Essential details about this site and its proprietor

I’m the one to blame for this mess. If you’re a newspaper editor or anybody
else in the news biz you’re apt to find interesting stuff. If you’re a
media critic you might glean insight into the thought processes of a working
newspaperman. If you’re looking for evidence of the International Liberal
Media Conspiracy, welcome: I am a dues-paying member. If you’re one of
my relatives … well, sorry, you did your best but I came out this way

This site is mostly about my work, which at the moment is on the features
copy desk at the San Jose Mercury News, or the Merc as we call it when
we can’t be troubled to type the rest of those characters. The Merc has
nothing to do with the content here, except that having a job there discourages
me from ranting about the folks who pay the rent.

I’ve been in this job for four years, having come to the Bay Area to
witness the high-tech boom, and arriving just in time for the bust. Before
this job I worked for six years doing features design and copy editing
at the Journal Star in Peoria, Illinois, my hometown, a place I moved
away from when I realized that every Peorian who ever became rich and
famous did so after moving somewhere else. My somewhere is a suburb
called Dublin, which is surrounded by lovely rolling hills that will be
continue to be scenic until they build new suburbs on top of them. The
work is well under way.

Before the Peoria gig I spent five years on the news copy desk at the
Tampa Tribune, my first metro daily. The Trib was a nightmare in those
days, but these days people seem to like it much better, from what I hear.
My first job out of school was at the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale,
Ill., home of the main campus of Southern Illinois University, where I
worked on the student paper, the Daily Egyptian, for four years.

I took my first journalism class at Illinois Central College in the spring
of 1984. I was 22 at the time and had no background in news beyond reading
the paper since I was a kid. I had never worked on any school papers or
yearbooks, which, I suspect, gave me a leg up because I didn’t pick up
any bad habits working on the high school paper. My first journalism teacher
was a guy named Mike Foster; he led me to believe I could be a newsman,
which was a nice thing to do considering I hadn’t done worth a damn at
anything I had tried up to that point.

At Southern Illinois University I learned to think, a bit, and to party,
a lot. While working on the campus paper I figured out that I had a peculiar
aptitude for getting pages to the composing room on time, and writing
headlines that fit the space needed. I also figured out that I really
had no stomach for being a reporter. I don’t mind writing or researching,
but doing both in a hurry was too much like work to me.

Over the years people have encouraged me to keep doing this work, which
is remarkable when my newsroom behavior is taken into account. I’m prone
to cussing at my computer and inflicting poorly thought-out rants with
the poor saps who work next to me. One of these co-workers was so patient
that he introduced me to the woman I married. Or maybe he thought of it
as revenge. In any case I came out the winner.

I’ve been an online junkie since about 1990; I created my first webpage
in October of 1996 and started my first blog late in 1998. More on my
blogging background is here.

I try to keep the tone light and civil around here, though I am prone
to bouts of invective now and then. I apologize here to everybody who
has been wrongly slighted by any posts past, present or future. It’s not
personal, it’s just blogging.

Nephews in full cuteness mode

Got these pix in the mail the other day from my sister, Delisa,
who lives north of Chicago. The boys are Shawn and Jonathan. They’ll be 2
next March.
As Delisa puts it, Shawn has the curly hair, Jonathan all
of the funny faces. Shawn’s the name of my best friend from childhood.
That smile could’ve been cut ‘n’ pasted from a picture of
Delisa at the same age.
Sean looks a lot his sister, Lexi, in this one.

I’m not sure what he’s doing that Delisa finds so hysterical.

"Mommy, Mommy come see, I just pooped in
my diaper for you."
a link to pictures taken the day they were born

Casting men upon the waters

When I was about 10, I prized war movies above just about anything except the discovery of an unseen rerun of "Star Trek." My test of a worthy war movie was simple: If I saw any girls’ names in the opening credits, it failed.

There are no girls of any consequence in "Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World." This is a movie about men and ships, duty and obsession, combat and killing, luck and leadership — pure guy stuff from stem to stern. Russell Crowe and his cast of unknowns are fighting men (and boys) with two enemies: a seemingly unsinkable French frigate and the always implacable sea. Director Peter Weir of "Truman Show" and "Year of Living Dangerously" fame should have added a third enemy — fear — but this is a tale of gallantry so there isn’t much wallowing in weakness.

