Saturday, December 31, 2005

Which way to the war?

In a couple of unscientific polls overnight, Americans generally derided 16-year-old Farris Hassan -- a Florida high school journalism student who skipped a few days of school to fly to Iraq -- for pulling a foolish stunt. (Headline writers, of course, disagree 10-to-1, because how many times does a kid named "Farris" take a "day off" for an adventure? Too bad his last name wasn't Bueller.)

OK, yeah, it was foolish for him to basically parachute into a war zone with little or no preparation for his own safety, or for the safety of people who'd unexpectedly be forced to protect this wide-eyed, overly enthusiastic pup. When he gets home, ground him for a month and don't let him go to the prom, fergawdsakes.

But deep down in the heart of his heart is an instinct that most professional journalists don't have or have forgotten: The instinct to see for himself.

Most of those dismissive, smug Americans clicking on their Internet polls whine incessantly about how the media isn't presenting the proper Left/Right view of the war. They claim the reporters in Iraq would risk their lives just to insert subtle political views in their stories. They seek out only "fair and balanced news" that suits their pre-fabbed opinions, and everything else is propaganda. They don't need to see for themselves because they already know the facts without ever lifting their fat asses out of their nice soft chairs except to fetch more chips and dip.

Farris Hassan has a long way to go before he's a good newsman. He hasn't yet been exposed to the mechanics of storytelling, the ethical minefields, the withering disappointment of discovering that not all his colleagues are as passionate about the craft as he is. But he's got something most of them don't: The instinct to see for himself.

Now, if he can just stay alive long enough to learn the rest, he'll make a good journalist someday.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

It's Miller time somewhere

A moment of silence, please, to mark the passing of Dr. Joseph Owades last Friday in Sonoma, Calif. This biochemist's most significant contribution was the invention of "lite" beer.

"He created a so-called diet beer by isolating an enzyme that could break down starches, allowing the yeast in beer to digest the starch and therefore lower the number of calories," Dr. Owades' Los Angeles Times obituary said. "Rheingold introduced the low-calorie beer in 1967 under the Gablinger's label, but it didn't catch on." [In 1975, the process was purchased by Miller Brewing Co., which used it to create Miller Lite.]

At Dr. Owades' funeral, one eulogist described him as a man with great taste ... to which a mourner in the back yelled, "Less filling!"

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Miracle on County Road 34

It's been almost two years since I moved to Southeast Texas from the Rocky Mountains. I'm still acclimating to triple-digit humidity and hurricanes, but it's not so bad. Yet, in unfamiliar circumstances, one takes comfort in the familiar, like an old chair or an old friend. Among the Christmas cards that arrived last week was a rather ratty one from an old friend, a country acquaintance up north. I thought I'd share it with my blogging pals, it being the holidays and all.

Christmas Ought-Five
Dear Friend:

I ain’t much fer holiday greetin’s, but I had a few cards left over from last year and I need the dang box fer wrappin’ a present, so’s I’ll wish you and yers a Merry Christmas just so’s I can use up the blasted card.

I don’t hanker to writin’ much, but I’d rather swallow a bug than send a facsimulated note to everbody I ever bumped up aginst. Horse-Hide Jones always mails me one of them form letters fer Christmas, but nuthin ever happens to him, so’s he jes sends out the same one every year. Anyhow, I reckon Christmas is about the only time the good folks of West Doubt, Wyoming, think about churchin. Oh, there was one time when Trench Digby’s wife held his good-fer-nuthin head under the tub water and told the judge she was jes baptizin’ him, but that’s another story.

You see, after the Foundin’ Forefathers of West Doubt finished buildin’ the Sandy Craw Saloon (and samplin’ the spirits within) they plum fergot to build a church. I reckon they figgered there wasn’t no good reason to confuse folks.

But thanks to the Right Reverend Zebediah Badwater’s Tabernacle of the Transaxle, folks ain’t missed it much.

The Rev is the high priest of the Holy Rollers, you might say: His church is a 40-foot doublewide, hooked up to the Rev’s Sacred Semi. God only knows where he’s headed on the backroads to Beulah Land, but every Christmas Eve, he parks his moto-ministry on the hill behind Poot Bundy’s hardware store to provoke the saints.

Rev Badwater was a rip-snorter of a sky pilot. He’d start off real slow-like, then afore you know it, folks is speakin’ in tongues and throwin’ money in the Rev’s brass spittoon. The whole trailer would commence to bouncin’, like somethin sacreligious was goin’ on inside. But it was pure religious, yessiree -- ‘cept for one Christmas Eve a few years back.

