Friday Evening: A Play

The Characters:

MOM:
A Midwestern savant

HANNAH:
A Floridian idiot

The Scene:

A TV room in Florida.

ACT ONE

SCENE ONE

MOM and HANNAH watch television. The music indicates an interlude in the television program The Great British Bake Off, during which scenes of pastoral landscape are tradition. In this case, the characters perceive an animal of presumably British origin. 

HANNAH: WHAT IN THE HELL WAS THAT?

MOM: [Incredulous, celebratory.] It was a chicken! [Beat.] There are all kinds of chickens.

Long pause.

MOM: You should look up chickens.

Fin.

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Spoooooky October Recommendations

 

Ten mostly brief, somewhat off-the-radar things to read, watch and listen to this (and every) Halloween. Most of this stuff isn’t terribly new, but they’re all things I tend to google every year to put me in the October mood, so it’s satisfying to put them all in one place.

 

Binary System Podcast #98–Horror Movies

Last October the siblings and I sat down to discuss some of our favorite scary films, and then we delved into other Halloween-y things (many of which are also mentioned in this post).

 

It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers

An aggressive ode to fall décor.

 

Two-Sentence Horror Stories

Some of these could use some gentle editing, but they are, by and large, still chill-inducing.

 

Wooden Overcoats

OK so it’s not explicitly Halloween-y, but it’s an audio sitcom about funeral directors, so it’s sufficiently dark (and clever, and wacky).

 

Selfie From Hell

A 90-second scary movie—the video equivalent of those two-sentence horror stories. Every time I decide to watch this, I have to almost physically force myself to keep my eyes open through to the end.

 

Bear Hugs

A seven-minute comedy/horror film about one family’s struggle with Build-a-Bear. One of the darker things you’ll ever laugh out loud at.

 

The Truth, “The Dark End of the Mall”

A quiet night at the bridal store, when in walks a disheveled stranger…

 

Snap Judgement Presents: Spooked, “A Friend in the Forest”

The “storytelling with a beat” radio show presents this seasonal podcast series of people describing their supposed real-life encounters with the supernatural, accompanied by a custom soundtrack. Go ahead and suspend your disbelief and sink into the ambience. There are scarier Spooked stories than this one, but the atmosphere (not to mention the Irish accent) is delightful.

 

Story Etc., “Fear”

A deep dive into fear and fiction, with discussions about what scares us and why we like it, interviews with performers and creators, and a couple of creepy audio pieces. (And check the show notes for links to all sorts of scary stuff that gets discussed in the ep.)

 

Text Messages from a Jack-O-Lantern

A really weird way to feel happy and then sad about Halloween.

 

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International Podcast Day

podcasts

 

In honor of international Podcast Day and my inability to post regular blogs, here are some podcast recommendations nobody asked for. (“Writeups Nobody Asked For” could be an alternate title for this blog. So many blogs, really.)

 

I’ve already spent a couple years hyping a number of established podcast sensations like The Guilty Feminist, My Dad Wrote a Porno, No Such Thing as a Fish, The West Wing Weekly and Wooden Overcoats. Here I’m going to highlight some of my more recent and/or less-frequently hyped discoveries.

 

Griefcast: Comedian Cariad Lloyd talks to a guest (usually another comedian) about a loved one who’s died. The conversations include loving memories of the person, their life and relationships, as well as the circumstances of their death, and the aftermath. As she says in her intro, Lloyd lost her father when she was 15, and she since developed a borderline obsession (in a charming way) with death and how we handle it.

 

This podcast, too, is a big hit and an award-winner, and listening to these conversations week after week can really affect the way you think and talk about death and grieving. It’s heartfelt and earnest without being cloying, with plenty of levity because, y’know: comedians. It’s catharsis and a sense of expanded humanity, like an aural hug.

 

All of the eps are great, but go ahead and start with Robert Popper. It’s amazing.

