Sunday, August 30, 2015

Adventures in D&D Land: Here We Go Again!

Due to a few unforeseen circumstances, we haven't been able to play the last two sessions of our normal game. We've been playing through the Lost Mines of Phandelver, which is the starter campaign, and we've found ourselves in a precarious situation in a cave with goblins. Now, I'm not saying we're going to die, but it could happen. We were supposed to play last night, but something about hordes of demon children rising up from the pits of the deepest hells and trying to devour the earth came up. We had to let our DM save the world or at least himself. Honestly, though, I can't hold life against anyone. We're adults playing, and we have real lives that require our attention. We're professionals, parents, and students. We're going to have days where we just can't play because of the curve balls that life throws us.

As I mentioned, though, I'm a new player, a very new player. So, if I'm not actively doing things in a game, I'll forget everything and we'll spend needless time answering questions I've probably already asked. Fortunately, AJ (my cousin and semi-veteran player) doesn't mind getting on Skype with me and answering my newb questions, even if they're repeats and I ask him to explain all the things to me like I'm three-years-old. It's not just this game either. If I stop a game I'm playing on one of my consoles and don't come back to it for a while, I can feel completely lost and will usually start over. However, it feels like I don't have the luxury of doing that with this game.

If you remember from my last post, I haven't been too keen on joining groups with people that I don't know well. A group I almost joined, I was scared away by the Dungeon Master. So, an option we, meaning my friends and I, came up with an idea to run another game DM'd by our friend Deacon who playing the Phandelver campaign with us as a dwarven cleric. I'd already had a second character rolled, a rogue with a pirate background, mainly in case we died in our current campaign in Phandelver. I've decided to use her for the story Deacon has made up for us which starts with us meeting up to take on a task. He asked that we all be experts in something. Mine was pretty easy as my pirate is an expert at navigation and probably knows a ton about sea creatures.

We can't start this weekend as Wendy has an event, so we're looking at next week. We also have to figure out how to balance this with our other game. I really do want to get through the whole campaign. I know the story to follow Phandelver is Hoard of the Dragon Queen and finally The Rise of Tiamat. I think it'd be pretty cool to finish a whole arc.

Another long time friend of mine said he'd run me through a solo campaign if I wanted just to keep my mind fresh. He's been playing for well over twenty years and has had plenty of DM experience, so I said that I might give this a try as well. We'd be running a completely original module that works with 5e. He promised me that he wouldn't think I'm nuts if I import my two characters into the game and play them. He'd even let me make a third to play around with in the campaign.

One thing I have learned so far in all this is that I'm actually pretty decent at building characters. I won't say I'm an expert, but I enjoy creating these characters, giving them backgrounds, and "getting into their minds." Some of this dice stuff still doesn't make sense, but much of it is starting to be less daunting as I play more. Watch this space.

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Adventures in D&D Land: My Journey Begins & That Time I Was Told I Couldn't Role-Play A Guy

I’ve finally breached the final geek frontier for me. About a month ago, I started playing my very first tabletop game--Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. Wendy sent out an email inviting me and a few other friends to join her game, which was being DM'd by her nephew. One of our gaming resolutions we made was to try out a tabletop game together, but we'd been a little slow to get started. This got us in gear. My cousin, who regularly plays with his girlfriend and his family, joined us. After flailing at AJ (my cousin) about character creation sheets and feeling like I was probably going to fail at everything, we spent four hours on Skype working on my first character together, a tiefling bard named Xavros Fallenheart, whose background is a charlatan (entertainer as a background was too flamboyant for what I had in mind for him). Look at that babe.

Anyhow, we have a great group, and I think I've taken to the game better than I thought I would to the point that I'd like to play with more people. I’ve been invited to join a few online games. Most of which I’ve turned down because I’m particular about the people I play with. As a woman of color, I want to be sure the I'm entering spaces where I can have fun and not deal with gross behavior. I'm confrontational by nature, but I'm at an age now where I'm tired of having to argue with people instead of being allowed common courtesy to enjoy a game because someone feels it's their civic duty to dehumanized me because of my sex and/or race. I'd rather just disengage than argue most of the time now because it doesn't benefit me at all aside from making my stress level shoot through the roof because someone pissed me off.

