TV Shows

I spend a fair bit of my copious free time exploring Ottawa, making photographs, using Skype to talk to the family, and studying Urdu for the next post.  The fact is, however, I’ve got a lot of free time these days.  Even with volunteering for non-consular duties, my work days are pretty much limited to eight hours.  This will certainly change in Lahore, but until March, I’ve got a lot hours during the evening and week-ends with no pressing responsibilities.  I read some, but I also watch TV.

I’ve got just about as many channels to watch in Ottawa as I had back home, including both East Coast and West Coast US network feeds.  I find myself, however, spending most of my TV time catching up on old series that I completely missed when they were first broadcast.  This appears to be a common pastime for foreign service folks living abroad, particularly those living without the plethora of other options.  For me, it’s a way to turn the brain on neutral after the day’s stress (yes, doing visa interviews can be very stressful).  It also provides a welcome distraction from missing the family.

Watching a series has been much more fun than a movie.  I’m particularly drawn to a series if: (a) there’s a running plot, (b) it’s character driven, and (c) I haven’t seen it before.  I’ve also found that it’s actually better if the show ended up being canceled after a couple of seasons.  It’s far better to be left wanting more than to experience the “Jumping the Shark” moment which forever spoils the positive impression (I was 12 years old when the Fonz donned water skis to signal the beginning of the end for “Happy Days,” a TV moment forever responsible for the now ubiquitous phrase).

The key to determining whether the show works is that moment when an episode ends and I find myself doing the math to figure out if I can watch one more and still get enough sleep to be cogent the next morning.  There is also the engrossing factor.  I am a compulsive multi-tasker, particularly living alone for the first time in 25 years.  It is not uncommon to find me with the TV on, the Giants game on (either a small window on the computer, streaming radio, or the GameCast silently updating), editing photographs, surfing the Internet, and playing Words With Friends on the iPad.  A good show precludes most of that activity and requires me to watch (ok, maybe with the iPad on the couch).

Netflix provides a seemingly endless number of these shows.  As a long-time TV addict, there were a number of shows that I followed when they first ran, but if you haven’t seen them, must see candidates in my book include The Wire, The Sopranos, and Friday Night Lights.  That’s over a year’s worth of TV right there.  The following list are those nuggets I’ve found and enjoyed since last October:

Jericho.  Two seasons.  Skeet Ulrich and Gerald McRaney provide strong characters and an unfolding plot that is far from predictable.  Starting with the nuclear detonation of 23 U.S. cities, the show is focused on the fictional town of Jericho, Kansas, one of the few places far enough from the blast radius to still function.  Definitely a show that made me want to watch just one more before ending the day.

Kings.  One season.  I’ll now watch anything with Ian McShane (Deadwood is on the short list for the future).  He’s amazing in this short-lived but well-written one-season wonder.  The production costs must have been too high for the low ratings as each episode looks like a well-done movie.  The premise centers on the internal machinations of a modern-day absolute monarchy, the Kingdom of Gelboa.  Using a long series of clever modern parallels, the unfolding plot is very loosely based on the biblical story of King David.  The central character, David, for example, gains initial notoriety in the opening episode by single-handedly facing down the enemy’s indestructible “Goliath” tank.  When this one ended, I couldn’t believe they didn’t make a second season.

Veronica Mars.  Three Seasons.  Very stylized father/daughter detective show set in the fictional upscale town of Neptune, California.  Each season has a big plot (e.g., who killed Veronica’s best friend or who’s responsible for the bus-load of students flying off a cliff) and many smaller complex cases that resolve each episode.  Once again, the common themes of good writing and solid acting make for an easy-to-watch distraction.  Not sure why we haven’t seen more of Kristin Bell.  Unlike most shows, they make the transition from high school to college without completely losing the show’s focus (as they did in two of my favorite guilty pleasure shows, the original Beverly Hills 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  They were smart to pull the plug after Season 3.

Prison Break.  Four Seasons.  Watching the first episode, I was thinking this would not be a keeper.  It really sucks you in, however, to a core story involving two brothers: one on death row and the other a structural engineer.  The engineer spends six months creating an intricate plan to break his innocent brother out, tattoos the encoded plan over his entire upper body, and holds up a bank to get get thrown into the same prison.  It’s not quite Oz, but the mix of sadistic inmates and guards throws wrench after wrench into the well-oiled escape plan.  I’m currently on Season 4 which I’m still watching mostly because of the strength of the characters, but this one might have been better served by shutting down after the third season.

So what’s next after Prison Break?  I haven’t decided yet.  Let me know if you have any suggestions.



When I first arrived here, my first reaction as I navigated through a snowy downtown Ottawa was how clean the city appeared.  Over the past six months, my initial impress has not changed.  Part of it is the weather and the way the city deals with it.  Snow gets plowed almost immediately after hitting the ground and there’s enough of it that the fresh white top-cover gets a regular renewal.  The city also invests in services that keep streets and sidewalks swept, steam cleaned, and cleared of debris.  As the nation’s capitol, Ottawa serves as huge tourist destination for Canadians so there also seems to be a strong interest in keeping the monument areas pristine.

Mostly, however, I believe it’s a Canadian thing.  Forbes Magazine in 2007 published a list of the world’s top 25 cleanest cities.  Canada ended up with an impressive five cities on the list, including the top spot (Calgary) and four in the top ten.  Ottawa was a respectable No. 4.  There doesn’t seem to have been much change in the last three years.

Although there are exceptions, there doesn’t seem to be nearly the degree of miscellaneous graffiti tagging in the downtown area as I’ve come to expect in urban centers.  The City has designated a few spots, urban walls and a skate parks, as exempt from the anti-graffiti laws.  I took a road trip out to one of these sites and found a series of “Jersey barriers” set up predominantly as open graffiti canvases.  Some are detailed works of art while others provide a spot for taggers to mark their spot.

There’s quite the debate about whether the legal graffiti zones curb or incite more illegal graffiti in the surrounding areas.  Compared to San Francisco and Boston (forget about New York or Chicago), however, Ottawa seems to be way ahead of the game.


Lately, I’ve been having this recurring feeling that we are in the first reel of a global disaster movie.  Maybe it’s my imagination, but it sure seems like the frequency of natural disasters seems to be increasing.  Major earthquakes in Chile, China, and Haiti claimed hundreds of thousands.  Tsunami hitting Chile.  Historic flooding in Brazil.  Record heat and fires burning out of control in Russia.  Volcanic ash blanketing Europe and shutting down flights for a week.  And that’s with two full months left to the hurricane season.

With all this suffering, it’s easy to overlook the latest tragedy in Pakistan.  The relentless rains continue to expand the flooding damage.  A quick summary to date:

  • 20,000,000 people directly impacted (10% of the population)
  • Over 1,600 dead
  • 4,000,000 people homeless
  • 8,000,000 people requiring urgent assistance and medical care
  • 3,500,000 children in danger of contracting water and insect borne disease
  • Over 1,600,00 acres of crops destroyed
  • Over 200,000 livestock dead

Here’s a good map from the Guardian that shows how widespread the flooding has become (click to see it larger):

Photographs at the New York Times and the BBC underscore the suffering.  With the rains continuing to come down in Sindh Province, this is not going to be a short-term fix.  We’re talking years to recover and the aid has been coming up short.

As I just begin the preparations to spend a year in Lahore (already feeling very pessimistic about the prospects for picking up even rudimentary Urdu), I’m feeling particularly drawn to try to help.  There are a number of organizations that will ensure donations get to the people in need:  UNICEF, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, CARE, Doctors Without Borders, and OXFAM, among others.

Although these are all great organizations, I was particularly happy to see Secretary Clinton launch a new State Department program to raise funds for our relief effort.  This is where we’re sending our money.  If you want a quick way to give just a small amount, they’ve made it incredibly easy.  For a quick way to give $10, simply TEXT “FLOOD” to 27722 from your mobile phone. If you’re interested in giving more via credit card, just click the button below and fill out the online form (it took 5 minutes, max).

Hope you can help.

American Citizen Services

A few weeks ago, I took on a new portfolio. That’s State-speak for a new set of responsibilities. For the remaining six months of my tour in Ottawa, I am the ACS officer. In some posts, American Citizen Services is a full-time job, dealing with every conceivable issue relevant to Americans living permanently or temporarily abroad. Here, because we have such an unbelievable local staff, the ACS work load can be managed in addition to my regular consular duties.

The portfolio includes passports, births, deaths, arrests, domestic disputes, abducted children, taxes, social security, voting, and scores of other issues. We deal with urgent matters whenever they come up and schedule appointments for more routine issues.

While I’m on the line adjudicating visa cases in the morning, I usually need to step out every half-hour or so to deal with an ACS case. Most of the routine cases involve passport applications and certificates of birth abroad. There are a series of complex rules to determine citizenship and they all come in to play over the course of a month or two. We get newborns, but also parents who want to get a birth certificate and passport for their 17-year-olds. The process often requires a review of stacks of old papers to establish birthdates, marriage dates, military service dates, employment dates, school attendance dates, etc. Sometimes the puzzle gets very complicated.

When Americans find themselves under arrest, it falls on the ACS officer to ensure they are getting fair treatment. I made my first prison visit a couple weeks ago, meeting with three inmates back-to-back. Although this is Canada, prison is still prison. I’ve been to a few in the U.S. visiting pro bono clients. I had the same visceral reaction to hearing the metal doors clang shut behind me after entering. There’s no such thing as easy time. Even in Canada.

Sad Day for Giants Fans

With parts of my family in town for the last 6 weeks, I’ve been neglecting my blog posting duties.  I’ll be back to Canada and foreign service topics this week, but I wanted to note the passing of Bobby Thompson, the legendary member of the New York (baseball) Giants.  Thompson will be forever linked to the greatest comeback in sports history.

In August 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers held a seemingly insurmountable 13-1/2 game lead over the second-place cross-town rival Giants.  The Dodgers mailed it in down the stretch winning 26 and losing 22 over the last 48 games.  The Giants did what they had to do.  They closed stronger than any team.  Ever.  Starting with 16 wins in a row, the Giants won 37 of their last 44 games, including the last seven in a row to force a best of three playoff with the Dodgers.

Willie Mays and the Giants prevailed 3-1 in game 1.  Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers rebounded 10-0 in game 2.  Despite the miraculous comeback, the Giants once again faced elimination as the Dodgers looked to close out a 4-1 victory in the bottom of the 9th in the decisive game 3.  The Giants pushed across one run, making it 4-2.  After a couple of base hits, Thompson came to the plate with one out.  Legendary Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges describes the last confrontation:

I’ve heard Hodges’ call more times than I can count and it still gives me a chill.  We’ll miss you, Bobby.