In Parks and Recreation, we first met Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer, the soft-bodied free-loading doofus who for some reason had managed to acquire Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) as his girlfriend. We had no trouble understanding why she had dumped him.

However, as the first season went forward, we began to understand what women kept seeing in Andy Dwyer – mostly because of what we began to see in Chris Pratt. Andy Dwyer had a kind of feral intelligence, but behind that, the actor showed something more.

Then Chris Pratt hardened up his body and showed us, in Jurassic World, that he could easily be the next generation’s Harrison Ford. Brave, earnest, sometimes insensitive, but always a hero. Guardians of the Galaxy showed us more of the smart-mouth hero, not impressed with himself, but always there to do what needed to be done.

The late Scott Brazil once told me that in series television, you had to cast actors who were very much like the characters they were supposed to play. “No actor can maintain a character, season after season, who is significantly different from himself,” said Brazil. “Eventually, the character has to turn into the actor.”

I think something very similar happens in movie serials – which is what Jurassic Park and Guardians of the Galaxy really are, just like the Indiana Jones serial before them. We like the characters Chris Pratt plays because Pratt himself is so likeable, not the other way around.

Nothing said this more, I think, than “Chris Pratt’s Nine Rules to Life.” In his acceptance speech for the MTV Generation Award this past June 18. He treated it rather like a college commencement speech – and if it had been a commencement address, the graduates would probably have been delighted.

The speech was half comedy, half testimony. Since his first rule is “breathe,” you know it’s going to be tongue in cheek. Yet in the midst of “rules” that include explicit instructions on the order in which certain operations involving commodes should take place, he also bore a strong testimony, not only of the reality of the human soul, but also of God and the redemptive grace of Christ (though without saying the name).

One of the things that pleased me was the response of Pratt’s audience; they seemed to cheer and applaud his Christian affirmations as strongly as his comedy.

It’s not a thing we’re used to hearing from white actors (black actors have always had a free pass to speak their religious beliefs without shocking and offending “intellectuals”). So even though some of the speech is perhaps overly candid about bodily functions (though I thought that bit was very funny), I think the whole speech is worth hearing.

So here’s a link to a video of his speech on Facebook:


So You Think You Can Dance has come roaring back after a couple of seasons that were rather lackluster because of some poor decisions by the producers.

First we had “Street vs. Stage,” which made the show a faceoff between street – break dancing, hip-hop and other new and nontraditional dances – and stage – ballroom, contemporary, jazz, ballet and Broadway. What they neglected to take into account is that street dancing, though it’s certainly legitimately dance, is very, very repetitive.

Then last year we had some professional dancers as mentors who judged the original group of contestants, choosing their “team” and finally one dancer who would be their partner through the season’s competitions. Again, this led to repetition, as each dancer spent way too much time dancing with their mentor.

This year, with a good panel of judges, control went back into their hands. The dancers may have mentors again this season, but at least the final intense rounds of auditions were judged by the same standards for everyone, and maybe we’ll be back to the more eclectic dancing that made So You Think You Can Dance great.

And judging from what we were shown in auditions, this may be among the best groups of dancers ever on the show.

More than in recent years, I found myself rooting for many of the dancers, because we saw enough of them dancing that we got a sense of their skill, artistry and personality. Good filming and editing showed us enough of each dancer that when someone was eliminated, we could see why – and with those that the judges raved about, we could only agree.

When they cut the dancers down to the top 20, one of those awaiting the judges’ decision weepingly said, on camera, “Dance is everything to me.”

That one statement made me sad. Because there is no art that should be your whole life.

No, Uncle Orson, that’s the only attitude that will make you a winner!

But I repeat: If you put everything into an art, then when you are judged harshly, when you fail to achieve all you hope for, you have nothing left.

I threw myself into several different arts when I was young. I had fantasies of being an actor, but I was realistic about my chances. As a director and playwright, though, I had reason to hope I might be able to have a career.

I fell into fiction writing by a combination of accident and desperation, but once I saw that it was my best shot at supporting a family, I plunged in. But not with my whole heart.

Because my whole heart – my “everything” – always was and always will be my family. I worked to improve at my art, but it was never my everything, because if writing hadn’t worked out, I was fully prepared to fall back on editing to pay the bills. And if that didn’t work, I had plans to get a doctorate and teach at a university or college; and if that fell through, I could type really fast and accurately, so I could make a modest living as a typist.

In other words, I not only had three Plan A career candidates, I also had several Plans B. As long as I could support my wife and children, then I would regard myself as successful.

I felt this way, and said so, before I had either a wife or any children. I gave my children the smartest, kindest, most generous mother who was crazy enough to bet on my breadwinning ability. She had all the best things my mother had given me – and none of the weaknesses. Even if I wasn’t the world’s best father, my kids owe me big time for the mother who raised them.

That decision, solemnized in May 1977, was a gift that still keeps on giving. My adult children have no particular need of me (in fact, they were all so self-sufficient growing up that I’m not sure they ever did), but they all consult their mother frequently, and she always has what they need – or gets it.

I’m so egocentric that I count their reliance on their mom’s experience and wisdom as a slam-dunk for me. I picked her for them!

