Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Venus Goes to Mars: A Short Story by Victor Lana

First appeared on Blogcritics.

venus 3 Venus and Mars Are alright tonight. -Paul McCartney

As the ship moved into final approach to Mars, Captain Frank Marshall saw his first glimpse of the crimson world through the porthole, and a tear rolled down his cheek. Ted, the ship's computer system, calibrated the final settings to move into orbit.

 At 89 years old Frank had been a widow for nine years – most of them spent trying to get to this moment. He finally convinced billionaire Walter Robbins to finance the first “return mission” to Mars, with the hook being a reality show about a retired astronaut fulfilling a promise to his dead wife. The ratings increased daily as millions of viewers worldwide watched Frank’s every move, providing Robbins with more than a substantial return on his investment.

Many years before Frank and his wife had been chosen to be the first husband and wife astronauts sent on a “no return” mission to Mars, and the media called them the Martian Adam and Eve. Their assignment – to assemble modular dwellings before other settlers arrived; they could also be fruitful and multiply along the way. Despite taking precautions, she inexplicably became pregnant before their scheduled departure, thus nullifying their opportunity.

“Are you crying, Captain Marshall?” Ted spoke with an authoritative but trustworthy voice, programmed to sound like newsman Walter Cronkite, someone who became famous and died long before Frank was born. All Air & Space Force vessel computers were programmed to sound like him.

Cognizant of his audience, Frank looked up at the monitor. Ted appeared as a glowing blue light that pulsed on all the ship’s panels. “Yes, Ted, but it’s in happiness.”

“I do not comprehend that,” Ted said.

Frank stared down at the metallic urn held by arthritic fingers. “Well, it’s all about love.”

“I am programmed to understand love but admit it is a difficult concept.”

Frank thought about his overwhelming love for his wife and three grown children and seven grandchildren back on earth. “For humans it’s everything, or at least is should be.”

“Is this why you need to do this?”

“You mean deposit her ashes on Mars?”

“Yes. I must admit that it does not make much sense. You are interring them and returning to earth; you are even more separated?”

Frank chuckled. “These ashes are not my wife.”

“But are they not her cremains?”

“Yes, of course, but of her physical body. Her spirit is not within this urn; it’s in this cabin right now.”

“I cannot detect her presence.”

“Of course, not,” Frank spoke more wearily this time. “Sensors won’t show you anything tangible. Aphrodite Anastas, whom I always called Venus, is a spirit now. On the 510 days of our long journey I have seen her many times, looking just the way she did when I first met her, but you and our friends back home could not.”

“How can that be, sir?”

“I don’t know how, Ted. I just know that it is.”

“So please tell our audience what brought you to this moment.”

Frank knew that besides running the ship Ted functioned as host of the world’s most popular reality show. “It’s a long story, Ted.”

“Usually, we talk about human-machine matters and other humorous things, but in essence this is why we are here.”

“Well then, this is it – as my wife lay dying, her last wish was to be brought to Mars; I promised her I would do it, and here we are.”

“We are reaching launch window, sir.”

venus 2
Frank stood up with difficulty, bringing the urn over to the small capsule inside the acrylic launching chute. He placed it inside with a single rose on a satin blanket, shut the door, and slid the capsule into position. “It is done,” he said as he flipped the switch to engage.

A loud noise followed by a severe jolt rocked the ship, almost causing Frank to fall down. “Captain, please return to your seat.” 

Frank stared at the urn still locked in place. “What happened?”

“The launch unit ruptured,” Ted said.

“Repair it.”

“Unfortunately, sir, this malfunction can be only repaired externally.”

Frank leaned against the chute to keep his balance. “You’re talking about a spacewalk. I’ll suit up.”

“Sadly, sir, you are in no condition for such an endeavor; additionally, it would take too long and jeopardize our opportunity to jettison into course position for our return journey.”

Frank stared at the monitor. “Are you telling me that I came 36 million miles for nothing?”

“Well, sir, although you will be unable to inter your wife’s cremains on Mars, you have had the chance to see the planet in person as you always wished to do.”

venus 1
Ted stared out the porthole. “Look at that beautiful elusive war-god. I’ve always longed to get my feet on its surface, my hands in its red dust. This was a compromise, but worth it only because I could fulfill my promise to Venus. Now, now there is nothing.”

“I do apologize, sir.”

Frank opened the chute, popped out the capsule that would have exploded and sent Venus’s ashes showering over the surface, and removed the urn. He struggled to walk back to his seat, and fell down clutching the urn to his chest. He looked at the monitor and said, “Sometimes the captain has to make the hardest decisions.”

“I do thank you for your understanding, Captain.”

Frank leaned forward and engaged the override lever, rendering Ted, Space Control, and the worldwide audience merely spectators. “As I said before, I’m doing this for love.”

“Sir, my first directive is to protect and maintain human life at all costs.”

