornado Jubilee Reunions, and he served as chairman of the 1975 Jubilee.
In high school, Dyer had earned the rank of Eagle Scout and was inducted into the Order of the Arrow in what was first known as “Troop 1,” then “Troop 22,” and then “Troop 722” — the Boy Scout troop founded by his father in 1921 and then led for many years thereafter by the late Joseph N. Spikes. Dyer’s lifelong support of and contributions to Scouting were recognized by the South Plains Council of the Boy Scouts of America with the Silver Beaver Award in 1964. Dyer also was a multi-decade member and leader of the Lamesa Noon Lions Club and Lions Club International. He served many terms in various offices (including President) in the local club, and as District Governor of Lions District 2-T2 in 1960-1961. With his family, he attended many state, national, and international Lions Club conventions across the U.S. and abroad, and he was an active supporter of such programs as the Texas Lions Camp at Kerrville.
Dyer was raised as a member of the First Christian Church of Lamesa, and he served among its deacons and elders while married to Helen. Later, he and Odessa were joyous and proud members of the First Presbyterian Church of Lamesa, where funeral services will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 25.
J.D. Dyer, Jr. was preceded in death by his parents and by his younger sister and brother, Mrs. Tennie Marie Dyer Lengel of Dallas and Dr. Royce Dyer of Lamesa. He is survived by his younger sister, Mrs. Jean Dyer Brower of Lamesa, and by three children — his daughter, Mrs. Gwen Dyer Johnson of Austin (and her husband Jimmy); his son, Dr. James R. Dyer of Argyle (and his wife Shelli); and his son, William J. Dyer of Houston. He is also survived by eight grandchildren (Jeffrey, Liana, David, Grace, Kevin, Sarah, Adam, and Molly), four great-grandchildren (Jared, Laura, Price, and Jemma), and many other cherished relatives and life-long friends. For anyone inclined toward making a charitable donation in J.D. Dyer’s memory, the family has suggested the Boy Scouts of America (www.scouting.org), the Texas Lions Camp in Kerrville (www.lionscamp.com), or the Dal Paso Museum in Lamesa.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Great competitors among Rockets and Greyhounds
Most Houston sports fans, including me, are reveling in one of the most satisfying Houston Rockets wins in many years — a thorough drubbing of the perpetual rockstar team of the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers, by a final score of 99-87 that somewhat conceals the Rockets' overall domination (including a 29-point lead in the early fourth quarter). The Rockets are still decided underdogs. But for all the reasons I'm normally not a big fan of the NBA, I particularly enjoyed this game.
With the Lakers already leading the playoff series 2-to-1 and Rockets star Yao Ming out for the remainder of the year with a broken foot, the Rockets were widely expected to politely roll over and die. Instead, they thoroughly embarrassed the Lakers with a combination of aggressive and consistent defense, textbook hustle and teamwork, and unlikely heroes — chief among them point guard Aaron Brooks with 34 points and forward Shane Battier with 23 points, 15 of them on 3-pointers. Four different Rockets were in double-figures, even though arguably the most high-profile Rocket on the floor, guard Ron Artest, had a poor offensive day (only 4 for 19 for 8 points). The Lakers gave up 11 turnovers, most of them early in the game when the outcome was at least arguably still in doubt, and they let their frustration show with two technical fouls. With his teammates' help, Battier — who in my humble opinion is the smartest and most underrated player in the NBA, and therefore among the most appealing underdogs to root for — also held Kobe Bryant to a pathetic 15 points, turning the Lakers' superstar into a complete non-factor. Very sweet!
But even that was not, to me, quite as sweet as the performance on Friday of the Johnston Middle School Greyhounds in the HISD-wide "Name That Book" competition. The third-place finish city-wide, on the heels of a second-place result at the initial competition during the previous week, marked Johnston's best showing in sponsor and JMS librarian Delores Sellin's memory. And among the celebrants was my youngest, Molly, fourth from the left (with the purple sleeve) in the photo below:
Happy Mother's Day to all mothers out there, and especially to my ex. (The promised review of the new Star Trek movie will probably have to wait until next weekend; we rearranged some schedules to guarantee her some extra snuggle-time with four kids who are increasingly hard to get all together in one place at one time.)
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Review: Beldar & kids see "Duplicity"
That's the one-word verdict of my son Adam on the corporate espionage thriller, Duplicity, which he, my daughter Molly, and I saw early this afternoon. Molly and I not only joined in that verdict, but concurred with Adam's degree of substantial satisfaction in pronouncing it.
This is a slow time of year at the box office, and today was one of those days when we'd decided to go to the movies with no clear intention as to what we'd see. If we'd arrived an hour later, we might have instead seen 17 Again, despite Adam's objection that its male lead, Zac Efron, has a distractingly truncated first name.
But "Duplicity" dives immediately into a twisting and turning plot — if you leave for five minutes mid-movie to get fresh popcorn, you'll pay a heavy price — and although its trailers and advertising (warning: noisy website) certainly led one to expect double-crosses and surprises, it has an adequate combination of freshness and misdirection to avoid obvious clichés or predictable plot kinks.
I began convinced that Julia Roberts had been miscast as the female lead in this movie: She looked all of her 41 years, and perhaps a few more. I suspect, in fact, that the filmmakers deliberately avoided the flattering makeup, wardrobe, and lighting that might have knocked a few years off her apparent age, because her actual age better fit the character she was playing — someone neither overly lush nor brittle, but of whom an unkind (and yes, sexist) westerner might still say, "That's a mare, not a filly, and she looked like she'd been rode hard and put up wet." Ms. Roberts is still a striking, sexy woman. But I don't think anyone would use the terms "girlish" or "wicked hot" to describe her in this movie — in contrast to, for example, Charlize Theron in The Italian Job. And Ms. Roberts was less glamorous than, say, a comparably mature Rene Russo opposite Pierce Brosnan in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.
Clive Owen I can take or leave, and I might have been more receptive to whatever on-screen chemistry he developed with Ms. Roberts if I hadn't already watched her and Rupert Everett's campy but sexless on-screen relationship in My Best Friend's Wedding three or four times on late-night cable/satellite channels. I'd seen, but almost forgotten, Mr. Owen's and Ms. Roberts' performances as romantic interests in 2004's Closer; but perhaps to the extent it was in my subconscious, that quirky film ended up diluting rather than intensifying their on-screen chemistry for purposes of this one. A British accent and a muscular and dark-haired chest make for interchangeable leading-men hunks these days — all of them, as far as I can tell, living off the glorious, reflected, but fading sort of charm defined by Cary Grant and Sean Connery. In any event, Mr. Owen ended up being good enough, and occasionally drolly funny. And Ms. Roberts ended up being better than I expected, delivering a somewhat low-wattage but nevertheless persuasive performance.
The supporting cast, however, was simply terrific — better than the leads, better than the directing, and better than the script. Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, as rival CEOs from "Equicrom" and "Burkett & Randle" (think Unilever and Procter & Gamble), very nearly stole the show from Mr. Owen and Ms. Roberts. Mr. Wilkinson's performance was as subdued and guileful as Mr. Giamatti's was spittle-flecked and trenchant, but both were entirely credible and compelling. Carrie Preston had a small part that she turned into pure gold, as did Kathleen Chalfant, but the whole cast shone — and did so without the sort of "Oh, it's my turn now, and aren't I precious!" mugging that I found offputting in films like Ocean's Eleven and its sequels.
In the pantheon of twisty films, this one wasn't remotely as good as The Sting — but then, if you only watch films that deservedly win Best Picture and six other Oscars (with nine total nominations), you're going to run out of entertainment pretty soon. My ultimate but simple test is whether I regret spending the money for the ticket after seeing a movie in the theaters — and I don't regret the price I paid for me, Adam, and Molly to see "Duplicity." It gets a solid "thumbs up" from each of us.
Will you suffer if you wait for "Duplicity" to come out on cable/satellite? No, probably not; and in fact, I'll almost certainly watch it again, TiVo'd so I can replay my favorite scenes and really count the clues, when it does. Even after seeing this movie, you won't quite know the ultimate corporate secret — the difference between creams and lotions — but if you're in the mood to go out for a movie during this season of slim pickings, you could certainly do worse than this one.
UPDATE (Sun Apr 19 @ 6:45pm): Mild spoilers follow, along with some real-world perspectives that are less flattering to this movie and to Hollywood in general:
Like almost every other Hollywood movie of the last forty years, this one treats the corporate world with near-complete disdain and paints with a ridiculously overbroad brush that has indeed grown tired and clichéd. I'm thoroughly sick of corporations being universally portrayed as wicked and lawless, indeed murderous. And gentle readers, I've been a courtroom lawyer defending many of the real-life analogs to those vilified in movies, and I've seen their privileged internal documents, so don't start trying to argue to me that these Hollywood hatchet-jobs are "fake but accurate" or that they're portraying some fundamental and universal truth about corporate America or the international corporate world. These movies are naïve and paranoid fantasies for the most part, grossly distorted and blown entirely out of proportion by Hollywood to serve their secular god of political correctness.
2007's Michael Clayton — by the same screenwriter/director who wrote and directed "Duplicity," Tony Gilroy — was just another ridiculous example of the same ridiculous genre: Every pesticide company in Hollywood movies is all about killing children and polluting the universe, never about increasing harvests to feed real-life starving children. Every pharmaceutical company in Hollywood movies is all about inflicting birth defects or horrible addictions on the sick and the infirm, never about actually curing them or improving the quality of their lives. But in the real world, if there is an "industrial community" on the face of the earth whose citizens disproportionately deserve horse-whipping for systematically lying and distorting the truth, it's the community whose local industry is motion pictures. Consider this Q&A in an interview in which Gilroy was discussing and describing "Duplicity" and his earlier films:
Your movies are fiction but based on facts is that it?
I have a chance to get at the essential truth. I can show what's going on without being tethered to the facts.
May heaven spare us from liberal filmmakers who are "un-tethered to the facts" that is, absolutely free to tell deliberate and egregious lies but free to present their "essential truths." That was exactly the rationale used by propagandists for Hitler, Stalin, and Mao in their day, and that's still being used by propagandists for the Castro brothers, Kim Jong-il, and Hugo Chávez.
Although their intrigues skirt and sometimes cross the lines of what's legal, the "corporate bad guys" in "Duplicity" at least aren't into mass murder, though, so I suppose we can be thankful for small favors. In fact, some of the plot threads that are least convincingly tied up involve blown covers which apparently have no on-screen results — as if corporate espionage agents are routinely set free after being caught red-handed in activities that are indeed illegal and would indeed, in the real world, result in arrests and prosecutions.
My approving review of this movie is premised solely on its entertainment value. And in my original review, I discounted to zero its further contribution to Hollywood's mountains of lies about the corporate world. If I only went to see, or praised, new releases that depicted the corporate world fairly and accurately, I might as well delete the "Film/TV/Stage" tag from my blog and stop publishing reviews altogether. It's a shame that we live in a society in which "Duplicity" can earn even faint praise by only slightly exaggerating corporate competitiveness. But that indeed is the world in which we live, and that is the cognitive dissonance that Hollywood inflicts upon the world's citizens who watch its paranoid fantasies during their time off from real-world jobs working for the same companies whom Hollywood so ruthlessly demonizes (while ignoring, by and large, the real demons and villains of the world).
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Beldar & daughter catch the Houston Dynamo's season opener
Last night, I attended my first-ever professional football game — errr, well, perhaps I should say professional fútbol game — along with my youngest daughter, Molly, and several members of her middle school soccer team. It was the season opener for the Houston Dynamo, the 2006 and 2007 Major League Soccer champions.
As arranged by their coach, Sarah Rogers, Molly and her teammates (along with several other young teams) were invited onto the Robertson Stadium field at the beginning of the game to make a "spirit tunnel" to welcome the visiting-team players to Houston — in this instance, last year's MLS champion, the Columbus Crew.
Molly and I could have a good time going just about anywhere, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the game. The amount of sheer athleticism — speed, body control, and ball-handling dexterity — was obvious even to as unsophisticated a fan as I am. Having the big-screen monitor in the south end-zone on which to watch replays of the most spectacular moments was also a big plus, since it's all too easy to be looking around elsewhere at the particular moment something spectacular happens.
The crowd was a much broader cross-section of Houston than you'd typically see at a Rockets or Texans game — and much more family-oriented. And with just over 16,000 in attendance, Robertson Stadium was full enough to feel like there was a "big crowd," and yet there was enough room for people (including their kids) to wiggle and spread out a bit.
And it was a happy, friendly crowd — with everyone enjoying a beautiful clear spring evening, and lots of very good-natured home-team spirit. All in all, in comparison to other professional sporting events I've been to, I think this was probably the most ... mellow.
Of course there were pretty young women — not limited to the Dynamo Girls who danced at halftime.
The game ended in a 1-1 tie, and it seemed to me that both teams were indeed pretty evenly matched. To invoke a Darrell Royalism, a tie may be like kissin' your sister, but losing is like having to kiss your grandmother, and this was better'n that.
Molly and I resolved to see more Dynamo games this year, and to drag some of her siblings along next time to get them exposed to the sport at this level too.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Takedown and pin
Regular readers, long-suffering souls that you be, may recall this same handsome young man's photo in a post from last February that also included a video clip. Through an act of great self-discipline, I'm going to limit myself to no more than two posts, and only a later one with video, in which I will permit myself to brag on that same young man's wrestling during this season, at least through the district competition next month. (But If he advances from that meet, all bets are off, and I may blog about his achievements with uncontrolled euphoria.)
My sixteen-year-old son, Adam Jackson Dyer, is in his second season as a wrestler on Bellaire High School's varsity team. November, December, and January have been busy months in the 2008-2009 wrestling season, and my personal goal as a fan and supportive parent this year has been to make it to all of their matches — which partly explains my infrequent blogging lately. All of the matches so far are really just preparation for the "official" competition through the Texas University Interscholastic League in February: Wins and losses now do affect one's seeding for the district UIL meets, but they're mostly just for practice and "mat time." The entire Bellaire team is much improved this year, in large part thanks to the efforts of its coaches, Dr. Marcellars Mason and Coach Greg Menephee, and team captains including the incomparable Jonathan Eagleson, who's such a long-time and close friend of the Dyer family that he, like his older brother Christopher, is almost like a surrogate son/brother. And with their help and the further experience he's gotten so far this year, Adam has advanced considerably in skill and confidence as a competitive wrestler.
Although I'm trying to catch up, I still don't know enough about the sport to provide much insightful commentary. Here, though, are a series of photos from a dramatic meet this past Wednesday, January 14th, at which teams from St. John's and Bellaire visited Kinkaid.
Kinkaid and St. John's are both exclusive private schools with superb facilities and long traditions of both athletic and scholastic excellence. I gather that they're arch rivals of one another, so it was gratifying, and somewhat amusing, to hear each of them root for Bellaire's wrestlers against the other's. Adam had a good night against both opponents' in his 152-pound weight class, winning both matches with pins even though both of his opponents were solid wrestlers who obviously were highly motivated and had been well coached. These images, screen-captures from an HD video, can only give you a hint of the speed, power, and controlled violence in these matches.
The first screencap is mid-way through the second two-minute period against Adam's counterpart from St. John's — the first period having expired with each wrestler tied in points and neither showing a particular advantage over the other. In this shot, however, at 7:40:17 PM, Adam (on the left, in the singlet whose red stripes extend down his leg on both sides and with the gray shoes and green ankle band) has just managed to get the grasp he'd been seeking on his opponent's neck. (Note: Wrestlers make incredible faces and noises, most of which are evidence of concentration and effort, but some of which indeed are evidence of pain and frustration. I have yet to see a parent of a wrestler dash onto the mat to "save" his or her child, but I am thoroughly convinced that every parent watches every match with, proverbially and metaphorically, his/her heart in his/her throat, praying that no one will be injured and that the pain will soon end.)
Below, at 7:40:18 PM (fractions of a second later), Adam (behind, facing camera) is beginning to twirl his opponent around to his right, still with that same headlock grip.
By 7:40:19 PM in the next screencap, below, Adam (right) is continuing the twirl, but beginning to exert twisting pressure too.
By 7:40:21 PM in the next screencap, below, Adam's opponent (right) has slowed the twirl with a strong plant of his left foot. Unfortunately for him, that becomes the pivot point for what's about to happen next.
Below, still at 7:40:21, Adam (in back, mostly hidden in shadow) has his opponent mid-flip onto his back. More than any other moment, this screencap tells the tale of this entire match. Note the full extension of Adam's left leg, from which he's launched this move.
And in the screencap below, at 7:40:22 PM, Adam's opponent has been taken down — cleanly, without injury, but in a hard twisting fall that could not help but knock a fair amount of wind from his lungs. Adam has already continued spinning around so that his body has ended up perpendicular to his opponent's as his opponent landed on his back:
Fractions of a second later — at 7:40:23 PM as measured by the camcorder from which these screencaps were taken — Adam (on top) is trying to turn this take-down into a pin. His opponent struggles valiantly, slamming his left foot to the mat, and next the right, wriggling like a fish, rolling hard from shoulder-blade to shoulder-blade to keep both from touching the mat and Adam from achieving even a moment of control. The opponent knows, surely, that he's in trouble, but he's not quite finished yet. If only Adam loses his grasp, or sneezes, or the second period expires something ....
But Adam permits no escape, no reversal at least not this time. The combination of physics, geometry, and through them, wrestling technique will have their inexorable way. By 7:40:25 PM — a mere eight seconds after this sequence of screencaps began — Adam (on top), as shown in the screencap below, is on the toes of both feet, with his knees off the mat, forming the widest possible triangle to concentrate all of his weight and force and will-power chest-to-chest on his opponent. His opponent is short of breath, without leverage, without ready means to escape the hold Adam still has on him, and unable to resist all that pressure. Adam has demonstrated unequivocal control. And moments later, the referee pounds his palm to the mat to signify the pin:
I'm not posting these screencaps under the illusion that this is a "perfect" or even "exemplary" set of moves. I pretend to no objectivity, I admit to overwhelming bias, and I and still have only the slightest knowledge of wrestling's basic vocabulary and concepts. Indeed, I'm probably going to embarrass my son, whose knowledge is still fledgling but vastly exceeds my own, by overt mistakes or less obvious omissions in my descriptions here. As does he, I have enormous regard for the opponents my son has faced, including this young man from St. John's; this match could easily have gone the other way in just as short a time, because they were well matched. Nor do I intend to disparage anyone who's a participant in or fan of more popular sports like football or baseball, for I knew nothing of serious wrestling as I was growing up, and like most Texans I thought there were really only four sports: football, basketball, baseball, and spring football.
But in addition to my natural fatherly pride that my son is applying himself earnestly and with good results to this endeavor, I can't help but marvel at the purity and elemental beauty of this old, maybe oldest, of sports. It seems so simple, with two evenly matched young men (and, indeed, sometimes young women) holding each other at arms' length as they do halting, asynchronous dance steps around one another — and then suddenly one of them who knows even a little bit about what he (or she) is doing suddenly does something which looks like magic, just a glimmer too fast to even catch on slo-mo instant replay sometimes — and WHOOPS!, the other guy (or gal) is on his back, pinned. Low-tech and old-school. But way cool.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
Of Sputnik babies, paratroopers, and senators: Why Caroline Kennedy's "qualifications" are a bad joke
The first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched on October 4, 1957, and burned up upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere on January 4, 1958. About mid-way through its effective life, on November 26, 1957, my mom launched me in Lamesa, Texas. And on the very next day, in New York City, Jackie Kennedy launched her daughter, Caroline Bouvier Kennedy. Caroline Kennedy and I are thus "of an age" — meaning we're both now 51, and that we're both "of" the "Space Age." We're both tail-end Baby Boomers, but more specifically, we're "Sputnik babies" whose very pregnant mothers perhaps looked for that same unblinking point of light crossing the same night skies, albeit half a continent apart from one another.
