What is it that people get out of Shakespeare's plays? Is it the stories? The flowery dialogue? The author's ability to capture a time and place that is foreign to us, yet familiar via the emotions of the protagonists?

It probably isn't the stories. The fact is, Shakespeare often used pre-existing stories. More likely, the timeless appeal of the plays (assuming there is such) comes from their eloquent dissections of such primal human emotions as love, jealousy and vengeance. Even with such universal themes, however, there are often specifics that don't hold up in every context. Would the victimization of the Jews in The Merchant of Venice seem as relevant if set in contemporary Hollywood? Would the idea of a woman dressing up as a man be as wacky if set in Greenwich Village? Romeo and Juliet seems almost contemporary on the surface, but how many modern adaptations actually depict the protagonists as being as young as Shakespeare did?

These are the sorts of problems director Tim Blake Nelson runs into with O, an update of Othello set in a contemporary boarding school. Shakespeare's language has been jettisoned in favor of contemporary speech, but his structure is slavishly followed--perhaps too slavishly for Miramax, the film's original distributors, who kept this thing in limbo for two years--they reportedly asked Nelson to give it a happy ending. (Incidentally, if you don't know the story of Othello, there will be spoilers in this and other reviews, so it might behoove you to go and read the original at this juncture.)

Othello is now named Odin (Mekhi Phifer), Iago is Hugo (Josh Hartnett) and Desdemona is Desi (Julia Stiles). Instead of Venetian soldiers, Odin and Hugo are basketball players at a South Carolina boarding school. Instead of serving the Duke of Venice, they serve a coach whose name is Duke, a.k.a. "the Duke" (Martin Sheen). Hugo is the son of the Duke and clearly unhappy that dear ol' dad loudly and publicly proclaims to love Odin like his own son. This being South Carolina, you might think more people would be outwardly prejudiced about such statements, but all the racism in this film is repressed. Heck, Desi at one point wears a tank top with a little Confederate flag on it, and Odin makes absolutely zero comments.

No one has much of a problem with Desi and Odin's dating, although, as per Shakespeare, Desi's dad doesn't know that they are until Hugo ensures that he finds out. Trouble briefly ensues, but Odin is such a star athlete that all concerns are swiftly brushed over. From there, Hugo sets out an elaborate scheme to destroy Odin utterly, convincing him that he's a good friend while sowing the seeds of distrust between "O" and another teammate by the name of Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan) regarding the faithfulness of Desi. It all ends, as these things invariably do, in bloodshed.

The filmmakers would like to convince you that this movie is a timely comment on high school violence, as depicted by a prescient genius several centuries ago. The problem is that the story of Othello isn't at all relevant to the recent spate of school shootings, the most notable of which (think Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris) featured suicidal latchkey kids taking out their least favorite bullies (as well as anyone else in the vicinity) before snuffing themselves. Iago's elaborate revenge scheme works in the context of a 16th-century royal court but makes little sense in the present day. Odin is revealed to be a cocaine user--surely, exposing that would be sufficient to disgrace him in Duke's eyes. Why Hugo feels the need to plot the murders of both Desi and Michael is simply unclear. In Othello, given its wartime setting, all the characters are in a killing mode to begin with. But despite what some rabid fans may tell you, basketball is not war. And given today's inane "zero tolerance" school rules, ruining the career and/or life of any student prone to violence and drug use would be far easier than any Machiavellian courtly strategy from Shakespeare's day.

Yes, jealousy over a woman can make a man homicidal, no question. Sure, racism can play a part if the relationship is a mixed one. Take that premise and set it in high school, and it could perhaps work with a little less reverence for classical structure and a little more awareness of the times we live in. It doesn't help matters that Iago/Hugo has very little motivation to do what he does; Shakespeare made him basically evil, while Nelson and screenwriter Brad Kaaya try to deepen his darkness with an absent-father theme. But then there's some nonsense about people being compared to hawks and doves, along with plenty of images of the latter; perhaps Nelson and Kaaya watched an all-night John Woo marathon right before shooting started.

Hartnett's Hugo does get the best sorta-Shakespearean dialogue, adapting "Demand me nothing: What you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word" to "You don't ask me nothin'; I did what I did, and that's all you need to know." Phifer is less lucky, stranded with lines like "They don't know who they fuckin' wit'" and "I can say 'nigger' cuz I am a nigger. You can't cuz you ain't." (Glad we cleared that one up.)

All the acting is strong, however. Hartnett and Phifer can shine in virtually anything (see the former in Pearl Harbor and the latter in Uninvited Guest), but it takes talent to wrench a good performance from Julia Stiles, and Nelson does it, finally freeing her from the facial paralysis that seemed to set in shortly after 10 Things I Hate About You (and continued through Down to You, Save the Last Dance, State and Main, et al.). She's still a little inhibited with the love scenes (if sexiness is what you seek, go rent the Irene Jacob and Laurence Fishburne Othello instead), but give her time.

It's too bad the rest of the directing doesn't measure up. Nelson has a weird fascination with shooting scenes through open doors, a device that might seem clever once but swiftly becomes tiresome. The film generally looks like a TV special, with low production values and lots of close-ups (perhaps they blew too much of the budget on those damn doves). And while cutesy references to the source material may work in comedic updates like 10 Things I Hate About You, this would-be tragedy could do without an opera score from Verdi's Otello and a classroom scene in which Hugo, asked to name one of Shakespeare's poems, responds, "I thought he wrote movies." If you're a teen who's never heard the story of Othello before, O might be something you should see. If not, you already know better.

The lights go down, and the puzzlement begins. Ensemble cast of superstars? Check. Loose remake of amusing curiosity? Check. Built-in, prefab sense of cool? Check. A little something for wistful fans of Dino and Sammy? Check. So...wait a minute. Is this The Cannonball Run Redux?

With his ambitious but unnecessary remake of Ocean's Eleven, director Steven Soderbergh--he of rousing crowd-pleasers such as Out of Sight and self-consciously important movies such as Traffic--takes a peculiar detour through star-studded mediocrity. Scripted by Ted Griffin, the project is most definitely a motion picture about people who team up to steal a lot of money. As such, it's not an unpleasant diversion, but neither is it much of a thrill, summoning, at best, a good-natured shrug.

The movie's hero is Danny Ocean, played in Lewis Milestone's 1960 film by a smarmily charming Frank Sinatra, succeeded here by an adequately charismatic George Clooney. Newly paroled, the determined Ocean decides he must return immediately to the life he knows best--stealing stuff--so he sets about combing America to assemble a posse of criminal specialists. Among them are his right-hand man, the slumming Hollywood card sharp Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), the nimble Windy City pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) plus eight others, making up the eponymous 11.

A series of very tidy coincidences allows Ocean the opportunity to redeem his entire life, providing that he properly executes this one big score. It turns out that his ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), has run off to play art curator for the nasty megalomaniac Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), whose iron fist controls three of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas--the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand. It also happens that Benedict has angered aging high roller Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), who'd be happy to bankroll a mission against him, to avenge himself for being shoved out of his own Vegas hotel business. Unlike the original Ocean's Eleven, in which the masterminds' tools included phosphorescent paint, errant garbage cans and friends' coffins, this operation does not want for the best available resources.

Joining Ocean for the job is a colorful cast of characters, most of whom seem to believe that exaggerated performances will cover their glaring lack of collective chemistry. There are fun moments to be had with the retired confidence man Saul Bloom (a very enjoyable Carl Reiner) and card-dealing "plant" Frank Catton (Bernie Mac, knowingly reversing the original film's stupid racist jokes), but otherwise it's a clunky ride. The group's munitions expert is played by Soderbergh regular Don Cheadle with an outrageously ill-advised Cockney accent, and newcomer Shaobo Qin is allowed to show off his incredible acrobatics but not to interact much with the other boys. Casey Affleck, Scott Caan and Eddie Jemison round out the gang with manic bemusement.

Once everyone is gathered at Tishkoff's, Ocean unveils his plan, spreading out before them documents apparently downloaded from www.blueprints4robbingcasinos.com. The rotten Benedict stands atop a seemingly impregnable fortress, with all three hotel casinos filtering their cash into a single, underground vault, protected by complex alarms and armed security. As we see in a series of sarcastic, period-specific flashbacks, casino robberies always end in dismal failure. Even if the crew manages to dupe security, screw around with high-tech electronic doohickeys, descend into the pit and neutralize the guards, it'll be impossible to escape with the loot. Ocean, of course, remains undaunted.

The rest of the movie plays out in a piecemeal but endurable fashion, with each of the experts plying his trade. Employing perfectly timed deceptions and manipulations, Ocean's 11 strike when Benedict's coffers are at their fullest. Gone is the original's New Year's Eve scheme (and its amusing Godzilla-esque miniatures of electrical towers toppling). Instead, the crew infiltrates during the middle of a boxing match between two contenders, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, who both hold doctorates. Since the Nevada Gaming Commission requires casinos to cover in cash every chip in play, the vault is estimated to contain around $150 million. If only the NGC also required that stealing it be consistently interesting.

Writer Griffin has streamlined everything about the project, transforming the original's five casinos into three, linking them together and excising almost all character development not related to specific skills. In Milestone's film--an interesting time capsule but by no means a terrific movie--we got Peter Lawford working out his mother issues and Sammy and Dean lip-synching their hearts out, occasionally a few frames off. Here, there's the odd groovy scene--Pitt teaching Damon how to lie convincingly, Cheadle vainly shielding his scrotum from an enormous electromagnetic pulse--but the characters simply aren't fleshed out enough to maintain interest through all the burglary rigmarole.

What really cripples the film, however, is the languidness of its love triangle. Never for a moment is Benedict revealed to be anything but a greedy, power-mad cad, so Tess' attraction to him makes no sense at all. There is one moment between Tess and Ocean that feels sort of genuine, when he asks if her new man makes her laugh, to which she hastily replies, "He doesn't make me cry." But in the 1960 film, despite a massive sexist undertow, Angie Dickinson and Patrice Wymore showed resolve and resentment, while Griffin and Soderbergh reduce Roberts' role to a boring princess who's locked herself in a sterile castle. To win her back, Ocean is willing to egg on Benedict, but one must wonder why he bothers.

Even though Ocean's Eleven is anchored by supposedly hip turns of phrase like "You do the math," its overall composition just doesn't add up. A suspense-free caper, it really does fit the director's own description of "a two-hour commercial for Las Vegas." Too bad it commits the crime of being so intensely average, because what could have been sensational turns out to be merely this week's heist movie.

As a kid in Brooklyn, Darren Aronofsky used to steal into Manhattan, taking the D train across the East River to sneak into movies such as A Clockwork Orange and Eraserhead. These were R-rated, and he was still 15 or 16. "They were films," he says, smiling, "you weren't supposed to see." A decade and a half later, now established as a promising writer-director, he makes movies for those same restless young people.

As such, his films--on view, as is the director himself, during this week's SMU Student Film Festival--are unlikely to snag the audience pining for more Jane Austen remakes. His high-impact 1998 debut, Pi, was a Sundance hit that managed to create dramatic heat around irrational numbers, personal computers and the Kabbalah--it was, so the buzz went, a difficult movie about a genius, created by a difficult genius. A kind of Matrix for would-be intellectuals, the no-budget film was a hit with young cineasts after a guerrilla marketing campaign in which New York lampposts and sidewalks were covered with Pi stickers. Some fans of the movie imagined its creator to be as neurotic and brilliant as Pi's manic hero, Max Cohen: Rumors floated that here was a very smart, very cocky young man, a wayward genius so arrogant that people left meetings in tears.

Now 31, the Harvard-educated Aronofsky has generated a sizable reputation for both egomania and divine inspiration. With the release last year of Requiem for a Dream, he's beginning to generate a reputation for cinematic excruciation as well. (At the same time, he's gotten the ultimate mainstream nod: Warner Bros. has chosen him to direct the next film of the wilting Batman franchise.) Adapted from the 1978 novel by cult writer Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem traces the crack-up of four addicts--Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), his widowed mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), his homeboy and his girlfriend. The three young uns score a very potent strain of heroin while Sara obsesses over TV and diet pills.

While Requiem is descended from postwar "social-problem" films such as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Asphalt Jungle (1950) and strung-out New York melodramas like The Panic in Needle Park (1971), the movie takes these grim genres and energizes them with a visual style akin to Godard and MTV. The movie makes promiscuous use of split screens, fish-eye lenses, rapid cutting, sudden tempo shifts and mad montage--including a sequence with boiling junk and a dilating eyeball that accompanies each scene of shooting up. As with Pi's kinetic techno soundtrack, hip-hop and electronica drive the film. Although it lacks the stark visual signatures of Pi--marked by the bold contrasts of black-and-white reversal film stock--Requiem shows maturity in both its cinematography and its performances (e.g., Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role).

Requiem received a five-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival debut. Although reviews were mixed--the Dallas Observer named it a top-10 film of 2000--The New York Times hit on one of Requiem's most curious qualities: Aronofsky "is in as much of a junky delirium as his characters. It's obvious to say that moviemaking is his high, but it's also undeniable."

"There's definitely an audience for punk movies," Aronofsky says. "An audience that enjoys its movies black, with no cream or sugar. They want it straight up."

Aronofsky describes his Brooklyn neighborhood, Manhattan Beach, as looking like the row houses in the credit sequence of All in the Family. The director grew up the son of two teachers in this Jewish and Italian enclave next to Brighton Beach and two miles from Coney Island. As a kid, he had no special interest in making movies and was drawn instead to black-and-white photography and, by high school, to writing "angst-filled teen-age prose." He was neither a cinema nut nor a bookworm. But other influences developed. A friend's older brother introduced him to The Twilight Zone when he was 10 or 11, which played after midnight. "Every single Wednesday," he says, "I'd set the alarm to wake me up at 12:15 and sneak down to the TV and watch it without my parents knowing." While other kids in school did biographical reports on Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln, he put one together on Rod Serling.

Another early hero was Bill Cosby, whose 1960s comedy albums Aronofsky listened to incessantly through his junior high years. "His sense of story structure and the way he set up jokes was a very big influence on me. I used to memorize and repeat his monologues to friends." Cosby's wry tales sketched an urban world similar to Aronofsky's. "He wasn't the guy who told jokes--he'd tell stories that had the payoff of a big joke at the end."

His early influences came from TV and old records, he says, partly because Brooklyn didn't have an art house. He went to Spielberg and Lucas films and relied on humbler venues. "I think one year, 1978, it was 'The 78 Cent Theatre'; in 1979, it was 'The 79 Cent Theatre.' It was a second-run, double-bill theater. But if you think about all the films in the '70s, we were really blessed, because they were basically art films. I remember going to see The First Great Train Robbery and The Brink's Job as a double bill--and both those films, if they were released today, would be considered independent art films." [page]

High school, at the public Edward R. Murrow High, taught him mostly how to cheat and cut class. The only book he remembers reading all the way through was Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. But during senior year, he stumbled on something that made a lasting impact: Aronofsky and a friend went to Brooklyn's only mall, King's Plaza, to see a Hollywood movie he now can't recall. But they got there late and couldn't get in because the film had sold out. The two guys were determined to see something. "I saw a poster with a goofy guy with a Brooklyn hat, went in, and it turned out to be She's Gotta Have It. And I remember being just blown away. It spoke to me partly because I was from Brooklyn, and I really related to the hip-hop culture, but also the whole aesthetic of it was really refreshing."

