Why The Bad Kids Aren’t So Bad After All

This morning I hoofed it to The Egyptian Theatre near the top of Main Street to see the documentary The Bad Kids. The movie follows the students and educators at Black Rock High School, in what feels like a forgotten part of the Mojave Desert in California. Black Rock is a last resort for many of its students, most of whom live in extreme poverty, with inconsistent parenting and living arrangements, where drugs and low expectations permeate the air.

The school is self-paced, giving kids who’ve fallen behind a chance to get back on track or perhaps even graduate early. The kids receive help and support that seems elusive in their home lives. Staff, led my hands-on principal Vonda Viland, phone students who don’t show up for school, offer rides if transportation is a roadblock, but perhaps most importantly, these dedicated educators hold the kids accountable while at the same time letting them know they are capable, worthy, and loved. The challenges are real. The road out’s not always so straight or clear, but this school provides a chance.

Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe have been making movies together for twenty years, but prior to the beginning of the film, they both said that following and crafting this story reminded them both of why they got in to film making, particularly documentaries, in the first place.

During the Q&A following the film, Fulton and Pepe seemed to have genuine relationships with the people they followed in the film. To me, this was exhibited even more by how they encourage the two students (both of whom have since graduated) and Principal Viland (far left in picture) to field most of the questions.

The story was well-crafted and the location in the desert made a real difference to the telling. You know those movies where they say New York (or some other iconic location) was a character n the film? Well, that’s the way the desert feels in The Bad Kids. It’s austere and isolated, angry during a storm, hopeful when the rainbows appear.

I left the film humbled and a bit saddened actually because I know this community is but one across the country where younger generations are plunged into adulthood at an early age, living each day wondering if they can bother to dream, wondering if they’ll be the one to break the cycle of poverty, abuse, and drug use.

The movie is a call to action. Take a few minutes to check out their website and learn about the story and how you might be able to help.

Documentaries, Music, and More

HooliganSundance started last night, and had its first full day of activities today. My first event was a movie in the World Documentary category titled Hooligan Sparrow. The original interest for filmmaker Nanfu Wang was to follow activist Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow) who had been making a name for herself with her advocacy work for the rights of sex workers. Ye Haiyan had a small group of activists working with her, and their efforts had gained the attention of the Chinese government, along with the international community.

Nanfu Wang, who no longer lives in China, travelled to Hainan Province to document Ye Haiyan’s latest protest of some young girls (as young as 11 years old) who were sexually abused by their principal.

This is where the story takes a turn. Early in to the experience, Wang realizes that perhaps the real story concerns the risks that human rights activists endure. Wang, along with Hooligan Sparrow and her group, becomes a target of intimidation and threats. In some cases, it’s clear the threat is from the government. In other cases, it’s unknown if it’s the everyday man sympathetic to the government or perhaps recruited by government officials.

The story is well-crafted, haunting, and educational about the changes that have been made in China, and those left to be made. Strikingly, Hooligan Sparrow is Nanfu Wang’s feature-film debut. It was a great way for me to start the festival.

In the afternoon, I headed to the ASCAP Music Cafe, relaxed and enjoyed some live music. My favorite act of the afternoon was Air Traffic Controller, an indie pop band fronted by Dave Munro,  a real-life air traffic controller for the US Navy. There were six people on the stage, but they played like a twelve-piece band, each member deftly moving from one instrument to the next, often within the same song. Listening was great, but watching was even better.

In the evening, I saw another documentary. This time it was NUTS!, a documentary by filmmaker Penny Lane entered in the US Documentary Competition. What a departure from the earlier film. The film tells the story of Dr. J.R. Brinkley, a small-town doctor with an entrepreneurial spirit who starts performing goat gonad transplants to solve impotency problems. Sounds like a guy you should have heard of, right? He lived in Kansas in the early 20th century, and in addition to his medical prowess, he also starts a successful radio station among other pursuits. I won’t give away the twists and turns in the tale – just know there are some.

Much of the story was told through animation, which was certainly unexpected. Some of the animated re-enactments are taken directly from available transcripts, but some were fabricated. This all adds up to a blurring of the line between truth and fiction, which ultimately is a bit of a parallel of Brinkley’s life.