Frank locked in the coordinates and increased engine speed to full power. “I’ve purposely set course for an area with no settlements. Your directive is fulfilled.”

“But this is a return mission, sir.”

“My mission, and yours, is ended.” He glanced at the monitor. “And the show is over, folks.” As the ship raced rapidly toward the surface, Frank held the urn lovingly as he braced for impact.

 Photo credits: space.com, lovingmemorials.com, ntlworld.com  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

24: Live Another Day - Time Jump in Season Finale Leaves Tantalizing Questions

First appeared on Blogcritics.

* This review of Episode 12 contains spoilers. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) has never been meant to live a normal life. Those of us who fondly recall that first scene back in season one’s first episode, when Jack played chess with his daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), remember the only time that we basically got a glimpse of his happy domestic life. It was too brief then, with 24 being set in “real” time, every minute seeming to count and with no flashbacks, Jack would never be that way again.

recap 1 Moving forward through the seasons, Jack has lost everything or close to it. He has even lost, above all things, his own identity. He goes into hiding and only surfaces when he perceives a threat to President James Heller (William Devane), a man for whom he once worked. Jack knows he is a “good man” (there is short supply of them in the 24 universe), and Jack also knows that he owes him. Heller’s daughter Audrey (Kim Raver) had been his lover, and he was indirectly responsible for her being kidnapped and tortured by Chinese lunatic Cheng Zhi (Tzi Ma). Jack is in London really, more than anything else, to save Heller and his daughter and then, as we discover, the rest of the world too.

Episode 12 has to be one of the darkest in all of the 24 seasons. As Sutherland's voices tells us eerily at the start of the episode, the action takes place between 10 p.m. and 11 a.m. This deftly gets the full 24 hours into the season with a time jump, but as we are watching we are not certain as to how it will be worked into the story. More on that later. Audrey is still on the park bench with the sniper training his weapon on her. At the Russian house Jack and Kate (Yvonne Strahovski) are trying to get some information about Cheng’s location, but slimy Mark (Tate Donovan) gets a call from Cheng with an image of Audrey in the sniper’s bulls eye. Soon Jack is getting a call from Cheng, and it’s to tell Jack that he will kill Audrey if Jack comes after him.

recap 2Kate and Jack devise a plan to split up, with Jack going after Cheng and Kate going to the park to save Audrey. At this point Kate has earned Jack’s respect and trust (and the viewer’s too). If anyone can rescue Audrey it is Kate Morgan, especially since Jack must stop Cheng from starting World War III.

As in all 24 seasons, Jack is always forced to make a tough choice. We know in his gut he wants to go save Audrey, but he also realizes that Kate, while very capable, is probably no match for Cheng. Besides, Jack has an old score to settle with Cheng, and that cannot be done remotely. As I have mentioned in previous reviews, Jack wants to kick Cheng’s ass (and we want to see it!).

After splitting up with Kate Jack is driving and spots Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) walking on the side of the road. She jumps in and soon has a laptop in hand, explaining that Adrian (Michael Wincott) had tricked her and that she feels partly responsible for the override device and the attack on the Chinese aircraft carrier. Thus, we have two guilt-ridden people in the car, but Jack and Chloe are always a good team and they still need to work together.

Once at the docks where Cheng is trying to get his sweaty butt out of the country, Jack meets up with Belchick (Branko Tomovic), whose loyalty to Jack has been unwavering this season (in one episode he does tell Chloe that Jack saved his life). Belchick has that dependability factor, one that makes him an ideal Jack sidekick. They rush off to get Cheng on the tanker, while Chloe runs into a closet to give tech support.

Back at the park Kate uses a little spy scope to try to find the sniper in the window. She secretly calls Audrey and asks her to stand up to draw fire, which is like asking a chicken to walk into KFC, but it’s the only way Kate can see where to shoot the guy. Audrey complies, a few shots are fired, and then Kate rushes forward and shoots and kills the sniper. We all breathe a sigh of relief that Audrey is safe. Kate even calls Jack to tell him, so Jack moves forward with even more gusto.

Guided by Chloe’s tap into a surveillance system, Jack and Belchick get to play video game shootout, taking out all the bad guys as Chloe reveals their location. It’s like poetry in motion watching Belchick and Jack kill these guys smoothly and swiftly, and we figure Cheng is shaking in his boots now, but Cheng also has a Shanghai surprise for Jack and Kate - a second killer. This killer springs upon Kate and Audrey as they are evacuating. Kate dispatches the guy, but not before he has wounded Audrey. Kate desperately tries to save Audrey, but as she lies bleeding on a park bench, we can see her life abating. Audrey cries one tear, and we can imagine it is for all the wasted years, for never having been with Jack, and then she dies, and we get the silent clock. Sadly, there will be one more before the episode is over.

