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Archive for the ‘Things’ Category

In the run-up to this year’s Academy Awards I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz in the media about ways to spice up and/or shorten the show, and I’m compelled to take issue with two ideas in particular: skipping some of the more obscure awards like Best Sound Design and even further compressing Oscar winners’ speeches (one windbag suggested limiting them to “5 or 10 words”).  

I don’t think the average moviegoer would so blithely toss such ideas about if he or she had a clue how much work it takes, and by how many people, to make a movie that screens in a single theater, much less gets an Oscar nomination in any category!

I know this because I’ve been an average moviegoer all my life, and I’m embarrassed by what I used to think I knew about the process before I had a part in it.

I am still just getting started in the film business — one of my projects is beginning to take off after six years of development and there’s still no script yet — and the list of people I’d like to thank is already so long it would take me the entire duration of the Oscar show to name them all!  (Ethan P., Richard C., Hans W., Ryan L., Shaun O., Andrew R., Roger C., Barbara N., Simon K., Paul R., Peter H., George H., Patrick D., Peter B., Joe F., Eric K., Mark R., Fred S., David T., and I could go on and on…)

Making movies is a hugely collaborative art.  The process starts with (one would hope) a great story and a few people who know it when they see it.  That core team expands over the course of a production to include hundreds and sometimes thousands of creative, passionate, dedicated, tireless people, each of whom is necessary to advance the project toward the theater, even if only in some small way.

When I go to the movies I always stay to watch the credits (no matter how badly I need to use the bathroom).  There’s usually a handful of other people who stay too, for whatever reason, and that’s such a nice thing to see, I have to say, now that I’ve worked on a film crew (for no pay, I might add) and am actively producing two projects of my own.

I know the Oscar broadcast is a TV show and it’s got to be entertaining, but it’s also an industry awards convention and it’s the one time each year when the aforementioned average moviegoer gets a reminder that – actors and directors aside for the moment – movies wouldn’t get made without producers, writers, cinematographers, sound designers, mixers and editors, animators, costume designers, composers, art directors, production designers, and editors, to name only a few key players.

I think an awareness of this is en masse effort is important for the audience, especially now that movie ticket prices are the highest they’ve ever been, though that’s another can of worms.

I imagine it might not be long before the number of Oscars awarded during the television broadcast gets further truncated, and I suppose that’s as it has to be to keep people watching.

I just hope the winners get to keep their speeches so they have the chance to thank, even in broad terms, the people who helped them get to that stage.

If only they could all be as short and sweet as David Seidler’s from the 2011 Oscars, when he thanked his kids, his cast, his producers and the Queen, then accepted his award for Best Original Screenplay (The King’s Speech) on behalf of all the stutterers in the world.

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I don’t know when it happened in American politics that authenticity and intellect developed an either/or relationship, but the former does not have to come at the expense of the latter!

I’ve been wanting to shout that from on high since that harrowing night in 2008 when I heard Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, though I recall the first inklings dating back to John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

So why get on my soapbox now?

I was finally inspired to write this post by a commentary I heard on NPR’s Fresh Air this afternoon about Sarah Palin’s use (on multiple occasions) of the non-word “refudiate”and this subsequent Tweet/defense:

And celebrate her supporters did, as Fresh Air linguist Geoff Nunberg pointed out in his eloquent commentary:

“Like any successful politician, Palin is adept at making lemons into lemonade. But it was left to her champion William Kristol to whip the item into a lemon chiffon cake. In the Weekly Standard, he applauded Palin for enriching the English language with a blend that perfectly captures the agenda of contemporary conservatism: to refute liberal arguments and see liberal politicians repudiated at the polls.”

Another excerpt from Nunberg’s piece highlights the issue I’m really out to address:

“Not even Palin’s most ardent supporters would claim that she’s been a great reader. They prize her for her attitude and authenticity, not her erudition. Of course there are other people who blanch at the thought of a head of state whose speech flows so far from the stream of literate English prose. Fair enough. But inarticulateness doesn’t preclude political competence…”

I’m one of those who blanches at the idea of a leader who trumpets him or herself as authentic (or politically competent) as opposed to intellectual.  The two qualities are not mutually exclusive!  We don’t have to pick leaders who are one or the other!

