Dancing machine.

You know what the world needs? More choreography like this:

And like this:

(Every year at my all-white junior high and high school, there was a talent show, and there were always two lip-synch acts, always Motown, always the most popular kids in school — the cheerleader girls did a Supremes/Martha & the Vandellas/Marvelettes, etc. number, and the jock boys did a Temptations/Four Tops, etc. song. I wonder how they learned the choreography, this being before YouTube and even videotape. No one ever noted the oddity of white kids dressed in matching orange tuxedos and/or sequined fishtail gowns, imitating black music acts. Berry Gordy really did bring the races together, didn’t he?)

I’m posting those clips because, as promised, I spent the weekend trying to ignore M.J., but a few nice pieces cut through the static, and one was written by Alistair Macaulay, the NYT dance critic, who looked at nothing but Jackson the dancer. Whenever someone names this or that MTV phenom as a great dancer, I always wonder how you could tell, as the quick-cut editing that defines music videos can make anyone look like a great dancer. Move, cut, move, cut, etc. — I always thought dancing was how you put the moves together. Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” is a pretty good example, and now that I watch it again I notice that the sustained shot at the beginning is a pretty long one, and could have been a stand-in. I take her word it’s really her, but music video, more than any other medium, took dance and chopped it up into a series of tricks. (Two-left-footed me could probably be made graceful with a good editor.) So it’s nice to watch these old J-5 performance clips and be reminded that in his case, it was real, and in that, I can start to find a little empathy with the departed.

Dancers and athletes thrill us with a few years of amazing physical feats, and too many spend the rest of their lives paying for it. A few years back, our late pal Ashley Morris tipped me to a story on a Hall of Fame running back, a man who once had thighs of an outrageous, fearsome circumference, who now cannot climb the stadium stairs to watch his own son play college ball, and I’m sorry but I can’t remember who it was. I once read an interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov, who talked about the constant pain that dancers live with, even young ones. He was in his 40s by then, long retired, but still took class when he could. One quote stuck with me: “A dancer knows what kind of day he’s going to have the moment he gets out of bed.” (Misha in “Giselle.”)

Anyway, Macaulay notes:

But to watch “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” (1979) is to be amazed at just how much charm the 20-year-old Mr. Jackson had, and the charm gets more infectious as the dancing proceeds. You begin by noticing the pelvis, doing its characteristic pulsation, and you recognize how close you are to the world of John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” Fairly soon, you take in the heels, or rather the action of the insteps that keeps rhythmically lifting the heels off the floor, and then, in various ways, you see the ripple of motion between feet and those very slender hips.

But Mr. Jackson was an upper-body dancer too: there’s a marvelous moment here when he tilts back and stays there. Now go to “Billie Jean” in Motown’s 25th-anniversary celebration (1983). You can see that already everything is much more choreographed, both in the bad sense of unspontaneous and the good sense of dance structure. Most of the time his dancing is so aflame you don’t feel any lack of freshness, and he’s so alert that you hardly have time to laugh — though I think you ought, happily — at the way his busy pelvis keeps hoisting his pants up and revealing his off-white socks. (The changing expanse of socks becomes part of the rhythm.)

“Busy pelvis” — now there’s a great name for a band. (Video HT: Hank.)

How was your weekend? We spent part of it traveling for the wrong reasons — Alan’s 94-year-old Aunt Martha, the last of the Smith sisters, his mom’s side, went to her reward last week, and the funeral was Saturday. “Reward” is literal when you’ve lived that long; we all agreed that the wind really went out of her sails when Alan’s mom died, followed by her last sibling, Dorothy, a few months later. The circle is closed, and the organist was instructed to dial back the mournful tone by 30 percent or so. The lunch and fellowship afterward took place among the still-standing structures of Vacation Bible School, which evidently had a class in Roman history — there were draped tents, plastic swords and CLOSED BY ORDER OF CAESAR AUGUSTUS signs here and there. They even had a little aqueduct made of shipping tubes sawed in half lengthwise.

Alan reports VBS is where he learned to sing, “Oh I’ve got joy joy joy joy down in my heart,” etc. VBS is a real Protestant tradition, ain’a, JeffTMMO? I had no such experience, although after years of CCD classes they’d have had to take me there in leg irons.

Oh, and we had a collective eye-roll over the last hours of Martha’s life: After her heart attack, she was taken to the local hospital, where, even though she had a DNR order, etc., they insisted on transporting her, BY HELICOPTER, to Toledo. They did the same thing to Alan’s mom, even though all agreed her case was hopeless and she would end her life in hospice care within a few days. The Toledo hospital is like the Atlanta airport — you can’t go anywhere without passing through their ER first. And we wonder why health-care costs are staggering.

Even though it’s Monday, it’s a fine and sunny day and I’ve got joy joy joy joy down in my heart. I think this is due to me getting more sleep, however. Off to bicycle through my weekly cop-shop rounds and find out where the bodies are buried. (Like they’d tell us. Hah.)

Posted at 9:47 am in Current events, Same ol' same ol' |

68 responses to “Dancing machine.”

  1. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on June 29, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Tradition? More like iron law. Thou shalt have VBS, sayeth the Lord, the first was at the foot of Mt. Sinai and i believe they had all the classes work on a big paper-mache calf and painted it gold. Big hit with the kids.