Kate has to make the call to Jack, and Sutherland plays it brilliantly. His face is the flashback we don’t get in scenes, and all the anger, frustration, and sadness manifest themselves in his expression. All his losses from wife Terri to Renee Walker to Audrey now coalesce, and as he stands with gun ready, we know he is on auto-pilot mode. What follows is Jack going ape (reminiscent of him taking out Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper) and his men in season one). Anything at hand (knives, swords) will be used, but soon all Cheng’s men are dead.

The fight between Jack and Cheng is satisfying. Cheng holds his own only briefly, and soon Jack has done what we all hoped he would do - he has kicked Cheng’s ass. He then holds a bloody Cheng up to the camera and calls President Heller. Facial recognition technology confirms this is indeed Cheng, and Heller calls the Chinese president and the war of the worlds is over. Heller knows that he has succeeded, largely because he believed in Jack.

Once again, Bauer saves the day. Now that Cheng is disposable, Jack takes a convenient sword and says, “This is for Audrey,” and slices off Cheng’s head. Some may quibble about this being an execution, that Cheng could have rotted in American prison for years, but Jack wants to make sure that this rat never surfaces again, and Jack's philosophy is simple - the only good rat is a dead one. Back in the HQ Heller is informed that Audrey is dead. He reacts as any father would, in disbelief at first, and then he collapses with grief. Devane has played Heller exquisitely all season, but this scene displays without words what seems more than credible: the grief is just too much to bear.

Back on the tanker, Jack gets a cryptic phone call after he and Belchick discover Chloe is missing. Jack says he understands, and then we are set up for the last ten minutes and the long awaited time jump. The time jump goes from 10:50 in the evening to 10:50 in the morning.

We can only speculate what happens during those twelve hours. Do Jack and Belchick go to a pub and have a few pints? What happens to Heller during this time? And who has Chloe and what are they doing to her? All this speculation as to what happens during the time jump is exciting in one sense and frustrating in another; however, it also leaves tantalizing possibilities open for extras on the season’s eventual Blu-Ray and DVD. 

At CIA HQ, Kate is overcome with grief. Besides Jack and Chloe’s palpable guilt, Kate’s ride this season has been a see-saw from guilt to revelation to understanding, but the grim reality is that she did not stop the president’s daughter from being assassinated. None of us saw the second killer coming (but Jack probably would have), so Kate turns in her gun and badge (ala Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) and walks away – this time we would assume for good. I still hold out hope that Kate Morgan goes back to the States and fulfills her destiny as the female Jack in some form or another (in a show of her own).

We get a scene at the airport, where Audrey's flag-draped coffin is being rolled onto Air Force One. Heller and British Prime Minister Davies (Stephen Fry) stand together, and when Davies offers his help, Heller explains there is nothing anyone can do. This is Devane's finest moment as Heller (just one of many Emmy worthy scenes), and we understand that Heller's fate may be better than anyone else's because with the Alzheimer's taking over, he will not be aware of his losses.

recap 3 As for Jack, I imagine him preparing for the inevitable end. He is so seasoned, so inured at this point to pain and suffering, it is almost as if Jack is like the boxer longing to get back into the ring, to put himself into the enemy’s hands saying, “Give me your best shot.”

Jack and Belchick arrive at the meeting point, and Belchick asks if he really wants to do this. We already know Jack’s answer. Chloe gets out of a helicopter, and it’s the classic trade-off scenario with guns ready on both sides. As Jack and Chloe cross paths, Jack takes her hand and their exchange is heartbreaking but true – Jack tells her that she is his best friend. Jack is giving up his life for her, and Chloe runs to Belchick and Jack walks up to the Russians (who else would it be?) with a bit of a smirk on his face that says, “Okay, no matter what you do, I’m unbreakable.”

Jack warns head Russian Boris Badenov that if anything happens to Chloe or his family that he will be in a world of pain, but the Boris acknowledges that they only want him. Boris jokes that he’d like to say Jack will enjoy Moscow, but that’s not true; however, Badenov doesn’t know Jack. After nine seasons, we think that we do, but in truth this stoic, grim, and determined Jack is not able to be understood no less known. Jack Bauer has come so far from that man playing chess with his daughter, fallen so low and emotionally hitting his nadir; this Jack is like a voodoo doll that will keep breaking the hardest pins. This is the real Jack who is beyond suffering.

So Jack flies off to Russia with almost a glow on his face. He has stopped a world war, prevented Heller’s assassination, and rid the world of more terrorists than Raid inspect spray has killed cockroaches. Yes, he has lost loved ones and friends, and that he associates as being on his shoulders, a heft that would be too much for almost anyone else to bear, but this is Jack Bauer. Jack has gone off into sunsets, faked his own death, and gone off the grid – always alone, yet always capable of surviving. There is another silent clock, but is that for Jack or for those who think they now have him at their mercy?

