Director Mike White Unpacks The Impulse To Compare In 'Brad's Status'

In Brad’s Status, a father (Ben Stiller, right) takes his son (Austin Abrams) on a college tour and starts thinking about his own college friends, who are much more successful that he is.

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Jonathan Wenk/Amazon Studios

You know that feeling when you envy someone because they’re more successful, or you think they have a better life? That kind of jealousy can hit you in an almost physical way, even though you know better.

The new film Brad’s Status is all about that feeling. It stars Ben Stiller as Brad, a husband and father taking his son to visit colleges like Harvard and Tufts. The trip gets Brad thinking about his own college friends, who are much more successful that he is. Brad feels like a failure, and he’s jealous of his son’s options. Through a series of voiceovers in the film, he questions the choices he’s made in life.

Brad’s Status was written and directed by Mike White, who also created the HBO series Enlightened and wrote the films School of Rock, Nacho Libre and Beatriz at Dinner. White says his latest film was born of his own status anxiety — an anxiety that sometimes keeps him up at night.

“I find when I’m in that kind of frame of mind, it’s so embarrassing to talk about with other people. … There’s something just so not cool about it that I was like, Maybe there’s something to unpack here.”

Interview Highlights

On the universal nature of status anxiety

It’s funny because I gave the script to Ben Stiller, who is the star, and if anyone’s successful in our business as a contemporary of mine (he’s a few years older) it’s Ben Stiller. He’s had a huge Hollywood career, and he was like, “I so relate to this character.” …

Everybody has their different trip. A lot of people, they want to be impressive or they want to have a public persona or they want a voice in the public sphere, and I think those people tend to always want more. They get a dose of success and it’s like a drug and they need more of it or they need it better. It becomes a compulsive life behavior. …

Comparative anxiety. And he says it in the movie, but it’s definitely a waste of time and energy. … It’s a universal situation, but I also think that now more than ever with social media and the way you can access people’s lives through Googling each other or getting on Instagram, you’re just kind of more aware of, like, the curated lives of your contemporaries. And I think that creates a sense of anxiety or a sense of lack and feeling like “Is somebody’s vacation better than mine?” or “Is someone having a better life than mine?” And it is a high-end problem and absurd, but it is something that I think people contend with.

Mike White’s other writing credits include The Emoji Movie and several episodes of Freaks and Geeks and Dawson’s Creek.

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Jonathan Wenk/Amazon Studios

On how Brad envying his son reflects White’s own relationship with his father

I think that because my dad was enlightened in a certain sense — and the progression of where his parents were at, versus the kind of parent he was to me — he really allowed me to try to just become the person I wanted to be, as opposed to put a lot of things on me. So I haven’t struggled in the certain ways that he had to struggle.

And I think — I know he is happy and proud of his role as a parent. At the same time, I think sometimes I can see that because it was easier for me, because I didn’t have his parents, I do sense that there’s probably a part of him who maybe is jealous of that reality for me. Not like he doesn’t wish the best for me. I just see it: It was just easier for me because of him. …

It’s slightly emotional because I realized that the whole heart of the movie is just me telling my dad that I love him. I’m grateful for him and I see him as a success.

On his own decision not to have children

I think not having kids — you can direct some of the energy that people do direct toward their kids toward the public sphere or different kinds of things that I think really are positive for society. I think that there’s something great about not having kids. It’s not just a selfish thing to be like, “I don’t want to devote my life to caring for someone else.” I think there [are] other things you can do with that energy.

On premiering Beatriz at Dinner (about a Mexican-born masseuse stranded at a wealthy client’s house) just as Donald Trump became president

I was really grateful that I had written that movie, Beatriz at Dinner, because right at the inauguration is when we premiered it at Sundance. I think there’s a time where you really feel like you want to be, as an artist, speaking to something relevant that’s happening in the culture now. … I was glad that I wasn’t going and talking to the press about Nacho Libre at the moment where he was elected. I had this movie that really spoke to some of the issues that I think are facing the country. …

You want to feel like you’re part of the conversation. You feel sometimes, when your values are more vulnerable, it makes you want to dig deep and feel like, OK, there’s really a role for the artist now. Whether the other side will listen to it, I don’t know, but it feels like it’s worth trying to weigh in on these kinds of values for our country.

Lauren Krenzel and Heidi Saman produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

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Trump Wants To Overhaul Trade, And Pact With South Korea Is In His Sights

Samsung’s smart phones have become big sellers in the United States and elsewhere, and that’s helped lead to a stubborn trade gap with South Korea.

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Lee Jin-man/AP

President Trump won office promising to overturn the global trade system, which he assured voters was rigged against the United States.

And he was particularly unhappy with the five-year-old trade deal with South Korea. At the White House on June 30, he underscored that concern, saying, “The fact is that the United States has trade deficits with many, many countries and we cannot allow that to continue. And we’ll start with South Korea right now.”

That timetable may be slipping. Reuters says an unnamed senior administration official says plans for withdrawing from the deal may be set aside for a while as the White House deals with the growing tensions involving North Korea. The administration needs the assistance of South Korea to help resolve a crisis involving North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

How long such a delay might last is far from clear, given how many times Trump has said the agreement was a bad deal for Americans, who are buying more and more products from South Korea.

That country’s big companies, such as Hyundai, Samsung and Kia, sell many billions of dollars’ worth of products to the U.S. each year and their cars, smartphones, dishwashers and television sets are common sights in American homes.

U.S. companies long complained that the trade was one-sided, and it was difficult to sell in South Korea. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 2012, was supposed to address that, by removing the many tariffs and other barriers that restricted trade.

Instead, the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea — the difference between what Americans buy from and sell to Korea — has only widened since the agreement took effect.

“We were supposed to benefit from the deal. It didn’t work out that way. At the end of the day, U.S. exports to Korea have fallen since the agreement took effect,” says Rob Scott, senior economist and director of trade and manufacturing policy research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

Between 2012 and 2015, the trade deficit has more than doubled, to $28.3 billion, an increase Scott estimates has cost the U.S. some 90,000 jobs.