Now, the good folks of West Doubt ain’t godless, by no stretch of the immaculation. The jes’ ain’t had no opportunity to learn the music.

So when the Tabernacle of the Transaxle rolled into town this particler year, folks was ready to wash away a whole year of cussin’ and carryin’ on. They might not know a hymn from a hosanna, but they know it takes a big Dogma to chase down a little Stigma.

So it came to pass that all the sheepherders of Kenspeckle County gathered on this one night to hear the Rev’s yarns about the stars and angels and the baby Jesus. Next day, they could start sinnin’ all over agin, but they figgered a sheepherder oughta act special on Christmas Eve. After all, them angels didn’t appear to no cow-punchers!

And when the Reverend Badwater came to the part about them sheepherders “abidin’ in the field and keepin’ watch over their flock,” them boys busted into cheerin’ and hollerin’ and joyful noise-makin’. Sheepherders got a good union.

But they got so boisterized, the whole Tabernacle of the Transaxle commenced to rollin’ down the hill -- and it was headed straight at the Motel 4! ‘Course, there weren’t no room at the inn fer no double-wide, 18-wheel House of Hallellujah on a holy roll.

Then the little finger of God musta tapped the steerin’ wheel cuz the Sacred Semi aveered off at the last second. It whooshed straight in the front door of Buster Dinkins’s cow barn and lickety out the back, clean as a whistle, without scratchin’ so much as a hallowed hubcap.

Although the Reverend Badwater yelled that one bad word, it was a sure-fire miracle.

And that’s the morality of this here tale: I don’t rightly know who put that barn there on Christmas Eve, but I’m dang glad the door was open.

Yer friend,
Luke Warmwater

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Lost and found

On one of those clammy, gray Gulf Coast afternoons when everything is the color of sunlight through squid, I drove past the Calder Baptist Church. Through the drizzle, I spied the grotesque outline of an up-ended tree, its amputated trunk sunken into the soggy lawn, its roots clawing like arthritic fingers toward Heaven … as if the tree were growing down toward Hell. It was surrounded by limbs, branches, chips from chainsawed trunks and other dismembered extremities of once-living things scattered among traumatized but living trees. The dead among survivors.

Then through the watercolored windshield, I saw the church’s sign. It referred to the Act of God Formerly Known as Rita this way:


Just as my friend, the Rev. Jim Fuller, intended, it made me think. I’d already inventoried — again and again — my losses: A roof, several grand trees, a chimney, some windows, my fences, my sense of security … but how did I benefit from this disaster? What did I gain?

I gained wisdom. Some things aren’t worth worrying about, and some are. Houses can be rebuilt; homes cannot.

I gained a humbler perspective. Some things are bigger than we humans are, despite our swagger.

(OK, so not everything was warm and fuzzy because …) I gained a sobering view of insurance people. As a group, they’re insensitive and inefficent – at best – because they reduce human suffering to a financial transaction. Worse, they dictate the terms of the transaction.

I gained a sense of community. I met some neighbors for the first time when they stopped to help, or when I knocked on a door to see if help was needed.

I gained several cool garden decorations from someplace upwind.

I gained a better idea of just how long it takes a tree to grow. Too long to cut them down casually.

Finally, by losing significant portions of my property, I gained a firmer footing in the world.

Monday, December 19, 2005

As a killer, Katrina didn't discriminate

A damaged steeple in New Orleans -- mid-December (Ron Franscell photo)

I spent the weekend in gutted New Orleans. I escaped a conference one afternoon to explore the farther corners of the city on my own, conscious that I was traveling down streets where corpses had floated just weeks ago. After my own diabolic dance with Hurricane Rita, I believed I was anesthetized to uprooted trees, blue-tarp roofs, cars and boats and homes scattered higgledy-piggledy on the landscape, slashes of spray-paint to denote whether a dead body awaited in a house ... I was wrong.

I came home to read another story that challenged what I believed. Hurricane Katrina stripped bare some unsavory realities, without question. But the wind, floods and residual muck also gave rise to some mythology that is coming unraveled.

One myth is that Katrina killed disproportionately more poor folks -- one semantic code word for blacks. Indeed, much of the damage was in the Ninth Ward, the city's poorest neighborhood, but statistical analysis says the human toll was not concentrated there. I drove through several ravaged New Oreans neighborhoods three days ago, and while the Ninth Ward's destruction would twist your gut -- even now, more than 3 months later -- nobody truly escaped, black or white, rich or poor, young or old.