"Master and Commander" passed the girl test, but it tested my patience for high seas epics in which:

  • The captain develops an Ahab-like obsession with his foe.
  • The captain’s best friend tries to talk sense into him, and fails.
  • A boy of about 12 performs heroics beyond his years.
  • Storms around the Cape of South America nearly wreck the mission.
  • Calms drive the crew to the point of madness.
  • The captain hatches a clever scheme to outwit his wiley prey.

Let’s face it, the poopdeck of moviedom is worn pretty smooth with these plot devices. Filmmakers return to these elements because they’re trustworthy tools for building a high-seas adventure –the trick is to fashion a movie whose familiarity breeds warm recognition rather than cold contempt. "Master & Commander" pulls this off, for the most part.

It’s not one of those Great Films like "Schindler’s List" or "Jaws" that show you something you’ve never seen before. It does, however, find fresh ways to retell stories you’ve heard a dozen times already. Interior shots bring to mind the cramped, nasty innards of a 19th century warship, and amazing sound and visual effects make the combat about as lifelike as mere moviegoers can stand. When cannon balls hit home, wood splinters rather than explodes. Gunners’ cannons have pet names. Bread at the captain’s dinner table has worms. Much of the credit here rests with a guy you’ve never heard of: production designer William Sandell, who did similarly impressive work on "The Perfect Storm" and "Air Force One." It feels real because he made it that way; the closest comparison I can think of is the banana-draped bulkheads of "Das Boot" (a better movie because it had a better story).

This story begins and ends with Captain Jack Aubrey, a Brit whose mission is to intercept a formidable French frigate off the coast of Brazil. The story, lifted from the first and 10th installments of Patrick O’Brian’s 20 "Master & Commander" novels, goes like this: It’s 1805 and Napoleon has conquered Europe and has his eyes on British Isles. If Britain’s fleet can sink enough French shipping, perhaps Mr. Bonaparte can be kept on his side of the channel. Aubrey’s best friend is Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany, who played Crowe’s imaginary roommate in “A Beautiful Mind”), the ship’s surgeon, whose hobby is collecting rare specimens of plant and animal life. Captain Jack is constantly explaining nautical matters to his doctor, who is constantly reminding the captain that he’s pushing the men too hard, pushing the ship too hard, pushing himself too hard. Think Dr. McCoy before the invention of anesthesia.

The captain, the doctor, a one-armed preteen midshipman, (a scene-stealing Max Pirkis) and a scary soothsaying sailor (a crusty George Innes) chase their prey (or are they being chased?) into the South Pacific, where a stop in the Galapagos Islands provides some of nature’s best lessons in defense, deception and adaptation. It’s one of those moments when you realize every period movie is a commentary on the time of its creation as much as the time it is set in. The doctor wonders if these strange species with their amazing adaptations are the work of God alone, or if they help things along. His one-armed apprentice proves an able naturalist. Creationism vs. evolution and an inspiring story of a brave boy overcoming a disability. How 21st Century can you get?

The movie tempers its rip-roaring battles with dollops of humor that humanize the heroic Captain Jack and his crew. He’s a hilarious drunk prone to corny puns and knowing wisecracks. When the doctor’s getting ready to go explore the Galapagos flora and fauna, it’s suggested that a plant be named after Lucky Jack: "Make it something prickly and hard to eradicate," the captain recommends.

"Master & Commander" is a good story, well told. I’m not convinced it soars to the heights some critics are conferring upon it — it’s doesn’t shed much light on the grand mystery of what draws men to the sea — but these days movies have gotten to be so routinely insipid that a good old fashioned sail-and-cannon epic will do in a pinch. Even one with no girls in it.

Saw some jazz last night

We saw Nancy Wilson and Ramsey Lewis in San Francisco last night. Nancy does
this jazz show on NPR that I used to hear on my drive home … swear to God
the first time I heard her say "This is Nancy Wilson…" I thought,
"Wow, that sister from Heart is a jazz singer now." Sorry, she’s the
only Nancy Wilson I’d ever heard of growing up in the ’70s listening to Album
Rock Radio.

I suppose I went to school with kids who had heard of the real Nancy Wilson,
the one onstage at the Masonic Auditorium last night. If so they should’ve passed
the word around … not that we’d have listened to them, but at least they’d
have the comfort today of knowing they were listening the right one — who should’ve
covered a silky version of "Crazy on You" to score some irony points
with the few of us who’d have gotten the joke.

