Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, January 29, 2007

William Tecumseh Sherman on War

It is said that no one hates war more than the men who fight them. That is most certainly true of General William Tecumseh Sherman, perhaps the most ferocious commander in American military history. It was Sherman, relieved of command at one point because he was considered mentally unstable, who coined the phrase, "War is Hell."

Cutting a swath of scorched earth across Georgia, Sherman took Atlanta, burning much of the city, crippling the Confederacy's already-shaky industry and shattering the Southern war machine beyond hope of repair. To Atlanta's government, he wrote a letter in September 1864 explaining his fierce actions. These words are among the most brutally eloquent ever written about the waging of war, and they have been much in my thoughts lately. I print the letter here, in its entirety.


Atlanta, Georgia,
James M. Calhoun, Mayor,
E.E. Rawson and S.C. Wells, representing City Council of Atlanta.

Gentlemen: I have your letter of the 11th, in the nature of a petition to revoke my orders removing all the inhabitants from Atlanta. I have read it carefully, and give full credit to your statements of distress that will be occasioned, and yet shall not revoke my orders, because they were not designed to meet the humanities of the cause, but to prepare for the future struggles in which millions of good people outside of Atlanta have a deep interest. We must have peace, not only at Atlanta, but in all America. To secure this, we must stop the war that now desolates our once happy and favored country. To stop war, we must defeat the rebel armies which are arrayed against the laws and Constitution that all must respect and obey. To defeat those armies, we must prepare the way to reach them in their recesses, provided with the arms and instruments which enable us to accomplish our purpose. Now, I know the vindictive nature of our enemy, that we may have many years of military operations from this quarter; and, therefore, deem it wise and prudent to prepare in time. The use of Atlanta for warlike purposes in inconsistent with its character as a home for families. There will be no manufacturers, commerce, or agriculture here, for the maintenance of families, and sooner or later want will compel the inhabitants to go. Why not go now, when all the arrangements are completed for the transfer, instead of waiting till the plunging shot of contending armies will renew the scenes of the past month? Of course, I do not apprehend any such things at this moment, but you do not suppose this army will be here until the war is over. I cannot discuss this subject with you fairly, because I cannot impart to you what we propose to do, but I assert that our military plans make it necessary for the inhabitants to go away, and I can only renew my offer of services to make their exodus in any direction as easy and comfortable as possible.

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling. This feeling assumes various shapes, but always comes back to that of Union. Once admit the Union, once more acknowledge the authority of the national Government, and, instead of devoting your houses and streets and roads to the dread uses of war, I and this army become at once your protectors and supporters, shielding you from danger, let it come from what quarter it may. I know that a few individuals cannot resist a torrent of error and passion, such as swept the South into rebellion, but you can point out, so that we may know those who desire a government, and those who insist on war and its desolation.

You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.

We don't want your Negroes, or your horses, or your lands, or any thing you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and if it involved the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it.

You have heretofore read public sentiment in your newspapers, that live by falsehood and excitement; and the quicker you seek for truth in other quarters, the better. I repeat then that, by the original compact of government, the United States had certain rights in Georgia, which have never been relinquished and never will be; that the South began the war by seizing forts, arsenals, mints, custom-houses, etc., etc., long before Mr. Lincoln was installed, and before the South had one jot or title of provocation. I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands and thousands of the families of rebel soldiers left on our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the Government of their inheritance. But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect and early success.

But, my dear sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and watch with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.

Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nurse them, and build for them, in more quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow the Union and peace once more to settle over your old homes in Atlanta. Yours in haste,

W.T. Sherman, Major-General commanding

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My New Iraq Strategy Strategy

Here's my new idea for clarifying our Iraq War strategy: Put Chuck Hagel and Joe Lieberman in a room together and let them decide how to proceed.

Hagel, a conservative Republican, publicly opposes the war, while Lieberman, a liberal former Democrat, has consistently supported military action. Hagel is under a lot of pressure and continues to hold his ground; Liberman has been kicked out of his party for dissenting on this single issue.

Senators Hagel and Lieberman are freaking American heroes as far as I'm concerned. It is so rare for any politician to be anything but a party-line idealogue these days that I'm pretty sure these are the two most honorable men in Washington. The only conclusions I can come to about these men is that they're both thinkers rather than party-line automatons. Dissenting on this most polarizing issue implies a mind that investigates issues on their own merits rather than on the merits of the talking points the national committee handed down for the current news cycle.

I'm telling you: put these guys in a room and have them hash it out. Both have proven their courage and ability to think independently. And both can obviously both speak and hear an unattractive argument.

Damn, I'm becoming cynical in my old age. Can we get some more elected officials like these, please?

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My Last Crazy Week

Last week was exam week at Henrico High, and having given my exam the previous Friday I had no students. I'm pretty sure the light week at school was the only thing that kept me sane.

