Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Father's Day Shopping List

June 18th, 2006 — NEXT SUNDAY

What does Dad want for his day? You could always ask, but then you run the risk of the casual demurral, "I just want a nice quiet day at home with the family — you don't have to buy me anything." You know he deserves more than that, and you'd love to surprize him with the perfect gift.

So I asked some fellows who are the same general age as my own father what they would like to see inside the Father's Day gift wrap. Their answers may (or may not) surprise you.

TECH TOYS: Might Dad like an iPod? Or how about a sleek Razr cell phone, or a Blackberry?

According to my friend Ted, a retired USN commander with a collection of hi-tech gear in his own study, Dad generally doesn't want to hand anyone in the family a better way to reach out and touch him. If he leaves his current brick-sized cell phone in a drawer at home, don't assume it's because it's too heavy. He may just want the option to be "out of reach" for part of each day.

As for the iPod, guys in my Dad's generation who have a penchant for music usually still have a vinyl collection and a working stereo phonograph system, often one they built themselves when hi-fi was young and required an engineer's certificate to operate. They're not likely to switch to MP3, even if there were somewhere to download the complete collection of the greatest hits of Nelson Riddle or Johnny Puleo and His Harmonica Gang.

Buy him a car navigation system, Ted advises. There are some pretty good deals going on Garman Street Pilots. With this, Dad will never have to stop and ask directions, ever again. Not that he ever did, anyway.

FROM THE BOOKSHELF: Books are safe for a bookish parent. Chances are, you think you know your Pop's taste in reading material: World War II or Civil War history, maybe, or a coffee-table book of early-19th-century hand-tools.

"Good grief!" was the reaction of my ex-SeaBee neighbor, Colin, whose bedroom walls are lined with bookshelves. "When I open a book, I want a real story." No coffee-table stuff, Colin recommends; that's more appealing to an interior-decorator type. (Colin's wife is an interior designer.)

He recommends something moving, like James Bradley's Flags of our Fathers or Wisdom of Our Fathers by Tim Russert. These are books that celebrate the fathers in my father's generation, both war heroes and the ordinary, everyday men who fed their familes, kept the roof over their heads, and lead them to be better men and women by their sterling example.

If you need fiction to round off the bookshelf, try a classic Clancy like Patriot Games or a stirring Nevil Shute novel like Trustee from the Toolroom .

DVD DELIGHT: I called Andy, a long-time friend who lives (and still works at age 72) in Hollywood for his suggestions for Father's Day movies. Should I get Dad a circa-1950 Oscar winner? Or would something more contemporary suit better?

Andy has his own peculiar preferences in film; he has a copy of every movie that features a major character in clown-face, from Killer Klowns from Outer Space to The Family Jewels, and onward into nuttier realms. But his suggestion for your Dad's day? Icon sports movies, or something with John Wayne.

You know the ones. Field of Dreams. The Natural. Victory. And for that other icon, the Duke: The Quiet American. Hellfighters. Donovan's Reef. No musicals. No "chick flicks." Just solid stuff that Dad will want to watch.

SPORTS GEAR: Finally, I asked Greggo, an interesting grizzled fellow we fell into chat with at a local bar last Sunday, what he would like if his kids were to buy him sports gear for Father's Day. Greggo (the only name he would give us) has eight sons, all active or retired Marines. We were impressed by this feat of paternal child-rearing, and asked if he was himself a jar-head. "Nah," he told us. "I taught PE and math at a Washington State high school while they were growing up."

So, should we give Dad a golf club or a pair of skis for his Day? Greggo suggests that if your Dad is into a sport enough to appreciate the gear, he's probably already got a well-worn whatever that he loves. And if he isn't, he may see such a gift as an unsubtle hint that he needs more exercise, or better gear to compensate for poor skill.

"Give him a beer mug with a sport-related theme," he said, lifting his own stein. "Or a really nice pair of gloves." Besides, you never know when possessing a "Richmond RiverDogs Logo Mug Collectible Officially Licensed Hockey Team Gift Accessory Merchandise" (huh?) will elevate Dad into the elite of the country-club set.

Or you can fall back on the time-honored tradition: give him a tie and let him watch whatever's on TV all day without a single kid's spat, spouse's "honey-do" request, or grandchild's "why did Mommy leave me with you?" wail. And maybe that's what Dad meant by his request for a quiet day at home.