I remember watching Caroline Kennedy and her brother John-John on television at their father's funeral in November 1963. I remember being told that she and I were almost exactly the same age. I felt very sad for her, and I've been aware ever since that while her life has been filled with certain kinds of privileges, growing up with a daddy has not been one of them. I, by contrast, was able to celebrate my dad's 86th birthday with him this Christmas Eve just past — and I would not trade that, nor the years in between, for all of Caroline Kennedy's fortune and privilege. She seems like a nice person, and although my politics differ from hers as dramatically as the circumstances of our respective upbringings, on a personal level I wish her nothing but good things and happiness.
But I've been baffled and dismayed that she, or anyone else, has tried to make a serious argument that Caroline Kennedy is well qualified to become the next junior United States Senator from New York.
I will concede that she's minimally qualified — which is to say, per section 3 of Article I of the Constitution, she has indeed "attained ... the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States." I would also agree that the current junior U.S. Senator from New York was not much, if any, better qualified before she was elected to that office. And I will stipulate that from time to time throughout our history there have been many other U.S. Senators, from not just New York but every state at some time or another, whose qualifications were also objectively poor. Some of them nevertheless turned into adequate or even better legislators once in office. These things are not in dispute.
Yet as I've watched and listened to Ms. Kennedy discuss her purported qualifications to become Hillary Clinton's successor during press interviews, I've felt a mix of astonishment, amusement, and pity.
Ms. Kennedy says, for example, "I am a lawyer." That is true in exactly the same sense that I could say "I am a paratrooper."
I haven't actually ever been in the Army, you see. But I own a pair of camouflage pants, and I did take a weekend skydiving course and made — and survived! — one static-line jump from 2000 feet while I was in college! Ms. Kennedy is, likewise, a law school graduate and a member of the bar in both New York State and the District of Columbia (I suspect at least one of those via reciprocity, rather than her having taken and passed both bar exams, but that's just a guess). But she's no more actually practiced law than I've secured the Arnhem bridge as part of Operation Market Garden. If both of us are being really honest in describing ourselves, I'd say I'm a lawyer, and she'd say she's an unemployed heiress.
In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, however, Lisa Belkin — described by the NYT as a "a contributing writer and author of the [NYT-hosted] Motherlode blog" — makes yet another serious effort to refute those who've questioned Ms. Kennedy's objective and non-dynastic qualifications. The only possible way to do that, however, is to either (a) change the definition of what it means to be "qualified," (b) expand the list of experience types which can lead to becoming "qualified," or (c) do both. Ms. Belkin ambitiously tries for option (c).
Ms. Belkin tries to persuade us that we ought to change our ideas about what it means to be "qualified" by trying to ridicule other purportedly unqualified people who've nevertheless gone to Congress: "Those who aspire to serve in Congress sometimes 'pay their dues' by playing for the N.B.A. or the N.F.L. or starring on 'The Love Boat,' which are all less relevant qualifications for the job than financing city schools."
But playing sports does involve teamwork and discipline, and acting involves communication skills — all qualities that Ms. Kennedy has yet to demonstrate that she possesses. Whether it was on the set of "The Love Boat" or the floor of the U.S. House, Fred Grandy certainly managed to speak without embarrassing tangles of "ya knows" and "umms." And does anyone who's heard them both speak doubt that former Congressman and Sooner QB J.C. Watts could eat Caroline Kennedy's lunch (and then drink her milkshake) in any kind of political debate?
I will grant that Caroline Kennedy is probably gangbusters at twisting arms or guilting vast numbers of rich friends, classmates, and wanna-be Kennedy groupies into donating lots and lots of money that they can well afford. But that's hardly the same thing as actually running even a single school, or a single classroom. Hell, nobody has ever doubted Rod Blagojevich's prowess as a fund-raiser. I'd be far more impressed with Caroline Kennedy if instead of an unpaid no-need-to-show-up fund-raising "job" for the New York schools, she'd actually spent even a few weeks substitute-teaching a seventh grade civics class.
To persuade us to ignore such traditional qualifications as prior public service in a lesser elected office, or military service, or executive service running a business, Ms. Belkin points out that Ms. Kennedy "has served on boards — those of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation — where those who worked with her agree that she was hands-on and not just window decoration." But did she have any qualification for any of those positions other than being a Kennedy? And even as a "hand-on" board member, did she ever do anything but attend meetings with other wealthy, famous board members, at which they all listened to reports and then cast mostly unanimous votes? If you told me she actually ran the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or that she had executive or operational experience of any sort in any of these organizations, then that might suggest that she had acquired some wisdom or skills which she could potentially use as a U.S. Senator. But with due respect to Ms. Belkin and to Ms. Kennedy, there ought to be something more required by way of qualifications for the U.S. Senate than a demonstrated ability to show up and vote "yay" or "nay" on other people's ideas and hard work.
So then Ms. Belkin approaches and perhaps crosses into a sexist argument. It's one that may be patronizing and offensive to women who've actually had both successful families and successful careers outside the home — a category of women which (were they still alive) would include both my own mother and Caroline Kennedy's:
[W]omen changed the culture of the workplace, not least when highly visible women began to leave it. The rhythm of office work — its hours, its demands, its life cycle — is designed for a man, ideally a man with a wife back home with the kids. Ever since the industrial age, career tracks have been built on the assumption that you can work around the clock in your 20s, shoulder increasing responsibility in your 30s and 40s and begin to ratchet down and move over for the next generation in your 50s and 60s.
That doesn’t work for many women, who are apt to want to pause, physically and emotionally, for children, maybe slow down in their 30s, when men are charging ahead, and come back with a new energy in their 50s, when men are slowing down. Someday, perhaps, work will become more a lattice than a ladder — a path that allows for moving up, stepping down a notch or two, taking a few large sideways strides, making your way upward but not necessarily at a sprint....
But this vision works only if experience — we’re back to that word again — is redefined. If what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count — even if none of your activities take place in an office, where you enjoy a title and a salary....
I agree with part of this. I'm one of those people, for example, who thinks that Barack Obama's experience as a father is at least a small plus in his thin list of credentials. And I'm certainly one of those people who's impressed that Sarah Palin could address a governor's conference in Texas, fly back to Alaska to give birth to her fifth child, and then resume her work as a public servant after a break measured in hours instead of weeks or months.
I don't think you need to diminish those of either sex who have climbed ladders, however, by pretending that lattices are exactly the same. And I don't think we should pretend that presiding over a family dinner table is comparable to presiding over a presidential cabinet meeting either. But provided that we're still talking about identifying genuine excellence and extraordinary achievement of some sort, then I'm open to considering non-traditional categories in which that excellence and achievement can be manifested, and I'm also open to further consideration of why those categories ought be counted as senatorial qualifications. So let's take Ms. Belkin's prescription on its own terms:
Q: Whether in an office with a title and a salary or not, what precisely has Caroline Kennedy ever "done, thought, produced, or changed" that we should count as a sound qualification for her to become the next junior U.S. Senator from New York?
A: [For sound effects comprising answer, click here.]
I'm emphatically not insisting upon conventional achievements. If Caroline Kennedy's particular genius was that she figured out how to make one 20-count package of Pampers meet all of an infant's diapering needs for six full weeks, I'd be very impressed by that, even though she didn't have an office and wasn't a vice president of product research for Procter and Gamble. Or if she'd done some substitute teaching, for instance, and had gotten every single student in a seventh grade civics class to understand that Article I of the Constitution is about Congress — a datum which Joe Biden, the very Vice President-elect whom she helped Barack Obama select, hasn't quite managed to figure out despite his own law degree and years on the Senate Judiciary Committee — then point that out to me. Just show me something, anything, that she's done, thought, produced, or changed that is genuinely impressive. And then we can talk about whether it's the sort of "impressive" that ought to count as a legitimate senatorial qualification.
But after working up all that righteous indignation (and going out of her way to insult poor Fred Grandy), Ms. Belkin utterly fails to make any persuasive showing that Caroline Kennedy is qualified even under her (Ms. Belkin's) expanded and re-defined terms. Indeed, with this sentence at the beginning of her concluding paragraph, Ms. Belkin practically flees the debate hall: "None of this is to say that Caroline Kennedy deserves to be senator, or that she wouldn’t be better off being elected to the post rather than appointed to it." Well, duh. If that's not a grand-scale cop-out, I guess it's just a wild coincidence that the first eight paragraphs of the op-ed were about Caroline Kennedy at all then, huh?
Let's grant Ms. Belkin's point, gentle readers, that some types of "untraditional [experience should] count" at least some times and in some ways. But let's grant, too, what's obvious even so to anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty:
Whether appointed, elected, or otherwise anointed, and whether based on conventional or unconventional standards of achievement and experience, Caroline Kennedy does not deserve, and is not well qualified, to be a U.S. Senator — no more than either she or I deserve or are well qualified to be paratroopers. An accident of both our births made us Sputnik babies, and an accident of her birth, combined with her family's tragic fate, made her into a sadly beloved American princess. Grown-up princesses who actually govern, however, are only for fairy-tales, and the accident of Caroline Kennedy's birth ought not make her into a United States Senator.
Saturday, January 03, 2009
Review: Beldar & kids see Jim Carrey's "Yes Man"
My oldest daughter, Sarah, was working today, but I took my sons Kevin and Adam and my younger daughter Molly to a Saturday afternoon movie matinée. None of the choices were terribly appealing, but they opted to take a chance on Jim Carrey's latest comedy, "Yes Man." My kids liked it quite a bit better than I did — Molly and Kevin gave it four stars on a zero-to-five scale, and Adam gave it three, but I would only give it one.
I am certain that at some point during the earliest planning for this movie, someone made the inevitable observation that "Gee, this script reminds me a whole lot of Jim Carrey's hit from just over a decade ago, 'Liar Liar.'" And that observation ought to have triggered some serious second-thinking and re-writing. But it didn't. The result is a film that's completely predictable, from the first frames to the closing credits — a film that lacks even the dramatic arc of a sleazy lawyer's eventual redemption. Other one-word descriptions that I'd consider apt include stale, boring, tedious, and trite.
My kids and I did find leading lady Zoey Deschanel appealing and funny, and according to imdb.com, she and Carrey actually share the same birthday — January 17th. The problem is that hers was in 1980, making her a still very young-looking 28, whereas his was in 1962 (and he looks it). They are simply not a credible couple. Indeed, Carrey reminds me more and more of Jerry Lewis at the same stage of his career, struggling in an ever less successful, ever more painful effort to simulate youth through a goofy, zaney affect. (Maybe the reason my kids found this less sad than I did was that they haven't got a clue who Jerry Lewis is.)
Indeed, this movie even manages to make super-model Molly Sims, in a too-brief supporting role as Carrey's equally improbable ex-wife, look comparatively unglamorous. Her presence in the movie, however, gives me more than enough of a fair-use excuse to republish this fabulous photo of Ms. Sims, not from "Yes Man" but from the 2004 Sports Illustrated swimsuit model collection, just to illuminate — as a matter of public interest and, umm, intellectual artistic commentary — the potential squandered by Warner Bros.
And on that note, and with that visual, I'll wish you all a Happy New Year!
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Conversations with Molly
My Monday afternoon guest-post at HughHewitt.com is about a conversation I had with my youngest daughter this afternoon regarding spreading the wealth.
[Copied here for archival purposes on November 5, 2008, from the post linked above at HughHewitt.com.]
(Guest Post by Bill Dyer a/k/a Beldar)
"Grades come out tomorrow," said my daughter Molly, an eighth grader, when I picked her up at school this afternoon.
"Great," I answered, "How d'ya think you're gonna do?"
"Pretty well," Molly said confidently.
"What will probably be your best grade?" I asked.
"Guitar," she said, "That will probably be a 97 or a 98."
"Cool," I said. "You really have been successful. But I think you should tell your Guitar teacher that you want to give six or seven of those points to some of your classmates who haven't practiced so hard or don't have the talent you have."
She looked up at me, startled. "What?"
"That class is easy for you, and you have lots more points than you need for an A. They need those points more than you do," I explained.
"Then they should have worked harder!" she protested. "Yeah, I'm sort of talented, but I worked hard to get those grades! I earned them!"
"So you're telling me that you think it's fair for you to get to keep all of those good grades, both the part that comes from your having worked harder than your classmates, and the part that comes from the musical talent you inherited from me and your mom. Is that what you're saying?"
"Show me your lunchbox," I said. She looked at me strangely again, but found it on the floorboard and held it up.
I pointed at the "Barack Obama" sticker on its side, which she got from my ex. "That guy," I said, "wants to use the tax laws to take away more of the money that wealthy people have, whether they got it by working harder or because their parents worked harder to be able to give it to them. He says other people need that money more. He thinks we need to spread the wealth around.
"What I was saying when you first got in the car," I continued, "is just that we should spread your grade wealth around. You disagreed. Good for you. I don't really think your Guitar teacher should do that anyway. But let me ask you another question."
"Okay," she said, listening thoughtfully.
"Let's say even though you object, your Guitar teacher decides to spread your grades around to the other students in your class. Do you think you'll work as hard to get top grades during the next nine weeks?"
"No way!" she said.
I just pointed at the sticker on her lunchbox again. We spent the rest of the short drive to her mom's house in contemplative silence.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Bill Ayers, Eagle Scout from Hell
My family history in Scouting may have caused me to over-react in my late-night guest-post about an op-ed about Bill Ayers at HughHewitt.com. But I can't think of any rank or position that's more inappropriate to use as a comparison for that twisted dollop of evil scum than "Eagle Scout."
[Copied here for archival purposes on November 5, 2008, from the post linked above at HughHewitt.com.]
(Guest Post by Bill Dyer a/k/a Beldar)
Thomas Frank's op-ed in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, entitled My Friend Bill Ayers, is the latest effort to "mainstream" Ayers by minimizing his past, misleading as to his purported (and actually non-existent) contrition, and ignoring the radical nature of his current professional efforts.
Mr. Frank's byline reveals that he has a PhD in history, and that he writes about American culture (most recently in a vile book called "What's the Matter With Kansas," in which he savages the "red state mentality" of the same American heartland state whose values Barack Obama's grandparents supposedly imparted unto The One as a child). But Mr. Frank's essay quickly casts doubts about the depth and accuracy of his knowledge of either American history or American culture: Mr. Frank claims that Ayers "may once have been wanted by the FBI, but in the intervening years the man has become such a good citizen he ought to be an honorary Eagle Scout."
My family's roots in scouting date back to the early 1920s, when my grandfather founded "Troop 1," the first troop in west Texas. My father and older brother were both Eagle Scouts, and all three of us were proud members of the Order of the Arrow. When I first read his op-ed, I wondered if Mr. Frank had confused the Boy Scouts with the Young Pioneers of Soviet Russia. But I think even they gave demerits for chanting slogans like the one Ayers made famous: "Kill your parents!"
I hate to break it to Mr. Frank, but I'm very, very sure that in American scouting, there is no merit badge for bomb-building. There is no merit badge for revolutionary indoctrination of teachers and students. There is no merit badge for snagging millions of dollars of grant money to pay salaries for leftist radicals and their pet educational projects, nor a scouts summer camp called "Camp Graft." Neither Che Guevara nor Hugo Chavez is considered a Boy Scout hero. Scouts learn to survive in the wild, but not in order to escape FBI dragnets. Scouts learn to tie knots for many purposes, but never for tying up hostages. The Scout Motto, "Be Prepared," does not refer to having a revolver close at hand in case you're stopped by the police while driving the get-away car after a bank robbery.
The Scout's Oath begins with the phrase "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country ...." But Bill Ayers forfeited his honor long ago, and cannot possibly reclaim it until he genuinely and unreservedly repents. The Scout's Oath ends with a commitment that the Scout will keep himself "morally straight," but Bill Ayers was, and still is, a twisted dollop of evil scum.
Boy Scouts salute the American flag, and learn how to raise and lower and fold it with proper reverence. I was my scout troop's bugler. As a junior high and high school student, I played "Taps" at many military funerals during the Vietnam War. I watched many an American flag — indistinguishable from the one Bill Ayers proudly trampled in 2001 while posing for magazine cameras — carefully folded and handed to grieving family members. During those years when I was a Boy Scout bugler in the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, Bill Ayers was trying his best to create more military funerals.
photo reprinted with his permission from eaglescoutbugler.com)
To show you just how well thought out Mr. Frank's piece is, consider the following paragraph:
I do not defend the things Mr. Ayers did in his Weatherman days. Nor will I quibble with those who find Mr. Ayers wanting in contrition. His 2001 memoir is shot through with regret, but it lacks the abject style our culture prefers.
"Shot through"? Is that just monumental insensitivity, or a deliberate, tasteless joke intended to mock the actual and intended victims of the Weathermen's violence? I honestly can't tell, and frankly I don't care. It's shameful either way.
And it's a flat-out lie to suggest that Ayers is contrite. To the contrary, in an attempt to explain his "we didn't do enough" remark from 2001, he posted a comic strip on his blog in September of this very year which ended with the following present-tense sentence: "I don't think violent resistance is necessarily the answer, but I do think opposition and refusal is imperative." (Boldface mine.) I suppose that means that only the enlightened souls, the real "Eagle Scouts" like him, get to decide which policemen to kill, which soldiers and their dates to blow apart with nail bombs, and which judges and their children to assassinate.
Ultimately Mr. Frank only demonstrates that he's as poor a judge of friends and colleagues as Barack Obama himself. Mr. Frank argues that Ayers is "a man who poses no conceivable threat to the country, who has nothing to do with this year's issues." That pronouncement could only be made by someone who has deliberately blinded himself to Ayers' radical agenda as an educator, or someone who wants your children and mine to learn to be agents of revolutionary action rather than to learn reading, math, or science.
I do wish Sen. Obama would wrap his arms around Bill Ayers just as tightly and publicly as their common friends like Mr. Frank are doing. But Sen. Obama at least has the decency or the political sensitivity to recognize that anyone close to and supportive of Bill Ayers ought to be ashamed — which, of course, is why Sen. Obama has consistently prevaricated about the length, depth, and quality of his own relationship with Ayers.
Maybe, if Ayers comes up in tomorrow night's debate, Sen. Obama will come up with yet another story: "Why, I read just today in the Wall Street Journal that Bill Ayers was an Eagle Scout!"
Friday, August 29, 2008
Why Biden won't be able to do to Palin what Bentsen did to Quayle
Some conservatives are worried that Sarah Palin will become another "Dan Quayle at the Veep debate, being skewered by Lloyd Bentsen."
I've been thinking about that possibility since the Biden nomination. My first reaction was that as a life-long Texan, I knew Lloyd Bentsen (well, actually, my father did); Lloyd Bentsen was my friend. And Joe Biden is no Lloyd Bentsen. Biden is, literally, long of tooth, but on his very best day he doesn't have the gravitas in his whole body that Lloyd Bentsen had in his pinkie even while under general anesthesia.
Nevertheless, as I was driving this afternoon to pick up my youngest daughter — away from the computer keyboard for a while, trying to collect my thoughts — my general giddiness over the Palin pick transmuted itself, and I suddenly started weeping tears of joy. Typically, my thoughts of and about my children are the quickest path to my emotions, and they certainly were in this instance, too. Here's what struck me:
The late Ann Richards, a pioneering woman in Texas politics and a hell of a character, even if you disagreed with her, wasn't the first female governor of Texas. Rather, that honor went to Miriam A. "Ma" Ferguson — and yes, the only reason she was elected (twice, in 1924 and 1932) was because she was the wife of James E. "Pa" Ferguson. She didn't really count; the asterisk is almost bigger than her name, and the "power behind the throne" had all the power, and everyone knew it.
