I am not currently a fan of NFL football (I always have to ask on Superbowl day what teams are playing). But there was a time when I was.
Or rather, I was a fan of the Chicago Bears during that glorious year when Mike Ditka coached Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, and William "Refrigerator" Perry to a stellar season and a Superbowl victory.
When that winning combination broke up, I regularly fell asleep while watching NFL games, and I realized that my brief period of being a fan was over.
During my period of fanhood -- which really began when Jim McMahon was playing college ball for Brigham Young (the university, not the Mormon colonizer) -- I did learn enough about football to be able to watch a game with some sense of how football works.
It has long been my opinion that football is the most watchable of professional and college sports, either in person or on television. With hockey, I occasionally catch a glimpse of the puck between fights, and when there is actual gameplay I find it as unstructured as soccer: lots of hurry, and scoring so rare as to render the whole experience tedious.
Now, for you hockey and soccer fans, don't bother writing to me: I already agree that it is only my profound ignorance of the game that makes me completely incapable of making sense of the apparent chaos, and I haven't the slightest interest in alleviating my ignorance one whit, since by not liking the games, I save myself hours of watching them.
Basketball has far more structure, as well as a visible ball and a goal that, being above the heads of the players (well, most of them), remains visible at all times.
But just as when I was a kid learning basketball on playgrounds in California, I am disgusted by the amount of brutal contact in this "non-contact" sport.
And I've seen how kids in league play learn that sportsmanship is for suckers -- if you have a foul called on you, it's your job to pretend, in Oscar-worthy performances, that a great injustice has been wrought upon you.
Whatever is supposed to be character-building about sports, I have seen only the opposite when it comes to basketball. This may be the result of my having played and watched mostly church ball, where Christians often reveal themselves to be fluent in a kind of language that many Christians profess not to know.
Baseball is the opposite of the mad-dash sports, which is why it feels almost dainty. One person at a time is challenged by the pitcher, and if any player breaks a sweat it's usually when they're desperately trying to steal a base.
For me, baseball is a sport designed to be "watched" by people who are crocheting a blanket or rebuilding a transmission. The game almost never demands your full attention.
But football: The structure is clear. Frantic activity all over the field often leads to the ball being advanced only a few yards or, in the case of incomplete passes, not at all. But you can see what's happening.
There is a sign on the field telling which down you're on. The chains and poles mark the line where the offensive team will be awarded a new first down.
The players are padded and helmeted, and referees enforce rules designed to keep quarterbacks and kickers from career-ending injuries inflicted by the opposing team. Thus it is more civilized than basketball or hockey.
And if there's confusion or disagreement about a referee's call, the television footage can be played back to allow the refs to get a better view than they had on the field.
I have learned, however, since I was a grad student at Notre Dame, that there is no reason to attend a game in person. I learned, during the third game of the 1981 season, against the Purdue Boilermakers, that it was a Notre Dame custom for the fans to remain standing until Notre Dame first scored.
But that was the first year of Gerry Faust's sad tenure as head coach, and that first score was a long, long time coming. In order to see the field at all, we had to remain standing practically the whole game.
From time to time I've repeated the experiment and attended a live football game. I have learned that football fans are as rude as rock and pop concert attendees, insisting on standing throughout the performance.
I'm an old man, and since my stroke I've had issues with maintaining my balance. Standing through an entire game (or concert) is simply beyond my ability. So, by paying money to attend the game and sit in a seat, I am guaranteed that I will see almost none of it. Even the big onfield scoreboard screens are rarely visible.
And if I ask the people directly in front of me to sit down -- not always, but now and then -- I am treated the way I used to be treated in Greensboro when I asked someone not to smoke while we were standing in line at the post office. And the worst, most childish response came at a Christian pop group's concert in Greensboro, so I'm not singling out football fans for their rudeness.
Thus I was determined to attend no more football games, since television is a far superior way to view a game.
But then a young friend of ours happened to intern with a Greensboro football team I had never heard of: the Carolina Cobras of the National Arena League.
There are several reasons why Arena Football immediately sounded good to me. First, the league plays all summer -- inside air-conditioned arenas. This is so civilized that I wanted to support the sport.
Second, our friend, Seth Tucker, assured us that spectators generally remain seated during the games, so that everyone has a clear view of the field. Thus, when you pay for a seat, you can actually see the game while sitting in it.
