This Week On Metro Connection: Into The Future (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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This Week On Metro Connection: Into The Future

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we are stepping into our time machines, buckling our seatbelts and going into the future.

MR. DAVID CHRISTIAN

You are a whack job living on rattlesnake in a cave somewhere. You know, that's not the case.

MS. ALLISON STOCKMAN

So it's been my fantasy that we would like a chorus of piglets.

DR. WALTER SCHMIDT

I tried to grind up feathers. And it's really, really difficult to do.

MR. MARTIN SEXTON

This is like God has entered the room when this happens.

SHEIR

Those are all people we interviewed for this week's show. And I swear all those clips you just heard will make sense in due time. But first we would remiss if we didn't ask you, our listeners, to share your hopes for the year ahead. And so we did just that.

MR. JERRY BOSLEY

My main hope would be that Congress would get its act together.

MS. EVA SULLIVAN

I'm a high school teacher in Montgomery County, Md. I have five pregnant girls this year and two 16-year-old dads. And I'm very concerned about them. I want them to be happy. And I want them to be successful parents.

MR. ALFREDO NAVA-TUDELA

My hopes will be to have people enjoying the good health that my family has had for the past years.

SHEIR

Those were local residents Jerry Bosley (sp?), Eva Sullivan (sp?) and Alfredo Nava-Tudela (sp?). They're all members of our Public Insight Network or PIN. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to get input on topics we're covering. You can learn more by heading to metroconnection.org/pin.

SHEIR

Now, apropos of today's theme you may recall the famous words uttered by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I would not say that the future is necessarily less predictable than the past. I think the past was not predictable when it started." Okay. So I'm still kind of unraveling that one, but the spirit of the Secretary's statements makes for a rather nice segue to the woman we're about to meet.

MS. KONSTANZA MORNING STAR

Hi, Rebecca.

SHEIR

Hi.

STAR

Come on in. How are you doing?

SHEIR

Good. How are you?

STAR

It's nice to meet you today.

SHEIR

She has a really distinctive name.

STAR

Konstanza Morning Star.

SHEIR

And I visited her at her Silver Spring home because Konstanza Morning Star is a certified psychic medium. Now, if you're anything like me, you hear the word "psychic" and you think like, what, like Jeanne Dixon? Crystal balls? 1-900 call lines staffed by people who somehow know everything about you?

SHEIR

So when people think of a psychic, so often they immediately equate that with one who can tell the future, one who can predict the future.

STAR

People usually don't ask me to predict the future.

SHEIR

Instead, she says they ask her to help with the present.

STAR

Sometimes they want to find out about options that they might have available or they want to have some insight into difficulties that they have.

SHEIR

And more often than not, in order to do that…

STAR

They want to hear from their loved ones.

SHEIR

As in their deceased loved ones.

STAR

I make contact with their loved ones on the other side.

SHEIR

Konstanza makes that contact by using what are known as the 'Clair' senses. You've no doubt heard of the first one, clairvoyance.

STAR

Being able to perceive the visual impressions from the spirit side of life.

SHEIR

Well, there's also clairaudience.

STAR

The ability to hear sounds from the spirit side of life.

SHEIR

Clairsentience.

STAR

Being able to sense and feel emotions and physical conditions.

SHEIR

Even clairalience.

STAR

The ability to smell scents.

SHEIR

And clairgustance.

STAR

The ability to taste foods. And that is really powerful when somebody's loved one comes through with their favorite dish, especially if it's something that is really unique that I cannot possibly know about, with special ingredients.

SHEIR

And once Konstanza senses this loved one…

STAR

I very carefully describe everything that spirit brings me. These are the details that make it clear to people that I'm really communicating with their loved ones, because these are things that they would know. But that I could not possibly know.

SHEIR

By communicating with these spirits, Konstanza says she can help people with their grief, first and foremost, and with whatever personal issues or problems they're dealing with. Because the spirits have what Konstanza calls a higher view.

