Sunday, January 25, 2015

Terrifying Astronomy, Writing is Re-Writing, A Trip to the Zoo

For reasons I can only dimly recall, this week Mr. Typist and I decided it would be a great idea to watch the Nova documentary, “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Universe or Multiverse?", smack in the middle of the day like it was a common talk show or something. It was all about the theory of an exponentially expanding universe. There were a lot of pretty-colored orbs flying at me hypnotically, incomprehensible animated math wriggling across the screen, and terribly-performed re-enactments of physicists in oversized glasses being nerd-bitchy to each other. Mr. Typist assured me it was “geared towards layman” and that I’d have a clear understanding of…whatever after watching it. But I do not have a clear understanding, and I'm very upset now. I have no idea what's going on. I didn’t understand their wriggly animated math, but apparently we’re just flying apart. I'm panicked at the idea of non-stop expansion. I can barely handle my own life, and now I'm part of some weird anomalous particle field speeding untethered through the space/time continuum? I am so not down with that.

Mr. Typist has this recurring condition he calls “insignifi-phobia” which is invoked in him whenever he spends too much time contemplating the vastness of the universe. It’s a sort of overwhelming existential crisis in which the tininess and irrelevance of his being in the scope of the galaxy is brought home to bear in no uncertain terms. I already spend too much time obsessing over things I can’t control, so I try not to add the size of the universe to that list. But I have to say, I now understand exactly how he feels. Thanks for nothing, Nova!

This weekend, I spent some time tinkering around with my dud novel character, Lye, trying to spice him up a little. It was an interesting experiment. I have been agonizing over that character ever since I started the re-write. I found myself simply unable to do the “right” thing and hammer out a character study for him. The only way I was able to work with him was to actually re-write each of his dialogue scenes verbatim. I realized in this process that I truly am a “seat-of-the-pants” writer. I have a very hard time planning. My writing happens during the writing; I’m just not able to do it any other way. I will never be someone who can create and write from an elaborate outline, and I’ve come to peace with that. At any rate, Lye has a more definitive personality now. Not perhaps a more tolerable one, but a more definitive one.

Today, Mr. Typist and I, in an attempt to escape our mutual insignifi-phobia, took a spontaneous trip to the Point Defiance Zoo!  After I got over my initial shock that there were children there, at the zoo, on a Sunday, I started to enjoy myself. I was especially excited to encounter Gibbon monkeys, which I’ve had a special affinity for since writing “The Gibbon Remedy”. I saw breathtaking Bengal tigers, two pure white arctic foxes (I also have an affinity for white animals, which show up often in my dreams), hypnotic jellyfish, and a motley assortment of other critters, all in various stages of boredom or ennui, because, you know, they're in a zoo. Pics are below. I’m off to bathe, as I smell like a zoo.

--Kristen McHenry

Jelly Jelly!

Hello, Handsome

Bored Yak is Bored

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Adventures in Feedback: Fear and Fruition, and A Brand New Poem!

This week, for the first time in well over a year, I wrote a poem! Ever since I finished the first draft of the novel, I have heard the dim but persistent music of poetry calling me back. I’ve jotted down ideas and notes as they’ve come to me, but I didn’t put anything into form until recently. It’s not a great work of art or anything, but it made me really happy to know that poetry is back for me, for however long it may be. I think I needed to get the novel out of my system before I could find space in my head for anything else.

Speaking of the novel, I recently had a great experience doing a “trade” reading with someone I connected with through Absolute Write. We both wanted a specific sort of critique, and as it turns out, both of our main characters were so alike (hers male, mine female), that we jokingly contemplated getting the two of them together in a separate novel. (The ensuing chaos would be fantastic!) It was an interesting and gratifying experience to critique someone else’s work. Firstly, it reminded me to have compassion for myself and how freaking hard it is to write a whole, entire effin' book. And it was a surprisingly creative process to give feedback. It felt like I was part of an exciting collaborative effort, and it was exhilarating. It also made me happy that the feedback I was giving genuinely helped the author. I didn’t fully realize until then how lonely this book-writing thing has been. Doing a critique trade was a good reminder that art is at its essence collaborative, and that we create so that those creations can be experienced and hopefully, have an impact on an audience. It takes an enormous amount of fortitude to labor away in isolation for so long, without the gratification of sharing work and receiving a response.