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  2. 4dbirds said on June 29, 2009 at 10:05 am

    This hardened athiest fondly remembers Vacation Bible School. They served cookies and kool-aid.

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  3. Connie said on June 29, 2009 at 10:07 am

    NO VBS? Coming from where I do, that is so hard to imagine. As kids we attended every VBS in the neighborhood. My own Dutch Reformed Church, the Baptist church down the block, and the combined Dutch Christian Reformed at the local Christian school.

    I did watch that Motown 25 clip of MJ doing Billie Jean this weekend, particularly enjoyed the audience murmur of appreciation the first time he did the moon walk. Which I understand was THE FIRST TIME HE DID THE MOON WALK in performance.

    Other than that I was busy with my new puppy Molly, a 7 month old miniature schnauzer who is filled with energy and decided to love me from the first moment.

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  4. coozledad said on June 29, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Vacation Bible School was just prologue. The youth retreats at lake Junaluska were where the pussy was. You’ve really got to hand it to them: They put the “end” in indoctrination.

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  5. Anonymous (For Obvious Reasons) said on June 29, 2009 at 10:11 am

    “If the Devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack. Where?”

    VBS was summer day care for moms. A week at the Baptists, then to the Methodists, then over to the Disciples of Christ, and finally over to the other Baptists.

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  6. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on June 29, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Hoo-ray, the Disciples! Summer day care, yah, you betcha. Now they all run them on purpose on the same week in many towns.

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  7. Joe Kobiela said on June 29, 2009 at 10:22 am

    The football player was Earl Campbell, Played and won the Heisman at Texas and played for the Houston Oilers.
    Pilot Joe

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  8. Connie said on June 29, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Around here a lot of churches have switched to evening VBS. Bye bye day care.

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  9. Julie Robinson said on June 29, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Oh yeah, a little daycare for the stay at home moms never hurt. But I also did my share of teaching, and after several years of worrying about the theology presented, realized that just knowing church was a great place to be was probably enough. But snacks are no longer just koolaid and cookies. I was amazed at the donation list for this year, almost gourmet stuff, and I wondered how many kids would make the connections of food to Bible story.

    Am I to understand that Catholics also don’t have Sunday School?

    We attended a baseball game at our charming new stadium yesterday. It’s another in the new retro look, all brick and arches and very warm and friendly feeling. Unfortunately, it’s still baseball, and for our ADD family it moves too slowly.

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  10. Crabby said on June 29, 2009 at 10:27 am

    The running back your probably thinking of is Earl Campbell.

    Earl Campbell

    {I agree with pilot joe}

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  11. Jen said on June 29, 2009 at 10:28 am

    My 10-year-old nephew went to Vacation Bible School last week and it scared the crap out of him. They were talking about the plagues of Egypt and the Passover, and when they got to the point about the Angel of Death coming like a wind and killing all the firstborn children, apparently he freaked out. The rest of the kids were fine, so I don’t know that they were being overly graphic or anything, but we think he actually *got* it, and really understands the concept of death and dying. Also, he’s blind and apparently that night was very sound-based (the sound of the wind and the wailing of the fathers when their children died), so that probably contributed, too.

    We were talking about VBS and getting a kick out of the themed snacks, too. On the night they did the plagues, they had a snack that was like trail mix with raisins and pretzels representing the locusts, and fruit gushers representing the boils! Ick.

    I don’t ever remember VBS being that scary, and I went every summer for years.

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  12. nancy said on June 29, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Catholic kids who are defying the Lord thy God by attending school with pagans and heathens attend public school are sentenced to weekly CCD classes (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine), sometimes on Sunday before or after church but frequently not. Catholic-school kids get it as part of their regular curriculum, and are excused.

    CCD is where our teacher told me that Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was Catholic, “which is very very rare, you know — black Catholics. Very rare.” I was 25 years old before I learned how wrong that was, but hey, the guy was a volunteer, I’m sure.

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  13. Jenine said on June 29, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Those are some *big* silver shoes in that ‘Enjoy Yourself’ video. That was excellent! I rolled my eyes yesterday at church (Episcopalian) when MJ, Farrah and Ed McMahon all made it into the prayers for the people.

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  14. Dorothy said on June 29, 2009 at 10:40 am

    They have “Sunday School” at the Catholic church I attend, Julie, but I think it’s CCD classes that Nancy referenced. Michael had the moves, all right. When I’d catch glimpses of the news over the weekend, or catch a video or two as I surfed past VH1 or MTV, I kept thinking “Why didn’t he keep his face/skin just like that?!” I’m referring to the era around the time of the Motown 25th anniversary show.

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  15. jeff borden said on June 29, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Re: Earl Campbell.

    The average NFL career is just under three years in length. And no wonder, given the physics involved when fast, powerful, heavy men are colliding with one another. One of my poker group is a big Notre Dame football fan and knows one of the strength and conditioning coaches. The coach tells him that playing Division-1 football is like being in a car crash every week. It’s undoubtedly even more devastating in the NFL.

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  16. mark said on June 29, 2009 at 11:09 am

    The Supreme Court has issued a decision in the Ricci case, ruling 5-4 in favor of the firefighter petitioners. I’ve only scanned it, but saw nothing taking any shots, subtle or otherwise, at Sotomayor or the Court of Appeals per curiam affirmance of the District Court.

    Close call on a fairly technical, highly factual and increasingly irrelevant issue. Move along, Senators. Nothing to see here.

