Madame Secretary

A couple weeks ago CBS’s Madame Secretary was filming near my house. The street was packed with movie trucks and techs; the wardrobe was directly across from my house and enormous luxury buses lined either side of the street creating a canyon-like sensation when driving through. I noted to my husband this was an awful lot of fanfare for one measly show, and he explained the series is quite popular and critically acclaimed.

I noticed Madame Secretary on netflix this weekend and watched the first two episodes. My initial impression is this is a watered down version of House of Cards with a dash of Rubicon (which was unfortunately cancelled after one season) and a large injection of fluff.

Each episode features a “serious story” and a smaller “light story” while there is an ongoing conspiracy narrative linked between episodes (this may change as seasons progress, I’m only at the start). The show liberally injects humor into the script, though the overall context is dramatic.

Tea Leoni plays Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord who leads a seemingly charmed life with a handsome, deferential college professor husband and three spunky kids. I’m not sure how two college professors (before being named SoS, McCord is a professor) were able to afford the sumptuous estate that was their horse farm, but perhaps one McCord or the other comes from money.

The plots are somewhat contrived- the smart, confident woman up against the eeeevil men shtick is hackneyed- but I have to hand it to Leoni: she really pulls it off as an elegantly powerful woman. So often in film the “powerful woman” just come across as bitchy and boring. Leoni is neither and is highly watchable despite the narratives’ shortcomings.

As of episode 2 I recommend Madame Secretary if you’re looking to turn your brain off for 45 minute increments of political entertainment. Leoni looks great for her age (she is now in her fifties) but in some scenes she has so much botox/ cosmetic surgery going on her face looks fake; when she talks, the rest of her face doesn’t move!


Who’s Your [great great great grand] Daddy?

I recently took an ancestrydna test, something I’ve wanted to do for the longest time but somehow never got around to. I have detailed information on my mother’s mother’s family tree (she is DAR) stretching back to the 1700s in the United States via Nova Scotia. I know less about my mother’s father’s side. As for my father, I’ve seen the original marriage certificate of my paternal grandmother’s parents but know virtually nothing about my paternal grandfather.

I was curious to see if my genetic ethnicity matches family history (three centuries around diverse groups, you never know) and if, possibly, I might be connected with relatives on my father’s father’s side. I knew this was highly unlikely since if I do have relatives via him, they are probably in South America which as far as I know has no shared databases with ancestrydna.

I received my results yesterday and sure enough they confirm family history. I am 93% english/ welsh/ western european, with the remaining 7% a smattering of other europe. I have zero jewish heritage, something I wondered about since there’s a jewish sounding name on my mother’s side. I am officially 100% white. In fact I’m 1% norwegian which probably makes me 110% white. lol.

While I hoped to find a few relatives from my father’s father, for some reason it never occurred to me I might find relatives from all those other branches. So imagine my surprise when I see I have 340 matches, all of them 4th degree or less cousins. Of those 340, 6 were 2nd cousins or closer, and of those 6, 2 were possible first cousins. Scanning the names I could see these were all from my mother’s side.

It might seem strange I have unknown first cousins, but my mother’s father was a widower when he married my grandmother, and had children from that first marriage. I only met those half aunts/ uncles once as a child, but their children must be my matched first cousins. At least I’m surmising as much.

Unfortunately I need a paid membership (beyond the fee for the test) to initiate contact with any of these matches. One of my second cousins promptly messaged me, introducing himself. Turns out his grandfather was my maternal grandfather’s brother!

While it’s fascinating it’s also a little disturbing that dna is being amassed in these huge databases, and bizarre to think estranged relatives can be brought together so effortlessly.

If you’re considering doing a test, be aware their ethnicity parameters are somewhat generalized due to genetic similarities between certain groups. So it won’t necessarily pinpoint exactly where your relatives hail from, just generally. It also takes a long time… for me it was a full four weeks but the test warns it can take up to eight. And if you DON’T want to find relatives you can always opt out of that function. Their website interface is a little clunky and they insert prompts for a paid membership wherever possible, so it’s definitely a for profit enterprise. Just be aware of this when going in, but overall I do recommend the test if you’re interested in genetics and family history. The test itself costs about $100.

Thou Art Judas

I watched an interesting documentary yesterday, Searching for Sugar Man.  This documentary won an academy award in 2012 and- in a strange and tragic anecdote- its director Malik Bendjelloul died at the tender age of 36 two years later.

