Thursday, October 8, 2020

Tropes in "The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra"

At one point or another, most writers researching, exploring the possibilities of their craft, or simply procrastinating end up on a site about narrative tropes, such as TV Tropes.

I take it as a badge of honor that The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra now has an entry. (My bar for badges of honor is not necessarily rigorous.)



There are so many tropes in storytelling and I didn't consciously employ any of the ones named at that link—doubtful I could have even named any of the ones at that link—except for "Shout-Out." I love "Balloon Belly" and "Big Shadow, Little Creature."

I find it curious that "Dedication" is classified here as a trope. Does this site also consider other standard elements of books (table of contents, index, flap copy) tropes?

Monday, September 21, 2020

"Batman & Bill" aired in France

Vive la Finger!

The latest country I am aware of to show Batman & Bill is France, where apparently I am known as Marc Tyler. When I took French in high school, I went by Jean-Marc. Or maybe not. It's been quelque temps. 



Saturday, September 12, 2020

Interview: Kim Jensen (Ariel’s friend Edna in “Footloose”)

In Footloose (1984), Kim Jensen (now Abunuwara) played Edna, friend to Lori Singer’s character Ariel Moore.


Kim’s behind-the-scenes recollections of the experience:

What were you doing professionally prior to Footloose?

I was an undergraduate acting student at Brigham Young University. Not much professional at this time.
 
How did you get the role?

There was a huge cattle call. Then another trimmed down [call]. Finally, five of us [were] called back to read for [director] Herbert Ross in a hotel room in Salt Lake City. I think I was cast because I was blond and not rail thin (as he already had Lori and Sarah who were brunette and rail thin), and I’m a decent actor.
 
Is there one story about your Footloose time you tell more than any other?

Because it strokes my ego: When rehearsing the scene where Lori climbs out of my [moving] car into her boyfriend’s [moving] truck, Herbert rode in the back of a camera truck and held up a pencil for us to look at as a focus point for our reactions when we were to pretend to see the approaching rig. After we did it the first time, Ross said something like “it’s too much” or “you’re overdoing it, I’m only getting anything real from Kim.” I was incredibly proud of this because it isn’t easy to look at a pencil and act like it’s an approaching rig.


While working on it, did it seem like just another script to you, or did it feel like something special?

I wasn’t sure that the script was special. But I knew the people involved were special:
Wiest, Lithgow, Bacon, Ross. I felt, because of them, the movie could be special.

Kim with Laura Wardle
 
What do you remember about your impression of Kevin Bacon? 

Incredibly professional, focused. Doing his job.
 
Chris Penn? 

Not much interaction with Chris.
 
Lori Singer? 

She may have been in a tough patch. She didn’t seem to be on her game. One day someone brought a viola to the set (I think we were at the Osmond Studios that day because it was inside a large studio and we were very often outside on set) and she played for us in a pink robe and curlers and she was amazing! I thought, wow, she is a very gifted musician.

 
John Lithgow? 

He really helped Lori to focus when shooting the scene when he finds her listening to music (bad) at the Hi Spot. When the cameras were reversed and they did Lori’s shot, he could’ve left and let an AD read, but he stayed and pointed at her and really gave her a lot to work with. Also, when they did his shot and he is supposed to be super disappointed in and betrayed by his daughter, the track was set in his path so as he walks away it would have to be over some very wide dolly tracks which would make him need to take unnaturally large steps. As John walked off, the shot was going to be on his face. I remember Herbert offering to reset the shot and John said no and just made it work; acting it perfectly while taking these enormously awkward steps over the dolly track. What a pro.
 
Dianne Wiest? 

Just incredible. Just super professional. And wow, able to make so much out of material that is just “meh.”
 
Sarah Jessica Parker? 

Incredibly confident and charming. She was the doll of the production. She was incredibly funny and entertaining. Witty. A people magnet.
 
Did you attend the premiere, and if so, what was that like? 

We had a premiere in Utah that I attended. My boyfriend took the wrong exit and we were late and I could’ve murdered him.
 
How often were you recognized on the street? Any funny stories about that? 

Never. I am no one.
 
Do you remember what you earned for the movie?

$16,000. It paid for graduate school and 3.5 months in Europe. 

Do you still earn residuals?

Yes.
 
What are you doing these days?