Doctor Faustus is coming down the stretch, and it seems like when I wasn't in rehearsal I was doing sound design, shopping for props (My kingdom for a spork!), or gluing giant Mega-Bloks together. Mostly shopping for props. Then on Monday came a wonderful complication.

While waiting around the office for a staff meeting, I got a phone call from Jason Nichols of Brainbox Productions in Silver Spring, Maryland. I had done a little voice-over thing with Jason in October which I had entirely given up on; he needed a voice for a draft of a show for HGTV. There had been a possibility that HGTV would want my voice for the final show, but since it had been three months I had long since given up on it.

But lo and behold, after going through several other voices, HGTV wanted mine. So I drove up to DC on Wednesday night, stayed with Paul and Chris, watched Army of Darkness, Ice Age II, Mythbusters, and Future Weapons over a nice bottle of red wine, and on Thursday morning recorded my first national voice-over gig.

I could get used to being paid $200+ per hour for talking.

Seriously, this was actually a fairly low-paying non-union gig. But I really had a blast, we had a good time in the studio, we knocked it out in half a day, and the people at Brainbox said they're very eager to use me more. (In fact, they submitted my voice in December for a pilot, but nothing came of it.) The show is called RV 2007, and I'll let you all know when it's going to air.

So I drove back from Maryland just in time to avoid the worst of the traffic, and stumbled into the Blue Room to rehearse Doctor Faustus. We had our first full run-throughs on Friday and Saturday, and the show looks delightful. I still need to find a damn spork, but...

Then, this weekend, I played percussion in Keith Tan's band as he played a concert at Bethea Baptist Church way out past Short Pump. Keith's music is just amazing. I want to be in a band with him forever.

Now it's a teacher work day and my work for the semester has actually been done for a week. I'll be strolling into the classroom in about an hour to dot the I's and cross the T's and eat lunch with the other art teachers, and then our second semester begins tomorrow. Doctor Faustus opens Friday, the Super Bowl is Sunday, and Twelfth Night begins rehearsal on Monday.

Breathe, Hamm. Breathe.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Movie Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"

Usually I restrict my movie reviews to 100 words, but in this case I needed to not be limited.

Here’s what I didn’t know about Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) before seeing it:

1) It’s much less fantasy than it is a real-world story with horror elements, and the violence is brutal. This movie is not for the squeamish.

2) It’s entirely in Spanish with subtitles.

Now, neither of these things is a bad thing in and of itself. But the film is being marketed a certain way, and it’s really quite dramatically not the movie it’s being billed as.

Then again, I don’t know how you would sell this movie. Moviefone has it listed as "Drama, Fantasy, Crime and Mystery." (How vague is that?) Rotten Tomatoes calls it "Horror/Suspense." This movie really is that hard to categorize. Do you sell it as a brutal snapshot of post-Civil War Spain? Do you sell it as the story of a lonely little girl and her pregnant mother on an isolated rural military base? Do you sell it as a post-9/11 allegory of military fascism set against the backdrop of a mysterious stone labyrinth whose origins no one seems to know or care about?

Guillermo del Toro’s film is all of these things. It is also an absolute masterpiece, one of the most brilliantly-crafted films I’ve ever seen, and well deserving the twenty-two-minute standing ovation it received at Cannes.

Like The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie that’s best viewed with few preconceptions, the above details aside. Also like The Fountain, it’s a film that is clearly a project of passionate importance to its director. Del Toro weaves fantasy and horror, suspense and war story, fairy tale and psychological thriller expertly, playing each genre against the others for contrast and complement. Every brutal act and every bit of tenderness come through the screen like a surprise, and the appearance of fantasy creatures is a new thing every time it happens. The fact that the main character is a twelve-year-old girl makes the violence nothing short of obscene.

And what a girl she is. Ivana Baquero plays Ofelia with grace and sincerity seldom seen in adult actors. The last time I saw an actor this young create a performance this affecting was Natalie Portman in Leon (The Professional), and we all know how that career is going. Baquero’s performance, if anything, may be more immediate and honest than Portman’s. Ofelia is our lens, our guide through the terror of the real world and the wonder of the fantastic one. Scenes wherein she speaks to her unborn baby brother are particularly powerful.

Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, and Ariadma Gil round out the principals of the “real world” cast, but discussing their roles in the story would be too spoilerish for this blog. Suffice it to say that all three inhabit their characters with epic passion that never seems at odds with the relative intimacy of the film’s setting. Lopez, in particular, creates a character who inspired, shall we say, vehement response from the audience I saw it with.

And ah, the visuals. Obviously, these are what they’re using to try to sell the film: The ancient, withered Faun, his finger bones protruding. The Pale Man, eyeballs in the palms of his hands. Both of these roles are played by Doug Jones (Hellboy’s Abe Sapien), a mime and physical actor of amazing skill, worth the price of admission for his performances alone. Holy cow, his fingers alone are worth it. But the fantastical elements of the film, while completely compelling, are a much less pervasive influence than you’d think; this is Ofelia’s story and the fantasy setting is the exception, not the rule. Like the violence and blood, the fantasy elements are there to reflect and contrast Ofelia, not to distract or mask anything.