 

Do The Right Thing: Also an established hit, it’s a comedy quiz show in front of a live audience pitting two teams of comedians trying to figure out the right thing to do in emergencies or socially awkward situations. As follows the British live comedy panel show tradition (or, say, our Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me), the quiz questions double as prompts for the comedians to do their thing, and through some kind of comedic wizardry, DTRT always winds up being frenetic and hysterical and frequently very very dark and dirty and sweary. It helps that the core team—host/creator Danielle Ward and “team captains” Michael Legge and Margaret Cabourn-Smith—are unequivocally ruthless with one another, so the comedy floodgates are always wide open from the get-go.

 

They haven’t released any new episodes since I discovered it last Christmas, but it looks like they’re recording more now, and there’s a big back catalog to go through in the meantime. Might as well start, as I did, with the most recent ep, which early on contains the phrase “vagina boat.”

 

Worst Foot Forward: Two comedian friends (Dubliner Barry McStay and Geordie Ben Van der Veld) and a guest (usually either a comedy performer or an expert on the topic—often both) pitch ideas for the world’s worst thing in whatever the week’s category—from the worst horror movie to the worst monarch to the worst cocktail. In a similar vein to NSTAAF, there’s something satisfying about a podcast that requires its participants to do research and come prepared, so you get a great blend of comedy and fascinating trivia.

 

World’s Worst Horror Movie and World’s Worst Actor are good pop-culture-y ways in, but even less familiar topics—footballers, for instance—result in fun, funny, fascinating chats.

 

Things Wrong With Things: I feel as though all of my one-sentence summaries of this one fall well short of its charm and instead sound reasonably unappealing:

 

  • Hyper-articulate meditations on utter nonsense.

 

  • A low-key Irishman and a chatty Brit discuss everyday annoyances and other issues.

 

  • A rambly drive-time radio talk show about…things.

 

  • Like if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never got summoned to Elsinore.

 

I think those are all technically accurate, but you’d have to add “…in a lovely, funny way.” The two guys (Will Green and Michael O’Mahoney, whom the website describes as “a failed actor and a drunken poet”) start with a few topics in mind—their own, or things suggested by listeners—with the idea of highlighting, as it says, the things wrong with those things—could be a restaurant or a movie or just a thing that happened to someone once.

 

Still not sold? The thing is, they have an easy commitment to following their own conversations off into absurdity. Whereas in a normal conversation, suggesting that Birkenstocks have a sexuality would be its own punchline and then back to the topic at hand; here they follow through: If Birkenstocks have a sexuality, then what is the sexuality of other shoes? Like the most relaxed, easygoing comedy improv game of “Yes, and…” Like, you’re listening to two people have a casual, low-key chat and then find yourself going, “Hang on, why are we talking about how best to marinate our phones?”

 

There’s also something very satisfying about how articulate they are. No matter the ridiculousness of the statement, it will be well said. Or as Will says at one point, “That nonsense you’ve just spouted has a lot of charm to it.”

 

There haven’t been any new episodes after the original 10, but it seems a second season is afoot. Start at the beginning to hear the development of various gags (the WTF Slaw campaign, Jehovah Mathsman, etc.).

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And Just Like That

The rhythm from the tracks kicks up an afternoon din, the limping rattle-thump putter of an old propeller, and I’m out the door and up the road and into the open, trying to catch a glimpse of the three-car train over the trestle, the pong-pong-pong of crossing warnings, a swirl of racket like seagulls over a patch of churning ocean, startled-split by the burst of a whistle like a blowhole breaking the surface, one deep breath giving way to the slap and slink of a tail disappearing into a twist of eddy, and just like that the great thing is gone again.

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To All-Beef Patties I’ve Special Sauced Before

 

I don’t think I’m a particularly picky eater. I can only think of one category of food I full-on can’t deal with: olives. If I were at a dinner party and the host served a dish fully infested with olives, the battle between my taste buds and my social self-consciousness would be epic. Just thinking about it makes me sweat. And spit.

 

But what else? I’m not a fan of salmon, smoked or seared or raw, but I don’t think I’d struggle to eat it at knifepoint. I tend to remove the tomato slice from my hamburgers, but I’m learning to tolerate—even enjoy?—little bites of it here and there, more and more, on nachos and bruschetta. I’ve enjoyed a few raw oysters over the last year or so. Chewed ‘em and everything. Saltines and horseradish are my gateway drugs.