I teach at UVU. Do voice work and the odd TV show that is shooting in SLC.

 
Any interest in acting more frequently? 

Sure. The money is great when it works.
 
Where do you live? 

Orem, Utah.
 
Children? 

Ages 27, 25, 24, 20.
 
If they have seen you in Footloose, what do they think about it? 

The love me a lot and are very proud of me.
 
Have you ever participated in a Footloose-related event (reunion, convention, documentary, etc.)? 

No, I haven't taken part in anything like that. I wouldn't want to.
 
When was the last time you saw a member of the cast, and was it on purpose or by chance?
 
I haven’t.
 
When was the last time you watched Footloose? How did you think it held up? 

Can’t remember. Although last year they showed [Lori’s] climbing-out-of-my-car-into-her-boyfriend’s-truck scene in faculty senate at UVU while I was serving as a faculty senator. People think its special that I was in a movie.

Do you have any mementos from the experience such as set photos, a script, or anything from the set? 

I used to have a small oblong cardboard dashboard sign that said "Paramount" that I stole out of one of trucks. I wish I still had it.
 
Have you been interviewed before about this specifically, and if so, do you have those clippings (particularly from back then)? 

Once. But I don’t know where the clipping went. It was a SLC paper.
 
What did you think when you first heard from me? 

Happy to help.
 
How do you look back on your Footloose experience? 

Positively.
 
If the experience changed your life in any way, how? 

Well, it has always been an attention getter. It is a well-known film. It looked good on my résumé. It paid for school and a trip to Europe. Those things certainly changed my life.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

"My So-Called Life": an oral history of the 1990s drama

In 1994, I graduated college, then went back to high school. In part because of college.

That fall, ABC debuted the TV drama My So-Called Life


It had amassed big buzz, but I paid attention to it for another reason as well. One of its producers, Marshall Herskovitz, was a fellow Brandeis University alum (class of '73).

My senior year of college had been humbling. Many of my friends had their first post-college step (whether job or grad school) set by the time spring sprung, if not earlier. I planned to be a screenwriter. In other words, I was spectacularly unset. But not for lack of trying.

In late September 1993, I had combed the Brandeis alumni directory and written letters to every one of them who had some connection to Hollywood. This included Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties) and David Crane (Friends).

Yes, I took a photo of the letters. No regrets.

Those who answered were candid, which I appreciated—but which didn't inspire confidence. My three favorite (though at the time scary) responses:

  • Benjamin S. Feingold '78, then Senior Vice President Corporate Development, Sony Pictures: "Since you are asking for my advice, to get into the entertainment business, I recommend that you obtain a graduate degree in law, business, or film."
  • Producer Dale Pollock '73: "I caution you not to move [to Los Angeles] without some prospect of a job. Life can be brutal in Hollywood."
  • Writer Harold Livingston '55: "Write. Scripts, outlines, proposals. That's how I did it, and that's how everyone I know did it. It's the only way to do it."

I did not receive a reply from Herskovitz. But that did not deter me from watching all 19 episodes of My So-Called Life (the old-fashioned way: as it aired, once a week). 

I felt it lived up to the hype. Its greatest strength (and a factor that distinguished it from other teen shows at the time): restraint. The creators trusted that a character saying nothing says a lot. It coursed with verisimilitude. Who knew that watching people act "real" could be escapist?

Despite being a critical darling, the show lasted only that one season, then went on to develop a cult following, in part because MTV reaired it.

Fifteen years later, I was still not a screenwriter. But I was a writer. Herskovitz accepted my Facebook friend request, accompanied by a sweet note.

Ten years after that, during the peak lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic, I revisited the show for the first time since it was originally broadcast. This time I watched with my daughter, who was the same age as the show's main characters. 

Nothing so-called about it: everything but the fashion holds up. (On a side note, it's so refreshing to go back to when shows couldn't use—and overuse—cell phone calls to transition from one scene to the next.)

The show's stars have spoken of their MSCL experience (including here and here). For an oral history from a different perspective, I found and interviewed the show's most notable recurring teen characters: 

  • Adam Biesk—Corey (2 episodes)
  • Johnny Green—Kyle (6 episodes)
  • Karen Malina White—Abyssinia (2 episodes)
  • Senta Moses (now Senta Moses Mikan)—Delia (3 episodes)

Adam

Johnny

Karen

Senta

Thank you again to this fab four for looking back on your Life.

