Friday, April 28, 2017

The S-Town Podcast

As a "This American Life" fan, and a "Serial" fan, I was for sure going to give "S-Town" a shot.  The season dropped in a full batch, and so I - with a trip coming up - thought I would save it for the flight, which would have been a great idea, but as often happens I was in more of a re-read a book mood and so, I listened to one, but with so many podcasts piled up, I moved on to others, and for me I hit the end of episode 2 and went, oh, yeah, so binge listen it is then. 
The series should come with a trigger warning for depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.  I think it's kind of fun to go into it with very little idea of what it's about.  If you have ever wondered what the process of getting stories for things - be it newspapers, podcasts, radio, etc - not the cutesy movie compressed versions, this provides that.  If you just want to know is there something going on in this small town, that the original email writer called Shit-town, then, well, I can tell you, obviously there is.  But, like novels and TV shows that are more about the process than the results, that's what "S-Town" is.  
It certainly made me think about the statistics of stories that get killed and how many of these take months of searching, of visits and calls, only to turn into not much.  Or not enough for a ten minute segment.  That when we talk about the gutting of journalism, we're not just talking about people available to cover what world leaders say, but about the people available to spend months travelling and emailing and calling and recording in the hopes that it leads to something.  About how some of the best interviews are not where the interview asks a list of agreed upon questions, but when the interviewer lets the subject go on a tangent and draws them out further.  And how those are the little snippets and nuggets that stay with you. 
And as a person who prefers the pantser style of plotting, this idea of showing up with a mike and seeing where things go really appeals to me.  It often confuses non-writers, and even writer people with a more plotter driven style, how do you know if that story has enough if you haven't thought it through.  And the answer is I don't.  I have manuscripts on my hard drive that didn't have enough to sustain a book.  They might become a short someday, or they might just be an idea that wasn't fully baked.  And with experience you get better.  You get better at knowing this is about the right amount of conflict.  Or at being willing to re-write more to bake in more stuff as you go.  
It's also an excellent example of POV.  How you can listen to a story, and feel that you get it, you understand.  And then you hear another take and you throw that in with what you already knew, and see how it fits in and yet shifts your thinking on what had happened.  
If the lack of closure in "Serial" bugged you, I don't think "S-Town" is for you.  This is not to say things aren't found, discovered, examined.  But it is, in the end, as much, if not more, about the process, than the result. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Three Interesting Things

1. Independent Books Store Day is approaching an lots of stores have fun things like this planned at Upshur. 
2. This piece talked about the need for a wider array of autistic characters in media. 
3. Someone taught a French Bulldog to skate

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Lack of Healthcare Story

When I was 21 I was kicked of my parents' insurance.  I had a job, but it was for a tiny company and I was paid monthly and not always super timely even though one of my job duties was to print the checks. I absolutely meant to do something with the COBRA packet I received and then I got busy, and there were the holidays, and so, yeah, I missed the deadline.  I probably could not have afforded COBRA without help, but that was small consolation because in February after standing for days on a convention floor, my knee dislocated as we finished packing up and my elbow broke my fall.  My knee (somewhat ironically) was fine.  My elbow ended up requiring surgery because I broke off the edge (not the center pointy bit, the side pointy bit which yes probably has a better name than that) and needed pins to put it back where it belonged, and months of physical therapy to regain range of motion. I was really lucky that I had family who was able to help look after me, drive me to all these appointments, and help me pay for this.  
Obviously I realized my error in letting my health insurance lapse and once things were on the mend started looking into getting my own insurance.  And guess what I ran into.  Pre-existing conditions.  Even though I had already had surgery, even though I had already attended multiple physical therapy sessions and had regained most range of motion, the insurance company didn't want to cover me because I had a known condition that might cost money.  
Again, I was really lucky and managed to push through that and get coverage.  But we are talking lots of time on the phone. Nowadays a series of laws, HIPAA and ACA have made such stories go away.  For now.  Right now I have heath insurance through my job. So the fact that I have injured my knee several times, suffer from seasonal allergies, have asthma, and other various conditions are all covered by my insurance.  
Prior to the ACA, my day job had me reading a lot of companies summary plan descriptions.  And some of them covered pre-existing conditions. And some of them had a waiting period.  Something along the lines of six months or a year before the employee or the employee's covered dependents could be covered for pre-existing conditions. And a pre-existing condition can be anything you've ever been treated for. Any time you had a visit about a thing, that maybe visits and visits later turns into a diagnosis.  
And really, it's easy to fault employers and insurance companies on this.  But insurance is capitalist by design. Their job is to save money.  That just happens to be at odds sometimes with our goal of getting good health care.  It is a clear case of the system working as designed even as it fails many. I do think ACA is imperfect.  I do think we could come up with a better solution.  But repealing it and replacing it with something that covers less people is not the right approach. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

"The Catch" - Charming but...

