Friday, October 28, 2011

Movie review: "The Messenger"

The job of informing families that their loved ones have died in war understandably requires compassion and sensitivity. So it is no small irony that in "The Messenger" the military sends forth two men who seem at first to be among the least compassionate or sensitive humans one could find.

The soldiers, Will Montgomery (played by Ben Foster) and Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), are not truly without emotion, as we learn as the story develops. But scarred by war and lost love, they have bottled up their own feelings (note the name "Stone" -- get it?) while at the same time their "Casualty Notification" jobs put them in the line of fire for intense emotional explosions.

"The Messenger" is a war movie without a war. It takes us not to the battlefront but to the homefront where soldiers and family members suffer the collateral damage of a distant war.

This is not a first-date movie nor "light" entertainment. It's a weighty, thought-provoking film blessed with terrific acting. Foster and Harrelson deliver deep, multilayered performances.  Also strong is Samantha Morton, who plays a soldier's widow who connects with Montgomery.

You may want to keep some tissues at hand for the movie will tug on your tear ducts.


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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book review: "Skeletons on the Zahara" by Dean King

When their ship wrecked on the western African coast in 1815, the 12 men of the American merchant vessel Commerce found themselves in a desperate situation. With no food, no water, and no hope of rescue, they were soon taken as slaves by nomadic Arab tribes and cast into the bleak and inhospitable desert.

For two months, they suffered from the searing desert heat, faced starvation, nearly died of thirst and were abused and beaten by their captors. By the end of their captivity, Captain James Riley had dwindled from 240 pounds to a scant 90 pounds.  Some of his shipmates weighed even less.

This is the story of “Skeletons of the Zahara,” a fascinating and dramatic book by Dean King that had me eagerly turning pages to reach the end. The subtitle of this book is “A True Story of Survival,” and that it is. But what makes it make deeper is how it takes us inside the strange world of desert Muslim tribes into which the sailors had entered.

The Commerce wrecked on the shore of what is today Western Sahara, an arid landscape that even today remains sparsely populated and little explored. The men were stripped of their clothes, taken by different clans and split up. They had to scrap for food and battled severe thirst by drinking their own urine and camel urine. The nomads lived mostly on camel milk.

The Americans puzzled over the strange wanderings of their captors, which seemed rarely to bring them any closer to food or water. On the rare days when it rained, custom forbid the nomads from collecting in bowls or containers – they could only mop up what was left afterward.  And when the nomads did find food or water, they seemed to squander it in a hurry it by sharing it with all-comers. “Tomorrow did not seem to exist for them until it arrived,” writes King.

Riley eventually convinced a trader named Sidi Hamet to buy him and four of his crew members and undertake an arduous trek across the desert to ransom his men to a “friend” the captain claimed to have in the Moroccan city of Swearah. Riley had no such friend his move was a desperate gamble.

If this was a movie, the focus would be on the relationship that develops between Hamet and Riley, master and slave, captor and captee.  Riley wins Hamet’s respect through his commitment to saving the lives of his men, while Riley admires Hamet’s ability to find a tiny sources of water amid a vast desert and to negotiate the hazardous and byzantine conflicts they face in encounters with other tribesmen.  And all the time they are building trust in each other, Riley fears that his deception will soon cost him his life.

As the sailors near possible freedom through ransom, Hamet says to Riley, “I have fought for you, have suffered hunger, thirst and fatigue to restore you to your family, for I believe Allah is with you. I have paid all my money on your word alone. … If your friend will fulfill your engagements and pay the money for you and your men, you shall be free; if not, you must die for having deceived me.”  Cue the dramatic music.

I have read my share of survival stories and would rank the sufferings of the Commerce’s men alongside that of Ernest Shackleton’s snake-bit Antarctic expedition and Louis Zamperini’s near-death in Japanese POW camps (“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand). If you enjoy this sort of book, you will also like Nathaniel Philbrick’s  “The Heart of the Sea,” the story of whalers set into desperate circumstances when their boat sinks. 


