Serial Podcast: How To Turn an Addiction Into a Healthy Habit

14 Dec

listening old radio

2.2 million people are locked up in America. That’s 2.2 million people most of us don’t think about. But if you’re a Serial listener, you’re thinking about one prisoner: Adnan Syed. Each Thursday we not only hear more about Adnan’s case, we hear Adnan. And for the 1.5 million listening to his voice week after week, one prisoner has become a person.

But when a cardboard cutout is replaced with the real thing, it can be confusing. We may not think about prisoners, but we do know we’re not supposed to like them; certainly we’re not to trust them. They are different from us in some fundamental way—that’s why they’re in prison, right? So what happens when you discover that you do kind of like this prisoner, maybe even believe him, or at least concede that he doesn’t seem to be all that different from the rest of us?

For Serial host and journalist Sarah Koenig, it throws her off-balance. Her preconceptions clash with her actual experience and she struggles to reconcile the two. She’s told us as much, and we can hear the confusion in her voice. Like in episode five, when she says to Adnan, “You’re a really nice guy … What does that mean …?!” In response, Adnan bristles. I don’t need someone to think I’m innocent because I’m nice, he tells her, I need someone to think I’m innocent because the case against me is flimsy. Koenig concedes the point, and all of us listening in, enthralled and entertained, are, for one poignant moment, reminded what is on the line for Adnan.

In the next episodes, Koenig ostensibly turns her attention to the details of the case. But her confusion remains. In fact, it’s what drives her investigation, and it’s also what throws her off-track. Because in her mind “good guy” and “capacity to take a life” can’t co-exist, she sees only two roads: Is he innocent or am I a sucker? But her understanding of Adnan as “nice” only means one thing: Adnan is nice. It doesn’t mean you have to think he is nice. Nor does it mean Adnan is innocent.

I should share at this point that I believe Adnan is innocent. The evidence does not prove his guilt and I believe in the justice of “innocent until proven guilty.”

I should also share that I believe in rehabilitation. There are prisoners who are really nice guys—upstanding guys—enjoyable to talk to and, without question, guilty. I didn’t know this before I met actual prisoners, “lifers” even, but once I did, it became an unavoidable reality. Murder is an act, not a trait or as Koenig suggests “in the DNA,” and I believe that no person is completely and permanently defined by one act of any kind. As much as I believe this to be true, I also believe that for the loved ones of the victim this truth is suspended.

So Adnan is “nice” and this tells us nothing about his guilt or innocence. But it does tell us something important, something so obvious, but so overlooked. It tells us that Adnan is not, de facto, “scum” or de facto anything. Adnan is a person. All prisoners are. Yes, it’s an odd thing to have to say, but whether rightfully or wrongfully convicted, prisoners are human, and not some aberrant breed of human.

In Adnan, Koenig has discovered the individual otherwise hidden by the “Prisoner” tag. Yet, and presumably in the name of journalistic integrity, she then decides to turn him back into a cardboard cutout: Adnan might be a sociopath she wonders; and this theory becomes a serious line of inquiry.

Now, a different way to go about this would be to simply acknowledge that, yes, Adnan is a prisoner, Adnan is a nice guy, Adnan is a person. Then, if evidence suggests possible “scum-like” or sociopathic, psychopathic or other aberrant tendencies, by all means Koenig should follow that inquiry.

I admit, I don’t think this is just “another way.” If we have any interest in the truth, as well as ethics, it is the better way. It is how Koenig approaches Jay. Listeners ask why she doesn’t dig deeper into Jay, and it’s because she is affording him a respect that she should, ethically, and she must, legally. But Adnan . . . he’s fair game. And nobody (except Adnan) even notices. Prisoners are the bad ones, we’re the good ones, so we get to treat them badly. It sounds a bit perverted when you lay it out, but it’s pretty much how we operate.

Of course it’s more than disrespectful that Koenig legitimizes the sociopathic theory, it actually introduces bias—and in the name of objectivity, even. Keen and constant questioning is great journalism. Reification of gross generalizations, stereotypes and cultural mythologies—especially those based more on murder mysteries than real life—is not. But journalism forever struggles to tell the difference between these two.

It’s hard to even fault Koenig. She’s following accepted thinking and the standards set by her profession. She’s making the most of her skills and talents to get an important story heard. She needs to give full consideration to the possibility of Adnan’s guilt. I get that. I’m a proud skeptic myself, and I like Koenig’s sharp quizzical mind. But to pluck stuff out of the cultural ether and legitimize it in the name of impartiality is not at all impartial. It is ridiculous and it is dangerous, because we all know what’s in that ether. It’s what helped pull the trigger that killed Trayvon Martin and John Crawford III and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and so many more. It’s why black men are given longer sentences than white men for the same crime. Floating in that ether is a host of unsubstantiated, yet prevalent, beliefs and judgments. Just take your pick.

Actually, that’s a great idea. You’re already listening to Serial, so go ahead, dive into that ether and pick out those unconscious judgments about prisoners, current and former. Start paying attention to them. Ask about their validity. Do you believe them? Do you practice them even if you don’t believe them? Be open to all the information out there about the justice system and actual prisoners, or seek it out (see below). And don’t just stick to Adnan—when you let one person represent an entire group that’s a good indicator that you’re back in the realm of generalizations, stereotypes and mythologies.