Hillary Clinton came within a whisker of winning the Democratic Nomination, and just like the victory of the black who vanquished her, that was historic. It was symbolic. It trumpets the falling of barriers that I am glad to see fall. Although I was not one of them, I believe I understand the feelings of the many people — and it was not just women — who wept, either with joy at Hillary's accomplishments, or frustration that she fell short, or both.
But Hillary Clinton — however formidable she has become in her own right, and I will be the first to admit that she grew to be far more formidable during this race than I would have ever guessed even a year ago — would not possibly have become the junior senator from New York, nor a presidential candidate of any sort (much less the near-winner in a photo-finish), if she had not first been former President Bill Clinton's wife.
Sarah Palin, by contrast, is the daughter of two school-teachers. Her husband was never the president, and he's far more at home either on the floor of an oil rig or the floor of their kitchen fixing supper for five kids than he is on the floor of a Washington, D.C. banquet hall. Until she was elected governor of Alaska, neither she nor her husband nor her father nor anyone in either of their families was rich, or famous, or powerful.
Yes, being a woman helped get her selected to McCain's ticket sooner than otherwise; but she wasn't picked just because she was a woman, no more than Barack Obama has become the Democratic presidential nominee just because he was black. (Compare Geraldine Ferarro and Jesse Jackson.) Obama and Palin both have real, non-trivial, but subjective qualities that have now brought them out in front of other young female or black politicians into national attention despite their relative inexperience.
Sarah Palin won't have an asterisk, no more than would my own daughters. Or yours. Yes, she'd be the first woman VPOTUS, but not as a stand-in for anyone else. That was the realization which, combined with thoughts of my own two teen angels, uncorked my tear ducts.
And that led me, in turn, to the realization as to why I'm really not worried about Joe Biden trying to repeat the Bentsen-Quayle dynamic. The only reason that line worked so well is because Dan Quayle was indeed trying to be Jack Kennedy, and he so very clearly wasn't.
But Sarah Palin won't be trying to be Jack Kennedy. She doesn't need to.
Being Sarah Palin is plenty cool enough.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Beldar at the beginning
When I started this blog in 2003, near the bottom of the personal information that's always been linked from my sidebar, I included an explanation for the origin of my nickname, "Beldar," during my days as a member of the Finquo Pledge Class of the Longhorn Band's Kappa Kappa Psi service fraternity 30 years ago.
Last night, I received an email from my fellow Fingquo Don Winstel with an attached scan of a faded Polaroid from those days:
Taken in the stairwell of the Music Building East at UT-Austin, this shows four of the Fingquos — left to right, me, Dan Gremminger, David Schkade, and Richard Taylor — snarling as we prepared to present our Saturday Night Live/Coneheads skit at the weekly KKY meeting after band practice on a Tuesday evening in the fall of 1978. The nickname came as a result of Richard's beer-impaired processing of my name a night or two before, as we were planning the skit — "Bill Dyer, Bihl Dahr, Behl-Dahr, Bel-Dar, hey, BELDAR!"
Damn, we were young and good-looking. Mips!
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
In memoriam: Bary Edward Eagleson (11/20/56 to 7/15/08)
Two weeks ago, my family lost a very good friend. I've been searching sadly for words since then to write about him, and I'm not satisfied with these, but I don't want to delay making this post any longer, and they'll have to do.
Odds are, you didn't know him. If you and your family are lucky, though, you've known someone like him.
I'll start with these dry words from the Houston Chronicle, which I'll reprint here in full:
BARY EDWARD EAGLESON, age 51, passed away suddenly on July 15, 2008. He was a beloved husband, father, brother, son, and friend, and he will be sorely missed. He is survived by his wife, Guinn Blackwell-Eagleson; his sons, Jonathan and Christopher Eagleson; his siblings, Angela Nash, Amy Adkins, Gary, Hodge, and Alexander Eagleson and William Moult; his nieces and nephews, Nicole Adkins, Kyle, Erica, and Erin Eagleson, Benjamin and Daniel Nelson; and his mother, Lilly Eagleson. Bary was an active member of St. Philip Presbyterian Church, 4807 San Felipe, where a memorial service will be held at 10:00 AM on Saturday, July 19. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to United Campus Ministry of Greater Houston, 208 A.D. Bruce Religion Center, The University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204, or to your preferred charity.
Published in the Houston Chronicle from 7/18/2008 - 7/19/2008
It's not that there's anything wrong with what's said here. It's just that there was so much more to the man and his life than a standard obituary can reveal.
My family has known the Eaglesons since their oldest son, Christopher (who'll be a junior at Rice University this fall), and my oldest son, Kevin (who'll be a junior at the University of Houston this fall), were kindergarten classmates. Chris and Kevin were debate partners at Bellaire High School, and they've stayed close even though they're now attending cross-town rival universities. I know Bary was proud to see Chris at Rice, whence Bary obtained his civil engineering degree in 1978. Like his dad was, Chris is a member of Lovett College there.
In February of this year, I posted about my younger son Adam's accomplishment at a high school wrestling competition, and my post included photos of the Eaglesons' younger son, Jonathan. He and his parents joined my family that night for a celebratory dinner. Jonathan's teammates and their parents recognize Jonathan as a true star on the wrestling team, an inspiration for the rest of them — certainly including both Adam and my older daughter, Sarah (who are, respectively, a class behind and ahead of Jonathan). Watching Jonathan wrestle, it came as no surprise to learn that Bary and his brothers had wrestled back in their high school days too, and Bary obviously retained his enthusiasm for the sport. Indeed, Bary was not only the Bellaire wrestling team's No. 1 Fan and videographer, but essentially an uncredited and unpaid extra coach. I was looking forward to sharing some of the driving and cheering duties with him in the coming school year, during which I had hoped some of his knowledge of the sport might rub off on me.
Even my youngest daughter, Molly, has hung around with one or both of the Eagleson boys at my ex's house so often that Molly looks up to them as de facto big brothers. And I know my ex and I both embrace them as if they were our sons, just as our four kids have always been embraced by Bary and Guinn. They are all such fine kids, such good friends to one another.
Sarah said to me last week, after the funeral, that if she'd ever been in any sort of crisis or emergency in which for some reason, she couldn't reach me or her mom, she'd have called Bary. I'm pretty sure there are several other kids whose last names aren't Eagleson or Dyer, but who also had him at the top of the "parental backup" column in their mental lists of emergency contacts. Bary was a positive, vital role-model for them all. In short, his very untimely passing will affect many more families than just his own.
I was entirely unsurprised to see that St. Philip Presbyterian Church — where the Eaglesons worship, Bary was an Elder, and Jonathan is a Youth Elder — was filled to capacity for Bary's funeral service. It was standing-room only, even after additional folding chairs had been brought in alongside every row of pews.
Just before the funeral service got under way, I watched Bary's brother Hodge set up a video camera and tripod. My first reaction was, "Oh, drat, he ought not have to be doing that, someone else should take care of that." But then it occurred to me that Hodge is probably a lot like Bary, and if Bary had been there alive and in person, nobody could possibly have talked him out of shooting the video; he'd rather have been doing that than sitting on his hands, watching someone else do it. And if someone else had to do it, I'm sure Bary would have wanted it to be one of his brothers.
Pastor Bill Poe spoke warmly and familiarly of Bary, his family, and their faith and role in the church. One anecdote he told involved Bary's entirely tranquil reaction when someone who knew Guinn — or, more precisely, who knew her as the Rev. Dr. Guinn Blackwell-Eagleson, the Executive Director of the United Campus Ministry of Greater Houston, who has served as a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Houston area for more than 20 years — managed to refer to Bary as "the Pastor's wife."
Bary's twin brother Gary then told — with humor and joy that I know to be characteristic of the Eaglesons — tales of Bary's youth, and of his relationship to his family both as a boy and a man. Bary was not only a beloved brother and son, but a favorite uncle to his nieces and nephews. And Gary proved not only that there is a segment of the human genome which transmits an affinity for painfully bad (which is to say, deliciously bad) puns, but also that it is a dominant gene, one that afflicted not only Bary but most likely his entire family.
Then Bill Canney, a co-worker from Aspen Technology, used words like "patient," "exuberant," and "upbeat" while describing Bary's professional life and his close relationships with both colleagues and clients. On at least one occasion when Bary had made a house-call to help a client revamp some software, the client's personnel later confessed to having secretly switched Bary's coffee to decaf, just so the rest of them could keep up with his energy level.
So far there are over three dozen tributes to Bary posted on AspenTech's Advanced Control & Optimization User Group Forum: "A geek's geek and a fine friend," reads one, and I know he'd have laughed and embraced that description. "The ultimate 'Can Do' guy," says another post. A client's post is titled "A Brilliant Engineer, Loyal Colleague & Dear Friend." Yet another: "Rare combination of Brilliant Worker & Great Teacher." It seems, in short, that I'm far from the only person who has felt compelled, despite the shock, to try to write something to mark Bary's passing in some personal way. That we may feel ourselves inadequate scribes does not detract from how remarkable his inspiration was, such that it's provoked us all to try.
This portrait drawn by others fits together neatly with what we knew, but my family and I didn't know Bary Eagleson through exactly their same contexts. Instead, we knew him, through our kids, as the beloved and ever-involved father to his own kids. So, just as those who spoke at his funeral testified how Bary was a worthy and invaluable brother and son and colleague and friend, I add my own testimony. It comes both from first-hand observation over a very long time, and from the compelling inferential proof provided by his two fine sons, whom I have been privileged to observe grow into spectacular young men. And it is simply this:
Bary Eagleson was one heck of a dad. Ultimately, that is about as high praise as any man can hope for.
I very much wish now that I had known Bary even better — that I had made more effort to do that. It always seemed like there would surely be more time for that.
But there aren't any such guarantees, at least not in this world. My assumption was wrong, and that opportunity is gone.
I know the Eagleson family is much comforted by their faith. That is altogether fitting and proper. Their knowledge that they will be reunited with him in the next world certainly must be a greater and more lasting balm than any words that I or anyone else could write or say. Yet they surely cannot help but feel, as a gaping and unexpected hole in the fabric of their lives as lived in this world, the sudden absence of a husband and father whose youthful, dynamic presence we all took for granted.
Bary's sudden death was just a gob-smacker, the kind of stunning blow that you can't ever be prepared for. His life, lived very well but not long enough, is an inspiration, but his sudden death has knocked a whole bunch of people for a loop.
Two weeks later, I'm gradually concluding that yet another way in which Bary's life was valuable was displayed, paradoxically, by his sudden death: We're each one of us, and each one of our cherished friends and loved ones, never more than an unexpectedly burst blood vessel away from death. That's part of the package deal we know and experience as "life." And if we let that important fact slip our minds, we'll likely fail to make the most of what we have of it.
Thank you, Bary, for your sacrifice to help remind me, and so many others who your life touched, of that rough, unpleasant, and invaluable lesson.
We miss him. We mourn him. Guinn, Christopher, and Jonathan — when you read this, use it as a reminder that Jeanne, Kevin, Sarah, Adam, Molly, and I all love you, and we cherish your presence in our lives. May God bless you and keep you. You'll always be in my prayers.
Monday, July 21, 2008
And the band marched on
On Outside the Beltway, Dr. James Joyner posted today a story (with an embedded video clip that, alas, appears to have already been zapped from YouTube) entitled Army Band Hit By Skydiver, Marches On. It reminded me of an incident that I witnessed in Austin at the Texas/Texas A&M football game during Thanksgiving Weekend in 1974.
I was a high-school senior visiting the UT-Austin campus where I planned to enroll the next year. And I already had my application on file to join the Longhorn Band's trumpet section (following in the footsteps of my older brother), so I was certainly looking forward to the halftime performance of the Showband of the Southwest (not pictured below!).
It was a cold, blustery day, and the portents were grim. A&M entered the game as heavy favorites with only one prior Southwest Conference loss (to SMU) and a high national poll ranking. The Longhorns' season, by contrast, was already a comparative disappointment that included a remarkable loss to Baylor in Waco. Eaking out a tie for second place and spoiling the Aggies' post-season bowl plans was the best we UT fans could hope for. But the Texas/Texas A&M game was, after all, a yearly rivalry that dates back to 1894, the third-longest among NCAA Division 1-A teams. Whatever's happened earlier in the year, neither school ever has any difficulty in gathering up enthusiasm to play the other.
If I recall correctly, the Ags fumbled the opening kickoff and it was returned by UT for a touchdown. The Horns kicked off again, and on the Ags' first or second play from scrimmage, Texas intercepted and ran it back for a TD. Again Texas kicked off, but after another Aggie fumble, their stunned defense managed to hold the Horns to a field goal. Thus was the highly-favored A&M team down by 17-0 less than two minutes into the game. The game went on to be a UT rout, 32 to 3. With the loss, the Aggies' Cotton Bowl plans evaporated, and in fact they went to no bowl game at all that year. (The Horns went on to the Gator Bowl, which but for the lesser bowl prestige, the LHB vastly preferred to yet another trip to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl anyway).
The Aggie Band, however, insists that they have never lost a half-time, no matter what the scoreboard reads. And by some very specific and narrow standards, that's probably true. Although we in the Longhorn Band often kidded and teased the Fightin' Aggie Band, beneath that we held a genuine respect for their great tradition and their marching precision. As to their creativity and their overall musicianship, eh, not so much. But they did the particular things which they prided themselves on doing very well indeed.
In particular, the Aggie Band drills and drills on marching in big, traditional block-band formations — none of this modern stuff with curved lines! Precise six-to-five strides, straight lines, and sharp corners are their stock-in-trade every year. Per a Wikipedia entry:
The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band (also known as The Noble Men of Kyle or the Aggie Band) is the official marching band of Texas A&M University. Composed of over 400 men and women from the school's Corps of Cadets, it is the largest military marching band in the world. The complex straight-line maneuvers, performed exclusively to traditional marches, are so complicated and precise that computer marching simulations say they cannot be performed.
Almost always, the final rank of the Aggie Band is filled with spectacularly polished sterling silver-finished sousaphones (which are basically tubas reshaped by John Phillip Sousa for marching) that gleam in the sunlight. All the members of the Aggie Band make crisp military turns, but the sousaphone players execute two exaggeratedly sharp 90-degree turns during every counter-march: Stomp-WHIRL!-stomp-WHIRL!
The photo above is from the 2007 Texas/Texas A&M game, and I think their uniforms as shown there may have changed substantially since 1974. But this photo gives you some idea of how impressive their merging rows of marching brass can be — especially those sousaphones, which are generally carried by especially beefy young men.
On this ill-fated day for the Aggies in 1974, however, one of their bandsmen — a senior, so identifiable by his beautiful and highly polished riding boots, and by his position on the far west of his rank, closest to the home-field press box — had apparently failed to tighten carefully the set-screws that attached his sousaphone's bell to the rest of the instrument. Or perhaps he had assembled it perfectly, but there was a materials failure in the screws or the flange. In any event, as his rank finished one of the Aggie Band's signature counter-march maneuvers, he snapped off one crisp 90-degree stomp-and-pivot, performed the second stomp, and immediately executed the second whirl — at which moment his instrument's entire bell detached itself from the rest of the tubing that wrapped around his body and was flung violently into the air.
The bell sailed a good ten yards in the air, vivid silver flashing against the green astroturf. It landed on an edge, twirled in a circle, and finally rolled to a rest. The entire Aggie Band continued marching down-field without it. The poor senior remained on that same exposed, trailing corner of the block formation, looking oddly decapitated. The 60,000+ Texas fans rose as one, howling with laughter and pointing. But to the Aggie senior's credit, he kept his composure, pretended nothing had happened, and finished the rest of the performance without a missed turn or any other screw-up.
After the Aggie Band finished in its traditional manner — a mass, screaming charge to the sidelines upon an abrupt cut-off in the "Aggie War Hymn" — that silver sousaphone bell still remained on the field, just outside the near hashmark at about the 20 yard-line. The crowd waited. And waited. Wally Pryor, the Memorial Stadium announcer and the Voice of the Longhorn Band, waited too. The Longhorn Band, as representatives of the home team, was to perform next, but the LHB drum major was not about to lead it onto the field while that silver bell remained. The Aggie Band had put it there; the Aggie Band was going to have to see to its removal, and there weren't going to be any distractions permitted.
Finally, some poor Aggie Band underclassman was dispatched to run out onto the field and retrieve the bell — again to laughs, jeers, and cheers from the hugely amused and highly partisan fans. The competition with the Aggie Band always sharpens up the LHB's own marching, and on this day, they both entered and left the field triumphant.
"Pooo-oooor Ag-gies," the Longhorn crowd sang near the end of the game. I sang along and laughed too, but I certainly empathized more with the poor Aggie sousaphone-playing senior than with the Aggie football players. I hope that guy, whoever he was, went on to a great career and a great life, and that he has a great sense of humor. If, as is likely, he served as an active-duty military officer, I would bet that everyone and everything under his command remained button down and screwed on tightly.
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
A soccer game on a steamy spring afternoon in Houston
The drizzle earlier in the afternoon hadn't been enough to wash the high-count grass and tree pollen out of the air. With brilliant shafts of late afternoon spring sunshine now wandering across the soccer field, this was definitely a "two coats of sunscreen" day, and you you could almost, but not quite, see the clouds of humidity just above the grass. Of course, no one who really knows Houston would have mistaken today for August, but the conditions were still far from ideal. And when the other team's bus driver took them to the wrong middle school, the prospect of a win by forfeit for the home-team Johnston Greyhounds grew more attractive, at least to the adult fans present.
Still, the other team wanted to play, and this was already a make-up game for one rained out earlier in the season. Anyway, the seventh and eighth grade girls on the Greyhounds hadn't signed up for varsity soccer just to compile a record. They wanted to play too. And so they cheered when the other team's bus finally hove into view.
The littlest Greyhound had already renewed her generous coat of sunscreen. She demonstrated once again for her dad how well she'd learned (from him, or at least with his encouragement) to rinse her mouth with a huge gulp of tepid water. She gargled, and then spat it onto the ground with such forceful defiance as to mock the very idea that boys, or men, might also try to play this game from time to time.
During the first minute, the Greyhounds squelched an offensive threat from their opponents just in front of the home goal, and the visitors had all turned tail to trot back onto defense. Except somehow, the ball was still on the ground, rolling uncontrolled and fairly slowly. Rolling right into the Greyhounds' goal. Visitors 1, Home 0.
The next five minutes of the first half featured several sharp battles for control at midfield, during three or maybe four of which the littlest Greyhound, a defensive mid-fielder, charged into a clump of taller, heavier girls sprinting with the ball toward the Greyhounds' end of the field. Each such encounter ended with the littlest Greyhound sprawled or sitting on the ground, sometimes with and sometimes without an opponent there too, but always with the ball safely diverted way upfield. The visitors began to look at her like she might be slightly crazy, maybe dangerous, certainly fierce and fearless — even though one good, strong breeze would have seemed likely to blow this seventh-grader (who could easily pass for a fourth-grader) off-field like a dandelion puff.
It was still 1/0 at the half, despite most of the first half having been played near the Visitors' goal and in their end of the field. After that flukey first score, the Greyhound's goalie had only touched the ball about three times total. But in the second half, I don't think she touched it at all; the Visitors never had a serious shot on goal.
Roughly four minutes into the second half, the Greyhounds had a corner kick-in. The Greyhounds' strongest kicker boomed a line drive just about six feet above the ground, but with a wicked spin that brought the ball arcing back slightly toward the far corner of the goal. In a split-second, instinctive reaction, one of the Greyhounds' eighth grade captains leaped into the air and executed a perfect header, sending the ball slightly up but at a sharper angle — directly into the top back corner of the Visitors' goal. The whole play took less than a second, and if we'd caught it on video, it would be climbing up the YouTube popularity ratings tonight.
