NPR’s “Serial” Kills It



I am not a talk radio fan. When I am driving, I prefer to listen to music and find something that fits my mood, whether it be jazz, classical, pop or rock. So I was a skeptic  last summer when my sister talked up a podcast called Serial. She said that she had listened to the entire first season of Serial on a road trip to Minnesota for our niece’s wedding.

Serial, which originally aired on NPR’s “This American Life,” told the riveting story of Adnan Syed, a man currently serving a life sentence for the murder 15 years ago of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The story unfolded week by week, as indicated by the title, but thanks to the digital world in which we live, my sister was able to digest the entire series in one long drive. Later, my daughter seconded my sister’s enthusiasm for the series, and she insisted on downloading the podcast to my phone. One hour into it, I was hooked.

The story of Adnan Syed and how at age 17,  he came to be arrested, tried, and convicted of  murder became a radio sensation, and journalist Sarah Koenig’s revisiting of the case eventually led to a hearing to decide whether Syed should be given a new trial. I must confess that I have a girl crush on Sarah Koenig. I love her radio voice and her honest, down-to-earth presentation of both the facts and her own feelings and opinions about the case. She interviews Syed himself, as well as former classmates, law enforcement officials, and court figures, trying to get to the truth of what really happened on January 13, 1999, the day Lee went missing. We hear actual audio of interrogations and witness testimony at the two trials, the second of which resulted in a life sentence for Syed.

It is not easy to make true, evidence-based stories this riveting. Therein lies the secret of Serial‘s success. This season’s episodes find Koenig exploring the disappearance, rescue, and pending court martial of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whose controversial release from captivity by the Taliban has sparked widespread criticism. Bergdahl, who was stationed at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, walked off his base in 2009, and Serial explores Bergdahl’s motivations, state of mind, and personal background, as well as the point of view of his platoon mates, his commanders and others in the U.S. Army, and even Afghanis who had information on what happened to Bergdahl.

What I love about this radio show is that Sarah Koenig seems to have no political or personal agenda other than a curiosity about the subjects she tackles. She leaves virtually no stone unturned trying to get to the truth as best she can. And while the series tends not to tie things up in a tidy knot, that’s reality.

So for a true “reality show,” I highly recommend that you tune into Serial. It will fascinate, disturb, and cause you to question what you think you know.

Take a Hike



One of my favorite activities during my spa getaway last weekend was ironically one of the more arduous ones. My daughter and I arose at 6 am and joined a group hike in the mountains nearby. The light outside was dim and the air wonderfully cool when we reached Ventana Canyon. We immediately began a rocky climb as the sun slowly rose over the mountains.

The hike was hard enough that I found myself having to devote my full attention to it, and at times I regretted our swift pace because I wanted more time to savor and enjoy my desert surroundings. Cacti dotted the hills and rose like giant cucumbers from the tops of the mountains. The huge saguaro cacti, which our guide estimated to be about 150 years old, were impressive. Most of them were starting to flower, their buds slowly opening as the sun warmed the canyon. It’s so dry in Arizona that I was amazed anything at all could grow with the dearth of water. Yet there were graceful swaying trees and healthy shrubs everywhere I looked.

There was also some interesting wildlife. Mostly we saw birds, including a cardinal, but at the very start of our hike, a woman’s shriek alerted us to the presence of a colorful snake along our path. The guides examined it and determined it was not poisonous, but one of them admitted that he had seen mountain lions while hiking in these mountains. That did not surprise me. I had seen a bobcat puttering through a garden outside the meditation sanctuary at the ranch. The canyon is also home to Bighorn sheep, but we didn’t see any of those.

We made a few water and snack stops, and it was then that I could more fully enjoy the grandeur of the desert mountains. The breaks also gave us time to snap a few photos.


Taking a hike was great for both body and soul. The next morning I awoke with sore thigh muscles but also a sense of the beauty and peace of nature in an environment so completely different from the one I’m used to at home.

So my advice the next time stress or cabin fever are making you crazy?

Take a hike!


Out of My Comfort Zone



In the past, I was something of a fitness buff. Enticed into aerobic exercise by Jane Fonda and her workout videos, I started regular workouts and was amazed at how much better I felt. Even during pregnancy and after childbirth, I would find ways of keeping fit. Today at age 58, I am proud to say that I am reasonably healthy, am not overweight, and have excellent blood pressure.

But my enthusiasm for hard workouts has waned over the years. High impact aerobics and running have given way to power walks and yoga. Yet I fear that I have gotten a bit too comfortable in my routine. So this weekend I am shaking things up.

I have the great good fortune to be spending four days with my daughter at Canyon Ranch, a health and wellness resort in warm and sunny Tucson, Arizona. At first I planned to content myself with walks and hikes in the desert air and some gentle yoga. But when I arrived and found the variety of choices for exercise, I decided to leave my comfort zone and try new things.