What were you doing professionally prior to My So-Called Life?

Adam: After high school I competed in freestyle skiing in Winter Park, Colorado. I did a Mountain Dew commercial while skiing and then studied theater at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Johnny: I’d been working as an actor since I was four. I was in Back to the Future. It was a big deal when the call came in for MSCL. The guys that did the movie Glory were involved—Academy-Award-winning producers. I made a special effort to apply myself for that part. I asked my mom to drive me to the audition like the old days, so I could study in the car.
Karen: Made my debut with the classic film Lean On Me and booked the coveted role of Charmaine Tyesha Brown on The Cosby Show and its spin-off A Different World. Moved from NYC to Los Angeles in 1992 and booked recurring roles on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Getting By. Finally booking another dramatic series was gratifying. 
Senta: I did a bunch of TV shows, commercials, plays, and films. I’ve been in the business since I was 6 months old, so there was a bunch of work before and after MSCL, but none quite compare!


How old were you when you were cast?

Adam: Late twenties.
Johnny: Twenty-two.
Senta: I believe I was 20. At the time I was attending USC with a major in theater.

How did you get the role?

Adam: I was auditioning a lot those days.
Johnny: I knew I had the job during the audition when Winnie turned to Jeff Greenberg (the casting director) and nodded. I didn’t know it was going to be a recurring role. I don’t even know if they knew. 
Karen: Auditioned for it. I wasn’t familiar with the show when I auditioned.
Senta: I auditioned for Jeff Greenberg, then received a callback for the role. If memory serves me correctly, Winnie Holzman, Todd Holland, Jeff Greenberg, and Jason Katims were in the room for the producer’s session. I was cast from that session.

Any funny anecdotes about your MSCL experience?

Senta: During production on [the episode] “Life of Brian,” Winnie asked me how I was enjoying my time on the show. I revealed to her that I had a crush on Wilson Cruz (how could you not?) and a few weeks later it was written into an episode. Winnie was wonderful about asking questions and whenever possible pulled from real-life experiences and feelings.


Is there one story about your MSCL time you tell more than any other?

Johnny: I don’t know if I could tell it to you. (laughs) 
Senta: The above one because I feel like it really shows the lengths the writers went to in order to put real life in their beautiful scripts! I’m sure many of the actors had a similar experience to mine.

Johnny, of course I have to push a little. Does that mean romance?

Johnny: Yeah, romance and egos. [he politely declined to elaborate]

While working on it, did it seem like just another series to you, or did it feel like something special?

Adam: It really just felt like another series at the time. But there was kind of a buzz going on about the show because the writers and producers had just come from another hit show.  
Johnny: You felt the vibe of people involved. I don’t want to say it was timeless, but you knew it was special. I was a young kid, but I’d been around the business. It wasn’t a mainstream show but on at a mainstream time. I had no idea it was going to turn into a cult following situation. After, a lot of people around town were very receptive to me because I was on the show. It was an industry favorite. You get a lot of heat. I played Angelina Jolie’s brother in Gia [1998 HBO movie].
Karen: Just another job. Go in, do what I was hired to do. The cast seemed very close but when you are a guest star it’s just a one- or two-day gig. No space for bonding. I liked that it took place in Pittsburgh. I’m from Philadelphia so it was close enough for me!
Senta: It felt like something special in that it felt like a family who deeply cared about one another. I have fond memories of hanging out in the make-up trailer, listening to music, and chatting with everyone. At the time, I didn’t know that it would become such a cult favorite, but I’m sure glad it did.

Do you know if your character was going to continue to appear if the show got a second season?

Adam: I have no idea. And I had no idea then.
Johnny: I don’t. I’d like to think I’d have gotten Sharon pregnant and made it to season 4 (laughs). [Unbeknownst to Johnny, the showrunners did have plans for Sharon to get pregnant.] 
Karen: It was a recurring role so I was hoping that I would return. 
Senta: She was, Winnie told me so. I believe Delia was going to forgive Brian and date him, which of course would complicate Angela’s feelings for him, creating a bit of a love triangle. I would have loved to explore more stories with Delia, but it wasn’t meant to be.


Karen, the show was groundbreaking in multiple ways, which makes it all the more surprising that you were its only Black supporting actor who appeared more than once. How did you feel about that at the time? Do you know if the producers planned on increasing the diversity on the show?