That electrified the Greyhounds — and indeed, it was their most exciting goal so far this entire season — and also unnerved the Visitors. The Greyhounds' next two (and final) goals followed within the next three minutes; each was on a perfectly executed set play, culminating in a deft pass from the center forward to a trailing wing with an unimpeded shot at the goal.
The Visitors had more raw athletic ability, and they were bigger and about as fast. But they lacked both finesse and fundamentals, and more importantly, they lacked teamwork. After the Greyhounds' all-stars highlight-film (if only we'd had video!) first goal, though, you could see the Greyhounds' confidence grow with every successive minute. Their faces reflected new confidence that yes, these techniques can work! and yes, we're a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts!
The final score was Visitors 1, Greyhounds 3. And overall, it was an entirely typical girls' soccer game, pretty much like hundreds of others played around the country and the world today.
My own voice is gone tonight and will be hoarse tomorrow, though, and I wish I had even a photo or two of the Greyhounds in their new, deep-purple jerseys, black shorts, and purple socks. If you haven't guessed, the littlest Greyhound — the one whose size-smallest jersey reaches almost to her knees and whose butt was covered in mud and dust by halftime — is my youngest, Molly (age 13).
Molly's other news of the day was that she had received the results of her class' most recent Stanford Achievement Tests. She'd been frustrated by this test for the last couple of years, because in each of those years she'd had one subject or another (a different one each year) in which her scores didn't quite reach the PHS ("post-high school") level. This year, though, Molly had all PHS scores. (Q: "So, kid, are you ready to just skip high school?" A: "Naw, high school will be too much fun to miss it, Dad.") That, plus some good defensive play and a team win, made today a good day for her, which in turn helped make it a good day for me, too.
Saturday, February 02, 2008
Why is this young man's hair mussed?
This is my younger son, Adam, age 15, in a photo snapped earlier today. Adam's a freshman at Bellaire High School here in Houston. On Saturdays, it's not uncommon for his hair to be mussed. But the reason his hair is mussed in this particular way on this particular day is pretty cool, in my admittedly biased opinion.
The first picture in this series showed a particular species of "hat-hair" that may be called "wrestler's headgear hair." But below is a full-length photo of Adam taken in his headgear and his Cardinals-red and black singlet, just before his last bout today at the Butler Fieldhouse, site of the 2008 wrestling competition for District 23, which includes Bellaire High School.
My older daughter Sarah, a Bellaire High School junior, also lettered on the wrestling team last year, and although this year she's been concentrating on French and drama, Sarah (shown below) is still among the team's most devoted and enthusiastic fans:
Also present for the day to root for Adam and his teammates, pictured below during one of the many moments of downtime inherent in such competitions, were my older son, Kevin (now a sophomore at the University of Houston), and my younger daughter, Molly (someday to be part of the BHS Class of 2013, but for now a 7th grader at Johnston Middle School, where she plays soccer). My ex (not pictured) finished with her Saturday patients in time to join us in watching Adam's final match, so Adam's entire family was there for him today.
In the earlier photo of Sarah, the broad-shouldered young man shown from behind is Jonathan Eagleson, a sophomore who lettered as a freshman last year, and who is definitely one of the Bellaire team's most talented wrestlers this year.
Tragically, near the end of a very successful day at a preparatory meet a week ago, Jonathan injured his collarbone, and while we're hoping for a full recovery in time for next season, he couldn't compete for the Cardinals today. But Jonathan (who's also pictured below with Sarah and Adam today) is a natural leader among his teammates; so of course he and his dad Bary were there with the rest of the team at 6:45 a.m. for the weigh-ins, and the two of them, along with Jonathan's mom Guinn, were among the last folks out of the building at day's end. (Bary and his brothers were all wrestlers in their day, too, so he knows lots more about the sport than I or most parents do.) The Eaglesons have been treasured family friends for many years — Jonathan's older brother Christopher, now a sophomore at Rice University, graduated with Kevin from Bellaire in 2006, but they'd been classmates and close friends quite literally since their kindergarten days. Jonathan and Sarah are also great buddies. He's been a terrific role model and mentor for Adam in wrestling this year, and we're enormously proud of him, too!
The Eagleson family joined ours in a happy dinner tonight to celebrate Adam's best day so far as a wrestler, one that will win him a varsity letter jacket: Although several other competitors on Bellaire's very young and hungry team placed as high as fourth today at district, Adam was the only member of the team who'll be going on to the Region III competition.
The photo below shows the three top finishers in the men's 140-pound category: District Champion Joey Ducker of wrestling powerhouse and overall meet winner Westside High School (center); second-place finisher Luis Guzman of Sam Houston High School (right), who'd defeated Adam in an earlier match but injured his collarbone in the finals against Ducker; and third-place finisher Adam Dyer of Bellaire High School (left), who'll go to next weekend's regional contest as District 23's first alternate in the 140-pound category. We certainly wish young Mr. Guzman (who is a classy and talented athlete) a quick and full recovery, but if he's not able to compete, Adam will do his best in trying to represent our district along with young Mr. Ducker.
By then, with luck, I may be able to update this post with a video of Adam's thrilling final match, including his winning pin of a talented opponent. And if Adam does wrestle again next week, maybe I'll manage to get a decent action photo or two. (Which will definitely require a tripod: I was shaking too hard and yelling too loudly today to get anything remotely close to a publishable photo during any of the matches themselves!)
UPDATE (Mon Feb 4 @ 7:00pm): Here's a .pdf scan of the Houston Chronicle's report of the results (which also shows how thoroughly Westside High School dominated this meet; Westside's coaches have been good friends to the young Bellaire program). Here's a .wmv video clip (3:24 min.) of the match in which Adam pinned the wrestler from Davis High School, Alex Argulles, who ended up in fourth place. At the start of the clip, you see Adam getting some final words of encouragement from Bellaire assistant principal Marcellars Mason, who's been coaching this year's team along with Trey Herrmann. And here's another .wmv video clip (0:55 min.) of the awards ceremony. The videos were done by Adam's older brother, Kevin, and it's his voice you'll hear narrating. (The whoops at the end of the match were his mom, though, and the loud whistles were me.)
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Review: "Dan in Real Life"
Last night my four kids and I, joined by Kevin's two college roommates (Steve and Calvin), had a fine Mexican dinner, and then we all went to a late-night showing of Steve Carrell's latest romantic comedy, Dan in Real Life.
As compared to The 40 Year Old Virgin, Carrell dials his performance down a couple of notches on the pathetically dorky-intensity dial — to good effect in my opinion (as another dorky 40-something guy trying to identify with him). In this one, Carrell plays Dan Burns, the single father of three (predictably precocious and adorable) teen girls, so presumably he's already had sex before the movie begins — but that's also (predictably) many years in the past, and he's (predictably) still pining for the (predictably) beloved and deceased (not just divorced, which would have complicated things) wife.
As Dan's new love interest Marie, Juliette Binoche provides further evidence for Beldar's Theory of Accents, which holds that Americans universally find members of the opposite sex who have English, Scottish, Irish, or French accents to be more attractive and interesting. But her performance and Carrell's are nicely matched and mutually convincing. The rest of the large ensemble cast (mostly Dan's large extended family, spouses, and kids) also contribute solid performances in their supporting roles.
(Below, left to right, after the movie: Kevin's roommates at U of H, Calvin and Steve, then Adam, Sarah, Molly, and Kevin.)
The movie has only one car crash; its single chase scene fizzles; everyone alive at the beginning of the movie is alive at the end. If you described this movie as "low key," you might be over-hyping it. And I doubt that any of us will remember this movie in anything other than vague terms in five years. Frankly, you probably won't suffer much by waiting for it on cable/satellite or DVD.
But given the convivial company I was amongst, and given our agreeable post-meal mood, the movie was entertaining roughly in proportion to the ticket prices, and I don't regret picking it among the available options.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Slamming doors and bad, awful days
One of the many amazing, ceaselessly interesting things about being a parent is this: Your children will sometimes remember things that you intended for them to remember, even when you've forgotten.
On Monday of this week, my youngest daughter Molly, a seventh-grader, had what my family calls a "bad, awful day" at school. (The phrase is from a Sesame Street book, Grover's Bad, Awful Day. Some small portion of you readers are nodding right now, saying to yourselves, "Oh, yeah, that's the one where Grover stepped in the chewing gum, lost his rubber rain-boot, et cetera." Yes, that's the one. It's easy to confuse with the one in which Ernie and Bert are so angry at each other for not meeting under the statue in the park to fly kites.) When I picked her up from school and took her to her mom's house, Molly stormed off to her room, slamming the door in her older sister Sarah's face. "Molly Grace Dyer!" yelled Sarah Kathleen Dyer through the door, "Don't you know how dangerous it is to slam doors?"
"Dangerous?" I asked, genuinely perplexed.
This prompted Sarah to recall aloud at some length an incident when she (Sarah) was a much, much younger child — maybe three or four years old at the most, and thus an incident from at least a dozen years ago, in a previous century. Like my other three children, Sarah is, has always been, and will always be a passionate person. And as a toddler she was much inclined to slam doors.
So it was that the particular incident she related this week was one in which, after one such slamming, I'd fetched from our refrigerator's meat drawer an uncooked hot dog wiener that I'd first put into a Glad bag, and that I'd then stuck halfway through the crack between her bedroom door and its door-frame when the door was half-way opened. "Here, Sarah," I'd pronounced with parental tendentiousness, "is what can happen when you slam doors!" And then I'd slammed her bedroom door on that bagged hot dog wiener — BANG! "That could be your mother's finger!" I'd said, with utmost seriousness, while scooping the shredded meat byproducts out of the baggie and dropping them dramatically, in severed and exploded pieces, onto the doorway floor.
Toddler Sarah's powers of imagination were such that she already did not need further ketchup-based special effects to complete the lesson. She burst into tears, launched herself face-down onto her bed — and rarely, if ever, slammed her bedroom door again (at least until she was fifteen, and since then she's done it only carefully, for effect).
I had completely forgotten this entire incident. It took my nearly fifty-year-old neural pathways a full half hour or more to summon back all the details. And yet, Sarah's much younger, crisper, and more capable neural pathways brought it back in an instant. And she told it to her sister.
Slamming doors can be dangerous. And I am genuinely and continually awed by the power of entirely oral familial histories.
And by my children.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
I'm sure this happens more often to people who live in New York or Los Angeles or even Chicago. But just now, flicking up and down the list of saved programs on my TiVo, I cranked up a movie called The Con, which I chose to record based on nothing more than the fact that I like two of the actors listed in the blurb about it (William H. Macy and Rebecca De Mornay), and in the first ten seconds I'm saying to myself: "Wow. That's the Houston skyline." And then: "Wow. That's the church where I got married!" (Christ Church Cathedral, downtown, on April 20, 1985.)
Now I know, as I watch the rest of the movie, that I'll be looking for more locations that I recognize. If one lives in New York or Los Angeles or even Chicago, does one take that more or less in stride, ignoring the familiarity of the locations?
Update (Mon Aug 27 @ 12:32am): Well, turns out that all but the first ten minutes of the movie were set (ostensibly) somewhere in Mississippi. No more Houston scenes. A predictable, clichéd, silly, sweet (made for TV) movie anyway.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Four years of blogging, but Beldar isn't holding his breath waiting for the big blue and white jet
Exactly four years ago, I put up my first post on BeldarBlog: What do I mean when I describe myself as a "trial lawyer"?
I wrote that post because I'd just finished the graphic for the blog heading (including the subtitle), and I figured readers were likely to mistakenly assume from my self-description as a "long-winded trial lawyer" — admittedly a redundancy — that my primary practice involves representing injured individuals in personal injury cases. Indeed, I've always included a link to that first post in my sidebar.
Despite some long dormancies, I've kept up the TypePad subscription (and I continue to be happy with its features, reliability, pricing, and especially, customer service). Thank you, TypePad.
Sitemeter indicates that I've had well over 1.5 million "visits" and 2.2 million "page views" since then. That's many times more visitors than I'd ever have predicted four years ago, but small potatoes in comparison with many other bloggers, including several whose blogs are much newer. I'm always grateful to those who've read, commented, emailed, and/or linked to my stuff. Thank you, folks.
While I was visiting my 84-year-old father in early July, we watched some talking heads TV together (Fox and PBS, mostly), and I was able to boast to him several times: "Hey, there's another pundit who's linked to my blog!" and "Oh yeah, I've traded emails back and forth with her!" Or: "Yeah, Dad, that guy wrote that I'm doing a better job explaining their positions than the President's and Vice President's own staffs are doing, and that they ought to hire me!"
At which my father drawled, with gentle skepticism: "So what time exactly is Air Force One landing to pick you up?"
Beldar & sons' Grand Canyon road trip
I'm still recuperating from a just-completed five-day 3000-mile road trip with my sons Kevin (19) and Adam (14). Our main goals were to get some vacation time with each other and pay a short visit on my father in Lamesa, Texas. But our secondary goal was to see the Grand Canyon — albeit only during a couple of hours of strolling along the south rim, rather than in the greater detail available through a guided tour or an ambitious hike — along with some of the mountainous country of southern Colorado, and the varied Texas countrysides of all sorts that we would traverse en route.
Herewith follow more pictures and comments:
Road trips include pizza. Hiking and camping trips probably don't.
Adam will be a freshman at Houston's Bellaire High School this fall.
Kevin begins his sophomore year in the University of Houston's Honor College program in about two more weeks.
One of our "campsites" (on the two nights we didn't stay at my dad's house). This one was a budget motel in Flagstaff, Arizona; the other was in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
We were surprised how little of the rim was railed or fenced, and at how many tourists were venturing out onto sharp tongues of rock, from which a small slip would obviously lead to painful and probably fatal consequences. Perhaps my sons and I have watched too many Roadrunner cartoons, but we had no desire to imitate Wile E. Coyote, and we generally stayed well clear of the edges.
The interplay of the fast-moving clouds' shadows on the canyon cliffs' colors can't really be captured in a still photo, but it's pretty neat.
Adam in profile, against an amazing backdrop. There had been heavy rains before we arrived, which may have diminished the typical August crowds at the Grand Canyon, but they made for a temperate partly-cloudy afternoon that we much enjoyed.
Kevin bought a camouflage-patterned fishing hat in the Grand Canyon village outside the park. We'd watched the IMAX film there, correctly figuring it would give us some appreciation of views from the river and from other parts of the canyon that we wouldn't be able to see from the relatively short span of the south rim we'd have time to visit. Kevin plans to wear the hat on campus this fall. I pointed out that some of his professors might think that the words "Grand Canyon" sewn onto the front of the hat might reflect poorly on what currently fills the space between his ears. His riposte was that the words describe capacity, not current contents, and were thus an implicit challenge to his professors rather than an admission against his own interests.
On the drive home, as we were passing through San Angelo, Texas, I noticed (but neglected to get a photo of) a nifty set of highway signs denoting three available destinations depending on how one turns: "Eden," "El Dorado," and "Big Lake." All three place-names involve substantial hyperbole. By contrast, we decided that the Grand Canyon's name is appropriate or even modest.
I was struck by the relatively large number of tourists who were speaking languages other than English, and the relatively low number of obvious tour groups. My sons were struck by the relatively large number of tourists who were attractive young women in flattering, skimpy summer clothes.
We saw one brief but moderately vivid rainbow while strolling the rim. Later that night, while dining outside in Tuba City, Arizona, we saw a better one — actually a double rainbow — over the Painted Desert's landscape. I probably ought to have taken pictures of it, too, and I certainly should have photographed some of the mountain views that we saw driving back through Durango, Colorado, and Taos, New Mexico. But I didn't, so we'll just have to remember them, and you'll just have to imagine them.
Nor am I a proficient enough photographer to even have tried to capture the amazing night skies that we stopped to study about 20 miles outside of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, far from any competing "light pollution." Growing up in Houston, my boys weren't even familiar with the Milky Way other than from photographs, and my ability to identify constellations beyond the Big Dipper and Polaris has long faded since my Boy Scout days. But I think they'll remember this trip, and all of the sights we saw on it, for a long time — as will I.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
Photos from a July 4th trip to my home town
During the week of July 4th, I visited my father in my home town, Lamesa (pop. ~10k) — situated roughly mid-way between Lubbock and Midland at the bottom of the Texas panhandle. Here are three fairly unexceptional cell-phone pix from the trip, but they perhaps reveal something about where and how I was reared, and by whom.
En route, I was surprised and fascinated to see several dozen enormous power-generation windmills scattered along the tops of mesas along U.S. 87, just north of Sterling City on the way toward Big Spring. I tried to also take some video, but in the low resolution, even what seemed to me to be a very, very slow and steady hand-held pan ended up being too blurred to make out the blades turning. That's a shame, because they were a much more impressive sight in motion:
When I drove past them in the dark on the return trip, I wondered whether each blade tip would have a warning light for aircraft, or whether each tower would be topped with a strobe. Apparently not; but there were some sort of arrays of large red lights that I think were around the base of each windmill. And all of them — at all of the dozens of windmills that would have been in sight of each other during daylight — pulsed on and off rhythmically and simultaneously. I suppose from the air, it would still be an obvious and impressive warning for pilots at night.
This is a pretty good place for windmills, I'd guess. One clue as to the population density: There's no cell phone service, from any carrier, for miles and miles. In fact, across much of west Texas, including in Lamesa, my Verizon service was absent, but usually I could at least "roam" via some other carrier. Not here — neither in daytime hours or at night.
After I reached Lamesa, I read that a group of farmers and ranchers closer to my home town are in the preliminary negotiation stage to lease their land for more of these towers to an affiliate of Florida Power & Light. If there's any local opposition, that wasn't obvious from the news article in the Lamesa Press-Reporter, and I doubt there is any. Lamesa doesn't have much in common with Nantucket, and Ted Kennedy would neither feel much at home there nor, frankly, be very welcome. The wind turbines, with their lease fees and additions to the property tax rolls, are.
My home town's name is an anglicization of "la mesa," Spanish for "the table," and the picture just below, which I took at the far southwest corner of the town (looking toward the northwest), will give you a pretty good idea of the consistent local topography which inspired that name.
The dark green in the fields are long, straight rows of very sturdy young cotton plants, the growing of which is still the mainstay of the Dawson County economy. They were each less than six inches tall, and each about that broad across, and normally they'd have been taller and broader by July 4th, but they've been held back by above-average rains this year. If they get a long enough growing season, though, with plenty of long, hot, sunny days and without an early freeze or too much late-season rain, it might turn out to be a good year. Either way, by December these fields will be stripped brown and bare, and they'll be much more bleak looking.
If you turn 90 degrees from the spot that last photograph was taken and walk about a half-mile north-northeast, then not far inside the city limits, at 311 Skyline Drive, you'll see a genuine oasis:
Until I was about eight years old, the land shown in this third photograph looked exactly like the land shown in the second. In other words, it was just another cotton field on the edge of town, owned by my grandfather, and divided among my father and his three siblings upon my grandmother's death. My father, like his father, was more of a merchant than a land-owner or a farmer, and he took over his father's hardware store after the Navy returned him to civilian life in 1946. The store moved from hardware into home furnishings and appliances by the 1960s and 1970s, and during the week my father sold Zenith TVs and Maytag washing machines, Frigidaire refrigerators and Sealy mattresses. He was the mayor for a couple of years when I was a toddler, and he served another year as the president of the Chamber of Commerce; he was also on various other committees and commissions promoting highways and water development and the like, and he was a leader both locally and regionally in Boy Scouts and the Lions Club.
But my father is also a man who loves trees. And on the weekends when I was still young, he started planting them in a serious way, and pursuant to a serious plan. Pecan, peach, apple, plum, oak, maple, cedar, and others — over the course of about ten or twelve years, he dug the holes for each of the saplings with a shovel, and he mounded the dirt beds partly with a hoe and partly by hand. My job during many of those years was to spend the required hours standing with a water hose, slowly filling up each bed and then moving to the next tree in the row, then the next row and the next.
