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Monday, December 31, 2007

Looking back on 2007

I don't really feel like doing this right now. We got back from a trip out of state a short while ago and I'm way tired, among other things.

But, these are the last few hours of 2007, before a whole new year rings in. So I'm going to try to do my traditional wrap-up of the preceding year.

I'm not going to sugarcoat things: 2007 was a very, very rough year. In fact, of the "year-end reviews" that I've done so far on this blog, 2007 has been by far the one that I wince most at thinking about. For no other reason than because I'm really not where I wanted to be this evening, when last December 31st I thought about where I wanted to be a year from now.

What happened? Well, 2007, more than any other year of my life, was a year of struggles. Many of which I didn't chronicle here. Some of them were. And some even wound up making international headlines.

But in spite of all that happened in 2007, for all the regrets that I admit having about the past 12 months, I can't help but believe that there was a lot of good that came out of this year, too. And quite a lot of surprises.

2007 began innocuously enough. Everything was quiet for the first few weeks. I started out 2007 hoping to move forward with my life on several fronts, including making a full-length film and getting a new business going. I dabbled a bit with YouTube "personal commentary" videos, but didn't make much headway there (I might pick it up again soon though).

The first big project of 2007 started on the night of the American Idol season premiere. Lisa and I saw a promo for the first (and subsequently only) season of the new Fox show On The Lot: the one that asked filmmakers to submit short films for a competition somewhat like American Idol. Lisa told me that I should give it a shot. So with just a month left to write, cast, shoot, and edit it together... that's what I did. Schrodinger's Bedroom didn't get past the first round of tryouts, but during the whirlwind experience I came to meet some wonderful new people, and it was a heckuva lot of fun to pull it off. And I personally think that considering the time I had to work with, that Schrodinger's Bedroom turned out to be pretty clever and funny. I just wish that I'd had more opportunity for filmmaking like that during the rest of this past year.

That brought things toward March, and things began picking up in earnest. One of the highlights of this year was when I got to host Monday Night Live for an entire hour along with Ken Echols. My April Fools Day gag wound up convincing a lot of people that I had run off to join the Amish (I don't know how I'll be able to top that... but I'll try :-).

And then a few weeks later, the rest of the year started going full-tilt wacko. At the April meeeting of the Rockingham County Board of Education, the board voted to implement uniforms at two Reidsville schools. A lot of parents and students at the schools protested, and banding together to form P.O.T.S.M.O.D. (People Opposed To Standard Mode Of Dress) they took to the warpath. I didn't believe in the uniforms either, and was asked to help out. I told 'em that anything I could possibly do to defeat this, I'd do it. We spoke out against the uniforms at every meeting for the next three months, and even took to the airwaves on the local television station WGSR. It all came to a head at the July 9th meeting, when some of us came in costume - including Yours Truly dressed as a Jedi Knight - with most of the area's major news media present to chronicle the mayhem. By the end of the evening the board rescinded their earlier vote, and the students at the two schools didn't have to put "civil disobedience" into practice (which I've no doubt they would have done). And I'm glad they rescinded the policy too 'cuz if the Jedi costume stunt didn't work, I had something else in mind to heat things up a bit.

Later on in April came something else that, in retrospect I do wonder if I'm beating a dead horse too much... but then I remember that there is still such a thing as honor, and that has to be defended with whatever is in my arsenal. At the end of April word got out that admitted sign thief and disgraced school board member Ron Price had filed a lawsuit against local publisher Richard Moore and Moore's wife Debbie, for their attempts to make Price accountable for his misdeeds. Which led toward all kinds of spoofing of Ron Price on this blog: Ron Price as Leon Trotsky, Ron Price as Rambo (yeah I made that one, and as they say "so sue me"...), Ron Price as The Godfather, Ron Price as Lord Voldemort, Ron Price as the Gravemind from Halo, Ron Price as L. Ron Hubbard, and then the piece de resistance: the Ron Price Jack-O'-Lantern! Probably little wonder then that I wound up getting deposed by Price's lawyer to answer questions under oath as part of this lawsuit, even though when the day of the deposition came Price's attorney Doug Hux could only show me a photograph of last year's Reidsville Christmas Parade and ask silly questions about it. The case is supposed to come to trial in the next few months but it could be dismissed sometime in January (and it probably will be). I've little doubt that I'll be next to get hit with a lawsuit from Price... but hey, if that happens, it's all the more fodder for parody for me to work with :-)

I didn't get much of my own filmmaking done this past year, but I could help out (a bit) Jae Solina with his short film, and he did a slam-bango job on it, too!

June was a good, productive, fun month. I produced my first pro-Ron Paul video (while Lisa was away at a 2-week music seminar in Georgia, and she's told me many times since that if she'd been here that she'd never have let me do that!). Not only did my Ron Paul video become a YouTube hit, but that same weekend my first school board commercial was screened at the Pixelodeon Video Festival at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles! Which was just one of many things that happened in association with that commercial over this past year, but we'll touch more on that in a minute.

And that same weekend, I took the Praxis II test in Raleigh... and pretty much aced the thing! Yes, I'm still very excited about that :-)

July of 2007 would see the publication of the final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So in the lead-up to that I resolved to read every book in the Harry Potter series leading up to that last installment, within a month. Within three weeks I'd finished them all, and went right into Deathly Hallows (here's my review of it). What an absolutely amazing, wonderful series of books. I can't wait to share it with my children someday.

If June was wild, it couldn't hold a candle to July. In addition to the "Jedi at school board meeting" hijinks and the Harry Potter mania, there was also my school board commercial getting featured on VH1's Web Junk 2.0 show. Which I've always thought was hilarious and I didn't hesitate to post it on YouTube. Ooh-boy... who'da thunk that would have caused so much controversy a month and a half later?

But in the meantime, there was one thing, even more than the uniforms controversy, that dominated this blog not just in July but for many of the months that followed: the fight for the Transformers score CD.