The film depicts the absolutely bizarre saga of counter cultural singer “Rodriguez” who recorded two albums, one in 1970 and another in 1971. Despite critical acclaim and high expectations from producers, both albums were colossal flops. Sixto Rodriguez accepted his fate, abandoned further musical pursuits and resigned himself to a life of hard labor as a construction and factory worker in Detroit.

Unbeknownst to Sixto, while his albums fell into oblivion in America, they developed a rabid following in white South Africa. First spread by bootlegs and later by reissued albums (the reissuing of which Sixto was never informed of) Rodriguez attained heights of fame greater than Elvis in the faraway country. Because of the enclosed nature of apartheid South Africa, where press was strictly controlled and censored, South Africans simply assumed Rodriguez was as popular elsewhere as he was there. As one Afrikaner explains: there were the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel… and Rodriguez.

It is only in the 1990s when two fans determine to learn who exactly “Rodriguez” is, and whether he actually committed suicide (a rumor widely circulated in South Africa) that he is discovered alive and well in his dilapidated Detroit brownstone. He’s promptly flown to South Africa where he is received as the mega superstar he unwittingly became.

The documentary is delightfully poignant and gets 10+ on the human interest scale from yours truly. On a technical scale it’s a weak 6. There’s a lot of annoying, unnecessary footage interspersed between interviews (why do we need to see grainy images of birds flying across random skylines? I hate stuff like this in documentaries!), a few lame reenactments, and some bad but thankfully brief animation.

As for why the talented Rodriguez flopped in the states, I have my theories after listening to his albums. First off the name “Rodriguez.” People are going to assume this is Spanish or Latin music, which at the time had no market. They should have somehow indicated on the cover this was NOT Spanish music. His music sounds extremely white- he sounds an awful lot like Bob Dylan but with a better voice- but is kind of a mish mosh of folk, blues, and a little motown. There’s even a weird performance art kind of song where he somberly narrates a poem about the evils of rich people. Prospective music customers probably didn’t know what to make of this guy. And while his music is strongly anti-establishment in the vein of Dylan, it is also exceedingly dark, depressing and nihilistic, too much so for average american ears.

As for why his music exploded in popularity in South Africa, this is explained in the docu: it touched a nerve in the white Afrikaner psyche. Rodriguez’ brooding themes of man wronging his fellow man, his “thou art judas” style accusations against the system deeply impacted the Afrikaners who wanted to protest apartheid but were too afraid.

I listened to both albums and was a little disappointed. To me, Rodriguez sounds like a Bob Dylan knock off with a stronger voice. His lyrics are good, but not as good as, say, Leonard Cohen. Someone like Townes Van Zandt was a better “dark poet” and Rodriguez’ voice is nowhere near as strong as the astounding Lowell George who sang during the same era. This isn’t to say Rodriguez isn’t extraordinarily talented, just that he was not the best of his time.

All in all this is a great documentary and a must watch!


I spent a lot of time worrying what I would do with myself once all the kids were in school. My little guy began pre-k on the 5th, and has been going full day all this week. Unlike my second youngest (now 6) who clung to me and howled at drop off EVERY morning for the ENTIRE YEAR, my little guy trots into the classroom with a big grin on his face.

As with my other children, he is a profoundly late talker and at age almost 4 is essentially non verbal. He occasionally repeats the last word of questions. “How was school?” He stares thoughtfully for a few moments and replies: school. He actually pronounces it skol like the viking booze toast.

Thus far I’ve had very little free time on my hands so I’m not sure what I was worried about. I suppose it never occurred to me all the stuff that has to get done when the kids are not in school would still have to get done when they are in school, plus school related errands to boot. Dishes, uniforms, dirty socks on the floor. It’s never ending.

The kittens are doing well, at least the surviving ones. We lost mercenary- he just vanished two weeks ago. I doubt he was scooped up as a pet because he’s totally feral. The four remaining (stanley, parable, scavenger, and megedan) are getting fat and like sleeping on the steps and in flower pots. The mom, as far as I can tell, is still under the deck and only emerges at night. Occasionally she stares at me from a crack in the deck base, two proverbial glowing yellow eyes. We have a very sick feral cat who occasionally visits for food. He’s hideous. Scraggly, cross eyed, his tongue lolls out. His body is strangely crooked and flies swarm around him like pigpen. That’s a hard cat to love I often say to the kids. Instead of under the deck, my kids joke he sleeps in the depths of hell, climbing into this world to snack on meow mix.

Jack Ryan (spoiler free)

Over the holiday weekend I binged watched amazon’s production of Jack Ryan, an eight episode rendition of the Tom Clancy “Ryanverse” revolving around a terrorist super villain and the title character’s pursuit of said villain across the globe.