    The Alito concurrence and Ginsburg dissent, together, include a somewhat entertaining and generally sad recitation of the behind-the-scenes, race-card-playing, politics that preceeded the lawsuit. Tempers flare in New Haven.

    Time to schedule the Sotomayor hearings, put her on the Court, and save the crossed swords for more important issues.

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  17. Colleen said on June 29, 2009 at 11:11 am

    Our parish of The One True has VBS. I went once at a neighbor’s house with my sister.

    And I learned “Joy Joy Joy” from “The Beverly Hillbillies”

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  18. Sue said on June 29, 2009 at 11:17 am

    CCD kids were not getting the benefit of a full Catholic education, and were to be pitied, especially since Catholic school kids were taught that every public school, right down to kindergarten, was something out of Blackboard Jungle. On the other hand, public school kids were usually *alittlebetterinformed* when it came to science – you had to work those religion classes in somewhere, you know.
    As a kid I was fascinated with the idea of Protestant Sunday School, and assumed it was just like what I had read in Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables.
    And Colleen, we are similarly culturally educated: I know all my opera from Looney Tunes.

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  19. brian stouder said on June 29, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Well, we don’t do the vbs thing, but we DO pick and choose stuff from the venerable Ft Wayne Parks Dept, and/or the Y’s summer offerings, including most especially the Park Dept’s Farm Camp. It is a daycamp, and this year Chloe gets to go, along with her veteran older brother and sister. In past years we’ve done Zoo Camp (which was very cool) and even the Orignal Recipe Franke Park Day Camp – which I myself attended more than three decades ago. I think they still utilize the Native American motiff, which may or may not be a good thing…

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  20. ROgirl said on June 29, 2009 at 11:22 am

    Ballerina feet.


    The Catholic family down the street had 3 daughters, one my age. They went to the local parochial school, and as the child of non-believers I went to the public school across the street. She played church, using the holy water font they had in their basement, and she tried to get me to agree to convert when I became an adult.

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  21. 8th grade mom said on June 29, 2009 at 11:25 am

    So one of the funnier (but ultimately more alienating experiences) we had with seriously religious sister-in-law was when her daughter (my niece) went to VBS and my son went to a weeklong class on mythology (at a camp for gifted kids). My niece starts talking about “the one true God” she learned about at VBS and my son says (very dispassionately), “Oh, no, you’re wrong aout that, there’s hundreds of gods.” The look of disbelief at this heresy on my niece’s face is with me still. The more he goes on about all the different gods (and why there were so many of them), the more upset she gets. We finally introduced the “why not to discuss religion” rule for family get-togethers after that. It’s funny now but I thought my s-i-l was going to have a stroke at the time!

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  22. LAMary said on June 29, 2009 at 11:30 am

    I did one day of Dutch Reformed VBS. I still remember the verse they taught us before we made dolls or something from empty dish soap bottles:

    Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.
    Peter 5:8

    Then we got vanilla wafers and kool aid.

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  23. adrianne said on June 29, 2009 at 11:33 am

    I never knew what VBS was until I moved to Fort Wayne, home of the earnest Missouri Synod Lutherans. Since I was Catholic-schooled all the way to 12th grade, I was spared the CCD classes, but have inflicted them on my spawn. We’re richly amused by how they scant on Church history (oh, those Renaissance popes and their bastard children)! but otherwise, they’re Catholic-school lite, and that’s fine by me.

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  24. mark said on June 29, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Madoff sentenced. 150 years. Good.

    From the bench the judge observed that not a single letter was received in support of Madoff.

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  25. Sue said on June 29, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Mark, help me out here re the Supreme Court decision. What I have read relative to Sotomayer’s involvement was that she could not really have ruled any other way and still followed the law: the City expected a lawsuit on behalf of minority applicants if it did not make the change and a ruling against its actions would have constituted a punishment for essentially following the rules. The argument on this is that the law needed to be changed rather than challenged, which would have put this back in the arena of lawmakers. I believe I read this in an article about the chief justice; the author wondered how the chief justice would be able to rule in favor of the firefighters given his more-common and well-known interpretations usually in favor of government and business.

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  26. Danny said on June 29, 2009 at 11:44 am

    I just wanted to take this opportunity to link again to Carly Simon’s Playing Possum album art since the dude at books and records dot com was so appreciative of the surely small bit of traffic that his minor website might have gotten last week from this blog.

    Oh, and be sure to browse his terms and conditions, where he is all over protecting what he considers to be his own copyright to other peoples’ images, but if any of the original content owners feel that he is vilotaing their copyright, this is what the offended party must do:


    If you believe content on our Service infringes your copyrighted work and you want the Service to take down the offending material, you will need to complete the following Notice of Copyright Infringement and mail it to our Registered Agent (do not use this procedure for any other kind of communication):

    Mail it to us:

    Robert Evans

    12 Imber Place, Tilshead, Wiltshire, SP3 4SE, United Kingdom

    Notice of Copyright Infringement

    I certify under the penalty of perjury that I own or am authorized to act on behalf of the owner of the copyrighted work identified below. I believe in good faith that the copyrighted work has been used on your Service without authorization by the owner, its agents or according to law. I ask that you remove or block access to the infringing material.

    Name of Copyright Owner:
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    I can be contacted as follows:

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    I certify under the penalties of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct to the best of my information, knowledge and belief.