It all started when I saw Transformers on July 4th. I loved everything (okay almost everything about that movie. Especially the amazing orchestral score by Steve Jablonsky. I went looking for the CD of it in stores. It wasn't to be found 'cuz nobody had released it. I lamented about that on this blog. Lots of people started coming here as a result because they were looking for info about a Transformers score CD too. To reflect the heavy demand for this CD, I set up an online petition calling for the score's release. Thousands signed it. Apparently, it attracted attention of the suits at Warner Bros. Records (though how much real impact the petition had, is still debatable because as I understand it the score was going to be released eventually anyway). Some news agencies even picked up the story about the demand for the CD. In the end, on October 9th Transformers: The Score by Steve Jablonsky was published and sold out all over the place (as of this writing it's still doing very well on Amazon). And lo and behold, Steve Jablonsky himself sent some autographed copies of the score (including one that we later auctioned on eBay with all the proceeds going toward the purchase of new music instruments for schools here in Rockingham County) this way! I still haven't done with mine what I've planned to do with it: frame it in a shadowbox, along with a copy of the petition (including all of the signatures) and a little plaque that says "NO SACRIFICE, NO VICTORY!" Probably will do that soon though :-)

August was fairly quiet in comparison to the previous two months. All the way until the final few days, when... that Viacom thing... happened. The incident that brought attention to this blog from a lot of bigtime news outlets. On August 29th I was hit with a takedown notice from YouTube over my posting of the Web Junk 2.0 clip featuring my own school board campaign commercial. And if you wanna read up on just about all the various perspectives and opinions on this bit of copyright wackiness, here's most of the links that I was able to find. Folks, this was a huge thing for me to have gone through on this end. Never in my life did I think that I'd have to wind up taking on Viacom, a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate. And it just happened to have come at a really lousy period in time, too. Fortunately (and with a little help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation), two weeks later the situation was resolved, when Viacom dropped their contest and allowed the clip to be restored. Here's what I had to do, in order for that to happen, in case this ever happens to anyone else. When comparing all of the things that happened in 2007, Knight v. Viacom definitely comes in at the top of the list so far as "major" things go (especially regarding this blog).

A few days after "the Viacom incident" wrapped up, I got to post something much more fun here: my wife Lisa's "Star Wars"-motifed music classroom. Months later and the kids are still amazed by it all. Lisa says that every class, the children race to see who can sit closest to Yoda :-)

October brought a lot of weddings to our family (dunno why I didn't chronicle most of them) and some other things that kept me busy, that for some reason I didn't chronicle much about here. But also a bit of whimsy: in addition to the Ron Price Jack-O'-Lantern that I mentioned earlier, I also did this Ron Paul Jack-O'-Lantern, which was much more fun to make :-)

As the year started winding down, there were indications that 2007, far from ending quietly (which I had kinda hoped) might be going out with a bang. On the first weekend of November, while we were en route to another wedding, my beloved 2001 Toyota Corolla was totaled in a rear-end collision. I've got a new car now - a Toyota Camry, which I've already come to like a lot - but my Corolla had quite a lot of crazy history attached to it.

A week after the crash, I made it into the national spotlight again (how many times is that in one year??) when E! Entertainment Television's hit show The Soup ran my school board commercial. I got tons of e-mails and phone calls about that one, and one friend from high school later said that he was on his honeymoon when he saw me on The Soup. Heh-heh... that's gotta be a scary thought: "Chris Knight crashed my honeymoon!" Fortunately the clip I posted of that on YouTube hasn't been struck-down (yet). Hopefully it won't either, 'cuz it's an awfully funny segment.

Thanksgiving 2007 saw me deep-frying my first turkey in two years. I did two more for Christmas (hope to have the pics of them up soon) and consensus is that my culinary skill is getting better with age :-)

Also in November came... folks, I was seriously, seriously considering doing this: the whole "run for Congress" thing. And I'm very thrilled that a lot of people wanted me to do this. And I know that I said that I would, at one point. But after some thinking about it (which in retrospect, I should have considered a few things that I didn't at the time) I'm still not going to run this time. Maybe in a few more years. The past few weeks have proven all the more to me, that I need some more "personal projects" time in the near future. And I'm not ready for something like this right now. I do hope to run sometime though. And it will absolutely be a terrific, positive, and fun campaign. I came up with 5 or 6 ideas for commercials, if I had run this time. For now, those are going in the trunk to be used later.

In the month leading up to early December, I could barely contain my excitement for finally, after all these years, being chosen to attend this year's Butt-Numb-A-Thon film festival in Austin, Texas. Not only did I get to be there for 24 hours of movie magic (and other stuff), but it was my first trip to Texas and I got to hook up with some great friends and my brother-in-law. Plus, I got to visit the Alamo! Definitely a great event to go out of 2007 with.

And then, there was Christmas. Which was really good and I'm gonna try to get pics up of that soon, including some of the stuff that we got (including a certain toy for Lisa, that I had to camp out overnight in the freezing rain to get for her :-).

Okay well... that was 2007, I guess.

Was it a good year? Depends. I got to meet many wonderful people over the past 12 months, and got to do some things that I'd always wanted to do and a few things that I never thought I'd get to do. Going by that measure, 2007 was one rollickin' adventure after another.

But all the same: I don't feel like I actually accomplished anything personally, or at least anything that I feel much - right now anyway - that I grew from. A lot of what happened in 2007 was carry-over from events of 2006, which in many ways was a much more fascinating, rigorous, terrific year for personal growth and advancement. Looking back over 2007 with that same eye, I feel... a lot of regret. A lot of wishing that some things had been different.

At the end of 2006, I felt like I could do anything. At the end of 2007, I'm wondering: what can I do? Is there anything left for me to do? Is this it: a life of fighting a lot of never-ending battles? Yes, I suppose that most people would say that I did win the vast majority of those battles. And that I should feel proud for that.

But I can't do it. I know what I did. I'm thankful that, in my understanding at least, the right thing did prevail more often than not.

But I'm still not feeling any more satisfied with 2007 though.

Maybe I'm just being pessimistic about what's gone on in the past 12 months. It could be that it was all such a severe roller-coaster of a ride, that I'm now left wondering "okay, how can I possibly top all of this?". And with nothing that big (let's face it: taking on Viacom in a copyright dispute and coming out on top isn't something terribly small we're talking about here) on the horizon right now, well... what is there?