 

I don’t mind the other end of the culinary culture spectrum, either; I can find sustenance in a pinch: ballpark hot dogs. Pretzel hot dogs. Deep-fried hot dogs.

 

So if my culinary adventurousness is not to be overly praised, per se, neither is it to be dismissed.

 

And yet I’ve never had a Big Mac.

 

Way back when I was a Happy Meal tot, I couldn’t do McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I had a thing about American cheese (which I’ve since overcome) (not that there’s much merit in that). The gentle, unobtrusive creaminess of processed cheese freaks me out. See also: avocados. But in adulthood I’ve learned to love both Haas and plastic-wrapped Kraft horror—albeit both need to be paired with something assertively salty and firm to keep them in check. Otherwise, it’s like they’re up to something. I’m still worried those creamy little bastards are angling for some creepy, subversive flavor-groping.

 

And Big Macs, when I was a child, were like cheeseburgers for grownups. (I had to google them just now to make sure the cheese was automatically included—and no don’t sing the damn song at me I don’t care.) The sheer volume of the sandwich, yes, but also the “special sauce.” Oh, that Special Sauce. A mystery goo whose only identifiable ingredient is relish, a substance that brings dubious tang and horrifying texture to an otherwise creamy condiment? No thank you. No thank you very much.

 

Hang on, did I compare avocados to pedophile grooming up there? Huh. I…I might have, yes.

 

Anyway. All this to say, none of my childhood aversions are really factors anymore. I can get behind American cheese. Relish is fine in tartar sauce and Thousand Island dressing—the latter being, essentially, Ur-Special Sauce. I no longer have reason to fear Big Macs. (The scariest thing now is that, according to Wikipedia, Special Sauce is made with “store-bought” mayo, which seems sketch as fuck.) I’m even starting to find them, as a concept, vaguely appealing.

 

I still haven’t tried one, but where once I’d ruled it out altogether, now that First Big Mac experience feels imminent. And my culinary universe will be that much wider.

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I Remember It Being Hot

 

I remember it being hot, I think. Even at 9 a.m. or whenever it was, in the morning. The sand was hot, the topmost layer, at least, and the water felt cold, at least at first. And still we’d storm into the waves and thrash and make ourselves breathless, and our throats hoarse and our mouths and lips salty with sea, some of which we’d swallowed in exuberance, accidentally.

 

After we’d spent however long forever in the sun, maybe Mom—or would it have been Dad?—would march down to the shore to tell us that breakfast was ready. And we’d wrap ourselves in sandy towels and trudge—joyfully—back up endless unsteady quartz powder and through sea-oat tunnels finally to the shade.

 

Australian pines (an invasive species, they’d want you to know now) make windy whistling whispers up high and drop marble-size cones that hurt like the dickens to step on, so we three kids danced toward the picnic tables or sometimes remembered to put on our flip-flops, and we sat with wet bums on wood benches, hungry.

 

The prep work would have begun hours earlier, before we’d even gotten out of bed, the baking and packing, cracking eggs into mason jars to be scrambled, stored and transported, and then cooked on an old pan over a gas camp stove alongside bacon, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls kept warm under tinfoil. Morning-squeezed orange juice from the trees in our back yard, Valencia and navel, and an Army-green thermos of fragrant black coffee for the grownups.

 

That the beach had, for a time, taken precedence over our tiny mouths’ pre-breakfast begging says something about the beach. About that beach in particular, and perhaps about our ages then, pre-adolescents and urgent, first and foremost, to splash.

 

When you’ve spent a small hour gasping and giggling in the Gulf and swallowing brine, scrambled eggs feel in your mouth an easy creaminess, and cinnamon rolls hearty and replenishing, and fresh juice is vibrant and tart in a way you can only crave most when you are tired and salty, morning sunburned, and in need of sweet, cold moisture.

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Do All The Things

Pardon me while I talk about zombies again.

I’ve had several variations on the same conversation recently–re: diversity and inclusion in fiction–and I feel like the next step in working through my thoughts is to put them to writing. (If you’re among the people with whom I’ve had this conversation–and to be fair, if you’re reading this, you probably are–well…here we go again.)