Unless you've been living under a rock or one of those people who just outright deny that the gaming community can be intolerant while they ironically preach they're treated as outcasts, you have to be aware that for marginalized groups (there are many great articles on this site dealing with problematic role-playing situations) hopping into certain gaming situations can be terrifying and off-putting. I am an avid gamer, and I always have been. I know firsthand what it's like to be harassed mainly because of my gender. Dungeons and Dragons, while I've always been interested in it, I felt intimidated by the idea of actually joining a group. I had a friend who tried to get me to play with his old group years ago, but I wasn't comfortable with the idea, even with him being there with me. I would've been the only woman in a sea of guys, and it felt like role-playing would put me in a far more vulnerable place than just playing Street Fighter. The most of I've done with D&D is play the PC games based on their rules such as Neverwinter Nights and watch my friend play.

I thought that I had found a possible secondary group. I explained what I was looking for and how I played with my current group of friends. And I’m not looking to replace my group at all and they’ll always take priority. I’m just wanting to gain more experience and play different classes/races and scenarios. This seemed like a great diverse group who wouldn't make fun of my newb status until the DM tells me I can’t play a guy or a trans character. I didn't ask him that. He felt obligated to supply me with that information. Remember, I play a male bard, and he doesn’t fall into any gender roles and I have enjoyed the experience playing him with my friends. To be honest, I hadn't even thought about what gender/class/race I'd play with this new group. I just wanted there to be an understanding of what I would and wouldn't tolerate.

When I asked the DM why, especially since mature themes are off-limits, as well, so it’s not like the characters would be trying to smut each other up every chance they’d get, I was told by the DM that he’s not comfortable with people role-playing characters opposite of their gender, which doesn't make much sense to me. Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of role-playing if you won’t allow people to role-play whatever gender identity they want? 5e has seemed to be especially open to the idea that players don't always want their characters to stick to strict gender roles. You're playing a character. So what if you're a woman playing a man or vice versa? What is so uncomfortable about that?

That didn’t sit well with me, and that was a definite deal breaker. In all likelihood, I would’ve played a female character, but to be told that I had to play a female character because I'm female just made me not even want to play with him overseeing the game. It's his game, and he can run it how he sees fit. However, it's one thing when a group may decide that their players can't be evil, which I don't agree with either, but at least one of the people I play with gave me a plausible reason why they stopped allowing evil players and most of it had to do with player abuse. Telling someone they can only play characters the same gender as they are leaves the question open, "What other questionable rules might this game have?"

I won't let that experience deter me, though. I have a session with my regular group tonight, and I'll continue to maybe look into playing with other people (or watching other people play) to expand my horizons.
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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Book Thoughts: Controversy Creates Cash by Eric Bischoff

Controversy Creates CashControversy Creates Cash by Eric Bischoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started really watching wrestling in late 2000 during the Attitude Era when I started dating my boyfriend (now husband) at the time. We were young college kids. Up to that point, I'd only glimpsed wrestling on television. I had a cousin who was big fan of wrestling when we were kids and was convinced that she was going to marry Shawn Michaels. She talked nonstop about him. I knew a little about NWO and Goldberg, but that was the extent of my knowledge. When I started watching wrestling, I was solely watching the WWE product. I was immediately taken by characters like Lita and The Rock. I didn't even give the WCW brand a glance. I was so invested in the stories the WWE was telling that it never even crossed my mind to give the other guys a chance.

On my birthday in 2001, Vince made the announcement on RAW that he'd acquired WCW. I still didn't really know who Eric Bischoff was at that point. However, I started going back, watching old matches and shows from both products. I wanted to know the history of wrestling and its players. I blame my love of history and needing to know the history of things for this. I've always thought that Eric Bischoff was a great heel character once I learned about him, and I never hated the guy. I understand why he is a polarizing character, but I never despised him or felt the same level of antipathy that many fans have for him.

I recently watched every episode of Monday Night Wars on the WWE Network, which was fascinating. A fellow wrestling friend gifted me with a few wrestling memoirs to check out after we had some long discussions about the rivalry between the WWE and WCW (Bischoff says it was less a rivalry and more a "rout" during the weeks they reigned supreme). Controversy Creates Cash was one of the books in this treasure trove. Eric Bischoff's book focuses more on the business side of wrestling rather than wrestling. Bischoff was a businessman, and it makes sense that his book focused on the backstage politics and troubles. He does talk about his younger years and other failed ventures that he tried in the beginning, and he jumps around quite a bit on various subjects. Some of these sections felt a bit like filler and unnecessary, especially since they lacked buildup, but perhaps there was a connection that I was missing between these scenes.