Why has that happened?

The past five years have seen steady growth in the U.S., and Americans have been buying a lot of cars and electronics, the very products that South Korean companies make a lot of.

“The main reason for America’s trade deficit, whether it’s with Mexico or Korea, is America’s insatiable appetite for imports,” said Sung Won Sohn, professor of economics at California State University, Channel Islands.

At the same time, the South Korean economy has been relatively lackluster and people in the country have been importing less, Sohn noted.

“Economic growth on both sides, in the United States and Korea, probably explains a lion’s share of what happened to the trade deficit between the two countries,” Sohn said.

While South Korean companies such as Hyundai and Kia increasingly manufacture products in the United States, they typically bring most of the parts they use to make them from home, which hasn’t done a lot to narrow the trade gap.

To be sure, some U.S. exporters have benefited from the Korea agreement, such as farmers.

“Four years ago, [South Koreans] didn’t import any soybean oil from the United States, and now it’s up to 180,000 metric tons of soybean oil. So it’s a huge increase in the opportunities for the soybean farmer,” said Ron Moore, a farmer from Illinois who also serves as president of the American Soybean Association.

Almost half of the soybeans consumed in South Korea are now grown by American farmers, Moore noted. Without foreign trade, prices for a lot of agricultural products would fall, he said.

Eliminating the Korea trade pact would also increase prices for the South Korean products Americans like to buy, such as Samsung phones, LG appliances and Hyundai cars, Sohn said.

Whether Trump will go that far remains to be seen. The president said over the weekend that he was ready to begin the process of withdrawing from the pact, which may have been a ploy to extract bargaining concessions from South Korea.

But then North Korea’s decision to test a powerful nuclear device over the weekend may have once again increased political and diplomatic tensions on the Korean peninsula. And that makes this an inopportune time to play hardball with America’s South Korean ally.

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Kelly Clarkson Returns With 'Love So Soft'

Kelly Clarkson has long been a force in pop music, from 2004’s “Breakaway” to her most recent smash, 2015’s “Heartbeat Song,” and now she’s poised to release hereighth album, Meaning of Life, on October 27, led by the sensual single she released today, “Love So Soft.”

You don’t get to the top of pop, and remain there for years, without adapting to the times. Clarkson and her songwriting team for Meaning — which includes past collaborators Jason Halbert, Jesse Shatkin, Greg Kurstin and new faces Mick Schultz, The Monarch and Nick Ruth know this well. “Love So Soft” makes familiar hallmarks of current pop Clarkson’s own, from the emphasis on percussion (Taylor’s new singles, anyone?) over melodies and a chorus that’s — in a surprising move for Clarkson — more chanted than belted. Of course, it’s still Clarkson’s pipes that pull “Love So Soft” out of ubiquitous-anonymous, grocery aisle territory; few others have her easy confidence and her vocal ability, flaunted to the full on the bridge and final chorus.

The video for“Love So Soft” teems with breathtaking looks and visuals, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given director Dave Meyers’ resume, which includes the recent marvels of Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” and “Loyalty” videos, as well as the video for Missy Elliott’s 2015 comeback single “WTF (Where They From).” There’s much spectacle to take in here, from a flowing yellow gown that transmutes into butterflies; a series of Clarkson clones, eyes obscured by hat brims in what feels like a nod to Beyonce’s “Formation” video; a bold zoom into Clarkson in the living room of an avant-garde, cliff-side abode.

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A Toilet Is The Star Of India's Hit Rom-Com

This selfie is in the toilet: Actor Akshay Kumar poses with the object of his bride’s affection in the new movie ‘Toilet: A Love Story.’


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Romance films don’t usually revolve around a toilet.

But that’s the angle in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha — or Toilet: A Love Story, a Bollywood film starring superstar Akshay Kumar. And the box office has been flush with success. Since its release on August 11, according to industry reports, the film has grossed $19.8 million at the box office worldwide, emerging as India’s top film so far this year.

The plot is pretty straightforward: A young woman from a village marries a man from another village and moves in with his family as is custom.


She’s horrified to learn that her husband’s family doesn’t have a toilet in their home.

The only way she can relieve herself is to join the women of the village, who rise at 4 a.m. every day in order to defecate in the fields while it’s still dark (for privacy). And then they wait until sunset to use the fields again.

While they laugh and joke along the way, she feels humiliated and wants the privacy of a toilet.

But the villagers aren’t on her side. Families in the village, including her in-laws, firmly believe that having a toilet in your home, where there’s a kitchen and a prayer room, is unclean.

After arguing with her husband and delivering an ultimatum — no toilet, no marriage — she decides she has no choice but to leave the man she loves on the very first day of their marriage.

But he sets out to woo her back. And that means changing his mind about the need for toilets. Not only that, he sets out to change the community’s toilet position as well.

This isn’t just a made-up story for the movies. In a case of life imitating art, a week after the film released, Indian courts granted a divorce to a young woman on the grounds that her husband hadn’t installed a toilet in their home, causing her much agony during their two-year marriage. In her complaint, filed in 2005, she said he had ignored her repeated requests for an indoor toilet.

Once the movie released, India’s Twitterati responded to the film with its usual hilarity and there were plenty of toilet jokes.

Many felt the movie furthered the government’s pro-toilet campaign. One reviewer called it actor “Akshay’s paean” to Prime Minister Modi and his efforts to install more toilets in India:

Toilet: Ek Prem Katha movie review-Akshay’s paean to Modi and the potty #toiletmoviereview

— ReviewDekha (@ReviewDekha) August 11, 2017

And Twinkle Khanna, Bollywood actor, an author and wife of leading man Akshay Khanna, tweeted:

So even the box office needed this Toilet eventually to break free from its constipation-#ToiletEkPremKath Hit Hit Hooray!

— Twinkle Khanna (@mrsfunnybones) August 14, 2017

Jokes aside, the movie lights up an issue that’s never discussed on the silver screen —the challenges of creating the infrastructure for toilets in rural India and then convincing people to use them.