Guillermo del Toro has always impressed me as a kind of Mexican Peter Jackson, a resemblance far beyond the husky frame and wild hair and beard. Both share an aesthetic rooted in horror, a love and respect for epic and myth, and that rare combination: ability to create a visual spectacle and skill at coaching actors (are you listening, George Lucas?). Del Toro, who already impressed the hell out of me with Hellboy, has taken a massive stride with this fearful, wonderful film.

So please, read the two pieces of information above before you go see this film. Had I known how violent Pan’s Labyrinth is, I probably would not have gone to see it. However, that would have been a terrible, terrible mistake.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

"Soft People, Hard People" by Selwyn Duke

Interesting article today by columnist Selwyn Duke, a challenging piece for both left and right. I thought it might interest some of you. It might also infuriate some of you, but it's a perspective we're not hearing much these days.

An excerpt:

We fret over the fact that Saddam Hussein endured some taunts during his execution, while next door in Saudi Arabia they may still chop off the hand of a thief. We cater to the religious wants of incarcerated terrorists, providing everything from the Koran and prayer rugs to desired foods, and the soft set still laments the terrible privation these poor victims must endure. In contrast, the terrorist's brethren often disallow the practice of other religions in the Abode of Islam. We let illegal aliens run roughshod over our nation, sometimes bestowing government benefits upon them, then still feel guilty about not exalting them sufficiently. In the Third World, however, foreigners are often treated like second-class citizens. Under the Mexican Constitution, one foreign-born will never enjoy the full rights of citizenship. In many Moslem societies, a certain kind of second-class status is reserved for "infidels"; it's called dhimmitude.

All this is not surprising. After all, luxury and living high soften the sinews and, regrettably, sometimes also the head. The hand that spends its entire existence inside a velvet glove will remain soft and delicate. The one wielding workmen's tools dawn till dusk becomes calloused and hard, more able to inflict injury and more resistant to it.

In Rehearsal for "Doctor Faustus"

What with all the football stuff lately, it’s easy to forget that this blog was originally intended to be about the arts. (You know, when I’m not talking about sports. Or woodpeckers. Or comic books. Ooh! The new Iron Man animated feature comes out on Tuesday! But I digress.) We’re two weeks into rehearsals for Doctor Faustus at Richmond Shakespeare, so I thought I’d share the joy with you.

“Joy” is the operative word here. We are having, if you’ll pardon the phrase, a hell of a lot of fun in the blue room at Tabernacle Baptist five nights a week. For our mid-evening break every night, we play pool, air hockey, and table-tennis. One thing I know: When I own a theatre company, there will be pool, air hockey, and table-tennis in the rehearsal hall. The sense of play these artists have displayed has made every day of rehearsal a joy. That’s obviously not caused by the ever-present toys and games, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Here’s an introduction to the major players in the company:

Yours Truly is the Master of Play. I’m the overall architect of the show’s concept, which should probably frighten everyone involved. I run a very loose ship, rife with digressions and distractions. This is a very heavy play, so we’re trying to treat it as light as possible.

Julie Phillips is the Master of Verse. Julie knows about 2000% more about the play than I do. She’s the order to my chaos, the water to my fire, the Yin to my “Yippee!” She’s taking care of all the things I forget to notice, and she’s also responsible for the excellent English translations of the voluminous amounts of Latin spouting from Faustus’ mouth, not to mention making sure that he spouts the right pronunciations. One more than one occasion, she has stepped up with huge upgrades to my ideas. Perhaps most importantly, she has completely signed on to the show’s concept and my idiotic rehearsal style.

Dave White plays Doctor Faustus. He’s a wonderful mix of gravity and goofiness, and constantly surprises me with his ability to come up with odd impulses that are just perfect for the moment. He’s an excellent actor-combatant, which has inspired me to make the show even more physical than I had envisioned. He’s brought in lots of research into occult iconography, and he’s letting me borrow his first two Preacher trade paperbacks, which are really quite disturbing.

Graham Birce plays everything else. His Mephistophilis walks like a broken toy and perches like a monkey, perfect impulses on a set littered with toys and junk. Graham is just weird, and in just the right ways for the show. He’s totally fearless, diving into whatever strange activity we dream up for him. His character voices and puppet manipulation are a delight, but it’s his performance as the First Scholar, AKA “Carpet Face” is the true standout.

Tony Lombard, whom I call Ichabod St. Johnson is our stage manager. A junior at the Center for the Arts at Henrico High School, Tony is more of a pro than some professional stage managers I’ve worked with. He’s efficient without being sour, assertive without being pushy. And he pretty consistently kicks my butt at air hockey.

Angie Pirko has been serving as our Props Mistress, helping me compile the massive list of crazy stuff we need and going on long shopping trips to thrift and dollar stores. She’s since gone back to college, but we’re hopeful she can make it back to see the show.

