Best of 2015

This year was easily the best in my so-far short career. In 2015, I covered murder plots, weight loss, racism, sexism, bees and much, much  more. Here are the stories I wrote this year that I’m most proud of:

Defeating obesity: This was likely my first story of 2015. I spoke with people who had or were considering gastric bypass surgery after MetroWest Medical Center expanded its bariatric surgery program due to growing need. This quickly transformed from a story about weight loss to one about personal loss. These patients grappled with the loss of a former self, of identity, and, often, of family and friends.

Struggling in suburbia: Poverty is sometimes obvious in the city. You see people begging on street corners, and lines outside the shelters. In the affluent towns in MetroWest Boston, though, poverty is very quiet, and sometimes sneaky. This poses a few challenges. People are less likely to donate to local charities in affluent towns because they don’t see the need. In the same vein, poor families struggle to find help in suburban towns because shelters and pantries are not as obvious as in the city. This is the story of one woman, but she tells the story of many.

Hudson native allegedly murdered abroad: Thanks to incessant Facebook trolling, I broke this story about a former Hudson, MA resident who was killed while working as a government contractor in Saudi Arabia. Chris Cramer’s death was originally called a suicide, but was later revealed to be something potentially more insidious.

Teacher remembered after suicide: Marc Levasseur, a teacher at Framingham’s Reed Academy, committed suicide in September. His family, shocked and grieving, remembered his dedication to his work and his love for his family. This was a hard story to write.

Shortage stretches foster families thin: After Ava Conway-Coxon died in foster care, the Department of Children and Families came under fire yet again. In this article, I took a look at the foster system, finding a shortage in families willing to take in children. The existing foster families are, in turn, asked to take on more children than they maybe should. Conway-Coxon’s foster mother had waivers in place to allow her to take care of more than the allowable number of young foster children.

Women absent from executive boards: Sen. Karen Spilka passed a resolution to get more women on corporate boards after finding dismal numbers on inclusion in the state’s largest firms. Here’s a look at why women are largely left out when it comes to corner offices.

Confederate flag sparks controversy: A Confederate flag sticker caused uproar on Framingham State’s campus in November, leading to larger discussions on race. I wrote a longer article about race on campus, but this one encapsulates the tension in Framingham.

I wrote countless more, and many that I’m definitely forgetting, but these are the ones I’d recommend if you missed them (or even if you didn’t!). Here’s to many more in 2016.

Bee deaths concerning, mysterious

This story was published in the MetroWest Daily News on May 30
http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/article/20150530/NEWS/150539670/?Start=1

Depending on who you ask, the honey bees are in various states of decline. Some say the bees are doing all right, but others say they’re dying quickly. Some local beekeepers saw total loss this winter, others made it through all right and their hives are looking strong. One thing everyone agrees on is honey bee health is somewhat of a mystery.

"Abeilles 01" by 0x010C - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abeilles_01.jpg#/media/File:Abeilles_01.jpg

“Abeilles 01” by 0x010C – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abeilles_01.jpg#/media/File:Abeilles_01.jpg

On May 19, President Barack Obama announced the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, a plan to study bee health and restore 7 million acres of pollinator habitat by planting wildflowers and other bee-friendly plants on federal land at an $82 million price tag. Though local beekeepers are dubious about the plan’s specifics, they hope the new federal focus on bees will help demystify the pollinators. Continue reading

Gastric bypass is a way of life

Published in the MetroWest Daily News on Jan. 3, 2015
http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/article/20150103/NEWS/150109033/?Start=1

Kimberly Choquette sometimes forgets she doesn’t weigh 400 pounds anymore. She catches herself shopping in the plus-size department, leaving the sales lady to redirect her to smaller sizes. When she had gastric bypass surgery five years ago, Choquette said she never imagined she’d weigh less than 200 pounds, but now she does and she said she will forever.

Choquette, 47, of Franklin, is one of what MetroWest Medical Center said is an increasing number of weight-loss surgery patients, according to MetroWest Medical Center. CEO Barbara Doyle said the medical center, with campuses in Framingham and Natick, will expand its bariatric surgery department this year to meet the steady demand from patients who have tried diet, exercise and countless New Year’s resolutions to no avail. Continue reading

Struggling in Suburbia: A quiet poverty in the MetroWest

Published in the MetroWest Daily News on March 7, 2015

http://www.metrowestdailynews.com/article/20150307/news/150306940/?Start=1

FRAMINGHAM – Marilyn sits at her kitchen table inside her unassuming home in a Framingham neighborhood. The bags stuffed with coupons on the counter, and the ringing phone hooked on the brightly colored wall give away nothing. Photos hanging on her living room walls show smiling children at various ages. Everything looks normal.

But Marilyn sits at the table crying, because, to her, life is anything but normal. She is poor, but it hasn’t always been that way.

After her husband died a few years ago, Marilyn said her life changed dramatically. Money stopped flowing and bills became harder and harder to pay. Between raising two young children and taking care of aging relatives, Marilyn doesn’t have a job that pays, and her Social Security checks don’t cut it. Marilyn agreed to tell her story, as long as her real name and address were not published.

Like many in MetroWest, Marilyn is quietly poor. Her home is in good condition and her car isn’t beat up. Her clothes are clean and shoes are serviceable. While poverty in a city like Boston or Worcester is visible – people sleeping on the streets, food pantries clearly labeled – in the suburbs, area charity leaders say it is less pronounced, and often kept purposely quiet. Continue reading

Miley Cyrus goes topless for Cosmo

Ever since she cut her hair, Miley Cyrus has cut loose. The 20 year old appears semi-topless on the cover of Cosmopolitan’s March issue, with only an open white blazer and silver chain blocking her naughty bits.

The star has been in the process of shedding her Disney image for a while now, starting with the Salvia incident. Her Cosmo appearance is her latest stunt.  In the issue, Cyrus chats about her “hubby,” Liam Hemsworth, and drops the f-bomb multiple times.

“I’m gonna faint–the hottest guy of my life is in a steaming pool. This looks like a Playgirl shoot,” Cyrus said about her fiance. “I’ll literally look at him and be like ‘You are hot, dear god!’”

Cyrus continues to buck Disney in her description of her new album. Cyrus tells Cosmo, “I’ve never gotten to make a record like this because Disney’s always been on my back saying, ‘You’ve got to promote the TV show in two months, so make sure your record’s done … and when you promote your record, can you promote the show, the movie, and the ‘Hannah Montana’ record?’”

Cosmo compiled a Miley transformation, from the cloyingly sweet Hannah Montana days to the edgy present. It’s clear that Hannah Montanta is no longer, and Cyrus really can’t be tamed.
Published on BlastMagazine.com
1/29/13

Victoria’s Secret tries to FORCE out consent panties

Rape culture is getting attention in a big way these days, but it usually takes a tragedy to spark the discussion. Recent examples in the headlines include students calling out Amherst College administrators for mishandling their cases and the investigation into Boston University hockey “culture of sexual entitlement” after two players were accused of sexual assault. However, the Baltimore activist collective FORCE:Upsetting Rape Culture, took a step to end rape culture, sans an igniting incident.

FORCE launched a guerilla campaign against lingerie empire Victoria’s Secret not by defamation, but by integration. FORCE made a website, complete with the Victoria’s Secret banner, promoting an imitation line called “PINK Loves Consent,” made to look exactly like the actual PINK line of underwear. In a “Then and Now” page, the group comments on actual VS products with “Sure Thing” and “No Peeking” on the front, saying that no vagina is a “sure thing” and using “no” in a joking way takes away the power the word must hold.

“Across the country, women are saying ‘NO’ and not being heard. Maybe it is because people (men and women alike) think that words like ‘no’ are for flirting and don’t have much meaning,” the group writes on its convincingly VS-esque site.

FORCE’s faux-brand replaces these sayings with ones that promote consent before sex, like “No Means No” and “Ask First.”

The activist group effectively culture-jammed Victoria’s Secret. Customers tweeted excitedly about the new line, some thanking VS for realizing it is “part of the problem.” Even employees thought the brand was real.

The website features models of all shapes, sizes and colors (which should have been a very obvious tip-off that the website was not made by VS, even before they confirmed it) wearing the “PINK Loves Consent” line.

Victoria’s Secret didn’t react well to the imitation website. They asked FORCE to take the website down immediately, and it was — but not for long. FORCE writes on their website: “According to the law, you are allowed to use a corporation’s trademark to criticize, parody or otherwise talk about the corporation. What you are clearly not allowed to do, under the law, is to sell a similar product. Since pinklovesconsent.com does not sell anything, the site is not in violation.” The Love Consent site still exists at the time of publication.

Victoria’s Secret claim that FORCE’s prank was “confusing customers,” but FORCE fought back, saying that customers weren’t confused at all.

“The outpouring of support for Love Consent on facebook, twitter and tumblr wasn’t from ‘confused customers’. It was mostly from a lot of young women, like us, who know and are saying exactly what we want,” the guerilla group published on its website, Upsettingrapeculture.com. “If Victoria’s Secret does not get this message, perhaps they are the ones that are ‘confused’.”

FORCE got people nationwide to talk about Rape Culture, making this project a success. In fact, the hashtag “#LoveConsent” was suggested as a related term in Twitter searches during the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show — a telling sign of consumer support. Victoria’s Secret is missing out on a huge opportunity to not only give power to their main demographic, but to get the business of those who boycott their line for the exact reason that FORCE cites.

Published 12/12/12

http://blog.thephoenix.com/BLOGS/phlog/archive/2012/12/12/victoria-s-secret-tries-to-force-out-consent-panties.aspx

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” might actually be awesome

While everyone else is busy pretending they hated the season premiere of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and denouncing the future of America, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: I love Honey Boo Boo and everything she stands for. She and her Mountain Dew guzzling, cheese ball scarfing redneck family just happen to also be progressive, lovely people who teach their children that tummies are beautiful and it doesn’t matter how many chins you have as long as you’re happy.

Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson was first seen in all her belly-shaking glory on Toddlers and Tiaras. She strutted the stage in her midriff bearing cowgirl outfit with the toddler equivalent of a beer gut, practically screaming a big “fuck you” to all the tight-lipped, perfectly groomed pageant mothers and their creepy china doll daughters. (For the record, we’re still of the camp that believes all child pageants are, by nature, creepy and rather deplorable. Tummies aside). While the television audience watched in horror, Alana’s mother, June, “vajiggle-jaggled”  her double chins and made a face we all wish we hadn’t seen, encouraging her “Smoochie” to work it. From that moment, it was clear that this was not your typical pageant family in that they don’t give a single fuck what you think.

In the first episode of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” a show dedicated entirely to documenting the ridiculousness of the Thompson family, they proved their flippancy when they proudly weighed themselves on national television. One of the four daughters decides she wanted to lose weight (subsequently, her nickname is “Chubbs”) and asked her very large mother if she would join. The mother’s response was music to my ears. It was perfect. Like a choir of angels. She said, “I’m pretty happy with myself, but for support for you, I’ll do it.” And fatties everywhere rejoiced because finally someone on tv acknowledged that you can, in fact, be fat and happy.

This is why Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is way more than a trashy reality show about a pack of crazy rednecks. It’s rare that we see fat people on television, much less fat people who are happy with themseleves. Fat is a four letter word in our society and so often an insult used to describe something one would never want to be, or to decry a lesser version of humanity. In reality, fat is a descriptor. It describes overweight people, and nothing more. It does not mean “disgusting” or “bad.” It just means fat, and Honey Boo Boo’s family understands that.

Daughter Lauryn said, “My mama, from her feet to her head, is enormous. What? I mean there’s no other way to describe her.” It’s true. June is fat and happy and that’s cool. Alana exclaimed, “My mama weighs the most in our family because she’s fat.” Also true! And they all moved on and had fun with their fat mother because, as it turns out, fat people are human beings that love and have fun and have interests too. Just like skinny people.

It is truly refreshing to see fat people portrayed as real people on television. In a world of The Biggest Loser, More to Love, Dance Your Ass Off and Mike and Molly, which all focus on fatness as a personal shortcoming or a joke, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is (pardon the pun) like a thick milkshake on a hot day.

Granted there have only been two episodes, and there is still much room for error, but this season looks promising. Not only has the family proved to be incredibly body positive, but they’re progressive in other ways too. After losing a few pageants, Alana’s dad, Sugar Bear, brings her a glammed-up teacup pig to comfort her. Naturally. Alana decides that her new (male) pig is gay and will therefore dress in drag while accompanying her to pageants. When her sister cries that a pig can’t be gay, Alana so eloquently replies “It can if it want to. You can’t tell that pig what to do.” Preach it, girl. Granted, Alana’s definition of gay is slightly problematic (if a boy dresses as a girl he is gay– and vice versa), she is, after all, only 6. And this six-year-old is both aware — in  a vague sense– of homosexuality…and is totally chill about it.

Going forward, one of the largest problems I actually foresee is a probable swine flu outbreak in the family. Between Alana sleeping in her pet pig’s crib and her sister bobbing for raw pig feet at the redneck games, they seem to be at high risk. A porcine epidemic notwithstanding, it looks like there’s a lot of belly jiggling in our television future. I am so down with that. Get it, Honey Boo Boo Child!

-8/13/12

http://blog.thephoenix.com/BLOGS/phlog/archive/2012/08/13/i-m-just-going-to-go-ahead-and-say-it-tlc-s-here-comes-honey-boo-boo-might-actually-be-awesome.aspx