Will there be another 24 season sometime soon? Will there be the long promised film? At this point we cannot know, but I imagine that Chloe, Kate, and Belchick could become a formidable team to go get Jack out of prison. They may be surprised by the time that they get to Moscow that Jack isn’t behind bars but perhaps helping to run the KGB. Remember, this isn’t just any one; it is Jack Bauer, one of the most iconic TV characters of all time. He just may end up enjoying Moscow more than Badenov could ever imagine, even clinking glasses of Stoli in the Kremlin and saying, “Please pass the caviar, Vladimir.” While we wait for the next incarnation of Jack Bauer, we have nine seasons on disc to enjoy again and again.

Until next time, Klaatu Barada Nikto! Photo credits: FOX

Monday, July 14, 2014

Germany Defeats Argentina for World Cup - But Fans Worldwide Are the Winners

First appeared on Blogcritics.

We have a World Cup champion. To get to the facts right away, the German team defeated Argentina 1-0 in second extra time, on an incredible goal by an improbable hero: Mario Götze, who deftly bounced the ball off his chest and then kicked it into the corner of the net, stunning his opponents, fans in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, and people watching all around the world. The midfielder, with a supermodel girlfriend (Ann Kathrin Brömmel) and a wry smile, becomes the toast of Deutschland and the World Cup. As a late game replacement, Götze secures his place in football history (soccer for we Americans) and World Cup lore.
wcup 4Germany has won the cup four times now, but this is its first win as a united country (three previous championships came to West Germany). The significance of this accomplishment was not lost on German fans everywhere, from those celebrating in the stadium, at home, or all across the world just as some New Yorkers did at an outdoor viewing party on the East Side of Manhattan. People of German descent and many others enjoyed cheering for this team, one that seemed destined to win since the beginning of the action weeks ago.

wcup 1My mother’s family came from Germany, so we were rooting for not the home team but in the spirit of the blood coursing through our veins. When Germany played against the American team, we all wore our U.S.A. gear and felt if they didn’t win it would be a shame, but once the Americans were dispatched from the proceedings after the tough loss to Belgium, all our attention turned to the German team. My kids designed their own rally poster, working a long time on getting it just right. We all wore team colors and endured the long wait for our team to get the goal and win it all.

There have been many stories that American viewers stopped watching after their team was eliminated, and while the numbers seemed to initially support that (24.7 million watched U.S.A vs. Portugal, 21.5 million watched America lose to Belgium, and only 11.8 million watched Brazil vs. Colombia), the final match between Germany and Argentina is suspected to have attracted close to 30 million American viewers. In terms of comparison, the Super Bowl routinely attracts approximately 34 million viewers annually, so does this mean that soccer could be on the verge of actually becoming a major sport in America?

We continue to face the incongruity of being a country that has little kids playing soccer, some as young as three, for years, only to abandon the sport as they get older. We parents go and cheer on our kids, enjoy the games, and even place magnetic soccer balls on our cars and minivans and bumper stickers that support the teams. Something mystical happens though once the kids get older, gravitating to the more “popular” sports such as baseball, football, basketball, and even tennis. There seems to be a shift in mental alignment that takes place, moving kids out of their soccer cleats and into other uniforms to pursue the dream of getting a scholarship and eventually becoming a professional player.

One thing that most Americans will note as extremely different about soccer is that there are no time-outs. The clock just keeps running, even in the final when German player Bastian Schweinsteiger kept getting knocked down and bloodied to a pulp. The fact there are very little if any opportunities to cut for commercials clearly works against soccer, making it less appealing to advertisers and thus preventing its players (even at the professional level) to receive the lucrative contracts that the competition gets in other American sports. So it seems to be this fact, plus an apparently American parental aversion to soccer beyond children’s early years, that keeps it from becoming a mega-sport like NFL Football.

Despite this, the rest of the world loves football (soccer) and people all around the globe were watching. The worldwide ratings were off the charts for the final: Germany 35 million, France 13 million, Spain 12.7 million, and 20.6 million in the U.K. to cite a few examples). Overall, it is projected that close to one billion people watched worldwide. These mind boggling numbers attest to football’s (soccer) popularity to people everywhere, and also promotes the notion that sports can be a unifier, bringing people together like nothing else can.

I know that the World Cup brought my family together, and I think it also brought the world closer to one another with a common incentive to see these fine athletes playing at their best. It is so refreshing to be discussing people cheering collectively for something that rises above politics and war. I know it is a bit naïve to think it could be possible, but wouldn’t it be nice that if two nations had a disagreement they could settle it on the pitch rather than the battlefield?

wcup 2FIFA's 2014 World Cup from Brazil is history now, Germany has the cup, but the legacy lingers. More Americans than ever watched the games and became involved, coming a little late to the party that the rest of the world routinely celebrates. It is a rare moment indeed for a planet that seems inundated with negative news stories to become obsessed with sport to the point of forgetting about all the other minutiae that pulls us apart.

Alas, we need to wait another four years for the next World Cup. Sadly, that is too long to wait for that most unique thing, that unifying tournament that brings the globe a little closer and makes it a better place to live. Once again, the World Cup has proven the power of sports, especially football (soccer) to do what politicians everywhere seem unable to do - bring us together.