Here's a photo not mine — from Google's satellite map images. I've marked the larger property in a yellow rectangle, and you can see the heavily treed portion as a dark green rectangle in its bottom left quarter. The points from which my two photos were taken are marked with red dots.
Eventually, in the late 1970s (while I was in college), my dad and step-mom built their dream-house amidst those trees, on a spot that my dad had penciled into the plan from the beginning. You can't really see the house from the road, and that was very much his intention. It's a nice house, although it's far from the biggest or the fanciest in town. But there aren't many houses inside the city limits of Lamesa, Texas, that are completely blocked from view from the road just by trees, so that makes it pretty special.
And the inferences you'd probably naturally draw about my dad, just from comparing the second and third photographs here, and without reading anything else I've written about him in this post or elsewhere on my blog — well, then, you'd probably be mostly correct in those. These trees can tell you a lot about my dad if you also value trees. And if you can see flat, empty land, and have the vision to imagine it transformed. And if, whether you have it yourself or not, you can appreciate the patience required to see that through. Every time I drive to Lamesa, those trees remind me of things about my dad that I've never forgotten, but that I'm nonetheless glad to hear from them again.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Beldar & kids see "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"
Refreshed by some quiet time since yesterday's movie, this morning my two sons and youngest daughter and I went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (My older daughter, Sarah, had already seen it.)
(No spoilers follow, but there are some shocking off-set pix of the movie's stars!)
Our reactions were very mixed. Adam — who is the only one of our family who hasn't been devouring the books (he insists he'll read them all back to back when the final one comes out) — said he "liked it." But he refused to give a letter grade or more details. Kevin was much more enthusiastic, giving it a "B+ plus." I gave it a B-. But during the movie, I had to shush my younger daughter, Molly, who was grousing about how much had been stripped from the book. She gave it a C- that she insisted was very generous.
It just seemed more flat and generally less creative to me than the others. Just as an example: The credits are just reddish-purple letters that fade in and fade out against a parchment-white background. That's it; not even an interesting font. Oh, but when it gets to the cast list, it changes! To ... black lettering, with the same font and same background. There's no whimsy, no magic there at all. (I recall the credits from some of the previous films in the series as being delightful in and of themselves.)
And I thought some of the acting (or perhaps the directing of the acting) was a bit off, too. For example, what should have been a great line, taken (as I recall) directly from the book — after Hermione says what fun it was to break some rules, Ron gasps at her, "Who are you? And what have you done with Hermione Granger?" — didn't prompt a single audible laugh in the nearly-full theater we were in. I remember literally laughing out loud at that from the book.
I've read that this film's makers consciously tried to keep it short by modern standards (138 minutes), even though the books have each been trending increasingly longer. I'm all in favor of non-bloated films, but I think another thirty to forty-five minutes of this one might have added a whole lot of badly needed depth and context. As it was, well-known and much-loved characters — like Hagrid, Mad-Eye, and even Dumbledore — have so little screen time that one wonders whether the scriptwriters and film editors secretly hate them.
I even thought the musical score was dull — not inappropriate, just not ever really scary or twinkly or mystical or memorable or noticeable in any particular way.
Oh, it could have been much, much worse, I'm sure. And we're all the victims of high expectations, not only from the books but from the first four films in the series. I wouldn't have wanted to miss this one, and my kids have already established who gets first go at the seventh book when it comes out later this month — after me, of course, since I'm the one who's pre-ordered it.
But I have to admit, I was disappointed.
As for the promised shocking pix, they're from the Daily Mail, and they'd make a pretty good caption contest:
I suspect Daniel Radcliffe will shave for the "Half-Blood Prince," but I'm not sure if we'll ever know exactly whether Emma Watson's reactions to seeing this picture, besides shock, were favorable.
She, meanwhile, is reported to be the next featured "face" for Chanel:
If so, a grande old dame of fashion like Chanel signing her up as a spokes-model may be the marketing coup of the young Twenty-First Century. Not that I'm any expert or even very well informed about fashion or marketing. But it's obvious even to me that she's very classy and pretty, and as she approaches her 18th birthday, she's becoming increasingly hot — but in a rare sort of way that I suspect might provoke young women to say: "Yes, I might save up and then spend some serious money to look like that."
Beldar & kids see "Transformers"
Our intention yesterday was to do a traditional Saturday matinée double-feature, but after watching Transformers, my kids and I all sort of felt the need for some quiet time. There's certainly not any of that in this movie, which my four teens nevertheless unanimously labeled: "Awesome!"
(Mild spoilers ahead — as if anyone didn't already know that Optimus Prime ultimately kicks Megatron's robotic butt, duh.)
"How could it not be awesome?" demanded my 14-year-old, Adam. "It's, like — the Transformers, and in a movie!"
That wouldn't have quite been enough for me, by iteself. But I have to admit, I was considerably more entertained than I'd expected to be by a movie drawn from a cartoon series created to sell a line of toys. It wasn't just the two young hotties, Rachel Taylor and Megan Fox — although that didn't hurt, and of the movie's human characters, Ms. Fox' actually shows the most interesting transformation over the course of the movie. I will credit the movie for displaying an excellent sense of humor about itself.
And that's not just some built-in camp of the sort which characterized, for instance, 1993's Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Rather, it's a genuine recognition that this plot line — which features an old yellow Chevy Camaro named "Bumblebee" that frequently transforms into a protective 20-foot tall "autonomous robotic life form from the planet Cybertron," but only after picking its own new teen-aged owner (capably played by Shia LaBeouf) and giving the kid badly needed dating tips — just can't be taken too seriously. (Robot or not, my youngest daughter, Molly, got a bit teary-eyed when Bumblebee was being humiliated as a captive. That prompted her big sister, Sarah, to lean over and remind her, "It's just a movie." This is a compliment to the film, I think.)
What I particularly didn't expect, but am enough of a flag-waver to have thoroughly enjoyed, was the very prominent role played by an assortment of real-life high-tech deadly toys, ranging from the Air Force's new stealth air superiority fighter, the F-22 Raptor, through a variety of high-tech helicopters, to an AC-130U Spooky gunship heeling over to one side to let loose its 105mm howitzer and other flying artillery at the bad robots. Among the large cast is a team of Army Rangers (led by hunky TV star Josh Duhamel from NBC's "Las Vegas"; there's equal-opportunity eye candy in this movie for all you moms out there) who are superheroes in their own right.
I was full expecting the U.S. Secretary of Defense, played by Jon Voight, to turn out to be evil and corrupt. But perhaps in exchange for all the DoD cooperation the movie-makers got (and there was a lot, as prominently recapped early in the credits), or perhaps out of simple decency and moderation, the movie mostly avoids Hollywood's reflexive tendency to make America and its leaders into outright villains. There's one fairly mild and indirect dig at Dubya, which I assume was required lest every Hollywood union boycott helping make the film altogether. But even Herbert Hoover comes off fairly well in this flick.
This is definitely a movie made to be seen on the big screen, and unless you have the very best of the best state-of-the-art home theater, you wouldn't get a comparable experience. (The stadium-seating theater in which we watched a digital print was perfect.) Be prepared, though, because if your central nervous system is as old and creaky as mine, you often may not be able to keep up with all of the images and sounds blasting over you.
"I sometimes had a hard time telling which were the Autobots and which were the Decepticons," I complained afterwards.
"Gee, Dad," replied my son Kevin, "That was easy! The Decepticons were the ones who went out of their way to inflict collateral damage on the nearby civilian humans, whereas the Autobots were the ones always sidestepping around them. Remember the part where Megatron is lying on the ground among the humans they've knocked over, and he goes [very deep voice] 'Disgusting!' just before he flicks the guy 50 yards into a parked car?"
So there's a helpful viewing tip for you.
Don't mistake my family's positive review as saying more than I intend: This is a profoundly silly movie. To say you have to "suspend disbelief" to enjoy it is a considerable understatement. But it is a silly, unbelievable movie that's very well done — one that revels in being over-the-top with its special effects (which are indeed amazing), but that also brings considerably more than just sfx to the party.
I have no doubt that it will be an international hit, either. Islamic jihadists and others who rant and rave about the filth and vacuity of American cultural imperialism will hate this very American movie — but I'll bet they'll secretly watch it too.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Beldar & kids see "Knocked Up"
Yesterday my sons, younger daughter, and I went to see Knocked Up. (Some spoilers follow.)
I suppose it is a noteworthy sign of growing up when one's kids unanimously choose an adult comedy over something like Shrek the Third.
My kids and I all liked this movie, even though — and actually, on closer examination, because — as my son Adam remarked, it was often "really painful to watch."
I noted afterwards that no one in the theater had laughed (or otherwise reacted) in response to what I thought was the most remarkable line in the movie, when pregnant Alison (played by Katherine Heigl) is reminded by her own mother of a step-sister who "took care of" an unwanted pregnancy — i.e., had an abortion — but then went on later, "when the time was right," to have "a real baby." "Well, that wasn't very funny, Dad," said my daughter, "that's just kind of sad, that a mother would say that."
Anyway, we agreed that it was a very realistic movie; and that even though it ends on a happy note, it doesn't necessarily have a "happily ever after" ending. In fact, we all agreed that it's a big "if" whether either of the two couples with kids would end up staying together, but that it was at least a very good thing that they were all going to try to. That's what made the ending happy.
I had a very different reaction to the movie than did Katheryn Lopez, reviewing it for the National Review Online:
[A]s delighted as I am for the Knocked Up message that sex has consequences (including unexpected joy and transformative love) and parents have responsibilities, there’s something about Knocked Up that still leaves one a bit disturbed — and a little depressed. It’s pro-life and pro-marriage in its crude way. And it’s important that Hollywood isn’t making pro-life, pro-marriage movies just for more conservative audiences. Maybe I’m getting old, but it seems to me that the Wedding-Crashers-40-Year-Old-Virgin crass-blockbuster fun has been had. While I’m all for redeeming messages (keep the baby, love the child, take some responsibility for your life) reaching us where we’re at, if this is where the culture is — 23-year-olds filling gas masks with marijuana smoke — is it really an excessively laughing matter?
K-Lo, you're missing the point. The movie was intended to leave you a little bit depressed and disturbed. The realism with which this movie treats the slacker/stoner culture of unexpectedly expectant young father Ben Stone (played by Seth Rogen) made it one of the most effective anti-drug movies I've ever seen! In the real world, people who smoke dope or take 'shrooms giggle a lot, and they do silly things that make them laugh, and those things can make audiences watching them laugh too. But in the real world, there are also negative consequences when being constantly stoned becomes the defining characteristic of one's life, and without going all preachy, this movie illustrates those consequences very effectively. A misunderstanding over a condom may make a funny scene too, but hey, the rest of the movie very expressly and repeatedly makes the point that there's a limit to how funny that can turn out to be in real life.
This is precisely the sort of R-rated movie that a parent ought to consider taking one's young teens to, because there are a wealth of issues that parents ought to be the ones discussing with their kids, for which discussion this movie provides a great jumping-off-place. Casual sex after overindulging in alcohol? Marital infidelity? Other barriers besides infidelity to marital intimacy? Too much intimacy as a barrier to a good marriage? Safe sex? Sex during pregnancy? Pregnancy outside of marriage? Compare and contrast male peer bonding at a Las Vegas strip club to female peer bonding at a dance club? This movie is filled with material for mature parent/teen discussions, and while those subjects are presented with humor, they're also presented with grit and an absence of gauzy romance.
So: The movie was entertaining and thought-provoking. There were no Oscar-caliber performances, but the characters were interesting and believable, which is to say, the actors were accomplishing their professional goals. (A few short character actor showcase scenes are genuinely terrific — especially Ken Jeong as a pissy, prissy ob/gyn, Craig Robinson as a deeply conflicted nightclub doorman/bouncer, and Kristen Wiig as Alison's jealous, cynical, and cocooned co-worker at the E! entertainment network: "This is Hollywood. We don't like liars.") But, overall, in my judgment, this movie was worth the price of the tickets I bought. And whenever you can say that about a movie, that's a good review.
Monday, June 04, 2007
Credit where due: Pampered, petulant, and pouty Paris pivots, and now primly and properly professes penitence in pokey
The third time the whirling red-and-blues show up in your rear-view mirror inside a six-month period, you need to start re-examining your basic premises about yourself, driving, and the law — especially if the first one resulted in your pleading no-contest to an alcohol-related reckless driving charge, and the second one resulted in your being ticketed for driving on a restricted license from the first offense.
So when Paris Hilton was sentenced to jail for a blatant, inexcusable violation of her probation — prompting normally sober, responsible lawyer-bloggers to write Free Paris!" blog posts and claim that she was being persecuted because of her celebrity status — I started on more than one occasion to write a curmudgeonly rebuttal, arguing that she clearly had defied the law and just as clearly needed to be taught a lesson in civic responsibility.
On the third occasion, she was allegedly speeding, with her headlights off, at 11:00 p.m. She claimed to be under the impression that even after the second stop, she had driving privileges that permitted her to go to and from work — but she was "on her way home from buying DVDs at [a] Virgin Megastore in West Hollywood." (I guess her theory was that if your "work" is being a celebrity party animal, going to buy DVDs is a job requirement, and you're "on the job" pretty much all the time.) Lines like this one gained her no sympathy from me:
"I feel that I was treated unfairly and that the sentence is both cruel and unwarranted and I don't deserve this," she said as she left for a shopping trip with her mother.
And her mother Kathy clearly needed a cold shower and a reality check, based on her conduct during Paris' sentencing and comments immediately after:
[Paris' mom] laughed [in the courtroom] when a city prosecutor argued that Paris deserved jail time. When a judge ordered the 26-year-old Paris to serve 45 days in county jail, Kathy Hilton blurted out: ''May I have your autograph?''
She also shared her feelings with reporters outside: ''This is pathetic and disgusting, a waste of taxpayer money with all this nonsense. This is a joke.''
Every time I started writing such a post, though, I ended up deleting it before publishing, on grounds that I don't want to reward selfish celebrity misbehavior even to the limited extent of recognizing it on my humble blog.
But then the younger Ms. Hilton got a new lawyer, Richard Hutton. We know not, of course, what he may have told her and her family in their private discussions, but she was clearly in need of some wise counsel — not necessarily better advocacy, for there is a time when the most effective counselor is he who counsels an end to the courtroom fighting. And almost immediately afterwards, in his public statements on her behalf, and in her own statements, appeared what seemed (at least to public eyes) to be a new attitude. Noises about an appeal disappeared. Someone dialed the martyrdom rhetoric back down to zero, where it ought to have been all along. Her original 45-day sentence was dialed back to half that, based not on her celebrity status or fortune but on L.A. County jail overcrowding.
Last night she surrendered herself at the L.A. County Jail for booking and transport to the womens-only Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, and whatever were the respective proportions of sincerity and calculated spin, she appears to have behaved herself well:
"I am trying to be strong right now," she told reporters on the red carpet [at the MTV Music Awards before heading for the jail]. "I'm ready to face my sentence. Even though this is a really hard time, I have my family, my friends and my fans to support me, and that's really helpful."
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Hilton was easy to work with.
"Her demeanor was helpful. She was focused, she was cooperative," he said....
"I did have a choice to go to a pay jail," Hilton said Sunday, without giving details. "But I declined because I feel like the media portrays me in a way that I'm not and that's why I wanted to go to county, to show that I can do it and I'm going to be treated like everyone else. I'm going to do the time, I'm going to do it the right way."
And in a written statement released by her new lawyer:
"I am ready to face the consequences of violating probation. During the past few weeks, I have had a lot of time to think and have come to realize I made some mistakes."
Hilton added, "This is an important point in my life and I need to take responsibility for my actions. In the future, I plan on taking more of an active role in the decisions I make. I want to thank my family, friends and fans for their continued support. Although I am scared, I am ready to begin my jail sentence."
I approve. My own two teenage daughters haven't ever regarded her as a role model, but somebody's daughters do, and it's a good thing for them to hear contrite words directly from Ms. Hilton's mouth.
And hey, since this is apparently "post lots of pix of blondes" day on BeldarBlog:
Her mugshot is genuinely lovely.
She has my sincere best wishes for a safe, reflective stay, and a future blessed with at least enough self-knowledge and wisdom to keep her free from trouble with the law.
UPDATE (Thu Jun 7 @ 3:45pm): And now she's been released to serve 40 days' home confinement (with an electronic ankle bracelet monitor) due to a "medical condition." The decision was reportedly made by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department officials, rather than the judge who sentenced her. I don't know what to make of that. One can hope she's still learned a lesson. One worries that it's the wrong one.
And a correction: I was wrong in saying her 45-day sentence was halved due to jail overcrowding. That was actually just a projection of her actual jail time based on the one-for-one "good behavior credit" all L.A. County prisoners receive if they behave.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Admissions against interest
If you're a serious reader, and you hold me in some measure of regard as a serious blogger who writes about presidential candidates and constitutional law and the like, and then you follow this jump, you'll almost certainly think badly of me. You probably shouldn't keep reading. You've been warned.
Among my hobbies are computer games. That's been true since, oh, about 1975, the year before I almost got expelled from UT-Austin for being a computer bandit sneaking time on the mainframe to play ASCII-graphics "Star Trek." The second post I ever made here in 2003 contained screenshots of my two main characters from EverQuest — one of whom was a seven-foot-tall Norse babe, a level 60 rogue with an, ahem, exaggerated figure and the name of "Mizchif." The screenshots are still posted, fer pete's sake, along with those of my male wood elf bard, "Pontifex."
And that year or so I took off from blogging, in late 2005 and 2006? I played World of Warcraft with my teen-aged sons for more dozens of hours than I can be compelled to admit without a subpoena, or than they or I would ever admit to my ex-wife, subpoenaed or not. I took two priests to 60 with Blackwing Lair gear, too — one Horde, one Alliance, one on a PvP server and one on a Care-Bear.
(Some few of you reading this are going, "O'RLY? Shadow, holy, or disc build?" And some of you who are saying that are also middle-aged professionals, including other lawyers! You know who you are, but I won't name any names for now.)
(But the rest of you are going, "Whaaa ...?" Or rather, you're not "going" anything, you're, ahem, saying to yourself: "Goodness! I do believe Beldar has gone mad!" And you'd be at least partially right, too.)
Yes, I'm an almost-50 computer games geek — no, not level 50, I meant 50 years old! — even though I'm currently cold-turkey, and I've been completely off the habit for several months now. Yeah, I gave the undead priest to my younger son, because his end-game guild, post-Burning Crusade, really didn't need another 70 rogue, and so he's leveled the priest up to 70 now to hang out with my older son's 70 warlock. I can't take that account back now! — it would be ... wrong and mean. But:
As a consequence of all that gaming, I've pounded a few million keystrokes in casual conversation with teen-something and 20-something and, yes 30- and 40-something gamers over the last half-dozen years. And one cannot do that without picking up some of the associated culture being created by folks younger than oneself. Not more than a fraction of it; I don't flatter myself to think that I'm anything other than a "tragically un-hip old fart" in these online crowds, but they at least pretend to tolerate me for the most part.
I mean, they needed the heals, and I was the dude with the mana, wasn't I?
So: When Lileks wrote, on Monday of this past week, as part of his genuinely gripping on-going job saga, "This week I find out whether or not I has a bucket" (referring obliquely to his job as being the "bucket") — I already knew the pictures that his link would take me to:
Indeed, I had already spent a ridiculous amount of time studying these two silly, brilliant photos and their sillier captions. When BoingBoing posted this picture this week:
I already knew it referred to this website (which should be read back-to-front). And specifically, to this photo:
Because yes, I had indeed already skimmed through every single page and caption on that website, laughing until my eyes watered. It is silly beyond the power of words to describe, silly in part because it imagines that really hep cats (to use a term my dad would recognize) speak in a kind of pidgin English called "LOLcat" that, in turn, requires them (and us) to know pop cross-cultural references to oldies but goodies like "All your base are belong to us" in order for the captions to be funny. But, ya know, my WoW priests did their fair share of pew-pew-pews too.