Conversely, the feedback I received was incredibly helpful, with big things such as character development, but also with small but important things like, “That’s the only photo Harley has of her little brother, and three scenes ago she tore it to pieces in a rage, but in this scene, it’s intact and she’s taping it to her computer monitor.” Ohhh. Right. *Smacks forehead*. After a point, you simply become blind to these details in your own work. And then there’s the sheer depressing, daunting, hide-under-the-covers realization of how much work there is still left to do now that the “fun” part is over and the re-write is imminent. And I face the scary prospect of having to re-make one of my main characters, because he’s always been a bit of a zero and really needs a personality. He is the only character I didn’t do an in-depth character study on, and I realize now that’s because I’m scared of him. I’m afraid of his pain, his suffering, and the depth of the loss he’s experienced in his young life. I subconsciously thought I could get away with having him be a laconic plot device, but it's clear I’m not going to get out of giving him his fair due. So on the agenda this weekend is a complete re-imagining of “Sci-Fi Lye”.

I’m a little nervous to post this, a wobbly, first-step poem after having let my poetry muscles atrophy for so long. But here it is:

Dream Dictionary

To dream of light returning on its own
means you’ll rise from churning waters
blackened with seaweed and salt,
well versed in the tongue of the drowned,
and madder now than even when you dove.

To dream of crows trading foil for bread
means you’ll be asked to solve a riddle:
Sacrifice is to nourishment as what is to the sun?
Carve the answer in an onion seed and
plant it under stones.

To dream of the names of roses
means take solace in the purity of sound:
Your bestowals are leviathans,  
and what is blessed is not by rights divine.
Be cautious with all magic in these times.

To dream of peeling oranges
means you long for home.
Make a fortress of its dour skin,
and dream of when the light, the roses, the
healing bread will rise. 

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Nature of Fandom, Content vs. Substance, and A Plea for Moment of Silence

There was an uproar in the podcast world this week when famed comedian and podcaster Adam Carolla unceremoniously announced that Alison Rosen, his “newsgirl” of four years, would not be returning to the show in 2015. Cue Twitter umbrage and numerous Alison fans rage-quitting Adam’s show. Adding to fan fury was the revelation that Adam fired her via e-mail rather than in person. As a huge fan of Alison Rosen, I was upset, too--not just about her being fired, but by the dismissive way Adam announced it. At first I was taken aback by the strength of my own reaction. But then I realized that I listen to Alison almost every day, either on The Adam Carolla Show, or on her podcast, “Alison Rosen is Your New Best Friend”. And when someone’s voice and consciousness is in your ears on a daily basis, you develop an investment in them, and yes, a type of relationship with them. The incident and my reaction to it made me ponder on the nature of our relationship with digital media. I’ve never met Alison, and I don’t have any personal investment in her life or her career. But I’ve developed a fondness for her over years of listening to her in my headphones during my commute. She’s been a comforting voice to me in hard times, and she’s someone who I have come to admire and root for. I was hurt on her behalf.

Back when Mr. Typist and I played World of Warcraft, I witnessed more than one person get completely torn apart by online relationships they had developed in-game with friends or guild mates they had never met in real life. And I realized that those relationships were real. They had an emotional impact, they had weight and form, and the people involved were fully invested. Many of them were platonic friendships, not romances. To this day, I remember having both some hurtful, and some truly joyful interactions with people I only ever met through in-game chat. People who say that online relationships of are somehow not as real as face-to-face relationships are wrong. They are very real. And it’s the same with our relationship to media, especially with something as intimate as audio.

Presumably, creators develop content to cultivate an audience. They cultivate that audience by being compelling enough to draw that audience back over and over again. And whether it’s convenient or not, they have a measure of responsibility to that audience. Yes, they are the producers of their content and they have full rights to decide on the nature of it. But by asking for an audience’s attention, investment, and buy-in, they are also to some degree beholden to that audience’s reaction to it. You can’t have one without the other. Either you want people to pay attention and be engaged with what you produce, or you don’t. But if you want audience engagement, you should be prepared to be held accountable. That’s why I get so annoyed at comedians who pull the “It was just a joke” line when they get called out on saying something offensive, yet at the same time fancy themselves as having some sainted societal role as the arbiters of uncomfortable truth. If you want an audience to pay attention and react to what you have to say, you don’t get to dismiss accountability for your words when they do.