Even if we did, I WANT MY PRESIDENT TO BE SMARTER THAN ME, ELEPHANT OR DONKEY!

I am so tired of conservative people, politicians and pseudo “news” organizations trying to sell the deranged idea that we can’t have our cake (smart leaders) and eat it too (authentic leaders) with buttercream frosting (political competence)!!

Perhaps the real problem is that a person would have to be nuts to run for President, given the demands of the process, to say nothing of the job, and that for a long time no party has been able to find us a candidate who is intellectual, articulate, authentic and approachable.

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I just pulled this week’s TIME Magazine out of my parents’ mailbox – my dad has a subscription – and the cover photograph literally stopped me in my tracks.

“The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight, demanding that Aisha, 18, be punished for running away from her husband’s house. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn’t run away, she would have died. Her judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved. Aisha’s brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose.”

Her husband.

I have not written a blog post for months, but I want people to see this image and I hope you’ll at least read the abridged version of the story online.  There is also a short video on TIME’s website in which the photographer, Jodi Bieber, talks about the process of photographing Aisha.

I agree with TIME’s decision to run this story now and to put this picture on its cover, from my perspective both as a journalist and a woman.  TIME’s Managing Editor Richard Stengel explains online that he feels “the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”

Ultimately our military and elected leaders will decide our country’s course in Afghanistan, but in the process Americans should have access to information about what is happening here and there, which this story provides:

“As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the need for an exit strategy weighs on the minds of U.S. policymakers. Such an outcome, it is assumed, would involve reconciliation with the Taliban. But Afghan women fear that in the quest for a quick peace, their progress may be sidelined. “Women’s rights must not be the sacrifice by which peace is achieved,” says parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi.

Yet that may be where negotiations are heading. The Taliban will be advocating a version of an Afghan state in line with their own conservative views, particularly on the issue of women’s rights. Already there is a growing acceptance that some concessions to the Taliban are inevitable if there is to be genuine reconciliation. “You have to be realistic,” says a diplomat in Kabul. “We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.”

First of all, women’s rights, human rights, should never be on the table as a concession or “sacrifice” for achieving anything!  Second, I wonder if that unnamed diplomat is a man…

As for the ongoing debate over the definition and value of journalism, I feel that this story is in many ways a case in point for the argument that our free society can not exist without it.

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Things: Farm Fresh Eggs

A small gift from friends this week allowed me to delight in life’s simple pleasures:

A half dozen fresh eggs from the chicken coop on the farmstead where my boyfriend and I rent a small cottage attached to a farmhouse circa the 1850s.

The owners had us over to chat this week and sent us home with this little box of goodness.  I was surprised that the eggs seemed like such a novelty;  I frequent my nearby farm stand and try to buy local as often as possible, but there’s been only a handful of occasions when I’ve had the good fortune to taste something this fresh.

Striped bass caught in Nantucket Sound, filleted only an hour before I ate it hot off a hibachi; raspberries as big as half-dollars plucked from the bushes of an Outward Bound island off the coast of Maine; a salad of mixed greens picked from my backyard only moments before; lemonade squeezed fresh at a weekend rodeo in 100 degree heat; heirloom apples that had just fallen from the trees here on the farm last fall.

It seemed a shame to wait until morning to try the fresh eggs, but I had dinner plans.  The next day I couldn’t bring myself to crack them open to make an omelet.  They were the prettiest eggs I’ve seen, each one as unique as the hen who laid it.

Finally I took some pictures, paused to savor the whole scenario, then cracked open two of the eggs, revealing a pert pair of bright yellow yolks.

Add some shredded Cabot cheddar, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, mix and pour into a buttered, heated cast iron pan.

The smell of the eggs cooking was better than any other I’ve known.

