The End is Near

It's official, I'm retiring my blog. Why? Blame social media (as we do for much else these days, but that's another story).

I certainly haven't stopped writing-- either professionally or personally-- but I do more of both on different platforms. My Instagram is usually dominated by my kids, my Facebook a mix of work/research, kids, and politics, and Twitter mainly work with a bit of politics.

This has actually been brewing in my head since February when I endured The Great Skunk Incident of 2018. What's that you ask? Well I wrote about it on Facebook.

Here's text from the first post I did on the incident:

I've had a pretty unexpected past few days, so if you're waiting for an email/text/call from me, this is why! (I pride myself on keeping a clean inbox, so being behind is giving me hives.) We spent a few days in Florida-- warm weather, nice company, good food-- but when I returned with the boys on Sunday evening and opened the door we were confronted with a wall of odor so pungent the only thing I could think is that we had an electrical fire. Well, after NINE fire trucks came roaring over the firemen informed me that they thought we'd been sprayed by a skunk! I tried calling about 15 exterminators, but no one would come out until the morning, so I had to let it go. After a pretty sleepless night (I swear, I could taste the smell of burning rubber times ten) I awoke early to make lunches and, sure enough, the little f*cker waddled through my backyard. At least the mystery was somewhat solved... When I took the boys to school I discovered that TO MY HORROR, WE SMELLED LIKE SKUNK. I had no idea it had penetrated our clothes, etc. Cue mini breakdown. While I was in class the exterminators arrived and I raced home to be told that the skunk had dug a hole along the foundation of our house, near a staircase, and sprayed his territory. Because we have a stone foundation the stone has absorbed the smell and traveled upward, essentially baking in because no doors were opened for over three days. Apparently it is also mating season and they spray each other (I could go on about what I have learned about skunks in the past 48 hours, but I'll spare you...). They informed me it would take FOUR TO SIX MONTHS for the smell to go away. Cue actual breakdown. I tried calling restoration services but was told a combination of, 1) tough luck and wait it out!, and 2) too busy with mold (also horrible). John, who is in California all week, called our home owners insurance who quickly got some hydroxyl generators out to to ionize the air with charcoal filters. I thought it might be helping a little by the late afternoon, but by this point I was physically ill from the putrid fumes. I suddenly understood the appeal of smelling salts, and started carrying a Yankee Candle under my nose, grateful for their strength. This morning it seemed like the upper floors were doing better, but poor Quenton woke up with his eyes sealed shut from pink eye (which the doc said could have been exacerbated by the skunk becuase it's an inflammatory). I went to see the chiropractor who told me she thinks I am allergic to the skunk musk! I have body aches, an upset stomach, flushing, and nausea when I move from room to room. So we're here tonight but moving to a hotel for the next few days starting tomorrow so we can get the house gassed. After that there is one more option if the smell remains. Oh, and did I mention that we got the sucker in the trap overnight?! The wily, noxious creature actually pulled off the bag over the trap (which would have protected him from the sun), so he was quite agitated. I called the exterminators at 8 am to tell them he was caught, but by 4:30 pm they hadn't yet come to get him! So for all I know he's been spraying away into the house all d*mn day. So, if you see me and I am stinky, this is why. And if you're waiting on an email from me, this is why. I think I may need some sort of detox spa treatment and/or a skunk fur coat?! (Also, I know things could be much, much worse, but this is shockingly bad because the smell is truly unimaginable and I never thought we'd get physically ill from it and need to move out.)

For the record that one Facebook post was 670 words. A blog post in itself! But I didn't post it here, you see. And then I did FIVE more posts about the skunks (yes, it turned out there was more than one). I kept meaning to put them all together into one blog post, but I had to catch up on life (like teaching and child-rearing) and my political work (I became President of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women- aka RI NOW-- in late January!). And it never happened. Yet I post on Instagram, on average, once a day, on Facebook a few times a week, and on Twitter on average once per week.

So, for now, the future is clear. Follow me on social media [Instagram (public), Facebook (Friend me) and Twitter (public)]. I also will continue to update my website as I write articles, appear in the media, and read new books (and write another one myself, ahem)!

AND, a new and improved website is COMING SOON!

Note: all my old blog posts will be archived, so can still be found and read.

The Toughest Coach There Ever Was: Last Chance U

The NFL playoffs are here, the FBS champions have been named, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won two Golden Globes. All this reminded me I still need to share some of my thoughts on the Netflix series Last Chance U.