I fell out of the habit with "The Catch" last season.  It had an intriguing hook, security consultant falls for a charming man who turns out to be conning her, which he reveals by stealing all her stuff, except, it turns out, his weakness is her, and they spend the season trying to catch each other. Kind of. 
I never deleted the pass on my DVR, so when it restarted I found myself curious enough to try again, and huh.  So apparently she (Alice, played by Mireille Enos) teamed up with Interpol to catch Ben (Peter Krause) and then felt bad when he turned out to love her too, so gave him a head start and there were double crosses upon double crosses, and whatever, all this I have gleaned from the previouslies. So, Ben is in jail.  Alice's firms computers are all in custody, which, as you might imagine has put a crimp in their business.  And Ben's ex Margot (Sonya Walger) is now in charge of the evil crime family.  Rhys, Ben's partner in crime is on the outs with the crime family yet not in jail.  So, now, Interpol and the FBI (and really it hardly matters, supposed good guys) have offered Ben a deal, where they will reduce his sentence if he does this thing.  And Margot, realizing the problem with crime families is that you can trust no one, hires Alice's firm to investigate.  Needless to say, Alice and Ben are only telling each other part of what they are up to.  Oh and Alice's brother Tommy has shown up totally coincidentally because his former employers are dead, but he has some money is his name, and yeah, absolutely no reason to believe anything shady or underhanded is going on there.  
So here's the thing.  The cast, including the other three members of Alice's firm (played by Rose Rollins, Jay Hayden, and Elvy Yost) are all wonderful.  Gina Torres as our FBI agent learning how charmingly frustrating Ben is, his total inability to do a job within the defined parameters.  And T. R. Knight is knocking out of the park as the bumbling but charming and maybe not as bumbling brother.  
But here's the thing.  The cast is great.  The sets are slick.  And the plot, is there.  Do I care who Tommy's murdered employers really were?  No.  Do I think if you are chasing an international assassin you should plan an elaborate thing where everyone carries different colored umbrellas the theory being that the assassin will then be forced to shoot at all the umbrellas giving them time to catch him? I mean, spoiler alert it worked, but instead of being impressed, it makes me wonder how this international assassin survived so long.  It is the perfect example, they used a visually appealing, but ultimately not super well thought out idea to catch the assassin, turned him over to intended victim Margot, and the episode ended with her hiring them.  That is an intriguing double cross, but much like fellow TGIT show "How to Get Away With Murder" the episodes often seem like misdirects leading to a new breadcrumb revealed at the end.  So, you could fold laundry or multitask while you watched the show, and look up for the end and get most of what you needed.  
There's nothing wrong with any of this, there are plenty of shows that get by more on the charm of the cast, than the plotting.  I just find myself hopewatching, because there is such incredible potential there, and I will say that I think HTGAWM does a better job (admittedly over more cumulative episodes at this point) at making me care about the characters, instead of marveling at the visuals, and the acting.  

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Three Interesting Things

1. Having been away I am catching up on things like the annual Peeps contest which got taken over by the Washington City Paper this year.  I usually find the runner up a little more to my personal taste, but they are still all amazing. 
2. I was never a very good "Survivor" watcher, but this post about the missed opportunity the show had, as they hid under the guise of we have to show what happened, is interesting.  "Top Chef" has had issues with bullying, and this year they at least acknowledged - however awkwardly - the optics of having the first challenge at a plantation be an elimination between a black chef and a white chef.  These are all adults, they sign on for a lot, but these shows also exist in the world.  
3. I read 13 Reasons Why and found it interesting, but have listened to the criticism about the show, that for it's unflinching look at serious issues, it has issues and isn't safe for some folks.  This take (by another YA author) addressed some concerns. 