I'm not bragging about any of this. It's insane. The adult parts of me keep trying to seize control and delete this damned post.
But pictures like this one still just crack me up:
And even though I'm mostly a dog-person instead of a cat-person, I'm still willing to argue the elegance of the photo and caption above at great length. Unless my computer fails suddenly:
These are admissions against interest, but ... I admit them. I'll probably end up fighting a big relevancy fight about whether I can be cross-examined about them the next time I testify to prove up attorneys' fees.
Just drop it, Beldar. You've done enough damage for one morning. kthxbai.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Along with Roy Rogers and all of the American astronauts, Lloyd Bridges' character "Mike Nelson," in the TV show Sea Hunt, was one of my childhood heroes. It had nothing to do with his heroic actions in the plot-lines of the various episodes. It was simply because he could breathe under water.
I took my first scuba certification course in 1972 while I was still in high school, but — there being a marked shortage of oceans and lakes near my hometown in the Texas panhandle — I was never able to manage the supervised open-water dive necessary to complete the certification. I remedied that through another course I took during college in Austin, though, and I got my basic PADI certification diving in Lake Travis and other Hill Country lakes in 1979. Distractions intervened; it was many more years before I could take the sort of dream vacation that includes serious ocean diving. I finally got my PADI advanced open water certification in 1989, and then had some terrific dive trips to Cozumel, Cayman, and various Texas Gulf Coast spots in the early 1990s. But then I lost my regular dive buddy (and wedding best man and overall best friend) to complications from a tragic snow skiing accident. Because of that and various other reasons, it's been well more than 10 years now since I've done any open-water diving.
But watching a really cool video like this one from InstaPundit certainly makes me miss diving all over again.
One of the things I like best about this particular video is the segment from 1:15 to 1:30 in which a diver is doing a series of graceful 360-degree rolls and then a somersault — all while his arms are calmly folded, motionless, over his chest. That illustrates very well something that I've always had a hard time explaining adequately to non-divers — how scuba diving seems to me more like flying than like swimming.
I'm a decent swimmer, and I enjoy it. But swimming, even graceful swimming, inevitably is all about flailing one's arms and legs through the water, and always having to get one's mouth and nose back out of the water to keep breathing. And swimming, like the rest of life, is mostly two-dimensional — that is, one's own motor power only moves one along either an X-axis or a Y-axis. Our daily lives take place in Flatland, and usually it's noisy there to boot.
But scuba diving makes the Z-axis way more accessible to a human than wings make it accessible to a bird. Scuba (once you learn good buoyancy control) is like having an anti-gravity suit that's nearly effortless and automatic. You're cruising along at 40 feet below the surface, and you see something interesting 15 feet below or above you. With what feels like way less effort and thought than it takes to walk 15 feet on land — without much more conscious thought than it takes you simply to look up or down 15 feet — you glide up or down at your whim. Your own orientation — upright, head-down, prone (either belly-down or -up), or whatever — is likewise completely a matter of your easy choice. (Although most people do tend to want to avoid attitudes that prompt that last splash of seawater which you haven't quite been able to purge from inside your mask running back along your cheeks and up your nostrils.) There's no thrashing. No reaching, climbing, or pulling required. And just the rhythmic, soothing sound of your own calm breathing and tiny bubble-trail.
(The folded arms you see throughout Prof. Reynold's video, by the way, are very deliberate, I'm sure — and a mark of skillful and environmentally conscious divers. If you keep your arms folded then they can't be flailing around and accidentally banging into coral, which can hurt both you and it — and you heal much faster than the coral can! When you're diving somewhere like these reefs around the Caymans, you no more ought to be crashing into stuff than you'd walk through Yellowstone recklessly swinging a running chainsaw. Keeping your arms folded also helps suppress the swimming instinct of trying to use your arms for propulsion, which wastes energy and increases your air consumption rate. People also tend to use their arms to change or maintain their depth without realizing it, which is also energy- and air-wasteful, and something you're better off learning to do reflexively through other buoyancy control techniques. And besides: Gliding along with your arms folded just fits the zen of a good dive.)
Diving is filled with seeming contradictions. It's a group activity that is also intensely personal. It depends on high-tech and fairly expensive gear that is bulky and heavy out of the water, but once in, you completely forget about that gear for the most part, and instead you just feel a profound sensory and spacial freedom. It's the most serene exhilaration that I've ever experienced.
My kids are approaching the ages now when they all can learn to scuba dive. Soon, with them, I hope to go back.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
'Midst the trial prep ...
Sometimes one has to set down the Texas Pattern Jury Charge, set aside the stack of proposed trial exhibits, stop (re-)editing the video depositions, and pay attention to family. Tonight I watched a fine performance of a musical play called "All Aboard for Broadway" in which my 14-year-old son Adam played a cranky old codger of a theater stage manager, circa 1917-1919 — culminating in a bit of flag-waving, tap-dancing, and singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "She's a Grand Old Flag."
And a couple more, this one with the female lead:
Tap-dancing requires lots of concentration.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
More about Tex Dyer and the USS Zeilin
This is one of those posts that I don't expect will be of general interest, but that I'm adding to my blog just because I want to memorialize some oral history from my family — specifically from my father — for my kids and, maybe, their kids someday.
Over the Christmas holiday just past, my four kids and I, along with my older sister and brother and their spouses, traveled to our hometown, tiny Lamesa in the Texas panhandle (about an hour's drive south of Lubbock). We were also celebrating the 84th birthday of my father on Christmas Eve.
During the course of the holiday weekend, my siblings and I prevailed upon my dad to tell us and my kids about his Navy days in World War II. I'd previously had a hard time getting him to open up about this — and indeed, he'd only done so at any length on one occasion, back when I was a high-school senior in 1974-1975.
This past weekend, though — assisted by a shoe-box full of photographs he'd saved from that period — he shared his memories from the war and the immediate post-war period.
To supplement the little bit that I could remember from what he'd told me all those years ago, I'd done considerable online research about his ship, the USS Zeilin, for a long blog post that I wrote during the run-up to the 2004 election. During my father's recollections last week, however, I learned that I'd been mistaken in my assumption that he'd graduated from the University of Texas and been commissioned from the NROTC program into active-duty Navy service in May 1944. And I'd also assumed, again mistakenly, that he had joined the Zeilin at San Francisco in October 1944. Instead, due to an accelerated program designed to pump out junior officers at a faster clip, he received both his B.A. and his Navy commission on the same day in early January 1944. And after processing into the Navy, via other means of transport through Australia, young "Tex Dyer" — immediately so nick-named because he was its only officer from Texas, but known as "JoDo" (for his initials, "J.D.") by his hometown friends in Lamesa — actually caught up to the Zeilin in March 1944.
Because of my mistaken assumptions, in describing the Pacific operations in which my dad took part, my earlier post mistakenly omitted several. I did describe the Zeilin's activities after October 1944 and then throughout 1945, which included the landings on Luzon in the Philippines, the subsequent kamikaze strike on the Zeilin, and its participation in landing reinforcements at Iwo Jima. But here's what I mistakenly left out, as taken from the Navy's official history of the "Mighty Z's" activities during the March-October 1944 period:
For the next three months [after February 1944 operations in the Marshall Islands], the southwestern Pacific once again became her theater of operations. She carried troops and supplies for units operating in the Solomon Islands and for MacArthur's forces, then leapfrogging up the back of the New Guinea bird. During those months, she visited Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomons, Espiritu Santo, Milne Bay and Cape Sudest on New Guinea, and the newly conquered Admiralty Islands. On 10 May, she returned to Guadalcanal to prepare for the invasion of the Mariana Islands.
Zeilin departed the Solomons on 4 June as a unit of the Southern Attack Force (TF 53) whose specific target was to be Guam. The transport — with marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade embarked — arrived near the Marianas at mid-month and waited in an area 150 to 300 miles east of Guam for its assault scheduled for the 18th, three days following initial landings on Saipan. The operation, however, suffered two postponements: the first caused by the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the second by the unexpectedly bitter opposition which the Americans encountered on Saipan and Tinian. Part of the force was dispatched to Eniwetok to await the arrival of the 77th Division from Hawaii to bolster the Guam force. Zeilin and her marines, however, remained in the Marianas area for another five days as a floating reserve.
When it became apparent that the 1st Provisional Brigade was not needed to bolster the Saipan force, those transports too headed for Eniwetok, departing the Marianas area on 30 June and entering the lagoon at Eniwetok on 3 July. Fifteen days later, Zeilin left the lagoon, rendezvoused with the transports carrying the troops from Hawaii, and shaped a course for the Marianas. Zeilin arrived off Guam on 22 July, the day after the initial assault on that island. She remained in the area only four days — unloading marines, equipment, and supplies — and then departed the Marianas. After an overnight stop at Eniwetok on 29 and 30 July, she continued on to Pearl Harbor where she arrived on 7 August. The attack transport remained at the Hawaiian base for three days, then headed for the west coast. On the 18th, she arrived in San Francisco where a three-month's overhaul restored her to top fighting trim by the beginning of the last week in October.
I remembered from our discussions when I was in high school that my father had told me he'd commanded landing craft taking troops from the Zeilin ashore, so I pressed him last week to tell us more details about that duty. I finally pried out of him his memories of the Battle of Guam in July 1944, which were particularly vivid. During it, my dad was indeed in command of a "Landing Craft, Mechanized." But there were offshore coral reefs several hundred yards out from the beaches — where the U.S. forces had only been able to establish a 2-km. perimeter. Amphibious vehicles could negotiate the reefs, but the Marines and soldiers not in those generally had to wade or swim in — and to do so while under fire.
At one point, my father saw two wounded Marines in the water just inside the reefs, where his LCM couldn't go — and none of the enlisted men under his command could swim. An Eagle scout, my dad could swim, and so he dove off to try to help the Marines across the reef. One of them absolutely insisted that my dad take the other Marine first, and even though that Marine seemed to be more superficially wounded, my dad reluctantly was obliged to comply. He returned for the second Marine, but found — as my father told us last week with tears in his eyes — that "he hadn't made it."
That probably would have gotten John Kerry the Navy Cross or maybe the Congressional Medal of Honor. What it got my dad was a severe chewing out from the Zeilin's "old man," who was absolutely furious that my dad had left the boat under his command even momentarily. (You'll perhaps recall that Kerry's Silver Star came from an engagement in which he also left the boat he was commanding, with considerably less justification.) The Zeilin's captain was regular Navy from before the war, and he was, of course, technically right. But my dad wasn't reluctant to talk about this episode because he'd been scolded over it. Indeed, he told us that if he had it to do over again, he'd make the same decision: in his estimation, a Marine's life was well worth his being in the captain's doghouse for a few weeks. Rather, it was just difficult for him to talk about the Marine who'd died in the water while waiting for my dad to get back. "He was a real hero," my dad said, and he repeated again something I've heard him and many other veterans say: "The heroes were the ones who didn't come back."
While young "Tex" was in the doghouse and restricted to bridge duty, however, the captain figured out that as a "college man," in addition to serving from time to time as officer of the deck, my dad could also write up much better-than-average log entries and other reports. That was useful and important administrative work, but it also (perhaps only incidentally) had the effect of making the old man look good — especially to the independently-operating brass who were also aboard the Zeilin in its role as a relief flagship for the Commander Amphibious Force, Pacific Fleet. So even after the old man had forgiven my dad, he never returned my dad to commanding the landing craft, and the Zeilin's bridge was pretty much where my dad spent the rest of the war.
Indeed, that's where he was when the Zeilin was struck by the kamikaze on January 13, 1945, which I wrote about at some length in my earlier post. Dad said that it was hard to tell whether the suicide pilot was aiming for the Zeilin's bridge or its smokestack and engine room. But as it turned out (again quoting from the Navy's official report): "[The kamikaze's] right wing struck the port kingpost and boom serving [the] No. 6 hatch, while the fuselage swung inboard under the radio antenna and crashed the starboard side of the housetop." A one-inch twitch on that pilot's stick might have meant the difference between me being here to write this blog or not. In my last post, I quoted at length from an account written by a man serving on another ship in the convey, the USS Block Island, who was trying to shoot down the kamikaze when he saw it hit the Zeilin. I've since found another description of the effects of the attack — this one written by a sailor on board the destroyer USS Saufley:
After departing Lingayen to Leyte Gulf as a screening ships for the transports, we picked up one survivor from a suicide crash on USS Zeilin. This man was so badly burned that his flesh was falling away. His face looked like an overcooked marshmallow that had turned black. One of our men who saw him later had a breakdown. We had worked with USS Zeilin in other places and felt this as a personal loss.
Among the pictures my dad showed us was one taken of him a few days later, standing under the kamikaze's mangled propeller as mounted on a wall painted with markers for each of the Zeilin's engagements.
When I wrote my original post, I also hadn't realized that my dad — as one of the more junior officers, and thus one of the last to be released from active duty — had stayed with the Zeilin until early 1946, after it had transported American occupation troops from the Philippines to Korea, and then steamed through the Panama Canal en route to Hampton Roads, Virginia. While in the Canal Zone, my dad got to watch the N.Y. Yankees in a spring training exhibition game at Balboa Stadium featuring (the just returned from the service) Joltin' Joe DiMaggio.
Also among the pictures in the shoe-box was a 1946 picture of my dad in his dress whites, standing under the canopy in front of the Biltmore Hotel in New York with an absolutely gorgeous babe. (His younger sister, my aunt Tennie Marie, was then studying piano at Julliard and had set him up on a blind date.) "Wow!" said my 11-year-old daughter Molly when she saw this picture, "You were really handsome, G-Pa, before you got so old!" (That of course provoked a big laugh from everyone.)
My older brother's son David is finishing up at UT-San Antonio's dental school, and will begin his commitment with the U.S. Navy at the Marine Base in Twenty-Nine Palms, California, this summer. Similarly, my brother was an Air Force orthodontist stationed in Wiesbaden, West Germany, in the late 1970s. So overall, my family's pretty proud of its contributions to our armed forces over the years. As for my dad, he continues to insist that he was no hero in World War II — but that he certainly served with heroes. With each year that passes, fewer and fewer of them are left among us.
But among my own Christmas blessings this year was the fact that my kids got to hear from their G-Pa about his service to his country in a time of great peril. They got to see, and hear him reminisce, not just about battles, but also about pictures of him among a group of admiring junior NROTC cadets that he was responsible for training, and at his "ring ceremony" at U.T. when he was commissioned, and then among friends aboard the Zeilin — and even the touristy photos he took while he was in the Philippines (including a few of a water buffalo). One set of photos was of an equator-crossing ceremony held aboard the Zeilin that included sailors in ridiculous drag as King Neptune's mermaids; another showed him being hazed as a newbie making his first trip across the International Date Line. I think my kids got some sense of what this now-84-year-old man was like when he was just slightly older than they are now. And I believe he also sensed that, both during and after our discussions. My kids' and my and my siblings' respectful and deserved attention — plus the knowledge that his own history won't be lost when, someday, we lose him — certainly meant something very good to him as well. I'm a fortunate man to be his son.
Friday, December 22, 2006
What to give the person who has everything
My family is hard to buy Christmas presents for. Oh, not my kids — they're comparatively easy. But my dad, my brother and sister-in-law, and my sister and brother-in-law — they're hard to buy for, because like me, they pretty much have everything they really need.
But for me, and probably for most of you reading this blog, it's absolutely true that for the adult members of your close family, it really is the thought that counts.
So I've decided that this Christmas — and probably for every Christmas to come — I won't buy any more junk for my adult family members. I can better show them that I love them, and that I'm thankful for them, by showing thanks and love on their behalf to others who really, really need it.
This year, I've chosen to make donations on their behalf to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.
Originally, the Fund "provide[d] unrestricted grants to the families of military personnel who have given their lives in the current operations in defense of our country." But since the passage of legislation in 2005 that began more generously and appropriately compensating these families, the Fund has focused on
constructing a world-class state-of-the-art advanced training skills facility at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The center will serve military personnel who have been catastrophically disabled in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The center will also serve military personnel and veterans severely injured in other operations and in the normal performance of their duties, combat and non-combat related.
The Fund has already raised $35 million for the facility itself — in part through generous gifts like those from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. Building on that success, now the Fund is
accepting donations to provide additional services to the patients who will be treated in the Center and their families. These services may include facilities for patients' children, additional medical equipment and supplies, medical research to improve the care of patients, or other areas relating to the Center's activities including the patients and their families. One hundred percent of the contributions will continue to go to these services, with nothing taken out for the Fund's administrative costs.
I like the fact that the Center for the Intrepid is in San Antonio, relatively close by, and in a local economy where a buck's investment goes a long way (and is likely to indirectly benefit other military families concentrated there). I like the fact that the Center will "be fully staffed and operated by [the] U.S. Army Medical Command with operational budget dollars." And I also like the fact that the new facility "will be built in conjunction with and attached directly to two 21-room Fisher Houses"
— the work of another fabulous (and highly rated) charity "that enables
family members to be close to a loved one at the most stressful time —
during hospitalization for an illness, disease or injury."
Best of all, I like the fact that the Fund is listed among the top-rated military charities by the American Institute of Philanthropy, with an "A+" rating based on the percentage of contributions that actually go toward the Fund's purposes as compared to administrative and fund-raising expenses. The Fund's Board of Trustees, comprising a bunch of folks who've been very financially successful, "underwrites all administrative costs," which means they're actually doing something besides showing up for fancy dinners and getting their pictures in the newspapers. A round of applause for these fat cats, please!
There are, of course, many other worthy charities. The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund is just one of many military-related charities, and there are of course many other worthy special purpose-related charities (for example, still helping hurricane disaster victims) and general purpose charities.
As fortunate as my family and I are, however, I just can't bring myself to spend money at Christmas-time on another necktie or battery-operated whatzit or coffee-table book or, worst of all, something destined to gather dust at the back of a closet.
And hey — with online giving, you can click a link, maybe open a new browser window, and finish your hard-to-finish Christmas shopping in less than five minutes! Print out a page about the charity you've donated to, print out the email confirmation that will list in whose honor or memory your donation was made, and pop them in a Christmas card — and voilà, your gift-wrapping is also done! (Most charities, including the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, will also send a confirmation card by regular mail ot your honoree, per your specifications.) Then sit back, give a hearty Ho-Ho-Ho! — and join me in counting our blessings.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Leeches, stents, modern medicine, and lawsuits
A flurry of recent research has raised alarm about the safety of a new generation of stents that have quickly become the most commonly used devices for treating clogged arteries, creating widespread concern about how to care for millions of heart-disease patients.
The stents, tiny drug-secreting mesh tubes used to prop coronary arteries open, appear to carry a small but significantly increased risk of causing blood clots, compared with older "bare metal" versions. That may boost the patients' chances of suffering a heart attack or dying, according to the studies, including one released yesterday.
Two such "drug-eluting stents" have resided in a pair of my coronary arteries since last July. So I'm sort of reminded of the story about the guy who slips and falls from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. As he's falling, his cell phone rings. It's his best friend. "Can't talk long right now," says the fellow, "I just fell off the Empire State Building observation deck." In shocked tones, the friend blurts out, "Oh my God, how are you?!?" "Meh," answers the fellow, "So far, so good."