#Sundance – 10 Days of Right Turns 

It’s that time of year again when Park City, a town of around 10,000 year-round residents grows four-fold to accommodate movie enthusiasts, film industry professionals, celebrities, and those on the brink of celebrity. And truth be told, not everyone’s happy about it.

The idea of it’s lovely, and there’s no doubt that it brings a boost to our local economy that doesn’t depend on Mother Nature the way the ski industry does; but it also means that everyday activities can become anxiety-inducing, time-wasting, patience-testing events. Think you’ll just run in to the grocery store to grab milk? Drop by the post office to pick up that package? Head to the gym for a quick workout? Not gonna happen! Try again in February.

If you watch Parkites prepare for Sundance, you would think you’d missed the warnings about an impending hurricane. Okay, so we don’t tape our windows or fill the tub with water, but we do stock up on groceries, fill the gas tank, and either fast track or postpone any upcoming appointments, errands, or chores. If you travel for work, now’s a good time to get out of town.

The other choice is to dive right in and play tourist in your hometown. This year the stars have aligned for me to do just that, and I’m giddy with anticipation. Tickets purchased. Credential secured. And to keep me somewhat sane, I’ve got everything in a spreadsheet, which might sound like overkill to the uninitiated, but it’s really quite essential if one doesn’t want to be in a panic trying to figure out how they could have double-booked two movies Thursday morning, how they’re ever going to get from the Library Theatre to Eccles in thirty minutes, and how they missed that hot new group at the Music Cafe that everyone’s talking about. Let’s just say, a little bit of organization can go a long way.

Top Tips for #Sundance Survival

If you’re coming to the Sundance Film Festival this year, Park City welcomes you! Each year it seems that more and more people join in the 10-day celebration of indie films and the creative process. There are movies, of course, along with panels, live music, cooking demonstrations, celebrity sightings, and high stakes deal-making.

But there are also winter conditions, long lines, large crowds, and limited parking. If you want to focus on the fun stuff and leave the frustration behind, then here are my top tips for doing just that.

Leave the heels at home

Trust me, now is not the time to choose fashion over function. Chances are you’ll be doing more walking than you typically do, dodging black ice, and skirting snow banks. Bring the boots and commit to wearing them. By boots, I mean the warm kind with some serious tread on the bottom, not those cute ankle ones with the leather soles you picked up at a sample sale. When you’re running down Park Avenue to catch the next bus to Prospector Square, you’ll be happy you did.

And speaking of the bus…

Unless you’ve secured a private driver for the duration of the event (and plenty of people do), you should plan on using a combination of public transportation and your feet. Do not rent a car or bring your own. Parking is severely limited (even the paid parking), and the snow will not dissuade the tow trucks. The good news is that taking the bus is easy, you’ll meet other festival goers, and it’s FREE. Park City provides year-round free bus service, and during Sundance they augment that service with an additional brigade of buses, so one is typically never waiting for long. If you want to learn more, visit the official transportation website, pick up a transit map when you get to town, or even download the myStop mobile app for schedules and trip-planning. We do have taxis, and Uber operates during the festival, but be prepared for longer than average waits and higher than average prices.

I know I’m not your mother, but…

Park City is a mountain town with an elevation over 6500 feet, depending where you are. Unless you already live at high altitude, your body may balk at the sudden change. Be prepared to drink more water than you normally do, particularly in the first few days. Most theatre venues have water available for those long waits in line, so bring a water bottle and take advantage of refilling when you can. You may also want to limit your alcohol intake, since alcohol not only has the effect of dehydrating you, but also its general effects will be accentuated by the altitude.

So, you really want a drink, huh?

Should you decide to ignore the alcohol advice above, or perhaps you ignored the bus advice, so now you’re so amped up and frustrated that you’re body will only respond to vodka, then here’s what you need to know. Wine and liquor are not available in grocery stores in Utah. You can purchase beer in the grocery store, but beware that it has a lower volume of alcohol than what can be bought at the liquor store. All the good stuff is available at any of the three state-run liquor stores, which sounds fantastic, but note that they aren’t open on Sundays or the wee hours of the night, so plan ahead. At a restaurant, you may be required to order some food along with your drink. Just go with it. Everyone’s just doing their job, not trying to cheat you out of your well-earned adult beverage. Promise.