  Photo credits: NY Daily News; Victor Lana

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

24: Live Another Day – Episode 11: Russian to Judgment Day

First appeared on Blogcritics.

The penultimate episode of any 24 season is usually a bumpy ride, but since this is a 12-episode version of the usually 24-episode model, we kick into warp speed from the first seconds and proceed without little time to take a breath. All of the old tropes are back in full vigor: a president and his cabinet watching blips on a screen of an impending attack, crossed wires causing havoc among world leaders, an evil ultimate villain with a game changing trick up his sleeve, and someone close to Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in dire peril which will shape the way things happen in the finale.
jack 2 

Once Jack and Kate (Yvonne Strahovski) dispatch of the Russians (with a little help from a back-up team), they proceed into the decimated One Cell lair where they find the remains of Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott) and his team, as well as the tracking unit for the override device. Jack quickly surmises that Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) has been taken, and this is confirmed when Kate finds a phone with a recording that jars Jack’s circuits (the look on his face when he hears Cheng Zhi’s voice is Emmy worthy).

Of course, Cheng (Tzi Ma) tortured Jack for over a year, kidnapped Jack’s lover Audrey (Kim Raver), and did despicable things to her as well. While Cheng was supposed to be dead (in 24 “death” is always something as reliable as the New York City subway), President James Heller (William Devane) quickly believes Jack’s theory that Cheng is the mastermind behind the day’s events, that he has been working with the Russian spies (who probably are also rogue as Cheng), and that they have tried to start a war between America and China.

Jack does have a "tender" moment with Audrey; of course, being this is 24, it is done split-screen with the characters on the phone. Jack says that he is worried that Audrey would hate him; she says that she could never hate him. They really need to be alone somehwere, but that's not happening anytime soon. Jack, you big lug, why don't you just say, "I love you" and get it over with?

When Jack finds something linking Mark (Scurvy Spider) Boudreau (Tate Donovan) to the Russians, he speeds to the American consulate to confront him and make Heller aware. Heller immediately wants to arrest Mark and charge him with treason, but Jack has a better idea. Why not use Mark to get to the Russian in a way to locate Cheng?

Our gal Chloe is not going down without a fight. Trapped on a truck with Cheng and his nefarious associates, Chloe takes the opportunity to make an escape when she finds a convenient lead pipe and goes ballistic on the unsuspecting Chinese tech guys. Soon she is jumping from the truck and running over the river and through the woods to escape the big bad wolf. Cheng and crew try to pursue, but British soldiers roll by and shake him up, forcing him to abandon the search. Chloe runs and hits her head and lays unconscious and out of harm’s way for now.

As Jack, Kate, and Mark rush to the Russian compound, Audrey comes up with an idea to speak to a Chinese diplomatic connection as a way to ease tensions between the two countries. Now, at this point, after Audrey was dragged off to China and tortured, you would think Heller would tell her “No way, dear.” Instead, since he is dropping his pills and shaky as a teenage boy on his first date, Heller (with whom the fate of the world rests) sanctions the meeting and sends his little girl out into the dark London night. Anyone who didn’t feel this was a bad idea must be sniffing something stronger than airplane glue.

jack 1 Jack’s mission into the Russian lair is a disaster. He and Kate kill all the bad guys, and Mark wrestles with the Russian bear bad guy until he gets glass stuck in his neck. Bleeding out, he warns Jack that Russia will never give up on getting him. That’s reminiscent of Cheng’s “China has a long memory” from seasons back. All this does nothing for the current crisis but tells us that, if we have another season of 24, Jack will still be dodging bullets and finding a way to survive.

More pressing problems await now as Heller declares a “Defcon 3” situation, which considering his now fragile mental state is like asking a five year old to put the car into drive. Nevertheless, the free world (and everyone else caught in between) may be bracing itself for nuclear war based on Cheng’s little ploy of using the override to sink a Chinese aircraft carrier. No one ever taught this Cheng guy how to play nice, did they?

jack 3The final sequence involves Audrey in the park (this girl always puts herself in a vulnerable position with Jack too far away) meeting with her Chinese connection, but that goes as well as Brazil’s hopes in the World Cup. Soon her Secret Service detail and the Chinese woman are dead, and Audrey’s phone rings. No, it’s not Publishers Clearing House telling her she has won a big prize – it’s the despicable Cheng telling her that she is the sniper’s next target if she doesn’t sit on the bench nicely. He tells her that maybe he will let her live. Gee, Cheng, you just don’t know how to talk to women.

So now we are set up for a classic 24 finale, with Jack obviously being put into almost like a Sophie’s Choice scenario. Does he save the world or save Audrey? Just as in previous seasons, Jack will have to find a way, but usually anything he accomplishes comes with an enormous price tag. That is Jack’s fate, and the idea of him ending this season “happy” and dancing to Pharrell Williams’s tune just doesn’t seem in the cards.