I have about a dozen jazz albums, most of them Legends: Charlie Parker, Miles
Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson.
Of the bunch I like Oscar the best, because he plays with this bluesy groove
the feels the most like Rock ‘n’ Roll when he’s really cooking. My knowledge
of jazz limited to my exposure to these LDGs — Legendary Dead Guys — and I
know zilch about the music of Nancy & Ramsey. I picked them out because
I knew they were big names among living musicians, and I needed something to
do on my birthday that would not leave Melissa deaf, because she needs her hearing
to be able to respond when I say, "honey, could you grab me a beer outa
the fridge?" See, this is why guys secretly crave rock ‘n’ roll: they want
their hearing to be shot so they’ll have an excuse for not listening to their

Anyway, this is what I remember: The show opens with Nancy and Ramsey walking
to the front of the stage. If you know Nancy was born in 1937, your brain screams
that she has absolutely no business wearing that slinky black floor-length gown
with the plunging neckline. She may be eligible for full Social Security Benefits,
but boys I’m here to tell you, the woman looks great in that getup. How can
she have acquired so many years and so few lumps? Amazing. Oh yeah, then she
started singing.

She opens with "Moondance," the song Van Morrison made famous. She doesn’t
bring anything new or inspiring to the song… she has a lovely, powerful voice
but doesn’t show it off here. Obviously she’s warming up her vocal chords and
the crowd with some easy stuff to get us in the mood. She has her own keyboard
player, so Ramsey sits at his grand piano doing a few finger rolls and looking
as if he they don’t pay him enough to play Van Morrison songs. But as I said,
it’s a warmup.

During the first couple songs, the bass player — who’s thumbing a standup
bass — keeps trying to steal the spotlight by playing these really intricate
solos. I’m trying to enjoy the show but I can’t stop thinking, "why the
hell doesn’t this guy understand that a bass was not meant to play solos?"
I mean, drum solos are bad enough, but bass solos — fingers pounding strings
in the vain hope of sounding as cool as a saxophone — are generally insufferable.
This guy is no different: He’s really, really good but he’s starting to annoys
the crap out of me. I want him to get back to playing rhythm, and when he does,
everything is fine.

Nancy departs the stage to polite applause after a few songs, and now it’s
time for Ramsey to show us his stuff. Some of the LDGs in my collection are
what I’d call hardcore — Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker — geniuses
who are absolutely uncompromising. If you enjoy their work it’s because you
can appreciate greatness; they played however they damn well pleased. Ramsey
Lewis is a born crowd-pleaser, so he’s not hardcore. He has chops, though; I’d
call him smoothcore. The first song is a rousing, grooving number that brings
thunderous applause … easily 50 percent louder than the thanks we bestowed
on Nancy. Ramsey isn’t just working the keyboards, he’s working the room.

After about three or four songs (they seemed to run together), Ramsey and his
bassist and drummer start playing another jumping tune that the crowd wants
to clap along to. Except the guys keep changing the tempo and frustrating such
attempts. It’s a fun jazz tune, with moments where Ramsey slows to a complete
silence, then tears off in some new direction. Towards the end of one of these
diversions, I notice the bass player has picked up a bow. The music stops for
a second, then the next thing we hear is the low, tender moan of a bow being
dragged over strings. Sort of like a cello solo, but way deeper. The effect
is stunning — the bass violin seems to have its own voice, and it’s singing
its own tune. Almost brought tears to my eyes. The solo lasts a few minutes,
the stops, and the trio blasts off in another direction, this time with an even,
solid tempo that allows the crowd to clap along. When it’s over, the crowd is
thundering and I’m thinking: I could go home now, that’s one of the must riveting
things I’ve ever experienced.

Turns out that’s the end of Ramsey’s set and it’s time for Nancy to come back
out. Now she’s wearing a floor-length red dress, minus the low neckline. She
still looks marvelous. Here’s where I wish I had more of a taste for vocal jazz
— Nancy’s got great pipes and incredible stage charisma. She talks about her
life as a musician between songs of heartbreak and loss, and I can’t help wondering
if the guys in her own band were the ones who put her through all that. She
sings it like she’s lived it, and the crowd eats it up.