Becky Capeheart is designing the makeup for Mephistophilis, as well as filling in as emergency rehearsal stage manager on occasion. She also guided me to some excellent glue at Michael's, where she works.

So far, this has been among the most collaborative experiences of my theatrical career. I started with a very specific artistic vision, but everyone has contributed to the overall look and feel of the piece.

The script is Christopher Marlowe’s, adapted by Jeffrey Watkins, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta. It’s cut down for two actors, but every word is Marlowe’s; at its core this is still Marlowe’s play. I had the great pleasure of meeting Jeff Watkins last week in Nashville, where we were both attending the STAA (Shakespeare Theatre Association of America) conference, and let me tell you it’s a rare gift to get to chat with the person responsible for your script, playwright or adapter. His insight has been invaluable. His delight at our take has been even better.

Watkins’ productions of this script have been centered on the idea that Faustus is in Hell, damned to repeat the events of his fall every day for eternity. Watkins’ Mephistophilis enters Faustus’ cell, makes him go through it, and then exits, having an entire cell block of souls to torment and a very busy schedule.

In our production, Mephistophilis is locked in with Faustus for all eternity; Mephistophilis is just as damned as Faustus. The major difference is that while Mephistophilis is compelled to move Faustus’ story forward he is aware of the artifice, while Faustus experiences every moment anew, as if for the first time. Faustus believes every illusion that Mephistophilis places before him; if he is handed a fish and told it’s a sword, he endows the fish with all of the qualities of a sword. Every day, Faustus awakens and begins the cycle anew, treating each moment as if it is the first time it has ever happened, forever predestined to fall, and fall again. Every day, Mephistophilis too begins the cycle anew, but he is fully aware of the fact that he has been doing this every day for centuries and that he will be doing it every day until God decides that time is over.

So who is tormenting whom?

We’ve been playing with the images of cellmates in prison, or people locked up together in an asylum, or even college roommates who can’t stand each other. We’ve also been very much aware of the adolescent nature of Faustus’ pat dismissal of the wisdom of the ages in the first scene, as he systematically decides that his own logic trumps Aristotle, Galen, and the Bible. It’s all quite childish, so we’re filling the play with childishness; toys, puppets, and stuffed animals in Mephistophilis’ hands become magical, wondrous items or characters in Faustus’ eyes.

So here we have an opportunity for a couple actors to really stretch into the totality of what actors can do. I hope.

Doctor Faustus previews February 1, and runs February 2-24. Performances are Thursday and Friday nights at 8:00 and Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00.

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Review: The Who - "Endless Wire"

I've got to get some back-burner stuff out of the way before my thoughts become completely irrelevant. Here's a bone for readers who are sick of all the NFL stuff.

The Who: Endless Wire.

First of all, this is not, as has been commonly reported by music journalists who really should know better, the first new recording by the Who since 1982. They recorded two songs for a compilation a few years ago, they recorded "Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting" for Two Rooms, and they recorded two songs for Townshend's rock opera The Iron Man.

The obvious joke here, with the recent passing of bassist John Entwistle, is to refer to this Townshend-Daltrey collaboration as The Two, and there's some truth in that. Townshend, in particular, plays an awful lot of instruments on this album, including more than a few drums, and Daltrey has been very open about his desire to sing anything Townshend-penned. But in the final analysis, this is a much more fitting "last" Who album than 1982's It's Hard.

The songs range from the sublime ("In the Ether") to the disposable ("Black Widow's Eyes") on an album that unfortunately opens with a completely forgettable track, "Fragments," which itself opens with a weak-sounding reprise of the "Baba O'Riley" opening. But this is overall not only a very good album, it's an above-average Who album, which is high praise indeed. Its introspective moments are reminiscent of the best of the underrated The Who by Numbers, and the mini-opera "Wire & Glass" which concludes the disc have moments that recall the energy and innovation of Quadrophenia.

As with the last two decades of Townshend's songwriting, even the hard rockers are intimate and confessional in nature. Most interesting is Townshend's fixation on issues of faith and religion. "Two Thousand Years" and "God Speaks of Marty Robbins" are gorgeous acoustic questions, but the album's real gem is "A Man in a Purple Dress," which castigates high-church religion with derision and affection. And the tiny little "You Stand By Me" reads as a love letter from Townshend to Daltrey, who supported him through recent allegations of child pornography (for which Townshend was eventually cleared).

Townshend's acoustic guitar playing is the best it's ever been, and he spices it up with touches of mandolin here and there. Daltrey sounds old in places, but still has that growl, and I'm pretty sure he could kick my ass all over the place. The production qualities are something of a disappointment; there's more hiss and noise on this CD than on the album I just recorded in my spare bedroom. But it all combines to reveal Townshend as a flawed, broken man, vulnerable and divided by ego and self-loathing, surety and doubt. This is what all of the best Who albums do. In all, Who fans should not be disappointed--at least once they get past that weak first track.

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It's Bears vs. Colts in Super Bowl XLI!