Mostly though, I do wish that I could have done the projects that I'd started 2007 out with in mind. But maybe that's okay too: there's always 2008. And in some ways, the end of 2007 made me more prepared to take on those things than I would have been if I had attempted them a year ago. So maybe there is something of God's will at work here after all.

Speaking of which: I hope that 2008 brings me closer to God. And I don't mind admitting that, either. Lately, I've realized how much I have failed and fallen as a follower of Christ. The past few months have taught me that while I was so busy fighting everything else out there, I neglected to confront some things in here. And I'm going to need to work on those things for awhile. Probably a long while. I might really have to give up blogging while I'm doing that, too.

So in short, about 2007: a lot of regrets. But I won't deny that this was a very, very interesting year.

Here's praying that 2008 will be a far better one. Please Lord, I hope so.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Remembering Gene Saunders

I wanted to write this a few days ago, when I first heard the news. But it's been hard, folks. It still hasn't fully sunk-in that this has happened.

It was June of 1988 when I first met Gene Saunders, during a summer enrichment program at Rockingham County Senior High. I took the drama elective during the program and Gene - or "Mr. Saunders" as I'm still feeling inclined to call him - was our instructor.

I can still tell you the names of every single person that I took that elective with. Just as much as I can tell you what we all thought of Gene Saunders: we liked him immediately.

The program ran for a month, and in that time Gene put us through all the paces of serious theatre: improv, cold reading, lights and sounds, sets and props, makeup... the works.

Under Gene's direction, we found out that real acting is hard work... but it's a lot of fun, too. By the end of the elective, we could have stormed Broadway with what Gene had taught us.

A month and a half later I started classes at Rockingham as a freshman, and Gene was my drama instructor for an entire year. On one of the first days of class, Gene told the other students about how we'd met that summer and that "Chris is the kind of person that if I asked him to swing from the chandelier, he would do it without asking why."

I took that to heart, folks. In fact, I think that Gene Saunders helped crystallize a personal realization for me: that it was okay to be quirky and offbeat and passionate. Those weird school board campaign commercials that I did just over a year ago? When I was making the first one, I couldn't help but think about what Gene had taught me years earlier in high school. Months later he told me that he thought they were hilarious and I got to tell him then, that he was a big part of the inspiration. I'm glad he got to see them, and that he got to hear how he played a part in me going that route.

I got to participate in two productions under his direction: The Man Who Came to Dinner (actually I didn't do anything there other than running the sound effects) and Anything Goes. Both were a lot of fun. I think the best productions that happened during my time at Rockingham though were probably Grease and The Sound of Music. Which there's a funny story about that one in particular: our high school did The Sound of Music during my senior year, and on the show's final night, while the girl playing Maria was on stage singing, this... strange... sound went out through the auditorium. Not once, but three times. Then everyone realized that we were hearing somebody blowing their nose. Somebody with one of the wireless mikes that was still turned on. And then I remembered that Will, the guy portraying Captain Von Trap, was playing that night while suffering from a bad cold.

I saw Gene during intermission. "Hey Mr. Saunders: The hills are alive with the sound of mucous!"

Gene winced, covered his face, then started laughing. "Chris, only you could have said that." Years later, he was still remembering that horrible pun.

And there's another memory that I have of Gene, which may or may not be "funny", but it's one that I've always chuckled at. One day in class, Gene was telling us the story of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Which if you're an actor or other theatre person, you know that you're not supposed to actually say the word "Macbeth" because it's allegedly cursed, and that according to legend every performance of Macbeth has met with some misfortune or another. If you must talk about the play at all, you can say "The Scottish Play" or "that play".

Some time after that Gene had W.C. "Mutt" Burton, a well-known local actor and writer, come over to talk to us about drama. During his lecture, Burton told us about how he had been in productions of Macbeth, and after everything Gene had taught us about it, I was kind of startled to see this actor (who had done movies along with Burt Reynolds and other well-known names) saying "Macbeth" so nonchalantly. During the question-answer session that followed, I raised my hand and asked: "Do you believe in the Macbeth curse?"

"The what?", Burton replied.

"The Macbeth curse," I repeated. "You know, the thing about how you're not supposed to say the word "Macbeth" in a theatre because it's cursed. How actors are only meant to refer to it as 'The Scottish Play'..."

"Well that's the most ridiculous thing that I've ever heard of!! Who in the world told you that nonsense?!?" Burton practically bellowed.

Everyone pointed and said "Mr. Saunders told us that!" Now honestly folks, I did not mean to embarrass Gene like that: I really did think that "Mutt" Burton knew about the Macbeth curse. But after the initial shock of red that overcame his face, Gene was laughing pretty hard about it, too.

Even if you never had Gene as a teacher, you remembered him for something. Especially the habit he had while walking. If you ever attended "The Rock", then you know what I'm talking about: how Gene would walk down a hallway or across the commons while twirling that keyring of his, caching his keys in his palm and then releasing them, then catch and release again all while he walked. Gene thought it was funny too and he didn't mind that we would sometimes imitate him, especially if we did it during his drama class during some improvisation exercise. Actually, if you did impersonate Gene's walk during an improv in his drama class, he would always give you a good compliment about it.

But Gene's work extended far beyond the high school classroom (or auditorium in the case of drama). During my first year at Rockingham, Gene started the Theatre Guild of Rockingham County. It's first production, in the summer of 1989, was Bye Bye Birdie. In the years since, the Guild has produced many more wonderful shows, all of them showcasing the tremendous and diverse talents found throughout Rockingham County. This coming summer the Guild will be producing Children of Eden, and I will definitely be there on opening day to watch it open (if I don't audition for something in that show: Children of Eden is probably my all-time favorite musical :-). Gene was also quite active in other theatre activities in the area, and did quite a lot of productions and music work for local churches.