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Hit & Run June 14th: Noshing on the Legal Cowpie

Pardon My French: In Montreal, take care to swear in English (or Finnish, Swahili or Urdu). It's against the law to swear in French.

Don't spit on the streets, either, which is also illegal. And if you spot a Sasquatch in British Columbia, leave the poor beast alone — Sasquatch is a protected species in B.C.

Massachusetts Freak Flags: In this state, it is against the law for men to have their hair dyed or washed in a hair salon. Students at Harvard who grow their hair long are breaking an ancient law that forbids men to have long hair on campus.

In Nebraska, on the other hand, a mother cannot legally give her daughter a home perm without a license. I wonder if she can give her Harvard-bound Cornhusker son a permanent wave?

Moot Court When a streaker dashing across the soccer pitch during a match was tackled by the home team goalie, the goalie — not the streaker, the goalie — was ejected from the game. According to one official, the goalie should not have taken the law into his own hands.

The goalie is a cop, and technically was not wholly off-duty even while playing; he argued that he had a clear duty to end the streaker's exhibition. The officials were not swayed. His expulsion was upheld, his team was then short-sided, and they lost the match.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Rest of the Story: Hoodwinked on DVD

At Least TWO Sides to Every Story...

In the woods, something sinister creeps. If it isn't the wolf (and he claims it is not), who is stealing the recipes and putting all the goodie-makers out of business? The Muffin Man has closed up shop, Peter Rabbit and his family are moving on, and Red Riding Hood is worried.

This cute movie is a worthwhile take on the Red Riding Hood myth, examining the "scene of the crime" at Grandma's house with all the panoply of police, CSI and a Nick Charles-like private eye with a talent for getting to the bottom of all the alibis. First there's Red herself, the wide-eyed innocent (voiced by Anne Hathaway). Or is she innocent? In a forest terrified by the serial cereal bandit, where no one's cookies are safe, is it naivete that leads her into the woods — or cunning?

Then there's the wolf (voice of Patrick Warburton, square-jawed as The Tick and The Emperor's New Groove Kronk). Is he really slinking around the woods, slavering over Red's goodies and her Grandma's dry thighs? He makes a pretty solid case for himself as a crime reporter, suspicious of Grannie and her delivery-girl, Red, just trying to get the story. When he's accused of the crime, he is quick to demur, "Ah, the wolf did it. Talk about profiling."

In the original story, the woodsman is almost an afterthought. In this tale, he is a fully-realized suspect, arriving in shards of glass, screaming and flailing his axe just in time to rescue Red from the wolf's threat to "take out you and your Grannie too!" Jim Belushi's voice is bland, Austrian and western by turns as the hapless lederhosen-clad actor tries to find his "inner woodsman" while he practices for an audition. His skipping commercial for schnitzel-on-a-stick is worth the price of the DVD all by itself.

The final party in the lineup is Grandma herself (Glenn Close's voice). She has been acting suspiciously, hiding from Red and leaving her precious family recipe book in Red's cabin. And why does she have a tattoo on the back of her neck?

In this tale, the police are (you should pardon me) pigs, and the Chief (a bear, voice of Xhibit) has to watch them lest they gobble the evidence. A singing goat is another high point, a sort of running gag through the second half of the film. David Ogden Stiers gives voice to Nicky Flippers, the private eye, but there isn't a hint of Major Winchester or even Cogsworth about this dapper frog.

This film came out last year, but there must have been something in the Hollywood air about hyper-active squirrels and caffiene. Cory Edwards at double-speed is the voice of Twitchy, the wolf's assistant, in a turn reprised this year by Steve Carell as Hammy in Over the Hedge.

Now that this DVD is out in the grocery stores, it's available at under $10, and it's great summer fun at that price, too. Make some muffins, bake some cookies, put some schnitzel on a stick, and enjoy it together. It's delicious!


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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Hit & Run June 7th: Chowing Down on the Legal Cowpie

Close Your Eyes, Children!: In Jakarta, Indonesia, an anti-pornography law makes "passionate kissing" in public a crime punishable by a sentence of up to five years in jail. The law defines "kissing on the mouth" as equally reprehensible as public nudity, erotic dancing, and lingerie parties.