Third, I found this adaptation of the game of American football to be intriguing. The biggest difference, of course, is scale. The field is only fifty yards from goal to goal, so that the 25-yard-line is midfield. The field is also narrower, to preserve the same proportions as standard football.
With a smaller field, it makes sense to have smaller teams. Each team has eight players on the field for every play instead of eleven -- and some of the players are "iron men," who play both defense and offense.
With a narrower field, a "man in motion" laterally makes little sense -- there's nowhere to go. So the "man in motion" begins in the backfield and, upon a signal from the quarterback, rushes straight forward toward the line of scrimmage.
The quarterback calls for the hike just as that rushing player reaches the line of scrimmage, and that player's momentum gives him a chance to get far down the field before the quarterback has to let go of the ball.
Another adaptation to the smaller field is that on kickoffs, it's not unusual for the kicker to put the ball between the goalposts at the other end of the field. It's really quite exciting to watch that ball soar and pass cleanly between the posts.
A successful goal on the kickoff counts two points, and the receiving team gets the ball on the five-yard line.
There are other weird kicking rules that I didn't see examples of in the game I watched. For instance, there's no punting on fourth down. With such a shortened field, fourth down plays must be either field-goal attempts or regular plays to try to get a first down or score a goal.
And drop-kicking a field goal or point after touchdown gets an extra point compared to place-kicking it.
Another real difference is that in the arena, there are no sidelines on the field. Instead, the field is immediately surrounded by low walls, which are padded all the way around. So instead of stepping out of bounds, you have to be shoved against the padded wall to be out of bounds.
If a passed ball strikes the wall, it is still a live ball until it touches the playing field surface. So yes, you can scoop a pass off the wall.
But the game is still football -- way more than, say, Australian Rules Football. And because spectators can always see the field, and we're much closer to the field, for me it's far more fun to watch than full-size outdoor football.
We were on the third row at midfield for the Cobras game against the Columbus (Georgia) Lions on the 4th of August. We had a railing in front of us, and nobody was in the second row. The seats were comfortable -- wide enough for grownup hips -- and all the fans near us were well-behaved even at moments of greatest excitement.
In other words, it was truly an athletic contest, not a brawl, either on the field or in the stands.
And when it turned out that some friends of ours with season tickets were seated behind us, it became even more fun.
I arrived there knowing nothing about the Cobras, but it was easy to get to know the players -- not personally, but as athletes. The Lions, for instance, had a superb kicker, who scored on kickoff more than once. The Cobras' kicker was good, but never made that kickoff score and actually missed one point after touchdown.
What really stood out was the difference between quarterbacks. The Cobras have Charles McCullum, who was a remarkably accurate and consistent passer. In the first half of the game, all but one of the passes he threw was clearly on target -- when receivers missed a catch, the ball often bounced off their body.
By contrast, the Lions' quarterback usually seemed to be throwing the ball away. This became so obvious that at one time the announcer said, over the loudspeaker, "Pass incomplete. Intended receiver: the fourth row." He threw only a couple of complete passes in the first half -- but on this shortened field, it was enough to complete the drive and score.
Now, the Lions' quarterback might well be a much better passer than we got to see, because the Cobras have, I'm told, the best defense in the league. If the passer doesn't get a clear shot at any of his receivers, and he's under pressure, passes are going to get wild, and intentional grounding is going to be the only way to prevent a sack or an interception.
Arena Football League games usually have much higher scores than NFL games, because drives are shorter before either scoring or losing possession.
Halftime doesn't involve marching bands, though the Venom Dancers did a good routine that justified all their practicing. The rest of halftime consisted of watching a young woman throw frisbies for three dogs to catch. The dogs were great. But if you want to play a game or answer email on your smartphone, halftime is a good chance to do it.
I'm tempted to buy season tickets next year, because even when my wife and I can't go, I don't think we'll have any trouble finding friends who want to use our tickets for one or more games. And based on my experience watching the Cobras win 56-35, I'm pretty sure anybody who likes football will enjoy the Arena version.
Only obsessives will complain that "it's not football." Of course it's football -- a different kind of football, but it's sure not soccer!
Just google Carolina Cobras or go to carcobras.com. You can spend $95 per ticket if you want, or $45 each for the seats we got. But there are seats -- good ones -- for $28.50, $22.50, $16.00, or $11.00.
