Tuesday, April 26, 2016

TV Tuesday: Orphan Black

I had planned to write about another show today but just realized that I've never reviewed our all-time favorite TV show, Orphan Black. This unique sci fi thriller with a sense of humor is so stunningly good that when we first discovered it, my husband, son, and I binge-watched the entire first season in a matter of days! The fourth season has just started, so this is a great time to catch up.

In the first episode, Sarah Manning, a sharp-tongued street-smart Brit in Canada, is standing on a train platform when she see a woman who looks exactly like her step in front of an oncoming train and kill herself. Shocked and horrified, Sarah grabs the woman's wallet so she can find out who she was and runs off. The mystery woman's ID identifies her as Beth Childs, and Sarah sees from her photo that she was absolutely identical to Sarah. An orphan brought up in foster care, Sarah doesn't know of any genetic family members, but the temptation to take advantage of the situation is great.

Sarah assumes Beth's identity, with the goal of cleaning out her bank account to help her out of the difficult situation she is in. She discovers that Beth was a police officer, and taking on her identity gets more and more complicated. She meets Beth's boyfriend, Paul, and her partner, Art. She also meets other women who are identical to her, one at a time. Each one is unique in hairstyle, clothing, and other aspects of outward appearance, but they are clearly identical. In fact, Sarah soon learns they are clones.

I don't want to give away any more of the plot because there are surprises around every corner in this fast-paced thriller, but it keeps you guessing...and watching. Tatiana Maslany is absolutely amazing as Sarah - and all of the other clones! - juggling multiple roles, looks, accents and more in a way that seems impossible. There is Allison, the high-energy suburban mom; Cosina, the dredlocked scientist; evil Rachel; and Helena (possibly our favorite), the wild-eyed Ukrainian who will protect her "sestras"at all costs. The clones gradually meet each other and band together, trying to get to the bottom of the convoluted mystery of who they are and where they came from. One of the best scenes in the show is a clone dinner party at the end of season 3 when they are all in the same room together - awesome.

Supporting Tatiana in her multiple roles are other excellent actors. Our hands-down favorite is Jordan Gavaris as Sarah's snarky, flamboyantly gay foster-brother, Felix, who provides a lot of laughs on the show and often wears just an apron over his naked body when working on a piece of art. Kevin Hanchard is intense and concerned as Beth's cop partner, Art. Maria Doyle Kennedy plays Sarah and Felix's caring foster mom, Siobhan, who knows a bit about Sarah's mysterious beginnings. Another of our favorites is Kristian Bruun as Donnie, Allison's husband - those two are fabulous together, especially in later seasons. And little Skyler Wexler is absolutely adorable as Kira, Sarah's beloved daughter.

The excellent acting, wholly unique plot full of surprises, non-stop action, and complex ever-growing mysteries make this an outstanding show in every respect. It is incredibly addictive. Watch the first episode of the first season, and I guarantee you will want to watch them all! Just writing about it makes me want to watch the latest episode (but we promised to wait for our college son to come home after exams later this week).

Orphan Black is produced by BBC America and filmed in Canada. Here in the US, it is available On Demand through cable (season four currently airing). Amazon Prime has the first five seasons of Orphan Black available to subscribers for free (that alone is worth the fee!).

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Weekly Inspiration: Survival is Insufficient

Today's inspiration comes from a book I recently read and loved, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. You may have heard of this very popular and highly acclaimed novel, since it was on many Top Ten lists for 2014 and was short-listed for the National Book Award.

The novel takes place 20 years after a flu pandemic wipes out 99% of the world's population, though the action moves back and forth in time so that you get to know the characters both before and after the horrible event. In this world 20 years after the pandemic, with no infrastructure and people scattered in small enclaves, there is a traveling troupe of actors and musicians. They go from community to community along the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, performing Shakespeare plays and classical music. Painted on the side of their caravan is this motto:
"Survival is Insufficient"
          - from Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 

And I thought that phrase was also perfectly fit for a life with chronic illness.

It is all too easy when you are chronically ill to get wrapped up in merely surviving, just trying to get through each day. When your every moment is ruled by restrictions and limitations, you can easily become focused only on survival. But, as this traveling acting troupe points out, survival is not life, and you need more for a real life - small joys, moments of happiness, art, music, and more.

It has taken me a long time to figure this out for myself - certainly in those early years, I was almost entirely focused on survival (though when you have little kids around, they remind you constantly that there is more to life). Now, though, I find happiness, fulfillment, and moments of joy in many ways throughout each day, like:
  • Lying outside on my deck, looking up at the clouds, listening to the birds (so many different kinds!) and the wind through the trees.
  • Reading a book that takes me to another world.
  • Listening to favorite music that makes me sing out loud or discovering new songs and artists.
  • Lying on the couch at night, with a square of dark chocolate and a mug of Raspberry Zinger tea, enjoying favorite TV shows with my husband.
  • Connecting with a friend - old or new - online.
In all of these ways - and many more - I am constantly reminded that "Survival is Insufficient" and that my chronic illness doesn't have to define my life. There is still plenty of joy to be found in this new life.

How do you find joy in your life? What things - art, music, outdoors - lift you out of a life of illness and remind you that you are more than your illness?

P.S. If you enjoy reading, I highly recommend Station Eleven (the link takes you to my review at my book blog - don't worry - no spoilers!). I bet it is great on audio, too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

TV Tuesday: Bosch

With a lot of our favorite winter shows wrapping up on cable, we've been watching more on Amazon Prime & Netflix lately. One of our favorite Amazon shows just came back for its second season, and it's better than ever!

My husband and I are both long-time fans of the crime thrillers starring LAPD detective Harry Bosch, written by Michael Connelly. He has written reliably fast-paced, intriguing page-turners for decades. Besides the Bosch novels, he is also the author of the Lincoln Lawyer series, which has been adapted into movies starring Matthew McConaughey. Amazon Prime's show Bosch is based on his best-selling books, and they have done a fantastic job of bringing this popular series to life on the screen.

Harry Bosch, played by Titus Welliver ("the man in black" from Lost), is an experienced LAPD homicide detective who is known for his tenacity...and for doing whatever it takes to bring a killer to justice. He is often in trouble with his superiors, but he gets the job done. He is driven in part by the still-unsolved murder of his own mother. Harry's partner, Jerry Edgar - affectionately called J. Edgar by Harry, is always perfectly dressed, and he and Harry work well together. Harry is divorced, and his ex-wife, played by Sarah Clarke, and teen daughter live in Las Vegas. Harry gets along well with his immediate supervisor, Lt. Grace Billet, played by Amy Aquino, but he often clashes with Deputy Chief Irvin Irving, played by Lance Reddick, mostly because Irving pays more attention to politics and climbing the ladder than to police work.

In season one, Bosch and J. Edgar and their colleagues were after a serial killer, while also trying to solve a decades old case based on children's bones found on a hillside. Those two cases were interwoven into the entire season, with bits and pieces of Bosch's personal life feeding into the ongoing story. Season two is based on Connelly's novel Trunk Music, where a dead body is found in a car trunk. Again, the main case carries on through the entire season, with other secondary plot lines coming into play, including more with Bosch's ex-wife and daughter and Deputy Chief Irving's son (who is a police officer) going undercover with IA to try to catch some dirty cops.

The show has been excellent right from the very first episode. It sticks closely to the books - with the characters and major cases - while adding in a lot of extra detail on the characters' personal lives and secondary cases. The tone, the actors, the pace, and the ambience (including Bosch's beloved jazz as the soundtrack) are all just perfect for fans of the books. Titus Welliver in particular is the quintessential Bosch, while J. Edgar and Deputy Chief Irving also seem exactly as I pictured them in the novels. It's a very well-done show, with gripping, suspenseful mysteries but also plenty of emotional depth and human interest. We are really enjoying seeing one of our favorite fictional characters come to life!

As an Amazon Original Series, Bosch is available only on Amazon, free to Prime members or $1.99 an episode for non-members.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Movie Monday: Ex Machina

Finally! We've been totally focused on TV for the past couple of months (thanks to our new Netflix subscription, plus keeping up with our favorite cable shows), but we finally found time to watch a movie last night...and it was worth the wait! Our 18-year old son even watched it with us (a minor miracle).

We watched Ex Machina, one of last year's highly acclaimed movies. It's a combination sci fi and psychological thriller, with a quiet drama-like tone to much of the film. Caleb works as a programmer for a large corporation and wins a lottery to spend a week with the company's mysterious, reclusive founder. He is whisked away by helicopter over miles and miles of wilderness to what looks like a quiet retreat among jaw-dropping natural beauty, surrounded by snow-covered mountains. Caleb meets the famous CEO, a heavily bearded guy named Nathan wearing jeans and a t-shirt and bare feet, and is surprised to find that the home is actually a high-tech underground fortress. Nathan is a bit overwhelming and disconcerting but seems like a good guy, who greets Caleb warmly and tells him he just wants to talk and have a beer with him.

Then Nathan explains that the real purpose of Caleb's visit is to help test Nathan's invention: the most advanced Artificial Intelligence ever devised. Nathan tells Caleb his job is to perform the Turing Test, a classic test defined by Alan Turing to see if an AI is advanced enough to be indistinguishable from a human. Caleb is to have a series of conversations with Nathan's AI, while observed by Nathan. The first day or two are fascinating but then things start to get a little weird. Nathan's AI is distinctly female, though only her face and hands have a skin-like covering. The rest of her looks like a conglomeration of wires and lights and electronics, encased in a workout clothes-like metal outfit that leave much of her inner workings visible. Still, she is remarkably life-like, and Caleb begins to think of her as a real person.

Up to this point, the movie is fairly quiet in tone, with little action, though there is a vague feeling of unease and suspense building. Nathan seems to be hiding some secrets, Caleb begins to feel more like a prisoner than a guest, and it's unclear where this test is heading or how it will end. Toward the end of the film, the pace picks up considerably as the sinister tone builds. We were glued to the screen, as unexpected surprises and secrets unfolded and the tension built. All three of us enjoyed the movie very much and found it quite thought-provoking, too. Afterwards, we discussed if the events in the movie could really happen, if technology was moving toward this very point, and about some of the more paranoid fears about AI that my husband said had been voiced by real-life high-tech geniuses.

All in all, it was a suspenseful movie with sci fi elements, some action, and a thoughtfulness that we all enjoyed. It's pretty fascinating that a movie with only a few actors (one of them portraying a robot) was so engrossing. Ex Machina gave us plenty to ponder, plus was entertaining and fun. Our son enjoyed it so much, he is watching it again tonight with his girlfriend!

Ex Machina is currently available for free on Amazon Prime, through Netflix on DVD only, at Redbox, and probably through most cable streaming services, too.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Rituximab - A Promising Treatment for ME/CFS

Photo from Freeimages.com
I have been watching and reading the ground-breaking research on using a cancer drug, rituximab, for ME/CFS with great interest and wanted to provide a brief update here for those who haven't heard about it yet or who want more information (or, as always here, a simple explanation).

Rituximab is a drug that affects the immune system, used for patients with lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, and also for autoimmune conditions like Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). There is now growing evidence that it might work for a majority of ME/CFS patients, either greatly improving their symptoms or even providing complete remission.

A simplified timeline of what's gone on so far:
  1. In 2004, two Norwegian doctors using rituximab for a group of lymphoma patients noticed that one patient - who also happened to have ME/CFS - was not only cured of his/her lymphoma but that all of his/her ME/CFS symptoms had disappeared as well.
  2. Excited by this unexpected occurrence, those same two Norwegian doctors conducted a small, 1-year study of 15 people with ME/CFS in 2011. A full two-thirds of the patients (10), experienced significant improvement on rituximab. Two of those 10 seemed to be completely recovered, even 3 years after their initial doses, and were back at work.
  3. In July 2015, results were published from a larger Norwegian study of rituximab in 29 ME/CFS patients, showing that once again, almost two-thirds of the patients (18) responded well and improved significantly, some achieving full remission. Eleven of the 18 who responded were still in remission three years after beginning the treatment, and some have not had symptoms for five years. This study included a variety of ME/CFS patients, ranging from moderate to severe (bedbound).
  4. A much larger study, of 150 ME/CFS patients, is now underway in Norway and includes a control group. Results are due to be published around 2017-18.
Can you believe those facts?? Two-thirds significantly better? Complete remission? These are words that many ME/CFS patients never thought they'd hear.

So, how does this miracle drug work?
Rituximab, a cancer drug, wipes out most of the body's B-cells, a kind of white blood cell that makes antibodies. In the ME/CFS trials, the doctors have generally seen a 4-6 month lag in response time after the first dose is administered, which is about the length of time it would take for existing antibodies to be cleared from the body. Patients showed signs of relapse at about 1 year - approximately the amount of time it would take for the body to make more B-cells and re-grow antibodies. The researchers have found in the series of studies that giving multiple doses of rituximab over a long period of time helps to increase the number of people who respond and decrease relapse.

Is there a down side? Definitely. Killing off all your B-cells is not without risks, and there can be serious side effects, just as there are with immunotherapy in cancer treatments. Some people feel sicker during that initial period. I don't know about you, but I would be very willing to put up with worse symptoms for a few months if it meant a 67% chance of remission. Rituximab is currently a very expensive drug.

Also, although two-thirds of patients responding is an amazing number in any treatment study, that still leaves one-third that does not. You could potentially pay a lot of money and suffer through that initial worsening, with no benefit...though the odds are in our favor so far. Future studies will try to figure out what separates the responders from the non-responders and what factors can help to predict who will benefit from rituximab.

I'm also not sure whether rituximab could be used in ME/CFS patients who have active infections, like my son who has Lyme disease plus two other tick infections. I would think that killing off all B-cells and clearing the body of antibodies wouldn't be a great idea with active infections present, but I'm no expert.

When will rituximab be widely available? So far, Norway has conducted all of the ME/CFS rituximab studies to date. UK advocates at Invest in ME have raised $600,000 for their own rituximab study of 30-40 people.

Rituximab is already FDA approved in the U.S., for lymphoma patients and also RA. It is sometimes used in the U.S. off-label (i.e. for purposes other than its official approval) for other autoimmune conditions, like MS, lupus, and others. I have no idea whether any ME/CFS specialist are yet prescribing it for patients here or whether they are waiting for the results from the largest Norwegian study. As for the cost, if it is eventually FDA-approved specifically for ME/CFS, then it should be covered by most health insurance; used off-label, as it could be now, insurance coverage will vary based on the insurer and the specific policy.

So, those are the basic facts - and exciting facts they are! Besides the links above to the two early Norwegian studies, you can read:

I plan to ask my ME/CFS doctor about rituximab on my next visit. I am interested to know whether she or any of her colleagues are using it yet here in the U.S. or whether there is any information yet to predict who will respond to it.

Do you know of any patients on rituximab or any doctors using it for ME/CFS yet?

What do you think of this exciting new possibility?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

TV Tuesday: The Catch

My husband and I decided to try the new ABC drama/thriller The Catch, and after three episodes so far, we are enjoying this fun, fast-paced game of cat and mouse very much.

Alice, played by Marielle Enos, runs a thriving private detective agency with her partner and best friend, Valerie, played by Rose Rollins. They are very good at what they do, as seen in the first episode when they foil a talented art thief. Alice is happily engaged to Christopher, played by Peter Kraus of Parenthood fame. They are planning their wedding, and their passion and love for each other is obvious.

Until...we see that Christopher is a con man, and Alice is his latest con. Christopher's real girlfriend, Margot, played by Sonya Walger who played Penny on Lost, tells him it's time to end the con and disappear. Alice has just given Christopher $1.4 million as her half of the down payment on their house, and the next morning she discovers that he is gone without a trace - his apartment empty, his supposed place of work empty, and he - and her money - gone.

Alice is, of course, heart-broken, and also determined to find him. The viewers, though, know something that Alice doesn't: "Christopher" has broken the #1 con-man rule and actually fallen in love with Alice for real. Leaving her and moving onto the next con isn't as easy for him as it should be.

So far, three episodes in, there seems to be a pattern to the show. In each episode, Alice and Valerie take on a new client and solve a new case. Meanwhile, "Christopher" takes on a new identity and he and his two partners (Margot and Reggie, played by Alimi Ballard from Numb3rs) move forward on their new con. Alice's friends want her to forget Christopher and move on...but she is secretly trying to find him. Add in FBI agent (ex-Interpol) Jules Dao, played by Jacky Ido, who has been tracking "Christopher" for years.

I have seen some criticisms that elements of the show are unrealistic. I think those people are entirely missing the point of this show - it's fun, pure and simple! Besides, the fact that a PI who catches con men got conned herself is the whole ironic point. The lead actors are all excellent in their roles (and easy on the eyes!). Peter Kraus as "Christopher" just oozes charm and sexiness...though it is weird to see him in the role of a bad guy after watching him for so many years as dedicated father and husband Adam Braverman!

This is a typical Shonda Rimes show (her other successes include Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away with Murder). The combination of mystery, romance, and cat-and-mouse chase is lots and lots of fun. We are enjoying the ride for now and interested to see where it goes.

The Catch is shown on ABC Thursdays at 10pm (though we never watch anything when it actually airs!), and the first three episodes are all available for free On Demand or at the ABC website. They are also available for $1.99 each at Amazon.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Book Review: How To Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness

Have you heard of Toni Bernhard? She's an important member of our ME/CFS community, a kind, compassionate person with a background in Buddhism. Last fall, Toni published her third book, How To Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness, which I just reviewed on my book blog.

I have read and reviewed two previous books by Toni Bernhard, who has become a good friend of mine over our 14 years of illness together (we got sick at about the same time): How To Be Sick and How To Wake Up. The first book was about applying the principles of Buddhism to a life of chronic illness, and the second was a more general book – for anyone, not just those chronically ill – about applying Buddhism principles for a happier, more peaceful life. In her third book, How To Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide, Toni once again focuses on those living with chronic illness and pain, with a more general guide, based on her own life and experiences and the wonderful columns, “Turning Straw Into Gold,” that she has written for Psychology Today.

I highly recommend all three books - I've found them all helpful in improving my life. Like me, Toni has a strong focus on finding joy in every day and living life to the fullest (in her own way), even with the extreme restrictions she lives with. I think this third book is my favorite, packed full of personal experience & helpful advice on living with chronic illness. Check out my full review and see for yourself.

Thanks for another outstanding book that will greatly help your fellow patients, Toni!

Research Working Toward ME/CFS Diagnostic Test

© | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Last month, Griffith University in Australia created a stir in the ME/CFS community with this headline, "Screening Test for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome on its Way" (you can read the article at the link).

While that headline was perhaps a bit premature, the news is still good. Griffith says that it "has identified new markers that can be used to screen patients and is now looking to partner with diagnostic companies to bring a test to market." The article doesn't go into detail on exactly what those markers are.

Digging deeper, this page lists several relevant studies on biomarkers for ME/CFS that have been researched, with papers published, by Griffith's National Centre for Neuroimmunology and Emerging Diseases. These studies have looked at a wide variety of biomarkers in ME/CFS over the past four years - some impressive work that I didn't even know was going on!

The university says they are looking for a commercial partner to help bring a diagnostic test to the market...so maybe it isn't very far down the road. A diagnostic test for ME/CFS would be a game-changer for the patient community, with the CDC estimating that roughly 85% of those with ME/CFS in the U.S. are currently undiagnosed. Faster, more accurate diagnosis would lead to more timely treatments that could perhaps help more in the early stages of the illness.

Good news...and hopefully, a brighter future ahead for ME/CFS patients!

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Balancing Hope and Acceptance

This is a reprint of my article published on ProHealth last month. How do you balance hope and acceptance in your life?

Balancing Hope and Acceptance

June 4, 2003
When will I stop thinking of my pre-illness life as “normal”? I guess that would be the sign of true acceptance. But I’m not sure I want to be that accepting!  I don’t want to forget “the old me” (what I still think of as the real me). 

It’s a constant internal struggle. If I truly accept this illness as part of me, does that mean I give up all hope of recovery? Yet, if I refuse to accept my new limitations, then I am sentencing myself to continue relapsing.

I wrote that entry in my journal a little over a year after becoming ill with ME/CFS, shortly after being diagnosed. I was struggling to accept this “new normal” and to come to terms with the possibility of never recovering. Now, 14 years into living with chronic illness, I am happy in my post-illness life, though balancing acceptance and hope is still an ongoing goal.

As I wrote in that journal entry, there seems to be a dichotomy between the two. Does accepting your current situation mean you are giving up hope of ever getting better? Does continuing to strive to improve your condition mean you will keep relapsing? It’s difficult at first, but acceptance and hope can co-exist peacefully. Here’s how:

Let go of the past.
A big part of acceptance for me was giving up my ideas of who I was based on what I could do. I had always seen myself as a strong, fit, independent person, so living with physical limitations was difficult. I had also enjoyed a satisfying professional career in engineering and identified myself as a leader. Although I had voluntarily left my career before becoming sick in order to spend more time with my family, I always intended to return to it after a couple of years. I missed my professional life and that sense of being capable and self-sufficient. It took me some time (and professional counseling) to let go of that identity and recognize I was still OK without it.

I also struggled with my identity as a mother. I used to spend a lot of active time with my family – hiking, playing soccer with the kids, and taking care of the house with my toddler son by my side, cleaning, playing, and running errands together. Those first few years after becoming sick, I felt horribly guilty that I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be. I finally realized, though, that it didn’t matter to my kids – they loved me just as much reading with them, watching videos together, or playing quiet games. They loved me because I was their mother and I gave them love, not because of what I could or could not do.

Remember, you are not defined by what you do. You are still the same person inside, even if you are no longer working or involved in other things that used to be linked to your identity. Allow yourself to mourn those lost identities or opportunities, to see the essence of yourself without them, and then move on.

Live for today & focus on the positive.
Gradually, I began to create a new life for myself. When my youngest started school, I resumed what I had started after leaving my job – freelance writing. I don’t make much money and my energy/time is limited, but it’s work that I love, and I can contribute a small amount to our finances. Most importantly, it’s work I can do on my laptop from the couch!

I focused on things that I love that I could still do with chronic illness, like reading, blogging about books, being outdoors, and watching TV and movies with my family. I started a Joy Journal to help myself focus on the good things in my life.

You can do the same. Focus on things that give you pleasure that fit within your new life, perhaps even finding a new interest, like knitting or reading classics. Teach yourself to recognize small joys in your life and to feel grateful for what you have. Start a journal to record daily joys or gratitude or share them on social media (use #GratefulToday). Connect with other people online or in real life with a similar positive focus.

Don’t fight against your body.
In the early days, my condition was very up and down which made acceptance harder. Some days I felt good and returned to normal activities, only to feel horribly sick again and unable to get off the couch for days or weeks. Just learning about post-exertional malaise (aka exercise intolerance) helped. I began to record my activity level each day, making note of what caused a “crash” and what I could tolerate.  As I learned what my limits were, I had fewer bad days and more OK days.

Try to live within your limits as much as you can. Keep simple records of how you feel and your activity level each day to figure out what makes you worse and what you can tolerate. Listen to your body and rest as much as you need to.

Feed hope.
The other side of the coin, hope, came more easily to me since I am naturally an optimistic person. I did go through some dark years of despair in the beginning, though, especially after both of our sons also got ME/CFS. I saw a wonderful psychologist who specialized in chronic illness; she helped me tremendously with both acceptance and hope. And I read a life-changing book called The Anatomy of Hope by Dr. Jerome Groopman that I recommend to anyone living with chronic illness. It defines what real hope is and helps you understand how to hold onto it, even in the face of frightening odds.

I put my scientific background to use and read all the research on ME/CFS that I could find. Research has come a long way since the early days of my illness, and every new study that comes out – focusing on physiological aspects of immune dysfunction, infections, genetics, and more – gives me hope that we are getting closer to some real answers for patients.

I also searched relentlessly for treatments to help my sons and I, often based on those research studies. We have discovered that although nothing helps a lot, there are a lot of treatments that each help a little…and those add up to considerable improvement over time. Each improvement, no matter how small, further feeds that sense of hope.

You can feed hope, too. Read research summaries, visit blogs and websites like this one to stay up-to-date on the latest news, and look at each new piece of information about your illness as another step closer to a cure or at least effective treatments. Keep trying new treatments (which often requires some trial and error and a lot of patience!). Just better understanding your illness can lead to improvements in your quality of life.

Accepting – even loving – your life as it is today isn’t giving up. It’s making the best of today, while holding onto hope of an even better future.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

TV Tuesday: NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans

My family was late discovering the NCIS shows. We saw a couple of the originals when visiting my dad and his wife and liked them. Soon, NCIS became the go-to comfort show for my son and I on sick days for its combination of intriguing mysteries, great cast and characters, and most of all, its wonderful sense of humor. Last year, when they introduced a new version of NCIS set in New Orleans, we were sold - same basic formula only set in our favorite city (my husband and I used to live there - it's where we met - and we've taken our sons to visit several times).

There are now 13 seasons of the original NCIS show (wow!), with a 14th planned (and IMDB shows a 15th, too!). My son and I have watched the first three seasons (he prefers to watch shows in order, from the beginning) and are in the middle of the fourth now, first on DVD's from the library and more recently on Netflix. Even though he is managing his chronic illness pretty well and in college now, when he comes home sick, that's what he wants to watch with me!

So, just in case we were not the last ones on the planet to discover this wonderful show, here's a quick recap. Mark Harmon plays Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, an ex-Marine, of NCIS, Naval Criminal Investigative Services, located in DC. He is in charge of the Major Case Response Team, a group of agents who investigate serious crimes that involve personnel from the Navy or Marines (or their families). I suspect that no one even knew this branch of law enforcement existed before the show made NCIS famous! Gibbs is tough but kind underneath his gruff exterior and totally devoted to his job (and his team, too...though he does have a tendency to slap them in the head!).

Gibbs is assisted in his investigations by a team of agents and support personnel. Michael Weatherly plays Senior Field Agent Tony DiNozzo (though Weatherly has just announced he will be leaving at the end of season 13). DiNozzo is a former Baltimore Homicide Detective (non-military) who is constantly joking, flirting, and quoting movies. Some of the other Agents have come and gone on the show, though Tim McGee, played by Sean Murray, and Ziva David, played by Cote de Pablo, have both been been regulars on the show for many seasons now. McGee is a geeky computer expert who Tony loves to tease, while Ziva is an attractive former Mossad officer from Israel who speaks many languages and is highly trained in combat.

Backing up the field team is Abby Sciuto, the adorable, brilliant Goth Forensics Scientist who works miracles in the lab while slurping down Big Gulps, played (and adored by fans) by Pauley Perrette. Dr. Donald Mallard, nicknamed Ducky, is the resident Medical Examiner and an old friend of Gibbs and is played by David McCallum. Other characters have moved in and out of the group, but those are the main players.

In typical crime show fashion, the team solves a new crime each episode (with occasional two-parters or returning storylines). As with the most successful crime shows, much of its success is due to the actors and the characters they play, and the continuing stories of the main characters' outside lives are an integral part of the show and are just as important as the crimes they solve. One of the things my son and I like best about NCIS is the humor that is woven into every episode, even when (especially when) they are investigating a serious or gruesome crime. Like I said, it's comfort TV.