Those who witness such acts are also deemed guilty, and can wind up in jail for watching.

Jumbo Parking Fines: There is a traffic law in Orlando, Florida, that requires anyone who leaves an elephant at a parking meter to deposit coins. Elephants are treated "the same as cars" in that city.

Moot Court A motorcyclist was injured as he ran a roadblock during a high-speed chase. He successfully sued the city, claiming the roadblock was improperly set up. The trial jury awarded him $60,000.

The city attorney appealed the decision and won a new trial. The biker didn't get $60K at the second trial — he was awarded $1.5 million instead!

Monday, June 05, 2006

Escape from the Dark: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau


The City of Ember is a rule-bound place, where all the lights go out at 9 each night, everyone rises early for breakfast, and careful recycling is a way of life. Lately, though, the lights have begun flickering. Supplies are shorter each year, and some foods are no longer available.

Until their twelfth year, the children of the City of Ember go to school. But at the end of that year, they are assigned the jobs they will do for years after, perhaps to the end of their lives. Lina yearns to be a Messenger, running free in the streets, learning the secrets of the city. Doon wants desperately to be an electrician's assistant or a pipeworker, because he dreams of fixing the ancient, failing generators of the city.

When each receives the assignment the other wants, they switch jobs, and begin a conspiracy that will not end until they learn how to save the entire city. Along the way, they solve an ancient puzzle, defeat the greed and subterfuge of the Mayor and his minions, and discover a much wider world than either had ever dreamed existed.

When I read children's literature, I look for more than a tale well told. Juvenile science fiction is not hard to come by, especially today in the age of Harry Potter. But fiction which lauds heroism (particularly the kind of courage which every child will have an opportunity to demonstrate), extolls the value of friendship, and shows when adult precepts and rules are worthwhile, and how to tell when they are not — that is uncommon. (Those qualities form the foundation of the Harry Potter stories, too, and explain the widespread appeal of the boy wizard and his friends.)

The City of Ember has that same appeal. Doon and Lina are courageous; they do things children would do, yet also show judgement, persistence and intelligence. These are kids who love their parents, and still see that they must take extraordinary steps outside the regimented life they have led. In the end, they do save their city, and if they do not battle great evil, they do encounter and overcome the kind of petty nastiness that is far more common in the world.

Thos book works best in tandem with its sequel, The People of Sparks. Together, they are an interesting story — even for an adult. I recommend it highly for boys and girls who want something better than comic-book heroes and video-game battles.


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Friday, June 02, 2006

The Secret Life of Dust by Hannah Holmes


Dust is all-pervasive in our lives. It permeates our atmosphere and even fills the void between stars. Hannah Holmes has breathed life into this dusty topic, in a narrative that is by turns terrifying and fascinating.

Holmes' dust is not the motes you see floating in a beam of sunlight, but invisibly tiny flecks of dead and once-living stuff. The author wraps the dusty path of everything in these well-written essays: Build stars from it. Water earth and entomb dinosaurs with it. Start and end ice ages in its flight. Share it worldwide. Kill each other and ourselves with it. Nourish tiny grazers and predators — and the Amazon Basin, and the entire world of grain eaters — on it. Smoke it, eat it, drink it, breathe it, and wear a thin sheath of it all our lives. Return to it at life's end.

It is fitting that this tale of dust begins with the birth of the universe, our sun and the Earth; and ends with death, our own transition to dust, and that of our solar system and of the universe. Holmes makes a good case for the triumph of dust.

She also accuses it of all sorts of villainy. Dust is implicated in the creation of a field of amazing dinosaur fossils in China's Gobi Desert. The Fighting Dinosaurs were buried so quickly and completely that they retain their battle-stance. Big Mama was interred as she hunkered over her nest of eggs. The best theory is that all these animals were overtaken in the midst of their everyday activities by a massive dry mud-slide as a dune of dusty loess soil suddenly collapsed over them.

Dust is the root cause of plenty of human misery, as well, from black lung and mesothelioma to asthma and heart disease. Airborne dust has been lofting off the Earth's surface long before there were animals, including humans, around to breathe it in. In fact, humans have evolved to be highly efficient at ridding our bodies of most kinds of dust particles. Eventually, however, the "mucus elevator" fails, and we drown in the dust we've inhaled.