Last Chance U follows two seasons at Eastern Mississippi Community College (EMCC), which has become a dynasty in the Junior College football world. They are know for working with players who: 1) couldn't make it academically right out of high school in a four-year D1 program, and 2) athletes who were previously kicked out of a D1 program. The title of the series is a bit of a misnomer then because for many playing at EMCC isn't their last chance, it's their second or third chance. Perhaps the "last chance" refers to getting into a top four-year football program, but I suppose that's a bit too complicated. I must confess that I knew a bit about the "JuCo" system before this, but I didn't understand how common it is to move (back) up to top D1 bowl schools. For example, in this year's national title game two of the players on Georgia's roster came from a JuCo, and one for Alabama. I also was shocked by the resources and perks at such a small school, in a small and poor town, especially the fields and their accoutrements and the training facilities.

The series revolves around two adults, and then an array of interesting students and coaches who orbit around them during the season. The first is Brittany Wagner, a sunny academic coordinator who will literally chase players down to make sure they have a pencil to take into class. She is clearly the break out star of Season 1, and Season 2 shows her trying to figure out how to get out of Scooba, MS (population: 697). It's also clear that the other main adult, Buddy Stephens, was none too happy with his own negative portrayal in Season 1. And in Season 2 we never see Stephens or Wagner interact at all.

One of the things that upset Stephens when he watched "the documentary" (that is how he refers to it, but there are 14 episodes) is how much he swore. It is startling, as is some of his other language. The worst-- for viewers, but more significantly for the players themselves-- is when a season-ending brawl breaks out and he repeatedly refers to the players as thugs in its aftermath.

While most people are shocked by the display of a very aggressive form of masculinity (one line from the show is, "Blood makes the grass grow," and the players' peers are showed as homecoming queen contestants only in Season 1), it is race that stands out to me glaringly. The team Buddy refers to as thugs is dominated by African-American men. Buddy acts like he owns their bodies-- and he does certainly control them in all sorts of ways. His disparaging language when he interacts with his majority black team conjures up some not-so-nice parts of US history.

In Season 2 race becomes less the focus, as religion takes more of a center stage. Before and after each game/practice the players all recite the Lord's Prayer. One of the assistant coaches is also a preacher and he often uses scripture when teaching football. We even see a player be baptized.

This is not the first time a Scooba-based football coach has received major media attention, not all of it positive. In April 1984 the legendary sports writer Frank Deford wrote a cover story entitled, "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was." Much of what is described in this long article-- rumored to be the longest ever to appear in Sports Illustrated-- wouldn't fly today (helmet to helmet intentional hits being first on the list). And, yet, there are so many similarities between Robert Sullivan (aka "Bull Cyclone"), the focus of the Deford piece, and Buddy. Both white and overweight with potty mouths, terrible tempers, many coaching penalties, and a reputation for pushing the rules envelope. The biggest difference is that Sullivan remained revered by his players while Buddy is not well-liked, even if he gets results.

And the results don't come for some. The most tragic story (which isn't even covered in Season 2, but I suspect will have to be addressed at some point in Season 3, even though another school is the focus) is that of Isaiah Wright and his brother Camion Patrick (who also attended EMCC before transferring to Indiana). In September 2017 they were arrested for a July murder.

It's definitely worth watching this show, but beware that things are dark, and very dark at times. You learn, for example, about Wright eating out of trash cans, about serious domestic violence, and more. The crew does not shy away from reality, even if that reality is tough. Season 2 especially has a negative tinge throughout. If you can only commit to one episode I recommend the third episode of Season 2, "Can't Make the Club in the Tub."

[Spoiler alert: I'm very curious how Season 3 will look as EMCC actually won the National Championship in 2017. If the producers didn't have cameras there, I am sure they are kicking themselves [although some may say a lack of cameras helped secure another championship...].)

2017 Reading

As I wrote in July 2017 was not a great reading year for me; and to prove that point I only read 31 books after I posted on July 27. In fact, this may be my worst reading year since 2003... I only read 76 books, down quite a bit from last year's 106, and 112 in 2015. I almost always average two books per week, but this year I just made 1.5. The reasons still remain politics, along with a big (unexpected move), and the ease with which I can now access Netflix (I'm serious! This new Comcast feature where I can use Netflix on any handheld device or TV in my house has been a bit of a time suck.). In any case, I'm adding four more books that I read since August to my top books in 2017 list, to create a Top 10.