According to the government, 47 million toilets have been built in rural village communities and public spaces across India ever since Modi launched the Clean India Mission (Swatchh Bharat Abhiyan) initiative in October 2014 — the anniversary of Gandhi’s birthday. As a part of this mission, the government has promised to construct more public toilets and has launched the ODF (Open Defecation Free) campaign, an initiative to keep public spaces clean and free of excreta. A new government-sponsored app called “Find A Toilet” urged people to help locate, rate and review public toilets for factors such as cleanliness and hygiene.

But the challenges are immense, say activists.

While India’s ambitious sanitation drive may have resulted in more toilets, there is no guarantee that people are actually using them, says Gaspard Appavou, a lawyer and social worker who handles human rights and environmental issues.

According to government records, 450 million Indians still defecate in the open. While many don’t have access to a toilet, others could afford a toilet but don’t want to change because of old prejudices and an ignorance of the health benefits.

The fact that the heroine of the film is pro-toilet reflects reality. Women are more receptive to setting up a toilet in their home than men are, says Appavou, who was a consultant for a UNICEF project that funded the installation of toilets in rural India. “Open defecation leaves women at higher risk to sexual violence. Using fields to defecate can expose them to snake and scorpion bite,” he says. Men tend to use open spaces that are closer to their homes and aren’t as worried about a lack of privacy.

This explains why the film has been a hit among rural women. It points up some of the problems that plague them — especially the male indifference to how vulnerable women feel when they lack a toilet.

Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International, which has set up 1.5 million eco-friendly community toilets in public spaces across 26 states in India, says the lack of toilets isn’t just about sanitation and hygiene but directly linked to the progress of women. “I loved the family dynamics in the film,” Pathak says. “The heroine makes it clear that she doesn’t want to run and hide when she needs to relieve herself, that her dignity is so important to her, above all else. She urges the other women in the film to consider issues such as privacy and personal safety. I think it’s a message that’s empowering. It has condensed five decades of my life’s work, taking it to those in need of change.”

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, the film’s director Shree Nayanan Singh suggests change on the issue is possible: “Films on social issues, till some time ago, were only limited to doing the rounds of film festivals, but the fact that we can now make a mainstream film about a taboo topic proves that [people are changing their views].”

Just got a new toilet built in home after influenced by

— Bose, D.K. (@covfefe_farrago) August 1, 2017

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, South India. Her work has appeared in The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t

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6.7 Miles From The 21st Century: Remembering The Historic Sperry Chalet

The Sperry Chalet was located in Glacier National Park in Montana. The historic building was engulfed in by a wildfire in the park.

Courtesy of Marc Silver

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Courtesy of Marc Silver

The Sprague Fire that’s burning in Glacier National Park reached the historic Sperry Chalet hotel building and “rapidly engulfed” it, according to the website for this historic building.

“We are saddened to inform you that Sperry Chalet has been lost,” the website now reads.

Sperry Chalet.

I hadn’t thought about it for years.

Back in 2000, my family spent the night, and all the memories – the miserable ones and the fantastic ones – came rushing back.

The only way to get to Sperry Chalet is by trail. And getting there is not half the fun. It’s a 6.7-mile hike — “strenuous and nearly entirely uphill,” the Park Service warns.

In a story I wrote about the trip for U.S. News & World Report, the adjective my children picked was “sucky.”

We set out at 8 a.m. – my wife and I and our two daughters, Maya, then 14, and Daniela, 11.

The historic Sperry Chalet building was engulfed in flames in Glacier National Park, Mont. last week.

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Hutton Incident Team/AP

We climbed for hours. Big flies bombarded our calves (and I had foolishly left our insect repellent behind to lighten our backpack load). Horse poop was scattered hither and yon (horses were the only way to get supplies up to the chalet and provided an easy option for visitors who don’t care for hiking). The trail was dusty, the trees were dense, and there were no views – just signs warning us to beware of bears and mountain lions.

Finally, we emerged into a clearing. The sun beat down on us. But there was no sign of our destination.

Daniela burst into tears. “There is no Sperry Chalet,” she declared.

I was beginning to think she was right.

And then …

“Then we saw it,” I wrote, “a rugged, two-story stone building with a peaked roof, high on a lonely bed of rock.”

Marc Silver’s wife and daughters are photographed in front of the Sperry Chalet.

Courtesy of Marc Silver

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Courtesy of Marc Silver

It seemed we had another four hours to go. But a mere hour and we came upon stone steps — the last leg of our epic journey. A mountain goat and her frolicking kid banished Daniela’s bad mood.

“At 6,500 feet above sea level, Sperry Chalet is a Shangri-La. Mountain bluebells and yellow lilies bloom all around. Silvery Lake McDonald sits far below,” I wrote back then. “The air is so clean and piney that my urban nostrils went into shock. The only sounds are the rushing of waterfalls and the buzzing of horseflies.”

“Who needs the Matterhorn?” a guest gushed. “This is the most beautiful place on Earth.”

The chalet was constructed by the Great Northern Railway and opened in 1914. It was part of an eight-chalet network for travelers who’d come to the park by train, then go from chalet to chalet by horseback. But the chalets fell out of favor as the automobile took over America. In 2000, when we visited, the only two chalets left were Sperry, with 17 rooms for guests and a meal plan, and Granite Park, a hiker’s shelter.

A mountain goat roams through a campsite near the Sperry Chalet.

Courtesy of Marc Silver

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Courtesy of Marc Silver

We stayed in the building that has fallen to the fire. Our room had stone walls, wood beams, no electricity and no running water. There was a state-of-the-art rustic bathroom just a short walk away: an outhouse with four lemon-scented composting toilets and two cold-water sinks.

But alas, no showers.

We had lemonade at the dining room when we arrived and I remember thinking it was the best lemonade I ever drank. Definitely homemade. (Later I saw the “Country Time” mix packets in the trash.)

