Tag Archives: NPR

The Pros and Cons of the Serial Narrative

For the last month I’ve been addicted to Serial, the This American Life podcast spin-off covering one story from week to week. The first story is the case of a murder that happened fifteen years ago and the case for and against the man convicted of the the crime. Each week we’re treated to an in-depth analysis of some aspect of the crime, from high-school relationships, to the layout of the park where the victim was buried, to recreating the route of the prosecution’s timeline.

This episode marked the halfway point for the season and in some ways it feels like we have enough to have formed some kind of an opinion as to whether or not Adnan Syed (our supposed killer) is guilty or innocent and what it would mean if he was either. My own opinion is mixed along the lines of whether he should have been convicted based on the evidence and whether he actually did it.

I trust the This American Life people to tell me a good story, and on that they have delivered, even if it is likely to be as unresolved as many of those Dateline true crime specials. It’s definitely interesting as someone who writes mysteries to realize how mushy real-life cases can be: conflicting accounts, evidence that could mean one thing or another, evolving understandings of the validity of technology as evidence, etc.

But the week-to-week format is getting a little frustrating. With a deep focus on one aspect in every 30-45min episode it can often feel like we’ve only added one or two pieces of information to our appraisal of the case. It still feels that there’s a lot being held back, even after this latest episode that tries to lay out all the reasons why the killer looks guilty. If anything it’s giving us a sense of the way a real investigation would work, you spend a lot of time learning one or two pieces of information, and then you have to figure out how that fits into the building narrative you’ve made of the case.

And Sarah Koenig, our journalistic host and guide through this whole tale, is a bit of an unreliable narrator. Not in the sense that I believe she’s lying to us at any point. She actually lays her vulnerabilities bare in each episode, her shifting opinions, her uncertainty, areas she pursued that don’t play out. One thing in particular that struck me in this last episode were some awkward conversations with Adnan with some long silences that other people might have edited out. These give the listener a sense for the true flow of the conversation and how some statements or questions can stop and make you think.

Probably I’m most frustrated that I don’t just have this whole thing to listen to now. If this were an audiobook it would be like missing the last six disks of the story. But since the episodes are being produced as the show airs, I’ll have to wait patiently each Thursday for a new bite. And I’m also trying to resist the temptation to listen to each episode before I can bring it home for the little red haired girl, who has been listening along with me. In the meantime I’ve been listening to each episode repeatedly trying to absorb every detail (even to the point of e-mailing the show with a question about cell phone timing).

The truth is, no matter my frustrations with individual episodes, how long this is all taking, moments when I feel like I’m only getting part of the story, I’m going to keep listening. On that at least, Serial and the This American Life team have succeeded again.

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Pull Your Pants Up, Or Else

Ocala, FL has enacted a law imposing a $500 fine or up to six months in jail for anyone wearing (or barely wearing) saggy pants on their streets*. As you might suspect, this is a law that disproportionately affects young people, and men of a certain racial persuasion. NPR’s Code Switch does a great survey of the potential racial motivations and consequences involved, and the history of clothing discrimination throughout American history.

Not being able to speak with great authority on this side of the issue, I’ve chosen instead to suggest new laws that might counterbalance any perceived racial motivation, and target items of clothing that are no less a threat to our fashion decency. Feel free to contribute any suggestions of your own.

Tiny Fedoras – Unless you’re this guy, or living in the 30s.


Endless Scarves – You’re just hurting the economy. We need scarf turnover so we can keep the garment industry afloat. Scarves were meant to have a beginning and an end.


Hipster Glasses – Unless you need them to see, are this guy again, or are a girl (which admittedly is pretty cute). This picture actually contains two violations.


I would have mentioned Crocs, but wearing them is punishment enough, as my co-worker who sliced his foot on a rock whilst wearing a pair of these can attest.

I’d love to hear your suggestions. And seriously, check out the NPR post. This stuff is kind of nuts.

*In case it wasn’t abundantly clear from the tone of the post, I find this law ridiculous and potentially harmful to whole groups of young people. I might yell at a guy to pull up his pants (and often they’re white in my area), but I’d never throw him in jail.




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Three-Minute Fiction “Cube Picking”

Here’s my submission for “finders keepers”, the latest round in NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction“. The challenge for this round was to write a 600 word story in which “a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning.” If you missed it, check out my wife’s story “Ganja Man” from yesterday. Enjoy!


It’s a time honored ritual, even though we rarely talk about it. Some have called it the “circling of the vultures” or “shopping.” Me, I just call it “cube picking.”

I’ve lost count of the rounds of layoffs during this “economic downturn” but I doubt I could count them on one hand anymore. When operating profits are low, the easiest solution is to reduce headcount, and stop buying new office supplies.