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  27. jeff borden said on June 29, 2009 at 11:56 am

    I sincerely hope Bernie Madoff lives a very, very, very long life in prison. He’s absolutely despicable.

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  28. brian stouder said on June 29, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    btw, when I read the title of this entry, my first thought was “Gene, Gene!!”

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  29. coozledad said on June 29, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    I remember reading somewhere that towards the close of Serge Lifar’s dancing career, members of the troupe would often laugh at him because he’d developed a monstrous ass. That’s another hazard of being a body artist.

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  30. Julie Robinson said on June 29, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Collen and Sue, you’re not alone. In Amy Dickinson’s new book, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, her father’s beehives are threatened by a bear, and she doesn’t know why the bees don’t just fly down the bear’s little red trousers. “That’s when I realized that all my knowledge about the interplay between bears and bees came from Hanna-Barbera cartoons.”

    Biggest ovation of the day at the ballfield came for a soldier just back from Afghanistan. May they all be back soon, Mr President.

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  31. mark said on June 29, 2009 at 12:12 pm


    Your understanding seems pretty good to me. Interestingly, while Roberts was with the majority, he was almost alone in not offering a separate opinion. And yes, the issue would be better addressed by the legislature.

    In a half a nutshell, it is a defense to an otherwise meritorious discrimination claim that the employer would be subject to an equally succesful discrimination claim for providing the relief that the first group claims was discriminatorily withheld. Not just the expectation of a lawsuit, but the expectation of a lawsuit for which you can already determine that the hypothetical plaintiffs have, basically, “strong evidence” for each of the essential elements of the hypothetical claim.

    Here, the simple fact that the minority pass rate for the exam was 50% of that of white test-taker is strong evidence of prima facie discrimination by disparate impact. This supports the District Court and what the Appeals court presumabluy and legally, if not specifically, found, The majority today, in my opinion, goes oner step further and says: Yes, but in that hypothetical lawsuit for which hypothetical plaintiffs would have strong evidence to establish their hypothetical prima facie case, there are certain defenses available to the City, hypothetically, for which the City has strong evidence and the hypothetical plaintiffs have no evidence to rebut. So the City would win, so the possible lawsuit is no defense to the actual lawsuit.

    This situation rarely arises and, while I think the solution crafted by the Court is “fair”, I don’t fault any non-Supreme Court justice for not attempting to articulate it and, instead, following what was arguably clear precedent, even though the precedent was minimal and different factually.

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  32. Danny said on June 29, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Mark, is the bottom line that disparate treatment (of the white firefighters) trumps disparate impact (of the minority test takers)? The former is a direct action with conscious intention, the latter an indirect consequence without intention.

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  33. Dorothy said on June 29, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Hey did anyone else think it was strange that in the Soul Train “video” only Jermaine’s name was on the wall behind the stage where they performed? You’d think they would have done a montage of all five names…

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  34. BIll Strickland said on June 29, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Before MJ there was James Brown. Check out his moves on some of those You-Tube videos from the 60’s and 70’s.

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  35. kayak woman said on June 29, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    I never went to VBS when I was a kid but I did attend “baby school”, which was what my Catholic best friend from kindergarten through sixth grade called Sunday School on days when we probably needed a break from each other.

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  36. Scout said on June 29, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    VBS was required attendance for every good little WASP child in my small town. I endured it in a mostly non-participatory way, the snacks being the highlight for me.

    Those videos, plus the MTV stuff I watched on YouTube over the weekend, reminded me why I admired MJ as an artist, especially as a dancer. It is heartbreaking to see him as that adorable kid then have the mind inevitably jump to the repulsive image of the freakshow he became. His personal life was an obvious tragedy.

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  37. paddyo' said on June 29, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    All this VBS talk is making this ex-RC seminarian (in HS no less, back when they took us very, very young) kinda twitchy. The closest thing we had was a summer camp on the shores of Monterey Bay, with a “Cypress Cathedral” outdoor altar on a sandy, wind-whipped cliff well above the water. Sunday mass there for us seminarian “junior counselors” and the campers was about as close as anybody got to religion, except maybe for nightly prayers …

    So instead, an off-topic-so-far-today question to all you Detroit-and-near-by’ers:
    Did you already know that “Hung,” the new HBO show about a well-endowed do-it-yourself male prostitute that debuted last night, is set in Detroit? The opening credits really, uh, make love to the decaying cityscape.

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  38. brian stouder said on June 29, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Off to bicycle through my weekly cop-shop rounds and find out where the bodies are buried.

    Speaking of bodies in the cityscape, there’s this from one of Nance’s former haunts


    A neighbor called officers Saturday morning after she discovered Spencer in the rear of a vacant lot at 5028 Buell Drive, near Fairfield and West Fairfax Avenues, about 7 a.m. She had gone outside to investigate why her dog wouldn’t stop barking and found his body, police said. The coroner’s office ruled his death a homicide, the 12th of the year in Allen County. The long gun and a black baseball cap were found nearby. Police also impounded his black Jaguar, which was parked at the scene, police spokesman Officer Michael Joyner said.Investigators have no suspects and don’t know how Spencer ended up in the Buell Drive lot, Joyner said.

