Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jay's Last Tonight Show

Last Friday Night was Jay Leno’s last show as host of the Tonight Show. He is leaving the show, but not leaving television.

He will host his own talk show in the fall on NBC as part of their prime time lineup.

For most of the show, it was his usual tepid, but funny performance. It didn’t have anywhere near the sadness and poignancy like Johnny Carson’s last show. It was a faux goodbye and that made the show underwhelming to me. Jay reminisced, had some jokes that missed and did a total suck up job to Conan O’Brien who will replace Jay on Monday night.

The Tonight Show has long been a staple of television going all the way back to the first host, Steve Allen. Steve and Conan have a lot in common. That’s why I don’t think Conan will do a stellar job with the franchise. Cue the Letterman music: Dave, you’re kharma prayers have been answered since they passed you up, picking Conan to succeed you.

Steve Allen was an intellectual, a musician and a brilliantly funny person. But he wasn’t an Everyman. Conan O’Brien is Harvard educated, got his start as a comedy writer and ultimately produced the Simpson’s cartoon show before being thrown on NBC as Letterman’s replacement. He has done well, but Jay Leno has consistently beaten Letterman because of an innate quality that regular people, Middle America relates to.

Jay Leno is real. He’s a real person, not an intellectual, not upper-crust. He likes collecting cars. Not just old cars but muscle cars. He loves to tinker with mechanical things.

He’s got a blue-collar work ethic that is legendary. He loves working and writing, trying out material in front of an audience at a comedy club BEFORE the next Tonight Show.

Plus he was recently hospitalized for an undisclosed illness. The reason he was in the hospital is because he doesn’t have a doctor. The man is a machine and just works. He’s never in the tabloids; he’s not fodder for the gossip sites, he’s just Jay.

Letterman is a dork-who-made good and his sarcasm has a petulant and pretentious tone. O’Brien uses obscure references and is willing to go highbrow more often than not.

Here’s the dirty little secret about late night talk shows. Johnny made it look easy. And it ain’t about being funny… it’s about being the most relatable.

Jay is just Jay, and people like that.

And that’s why he will do well in his new time slot on NBC.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reggie Jackson Is a Jackass

I told the story of how I ran into baseball legend Reggie Jackson on my radio show and have gotten some email for me to retell the story on my blog. Here it is:

I flew back to Baltimore to watch my sister walk across the stage and receive her master’s degree. The ceremony was long and the school invited the ambassador from Hungary who had all the stage presence of an old brown shoe to give the address. So my dad turned to me, and said, “Let’s get out of here.” Which is his code for “I can't sit still and need a cigar.” So while the ambassador droned on about something in his country, dad and I walked out in the bright, warm sunshine of Memorial Day weekend.

In the quad, under the shade of trees, the school cafeteria staff was setting out cookies and pink lemonade so newly tasseled graduates and their family could meet up outside of the auditorium, take photos, and bask in the warm sun of their accomplishments.

As dad and I are eating some cookies, I see a man walk over to the table and ask if her could have some lemonade. It’s Reggie. Reggie Freakin’ Jackson is off to my right in the middle of Westminster, Maryland, at this small private college.

I grab my father and point out Mr. October. Dad says there’s no way that’s him. He’s still bitter that Reggie came from the A’s to the Orioles and then left after one season to join the hated bums in pinstripes, sealing his legend with Billy Martin and company. So I casually walk over and listen to him make small talk with the woman behind the table. I know his voice and that’s definitely the guy who had a semi-successful candy bar named for him.

Now I usually don’t get star-struck. It’s only happened twice in my career. (Another story for another time, and yes, both stories are completely embarrasing). So I decided to follow Reggie back into the auditorium and shake his hand. As he is looking at some plaques on the wall, I sidle up beside him and just above a whisper say, “Mr. Jackson, I just wanted you to know I am big fan.”

Notice I didn’t scream it, didn’t act goofy and get all flustered, I didn’t ask him for an autograph. I was respectful.