His interest in film sparked, he still headed to Harvard in 1987. Although his first two years of college were "mostly about sex and drugs," there was no stopping him once he discovered moviemaking. "It was the first thing that kept me awake at night. I'd run out of my girlfriend's bed in my underwear to the editing room and not come back until I'd finished a cut."

A year after graduating from Harvard, Aronofsky headed to the AFI Conservatory, the Hollywood-based film school. During his time at AFI, he also got some important advice from one of his professors--Stuart Rosenberg, the director of Cool Hand Luke and The Pope of Greenwich Village, who told Aronofsky: "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, or scare the shit out of 'em." (Advice, it seems, that he's taken to heart.)

As good a stretch as L.A. was, Aronofsky knew he couldn't stay. He returned to New York in 1995 and began putting together the plan for Pi. He drew from friends (lead Sean Gullette was a Harvard classmate) and family (his mom made and served the food to cast and crew). And Aronofsky hit up virtually everybody he knew to help finance the picture, getting "investments" of $100 at a time and promising to pay them back, with interest, if the film made money. With a budget of only $60,000, it did.

In an interview, the director comes across as driven and serious about filmmaking but not the rude or self-absorbed guy we've heard about. Looking back at the shoot, Burstyn talks about how "considerate" he was. Where's Aronofsky's legendary arrogance? Except for the occasional slip ("I hope you're doing a big piece on me, baby! Not that I don't love tawking to you, my friend!"), he seems like a typical hardworking, middle-class kid who toiled his way into the Ivy League. Let him roam, and he talks about childhood friends he "met on tricycles" and about "what a gift, what a present" it is to work with talented actors--as if he were rehearsing for an appearance on Entertainment Tonight.

Requiem received an NC-17 rating upon its release when Aronofsky refused to recut his film. The rating was designed by the MPAA in 1990 to serve as a nonporn alternative to the X (an unofficial rating now, as then). This way, the thinking went, serious films aimed at adults could avoid the stigma of movies for lonely men in raincoats. But NC-17 films quickly acquired their own stigma: In the last few years, the rating has gone to trash such as Showgirls while more "respectable" films--Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Mary Harron's American Psycho--have been recut to fit the restrictions of an R movie.

Of course, if the MPAA was really doing its job, Requiem would never have drifted into its crosshairs. While the film is troubling, it's not violent, and what little brutality there is arises as a kind of punishment for drug use. The film does not posit shooting up as a smart career move. If anything, Requiem is so cruel a cautionary tale that it risks feeling sternly moralistic.

With Requiem, the MPAA was almost certainly responding to the final sequence--three minutes of grueling climax in which the characters are cast into private hells. The real problem isn't that the sequence is excessively violent or sexual--there's just a touch of each, and most of the action is implied--but that it's excessive moviemaking. Things happen too fast and too hard. One character ends up "performing" in front of an audience of malevolent yuppies, but her earlier arrival at a john's door--awkward, scared, still a little demure--made a far more eloquent statement of her decline than this appearance before a tribe of overgrown frat boys. [page]

Aronofsky points out that scenes like this happen in America every day. "A lot of people who haven't been to bachelor parties or fraternity parties don't realize that this is happening behind closed doors every day in America. That scene is taken from something I witnessed."

Clearly, he wasn't trying for subtlety in that final scene. "This is a film for people who grew up on eight hours of TV, and five hours of Internet, a day. We're a generation overloaded by sound and images, and to reach audiences on that level, you basically have to take them somewhere super intense. And it was always meant that that three-minute climax was going to be a violent barrage on the audience--we wanted to bombard them. I wanted to make a roller coaster ride. One that smashed into a brick wall. At the fastest speed the film gets to, just smash into a brick wall." His voice lightens. "For me, I find that a lot of fun. There are people out there who like that type of movie. But if you want to see a film that's right down the middle of the road, please, please don't come see Requiem for a Dream."

John Pierson, indie film guru and Split Screen host, points out that the major indie auteurs of the late '90s--Neil LaBute, Kevin Smith and Todd Solondz--are writers first and visual artists second. Few current left-of-the-dial filmmakers, he says, have crafted a distinct visual style to match the verve of earlier indie gods such as Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers. "There's just a handful on the visual side," he says. "Darren is one, and Todd Haynes is the other. And then you start scraping." While Pierson would like to see Aronofsky apply himself to a more traditional narrative for his next film or two, the young director's visual flair, he says, makes him a significant talent. "Darren is a real breath of fresh air."

Fresh or not, neither Aronofsky nor anyone at Warner Bros. seemed much interested in speaking about the director's helming of the Batman franchise. As reported by Daily Variety last month and rumored on the Internet since at least February, Aronofsky will both direct and work with comics artist Frank Miller to develop the screenplay for Batman: Year One, based on a noirish, 1987 comic-book series Miller wrote for DC Comics. Aronofsky seems like a left-field choice for the project, which will look at Bruce Wayne's initial year as the caped crusader. But it's not hard to figure out why Warner would look for fresh blood: Despite a good start with Tim Burton's first two films, Batman has gotten very lost under Joel Schumacher's stewardship. (Even gay men disowned '97's homoerotic Batman and Robin.) Picking Aronofsky, who's known for doing things his own way, suggests that the studio recognizes the need for serious surgery on its dying monster.

Aronofsky admits that he only got into comics seriously in the last half of college, when a friend turned him on to stuff like The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, the latter written and illustrated by Miller. "He introduced psychological realism to comic-book characters," says Aronofsky. "What does it take for a real man to put on tights and fight crime?"

During the next few years, Aronofsky will be shooting Batman as well as a science-fiction script he's been writing since the beginning of the year. (Brad Pitt is rumored to star.) His tastes and ambitions send complicated signals. Will he follow the Brian DePalma model, beginning his career with smart, personal films and then drifting into indifference, or the trajectory of a Stanley Kubrick--establishing a signature style that's undiminished in studio settings? At this stage, Aronofksy resembles Tim Burton, the oddball director chosen for Batman on the evidence of the eccentric Beetlejuice--back when a Batman revival was a cool new idea and not a musty corporate warhorse.

"I hope I'm still working in 20 years," Aronofsky says. "I'd like to do a wide range of films--I'd like to do a musical, I'd like to do a western, I'd like to do a heist movie." He's interested, he says, in films big and small, mainstream and arty. "I have a taste for both of 'em. If I could work in both worlds, I'd be really happy." [page]

The beautiful little conceit at the heart of Brad Anderson's Happy Accidents is that audiences will sit still once more for the crackpot notion of time travel--and in a movie that's not science fiction. To his credit, and with an implied bow to Back to the Future and its predecessors, Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland) pulls off the trick. All but the coldest hearts in the house will likely become willing conspirators in the idea that a wary, many-times-burned New Yorker will at least consider the idea that her latest boyfriend was actually born in Dubuque, Iowa, in the year 2439. Or that he wasn't.

Anderson, a bright light among the new independents, may not have much in the way of budget to work with, but he's not handicapped by poverty of thought. This amiable romantic comedy is also extremely clever (hip, too), and it puts to shame most of the plodding, self-conscious, poorly written films commonly upheld these days as coherent replies to Hollywood's soul-deadening caution. I'll bet this guy can make a terrific film with $30 million.

His heroine is pretty Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei), a downtown type whose romantic résumé is darkened by failures--the narcissist, the bad drummer, the boozer, the gender-flopper. So when a pleasant-enough park-bench stranger named Sam Deed (Vincent D'Onofrio) starts paying special attention to her, she's understandably gun-shy--or rather, man-shy. Little does our Ruby know what emotional adventures await her. She may have fetishists and junkies in her back pages, but no one as bizarre as Sam. In the beginning he's simply a little weird: obviously fluent in half a dozen languages but unable to come up with the English word for "wine"; bold in his advances and easy in his charm, but seemingly taken with old polka records and scared stiff of little dogs. For the first 20 minutes we, too, are kept guessing. What's with this guy? And where's this movie headed?

Not to worry. Once Sam's outlandish story is out of the bag, Happy Accidents quickly picks up steam, and we are as intrigued as Ruby with the possibility--the possibility--that he really is a "back traveler" from the 25th century, a time when, thanks to geologic and ecological disasters, Dubuque is on the Atlantic Coast and the majority "gene-dupes" fight pitched battles with small bands of "anachronists" over "nostalgia rights."

Will Ruby come to believe this stuff? Or will she play along while paying closer attention to her psychotherapist (Holland Taylor), who speculates that Sam is suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy--a disorienting (but creative) major glitch that also afflicted geniuses like Dostoevsky and Van Gogh? Or will she heed her friend Gretchen (Nadia Dajani), who sees Sam's entire fantasy as a bit of kinky game-playing? While Ruby (and we) weigh the evidence, Anderson has all kinds of fun with Sam's apparent near-misses regarding reality in the late 20th century (Accidents was filmed in 1999) and his alleged insights into the future. On his best behavior for dinner at Ruby's parents', he bites into an asparagus and comments: "Lillian, these are great pickles." A bit later, he explains that in the 23rd century scientists confirmed the existence of God--several gods, actually--using something called a "telepathy scope."

"He's a freak," Ruby tells Gretchen, "but he tells a good story." Still, she's not so sure it's all fiction, and neither are we. Thus are we all drawn not only into a romantic mystery but into an intriguing (and nicely understated) tug-of-war between faith and science.

D'Onofrio and Tomei create good chemistry. Ruby's impatient, semi-streetwise Manhattan attitudes are tempered by her romantic inclinations. Sam's dumbbell questions ("What is this stuff?" he asks about a joint) can have great charm; a moment later he sounds like either a scientific genius or a raving lunatic when he starts expounding on the laws of the universe. Together they make for a fun couple--really--and when it comes time to resolve Sam's mystery it doesn't really matter what his origins are. We like him pretty well in any time frame or any state of mind. Who wouldn't like a guy who, smashed on shots of bourbon, keeps shouting at the bartender for "another merlot"? Thankfully, we come to care for Ruby, too. After all, she's endured bad relationships with a Jew for Jesus and a preening Frenchman. Doesn't she deserve another chance? Even if it's with a guy who just might be almost 500 years her junior?

It's a thrill to celebrate an American movie that's smart, wry and awesome all at once. One doesn't always opine harmoniously with venerable critic Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, but his giddy appraisal employed in this movie's ad campaign is right on. Unabashedly formulaic though it is, this roguish adventure guarantees sylvan fun for everyone. Was there anything else to dislike about this movie? Well, they could have cut about 20 minutes' worth of exploding lances (too much of a good thing, fellas)...and the narrative parallels to the prettier and choppier Gladiator grow wearisome...plus that silly singer Robbie Williams certainly hasn't earned the honor of a backing track from Queen.

But aside from a romantic quibble we'll attend to later, that's about it.

Having thus criticized, like its cinematic forebears Flash Gordon, Army of Darkness and Plunkett & MacLeane, this is a guys' adventure story that cares not a whit for convention. While this project lacks the shadows that enriched those films, it shares their weird and refreshing instincts, blending contemporary elements with the archaic and fantastic to give the imagination a nice wake-up slap. If hundreds of medieval extras pounding out Queen's "We Will Rock You"--with Brian May's timeless solo emanating from cornets!--doesn't jar your expectations, only wait a few moments to behold our 14th-century hero's woodsy training montage, set to War's "Low Rider."

Even if all the Knights--Suge, Bobby, Ted, etc.--made a movie together, it still wouldn't be as...boss?...as this thing. (By the way, let it stand that there is no such thing as a "bad Ren Faire costume"--what the hell do you want, DKNY?) The title A Knight's Tale is admittedly generic--like Gladiator, it's like calling a contemporary movie Tight End (perish the thought)--but a hook's a hook. Actually, the story's primary source--apart from the standard "hero's journey" paradigm--is the Arthurian legend of Parsifal, which writer-director Brian Helgeland (Payback, oddly enough) clearly read about as closely as the Coen brothers read Homer's Odyssey to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? Just the basics, folks: Country lad struggles hard, becomes knight, is deemed way cool, wins stuff. Roll 'em!

The lad in question, of course, is Heath Ledger (The Patriot), who spends the opening minutes of the film transforming from lowly William Thatcher to grandiloquent Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein of Gelderland. (Fortunately for us, this shift includes the trimming of his natty blond dreads, eliminating the queasy feeling of attending a Reggae Sunsplash in Malmö.) The recently deceased Sir Ector provides the ill-fitting armor (gloriously designed for all of the knights by Caroline Harris), and William's wily imagination does the rest. Determined to follow the advice of his poorly father (Christopher Cazenove) and "change his stars," William tells his mates, "Guts I have, and technique--I have a month to learn that."

The friends include the uppity redhead Wat (Alan Tudyk, the uppity German from 28 Days), who is to patience and subtlety what the medieval church was to fun in the sun, and corpulent Roland (Mark Addy, of The Full Monty), the sort of Friar Tuck of the bunch. Skeptical at first, the fellows are suitably satisfied with William's first jousting victory to spend their share of the prize on eats, but the thatcher's son convinces them to tour with him as shouters of his glory, from Rouen to Lagny-Sur-Marne and onward.

Joining their motley training outfit is an unemployed young scribe by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer (the superb Paul Bettany), whom they first encounter striding filthy and naked along a forest path. Claiming to have been mugged, Geoff agrees to join their team and forge papers for William's noble alter ego, but soon enough his shifty past returns to haunt him. "Yes, I lied!" he exclaims. "I'm a writer! I give the truth scope!" As the friends sort out their differences, William's winnings afford them an increasing sense of freedom from eternal serfdom.

Much of the fun of A Knight's Tale is in its simultaneous authenticity and loose-limbed quirkiness, best represented in the musical selections. While the Coens' veteran composer Carter Burwell provides a suitably glorious score to match the period settings, the temporal juxtapositions are the crowning achievement. It's very difficult to stifle the groovy pleasure when the opening notes of David Bowie's "Golden Years" first honk, almost imperceptibly, through a ballroom sequence. Such anachronisms don't feel cheesy at all; they feel like a glorious casting off of chronological fixedness.

Of course, none of this would fly if Helgeland and production designer Tony Burrough hadn't put their heads together to make this world feel remarkably real. From the tiny villages to the tournament sites, from massive cathedrals to old London, one would never guess how much time we're actually spending looking at Czechoslovakia and CG mattes. Every scene is plausible and impressive.

The only exception comes with William's quest for romance. The pompous and cruel Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell of Dark City) provides ample antagonism, but the dueling gents' shared interest in saucy young noblewoman Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) makes no sense at all. That point aside, A Knight's Tale delivers more pageantry, countless humors and grand, old-fashioned storytelling than just about anything you're likely to see this year. God save the Queen, indeed.