Bischoff gives entirely too much book time to his dislike of internet wrestling sites. Mentioning them once or twice would've sufficed. Often his thoughts are mentioned as asides when he discusses certain changes he made or ideas he incorporated and how wrestling sites misconstrued the intent behind these things. He even goes as far as to make disparaging remarks about how these people must be losers in real life. In a portion of his book he accuses Missy Hyatt of being catty, but his own remarks about "dirtsheets" and some of the talent/backstage employees show that he is equally as catty and political as they are. I found it particularly hilarious that he singled out Dave Meltzer who runs Wrestling Observer, accusing his paid newsletter of being unedited trash that seemed written by a 5th grader when this book was pretty terribly edited. Even in the lines about Meltzer, the word "wrestler" is spelled wrong. There's some irony there.

Eric Bischoff accuses other wrestling memoirs of being revisionist history meant to paint the author in a more favorable light. However, no matter how straightforward Bischoff believes his own narrative is, he falls into that category as well, seeming to bathe himself in a softer narrative as suits him. Anyone who's ever watched any documentary that Bischoff has been part of, especially the ones centered around the Monday Night Wars, is hardly fooled by this kinder, gentler Bischoff he tried to sell in this book. It's interesting to see how Bischoff's memories of events differ from how the other players view the events. Such as how he felt the WCW did great things with its cruiserweight division versus how people like Chris Jericho (who was part of this cruiserweight push) view those same events, which are often memories filled with frustration on their part.

However, despite the mixed feelings I had about Bischoff's account of things, I can't say that this book isn't compelling. Bischoff admits that during that time he lacked insight and didn't think about the bigger picture of some of his ideas and changes. Reading his version of some events prove there still is some lack of insight on his part. Eric talks about Paul Heyman and how he felt that Heyman was so full of shit that he believed his own delusions. That felt like the pot calling the kettle black. Bischoff seems locked in his own mind in portions of this story, choosing to believe his version of events. Do I think Eric Bischoff was the death of WCW? No, I don't. I think he got caught in the whirlwind that is business politics and was dragged along to an inevitable end. I think his assessment of the business side of wrestling as far as perceptions and the problems faced being part of a corporation like Turner/Time Warner are probably the most honest parts of this memoir.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Book Thoughts: Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi

Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and GainUnbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“True nobility isn’t about being better than anyone else; it’s about being better than you used to be.”

"Yes, Ma. I am better.”

  I am better than I used to be.

This was a painful, candid look into Portia's battle with her eating disorder that last for nearly twenty years of her life. At first, it seems like a "normal" thing as a model and later actor. She'd skipped meals and/or work extra hard for anything that required she put her body on display. Her disorder also seemed for a cry for attention, as she admitted that thrived off the energy people would give her due to her weight. At her lowest weight she was 82 lbs.

It takes a lot for someone to show so much of their soul. And while I'm certainly sure she told this story to put it all out there, to face this long, dangerous part of her life, I wished there'd been more time spent on her recovery rather than trying to sum it up in a little epilogue that glossed over things. Too much of this book is triggering and teeming with ideas that someone with an eating disorder or even flirting with one might try to practice while spending nearly no time chronicling Portia's fight back to health. Like I said, a wonderfully candid book that I wished had shown more of the recovery process rather than spending over 2/3rds of the book giving excruciating detail of how she made this disorder "work."

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Thoughts: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

God Help the ChildGod Help the Child by Toni Morrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Listen to me. You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works and how it changes when you are a parent.

Good luck and God help the child.”

We follow the story of a woman named Bride, a woman who was born so dark she's described as "blue-black." Both her parents are lighter in complexion than she is, so that caused friction between her parents, as her father couldn't accept the idea that his wife hadn't cheated on him. Neither parent seemed willing to accept that they could birth a child so black. Sweetness, Bride's mother, raised her to be tough. She tried to justify her actions by saying she was trying to prepare Bride for a world that would look at her skin and fear her. To Bride's credit, she grows into a beautiful, successful, confident woman who uses her skin to bewitch others. She commands a room when she's in it. However, after a painful part of her past resurfaces and the man she loves leaves her, Bride sets out on a journey.

I had to think about this book a few days before I could write a proper review for this book. I've been a long-time fan of Morrison's work and was excited to hear that she was writing her first book with a contemporary setting. However, while it is beautifully written and Toni Morrison is a wonderful narrator, this story is so disjointed. I'm not saying there aren't things to be taken away from this story, but it only grazes the top of the water, giving very little depth at all.

Characters come in with POVs that seem irrelevant and are never revisited again. While I definitely side-eyed the whole "I miss my black lady" chapter, at least it seemed to be the most earnest in trying to show how painful it is to have secrets and hurts that people would rather you ignore, or use them to make you stronger (as seems to be the overarching theme in all this) than trying to truly heal and make peace with your past--that includes Bride and her relationship with her mother.