Karen: It appeared that they made a conscious effort to be diverse. Wilson Cruz was a cast member but no African Americans. And I think it was a very conscious decision for Abyssinia to be a very intelligent girl who pretended not to be for the sake of a guy she liked. It was a very progressive show through the lens of a young female discovering herself and her voice. 


Adam, it was left ambiguous (at least to me) whether or not your character was indeed gay. Do you know?

Adam: It was never established or talked about.


What was your impression of Claire Danes? Did it change over time in any way?

Adam: I remember her being very talented, young, and a bit overwhelmed at the attention and pressure put on her. I believe she was balancing the show with school.
Johnny: She was a talented girl, a great actress. It’s obvious they were grooming her to be a big star. 
Karen: I didn’t really have an impression of Claire Danes at the time. She was the lead and I was a guest star. We said hello. She welcomed me to the show and we did the work. My scenes were one or two of many she had. But now I am a superfan of Homeland and love that I can say our paths crossed. So sad that Homeland ended. Claire Danes is a beast! I love her acting!
Senta: She was lovely. So mature and talented and kind. We hung out a bit off set. Claire, Devon [Odessa], and I even went to the West Hollywood Halloween extravaganza and parade together. Claire will always hold a special place in my heart and I’m so happy for her continued success. So happy!


Same question for Wilson Cruz?

Adam: So cool. Open, generous.
Johnny: Just a wonderful human being. Great actor. A pleasure to work with.
Senta: Ah, my forever dance partner. How could you not love Wilson? He was and is such a dear, sweet person. And so friggin’ talented. I’m inspired daily by his activism and passion.

Devon Gummersall?

Adam: Very nice. Was starting to branch out and get other roles at the time. His father is an artist. We all went to his gallery show in Beverly Hills—where I met my now-wife. 
Johnny: Kind of detached, intellectual. Sweet kid.
Senta: Devon was awesome. Super professional in every way and it was such a blessing to have so many scenes with him. He made the more difficult moments in scenes easier just by being totally present.

A.J. Langer?

Adam: Very friendly. And more serious, like her character.
Johnny: Really talented. She and Claire were the two that were the most responsible for getting the audience involved in the show. 
Senta: I love A.J. She was and is a force of nature. She brought so much to the role of Rayanne and I absolutely loved watching her work through every moment.

Devon Odessa?

Adam: I think I had a bit of a crush on her.
Johnny: Fun to work with. Made it fun to show up for work every day.
Senta: Devon and I were very close during filming. She’s so funny and wonderful and built so many layers into the role of Sharon. I have such fond memories of hanging out with her and our time spent together. It was easy to play friends on the show because we were friends in real life.


Jared Leto?

Adam: Bohemian. Would wear pajama bottoms to the set and play guitar.
Johnny: We some fun messing around with the guitar, exchanging ideas for some riffs.
Senta: I didn’t know Jared that well. We didn’t have any scenes together. But he seemed kind. There was an air of mystery about him for me which I think really played into the whole Jordan Catalano thing.

Adam, how did you meet your wife at that gallery show?

Adam: My wife Sara worked at the gallery at the time. We were all kind of hanging out. Devon, his father (the artist) Greg Gummersall. A.J. and Wilson may have stopped in, too.

Senta, did you realize at the time that the scene with Rickie coming out (the 19th and final episode) was historic?

Senta: At the time, I knew it was important, but given my youth, I don’t think I realized just how important. Elodie Keene (our director) and the producers took an incredible amount of time and care with that specific moment, to be sure it was perfect. I believe we shot that moment about 15 times.

Senta, since it was rare in 1994 for such a revelation on TV (especially among teens), and since he first said he was gay not to a series regular but to your character, how did you feel about being a part of it? 

Senta: Winnie and the other producers never treated me as just a guest star. We were a family. If I had to guess, rather than being sure that moment was between two series regulars, they crafted that moment organically based on the stories and the characters. And I think it was easier for Rickie to come out to Delia, as opposed to one of his closer friends. I don’t truly know why they put me in that moment, but I’m so glad that they did. It was a part of television history and I feel blessed to have been there.


Do you remember how Wilson felt about the scene? Do you know if he realized at the time how groundbreaking it was? 