Natalie Merchant finished recording her third solo album, Motherland, on September 9, so by no means should anyone listen to the disc's first song, "This House Is On Fire," and think it has anything to do with hijacked airplanes, collapsed skyscrapers and the thousands buried beneath the rubble. The song is about the dispute over the Florida ballots during the presidential election and the rioting that took place in Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings. So by no means should anyone listen to "This House Is On Fire" and believe such lines as "It's all gonna catch like a house on fire/Spark an evil blaze and burn higher" or "There's a wild fire catching in the whip of the wind that could start a conflagration like there has never been" have anything to do with today's--and tomorrow's, and the day after that's--headlines. It's a song about old news, honest to God. And ignore the Arabic strings. Man, it's just a coincidence.

"The song is about injustice and insurrection, and people can apply that to anything," Merchant says. "I made it ambiguous as far as what situation it could be applied to. The thing that I'm a little concerned about is that the song could be interpreted as a battle cry. That's what I'm afraid of, because that certainly isn't something I intended. The other dangerous interpretation is that I'm actually speaking on the part of the terrorists. But the fact the song could be used by either side in the conflict proves it's ambiguous enough that it wasn't written about either side."

Merchant speaks in a tone of voice that suggests this is not the first nor last time she will have to explain a song that sounds very different in a post-September 11 world. But she is not alone: After the terrorist attacks, suddenly handfuls of songs written and released just prior to September 11 have taken on entirely new meanings, often against the will of those who wrote them. And they are not the usual suspects, either--the rah-rah, flag-waving anthems resuscitated and repackaged by labels out to make a quick dime for relief funds or their own coffers, or the sappy songs about heroes now applied not to lovers but to firemen and cops. One could hardly misinterpret Enrique Iglesias when he swooningly croons, "Would you tremble if I touch your lips...I can be your hero, baby."

But the same can't be said for the likes of the Pernice Brothers' "Flaming Wreck," sung from the perspective of a passenger on a jetliner about to crash as "the cabin filled with smoke"; Wilco's "Ashes of an American Flag," in which front man Jeff Tweedy sighs, "I would like to salute the ashes of American flags/And all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags"; or Sam Phillips' "Taking Pictures," in which she sings that "when I take a picture of the city it disappears/It's only a photograph the city is gone/The places I go are never there." They're but a few of the songs that become the accidental soundtrack to grief, anger and recovery. They have nothing at all to do with the attacks, but we can't listen to them without infusing them with our own pain, rage, fear and confusion.

"I think if you're successful in making a piece of art that's complete or can stand as art, it is no longer the creator's anymore," says Joe Pernice. "A song isn't yours, and you have to let it become what it will become." In the weeks after the attacks, Pernice couldn't perform the wrenching "Flaming Wreck," which is about nothing more than his fear of flying. Once it did creep back into the set list, even Pernice couldn't help but feel an anguish never before present. "That song encapsulated the sadness everyone was feeling," he says.

Certainly, no recent song has become more identified with a post-September 11 Manhattan than Ryan Adams' "New York, New York" off his just-released album Gold. Meant only as a love song, in which a woman's name is replaced by the city's, it has taken on anthemic duties and withstood the weight of such a burden. The video, in which Adams is seen strumming a guitar with the World Trade Center peeking over his shoulder, is almost on a constant loop on MTV2; after filmmakers have gone in and digitally removed the twin towers from the likes of Zoolander and Serendipity, Adams' video, filmed September 7, exists now almost as an act of defiance, though he would insist otherwise.

"We decided to stay with this video because it was what it was," he told The New York Times last week. "We shot it on September 7; it's the city as we knew it and saw it. If people don't want to show the video or don't like it, I understand. We're not pushing it or anything, saying, 'Here's the video with the towers.' It's just out there." [page]

Album titles mean something different in the new context: The week after the attacks, Dreamworks artists Jimmy Eat World ditched the title of their latest album, released July 17. It is no longer called Bleed American. Even entire albums sound different, none more so than U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind, now a year old. Almost every song off that record sounds as though it could have been written on September 12: "Walk On" ("Who will only fly, fly for freedom"), "Peace on Earth" ("Tell the ones who hear no sound/Whose sons are living in the ground/Peace on Earth"), "New York" ("Irish, Italians, Jews and Hispanics/Religious nuts, political fanatics...living happily not like me and you"), "When I Look at the World" ("Can't see for the smoke/I think of you and your holy book"). "Beautiful Day," once a hit single accompanied by a video filled with airports and overhead jets, resonates on a different frequency. Little wonder that U2, which performed during the September 21 America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon and last month at Madison Square Garden for three sold-out nights, has been the house band at the world's largest and longest wake.

In the days and weeks immediately following the attacks, the music industry scrambled to eradicate any vestige of songs and images that might rekindle the televised nightmare. Clear Channel issued to its 1,200 radio stations a list of songs to be excised from the playlist; some were obvious (Dave Matthews Band's "Crash"), some were ridiculous (John Lennon's "Imagine"). Hip-hoppers The Coup were forced to redo the cover to their album Party Music, on which band members were depicted "detonating" the World Trade Center. The Cranberries pulled a video full of images of airplanes, skyscrapers and the chalk-mark outline of a corpse, and Dave Matthews rethought the decision to release "When the World Ends" as a single. The Strokes deleted the song "New York City Cops" off its disc Is This It, which was already out in Europe. "Not only did we not want the release of our record to be overshadowed by some, like, quasi-political event, but we felt it wasn't really appropriate," says Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi of the band's decision to pull the song.

But beneath the shadow of perpetual fear--our leaders try to calm us and call for us to return to "normal" even as they warn of impending attacks--music provides a balm and a tonic. The aforementioned songs, among so many older ones hauled out by Billy Joel or Paul McCartney or Paul Simon during various benefits and tributes, give us release: They let us cry, they make us smile, they take us away, they bring us home.

"A lot of people are now asking me, 'What's your role as an American artist?'" Merchant says. "I think I can give expression to thoughts and feelings that ordinary language can't. It's a heightened language of the emotion. It makes me cry, it calms my rage, it gives voice to my rage."

For a little while, Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World had the hardest time playing the gorgeous "Hear You Me" off Bleed American; it is, he reminds, a song "about death and loss and the ultimate regret of not being able to change something and leaving things unsaid." But after a while, he needed to play it, to sing such lines as, "On sleepless roads the sleepless go/May angels lead you in." And during Wilco shows, just after the attacks, Jeff Tweedy could be heard thanking the crowd for coming to make music with this band--"especially now," he always added.

Pop music for the longest time has felt hollow, cynical, bereft of honest emotion; it has become "our floozy," as Merchant likes to say, "a cheap whore." There have always been musicians making meaningful art, but they've been too long relegated to the sidelines; they don't top the charts, don't play TRL, don't get on Saturday Night Live. Perhaps recent events will change all that: What, after all, does Britney Spears' new album, out this week, have to offer save for more songs about why Britney loves being Britney (and why you should, too)? She and her ilk have always seemed trivial and superfluous; now, Spears exists in a vacuum, a fantasyland of silicone and hair gel.

"There's a lot of ego in music," Pernice says. "I write songs about what I'm feeling, and I spend time putting out product about my feelings. It's a really self-centered thing, and events like what happened in New York make me take stock in my own life and get a grip on what the word 'meaningful' means. It changed everything." [page]

Never did music seem more important to Merchant than when she sang at the funeral of a man who died in the World Trade Center. His widow asked Merchant to sing a song by her late husband's favorite artist, John Hiatt; the wife asked to hear his song "Have a Little Faith in Me." It was not easy: Even now, recounting the moment, Merchant's voice catches when she recites the lines, "When your back's against the wall/I will catch you when you fall."

"Never in my life has my role as a musician been more obvious," Merchant says. "I was there to give people pause and to facilitate, to help them feel what they were feeling and to give them a place to feel it...The widow I sang for said that for her family, eating and music were the only things that make sense to her right now, and it's what's brought her some of the greatest comfort. That's coming from someone who's already lost a loved one in the war."

"I'm off like a prom dress," says Shannon Ritch, finishing an afternoon of 330-pound bench presses--not bad for a guy who weighs 190 tops. He brushes back his bleached-blond flattop, adjusts a black T-shirt over his T-bone shoulders, and swaggers toward the door. The aggressive blare of Limp Bizkit and DMX rattles the boombox in the corner as a few students continue working out. At the center of the storefront gym, a skinny guy is mashing away at a heavy bag. On the floor beyond, two heavyset men grapple on a mat, fighting for the top position in a contest that looks at first glance like rough sex.

On the walls around them are a couple of Ritch's trophies and belts from the bush leagues of his sport: the Absolute Face Off in Phoenix in 1999; Super Brawl IX, held in El Paso in September 1998; the World Free-Fighting Championship at Dallas' Bronco Bowl. There's also a slick, fat program, housed in a glass case, from Ritch's October trip to the big time, the Pride11 fighting championship in Osaka, Japan.

Appearing before a crowd of 20,000 fans at a ring built next to an ancient Samurai castle, Ritch got his shot at Kazushi Sakuraba, a reigning prince of the sport. In Japan, where the cable TV audience for the fights numbers 2 million or more, Sakuraba's popularity extends to TV spots for Kirin beer, clothing endorsements, and a fast-selling autobiography. That's considerably above its standing in the United States, where mixed martial arts--also known as no-holds-barred, extreme fighting, or vale tudo (anything goes, in Portuguese)--has been limping along for the last several years in the fringe world of satellite TV, specialty videotapes, and small-time shows staged in second-tier venues.

Entering the Osaka ring through a gaudy blast of fireworks and smoke, Ritch looked fit and game as he stripped off his black wrap-around sunglasses and red T-shirt, exposing the crucifix tattoo on his back. In contrast to Ritch's rippled physique, Sakuraba looked almost soft. But the difference in their skills was another matter altogether.

After circling the ring like two barefoot boxers, fists covered in light, fingerless gloves, Ritch and Sakuraba traded two vicious leg kicks--weapons borrowed from Thai kickboxing. After another rapid-fire exchange of thigh-high kicks that sent Sakuraba briefly to the mat, Ritch rushed his opponent, lunged slightly, and offered the champ the only opening he needed. Sakuraba grabbed Ritch's knee, levered him to the ground, and, employing a move borrowed from Brazilian jujitsu, applied a harmless-looking but agonizing hold to Ritch's foot. The challenger had no choice but to tap his opponent's leg, signaling submission and the end of the match.

The fight lasted 68 seconds, although it left a more enduring impression on Ritch and his friend Todd Handel, a fighter who flew with him to Japan and served as his corner man.

Stoked by the money and sporting prestige no-holds-barred fighting commands across the Pacific, Ritch and Handel returned to Fighter's House, their gym in suburban Farmers Branch, ready to ramp up the local action. Fighting-wise, it was time to start heading Dallas up the long road to world class.

Rather than simply train the several dozen students who work out at Fighter's House, they began hosting twice-monthly amateur matches on Saturday mornings and charging spectators $5 a head. "We wanted to give people a chance to show what they've got," says Handel, who won five regional pro fights before injuries set in.

Little did they know they were about to pick a fight few think they can win.

Within six weeks, Texas boxing officials declared the fights illegal, and state Attorney General John Cornyn moved swiftly and publicly to shut them down. Ritch and Handel were threatened with jail if they refused to comply.

Although they obeyed the state's order, they argued to anyone who would listen that the sport's heavyweight critics--Arizona Sen. John McCain, columnist George Will, the American Medical Association, to name a few--simply don't understand. "We're fighting for our sport. This is a way to do it," says Handel, the gym's chief trainer and part owner, who argues his game is no more dangerous than boxing or football.

Over the last two years, aspiring pros from Fighter's House have gone to Indian reservations and Mexican bullrings, put up with sleazy promoters and missed paydays to punch, kick, and grapple guys as tough as, or tougher than, they are. With the same crazy nerve, they weighed in to extreme fighting's uphill battle for legitimacy and acceptance, a contest it has been losing in the United States for the last three years. Decried as a barbaric spectacle, no-holds-barred fighting has generated a lot of hand-wringing from pundits and politicians who say America is heading straight to a brutal, blood-spurting hell. [page]

Texas made clear where it stands on the issue in October, when it installed a new set of highly restrictive rules. "You start talking about no-holds-barred fighting, and you automatically throw up a red flag," says Dick Cole, Texas' top boxing official. "It sounds like somebody is gonna get hurt."

Using the same "anything goes" marketing hype that helped knock the sport's top American event--the Ultimate Fighting Championship--off cable TV in 1997, Fighter's House dubbed its Saturday-morning matches the "Back Yard Brawl...in your yard, in yer face." The name grew out of backyard mixed-martial-arts fights Handel and some friends used to hold at a friend's house in Irving, before they began training in a gym. "It was like, watch out you don't fall into the dog house or hit your head on the boat," Handel remembers.

For rules, which can change from contest to contest in the still-developing sport, Handel and Ritch outlawed the most radioactive feature of no-holds-barred fighting: closed-fist punches to the head. Those are taboo in Texas without the use of regulation boxing gloves, which have no use in ultimate fighting. They also banned the cheap shots that are prohibited in most contests: fish-hooking (grabbing inside the mouth), head-butting, and eye-gouging, the moves that made the Three Stooges every mother's curse. But Handel and Ritch permitted liberal use of kneeing, as well as blows by a standing fighter directed at his opponent on the ground, which are outlawed under Texas' new rules.

Because they were charging a nominal admission, they also were violating a raft of state regulations governing commercial fights. They had no promoter's license, no licensed referees, no ambulance, no emergency medical crew, no approved ring, and on and on.

"I told them what they were doing was against the law," says Cole, the state boxing official who was among 30 paying customers on hand in early December for Back Yard Brawl III and its four amateur matches.

What happened next brought down the state's regulatory fist, he says. They began promoting and putting out flyers for another Back Yard Brawl.

"Yup, they were trying to shut us down," Ritch told the small band of adherents reading the gym's Web site in advance of Back Yard Brawl IV, which he promised would be "a real bangfest." "I guess we will see what happens next."

Attorney General Cornyn answered Ritch's question on December 15, the day before the fight. Acting at Cole's request, his office obtained a temporary restraining order. "Unfettered and unprotected fight contests such as these surely don't always have a happy ending," Cornyn said in a release that sent TV crews and newspaper reporters scurrying north to see what this "fight club" was all about.

Fighter's House was hardly conducting unfettered fights, words that bring to mind images of men stripping down and beating one another to a pulp. But it was pushing its brand of sport fighting beyond what is allowed in Texas and all but a handful of states that have either banned or strictly regulated full-contact mixed martial arts.

"I know these young men want to be successful in their sport. They love it, like people love boxing. But sometimes you have a love that bites you in the ass," says Cole, who has been in boxing since 1948. "You know the expression. They have a paddle to fit every backside, and everyone gets a chance to expose it."

To Handel, Ritch, and a handful of others who train at Fighter's House, mixed martial arts is not only a sport, but the ultimate sport. To do it well, they explain with missionary zeal, an athlete must be strong, flexible, quick, endurance-hardened, and cross-trained in a variety of skills, including the most practical elements of the martial arts.

"People who make this spiritual, they're just wasting their time," says Handel. "It's all strength and leverage...what works in a real fight."