My problem is that my tiny idea of jazz is a piano, a saxophone, a trumpet
making sounds that are beyond words. Adding a singer subtracts the musicians
and takes that mystery away. When Nancy sings I feel her pain and recognize
her talent — yeah, she’s the real deal among jazz singers. But I don’t get
that sense of wow that happens when a jazz combo is really pounding it. Nancy
doesn’t move me like that, but it’s still entertaining to see a pro in action.
She has grace, poise, class, and she’s sexy beyond her years.

And when it was over my ears weren’t ringing.

Happy birthday to me

The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is
42, Douglas Adams said. All I know is, it’s how many years old I am today.

Melissa spent the morning bestowing gifts.

Rather than get me into real trouble and sign me up for the Beer of the Month
Club, she went over to the local Beverages & More … which appears to have
every beer ever brewed … and rounded up this interesting sixpack. The one
on the far left is from Poland; the one on the far right is from Russia. The
most popular title, the beer guy at the store said, is Arrogant Bastard Ale,
the one slightly left of center (hey, just like me!). You know your wife loves
you when she buys you six expensive craft beers with no thought of the consequences
of husband consuming them all in one sitting… imagine the beer farts from
this array.

Anyway, she also got me this fold-up chair for the next outdoor concert I attend.

Note the impressive trusswork — I imagine some bridge engineer built one of
these for his own backyard, and one of his neighbors stole the design and made
millions, and now the two of them aren’t speaking, but the engineer is sleeping
with the neighbor’s wife for revenge.

The best thing you can do for your birthdays is to keep having them. The rest is gravy.

On blog writing

Last week I read an interview with Camille Paglia in which she said most of the writing on blogs pretty much sucks. The link is at and a pain to click through, so be warned. I felt sort of stung by that so I’ve made a little promise to myself to write better. One of the ways to do that is to write about the deeply personal stuff that you’d normally never divulge in public. That’s what I had in mind with the post below, about one of my defining characteristics, which I have never written about in any of my Web sites, dating back seven years.

Half-life with a half-smile

I was born with half a smile and it’s been that way ever since.

It’s anybody’s guess why it happened, but somehow I ended up with a seventh cranial nerve on the right side of my face that didn’t work. Well, the sensory part works — you could smack me over there and it’d sting just fine. But the muscles won’t budge, so there’s a permanent frown on that side, and eyelids that don’t close all the way.

How swell it would’ve been to have one butt cheek that didn’t move right, or one toe too many. Something you could put clothes over. But no, I couldn’t have such a low-intensity deformity: It had to be just bad enough that everybody could see it, but just minor enough that I’d have no damn business complaining about it. I mean, I didn’t come out with flippers for arms, I just look a little freaky and people mistakenly think I’m winking at them. See, the other eye closes too tight to compensate for the one that doesn’t finish its job. I can’t think of any time in my life when I purposefully winked at anybody. But by accident, probably billions.

Next week I turn 42, which means I’ve been this way since the Kennedy Administration. Everybody else has gotten over it, or at least gotten used to it. Except me.

It wasn’t exactly vacation at Disney World growing up with this face, but kids were not as cruel as they could’ve been. I never felt the urge to shoot up the seventh grade. But I always identified with Charlie Brown, who craved popularity and purpose yet seemed denied for reasons beyond his comprehension. My Little League team lost all its games, too. Lately it occurred to me that Charlie had it far worse than me … at least I had an excuse for kids not liking me, being a freak and all; he was perfectly normal and they hated him anyway. Now that is injustice.

One thing that amazes me to this day is how people control their curiosity. I can think of two people in my adult life (other than doctors thinking I had Bell’s palsy) who have come right out and said, “Tom, what happened to your face?” “Just a congenital birth defect,” I’d say, “one nerve didn’t form correctly.”

I try to be nonchalant about it, but it’s a lie. Every morning I have to stick a toothbrush in this face and every time it pisses me off a little. But I wonder why nobody asks; I’d be dying to know. But I probably wouldn’t ask either. People are nicer than we give them credit for being.

Of course there’s no problem as long as I go though life straight-faced or sour-faced. It only really shows when I laugh. I try not to, but I fail. Existence is just too absurd not to laugh at it.

So, the half-smile will be with me always. I’m really writing this just to help me get used to the idea. It’s high time after four decades of denial.