Senta: I don’t feel comfortable speaking for Wilson or speculating how he was feeling.

Did you and any of the other young actors hang out off set?

Adam: No. But I do remember running in to A.J. and Wilson a few times, maybe at
bars or parties.
Senta: Yep! I spent the most time with Claire and Devon Odessa.

Were you recognized on the street? Any funny stories about that?

Adam: To this day I still get recognized. Maybe once a year. At a restaurant or something. Recently a woman who worked at IKEA jumped up and down and said “You’re Corey! You’re Corey!”
Johnny: I’m sure I was. I don’t remember offhand. I had a girlfriend at the time who was hearing about it from her friends at school. I didn’t start to get really recognized for it till it was on MTV.
Senta: To this day, of all the things I’ve worked on, I’m most often recognized from my work on MSCL. My first memory is from a trip to Disneyland. I was there with a few friends from college and a bunch of young girls came up to me, excited to talk about the show and how it related to their lives. It was awesome and I’m so grateful that the show had that kind of impact.

Senta and friends

When was the last time you were recognized?

Johnny: Good question. It’s been a while. I haven’t really aged well. I’m just kidding. I think I was at a grocery store years ago and someone asked me if I was [the actor] Jonathan Schaech. 
Karen: I [went] in for an audition a few years ago and the casting director spent the first 10 minutes talking about me being on MSCL and how much she loved that show and still watches it. It’s such a cult favorite and I had no idea! I think she called me into to just meet “Abyssinia.”
Senta: Considering we’ve been in quarantine for almost four months [interview conducted in June 2020], probably earlier this year at the eye doctor. One of the nurses was a fan of the show and told my mom that I still looked the same. Ha! I’ll take that as a compliment and run with it.

How did you feel when the show was cancelled?

Adam: Disappointed because of course I was hoping to stay with the show. But my character was only recurring and that usually lasts for only a few episodes.
Johnny: I’m sure I wasn’t happy but at the same time it didn’t faze me really because that’s the business. It wasn’t a big surprise. 
Senta: Devastated, but we had a feeling that it was coming. The initial airing on ABC didn’t receive huge ratings. It wasn’t until MSCL started replaying on MTV that people found it.

Was there a wrap party at the end of the series, and if so, what was that like?

Johnny: If I recall correctly it was at a roller skating rink. We had cake. I wasn’t a big social butterfly back then. I was still a young guy dealing with large amounts of testosterone in my system. 
Senta: There was! It was a huge party at a restaurant/club. I remember a lot of dancing and hugs and tears and everything that you would expect from the people on that show. It’s never easy to say goodbye to your TV family.

Devon Gummersall and Senta Moses
at the wrap party

What was your favorite acting gig?

Johnny: Playing a patient with terminal brain cancer on Touched By an Angel. I felt as an actor it was a great opportunity for me. As far as fun, I had a great time doing a movie-of-the-week called The Face on the Milk Carton, with Kellie Martin. We filmed in North Carolina for three weeks. 
Karen: The next one!
Senta: That’s such a hard question because I try to find something wonderful about each job that I do. That being said, there were highlights, but they mostly had to do with the people I worked with. MSCL, of course, Faking It for MTV, Greek for ABC Family, Home Alone… God, I’m a very lucky girl and I could go on and on.


What are you doing these days?

Adam: I have a private art advisory business where I build contemporary art collections for private individuals.
Johnny: I’m a father now so my number one acting role is that of daddy. That’s my focus. I’m working on some science fiction stuff on the writing side. Science fiction is my love. I’ve got a screenplay that I’m finishing up that’s a special piece for me. Time travel stuff. It’s kind of like fan fiction based on the BTTF universe. I plan to star in it. I did a movie called Menace with Alison Lohman a while back [2002]. I’ve got an agricultural interest on a tropical island over by Cayman. I’ve got a small six-acre farm there. It’s not my primary revenue source but it’s a passion. I like to spend as much time as possible there. 
Karen: Still acting, thank goodness. Currently recording The Proud Family reboot coming out on Disney+ next year. Grateful to be working during the pandemic.
Senta: I’m still earning my living as an actor in Hollywood. The industry has been on hold for a few months because of the coronavirus, so I’m hoping I’ll be back on set before year’s end! The last thing I did was Little Fires Everywhere for Hulu, which was a blast.