For the first time, Greensboro actually has a pro sports team that is fun even for me to watch. I hope the team is financially successful as well as successful on the field, so that the Cobras can be part of Greensboro life for many years to come.
Of course, I'm writing this about the last game of the regular season. The Cobras finished second, after the Massachusetts Pirates. The Lehigh Valley Steelhawks (Allentown, Pennsylvania) finished last, having won no games at all.
So we have a team worth watching -- and worth cheering for. Seeya at the games next year.
Tate's Bake Shop crisp cookies are available in Fresh Market, Harris Teeter, Walmart, and quite possibly other stores in Greensboro. I buy mine at Fresh Market. You can also order them online at TatesBakeShop.com.
Tate's Bake Shop cookies are thin and crisp, and large enough that only the most ambitious cookie eaters will put a whole cookie in their mouths at once.
I recommend the Vanilla Cookies, which are a particularly flavorful sugar cookie. But there are many other flavors, including some very good gluten-free options. And you can order gift packs online, to be shipped where you want.
Try them yourself and see if you think you might know some people who would enjoy getting a batch of crisp, delicious cookies as a gift.
The first Mamma Mia movie, adapted from the Broadway play, which built the story around a bunch of ABBA's mindworm hits from the 1970s, turned out to be better than expected. Starring Meryl Streep, who has a pretty good voice, that film was perhaps most notable for making Pierce Brosnan sing -- clearly under threat of torture, or perhaps during torture.
After a couple of months I was able to get the ABBA songs out of my head. Mostly.
Now we have a sequel, and I must confess my expectations were low. This was a case where a sequel was clearly not indicated. Hadn't they already used all the memorable ABBA songs the first time around?
Well, in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, we discover that no, indeed, there were several songs that did not fit in the original movie, and now the plot is bent -- sometimes ridiculously -- to include them.
For instance, "When I Kissed the Teacher" is a song that I could have lived without, and most of the songs were definitely not hits or, as a survivor of the 1970s, I would have recognized them.
But a couple of smash hits that could not possibly be worked into a rational plot -- "Waterloo" and "Fernando" -- were actually given acceptable settings.
Unfortunately, the most brainwormish song in the movie is "Dancing Queen," which is almost as absurd as Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," which makes it all the worse when it keeps pounding in your brain for days after seeing the movie.
What makes this musical movie enjoyable -- and we did enjoy it -- is the acting.
The premise of the movie is that Meryl Streep's character (Donna) is dead, and in her honor her daughter, Sophie, played by Amanda Seyfried, has refurbished an old farmhouse on a Greek island and turned it into an inn/tavern.
The frame of the movie is Sophie's mad dash, along with her crew of friends and neighbors, to get the place ready for a grand opening. At no point do we get a hint of how she got the capital to remodel, rebuild, stock, and staff the inn, but this is a musical. They don't have to show us their books.
Among Sophie's friends are two women who were her dead mother's best friends in their youth. Played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, they are given many opportunities to shine, and they use them to the hilt.
But the heart of the movie is a series of extended flashbacks, explaining why young Donna -- played brilliantly by Lily James -- happened to sleep with three gorgeous young men in such rapid succession that in those pre-genome days she had no way of knowing which one was the father of her daughter Sophie.
That's why Sophie grew up with three dads -- which suited them all so well that nobody tried for a paternity test. It would have been rude.
The dads, played in the present-day sequences by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård, are, in their youthful incarnations, absolutely brilliantly cast. Each one of them (Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan, and Hugh Skinner) is as beautiful as mortal sin -- and they can also act.
The result is that we are able to believe that young Donna could fall in love with each of them, and then, convinced that she'd never see him again, fall in love a day or two later with the next one. Without seeming like too much of a slut.
But it turns out that none of them really abandoned her -- they all try to return, because we're supposed to like them, and believe that they would work at staying involved in their shared daughter's life.
So the movie ends up, despite the ABBA songs, as a meditation on romantic love and, more importantly, on the love of parents and children. When Meryl Streep herself shows up near the end -- as a goddess in dreams and imaginings -- when her grandchild is born and baptized, this light-hearted, lusty musical becomes a bit of a weeper.
And it wasn't just me. There were lots of sniffles in the theater.
However, the best moment in the show came when Cher, playing Sophie's grandmother, sees the older man (Andy Garcia) who has been Sophie's mainstay in the remodeling, and calls out his name: "Fernando!"