    In the Sunday paper, the neighborhood was gratuitously referred to as a “well kept” area in South Fort Wayne, which made me say “hmmmmm”

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  39. Jolene said on June 29, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    VBS! I hadn’t thought about it in years, but it’s actually a fond memory. More fun than being at home w/ my mom and sisters, which is pretty much how the rest of the summer went. As others have noted, cookies and kool-aid. The mothers competed; store-bought cookies were frowned upon. Also music and games outdoors; looking back, I think I must have enjoyed these games because the fear of humiliation that I experienced as a physical klutz in the more competitive games we played at school was less intense.

    Also, craft projects! What child’s spiritual development wouldn’t be advanced by tying two sticks together to form a cross and sticking it into a Dixie cup filled with bright-colored plaster of Paris? And, if that weren’t enough to guarantee salvation, there was the possibility of carving a Bible opened on a lectern from a bar of Ivory soap.

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  40. ROgirl said on June 29, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    I’m HBO-less these days, but the credit sequence is on their website. Very cool. They have him going from downtown (the fist, the fountain, the Coney Island) out along Woodward, passing an old factory (not sure which, maybe Ford), the Fox Theater and 8 Mile, eventually out to the burbs, to one of the lakes with old cottages.

    A journey of at least 20 miles.

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  41. Jolene said on June 29, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Ugh! Joe Jackson is on TV taking questions from reporters. His first remark had to do w/ the new record company he is establishing. What a hideous person.

    I like both the phrasing and the forthrightness of this passage from Eugene Robinson’s WaPo column on Michael:

    From the beginning — from the moment when Joe and Katherine Jackson decided to mold their children not into a family but into an act — Michael was the meal ticket. No offense to Jackie, Marlon, Tito and Jermaine, but if they had auditioned for Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr. as the “Jackson 4,” he’d have sent them back to Gary, Ind., on the next bus. Michael was the star.

    Jackson once said his father used to beat him, perhaps because he was the “golden child.” Joe Jackson has always denied being physically abusive, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. It seems to me that attaching oneself to one’s young son like a leech and denying that boy any semblance of a childhood qualifies as abuse.

    Not original, perhaps, but clear and strong, and the “not a family but an act” phrase cuts right to the hard truth.

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  42. Dexter said on June 29, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Here’s a link to a story about athletes who have trouble walking or just getting around.

    I found it from a search about Dan Dierdorf, who has two titanium hips and is ready for another artificial knee, and who walks using a cane, like a crab, struggling , walking sideways. I saw him walk this way at Bo Schembechler’s tribute at M Stadium a while back.
    Earl Campbell is mentioned here, too. I have an understanding of these fellows’s woes—I use a cane all the time and two walking sticks when I walk the dogs in a field. The only time I motivate normally is when I ride a bicycle, no pain, no concessions riding a bike for me. It’s amazing how many nice people are out there. I don’t need assistance with doors, but almost everyone holds the door for me when I come hobbling along on my cane. One Walmart greeter always asks me if I want a motorized cart, but I have never used one of those…yet, anyway.

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  43. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on June 29, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Jen, i’d, uhhhh, avoid the church that does VBS material like that. Locusts and boils? We used thin tortillas rolled up with a bit of butter and cinnamon, tied with a cherry licorice string (Psalm 119:103 for snacks, hooray!).

    My wife took years to get over an independent Pentecostal church she went you as a child, where they pushed the premillenial Rapture theology right down into the elementary grades, with the empty suits in the captain’s seat on the airliner and everything — and special attention to the earthly torments during the seven years following (flaming scorpions, etc.). No time to preach Hellfire when you’re focused on miseries here on earth as your incentive to “get right with the Lord.”

    On the other hand . . . i’ve been a regular, not to say compulsive reader of the New York Times Book Review since about 1982 — the rest of the dead lump of wood pulp might weigh down the carpet for weeks before going to the recycling unread, but the NYTBR would always get devoured by Tuesday evening at the latest.

    Aside from the fact that it’s getting thinner as it gets older, just like the honored deceased of the week, has anyone else noticed, whether with approval or my mild shock and dismay, that the aggresive atheism is getting somehow even more emphatic the last few months? “There is no god” manages to show up in at least two or three reviews each week, often with a connection to the subject material i have to think through once’t or twice’t to discern, and “churches are filled with self-deluding fools wedded to meaningless mythology” a close second.

    I’m a big boy, and am long inured to such suggestions and opining, especially if i want to read literati fodder like NYTBR (let alone the NYRB), but the intensity with which this stance is being presented as “the way it is, and don’t you forget it” such as the cover review for this week has me wondering if i really need to keep reading it. The whole message of “Life is meaningless, if occasionally joyful, and religion is an opiate which we suppose those in great pain can be forgiven, condescendingly, for resorting to in extremis (cf. the ending of McCarthy’s “The Road”), but really, doesn’t it just make strange people do awful things to children and the powerless” — is that really where the NYT thinks they’re going to pick up subscriptions?

    On the other hand, watching “Newsweek”‘s implosion these last few months, i guess the market will out. Or is it that they are repositioning for the narrow market segment that will pay the coming premium prices, and they’re actually happy to be rid of the likes of me and mine, leaving us to the simple pleasures of “Reader’s Digest”? I’m not going for sarcasm here, i’m really curious.