I hate to say it, but while you’re at it, if you believe Jay did it, you know Jay’s African American, so are there any generalizations, stereotypes and mythologies swirling around him? Or will he become a reason to apply any of those to other African Americans? And what does it do to our perceptions that we know the ethnic and racial identities of Adnan, Jay and Hae, but not Stephanie or Jenn or Hae’s boyfriend or 10 to 20 other people that are part of this story? As we listen to Serial, there are so many significant questions we could be asking. Unfortunately, the one we ask the most, Whodunit, is perhaps the least significant of all.


TEDx inPrisons: Jim, Andrew, Ben, Rickey, Dan, Rapheal, Frank & Co, Deonta, Najmuddeen, Piper, Pete, Sylvia & Janet, Juan, Diego, Rusty, Kevin, Lee, Joshua, Jason

Podcast: This is Criminal

Justice books and memoirs:

Criminal Justice online news source: The Marshall Project,



Serial Podcast: It Won’t Prove ‘Whodunit’ & Here’s Why You’ll be OK with That

27 Nov

Serial podcast Adnan won't prove whodunit

Is he guilty? And if not, who is? I ask this question. Everyone listening to Serial asks it. Some are obsessed with it. Even to the exclusion, I fear, of more crucial questions. But if Adnan’s guilt or innocence is driving your obsession with Serial, I can tell you now that you will not get the definitive verdict you desire. This is not just because Serial is, after all, a story; it’s because the police case is a story, the trial is a story. Serial has sparked discussion about the role of storytelling in journalism, yet far more interesting, Serial has revealed the role of storytelling in our justice system. From Jay’s testimony to the police investigation, evidence did not convict Adnan. A story did. Even what looks like evidence—cell phone “pings”—only become damning when spun into a story.

Something odd is happening here: With five million listening in their own personal jury box, Sarah Koenig sharing her testimony, and procedural rules written on the fly, a podcast has, however inadvertently, become a public courtroom. While the police investigation looks more like a writer’s room and the courtroom a stage for storytelling.

Evidence, the one factor we assume decides guilt and innocence, is simply missing from this case. There’s little chance Koenig will find it. The Innocence Project might. By episode 12? Well, we can dream. What Koenig will do and has already done—unless she’s withholding (unforgiveable at this point)—is dismantle the story Adnan was convicted on. She’s already revealed falsehoods and inconsistencies. Remove these and the narrative structure collapses. The only answer we can realistically expect from the public courtroom that is Serial is not who’s guilty, but was Adnan’s trial fair and just.

No doubt, despite the lack of definitive proof, we’ll all come to and tweet our own verdict. But if you still feel you just need to know whodunit, there are a few options available to you:

  1. Follow the Innocence Project investigation. In fact, when they took on the case in Episode 7, that’s the point at which Serial should have properly ended. I’m speaking, of course, purely theoretically. Had this happened, just like you, I would have been devastated.
  2. If there is no longer a guilty “story” and yet also no additional proof, one option is to just go along with the founding principal of the American justice system—innocent until proven guilty. That means accepting, at least in legal terms, that Adnan is innocent, wrongly convicted and mistakenly incarcerated for fifteen years.
  3. If none of this works and your curiosity simply cannot be quelled, think about Hae Min Lee and the people who love her. I hope to god they are not listening to Serial. I hope their news is being filtered so that they never read this or any commentary on Serial. Yes, this is so that they are spared our public appraisal and enjoyment of “events” that to them is, in fact, their life and utterly traumatic. But it is also so that they are spared from living with the gnawing possibility that Hae’s killer is free and that a person Hae cared about is suffering deeply and unjustly. So no matter how much we think we just need to know, we can remind ourselves that the ones who really need to know the truth are the ones who love Hae Min Lee.

So when the last episode airs and we are left with unknowns, instead of feeling cheated maybe we can appreciate what we’ve gained from this story and also what we’ve lost—perhaps the kneejerk assumption that every prisoner is a sociopath or that our justice system functions justly. We can go further. We can learn about the Marshall Project. Not just watch, but read Orange Is The New Black. Listen to Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk. Read his book. When we all tweet our verdicts on Adnan, we can take a moment to search #cjreform. And you know, Agatha Christie wrote like 80 books. And, at any given time, Law & Order is bound to be playing on some cable channel. Better yet, I think you can now download the classic radio mystery The Shadow Knows. See, we’ll be fine. The rest of us will be fine.

What if Next Summer Kids Enjoy Their Own Childhood, Not Ours

22 Sep

It’s official, summer’s over. On the one hand, I’m not ready. On the other, it’ll be a nice long break from all the reveries of summers past. You know the ones with the roving bands of kids, no supervision, lots of TV, Bugles, red dye #2 and a lovingly recalled near-miss involving a rusty nail, perhaps, or a loaded handgun. Maybe you saw that How-To for creating a 1970s summer that was so popular on Huff Post. Don’t download the schematics for a water park built out of 125 pool noodles, it told us, just let the kids watch Love Boat reruns, eat fritos, drink kool-aid, roam the outdoors, live at friends’ houses, and play Milton Bradley games.