And these guys should know. A core group of them work as bouncers at Laura's Last Chance, Zubar, Cuba Libre, and other Dallas-area clubs, jobs that leave the afternoons free for hitting the gym. They've wrapped so many rowdies around the neck and tossed them out of Jack's Pub that they joke about giving out T-shirts: "I was jacked at Jack's."

On New Year's night, five Fighter's House guys were at their posts at Jack's, a roadhouse near SMU with a reputation as the bar in town on Monday nights. Handel, a compact 26-year-old, worked the door, shivering against the cold in a windbreaker and thin stocking cap. The glibbest of the crew, he flirted with the young women in line ("Hey, what's your favorite water sport?") in between explaining a few things about his fighter-trainer-bouncer life. [page]

A Farmers Branch kid who was drawn more to paintball and racing remote-controlled cars than making grades at R.L. Turner High School, he began learning kickboxing and the jujitsu "ground game" of locks, defense, and holds in local gyms, he says. He added other elements of mixed martial arts while stationed with the Navy in Southern California, the U.S. hotbed of the sport. After two years in the Navy, which Handel calls "the biggest bunch of losers I've ever seen," he returned to Dallas, moved in with his commercial-photographer father, and began training in earnest to become a pro. In his best fight, in McAllen a year and a half ago, he outclassed a bigger opponent and finished him off with a triangle choke, a leg lock around the neck that blocks the flow of blood to the brain, causing a temporary blackout.

"We're all poor right now. Eventually we'll be able to pay the credit cards off," he says.

After a while, as he talks engagingly about the bit TV parts, the screenplays-in-the-works, and prospects of moving to Hollywood to work in martial arts movies, he sounds like someone with a lot of big ideas, if not solid plans. His personality--think TV fitness trainer, plenty of fizz and enthusiasm--and knowledge make Handel a teaching draw at the gym.

His friend Joe Garcia, who has known Handel since he was a kid, is working this night at Jack's main bar, a cramped horseshoe-shaped space where all the nudging and shoving produce their share of drunken scuffles.

A husky, rounded, soft-spoken guy, Garcia moved to Handel's neighborhood from Oak Cliff, where his first introduction to fighting came on the streets. "My neighborhood was very tough. There were a lot of black kids who would beat me up, so I learned how to protect myself in a straight fight--you know, 'I'm gonna knock you out.'"

Learning kickboxing, tae kwon do, and jujitsu over the past six years with his friend Handel, he's now teaching students at Fighter's House and training every day. Garcia, 24, is undefeated in four pro fights, but holds few thoughts about making a living at the sport.

This fight game, like the old one it's trying to replace, is littered with sleazy promoters, false promises, and slim paydays, he says.

He fought in a bullring in Nuevo Laredo last year and was stiffed. He's fighting in Arizona this month and has been promised only airfare and $200. Because the sport exists in a netherworld between legality and illegality, the rules are spotty and unclear. In California, for instance, pro fights are staged on Indian reservations to get beyond state prohibitions. Out there on the fringe, there is no drug testing for substances such as steroids or uppers, making for fights that are less fair, he says.

"I like training with these guys. They're good guys. You can challenge yourself every day. That's the good part about the sport," Garcia says. "The bad part is, it's usually a big scam on the money side. They offer you a thousand, and you leave with a hundred. You're in the hole. That's what discourages me. You're not treated like a professional athlete."

So while he has ideas about making it to Pride or the UFC, which is trying to make a comeback on satellite TV, he spends four hours a day taking computer networking courses at Richland Community College. Garcia figures that's a more likely road to a steady job.

At 30, Ritch has already executed some of his career plans. For the last decade, he's been finding ways to get paid to fight, mixing it between jobs as a bodyguard, teaching self-defense, and, a few years back, working as a guard in an Arizona prison.

The son of a boot maker from rural Coolidge, Arizona, Ritch says he grew up ranch-work tough, and there were plenty of chances to match fighting skills with the local Mexican kids. He studied karate when he was young, wrestled in high school, and later became proficient enough at kickboxing to make $200 or $300 for a fight.

Scanning Jack's with quick glances, he says he's always been a little high-strung. "I think I had A.D.D. as a kid. The fighting's helped that. I just love to fight. One time a guy asked me to do a pit fight. Really, no rules, some secret location behind a warehouse. I fought in jeans and whatever, just fight."

In no-holds-barred, Ritch says, he's been in more than 70 "shows," with 51 wins. He says he has about five good years left and wants to return to Japan this spring.

On the bouncing side, Ritch is the guy his friends say can be counted on to wade in when fists fly. Just before closing time, he proves them right. [page]

After tossing one shirtless guy out into the cold with a ferocious kick, Ritch headed back into the bar and soon was bursting out with another--an enormous man, at least 290 pounds and woozy from drink.

"He called me a midget!" the 5-foot-9 Ritch roared to Handel as the two began facing each other in the parking lot. After the guy told Ritch to commit an impossible act on himself, and Ritch came back with a phrase he illustrated by pointing to his zipper, the fighter opened his arms and crowed, "Come on, let's dance. They're playing my song."

Lucky for Ritch's would-be opponent, he just stood there for an impossible minute and didn't provide much resistance when a couple of friends nudged and pushed him toward their car.

"He would have rushed me," Ritch told Handel as he headed back into the bar. He circled his arms, feigning how he might have wrapped the man's neck into a nasty no-holds-barred headlock. "It would have been perfect for the guillotine."

The rise and fall of mixed martial arts in America over the past seven years has left local hopefuls such as the Fighter's House core group in an interesting place. They latched on to the sport as it was evolving and developing. But since it hit a wall of disapproval, their ambitions have few places to go.

The sport burst into view in the United States in 1993, when Brazilian jujitsu master Rorion Gracie teamed up with pay-per-view's Semaphore Entertainment Group to produce the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. With the slogan "there are no rules," the promoters built an octagonal chain-link cage and invited top martial artists to mix it up. Kickboxers vs. wrestlers. Boxers vs. karate champions. Using pretzel-like moves to tie up and submit opponents outweighing him by as much as 100 pounds, Royce Gracie, Rorion's brother, became the event's first star.

The fights, which promised the sort of ultraviolence that built the Roman Coliseum, were an instant success. The tension, electricity, and pure violence of it, much like a playground fight, provided a marketable spectacle. As many as 300,000 households paid $19.95 to watch the likes of former Olympic wrestler Dan "The Beast" Severn land more than 200 elbow strikes against 270-pound pit-fighter "Tank" Abbott, the king of head-butts.

In Congress, op-ed pages, and the executive suites of the nation's cable TV companies, pressure on the sport began to mount. In 1996, Arizona Sen. John McCain led a one-man crusade against ultimate fighting after someone sent him a fight tape. McCain called the sport "barbaric" and sent a letter to all 50 governors asking them to ban "human cockfighting."

Soon, the American Medical Association recommended a ban. Athletic commissions in important venue states such as Nevada and New York refused to sanction the sport. Cable TV pulled the plug.

Clyde Gentry III, an editor of a Dallas-based fanzine on Hong Kong kung fu films who is writing a book on no-holds-barred, says the early days of UFC hardly served the sport well. "The marketing elements got carried away with it," he says, pointing out that early UFC fights were billed as matches to the death, and that videotape boxes played up the blood and doom.

But the sport and the UFC have evolved, spawning contests no more dangerous than boxing--and very likely less dangerous because there are only occasional blows to the head, he says. And unlike boxing, where fighters are shamed into taking a beating, it's not bad form to surrender, to "tap out," in a no-holds-barred match.

Light gloves, which protect against cuts, and prohibitions against early UFC staples such as head-butting and elbow shots, have bred an organic, skill-driven sport, Gentry argues. After several initial exchanges of punches or kicks, the fight usually goes into grappling, take-downs, and holds. "On the ground you have to be pretty intelligent to know what to do. There's not a lot of flash," says Gentry. "With the athleticism and strategy that goes into these fights, it's a human chess match. You have three-dimensional fighting that to me is so much more entertaining than boxing."

That is how it is viewed in Japan, he says, and there are signs that the UFC, still the Nike of the sport in America, is making its comeback here. This fall the series held its first sanctioned fight in Atlantic City at the Trump Taj Mahal, where Olympic-grade wrestlers Randy "The Natural" Couture and Kevin "The Monster" Randleman, the current champ, faced off in the featured heavyweight bout.

After several rounds of grappling in which Randleman appeared to be in command, Couture climbed aboard his opponent's chest, struggled against several defensive maneuvers, then unleashed a flurry of punches to both sides of Randleman's head. As quickly as in an amateur boxing match, the ref jumped in, declared a winner, and stopped the fight. [page]

At places such as Fighter's House, which is one of four mixed martial arts gyms in the area, guys are learning those moves as an integrated whole, Gentry says. Out of gyms like this the sport will be built--if they are allowed to practice it at all.

Todd Handel and Shannon Ritch drop down on a living-room sofa, rifle through a set of videotapes, and check how Fighter's House fared the night before on the TV news. "On Channel 4 we beat out George Bush!" Handel says enthusiastically, taking a bite from his burger-in-a-bag lunch before turning back to his giant TV. A big screen comes in handy for a sport that lives on videotape, the rentable kind as well as dupes of fight footage from Japan and Brazil.

Nearly every breaking-news report about the state's crackdown makes a reference to Fight Club, the Brad Pitt film about men exploring their savage nature in bare-knuckle brawls.

"People think we're like those kids pro-wrestling in the trailer park, you know, with their white-trash parents drunk on Keystone beer," moans Jason House, a Fighter's House regular. A few days later, someone at Fighter's House mockingly tacks a Fight Club poster on the gym's wall. Handel liked the movie, but says it was completely unrealistic.

Underground pit-fighting, to the extent it occurs, is about illegal betting, not abstract quests, he says.

Kirk Dudley, the gym's majority owner, ducked the cameras and stayed in the background last month when the state officials came to visit, letting Ritch and Handel wade into the fray. "Fighters have big egos," he says, talking in the middle of an evening workout. "They wanted to be out there."

On the business side, "the idea was for us to get a couple of hundred [dollars] for rent, generate a little interest, and attract a few new students," says Dudley, a 37-year-old construction contractor who turned a space formerly occupied by a Color Tile store into a clean, well-equipped gym.

Tanned, rock-hard, and blessed with movie-star looks, Dudley is as enthusiastic about no-holds-barred as the fighters, which is why he opened the gym about 18 months ago. Since then, he has taught his 6-year-old son, Drake, most of the basic moves, which the two run through on the mat. Dudley gives the commands: "Kick...Arm bar...Arm bar escape...Guillotine...Guillotine escape." He says he's teaching his son golf and hunting too. "I think it's good he learns a few basics about defending himself," Dudley says. "If he likes it, he can take it from there."

As much as anyone, Dudley is frustrated with the sport's quasi-outlaw status and the way state officials have tried to rein it in. "I've seen thousands of fights, and in my opinion, the more you water this sport down and try to make it less violent, the more you prolong the fight and actually make it more dangerous. Fatigue becomes a factor. A guy gets a little woggy, and that's when he gets hurt--after it goes round after round."

While not a pro, Dudley speaks from some experience. For the thrill of it, he fought a pro fight in Killeen last June. He won, but only after his opponent chinned him and blackened his eye. "I was completely gassed," he says.

As a business built on students who pay $100 a month to train, Fighter's House has been a rough proposition, Dudley says. "I hear on TV we have 60 or 70 students. We've had 30. It's been a long, hard ride to push this over the top."

Younger guys recruited out of the bars think it's simply a show of macho, he says. They either brag and don't show up, or drop away fast when they learn it's demanding and complex. Older students pull muscles or sprain shoulders and take time to heal. "There are a lot of injuries," he says.

As for aspiring pros, Dudley says he would like the gym to be part of a growing farm league, which every sport needs. "I want an active gym. But you see guys get chumped out of their money, which is this sport's dirty little secret."

Dudley says the gym tested the state's boxing authorities at least partly out of frustration. Like most people in no-holds-barred, he thinks boxing people have no business regulating it. They don't know or understand it, he says, and its potential popularity and young audience could put boxing out for the count. [page]

Once the state issued its injunction last month and threatened possible criminal penalties for violations, though, Dudley and everyone else at Fighter's House backed off.

That included Gary Warren, their lawyer, who trains at Fighter's House most nights and happens to have been one of the fighters in Back Yard Brawl III. "Since I've been working out here, I've lost 40 pounds," says Warren, a 36-year-old who wrestled in high school in Garland and boxed in frat tournaments at Texas Tech. At the fight gym he's broken his nose, sprained an ankle, and hurt his shoulder--"just minor things...You just have to want to do it really badly. There are guys who can bend you up."

Warren, who usually practices as a corporate counsel and in white-collar criminal law, says the gym wants to put together an amateur program under the state's guidelines and stage fights as a nonprofit. He hopes they can "tweak the rules a bit and see if we can get something that still maintains the integrity of the sport. The problem is, you can't be tough and comply."

At a meeting in Austin last week between Cole and the principals at the gym, Cole said he made it clear that the state plans to enforce all of its rules.

"The biggest problems are the gloves and the ring," Handel said after the meeting. Without being able to throw punches using the sport's light, open-finger gloves, "the fights end up being a lot of slapping...it winds up being boring. You can't please a crowd with fights like that." Without the closed-fist shots, it becomes something called pancration, a grappling match with kickboxing and open-hand slapping thrown in.

Guy Mezger, the most successful no-holds-barred fighter in Dallas and winner of the UFC middleweight title in 1997, has been working with a promoter and staging pancration events at the Bronco Bowl for the past two years. He calls the Fighter's House "a bunch of morons" for thinking they could face down the state.

"They don't even understand how much trouble they're in," says Mezger, who runs his own training gym. "They thumbed their nose at the state and got their 15 minutes of fame. Now they're gonna learn how much power these state regulatory commissions have. You can't piss off the powers that be."

One day, no-holds-barred will supplant boxing, he says, but it will take small, careful steps and a show that the sport can be safe. "You have to spoon-feed it to them," Mezger says. "You can't shove it down their throat."

Carlos Muchado, a cousin to the famed Gracie brothers who runs a well-regarded jujitsu studio in Dallas, says he, too, thinks the sport has a big future. He respects Handel and Ritch, both former students, for "their great skill" if not for their judgment, he says. "It's hard to upset the status quo."

Handel says Fighter's House bucked the rules and is "taking a beating for it. I hope five, seven years down the line, people will say this was where someone took a stand. Not to sound trite, but this is our little Alamo."

Here's an offer you can't refuse: For less than $12,000 paid to the right people, you can buy the early and absentee ballot vote in eight precincts in Southern Dallas--just enough votes, it turns out, to win you a $125 million taxpayer subsidy for your new sports arena or a $246 million city bond issue for your next big public-works construction job.

On November 6, when the 2012 Olympics referendum arrives, a similar handful of precincts could yield the margin of victory for a venture that will provide taxpayer guarantees for hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of private development.

Wouldn't you pay?

Dallas kids itself that it doesn't have machine politics. Dallas politics, in fact, are a gumball machine, with big prizes obtainable for pennies.