Thus we get to hear Cher's deep, throaty voice give the best rendition of the inexplicable ABBA song "Fernando" that I've ever heard. It was so good I forgave the absurd dance number that went with "Waterloo" earlier in the show.
Funny as Julie Walters and Christine Baranski are, the movie belongs to Lily James as young Donna. Since there was zero chance I'd ever see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I missed her starring role in that, but she was luminous in Baby Driver and Darkest Hour.
I'm sure her best roles are still ahead of her. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, in which she stars, was released last spring, but I haven't seen any notice of its appearing in Greensboro. I look forward to it -- and to anything else this wonderful actor (and singer!) does in future.
As for Mamma Mia 3, I hope that it never comes into existence. In order to make this sequel, they have come close to scraping the bottom of the ABBA barrel, and I can't imagine ever assembling a cast like this again. So we're done. ABBA musicals end here.
It's worth seeing, if you didn't hate the first one, or if you think having children -- even extravagantly out of wedlock -- is the most important thing in life.
The Essential Wisdom of the World's Greatest Leaders.
By what possible definition of "world's" and "greatest" and "leaders" did Hillary Clinton get her picture on the jacket of this book?
To position her as somehow the equal of Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai is beyond ludicrous -- it's offensive.
Her only importance in the world, beyond being the astonishingly loyal wife of an adulterous President, comes from being a lackluster U.S. Senator, a disastrous Secretary of State, and an ineffective but corrupt campaigner.
I believe she may be the worst human being and least qualified candidate any major party ever offered on its presidential ticket -- except, of course, for the opponent who beat her.
She and Trump make Warren G. Harding and James Buchanan look like statesmen.
And, as if to demonstrate my point, the few quotations the book cites her for, besides probably being written by someone else (Churchill always wrote his own), are so banal that it's difficult to know what the quotation actually says.
But ... somebody at the publishing company must have thought putting her picture on the book would attract buyers.
And, in a sense, it did -- since I bought it solely in order to ridicule it here.
The real reason for her inclusion, however, was that the editor of the book, Carol Kelly-Gangi, previously edited a book called Hillary Rodham Clinton: Her Essential Wisdom. In other words, she's a starry-eyed fan.
Or at least a Kool-Aid-drinking Democrat, since Elizabeth Warren is also quoted in the book, though not pictured on the cover.
Someday the editor may learn the meaning of "wisdom."
But here's an Alexander Hamilton quote that definitely applies to our current history: "Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike."
Watching the Left froth at the mouth in loathing for President Trump's most innocuous proposals or obvious achievements demonstrates the truth of Hamilton's observation.
So the book does contain wisdom -- rather a lot, for a book so slim -- and if there are ludicrous people being quoted saying banal or inane things, that, too, provides much entertainment.
One of the movies I most anticipated this summer was Disney's live action Winnie-the-Pooh film, Christopher Robin.
If you've been awake for the past few weeks, you've seen many charming scenes with walking, talking, hunny-eating, and bouncing stuffed animals, along with a very warm and charming performance by Ewan McGregor in the title role.
Joined by Hayley Atwell as Robin's wife, Evelyn, and Bronte Carmichael as their daughter, Madeleine, the story has two jobs to do, and it does them both well.
First, the story is required to touch all the bases from the first Disney animated Winnie the Pooh films, so that we remember, not the A.A. Milne books (which we were reminded of in the heartbreaking Goodbye Christopher Robin from last year), but the Disney version -- right down to some of the songs being repeated like old memories and family traditions.
This is done delicately and beautifully, so that we are never quite aware that Disney is reminding us that sales of stuffed animals from the films are worth billions to Disney every year, so please keep buying.
Second, the story is meant to remind us that if we let our lives be caught up in our careers at the expense of having a real relationship with our children, we are missing the most important part of life.
This message, too, is well-delivered, with many quite touching moments.
Along the way, the writing is surprisingly good; the way the film gets Pooh to downtown London and the adult Christopher Robin back to the Hundred-Acre Wood is quite adept.
They made the very tricky decision to make it so that the stuffed animal characters are objectively alive in the movie's "reality" -- other people on the streets of London actually see them move and hear them speak.