This seems to lack purpose; it seems to lack a point. The driving force behind the story was weak. Resolutions I'd hope to see resolved never were. This story lacked cohesion, and honestly, I'm not particularly sure I understand what Toni was going for here. It's disappointing to feel this way about a Toni Morrison book because she usually has such powerful stories to tell.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Book Thoughts: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell , Henry Cole (Illustrator)

And Tango Makes ThreeAnd Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this from Audible to listen to with my children yesterday, but we're just getting around to it today. This is the fictionalized true account of two male penguins, Roy and Silo, who live in the Central Park Zoo. A brief history of these two penguins included them partaking in non-sexual mating habits. They'd wanted a chick and had been observed trying to steal the eggs of other couples (not mentioned in the book, obviously,) until the zookeepers finally gave them the egg of a couple who had never been able to raise more than one chick at a time.

From this egg, which Silo and Roy cared for, came Tango. The story doesn't go into all that details, but it presents the story of Silo, Roy, and Tango in a way that was understandable and reinforced that families have various makeups and that families that don't fit the "traditional standard" can be happy and healthy.

More trivia (not presented in this book) Tango actually grew up to take a female partner herself. Roy and Silo ended up separating (I believe this was a decision of the zookeepers due to dwindling numbers). Silo ended up with a female partner, and Roy began living with a group of single male penguins.

Neil Patrick Harris was a wonderful narrator. My kids really enjoyed his reading of this book. My daughter called it "cute." The only problem my children had with the book, well actually my daughter, was that she didn't get to look at the pictures since we listened to this on audio, so I ended up having to get the book for her and all was well in the world.

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Monday, June 1, 2015

Book Thoughts: Absolutely True Lies by Rachel Stuhler

Absolutely True LiesAbsolutely True Lies by Rachel Stuhler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. SLIGHT SPOILERS! 

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Touchstone via Netgalley. I would like to thank the author, the publisher, and Netgalley for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed from here forward are my own.
When a Goodreads friend recommended this book, I wasn't sure what to expect. I've been reading and reviewing more speculative fiction for the website that I blog for, so I'm usually knee deep in aliens, dragons, and some times some amalgam of the two. It's been a while since I sat down with a light fluffy, contemporary book and just enjoyed it for what it was worth. Admittedly, I love my speculative fiction, but I've missed reading contemporary fiction. So, when I saw this was available for grabs through NetGalley and I'd added to my TBR pile, I requested it.

We follow a fledgling entertainment reporter, Holly Gracin, who after finding herself out of work takes on the job of ghostwriting the autobiography of one of the world's biggest teen stars, Daisy Mae Dixson, a girl who kind of makes me think of Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears back during the height of their stardom.
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Book Thoughts: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, #4)A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is long and spoiler filled.

I'd give this a 3.5. I chose to go with the official 3 star rating instead of the 4 for a few reasons that I'll go into a bit later. This book chronicles the fallout from The Red Wedding and the deaths of Joffrey and his grandfather, Tywin, following various characters as they continue to try to survive and navigate their way through the treacherous expanse of Westeros.

This book is very character driven, and I think many of the characters went through a few defining moments in this book. This book also introduced a few new faces and POVs that provided some insight into parts of the story. I enjoy stories that really try to delve into the machinations of the characters because I like to know how people, even fictional people, tick. A story can't always be constant action. Well, it could, but what would be taken from that? The stories that stick with us are the ones that have unforgettable stories with unforgettable characters. There's something in them that touches us on more than just a shallow level. There needs to be a time for characters to morph, to adapt, to grow in response to what's going on around them--especially for a story as epic as this one. If characters didn't change in response to all this upheaval, this would be disappointing. There's so much going on that we do need this downtime to see how the characters are changed (or are being changed) by the events surrounding them.
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Friday, March 6, 2015

Book Thoughts: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A tiding of magpies. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told. I’ve got a few of those.

3.5 stars. Not really spoilerish (but YMMV), but certainly long.

The girl on the train is alcoholic divorcee Rachel Watson. She commutes on the train everyday, except the weekends, to the city. She shares an apartment with an old acquaintance who worries after her due to her drinking problem. During her train trips, Rachel passes a former neighborhood of hers where her old home is visible from tracks. However, memories of her home cause her great pain, so she focuses on a residence a few houses down from her old home where a young couple resides. She spends a great deal of time making up a life for "Jess and Jason," as she calls them, a life that betrays what she once had. They're the perfect couple in her mind until one day she spies Jess kissing another man and later that day "Jess" ends up missing.