We took a walk to a lovely pond, we had a family-style dinner in the dining room, and then retreated to our room. The kids played cards on the rickety beds. “We’d like a TV very much, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” Daniela offered.

My wife and I drank in the view.

As I wrote after our trip, “The stresses of the 21st century seemed 6.7 miles away, if not farther.”

When I heard the news of the fire, I felt as tearful as Daniela in her moment of woe on our endless hike. Her words echoed in my mind: “There is no Sperry Chalet.”

It turns out that memory is a funny thing. Even though I distinctly remember Daniela’s unhappiness on the hike, when I told Daniela about the chalet’s fate, she responded with a trio of sad emojis.

But I got my hopes up when I talked to Suzie Menke, an officer manager for the chalet. “There’s a groundswell of energy moving toward rebuilding,” she told me. I said that maybe someday I’ll put up with those nasty flies so I can find another day of bliss at Sperry Chalet.

She had some encouraging words for me: “We’re joking that the fire killed the flies.”

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18 Years After Turkey's Deadly Quake, Safety Concerns Grow About The Next Big One

Earthquake survivors look at a collapsed building in Istanbul in August 1999. The magnitude 7.4 quake killed 17,000 people across northwestern Turkey.

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Eyal Warshavsky/AP

It has been 18 years since a magnitude 7.4 earthquake hit northwest Turkey, killing some 17,000 people and leaving half a million homeless. A series of government initiatives were designed to make the next big quake less deadly. But experts are warning that some of those protections have been lost in a rush to develop urban green spaces into lucrative apartment buildings and shopping malls.

Before dawn on Aug. 17, 1999, one of the fault lines running beneath the Sea of Marmara began to slip and rumble. The Eurasian plate moved against the Anatolian block for less than a minute — but the quake and severe aftershocks devastated entire neighborhoods, including in Istanbul, where hundreds died.

As rescue crews searched for survivors — and then for bodies — anger mounted at the shoddy construction and lack of disaster readiness that critics said made the quake deadlier than it should have been.

The government, then led by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and a Democratic Left Party coalition, responded: Buildings were slated for strengthening; new construction standards were set. A key part of the plan was the designation of hundreds of urban green spaces as evacuation points, where people could escape collapsing buildings and other debris in the event of another large earthquake.

But nearly 20 years later, many of those evacuation zones have vanished.

One was adjacent to Istanbul’s Freedom Park, where I recently met opposition lawmaker Gursel Tekin. He spent a decade as Istanbul’s deputy mayor, including during the time of the 1999 earthquake. He says as memories of the quake faded and property values soared, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then the prime minister and now the president, began selling off evacuation areas to friendly developers.

Four high rises loom over an Istanbul park. The land they sit on was designated as an evacuation zone after the 1999 quake. But it was sold to developers.

Peter Kenyon/NPR

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Peter Kenyon/NPR

Tekin points to four giant concrete and glass towers looming over the park.

“This place you see in front of us was a public green space, and after the 1999 earthquake, it was designated as a public meeting area,” he says. “Unfortunately, now it is only a monstrous concrete mountain.”

Tekin says hundreds of evacuation zones have been sold.

Even top government officials have acknowledged — without holding anyone accountable — that development got out of hand. Tekin has been collecting audio clips from news broadcasts of officials — including Erdogan himself — talking about the loss of open areas.

“Istanbul is no ordinary city, it is an exceptional city,” Erdogan said at the opening of a mosque in Istanbul earlier this year. “But we did many wrongs to it. We made monstrous buildings and we did a great wrong to this beautiful city.”

Turkey’s environment minister Mehmet Ozhaseki has gone further, identifying corruption as a big part of the problem.

“Yes, there has been fraud and corruption and wrongdoing,” he told reporters within the past year. “Our cities developed very fast in the last 15 years, and corrupt illegal zoning decisions benefited developers and angered the public.”

Tekin notes that the Erdogan-led government is hardly the first to favor well-connected developers over the environment. He says the park we’re sitting in was nearly turned into a shopping mall 20 years ago, but loud public opposition stopped that project.

Still, the current government has allowed the development frenzy to get much worse than it was before, he says, and has undone many of the earthquake readiness improvements instituted after the 1999 quake.

“In 1999, the government acted swiftly after the disaster, creating earthquake meeting areas, launching a national earthquake council and dedicating tax revenues to earthquake readiness,” he says. “This was extraordinary work in one year. What did this [Erdogan] government do? Close the council, spend the tax money and give hundreds of public gathering zones to their developer friends.”

The government insists it is working to improve Turkey’s earthquake preparedness. But neither the deputy prime minister’s office, which is in charge of preparedness, nor Turkey’s official aid groups responded to several requests for comment for this story.

Meanwhile, an architect’s union says some 7 million buildings in Turkey are still unsafe, 2 million of them in Istanbul. And scientists say another large earthquake is likely in Turkey’s future. If it happens, people will need someplace safe to go.

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Going The Distance

In the half-century since Woodstock, the festival landscape has evolved beyond the one-size-fits-all lineup of bands to include luxury offerings as well as a recent explosion of options that cater to narrower niches.

Natalie Andrewson for NPR

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Natalie Andrewson for NPR

I first stumbled onto a music festival-sponsored 5K race by accident. On a humid June morning in 2013 at Manchester, Tenn.’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, I went out for a run, rounded a corner and came upon a group of festival goers safety-pinning paper race numbers to their clothes, very possibly hungover or sleep-deprived , but nonetheless motivated enough to rouse themselves from sleep and run 3.1 miles at 9 am, several hours before the day’s first performances were scheduled to start. Glad to have found company, I slipped into the herd just before someone shouted, “Go!”

This was the inaugural Roo Run, a ramble around dirt roads that bisect the festival grounds. As we cut through the campgrounds, sneakers kicking up dust, we drew bewildered looks from people yawning and rubbing their eyes in the Porta-Pottie lines. One guy poked his head out of his tent and groaned, “If you stop running, I’ll give you beer.” I didn’t see anyone take him up on the offer.