I read it, and it brought back fun memories of doing every single one of those things. But then I realized: What I really wish I had, was a memory of making a pool noodle water park with my mom—making anything, really, with my mom.

To quote the author of another one of these reveries, “My parents were off in a different galaxy, and I felt it.” For the man who wrote it (John Beckman in the NYTimes), this planetary alignment meant wild summers of fun mixed with danger, involving tree forts, tunnels, BBs, shoplifting, sitting in a hot-wired car and holding a loaded handgun. Like most in this genre, the reminiscence is followed by a lament for today’s overprotected children and then the advice to let go of the reins. This one was titled “All Children Should Be Delinquents.”

It’s a wish that only economically stable parents of white children can have (or try to have). If we didn’t know this already, we do now. This summer has also taught us that, for certain people, parenting 70s-style can get you arrested.

But this is how nostalgia works. It is naive by nature, able to write whatever story it wants. That’s what makes it fun, as well as useful. We feel dissatisfied, so we conjure an antidote. Even though the dissatisfaction is often with something that is impossible to change—like change for instance and, more specifically, aging—it doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate gripes. When my daughter tells me she plays “tag-less” tag at school (“no hitting”) I’m tempted to fire off one of these nostalgic missives myself.

But whatever my current frustrations may be, before I go enforcing my past on someone else’s present, it’s worth asking: Just because my childhood was mine and “I survived” is that reason enough to want it for my kids?

First I think about that parental directive that conjures so much freedom and fun: Be home by dark. But the other side of be home by dark, or being home but without adult presence, is that you learn by doing things—not very well. I wasted a lot of time flailing through life skills, where just a bit of adult modeling or guidance here and there could have made a difference. There’s the small stuff, like how to cut an onion, and the big stuff, like knowing that asking for help is an option and also knowing how one might go about doing it.

And just one adult paying attention would have saved the victims of some very stupid pranks. Unlike Beckman, I can’t even justify my bad behavior with a lesson learned. I knew it was mean, and not even fun, to knock on trailer park doors and when the doors opened, squirt water guns and run, but I was with the cool big kids, so I did it. No moral gained, only shame.

Because in the fiefdom that is run by neighborhood kids, it is the loudest voice and the biggest bullies that rise to the top. Kids learn not to show weakness, to pretend they can do things when they can’t, and pretend they don’t feel things when they do.

As it turns out, none of these are helpful life skills, but they are hard to unlearn.

Another feature of these nostalgic reveries is their pro-danger policy. This I get and yet don’t get. Yes, kids should climb trees and explore their world, but I’m not so sure that danger in itself is all that great of a pedagogical tool. My kids are more sheltered from danger than I was, but I was more sheltered from knowledge. As a result, I naively courted real dangers my kids either know to avoid or, at least, will know something about what they’re getting into. Of course, I survived those dangers unscathed because of my self-reliance and cool head…I wish. Truth is, more than once I ended up in the path of men with weapons, and it was basically stupidity that got me there, and sheer luck that got me out. As my daughter (inevitably) walks these lines of stupidity, self-reliance and luck, I want her to know that, if she needs it, trusted adult guidance is here for her.

But if there is one aspect of the idealized summer portrait that I find most baffling, it is the nostalgia for 1970s TV. I’m sure the temptation to romanticize The Love Boat or Gilligan’s Island is strong, but before you take that stance, I advise you to watch them both again, but with a kid, and feel their respect for you plummet. It’s not just the offensive messages (of which there are plenty). The shows are terrible. The future did not deliver us the Jet Paks we were promised, but today’s world is truly better in two ways: LGBT rights and kid’s TV. The proof is in Phineus & Ferb and The Backyardigans, and when it comes to MLP FIM, the geek boy Bronies are spot-on.

It’s not a bad thing to question if we are somehow overprotecting or stunting our kids. But to respond by burdening our kids with our own childhood ideal is, at the core, not that different from the “meddling” of so-called helicopter parents. One tries to create comfort and success for their kids; the other tries to create independence and “fun,” but both are primarily driven by adult needs and adult definitions.

Each one of us at some point in our young lives had that first taste of hard-won personal power—competency, and that sense of who we are and what we are capable of. Of course we want this experience for our kids. But, honestly, how we gained these things is our story. We can reread it as many times as we want, but no matter what, “kids today” have their own story to write, and it might be just as good…or better.



Memo to all alchemists of celluloid gold re: Frozen

28 Apr

Frozen image

Mom, can we listen to Frozen?
Mom, can we get Frozen on dvd?
Yep, I already ordered it. 
Mom, can we see Frozen again?
“Let us go. Let us go”
Mom, so when will we get the Frozen DVD?

Today. Wanna watch it? On a school night?

And so through the Magic of Disney, one young girl’s thrifty, screen-limiting, forever-thwarting mother is transformed, in the flick of a sparkly wand, into Mom of her dreams.