Reggie Jackson acted like I had thrown a turd in his lemonade.

In retrospect, I should have defiled his drink. His face went stone cold. He wouldn’t look me in the eye and actually turned away in the most dismissive, condescending way. But not before offering his hand in a half-hearted attempt to make amends. As if the baseball gods would allow me to shake his hand, just this once. I gripped the hand of a man who almost got into a fist fight with Billy Martin during a game, immediately noticing it was the lamest attempt at giving a fan some respect I’ve ever experienced.

When I went back to my father and told him what had happened, he just took the cigar out of his mouth and said, “Doesn’t surprise me.”

Look, I’ve been yelled at by rock stars and been dismissed by Hollywood people. I know my rank in the Fan v. Celebrity food chain, but this was just a jerk move by a guy who could’ve just smiled and said, “thanks.” Instead, I now wish Billy Martin had cold-cocked him in the dugout confrontation.

I have gotten email from people regaling me of their own experiences with Reggie who played at ASU and the theme seems to be the same.

Reggie should do us all one last favor and change his name from Jackson to Jackass so no one makes the same mistake I did.

Lil' Kim Jong Illin'

Forget about Iraq or Afghanistan. Who cares about Iran?

Don’t worry about China or Darfur. And skip the Palestinians versus Israelis.

The first major foreign policy challenge of Barack Obama’s presidency concerns a small man (5'3"), who has the largest porn collection in the world, enjoys keeping tabs on Hollywood celebrities, and letting his own people starve while he proudly shows his pendulous belly.

Oh, and he wants his own nuclear arsenal.

Earlier this week, Kim Jong Il, the totalitarian dictator of North Korea, decided that he wasn’t getting enough attention and launched a couple of short range missiles. Not only do these tests directly impact surrounding countries like South Korea, China and Japan, it also can affect other countries like the United States. These missiles could possibly be fitted with nuclear weapons and could start a world conflagration – if North Korea is allowed enough time to pass their technological baby steps.

South Korea has joined the United Nations in condemning the tests, but what needs to happen is a swift, defining move to make sure that North Korea has no chance of testing anything in the near future.

As of Wednesday, Pyongyang threatened war against South Korea and the United States because of their alliance to intercept any ship they feel may be delivering nuclear materials to North Korea.

Enough writing is on the wall: Kim Jong Il wants to sit with the Big Boys and have nuclear capablities. The United States, as well as the world, cannot allow that to happen.

Our president should have taken immediate action and with the Chinese, launched weapons to take out the launch pads of the missiles that were launched over Memorial Day weekend. Instead, Barack Obama will continue to want dialogue, consensus, while Lil’ Kim grows stronger and has more time to build, test, and implement his nuclear program.

South Korea says it is prepared to “respond sternly” to any kind of aggression, while five ambassadors (including the United States) are drawing up a new resolution for North Korea; a resolution, like many others, Kim Jong Il will dismiss and continue his nuclear program.

Kim Jong Il has made it abundantly clear that he has a Napoleon complex, wanting to be taken seriously as a modern day leader, but there is no room at the Big Boys table for an unstable, egomaniacal dictator.

But President Obama won’t do what’s necessary, and by doing so he will allow history to repeat itself.

Constantly blaming the “failed policies of the last eight years,” Obama has hamstrung himself into not being able to take swift, decisive action on the world stage when necessary. This president cannot do what needs to be done to a despot who loves to saber rattle, and with every puff-up gesture and temper tantrum Kim Jong Il takes, he and his country gets that much closer to having the potential of using nuclear and long range weapons against other countries.