We have to look for a slam-bang finale. My feeling is Jack will stop himself from killing Cheng in order to bring him in to face the music, but judging from the preview of next week’s episode, at least one character dies and Heller seems on the verge of collapse. My inner desire to see Cheng beaten to a pulp may not be satisfied, but he may discover that Jack Bauer has a long memory too, and there is a need for 24 to end this season in a very big way. Let’s hope that involves an ending we all can accept and live with after the clock stops ticking.

Until next week, Klaatu Barada Nikto!

  Photo credits: tv.com      

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Kids Being Left to Die in Car Seats - The Horror Continues

First appeared on Blogcritics.

car 3I can still see myself now, the first-time father, reading the instructions as to how to properly install the rear-facing car seat. I can remember the sweat running down my temples as I slipped in the seat belt through the back opening, attached the restraining lines, and eventually secured the base. I took a deep breath, drove to the hospital, and prepared to bring my wife and infant daughter home for the first time.

Telling this story now, I recall all my fears and concerns about getting the car seat installed properly. I am certain that any parent who has had to do this may relate to the time and effort taken to make sure to get it right. Of course, the necessary and compelling motivation for all the effort is because we are carrying the most precious cargo that will ever be in our care - our babies!

It is incongruous to believe that any parent, having gone through all that effort to install a car seat, could ever forget that a child is sitting in it; however, the truth is that more kids are dying in hot cars than ever before. Since car seats were invented to protect our children (more than when my mother and so many others held kids on their laps in the front seat), how can it be that people “forget” their kids in those contraptions? Since a child is strapped in and cannot extract him/herself from the car seat, it is almost always a death sentence as the temperature climbs inside the car. Within ten minutes in a car with closed windows, the interior of an automobile can reach well over 100º making the conditions unbearable and quickly lethal for the child.

car 1There is evidence in the most recent incident in Georgia, that little Cooper Harris (22 months old) damaged his head and scratched his face in his desperate last minutes as he apparently tried to escape his car seat. The facts in this case become increasingly more disturbing, including the story reported by CNN that his father was sexting while his son died inside that hot car. Other stories include a very disturbing report that both the father and mother researched children and animals dying in hot cars before the incident.

It is one thing if a parent forgets a child in a car seat (as impossible as that seems to believe for most parents); however, for a parent to deliberately plan to leave a child in the car, to research the length of time it takes for that child to die, and then to go inside an air conditioned building while said child suffers and dies is nothing short of murder.

I’m not saying that a parent might not forget the child is there for a few seconds, perhaps as he or she brings in groceries or gets the door open, but it is hard to fathom that this memory lapse would last longer than that. Since a child is so dependent on parents at that time and all your daily actions usually revolve around the care and well being of the child, that baby or toddler is the thing that is most pressing on your mind. We’re not talking about forgetting your pocketbook or wallet or cell in the car; this is a living and breathing child that is your responsibility.

car 2I have heard many local stories about parents going into a store to shop while leaving a child in the car (here in the New York City area), but happily most of these end with concerned shoppers noticing the little ones in the cars and calling the police. Other stories involve parents who wanted to let their kids “sleep” while getting a coffee, running an errand, or playing Lotto. All the assorted excuses you can imagine are proposed, but none of them make sense or are remotely acceptable. Bottom line: a child should never be left in a car seat for any reason!

We have to hope that a case like that of little Cooper Harris will spark awareness for parents and the general population. It is up to all of us to assume an in loco parentis mentality and be vigilant when in shopping mall, grocery store, and other parking lots. Sadly, there is no sign of this type of behavior abating among certain parents, and we need to do everything we can to stop these horror stories from happening.

Parents should in general operate under two rules; Rule 1: your baby or child is your responsibility and deserves your protection at all times under your care, whether it is in the car, at home, or in a public place. Rule 2: there are no excuses to absolve you of your duties under Rule 1. Failure to adhere to these rules that results in injury or death of the child should be met with the most severe consequences.

These negligent parents need to be punished to the full extent of the law. If someone knowingly leaves a child locked in a hot car, it is no different than if he/she fed the child poison or left a loaded gun on the high chair. Perhaps charging these parents with murder will help change the ugly picture that has been developing with more frequency; unfortunately, such charges will be too late for the little ones already lost.  

  photo credits: wfmynews2.com; whattoexpect.com; northshore.org

Friday, July 4, 2014

Expatriates on Fourth of July in Paris - a short story by Victor Lana

First appeared on Blogcritics.

jim 1The day was extremely hot, as it usually was at home on Fourth of July. I woke around three, for I had gone to a bar on Rue St. Jacques the night before and drunk a little too much. I stared up at the ceiling and thought about millions of hotdogs being cooked all across America as I lay there. Flags were flying from porches and kids all over the country were watching fireworks. I wondered briefly how my family was celebrating, but then I remembered why I went so far away in the first place and stopped wondering.