The catalyst for these recent conversations was this tweet by The New Yorker‘s TV critic, Emily Nussbaum:

“One thing that barely even comes up in KILLING EVE is that four major characters are Asian & aside from their nationality, this isn’t an explicit factor in the show. It’s the best kind of baked-in inclusivity.”

 

Now, I haven’t seen Killing Eve and I could be taking this concept in a slightly different direction than she intended (the woman has a Pulitzer, after all, and I’m over here all trying to earn my Junior Critic’s Art Awareness badge), but “baked-in inclusivity” seems to be a great way of expressing a thing I’ve been trying to articulate for a while: namely, as she put it, including underrepresented characters without making diversity an “explicit factor.”

This is a thing that I tried to express while chatting with Thing 1 and Thing 2 about Zombies, Run! on their podcast. (There are other examples of this, of course, but this one has become my go-to.) When I first got into that story of post-apocalyptic England (back in early 2013, mind), one of the things that struck me was not that a main character is gay, but that we jump right into a rather heart-wrenching story about her and her lover without ever even doffing a cap to the “revelation” of a non-heterosexual character. Here’s Maxine, an American doctor and vital member of the team. Ten episodes later, here’s a recording of Maxine’s girlfriend’s (possible) final moments. This is going to sting a bit. Zombies detected, moving on.

Obviously, there’s long been a push for more diversity in storytelling, and I’m all for that. But what I realized with the Maxine experience (and then going back and taking note of what a range of genders, ethnicities and other human experiences are represented in ZR–something I hadn’t been conscious of at first because, again, they don’t stop to point it out) was that I’m accustomed to a level of self-consciousness accompanying diverse storytelling. As I said on the podcast, a non-heterosexual (or non-male, or non-white, etc.) character usually comes with some kind of doff of the cap, or self-congratulatory pat on the back, or some other nudge-nudge, wink-wink acknowledgement of this “other” quality, all, “see what we did there?”

Or, as Nussbaum pinpointed much better than I could, an Asian (or gay, etc.) character’s inclusion is often made “explicit to the story.”

The result of that explicitness is that diverse storytelling tends to feel like a PSA, like an after-school special about diversity…

…which make diverse stories feel less like nuanced artwork and more like tedious homework through which the audience is educated about the experiences  of these “other” people…

…which is to assume the audience requires this kind of explanation in order to accept the presence of these characters…

…which is to assume the story is speaking to an explicitly straight/white/cis/male audience…

…which is to assume that that straight/white/cis/male is the baseline for human existence.

When an explanation is used to justify the presence of non-white, non-straight, nonbinary characters, even diverse stories are still, to use a jingo-y verb, “othering” them.

That kind of self-consciousness bleeds through to the audience experience, I think. You can feel it. The implicit assumption is that straight/white/cis/male is the standard baseline, the “correct” or “normal” experience that’s reflected between audience and art. If you happen to be a person who deviates from that baseline, it’s great to see a character you can identify with, but you can still sense the character’s other-ness, and you still feel excluded. (I’m thinking back to the token tomboys in kids’ sports movies whose self-conscious backstory only underscored that I was an oddity. Of course the boys play sports; we need to explain why the girl is here.)

Yours are qualities that need explaining, that need justification. The “normal” characters just get to exist.

Thankfully, I think this kind of self-conscious inclusion is on the decline, and probably has been for a long while, especially in the better corners of the storytelling world. (In fact, let’s just acknowledge right now that the stuff that feels profound to me is very basic and old-hat to all of the folks who are smarter than I am. Plenty of people have had this shit figured out for a while now.)

That being said, my own slow epiphany tells me how vital it is to have these diverse stories charging forward without slowing down to explain themselves, to have this baked-in inclusivity. To have an apocalyptic landscape where female soldiers lead the way while sensitive young men tell you about their feelings, with a stable of athletes of all genders and ages and backgrounds (as well as a one-legged, bisexual Canadian dude), with romantic storylines for gay doctors and straight runners and trans scientists and a family with two moms and one dad, to have nonbinary heroes and pansexual foils, where the whole point of everything is really just to stick together and avoid being eaten by zombies.

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