My 9-year-old loves Frozen. I love Frozen. It’s not like Frozen needs our declaration of love, it has two Oscars and $1 billion in box office love already. But I profess it, nonetheless, because at this very moment the lab coats of Hollywood are busily mixing their formula and oiling the crank on the conveyer belt. A flurry of Frozen knock-offs is coming, and I want to do all I can to help them get it right.

So to all the alchemists of box office gold, my first suggestion is to dump whatever variant on sisterly love you and your lab mates have already concocted. Anna’s act of true love for her sister Elsa is lovely, inspiring and heartfelt, and no doubt so would be the true love between your script’s two cousins or stepsisters or (even better) frenemies. But, while a twist on true love is fine, in itself, it’s not going to give your formula the bubble and fizz it needs.

But, wait, you say, subverting the princess-waiting-for-her-prince motif is the whole reason for Frozen’s success. To channel Anna: “ACT-u-a-lly, it’s not” This plot line is revolutionary only if the last kids’ film you saw was from the ‘70s. For today’s 5 to 12 year old—not so much. The shining-armored prince is adult baggage, and like TSA agents posted at the gates of childhood, Tiana, Brave, Tangled, et al., have been keeping our kids safe for some time now.

Don’t fret too much, because you do get to keep the comic foil/companion. It can be either animal or object, as long as it kinder, wiser, cuter, goofier and funnier than any human friend could ever be. Olaf may, in fact, be the exemplar, so you’re probably already off to a good start.

Be sure, though, to pay close attention to the ingredients Frozen left out. Number one in this category: the evil mother figure. While the 45-year-old Hollywood exec may have mother issues, your key audience just gets confused when you make mom (and mom-like figures) the source of all evil. Best to leave it out or, like Frozen, call it out as the ridiculous trope that it is—“Elsa’s not evil!” scoffs Anna.

Okay, off to a good start, but we’ve not yet turned celluloid into gold. For that, you need to know that it’s not just me, it’s not just my daughter, Dad enjoys Frozen too. He sings along with the soundtrack and channels Olaf with some regularity.

You know why this is important: He’s outside the target demographic! Yet Dad Dollars certainly helped to break the box office. I think, too, that we should take note of the fact that Dad handed over his dollars even though Frozen rarely winks at him. When they watch Frozen together, dad and daughter laugh at the same jokes for the same reasons, and are touched by the same scenes. Frozen’s niche audience seems to be anyone who has 1) experienced childhood; and/or 2) had a relationship, be it with a sister, a sweetheart or a snowman.

It is, of course, more powerfully relevant to those who, in their relationships with others, feel acutely the expectations of those others—be they parents, teachers, friends—and also feel compelled to take those expectations seriously, even as it squelches their own spirit (aka “conceal, don’t feel”). This means: girls, a little more than boys; and women, a little more than men (and at over 50% of the population, you’re looking at a pretty good demographic).

Boys and men are certainly burdened by the “shoulds” of life, too (100%, an even better demographic). In fact, we probably dole out expectations to boys and girls in equal measure, but when it comes to compliance, boys (who “will be boys’) get more of a pass, while girls “should know better.”

Then along comes a movie that acknowledges this pressure “to behave” and even offers a vicarious moment of freedom, in the form of a super-fun-to-sing anthem. Frozen touched a nerve, a particularly sensitive one for girls, but in no way unique to the female anatomy. So getting back to the formula, you’ll need a strong measure both of relevance and relate-ability.

Does that mean chuck the overt “Girl-Power?” Why yes, it does. We both know that kids can peg an adult rah-rah message from miles away, and also that they understand, much better than us, the difference between play-acting feeling and real feeling. Pretend empowerment is not gonna fill your theater seats, if you want to keep ‘em coming back, give ‘em the real thing—so cut the bluster and just sing something relevant, meaningful and validating about their lives. [See: Let It Go]

Now if this was all there was to the formula, even Frozen would have fizzled by now. But the movie has two other essential compounds. First, from title to ending credits, Frozen remained a should-free zone. No one leaves the theater feeling like they need to try to be something they are not. This is the obvious choice given the movie’s theme, yet in this genre, it’s an almost impossible result to get. From the trolls there is wisdom to be found, for sure, but while they may be heavy in the hands, they are not heavy-handed. What they offer in fact is a hand-hold.

As for the second compound, the movie tells an important truth: people who love you can hurt you—deeply, also unintentionally and regretfully—but they hurt you and love you at the same time, and the love and you can survive, even thrive. Most adults struggle with this truth, yet Jennifer Lee and company had enough faith in kids to put it in their movie—and to leave it there. It doesn’t get explained away, or chocked up to some mystical and easily defeated evil force; instead, the movie shares something truthful about the world we live in (you know, along with the ice powers, trolls and talking snowman). Truth is powerful—you may have heard that saying—and to be trusted with truth is empowering.

So with these basic ingredients, I think you can take it from here. But just one more thing before you head back to the lab: The other day I overheard my husband asking our daughter what it is she loves so much about Frozen and here’s what she said:

“You know how Dora is all ‘Swiper no swiping, Swiper no swiping,’ and how the ninjas think the world of Ningago is going to be devoured, but the whole time we know that Swiper’s never going to swipe anything and everyone in Ningago will be just fine…? But Frozen, it’s just a good story: I didn’t know what was going to happen next!”