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  44. brian stouder said on June 29, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Celebrities whose untimely demise would REALLY depress me:

    Eddie Vedder


    Eugene Robinson (Jolene’s post above has in front-of-mind; Shelby and I went and saw him speak, and he was just as insightful and gracious as he could be, despite one particular knucklehead in the crowd)

    Michael Schumacher (I’ll never really get over Greg Moore’s all-too-short career; but Senna’s death was just before I became a fan)

    Steve Martin

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  45. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on June 29, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Anyone 48 and under dying depresses me, for the obvious reason. And two guys at 50 is close enough to dislike.

    But i’ll be bummed when Ray Bradbury goes, which, deus volent, will be years away, but he’s 88. I’ll bet we won’t get a week’s worth of readings from “The Martian Chronicles” and “Dandelion Wine” when he goes, though. Worse the luck.

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  46. Sue said on June 29, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Jeff, your wife’s pentecostal upbringing has a 1960’s Catholic equivalent. I was in first and second grade, wondering with all my classmates what I was going to do when the Communists came and tried to force me to renounce my religion. Because I couldn’t renounce my religion, I’d have to become a martyr and that would hurt. No, I was not allowed to renounce it while everyone was watching and then set up a little altar at home and be private about it. (The secret altar of course would also have a secret Mary altar on one side and a secret Joseph altar on the other. The statue of Mary on the Mary altar would require a crown of flowers every May.) This attempted renouncing of my religion and my subsequent death by martyrdom would of course take place after we got out from under our desks, after the nuclear bombs hit. First and second grade, folks.
    And I am bummed that we’ll be losing Terry Pratchett even before he leaves us, as this wonderful writer (and I have no doubt, wonderful and funny human being) is losing his battle with alzheimer’s and has said he’s at the end of his ability to write.

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  47. Jolene said on June 29, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Years ago, I happened to see a clip of Joe Montana talking about acupuncture or some other treatment that he was trying. He said something like, “It just really helps with your injuries,” which struck me because his statement treated having injuries as normal. And, for him, I suppose, it was. When I think about how undone I’ve been by a badly sprained ankle, a strained shoulder, or a broken wrist, it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to have injuries as a matter of routine.

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  48. jeff borden said on June 29, 2009 at 4:55 pm


    Did your class get the comic book that showed American under Communist rule? I recall they take over an office building in Chicago and move the government seat there and, of course, shutter all the churches and Catholic schools. And then there were the old commercials for Radio Free Europe, where a sad looking family is huddled around an old radio when a uniformed thug bursts through the door and smashes their radio with the butt of his rifle. And duck and cover, of course. By the time I was 10, I was certain we’d all be incinerated by nuclear war or consigned to concentration camps by Soviet occupiers. Propaganda works. . .at least on kids.

    Jeff TMMO,

    I read the same review and did not get the same feeling, but I obviously approach it from a different vantage point as a recovering Catholic who practices no religion. Rather than viewing the author as an aggressive atheist ala Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, it seemed to me he was exploring the many contradictions evident in the key works of all faiths and how our concept of a Divine Being has changed over time. This is more than a little afield from Hitchens’ contention that organized religion is responsible for some of the most heinous events in our history, isn’t it?

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  49. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on June 29, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Hmm. It started that way (and i liked Non-Zero, and will probably read the book itself), but Bloom, the reviewer, goes off in a rather different direction in the last six or seven paragraphs (i read it in a waiting room and don’t have it near me right now). It’s the editorial voice i’m reacting to, not the books reviewed per se. And i waited in vain to hear how this book was any different than Jack Miles’ biography of “God” (a good read), which covered — as far as i can tell — the same territory, but Bloom spent little time on comparison and more on discrediting belief in any kind of divinity, of any sort, with the last half of his lengthy cover essay. That’s the kind of polemic i’m baffled by, as a regular component of NYTBR.

    Sounds like that comic book could have helped inspire “Wolveriiiiiiiiines!”

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  50. 4dbirds said on June 29, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Perhaps we athiests feel comfortable enough now to express ourselves. I don’t think life is meaningless. I would say that I absolutely value the lives we have precisely because I know nothing magical made us and there is nothing after we leave. So while we’re here our lives are precious.

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  51. jeff borden said on June 29, 2009 at 5:09 pm


    On second read, there certainly is a healthy helping of snark in the reviewer’s prose. It’s possible to see the reviewer looking down a very long nose at those who find great support and community from their faith, the poor, silly goobers.

    While I have a long bill of particulars to lay at the foot of many, if not most, organized religions, it’s certainly not my place to denigrate those who find value and solace in them. By the same token, I’m tired of being marginalized by a significant segment of the American population because I choose not to embrace a religion. It would be nice if we could all just live and let live.

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  52. Sue said on June 29, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    4db, from my vantage point it’s a lonely place. I really would like to believe that I could see my parents again after 30 years, talk to them as an older adult, etc. And have all my pets around and be introduced to my mother’s brother and my grandmother’s brother. But I can’t; it’s not there and I can’t make it be there. I can’t believe either the good stuff that makes you want to believe or the bad stuff that is designed to scare you into believing. I think that a disinterested supreme being makes more sense to our daily lives than a benevolent being who has a secret purpose for everything that happens. That doesn’t mean I believe in him/her/it, either.
    Helps to have a sense of humor though. I like to imagine surprise heavens, quirky places where it turns out that dammit, you still have to be nice to annoying Aunt Whoever because heaven is where you’re with all the people you like and she always liked you, so you end up stuck after all. That kind of thing.