Adam

Johnny

Karen

Senta

Adam, what made you leave acting?

Adam: I found another creative outlet that became more satisfying to me.

Do you miss acting? Ever consider getting back into it?

Adam: A lot of being a no-name actor was auditioning all the time and at the end of the day, you didn’t have much to show for it. I really enjoy my life now. It’s extremely creative and rewarding. Sometimes I miss acting but more in a nostalgic way. I think it would be fun to do something again. Maybe someday. When I grow up.
Johnny: Yes. Sean Connery worked up till his 80th birthday.

Where do you live?

Adam: West Hollywood, California. 
Johnny: I split time my time between Scottsdale and the island. I have an office in Scottsdale, with some partners. I ended up in Arizona through some friends who had some projects going here. 
Karen: Los Angeles, 28 years now.
Senta: I live with my husband and our dog in Los Angeles although I still call Chicago “home” and miss it every day.

Johnny

If you have children, how many and ages?

Adam: I have a 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.
Senta: I don’t have any children.

Adam, have they seen your MSCL episodes, and if so, what did they think?

Adam: They have never seen it. They watch Snapchat and play video games.

How often do you participate in a pop culture-related event (reunion, convention, documentary, etc.)?

Adam: I never have.
Johnny: The BTTF stuff. Once the virus ends we’re going to do something in England and Japan. 
Senta: I’m happy to show up whenever asked. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to work in this industry for over 40 years and I know that’s because of the fans.

Are you still in touch with anyone from the cast?

Adam: No.
Johnny: No. 
Senta: I still keep in touch with most of the cast through social media. Last year for the 25th anniversary, there was a lot of communication between us, which was fun and made me miss them even more!

When was the last time you saw a member of the cast, and was it on purpose or by chance?

Adam: I can’t remember when.
Johnny: We hung out a bit after the show, mid-90s. Not Claire or Jared, some of the other kids.
Senta: I saw Wilson a few years ago. He was moderating a panel on Faking It at the LGBT Center in Hollywood. Such a fun coincidence and I loved seeing his face after all these years.

When was the last time you watched MSCL? How did you think it held up?

Adam: Probably in 1995.
Johnny: It’s been a while. 
Senta: I watched “Life of Brian” last year before a book interview I did about the show. And I thought it absolutely held up. The writers/producers/directors put truth up on that screen!

Do you have any mementos from the experience such as set photos, a script, or anything from the set?

Karen: I still have my scripts.
Senta: I’m very sentimental, so I saved photos, scripts, and a t-shirt from the show. They’re some of my most cherished possessions. Especially the scripts with all my crazy actor notes on them.






Have you been interviewed before about MSCL?

Adam: No.
Johnny: No.
Senta: Yep, a bunch of times over the years. It’s so cool to think how many people that little one season show reached.

What did you think when you first heard from me?

Adam: I’m always shocked that people still remember the show.
Johnny: It made sense. I know it’s got a big following. 
Senta: I’m always happy when someone reaches out to talk about MSCL. It’s a wonderful walk down memory lane for me.

How do you look back on your MSCL experience?

Johnny: Very blessed to have been a part of it. 
Senta: I look back on my experience with nothing but gratitude. I feel so lucky to have played Delia and to have been a part of a show that really touched people. The cast and crew will always hold a very special place in my heart and I can only hope to see each and every one of them again someday. Hollywood is a very small industry, so that’s always possible.

If the experience changed your life in any way, how?

Senta: I’m just grateful that I could be part of a TV show that brought to light so many struggles and emotions of high school kids. It continues to change my life with every person that interviews or speaks to me about how the show made them feel seen.

Anything you’d like to add?

Senta: Thank you for asking me to speak about the show!

NOTES: 

  • I reached Johnny thanks to Adam Gradwell, who runs Scene Stealers, a booking agency for comic cons and events.
  • Interviews conducted June to September 2020.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Indigenous people of Montgomery County, Maryland

My home has been near Washington DC in Montgomery County, Maryland for a decade and I was long overdue in learning who lived here before me. I don't mean 11 years ago. I mean before Europeans arrived.

It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be, so I emailed the Maryland Division of Historical & Cultural Programs:

I've been poking around trying to determine what Indigenous people lived in what is now Bethesda. I've scanned numerous articles about the people of Maryland before Europeans and they mention many MD counties, but oddly, so far, none have mentioned Montgomery County. Best I can tell from my cursory search, I believe it may have been the Piscataway, the Nacotchtank, or both?