STAR

They can see what is going on around us. So with that it's very much like at a ballgame, you know, where you're in the bleachers and you can see what goes on on the field. The players don't necessarily know, you know, what's coming from, you know, further out.

SHEIR

Okay. Now, whether you actually believe in all of this stuff, that is totally up to you. But what I want to emphasize here is in all this talk with our psychic medium here notice how little we've been mentioning the future. And, says Konstanza, with good reason.

STAR

When we work with people, if we're sensitive, and if we're good at what we're doing, we certainly receive a lot of very good and accurate information. But nobody can say that X, Y and Z is going to happen.

SHEIR

Because the way Konstanza sees it, the future isn't set in stone.

STAR

It is actually something that we have control over by our thoughts, by our actions, by our attitudes. So we all have our own will, and we can just say, nope, I don't believe that. I'm not going to do that and I just refuse.

SHEIR

I mean, sure, there may things beyond our control, but what Konstanza Morning Star tries to do is help people where they are today, with what they have today, so they can start to create a more outstanding tomorrow.

SHEIR

So Konstanza Morning Star is all about creating your own future, right? Well, the people we'll meet next are all about preparing for it. They call themselves preppers. Their mission? To be fully prepared for all types of potential, large-scale disasters. The prepper movement is picking up speed across the U.S. And as Jonathan Wilson found out, we have a thriving community of preppers right here in our region.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

Diehard fans of the National Geographic Channel will recognize that ominous introduction from the reality show "Doomsday Preppers."

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

As you might have guessed from all those snazzy sound effects, the show leans toward the sensational, focusing on people who, for instance, hoard surgical masks in preparation for a global pandemic or have mastered the art of making fertilizer out of their own fecal matter to sustain their food crops.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE

The future of the country's going to depend on people like us.

WILSON

But the truth is that there are plenty of preppers who aren't quite so extreme or at least don't have the time to be. Many are holding down regular five-day-a-week jobs. David Christian, the man behind the recently founded Meetup group, Loudoun County Preppers, is a good example. He works in downtown D.C. as an office support manager at a big law firm. He takes the Metro to work like hundreds of thousands of other area residents. And he says prepping isn't all about the end of the world, it's just making sure your family is as safe as it can be.

CHRISTIAN

I think sometimes it's made fun of and it's very much misunderstood because those shows are trying to pick out those individuals that are on the extreme and really magnify it.

WILSON

Christian is powerfully built. He played football at Fairfax County's Robinson High School back in the 1980s. And he grew up hunting and fishing and simply knowing how to fend for himself. He and his brothers were all Eagle Scouts. But he says it was watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the news that really turned him into a prepper.

CHRISTIAN

Seeing people utterly unprepared for the devastation that happened, as well as waiting on the government, be it federal, state, local, to help them, and I just kept thinking to myself, if you would have been better prepared you wouldn't be out there. You would be fine. You'd have your own water, food, heat and methods to cook, communication, fuel. If you were prepared, you wouldn't be in the situation you are in now.

WILSON

I met Christian in his office where he had recently received a shipment of prepping supplies.

CHRISTIAN

I get a lot of stuff here. You know, there's different…

WILSON

He flips open a large cardboard box filled with five-pound canisters.

CHRISTIAN

There. What's that? That's dried whole egg powder. You think, well, what am I going to do with that? Well, there's a lot of different things you can do with it. You can make egg drop soup. You can use that as powdered eggs for your mix to make, you know, pancakes. And you want dried goods because they're in Mylar vacuum-packed bags. Will, again, last 12, 15, 20 years if kept in proper condition.

WILSON

No one wants to be stuck in the aftermath of a hurricane or a terrorist attack without the basics we need to live. But where FEMA recommends that Americans consider having an emergency food supply that would last two weeks, most of us only have enough to last a few days.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE

When the pandemic comes those who are prepared will survive. Those who do not prepare will die.

WILSON

Everyone has varying levels of time and money to put into disaster preparation, but there's also something else going on. Catherine Tinsley teaches at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and has done extensive research on how people and organizations respond to disasters. She describes preppers as amped-up uncertainty reducers.