Monday, April 17, 2017


Last week I was in Venice at a writer's retreat. This opportunity came at such a perfect time for me, that I remained convinced the world would snatch it from me, but it did not. 
I decided trying to recap a whole week was silly. 
This retreat was organized by Rachael Herron - who I knew before the trip, and we spent mornings from 9am-12pm gathered up, working with writer prompts and sharing writing.  The group was writers at a mix of stages in their writing journey, fiction and non-fiction, and the propmts and excercises had meaning and help for all.  It really is, I would have thought, a tricky balance to making things useful and workable to as wide a range as we had, and yet it really worked.  
In the afternoon there were optional excursions, but it was incrediby easy to opt out, whether to explore on your own or to split into a smaller subgroup.
Basically, it was delightful.  I loved the trip.  I loved the people - some of whom I knew or internet knew beforehand, and some of whom I did not.  I was like writer summer camp.  You know, in Venice. 
I had not been to Venice before, and I loved it and see why it calls to others. 
Italy, you may have heard has a pretty carb based food tradition, which is terribly dangerous for a carb addict like myself.  There were signs in some places for vegan this, and gluten free that, and so there were options.  Had I been staying longer than seven days, I would have made a better effort to find a greater variety, but my suffering, if you call it that, was delicious. I even found a Venetian wine I liked, which for a picky wine palette like mine was a win. 
So, some numbers. 
Number of gelato consumed: 4. 1 with Bailey's on it, so while it was very tasty it's possible the Bailey's and whipped cream influenced my feelings. 
Number of pizzas eaten: 1. It was large and probably should have been shared or saved. Oops. 
Number of sights seen: At least 7.  It depends on if you count things pointed out on the walking tour, or wandered past or all the bridges and boats and towers spotted. 
Number of neighborhoods or sestieri wandered through: 4. And we took the vaparetto to Burano and Murano. 
Number of boats ridden: 10.  At least.  I may be missing one.  
Number of bridges crossed: Innumerable. 
Number of times I got lost: 1. Fortunately I was with someone who was ready to find the adventure in it.  We had headed in what I thought was a mostly northerly direction, and turned out to be north and west, which I figured out when I saw the signs for the train station.  We were adopted as we tried to follow some o fhte signs directing us to the vaporetto, that seemed to disappear and then reappear in ways that were not super intuitive and she spoke a lot of Italian at us, despite our clear lack of understanding.  We followed her, kind of (we were backtracking from a dead end) and then found a museum courtyard where we managed to convey that this was what we meant to find, and the nice smartphone had enough signal for us to verify our speadiest way back to the Grand Canal.  Certainly, the nice museum people also could have helped us so we were just the tinest bit lost but we got to see more of San Croce than planned, so there was that. 
It also appears possible that Italian mosquitoes do not like me, or are at least slow to recognize me as fresh meat.  This will require further investigation. 
Pictures of things and food.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

7 Things: DC's Missing Girls

It is a strange and surreal thing to watch a local news story become the viral thing that everyone's talking about how no one is talking about it. 
1. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)* recently made some changes to the way they handled missing persons cases.  They had been posting such alerts to the police listservs.  They added posting them to the Twitter account and other social media, and a website.  They have also been posting when a person is found. 
2. I tend to - anytime I see a missing person or pet posting - go back to the source.  Partly because, as we all know things move fast on social media.  Lost pets, kids, and seniors get found.  Being found doesn't always get reported on the same sources that reported being missing.  Also, not to be crazy paranoid, but there have been cases of a stalker setting up a I-need-to-find-this-person post, trying to get the internet to help them.  Stalkers would (one hopes) not be able to make use of the police, so sourcing is a good idea. 
3. Until this year, it is my understanding that the MPD's missing person's site only listed Relisha Rudd. Relisha Rudd disappeared in 2014.  I could speculate why they weren't making use of the website (MPD has said internal policy change) for other cases, but basically, if you look at the site, it looks like DC had a missing person in 2014 and then nothing until this year.  That is inaccurate. (They have now added some additional cases back to 2009, along with stats about how many missing persons cases were closed.)
4. I could tell who had looked at the site, because several of the posts I saw floating past on Twitter had Relisha's face, which I do recognize, because it was a very big deal here when she disappeared.  She disappeared about the same time as a man who was later found dead.  There was video of them together, he was not officially a person who had custody, so an amber alert was activated.  So I have seen her picture, and recognize it.  It's likely that folks who weren't here in 2014 did not see it posted all over the place the way that those of here do, but it created an easy way to tell who had bad info since I saw quite a few people listing her as someone who had disappeared this year.  She is still missing.  So, if you think committing her picture to memory will help you, this post has a timeline along with links to pictures and videos
5. All of this context does not make the overarching point that missing kids of color get less media attention than missing white kids.  I can name several missing white kids, including ones like Elizabeth Smart who was found years later.  I don't live anywhere near where Elizabeth was kidnapped, or where she was found and I still heard about it.  I cannot think of a similar case that received national attention for a child of color.  
6. One of the things the MPD and members of the local DC government said about the missing kids, is that they appear to have left voluntarily.  As others have pointed out, the key word there is appears.  Now, appears means there was no sign of struggle, no sign that someone broke in and took the child by force. Once of the kids (who has since returned) posted to Instagram that her foster family was terrible. I understand that the police have a different type of invesitgation on their hands when signs seem to point to runaway. (We could also examine why we tend to assume teenagers have runaway absent evidence. Or that running away is rebellion and not a sign that things are so bad, that being on the streets seemed like the better alternative.) 
7. I saw one post from someone with a PR background who had helped out a family member when a child had gone missing.  And she talked about how hard it was, even with her contacts and knowledge, to get media interest.  So again, we really do need to think about why some stories get national coverage and others don't.  I also saw a small backlash as people got some context and assumed that therefore they had been lied to about the missing girls.  You weren't lied to if you read a flyer and didn't follow up.  There are still missing people, many of them girls, and girls of color.  You should still think about why you still remember Natalie Holloway's name and probably her face even if you've never in your life been to Aruba.  You should still think about why a post about 8 missing girls maybe made you feel it was less of a big deal if two had been found.  That's still six families.  