You know what always fascinated me most about Gene Saunders? The thing that, years later, I've come to realize is what it was about him that inspired me the most? It's that for Gene, it wasn't whether he was in the spotlight that mattered at all. It was whether he could put someone else in that spotlight... and especially someone who might never have thought about being put it in it at all. Gene never had anything to prove for himself: he was a great actor and singer. And he knew that deep down, everyone else had a great actor or singer waiting to come out, too. Gene wanted as many people as he came in contact with to find that, to use that, and to be appreciated for that.

I didn't realize it until a few days ago that Mr. Saunders wound up having a profound influence on my filmmaking pursuits. Because he did teach me how to look at everyone as a potential actor or actress, and that I should earnestly want to help them bring out and develop that potential so that they could be applauded for it.

The last time that I saw Gene, it was at the October meeting of the Rockingham County Board of Education. Gene spoke to the board about a new drama guild for the county's high school students, and that if they could get it up and running the first production this summer would be, fittingly enough, High School Musical. It was last spring at the All-County Chorus concert that I first found out that he'd had cancer, and Gene told me that he was about to have surgery. I told him he would be in our thoughts and prayers.

At the October meeting, he looked great! And he told me that he was feeling great, too. As he got up to make his pitch for the students drama guild, you wouldn't believe that this was a man who had just gone through that kind of ordeal. Nor do I think that any of us would have been able to believe that within a few weeks, it would have come back.

Carl Eugene Saunders Jr. passed away Monday night, on Christmas Eve.

Jonelle Davis of the News & Record has written a wonderful article about Gene's life.

Rockingham County Senior High School has lost one of its most beloved teachers. Rockingham County Schools has lost one of its most passionate advocates for the arts. The area has lost one of its cultural leaders.

And I - along with countless others through the years - have lost a good friend.

Gene, thank you. For everything that you did for us in your time on this Earth. And we thank God that He put you in our midst, for however brief a season.

I don't know of any better way to wrap this up, than to re-post here some of the thoughts that others have shared about Gene on his obituary at the News & Record website. Since these probably won't be up on that site forever, I'm going to archive them here for posterity...

Gene was an excellent teacher and will be greatly missed by everyone.
Debbie Ore (Reidsville, NC)
Mr. Saunders was a kind man with a wonderful heart for his students and his love of production. My love and prayers to his family and many friends.
Amy Hurst (Reidsville, NC)
My son, Jordan was in his first play of Peter Pan when he was 8. Gene Saunders played a perfect HOOK.
Since then Gene worked many plays with Jordan and then taught him four years at Rockingham High School. Gene was fun, full of laughter, lots of imagination and let the students learn how to become a better person. He inspired my son to continue his focus in acting. He will be missed so much by so many people but all the people he help find their positive outlooks will never never be forgotten
kathy hayes (reidsville, NC)
Mr. Saunders was a special guy there have been thousands of Students from RCSH that have benefitted from knowing and working with him on many productions. There wasn't a production that has been put on at the Rock in the past 20 years that Mr. Saunders didn't effect in one way or another and his inspiration will Live Long after his final breaths.
Eddie Perillo (Reidsville, NC)
Our community has lost a very dear member with the passing of Gene Saunders. He was a wonderful friend and colleague to my mom and a devoted teacher and inspiration for me, my younger brother and many of our friends. I will miss hearing his infectious laugh in the back of the RCHS theater and enjoying his productions, whether he directed or acted. He was truly a wonderful individual and we will miss him very much.
Lisa Worthington (Greensboro, NC)
Mr. Saunders was an outstanding man. I'm so glad I had opporutnites to work with him and learn from him and his "quarky" ways. I always looked forward to going to his classes or staying after school to prepare for a preformance.
He was a good guy, and a great friend. He will be missed.
Matthew Hicks (Danville, NC)
Mr. Saunders was my drama teacher for 2 years at Rockingham. Not only was he my favorite teacher but just a wonderful guy all around! He helped me overcome so many obistacles and for that I will never forget him! The community has lost a wonderful man and he will be greatly missed by many.
Racheal Chabot (Reidsville, NC)
Gene was one of those people that once you've met, you know you're going to carry the memory of him with you for the rest of your life. I first met him in the summer of 1988, when I took his drama elective during a summer enrichment program. A few months later I had Gene as my drama teacher in high school. In all the years since then, and even after he told me that he was sick, I never saw him as anything but animated and laughing and always smiling. And always eager to share his love of the stage with others so that, as some have noted, they could get their chance in the spotlight. A talented guy who was larger than life but never let that surpass his enormous measure of humility. Take care Gene, and thanks for sharing your passion and talents with us. Whether you knew it or not, you changed a lot of people's lives for the better, including mine.
Chris Knight (Reidsville, NC)
My daughter was in drama with Mr. saunders at RCSHS. She was in the Beauty and the Beast production. He was a wonderful teacher! He was one of the best and all the students loved him. He will be greatly missed!
Melissa Coleman (Reidsville, NC)
Gene was an excellent drama teacher and a good friend. You cannot replace a Gene Saunders.
Craven Peay (Summerfield, NC)
I learned so much from Gene, and always thoroughly enjoyed working with him. Whether alongside him during the tedium of blocking, set building or striking, on the boards in shows he directed, or enjoying his own performances while viewed from "the pit," he was unfailingly good humored and generous with his time.

Moreover, though aware of his own abilities - which were considerable - that awareness remained couched in modesty and never usurped his primary motivation: to help others enjoy the spotlight and achieve their greatest potential. To that end he had a special magic; he could transform the ordinary into the good, and the good into the sublime.

We'll miss you, Gene, until the time for our own "Cue 1, go." Then we'll all put on another show...
Bruce Michaels (High Point, NC)

My favorite memory of Gene was his portrayal of Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady while he was in graduate school at UNCG. He was perfect in this role. He was a caring teacher.
Robert Thurston (Greensboro, NC)
Gene was a fellow chorus member in Livestock / CTG's production of "Sweeney Todd." He was such a joy to be around because he love to laugh and joke. His love of the theatre was truly infectious. Gene was also a kind and giving man always ready to help those in need. I will miss him.
Steffanie Vaughan (Greensboro, NC)
I worked with Mr Saunders on the set for Beauty and the Beast, his passion for the students and the production was un matched. The students and RCHS will miss him dearly.
Bob Griffith (Reidsville, NC)
Gene was an inspiration to me in drama and in life. I will miss him dearly.
Craven Peay (Summerfield, NC)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

TRANSFORMERS: THE SCORE is still a hot seller

And over the past week it's actually become more popular (some of that might be due to Christmas shopping, no doubt). While a few days ago it was ranked around #260, the CD of Steve Jablonsky's amazing score for the movie Transformers is currently #184 in Amazon's music sales. It's also #4 in the Orchestral Pop category and #8 in Movie Scores (behind the Sweeney Todd soundtrack - which I got for Christmas - at #1 and The Polar Express at #7) and #12 in overall Classical.