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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Buying a car at Cabe Toyota

For many people, including myself, the process of buying a car ranks right up there with having a root canal with no anesthesia. There's just something about having to wrestle with lying, manipulative salespeople while sweating an important decision that turns stomachs into knots.

But my opinion was changed, just slightly, when I bought a car the other day, for the first time in eight years. It's not that this purchase was fun, or even pleasant, but it was fairly tolerable.  And, that's saying something.

The first key to a fairly tolerable car purchase is to know what car you want and how much you're willing to spend before you set foot on a dealer's lot. Check Consumer Reports to find good cars. Review prices at or  Then go shopping at Craigslist or

It was AutoTrader that pointed me to a Hyundai Santa Fe that looked promising at Cabe Toyota in Long Beach, Calif.  Cabe Toyota is a surprisingly small car dealer in a surprisingly ordinary location, and when I walked on to a corner of the lot, the first car I saw was the Santa Fe.

The salesman was an amiable man named Madison Torres who patiently watched as I inspected the vehicle and answered my questions on a test drive.

But the negotiating did not go well the manager would barely budge on the price, and I walked out. This is the second key to a good car purchase you have to be ready to walk out at any time.

Two days later, Madison called me and asked if I was still interested in the car  and oh, by the way, he said, the car is now out for a test drive with a potential buyer.  I have to say I was disappointed in Madison for this ploy, as he was certainly lying.  How do I know? Well, first of all, if you have a customer test-driving the car why are you calling someone else?  You have a possible buyer in hand; you don't need another.

Second, when I did return to the dealership the next day I was planning to do so anyway even before Madison called no noticeable mileage had been added to the odometer of the car. And the seat and mirrors were set exactly as I had left them.

On this visit, I brought my old car to trade in. Again, the manager barely budged on the price, but having done my research I could see that it was still a pretty good deal. And they took my old clunker off my hands. We had a deal.

My biggest irritation in the process occurred here. When we agreed on the price, I specifically asked the manager if there were any "mysterious dealer prep fees" that would be thrown in. "Not a one," he said.

But when I got to the gruff, humorless finance manager to finish the transaction, there, lo and behold, was a $55 "document preparation" fee. Maybe I should have fought it. But at that point and they know it you just want to finish the deal and get out of there.

So if you buy a car at Cabe Toyota, just remember that, regardless of the price you agree on, you're going to end up paying at least $55 more.


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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Your not-so-public government

A reporter recently wanted to call the Public Affairs staff of the Department of Homeland Security but the agency would not give him the phone numbers.

Prince Albert II of Monaco.

So the reporter, Andrew Medici of Federal News, filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Again, Homeland Security refused to give out the numbers, this time citing a part of the law that protects federal workers against "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."  Note that he was simply asking for the work numbers.

See Medici's story here.

I have a hard time imagining why any work phone numbers for public employees should be kept secret, much less those for workers in public affairs.  What are they afraid of? That a taxpayer will call up and – gasp! – ask a question?  

But wait, you say, what if terrorists get a hold of those numbers?  Well, OK, what if? What are they going to do, call up and ask, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?"

Of course, since this is the Department of Homeland Security, it's possible they do have Prince Albert in a can.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Five tips for writing a will

More than half of all Americans who own property die without a will, according to National Caregivers Library. To avoid leaving behind headaches for your heirs, here are some key steps in creating a will:
  1. Decide who you want to leave your assets to. While family members are the most common choices, you can name others, including charities. Choose alternate recipients in case your primary beneficiary dies before you do.
  2. If you name multiple beneficiaries, decide if you want to divide your assets evenly or give specific gifts to particular recipients.
  3. Select an executor. This person, responsible for carrying out the terms of your will, should be honest, responsible and organized.
  4. If you have minor children, choose a guardian in case both you and your spouse die at the same time. Be sure to ask the would-be guardians if they’re willing to take on this responsibility.
  5. If your situation is uncomplicated, consider handwriting your will. A handwritten will does not have to be witnessed or notarized, according to the California Bar Association. Another option is California’s “fill-in-the-blanks” statutory will. If your needs are more complex, consider using an estate planning lawyer. 

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