MS. CATHERINE TINSLEY

And they're willing to pay a price in order to reduce that uncertainty, which is a natural human tendency.

WILSON

Tinsley's research with her colleague Robin Dillon-Merrill also delves into how people respond to near-misses. She says the data help explain why diehard preppers are likely to always be outnumbered by the rest of us. When we get lucky and potential disaster passes us by, most people get even more complacent.

TINSLEY

For example, we weren't hit by super storm Sandy, right? We had all of this preparation, we had all these worries and stuff like that, but it was a near miss for us because it turned and went north. Even though we know rationally that that was a random draw from a distribution of events and that it was just luck, that it wasn't that outcome, it turns out that we discount that luck.

WILSON

Tinsley says that means a bunch of near misses, such as super storm Sandy, could actually make residents less and less likely to take proper precautions to protect against future storms. So even if you're not a prepper, Tinsley says it's good to try and fight the slide toward complacency in the face of potential disaster. Because who knows, the next one could be the big one.

MALE

We're going to see rising sea levels, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis bouncing off coasts back and forth, entire countries might be underwater.

WILSON

Then again, you could just hope we get lucky one more time. I'm Jonathan Wilson.

SHEIR

Time for a break, but when we get back we'll explore the changing future of D.C.'s smallest quadrant.

MS. CARA SHOCKLEY

The way to keep it going is to have development. Are we going to lose things? Yes. But without the retail coming in the neighborhood's going to die.

SHEIR

And we'll hear from local immigrants working to secure a brighter future for those they left behind.

MR. K. ADVERTUS KARPEH

Liberia is my mother country and America is my father country, if I may put it that way. But the mother you are closely drawn to the affection of your mother, the love of your mother. So mother Liberia is what draws us to contribute to the development of our own homeland.

SHEIR

That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." The theme for our first brand-new show of 2013 is into the future. Now, we've already talked with preppers. Those are people who are doing their best to get ready for the worst of what may lie ahead. Well, now we'll hear about the people who will be shaping our future in the months to come. Or particularly, are environmental future. Joining me now is environment reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour. Hi, Sabri.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

Hi, Rebecca.

SHEIR

So, Sabri, give us the quick and dirty on some of the environmental issues that we'll be talking about over this next year.

BEN-ACHOUR

Well, you know, you can't live in this area and not talk about the Chesapeake Bay. It's a trillion-dollar resource, the nation's largest estuary and the focus of this massive cleanup effort between six states, D.C. and the EPA. So to refresh your memory, this is how this all goes, the states have all promised to reduce pollution, the EPA made them come up with concrete plans on how they're going to do that and now they're putting them into place. And that's the big story.

SHEIR

Okay. So what exactly do those plans entail then?

BEN-ACHOUR

We're fixing sewage treatment plants so they don't release so much waste water into rivers. The other thing is controlling runoff from agriculture. And thirdly, controlling runoff basically from gutters, from streets, roofs, what we call storm water. There are different ways that's going to get paid for, to put it succinctly, bonds, taxes and utility bills. And they are things we are all probably going to notice. So D.C.'s wastewater treatment plant, that upgrade is going to cost $2.6 billion. And that is going to be paid for by utility bills. Now, for some of the other things, counties are going to start collecting fees or increasing the fees they do collect. We're going to see that. And then they are going to use those fees to back bonds to pay for all of these big infrastructure changes. You know, I talked to Alison Prost. She's Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. And she says, you know, it may not end up being all that expensive.

MS. ALISON PROST

We are seeing that as counties start to delve into the details of their plans, they are being able to find some more cost-effective ways to meet their reduction. For instance, Talbot County, they have decided as they're working on highway improvement to do some work in the drainage ditches, convert them back to working wetlands and natural filters so that you're getting reductions from farm field runoff and also their storm water runoff off the road. We have seen the costs that Talbot originally estimated go down by tens of millions of dollars.

BEN-ACHOUR

These are the sorts of things we're going to see figured out this year. And, you know, frankly, people are going to see that in their bills. So that's why I bring that up.