I still haven't heard anything about that 2-disc set that we were told might be in the works if this album sold well. I'll say this though: my own copy of Transformers: The Score has easily been the most played work of music at the Knight household during the past three months. And ever since I got my new car, there've been darned few trips that I've taken in it that I didn't crank up this CD, especially "Arrival to Earth", "Decepticons" and "Scorponok" (which I still have to be careful listening to while driving).

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Christmas gift from 25 years ago

I couldn't let this day go by without honoring what has become without a doubt the most treasured Christmas gift that I've received over the course of my life...

Christmas 1982 was dominated by the Atari 2600 (which we got that year). But more than anything else, I wanted a telescope. All my life I've been interested in astronomy, and the craze really took hold when I was 6. When I was 8 my Mom bought me an subscription for a magazine called Odyssey. If you were a science geek/nerd growing up in the Eighties, you might have heard of it: it was a monthly mag for young people produced by the publishers of Astronomy.

Well, by the time I was in third grade, I wanted a telescope of my very own. And in Odyssey's October or November issue that year, it had a buying guide for telescopes. And that's what gave me my initial education in things like "aperture" and "focal length" and "equatorial mount" and the difference between "refractor" and "reflector" (seriously, what 8-year old kid talks like this?). I started using that kind of terminology on my parents, and they no doubt wondered what kind of kid they had given birth to.

So anyway, my sister Anita woke me up on Christmas morning (as she usually did) in 1982 to tell me that it was time to see what Santa had brought us. We got our parents up, and Dad went into our living room and closed the door while Mom had us waiting outside. As out we did it in our house, Dad told us that everything was read and tat was our signal that we could open the door and see what Santa had left for us.

I didn't see it at first. It was kind of backed up against the wall on "my" side of the tree (Anita's Christmas toys were on the side closest to the door and I was on the other side, toward the far wall). We saw the Atari 2600, and a bunch of games including the now-infamous Pac-Man (those sound effects still get on my nerves just from thinking about them). I also got some Star Wars toys, a few of the new G.I. Joe figures. And still I didn't see it.

"Chris, Santa brought you a telescope!" Mom finally said. And that's when I first looked upon it...

A full quarter-century later, and it still looks exactly the same as it did that Christmas morning so long ago. A 3-inch refractor (meaning it uses lenses) made by Bushnell. Equatorial mount. Several eyepieces that could be used to magnify the image to various degrees. A moon filter and sun filter (although I never used the sun filter: even as an 8-year old, I knew there had to be something very wrong with looking at the sun through a telescope, no matter how "well-protected"), a prism attachment that let you look through the telescope without straining your neck, a screen that worked with the prism to project the sun's image onto (which I did do several times to safely observe the sun), a Barlow lens to increase image size, a few other goodies that came with the telescope.

That's what made Christmas 1982 so special for me: that I had my own telescope! At last, I would be able to see the rings of Saturn and Jupiter's Great Red Spot in real life! All day, I kept thinking about how I'd take it out that night and use it for the first time. Dad hooked up the Atari and Anita and I took turns playing it, but eventually I was content to let her have it for the rest of the afternoon, while I read through the telescope's manual and studied up on how to use it (I say again, what kind of 8-year old kid turns down a then-hot video game system to read a telescope user's manual?).

We went to my grandmother's for Christmas dinner that night, and unfortunately by the time we left it was turning cloudy and much colder. When we got home later that night the moon was barely visible and I tried to use the telescope for a few minutes, but the clouds finally overwhelmed my effort. I brought the telescope back into the house, and the next night had much better luck because it was clear and got a very good look at the moon. It was so bright that I had to use the lunar filter to decrease the amount of light that reached the eyepiece. It also made the moon look green (and my Uncle John asked if that meant it was really made out of cheese).

In the days, weeks, months and ultimately years that followed, I used that trusty telescope to look at just about everything else that I could pick out of the sky with it: a few months later, I saw the rings of Saturn for the first time. Not long before that, I was able to see Jupiter and its four major moons. I could barely make out the ice cap on Mars (which was in recession at the time). Then 1985 rolled around, I was 11 and Halley's Comet was returning for it's once-every-75 years trip back toward Earth's neighborhood. I first spotted Halley's Comet with binoculars in November of that year, and then found it with my telescope. After it came back around the sun in spring a few months later, quite a lot of people were asking to come over and for me to let them see it through my telescope. Yeah, it wasn't as spectacular as Comet Hyakutake ten years later (which was a big mutha that wowed everyone at Elon when it came near us... yeah I used my 'scope to look at that too) or Hale-Bopp a year after that, but to be able to say that I not only saw Halley's Comet, but helped a lot of other people to see and enjoy it too, is something that I'm always going to be proud of.

Twenty-five years later, and not much has changed. My telescope is still kept in my parents' living room (which isn't really the "living room" in their house at all: my family has mostly done "living" stuff in what we call our "den") and it hasn't been stored anywhere else when not in use even once in all that time. I've still kept it clean and all the optics in excellent condition. It works as beautifully today as it did a quarter-century ago.

Yeah, I know: amateur astronomy technology has come a long, long way in that time. These days, it's hard to buy a decent telescope without a clock-drive (which keeps the instrument fixated on one object in the sky by compensating for the Earth's rotation), which my telescope doesn't have. A lot of people like reflectors more than they do refractors, because you can make a reflecting telescope pretty darned big and some of them can even make out Pluto, which a 3-inch aperture will never do. I don't know if I'll ever be able to hook up one of the fancier digital cameras to my telescope, to send an image straight to a computer...