The trick is to work quickly, maybe on your way to get coffee you pick up a stapler. I’ve already got three, so I try to look for tape dispensers or something nice to hold paper clips and pencils. I also like notebooks, even though we do all our work on computers and I hardly ever use them.

Our latest “right-sized” employee is John. John and I used to go cube picking together. One time we found a mini-fridge in Gray’s cube, and moved it into the “bullpen”, an L of cubes John and I used to share. I kept sodas in there until I discovered I could just steal them from the break room.

John’s divorced and lives in a rented apartment not far from work. We used to hang out and watch Dr. Who on our lunch hour. It’s been a week and I haven’t stopped by once. I guess it was the shared drudgery that bonded us together, and now that it’s gone we’re not really friends. That, and hanging out with someone who’s both divorced and unemployed is kind of a downer.

Since I knew John the best I get first crack in our little secret dance. I immediately pounce on his heater, an essential appliance in these offices which are either too hot or freezing cold. I’d thought about buying one, but it just doesn’t feel right to bring anything of permanence here at the moment.

I take the unusual step of actually opening his desk drawers. Inside is the usual assortment of pens and highlighters. I pocket a few post-its even though I have two dozen pads already when I see the frame.

I recognize the dark wood of it immediately. It had sat on his desk for years before the divorce, and pulling it out I was surprised to discover it looked exactly the same. John’s wife was riding on his back, smiling as they walked through some park not far from here. John’s looking into her eyes with amusement and affection. The picture was taken before they were married, and in all the time I’d known him I’d never heard him talk about his wife as someone he loved.

The picture was a relic of a bygone era, and I was surprised to see it unblemished post-divorce. No tearing her out of the picture or drawing a mustache with a sharpie. And yet he hadn’t taken it with him.

I wondered if it was just an oversight. You only get about fifteen minutes to clear out your desk, and that’s with a security guard standing over you. Still he had to know it was there. If he’d saved it all this time, it would have been the first thing he grabbed.

I contemplated bringing it over to him at lunch, then remembered that I had been looking forward to Mexican all morning, and it was a nice frame after all. I popped out the picture and threw it in the drawer, then slipped the frame in a notebook I’d stolen, and went back to my desk.


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Three-Minute Fiction “Ganja Man”

Well another round of three-minute fiction has come and gone. This time the prompt was “finders keepers” , “A character finds something he or she has no intention of returning”. This round was even more fun because my wife and I did it together, each submitting our own story. I’ve been very fortunate to have my wife as my editor, but it’s been great to share the creative side of the process with her as well. I know she had a lot of fun writing the story below, and I hope you enjoy it too.


Standing on my tippy-toes I could just reach the utility shelf in my garage. I had just finished clearing out the old motor oil and weed killer I’d stashed up there years ago. I was certain I’d gotten everything, but I took one last pass sweeping my arm across the shelf.

Wait… What was that my finger nudged?

I jumped up and stretched my arm as far back as I could. In the corner my hand came down on what felt like the edge of a bowl. I could feel the rounded, soft plastic of an old margarine container. Or was it cottage cheese?

I slowly inched the container toward the edge of the shelf with the tip of my finger. I could hear something clinking; surely some type of hardware. As I pulled it down to confirm my suspicion I was taken aback by what I found. There before me was a lighter and pipe.

At first I looked at it, confused; my mind fumbling around trying to put it all together. This garage had been my father’s sanctuary when he was sick. While the cancer was eating away at his body he would come out here to work; to try to forget for just a moment that he wasn’t going see his little girl grow up. That was 20 years ago.

As the pieces started to come together in my mind, the tiniest bit of a smirk began to spread across my lips. I held the pipe up to my nose and took a whiff. It still had the faintest aroma of what I suspected. I flicked the lighter a couple of times just to see if after all those years it would work. As the tiny flame danced around, an uncontrollable euphoria came over me, and laughter bubbled up.

I could see it so clearly now; my father standing there in his white bib overalls, bandana tucked into his pocket, pencil behind his ear. He’s thinner than he used to be, and his beautiful red hair is gone, but it’s still him. He has the radio on a station that is now classic rock. He takes a pause from his woodworking and picks up his pipe. He flicks the lighter and takes a long drag. As he exhales he turns back to his work bench, bobbing his head along to the radio; finally some relief from the chemo.

I brushed the years of dust and dirt off the pipe and held it in my hand, just remembering him; his deep set brown eyes, freckles on his cheeks and nose, his soft lips that would kiss my forehead goodnight. When my thoughts finally drifted back to reality I crossed the garage, stopped at the cupboard, and placed his items on my shelf.


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