The Adam Carolla audience developed a relationship with Alison over her four years on the show, and as such, they reacted angrily on her behalf. It makes sense, but it seemed to take Adam by complete surprise. The day after the announcement, guest David Wild came on the Adam Carolla Show and quite masterfully pointed out to Adam the ways in which he botched the firing and the subsequent announcement of it. He was kind, but very clear. Adam owned up and admitted he didn’t handle it well, and the firing via e-mail was explained—apparently, Alison had stated from the beginning that if she was to be dismissed, she’d prefer to receive the news via e-mail. The dust has settled. Personally, I’m over it. But I’m left with the lesson that in this noisiest of eras where we have unlimited access to endless streams of “content”, words still have weight, impact, and meaning. The way we talk to each other matters. What we say and how we say it counts. And maybe, every now and then, we should all just shut up and enjoy a little silence.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Unresolutions, Cat Conundrum, and The Joy of Doing Things Halfway

I’m pretty adamant about not making New Year’s Resolutions. I think they’re a bad idea for a number of reasons. But I recently came across this list of resolutions, made by Woody Guthrie in 1942, and I found it delightful, especially “dream good”, “dance better” and “love everybody.” Also, “keep the hope machine running”. It’s simple, sweet and optimistic, even if it is a little preoccupied with basic hygiene, making me wonder just how infrequently the man showered or changed his socks. Still, even with the amusing margin sketches and super-tidy handwriting, it did not inspire me to make resolutions. I am wandering dazed into 2015 with no goals, no expectations, and no demands. Except maybe to get a second cat. However, in the time that I’ve sat down to write this, Yoshi has knocked my stapler off my desk, tried to open the Beta food jar, swatted at said Beta, rubbed his slimy wet nose all over my face, flung his corpulent bulk across my keyboard, and whined copiously when I tried to move him. Maybe one cat is enough. (Just now he hooked his claw into my mouse and swung it off my desk in a perfect arc.)

I’ve been off work since Christmas Eve, and although half my time off was spent sick, it’s been a much-needed break. I’m deeply anxious about jumping back into the fray, but I’m trying to be brave about it. Even during my time off, I enjoy accomplishing things. But during this break, I did everything half-assed. I sort of poked around editing my novel, but didn’t really commit to it. I worked on my rug, but it’s still not done. (Progress photos below!) I read submissions for Literary Bohemian, but not the long travel pieces. (Okay, to be honest, I never read the long travel pieces.) I worked out, but not really hard. Mostly I just curled up in a ball trying to recover from the ravages of 2014.  I’m not quite there yet.

I also only half-read Skipping Christmas, the John Grisham book mentioned in my last post. I don’t know why I am so preoccupied by this story, but I find it really interesting. It turns out that in the book, Luther Krank is a selfish jerk. (He was somewhat in the movie too, but he’s a real ass in the book.) He is definitely being harassed and victimized by his neighbors, who just cannot let it go that he doesn’t want to do Christmas. But it also seems that Luther is stirring the pot a little bit; using this conflict to take years of pent-up aggression out on his neighbors. I suppose I’m so fascinated because I’m interested in themes around community versus individualism, group behavior, conformity, and how those things intersect with control. The group in this case is offended by the breach of expectations. The neighborhood takes great pride in their Christmas festivities and decorations, and by not participating, the Krank’s are signaling their unwillingness to be part of the community, however briefly. If the neighbors would just shrug it off and let the Krank’s make their own choices about how to spend the holidays, everything would be fine. But their resistance only increases the Krank’s resistance, and it becomes a volatile mess. One thing not mentioned in the book so far is the toll that this is taking on Mrs. Krank, who rightly points out in the movie that it's far less acceptable for women to defy social expectations than men, and therefore she is the one taking the brunt of their ire and its attendant penalties.

Speaking of defying expectations, although I will be wandering goal-less into 2015, I will be wandering with a fresh haircut! I just got about three inches chopped off my mop, so now I have a chin-length bob. (And newly waxed brows.) I love getting my hair cut, even though I know that shorter hair on women is generally considered an affront to all that is good, holy and symbolic of our willingness to signal submission to the male gaze. Or something. Something political-ish and vaguely feminist. I’ll leave that one unfinished, too. 