So yes, this writing thing seems to be working out so far, and I try always to do it well and to keep learning my craft. But if my writing career ended tomorrow (and heaven knows, there are legions of people who, with the intolerance of political extremists, would be happy to end my career forthwith), it wouldn’t change who I am.

Because my art is definitely not everything to me. My life is tied up with the people that I love and tried (and try) to serve.

If writing were “everything to me,” then every bad review would strike at my heart. But they have no real power over me. Sure, I try to learn from my critics how to do better on the next book; but I can generally set them aside and get on with the parts of my life that are my everything.

Sitting in church with my family on a Sunday is a much bigger part of my “everything” than anything I’ve ever written or will write.

Maybe that’s why some of these dancers will be great and I never will be. I can live with that. But my observation is that the dancers who say, “Dance is everything to me,” are precisely the ones who are not going to achieve the level of accomplishment they aspire to. Then what? If they can’t have “everything,” are they left with nothing?

I always feel better about artists in every discipline who have a real life apart from their craft. Who care about other things more than their art. Who define themselves by something other than their artistic career.

So when I see a young dancer weepingly say, “Dance is everything to me,” my thought is: Then let’s put a stop to this now, so they can find out what real life is, and proceed to live it with some hope of happiness.

Yet, selfishly, as an audience member I look forward to another season of the best dancing on television. So You Think You Can Dance has an amazing bevy of choreographers, and they will certainly have, this year, an equally amazing troupe of dancers capable of showing off their best work.

And we television watchers reap the benefit – world-class dancing invented afresh every week.


The Smithsonian Channel can be fairly unpredictable, but unlike the History Channel, which has lost its soul – “Pickers”? “Pawn Stars”? “Forged in Fire”? – I have rarely skimmed through the Smithsonian Channel without finding something of value.

The other night I came across a program about an American submarine called Barb, commanded by Eugene B. Fluckey during World War II.

Since I came in only for the last third of the show, I didn’t really know what I was watching. It turns out that it was the episode “Submarine Sabotage,” part of a series called Hell Below, about submarine warfare in many settings.

It turns out that Barb, under Fluckey’s command, was not your grandpa’s submarine. After some amazing exploits in his relentless engagement of Japanese convoys and ships, Fluckey was chosen to command the first submarine equipped with rockets.

This was an amazing transformation of the capabilities of a submarine, because now, in effect, the Barb had artillery that could strike things that were not in the water. This suited Fluckey completely, because he had always commanded the Barb as if it were a submersible battleship.

Before Barb, submarines were regarded as a threat only to deepwater shipping. One strategy to avoid submarines was to keep convoys in waters shallow enough that submarines couldn’t submerge. This meant that in order to fire torpedoes at a reasonable range, the submarine had to remain on the surface, completely visible to the enemy. Once it revealed itself, it was a sitting duck, because on the surface, subs are always outgunned.

Fluckey had already made hash of that rule by attacking a convoy of Japanese ships in shallow water. He fired eight torpedoes, hitting and damaging or sinking six ships. Then he made his getaway on the surface, constantly under enemy fire, until, a half hour later, he reached water deep enough to submerge in and disappear.

So the admirals making such decisions knew that if they were going to put rockets on a submarine, it had to be Fluckey’s boat, because no other commander had already shown the kind of flexible thinking and naked courage that it would take to make real use of the rockets.

The Barb used the rockets to attack an air base and factories in Japan itself. A battleship would have been spotted from the air, far offshore; but Barb was able to approach underwater – and who would expect a submarine to offer any threat to shore installations?

Then, to top things off, on the way back to resupply – having used all his rockets and all his torpedoes – Fluckey took his boat to the southern part of the island that is now called Sakhalin, made part of Russia in the peace treaty after World War II.

It was still Japanese then, and the Barb sent a party ashore in true Star Trek fashion, where their mission was to set explosives on a railroad track used for transporting troops and ammunition.

As you might guess, submarine sailors are not heavily trained in the use of rubber boats – those are only for survival in an emergency. But they paddled ashore, set the explosives and were partway back to the Barb when a troop train passed over the explosives and set off the explosion that destroyed the train.

Every military commander rejoices over every subordinate who can actually carry out orders and follow through. When he gets a subordinate who completely rethinks his mission so he can accomplish far more than the official objectives, that’s a miracle.

Fluckey ended up with the medals to show that the Navy understood who and what he was. And this episode of Hell Below sold me on the series.


National Geographic, not to be outdone, has an amazing series called Drain the Oceans.

No, of course you can’t really drain the ocean. Where would you put the water?

Instead, the series uses highly detailed underwater sonar, radar and other scanning to find out exactly what’s on the bottom of various seas, bays and offshore locations.

Then they use delightful computer graphics to simulate the oceans receding, the water level falling, until the computer rendering of the sea floor is revealed as if it were seeing the light of day.

Some episodes deal with famous wrecks that have been discovered and mapped, answering old questions about what really happened in various sea battles. The seafloor exploration also uncovers natural phenomena under the waves – islands under construction, volcanic vents and deep rifts.