The key to the Dallas machine, as with any machine, is disciplined voters: voters who can be counted on to turn out and vote the way their leaders tell them. Those voters in Dallas happen to be African-American--not white, not Mexican-American.

But it would be a grave error to assume that only black people play machine politics or that the machinery is even especially beneficial to African-Americans. The Dallas system has become a pay-to-play game, and often the very people who wag fingers and accuse black campaigns of corruption are out there on the sly trying to make the same gumball machine work for them.

Like most people who follow local politics, I have been generally aware for at least the last five years, since the beginning of the campaigns for the downtown sports arena referendum in January 1998, that a certain system seemed to be in place. After the arena subsidy passed by a hair's breadth and again the following summer when the Trinity River bond proposal squeaked through, all the usual local analysts pronounced that Southern Dallas had carried the day.

It always seemed an odd alliance to me--African-American voters in some of the city's poorest precincts and the zillionaire developers who seek major public subsidies for their private-gain ventures. But I really had no idea just how odd the whole arrangement was until a recent series of events brought me face to face with my own naïveté.

You will forgive me: I'm a columnist, which is a subset of reporter. And in order to get to the meat of this business, I have to do a little mea culpa.

Just after the June 2 Dallas City Council runoff election, I wrote columns reporting that workers in the Dwaine Caraway campaign had engaged in an unscrupulous absentee voter effort. While that is certainly true, I now know that I missed a very important balancing side of this story.

Texas law is very loose on absentee voting. It is not against the law for a campaign worker to show up at someone's doorstep the day a mailed absentee ballot arrives from the county elections department, urge a voter to vote for a candidate and then "assist" him in filling out his ballot.

Toward the end of last May, in the waning moments of the Dwaine Caraway-Ed Oakley runoff for District 6, City Councilwoman Laura Miller called me up in a huge lather: She told me that Dwaine Caraway was "going to steal this election with the absentee vote."

District 6 is a long skinny kite, anchored in Southwest Oak Cliff, stretching up through West Dallas almost to the city's northwest corner. According to the 2000 census, District 6 is 44 percent black, 39 percent Latino and 15 percent white. The politics of District 6 tend to be driven by North Oak Cliff, Dallas' own Jerusalem, where various ethnicities choose to live close to each other and not get along.

Miller told me there were 1,600 absentee ballots out there hovering in the political ozone, mailed out by the county but not yet voted on and mailed back. She said those 1,600 ballots were being ginned up by the Caraway campaign in order to illegally pad the vote for Caraway on election day.

In addition, thousands more applications for absentee ballots were walking out the door of the county elections department every day--boxes of them--under the arms of paid operatives. Caraway, Miller said, was using political hacks to scam absentee votes from elderly people in African-American neighborhoods.

Caraway's opponent Oakley, a white, openly gay man, had won the endorsement of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, the black community's most influential leader, who also happens to be a way-back sworn enemy of Caraway. Caraway, meanwhile, was believed to have offended Latino voters with some off-the-cuff remarks on a black cable TV show about too many Mexicans moving into the 'hood.

Miller's fear was that Oakley would win the vote on election day but lose the election in the final count because of the bales of scammed absentee ballots that Caraway's operatives would deliver at the very last minute. To Miller's great frustration, she said, Oakley was refusing to counter the Caraway effort. [page]

I called Oakley soon afterward, and he confirmed to me what Miller had said: People were urging him to go out and scrape up absentee votes of his own to counter the Caraway effort, but he just wouldn't do it. He told me he had campaigned on the up and up; he thought absentee efforts were scummy; and he wasn't going to go there, even if it meant losing.

I walked the streets of District 6. The voters I interviewed told me terrible tales of political operatives showing up at their houses and pressuring them to turn over their ballots. They said the operatives all wanted them to vote for Dwaine Caraway.

But there was this mystery: When I asked the same elderly black voters who they really wanted to vote for, they all said, "Dwaine Caraway." I wasn't able to figure out at the time why people were being railroaded into voting for the man they already wanted to vote for. Now I know.

One end of the story here is that Oakley won. He beat Caraway soundly, by 748 votes out of about 5,000 in the June 2 runoff.

But there is another end. In losing the overall vote, Caraway also lost the absentee vote. The county elections department is still unable to provide a precise tally, but Oakley appears to have taken about 60 percent of the absentee vote.

That raises an obvious question: If Dwaine Caraway, that bad, bad man, was out on the street with this huge absentee vote effort that Laura Miller was all jacked out of shape about, why did Ed Oakley beat him in the absentee count?

Here is what I missed: Ed Oakley, that nice, nice man, beat Caraway in the absentee vote because the really sophisticated absentee ballot effort--a clever computer-assisted use of lists, voting histories and election materials timed to coincide with a long weekend when county election officials would be off on holiday--was Ed Oakley's absentee campaign.

That's right. Oakley's absentee campaign.

The thousands of ballot applications walking out the door of county elections headquarters in the last weeks of the campaign were carried out by the Oakley campaign. Operatives working for Oakley had mounted an absentee effort that was good enough to pull the rug from beneath the Caraway operatives.

And that's what all the frenzy was about: The Caraway operatives were in a panic when they showed up to collect the old folks' ballots, because Oakley's crew had been there ahead of them.

Caraway insists that he never sanctioned an absentee effort and that if one took place, it was a rogue campaign carried out without his moral or financial support. Oakley says basically the same thing. So on the issue of whether they accept responsibility for the efforts of their own campaigns, we have a draw.

Both plead ignorance.

Nothing in my July 7 column about the Caraway effort, "The Real Cheaters," was factually incorrect. I stand by every word. But the fact that Oakley's effort happened at all, and that I wrote my columns about that bad, bad Dwaine Caraway without even knowing that the nice, nice Ed Oakley's campaign had done its own absentee effort, puts a big tall pointed dunce cap on my head. With twinkle stars on it.

I'm glad this happened, because in the process of working my way toward the truth about the Caraway-Oakley absentee ballot shuffle, I discovered a much larger reality, one that shapes the politics of the entire city. The manipulation of African-American early in-person voting and absentee by-mail voting is a major element in the way all citywide elections are won in Dallas.

It's why the taxpayers gave $125 million to the promoters of a new arena downtown. It's why we have a multibillion-dollar eight-lane freeway project in the Trinity River bottoms where we were supposed to have sailboats. It's why the city is going to vote YES on the 2012 Olympics in a citywide referendum November 6.

The reality is that the early vote in majority-black precincts in Southern Dallas is the city's only disciplined vote. Especially in citywide elections on issues that are not entwined in the internal politics of the black community, the Southern Dallas African-American vote has a history of responding obediently to the call of leadership.

Carol Reed, the political consultant who runs Mayor Ron Kirk's campaigns, who runs all of the big citywide referendums for the business establishment and who will probably run the Olympics campaign, is keenly aware of the value of the Southern Dallas early vote. [page]

Reed, whose firm collects a $2,000-a-month retainer from the mayor (down from $4,000 a month two years ago), works from a stylish suite of offices above McKinney Avenue. She's a Californian who can have a strong sense of humor, but today, sitting at a conference table, she lays out the early vote question in strictly businesslike tones:

"In big referendums, I run a strong early vote program. This is no different from any kind of business you're running. In marketing, you go where you have the biggest chance of getting a yes vote."

Reed, who directed the campaign of the city's first black mayor, bristles at the suggestion that there is something wrong with pitching hard to the black community on projects like the arena, the river or the Olympics. "Basically, what it is now is that we are in a city where you have to campaign all over the city."

She suggests obliquely that the forces who were opposed to the arena and the river deal and who will be opposed to the Olympics referendum don't ever get black votes because they never campaign in Southern Dallas.

It's an interesting contention, worth examining more closely. In a long, up-and-down telephone chat, Sharon Boyd, the Web-page gadfly who was a principal leader of the anti-arena campaign in late 1997, angrily denies Reed's charge.

Boyd and I speak often. We're phone friends. She tells me that her anti-arena campaign wasn't able to attract black supporters because all but a very few of the black people who responded to her call for volunteers wanted money.

"They all wanted to be paid, and we didn't have the money to pay them."

She says her white volunteers were not about to walk the streets of Southern Dallas. "Some of these houses are houses you don't feel real comfortable going up to," she said. "The white volunteers are not going to go."

That's a wobbly way to defend against a charge of racism. But the fact is that people experienced in Dallas politics, both black and white, tend to support some of what Boyd claims.

When I asked if the white opponents of the big-ticket projects shouldn't come to Southern Dallas to argue for their ideas, longtime African-American political activist Sandra Crenshaw laughed at me. If they come, she suggested they bring their money, not their ideas.

"The leadership responds to money," she said. "Sorry."

Crenshaw describes the political system of Southern Dallas as an apparatus left behind when the last white Jim Mattox labor-left Democrat left town. Deprived of a philosophical or partisan base, exploited on issues like a fancy new sports arena with little immediate relation to the lives of elderly black voters, and taken over by people who depend on it for their livelihoods, the machine is more a business than a political organization. Crenshaw suggested that my idea of white people coming south to preach their philosophies was naïve.

"Some white people have tried what you're talking about. [Political consultant] Lorlee Bartos has gone on out there and tried to do what you're talking about, but she gets beat up so bad, called a bitch and run out of the community, that I don't think she wants to come back. You're messin' with people's money, honey."

Bartos, who ran Annette Strauss' campaign for mayor in 1989 (Strauss won with 73 percent of the vote), also helped the anti-river bond forces in 1998. In an interview in her East Dallas living room a few blocks from majority-black neighborhoods, she confirms some of what Crenshaw has told me.

"I was called a racist because I wouldn't pay walking-around money. I remember what I was told by people in the Strauss campaign. They said, 'It's simple. You just write a check and send it to the preachers.' But I refused to do it, and for that I was called a racist."

People at the top of the pecking order put money into Southern Dallas politics through the use of middlemen. Unfortunately, almost no financial records of the arena or river campaigns exist today because the city rushed to destroy them soon after the elections, using an exception in the law that allows purely municipal election records to be destroyed much sooner than in elections where there is any state or federal issue. But by looking at other elections where records have been preserved, the pattern emerges.

The main conduit for funds to Southern Dallas in all elections is political consultant Kathy Nealy, who has been a mainstay of Mayor Ron Kirk's campaigns, for example. I asked Carol Reed, Kirk's campaign guru, what Nealy does for those campaigns. [page]

Reed smiled and said, "Ask Kathy Nealy."

I asked Kathy Nealy, who gave me a genial answer about "grassroots community-based organizing." So I asked specifically about the $29,790 the Kirk campaign paid her for "Election Day Expense" in 1999.

It turns out election day expense is the traditional "walking-around money" that Bartos had refused to pay. Nealy told me it's a legitimate and necessary part of campaigning in Southern Dallas.

"Election day expense is a little different in our community," Nealy said. "You have what they call card-pushers, handing out literature, who have to be out there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. You have to pay people to go door to door, and you also have to pay poll watchers to be at various locations." (Poll watchers are monitors for a candidate or group. They stand and watch the process inside a polling place, but they are not the people who sit at the table and check voters off on a signature sheet.)

At what I am told is a typical pay rate of about $100 for a 12-hour shift, the money paid to Nealy for Kirk's 1999 election day expense would have funded an army of almost 300 people on election day alone.

When the 1998 Trinity River bond campaign came along, an older and wiser Bartos says there was one reason and one reason alone why the mainly white opposition element didn't go south much with its campaign.

"We didn't have the money," she says. "It's that simple."

In spite of all that, experienced activists in the black community say black voters can't help coming to certain conclusions when they never see the white anti-establishment forces show up in their neighborhoods.

Longtime Southern Dallas political consultant Jan Gore, who worked for the pro-arena forces, says the white people who have opposed the big-ticket referendums, typified by Boyd, don't get black votes because black voters interpret their absence as fear and their fear as racism.

"You can't be afraid to come into the black community and expect to get black votes," Gore says on the telephone. "One of the best-kept secrets is that you can come into the community, and nobody's going to cook you for dinner."

Reed wins Southern Dallas, Gore says, because Reed shows, whether it's through Kathy Nealy or someone else.

"Carol Reed knows what she's doing."

Everybody in this business has at least two edges on his or her sword. Jan Gore is no exception. While she believes the black vote in Southern Dallas must be respectfully courted, her own respect for it has limits.

In Southern Dallas, especially among the elderly citizens who constitute almost all of the early vote, Gore sees voters who are too tractable, too meek in their obedience, not brave or rebellious enough--a phenomenon she attributes to the city's history of plantation politics.

"One of the things I have said from the '60s is that every big city that the civil rights movement passed by has struggled from that point on. It's like wandering in the desert for 40 years. If we had had a strong Birmingham-type civil rights movement and burned down two or three things, we would probably be better off today."

The point Jan Gore wants me to get is that the elderly black absentee vote is either a buried treasure capable of carrying you to victory or a land mine capable of blowing your legs off, depending on who you are and where you step.

Different people, of course, see different blocs. Reed objects to the characterization of the black elderly vote as the city's only solid, reliable bloc.

"Nobody says anything about [former council member] Donna Blumer's [far northwest] district being the big 'anti' voter base," Reed says. "The people I see coming from that base are mostly white, very angry and, I think, very cynical. They come out in droves."

But that base, Gore argues, operates from its own inchoate, restless, vaguely irrational inner push--frustration over city services, a sense that City Hall is crooked, that they're giving away the store to Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks, all of this perhaps spiced with a seasoning of racism directed against the mayor and black council members.

The point is, you can predict North Dallas. What white leaders such as Laura Miller tend to do, Gore says, is put their fingers in the air, guess which way North Dallas is moving and then go get in front of it.

What makes the black early vote trickier is that on some issues, especially on "white people" issues like the arena about which few elderly people in Southern Dallas really give a rat's tail, the elderly black vote can be turned on a dime by leadership. Especially when someone knows how to pluck the harp of the city's deeply entrenched plantation politics, the elderly black vote can be used to protect the big-ticket gang (the sports team owners, the public-works contractors, The Dallas Morning News) from the angry middle-class white vote. [page]

The numbers involved may seem minuscule at first glance--a few hundred here, a few hundred there--but these figures grow more formidable when stacked against the steep odds the big-ticket promoters must overcome in order to push their projects to victory. Even Carol Reed describes the 1998 yes vote on a city tax subsidy for the arena as an extreme squeaker that she pulled off only by generating voter turnout on election day.

"Going into election day," she says now, "I was a dead person."

The backers of the new arena--mainly the sports team owners who stood to reap $125 million in tax subsidies from the city--spent $2 million on the election, against $80,000 raised by the anti-arena camp. For that, they lost the white vote by 14 percentage points and the Latino vote by 12 points. But they won the black vote by 56 points.

Even though whites voted at twice the rate of non-whites, the math at the end of the day gave the team owners their $125 million by an incredibly narrow margin of 1,642 votes out of 124,118 votes cast.

Before I talked to Jan Gore about the absentee campaign for Ed Oakley, I went back through the arena election and put some of the numbers into a simple spreadsheet. Like a geologist's seismograph, the spreadsheet looks beneath the jigsaw surface of the city's 760 voter precincts and shows the outline of a mother lode.