Yesterday I did a Zumba class for the first time. I felt a little clumsy, but the class made me reminisce about my days as a Jazzerciser. It was a lot of fun, even if I didn’t exactly look like Beyonce out there. Today I tried indoor cycling. This would seem to be an easy choice, but my derriere begs to differ. I also pushed myself aerobically much harder than I would have even on my fastest walks. Future challenges I plan to take on include strength training, a posture class, and different styles of yoga. I plan to avoid the Pilates studio, though, because it still resembles a medieval torture chamber, if you ask me.

The other aspect of my health this resort is challenging is my diet. The emphasis here is on portion control and healthy choices without a lot of added fat or sugar. I am finding that I can still enjoy meals and have a little dessert without feeling the need to binge on unhealthy snacks. I am hoping this realization stays with me when I return home and have to prepare meals for myself and my family.

My daughter has been the perfect partner for me in this endeavor. Herself a healthy eater and avid exerciser, she encourages me and applauds my efforts. (She also took that photo of me in the cycling studio.) I feel so lucky to be in this beautiful, warm, and perpetually sunny locale with her. Tomorrow we are going on a hike in the nearby mountains, and I can’t wait to check out the wildflowers and giant saguaro cacti.

Getting away has been a perfect excuse for me to reinvent myself and approach age 60 with a healthy mind, body, and spirit. I hope to keep surprising myself with what I can do when I step out of my comfort zone.





There’s nothing like that first cup of coffee in the morning. I usually savor mine after the kids have gone to school, and I am sitting down to breakfast and Facebook or the daily newspaper. The first cup is so fresh and gives me that pleasant jolt into the day’s activities. Subsequent cups just don’t have the same effect.

I find that’s often the case with firsts. The first day of school is magical. If you’re a student, the new notebooks and pencils you use, the teachers who aren’t tired of you yet, the friends you haven’t seen all summer – all make that first day so much fun. If you’re the teacher, you have fresh ideas, a fresh batch of students, and a fresh outlook after a summer’s rest.

As I’ve written before, having my first child was a special experience, and although I love all my children more than words can say, my first child has the unique place of ushering me into the world of parenthood. Indeed, children have many firsts that we love to document: first smile, first words, first steps. If we’re lucky, we even find the time to record these firsts in their baby books and tuck a wisp of hair from their first haircuts into them.

In our culture, we also applaud firsts. In my lifetime, some of the most spectacular firsts were the first man to walk on the moon, the first heart transplant, and the first black president. If Hillary Clinton wins in November, she will be the first female president! The special nature of a first is that it paves the way for a new way of doing things, a new lifestyle, a new direction for society. It is proper, I think, to make a big deal out of these firsts.

They say familiarity breeds contempt. And while it’s true that the familiar can be dull, it can also be comforting. We will always have fond memories of the firsts in our lives: first paycheck, first car, first date, first kiss. May we continue to seek new adventures and new firsts in our lives while treasuring the mainstays that keep us grounded.



Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing



Watching the hit TV series Scandal is one of my guilty pleasures. One of the things I love best about the show is the music, which consists mainly of 1970s soul. On the most recent episode, the main character, Olivia Pope, keeps having flashbacks to the moment she was abducted and to the song that was playing on her stereo at the time: “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” by Stevie Wonder.

The irony of that song choice is not lost on the audience, and it struck me in a rather personal way when I thought about it after watching the show. Worry is one of my constant companions. Whether it be about all the things I have to do before my senior’s high school prom and graduation, helping my eighth grader juggle three sports and demanding schoolwork, or whether my college senior is safe down in Austin, Texas, where one university student was recently murdered and another succumbed to a poison gas leak – I can’t seem to turn off the anxiety.

I will wake up in the wee hours of the morning with a palpable sense of dread, and the wheels in my mind will start spinning. Even my dreams reveal my worry wart nature. I usually dream of being unprepared for something: a class I have to teach, a party I’m giving etc. I worry about everything from looming deadlines to my kids’ safety to the possibility of getting cancer. Ironically, all this worry is what will probably make me sick.

There are numerous passages in the Bible that discuss worry. Mostly they say not to do it. St. Paul, for instance, exhorts believers, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Phil. 4:6) In the gospels, Jesus is continually telling his followers, “Do not be afraid.” I just have a hard time following this advice.

Maybe the reason I like escapist entertainment like Scandal is that I’d rather watch the trials and tribulations of fictional characters than dwell on my own. Enjoying the love triangles, political intrigue, and danger, as well as the funky soundtrack, sure beats waiting for the other shoe to drop.


The Value of a Life



I’m currently listening to a podcast about the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army private who walked off his base in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban, was returned home in a prisoner exchange, and currently faces court martial and other serious charges.

The issue of whether Bergdahl should be in prison for what he did is certainly an interesting and important one. But what struck me as I listened to the story of his capture and of the U.S. military’s search for him was how much Americans value a single human life.

Reporter Sarah Koenig of NPR’s show “Serial” interviewed a member of the Taliban, who said they realized that the capture of Bergdahl represented an important coup for their side. When Koenig questioned whether holding him was worth losing 15 of their own fighters in a single raid by the U.S., he answered that it was worth losing 5,000.