Kim Jong Il has repeatedly ignored the UN. Here is a brief timeline:

Oct 2006 - NKorea conducts an underground nuclear test. (A major no-no)
Feb 2007 - NKorea agrees to close its main nuclear reactor in exchange for fuel aid. (They didn’t)
June 2007 - NKorea shuts its main Yongbyon reactor. (For a short time)
June 2008 - NKorea makes its long-awaited declaration of nuclear assets. (Lil’ Kim delayed the results)
Oct 2008 - The US removes NKorea from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism. (BIG Mistake)
Dec 2008 - NKorea slows work to dismantle its nuclear program after a US decision to suspend energy aid. (Kim loves playing this game)
Jan 2009 - The NKorea says it is scrapping all military and political deals with the South, accusing it of "hostile intent." (Kim gets more attention from the world)
April 2009 - NKorea launches a rocket carrying what it says is a “communications” satellite. (Another resolution broken)
May 25, 2009 - North Korea conducts a second nuclear test. (I sense a pattern here)

Lil’ Kim has enslaved his people in a totalitarian state and has aggressively sought out scientists and materials to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. Yet the United States, and the world, just sits by, forms committees, enacts resolutions and wrings its collective hands, acting like a paper tiger.

This is reminiscent of a former totalitarian dictator who enslaved his own people, used WMD against his own people and violated over 42 United Nations resolutions and the world decided to do nothing. (See above infractions.)

His name was Saddam Hussein. And (whether you agree or not with the reasons and the fallout) we know who finally took him out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Slighting Out Kids

An article in the Republic caught my attention the other day when Pat Kossan wrote, “Arizona classrooms are the third-most crowded in the nation, and they're about to get squeezed further.”

In the Republic article, it said that state administrators would have to come up with some kind of plan. Because of the economy, states slashing budgets, and stimulus money being siphoned off, your kid may be in a larger classroom.

But there is a debate among educators and academics on whether or not the size of the class is proportionate to the level of education your child receives.

Arizona has the dubious distinction of having a higher average of teacher-to-student ratios.

“Arizona had 20.2 students for each teacher in 2006-07, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education. Only Utah at 22.1 and California at 20.9 had more. The national average was 15.5 students.”

It doesn’t matter what school system you’re in, or whether you choose to send your kid to a private or public institution. Class size does matter.

I am wrapping up my first year working with a sixth grade class here in the Valley, and although I am not a teacher, (and not receiving a degree in education) I have noticed that the less kids there are in the classroom, the more engaged they become.

About once a week I teach public speaking to these kids who, for the most part, are from another part of the world or their parents do not speak English. They are from Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Russia. So to get these kids all on the same speaking page is tough.

I can’t imagine the challenge that I, let alone every teacher, face if the class size swells next year. Many times I will have to work one-on-one with these kids and when you’re focused one particular child there is a better chance for that child to learn. In my experience it also helps me to learn what the child is capable of so I can tailor my visits and help those who need a bit more time learning.

I know that budgets are being drastically cut and that people are looking for money in almost every nook and cranny of state and federal coffers. But I also know that just because you throw money at a problem, it doesn’t guarantee that the problem will be amended or quickly fixed. We have seen how government is all too ready to throw money at programs that, frankly, are just wasteful spending.

But not education.

I agree with Kossan’s assessment, “Arizona schools must find a balance among the number of teachers hired, the number of students each teacher will have, and how much each teacher will be paid.”

Just because Arizona is suffering in budget woes doesn’t mean our kids should.

Unfortunately, I don’t see our state political heroes making the sacrifices or coming with better ideas to lower the teacher-to-student ratio next year.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Caveat Emptor: Michael Vick

When released from a federal prison on May 20th, Michael Vick will go to a half way house and use his body to earn a living, but it won’t be as an athlete; he will finish out the rest of his prison sentence for operating an illegal dog fighting ring back home in Hampton Roads, Virginia working a construction job for 10 bucks an hour.

There will be no one to cheer him when he drives a nail straight, no accolades for safely using a circular saw, no one asking him how he will handle next week’s game plan of pouring concrete.

Vick will be an average guy; a far cry from someone who was paid millions of dollars because of his unbelievable preternatural ability for throwing a football.