That roaring sound you're hearing is Scotty's scream echoing still across the firmament. Sorry, brother. We gots ta give Manning his props today.

Big-time props to both Chicago and Indianapolis, who most definitely earned their tickets to Miami. Sure, it stings to have both of my picks lose in almost exactly the fashion I predicted them to win, but it's hard to stay mad at classy guys like Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy. Plus, that was just some great football yesterday.

Big plays no one is talking about much: Reggie Bush's big touchdown catch might have broken the Bears' spirits if he hadn't turned around to taunt Brian Urlacher while crossing the goal line. Don't give them any motivation, rookie! It might have been a real momentum change for the Saints if he hadn't pissed the Bears' D off so much... And Marvin Harrison's 2-point conversion was absolutely a key play in the Colts game.

The Bears return to the Super Bowl for the first time in two decades, the Colts for the first time in almost four. Wow! And mad respect to the Saints and Patriots, both of whom overachieved their way into this game. They'll both be back.

And thanks to the friends who joined in the discussion. Sorry I had to delete it all, but it just took up too much darn space. Maybe Frank will let me bring my laptop over for the Super Bowl party, and we can do it again.

ADDENDUM: Latest reports are that Michael Vick did not have an illegal substance in that water bottle. This of course doesn't change the fact that he was carrying a water bottle designed to smuggle illegal substances around... Official report from the police coming later today.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Janet Rodgers Teaches Richmond Shakespeare's February Master Class!

I am unbelievably thrilled to announce that one of my mentors and heroes, Theatre VCU's amazing Voice and Speech teacher Janet Rodgers, is teaching February's Master Class at Richmond Shakespeare.

February Master Class:
Harnessing Your Actor’s Energy
With Janet Rodgers of Theatre VCU
February 13, 2007 7:00-9:30 PM
Second Presbyterian Church (5 N. 5th Street)

Come learn techniques to unlock your energy as an actor and part of an ensemble. Instructor Janet Rodgers introduces the first, second, and third Circles of Energy, as developed by world-renowned Stage Voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg. We will also learn a system of actor training, “Oxy Rhythm Exercises,” that expands the connections between mind, breath, and body while developing core strength.

Janet Rodgers is Head of Performance, Voice and Speech for VCU’s renowned Theatre department. A celebrated career of teaching and performing has brought her to Scotland, England, Romania, and Switzerland, and she has served as President and a Board Member of VASTA, the Voice and Speech Teacher’s Association. Her book, The Complete Voice and Speech Workout Book and CD was published four years ago by Applause Books.

Master Class participants should wear comfortable exercise clothing, bring water bottles, and be prepared to move! The Master Class costs $10 at the door.

Anyone interested in attending should contact the Director of Training to make a reservation. Call 804-232-4000 or email

After reserving your space, please send in a completed Student Registration Form.

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The Once and Future Vick

Apparently, stupid runs in the Vick family as much as athletic talent does.

From the AP: On Wednesday, two Transportation Security Administration screeners recognized the 6-foot, 215-pound Vick when he reportedly was reluctant to turn over his 20-ounce bottle.

The bottle was found to have a compartment that contained "a small amount of dark particulate and a pungent aroma closely associated with marijuana," a Miami police report said. The compartment was hidden by the bottle's label so that it appeared to be a full bottle of water when held upright, police said.

What an idiot. I can't decide which is stupider: having the dope-hiding water bottle in the first place, or trying to carry it onto an airplane when they've been restricting liquids on flights for months.

Lead-pipe lock prediction: After Vick does not get Atlanta deep into the playoffs next year, the Falcons will let him go. He will finish his career teasing team after team with his talent and leading no one anywhere. He will finish his career as the starting quarterback for the Las Vegas Raiders.

One day, back when he was playing for Virginia Tech, I wrote that Michael Vick was "The most exciting football player I've ever seen; more electric than Deion Sanders, Barry Sanders, or any other Sanders. He is going to make some NFL franchise very happy, and just might change the way the quarterback position is played." I still stand behind that statement. But if he doesn't pull his head out of his posterior, he's going to end up more Jeff George than John Elway.

I'm officially done being a Michael Vick fan.

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Championship Round Preview

While the divisional round is my favorite week of the NFL season, there is something very special about the Championship games. Certainly all three weeks of playoffs are more compelling than almost any Super Bowl. But what I love to do in the week leading up to the Conference Championships is to examine all four teams for what kind of story they would be in the big game.

For the Saints, it's obvious. They have become America's Team this season in a way the Cowboys could never touch, and a Super Bowl win, even just an appearance, could be a serious boost to the city's economy and spirit.

For the Bears, it's a return to glory for the NFL's oldest team and a shot of respectability for a franchise that's been treading water since not long after the "Super Bowl Shuffle" video was filmed.

For the Colts, it's a chance to get the monkey off their back, and a chance for Peyton Manning to do something more important than MVP awards and a Hall of Fame bust: a chance to play for a championship.