This book is written from the point-of-view of three women, Rachael Watson, Anna Watson, Rachel's ex-husband's new wife, and Megan Hipwell, the married young woman that Rachel calls "Jess" who turns up missing. Each woman has their issues that lend the story that unreliable narrator feel that so many books are going for these days. Readers try to sort through what's real and what's imagined as told by an alcoholic who has blackouts, an unapologetic cheater-turned-obsessive mom who has a self-serving canted view of things to suit her, and a woman with so much emotional baggage it boggles the mind how she's stayed sane for so long.

Making Rachel something of the hero of this story was different. She's certainly not an ideal hero, and her heroism is tempered by her own self-serving needs. However, much of the story rests on her, and she's not some mild-to-moderately attractive woman who's just a little down on her luck. No, she's a debilitating alcoholic who often spirals into the abyss and does things she can't remember. Her appearance, her mental health, her personal and professional relationships, her whole life has been affected by her alcoholism. She's flaky and has a penchant for lying without understanding why she does it. (Well, she does know why she does it, but she refuses to face the issue.) Megan's disappearance, however, adds meaning to her life in a strange way.

Megan's side of things serve to show us what type of person she really is, what type of person her husband really is, outside of Rachel's and Anna's (but especially Rachel's) limited view of her. While some of Rachel's fanciful musing on Megan and her husband actually do describe them, you find that Megan is far more troubled than Rachel can begin to understand. Megan's side of things also gives readers doubts and much to consider about the things leading up to her disappearance. It makes you question Rachel's version of the story quite a bit, even the parts the readers think are true.

Anna is one of my complaints. I never felt her parts were that significant. This was disappointing considering she was supposed to cast a different light on Rachel and her behavior while serving to point out some other strange details in the story. It felt so shallow, she felt so shallow, for most of the book, though, and then, when her POV became significant toward the end of the book, I starting feeling like these things should've been weaved into the story more instead of adding all the weight near the end.

The ending, while certainly not surprising, felt a bit rushed. Everything started happening all at one time instead of things carefully unfolding until the reader thinks "Aha!", and a few major coincidences occurred so rapidly in tandem to bring about its dramatic conclusion. There were some weakness as to the motivations and character revelations that left me dissatisfied.

The narration of this book was beautifully done by Clare Corbett (Rachel), Louise Brealey (Megan), and India Fisher (Anna). They prove through their strong narration that this book was made to be read. It feels more like a radio drama production rather meant for that purpose. I'm usually doing something else while I'm listening to audiobooks, but there were so many moments where I just stopped doing whatever it was I was doing completely to just listen to the story. That rarely happens to me.

This book has been compared to Gone Girl for its voice. I'm one of the last people on earth who hasn't read or watched Gone Girl, so I can't make any comparisons to it. However, I can say that this certainly has "Made for Movie" all over it, and it'd likely be a movie that made viewers hold their breaths in anticipation if done right. This is a riveting story that's hard to put down. The only reason I didn't finish it in one sitting is because I started reading it late one evening and had to rest for work the next morning.

Hawkins' writing style is lyrical, haunting even, without making the story drag. I appreciated that she used these three troubled women to tell the story rather than trying to give it to us from some rational mind who would've long stopped this madness long before things got interesting. There were so many moments when I wanted to yell at these characters to get it together. There were moments when I felt like I was sinking under their emotional turmoil. That's important. That means I'm invested in the story. Despite any complaints that I had with the story, it was a fine showing.

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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Thoughts: Wreckage by Emily Bleeker

WreckageWreckage by Emily Bleeker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

TL;DR Version:

2.5 stars. Ugh.

Long Version:

Wreckage revolves around two survivors of a plane crash, Lillian and Dave, who'd spent two years trapped on a deserted island together. Both are married, and Lillian has two boys. Lillian's mother-in-law, Margaret, wins a trip for two to Fiji thanks to a contest ran by a yogurt company. After a week of VIP treatment, the company sends out a private jet to take the two women to the company's private island. The airplane is manned by a pilot and a stewardess, Kent and Theresa respectively. The company also sends Dave, a representative of the company.