By contrast, the disappearance of Bergdahl set in motion a U.S. military DUSTWUN (duty status whereabouts unknown) that triggered a widespread manhunt to find him using massive amounts of military resources, special forces, and personnel put in harm’s way for 45 days. “Never leave a man behind” has become somewhat of a cliche in our culture, but it is a serious mandate for American military forces.

This case highlights how difficult it is to fight an enemy that is only too willing to sacrifice its own people in huge numbers to advance its cause. Whether we are talking about the Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda, or other terrorist organizations, we are dealing with people who show a callous disregard for human life.

Whatever the result of the Bergdahl case, I admire the courage and tenacity of our soldiers who did everything in their power to find and save one human being. Let’s use that same ethic in our culture, teaching, laws, and policies to protect and preserve each life both here at home and in the wider world.

Pet Peeves



We all have little things that bug us a lot. For instance, when my kids were young, they had a penchant for stepping on my feet. I would yell, “That’s my pet peeve!”

Pet peeves are not the big things. They are annoyances that give people an outsized sense of frustration. Here are some of my current ones.

  1. People acting as if saying “Merry Christmas” is somehow under attack. I see these memes on Facebook all the time. They say things such as, “Who else will be politically incorrect and say, ‘Merry Christmas’?” If the Christmas holiday were endangered, I don’t think I’d be seeing all the Christmas trees, ornaments, and fake poinsettias in stores before Halloween. Ditto for the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s not going anywhere, and President Obama is not trying to remove the words “under God” from it.
  2. Another FB meme I detest is one showing a very sick or severely disabled child and the admonition to type “Amen” or to “Like” the post. If not, you are told that you are heartless. Ditto the ones that ask if Jesus is your savior. I don’t need to reply to a FB post to prove my humanity or faith to anyone.
  3. Drivers who refuse to use their turn signal. My husband is a member of this club. Not only is it illegal, but it is dangerous and annoying when I am following  you and you suddenly decide to turn right without warning. I’m always wishing for a cop nearby to “cure” such drivers of their bad habit.
  4. People who ask you a question but don’t listen to the answer. A classic example is when ordering food at a takeout counter. The cashier asks, “For here or to go?” You answer and give your order. When you have finished giving the order, the cashier repeats, “For here or to go?” as if s/he hadn’t just asked that question 20 seconds ago.
  5. Any variation of “The problem with kids today is _____.” When I was young, my dad used to make fun of rock and roll song lyrics. “All they say is, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,'” he would mock. He also used to yell at me if I complained about how hard my school work load was. “You think you have it bad?” he would exclaim. Then he would launch into a variation of the walking five miles to school in the snow saga. The fact is, the very kids we are sure are doomed are the ones who will be taking care of us when we’re old. And I can guarantee they are going to find fault with the next generation while they’re changing our adult diapers.
  6. Finding any of the following around my house: empty toilet paper holder, dishes with crusted on food, cabinet doors left open, dirty socks on the floor, my kid’s expensive retainer wrapped in a paper napkin. Let’s face it. If you are a wife and mother, you have a lot of pet peeves.

I try not to let my pet peeves make me too much of a grouch. Why? Because grouchy people are one of my pet peeves!


Easter Joy



There is a moment in the Gospel of John that always brings tears to my eyes. It is the third day since Jesus was crucified, and his devoted disciple Mary Magdalene sits weeping by the tomb. She had gone to give him proper burial rites, but when she arrived at the tomb, Jesus was gone. Some angels ask her why she is crying, as does the risen Jesus himself, but she doesn’t recognize them. Then Jesus calls her by name, “Mary,” and she realizes her Lord is before her.

I think it’s because my name is Mary that I so identify with the miraculous beauty of this moment and the personal nature of salvation through Christ. Think about your most intimate relationships. Then imagine having that kind of intimacy with the Creator of the universe. The beauty and strength of Christianity is that we place our faith not in a system of beliefs, but in a person – a person who died a gruesome death so that we could fully live.

There are so many religious conflicts in the world. Competing faiths and even competing ideas within faith traditions create so much strife. We fallen humans use religion for our own self-aggrandizement, for dominance, or to excuse our violence. We are prideful, and we even extend that pride to our so-called religious beliefs.

Most of us are probably capable of giving up our lives for our children or other close loved ones. Our love for them supersedes our interest in self-preservation. I used to wonder how the early Christian martyrs could endure horrific torture and death in Jesus’ name. Now I realize that they were willing to sacrifice themselves not for an idea, but for a beloved person, their Savior.

In the gospels, Jesus continually exhorts his followers to bring about the kingdom of God. By the end of the story, it is pretty clear he does not mean by force or by law. The only way to share the personal salvation we have received is within the personal relationships we foster in our daily lives. Our patience with our children, our acts of charity to the less fortunate, our kindness to our co-workers and others: these are ways to strengthen our relationship with the One who gave us life.

In John 15:16, Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.” What a beautiful feeling in this broken world to be chosen by a loving, self-sacrificing God. There is only one way to honor this reality: by sacrificing ourselves for others. I hope in my life to bear bushels of good fruit in His name.