For the Patriots, it's the possibility of being called the greatest dynasty in modern NFL history. Four Super Bowls in six years is a pretty compelling argument.

There's absolutely no reason to believe that these two penultimate playoff games will be any less incredible than the rest of this amazing postseason has been. So let's take a look-see.

NFC Championship: New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears. There are a lot of reasons to pick the home team here. The one-two ground punch of Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones is a testament to the stoutness of Chicago's offensive line. Being a Redskins fan from years past, you can imagine how much I love O-linemen. Soldier Field (the ugliest stadium in the NFL ever since the mothership from Close Encounters landed on top of it) eliminates a lot of the Saints' advantages, particularly their offensive speed, and I worry tremendously about the New Orleans secondary.

But I'm going with the Saints for a third straight week. It's largely a question of my confidence in the quarterbacks. Drew Brees has never been anything but great, and seems to have lifted his game ever since the removal of that weird hairy mole on his face (good use of your signing bonus, Drew). Steve Spurrier has said that Rex Grossman is the best quarterback who ever played for him. Looking at the track record of ex-Gator QBs in the NFL, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement. But there's more to it than just Grossmanphobia. I simply don't trust the Bears yet.

Sean Payton will unleash yet another dazzling offensive game plan, which will befuddle the Bears' thinning D and put Rex Grossman behind early. Grossman having to press and come from behind is a frightening concept if you're a Bears fan. The Saints will get a lead early and then spend much of the second half grinding down clock behind a 150+ yard performance by Deuce McAllister. Sorry, Bears fans. Sexy Rexy's got a lot of growing up to do before I'll pick him in an NFC Championship game against anybody. Saints 30, Bears 17.

AFC Championship: New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts. Looking at this game makes me feel like Tevye the milkman. The Colts' defense has looked dominant this postseason. On the other hand, they looked bloody awful for most of the previous sixteen weeks. Indy has been winning without great performances from Peyton Manning, and he's due for a better game. On the other hand, Manning struggles against 3-4 defenses, and absolutely stinks against the Pats in January. The Colts are 9-0 at home this year. On the other hand, the Chargers were 8-0 at home until the Patriots came a-knocking. The Colts have home-field advantage with that crowd noise and speedy turf. On the other hand, Tom Brady is 10-0 in domes.

Here are some more compelling stats: Tom Brady is 12-1 in the postseason; Manning is 5-6. Bill Belichick is 13-2 in the playoffs; Dungy is 7-8. But of course football is played on Sunday, not on the previous Sundays, and there are tons of intangibles that make stat-mongers look stupid on a weekly basis.

Maybe this is the game where Manning and Dungy get over the Foxboro hump. Maybe the Indianapolis defense is for real all of a sudden, and maybe Joseph Addai + Dominic Rhodes = Edgerrin James. But I can't help but think that the very worthy and likable Colts' road to the Super Bowl comes in a year when someone else eliminates the Patriots. You know, like last year. The Colts are to Tom Brady what the Niners were to Aikman's Cowboys. I don't care if the Colts are 16-0 and the Patriots squeaked into the postseason at 8-8; I'm picking the Patriots until proven otherwise. Patriots 31, Colts 23.

So I'm picking both underdogs to win, a New Orleans-New England Super Bowl. However, I kind of secretly hope I'm dead wrong. Bears vs. Colts would feature the first two black head coaches ever to reach the Super Bowl.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Divisional Round Recap

Wow, that was a great weekend of football, again! All four games were one play away from being completely turned around. Rex Grossman even looked good (making me look bad--that was the only pick I've missed this postseason). I had to listen to the Sunday games while driving home from Nashvegas, and had a revelation: Football doesn't work on the radio at all.

Peyton Manning had a 39.6 passer rating on Saturday, he has thrown one touchdown and five, count 'em, five interceptions--and yet the Colts have won their way to the AFC Chapionship game on the strength of their defense. Not just their defense, their run defense. All of a sudden, they look like a Tony Dungy team. That's downright weird. If you like D (as I surely do; I also like pitcher's duels), that Colts-Ravens game was one of the best matches in years. Adam Vinatieri sure looks like a bargain this morning, doesn't he?

A moment of silent respect is due for the Seattle Seahawks, 9-1/2-point underdogs who took the powerhouse Chicago Bears to overtime before losing. Mad respect to Rex Grossman's good game, but I already know I'm picking against him next week. I think the Saints have that whiff of destiny Frank Creasy claims to have detected on the Bears. The Eagles, too, deserve a tip of the cap for their improbable playoff run, holding the Saints' offense down much more than I thought possible. Interesting how both NFC losers had severely decimated secondaries. And I can't imagine a guy I'd like better as my number two QB than Jeff Garcia. All three NFC East teams are gone...

How about them Patriots? Finally, I almost called the right score on one of these things. Is it just me, or does Tom Brady look more and more like Joe Montana with every fourth-quarter comeback drive? I feel awful for Marty Schottenheimer, who really doesn't bear the blame for having to face a team as magical as New England. I think the Chargers would have gone all the way if they'd had to face any team but the Patriots.