When the plane loses an engine and gets caught in a storm (I know, I know), it goes down. Theresa and Margaret are the only ones fortunate enough to bail out of this story early, leaving Lillian, Dave, and Kent to fend for themselves. However, this story doesn't follow them from that point. This book begins some time after they've been rescued. Lillian has agreed to do one exclusive interview so that she can tell her "necessary lies" and be done with the whole thing, only she requires Dave to get in on this fiasco for whatever reason (and I never figure out why he had to factor in). The book shifts between the interviews and scenes on the island.

This book started out promising, even as I joked, "Is this going to be like that Guy Ritchie and Madonna movie?" Looking at some of the other reviews for this book that thought terrible things like cannibalism would come into play while reading this, I wished I'd been more creative with my question. I will admit that I initially picked it up because I was hoping that I was going to get something like The Woman Who Wasn't There (a documentary about a woman who faked being a 911 survivor for many years). The more I got into the story, the more dissatisfied I became with it.

My main problem with this book is the whole idea it's based on. Why did Lillian and David feel the need to make up such a complex story? You were stranded on an island. You didn't think you were coming home. No one thought you were alive. While hurtful, no one can blame you for whatever happened there in such a stressful situation. I get there are things that happened on that island that would hurt their partners. Just tell the truth so people can heal and move on.

I'm not so much annoyed that they chose to lie, but what they chose to lie about and the types of lies they chose to tell. Some of these lies, like Kent's death (and Kent only served to be the mustache twirling villain who knew exactly how to survive on a deserted island making him feel necessary to the two), weren't even worth the effort to lie about. If you feel you have to lie, why would you unnecessarily complicate your story with excess lies? Not only that, one of the lies you told was perhaps the easiest to debunk because of the wonders of modern medicine, and it was debunked because of the wonders of modern medicine.

The dialogue was so trite. It just didn't feel like things that people would say to each other. I could see this dialogue being in one of those old 80s young adult books I used to read, just real shallow, banal quality for the most part. I found myself unintentionally frowning up at most of it. Some of these other points of contention, I'm not even going to comment on because I'll never stop talking about it, such as Paul. Insert ominous music here.

Two-thirds of the way into this book, it just fell apart completely as the romance plot completely took over. Two attractive, married people (though they don't think of themselves as attractive, but the writing proves that this just isn't so) on a beach alone together after the villain's demise... what else is there to do? Apparently, have the book lose its shit altogether from that moment to the ending.

The ending wrapped everything up so neatly. They all lived happily ever after. The truth came out to the ones that mattered despite all the lies, and everyone is okay and they're all one big happy family. Literally. I don't have anything against HEA endings, but this just didn't fit the context of the story. However, considering how the book just fell apart and the general shaky premise, maybe it did fit the book.

After I finished reading it, I was so disappointed. It wasn't a badly written book, which is why I can't rate it lower than 2 stars. The story is actually intriguing in parts, and the concept of the story itself isn't bad just not executed well. I also think that she mostly got it right with media feeling entitled to every piece of a story, as if their opinions are the ones that really matter. (I still found the woman doing the interview to be a bit of a caricature of the ambitious reporter herself.) I think I'm more perplexed at how such a promising start could go so absolutely wrong.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Serial Thoughts: What the Hell Happened to Hae Min Lee?

I'm a couch lawyer. That's who I call anyone like me who has a keen interest in true crime stories and crime drama shows. We're the ones who always have some theory on hand about any given case. From the safety of my couch, I can state my opinions on cases, suspects, and scenarios without any real consequences. I can be detective, judge, and jury. I can chat with other couch lawyers and exchange ideas freely. With that in mind understand that anything I say in this post should be taken with a grain of salt. I'm no lawyer. I just play one from the plushiness of my couch.

When I first got into Serial, a podcast from one of the names behind This American Life (which I've never listened to), I thought I was getting into a fictitious murder mystery story. I'd been looking around to get some suggestions for podcasts I should try, and Serial seemed to come up fairly often. I'm not sure how I managed to miss the part about this being an investigative piece on a true crime story, though. Over the span of twelve episodes, Sarah Koenig investigates a curious murder case that takes place in Baltimore, Maryland. This is long and spoiler-filled.

Leading into this podcast, there was a brief discussion about people's memories and how events are remembered. If something monumental happened to a person, memories tend to be sharper. If it was just an average day, things were murkier, more general. Kids seemed to have a foggier memory if nothing of note happened. Girls seem to recall things more vividly than boys. This is important because much of this case was based on what did or didn't happen one January day in 1999 as told by a bunch of teenagers. Also, revisiting the case meant asking people to recall memories from 15 years earlier, and memories are tempered with time. Can you recall what you were doing in mid-January of 1999? I asked myself this question.