Putting Down Roots: A Twenty Year Journey

Roots and Wings I achieved a milestone recently. It may not seem like much to many, but to me, living in the same town for twenty years is something I never really thought I would achieve, or perhaps wasn’t sure if I even wanted to. I grew up in a military family, which meant lots of beginnings, lots of tries at fitting in, making new friends, and finding the concept of home in people, rather than place. Overall, that type of childhood worked for me. I never knew any different, so I didn’t have much reason to question it until I got older, was out on my own, and knew I could (at least conceptually) pick anywhere on the map and make it mine, even if just for awhile.

I have to admit, my ‘plan’ to move to Park City was not wildly complex or thought out. I only knew a few things for certain – 1) I was ready to leave North Carolina; 2) I wanted to move west (which wasn’t hard since east of North Carolina lies miles of ocean); and 3) I already knew some people in Park City and it seemed prudent to start with at least a bit of a network. I told myself that my real objective was to get to San Francisco or Seattle, but Park City would be a good place for me to get my feet under me before continuing the rest of the journey to the coast. This is the kind of logic that makes absolute sense in your 20s. Suffice it to say, it made less sense to my supportive but cautiously suspect parents.

Before I moved, I’d only visited Park City two or three times during the summer. I’d never been during the winter. I only knew how to water ski not snow ski. And I moved without a job. I did have a place to live though, and a roommate who was a good friend who setup all our living arrangements before I had my last bag packed.

I loaded up my Chevy Cavalier with whatever wasn’t loaded on the moving van. I added one very confused cat, an equally confused mother, and we left North Carolina in early January. Because isn’t the middle of winter when everyone thinks it’s a great idea to drive a couple thousand miles to snow country? I don’t recall the exact date we left, but I do know that it coincided with the Blizzard of 1996, a storm so significant that it has an entry in Wikipedia.

We diverted ourselves south through Chattanooga to try to avoid the ice and snow. About three days later, we rolled in to town and set about waiting for the moving van to arrive. My mother stayed for several days to help out, leaving on a day of another huge Utah snow storm. I don’t think she’s visited me in January since.

In some ways, I don’t know where twenty years went, but of course, if I stop and put some thought in to it, the details materialize. The job that started a career, the friends that became family, and the houses that became homes.

It’s all right here, in my little mountain town.


My Top Reads of 2015

Like most avid readers, I never quite feel like I have enough time to read, which makes it all the more special when I come across a book I really enjoy. In 2015, I had four notable reads, books that really stayed with me after the last page was read, books that I mentioned to friends in casual conversation. For what it’s worth, here they are:

  1. pointofdir   “Point of Direction”, Rachel Weaver – This is the only book of fiction that made my list this year. About 60% of what I read is fiction, but there’s so much good nonfiction around that I find that percentage declining over time. “Point of Direction” was not to be missed though. This is Rachel Weaver’s debut novel, and if it’s indicative of what’s to come, I can’t wait to see what’s next. Billed as a psychological thriller, the story follows the lives of a young couple, Anna and Kyle, both of whom carry old secrets in to their fledgling relationship. Set in the Alaskan landscape, the couple signs a nine-month lease to be live-in caretakers for a lighthouse on Hibler Rock, miles off the Alaskan coastline. The previous caretaker disappeared two decades ago under mysterious circumstances, and while this mystery helps drive some of the action, the real story is, of course, the relationship between Anna and Kyle and how they each grow and change as individuals. The language in this novel is simply beautiful without being too aware of itself. The descriptions of the remote landscape are evocative and support the plot in every way necessary. If you appreciate round characters and tight plots delivered in sophisticated, well-crafted language, this book should be on your list.
  2. 13hours  “13 Hours”, Mitchell Zuckoff – The first book I read by Zuckoff was “Lost in Shangri-La”, a nonfiction account of a US military plane downed in New Guinea during the WWII. I loved that book, so felt I was in good hands with his most recent offering. If I had any trepidation about “13 Hours”, it was that there hadn’t been much time between the events and the telling of the events. With nonfiction, I think there’s something to be said for time, although perhaps it can work equally against the story as it does for it. Zuckoff makes it clear early that the purpose of the book isn’t to discuss, debate, or otherwise engage in the political questions surrounding what happened, but rather to detail the events from the perspective of the six American security operators who fought to protect not only their own lives, but the lives of the other Americans stationed in Benghazi. It is absolutely riveting. More than riveting though, it is educational. It really painted the picture of what day-to-day conditions are like in areas that, if it hadn’t been for the terrible raid, we wouldn’t acknowledge are an integral part of our global efforts. “13 Hours” was recently released as a movie too. There’s no doubt I’ll see it, but do yourself a favor and read the book first. As with most adaptations, there’s just so much more that can be conveyed in hundreds of written pages that won’t make it to the screen.
  3. 500days  “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars”, Kurt Eichenwald – I’ve been a big fan of Kurt Eichenwald since I devoured his book about the Enron debacle, “Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story”. His latest offering, “500 Days” chronicles the eighteen months following 9/11, and attempts to show how decisions and policies established during the early days helped pave the way for all that came after. Eichenwald seems to have a point of view in this book, something that didn’t seem so evident in his other books; however, his research is second to none. Whether you agree or not with what he says, you have to acknowledge he’s done his homework and then some. “500 Days” is over 600 pages, but don’t let the length of it dissuade you. Much of what comes at the end is reference information in support of claims, conversations, or events detailed in the narrative. It such a compelling page turner, that I was only aware of the length in the moments before turning the first page.
  4. yesplease “Yes Please”, Amy Poehler – Who doesn’t love a good funny lady? More specifically, who doesn’t love Amy Poehler? I loved her before reading her book, but found new aspects of her personality that made me love her even more by the time I finished. The thing is, Amy Poehler isn’t just funny. What comes through quite clearly in the book is that Amy Poehler is smart.  I was prepared to read a memoir that was quite predictable in its trajectory from childhood to college to struggling artist to breakout moment. Sure, some of that is there, but much of that seems to be a bit of a sidebar as Poehler entertains us with vignettes or essays that have a decidedly more insightful bent while also informing the reader about her past. She’s careful to skirt the details of her relationship with ex-husband Will Arnett, and fair enough. Truth be told, I’m a bit fatigued with overshares of celebrities’ personal lives.

That’s the scoop from 2015. I’m only just starting my reading in 2016, but fingers crossed it yields some gems like these!

Let’s Make it Official!

The end of the year was an interesting and different one for me. You know how life often goes in waves? A wave of graduations, a wave of weddings, a wave of baby showers, and so on. Well, my wave of weddings is well behind me at this point. I’m invited to one perhaps every five years or so.

So imagine my surprise when two friends scheduled weddings for the last week of the year. Both of these women have been good friends of mine for many years, and as forty-somethings these are first marriages for each. I was beyond excited at ending 2015 on such a high. How often does that happen?

Things got even more interesting when, at the end of October, one of the couples asked if I was willing to get ordained so that I could perform their ceremony. I admit to a bit of confusion at first. I’m not a particularly religious person. I’ve never expressed interest in entering the ministry. And most importantly, I don’t look good in robes. On the other hand, I’m a big fan of couples finding one another and choosing to build a life together. We do it so frequently that perhaps we’ve forgotten how much bravery is involved in coupling.

I agreed to officiate the ceremony for my friends and promptly got ordained online the following day. It is shockingly easy. There’s no fee. The form has fewer than ten fields, and apparently you only have to be over 13 years old to hit submit. All too easy.

It was only a few weeks later, after hearing that I was newly-ordained, that the other couple approached me and asked if I would be willing to perform their ceremony too. What an unexpected turn of events. It truly is nice to know that people have entrusted me with such an important moment in their lives. I don’t know if I’ll ever perform another ceremony, but it was sure great to be involved in these two. And no robes were required!