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  53. moe99 said on June 29, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Well, there’s finally one picture out there of the SC Gov’s mistress:


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  54. Sue said on June 29, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Jeff Borden, no we did not have that comic book. Apparently I dodged that bullet, having to use my imagination without the benefit of graphic illustrations. I have a feeling that comic books would be frowned upon.

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  55. coozledad said on June 29, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    My older brother and sister were so confident in their faith they felt it necessary to mock my efforts go through the motions. I gave it a few years, to see if it would take. It was certainly no solace to me, and I ultimately didn’t feel too badly about coming up short in the estimation of my family, who oscillated between morose prostration in front of the tube, and shrieking violence. If they were headed to an afterlife, I wanted different accommodations.
    The Southern Baptist experience still strikes me as much more of a statement of cultural affiliations than a nurturing source of spiritual and emotional growth.
    In college, when a lot of my peers were having a fling with Buddhism, I decided to become addicted to cigarettes instead. I was a success.
    I quit smoking in ’92, and my peers are Episcopalians again.
    I’ve met some atheists of the Hitchens variety, and I tell them they ought to meet my older brother and sister.

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  56. Joe Kobiela said on June 29, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Another less known rocker died this weekend.
    Sky Saxon who fronted the seeds in So Cal in the 60’s. One hit, pushing to hard.
    Pilot Joe

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  57. coozledad said on June 29, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    The Seeds also appeared in Psych Out, a Dick Clark movie that features Jack Nicholson as a Jimi Hendrix Manque.
    HT Powerpop.

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  58. caliban said on June 29, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I Want You Back is so much better than anything else Michael Jasckson ever did it’s not funny. I saw Michael at the Michigan State Fair when he was a little kid.

    “Recovering Catholic” is sort of obnoxious. I’m a Catholic, went to school with nuns, went to Jesuit high school, and college, for a while. Some Catholics read Teillhard. Making fun of Catholics with not an intellectual leg to stand on is lame. The Catholic Church has taken a lead in science and admitted to past transgressions. Shouldn’t everybody else on the religious frontier catch up?

    The idea that Catholic priests are sexual predators is idiotic, and the idea of recovered memories for cash is pretty compelling.That guy was lying his ass off about Bernardin.

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  59. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on June 29, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    4db, it sounds like we could have a civil conversation; my only point of cheerful disagreement with you being the question “is there not some sense of enduring meaning that gives such preciousness weight?”

    My argument, in a public sense, is with what feels like a growing insistence that the senses & sensations of the moment are all; yep, Mark Sanford tries to put some religious lipstick on that . . . wait, we can’t use that metaphor any more, but Sandra Tsing Loh and Richard Dawkins and Janet Jackson all seem to be singing the same song — do what feels good, try not to hurt others, and make your choices based on your “heart”, whatever on earth (or in heaven) that is.

    But there’s very little to do with organizational or structural religion i feel the need to defend, and more often i’m happy to hand over my crowbar to the wreckers, due to a toxic overexposure early on to Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard. If you actually read more than a few second-hand quotes of SK, it’s hard to take anything about institutional Christianity seriously, which is not conducive to a successful career in the clergy. Jesus, on the other hand . . .

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  60. alice said on June 29, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Brian S, The Gong Show! Now that was good TV.

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  61. deb said on June 29, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    as one of the nn.c family’s few practicing catholics (yo, adrianne!), it’s no longer called CCD, but christian formation. just so’s you know.

    as a protestant tot, i had lots of fun at VBS — which sometimes involved homemade ice cream — so when my youngest expressed interest in the VBS at his friend’s UCC’s church, i said sure. he lasted about an hour; broke his collarbone during a sack race. that was the end of VBS for us.

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  62. jcburns said on June 29, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Christian formation!? Well, lessee. One interpretation: sounds militaristic (rows of young Catholics lined up for indoctrination), and another sounds like they’re not-quite-finished-yet lumps of clay, waiting to be made into Notre Dame grads with baby feet atop their mortarboards.

    Me, I’m way past impatient waiting for Catholicism and, oh sure, Islam and Judaism and one or two stray synods of Protestantism to reform their institutional structure, (yes, I think I’m agreeing with Jeff here), which manages to do an amazing amount of, uh, not-good while they’re out there claiming good works.

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  63. beb said on June 29, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    The rise of militant atheism has a lot to do, IMHO, with the rise of Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robinson and James Dobson. They went around beating so many people up who did not believe what they believed, and it was all for political gain, not worship of god, that foisted a counter-revolt of the ardently anti-Church.

    I was rather taken with Dawkin’s account of a double-blind experiment on the effectiveness of prayer. Patients in a hospital were divided into two similiar groups. One group had their names given to a church to be prayed over. The other group was no prayed over. Outcomes for the two groups were identical. Prayer appears to have no effect on patients survival rates. On the other hand a similar experiment divided patients into two groups. One group was told that they would be prayed over by a church, the other group was told nothing. The people who believed they were being prayed over had better survival rates.

    Dawkins concluded that the first experiment proves that God does not exist. Then again it’ssaid that God Is Not Mocked. So maybe He did nothing solely to confound the atheists.

    On an unrelated note. I’ve seen to ads by Billy Mays since his untimely death, so I guess he will continue to be America’s Salesman long after he’s buried.