Vick wants badly to come back to the NFL. He will be relatively young; a little out of shape and will need some time to flex the rust off of his arm.

And if you’re an owner even mildly entertaining the idea of asking him to play for you, I offer you some free advice: Don’t do it.

Not because Michael Vick isn’t talented or will be too old to play.

If Roger Goodell thinks he is contrite and sincere about truly learning from his previous mistakes, then he will allow Vick back into the league as soon as this season.

But if you are a desperate team looking for an agile, scrambling quarterback who can make plays on the run, I offer you some free advice: don’t take him. In fact, don’t even talk to his agent. Vick comes with not only enough baggage to get a Samsonite endorsement, he will also come with an unlikely entourage.

Back when we first started learning about what an inhumane and cruel operation Bad Newz Kennels was, and read the news reports of how many dead dogs were buried on Vick’s Surry County, Virginia property, (the rape stands, the dog pits, and the thousands of dollars that were bet on this senseless sport), People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals made a promise.

It’s a promise they are still more than willing to keep and your franchise doesn’t need the head ache and the ticked off fan base.

If any team decides to pay Michael Vick to play, PETA has vowed to show up and protest. In a day when people protest everything and anything, when television news outlets have their pick of what group is protesting where, this may just sound like an empty threat or cacophonous din and nothing more.

But PETA will not just protesting outside of the stadium of the team Vick plays for on any given Sunday. They have vowed to go on the road and protest at the opposing teams stadiums. PETA has vowed to show up at any camp, appearance or event that is directly or indirectly involved with Vick or the team.

They say that the NFL has a short memory when it comes to talent. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys last year when they hired Adam “Pac Mac” Jones, as well as a host of other teams.

But if you’re an NFL owner, do you really want that kind of entourage following your team around? Just because you’ve “conveniently” forgotten what Michael Vick did?

It’s just not worth the headache.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama Speaks At ASU

I Would Have Preferred Oprah.

When addressing the graduating class of 2009 at Sun Devil Stadium, President Barack Obama had the opportunity to inspire, lifting the spirits and motivating students to reach for their dreams and realize their goals. And he did that, while bashing what most grads worry about the most when on the precipice of springing into the work force: making money.

Oprah, who gave the commencement address at Duke University earlier in the week, said that she loves living in a mansion and “it is really fantastic to have your own jet, and anybody who says it isn’t is lying to you. That jet thing is really good.”

Now that’s honesty you can take to the bank, no pun intended.

Using a clever euphemism for making money, calling it “the old approach,” the president denigrated those living in a higher tax bracket saying, “It was in pursuit of gaudy short-term profits, and the bonuses that come with them, that so many folks lost their way on Wall Street.”

Wow. How disappointing and hypocritical.

Addressing over 71 thousand people in Tempe, Barack said that “formulas for success that have dominated these recent years,” should not be the brass ring to shoot for, adding, “how much money you make and how big your corner office is; whether you have a fancy enough title or a nice enough car” isn’t what graduates should concentrate on.

Sorry, but that’s not a goal for many. The corner office, the nice car is also a sign of success; it shouldn’t be a symbol of shame or arrogance or greed as President Obama (and others) have suggested.

Speaking of arrogant, what I find particularly galling and offensive is how people who have attained a level of financial success, (ahem, Mr. President) feel it is their right to lecture and chastise people on the evils of making money; or wanting to attain wealth. Or simply working selfishly to be successful. That somehow wanting to be successful and have that success be rewarded by financial gain is inherently corrupt and goes against what this country stands for.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Does that mean Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, JP Morgan, Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, Mark Cuban and the Jonas Brothers are corrupt and evil because they worked with a single determination and became wildly successful, i.e, wealthy? I think they are something to aspire to, not denigrate. Well, maybe the Jonas Brothers.