 Hmm, sounds like what she’s saying is that she liked that it wasn’t too formulaic. So, that’s something you might want to work into your formula, too.


Image courtesy of Disney 


the More that is Made when we Make

1 Oct

Last summer I witnessed a bit of “History” being made. It was a Friday midmorning in late July, and I was sitting in a windowless room in the back of an East Main Street building. In front of me was a small stage with a table, two chairs, two pairs of corded headphones and two dancers rehearsing “A History”—the newest work from the Bebe Miller Dance Company, which premiered this week at the Wexner Center for the Arts.

I was there to do this brief write-up. I’d already read and talked to some people about this new piece. I knew it drew on the actual history of the dance company, its interpersonal dynamics and its unique process of creating. I knew, too, that it involved a lot of rummaging through recordings, notes, videos, perceptions, memories, movements, connections, gestures, friendships, discoveries and whatever else is or isn’t or is in-between the accumulated life of this long-time creative collaboration. But ask me what any of that really meant or what it might look like…I had nothing. So, I sat in my seat in the third row and watched.

Bebe Miller, company director, choreographer, dancer, professor and—to quote some critics—“visionary,” “translator,” “observer,” “seer,” “eyewitness” and “cartographer of human emotion,” sat just left of the stage with company dramaturge Talvin Wilks. Together, they watched and commented as dancers Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones would move, speak, sit, stand, stretch, laugh, as if, according to Talvin’s direction, they were “listening to all the conversations in a cocktail party and playing all the roles.”

I had been told that for Bebe Miller the getting there is as important as the there, and on that July day, getting there meant returning again and again to the shape of a circle. This was not a symbolic circle, nor a motif repeated in the arrangement of arms, legs and fingers. Rather, with ease and spontaneity, company members would literally and repeatedly circle-up to share, question, explore, joke, chat—to collaborate, but with an engagement, freedom, comfort and openness that was striking.

“Something happened there. What was it?” Angie asks as the four draw together again. Talvin puts into words what they all just experienced: “You let the language land,” he says, “it’s no longer battling.” Later the dancers ask if they should follow a certain direction, Bebe responds, “We can aim for that, but let’s see what happens.” When Bebe makes a suggestion, the dancers try it and announce that it helps—that’s great, but Bebe still asks, “How?” And all the while that Angie and Darrell move so do the cords from the headphones. The lines cross, dangle, tangle, wrap around chair legs (“I’m hung,” says a stuck Angie at one point). At this rehearsal, it seems even the props are collaborators.

Witnessing this process of discovery unfold within this easy rapport, I begin to get, though still rather clumsily, what “A History” is about. But what I get with absolute clarity is that it is already fascinating, and though I can’t say what it will mean I trust that it will be meaningful.

On Saturday, I saw “A History.” And I was right to trust. I hope I’m also right to trust my instinct not to write so much about what happened on stage, but about what happened afterwards. I had made my spouse come along. Though, artistically willing to give things a go (he’s listened to the unlistenable, by which I mean Harry Partch and Fred Firth, and he’s sat through Guy Maddin’s early movies) sometimes I have to force these things and Greg does not much like dance. The language is too self-conscious, he says, more aware of how it is talking than what it is saying. “Or,” he concedes, “maybe I just don’t understand it.”

Yet, Greg didn’t exactly seem reluctant to go to Bebe Miller. He was intrigued, I think. Also, I had made sure to always refer to it as a “performance.” When that performance was over—THE END literally writ across the screen—he turned to me with eyes I feel I can accurately call “gleaming” and said, “That was good. I really liked that.”

When it was over we both applauded because that is what you do. But the timing seemed wrong, the piece was over but the experience was still churning. Plus, a clap seemed an ill-match for expressing our appreciation—I sensed others felt the same. Maybe the company predicted this, or maybe they just like dialogue, in any case they came back out for a bit of Q&A.

Though dance is “ineffable,” to quote a front-row audience member, many shared well-articulated praise, expressing gratitude for the aesthetic and emotional “wows,” and sharing how the questions and discoveries that drove the piece were resonant in their own lives—musing about what the experience of “remembering remembering” is; about what else is created when people create together; about the history that resides in the body; and how a specific physical movement can trigger entry into a whole new world.

To my surprise, Greg was one of those asking questions. And later as we made our way out of the auditorium he went on about how “full-fledged” both dancers were and how impressive that was; they were “distinct personalities” but “equal partners,” he said, “they would and could trade roles.” Outside we are walking to the car and he hasn’t stopped. (I love it, so for once in our relationship I stay quiet.) He’s blown away by how the dancers move—pliable, loose, fast, but utterly controlled—and how they made trust so palpable. “You can see the acceptance and tension and playfulness….I realize,” he interrupts himself for a second, “I’m talking like a guy who just got high for the first time.” Then, a smile still on his face, he relaunches: “And the spoken parts were like music, in synch, out of synch…” and on he goes.