In 1999, the year this murder happened, I was a high school junior. I was on the cusp of seventeen. What do I remember about that time? I remember that my best friend and I weren't speaking to one another because another mutual friend, whose family had moved a couple of hours away, was angry at me because of a boy, naturally. My best friend felt her friendship with our other friend was more important to her than her friendship with me, so I became good friends with my best friend's archenemy in retaliation. We eventually made up. In other words, it was high school, and I was doing high school things.

The only reason I remember this moment is because it was such a big deal in my teenage life. I remember this happening in January because we'd recently come back from Christmas break. I was still adjusting to a new schedule for the new semester, which turned out to be a blessing because I saw less of my best friend. We didn't have any classes together anymore. The introduction of a Spanish class that I took with her archenemy afforded me time to get to know this other girl. While I was dealing with those "world ending" issues, hundreds of miles away, a group of teens were trying to recall what they were doing when their friend disappeared.

Serial investigates the 1999 murder of high school senior, Hae Min Lee. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was eventually tried and convicted. He received a life sentence and has been in prison for the past 15 years. You're probably asking: "If her murderer is in prison, what's the mystery here?" Despite Adnan being convicted of her murder, the evidence and circumstances surrounding Adnan's conviction were a bit sketchy with Adnan's convinction resting mostly on the testimony of a unreliable witness and cell phone records that supported the claims but also had large unexplainable holes. Also, during this time, Adnan had maintained his innocence (and continues to do so), but he's not able to offer a real alibi for himself. He can only say that the story presented by the state's key witness didn't happen.

Sarah Koenig is the acting investigating reporter for this story. It took her a year to completely tell this story as she tried to navigate its complexity. The first step involved her speaking with Adnan's family to get a general idea of the case. From there, she speaks to witnesses, experts, and even Adnan himself to attempt to figure out what happened the day of Hae's disappearance. Let me warn you now. If you think this podcast solved anything, you probably don't watch enough true crime television to know that these things rarely give a conclusive answer. However, this podcast does help to expose some huge holes in the case against Adnan.

The state's case rested on one witness--a guy named Jay. Jay sold weed to Adnan and his friends, and he often smoked with them. Jay testifies that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body after Adnan strangled her (an event he did not witness). Jay presents a problem as his story frequently changes about the events of the day. At one point, he makes up a whole excursion where he and Adnan make a stop at another park and waxed poetic about Hae's death while smoking. Never mind that this just could not happen on such a tight timeline. The state had a timeline of events according to them and trips to smoke weed and be poetic did not fit the narrative. Jay eventually removes that excursion from the story and some of the other added details from his various versions of the day. However, some of the important parts of Jay's story never change.

Adnan's cell phone records were a bit strange as well. While they seemed to support the timeline somewhat, there's also moments where this question is posed: If they're supposed to be at point (A) at a certain time, then how in the world was his cell phone hitting a tower at point (B), which is quite a distance away from (A)? Adnan insists that he allowed Jay to use his car to pick up a gift for his girlfriend who happened to a good friend of Adnan's. He also left his phone with Jay so that he could call him to come pick him up after track practice that afternoon. Jay says that Adnan left the car with him, so he'd have a reason to ask Hae for a ride. He says that Adnan later calls him from the Best Buy parking lot, and that's where Adnan shows him Hae's dead body in the trunk of her car.

Confusing, right? Well, add to that that evidence wasn't explored by Adnan's attorney, some evidence wasn't fully investigated by the police, and Adnan can provide no useful information for his whereabouts, and you have a case burdened with frustrating  conundrum.

To be honest, I don't believe that Adnan doesn't know anything about Hae's murder. Even with some of the evidence being shaky at best, the evidence that does hold up seems to indicate that Adnan has to know something. Did he kill her? Maybe so, maybe no. There's plenty of reasonable doubt there. What parts are true from Jay's story and what parts are fake (other than the obvious lies he told) is anyone's guess. I can't say that I would be entirely comfortable with convicting someone of murder largely based on Jay's testimony.

Before I go any further, I did want to mention how frustrating it was as a black woman to hear the detectives and even Sarah trying to rationalize how Jay could be so scared of the police that he decided it was better to help dispose of the body than turn Adnan in to the authorities (assuming Adnan did it). No matter what lies Jay may or may not have told, one thing held true. I feel like he was being mostly earnest when he tried to explain his distrust/fear of the police, how he'd been harassed in his own neighborhood, in front of his own house even.