Blind greed is evil; avarice is a sin, but what of our elected politicians who have made plenty of money in their lifetimes before, during and after they are elected political heroes? Should we mock Bill Clinton for commanding a million dollars for a speech? Should we insult Bill Frist for being a good doctor and had a thriving practice before being elected to Congress from Tennessee? I would feel better being lectured by Mother Theresa who actually lived in abject poverty than John Kerry or John McCain who married women of wealth.

But the president did say something that I agree with wholeheartedly: “no matter how much you’ve done, or how successful you’ve been, there’s always more to do, more to learn, more to achieve.”

And if that monetarily rewards you, don’t feel shamed.

I think Oprah would agree with me.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Peer Pressure May Help

A quick disclaimer: I have never used illegal drugs, (e.g., pot, cocaine, meth, heroin or any number of illicit substances) finding them to be a ludicrous waste of time and money as well as not having any social or conventional value. That being said, I am sick of our country using valuable resources, i.e, our tax money, to fight a senseless and hypocritical War On Drugs.

Remember back in high school when your friends got you to do stuff by pressuring you with ridiculous and empty phrases like, “everyone else is doing it, why won’t you?” And my favorite, “Don’t you want to be cool?”

Even though I never fell for those ridiculous and insipid siren songs of hip “coolness,” I think it’s time channel our inner high school, using it to pressure the state of California to decriminalize marijuana.

Always wanting to be the coolest place in the country, if not the world, the Golden State with its perpetual tan and beautiful people, is flat broke and has been for awhile. There is no end in sight as the land of fruits, nuts and flakes sinks deeper into debt to the tune of $15.6 billion.

So when Governor Arh-nuld suggested that his state look into legalizing marijuana for recreational use and thusly, tax purposes, I immediately think back to high school and the irony of goading Cali into being the first state in the country to pass major legislation, making the possession and use of marijuana not only legal, but a taxable commodity.

And it would make them “cool.” What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, the Governor is being a buzzkill by not fully endorsing the prospective change in the laws. He endorses studying how much money could be derived from taxing pot. “Well, I think it’s not time for (legalization), but I think it’s time for a debate.”

Dude, that’s so lame! Don’t you want your state to be so “rad” and “cool” to be the first place to legalize the mary jane? How awesome would that be, dude?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. The so-called farce called the “War On Drugs” hasn’t accomplished anything. We are siphoning off billions of dollars to fight a crop that was demonized by the government back in the 1930’s because African-American musicians were the primary users of “reefer” and lawmakers in a Jim Crow era didn’t want their white children to be exposed to that drug (or the music) at that time. So elected political heroes not only demonized cannabis with propaganda pieces that were shown in movie theaters across the country, (check out the earnestly hilarious “Reefer Madness”) they made it illegal.

Yet tobacco products (which like hemp, was grown by our forefathers) are legal and kill more people every year than pot.

According to a study by the California Board of Equalization, legalizing marijuana and taxing it like cigarettes and alcohol would bring in an additional $1.34 BILLION dollars to California’s coffers. Also, the state would save money on law enforcement because the War On Drugs would only apply to hard-core stuff like heroin, cocaine, meth, etc. Local jails would be emptied of people serving sentences for pot possession, saving money on incarceration expenses like jail upkeep, maintenance, staffing and feeding prisoners.

Still not convinced, Governor? Go back to your native Europe and look at Portugal. In 2001, the country became the first on the continent to abolish any and all criminal penalties for personal possession of not exclusively cannabis but cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine as well.

The biggest fear among Portuguese lawmakers was that their country would be a tourist destination for total stoners, turning Portugal into some kind of Spaniard Holland. (Holland, by the way, has never legalized possession of marijuana; they just don’t enforce their own laws).

So has Portugal become a pit of open-air drug use? Has crime and debauchery increased, flooding their courts and jails with collateral crimes in the wake of decriminalization? According to the American Cato Institute, a Libertarian-leaning think tank, their answer is after five years of decriminalization, drug use among teens has declined. The rate of HIV cases caused by sharing dirty needles has also declined. And Portugal has the lowest rate of personal marijuana use of any other country in Europe.