From the Los Angeles Times:
"The bodies of New Orleans residents killed by Hurricane Katrina were almost as likely to be recovered from middle-class neighborhoods as from the city's poorer districts, such as the Lower 9th Ward, according to a Times analysis of data released by the state of Louisiana.

"The analysis contradicts what swiftly became conventional wisdom in the days after the storm hit — that it was the city's poorest African American residents who bore the brunt of the hurricane. Slightly more than half of the bodies were found in the city's poorer neighborhoods, with the remainder scattered throughout middle-class and even some richer districts.

"Of the 828 bodies found in New Orleans after the storm, 300 were either recovered from medical facilities or shelters that offer no data on the victim's socioeconomic status, or from locations that the state cannot fully identify. Of the 528 bodies recovered from identifiable addresses in city neighborhoods, 230 came from areas that had household incomes above the citywide median of $27,133. The poorer areas accounted for 298 bodies."

A French Quarter sidewalk-turned-sanctuary (Ron Franscell photo)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

'Twas the Night Before ...

This came from my Beaumont neighbor, Denise Owen.

Up on the housetop ... ?

The Night Before Christmas
Our Town, 2005

Tis the night before Christmas and all through the town
Debris of all kind is stacked in a mound.
Houses are beat up, trees are not there
The landscape is different and curiously bare.

Fences are gone and the dogs have got out
Insurance agents are nowhere about.
Mold in its grandeur is lining the walls
Inside the cabinets and all through the halls.

Moms are exhausted and daddies are spent
They're paying their house notes and now paying rent
FEMA is long gone, the Red Cross has split
Searching for new towns disasters have hit.

The children are restless as they lay in their beds
Troubled thoughts filling their heads
Can Santa find them amid all the rubble
Or will he think it's just not worth the trouble?

Then out of the night comes the sound of small hoofs
Prancing and pawing atop the blue roofs
Though Santa's landmarks were not where they'd been
The shine of the trailers guided him in

He managed somehow to deliver the toys
To all the deserving good girls and boys
And they heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight
"It takes more than Rita to mess up this night!"

Friday, December 09, 2005

The sweetest words ever written

It's been said that the richest, sweetest,
most evocative sentence ever written was:

Jesus wept.

The second richest, sweetest, most evocative sentence ever written:

There are no tropical cyclones in the Atlantic at this time.

The view from 'Brokeback Mountain'

Imagine what insights might be gleaned if we could send a Desert Storm Marine to review the movie “Jarhead” or a murder survivor to review “Capote?” Our readers would be treated to an intense “insider’s” perspective on the story — the story, not the filmmaking.

Tonight, director Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” — about two young gay cowboys in 1963 Wyoming — opens in a handful of big-city theaters. It will open in Houston on Dec. 16. For now, there are no plans for it to be shown in Southeast Texas ... not a big surprise.

At my newspaper, we asked Ron Douthitt, a novelist and screenwriter who also had a gay relationship in his youth, to reflect on the film, which he saw in a November screening. We hoped his perspective would add to our readers’ understanding of this controversial story in this film version of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx’s short story and Pulitzer Prize-winner Larry McMurtry’s script. An excerpt:

"If you’ve ever felt the kind of love where the feeling so far transcended the sex, when spending time with that person anywhere is all that matters, then this story is for you. If you’ve ever shared the kind of love, when the thought of just knowing if the person with whom you share that bond is going to be safe and all right — with or without you around — allows you to sleep at night, then this story will touch you deeply. The only unusual element is that the story revolves around two men."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Bitching about 'Chess Bitch'

Luckily for the small publisher of the new book, "Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport" by 24-year-old chess babe Jennifer Shahade, the New York Times has elected to omit the naughty word "bitch" from its stories about the author and the book ... earning about 10 million times more publicity than this niche book itself could possibly earn on its own.

According to a press release by Silman-James Press in Los Angeles, the New York Times "recklessly censored the name of one of its new non-fiction books from two articles that appeared in the Nov. 27 editions of the newspaper, one of which was written by the book's author at the request of Times' editors. The Times has acknowledged its editing in one section was 'overly zealous,' but not publicly."