I know the detectives are well aware of the sentiment that many minority communities have toward them, even in 1999, and I feel like their derision of the Jay's excuse was probably more of a police tactic. Sarah trying to "make sense" of that really felt like someone saying the experiences of people of color with the police aren't legitimate unless they can reduce it to terms that satisfy them. Never mind that they'll never know what it's like to be a PoC living in this country and that PoC experiences don't have to be rationalized and validated by them to make it true. Minority communities have historically been wary of the police. This isn't something new. While Jay could've been lying through his teeth about his fear of cops, I do feel that he voiced an important aspect of the relationship between PoC and the police.

Why would Jay implicate himself in something that didn't happen? I think that question is what made jurors believe the important parts of the testimony. I think there's some truth in Jay's testimony. I do think that he helped to bury Hae body. I do believe him when he says that he got rid of the tools and clothing from that day. I think I even partially believe that he buried the body with Adnan. However, I can't say who might've killed her. Maybe Jay did it. Maybe Adnan did it. Maybe some third party did it and they tried to dispose of the evidence for whatever reason. Maybe Adnan paid Jay to help him. Maybe Jay made the whole story up and it's an unfortunate coincidence that the cell phone records match the timeline in places, but the timeline could theoretically have also been wrong and only used because it fit what prosecutors say happened. Jay never confirms Hae was actually killed when the prosecutors say she had to be killed (which is actually not concretely when she had to be killed) and then shoehorned the cell records to fit their narrative. I don't know. I just feel like they, even Adnan, know something regardless of who's lying and who's not. The Universe would have to have been saying, "And fuck you in particular, Adnan," for me to believe he knows absolutely nothing.

Then, I had a crazy theory that maybe it did happen mostly like Jay described, but maybe there was a method to his madness with the story changes. Maybe he kept changing his story, hoping they'd realize he was an unreliable witness, then Adnan would walk. There doesn't seem to be much malice between the two men. Adnan mentioned trying to stay emotionally neutral. However, he freaks out when Sarah asks him about stealing from the mosque, but can't be motivated into some kind of response toward the man who helped to get him convicted. Add to the fact that Jay never served time even though he was considered an accessory after the fact for his part in helping to bury Hae. Even if I wasn't banging the phone against the wall, I'd have some choice words for Jay. It just feels suspicious, but this is more of a conspiracy theory explanation at any rate.

Thanks to Sarah's digging and bringing this case to a very public platform. Adnan's case has been taken up by The Innocence Project. During an episode of Serial, she talked to Deirdre Enright and her group of students from the University of Maryland Law School, who work with the project, purely to get a speculative theory on how strong the case against Adnan was. (Not very for his murder conviction, they said.) In the end, the case interested them enough with its inconsistencies that they taken the case on as one of their actual projects. They're having the items from the case DNA tested and following another lead they've found independent of Sarah. It'll take five months before they know the results of the DNA test. This podcast wrapped up in December of 2014, which is also when that bit was revealed, so I'm going to assume we won't hear about the DNA results until April or May, if we hear about them at all depending on what that team discovers.

I can't imagine how harrowing this podcast must've been (and still must be) for Hae's family. Hae's family didn't talk to Sarah, but they are aware of its existence. They seemed pretty convinced the justice system did its job. To have this possibility thrown out there that maybe Adnan didn't do it has to be a burden or maybe no amount of evidence about reasonable doubt could change their mind that he's guilty, but they still have this burden. You have complete strangers dissecting Hae's death all over again and dredging up old hurts in the most impersonal of ways. Sure, many podcast listeners express sympathy, but much of it is directed toward Adnan. The feelings come from what their friends and acquaintances say about the murder, whether Jay is lying, whether Adnan is lying, and not from the fact that Hae was murdered and that is tragic. Sarah didn't do a very good job at making Hae seem like more than a prop in an investigative story about her very own death. Where is the sympathy and reverence for the true victim of this story?

Serial was an addictive listen regardless of some of my issues with it. Sarah came out with an overall feeling that Adnan didn't murder Hae. I can't say that I felt the same. I agree there is enough doubt there, but I do believe he factored into her murder somehow and we may never know how. Even though Sarah had an obvious bias toward believing Adnan, she didn't necessarily make it seem like her listeners had to share this same idea. She presented facts that may point to Adnan being guilty. She pointed out the holes in his story. She allowed her listeners to be on the fence or disagree with her assessment of Adnan's guilt. Serial has been funded for a second season, and I'm curious to see how they'll follow this case.

Update: It looks like the court has reopened his appeal
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