So, like, Governor Arnold, dude, it’s time for you to stop talking and take some action. If you continue to believe the fallacious and tired argument that banning marijuana is good for your state, then it’s time we resort to Beverly Hills 90210 tactics and just say, “don’t you want to be the coolest guv, ever, dude?”

And if you are not a 90210 fan, Jeff Spicoli would think you’re “totally awesome” if you signed into law the decriminalization of marijuana. But you won’t do it, because deep down we know you’re a total narc.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chuck Daly, R.I.P.

NBA basketball coach Chuck Daly passed away on Saturday (May 9, 2009) of pancreatic cancer at the age of 78.

Daly coached the Detroit Pistons to two championships in 1989 and 1990, as well as leading the original Olympic “Dream Team” to gold in 1992.

In the modern NBA, players as well as coaches are bestowed certain titles, like LA Lakers coach, Phil Jackson, whose management style is cerebral and new-age, thus he’s labeled “the Zen Master.”

Daly was a rare person who could assemble varied and different personalities, but didn’t need to coach with an iron fist or new age mantras. He recognized what each player had and let them play; leading to fierce loyalty amongst the young men who played for him on the Piston, Nets, Cavaliers and Magic.

When opposing teams played against the “Bad Boys” during their heyday, they couldn’t figure out schemes or plays, because Daly let his Pistons scrap, scrape and (in some cases) bludgeon the opposing team with their athletic talents, indomitable will and street thug physical play. (Which most of the “Boys” would take as a compliment, by the way).

When asked about how he managed to coach the always difficult and mercurial Dennis Rodman, Daly smiled and said, “I just let him play every minute of every game. Dennis just wanted to play, so I let him play.” Rodman demanded to be traded after Daly left the Pistons, referring to the coach as a surrogate father.

It’s a simple, but hard-to-master concept with not only NBA players, but people in the job arena as well. The best managers I’ve ever had didn’t have to yell, cajole or beat me down. They recognized what my strengths and weaknesses were and let me do my job.

I think the world of business management (which like sports, breaks people, personalities and progress down to formulas and charts) can learn a lot from Chuck Daly’s style of coaching.

Coach Daly’s simple but effective means to winning was “Let the players play.”

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ben Smiled

Earlier this week, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared before Congress and, for a moment, smiled.

Yes, the man who’s job it is to interpret the vagaries and vicissitudes of all things financial in our country spoke to our elected political heroes on Capitol Hill, actually lacing his economic forecast with positives words.

Saying that the housing market has “hit bottom,” he was described as guardedly optimistic about the Recession being over by the end of this year and the road to economic recovery being less treacherous in 2010.

I can’t buy it.

Calling Chairman Bernanke a liar would be misguided and slanderous, but I am keenly aware of what his job is (and, more importantly, isn’t) all about. The Fed Chairman has the incredibly unenviable task of constantly walking a high wire. Part prognosticator, part huckster, wrapped up in a song-and-dance man as well as trying to remain a straight shooter, Bernanke must sound somewhat if not cautiously “optimistic” in the midst of this crisis. What other choice does he have; tell the blatant and naked truth?

No, that’s the media’s job.

He must carefully interpret the documents, data and disseminations that his office receives and carefully formulate, massage and parse words and phrases, redefining what the word “is” is so many times, that it would make the Clinton Administration pull their hair out.

Imagine the responsibility, the burdensome gravitas of one person who can make the stock market plummet like a lead balloon with one sharp, caustic sentence by being too “negative.” Or, conversely, artificially inflate a forecast only to be ridiculed and castigated by the President of the United States for being too “positive.”

Such is Ben Bernanke’s life; wedged right there between that economic rock and financial hard place.