Silman-James also said "the New York Times has a history of using the word 'bitch' on its pages as far back 1975, when it reviewed a film called 'Super Bitch,' making its decision regarding 'Chess Bitch' all the more confounding."

Under normal circumstances, "Chess Bitch" wouldn't be a blockbuster. Gosh, if every person interested in the rough-and-tumble, blood-splattering world of professional chess bought the book, that's 84 copies right there. Maybe 85 if Bobby Fischer could scrape together $24 and 10 minutes of interest in anyone else but himself. But the New York Times ruckus over "the-word-that-rhymes-with-witch" might actually cause a huge rush at the Helsinki Barnes&Noble. My god, Oprah might even pick it for her book club!

OK, I have a new book coming out next year from New Horizon Press. Right now, the title is "FALL: An Intimate Crime Story." I'm thinking ... maybe a new title would be in order ... something profane. Just think of the press it'd get if I simply used the other F-word! Holy s**t!

Disclaimer: Ron Franscell has not actually read "Chess Bitch" and doesn't intend to. Any claims about its best-seller potential are purely cynical. The information contained in this Site is for general guidance on matters of interest only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on the specific facts involved. Given the changing nature of laws, rules and regulations, and the inherent hazards of electronic communication, there may be delays, omissions or inaccuracies in information contained in this Site. Accordingly, the information on this Site is provided with the understanding that the authors and publishers are not herein engaged in rendering literary, editing, legal, accounting, tax, or other professional advice and services. As such, it should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional accounting, tax, legal or other competent advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a literature professional.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Happy, uh ... er, merry .... um... December?

As if a lurking bid-flu pandemic, Armageddon in the Middle East, and the hurricane carousel in the Gulf of Mexico weren't important enough ... we now have people who worry that the word "holidays" is murk-ifying the righteous Christian concept of Christmas.

Religious conservatives have their panties bunched tighter than an alcoholic elf on Christmas Eve. Why? Because the White House's official 2005 Christmas card doesn't use the word "Christmas" ... which is to say, they think George Bush is afraid to use the word "Christ." "This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.


This is reminiscent of the righteously indignant flockers who called in a collective huff at my newspaper after Hurricane Rita temporarily displaced our "Pause to Pray." For weeks after it was back in our Bible-Belt newspaper, they were calling to complain. Were they simply shoring up the cultural flanks in the war against Satan? Certainly they weren't expecting the local newspaper to be the source of their daily benediction ... were they?

The President of the United States represents a wide spectrum of beliefs, from atheists to Muslims to Catholics to Budhhists to the most devout evangelical Christians. His personal religious beliefs are hardly a closely guarded secret -- just ask the Radical Left. But he leads everyone, and in this case, he's trying to be inclusive, not exclusive.

"The reality is you have people in Beaumont (Texas) that think the United States is a Christian country; it's not," a source recently told my newspaper. "It is a country that is founded on freedom of religion, but the truth is, if you look at what happens at Christmas time, there is very much a sense of Christianity."

Anybody who'd elevate the pathetic "Christmas-vs-holidays" tiff to a major issue -- much less a "war" on Christmas -- needs to go to church for a time-out.

Would you like the French fried with that?

France has had its share of trouble recently with riots and a really bad year for Bordeaux. But this collection of quotations about the French circulating on the 'Net is funny.... I don't care who y'all are. So don't go whining about it. There's no such thing as Frenchism.

France has neither winter nor summer nor morals. Apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country. France has usually been governed by prostitutes."
--Mark Twain

"I would rather have a German division in front of me than a French one behind me."
--General George S. Patton

"Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion."
--Norman Schwartzkopf

"We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it."
--Marge Simpson


"As far as I'm concerned, war always means failure."
--Jacques Chirac, President of France

"As far as France is concerned, you're right."


"The only time France wants us to go to war is when the German Army is sitting in Paris sipping coffee."
--Regis Philbin

"The French are a smallish, monkey-looking bunch and not dressed any better, on average, than the citizens of Baltimore. True, you can sit outside in Paris and drink little cups of coffee, but why this is more stylish than sitting inside and drinking large glasses of whisky I don't know."
--P.J. O'Rourke (1989)

"You know, the French remind me a little bit of an aging actress of the 1940s who was still trying to dine out on her looks but doesn't have the face for it."
--John McCain, U.S. Senator from Arizona

"You know why the French don't want to bomb Saddam Hussein? Because he hates America, he loves mistresses and wears a beret. He is French!"
--Conan O'Brien

"I don't know why people are surprised that France won't help us get Saddam out of Iraq. After all, France wouldn't help us get Hitler out of France either."
--Jay Leno

"The last time the French asked for 'more proof' it came marching into Paris under a German flag."
--David Letterman

"Only thing worse than a Frenchman is a Frenchman who lives in Canada."
--Ted Nugent

"War without France would be like World War II."