I stayed in bed for most of the day except to eat a piece of stale baguette. Around five Annna called. “Are you coming with us tonight?” I had met her, the twins, and their father at Pere-Lachaise cemetery the day before on my pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave. I thought, maybe she likes me. “Yeah, sure.” “Cactus Charly on rue de Ponthieu.” My friend Glenn was bartender there. “Sounds good.” “See you around nine. US passport holders get in free.” I hung up the phone and went back to sleep for a few more hours.


jim 2I came up the Metro steps at Etoile and leaned against a pole, watching the cars and buses spinning in circles around the Arc de Triomphe. There was an orderly frenzy to traffic in Paris that I’d not seen elsewhere, certainly not back home in New York City. I strolled down the Champs-Elysees past the bustling cafés that were filled with music and laughter. On this warm evening, tourists with cameras and shoppers with large bags were everywhere.

There was a long line of people waiting to get into Cactus Charly, many of them holding passports. I didn’t see Annna or the twins queuing, so I went up to the doorman, showed my passport, and said the magic word Glenn told me. I got in ahead of the crowd and heard the band upstairs playing Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” It made me feel a little homesick.

I shook hands with Glenn, a tall, thin fellow with wiry red hair and beard. He wore a Red Sox hat tipped back on his head. He saw that I was wearing my team’s hat. “You’re my only friend who’s a Mets fan!” 

“Sorry about ‘86!” I said as he handed me a Budweiser.

“Yeah, right.” Glenn chuckled.

“Happy French Fourth of July.”

“Nothing French in here tonight.”

“Too many Americans for my taste,” I said.

I took the beer, shoving my way upstairs where the band started playing Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” I got uncomfortable and went downstairs looking for Annna, but when I peeked out the window I saw her and the twins leaning against a gate.

I went outside. Annna said, “They couldn’t find their passports.”

“Sorry, man,” Lee said.

“Hey, whatever,” I said.

“I have an idea,” Tra moaned. “Let’s go back to our flat. We got booze, beer, and Pop rolls a mean joint.” 

We took the Metro to Trocadero and walked to their flat in the upscale neighborhood. The first thing I noticed was the great view through the doorway that opened into a lush garden with the Tour Eiffel glistening above the trees.

Their father Conway reclined in his wheelchair on the patio. We all sat around a wrought iron table, the lurid hush of night almost enveloping us. Conway rolled a big joint silently as the rest of us talked about an upcoming concert on the Seine. His long gray hair and beard were luminous in the garden’s pale light, and his iron dark eyes followed the conversation, darting from one speaker to the next.

After Jack Daniels shots, some brews and tokes, Conway grabbed his glass and the rest of us followed. “To James Douglas Morrison.” He drank quickly and we all did too.

After a few more rounds, Annna said, “I must tinkle.” The twins followed her inside to put more beer and ice in the big bucket.

Conway sat staring at me, so I said, “You’ve been an expat a long time?”

“Longer than you, son.” I laughed.


“Funny, I learned to love America living here,” Conway said. “Distance makes things better.”

“I guess. I miss home sometimes.”

“I left to avoid Vietnam. Lucky my mother was French.”

“I was upset about Iraq.”

“Wars always suck, kid.”

“Annna says you knew Morrison.”

“I met Jim in the Tuileries. I’m painting a landscape, and he just walks right up to me. We sort of became friends.”

“Cool. Two creative types getting together, huh?”

“I think it was two Americans wanting to smoke weed.”

I laughed. “Did he do any writing here?”

“I don’t know because I only knew him briefly. I was just getting to know him when he died.” We were both quiet in the sacred fragrant garden, almost in a trance covering decades and yet mere seconds. I thought I could hear Jim singing, the cadence of his voice strengthening and shaking the bushes, foaming in the sea of the night like powerful waves battering the shore. I looked at Conway and felt he could hear Jim too, the bravado of his voice filling us as we sat there, the words echoing across dimensions from some happy netherworld.

jim 3“I went to his grave yesterday hoping for some kind of connection.”

Conway nodded. “I go every year on the anniversary. He’s been gone too many years now.”

“Do you know what those Greek words on his tombstone mean?”

“Well, I’ve heard some say it’s ‘Divine spirit within himself,’ but others say it means ‘Demon spirit within himself.’” 

“Wonder which is right?” 

“I’d say it had to be ‘demon’ because he had lots of demons just like me.”

Someone shot off a Roman candle near the tower, and Conway looked up at it until its trail went dark. I lifted my beer and said, “Happy birthday, America.”

Conway winked at me. “Let’s drink to that.”

 Photo credits: equator.eftours.com; travelinnate.com; typophile.com

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

24: Live Another Day - Episode 10: Chinese Checkers and Russian Roulette

First appeared on Blogcritics.