But I don't care about those things. And even if I were to get some snazzier telescope, you would still find me using my beloved 3-inch refractor, and Lord willing someday I'll be letting my own children use it to discover the beauty of the heavens.

So in honor of my beloved Bushnell 3-inch refracting telescope: here's to twenty-five wonderful years of working together, and hopefully twenty-five more still to come. How many other Christmas presents can it be said have been enjoyed for so long? :-)

"'Twas the Dark Knight Before Christmas"

Merry Christmas y'all! We're having a great time here at the Knight homestead today! Last night I deep-fried up some turkeys, have hooked up with a lot of family and friends, and Santa brought all kinds of good loot this year! More on that in the next few days.

Anyhoo, here's something that I found on YouTube, that I thought was too good not to share here during Christmas. Here is, "'Twas the Dark Knight Before Christmas"...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas 2007!

Look, it's our Christmas tree!

This year, Lisa thought it would be fun to decorate our tree with all the Star Wars ornaments that I've been collecting over the years. Which is something that I've never done before: until now, they've all been in their boxes, never removed except to momentarily oggle and admire. But after how we did up her classroom a few months ago, I guess Lisa had the bug to decorate other things with a Star Wars motif. Here's a close-up of one part of the tree, re-creating the epic duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader...

If you're a longtime, regular reader of this blog, then all three of you know what this post is about...

I'm going to take off for a few days, so that I can spend the Christmas holiday with family and friends. I won't say there won't be blogging here at all, 'cuz chances are now good that there'll be at least one thing - and it's something really cool that I've been working on for a week now - that I'll be "premiering" here, maybe as early as tomorrow. We'll see how it goes. But otherwise, I'm out of here for a while.

2007 has been one of the craziest years of my life. I can't say enough how much I'm not just looking forward to having Christmas, but how thankful I am just that I'm able to have Christmas at all. A lot of things the past twelve months, I chronicled on this blog. And some things, I didn't talk about at all. That I'm even able to be here now to write about it, and still alive and of acceptably sound mind, is something to feel blessed about. I might meditate more on that with my "year-end" post.

In the meantime, it's the night before Christmas Eve, and there's plenty of stuff that I've got to do. I've got to finally wrap presents, and then there are three turkeys that I'm going to start in the next little while marindading and prepping to fry tomorrow evening. And some other stuff to take care of. I can't dilly-dally any longer. Time to get crackin'!

Before I go off for Christmas, there's one more thing that needs to be done, and the longtime readers will know what this is, too. For most of the time that I was a student at Elon, I was an op-ed writer at our college newspaper. In 1998, for the last issue before the holidays, I wrote a piece about Christmas. A lot of my fellow students and a number of faculty there said that it was a beautiful essay, and over the years it's come to be one of my most favorite articles that I've ever written.

So here it is once more: my own little way of wishing all of us nothing but the best this Christmas.

Take care, and God bless :-)

Originally published in The Pendulum, Elon University, 12/03/1998

Celebrating the Christmas season means celebrating the memories
Chris Knight

     Some of the best memories that we take through life are about the times we cherish the most. And sometimes, it doesn’t take much to bring back the joy.
     Last Friday as I was driving around Greensboro, the all-time coolest Christmas song ever came over the speakers.
     Who knows what this genius recording artist’s name is? Does it really matter? Whoever he is, he’ll forever be remembered as giving us the immortal sound of “Dogs Singing Jingle Bells”:

Arf arf arf,
Arf arf arf,
Arf Arf Whoof Whoof Whuf…

     Ahh... you know how it goes.
     And there’s the ever-beuh-beuh-beauh-beautiful rendition of Porky Pig singing “Blue Christmas” and the Chipmunks and of course “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Christmas at Ground Zero,” but hearing those dogs singing “Jingle Bells...” ahhhhh.
     It brought me back to the very first time I heard that: on the radio coming back from school just before Christmas in 1982. I was in third grade at the time. And it brought back memories of the Christmas we had.
     It was cold and very cloudy. I remember that because Santa had brought me a telescope and I didn’t get to use it that night. Which wasn’t too big a worry, ‘cause me and my sister had our brand-new Atari 2600 to play with!
     Another Christmas memory: To this day, I’ll never forgive Anita for the pounding she gave me in “Combat.” I don’t care how fancy Sega or the Playstation get... they’ll never touch the 4-bit pleasures of the Atari!
     There have been many a Christmas since then, and I remember each one well, for all the little things they had with them.
     I’ll never forget Mom and Dad taking me and my sister to see Santa Claus at the mall in ‘84. That morning Dad asked if I’d come with him to cut firewood, so we rode the tractor into the woods. There had been snow earlier in the week, which lay around us in the crisp, cold morning.
     Dad also brought his 30-30 rifle, why I still don’t know. After we had the wood loaded, Dad asked if I wanted to try shootin’ the gun.
     There I was, a ten-year old kid, holding what looked like an anti-aircraft cannon in my tiny hands. Well, I aimed at this tree like Dad told me to, and pulled the trigger.
     To this day I cannot describe the colors that flashed before my eyes, or the sound in my ears. When my existence finally returned, I was flat on my back in the snow, and blood was gushing from between my eyes where the scope had hit my nose from the backfire.
     That night Santa saw the bandages and said “Ho ho hoooo, and what happened to you, little fellow?”
     “I got shot, Santa,” was the only thing I knew to say.
     Hey, was I gonna lie to the Big Man? Uh-uh, no way was I gonna lose all that loot!
     The following year’s Christmas I remember for many things, but especially feeding the young calves on our farm. It would be the last year our family would be running a dairy farm, and I had started helping with some of the work around the barn.
     Dad set up a Christmas tree in the milking room, with wrapped-up boxes beneath it.
     Tinsel hung from the front doors of the barn. And there was something about the feel of the place there, that has always held a special place in my heart, as if we knew that there would not be another Christmas like this one.
     I wish there had been another Christmas on the farm, because there’s something I wish I could have seen. And as silly as some people might find this, I really believe that it happens.
     You see, if you go out at midnight on Christmas Eve, you will see all the animals in the farmyard, and in the fields, and in the forests, and wherever else they may be, stop where they are.
     And then they kneel.
     They kneel in remembrance for another night, long ago. It was Christmas, but how many people could know it then?
     Nothing remarkable, to be sure: Caesar had decreed a census through the land, and each man went with his family to his town.
     One man in particular took his wife, a young woman quick with child. But there was no room for them at the inn. So that night, in a dirty and filthy stable and surrounded by animals, a child was born.
     You see, it’s easy for us to forget. At this time of the year, we are too overwhelmed by the consumption and the material and the glitter /and all the customs that come with Christmas.
     And it’s too easy for us to forget that Christmas is, before everything else, a birthday.
     But the animals, who watched over Him as He lay as a newborn babe, two millenia ago... the animals have not forgotten.
     And so they kneel every Christmas and give glory to the newborn king, and in awe that God would send His Son to live among us in the greatest act of love.
     And to teach us many things, but especially to “love one another”. And to bridge the gap between man and God.
     The birth of Jesus Christ: the greatest Christmas present there will ever be. His birth, which would give mankind the greatest present it could ever ask for.
     Who in the world on that night could know the price that this present would someday have?
     Heaven and Earth sang praises to His glory on that night. The animals have always remembered that night. And Heaven and Earth still praise and sing unto Him.
     And if you only take a little time out from how busy things become at this part of the year, you can hear the singing, too. And it is a great temptation to join in that chorus.
     And perhaps in hearing, we will not forget the real meaning of Christmas, either.
     This Christmas Eve night I plan to be outside, with the same telescope that I got for Christmas all those years ago, and trying to envision a bright star over Bethlehem. Around midnight, I’m going to take a walk over to my aunt’s farm.
     Merry Christmas. Peace on Earth, and goodwill toward men.