There is one particularly lovely moment in “A History.” The two dancers are running in a circle side-by-side having a good time, the pace speeds up and the feeling intensifies. Angie quietly drops out. She simply stands to the side. The space is mostly Darrell’s, and he zooms. It’s as if every muscle in his body is turning on it’s own separate axis. And then he stops and utterly composed walks over to where Angie is and places himself next to her.

On Sunday, a day later, Greg and I are at home sitting at the table eating dinner. He starts to tell our daughter about the performance, but then turns to me and he says, “You know, I never asked, what do you think about the dance last night?”

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A Fair Day

2 Aug

We’ve got How Stuff Works and How It’s Made and How Do They Do It; Make me TV-programmer-for-a-day and we’d also have Why Do They Do It. The IT is one thing, even a fascinating thing, but there’s always a person (maybe two, maybe more) who uses, invents, drives, fixes, promotes or cleans the IT. Or just does IT, whatever the IT may be. That’s the bit I’m always curious about.

What I most want to know is just how a person starts at one point—let’s say, for example: Birth—and ends up at another—like Blimp Pilot.

So, say I’m an editor and I get a pitch, From “Gus” to “Gus the Squashcarver:” The Path Revealed, I’m sold. How ’bout you?

While you ponder, here’s more Fair pictures:

Animal Rebellions

25 May

NEW DELHI — The first interloper stepped in front of her on the sidewalk and silently held up his hand. The second appeared behind her and beckoned for her bag. Maeve O’Connor was trapped.

Resistance would have been dangerous, so Ms. O’Connor handed it over. The two then sauntered arrogantly away. The whole encounter lasted no more than 15 seconds — just one more coordinated mugging by rhesus monkeys in a city increasingly plagued by them.

“I had other bags with me, but they knew the bag that had the fresh bread in it,” Ms. O’Connor said.

“They were totally silent, very quick and highly effective.”

—from “Indians Feed the Monkeys, Which Bite the Hand”

Is this not a perfect beginning? And it works even better in its native habitat — the front page of The New York Times.

The rest of the story is good, too, but, of course, I’ve a bit of an interest in animal rebellions. It’s a casual interest. I don’t seek out stories, but I take notice, and when I come across a good one I save it. I’ve done this since the late 90s, inspired by perhaps the best animal rebellion story I’ve heard—

It’s Friday and a man on a weekend trip is driving north on a mountain road when he hits and kills a wolf. He stops momentarily; then continues on. On Sunday, he is returning along the same road when a pack of wolves, lying in wait, come blazing down the hill and attack his car—and only his car—at the very same spot where the wolf had been hit?


I should be clear: while I love animals (cause it’s really hard not to), my feelings run more towards respect than devotion, and I’m not particularly well-educated in the earth sciences or have much to say about things like biodiversity and overpopulation. What I am is mildly curious about the different beings that inhabit our world and what happens when we cross paths and discovering that a wolf stakeout of a red Honda is one thing that can happen…well….

The planning and depth of emotion that goes into these animal rebellions is totally fascinating. But I think it may be the anti-Darwinian desire for payback that really gets me. It’s true that in my collection I have an article about the predator-lion who adopted and nurtured her oryx-prey (2002) and also there’s one about a herd of teary-eyed elephants, about 100 in all, who gathered to mourn the loss of seven of their own (2001). But these feel-good stories are far outnumbered by the tales of revenge.

In Malawi, wildlife officials concerned about trampled crops kill a hippo. The bereaved widow returns to the spot of the killing and runs amok. “At the rate it is destroying our fields, most of us won’t harvest anything,” reports Chief Mkumbira of the Zomba district. (2002)

In Thailand, a giant female king cobra bites the hand of a pineapple plantation picker one month after her mate, a male king cobra, was run over and killed. The bitten worker is the wife of the man who found the dead snake, picked it up and added it to the pineapple pickers’ cooking pot. “The female cobra saw me take its mate and blamed me for killing it,” said the man, “This must be the revenge of the snake on me.” (2003)

In Bangladesh, stick-wielding hanuman monkeys—the same type as mentioned above—rampage a village, attacking homes and shops in retaliation for the death of a baby monkey. The death happened earlier in the day, when a resident had thrown a stone at a group of monkeys, which sent the baby running into a high-voltage line and to its death. (2003)

I also found stories of unexplained aggression: A murder of crows dive-bombs pedestrians in Germany (2003); a dolphin goes rogue on the French coast threatening swimmers, overturning boats, and knocking fishermen and women into the sea (2006). Though unexplained, it is easy for me to assume that these acts, like the more clear acts of vengeance, are motivated. And at the root, it is likely that they are a response to something nasty we humans did or built, whether we were aware or naive of the harmful consequences.

But the New Delhi monkeys add an interesting twist. They are demanding little brats. And the humans, while certainly guilty of anthropocentrism and perhaps a bit of overindulgent care, are good-intentioned. As the writer Gardiner Harris goes on to explain, the monkeys are revered as the living form of the Hindu god Hanuman and following Hindu tradition they are fed by humans—but only on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Who wouldn’t have some sympathy for the monkeys? Caught, as they are, between being smart but not smart enough (at least in the ways of humans). How are they to tell a Tuesday from a Thursday?