My ex is a physician, and I used to tease her by saying, "While my predecessors as lawyers were doing things like writing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights 200-plus years ago, yours were leeching George Washington to death!" Of course, now leeches are back in medical fashion, if not quite considered to be the panacea they were in Washington's time. This time there's hard science, a substantial body of medical evidence, supporting their use. But anyway, back to the WaPo story:
"This is a public health issue of great importance," the FDA's Daniel Schultz said yesterday. "Our goal is to provide the American public with a coherent, understandable explanation of the risks and benefits associated with these products."
The situation, which has triggered an intense, sometimes bitter debate among cardiologists, illustrates the potential dangers of assuming that new technologies are necessarily superior and of adopting them widely before long-term studies are done, experts said.
"Everybody wants to be perceived as doing the most modern thing for their patients and fear being labeled someone who is old-fashioned and not using the latest and greatest thing," said Spencer King of the American College of Cardiology.
I'm very, very well acquainted with the concept of "informed consent" as a medico-legal matter. (Great term, that: "medico-legal." Nobody really knows what it means, but it makes you sound more knowledgeable to say or write it.) And as they handed me the consent forms to sign, I remember thinking, while flat on my back in the cardiac intensive care unit at Methodist Hospital last year, "These forms pretty much boil down to 'The stuff that we're proposing to do to you might hurt or kill you, but we'll try not to, and if we don't do that stuff, you might be hurt or killed anyway.'" As my cardiologist was running a catheter from an incision in my groin up to my heart, I didn't ask him, "Hey, Doc? For these new drug-eluting stents, how many years of evidence from controlled studies are in yet as to whether they might be more likely than plain stents to cause clots later?" Pretty much whatever answer he might have given me then, I'd still have just asked, "So what would you do if you were me, Doc?" Based on what he knew then, he almost certainly would have said, "I'd want this stent." And that would have been plenty good enough for me.
I don't know what he'd say if asked that question today — which is to say, I have no idea if he's been in that recent "heated debate" among cardiologists, and if so, on which side. Another WaPo story reports that a just-released Duke University study "also showed a marked reduction in the need for repeat angioplasties among patients getting drug-eluting stents — one in 12, compared to one in five for those getting bare-metal stents." Hey, that sounds like a trade-off that might be worth taking, especially if (as seems also to be the case, emphasis on the word seems) the clot risk can be reduced through a medication called clopidogrel.
But I'm not a bit worried that a year ago, my cardiologist prescribed those stents for me based on some desire not to "be perceived as old-fashioned." Wow, that's an insulting notion, and I can't believe it could be even partly true in even a tiny fraction of situations; but I'm absolutely certain it wasn't true of my own cardiologist. Even with all of the science available to modern physicians — even the specialists at cutting-edge teaching hospitals — there's still an element of art in the practice of medicine. And certainly there are lots of judgment calls, in medicine just as in law, and the essence of being a professional means that people outside your profession have to rely upon and trust your judgment.
How much education would I have needed to make an intelligent decision without the benefit of my cardiologist's recommendations and judgment? I've got a decent education in science, and a pretty good understanding of medical language and concepts for a layman. But when I first heard them talking about this, I don't think I had any clue what a "stent" was, much less a "drug-eluting stent." Until they explained it a little, I thought they were saying "drug-eluding stint" — and I was wondering, What kind of time-frame are they talking about my having to dodge drugs during (and how, and why)?
Get away from me with your dirty paper cup full of meds, Nurse Ratched, at least for now! I'm embarked upon one of my drug-eluding stints!
So, Doc, if you're reading this by any chance, you can exhale now. At least one lawyer you installed drug-eluting stents into last year has pretty much admitted that if he keels over from a heart attack tomorrow, his survivors won't have a decent case against you. I trusted your judgment, and was, and am, damned grateful for the benefit of it, along with your technical skills.
Did I read those WaPo articles pretty carefully, knowing that this issue applies to hardware that, for me, is "hard-wear"? Oh, sure. Am I going to lose any sleep over it tonight? Naw. It's not something that would be productive to worry about right now. And I'm almost certain that other factors that I can control — "Put down that cheeseburger, Beldar, and get back on the cross-country ski machine!" — are more likely to determine my future cardiac health.
Life is ultimately a terminal condition. But so far, so good.
Saturday, July 16, 2005
Beldar gets lucky
It started with a burrito and a jalapeño last Sunday night that turned out not to have caused indigestion.
Long story short: I had a wee little heart attack this week, but I'm amazingly okay amazingly soon afterwards, and I'm very glad to be home after a short hospitalization.
The modest pain — a dull ache located not under my sternum, but high on my chest wall, almost over to my left shoulder joint — was not at all the "classical presentation" for heart trouble. I had some sweating, but no nausea or referred/radiated pain elsewhere, and no shortness of breath. However, I've got a strong confluence of pretty much all of the risk factors for coronary artery disease, and I had been promising myself for at least the last 15 of my 47 years that "pretty soon" I was actually going to develop some better habits to reduce some of my risks. I expected that when and if it came time to pay the piper, I'd know it without any doubts, because a heart attack is supposed to feel like an elephant is sitting on the middle of one's chest. And this pain didn't feel like that, and didn't appear to be related to exertion, and went away overnight. So I blamed the burrito.
Driving back to work during lunch hour on the following day, though, the pain was back again for about the third time, and it had gotten noticeably worse. So instead I drove to the emergency room at The Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center.
It wasn't by accident that I went to The Methodist. My ex had done some of her training there while she was at Baylor Medical School, and all four of our kids were born there. And that statue in the lobby of Michael DeBakey in surgical scrubs correctly suggests that this place (like the offshoot Cooley/UT/St. Luke's rival practice a couple of doors over) has trained and maintained a couple or three full generations of some of the very best cardio health professionals in the world.
In contrast to the sirens and paramedics routine, walk-in patients aren't very dramatic. And I didn't want to be dramatic. "I'm having some chest pains, and I'd like you to reassure me that I'm not having a heart attack," I said.
About two hours later, I was still waiting for that reassurance. They couldn't give me it, and instead I found myself looking up at the sign on the right from a prone position on a moving gurney.
My electrocardiogram looked normal, but my blood tests weren't — in particular, the test for something called troponin, one type of which is released only from damaged heart muscle. My first result was at 0.11, just barely over the 0.10 considered to be the top end of "normal." They admitted me to the cardiac care unit for at least an overnight observation stay and more tests, but when the second blood test came back with a 0.16 troponin level, I couldn't tell myself any longer that it was probably just a lab testing error. And then the next test came back with a 0.57, at which point I wasn't there just for "observation" anymore.
About 5:00 a.m. on Tuesday, the elephant did indeed sit on the center of my chest. I had a whole lot of confidence in the professionals around me. But even all-stars don't bat 1.000, and I was very intensely aware that this situation was — what's that phrase? — just as serious as a heart attack.
But then things started looking better. Mid-morning, a doppler echocardiogram failed to reveal any specific areas of heart damage; some damage had been done, but apparently not very much, or at least not in any concentrated area. And before the afternoon was over, I had some new heart hardware — a couple of stents implanted during a cardiac catheterization, basically some re-plumbing of my heart conducted through a remote-control puppet show.
Here's the sort of catheter that they threaded through an incision my groin and up through my femoral artery to reach my heart, along with diagrams and examples of the stents that were left behind to keep my most troublesome coronary arteries open:
And here's an exciting video clip about the specific hardware of which I'm the proud new owner/wearer. (This may be a first in the blogosphere: "Weekend stent blogging.")
By Wednesday morning, I was moved out of the cardiac care unit to a regular room on the 7th floor of the Alkek Tower. By that afternoon, I was beginning to get up and around, and by Thursday, I was racking up some pretty good yardage up and down and around the corridors. On Friday morning, with the blessing of my docs, I very happily drove myself home.
Fifty years ago, this might have been a fatal incident. Twenty years ago, if I were lucky, I'd at least have spent some serious time on the operating table with my ribs pried apart, and I'd be looking at many weeks of recovery. Today, I just have a bruise about the size of Rhode Island on my right thigh and groin from the catheter insertion; it looks much worse than it feels. And my heart's actually working better than it has for years.
I could still screw things up if I don't make some serious changes in my ways, and I'm vastly more conscious of the fragility of life and health in general. But I'm a very lucky man.
I can't say enough good things about the professionals at The Methodist. From my cardiologists all the way through to the food service and housekeeping crews, these folks are competent, efficient, pleasant, and compassionate. Here are just a couple of them — two of the nurses from the cardiac care unit who posed for my camera during one of my Thursday afternoon intrahospital hikes:
I'm not going to enable comments on this post, and I'm not trolling for sympathy emails or tip-jar contributions. Send Beldar no flowers, and certainly shed no tears!
I did want to tell the tale here, though, and publicly thank the folks at The Methodist. (I also owe thanks to my family and co-workers, and to my creator, but I'll address them through means other than my blog.)
One of the things that really tickled me this past week were a series of photographic prints that hang in The Methodist's hallways, three of which I've reproduced in this post. They're intended as gentle and humorous reminders to hold the noise levels down, I guess. But they seemed to be saying to me: "Shut up and count your blessings, Beldar."
So I will.
Sunday, July 03, 2005
My niece Grace's wedding
My niece Grace — the lovely, charming, talented, and brilliant youngest daughter of Dr. & Mrs. James R. Dyer of Southlake, Texas — was married yesterday in Waco. Congratulations to the new Mr. & Mrs. Nathan Brown!
A very good time was had by all!
Grace is my brother Jim's youngest daughter. She'll be starting medical school this fall as Nathan finishes up his engineering degree, both at Texas A&M.
Below, the bride along with my four kids (left to right), Kevin, Sarah, Adam, and Molly, at the reception:
Grace again, flanked by my daughters Sarah (left) and Molly:
My four, below, in a rare dressed-up moment. Getting three out of four to smile real smiles is also extraordinary.
Would you perhaps have guessed that my brother is an orthodontist? Below (L to R) is Grace's older brother David and his wife Kate, and Grace's older sister Liana and her husband David:
My sister, Gwen Dyer Johnson, with her son Jeffrey, his lovely wife Leslie, and their newborn son Jared:
The parents of the bride — my older brother Jim and his incomparable wife Shelli:
Adam, demonstrating that he has managed to keep his sleeve out of the liquid chocolate fountain at the reception:
Below, Molly nibbles cheese while pondering whether Dad will ever be able to afford a wedding like this for her someday:
The happy couple, no doubt planning for the future. Nathan is repeating to himself the ritual words that are the secret to a happy marriage: "Yes, dear."
Sunday, February 27, 2005
Beldar and the Aviator
I haven't seen The Aviator yet, but I read with interest Harold Evans' piece in today's WSJ OpinionJournal defending the reputation of Pan Am founder Juan Trippe against impressions the movie may leave:
If you are one of the 3.6 billion who have flown on a 747, it's Trippe, not [Howard] Hughes, who merits the raising of a turbulence-free glass.
This line prompted a personal flashback — one of little consequence to anyone else, but still very vivid for me.
As an aviation-mad child of Sputnik, growing up during the Vietnam War era in small-town Lamesa, Texas, my occasional trip to a big-city airport, and even more rare ride on a passenger jet, was huge. My third-grader heart was broken a few months after I was prescribed my first pair of glasses, when I learned that my less-than-20/20 vision doomed my fervent goal of becoming a fighter pilot, but I remained obsessed with all things aeronautic.
In the Texas panhandle, Lamesa was a fairly short drive from the mountains of New Mexico, and I learned to ski during junior high and high school through two or three weekend trips each year to the Sierra Blanca Ski Resort outside Ruidoso. Sometimes I went with my Boy Scout troop or DeMolay chapter, and a few times just with my dad. On those occasions, we came to enjoy stopping for dinner en route at a unique bistro, the Silver Dollar Bar and Steak House, plopped down on a dark stretch of road between Roswell and Ruidoso in the tiny town of Tinnie. On one such Friday night in December 1969, my dad and I were enjoying the cuisine there — "C'mon, just try the escargot, Billy!" — when we overheard four handsome, clean cut men at the next table who were animatedly swapping pilot stories. They were talking with their hands moving in three dimensions, thumbs and pinkies splayed as wings. Angles of attack! Dogfights and ejection seats and afterburners, oh my! Eavesdropping on their conversation was even more interesting than hearing adults discussing sex.
"Dad!" I whispered, "Do you think they're astronauts? Fighter pilots?"
"Well, son," opined my pa, "You could go over and introduce yourself politely and ask 'em, if you really want to know."
So I did. They were gracious about my interrupting their dinner — they probably recognized the hero-worshipping eye-gleam even through my thick glasses lenses — and they explained that, no, although they were all military aviation vets, they weren't astronauts or fighter pilots. But they were something equally or even more cool — two test pilots from Boeing and two senior instructor pilots from Pan Am. Working out of a decommissioned SAC base with long, empty runways outside Roswell, they were doing the final certification, testing, and training for a big new jet — something called a "Boeing 747." Hey, would my dad and I like to stop by the air base on our way home Sunday afternoon for a little tour?
As promised, they'd left our names with the security gate, and the two Pan Am pilots greeted us like old comrades upon our arrival. They led me and my dad to the biggest airplane I'd ever seen — unimaginably big, with this enormous odd hump on its nose! "What's the biggest jet you've been on, Billy?" they asked. "Boeing 727!" I instantly replied. "Well, son, you could park that 727 under the tail of this jumbo. Wanna come aboard, sport?"
The rows and rows of seats inside the Clipper Young America were pristine — still covered in plastic, in fact. Our hosts led us through them to the very front of the plane and gestured to the forward interior door. "Wanna check out the cockpit?" I opened it — to find that it was a coat closet. Big laughs. "C'mon, fellows, the real cockpit door is upstairs." (Upstairs? On an airplane?!?)
Soon enough they had me planted and belted into the pilot's seat, and then they started pointing out the various controls and computers and whatnot. "Same technology used in the Apollo program," said one pilot. "This aircraft can take itself off and fly itself across the continent to a designated airport without our ever touching the controls, if we'd let her, but — no, no! don't touch that! You'll take us to San Francisco!" More big laughs all around. We toured the upstairs lounge, all of the passenger and crew and maintenance and cargo areas, the whole plane — even climbed up into the wheel wells. "We'd love to take you for a spin, maybe do some touch-and-goes, but the insurance folks won't let us," they explained. "This baby won't be certified for passenger service for another few weeks yet."
None of my friends at school believed any of this when I got home, of course. I barely believed it myself.
About a month later, though, I got a postcard in the mail. The picture side showed a 747 in Pan Am's distinctive, subdued paint job, flying above the clouds. The post-mark was from London, England. "Dear Billy," read the text inscribed by one of our new friends (as best I can recall it), "I thought you'd be interested in knowing that I just captained the first commercial flight of a 747. We went from JFK in New York to Heathrow here in London. Remembered seeing you in the pilot's seat in Roswell. Thanks for the tips, they came in handy. Hope you can make the trip to London with me some day!"
Show-and-tell time at school, baby! Show-and-toldya so!
Juan Trippe would, I think, have been pleased. Howard Hughes even might have approved. But for me, that classy, thoughtful Pan Am captain will always be The Aviator.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
A post-Valentine's Day tale
There are over two million stories in my home city of Houston — and this is one of them, albeit a small one.
I just returned from a quick trip to the neighborhood convenience store. On the sidewalk outside its door lay a single left shoe — an expensive, name-brand athletic shoe, sized to fit a toddler of perhaps three, with Velcro closers, reflective strips, etc. Almost brand new.
No toddlers, lopsided or otherwise, inside or outside the store. None in any of the waiting cars getting gas or parked in the lot. Looks of blank incomprehension in response to my repeated question — "You gotta kid who's lost a shoe?"
What can ya do, but push it over a little farther from the curb and closer to the door, hoping it'll be visible if someone comes back for it?
But I can see the rest of the story clearly: Earlier tonight, or perhaps later or tomorrow morning, some mom is frowning at her toddler. A frantic search — of the bedroom, the living room, the kitchen, the car — ensues. Two new high-quality toddler track shoes are expensive, but one's an embarrassment, and probably someone — most probably Dad, having been sent out on the errand with Junior — is gonna get a tongue-lashing.
So Happy Valentine's Day, harried and hypothetical Dad who didn't notice the missing shoe when you piled Junior back into the car for the trip home. Take your lumps from Mom, and volunteer to make the next shoe-shopping run. Take comfort in knowing (but don't you dare defend yourself by arguing, not at least until next week) that you did get the most important thing back into the car, safe and sound, and that even nearly-brand-new toddler sneakers are replaceable (if only in pairs).
Saturday, October 23, 2004
As predicted, I'm in a much better mood after watching my oldest daughter, Sarah (age 13), in her middle school drama class play tonight.
The play was "The Great Ghost Chase" — book by Tim Kelly, music & lyrics by Bill Francoer. It's a "Ghostbusters Visit the Funny Farm"-type spoof — perfect for a school production because there are lots of speaking parts. Anyway, here's Sarah (in the yellow tee and black leotard, if you can't guess from the proud-pappa photo composition):
I'm a lucky and very, very proud father.
Saturday, October 16, 2004
Morning stroll with my female housemate
No politics. No law. Just pictures with snarky captions.
Beldar confesses another VRWC link
I doubt there's room for it on the NYT's famous chart on the SwiftVets and those who've contributed financially to their campaign, but I hereby confess to another link to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy whose tentacles connect all the forces that seek Sen. Kerry's defeat in the upcoming election.
While I was an associate in the Trial Department of Houston's Baker Botts in the early and mid-1980s, I was among the many lawyers involved in representing Boone Pickens' Mesa Petroleum (and its various affiliates and deal partners) in a series of contested tender offers, including those for Gulf Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Unocal, and Newmont Mining. I've got dozens of trial lawyer war stories to tell from those days, but one quick one pops to mind in this political season.
During the Phillips tender offer, Phillips' New York counsel thought that they'd dig around in hopes of finding that Mr. Pickens had tipped off his longtime friends and poker-playing buddies in Amarillo with inside information about various of his deals, and so they initiated a round of nonparty depositions to grill those poker buddies about their conversations with Mr. Pickens and their own market activities. Mr. Pickens, of course, was and remains a controversial, almost mythical figure, but nobody has ever accused him of being pathologically stupid — which he'd have to have been to discuss his tender offer plans at a poker game. Indeed, Mr. Pickens' friends unanimously and adamantly insisted that he had not only a good poker face, but well knew how to keep his secrets, and Phillips' counsel turned up not a shred of evidence to support their theories. But they did manage to substantially annoy Mr. Pickens' friends and, of course, thereby to annoy Mr. Pickens through this harassment. Accordingly, although I didn't directly represent Mr. Pickens' friends, my assigned job on that particular deal was to attend, monitor, and report nightly on these depositions by telephone directly to Mr. Pickens. (I don't believe that I've ever met him in person.)
The Phillips deal took place during the 1984 Christmas season, and during a brief break in the depositions, I managed to get down from Amarillo to my dad's house in my hometown of Lamesa, a few hours' drive south. Now, my dad's always been proud of my accomplishments, but he doesn't play the market and had only the vaguest understanding of what these tender offers were all about. Millions, billions, arbs, investment bankers, Pac Man offers, white knights, poison pills — all Greek to my pa. But I'm pretty sure that the most impressed he's ever been with my career doings was on that frostly Christmas Eve, when he picked up his home phone to find that Mr. Pickens was on the other end, returning my call to report on the prior morning's deposition. "Was that really Boone Pickens calling you?" he wanted to know. I assured my dad that it had been. "And you gave him my phone number?" Ayup. "Well ... damn! T. Boone Pickens calling my house on Christmas Eve! How about that!" was all my dad could say for about the next half hour.
I rather doubt that my New York-based counterparts for Phillips had quite as merry Christmas Eve dinners in their Amarillo motel rooms. The local folks there, although unfailingly polite, had pegged them as Yankee Grinches. And while I don't know whether Santa left coal and switches in their stockings, they were a cheerless bunch as we resumed the depositions on Boxing Day.