Kristen McHenry

Rug progress:

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Retro Movie Review, Pre-Finished Book Review, and an Epic Cold

The day before I was scheduled to go on vacation, I woke up with a burning sore throat and a severe cough and ended up calling in sick. Somehow, missing that one day of work/life threw my entire week off track, and I’ve muddled through the holidays in a disoriented haze of Ricola, Nyquil, and sleeping until noon. Today I’m finally starting to feel better, but I feel like I “lost” the last five days. It’s been the most awesome rest I’ve had in ages. Being that sick gave me permission to do absolutely nothing but give in, sleep like a hibernating bear, take long lavender salt baths, and get caught up on my reading. In a way, it was the best vacation I could have hoped for. I had no idea how tired I was. It’s been a hell of a year, and as usual, I’ve gone non-stop for all twelve months of it. My body and my brain need a long break. There is a psycho-spiritual feel to this illness; almost as though I was being forced to give up, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. And give up I have, completely and totally. It’s really quite lovely to be in such a state of utter surrender. I haven’t felt so at peace in a long time.

While in my sickly haze, I also decided I don’t have the energy to hate Christmas anymore. I just gave in and enjoyed the twinkly lights, the awful corny Christmas music, the giving and receiving of gifts, and the terrible seasonal movies, one of which was “Christmas with the Kranks” from the dim reaches of 2004. The movie was critically panned, and rightfully so as it’s pretty awful. The Kranks, empty-nester suburbanites in a close-knit, conformist neighborhood, decide after many years of “doing” Christmas perfectly and to the hilt, that they’re going to ditch the whole affair this time around and take a cruise instead. This decision shocks and offends their neighbors, who immediately begin a campaign to get them in the proper Christmas spirit and basically harass them into participating in their entrenched seasonal rituals. The battle escalates, hilarity ensues, etc., and in the end, the Kranks learn The Importance of Community. But before the movie devolves into over-the-top slapstick and sentimentality, there is a dark, satirical feel to it which was very interesting. The Krank’s neighbors, led by a vaguely menacing ringleader/busybody named Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Ackroyd), simply will not abide non-conformity, and employ tactics such as shunning, accusations of selfishness, attack caroling, and outright physical sabotage to get them to comply. Their cult-like insistence on the Krank’s participation, and their subsequent saving of the Krank’s in the end as a “reward” for their capitulation sends an eerie, twisted message. All in all, it was an odd viewing experience. Apparently, the film is based on the book “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham, which I plan to read. Hopefully it’s better than the movie.

 I shouldn’t need to feel even slightly defensive about the fact that I love comedian Jim Gaffigan, but I almost started this paragraph with a disclaimer: I like smart comedy too! I listen to Marc Maron! I watched Mo Rocca’s stand-up special! Blah, blah, who cares. I’ve come to accept that my default setting is low-brow. And Jim Gaffigan is one of those steady, work-a-day comics I really like. He does his job, he does it well, and in the end he goes home to his wife and five children in a two-bedroom, five-story walk up in the Bowery. I like artists who see their work as a job and don’t get overly dramatic about the importance of their role in society. Jim has written a new book called “Food: A Love Story”, which was perfect reading for me over these last few days. Reading it is like talking to an affable friend about their love of food. In way, it’s such a simple concept that it borders on genius. It’s just him writing about everyday, ordinary foods and his feelings about them. Hot dogs, crackers, cheese (glorious cheese!), steak, bacon, barbeque, and something from Canada called “poutine” which sounds delicious—all get his joyful, enthusiastic take. He’s very relatable and funny, and more than willing to spill his shame-eating secrets so we don’t have to. I’m only about halfway through the book at this point, and I find myself not wanting it to end because I want to keep talking to Jim in my head about his food feelings. I have food feelings, too! Lots of them. Hmmm….perhaps I should start a new series on this blog. Would anyone care for my hilarious take on spray cheese?

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Trendy Globe-Trotting Me, Spiritual Hodge-Podgery, A Time to Expand

An ad for rosewater shortbread (which sounds disgusting) showed up on my G-mail account a few days ago. I have no idea why Google thinks I have any interest in rosewater shortbread, but it made me curious, so I starting clicking “refresh” just to see what other ads it would bring up. In quick succession, it was:

What the Biggest Hedgefund has Been Buying
LA. As a Pedestrian
Cultured Traveler: Thailand’s ‘Gong Highway’
How Caroline Doubled Her Salary By Changing Her Brand

So Google thinks I’m a trendy-dessert-baking, globe-trotting stock tycoon with business ambitions to "brand" myself. Hmm.

I was listening to Krishna Das on Duncan Trussell’s podcast a few days, talking about his chanting and his spiritual practice. I realized while listening to him that I don’t have a spiritual practice because I don’t like the word “practice”.  It feels like work. And of course, it is work. Some would say it is the only work. It’s appropriate that spiritual development be work. But the word feels exacting, stern, and exhausting, and I’m exhausted enough already. I have an especially a hard time with Eastern-based spiritual practices.  In some ways I’m drawn to them, and in others ways, I find them too ascetic, too cold and detached. Is there is spiritual practice for people like me, who are naturally lazy and pleasure-seeking? Could we invent something called a "playtice"? I’ve explored a number of spiritual paths but eventually found all of them to be overly complicated, fraught, and ultimately slightly silly, even Wicca. (I love the idea of Wicca, but I can't abide the ritual involved in the actual practice of it.) 

Just like that line from "The Star Splitter"—“We've looked and looked, but after all, where are we?" I've looked and looked for a spiritual practice that clicks for me, but I have yet to land on one. And maybe I wasn't meant to. Maybe I’m meant to just rattle around in some weird, one-off bargain bin of spiritual hodge-podgery, never fully settling on a form, because my spiritual self is simply not going to be able to conform to any one set system. This makes me a little sad, because I recognize the value in ritual, the value in abiding by a set of principles, and the value in discipline. I have a great deal of discipline when it comes to my job, and some when it comes to my creative life, but the idea of being spiritually disciplined makes me feel gray and deflated. I don't want to work at it. I just want to be happy and at peace right here, right now, and not to have to lift a finger for it.

On a slightly less entitled note, I have decided to stop avoiding the second edit of my novel and just tear in. Once I started, I realized that the issues that were looming in my mind as insurmountable, impossibly complex problems aren’t really all that big of a deal to fix. At least, the two that I’ve tackled so far weren’t. I still have the last 75 pages to contend with, which isn’t going to be fun. Coming from having written poetry and short stories for so long, it’s really hard to get my mind around the sheer spaciousness that a novel allows me. In my obsession with keeping the book to a pre-set word count, I sort of…shall we say, overly-compressed some things near the end. I’m going to have to expand it. Maybe while I’m at it, it’s time to expand in some other areas as well. And I’ll start with a deep, full breath. 

--Kristen McHenry

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Dearth of Pluck, I Only Want to Do the Fun Parts, Be Excellent to Each Other

I was thinking the other day, for various, to-remain-undisclosed reasons, that I would be a terrible cancer patient. (Nothing is wrong medically; it was just one of those things. I’m actually in absurdly good physical health considering my stressy lifestyle.) The reason I would be a terrible cancer patient is because I am decidedly unplucky. I harbor a stubborn and unshakeable belief that cancer only happens to plucky mothers of three who exist in Lifetime movies. Plucky mothers of three who are also “feisty” and ready to “battle” cancer for the sake of their children, and determined to “think positive!” and not to indulge in an ounce of bitterness, fear, rage or depression. If I had cancer, I would veer wildly from flat-out fury to bed-ridden depression. What I would not be is: Plucky, positive, determined and strong. Meaning, I would be a Bad Patient. I don’t have the positive-thinking gene. I’m bad at enduring. I’m somewhat phobic about hospitals, even though I work in one. And I simply don’t have time to have cancer, unlike those perky women on the Lifetime network with their handsome, supportive husbands and sassy, single best friends. The only two women I know of in the public eye who have discussed their reactions to cancer honestly are writer Barbara Ehrenreich and comedian Tig Notaro. They thumbed their noses at the positive-thinking mandate and spoke truth to medical-industry power. I say good on them.