SHEIR

But, right now, as we speak, I mean is all of this paying off? Is the Chesapeake Bay getting any cleaner?

BEN-ACHOUR

Well, you know, I asked Bill Dennison that very question. He is with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and he says we might start seeing improvements from some of the upgrades that states have been working on.

MR. BILL DENNISON

We're going to start to see some of the impact of consistent increasing cover crop utilization. When you drive around the watershed you really do see these green fields. The other thing that we've got coming online this year is we are really getting some progress on our sewage treatment upgrades. So we're very hopeful.

SHEIR

So we've been talking a lot about water so far. I want to switch gears a bit and talk about wind, off-shore wind. Where does that issue stand, as lawmakers head back to Annapolis?

BEN-ACHOUR

Yeah, so a bill to subsidize a wind farm off the coast of Maryland is going to be under consideration for the third year in a row in Maryland's General Assembly. And I think it has a better chance than it ever has before. Here's Jim Mathias, he's a state senator from Ocean City, Md.

MR. JIM MATHIAS

There was some concerns brought up in 2011 from Farm Bureau and Dhumal Poultry. They're big consumers of electric. They were concerned about the surcharges. And we went to the governor last year. We've been able to work through some things. But President Miller says that this will see a full debate. I just got word yesterday when I was traveling home, there's been a change in my committee.

BEN-ACHOUR

And that last bit, you know, it sounds insider politicky, but it really may be the big difference. Last year there was a Democratic senator who basically just stuck it to the governor. He didn't let the wind bill out of committee, reportedly out of a grudge over endorsement. So he's gone and it'll go to a floor debate. President of the Senate, Mike Miller, is insisting it'll pass there. I think a lot of the issues have been worked out. And a lot of the horse trading has been done. So I think this might be the year that it passes. It will mean Marylanders will probably pay around $1.50 more on their electric bill, according to Miller.

SHEIR

And then turning to Virginia, the General Assembly is going to consider uranium mining in the commonwealth. What are some of the issues we'll be hearing about on that front?

BEN-ACHOUR

Well, you know, it's all about safety. There are 119 million pounds of uranium ore in Southeast Virginia worth about $10 billion and the state has banned anyone from digging it up for 30 years. On the one hand, you know, market demand for uranium is heating up, there are new power plants coming online in the next few years, supplies from Russian warheads--that's where they used to get a lot of their uranium--are running out. So there's a lot of demand, a big business opportunity. On the other hand, of course, as I mentioned, is the safety issue. What do you do with the mine tailings or waste? In just that it's radioactive gravel is what it is. Where and how do you store it? Some analyses shows that if there were some kind of release it could contaminate drinking water supplies for a year or two, but reports done for the industry say, you know, we're talking about gravel, it's easy to contain, there's a one in ten million chance any contamination could ever occur or get into the water supply. The state's Coal and Energy Commission voted 11-2 in favor of the General Assembly considering legislation to overturn the ban on uranium mining. You know, we're going to see how legislators respond.

SHEIR

Well, we look forward to seeing how all of these issues pan out. Thank you so much for joining us today, Sabri.

BEN-ACHOUR

You're very welcome.

SHEIR

And if you have questions about these or any other environmental topics, send us a note. Our email address is metro@wamu.org or you can find us on Twitter. Our handle is @wamumetro.

SHEIR

Our next story is about the future of a part of D.C. that's been called the little quadrant that could. I'm talking about Southwest D.C., which a century ago was a bustling, working class, waterfront neighborhood. But in the 1950s the area's fortunes started to slide. And so planners decided to tear down many of the homes and businesses and, you know, start all over again. These days Southwest is in the middle of yet another round of renovations. Renovations that supporters are hoping will finally make the neighborhood a waterfront destination. Sarah Ventre brings us this story on what these changes mean for the quadrant's residents and for the district as a whole.

MS. SARAH VENTRE

Cara Shockley has always been fond of Southwest D.C.

SHOCKLEY

When I was a kid, I pointed at a building and said, Mom, Dad, I want to live there when I grow up. And my mother was absolutely horrified. Oh, no. You don't want to live in a neighborhood like this.

VENTRE

That building she was pointing at when she was nine years old is the one she lives in now. And while Southwest has changed a lot since her childhood, it's about to change even more. In the coming years, the littlest quadrant will see a number of large-scale development projects aimed at making the waterfront a destination and a desirable neighborhood in which to live.

SHOCKLEY

The way to keep it going is to have development. Are we going to lose things? Yes. But without the retail coming in, the neighborhood's going to die.

MR. MATT STEENHOEK

I think one of the biggest things that we've always kind of tried to do here is to really bring down to the waterfront.

VENTRE

Matt Steenhoek is the associate development director of PN Hoffman, one half of the Hoffman-Madison waterfront development team. His company is responsible for the major planned project in the area, The Wharf. The Wharf will completely revamp the part of Southwest closest to the water, brining a new residential and office space, as well as hotels, dining and retail. And in this neighborhood where most of the businesses are geared toward federal workers, a lot of residents, like Bob Craycraft, think neighborhood retail is key.

MR. BOB CRAYCRAFT

I am most looking forward to increased retail and food and beverage outlets. You know, like everybody, I'd like to have a neighborhood bar to hang out in.

VENTRE

Bob is sort of an ambassador for the quadrant. We met in one of the neighborhood's most popular restaurants, Station Four. And he told me that Southwest is great for lots of reasons, especially its location.

CRAYCRAFT

The unique advantage of the Southwest waterfront is its proximity. You're right, you know, four blocks off the National Mall. Yet by Metro, you're four stops from National Airport if you want to fly away for the weekend. You're right in the heart of the city without being in the congestion of the city.

VENTRE

And while he and Cara Shockley clearly love their neighborhood, they both mentioned wanting things like restaurants that stay open after government workers go home, as well as hardware stores, locksmiths, grocery options. But you may remember that the Southwest waterfront has already tried a massive redevelopment effort with some of these things in mind. During the 1950s and '60s, much of the neighborhood was razed and rebuilt. And this meant displacing many of the low-income residents. So how is this time around any different? Ward 6 councilman Tommy Wells represents the neighborhood in the City Council.

MR. TOMMY WELLS

We're creating more affordable housing in this area than almost anywhere in the city. What I envision is really enlivening the waterfront. That we're a city that was built on the convergence of two rivers, but over the past 100 years almost all of the development is focused towards downtown and not utilizing the waterfront as an asset of what makes Washington special.

VENTRE

A key part of bringing Washington to the waterfront is using the water itself, which means big changes for people living in the water.

MS. KAREN ANDERSON

Hey, thanks.

VENTRE

Karen Anderson is the new president of the Gangplank Slipholders Association. It's sort of like the homeowners association for people who live on houseboats in the Gangplank Marina. Part of the development vision is to create more room for boats to dock for shorter stays, but in order to do this, the houseboats need to move. Soon they'll only take up about half as much space as they do now, which is a big change.

ANDERSON

It's, are my power cables long enough? Is my winter water hose long enough to go to the new spigot on my new dock? Are my drapes opaque enough when there's somebody right next to me?

VENTRE

Right. So many changes on such a large scale mean big adjustments for everyone, losing views, the demolition of businesses, less privacy and a louder, busier neighborhood. And while there are plans to keep homes and apartments reasonably priced, no one can predict what will happen in the decades to come. But one thing is for sure, change. Bob Craycraft says that he's ready for it and that it's only natural.

CRAYCRAFT

I think a city, a healthy city, is a living organism. It evolves. And it changes constantly.

VENTRE

I'm Sarah Ventre.

SHEIR

You can see the developer's sketches of The Wharf on our website, metroconnection.org. And if you live in a neighborhood that's on the cusp of redevelopment, we want to hear about those changes. Send us an email. Our address is metro@wamu.org.