We have also watched some of NCIS: LA which follows the same formula but with its own unique and talented cast and set in Los Angeles and with more of a cyber focus. We enjoyed some episodes of the LA version but have never gotten as totally hooked on it as with the original.

I couldn't find a clip of NCIS Season 1 (too long ago!), but here is an amusing clip focusing on Gibbs and the other characters and showing the humor of the show:

Last year, CBS unveiled a new version, NCIS: New Orleans. We were sold immediately since we love the Crescent City so much, and we have now followed along with seasons one and two. This show follows the same basic formula as the original, solving crimes involving the Navy or Marines, with interesting characters, and that trademark sense of humor. On this show, Scott Bakula plays the man in charge, Senior Special Agent Dwayne Pride. I've always liked Bakula, and he's very good in this role. Backing him up are agents Christopher LaSalle, played with a thick (and authentic) Alabama accent by Lucas Black, and Meredith Brody, played by Zoe McLellan. CCH Pounder plays ME Loretta Wade, and much of this show's humor comes (as with the original) from the Forensics Scientist, in this case Sebastion Lund, a super geek prone to going off on tangents, played by Rob Kerkovich. And we love when there is a cross-over show and our favorite characters from the original NCIS appear on one of the spin-offs.

As for the setting in New Orleans, it is mostly pretty accurate, though with a few glaring exceptions. You could never fit a facility as large as the NCIS headquarters into a building in the French Quarter, as it is depicted here. The show does make frequent use of the French Quarter's popularity (and notoriety), though it also depicts other areas of the city. I have heard some people complain about the accents, but I don't think they're that bad (I learned when I lived there that natives have no idea how thick their own accents can be!) and not all characters are originally from New Orleans, so there are a range of accents depicted on the show. We do love to catch glimpses of our favorites places in NOLA or hear mention of one of our favorite restaurants.

Here's a trailer for NCIS: New Orleans

All seasons of the original NCIS show are available on Netflix, with DVDs available on Netflix for NCIS: LA and NCIS: New Orleans. All three shows are available on Amazon Prime for $1.99 an episode, $19.99 a season, or on DVD (often cheaper). And all three shows are currently being shown on cable, with recent episodes available On Demand.

Have you watched any of the NCIS shows? Which are your favorite(s)?


Friday, April 01, 2016

Spring Break Week - Busy, Busy!

I realize I haven't been posting here much lately, but things have been too busy with family around to leave much time for blogging (or much of any writing, for that matter). I've had to focus my limited writing time on paid work.

Last week was Easter, and we traveled to Rochester, NY, to visit my family (some of them, anyway). It was a short trip, bookended by two long drives! We had a good weekend, though, and I managed quite well. We stayed at a hotel this time because my father's wife (where we usually stay) is in the middle of selling her house. We managed to squeeze in most of a day with her, dinner with my aunt and uncle (who we missed on the last trip), breakfast with a friend I have known since first grade (!), and a lovely Easter celebration on Sunday featuring our traditional Ukrainian foods and a small group of family. So, that was a short week at home and a very busy few days away!

This week has been spring break for both of my sons, but they have outgrown the week-long trips with mom and dad (unfortunately). Monday was super-busy, getting our college son back to his campus apartment (after refilling all our meds for the week - a 90-minute job!) and getting our younger son and his friends set up with our camper at a local state park for a few days. We booked the campsite for the week, and he and his friends enjoyed the first half. Today, my husband and I will head down there to spend our couple of days at the park. I do miss the days of all of us vacationing together, but I appreciated spending Easter weekend together and am looking forward to a quiet weekend with my husband. I think we need to install a revolving door here at the house!

Whew. Like, I said - busy, busy! Since rain was forecast for today, I'm trying to finish up some work this morning, and we will leave after my nap this afternoon.

Back home on Sunday, and back to a more normal schedule, with everyone at school and work, and five whole QUIET days to myself next week! So, I hope to resume a more normal blogging schedule, too. Enjoy the weekend.