It is a balancing act that has the fate of President Obama’s re-election, global economics and consumer confidence hanging on his every word. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was the master of speaking in front of Congress and saying absolutely nothing and making it sound as if we were fine. He was the master, not of spin, but of deception. In hindsight, some cable pundit should have barked in 2006 as the curtain was pulled back in the fray of a hot housing market, “Pay no attention to that man married to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell as our toxic mortgages balloon and our financial bubble ready to burst.”

Forgive me as I revert back to my Doubting Thomas ways; I remain utterly skeptical.

Remember, that back in October, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson called a late night meeting on Capitol Hill and said that we were “staring in the financial abyss,” only to have Ben Bernanke tell Congress that he thinks the Recession will be over by the end of this year.

When did that financial abyss turn into a fiduciary pothole?

It took a war to get us out of the Depression, almost four years of Reagan-o-mics to beat stagflation. Ben Bernanke is suggesting we could be out of this Recession in less than a year? No way.

All I know is that economic cycles are like what Tip O’Neill said about politics: “It’s all local.”

If you still own your house, have a job and money in your pocket, you may believe the Fed Chairman. If you’ve lost your house, or looking for work and/or can’t pay your off credit cards, you don’t believe a word out of Ben Bernanke’s mouth.

No matter how “optimistic” this Fed Chairman sounds.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

This Film Will Live Long And Prosper

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have long been a Star Trek fan. I would not go so far as to label myself as a “trekkie” (what people on the outside call rabid fans) or “trekker” (what rabid fans call themselves when not in the company of bullies).

I have never dressed up as a Star Trek character and I thought the Star Trek movies were a lame attempt to breathe life into a by-gone franchise. Ricardo Montalban rocking the mullet and William Shatner yelling “KHAN!!!!!” was, for my money, the apex of the Trek movies. But then they just got silly and insipid, finally being put to rest with the abysmal Nemesis.

On television, Star Trek was reinvented and the franchise was reinvigorated with The Next Generation, with Captain Picard as Super Ego juxtaposing James T. Kirk’s Id.

Star Trek: Voyager even had a politically correct, and for some fans, the best commander on the con, in Captain Janeway.

But then there was a lull in the franchise; sure the conventions still happened and rumors of other movies and TV shows percolated on blogs and chat sites. But where to you take a franchise that has boldly gone where no sci-fi drama had gone before?

J.J. Abrams had a simple, yet profound idea. He believed Star Trek had to go back to go forward.

But what J.J. Abrams has done for the Star Trek mythology is just plain sick. And by sick, I mean awesome.

The new Star Trek movie hits theaters this weekend and if you’re a casual fan or have no clue what a Romulan is, you will not be disappointed with action sequences and special effects that are riveting but not the focus of the movie.

Speaking to the hard-core, convention-going, stalking William Shatner to ask him if Captain Kirk slept with that woman from Omicron Ceti III, you must let a little of the past go to be fully enveloped by this movie.

There are a few surprises that Abrams brings to the screen that may conflict with what hard-core fans hold sacrosanct to the mythology, but here’s some advice: if you are willing to suspend a little bit of belief, you will be rewarded in the long run.

The casting is superb. From Spock to Kirk to Chekhov to Scotty and especially Bones; everyone captures the essence of Gene Roddenberry’s characters without crossing the line and becoming caricatures.

Chris Pine, who plays the young James Tiberius Kirk, has the swagger and charisma but doesn’t get so caught up in trying to play William Shatner that it comes off as a commercial. We see James T. but cock-sure with everyone and still be a playa with the ladies. (And yes, just like the television series, there are woman of all different shades of the rainbow he gets to be “friendly” with).

If you’re a fan of Spock, you’ll be more than pleased. This movie isn’t just about James T. Kirk and how he managed to be the youngest Star Fleet captain in Federation history. Zachary Quinto does a brilliant job as a young Spock who constantly struggles between his Vulcan upbringing and the deep emotional connection to his human mother played by Winona Ryder. To put on Spock’s ears would be an intimidating role for any actor. Quinto brings a new, but fuller persona to this role that will please the most strident Nimoy fan.