Sunday, October 03, 2004
Beldar's young skeptics view "Sky Captain"
I've just returned from taking my four kids to see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a live-action comic bookish movie set in a slightly alternate 1939 in which the "Hindenburg III" coexists with The Wizard of Oz. This movie was judged in advance an acceptable compromise: My son Kevin (age 16) and I find Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie not too taxing on the eyes; daughter Sarah (age 13) thinks Jude Law is pretty hot; and Adam (age 11) and Molly (age 9) were interested in a retro-sci-fi action thriller.
Although I think Sarah was satisfied with Mr. Law's acrobatics in stylish pilot togs, alas, Ms. Paltrow spent the entire movie in overcoats, and Ms. Jolie's leather flightsuit was a bit beyond Kevin's or my minimal taste for S&M outfits.
My gang also had some problems with suspending disbelief: When one character whipped out a Buck Rogers-type hand weapon, Adam turned to me and whispered, "Dad! How're we supposed to believe they're using ray-guns at the same time they're using typewriters? Duh!" (No word whether Ms. Paltrow's manual typewriter had a superscript "th" key.) And afterward, Kevin asked, "Why, before World War II, were they referring to the evil scientist disappearing from view 'shortly after World War I'? Wouldn't they just have called it the 'World War' or the 'Great War'?" Ayup. Kevin spotted the sfx of the giant robots as being lifted from 1953's The War of the Worlds. And Sarah and I also pondered together what Ms. Jolie's annual lip-gloss budget must be (bigger than one of the zeppelins, we concluded).
Still, no matter how cheesy the movie, it's still fun to go out to a theater, hit the concession stands, watch the previews and debate the likely merits of upcoming films, etc. Today's movie got two stars at best from Beldar's family critics, but the family expedition, as usual, got five.
Saturday, October 02, 2004
Why the USS Zeilin prompts me to oppose Sen. Kerry's position on nuclear bunker busters
Bill Hobbs has a thoughtful and fact-filled post discussing John Kerry's emphatic opposition in Thursday's debate to ongoing American development of nuclear bunker busters, a/k/a "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators." Bill's post has quotes from the debate, details about the research program, and an eloquent explanation for why it's an appropriate tool to add to America's arsenal even if it's never used in combat. Among the points made there is that if such a weapon is part of our arsenal, its very existence will help ensure that it need never be used — even general knowledge of its capabilities being likely to deter terrorists or their state sponsors from making the massive investments in underground bunkers that might not be destroyable by advanced conventional (non-nuclear) munitions.
America has spent billions of dollars on nuclear weapons since the end of World War II, and yet has never used one since then in combat. Gen. Tommy Franks' excellent memoir American Soldier recounts (at pp. 119-20), for example, his responsibility in 1973 for a battery of six M-109 155-mm self-propelled howitzers stationed in Bavaria, for which low-yield nuclear projectiles were stored in a special bunker as part of a "nuclear tripwire" designed to deter the "mass of Soviet tank armies, mechanized infantry, and artillery divisions" facing him across the border with East Germany. He writes convincingly:
[I]f the Cold War ever went hot and Soviet tanks rolled over the barbed-wire fences and minefields marking our sector of the border, the dark pines of the Böhmer Wald would have erupted with nuclear explosions. That was a prospect that could keep a twenty-seven-year-old captain awake nights — and it did.
The prospect of America using nuclear weapons today is a subject on which just about everyone is hypersensitive, for entirely understandable reasons. Some substantial portion of the public — which includes, but is not limited to Sen. Kerry's political base — simply could not read Bill Hobbs' post without immediately dismissing him and the sources he cites and quotes as being crazed Dr. Strangelove-types.
Of course, such people would find that their scruples and moral outrage wouldn't shield them for even a milisecond longer than anyone else if the terrorists who want to destroy civilization ever succeed in acquiring a nuke, no more than the sensitive liberals atop the World Trade Center towers suddenly grew parachutes while the floors beneath them dissolved in flame and rubble. But I acknowledge that there are people who are simply unable to have a serious discussion about nuclear weapons, whether they're in the hands of a terrorist or of an American soldier like Tommy Franks acting under layers of control running directly to the President of the United States (whether that continues to be George W. Bush or becomes John F. Kerry).
If you're one of those folks, though, you might as well find another link to click, because at this point, my post is about to take a strange detour — one that explains, eventually, my own particular perspective on nuclear weapons.
Upon graduation from the University of Texas in 1944 via an accelerated Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program, James D. Dyer, Jr., a 1941 graduate of Lamesa High School in tiny Lamesa, Texas, was commissioned as an Ensign in the United States Naval Reserve and immediately placed upon active-duty status. Shortly thereafter, he was assigned as a junior officer aboard the Amphibious Attack Transport USS Zeilin, pictured below.
The Zeilin was named after Brigadier General Jacob Zelin, a hero of both the Mexican-American and Civil Wars and, as the Seventh Commandant of the Marine Corps, responsible for the adoption of the Marine Corps' eagle-globe-anchor emblem in 1867 and The Marines' Hymn.
With Ensign Dyer among its officers and crew, the "Mighty Z" steamed out of San Francisco for the western Pacific on 21Oct44, and in December participated in practice landings at Guadalcanal in preparation for the invasion of Luzon. On 11Jan45, she landed troops as part of the first reinforcement echelon for the San Fabian phase of the invasion.
Today we met our first Kamikaze.
Over an abyss of nearly forty-five years I still recall the terror of that moment. I see the destroyer escort on our port bow firing its 5-inch guns into the low overcast, an immediately I start cranking our own No. 1 5-inch gun to port. The plane is there, streaking down from the cloud cover, in a long shallow dive that is going to carry across our fantail where already our 40s and 20s are thumping and chattering. There are winks of flame in the front end of the plane and I know some of our 20mm projectiles are striking home. And I can see the pilot, almost hunched over the controls as he rides the plane through the hail of steel....
"On Target" I yell and Frank yells back "On Target". But there are over fifty ships scattered on the sea behind us, men on some of those ships already killed by friendly fire — maybe from our after guns.
No. 1 gun stays silent and for just a few seconds time slows in horror as the plane streaks across the few hundred yards of water and slams into a gun tub on the sky deck of the USS Zeilin (APA-3) just off our starboard quarter. In a blink of an eye, lives are snuffed out, winking into blackness like candle flames in the wind.
For a few minutes, flames seem to envelop the entire ship, subsiding almost immediately to nothing more than charred, smoking wreckage in the twisted scorched gun tub. And through it all the Zeilin never slowed, never changed course, never lessened its intent of destruction upon the enemy. I looked across the breech of the gun at Ambrutis and he just shook his head.
The Zeilin suffered seven killed, three declared missing, and thirty wounded. But she continued onward with her convoy, and after temporary repairs, she participated in landing reinforcements at Iwo Jima between 9-16Mar45. After permanent repairs back in San Francisco and a brief stop in San Diego, she headed back to the western Pacific, and was at Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands when hostilities ended in the Pacific on 15Aug45.
As the only Texan among the Zeilin's junior officers, young Dyer was of course nicknamed "Tex." In due course, he'd been promoted to Lieutenant (Junior Grade). Among his duties was commanding boats like the Landing Craft, Mechanized from the Zeilin pictured below, or even smaller boats like Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel.
Just as troopships like the Zeilin were favorite targets for kamikaze pilots and submarines, junior officers commanding LCMs and LCVPs were favorite targets of Japanese snipers. (Recall, if you've seen it, the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan — same boats, albeit in a different theater of operations.) If Harry Truman hadn't decided to use America's new atom bomb to bring World War II to a close in August 1945, young LTJG Dyer's odds of surviving the planned invasions of the Japanese mainland were, realistically, poor. "Tex" Dyer very possibly, perhaps even very probably, wouldn't have returned to Lamesa, Texas, in 1946; wouldn't have married; and wouldn't have had his third child in 1957.
And you wouldn't be reading this particular blog.
Although the Cold War is over, and the risks of global thermonuclear war and mutually assured destruction have lessened, any American president — of either political party — is going to be extremely reluctant to use nuclear weapons, of any type, in any but the most compelling circumstances. But since 9/11, compelling circumstances that previously seemed unimaginable, aren't anymore. No one but a deranged barking moonbat would argue that America should pursue complete and unilateral nuclear disarmament.
So who else — besides the terrorists and their state supporters — would we be doing a favor by cancelling the nuclear bunker buster program?
The USS Zeilin was decommissioned in 1946, and scrapped in 1948. But LTJG (ret.) James D. Dyer, Jr., now age 83, still lives in Lamesa, Texas; his Naval Reserve Identity Card from 1946, wrapped in plastic, is still in his wallet. His grandchildren, including my four kids and my four nieces and nephews, have seen that same photo of the Zeilin that appears above in this post hanging inconspicuously on the wall of his garage when they've gone to see their G-Pa on many a Christmas.
I hope that he'll be able to himself, but even if not, I'd like someday to be able to show my own grandchildren that photo of the "Mighty Z" someday, and tell them about their great grandfather. An American ability to take out an otherwise impregnible underground terrorist bunker seems to raise that probability in my admittedly biased but sincerely felt judgment.
So yes, I'm for this program; and the fact that Sen. Kerry's against it is yet another reason I'm against him. Although I never saw her — and although I've learned more about the action she participated in from research done on the internet than I've ever been able to pry out of my dad — I still remember the Zeilin.
Update (Sat Oct 2 @ 8:20pm): Re-reading this post, and in particular the bit about the ID card, I suddenly remembered the first time I ever learned that my father had even been in the Navy. (At that point the framed photo of the Zeilin was hidden away in a trunk somewhere, not even on the garage back wall.)
In the summer of 1964, when I was six, my family took a cross-country driving vacation — ostensibly so my dad could attend the Lions Clubs International convention in Los Angeles, but of course we toured up and down the California coast. We were in a 1962 Buick Riviera, one of whose "features" was a spined chrome grillwork that ran from the center-bottom to -top of the back seat, and behind which were hidden a pair of AM radio speakers; as the youngest of three kids, I of course had to sit in the center, and that chrome spine tortured me for days and days on end. (At least we had no seat belts in those days, so I could squirm as much as my brother and sister would permit.)
It seemed to me that we were doing a lot of aimless driving, and I was frankly pretty bored. But I remember being surprised when we pulled up to the main gate of the San Diego Naval Station. A crisply uniformed and armed sailor (or maybe a Marine; I didn't know the difference) stepped to my dad's driver window to inquire about our business. My dad winked and dug out his wallet, then produced a faded card from deep within it (although I had no idea what it was). I remember seeing the guard's eyes widen when he looked at it, and then he politely asked us to wait while he went back into the guard station to make a phone call. He stepped back to our car in a moment, handed my dad back his ID, motioned to his fellow guard to raise the road baricade, and invited us to take a driving tour of the base (with a polite warning not to leave our car and to stay on marked roads).
My sister and brother and I looked at each other in stunned amazement. But then something happened that completely dropped our jaws: the guard stepped aside and snapped off a precise, very respectful salute. "Enjoy your tour, Lieutenant Dyer," he said, and then he executed a smart about-face and returned to his post.
I shut up about the chrome grill for the rest of the day.
Update (Sat Oct 2 @ 9:45pm): Hugh Hewitt's hosting a virtual symposium on the subject of Kerry and bunker busting nukes, with links galore.
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Still more from Dr. Newcomer
While I was driving my daughter Molly (age 9) to school this morning, she explained to me the difference between nerds and geeks. Nerds, she told me, are really smart and funny, but geeks are smart and social outcasts (even among nerds) because they're not funny. Molly then opined that she and I are both nerds.
Dr. Newcomer — who continues to update his website article with more MEGO-inducing technical details — is clearly a nerd, but not a geek:
If someone can reproduce this using a Selectric Composer, I think in addition to seeing the document, we need a complete videotape showing it being done. I and anyone else who wants to reproduce this in Word can also show how long it takes us to duplicate it, on tape. It took me five minutes the first time, and I was very, very close except for eyeballing some double-spacing and getting the right number of carriage returns in for the vertical spacing. It took me three tries to get a perfect rendering. I do not think we will see a Selectric Composer scenario that is credible for anyone (let alone a non-typist) creating such a memo in 1972. In fact, let's have two videotapes: one of an experienced typesetter who uses that device doing it, and one of an ordinary typist (the kind you are likely to find in a typing pool of that era) doing it. This requires more stretch in my imagination than I saw in the salt-water-taffy I watched being made in Maine on my last vacation.
I mean that in a good way, of course, as did Molly.
Monday, July 19, 2004
"Yuh-huh"/"Uh-huh" versus "Nuh-uh"/"Uh-uh"
Linguist and guest blogger Neal Whitman, writing on The Volokh Conspiracy this week, wonders whether there's a generational correlation to explain those who say "yuh-huh" — instead of "uh-huh" — to mean "yes." He may be right. Although I'm a Buffy fan, I'm old (and perhaps tragically unhip) enough myself to be a consistent "uh-huh"-er — as (if I recall correctly) was my ex-wife (on those unfortunately-all-too-rare occasions when she was agreeing with me about something). I'll have to listen to my own kids to see which they tend to use.
Actually, this is something to which I've given considerable thought and study — professionally, although as a lawyer rather than as a linguist!
There are at least two variations on the negative version, too: "nuh-uh" and "uh-uh." In my experience, some people use both variations — with "nuh-uh" (often with the second syllable stressed) the more emphatic, and "uh-uh" (usually with both syllables equally stressed) the more casual.
With either set of variations, court reporters sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between the affirmative version and the negative version. Even if the court reporter hears and understands it correctly, there's sometimes ambiguity created in the way the court reporter transcribes what he or she has heard into the written transcript. "Mmm-hmmm" and its almost untranscribeable negative counterpart ("mph-mmm"?) are even harder to handle — although I suspect they have a whole section devoted to these sorts of "in- or semi-audible responses" in the court reporter school curriculum. (It is the rare but splendidly self-confident court reporter who will include in the transcript something like, "[Witness grunts affirmatively.]")
And even if the court reporter gets it absolutely right and transcribes accurately the noise the witness made, it's fairly plausible, and hence not uncommon, for a witness who wants to avoid being caught in a contradiction later to claim that the court reporter just got it wrong:
Naw, I actually said 'uh-huh,' but that court reporter girl, she just wrote down 'nuh-uh,' but I always meant 'yes,' no matter what it says there in that booklet you're reading from."
For these reasons, whether it's during pretrial examinations (depositions) or trial examinations, experienced trial lawyers often include among their "initial understandings" with the witness an explanation that the witness needs to try to avoid saying "uh-huh" or "huh-uh" or variations on those phrases. Even the most hostile witness has to agree with this request. But of course, it's asking a lot of any witness that he or she self-police his or her language to completely avoid these expressions.
Thus, especially during cross-examination of a hostile witness, when one is allowed (and usually ought) to ask "leading" questions (which try to elicit the witness' agreement with a pre-suggested answer), REALLY experienced trial lawyers have trained and conditioned themselves to ask — instantly, reflexively, automatically — "You're agreeing with me, is that correct?" — whenever they hear a witness answer a yes/no question with "uh-huh" (or "yuh-huh").
Especially when it's asked instantly, without even a beat's pause, even sloppy and inarticulate witnesses, and often very hostile ones as well, will almost always immediately answer this followup question with a single word — "Correct." And then not only has the lawyer ensured that the transcript will be unambiguous if any question should later arise about the witness' answer, but he or she has driven home again the concession or agreement just extracted — and subtly reinforced the subliminal message that "I, the righteous master advocate in this courtroom, have forced my adversary to acknowledge that I am correct yet again, because I already know what all the evidence is going to be, and I'm rarely if ever going to be surprised by it." Nor will one likely be met with an objection — "Asked and answered already!" or "Cumulative!" — since the questioner is not, technically, belaboring the point, but simply complying with all advocates' duty to try to promote a clear, clean record of the proceedings. To put it bluntly, "uh-huh" or "yuh-huh" — when properly exploited — can be the trial lawyer's friend!
If, by contrast, one gets a "nuh-uh" or an "uh-uh" from a hostile witness when one was expecting and hoping for a "yes" (or an "uh-huh" or a "yuh-huh"), it may sometimes be to the lawyer's (and his/her client's) advantage to leave that answer somewhat vague and unclear in the transcript.
There are other ways to make the clarification, and one sometimes has to use them when one is not allowed to lead (as when one is examining a friendly witness with a judge or opposing counsel who's being a stickler for evidentiary rules) — for example, the simple "Was that a 'yes' answer or a 'no' answer?" This lacks the element of witness control and the subliminal message to the jury, but does suffice to make sure the transcript is clear (when and if that's one's goal).
Sadly, however, I see lawyers every day who attempt to clear up these points in the record but who, through their own inarticulateness, end up only making things worse — usually by re-asking a variation of the question, oftentimes inserting a double-negative to boot:
Is it not the case that just now, when you answered "nuh-uh," you were saying that the traffic light had not turned green for the traffic headed north before you drove into the intersection?
Yes, this lawyer just sounded like the erudite and learned Rumpole of the Bailey. But whether the witness answers this question "yes," "no," "huh-uh," or "yuh-huh," no one can possibly be sure that the witness has correctly understood the question or that the listening audiance has correctly understood the witness' intended meaning. (Did that "yes" mean, "Yes, that is not the case"? or "Yes, the light had not turned green"? It could have been either!) Double-negatives are hard to avoid — but the phrase "is it not the case?" should simply be taken out and shot, repeatedly.
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
Molly & Adam head for OotM World Finals
My two youngest, Molly (age 9) and Adam (age 11), have been working since late winter and throughout the spring with a team of five classmates (Maggie J., Evan L., Alex M., Allison O., and Allie R.) in this year's Odyssey of the Mind competition. This was Adam's and Molly's second year to compete on a team together. Their older siblings, Kevin and Sarah, also participated in this competition when they were in elementary school, and my ex coached a team a couple of years ago, so OotM is something of a family tradition.
As described on its handy website, OotM is
an international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college. Kids apply their creativity to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices to presenting their own interpretation of literary classics. They then bring their solutions to competition on the local, state, and World level. Thousands of teams from throughout the U.S. and from about 25 other countries participate in the program....
Teams are scored for their long-term problem solution, how well they solve a “spontaneous” problem on the spot, and “Style” — the elaboration of their long-term problem solution.
Adam's and Molly's team chose this year to work on the "Envirover problem":
The team's problem is to build and drive a human-powered Envirover vehicle that will collect trash and deliver it to a Factory, where it will be used to manufacture a product of the team’s design. The team will present an original prototype of the product, then use the trash to produce five samples of the product. The team will also create and present a humorous sales pitch for its product that takes place in a store setting.
They and their teammates met many, many times to plan for and construct their prototype Envirover, develop the associated "sales pitch" skit (with appropriate costumes and props), and practice for the spontaneous problem. The competition isn't too intense — the teamwork and cooperation skills developed during the run-up is the main point of participating, at least for our family.
Their team has continually improved, however. Although they just squeaked through the Houston Regional competition (behind two other teams from their school) to qualify for last weekend's Texas Odyssey 2004 State Tournament, they ended up placing second in their division at State — thereby qualifying for the OotM 2004 World Finals to be held at the University of Maryland on May 29-June 1! Woohoo! Their mom will likely accompany them for the trip along with their older siblings, and hopefully they'll all be able to combine some DC-area sightseeing over a long weekend.
Obviously, I'm pretty tickled by their success. One of our family mantras — something I repeat just about every day — is "I'm proud of you all the time, even when you're sleeping, just for you being you." But whenever they do something especially praiseworthy — and certainly for results like these — I gladly get to say, "Wow, I'm extra proud of you today!"
Here are the two young competitors as they were climbing into the car on the way to school this morning, looking pretty tickled with themselves: