Monday, April 23, 2012


Last night I opened up Google Reader, my sorely neglected portal to the rest of the blogosphere. I currently subscribe to 490 blogs, separated into folders for my sanity. These folders range from Food to News to DC Neighborhoods to Interior Design to Transit Planning. Oh, and then there's "Personal," and that's the folder where you probably reside, if you're reading this and have a blog of your own. My overall Reader count will pop up over 1,000 posts in a single day if I don't open it (I've always viewed Reader's policy to stop counting over 1,000 to be kind), but I normally have certain folders under control. Normally. Only, here's how bad it's gotten: my "Personal" folder, your folder, had 716 unread blog posts in it as of last night. 716. 

So if you're wondering why I haven't commented or chimed in on your stories, both big and small, that's why. I'll get there.

In the meantime:

I cooked this weekend! This is a big deal... my kitchen has been used mostly just for coffee and eggs all month long. But behold, fish tagine and lemon curd tart!

It's awesome having a National League team to root for now. And the stadium a 25-minute walk from my house? Bring. It. On.

I accidentally got sucked into The Voice. Embarrassing.

Aaaaaaand.... that's about it. My life is so crazy, right?

I would ask what's new with you, but I suppose to find that out all I need to do is wade through that Personal Blog folder, don't I?

Friday, April 20, 2012

[Confidential/Hidden] Cities on the small screen

Favorite cure for insomnia: television shows that combine place with crime.

My longtime favorite show for this is City Confidential on the Biography channel. We've been going strong for a decade. The reasons for my love:
  • Topic. The show spotlights a single crime in a town somewhere in the US and how that crime came to reflect the changing nature of the community. This could be done badly or without much effort, but City Confidential truly digs in. It also picks its cases really well. When I first saw "Scottboro: Foul Play in the Bible Belt," I steeled myself for how much this Alabama town near my cousins was going to be the butt of jokes. I mean, there's snake-handling involved. But by episode's end, I have to admit to myself every time... nope, they got it right. That's hard to do. And putting on my planner hat for a minute, I have to say this is also the only show not about planning (because seriously... who would watch that?) that regularly talks about suburbanization, loss of community character, and McMansions. And, you know, the killer next door. Yes please.
  •  Narrative structure. Every single episode follows the same narrative arc. There's something so predictable and soothing about this, when you watch it at the time of night that I usually do. Part 1 (first 10-15 minutes): setting the scene and helping you understand the community, history through the crime. Part 2 (bulk of the 1-hour show): delving into the particulars of the crime. Part 3 (always the very last bit after the last commercial break): how the town changed after the crime.
  • Narrator Paul Winfield. This guy's voice is the best. After he died they found a new narrator, and let's just say that the last few seasons with the newbie are not as awesome as the golden age of PW.
  •  The writing. Oh, the amazing tongue-in-cheek camp of the writing! I always thought it'd be silly fun to write for this show. Find "Dallas: Arsenic and Old Money" playing in the middle of the night sometime to see what I mean. You can practically see the writers winking.
There's barely any City Confidential on YouTube, so here's just a taste with the setup for "Phoenix: Shady Deals in the Sun City." You'll see all the points above: A) lots of good planning talk, B) setting the scene in Phoenix, C) Paul!, and D) Camp.

The growing problem with City Confidential, though, is that I've seen nearly all of the episodes. So now what?

Enter the new guy in town: Marcus Sakey, he of Hidden City on the Travel Channel.

Hidden City has a slightly different approach than City Confidential. First, the focus is not just on one crime, but on three, from varying eras of a city's past. In this way the city is the star of the show... although actually, Marcus Sakey steals the show. This wouldn't work if he wasn't likable, or if he truly didn't want to dive into the dirty belly of a city, or if didn't want to invest the time to find the right people to frame the story in a compelling way. But he does all of these things. The other way this show differs from City Confidential's documentary approach is that as the star, Sakey gets interactive with the stories: he climbs into a rigged sedan with a shotgun to see what it felt like to be the DC sniper, he gets pepper-sprayed by cops to understand how 1968 rioters felt, etc. It's good television. He never lets us forget, though, he's a crime-writer. There's less camp in his writing than in my old-time favorite, but by the same token, the writing's much more real.

So yeah... this might be my new fix. City Confidential can never be replaced in my book, but I'm happy to make room for Hidden City. The stories are fantastic - new twists on old ones we all know (HH Dillinger in Chicago or the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco, for example), and older ones we might not know (Madame LaLaurie in New Orleans or Black Caesar in Key West). And all the way through... one city. Over time. Ch-ch-changing.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

This night, long ago

So it's late right now. Late enough that I should either be asleep or smiling. But instead I'm deeply involved in a PowerPoint. This is how too many of my nights have been recently.

Here's the flashback that just hit me:

Me, in the Planning building computer lab. Grad school. A cool 3 a.m., probably. A crumpled-up wrapper from a Frontier breakfast burrito beside me, definitely. Headphones on. Indigo Girls: blasting. Who listens to the Indigo Girls loudly, you're asking? This girl does, when driving alone and fast or when up way past her bedtime on deadline. So there's me, the work, the burrito wrapper, and the Girls. But a couple of computers down, there's also my girl Mikaela, my ultimate all-nighter-in-the-computer-lab partner in crime. I need a break. Headphones come off. We take a few minutes to do that thing we do, which is discuss relationships or politics or gossip or who the hell cares because we know each other so well and we really don't need much besides the smallest distraction from the sentence that is slowly becoming the run-on from hell (like this one). We stretch our legs, go out into the courtyard. We feel the cool night air on our faces. Mikaela is probably smoking (I'll never tell your daughter, M, promise). We make each other laugh. We bounce ideas for each other's work around. Then we go back in, and we hunker down. We finish. Of course we do. We're good at this. We nailed those nights.

I miss that kind of flow. I'm getting glimpses again these days of how sure I was that I'd only do this profession until I was bored with it, then I'd have my creative career. I was sure I'd be writing by now.

But instead I'm PowerPointing. And not in the cool way, either, with Mikaela beside me.

And that's okay. This is okay. I believe in these bullets.

But tomorrow I'll send them out for dozens of people to review, and we will tinker and talk it to death and finally we will present it to the community, and it'll be fine. I'll still believe in those bullets.

But I don't believe in this process as much as that process, the one with just my brain, a friend, a burrito, and a blank screen.

Time to cue the Indigo Girls. Time to send my old friend a hug across the Internet.

Also: time to plan my annual return to New Mexico, where I'm certain everyone else is still having those resplendent 3 a.m. strikes of inspiration without me.

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