Here was a significant divide, between those craving exertion and those who preferred a more leisurely experience. The runners had seized the opportunity to push themselves physically at a festival that wasn’t really designed for that. Energized by the group’s impetuousness, I surged to the finish line, pausing to down a paper cup’s worth of water before I trotted away.

In the nearly half-century since Woodstock established a muddy, chaotically utopian prototype for rock and roll gatherings, the festival landscape has evolved in multiple directions. At this point, it’s taken for granted that industry behemoths like Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Governors Ball and Sasquatch will pack their lineups with so many varieties of nostalgia-stoking vintage superstars, current hitmakers, buzz acts and indie curiosities that there will be something for everyone, every year. That one-size-fits-all model places reliably low demands on festival goers, who can graze their ways across the musical menu, consuming whatever they wish. Flexible expectations translate to generalized satisfaction. But people with the means to shell out for VIP packages can expect to be able to insulate themselves from the inconveniences of being outdoors altogether. With luxuries like hot tubs, cabanas and air conditioning at their disposal, they can to avoid the crowds, beat the heat and party in considerable comfort.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the last couple of decades have seen an explosion in the number of festivals that cater to narrower niches, starting with Afropunk’s celebration of idiosyncratic black artistry, Warped Tour’s mall punk appeal, Stagecoach’s exclusively countrified lineup, Pickathon’s focus on environmental sustainability and countless others. Attending these more targeted events requires buying into their specialized programming. It can be muchmore of a commitment.

We’ve now reached the place where the festival landscape supports niches within niches.For people who want to feel like they’re as far from passive consumption as possible, there is an array of festivals that take active participation to extremes, their schedules packed not only with live music but strenuous outdoor activities like trail running, mountain biking, climbing, paddling, yoga and more. These festivals can feel less like they’re catering to crowd tastes than encouraging thewillful embrace of discomfort. To take part is to surrender any expectations of being pampered and, beyond that, to sacrifice a significant amount of relaxation in the name of a more intense, immersive experience, not unlike the one I had when I crammed an ultra trail marathon and a multi-day lineup of pickers and singer-songwriters into one weekend.

In this small, yet expanding sector of the industry, festivals seldom function as corporate moneymakers. They’re more often fundraisers — for land conservation, park maintenance, outdoor programs or some other typically green cause — put on with the help of likeminded partners, like the craft beer brewer Oskar Blues, which was founded in the late ’90s by avid mountain biker Dale Katechis and sponsors several events, in addition to operating the CAN’d Aid nonprofit and its own Burning Can festivals. Katechis told me on the phone, “We started our business kind of marketing our beer around music festivals and bike races. We’ve always been able to draw a parallel with people that enjoy craft beer, and specifically craft beer in a can, due to its portability.”

The other thing these festivals tend to have in common is an emphasis on music with earthy, hand-hewn qualities. Much like pop-punk and skateboarding are a match made in Warped Tour heaven, outdoorsy sports seem to pair well with the spectrum of roots-leaning music, be itnewgrass standard-setters, folk singer-songwriters, roots-rockers or acts associated with the indie Americana, jam band or world music scenes.

I’ve been to my share of roots music festivals, and I’ve also spent entire days running in the woods, scaling mountain ridges, plunging into hollows, wading through rocky creeks. But I’d never seriously considered combining the two experiences, each all-consuming on their own, until I decided to head to the Steep Canyon 50K Ultramarathon & Relay Hullabaloo in September of 2016.

I’d heard about it from co-founder, Charles Humphrey III, an indefatigable evangelist for long distance trail running who also plays upright bass for the Steep Canyon Rangers, one of the all-around sharpest units in contemporary bluegrass. The band anchors an annual Brevard, N.C. festival called Mountain Song, and in 2015 Humphrey decided to launch a Thursday trail run and mini-music fest, the Hullabaloo, as a kickoff to the weekend.

During one of Humphrey’s visits to Nashville, we went for an early morning run on the greenway. A mile or so in, I put my iPhone in record mode and quizzed him about what I should expect from the second iteration of his event. “I think it’ll be fun for the music goers to see what an ultra marathon looks like,” he enthused. “Just people out there suffering with tears of joy. It’s really impressive. To have those people finish and be able to hang out and talk about their experience as trail runners while enjoying great music and to be able to camp and stuff, I think it’s a nice mesh of two worlds.”

The paradox in what he was saying wasn’t lost on me. Though his attitude toward the proceedings seemed supremely laid back, he was voicing great faith in participants’ drive and self-discipline. “The music goes from one to 11, so every time they come through on a loop, they’ll be able to hear the music and be around all the people and it’s kind of uplifting,” he went on. “It’s a little bit of a lure to come in and stop running and join the party, but I think most of our runners will be focused.”

Natalie Andrewson for NPR

I picked up a similarly irrepressible idealism from organizers of other festivals. The proggy, thrillingly virtuosic bluegrass band Infamous Stringdusters started its own activity-packed event, The Festy Experience, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains eight years ago and, due to its continued growth, recently expanded to a second location. Stringdusters bassist Travis Book shared with me his theory about why the model’s worked: “There’s a whole bunch of us out there that like to really bite off more than we can chew, you know? That’s the great thing about having a big party in the evening after you’ve gone out and run too far, ridden too far, spent a little too much time out there — it gives you the opportunity to kinda take it all the way. …The buzz is actually better when you’re already totally exhausted.”

Some organizers have treated live music as a way to hook casual festival goers into trying physically demanding activities. Last year at the inaugural Bob Marshall Music Fest, nestled in a remote Rocky Mountain valley northeast of Missoula, Mont., the few ultramarathoners on hand had signed up for their race ahead of time, but festival planner Chris Stout recruited unsuspecting yet game attendees for shorter 2k, 5k and 10k distances. “Those were more like people [who] showed up, thought they were coming to a music festival on Thursday night, and then they find out Saturday there’s this little community fun run thing going on,” he observed. “So people lined up for that that didn’t even plan on it.”