I need to do a second, deep, structure-altering, thinky, technical edit on my novel and I just don’t want to, because it feels like work, and I only want to do the fun parts. The fun part was telling the story, the high of the imaginative leaps that would happen during the writing process, the fun of figuring out new ways to torment my immature and self-destructive main character. The editing part feels like having to move from finger painting with pretty colors to doing algebra. But  my compatriots at Absolute Write have been very supportive. I started a thread about what a sticky morass this second edit feels like, and everyone has been super-encouraging. However, I also made the terrible discovery there that opening a novel with a character waking up is such a horrid, unforgivable cliché that book agents will automatically, universally reject the book without reading any further. So I guess I will be re-writing my “main character wakes up late with vicious hangover in downstairs neighbor man-slut spoken-word-poet crush’s bed. *Sigh*.

This week, we held the memorial for Jules at the hospital I work at. It was a beautiful event. Everyone who attended had a chance to share a story about him. I was struck by how so many people were deeply affected by the loss of this man, who gave so much love. A lot of these were tough people who had endured a lot, and yet were weeping copiously at his death. (I don’t like the phrase “reduced to tears” because I don’t think crying diminishes us.) I sat there throughout the event thinking about how, ultimately, we are all so squishy, so soft, so easily done in by the loss of love. We can survive the loss of jobs, the loss of stuff, even the loss of identity, but the loss of love breaks us. I’m still really sore from grief, and it’s making me a bit sentimental, so forgive me—but can we all remember this week, in the words of Bill and Ted, to be excellent to each other? We’re mushy, and we all need kindness.

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, December 7, 2014

To Be Honest, Riding the Gloom Train, A Little Link Love

I took a test online recently to see how good I was at detecting when people are lying. I expected to do terribly because I’m gullible and prone to believe anything anyone tells me, but I actually scored above average. One of questions I got wrong asked “If someone prefaces their statement with ‘to be honest’, is that statement likely to be lie?” I answered no. According to the test, the correct answer is yes, which I find puzzling, since when I use that phrase, I use it because I am, in fact, about to be honest.

To be honest, I’m still dealing with a lot of grief over the recent loss of my friend. To be honest, I’m struggling with holiday depression, novel-editing depression, and possible thyroid-related depression. To be honest, I am deeply uninterested in writing a blog post today. I don’t want to bore everyone with my ride on the gloom train. (Gloom is at its essence, boring.) I want to write honestly about what’s going on with me, but I have limitations to how much I wish to expose in a public forum. Most of the time, I can muster the energy to write around that, but muster is in short supply in this typist’s life of late. So I’m going to shamelessly cheat today and leave you some links to pretty/funny/useful stuff instead.

I love this series of artwork depicting people in their private spaces. I find them fascinating. Click the magnifying glass for zoom to get the full effect:

Here is Slate’s Best Books of 2014 list, none of which I have read:

Recipes for cheap, nutritious and tasty dishes—posted for college students, but good for anyone wanting to economize on meals!

Some wise words for hard times:

A free game!

Relax. You fret too much:

And the inimitable Maria Bamford!

I’ll be back next week with a real post!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Review of the "Serial" Podcast

As a hopeless podcast addict, I’ve been inevitably sucked into the phenomenon that is Serial, the spin-off podcast from This American Life that is currently examining the 1999 murder of a 17-year old high school student in Baltimore. A part of me is very uncomfortable with the feverish obsession that Serial has spawned in its audience. A promising young girl was senselessly murdered, and it’s likely that more than one person is lying about what they know. It’s disturbing and a little distasteful to me that so many people on Reddit and other forums are treating this like a fictional murder mystery rather than a tragedy that involves real human beings whose lives are still being affected by it. But I also understand why so many are held helplessly in its grip. It’s utterly compelling, because there are so many facets to the story and so many different ways that the storytelling itself messes with our sense of how good our instincts about people really are. Then there are the myriad clues, questions, cell phone records, court documents, timelines—perfect fodder for the naturally obsessive. Evidence maps and detailed timeline charts and cell tower ping maps are being created by fans of the show and shared online, as listeners play detective and try to determine the true course of events on the day of the murder.