They also took time to make Christopher Robin's nemesis, Giles Winslow (played with verve by Mark Gatiss), not only funny but also believable. He convinces us that Christopher Robin's job is on the line if he goes on holiday for a weekend with his family.
I compare this movie with the ham-handed attempt at the same gimmick in Hook, where Peter Pan was shown as a grown-up, a father determined to protect his children. There is no measure I can think of whereby Christopher Robin is not superior to Hook.
There are many fine English actors playing cameo roles as the efficiency department staff whom Christopher Robin manages, and their tiny parts are so brilliantly done that it's hard to realize that most of them never say a word in the whole film.
Christopher Robin makes the shabby old stuffed animals work perfectly, especially because the voice actors do such a good job, and because the subdued acting and colors and movement ground the story so thoroughly in the real world of post-WWII England.
There was really only one moment of such falseness that I'm astonished that the filmmakers didn't send the scene back to the CGI kids to do it right.
I'm referring to the moment when Madeline and the animals are rushing Father's important papers to his office, and Madeline trips, allowing the papers to be scattered to the wind -- all except one single sheet.
Because the flying papers were going to be put in later using computer graphics, the director insanely directed Bronte Carmichael to pantomime reaching out for invisible papers, trying to catch them.
This is filmed from quite far away, and what we see are papers so remote from young Madeline that it is impossible to guess what she thinks she's reaching for.
They didn't bother to insert any papers that she might have been trying for, so she looks like she's doing some kind of weird tribal dance called "The Reach" while the papers are about a hundred yards away, like kites in the sky.
Thus we have an excruciating moment that is entirely the fault of the director, both for giving Bronte Carmichael such vague instructions and then for accepting the completely failed CGI that makes the young actress look like she's having a slow-motion fit.
But that horrible moment comes very late in the film and lasts somewhat less than an eternity (though it does feel like forever). I choose to forgive this lapse on the basis that by the time they realized how absolutely kwappy the sequence looked, the producer was probably saying, "We're out of money and out of time so either cut the shot entirely or live with it as it is."
Then they decided that they had spent so much money getting the shot from high overhead and then putting in the CGI flying papers, they had to put it on the screen.
Wrong choice, kids. You don't put up your howlingly bad mistakes on the screen for everyone to see -- especially when they make a very good child actor look stupid because she did what she was told.
Never mind that. It's still a wonderful movie.
If the promos made you want to see this movie, then I can assure you that it's very good at almost everything it tries to do.
If you expect it to plow new cinematic ground, it does, a bit; but it is done so subtly that you may miss it.
Every now and then, a reputable company puts out click-bait lists that actually convey information that's worth seeing.
Such are two recent listicles from 24/7 Wall St (247WallSt.com), which is a Delaware corporation that seems to have no connection with the Wall Street Journal. But they have a couple of lists I liked.
First, "Best Public High Schools in Every State."
For North Carolina, go straight to page 8; North Carolina's top high school is the third one listed. To no one's surprise, it's The Early College at Guilford.
For each school, they list the size of the student body, the student-teacher ratio, and the average SAT score of the graduates.
In state after state, the top school seems fit in one of two categories:
1. A special school that only admits top students, so that it starts with the best of the best; or
2. A "neighborhood" school that happens to be in a town or part of town that is overflowing with money, so that the longtime pattern of highly educated parents producing highly educable children is repeated yet again.
But it's still interesting to go state by state and get some idea of who's leading the pack in every part of the country.
Second, "States With the Most Dangerous Weather."
In a way, these entries are pretty incoherent. Massachusetts is listed as fiftieth -- presumably, the least dangerous weather. But it seems to have that ranking solely on the basis of having only 3.7 weather-related injuries per million people in the most recent year recorded.
But then I don't understand Michigan's being 48th, when fatalities, injuries per million, and total damage are far higher than 48th place.
I was shocked when Kansas was 35th -- and tornadoes weren't the top cause of weather death in 2016 (instead, it was floods).
South Carolina is 26th, and North Carolina is 25th. Our top cause of weather death is wind, with 20 deaths in 2016. Apparently our hurricanes top Kansas's tornadoes. At least in 2016.
Our weather fatalities from 2012 through 2016 amounted to 75, the ninth highest state total.
The most weather-dangerous state is Nevada, where heat caused 50 deaths in 2016. So if you just stay inside air-conditioned casinos, playing the slots, Nevada weather probably won't kill you.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com