I ate slowly, and as I enjoyed every bite I longed for the time when factory farms was existed only in nightmares and food this fresh was convention.

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I stopped at the White Hen Pantry on my way home last night to pick up some coffee cream, and as I was getting out of my car I couldn’t help but notice the driver in the station wagon to my right, a woman in her mid-50s with salt and pepper hair and a slight frame.

She didn’t seem to notice or care that the cold fluorescent light from inside the store betrayed her privacy as she sat hunched over her steering wheel and scratched away at an instant win lottery ticket.

Inside the store I noticed another aspiring instant winner, this one an overweight, balding 30-something man sitting at one of the window tables, working through a scroll of scratch tickets.

When I got back to my car the woman in the station wagon was rifling through the change pocket of her wallet, presumably looking for enough coins to go back in and buy another ticket.

And to my left as I backed out of my parking space I noticed a man in a shabby pickup scratching away at a ticket.

Surrounded by aspiring instant winners I wondered how many of these people ever actually win anything.

The Mass. State Lottery tallies the winners of all of its offerings at Masslottery.com.

Here are the numbers of instant winners of prizes under $1M as of last week (it’s not clear whether these are annual or all-time totals):

I doubt that many would-be or frequent scratch ticket-buyers regularly scan this website, but I’d bet that a substantial number of the buyers have won something, even if it was only $1.00, a prize that’s hard to resist using for anything besides buying another ticket, considering that the odds of winning (also available on Masslottery.com) aren’t that steep.

For example the new $1 ticket “7 Come 11 2010” has a prize structure based on the sale of approximately 25,200,000 tickets.  For a $100 prize the odds are one in 4,000, but there are 6,300 winners per game.

These shots at instant wealth come cheap, too.  Even though every penny counts these days, a dollar isn’t that much to part with for a dose of hope.

But I saw a paradoxical mix of hope and despair on the faces of those White Hen Pantry patrons.  All three of them looked overdrawn, and in that state the fact that everyone has a slight chance of winning can be intoxicating.

Here are some statistics from the website for National Problem Gambling Awareness Week, which is coming up in early March:

  • 85% of US adults have gambled at least once in their lives.
  • Consumers spend more on legal gaming in the U.S. than most other forms of entertainment combined (1998 Gross Annual Wager Report, 1999)
  • Since 1975, the proportion of adults who “never gambled” dropped from 1 in 3 to 1 in 7.
  • In 1999 the National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimated the annual cost to society of problem gambling was $5 billion.
  • During fiscal year 2002, U.S. lottery sales totaled $42.4 billion; per capita sales were $168 (NASPL, 2003)

And these numbers are dated – imagine what they’re up to now, in the midst of the worst recession in decades.  I know these aren’t new or surprising facts and observations, but the scene at that store made me stop and think, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of those people.

I’ve scratched a handful of winners in my day, and I remember the fleeting sparkle of hope, the tiny burst in my chest as that tantalizing metallic gray coating gave way to a second 9, and then a third!  It always took a lot of will power to take what I won and walk, which I haven’t always done.

At this same White Hen Pantry my boyfriend recently bought me a $1 scratch ticket as an inside joke to cheer me up.  I won $1 and, feeling high on hope, I convinced him to go back into the store and use the winning ticket to buy another.

When he came back he made me promise not to scratch the new ticket that night, lest I go back to being sad.  Good move because I didn’t win anything as I learned a week later when I found the ticket in my wallet.

By the way, while researching this post I learned that this weekend Massachusetts becomes the latest of dozens of states (and the last of the New England states) to start selling Powerball tickets.  That popular lottery’s website says the odds of winning its grand prize are 1 in 195,249,054.

You can also read the stories of past Powerball winners on the site, including cattle rancher Neal Wanless of rural Mission, South Dakota, who won $88,504,147.00 after taxes last year.  He bought a ticket while on a supply run 35 miles from his ranch in a town called Winner.