The series is well paced (poor pacing is my biggest kvetch for anything on screen) and the acting is excellent with some exceptions. Dina Shihabi is lousy as the super villain’s wife. I’m not sure if she’s a bad actress or if she just couldn’t play the role, but her acting is one dimensional, uninspiring and in a few places cringeworthy. Wendell Pierce also falls flat for me as Ryan’s T-FAD boss. Plus, how can such an out of shape individual chase bad guys over rough terrain?

Jack Krasinski is excellent as the title character, managing to balance a humble, mildly dorky demeanor with understated heroism. Even when plot holes are gaping he carries the narrative without blinking. Likewise Ali Suliman is outstanding as Mousa Bin Suleiman, the super villain bent on jihadist mayhem. Suliman humanizes what could have been a cookie cutter bad guy. Many of the bit parts are beautifully acted as well, including Matt McCoy as doctors without borders hostage Dr. Nadler.

Yes there are plot holes and any number of implausibilities, namely why does a criminal mastermind have huge open courtyards in his compound? If I were a super villain I’d take it underground like Lex Luther. Anyway, despite its flaws I definitely recommend Jack Ryan if you’re looking for a fast paced, engaging spy thriller.

Krasinski looking analytical

Gifts From God

I woke the morning of my birthday from a strange dream. In the dream I was eating leftover restaurant food relegated for homeless people. I ate two pieces of sicilian pizza in the dream before remembering I’m diabetic. Then I woke up, scrapingly hungry.

I stretched out. I’ve learned to flex my feet up when I stretch, otherwise I get agonizing leg cramps which apparently is a diabetic thing, and pulled the blankets down. I sleep with three heavy blankets- one is goose down. My shirt was hiked up and there were my ribs sharply protruding like ridged bony hills.

Oh dear, I thought to myself. You are really terribly thin.

The pressure of my sharp, unpadded hip bones digging into the mattress often wakes me up at night.

I decided to make myself some low carb pizza in honor of my dream, wrested myself from bed and marched upstairs to the kitchen. Our house has a weird layout and the main kitchen is on the second floor.

I made the pizza and my 16 year old and I devoured a few pieces. I was so hungry. As with most low carb pizza, the crust was mushy but hits the pizza spot, particularly since I’ve eaten nothing but canned salmon (the kind with bones in it… crunch, crunch, crunch) for days.

I later made normal pizza for the kids- I always have pizza dough in the fridge- and they devoured that.

Then the gifts began. My 14 year old gave me a self portrait she drew.

My 19 year old gave me a rambling card about how much she loves me.

My ten year old gave me a watercolor of a swamp.

Later I went outside to hang with the kittens. Of the five one is tame, three run like cockroaches, and one likes to stare at me from a distance but will scamper if I get close.

We stared at each other for a while, then my brother in law showed up. Not because of my birthday, just coincidence.

My brother in law is one of the nerdiest human beings on the planet. I made the mistake of asking his thoughts on the original star trek series and got an hour lecture on romulan history, then he shifted to babylon 5. Somehow I escaped and took a nap. I was out cold, so exhausted.

I woke up in better spirits and ordered pizza (which I can’t eat) for the kids. Money is scarce but no matter how broke we always get takeout for birthdays, and lindt chocolate santas for christmas! I served it up to the kids and my brother in law; my husband is a gluten free vegetarian so abstained. Then I made birthday cupcakes (which I can’t eat).

The house I grew up in is for sale. It changed hands more than a decade ago. My mother sent me the real estate listing which contains numerous photographs of the interior. There was my bedroom (now an empty room). There was my sister’s bedroom. My deceased beloved paternal grandmother’s room. And the attic- transformed into a trophy room- complete with zebra skin before the fireplace. I was in a daze of nostalgia and melancholy paging through those images. I’ll spare you the details. My childhood was not entirely pleasant.

Here’s the low carb pizza I made. I use the cream cheese/ egg crust because it’s so simple and is the same quality as the more labor intensive cauliflower crust.

And that was that. It seems silly to celebrate birthdays at my age, but every day is a gift from god.

Kitten Party

The feral cat living under my deck decided to have five kittens. I affectionately call feral cats “cockroach cats” because they run like cockroaches on sight of humans. Of the five kittens one (the black one in this video) is inexplicably tame. The others run like cockroaches if I get too close.  Also note the aforementioned damage on the van. Those pots have weeds in them (no not that kind of weed). The kittens like sleeping in them so I leave them untouched- last year they held herbs and tomatoes.