Carol Stewart

8 May

Franklinton Map

Just before her last birthday, I interviewed Carol Stewart about Franklinton. The up, then down, twice submerged, and now, perhaps, upcoming Columbus neighborhood is immediately west of downtown. It is also HQ for Carol Stewart’s good works. 

Carol Stewart died last month. She was 73. 

What I know of her accomplishments, leadership, expertise and heart amounts to barely a sliver, considering just how much she’s done and for how long. But from our brief interaction, I could tell Carol Stewart was one mighty human being. It wasn’t something I saw in the force of her personality (though, at times, maybe others did). Rather, talking to her, it was simply clear that this was someone who was not going to be broken. 

Whether planting flowers on Franklinton’s massive mediums every spring for 23 springs or advocating for construction of a 7.2-mile floodwall, her efforts were driven by the same clarity and conviction. As she put it, “When there seemed to be something I thought needed to be done and no one was doing it, I would do it.” 

At one point in our conversation she was explaining CDBG (a label for downtown and surrounds) and her work with teenagers on the Columbus Neighborhood Clean Team, when, off-the-cuff, she shared this aside: “I have been in every alley in the whole CDBG area,” she said, “from Linden, down to the south end, east to Nelson Rd, and west to Hague Avenue.” Though it may not make the list, quite long already, of her accomplishments, this was something she was clearly proud of. To know every alley and to take pride in this, speaks to the depth of her involvement and also to that clarity and conviction of hers. No matter if it’s in a neighborhood alley or the Mayor’s Office, if she thought it needed done, she’d do it.  

For Stewart, the measure of positive change was what it looked like on the ground and what it really did for those going about the daily business of living. At the moment, there’s a great deal of talking and planning about the future of her neighborhood. It’s a bit up in the air right now, but when it all hits the ground, I hope there will be people who ask, “How would this measure up for Carol Stewart?” 

What’s Circulating?

9 Feb

I still have a file folder of “Clips” and one labeled “letterhead/env.” Back in the query + writing sample + SASE days I was regularly pulling from both. Today, these files are relics, and their demise, I must say, is something I rejoice in every single working day.

In place of this cumbersome triumvirate, of course, we have the writer’s website. Or had. As newly minted as it is, website is even beginning to sound fossilized. It could be an early sign of a burgeoning linguistic trend — all nouns resistant to being “verbed” are but one or two usages from the dustbin — or perhaps it is a web-specific phenomenon: site simply too static to survive in the transmutable wide world of the web. Blog, on the other hand, is a crackerjack. Monosyllabic and itself born of a transmutation, it’s got the noun-verb status and, what’s more, knows how to use it. Likewise, internet presence is still hanging in there, extending its run by making the most of its non-specificity.

The upshot: Without a blog, without an active online presence, the writer’s website is nothing but a filed away folder of clips. To open it, we must post. The circulating assumption (formally known as conventional wisdom) is clear on this: to not blog, tweet, tumblr, pin or otherwise update is to petrify online, even as one might be thriving offline.

I, for instance, have all but hardened into stone, having not posted since November. But I’ve been busy. Writing.

The odd truth of it: internet absence may be a far better indicator of a good working writer—or at least a paid and productive one—than internet presence. That we believe the exact opposite reflects the capsized logic that rules of late. Like how the more cushy we make our day-to-day lives, the more stress we feel; or how an envelope stamped URGENT is never urgent and not even important and most the time can be tossed unread. And then there’s our incongruous willingness to shell out big bucks for variously sized rectangular boxes and data streams that do nothing but deliver content, coupled with our steadfast refusal to pay even a dime for the actual content—as if (and yes, it’s a somewhat simplified analogy) happily paying UPS, while demanding the package itself be free.

Certainly every other era has had its share of nonsense to contend with, and consequences far more scary. Which is to say that while, yes, today’s circulating assumptions often baffle and even irk me, I do get that witch-hunts are much worse.

TEDxColumbus (Part 2)

22 Nov

It’s my second round of musings on the 2011 TEDxColumbus: A Moment in Time  (the first is here) and, lovely timing, the videos of the talks are now viewable online. You can check if I got my quotes right, or better yet, decide what you think and share it with me.

On the morning of 11.11.11, frustrated while typing on my mobile, I imagined some kind of precision extendo-finger that would allow my S to be an S and not a D or some other neighboring letter on the tiny keyboard. Later that same day, while part of an audience of 600 at TEDxColumbus, I discovered that my idle morning musing was something much more. I was engaging in one of the most ancient of human battles: “the struggle between comfort and discomfort.” We think. We wonder.  This is what Alex Bandar tells us. “Our brains,” he says, “are wired to get bored.” The result is ideas. Ideas, though, get lost when we don’t know how to make them. While in some cases (see above) this is okay. In others (see Reade Harpham, among others) it’s not.