Beginning just south of Fair Park and running due south to Corinth, Southerland, Ledbetter and Simpson-Stuart roads, through council districts 7, 4, 5 and 8 (Chaney, Thornton-Reese, Hill and Fantroy), are 11 magic precincts where the early vote alone contributed more than 1,400 votes--almost 90 percent of the margin of victory. Early vote includes both mail-in ballots and votes by people who show up in person at early voting centers. The official count does not separate the two.

But both the mail-in and the walk-in votes in Southern Dallas are very orchestrated, operatives agree. Voters tend to expect help either with the mail-in ballot or a ride to the early voting place.

In those 11 mother lode precincts, 80 percent or more of the registered voters are African-American, and 90 percent of those who voted early voted in favor of the arena.

In the arena election, there were no 80-percent-plus Hispanic precincts that produced early yes votes. There was one 80 percent or higher white precinct: It produced exactly one early yes vote.

The black organized precincts are where the votes are. In Precinct 3515, for example, in the crook of South Central Expressway where old South Dallas runs into the Bonton area, almost 8 percent of the precinct's 1,500 voters voted early, delivering 217 votes in favor of the arena--about 13 percent of the total victory margin. One fine morning recently, I took a walking tour down Colonial Avenue, which runs down the spine of Precinct 3515.

This is homeowner and longtime-resident country. Squeezed between old two-story houses are brand-new ones being offered at $120,000. Lots of old people live here. I walked a list of addresses I got from the county showing every house on Colonial where someone had received a ballot by mail in the recent June 2 city council election. At each house, I said, "This is none of my business, but when you vote by mail, who picks up your ballot?"

Lewis Bizzell was out front on a metal chair, surrounded by old tires and some kind of machinery parts. He gave me a gap-toothed smile through a mask of wrinkles and said, "Well, you said you were a reporter. I guess that's your job, asking people what's none of your business."

He told me the same thing most people on Colonial told me. His ballots are picked up by "Felicia."

Doesn't know her last name. I do.

Felicia picks up those ballots like clockwork, at the home of Beulah Mae Cain, the home of Vernia Mae Ellis, the home of Allen Baston, at almost all of the houses up and down Colonial where elderly people vote by mail.

You may actually know Felicia a little bit yourself. In a terrific story on ballot fraud in The Dallas Morning News three weeks after the city council runoff, Scott Parks reported how the woman known only as Felicia had run off with a blind lady's ballot. The blind lady wasn't even sure she had voted yet when Felicia took her ballot and disappeared. [page]

Later the lady's ballot was not counted because an official election committee determined that an apparent forgery had taken place on some of the paperwork.

Felicia is Felicia Petrie. I have not met her, in spite of trying for a month. I called many times and left messages with her co-workers. I even went to her office to try to find her but was met by her boss instead. Petrie works for Democratic state Representative Terri Hodge, who confirmed to me that her employee was the "Felicia" of Parks' story.

Hodge is on the state elections committee. She is a major power whenever the subject of absentee vote reform comes up in Austin. She also works as a paid political consultant in charge of absentee vote campaigns. For example, she picked up $4,000 from the James Fantroy campaign in the recent council elections.

I suspect that Felicia had nothing to do with forging a signature on the blind lady's ballot envelope. Why? Because now I know how you do this stuff. If you send the county a stack of applications for absentee ballots on which you have forged voters' names, you make photocopies of all your apps. When you go out to collect the ballots, you shuffle your photocopies into walking order.

Every time you hit a house, you look at your copy of the application. If you see that you forged a signature on that app, you know that you have to get the ballot away from the voter unsigned, so that you can forge a matching signature on the ballot envelope.

A master in this business who spoke to me on a strict not-for-attribution basis theorized that Felicia allowed the blind lady to sign her own ballot because Felicia must not have had a copy of the forged app.

"She's a seasoned worker," my source said. "She wouldn't make that mistake."

The larger point here is that a tiny handful of very organized precincts in black Southern Dallas can generate the margin of victory in a major citywide referendum, and they can do it in response to the direct prompting of a tiny coterie of black leaders.

Another master of Dallas early voting efforts who was willing to speak to me on condition that his name not appear in a story explained the inner commerce of early voting and choice precincts like the ones I had found with my spreadsheet. Over the years, he said, individual operatives have staked out their "personal" precincts where they send in applications to vote at home for people, then visit the people and assist them in voting, then either mail the ballots for the people or take them to be stockpiled at a central location.

"You have certain people who have done certain precincts for many years," he said. "There are groups of people who do this, and everybody knows that a certain precinct belongs to so-and-so."

It's a version of things that was repeated and confirmed to me over and over again by people familiar with the process. Tony Garrett, who often works for state Representative and former city Councilman Domingo Garcia, told me of operatives he knows who send fruit baskets and Christmas cards to their regular voters.

The term of art here is "vote" as a transitive verb, as in "Felicia votes the people on Colonial Avenue." Some of the operatives best known for "voting" people in specific precincts are ferociously possessive of their turf and proud of their work.

Representative Hodge, who dips her shoulders and jabs with one hand like a welterweight when she's mad, met me at her office in a restored one-story '30s-looking commercial building near Baylor hospital. I think her eyes were beginning to get shiny when she told me, "I will carry the election law book in my car, and until the law changes and says it is illegal to vote senior citizens at home, I will be voting them."

So the prime precincts are there. And somebody is going to "vote" them.

Jan Gore says that's the point that Ed Oakley, for whom she worked in the council runoff, didn't seem to get. If you run in black Dallas, you cannot afford to ignore the organized precincts.

Gore says: "The fear is, who is going to vote these people?"

You or your opponent. Somebody pushes the button. In fact, because of the money involved, there may be people out there trying to gather up absentee ballots long before the candidate has had time even to think about it. [page]

One bright morning, I go to the catalog section of the central library, the preferred meeting place of a former city council member, political consultant and force majeure, Sandra Crenshaw. I ask that we remove our meeting to a table upstairs in the Humanities Department, because all of the loony tunes on the first floor are making me nervous.

At our quiet table upstairs, Crenshaw winds up giving me a whispered rundown on all of the scams that go on in absentee voting. She tells me that she does not engage in absentee campaigns anymore because of legal risks involved, but she is very familiar with people who do and how they do it. Much of the game turns on the "72-hour list"--a list the county elections department is required by state law to publish every day of the names of people to whom ballots were mailed three days earlier.

"Once you see the ballots going out on the 72-hour list, then you deploy your team to those addresses," she whispers.

The game is to get there ahead of the other side and vote the people for your candidate. She holds up the palm of one hand like a ballot and pretends to scribble on it with the other. "Most of these old people, it's real easy. If you're working for candidate X, you say, 'Oh, yeah, you want to vote for Candidate Y, yes, ma'am,' and then you just scratch in the circle by X and seal up the envelope."

"Sometimes they'll ask, 'Well, what do the Democrats say?' So you just say, 'Oh, the Democrats are all for the arena.'"

Another favorite trick, she says, is to tell elderly voters that coloring in a certain dot on the ballot is a way to vote "straight Democrat," even in city council races, which are nonpartisan.

She also explained to me some of the madness at the end of the Caraway-Oakley campaign in which vote brokers were out there badgering old people to vote for Caraway even though the old people already wanted to vote for him. Crenshaw said that many of those brokers probably were operating without Caraway's knowledge but in competition with each other, trying to gather up ballots in order to hoard them and later sell them en masse to Caraway. Or to Oakley.

"Say the broker goes to Caraway with 1,500 ballots," she whispers. "He says, 'These votes are for you. I want $3 apiece for them.' Caraway says no. So he takes them to the other candidate. 'These votes are for Caraway. I want $3 apiece for them.' If the other candidate pays, the broker throws the ballots away."

Crenshaw even claims that in the recent city council race, one candidate's campaign was in such disarray that a vote broker was able to sell the same bundle of votes to him twice by working through different middlemen.

The person who put together the absentee effort for that nice, nice Ed Oakley was Jan Gore's son, Terrence Gore. Terrence Gore is a computer consultant who ran two years ago for city council but was defeated by the incumbent, Barbara Mallory Caraway, who is Dwaine Caraway's wife.

I certainly did not find my way to Terrence Gore, by the way, because either Ed Oakley or Laura Miller told me about his effort. They said not one word. The person who showed me that piece of the puzzle was Dwaine Caraway.

Beginning the day he lost the runoff election and continuing for the next month and a half, Caraway spent his time poring over official records of the election. Then he called me, as the author of the Bad, Bad Dwaine Caraway column, and asked me to meet him in his campaign office in a one-story commercial building on Corinth, next door to a cell phone place.

Caraway unlocks the front door and shows me into a big empty room with campaign posters on the wall. At one end of the room is a long table covered with documents, neatly stacked in order of presentation.

"Here," he says, showing me a receipt from the top of the pile. "This shows Terrence Gore going into the election department on May 19 and signing for 1,000 blank applications. Then on May 23, he picks up another 1,000 apps."

Caraway shows me his next piece of evidence: a receipt for 278 applications for ballots, filled out and signed by voters, delivered to the elections department on May 25, a Friday. That means Gore sent in 278 applications in one bag. The next paper he shows me is a list from the county elections department showing that all of those 278 applications were processed that day and the ballots mailed by the end of the day. [page]

Now we have an interesting situation. According to state law and normal practice, the elections department would have published a list on the following Monday, 72 hours later, of all those 278 addresses to which it had sent ballots. But because of the long holiday weekend, the list could not be published until Tuesday.

What difference does that make? It makes 24 hours' difference. Sandra Crenshaw already has explained to me that everybody in Southern Dallas watches those 72-hour lists of people who have been sent ballots like hawks so that they can run out and try to vote the people on the list before the other team gets to them. In that kind of closely fought battle, a 24-hour blackout is a huge advantage.

So this Terrence Gore guy must be pretty slick.

Gore meets me in his office in the Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development, a business incubator program run by the Dallas County Community College District in a handsome brick campus on Corinth Street in old South Dallas. His small two-room suite is stacked with unpacked boxes and phone equipment on the floor.

Gore, who is black, tells me he believes the starting place for people who want to manipulate the elderly African-American home-bound vote on referendum issues is the fact that most of the elderly really couldn't care less about those issues in the first place:

"On the arena deal, most people didn't care. They weren't ever going to go to any Mavericks games, and they didn't understand the ramifications of the money."

In the meantime, he says, the elderly voters do like to be coddled by the people who come to collect their ballots, who may be the only visitors they see for weeks or even months.

"There is a control factor that goes on. The elderly voters are catered to like children, and, when it comes to voting, they behave as such.

"They'll tell you, 'Oh, I just gave my ballot to so-and-so, that's the way things are done.' And you say, 'No, Miss T, that's not the way things are done.' They say, 'They're going to put whoever they want in office anyway.'

"They're so used to these people coming by, you know what? They don't even bother with the trouble of filling the ballots out, especially the ones with poor eyesight and hearing. And the people just prey on them like vultures on a dead horse. It's sickening."

Gore believes the passivity of elderly black voters has allowed big-ticket promoters to "vote" them in ways that are contrary to their true interests. He worked against passage of the Trinity River bond package, which won narrowly in a May 2, 1998, referendum, by trying to explain to black voters how the project would hurt them.

"I told them why it's a bad deal. I spent a lot of time talking about the money that could have been used to build more parks and municipal venues in Southern Dallas. I told them that you have to look at whether the city cares about you."

But when the votes were counted, the pattern was an almost perfect mirror of what happened on the arena vote six months earlier. Whites and Hispanics voted it down decisively, but the mother lode precincts in Oak Cliff and Southern Dallas voted it up by 75 percent and better--enough for the Trinity River proponents to squeak it through with a margin of 2,357 votes of 73,675 votes cast.

Sandra Crenshaw has testified under oath in a legislative hearing that the average price of a brokered absentee vote in Southern Dallas is about $5. Other sources I spoke to for this story said the price can float up as high as $10 or as low as $3, but that Crenshaw's number is a good average.

That would put the cost of the margin of victory in the river election at less than $12,000.

In between bites from a fast-food sandwich he brought with him to our meeting, Terrence Gore explains the 24-hour edge. He timed his operation to the holiday weekend so that he and a team could go out and get the ballots voted and mailed before the hoard of opposition operatives and free-booters descended on them.

"We upset the structure which most of them were counting on," he tells me. "We set it up so that we knew what the mailman was going to do; we knew when the ballots were going to hit; and we could get the ballots all processed and returned before the list even comes out." [page]

Processed means "voted."

He says he and his people voted the old folks properly, never took possession of a single ballot, gave everybody stamps to mail them in themselves, did it all strictly legally.

That's his view. But how does Dwaine Caraway view the same operation?

"They overstepped every bound of the law they could," Caraway tells me in his campaign office. "They over-assisted, and in situations where they could not control the voter, they threw the ballots away."

Terrence Gore tells me the Oakley campaign was aware of his efforts but did not pay him. He says he worked for Gore as a volunteer based on his conviction that Oakley was the best candidate for the community. His mother, Jan Gore, says the campaign paid her $800 to cover expenses in several areas, including paying the team that went out with Terrence to vote people on Memorial Day weekend.

I call Miller and say, "Laura, what about the Terrence Gore deal? When you all were telling me about that bad, bad Dwaine Caraway, you never mentioned Terrence Gore."

She says, "I don't know Terrence Gore from Adam. I might have met him at the victory party. If Terrence Gore went off and tried to get absentee ballots, I don't know anything about this."

But later in the same conversation, she says, "I had some sheets that showed Terrence Gore had picked up 1,000 apps. I was looking at these sheets, and I said, 'Is this Terrence Gore guy working for Dwaine or for Ed?'"

So apparently there were discussions.

In fact, Oakley's campaign manager, David Marquis, tells me on the telephone: "When we talked about Terrence's plan, the tone was that Ed and all of us wanted to be sure that everything he did was on the up and up."

Up and up we go.

So I call Oakley.

"I was furious about it," he tells me. "I didn't even understand the vote-at-home program until we got in the runoff. I refused to be a part of it. I refused to pay these people. They said, 'Give me $5,000, and I'll give you 5,000 votes.'

"They sold the same votes four or five times."

And Sandra Crenshaw only claimed the votes were sold twice.

"That was the whole deal," Oakley tells me. "They said, 'If you don't do this, you're not going to win.' I said, 'Fine, then I won't win.'"

But later in our phone conversation, Oakley tells me: "The effort we did in-house was because we realized that if we didn't do something, we were going to be behind the curve. We came in every night, and I called my precincts, to everybody over 65 who had not voted, and I asked them why they hadn't voted."

But to know who has voted absentee and who has not on a daily basis, you have to be reading those 72-hour lists every day. Yeah, he says he did actually learn some things during this period of his life. From whom?

"Part of these conversations, I was having with Laura. I was told that Terrence went down and picked up a box of applications.

"After I said we're not doing this, I understand he went down and picked up another box. On top of that, I understand someone else picked up two boxes."

4,000 apps!

I ask Oakley: "Were you aware that Terrence Gore was carrying out a concerted absentee vote program on your behalf?"