"The favorite bumper sticker in Washington D.C. right now is one that says 'First Iraq, then France.'"
--Tom Brokaw

"What do you expect from a culture and a nation that exerted more of its national will fighting against Disney World and Big Macs than the Nazis?"

--Dennis Miller

"It is important to remember that the French have always been there when they needed us."
--Alan Kent

"They've taken their own precautions against al-Qa'ida. To prepare for an attack, each Frenchman is urged to keep duct tape, a white flag, and a three-day supply of mistresses in thehouse."
--Argus Hamilton

"Somebody was telling me about the French Army rifle that was being advertised on eBay the other day -- the description was, 'Never shot. Dropped once.'"
--Rep. Roy Blunt, MO

"The French will only agree to go to war when we've proven we've found truffles in
--Dennis Miller

"Raise your right hand if you like the French. Raise both hands if you are French."

Q. What did the mayor of Paris say to the German Army as they entered the city in WWII?
A. "Table for 100,000, monsieur?"

"Do you know how many Frenchmen it takes to defend Paris? It's not known, it's never been tried."
--Rep. R. Blount, MO

"Do you know it only took Germany three days to conquer France in WWII? And that's because it was raining."
--John Xereas, Manager, DC Improv

The AP and UPI reported that the French Government announced after the London bombings that it has raised its terror alert level from Run to Hide. The only two higher levels in France are Surrender and Collaborate. The rise in the alert level was precipitated by a recent fire which destroyed France's white flag factory, effectively disabling their military.

French Ban Fireworks at Euro Disney
(AP), Paris, March 5, 2003
The French Government announced today that it is imposing a ban on the use of fireworks at Euro Disney. The decision comes the day after a nightly fireworks display at the park, located just 30 miles outside of Paris, caused the soldiers at a nearby French Army garrison to surrender to a group of Czech tourists.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Kill Tookie

Californians are actually conflicted over the question of whether the founder of the ruthless Crips street gang -- Stanley "Tookie" Williams -- should be executed on Dec. 13. (Texans wouldn't be.)

Let's review the facts, according to the Los Angeles Times: Tookie has been on Death Row for more than 20 years for the 1979 shotgun slayings of Albert Owens, a 7-11 clerk; and Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang and Yu-Chin Yang Lin, who were shot to death 11 days later at their motel.

Last week, a Times article boiled down Tookie's Death Row days to this: "Williams has apologized for founding the Crips, a gang that has wreaked havoc around the country, and urged youths to shun gang life. However, he has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the slayings. In response to criticism that he could not be redeemed because he has not admitted culpability for the slayings, Williams wrote in his autobiography: 'I will never apologize for capital crimes that I did not commit — not even to save my life.'"

Joshua Marquis, DA of Clatsop County, Ore., and co-author of "Debating the Death Penalty," wrote a marvelous op-ed piece in the Times, headlined, "He's a Murderer. He Should Die." Clearly, he sees no legal or moral reason to spare the unremorseful killer's life, but he also presents some interesting facts (here in his words):

-- "His true distinction comes only in his possibly being the second African American among the 12 people the state of California has executed in the last 35 years."
-- "Williams claims he discourages kids from getting involved in gang life, yet a San Quentin official recently suggested that he still orchestrates gang activity outside the prison, according to an Associated Press story."
-- "In his 2004 memoir, he refused to back off the code against 'snitching,' in which identifying a drive-by shooter is considered a worse sin than shooting a 4-year-old in the head with a Tech-9."
-- "Williams' case recalls that of Norman Mailer and his friends, who 'adopted' killer/writer Jack Henry Abbott. After Mailer and others secured his release from prison, Abbott stabbed and killed a young aspiring actor. If his sentence is commuted, Williams will be an even shinier icon to the thugs who follow his example into violence and incarceration."
-- Celebrities have made Tookie their cause-du-jour. "It is especially offensive to his victims' families, whose names the celebrities championing his cause probably don't

I can't add too much more, except to advise you to read Marquis' column. Tookie's guilt isn't really in doubt. The question of clemency is a no-brainer: Kill Tookie.