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When I pitch story ideas to the various news outlets I report for, one word that comes up a lot during conversations with my editors is “surprise,” an essential, but often elusive ingredient of the successful story.

In any form of storytelling, surprise is like the baking soda in a classic chocolate chip cookie recipe; the dough might look good and even taste good without it, but if you don’t add enough or forget to add the baking soda altogether, the cookies will ultimately come out flat and forgettable.

By definition, surprise sounds simple enough:

Picture 1

But “unexpected” is the key word; finding new story ideas that the listener/reader/viewer does not expect can be extremely challenging.

For example, a lot of reporters who are looking for new ways to cover our country’s current economic trials end up re-telling the same stories using this tired formula:

the recession + (blank*) = a story

*chiropractors, campgrounds, caterers, etc.

The problem with a lot of the stories that follow this formula is that whatever goes in the blank is often something the listener would expect to be the case during a recession, so the story comes as no surprise to them.

By contrast, here are two examples of recent news stories that, in my opinion, got it right:

NPR ~ For Some Pilots, Home is an LAX Parking Lot: Commercial airline pilots have created a city of trailers and RVs in a parking lot along the edges of the nation’s third busiest airport.

New York Times ~ Living in Tents, and by the Rules, Under a Bridge: Other tent cities have sprung up recently around the country, but Rhode Island officials have never seen anything like this.  The community… established a five-member leadership council and a compact that read in part: “No one person shall be greater than the will of the whole.”

My family members come to me with a lot of good story ideas, but more often we won’t be talking about story ideas at all, and they’ll mention things they saw or heard in passing that are far more surprising.

This mystifies me!  Maybe the difference is in my journalism training and their lack thereof, or in their own low opinion of their storytelling judgment – I don’t know.  But this phenomenon makes me wonder what incredible untold stories are flying around out there in the world, waiting to be recognized and shared.

If you spot one, please drop me a line.


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niki-and-joel-wedding28e1

Photo by Susie Bauer

I just got home from a brief visit to Milwaukee, where I had the pleasure of tasting frozen custard for the first time, at a charming establishment called Leon’s.

Locals boast that Leon’s makes the world’s best frozen custard, and they proudly recall that Bill Clinton insisted on stopping there whenever the campaign trail brought him through town.

(And all this time I thought cheese and beer were Wisconsin’s big draws…)

Indeed, Milwaukee also seems to be the unofficial “custard capital of the world”.

But from what I can tell, this frozen delight was first concocted on Coney Island in 1919 or thereabouts (though there’s evidence of earlier iterations).

Leon’s has been around for more than 50 years, family owned and operated, its proprietors serving as “consultants to the frozen custard industry since 1942.”

niki-and-joel-weddinge71

Photo by Susie Bauer

In addition to the standard midwest drive-in fast food fare, Leon’s serves malts, shakes and three frozen custard flavors daily – vanilla, chocolate and butter pecan – and one special feature flavor that changes every day.  I ordered a scoop each of vanilla and chocolate, and fell in love at first bite.

(Nice price too, just over $6 for 4 sizeable servings.)

Before long I got to wondering how frozen custard is different from ice cream.  Come to find out, its culinary specifications, at least in this country, are stipulated by federal law:

Frozen custard shall contain 1.4 percent egg yolk solids by weight of the finished food: Provided, however, that when bulky flavors are added the egg yolk solids content of frozen custard may be reduced in proportion to the amount by weight of the bulky flavors added, but in no case is the content of egg yolk solids in the finished food less than 1.12 percent.

Can’t you just picture those nerdy federal foodies haggling over egg yolk solid percentage points?  (For some reason, in my imagination, they’re wearing hair nets…)

Read on through their fine print (see paragraph f, section 1, “nomenclature”) and one learns that custard is a.k.a. “french ice cream”.

French?!?  Interesting…  I’ve also tasted something similar in Sienna, Italy.

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Regardless of where frozen custard came from, Milwaukeans insist that theirs is some of the world’s finest.  I look forward to conducting many taste tests, the world over, to weigh their claims.


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