"In our minds, I didn't. I can't tell you what they did, because I don't know. He was going to print out all those apps and just mail them out to every senior citizen. My God, you don't do that. Because, you send out 2,000 apps, I don't want to use the word, 'control,' but you don't know who you are sending to."

That's right. You need a really tight list, so you only send apps to the oldsters you know will vote for you, not for Caraway. Pretty slick, for a hand-wringing guy who knows nothing about all this nasty business. In fact, Gore has already shown me how he used his computer to hone the list down to voters of the right age, voter history, address and demographic profile to make them possible Oakley supporters.

But the important thing about the Oakley effort is not that some newspaper columnist got snookered. Forget me, forget Oakley, try to forget Miller. This is the big lesson:

Terrence Gore went out into the field, and, for peanuts, he turned the political apparatus of Southern Dallas on its ear. He and his mother helped get a white gay guy elected in a deeply conservative majority black and Hispanic district. [page]

Pretty good trick.

Early in the runoff, Caraway was endorsed on television by a typical photo-op alliance of virtually all of the old preacher/leader walking-around-money types in the black community. Their failure to deliver any kind of decent turnout for Caraway is an illustration of the limited power of the machine. It can't generate a whirlwind. It really only delivers the old folks. And in the Caraway-Oakley race, the Gores effectively neutralized even that power.

If nothing else, their accomplishment means that the majority white anti-establishment forces who stand off in far North Dallas or Kessler Park and wag their fingers, refusing to engage Southern Dallas politics, guarantee their own failure.

Carol Reed is right. Times have changed. Campaign citywide, or lose. It's that simple. Some paid hack may call you a bitch and try to run you off. But the voters themselves--the old people I talked to on Colonial Avenue--are charming and decent, and they care about their votes. In order to find that out, you have to visit them.

Sure, the machine ensures that all of the money and juice of City Hall will go to the big-ticket boys and that the streets and the gutters will never get fixed. But if you want your streets and gutters fixed, what do you do about it? You do what Terrence Gore did.

Attack the machine.

It was all he could do to keep from going crazy, a little nuts, when he thought about how much he missed his kids. He claims he never anticipated the War of the Roses his ex-wife would wage--with his words twisted, his actions demonized, his own children turned bitterly against him. He considered himself one of the good guys, a loving father of three whose greatest crime was marrying badly.

Admittedly, he had suffered some financial setbacks and had grown distant from his wife and kids, tinkering late into the night on his latest software invention. But it was nothing like she said: that she felt like a single parent, that he loved his computers more than his kids, that he never lifted a finger to care for them. And to say it in front of the children--to disparage him time and again until they began to question his love for them--that had to stop.

Therapy seemed like a viable option, a safe place for the couple to air their grievances. But once Doug Watkins, at the time an employee of Boeing Co. in Denton County, started to open up, he couldn't hold back: He didn't love her, he said; she was ruining his relationship with the kids; her mean-spiritedness felt like "the black cloak of death that sucked the goodness right out of him."

Nowhere does the cliché "there are two sides to every story" ring truer than in custody disputes. Regrettably, however, Kandee Watkins, Doug Watkins' ex-wife, has failed to respond to several phone calls and has refused a written interview request. What follows is Doug's version of events, as well as those incidents that could be substantiated from other interviews and police and court records.

The way Doug tells it, once he revealed his true feelings in therapy, Kandee wanted him gone. A few weeks after they separated, she took their three kids and left without a word, he says, stripping the house bare. Four days later, he learned she had moved to College Station and was living with her parents. When he went there to see them, his in-laws filed a criminal trespass warning against him.

With each side blaming the other for the breakup, divorce seemed inevitable. Kandee filed in Denton County in November 1999, just a week after she left town. Visitation was seldom easy, often hostile and sometimes nonexistent. Despite a bitter divorce trial in June 2000, which included testimony that Doug had been sexually inappropriate around his own children, though no one had seen fit to initiate a Child Protective Services investigation, the judge granted Doug joint custody of his daughter, Jana, then 11, and his son, Jeffrey, age 10. Justin, their oldest, was not his biological child, though the boy never knew it until the separation. "We should have told him a long time ago," Doug says. "He only found out after he wanted to live with me, and his mother told him I wasn't his real father."

Doug, now 35, thought the divorce would calm things down, but it seemed as though Kandee, 34, was just getting started. Not only had the judge granted him extended visitation, he also required Kandee to bring the kids to Denton for each visit. In the 18 months since his separation, Doug counted 35 out of 51 times when she didn't show. Her reasons were many: The kids were sick or refused to go, the car broke down--and where the hell was his child support, anyway? (Denton County child support records show that Doug was current on his payments as of April 5, though in the past he'd occasionally fall behind a month and then quickly catch up.) He didn't see his children for months at a time; phone calls from them were filled with anger, the kids berating him for being so mean to their mother. Only when they were out of her presence, Doug says, did they begin to show him any affection, as if to do so in front of Mom would be an unpardonable betrayal of her love.

Doug filed two motions against Kandee for contempt of the court's decree concerning visitation. He also sought help from Texas Fathers for Equal Rights in Dallas, a controversial fathers' rights advocacy organization that has made denial of child access to the noncustodial parent the clarion call of its movement. Doug Clark, the group's executive director, encouraged Doug to pursue criminal charges against Kandee, insisting she had interfered with his custody. Despite reporting her alleged interference to the police at least 20 times in both Denton and Brazos (Bryan-College Station) counties, neither district attorney would take the case.

For at least six years, fathers' rights groups around the state have lobbied for legislation that would leave no doubt in the minds of prosecutors that interference with court-ordered visitation is a crime. The issue, however, has become so mired in gender politics--fathers' groups on one side, women's groups on the other--that legislation is still pending in the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, which often seems like ground zero in the battle of the sexes. To pass the legislation, fathers' groups need the support of state Representative Toby Goodman, the Arlington Republicanwho both chairs and strong-arms the committee. [page]

But in the he-said, she-said world of visitation disputes, where the truth is regularly embellished and perjury is often a matter of perception, placing a custodial parent (mostly mothers) in jail for denying the noncustodial parent (mostly fathers) visitation is something politicians, prosecutors and judges are all loath to do. Divorce is messy business: Feelings run high; there is plenty of blame to go around and never enough money. The paralyzing fear of losing a relationship with a child can bring out the worst flaws in a parent's character. Violence may erupt during a visitation, as it did so tragically last week, when John Battaglia, a Dallas accountant, allegedly murdered his two young daughters after he argued with his ex-wife on the telephone. Yet absent access, the relationship between parent and child can be irreparably damaged. Complicate this with a parent who is hell-bent on destroying an ex's relationship with his or her children, and the courts must intervene quickly. Only they don't.

Doug Watkins has never been accused of physically abusing his children in any way, though they have clearly become his obsession. To see them, he has driven thousands of miles and made so many phone calls to his ex-wife it must seem as though he is harassing her. A reserved man, he leads a colorless life, isolating himself out of fear that his behavior might be misinterpreted in court. Unlike those fathers who have turned their personal pain into a public crusade, he isn't interested in the issues surrounding gender politics or equal justice. He just wants to see his kids.

Although Ted Hulick's marriage ended after only a year, the bitterness his divorce engendered may last a lifetime. That he and his wife Holly didn't know each other well but got married anyway seemed a forgivable mistake. What was unforgivable, at least to Ted, was that only four months into their marriage, Holly became pregnant, consulted a divorce attorney and interviewed for a medical internship in Indianapolis instead of Fort Worth, where they lived. (Holly, through her lawyer, declined to comment for this story.)

It didn't help matters that Ted sued for custody of their son within weeks of his birth. Or that Holly agreed to give up all child support payments if Ted agreed to terminate his parental rights. The message he gleaned from Holly's offer scared the hell out of him: I value you so little as a father, I will let you buy your way out. "That told me all I needed to know about my chances at getting to see my son," he says. "That's when I got involved in Fathers for Equal Rights."

Since its inception in the early '70s, the fathers' rights movement has been cast by its natural enemy, the women's movement, as a paragon of political incorrectness, a financial obstacle to women claiming their rightful place in the workforce. To them, this pack of radical crusaders seems interested in only one thing: dodging child support payments. And if that meant feigning a fight for custody in order to gain some strategic advantage in child support negotiations, they were willing to stoop just that low.

Dave Shelton, former executive director of the Dallas branch of Texas Fathers for Equal Rights, believes this reputation is mostly undeserved. "The beginning of the father's movement was a response to the women's movement," Shelton says. "As moms started going to work in the '60s, dads were forced to start helping more with their children. And you know what? They liked it."

With divorce growing rampant by the late '70s, some men felt the courts were relegating them to the role of Uncle Dad, a visitor who takes his kids to McDonald's twice a month and forfeits his status as a parent. Those fathers who decided to fight for custody were confronted, at times, with a prejudice that presumed Mom was the best parent simply because she was Mom. "That's when our numbers started growing," Shelton says, "and the fathers' rights movement began to confront bias in the courthouse."

It didn't help their reputation when Shelton and his ilk protested regularly in front of the Dallas County Courthouse, calling family court judges "bigots and child killers." Or when they openly confronted an ACES (Association for Children for Enforcement of Support) candlelight vigil or called its Dallas leader, Linda Benson, "the High Priestess of the Meal-Ticket Mamas" because the organization supported an increase in child support in the '93 legislative session. [page]

Texas Fathers for Equal Rights only became a viable political force after it went indoors and began to lobby judges and legislators, demonstrating with studies and testimonials rather than placards and name-calling. Armed with the latest research, they insisted that children of divorce were more likely to thrive when they had loving relationships with both parents. Fathers weren't just a biological imperative; they were necessary for the well-being of their kids.

"Fathers for Equal Rights felt they needed to hit us over the head with these facts, which gave them the appearance of having a militaristic attitude," recalls Dallas family court Judge Dee Miller. "When they began soft-pedaling, we became more responsive."

Worried that gender bias in the courtroom was now favoring men, the National Organization for Women (NOW) issued an "Action Alert on Fathers' Rights" to its state and local chapters in 1996. "These [fathers'] groups are fulfilling their objectives forming political alliances with conservative Republicans by working for the adoption of legislation such as the presumption of joint custody," NOW warned. "The success of these groups will be harmful to all women but especially harmful to battered women and children."

This "action alert" came too late in Texas, because the Legislature had already amended its joint custody statute in 1995, due in part to the efforts of the Texas Father's Alliance, a statewide political action committee headed by Dave Shelton. The change leveled the playing field for both parents, mandating that Texas family courts presume that joint legal custody was in the best interest of the child unless the facts showed otherwise.

Even though Ted and Holly agreed to settle their case and become joint custodians over their son, it was an unmanageable arrangement at best: First, Holly moved from Fort Worth to Indiana before their son was born, and second, "she hated my guts," he says, partly because he had sued her for custody. The belligerent letters he wrote her about his legal strategy--"you'll never get a dime out of me"--didn't exactly help the couple's chances of becoming successful co-parents. Although there were never any allegations that Ted had physically abused Holly, she would later contend that Ted was harassing her through the legal system as he began to immerse himself in family law.

Ted says if not for Texas Fathers for Equal Rights, he doesn't know how he would have survived the tumult of his divorce. It offered him a kind of legal group therapy: lessons in do-it-yourself divorces that at times have gotten the organization in trouble with the State Bar grievance committee.

Certainly there were men in the group who had soured on women completely, men who thought their ex-wives were living the good life with their new boyfriends on their child support payments, men who were willing to leverage their fatherhood to get those payments reduced. But many of these men, Ted claims, were just like him, finding visitation with their kids difficult, or worse, flat-out denied by their ex-wives. The few noncustodial moms who were part of the group also complained about the same visitation problems--problems that, according to the most reliable divorce studies, affect 20 to 25 percent of all noncustodial parents.

Ted's position was particularly precarious: Because his son was both an infant and living in Indiana, he had to rely on his ex-wife to see his son. In Indiana, she filed a protective order against Ted, claiming he was harassing her by phoning too often. ("I was just trying to schedule a visit," he insists.)

His frustration with the judicial system led to his activism, and after he moved to Houston in 1996, he became a legislative liaison for Texas Fathers for Equal Rights. His mentor was Shelton, and together with several other fathers' rights activists, they began to lobby the Legislature for the '97 session.

As always, the issue of visitation compliance was high on their agenda. They argued that the civil remedy of placing custodial parents (read: moms) in jail for contempt of court was ineffective: too costly (attorneys' fees could easily top $3,000), too slow (months of delays were routine), too unjust (moms were generally let off the hook with a stern warning).What noncustodial parents needed, they contended, was a criminal sanction to deter wayward custodians from this type of meddling. That it might be viewed as vengeful by their children and ultimately harm their relationship with Dad seemed of less concern.

Fathers' rights activists thought the Legislature had made it a crime to thwart visitation in 1993, when it amended the statute that made it a felony to interfere with child custody. But the statute was so vague that if prosecutors or the police didn't want to get involved in visitation disputes, they could hide behind its uncertainty. [page]

Hulick and Shelton lobbied for a bill that would authorize the police to issue a traffic ticket for violations of visitation orders. "There is no arrest, just a ticket--a Class C misdemeanor," Hulick recalls, "which would at least make a record that a violation has occurred." Naïvely, he thought the bill would sail through the Legislature, but he didn't anticipate the fierce opposition the bill would encounter from domestic-violence and other women's groups.

"Individuals who have perpetrated family violence very often try to exercise control of their former victims through the visitation process," says public policy director Bree Buchanan of the Texas Council of Family Violence, which advocates on behalf of 68 women's shelters across the state. And what better way to perpetuate that control than with the additional threat of police involvement.

Hulick and Shelton were successful in getting two bills sponsored and passed: one that allowed judges to give aggrieved noncustodial parents makeup visitation, the other authorizing judges to extend standard Wednesday-night visitation from two hours to a full overnight stay. But state Senator Rodney Ellis, the Houston Democrat who sponsored the ticketing bill, let it die a slow death in his committee.

Undaunted, Hulick returned to the '99 Legislature with another ticketing bill, a dressed-down version of its earlier self, which authorized only a $50 fine for a visitation infraction. The bill passed the full Senate, but it needed the support of state Representative Toby Goodman, the powerful chairman of the house committee that considers family issues. Hulick approached Goodman's chief of staff Peg Henley, who Hulick says "has absolutely no sympathy for fathers' issues and is closely tied in with women's groups." Although Shelton had better luck meeting with Goodman, Hulick believed Henley was preventing him from lobbying her boss.

"To say that she screens people [prevents them from seeing Goodman] is an insult to Toby Goodman," Buchanan says. "Yes, we [domestic violence groups] can certainly talk to her about our concerns, but her only allegiance is to Chairman Goodman."

Although Goodman has supported some fathers' rights legislation, including joint custody, he bagged the ticketing bill and never let it out of his committee. That's why Hulick was shocked this session when Goodman sponsored legislation that would unequivocally make it a felony for a custodial parent to deprive the noncustodial parent of access to his or her child.