I am usually not a far of “pre-quels,” but this one not only gets it right, it surpasses expectations as a story, and as an action movie. Simply, I want see more.

Space may be the final frontier, but J.J. Abrams has gone where no one has gone before, and I hope he goes back.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Doesn't Get More American Than This

For reasons that still aren’t clear, Wyatt Edward McLaughlin just didn’t want to be in Amelia County, Virginia anymore. So he packed up some horses, his dog and some supplies and left, by himself, for Weatherford, Texas, which is about 20 miles outside of Fort Worth.

He arrived safely in Texas after driving two days and logging almost 1,200 miles. Having performed at the rodeo before, it was natural for the police to find him there; uninjured, his horses well kept, his dog wagging its tail.

After all, it was his parents who, on a hunch, told the police that the boy might wind up there.

Wyatt McLaughlin is just 13. And I have all the respect in the world for him. In this hyper-protective, helicopter-hovering- parenting society we live in, the first instinct is outrage, pointing accusatory fingers at the parents for letting this happen and law enforcement for not being able to catch Wyatt before he got to the Lone Star State.

But after reading this story last week, I smiled.

Think about it; this kid loaded up his parent’s 2002 F350 pickup, took a four-horse trailer with two horses inside, his pet dog and had enough forethought to pack enough money and clothes to last a week. He also brought propane tanks to cook with as well as a tent.

Now you’re probably thinking that I am crazy for supporting a kid for running away. But there’s where you’re wrong. I am not supporting the actual act of running away, but I admire a child who can pack, plan his route, and have the forethought and rational thinking skills to take care of animals, not to mention he got to Texas without a single accident or traffic stop. He knew the rules of road well enough not stand out but also responsible enough not to get into an accident. There are plenty of adults who couldn’t make that cross-country trip without being pulled over for some traffic violation, wrecking or running out of food.

When cops were tipped by Wyatt’s parents as to where he could be, they got a tip from someone who had seen a truck and trailer with Virginia plates at the rodeo grounds. They searched video surveillance at a gas station in Mount Pleasant, Texas. Sure enough, there was Wyatt on the tape, pumping his own gas; buying some stuff for the road. In fact, the manager who waited on Wyatt described him as someone who was in no hurry when he pulled in. “He was just calmed and relaxed.” When the manager was asked why he didn’t think it was odd for a kid to purchase $40 worth of diesel fuel, the manager was stunned to find out he was just 13. To the manager’s defense, even though Wyatt is only 13, he’s 6 feet tall and 160 pounds and can pass for 18 or 19 easily.

I don’t pretend to know what Wyatt’s home life is, but I do know that Amelia County, Virginia is a beautiful place with its rolling hills, miles of fencing and acres of farmland. I just hope this is a kid who is a little too independent for his own good and not a sign of something worse.

I have made that same trip three times before, without the horses, trailer, or a dog. Once from Maryland to Texas, twice from Texas to Virginia and it’s not easy, no matter how many times you’ve done it. Driving by yourself on roads that you’re unfamiliar with, through states that don’t like “Yankees” can be treacherous and downright dangerous.

But I also remember how exhilarating it can be. On a long stretch of highway in Arkansas, two truckers who were driving extremely close to a camper with plates from Mississippi boxed me in. I realized what their fascination was with this particular camper when every time they blew their horns, a different woman would appear in the back window of the camper, flashing everyone rolling down the highway at 75 MPH. They must’ve blasted their horns for the next 50 miles, until the camper turned off an exit to go to Mississippi and I turned off to go to Texas. I can only imagine what the CB chatter was like.

Wyatt Edward McLaughlin defines what America has always been about: self-sufficiency, a sense of adventure, with a little bit of wanderlust mixed in for good measure.

Sure, it’s a bit premature and reckless to let a 13 year-old drive across the country by himself, but I wish I had his confidence and calm assurance at that age.

I don’t know many adults who do.