But metallurgist and engineer Alex Bandar is on it. He is fixing this problem.  At his maker shop and school—The Columbus Idea Foundry—he is “narrowing the chasm between concept and execution” and he wants to take his shop—a portable cargo container (in prototype)—to our youth and into our schools.  And with this revival of the lost art of making, just maybe society will be better off. When we know (as we once did) how our tools work, says Bandar, we design better and we think better.

“According to the Dispatch, I’m here to make you cry.” When she said this in reference to a recent newspaper article, TEDx speaker Theresa Flores did not sound so keen on this assessment. From her talk, it is clear why. What Flores wants is not to make us cry but to open our eyes.

Flores was once a suburban kid from an “intact” family. She was not naive, on drugs, or acting out, but still she was vulnerable to human trafficking, because, as her life attests, anyone can be vulnerable to human trafficking. Listening to her story (as I strongly urge you to do) there is a certain cognitive dissonance—the best kind of dissonance—in hearing it from someone who is, to use Flores’ own word, “healed.”

In my first post on TEDxColumbus, I described the day as a constant push-pull between unsettling Oh Hells! and inspiring Oh Wows! Bandar and Flores certainly provided both of these, but they gave us more, as did all the speakers. Throughout the day, we got facts—on wasp nests, for instance, and M&M technology. We got theories, wisdoms and ideas. And from all of it another through-line emerged. Interrupting the volley between the deflating Look what we have done and the inflating Look what we can do was, simply, Look.

Which brings me back to Flores. In being healed and thus able to look deeply and thoughtfully at the horror she experienced, she found a solution, one uniquely visible to her and that now helps others who are victimized by human trafficking.

This theme of “close looking” was set in motion, seemingly serendipitously, by the first speaker of the day, Denny Griffith, CCAD president and ever-approachable local “higher-up.” Speaking about his painterly life, Griffith shared his work—abstract, textured, subtle—and the unexpected sources of inspiration for his imagery: the leukemia cells that killed his father, the tsunami that devastated Japan. The paintings neither flinch, nor celebrate. The feel is more exploratory, almost receptive and, in their lack of judgment, even democratic.

In her talk, public affairs professional Susan Willeke suggested we take a close look at exactly what we are supposed to hide: our prejudice. Bias can be useful—keeps us from “eating tree bark and road kill,” reminds Willeke—and it, as we all know, can be damaging. Her belief: look at our biases, know what they are and only then are we in the position to decide whether or not to act on them.

Researcher and Yogi Maryanna Klatt, sharing a message of mindfulness, suggests relaxation comes, in part, from paying attention to what stresses us out. The key is coming to feel control over those stressors. And Jamie Greene—architect and top dog at 200 Columbus—implies that we needn’t resort to boosterism, bluster, sloganeering, or embellished narratives to promote this city. Take a moment to look and it is clear that everything we need is already here. The task is to reveal it.

Lastly, for energetic entomologist Mark Berman, to not look is utter craziness. Open your eyes, time and attention, he implores, and the rewards come flooding in. You may even get to bear witness to the fascinating and highly entertaining attention-seeking antics of the jumping spider.

So look. Don’t be stingy with your time and attention. As a result, you might be less callous, more mindful, less judgmental and, just maybe, you’ll make friends with a spider.

[While you’re at it, look at the TEDx videos, including Trent Tripple & Janet Parrott, whose ideas are so embedded in the story they tell, you might as well just go listen. You can check out the performances too, and don’t miss being called a “tool” by poet Rose Smith.]

Now, I’ve made things tricky for myself. By following this positive and non-judgmental request to “look” with my impressions of the event overall, I’ve left little room for criticism. But at the risk of sounding petty, I must say softer lighting would have been a welcome relief, and I’ll take a semi-circle auditorium over a deep rectangle any day of the week. But, in all honesty, there is not much else to harp on when an event is as well-run as this one. Parking and check-in were a breeze. It started and ended on time. The breaks felt like exactly the right length and lunch was planned perfectly. My randomized group of lunch-mates were interesting; involved; had a lot to say and also an eagerness to listen (a perfect combination, in my book). I even get that with the rectangular room also comes COSI, a supportive and friendly host.

But most important to me, while it is impossible to be TED, TEDxColumbus is impressively TED-like. Of course, it is supposed to be. But no one is out policing and I’m pretty sure that many, many TEDx’s fall way short of the mark. Columbus is lucky that organizer Ruth Milligan is, not just an enthusiast, but a sort of speech-junkie. On-board with the TED format—speakers might say an enforcer of the TED format—Milligan, along with Nancy Kramer and Allyson Kuentz, are to thank for our TEDx’s TED-ness.

And what exactly does this mean?: Talks that are no longer than 18 minutes. Speakers who know what they want to say and do so clearly and entertainingly with engagement and passion and without notes or self-promotion. The very best TED talks (rare but wonderful) manage to take the listener along the speaker’s same path of discovery, as if we are all thinking things through together. The demands of the format are a challenge. One TEDx presenter—composed, confident, poised and a veteran public speaker, even—was betrayed by a microphone left on a touch too long: “I’m so glad it’s over,” she exhaled with great relief as she exited the stage. I hope she knows the rigors of the format were worth it, because where else but at a TED event can an 8-hour day of lectures be so much fun?