SHEIR

As people in Southwest work to build a new future for their neighborhood, some other local residents are working to build the future of a place thousands of miles away. That place is Liberia. And the residents we're talking about are members of the Liberian Diaspora, many of whom fled during their nation's brutal civil war. The D.C. area's Liberian community numbers in the tens of thousands. That makes it one of the largest in the United States. And now, as Jacob Fenston tells us, many former refugees are trying to help the country they left behind.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

In the West African nation of Liberia, there's a county called Maryland and a few hundred miles away, a city named Virginia. These place names date back to the early 1800s when lawmakers in Annapolis and Richmond authorized funding to establish the Republic of Maryland on the West Coast of Africa and a few years later, New Virginia. Free African-Americans were offered five acres of land and a one-way ticket across the Atlantic. Thousands of black Americans made the voyage to what is now Liberia. But in the 1980s and '90s that migration reversed, as thousands of people from Liberia fled civil war and landed here in the Mid-Atlantic region.

MS. NEE ALLISON

We are basically considered the step-child of America, based on the history.

FENSTON

Nee Allison says she thinks her family has roots among those early colonists from America. They may have come from Virginia, where she's lived since fleeing the conflict in Liberia in 1996.

ALLISON

I survived the first six years, from 1990 to '96. I got caught up in the '96 war.

ALLISON

Allison is president of the local Liberian Community Association. She says she was granted political asylum in the United States because of her family's ties to the government deposed by Charles Taylor.

ALLISON

My uncle used to be the defense minister in the former government and those government officials were a target.

FENSTON

Her uncle was executed, so was her brother and a cousin.

ALLISON

I came to America not to live. I came to wait until the war subsided and go back home. So, initially, for the first two, three years, I was in between, do I want to stay or do I want to lose everything and go back home. I'm not certain if there's going to be another uprising.

FENSTON

But since the fighting stopped almost 10 years ago, more and more Liberians in the Diaspora have been going back and looking for ways to give back.

KARPEH

I think we're doing pretty good here. Are we doing pretty good?

FENSTON

Advertus Karpeh helped organize a recent conference in D.C. promoting dual citizenship. Supporters want the Liberian government to allow people in the Diaspora to hold citizenship in both countries.

KARPEH

Liberia is my mother country and America is my father country, if I may put it that way. But the mother, you are closely drawn to the affection of your mother, the love of your mother. So mother Liberia is what draws us to contribute to the development of our own homeland.

FENSTON

Advocates of dual citizenship say it would encourage investment in Liberia. Gaye Sleh, Jr., another conference organizer, says people in the Diaspora have acquired skills and education abroad that's needed back home.

MR. GAYE SLEH JR.

We got professionals, we got medical doctors, we got engineers, you know, we got nurses who want to go home and establish businesses over there to create employment because unemployment is very high in the country.

FENSTON

Liberia's constitution prohibits foreigners from owning land. That's a problem for people in the Diaspora who want to go home and start businesses. But others aren't interested in land ownership. When Checago Bright first went back to Liberia in 2009, he was struck by how the war had stunted development in the poor neighborhood where he grew up.

MR. CHECAGO BRIGHT

Folks that you grew up with, go like, oh, Checago, oh, my man. Good to see you. You know, the excitement. And you're looking at your peers that you grew up with, they're like behind, like 10 years, 20 years behind.

FENSTON

During the conflict, Bright escaped to a camp in Ghana and eventually to the U.S. as a refugee. Here Bright had opportunities his friends back home didn't have. He went to college. He got a master's degree. So when he returned in 2009 he wanted to give something back to the country and people he left behind. He decided to focus on sanitation and clean water.

BRIGHT

1.7 million of our population in our country lack access to toilet facilities and clean water.

FENSTON

In his free time, Bright started a nonprofit group, the Checago Bright Foundation. His first project was to build a gleaming six-room latrine in the community where he grew up. But rebuilding the country is about more than latrines or clean water or citizenship laws.

BRIGHT

Virtually all of our infrastructure was destroyed and so there's a rebuilding process. We have a democratically-elected president, but the challenges are huge in Liberia. So, as a result, it requires all Liberians' hands on deck.