Dedicated to the memory of W.C. “Mutt” Burton, for whom Christmas was always “In My Bones.”

Elon University lit up for Christmas

Last night on our way back from Raleigh, Lisa and I drove through my alma mater Elon University. It's usually lit-up for the holiday season and this year is no exception. Here's the Alamance Building, as seen from the road...

Here's looking the other way across the road, toward the Moseley Student Center...

And here are some geese gliding atop the water at Lake Mary Nell...

King's Inn Pizza Parlor in Eden, North Carolina

Thursday night I had a hankerin' for pizza. But not just any pizza, mind ya. No my friends: I was getting ready to go out for the night on a very special mission, that might involve some danger. And I wanted an extra-special meal to fill me up before I set out on my quest.

So I called up King's Inn Pizza Parlor in Eden and ordered a pepperoni pizza for take-out...

King's Inn is, without any doubt, one of the best pizza joints that I've ever been to in my entire life. If there had been time, I would have no doubt sat down at at table and enjoyed the place, 'cuz the atmosphere is terrific and the staff is wonderful. Bill, the owner of the place, greets you when you come in and he seems to always remember who you are no matter how long it's been since you've been there. There's also a jukebox and some arcade games, adding to the family feel of the place.

The pizza itself is a work of art. I don't know how it is that the King's Inn guys do it, but it's the most perfectly crunchy pizza crust that I think I've ever had: not too doughy and not too stiff. Everything is toasted finely throughout. I've also had salad there and it's just as great.

I've been meaning to do a write-up about King's Inn Pizza for awhile now, but never found time for it. Now I get to make up for it, and tell y'all how great a place it is. Absolutely to be recommended if you want some of the greatest (many swear it is the greatest) pizza in the land.

King's Inn Pizza Parlor is located at 112 N Van Buren Road in Eden, North Carolina.

Pictures from Texas, Part 3

I'm gonna go ahead and knock the rest of this thing out of the ballpark, 'cuz the next few days are going to be crazy busy and I've put off doing this long enough. So here's the rest of the photos from Texas (here's Part 1 and here's Part 2).

One of the things that I'd wanted to do while I was in Texas was visit my brother-in-law Jonathan, who's a seminary student at Baylor University in Waco. On Friday, the day after I went to the Alamo, Deborah and I hopped in my rented Jeep and took off for Austin, where we'd catch I-35 north.

Here's Austin as we were entering town...

Here's Deborah. The last time we'd seen each other, it was at Star Wars Celebration III in Indianapolis two and a half years earlier.

This was taken while we were on Congressional Avenue, with the Texas State Capitol in front of us...

This is me, in front of the University of Texas Tower. This is the very building from which Charles Whitman shot and killed all those people in 1966. I heard that there are still places around the building down on the street that you can see where the bullets hit concrete walls and such. Macabre history aside, the Tower is one of the things that dominate the Austin landscape, and is often lit up for holidays and whenever University of Texas wins a ballgame.

After that, Deborah and I got onto I-35 and headed north. It was about two hours later when we hit the outskirts of Waco. A short while later, and we were at Jonathan's apartment! 'Twas a really great thing to hook up with my bro-in-law so far from home.

By the time we got there, we were starving. Jonathan said that he knew of a good place to eat, and it must have been 'cuz he's mentioned this a few times already: Rosati's Pizza. That's where he took us. Here's Jonathan after we got seated...

Rosati's serves up Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. That was the first time that I'd ever had any and it was delicious! Here's the soft drink cup that I got, which I took a pic of mostly so I could point out the phone number of the place...

After lunch, Jonathan took us to the Dr. Pepper Museum. Waco is the town where Dr. Pepper was first invented, and it's practically the official drink of the state of Texas...

Here's Deborah with a spooky animatronic talking Charles Alderton, the guy who invented Dr. Pepper...

We were at the Dr. Pepper Museum for a while and then Jonathan took us on a tour of Baylor, which is one of the biggest campuses that I've ever seen: the science building itself is bigger than the entire campus of Elon University south of Haggard Avenue! Here's Baylor as we were entering the place...

Here's a side-shot of the seminary building. Note the Bible verse that says "The night cometh". That's the seminary's ummm... official verse, or something, according to Jonathan...

A shot of inside the stained-glass windows inside the seminary's chapel...