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Three Interesting Things

1. You know I love a good story about teens changing the world, or at least their high school.  So these teens who interviewed the incoming principal and found some, shall we say, irregularities with her resume, resulting in her resignation, well, here's hoping this is just one high point in their careers. 
2. One of my high school classmates took her kids to see the WERK for Peace dance party by the Pences rental before they moved into the Vice President's house. So, I wasn't surprised to see that the party by Ivanka and Jared's was well received, but this interview with the neighbor caught enjoying the dance party with her wine is also a peek into how a lot of, shall we say, experienced DCers often feel about changing administrations. 
3. This discussion among several Asian American actors about "Ghost in the Shell" touches on a number of things, from the flattening that occurs when you try to strip away the cultural source of the material, to the circular arguments used for whitewashing characters. 

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Brigid Kemmerer at Bethesda Library

Brigid Kemmerer was at the Bethesda library last night.  Hannah McBride (I assume I'm spelling that right) interviewed her about both her new release, Letters to the Lost which is straight contemporary YA and there were also quite a few mentions of the Elementals series and those Merricks.  
Kemmerer said Letters to the Lost was loosely inspired by "You've Got Mail".  She was rewatching it one day and wondered how she could do a YA version, and then because her writing is not usually straight funny, but funny in the face of darkness, shifted to what if one of them was writing letters to someone who was dead.  And here we are. There is a companion book planned featuring the best friend of Declan (male protagonist in Letters).  
There was a lot of love for the Merricks, and discussion of when any future stories would be.  For those who haven't read the series, I can tell you the story wraps up, but of course, there is always more, another big bad lurking somewhere.  Kemmerer had planned to write more in the world, and has the next story started, but the publisher that has the series rights is not so much doing YA at the moment, so she is prioritizing the books that are under contract.  (So, less publishy nitty gritty version - maybe someday.) 
Letters is her first straight contemporary - I will say having finished Thicker Than Water recently, it reminded me of More Happy Than Not in that it seems like a contemporary for a good part of it, until you realize, oh, okay.  But Letters is contemporary and dual first person which Kemmerer enjoyed writing.  She also has another contemporary planned for 2019. 
She was asked about writing male POV's and said she drove her husband crazy asking what does it feel like to do this, and that, and the other when she was first writing the Elementals.  And finally her husband said it doesn't matter about what all guys think or feel, just this character.  
Kemmerer said the final (so far) story in the Elementals, Michael's was the hardest partly because she had to wrap up so many things, and by that point the series had fans and people would email her that they just couldn't wait for Michael's story and she was struggling, and pregnant, and sent 50 pages to her editor who said, hmm, maybe not quite that*, and so went back and wrote new pages that she hated. She was put on bed rest, so emailed her editor and said, I'm on bed rest for two weeks before the C-section, so I'll do nothing but write and everything will be fine.  And she (modified bed rest) went to Starbucks to meet her mom and the barista had the name that she and her husband had planned for their kid, and she told her mom, this is a sign, the baby's coming today.  Her mom told her don't be silly, but you know where this was going, so, yeah, she had to tell her editor new plan.  Anyway, the book does exist now, so it all worked out.  And Kemmerer said she's in that Starbucks all the time and never saw that barista before or after that.  