From the personal fight against dust, to the global, Holmes points out that increased clouds of dust may have resulted from the cool air and entrapped water of the Ice Ages, and that dust may then have brought about the death of the glaciers. Iron-rich dust promotes blooms of carbon-dioxide-spewing phytoplankton (warming), and dust is required to create reflective cloud masses (cooling). She quotes Columbia University's Pierre Biscayne, who works to identify the ancient sources of dust trapped in ice cores from Greenland and Antartica. "The climate modelers know dust is important, but it's the least well-known parameter in the Earth's thermal balance. Right now, they don't even know its sign."

This is not a book for the squeamish. If you have not been able to eat sausage since the time you read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, you may now find the idea of taking deep breaths of sea or woodland air horrifying. Reading this may kindle a desire to remove the carpets, toss your candles in the trash, and convert your fireplace into a cold, clean bed for your pets. You might even hesitate before taking a book down from a dusty shelf.

I recommend reading this excellent book right away, before it gathers dust.

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Movie Review: Over the Hedge


Over the Hedge is a delightful animated film that offers nothing but pleasure to its audience. Expect no deep insights, no religious conflicts, and no intense discussion of implications to ensue from its viewing. What it does promise (and amply deliver) is the kind of movie enjoyment we always used to get from cartoons. With sly references and broad slap-stick, this script has something to offer every member of the family.

RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis) is a snack-addicted raccoon whose greed leads him to make the wrong choice as he burgles a hibernating bear (voice of Nick Nolte). He wakes the bear, then his effort to finesse his theft fails and he is given a one-week deadline: replace the stolen junk food or die.

As he shuffles through the woods, RJ stumbles across a cooperative group of foragers lead by genial turtle Verne (Garry Shandling's voice). Instantly, he hatches a plot to dupe the group into invading sububia, just over the hedge, and helping him gather the wherewithal to placate the bear. Verne is fearful and dubious of the value to his foraging family, but RJ overcomes these fears with a single blast of cheesy powder from a nacho-chips bag.

Immediately, the other animals in the group are hooked. Hammy the squirrel (perfectly voiced by Steve Carell), with wistful hope, carves a Dorito-shaped chunk of bark and dusts it with yellow pollen from a passing bee, trying to recreate that glorious cheesy rush. He also develops a serious jones for cookies, which RJ uses in his plan to replace the bear's little red wagon. Girl Scouts, wheeling their wares around the neighborhood, are panicked by the "rabid" Hammy, jaws flecked with whipped cream, threatening, "I am a crazy rabbit-squirrel! I want my cookies!"

The rest of the story is the tale of how these animals conquer suburbia, the evil HOA queen Gladys and the demented "Verminator" Dwayne (voiced by Thomas Haden Church), and the selfish plans of RJ. Oh yes, and the bear.

The central roles of RJ and Verne have been through several changes as the film moved from its comic-strip conception to the screen. Originally, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis were to voice RJ and Verne. Then Jim Carrey was slotted for the RJ role, but was replaced by Bruce Willis. The gentle good will and manic humor of the script, however, would make this movie funny even if the main voices were total unknowns. But recognizing voices is part of the fun. Around us in the theater we could hear the comments, "That's Eugene Levy!" "That's Catherine O'Hara." "That's Wanda Sykes."

And if you have an over-the-top ham-actor possum who needs to play dead in a drawn-out diversion, who could possibly be better to voice him than the original emoter, William Shatner? No simple roll over and play dead for this possum. Shatner's Ozzie keels over in a swoon that would do a Victorian damsel proud, clutching his heart, and delivering his lines with that classic Captain Kirk sputter: "Mother, is that... you? Beckoning me... into the light? Must... move... toward... the light!"

There are ample wry jokes for the adults to catch as they whiz over the heads of the youngsters, too. At one point, the love-smitten tomcat Tiger (Omid Djalili) carefully explains that truly well-bred Persians have no noses, hence no sense of smell. That's good, since Wanda Sykes' sultry skunk Stella has been painted black with charcoal and, assisted with a strategically placed cork, sent off to seduce the cat away from his cat-door. When she decamps back through the hedge, the heart-broken tom cries after her. "Stella-ah!"

No, it's not deeply philosophical. Instead, Over the Hedge is witty and wild and cheesy and sly, like the animals themselves.


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