1. Masterpiece by Elise Broach– I loved this middle grade book so much. It has art, history, thrills, friendship. I am going to have my son read it, probably next year. Slightly reminiscent of From the Mixed-Up Files…

2. Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, A Robot Named Scorch… And What It Takes to Win by Judy Dutton– Reading prep for new fall course on the afterschool hours– adding week on “fairs!”

3. The House of Spies by Dan Silva– This series is now my designated summer vacation reading. Silva has a formula now, which is enjoyable, but next time I’d appreciate more twists on that formula. Also, very long, needs tad more editing at this stage.

4. Trace by Archer Mayor– Wow, I have caught up on the Joe Gunther series (book 28!). Perhaps the best yet, setting up more characters to keep series going after Joe?

As a refresher the other six are: Killer Show, We Never Asked or Wings, American Historical Pageantry, The Lions of Little Rock, A Fall of Marigolds, and In This Grave Hour.

My top two books are both, surprisingly, middle grade fiction: The Lions of Little Rock (it stood out all year long) and Masterpiece.

For nonfiction my favorite is a book I began in 2017, but still haven't finished (it is lengthy), so look for it on my 2018 list. Given that move (to Providence) it might not surprise you that it's Mike Stanton's The Price of Providence: The Rise and Fall of Buddy Cianci, America's Most Notorious Mayor.

The MAH-velous Mrs. Maisel

As the end of a year nears I find myself reflecting, as usual, on what I read this year. While I will write more about that soon, I realized I also wanted to share my favorite TV show of 2017. Indeed, she is marvelous. And the show is MAH-velous.

What do I love about the series? I'll start with the visual. The colors are amazing: vibrant, yet nostalgic and classic at the same time. Each scene is a feast for the eyes.

And the fashion. Oh, the fashion! Of course I find Miriam and Rose's (her mother) wardrobes to be delectable (even if I probably would not have loved the undergarments). Dressing at that time for women like the Weissmans was both a performance and a chore, with few details overlooked from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. Midge knows that what she wears corresponds to her shifting identities in different contexts, and that resonated with me. [I am also grateful that now I can go to bed with "all my goop on my face," as my husband says, and not have to hide it...]

Not every character is so attuned to the details. While Susie Myerson (played to great effect by Alex Borstein) clearly isn't swayed by sartorial trends, I deeply appreciate the attention the costumers paid to what she wore, because the clothing adds so much to the larger than life characters.

In addition to what you see, what you hear is a delight. I am an avowed Barbra Streisand fan and to hear her voice paired with the action was perfection. The entire soundtrack is so well thought out it's hard not to enjoy.

However, the biggest auditory treat is the smart, snappy dialogue. I felt like watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel made me want to up my conversational repartee. The timing, the accents, and the inherit wit and warmth make the show a true standout.

Because of the focus on the verbal I really thought of the series as a book and each episode as a chapter (and, no, it's not just because it's a show on Amazon). The characters took shape in my mind between and beyond episodes. I felt like I wanted to know them more. And, as happens with a fantastic book, I dreaded the end because I knew I would miss these people. My heart hurt a little bit at the end of episode 8.

The actors clearly played a strong role here as well. Rachel Brosnahan, who plays the titular character, is a wonder. I kept thinking the part must be close to her real personality for her to play it with such aplomb. When I looked her up I was floored to realize she played Rachel Posner in House of Cards. Quite the transformation!

I know I'm being over the top in my praise, so I will admit two things stuck in my craw a bit. First of all the show has a weird sense of time. How does Midge get out of jail, go to exercise (looking fresh as a daisy) before 10 am, meet with Susie, etc. Oh, and deal with her children? Some episodes move through time quickly, others don't. Because it's not consistent at moments I had to pause to place things properly. Second-- and I know this is sort of a product of the late 1950s and her social milieu-- but it bothered me that Miriam was so uninvolved with her two young children. She is mainly seen passing them off to her mother or a babysitter, and I was surprised they didn't play a part in her comedy. I also was surprised that while Judaism is front and center, antisemitism isn't. It's nice to see a generally positive portrayal (even if the show reinforces some stereotypes) of a Jewish family, but unrealistic to think that made for smooth sailing for Miriam as she moves into the workforce, the comedy clubs (is that part of the reason for the name change as well, which is *very* not Jewish), and out of her uptown bubble.