The visual pleasure of seeing the oceans laid bare is an exhilarating experience – as marvelous as the simulation of dinosaurs in some noteworthy film series. I think the scientists whose work allowed these simulations to be created with real accuracy must be delighted by the chance to show the world just what they’ve discovered.

I imagine there are some children of scientists who, watching this series, turn to their parent in awe and say, “Wow! That’s what you do?”

Meanwhile, as a consumer of science, I’m simply delighted to see what cannot be seen.

This is the ultimate case of “you get a better view on television, so why go to the game?” I don’t want to go underwater – not with a snorkel, not with scuba gear, not in a diving helmet, not in any kind of submersible vehicle. When I was writing the novelization of The Abyss, James Cameron urged me to put on a helmet and experience being underwater myself.

However, I was going to be writing about people who could actually function in deep water. My own experience would consist of uninterrupted panic.

I did put on a helmet. The actors, who were all donning helmets to go deep enough in a nuclear reactor containment tower filled with water that they had to ascend very gradually in order to avoid getting the bends, assured me that “the helmet automatically blows a breeze across your face, so you won’t get claustrophobia.”

I got intense claustrophobia with the breeze, standing fully dressed on dry ground. No way was I going to be able to go underwater.

So whenever I see people underwater in diving gear, I have enormous respect for them, and I’m very happy to consume the results of their explorations rather than explore that realm myself.

In writing the novel, I relied on what the cooperating actors told me about their underwater experiences. (Leo Burmester [Catfish], Todd Graff [Hippy], John Bedford Lloyd [Jammer], Kimberly Scott [One Night], and J.C. Quinn [Sonny].) And since each one assured me that their character was the real hero of the story, I tried to write the novel accordingly.

Maybe you aspire, on your bucket list, to go underwater and see all these things yourself, an idea that seems as insane to me as climbing mountains where you have to bring oxygen with you. My bucket list consists mostly of things I hope never to experience, especially places below sea level and very high above it.

Check out Drain the Oceans. It’s easy enough to catch up on old episodes:


So I was reading one of those clickbait slideshows about defunct chain restaurants, and I learned a couple of things. First, most fading chains were bought up by Hardee’s. Second, I had never heard of or cared about most of them.

I had fond memories of only one: Roy Allen’s and Frank Wright’s root beer and burger drive-in chain, named with their initials: A&W.

It began in 1922 ╨ before America was transformed by car culture. Back in the day when root beer was still more popular than colas. When any good church picnic had to have a huge urn of home-made root beer carbonated with a block of dry ice that sent its steam foaming over the edges.

For me, A&W is still the gold standard of root beers. Others are good, even good enough. But when I can get A&W at the drive-in itself, in a frosted mug, then life is good.

So, because the chain still has a few outlets left, I looked it up online to find the nearest location.

Raleigh and Statesville are not close enough for me to jaunt over for dinner and a root beer.

But when I looked up A&W locations, in one of the oddities of Google, the first two locations were a pharmacy in Greensboro … and a Greensboro place called Ozzie’s Ice-Cream Shop.

Since the demise of the nearest location of Bruster’s Ice Cream (now a pizza place), the only ice cream in Greensboro that I really loved was chocolate chip from Baskin-Robbins. (Pralines & Cream and Chocolate Mousse Royale are the other flavors worth ordering.)

I had never heard of Ozzie’s.

Since my wife was in Seattle picking up an assortment of granddaughters to bring them to visit with us for a couple of weeks, I was free to simply go looking for Ozzie’s.

The address was 3302 Old Battleground. So I drove to Old Battleground and the first number I saw was considerably higher than that. But … I had started at the south end of the road. How could I have missed it?

I drove back and missed it again. So I had dinner at Outback and then, having checked the address again on my phone, I made the trek back up Battleground to try again.

Ozzie’s does exist. But it’s not on Old Battleground proper. Instead, it’s on that little right-turn zig between Battleground and Old Battleground. So when you turn right, start looking for Ozzie’s immediately – it’s on the right before you even join on to Old Battleground.

Its modest location looks old-fashioned in a very promising way. Picnic tables on the lawn in front even have a few large checkerboards painted on a couple of tables, so they clearly don’t mind if people stay and play a couple of games.

But it’s all about the ice cream. And I have to say, it’s pretty darn good. They don’t have chocolate chip, precisely – just cookie dough and a good mint chocolate chip. I also tried their key lime pie and banana flavors, and they were excellent.

On these hot summer days (and nights – they don’t close till 10 p.m.) you might find it worth driving there, parking just beyond the store in a little lot, and walking in to get a cup or cone. They have a lot of flavors that I didn’t try, and you might like those, too!

I’m still weirded out that in searching for A&W locations near Greensboro, a pharmacy and Ozzie’s both showed up first. Yes, I know that they probably paid to come up first on Greensboro searches, so it probably wasn’t A&W that found them, it must have been “near Greensboro” that triggered their placement.

And the fact that I drove there twice to find it shows that the advertising strategy worked.

From a clickbait list of defunct fastfood chains to a search for A&W to a paid-for discovery of Ozzie’s – that’s how word of mouth works these days.