This is Deborah and I at the sign outside the seminary. The building behind us is a parking deck, that Jonathan said the Baylor students refer to as the "Garage-Mahal". Something else about Baylor: every building on campus seems to have at least one steeple. Strange, that...

And here's me and Jonathan at the sign for the George W. Truett Theological Seminary...

After we went around Baylor, we headed back to Jonathan's place, said our goodbyes for now ('cuz it would just be a few more weeks before Jonathan and I saw each other again) and Deboran and I headed back to her house near Austin. On the return trip, we got to see a beautiful sunset, and Deborah was able to get some pics...

We made it back to her house, and then I was headed back toward downtown Austin, for this "meet and greet" for the Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9 attendees at a local chili honky-tonk. That's where, after all of these years (I was one of Ain't It Cool News's first readers, even remember the day Harry posted those pictures from Star Wars Episode IV Special Edition which kinda launched the site) I got to finally meet Harry Knowles. Here's the pic of us together...

Then I went back to Deborah's place and wound up having to call FedEx to fuss at them for not having delivered a package on time (I'd sent it on Monday for 2-day delivery to Deborah's house, and it was now Friday night). The FedEx rep - who I'm fairly sure wasn't even talking to me from anywhere in the United States - told me that it would get there "tomorrow". When tomorrow morning came, it still hadn't got there... and the next FedEx person that I talked to on the phone said that particular station wasn't even open on weekends! "I don't care how you do it," I told her, "you had better get that package here today. I don't care if they are closed are not, FedEx failed to live up to its end of a contract. You'd better make up for it immediately." Well those weren't my exact words: they actual dialogue was, shall we say, far more colorful. But this comes into play before long in our story, that's why I wanted to mention it.

Saturday was the day of Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9. That morning before I left for the event in Austin (which I wouldn't return from until the following day, it being a 24-hour long film festival), I spotted this dear outside of Deborah's kitchen window...

Not long after that, I left for Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9. There aren't any pictures from that, because cameras, cellphones and similar electronic devices weren't allowed. Here's the report on Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9 that I made a few days after I got back home, in case you're wondering what went on there (I'm still laughing at how they ran a documentary about a urethroplasty during breakfast).

Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9 ended a little after noon on Sunday. I went back to where I'd parked the Jeep, at the Hilton Hotel a few blocks away, and then very tiredly headed back "home". On the main road to Deborah's house a storm front was roaring across the landscape, and I got to get a neat pic of that...

The front brought significantly lower temperates to that part of Texas: most of the time that I was there, it was around 70-72. The high the next day was 50.

When I got back, I found out that a FedEx person had come from the shipping facility not long after I'd left the previous day, driving his own car and very apologetic about how my package had been sitting at his office for three days without any attempt to deliver. I'll give FedEx credit for trying to make up for their bungling (in addition to their offering to refund my money). Now, what was so important about that package? I'd put some presents in it for Deborah and her family, out of gratitude for their providing me with a place to stay while I was there for the film festival. Some of this stuff that I was giving them weren't the kind of things that you want to bring on a commercial airliner. Namely, this very cool railroad spike knife (the entire knife, blade and handle, is forged from a single railroad spike) that my Dad made for me to give to Deborah's father...

I also gave Deborah some Star Wars figures from my personal collection that I knew she had been looking for, and gift cards for her and her sisters.

And that's pretty much it for the Texas trip. The next morning I finished packing, bid farewell to Deborah and her family (Lord willing, Lisa and I will be going to Austin in the spring and we'll get to see Deborah again) and then I headed to the airport, stopping at a shipping place on the way to get the HD-DVD player (the one that Harry gave everyone who attended Butt-Numb-A-Thon 9) and posters from the event sent home 'cuz there wasn't room to put them in my luggage. I turned in the Jeep, checked in my luggage, hopped on the plane, and started the journey home.

Very heartfelt thanks to Deborah Wilson, her dad, her sisters, and their dogs for hosting me while I was visiting Texas!

All in all, it was a terrific trip. And after everything else that's happened over this past year, the whole thing was a wonderful way to help cap off 2007. I hope and pray that maybe, just maybe, it'll be a sign that things might bode well for 2008 :-)

Pictures from Texas, Part 2

Here are more photos from my Texas adventure. When we left off at Part 1, I'd arrived at my friend Deborah's house in Texas. The next morning, before anyone else had woken up, I went out for a walk around her house.

Here's Deborah's backyard. As I told her when I got there, "You could throw a dead body back there and nobody would ever find it." Also fun to keep in mind that this is Travis County, which was the setting of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Just think: somewhere in those hills, Leatherface could yet be lurking with his trusty Stihl...

Some road I found, that goes... Lord knows where.

Here's a shot of Deborah's house from the backyard. That's Deborah's sister's dog Sophie who's bouncing across the grass...

Here's the scene from Deborah's front porch...

And some of her front yard (the pics can't do any justice to how vast this place really is)...

The first cactus that I've ever seen growing in the wild...

And here's a yucca plant...

And here's a... actually I forget what kind of plant that Deborah told me this is.

A close-up of Sophie as I was going back inside...

Around 1:30 that afternoon (Thursday), I left Deborah's house and soon was on Highway 281, tearing across the Texas landscape, headed south...

And two hours or so later, I was in San Antonio, en route to the Alamo...

Finally, after wanting to visit the place for over a quarter-century, here I was, at the Alamo!

Here's some more stuff around the Alamo: barracks, Spanish cannon, etc...

Being into knifemaking (along with Dad), the Alamo has a special place in my heart because this is where Jim Bowie died. Althoug these are not Bowie's personal knives (or maybe they are, who knows?), the Alamo has a number of Bowie knives on display...

I was at the Alamo for about an hour or so, and then left. On the way out I spotted Bowie Street, which I thought was a cool name for a road...

I got a sandwich at a Quizno's on the way back, and about an hour later or so I drove through the town of Blanco. I tried getting some pics of the Christmas lights that the town was decorated with...

I think that's probably enough photos for this installment. I'm going to try to get the rest up later this evening in Part 3, which'll cover the following day's trip to Waco and some other stuff.