Because I did enjoy the show so much I *finally* started watching Gilmore Girls to get more of Amy Sherman-Palladino's dialogue. I know, I know, I'm only 17 years late and it's right up my Ivy League/New England alley. Getting through seven seasons should occupy quite a bit of time at the start of 2018. I'm only a few episodes in, but definitely enjoying it (and don't think I didn't notice Alex Borstein playing the harpist in episode 1, a role similar yet different to Susie).

My runner-up show of 2017 is Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, a show I came to watch because I read the Kerry Greenwood series. It starts slow, but the lead actress, Essie Davis, makes it worth it, along with the fashion. The books are a bit different (and racier) but both are worth some of your attention.

Being the reality TV show addict that I am, I also have to give a nod to Last Chance U, but that deserves it's own upcoming post...

Miss Universe vs. Sports Illustrated: The Ultimate Goal of Swimsuits?

In honor of tonight's Miss Universe pageant I wanted to share a clip from earlier this month about Sports Illustrated's 2018 Swimsuit Edition open casting call. This five minute Good Morning America segment with the six finalists manages to capture basically all the major streams of my research: pageants, femininity, smart women, sports, and competition (even a version of "participation trophies")!

After chatting with the first three finalists, at about 3:25 in the clip, GMA co-host Lara Spencer declares, "I feel like I'm at Miss America!" I assume she meant that she was talking with beautiful fit women and asking them brief questions that are supposed to convey the essence of themselves. And because "swimsuits" were involved? In all seriousness, the only major thing missing was talent.

Whether or not she knew who the fourth finalist was, Spencer laughs when it turns to be Miss USA 2015 saying, "Speaking of..." Olivia Jordan replies: "Honestly, this was always the ultimate dream... I was hoping Miss USA would open doors [like these]." Jordan, who was second runner-up at Miss Universe, said that as a title holder she learned to take every opportunity and use her voice.

But what does it mean that *this* was always the ultimate dream for Jordan? Does she mean modelling? Does she mean appearing on GMA? Does she mean being part of SI Swim (in an interesting year)? It's unclear and probably upset the Miss USA organization a bit, no? While it's true that Miss USA is far more linked to modelling than Miss America (think Olivia Culpo), they've been trying to rebrand themselves as more service oriented with contestants who have stories (like the military or nuclear science).

Whatever Jordan's "ultimate dream" refers to, it's quite different from the next finalist in the line, Haley Kalil (married to Matt Kalil who plays center for the Carolina Panthers, so a sports connection there that may be overlooked). Spencer highlights Kalil's scientific and academic bona fides. The redhead declares that girls can be scientists and swimsuit cover girls explaining that, "There is nothing more powerful and more beautiful than a smart woman."

Certainly this is a certain type of femininity being promoted to young girls these days-- achieve academically and professionally and own your body/sexuality/appearance at the same time-- but what does it mean to say a smart woman is beautiful when she wears literally strings to make that point? The choice to focus on STEM and women here, for SI Swim, is fascinating though because, to go back to Miss America per Lara Spencer, it's one of the major platforms they have been pushing the past few years.

Things get awkward with the last finalist because the segment is out of time, so Spencer instructs her just to "strut" as her name appears on the screen (so much for Jordan's focus on women using their voices). I looked up Allie Ayers on my own.

On the official SI Swimsuit website they describe Ayers in the following way: "A state championship basketball player, turned pageant queen, turned swimsuit designer and model — is there anything this blonde beauty can't do?!" The choice to put sports first, then highlight pageants, then the beauty industry is interesting, as it seems to favor the sports championship most; though scholastics are not otherwise mentioned for Ayers, a notable exclusion. The website goes on to say: "So why SI Swimsuit? Allie is a middle size model, who isn't a big fan of traditional categories like "plus size" and "runway," and is looking for a platform where women of all shapes and sizes can see their bodies represented. Talk about a perfect fit for us!"

SI Swimsuit says that this nationwide search for the 2018 issue is meant to promote more "attainable beauty" for women of all sizes and colors. But it's still about looking good in a bikini, even if you have some other major achievement (like sports, or science, or pageants, or some other career). There's nothing inherently wrong about this but it is evidence that while pageants may be on a ratings decline, pageant culture is pervasive influencing sports, media, science, and more.

And on a final note, turns out all six finalists will be in the issue prompting the, "Everyone is a winner!" declaration. See, even my Playing to Win research made an appearance in this five minute clip! But let's stick with my research as you won't be finding me in a bikini any time soon... Now on to see national costumes, still one of my pageant highlights each year.