At Tuck Fest 2016, held at the U.S. National Whitewater Center outside of Charlotte, N.C., there was, by design, no charge to see the shows by Dawes, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Langhorne Slim or any of the other acts on the bill. The hope was that the music fans might want to get in on some of the other action happening on the premises; for a small, flat fee, attendees could register to participate in as many climbing, biking, running, swimming and paddling competitions as their hearts’ desired. The festival’s marketing director Jesse Hyde explained, “People have different levels of comfort and different levels of interest about how they wanna engage those outdoor activities — and when I say outdoor activities, that can mean listening to music; it can mean sampling craft beer; it can mean running a half-marathon trail race. We’ve found that ultimately [the concerts] serve as bread crumbs, meaning that coming out to see a band may expose you to the fact that there is a trail race going on; there’s a triathlon; there’s an open water swim. … And hopefully [that] will in turn inspire them to get out there and do it themselves.”

But as my Bonnaroo experience taught me, those gaps don’t always seem bridgeable. At 2016’s Rockyfest, a gathering held at a former rock quarry in western North Carolina, organizer Chad Ritchie watched trail runners complete their races and leave before other folks arrived to watch the string bands. “It’s kinda two different crowds,” he said. “The people who like to come and play music are not really into trail running maybe, and maybe the ones that run don’t really play music.” The sole participant in both parts of the festival was teenaged, mandolin-playing, cross country standout Luke Morris, who won the 5K, then iced his ankle until his band Shadowgrass was scheduled to perform. “I actually rolled my ankle in the last mile of the race,” Morris told me. “So I was kinda hobbling on stage, but it was a lot of fun.”

Getting banged up is always a possibility when you’re barreling through the woodsa far greater possibility than when you’re simply watching the action. Aninjury can profoundly alter your experience of a festival, but that can also be part of the adventure. Travis Book clearly relished telling me the tale of “the year we stirred up a hornets’ nest” at the Festy. “I was doing the maintenance on the trails and setting it up,” he recalled, “but had never had enough people on this particular section of trail to stir up the hornets. When we had a wave of 150 runners coming through, they stirred up the hornet’s nest and everybody got stung. One woman had to be given shots and taken to the hospital. She was fine, but it added this real drama to the event.”


I wasn’t particularly worried about unseen dangers the morning of the Hullabaloo, held the day before Mountain Song. I arrived at REEB Ranch, a farm transformed by Oskar Blues into a mountain biking hub, sporting a neon orange trucker hat that I’d had airbrushed with the words “NPR Race Team” and surveyed the steep slopes of the Dupont Forest rising into the distance. Parts of the scene were familiar to me from other trail races — the registration table staffed by volunteers, the booths showcasing runner-aimed merchandise like specialty, sweat-absorbing socks and organic energy bars. But there were unusual touches, like the small stage set up in the barn for regional ‘grassy, folk-rock, boogie-woogie and reggae bands to play that afternoon, and the fact that Peter Ripmaster, who shares race director responsibilities with Humphrey, was walking around greeting people with golf clubs cradled in his arms. I stopped him to ask why he was toting gear from a different sport. “I run some races up north, in Alaska and stuff, where they actually bring out a shotgun and they’ll shotgun start,” he explained. “I wasn’t gonna do that, because we’d scare everybody around here, but I needed to do something that was unique.” He went with a more playful option; for the second year in a row, he’d send off the runners by whacking a golf ball into the field. “We’re not catered to the elite athletes at this race,” he took care to point out. “They’re not treated special in any regard. They’re welcome, like anybody else. But we care just as much about the person that it’s their first ultra or they never thought they’d be able to do it. …Once people understand that about us, then it’s more fun and everyone’s on a level playing field and it’s just a festival atmosphere after the race.”

It quickly became clear to me that of the couple hundred runners signed up to race, the majority milling about had chosen the relay version, meaning that they and two teammates would each tackle a single loop of 11-plus mountainous miles, as opposed to slogging around the course the full three times like my running buddy Donica Elliot and I had signed up to do. That gave me an inkling that we long-haulers were eventually going to get a little lonely out there.

I introduced myself to a runner named Kara Castle, who volunteered that this would be her very first trail race. Her teammate, Semia Beck, was there thanks to a last-minute Facebook invitation. “Typically this is the kind of scene I love — good music, good vibes, good times,” Beck offered. She planned to stick around and enjoy the festivities until it was time to pick her kid up from a martial arts class late that afternoon. Another runner, Leigh Hilliard, said that she’d set up a booth promoting nutritional supplements at last year’s race, only to be drafted at the eleventh hour to join a team that was one runner short. She and many others there were avid Steep Canyon fans. “Even if I wasn’t a runner,” she insisted, “I would still want to come out here for the music and even camp, just for the atmosphere.”

The race wasn’t scheduled to start until 10 a.m., which I recognized as an uncharacteristically late time for such hot weather. By the time we convened at the starting line, the morning’s cool fog had burned off. Within a couple of hours, the temperature would reach the mid-’90s. When Ripmaster swung his club, we tore off through the grass, crossed a creek on a makeshift bridge and began clawing our way up an ascent full of switchbacks, roots and loose rocks. The climbs were plentiful and long, but I ran hard, probably too hard, caught up in the collective enthusiasm and trying to knock out my first loop as quickly as possible. Several miles in, we came hurtling out of the woods onto a country road that wound around horse pastures and up a gradual incline. Someone in a Rastafarian banana costume stood on the road shoulder, cheering us on, and I whooped back at them in appreciation. Then we disappeared back into the trees and followed the trails for several more miles.

When I made my return trip down the road, the banana impersonator was gone and, due to the relay’s staggered start times, a fresh crop of runners passed in the opposite direction, looking energetic. I ran with my arm outstretched, high-fiving several of the new arrivals. It was only when I reached the near-vertical obstacle dubbed “Curse Word Hill ” that I slowed to a walk. In the home stretch, the trail repeatedly doubled back on itself. I passed a cave in which some pranksters, presumably Humphrey and Ripmaster, had positioned a fake human skeleton in athletic clothes. Long before the farm returned to view, I could hear the festivities in the distance.

The barnyard was bustling with activity. People watched the race from camp chairs, loading up on beer and food truck fare and escaping to the shade of the wood-frame structure to hear live music. I refilled my water bottles next to a sweaty, smiling Travis Book, who’d just completed his leg of the relay. Then I charged back into the field, marveling at how much more effort it took to scale the trail’s seemingly endless initial incline, and each hill that came after it, the second time around.

For people who want to feel like they're as far from passive consumption as possible, there is an array of festivals that take active participation to extremes.

Natalie Andrewson for NPR

By the time I got to the barn again, the heat was really getting to me, and I felt like I was living an entirely different reality than the festival revelers. Another band was playing, but I definitely couldn’t make out which one it was. My friend Marie Winget, lounging in a chair after her relay leg, could see that I was suffering, so she sprang into action as if on a pit crew, helping me replenish my water and shoving a bag of jelly beans into my pack. She offered to join me for a mile or two, reminding me that I was in second place among the ultramarathoning women and had just one loop to go. As I turned to follow her and her dog T-Bone toward the trail, my husband pointed his camera at me and asked for commentary. All that I could muster was a wry, “I forgot how much these things suck.”

It only got worse from there. Winget called encouragement over her shoulder, and I straggled behind, muttering expletives. My calf muscles started to cramp, and the water I drank just seemed to slosh around in my stomach. There was more and more walking, more and more stopping to double over and gather my strength. My stubborn desire to finish what I’d started, especially knowing that I’d have to write about it, make me keep going. We made it to mile 32, just before “Curse Word Hill,” then I laid down in the grass, never to get up.

Friends drove me back to the farmyard, where I sank to the ground again. It was a relief to be back at the festival grounds, but I was really in no condition to appreciate a band, drink a beer or eat even a bite of the wood fired pizza my husband bought me on a paper plate. I couldn’t keep any fluid down, and joked that I could see fleas jumping on the sky above us. Every muscle in my legs started to spasm. Humphrey came running over with an armful of banana bunches — a potassium-packed remedy for cramps — and piled them around me in an impish display of concern. Ripmaster knelt down next to me and offered Zen-like words of encouragement: “It’s all part of it. It’s all learning.” (He’d greeted my friend Donica Elliot with no less enthusiasm when she’d decided to drop out of the race earlier, telling her, “I love your spirit!”) Lacking any medical supplies, the attentive nurse on hand was limited to taking my pulse. After a couple of hours, she convinced me that there was nothing else to be done but call an ambulance.

No sooner had the EMTs strapped me to a stretcher when there was a knock at the side door of the ambulance. A voice called in urgently, hopefully, “Can you take one more?” Then Stephen Whatley, an ultramarathoner whom I hadn’t yet met, was heaved through the doorway by a couple of helpful bystanders. During the ride to the emergency room, he and I snapped photos of each other flashing weakly upbeat weak thumbs-up signs that we could text to our loved ones. That seemed like an appropriate way to affirm that our Hullabaloo experience, though it handed ended the way we’d hoped, hadn’t been a misspent day — that we didn’t regret having gone for it.


After a night of being pumped with IV fluid in the hospital, I was nearly myself again and starting feeling the festival goer’s aversion to missing out on the fun. By Saturday I was itching to get to Mountain Song.

A fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Transylvania County, N.C., a nonprofit launched by the late mother of Steep Canyon Rangers’ front man Woody Platt, the festival drew multiple generations of roots music fans. Grey heads populated the open-air auditorium, while college students and families with kids staked out spots on the lawn with theirblankets and folding chairs. Toting both of our chairs, my husband plunked them down in the grass. I wanted to roam around a bit and pay a visit back stage before I was ready to anchor myself to one spot. Some of the acts that took the venue’s lone stage struck an intimate tone. The singing duo of Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith teasedout folk and pop subtleties with the lightness of their harmonies. Others gave more animated performances, like the Dom Flemons Band’s dapper, old-time showmanship, the SteelDrivers’ acousticsouthern rock energy and Front Country’s expansivestring band-pop chops. Steep Canyon, the hometown heroes, spent their set strolling between rhythmically nimble contemporary folk and jazzy improvisational interplay, swapping hot licks with dobro master Jerry Douglas and summoning sometime-boss Steve Martin to the stage. Platt, Humphrey and their band mates sported a put-together look of sport coats and tailored slacks, and Humphrey added his own touch: a large rectangular belt buckle he’d earned by completing a 100-mile race.

I ran into Front Country’s big-voiced, pink-haired front woman Melody Walker backstage and asked if she’d heard about the trail running experience Humphrey had helped organize. She confessed that she hadn’t. “That’s not surprising, though,” she said. “I’ve literally seen that guy come off stage at, like, midnight and then go for a crazy 10-mile run. Probably actually longer than that.”

I couldn’t help but be conscious of, and amused by, the difference between my festival experience and those of more traditional festival attendees around me. As I struck up conversations with folks lounging and listening on the lawn, I found that the only ones aware of the Hullabaloo race had either run it themselves or knew someone who had.

A runner named Angie Collins, pointed out to me in the crowd by Ripmaster, was quick to clarify that she “wasn’t one of those 50K people.” She was used to being active outdoors with her family on the weekends, she told me, so for her, participating in the festivities from start to finish was “not a hard sell at all.” “I mean, it was tough,” she added, “but it was great. It’s supposed to be tough.”

I could identify with the sentiment. I, too, love a challenge, and often opt to join in on the most demanding version on offer out of a desire to maximize my experience. In my ideal scenario, the levels of punishment and pleasure balance out. Of course, in my unwavering commitment to tackling the max running distance that particular weekend — on that rangy terrain, under those sweltering conditions — I’d cut into my ability to kick back and enjoy the rest of the scene. While I convalesced, the bands played on. But Collins and other participants I encountered served as reminders that others were experiencing this pair of gatherings very differently. As targeted as the Hullabaloo and Mountain Song combo was in its appeal, there was a certain amount of inclusivity built in; the fact that the organizers offered options meant that people with varied preferences along a spectrum of intensities were drawn in.