I don’t have the time, patience or stamina to participate at that level, and the evidence isn’t what interests me most about the case. Personally, my fascination lies with the motivations and psychological make-up of the people producer Sarah Koenig interviews.  To summarize the story, Hae Lee Min was strangled on January 13th, 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested and convicted of her murder, based largely on the inconsistent testimony of Adnan’s casual friend and pot-smoking buddy, Jay (who is almost universally described as “shady”.) To this day, Adnan claims that he is innocent. “Serial” sets out to find the truth, and in doing so, wades into an ungodly mess of conflicting testimony, contradictions, intrigue, and seeming cover-ups. Week to week, the podcast yanks it’s listeners from one perspective to another, so you are convinced of Anan’s innocence one week and just as convinced of his guilt the following week. It is brilliant storytelling that has me constantly wondering about Jay’s motives, if Adnan is really the victim he claims to be, and the nature of memory. Finally, I wonder about producer Sarah herself, and how much her own feelings about this case are influencing what and how she chooses to report.

The show is also a meditation on the good person/bad person binary. I think that some of what its listeners find so alluring is the compulsion to categorize Adnan as all good or all bad, because the thought that we can carry both light and darkness within us is frightening. The idea that a basically good kid could snap and carry out a strangulation is psychologically destabilizing and an affront to our sense of predictability. Much is made of the fact that Adnan was a popular and well-regarded in high school, and now after fifteen years in prison, comes across as intelligent, kind, calm, and accepting of his fate, hardly the markers of an out-of-control killer. There are rabid believers on both sides of the spectrum. Those who believe he is innocent stand behind him with fierce loyalty. Those who think he is guilty believe that he is a brilliant sociopath who is manipulating Sarah Koenig and using “Serial” to his advantage. He is a perfect mirror for our projections of fear, and our need to believe in purity of character.

However, in all of my addictive fascination with Serial, I try to remember the words of victim Hae Lee Min’s brother, who posted a single plea on Reddit recently before vanishing back into the ether: (Quoted in part with no corrections —the full quote can be found here.)

"I won't be answering any questions because... TO ME ITS REAL LIFE. To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren't there to see your mom crying every night, having a heartattck when she got the new that the body was found, and going to court almost everyday for a year seeing your mom weeping,crying and fainting. You don't know what we went through. Especially to those who are demanding our family response and having a meetup... you guys are disgusting. SHame on you. I pray that you don't have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5mil listeners.”

--Kristen McHenry

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Loss, Collective Grief, The Illusion of Control

Last week, my friend Jules died, and yesterday I attended his funeral. I feel heart-weary and numb, and I have a lot ahead of me over the next few weeks. The experience of collective grief, of being part of this huge community of people who were touched and inspired by this man, is intense. This is one of those losses that will resonate for a very long time.

It’s hard to think. I came home from the funeral and reception yesterday feeling blank and exhausted, swirling with feelings about church, my Catholic upbringing, the confusion I have about my role in this community, of how I have come to belong and at the same time still not quite belong. About the feelings I have around a job that slowly became not just a job, but a role in a large, close knit and spiritually rich community. To stand in the avalanche of must-do’s and interviews and follow-ups and an endless tide of e-mails and realize suddenly that I am emotionally and spiritually connected to a community; that I am in service to a force that is far more than a checklist.

Growing up Catholic, I understood about self-sacrifice, but being in service is different. At the funeral the priest pointed out that service is more than do-gooding, and I think I understood what he meant. You can perform a litany of good deeds without the spirit of service. I don’t think it negates the deeds, but I do think that a deep desire to serve, that is connected to something beyond our personal needs, is what illuminates the Jules’s of the world. Simply said, I think it’s love.  

The last eighteen months or so have been about me coming to understand with a deep sense of finality that suffering is inescapable. Try as I might, I have not been able to run away and construct some stone fortress into which no chaos, no pain, no grief, and no emotional connection can come. I’m in deep. And no matter where I went, I would still end up in the same place. To paraphrase Mary Oliver, there’s no sense wasting time looking for an easier path.

There will be more people I care about who will die. Everything is uncertain, and no amount of trying to control the swirling chaos of life is going to change the outcome. I can’t resist it or hold it at arm’s length or bend it to my will. I can only be present to it. I’m here, I’m connected, I’m a part of this and all of the pain and the richness and the goodness and the love that comes with it.

The below interview was filmed when Jules was 91. He died at 96. He was still volunteering at the Information Desk up until two weeks before his death.

--Kristen McHenry