FENSTON

All hands on deck, he says. Because that's the only way the country will move forward. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

Up next, a theater company with a bright future, looks to the pulpy past.

MS. ELEANOR HOLDRIDGE

It is this like lovely, fun, swashbuckling thing, but hopefully we've threaded throughout the language resonances to who we are today.

SHEIR

And a scientist invents an afterlife for a certain poultry product.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

Oh, it feels like weird. It feels very soft, like feathers.

SHEIR

That and more is coming your way on "Metro Connection" on WAMU 88.5.

SHEIR

Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we are beaming into the future, meeting everyone from psychics to preppers to refugees turned entrepreneurs. But now we're actually going to flash back to the past to a beloved icon who galloped into the world in 1919 as the brain child of a pulp writer named Johnston McCulley.

SHEIR

The swashbuckling, black-masked defender of the people has appeared all over the place since then, like the Disney TV series and the classic Douglas Fairbanks film.

SHEIR

He even had his own anime series in the 1990s.

SHEIR

But starting this month, you can see the original caped crusader on stage, as Constellation Theatre Company presents the world-premiere play…

SHEIR

…Zorro. At a recent rehearsal at Source, in Northwest D.C., Danny Gavigan, playing the title role, clashes swords with Andres Talero, playing Zorro's sworn enemy, Captain Ramon.

SHEIR

Zorro was co-written by Janet Allard and Eleanor Holdridge. Holdridge is also directing the play. The D.C. resident has helmed countless plays across the country, but Zorro marks her debut as a playwright.

HOLDRIDGE

I always grew up with Zorro. I loved it. Like, when I was a little nerdy, geeky kid I would watch it on TV, the TV series, and I would watch all the movies. So I've always followed Zorro. And then one day I was in California doing an opera in this beautiful hilly resort area. And I just all of a sudden looked across the landscape and I kind of had this image of Zorro riding.

SHEIR

Now, again, Holdridge has always considered herself a director.

HOLDRIDGE

I'm not a writer. I don't write plays.

SHEIR

But she was so determined to bring her childhood hero to life that she enlisted the help of Allard.

HOLDRIDGE

Because she has this great, quirky style and she just, like, writes incredible characters and gets some kind of pulpy fun of who we are as Americans.

SHEIR

Using Johnston McCulley's original pulp serial as their source, the women fashioned a coming-of-age story set in 1840s California about this guy, Don Diego, who comes home from college.

HOLDRIDGE

And his parents are suddenly not who he thinks they are. The world is not what he thinks. He has the distance to see the world is no longer what it should be or what he wants it to be. He realizes it's his turn to step up because if he doesn't no one will.

SHEIR

And thus, Diego creates his alter ego, Zorro.

STOCKMAN

Zorro's the first modern superhero.

SHEIR

Or so many would say, including Constellation Theatre Company's artistic director Allison Stockman.

STOCKMAN

He was the person who inspired Batman and a lot of superheroes after that. So he's in my heart and I was counting on him being in the hearts of other people as well.

SHEIR

Stockman says another reason she chose Zorro is it jives with her company's mission, doing large-ensemble plays that ditch realism or naturalism in favor of what she calls all-out theatricality.

STOCKMAN

So the design is very imaginative. The people in the play speak better than we do in real life. They move in a larger, more meaningful way. And there are opportunities for things like music and dance and fighting.

SHEIR

So with Zorro you'll hear original music, with touches of flamenco, spaghetti westerns and the HBO series "Deadwood." You'll sit on either side of an unusual, alley-shaped set. And as for fighting? You'll witness plenty of swordplay, even up on the staircases that diagonally bisect each side of the audience.

STOCKMAN

The staircases form a "Z" in the space, actually, which I don't think the audience will appreciate, but we take great delight in.

SHEIR

Eleanor Holdridge has been taking great delight in seeing her initial vision of Zorro come to life. But she admits this new role of director/playwright isn't easy.