The problem was, Goodman didn't know exactly what he was sponsoring. "The bill came out of the Department of Public Safety, which wanted help with missing children who are kidnapped by their parents," Goodman explains. "But it went way too far." Goodman never intended it as fathers' rights legislation. "If we criminalize every technical violation of a visitation order, the number of cases would explode...I don't want DA's offices in the possession enforcement business."

That Hulick offered a much narrower version of the bill didn't matter. Once Goodman began to hear from prosecutors and domestic-violence groups, he left both bills pending in his committee, where they remain today. Again, Hulick underestimated the resistance. Armed with research that suggests that fathers who have joint custody or visitation are twice as likely to pay full or partial child support as those who have no relationship with their children, he thought they could mollify women's organizations. He was wrong.

"The real problem isn't fathers who can't see their children; it's fathers who won't see their children," says Linda Benson of the Dallas ACES. "True denial of visitation is really a minor problem. Fathers' groups blow it way out of proportion."

Doug Watkins' only savior was his divorce decree, which he followed as though it were divinely inspired. Every other Friday, during what he calls "ritual Fridays," Doug and his friends waited for his ex-wife to bring their children to Denton, in accordance with the court's order. He planned dinner, went grocery shopping and rented a weekend's worth of videos, knowing that 6 p.m. would come and go and she probably wouldn't show. His friends then signed affidavits, swearing to the non-event and giving him proof he could use in court.

"This piece of paper is the only thing that tells me I can see my kids," he says, holding up the decree. "If it's worthless, why have I spent so much time and energy getting someone to enforce it?"

He must have known that enforcement wouldn't be easy where his ex-wife was concerned. Throughout much of their 13-year marriage, he says, she put their three kids in the middle of their marital problems, and he claims she divided their loyalties by insisting Doug didn't love them the way she did. [page]

After they separated in October 1999, Kandee packed up the kids and drove to Bryan in the only working car they owned. Doug needed the car for work and brought it back to Denton without Kandee's knowledge. "When Kandee found out, she went on a tirade," says Doug's sister Tonya Dixon. "She brought the kids [Jeffrey and Jana] over to my house and said to me, 'Tell my kids why their father loves his car more than he loves them--they want to know.'"

Doug claims that Kandee had the use of a second car at her parents' home. His kids, however, didn't see it that way: "Dear Dad, I love you. Thanks for stealing the car!!!" Jana wrote him. "You're are a bad boy." Her postscript included the line: "Mom is not telling me to say this." So did Justin's, who also wrote, "I am disgusted with you...if the car is more important than us, keep it."

Doug aggravated matters just two months after his separation when he began dating a divorced neighbor who was more Kandee's friend than his. In April 2000, after Doug and his kids went on an Easter egg hunt with the neighbor and her kids, Kandee stormed into his home, Doug claims, and hurried their crying children out the door. "I remember her telling Jana she would never see her daddy again," Doug says.

On May 19, Doug was entitled to a weekend visit, or so the temporary court orders stated. Parked outside his house, Kandee phoned the Denton County Sheriff's Department, telling a deputy who arrived at the scene that her kids were afraid to go inside. Doug says that just 20 minutes earlier, he had seen his children at a nearby 7-Eleven parking lot, and they seemed fine. But according to a police report, "Ms. Watkins stated her children had told her that Mr. Watkins and his girlfriend are always drunk, Mr. Watkins' girlfriend called Jana Watkins a cunt and a slut and calls Jeffrey Watkins a son of a bitch and a motherfucker." The deputy also reported that the children were crying, were frightened and "confirmed the allegations made by Ms. Watkins," which both the neighbor woman and Doug would later deny, but not before the deputy arrested Doug for some unpaid traffic tickets and put him in jail. There would be no court-ordered visitation that weekend.

Also in May, the Watkins family submitted to a social study so the judge could make the most suitable custodial arrangements regarding the children. In her report, Dallas social worker Nancy Stark found that "Mrs. Watkins has played a significant role in the alienation of the children from their father, has interfered in visitation...and is punitive in what she wants as access between the children and their father in the future." Stark faults Doug for being selfish about his own needs and so insensitive to his children's that he might have damaged his relationship with them. But she reserved her harshest criticism for Kandee, whose views on visitation--let the children choose if they want to go or not--Stark described "as a deliberate attempt to sabotage the relationship between the children and their father."

In June, during the divorce trial, Justin Watkins testified against his stepdad, claiming that Doug and the neighbor woman had sex in front of Justin's two younger siblings, which Doug and the woman adamantly deny. Doug's attorney could have cross-examined Justin, brought out the fact that the divorce had turned his world upside down after he learned that Doug was not his biological father. But Doug figured Justin had been through enough; his attorney asked no further questions. If Denton Judge John Narsutis believed Justin's testimony, it certainly wasn't reflected in his ruling: Doug was granted joint custody of Jana and Jeffrey and awarded generous visitation privileges.

Of course, he claims he seldom got to exercise them. For each visit, the court ordered Kandee to transport the kids both to and from Doug's house in Denton, which was something she seemed reluctant to do. If she didn't show up on Fridays, Doug says, he would drive to Bryan on Saturdays. Too often she would tell him the kids were sick or they refused to go, or she would simply make herself unavailable. Father's Day came and went, most of the summer, the kid's birthdays, Thanksgiving--and all he got, he says, were the crumbs she would toss him. A shortened weekend, a lunch, a few minutes on the phone. More than 85 percent of the time, he says, he was frustrated in gaining access to his children. [page]

"God knows what she was telling them," he says. "They had to be thinking I didn't want to see them."

In September 2000, he filed a motion to hold Kandee in contempt of court for denying him visitation. But the case was delayed and then transferred from Denton to Bowie County, where it was continued again. Doug did see his kids twice in December but only after his lawyer contacted her lawyer. And with Christmas coming, he grew desperate. He agreed in writing to share the transportation duties with her through the following March. According to the agreement, it was her responsibility to bring the kids to Denton over Christmas. The problem was, she never showed up. She claimed the kids were celebrating Christmas in Arkansas, then San Marcos, says Doug, though his sister says she saw them at a Wal-Mart in Bryan. He finally celebrated Christmas with his children in a Bryan hotel room, but not until February and only after Jana phoned him, wanting to know why they hadn't received their presents.

In January he learned from Fathers For Equal Rights that he might be able to press criminal charges against Kandee for interfering with his custodial rights. So now with each abortive visitation, Doug contacted the police in both Bryan and Denton. Bryan detective Leslie Melanac interviewed Kandee and determined, according to Doug's Dallas attorney, Michael Gray, that "none of the excuses the ex-wife gave for not taking the kids were legally valid, and they had solid cases against her." (Melanac declined to comment for this story.) But with the law unclear and so much discretion given to prosecutors, neither county's district attorney would present the case to a grand jury for possible criminal charges.

"While we do not have a set, absolute policy concerning filing interference with child custody," wrote Brazos District Attorney Bill Turner in a letter to Gray, "it is our experience that a pending civil contempt hearing generally resolves the custody matter more efficiently and effectively than filing criminal charges."

Left to pursue a civil contempt case, Doug turned introspective, breaking off his relationship with his neighbor, focusing mainly on building his new computer business and trying to see his kids. As therapy, he designed a Web site dedicated to his war of attrition with his ex-wife. To an anonymous Internet audience, he recounted his "visitation nightmare":

"People say--What did you do to her? Here is what I did. I tried to love my children...Yes This Is Nasty! But My Decree Must Be Enforceable!"

In some ways, Ted Hulick is lucky. Because his marriage broke up before his son was born, he never knew what it was like to live with him, and then, all of a sudden, not to do so. Because his ex-wife Holly refuses to speak to him, his 5-year-old has a phone in his room, and "We are finally beginning to communicate," Ted says. Because she moved from Texas to Indiana to Colorado and back to Indiana again, he is winning a protracted legal battle that has resulted in the Texas courts maintaining their jurisdiction over any future custody, visitation and child support disputes.

Holly's Colorado attorney, Richard Kennedy, says that the problem is really Ted--"I am aware of his activism," he says--and not his client, whom he suggests has never denied Ted visitation. Ted has filed one motion for contempt, which he later dropped during all the jurisdictional volleyball, he says, and has complained bitterly to the Texas courts about the obstacles he has encountered in exercising visitation. Ted now sees his son for 42 days in the summer and for several brief visits during the year.

But even if his personal problems resolve themselves, that won't stop him from pursuing his fathers' rights agenda. What Hulick insists on is gender parity. If a judge can award a custodial mom attorneys' fees when she prevails on a motion to enforce child support, then why not a noncustodial dad when he sues for visitation compliance? If a deadbeat dad can lose his driver's license for not paying child support, why not take away the driver's license of a custodial parent who interferes with visitation? If Dad can be put in jail for not paying child support, why not Mom for denying access?

But child support is easy to measure--either the money's been paid or it hasn't. With visitation the facts get fuzzy. What if Mom is running late or the car breaks down or the kids want to spend the night at a friend's house instead? What if Mom is withholding visitation until Dad gets current on child support? What if the kids are terrified of Dad, and Mom would rather risk jail than put them in harm's way? [page]

"Visitation problems are difficult enough to enforce civilly," Judge Dee Miller says. "But they will be 10 times more difficult to enforce criminally, where a case must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt." Miller admits that only on "rare occasions" will she put a custodial parent in jail for denying visitation. It's more likely that she will send the parties to mediation, hoping they can settle their differences out of court. But in the meantime, months of denied access can take their toll on the parent-child relationship, and the aggrieved party may feel compromised by the outcome. Perhaps what is needed is a way to fast-track these high-conflict cases, something less punitive that won't give an alienating parent the added ammunition of saying, "Now he's trying to put me in jail!"

Because of its high divorce rate, Arizona's Maricopa County (Phoenix) has grappled with this issue and come up with a novel approach called a "family court advisory program." In a case of chronic conflict, the court appoints an attorney or mental health professional to operate as a quasi-judge, monitoring problems between the parties as they occur rather than months later.

"Because of joint legal custody, each parent has a vote, and there is a greater chance of stalemating on kids' issues," says Dr. Brian Yee, a Phoenix psychologist and family court adviser. "What is often needed is a tiebreaker, someone who can help resolve a dispute with a phone call." Most often the parties abide by the adviser's recommendation, but if they don't, they can appeal to the family court judge.

The beauty of the program, which Yee says is still a work in progress, is the speed with which it operates, nipping slights and affronts before they become all-out war. There are still those cases, however, in which the relationships have become so poisoned, the parties so wronged, that nothing short of a full-court, he-said, she-said swearing match has any hope of resolving the dispute.

On April 12, 2000, Doug Watkins finally got his day in court--sort of.

Brazos County District Judge J.D. Langley had scheduled the contempt hearing for 3:30 p.m., but an earlier case ran longer than expected, and the judge rescheduled the case for May 7. It was just as well. Outside the courtroom, Kandee's attorney presented Doug's attorney with what would later be referred to as a "smoking gun." It was a copy of a handwritten note, allegedly signed by Doug and Kandee and dated July 27, 2000, seven weeks after their divorce. It changed some of the terms of the visitation schedule set out in their original divorce decree.

"Due to financial hardship from divorce...Rodger Douglas Watkins agrees to come to Bryan, pick up children for visits and return them at scheduled time until situation changes."

If Doug had agreed to pick up his kids from Bryan, then why the Friday-night ritual, why the police reports, why the motion for contempt? "Every ounce of Doug's conduct is inconsistent with his undertaking this agreement," says his attorney, Channa Borman. "Besides, it didn't matter where Doug tried to visit the kids, his ex-wife refused to give them to him in Bryan as well as Denton."

Borman candidly admits that the alleged side agreement "is the worst aspect of the case, because it creates the idea that Doug is the bad guy. It makes him look like he was trying to set her up."

Doug claims the letter is a forgery and a bad one at that. The document, an apparent copy, is entirely handwritten except for the signature lines, which are typed. He says he has never seen the letter before, and the signature blocks could have been cut out of an existing document then pasted onto an original and photocopied.

It certainly doesn't help that Doug did sign an earlier "side agreement" when he wanted to get his kids over Christmas (though Kandee disregarded it, Doug says) or that his stepson Justin was willing to testify that he witnessed Doug signing this agreement. "I just don't put it past Justin to lie for the benefit of his mother," Borman says. "But if an agreement existed, why didn't Ms. Watkins mention it to Detective Melanac? That certainly would have shut down any police investigation."

Prior to the May hearing, Kandee's attorney Larry Catlin would comment by saying only, "We completely deny their allegations. We have a very solid defense."

Judge Langley heard that defense on May 7 but seemed uncertain about the authenticity of the side agreement, so he fashioned his own remedy: He ordered that each party share in transportation duties by changing the site of the visitation exchange to Waco; he insisted that Kandee get an answering machine to avoid any further miscommunication between the parties; "He refused to hold Kandee in contempt," Catlin now says. "But he forbid the parties from entering into any side agreements for 18 months." [page]

"That eliminates the only defense she has," Doug contends. "The judge said that any deviation from the visitation schedule other than the kids going to the hospital would result in him taking action."

Although Kandee will spend no time behind bars, Doug feels he has accomplished a great deal. Between hearings, Judge Langley ordered that Doug receive two visitation weekends "in order to get the train back on track," he said.

On April 20, Doug drove to a Waco parking lot where the court arranged for him to pick up his children for his first visit. It had been nearly three months since he had seen them, and they seemed giddy as they left their mother's side. Jeffrey hugged him immediately, and Jana held his hand after she got inside his car. He says he could sense the distance that time and their mother had put between them. But he spent much of their visit doing the small things that might bring them closer: Doug would brush his daughter's hair, wrestle playfully with his son. He tried to avoid speaking about their mother or bringing up the past. And every so often, he would give them the kind of reassuring glance that let them know that somehow everything was going to be all right.

There's a notion that, for theater companies, holiday stage productions are cash cows. They can throw together any old show related to the season--A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, Scrooge, A Christmas Story, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever--with a few costumes (usually passed along year to year) and they've got a low-budget, high-drawing show that sells itself. Theater companies are happy because they've got enough to finance the remainder of their seasons. And theatergoers are just as pleased because, if only for 90 minutes or so, they've managed to capture that elusive "holiday spirit" and stop worrying if the bows on the packages under the tree are perky enough (or maybe too perky?).

For the past few years, when stage companies have desired an alternative to the good tidings and cheer of traditional holiday fare, they've turned to The Santaland Diaries, Joe Mantello's stage adaptation of humorist David Sedaris' account of being a 30-something, out-of-work writer who takes a gig as an elf in Macy's winter wonderland. But what was once an alternative has become just as expected this time of year as an increase in the number of suicides and car accidents.

But The Santaland Diaries is no worse for the wear. Presented as either a one-man show starring Crumpet the disenchanted elf or with Crumpet joined by two fellow pointy-toed-shoe-wearers, the play keeps all the anecdotes and zingers of Sedaris' original story and resulting national public radio piece. Expectedly, he gets teased by adults in line with their kids, but his responses--both those he uses and ones he just wishes he had said--make a predictable setup worthwhile. The Grinch has nothing on this elf.

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