So the top seeds vanish from the AFC and advance in the NFC. Somehow, both Saints at Bears and Patriots at Colts seem right, as if preordained. As I drink coffee from my Red Sox mug, I can only think: I can't wait until next week!

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Friday, January 12, 2007

NFL Divisional Round Picks

I'm in Nashville at the STAA (Shakespeare Theatre Association of America) conference, eating barbecue, listening to Country music, and talking Bard. But football is on my mind, especially since I went 4-0 in last week's picks. Let's see if I do as well in round two.

Indianapolis Colts (13-4) at Baltimore Ravens (13-3). How much do you think the old-school Baltimore football fans have been craving this, a chance to humiliate the hated Colts in their playoff return to Baltimore? Joseph Addai ran all over the Chiefs' defense, but this is the Ravens, son. Addai may get a lot of carries, but he's going to take a lot of hits--hard ones. Indy's defense overachieved against Larry Johnson, and with their awful season against the run it's hard to imagine two such miracles in a row. On the other hand, Peyton Manning had three bad INTs last week, and it's impossible to imagine two games in a row like that. Steve McNair has been one of the NFL's great stories this year, and has playoff experience. The difference to me is that the Colts have Adam Vinatieri kicking, and if the game is tight--which I think it will be--he has a history as a difference-maker. Colts 19, Ravens 17.

Philadelphia Eagles (11-6) at New Orleans Saints (10-6). Is that record right? Were the Saints really only 10-6? With that offense, it seemed like they must have won at least 12 games. With Eagles CB Lito Shepherd out, it's tempting to assume that the Saints will simply launch an all-out air assault with QB Drew Brees (my NFL MVP) and a slew of sure-handed receivers. So tempting, in fact, that I am going to assume it. Can the Eagles continue their unlikely McNabb-less run with overachieving Jeff Garcia and the dangerous Brian Westbrook? In a word: no. Saints 31, Eagles 14.

Seattle Seahawks (10-7) at Chicago Bears (13-3). Seattle is coming off a miraculous win against Dallas last week, and while you can't count on luck to win playoff games, teams of destiny always have a few lucky bounces (or ball-drops by chumpface Tony Romo) on their way to history. The Bears' defense has been dominant this year on their way to the NFC's best record, and RBs Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson are a dangerous one-two punch on the ground. But I don't see how Chicago merits an 8-1/2-point line in this game. Rex Grossman is the anti-Tom Brady; I simply can't justify picking him to win a game on this level, especially with such a weak corps of receivers. Mike Holmgren has won a lot of games in January, and there have been time this year when I would have played QB better than Grossman. This has all the earmarks of an upset to me. Seahawks 23, Bears 17.

New England Patriots (13-4) at San Diego Chargers (14-2). I could talk here about the Chargers' 8-0 home record this season, or the rough times Tom Brady has had under pressure this year. I could talk about LaDanian Tomlinson's ludicrous touchdown total or Marty Schottenheimer's history of postseason choking. But in all honesty, I just can't bring myself to pick against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the playoffs. I originally predicted a Saints-Chargers Superbowl, but I can't type the words "The Patriots will lose a postseason game" and mean it. Patriots 23, Chargers 21.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Beautiful Day for Football

I'm watching the Jets-Patriots game, which is looking more like a street fight than a game, and I was just suddenly struck by a sense of what a great day this is for NFL football. From Delaware to Maine, it's also a great day to travel, because no one is going to be on the highways. With both teams from New York, one from New England, and one from Philadelphia playing today, everyone in the northeast is going to be watching.

Say what you want about the exciting offense in Indianapolis, 31 touchdowns in Seattle, and 1700 yards in Kansas City; playoff football is at its best east of the Mississippi, north of the Carolinas, and/or bordering the Great Lakes. No disrespect intended to the Saints and Chargers (my Super Bowl picks), but in January I want to see football in Chicago, Green Bay, New York, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Foxboro. And I sure as heck want it outdoors.

And the fact that it's a day of intra-divisional rivalries just sweetens it. The Jets and Patriots, Giants and Eagles know each other well and despise each other. The only thing better than playoff football or rivalry football is playoff rivalry football. What I'm saying is: This is where it's at.

What a great day for NFL football. Too bad the weather's so nice. I wish it was snowing.

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Wild-Card Predictions

These are belatedly posted. I wrote them Friday and left them on a computer at work. Let's see how I did for Saturday's games!

As always, these predictions are for entertainment purposes only. I do not endorse gambling of any kind. Enjoy the predictions and small bits of useless information.

Colts over Chiefs. There's no way a Tony Dungy defense is going to give up the 250+ yards everyone is predicting for Larry Johnson. Look for big games from Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, and just enough Manning to get the job done. Remember when the Chiefs' quarterback was Elvis Grbac? Grbac is a funny name. Colts 28, Chiefs 13. (Hey, that was pretty darn astute!)