*I'm sure she was paraphrasing and encapsulating for the sake of the story.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

DEMO: Song and Dance

I confess I had paid little attention to the Kennedy Center's DEMO: Song and Dance series until a little announcement that one of the performers would be Christopher Jackson.  I would feel shallow, but I was seated next to a teenager who was bouncing in her seat at every mention in the program.  That doesn't make me less shallow, but I wasn't alone in my shallowness. 
The ides of the series is to merge song and dance in multi-genre ways. The performances are a single night which I imagine allows them to draw people unable to make a longer commitment. This evening included folks from the New York City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Michelle Dorrance, Paul Irwin, and on the vocalist front Janet Dacal, Kate Davis, and the aforementioned Chris Jackson. 
The night was a bit anthology style, in that some pieces references each other, but in many ways operated independently.  Some were funny (particularly those featuring Bill Irwin, who spent the night in what I can only describle as very vaudevillian pants), some were heartwrenching, and some were joyous.  Some pieces were a little more successful than others, and I confess, while I have great appreciation for dance, it is somewhat limited to I enjoyed watching that. 
The mix of modern dance, soft shoe, tap, and ballet worked well with the various songs, which varied by era, but mostly stayed withing a mid-range tempo.  
The show ran trhough without intermission and never made me wish for one, although I did occaisionally try to peek at m program to figure out what song that was. 
Overall it was a fun evening and I'll keep a closer eye on the series in the future. 

Monday, April 03, 2017

20 Years On: "Rent"

My story of how I came to "Rent" is one of those stories that of course involved things that no longer work like that.  Anyway, I was in Borders (remember Borders) and wandering the listening stations (remember when store listening stations was the only way to try music without buying it or listening to it on the radio) and I just was blown away.  Since it was a double CD (remember CD's, okay I'll stop now) I think I had to wait and buy it on another trip but I did.  I listened, I read the liner notes, I sang along, I cut out a quote and stuck it on my wall, and so on.  So when there was finally a touring cast, I went to see it with some friends, some who were also familiar with it, and one who had no idea was just willing to come along for a show.  My recollection is that the program contained a map explaining to the uninitiated the various (well most of them) connections between the characters. 
It was amazing.  As is often the case, no matter how thorough the liner notes and cast album are, there are nuances that are clearer seeing it live.  Plus the enjoyment of seeing it live.  I went again a few years later when the touring cast came back through and brought a friend who had never been to see it.  She was blown away.  She bought us tickets for a performance a few months later in Philadelphia (near where she lived) so we could see it again. It was so great to watch someone else fall in love with the experience and be ready to talk through all their favorite bits. 
I saw the movie when it came out. I went to BroadwayCon and saw the reunion panel.  Let's just say, I'm a bit of a fan. 
So I tried to set realistic expectations for myself when I saw the reunion cast was coming to Baltimore. (They later added a DC stop, after I already had tickets.) 
"Rent" is fascinating in that it was incredibly groundbreaking when it debuted, and there are ways that it is both more and less unusual this many years later.  I find I still have the following conversation with people, well, why don't they just pay their rent, haha.  (The show explains the answer. And well, either you accept that or you don't.) 
We have better HIV drugs.  The Alphabet City gentrification referenced is pretty much complete now.  But it also seems even more likely that Mark's footage of a riot would lead to job opportunities.  And some things, like seeking a community that accepts you, finding the balance between maintaining the ideals you have and paying the bills, are timeless. 
So, the 20th anniversary tour.  Overall it was fun.  The woman next to me was a longtime fan who had never seen it live, and she had the time of her life.  It was actually clear there were both longtime fans, who chuckled more at things that were funny about the performances, and newbies (one person let out a cheer at the end of "Contact" while the longtime fans knew it ends with sadness.
The staging had the full cast on stage a bit more often than I recall from other versions allowing for quick transitions, and occasional cuts meant to jar.  A reunion tour always has the challenge of trying to both satisfy old fans and still be relevant to current audiences. The direction to the actors seemed to be to prioritize emotion over word clarity, meaning there were moments of anger or sadness, where conveying that was more important than clarity in the lyrics.
In costuming, Benny still had a blue puffy coat, but now it had neon accents, Mark's plaid had sheepskin trim making him look a little lumbersexual, and Joanne had a coat I am lusting after. Reading the bio's in the Playbill, it was sort of amusing to realize many of these actors were perhaps toddlers when the original "Rent" opened, but of course, the original cast had a lot of people for whom this was their first big job, and that's how it should be for a piece about twenty somethings trying to make their dreams come true.  
The choreography in "Today 4 U" leaned a little more towards panty (or legging crotch) flashing than drumming. Tom Collins is in some ways a gimme role for an actor with any bit of talent, since he's a loving friend and partner pretty much every moment he's on stage, and but Aaron Harrington's deep voice more than lived up to expectations.  
It was great to see, and fun to see how my views of each character have shifted over the years, although I still love and hate all of them a little. But mostly love.