I heard back from Matthew D. McKnight, Ph.D., Chief Archaeologist - Maryland Historical Trust, at the Maryland Department of Planning, who kindly allowed me to share his helpful reply:

You ask a very interesting question, and I think you hit upon the answer. Based on what early English records exist, the best guess as to which Native American group(s) would have inhabited the Bethesda area at time of Contact is the Nacotchtank or Anacostans

We know from the records in Virginia that the Patawomeck controlled the Virginia side of the Potomac and that they allied themselves with the English, and we know that they often fought with the Nacotchtank who controlled the opposing Maryland side. The Piscataway were the principal tribe on much of Maryland western shore and many native groups were allied with them in a kind of confederacy. The Nacotchtank were one such group.

Unfortunately, disease and warfare decimated the population to the extent that by the time European settlement moved farther inland (to Bethesda and greater Montgomery County), we don't have first-hand written accounts of Indigenous people because much of the area had been abandoned. 

By the 1680s there is some archival evidence that suggests the area had become a route south for the Seneca, Susquehannock, and other northern tribes who were at war with the Piscataway. There are some accounts of northern Indians building forts in Montgomery County, which suggests abandonment. We do have archaeology documenting plenty of pre-Contact occupation, but tying particular archaeological "finds" to the named tribes of the historic period has always been difficult.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Thank you, Maryland State Arts Council

My work has been supported by the Maryland State Arts Council. Thank you, MSAC!


Learn how the Maryland State Arts Council impacts Maryland and the arts in general.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Online resources for my books to help with distance learning

Online learning resources for a selection of my books:


Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman




Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman




Brave Like My Brother




The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra




Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real




Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot's World War II Story


Whether by stage or screen, I remain committed to helping educators and parents instill in young people a love of reading, writing, and research.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

A stranger willing to learn more about Black Lives Matter

One morning in June, about two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, in my majority white Maryland town, I posted simple Black Lives Matter signs near my running path, which runs along a decommissioned canal.


I wanted my signs to be a call to action in a way I hadn’t seen, so I included my cell and invited people to start a conversation. I heard from one person—rather from my “butt hole.”


But I returned later that afternoon to find the signs gone. I reposted them. (A sight you don’t see: someone in running clothes on a wooded trail holding a tape gun.)

Several days later, the signs were still up. A small victory…soon to be dwarfed by an also-small but hugely affirming development.

Someone else who saw one of my signs texted me.

“I would like to discuss. if ur down.”

I was down. Also up, diagonal, and inside out.

Let’s say it’s a he and call him 240 (his area code). In a non-combative way, 240 said he thinks some people say “all lives matter” because they feel some people who say “Black lives matter” care about Black people only when they’re killed by white people but ignore other issues affecting Black communities (i.e. Black-on-Black murder, higher percentages of single motherhood). He feels that police officers killing Black people is terrible but questioned why the movement seems to consider that a bigger problem than the others he cited. He seemed genuine.

I disclaimered that I’m no expert, then proceeded to fumble through some of what I’ve learned.

I said that people who say “Black lives matter” do care about other challenges Black people face, and all lives in general, but it’s a matter of urgency. The BLM movement aims specifically to dismantle the harmful, ongoing way white-dominant institutions mistreat Black people, consciously or subconsciously.

I agreed that the other issues he mentioned are indeed pressing, but preventing preventable murder and educating white people how to eliminate systemic racism is paramount. I also said we need to multi-task like we do in other aspects of our lives. We didn’t stop searching for a cure for cancer when we started searching for a vaccine for COVID-19.

240 asked for examples of mistreatment. I recommended starting with a book called I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown


He pushed for examples so I gave him two:

1 – Black parents teach their children (especially boys) to keep hands out of pockets when in stores because employees are historically more likely to suspect/accuse Black people of shoplifting.

2 – White people sometimes ask to touch the hair of Black people, often Black children—or sometimes they skip right to the touching—while praising it. Though they may be well-intentioned, it is inappropriate—a manifestation of privilege that can be dehumanizing. 

He said he’s seen that happen.

He wrote “Thanks for talking with me. I learned something.”


So did I.

Then he went fishing.

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