Walking by the farm-to-table food trucks, I spotted a camouflage trucker hat earned by Hullabaloo participants lying next to a semi-circle of people. I tapped the nearest woman on the shoulder. “It’s my husband’s,” she explained, motioning over an easygoing guy named Joe Dunlap. It turned out that he’d grown up with some of the members of Steep Canyon, and kept up with the band after he moved out of state. “My brother and I have been doing running events for a while,” he said. “We haven’t done anything recently. So he thought this would be a good excuse for us to get in shape and do an event together. We were gonna plan a four-day weekend here, and we thought, ‘Why not go ahead and run an event while we’re here enjoying this great music?'”

He beckoned for his brother and brother-and-law, who’d rounded out the relay team, to join us. “He’s the one that talked us into running the race,” he said, jabbing his thumb toward Chuck Dunlop with feigned resentment.

After suffering through their miles, they’d savored their reward — cold beer and bands. “Then we just sat up on the hill and watched everybody coming down to the finish line,” Chuck recalled. “It felt good to sit down.”

I asked if they saw the ambulance arrive to haul me away. “No!” they shook their heads with a mixture of sympathy and awe. They’d evidently left just before it arrived.

The question that Joe asked me next captured the venturesome irrationality of the entire weekend: “So, are you gonna do it again next year?”

“I won’t rule out the possibility,” I told them. “It’s been an experience, for sure.”

Six weeks later, I was back in the trail ultra game, though it felt comparatively anticlimactic to arrive at the finish line of a race whose only source of music was a small PA blaring Top 40 pop hits. Within six months, I found myself reunited with Stephen Whatley, my ambulance buddy, at a 50k race in a state park in Alabama. We discussed some of our favorite new music as we wound through the trees, but there was no live entertainment awaiting us at the picnic pavilion at the end of the course — just volunteers grilling burgers. My participatory instinct kicked in again when a post popped up on Facebook promoting the 2017 edition of the Steep Canyon 50k Ultramarathon & Relay Hullabaloo. I checked my calendar. If it weren’t for a scheduling conflict, I might have signed up for round two. The relay this time.

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Addiction Is A Family Affair In 'Mayhem'


Martha Anne Toll is the Executive Director of theButler Family Fund; her writing is, and she tweets at @marthaannetoll.

“Who can help the addict, consumed by a shaming hunger, a need beyond control?” Sigrid Rausing pleads at the outset of Mayhem: A Memoir. Rausing has written two earlier books and publishes and edits the acclaimed literary journal Granta — and as an heir to the Tetra Pak packaging fortune, she’s also a global philanthropist focused on human rights.

But in some ways, this is an “ordinary story,” Rausing writes. “Two people, Hans and Eva, my brother and his wife, met in recovery, fell in love, got married, had children, then relapsed. He survived, she did not.” And so this is a tragedy. A mother of four dies from an overdose; the remaining half of this folie à deux is also lost to his children through addiction.

Rausing’s core message is this: Addiction is a family affair. Her book embraces those surrounding the addict by courageously exposing her own self-doubt and heartache. She wants us to know her — her seemingly idyllic Swedish childhood, two caring parents raising three children; the “bliss” of seaside summers replete with lawn tennis and crabbing; weekend houses with ponies; the family’s move to England, apparently for financial reasons.

Rausing works toward a Ph.D. in social anthropology but is interrupted by a bout of serious depression, likely triggered by anxiety and frustration and helplessness over her brother’s decline. She completes her fieldwork in a land of opposites — “Estonia was marked by history and by loss of history.” She marries and divorces, then marries again to Eric Abraham, a film and theater producer. They have a child. Through protracted and angry court proceedings, the couple successfully petitions for Hans and Eva’s four children after child welfare threatens to take them away. All the while, Rausing works with a psychoanalyst and conducts extensive research to try to understand her brother’s family-strangling addiction. She feels judgmental of Hans and Eva, and judges herself harshly for feeling so.

It’s not just Estonia; as if to signal the relativity of family truth, Rausing observes life in opposites. Her description of Eva, “simultaneously young and old, conventional and wild, groomed and unkempt.” Her relationship with Hans — “I read Jane Austen, he read Charles Bukowski. I turned left, he turned right.” The family ethos: “Some families are overprotective. Others, like ours, take a secret pride in the wild.” The nature of addiction, rehab and relapse. And most tellingly, Rausing’s anguish over who’s accountable: “We were all guilty, and we were none of us guilty.”

Rausing takes an intense interest in narrative. When she tells her father she’s recording the family history, he says approvingly, “Then it won’t be just fragments, like a dream.” And yet. Rausing’s narrative is delivered in disjointed, non-sequential fragments. Single sentence paragraphs complete sections for emphasis; hers is a jagged presentation that seems intended to mirror addiction’s mayhem. Given her devotion to words and language, the memoir is interlaced with references to beloved literary characters and authors (Emma Bovary, David Grossman, Anne Carson, Tove Jansson, Joan Didion, among others), and the etymology of key words (‘mayhem’ and ‘guilt,’ for example).

Rausing places her experience within a broader context. She considers Amy Winehouse, she cites Patty Hearst. She highlights America’s opioid blight to remind us that addiction is not solely a family affair, it’s a societal pathology.

Because of their prominence, the Rausing family’s experience provides endless fodder for tabloids and litigation. The particulars are horrific: Eva dies, crack pipe in hand. Hans covers her body and hides it in their luxury London home for two months. The sordid details — including his arrest — along with rumors and accusations, some bred in drug-addled stupors, are reported worldwide. And thus another set of opposites is spawned as publicity’s blinding glare turns private pain inside out.

“Hans and Eva loved their children,” Rausing reflects. “But isn’t that also a cliché of parenting? What’s the point of love if drugs come first?”

Those questions may be unanswerable, but for Rausing, whose commitment to the literary runs both wide and deep, “Writing is a form of making sense.”

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