24-10*This review contains spoilers.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time on 24: Live Another Day, the newest incarnation of the harrowing days lived by protagonist Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) that the chickens would come home to roost. Meaning simply that loose threads left dangling over eight season would rear their ugly heads. We knew that the Audrey (Kim Raver) storyline and that of her father, now President James Heller (William Devane) would be addressed, and we also knew early on that Audrey’s snaky husband Mark (Tate Donovan) opened up the old wound of the Russians and their need to get Jack, but the coup de grace came in in episode 10.

Once pernicious terrorist Margot Al-Harazi (Michelle Fairley) and her brood were dispatched, many of us assumed that the in the shadows bad guy was Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott) who had somehow seduced our intrepid girl Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) while also employing her impressive tech skills to further his nefarious schemes. When Adrian double crosses on the run former CIA Head of Station Steve Navarro (Benjamin Bratt) in order to get the override device that has thus far been responsible for U.S. drones launching attacks on London via the hand of now dead Margot.

There is a cool opening sequence of Jack chasing Navarro, eventually catching him, but not before Navarro has passed off the device to Adrian and the unsuspecting Chloe. As Jack races into the tube (subway for those who don’t know London), he catches a glimpse of Adrian’s cold face and they exchange glances. Score one for the slimy little devil who has bested Jack for now.

24-10 4 Adrian’s “victory” is short lived as he takes Chloe to the new secret lair of his anti-government Open Cell organization, only to find them all tortured and left for dead. Moments later the true villain arrives on the scene - and my heart literally dropped as it is revealed to be Cheng Zhi (Tzi Ma), the Chinese diplomat who went rogue, kidnapped Jack and Audrey in the past and tortured them, and now has come back to cause more mayhem.

Chloe gives Adrian a quick refresher about Cheng (for the uninformed viewer no doubt), but the true 24 fan knows him as the despicable guy who has thus far escaped justice. Cheng’s desire for the override device is quickly revealed - he plans to launch a U.S. warship attack on a Chinese aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea (take a breath before you can say “World War III”).

Meanwhile, Mark and Audrey have a confrontation after Audrey has found her father POTUS having a drink which is no good with his medication. Heller is ready to leave on Air Force One, but the situation with Navarro is revealed and now he decides to stay in Jolly Old England until the crisis can be handled. He puts Jack in charge of the operation, and Jack’s increasing prominence has Mark nervous because he has sold Jack out to the Russians. Audrey doesn’t know this yet, but Mark is sniveling about how she’s changed since Jack came back on the scene. Can we blame Audrey for wanting a man with a spine?

24-10 3
There is also a cool interrogation scene which turns around the scene earlier in the season when Navarro had a bare-chested Jack in for questioning. Now it is Jack’s turn, and the smirk on Navarro’s face let’s us know that he thinks he has all the cards in the hand. Unfortunately for him, Jack loses it and his hand is in need of surgery. Still, he has not revealed anything until he gets a deal for immunity.    

24-10 2Meanwhile, the truth about Navarro framing Agent Kate Morgan’s (Yvonne Strahovski) husband for giving secret files to the Chinese comes full circle (which also explains Cheng’s appearance perhaps). Kate wants blood, but she and Jack concoct a good-cop, bad-cop scenario as they ambush Navarro in the infirmary where they finally get the information they need to track the device and lead them to Chloe and Adrian.

Back at the obliterated Open Cell, Cheng enlists Chloe to get her to “open” the lock on the override device. Since he doesn’t need Adrian anymore, Cheng puts a bullet in his head, thus ending his idealistic campaign against government. Before he dies Adrian reveals the true depth of his deceit and evil; he lied to Chloe about her son and husband being killed by terrorists. They simply died in a car accident but Adrian used that moment to recruit Chloe. To say Chloe’s eyes are now open (even despite the Goth makeup) is an understatement; she is squarely back on Team Jack.

Unfortunately, Cheng gets Chloe to do the task and then one of his lackeys takes over and punches in the code, forcing the U.S. warship to launch a missile strike on the Chinese carrier. Cheng tosses Chloe aside but plans to keep her alive because she could be “valuable.” True fans will remember his famous line to Jack on the slow boat to China that he wouldn’t kill him because he was far too valuable. Gee, that Cheng hasn’t changed his stripes.

While this is happening Jack and Kate are racing to the Open Cell location, but are rammed by a truck driven by those pesky Russians. Though they survive the accident, we last see Jack and Kate engaged in a gun battle. Of course, even though their opponents are equipped with machine guns, we kind of feel Jack and Kate are a pretty unbeatable team, sort of like Superman and Wonder Woman. Pity those poor bad guys, ladies and gents.

Episode 10 ends literally with a bang, a sinking Chinese ship, and the promise of more excrement hitting the fan in the last two episodes. For my part I am hoping that Jack finally kicks Cheng Zhi’s ass, dispatches the Russians, and teaches Mark some manners. The promo features Audrey telling Jack to do whatever he has to do. We all know what happens when Jack is unleashed, but can he stop World War III?

Until next time, Klaatu Barada Nikto!

Photo credits: FOX Television