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  64. Jolene said on June 29, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    On an unrelated note. I’ve seen two ads by Billy Mays since his untimely death, so I guess he will continue to be America’s Salesman long after he’s buried.

    Death is not necessarily a barrier to making a buck. According to the Forbes list of the earnings of dead celebrities, the estate of Elvis Presley took in $52 million last year.

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  65. coozledad said on June 29, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    When I was in high school, a friend of mine and his mom were showing me a family album. One of the Brownie prints from the thirties showed a young couple standing in front of a window. My friend’s mother asked me if I noticed anything strange about it. If I’d been completely honest, I’d have said the whole situation struck me as strange because I was stoned, but the photo was definitely disturbing. A kid’s face was in the corner of the window, sticking her tongue out at the young woman. I noted this to friend’s mom. She said there was no one behind the window. The woman and her new husband (Mom’s uncle) had just rented the place and snapped their portrait with a bulb. She’d heard them discuss this picture often before her uncle killed the woman and died in jail a few years later. They hadn’t moved into the rental property yet. It was vacant, and locked.
    In the same house where we were looking at the photo album, we had hauled out a Quija board one night, and my overachiever girlfriend was interpreting the responses for the assembled potheads. The answers were mostly garden variety high school interpolations of infuriated spirit dialog…”Leave me alone” “You stop”. Then there was “I’m so hot. Open a window.” “I’m very hot.”
    Thought nothing of it until about six months later when I got a phone call in my dorm room that the house had burned down, and my friend’s elder sister had been trapped in her room and severely burned, nearly killed. My friend had opened the door to her room to call for her as the fire was mounting the stairs, and the firemen said the draft probably blew her body against the wall and knocked her unconscious. My friend jumped through a window to escape.
    The same house hosted a fatal accident back in the sixties, when a young man decided to launch himself into the swimming pool from a deck at the rear of the house. Some people who lived in the neighborhood at the time had the typical gawker’s stories about it. Needless to say he didn’t make it.
    I still don’t believe in the supernatural so much as a frequent consolidation of misfortune. And it’s like commercial real estate. Location, location…

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  66. Dexter said on June 30, 2009 at 2:11 am

    If you missed it, here it is…a firefight involving the Taliban and US troops, courtesy NBC’s Richard Engel and a company of men who routinely get into firefights. This is the real thing, death right upon you , so you fire back…some of the damndest war footage I have ever seen.


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  67. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on June 30, 2009 at 8:20 am

    In aid of almost nothing. . .except Dexter’s footage really is remarkable, especially when you try [#fail] to put yourself in the minds of those going up against these troops, and wonder exactly what complex set of motivations are at work there, but i can’t help respecting something of what they think they’re doing as opposed to the hairball bomb-inators of Iraq . . .

    When it comes to American beliefs and spirituality, i’m morbidly fascinated by “My Name is Earl,” which i try to watch every few months just to see where the show is in relation to its appointed shark vaulting appointment. As far as i can tell, this is a shark-proof series, since they made ludicrous plot turns central to their message from the beginning.

    What has me watching, as a clergy dude who works with the near-homeless/homeless and socially maladroit most weekdays, is the whole mythos around “Karma” and the other characters, besides Earl, who all have a fairly vital sense of spiritual forces at work and an awareness of movements and influences beyond the immediate, physical, and visible. I can see where some of an atheistic bent would watch and say “THIS is what i’m talkin’ ’bout,” and that a little common sense, rationalism, and understanding of science would go a long ways towards improving their quality of life and choices therein.

    And yet. Not only do i think “My Name Is Earl” fairly accurately captures the generic state of American religiousness on a day by day level (pastors of all sorts, take note, i’m talking about your congregation and what they *really* think), but there’s a very real desire to make sense of larger, wider, deeper forces at work in everyday human interactions that pure materialism just doesn’t answer, and misses the test of lived reality.

    Karma coming back to bite you, or run you down in the street, cursed objects (Vista, anyone?), destiny pushing people into situations that retrospectively look like a chain of events with a purpose, and all of this being studied, considered, even “prayed over” to try to make the best, the right decision in a clouded situation right now — that’s how the mass of people i meet talk about their lives. They talk to deceased relatives and see signs and follow leadings, sometimes to make choices i disagree with, but often to work out hard realities that i can’t see entirely from my comfortable situation.

    I still think, in that context, Christianity can be a lens that makes more sense rather than less out of life and choices, not rose colored lenses to pretty up a grey mush, and corrective lenses as opposed to some of the fun house mirrors i see people looking into (“I’m hopeless, I’m a loser, I’m the center of the world”). But i think “My Name Is Earl” shows us the view through the prescription worn by a near plurality of our fellow citizens.

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  68. Dorothy said on June 30, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Dexter I happened to catch that video of Richard Engel on last night’s NBC news. I didn’t really want to see it, because it made me think immediately that it could be my son there in a year or two if he gets deployed. (He’s National Guard.) I can’t decided if I’d rather be well-informed and watch those kinds of stories, or avoid them completely. Either way I figure I won’t be able to sleep very well during his year or so away. Speaking of my son, he broke his hand (pointer finger knuckle of his right hand) at OCS in Birmingham two weeks ago. He had to leave after just five days. That made me wonder if he would not necessarily have to go into battle if his trigger finger/joint is compromised. Something tells me the Army would find some way around it.

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