Seahawks over Cowboys. Little known fact about the Cowboys: their best receiver is Terry Glenn, not T.O. The Seahawks have not had the kind of season I expected from them, but neither have they suffered the Super Bowl Losers' Jinx of recent years. Shaun Alexander is a force of freaking nature. Still, they're better than the overrated Cowboys, who have been on a slide and are lucky to even be here. One time a couple seasons ago, a fan in the stands held a sign reading "T.O. has B.O." Karen and I never fail to refer to Owens' body odor whenever he is mentioned. Seahawks 27, Cowboys 17.

Patriots over Jets. Here's the story... of a man named Brady... Seriously, I have a hard time predicting a Belichick-and-Brady-led Pats team to lose any playoff game. It could be a time-machine game versus the '72 Dolphins and I think I'd predict a New England win just out of habit. Chad Pennington is a great story this year, and I've always liked the guy, and the Jets have been a nice surprise, but they have a lot of weaknesses (like having no real go-to running back), and Bill Belichick is all about exploiting weaknesses. I was writing an NFL column when Belichick got the Patriots job, and I predicted that he would be a terrible head coach who would run the franchise into the toilet. Shows what I know about football. Patriots 23, Jets 14.

Eagles over Giants. There's something magical about what Jeff Garcia is doing in Philly this year. Not magical enough to win in round 2, but certainly magical enough to beat the "You mean we really made the playoffs???" Giants. I think it may be time to acknowledge that old-school drop-and-give-me-twenty coaching is simply not going to work with any NFL players any more, and that makes Tom Coughlin roughly equivalent to a brachiosaurus: very impressive in historical context, but of little threat today. Enjoy Tiki Barber this weekend, folks. I hated when my team had to gameplan against him, but always loved watching him play. Eagles 24, Giants 10.

And in other sports news...

My fantasy football team, the Magnificent Mullets of the Richmond Improv League on Yahoo, made it to the champeenship only to be crushed mercilessly by the Cavemen Lawyers. We did, however, defeat the #1-seeded Ululating Zoidbergs in a one-point squeaker in the semis, which I'm very proud of.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I started the season with Eli Manning and Michael Vick at QB and Clinton Portis and LaMont Jordan at RB. All four of them were among the biggest fantasy busts of the year (in Portis' defense, he was injured; when he was in he was very effective), and I made it to the finals anyway. That's some good personnel moves, yo. Hey, I hear the Redskins may be looking for a GM...

Thanks to my MVP, WR Laveranues Coles, who was questionable or probable every week, but I started him anyway. If only his name was pronounced like it's spelled. Game balls to TE Antonio Gates, WR Joe Horn, WR Javon Walker, the Minnesota Vikings' Defense, and the ensless string of free agent running backs who I picked up and discarded along the way, including Joseph Addai (yeah, I played him the day he had 4 TDs), Dominic Rhodes, Corey Dillon, Fred Taylor, Ahman Green, Leon Johnson, and many I don't even remember. And thanks to journeyman QB Brett Favre, whom I picked up mid-season, dumped, then signed again in time to start the champeenship game.

Fantasy football is surreal.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Two of the Best Tackles I've Ever Seen

Well, the Seattle Seahawks have not had the kind of season I was expecting, but they just clowned the Dallas Cowboys 21-20, winning even though Dallas had the ball inside the red zone with under two minutes to play.

On 3rd and 7 at the Seattle 9, Tony Romo threw to Jason Witten, who was tackled ferociously by Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson (mostly Tatupu) at the 1. After a very Dallas-friendly spot, 1st down was signalled, but the booth reviewed it and moved the ball (correctly) back a foot, negating the conversion. With every slow-motion replay, Tatupu's tackle looked more incredible. Witten didn't advance an inch after Tatupu hit, saving 1st and goal.

Then, on 4th down, the Cowboys lined up for a chip shot field goal. But the ball slipped out of holder Romo's hands, and his frantic scramble to the left was stopped by a shoelace tackle from Seahawk Jordan Babineaux--again, just inches short of the first down. Get used to seeing that play, Cowboy fans: that film is going to be a postseason highlight forever. The Seahawks took over, drove down the field, punted, and batted down Romo's Hail Mary. Game over, man.

Too bad, so sad. The Cowboys have lost their last six playoff games in a row (beginning with the '96 Divisional game) and this Redskins fan couldn't be happier to watch them be repeatedly humiliated. Come to think of it, the Redskins have enjoyed a couple of massively embarrassing wins over the Cowboys in the last couple years...

Do you scoff when people say "Defense wins championships?" Scoff no more. Basic, fundamental tackling won this game for Seattle. Well, tackling and Tony Romo's butterfingers.

I freaking hate Tony Romo. Let's look at a picture of him getting a humiliating smackdown:

By the way, they have finally done a Coors Light press conference commercial using the famous Jim Mora "P--p--playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs!" footage. I approve.