HOLDRIDGE

It's very weird to direct something I've written. Like, there are moments when a scene isn't working. And my director self gets mad at my playwright self and thinks, wow, how can I possibly make this work?

SHEIR

In other words, do I try and re-direct the scene? Or just re-write it?

HOLDRIDGE

And then one of the interesting things is in the original pulp, they're very much stock characters. So we very much tried to write stakes into the characters, what their back story was, we figured out what they wanted. But then you get into rehearsal and the actor comes up with their own idea of what those are. And as a director, I need to be able to say, wow, that's great. That supports the play. And I need to divorce myself from what I thought I knew to be true.

SHEIR

And actually, that's a running theme throughout the entire play, this idea of what we think we know to be true. With Allard and Holdridge's characters the exterior and the interior don't necessarily match up.

HOLDRIDGE

Everyone puts up masks in society. And it's how they deal and how they work and it's something we all do.

SHEIR

Now, granted, more often than not, in our society these masks aren't literal. But if you happen to be that bold renegade who carves a "Z" with his blade, a "Z" that stands for Zorro"? That mask is what makes you go down in history.

SHEIR

You can catch "Zorro" at Source from January 17 through February 17. For more information on the play and to see some original costume sketches for the characters visit our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

So no show about the future would be complete without at least one story on science, right? I mean, after all, each and every day scientists are making new discoveries that could change the world as we know it. And one of those scientists is Dr. Walter Schmidt. For 20 years now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture research chemist has been studying a particular problem, what to do with chicken feathers. Yeah, chicken feathers. But not just chicken feathers.

SHEIR

I mean, here, think about this, you have a chicken, right, and by the time that chicken is fully grown and ready to become, well, dinner, nearly seven percent of its weight is made of feathers. And since, according to the National Chicken Council, each American eats more than 80 pounds of chicken a year, we're talking about a lot of feathers. So what Dr. Schmidt has been asking is, what if all those feathers could be put to good use. Emily Berman visited Dr. Schmidt's lab at the sprawling USDA campus in Beltsville, Md. to learn about the unexpected role feathers may play in our future.

BERMAN

The first thing to know about feathers is that they're very, very strong. Eight times stronger than wood. And if you try to tear them up using your bare hands, like really went crazy on a bag of feathers, you wouldn't get very far.

SCHMIDT

And you can actually take feathers and put them in liquid nitrogen and take a hammer to it, nothing happens. And so I said, whoa, you should be able to make something from this.

BERMAN

I've just arrived in Dr. Walter Schmidt's office when he reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out a foot-long quill pen.

BERMAN

Do you actually write with that? Schmidt holds it upright and runs his fingers along the fibers. Feathers, he explains, are made from the protein keratin. It's the same protein that forms our skin, nails and hair. And, he says, it has a lot of economic value.

SCHMIDT

If you figure 2.5 billion pounds of feathers produced each year, if their value is comparable to polypropylene, which is like 66 cents a pound…

BERMAN

Polypropylene is a type of plastic.

SCHMIDT

…that's about like $2 billion worth of natural resources that are not being harvested.

BERMAN

Technically, the feathers are being harvested. They're bought up by the companies that make dog and cat food, sometimes livestock feed as well. You know when it says the food includes animal byproducts, that can mean feathers. This is banned in Europe, but not here in the U.S. And while these feathers are not going to waste, Schmidt says, we could be using them in a much smarter way. I asked how and Schmidt nods quietly, puts on his jacket and tells me to follow him to the lab. The lab is in a separate building a half mile away surrounded by roaming cows. There's a chicken-of-the-month calendar on the wall, right above a huge bag of feathers. Step one, Schmidt says, is to grab some of the feathers, clean them and chop them up.

SCHMIDT

If you put feathers in a food processor, all that happens is they spin around. They spin around.

BERMAN

So, he says, you have to put them in a metal contraption called a ball mill.

SCHMIDT

It's just like big marbles of heavy steel. And you put the feathers in here.

BERMAN

The balls clang together inside steel chambers, grinding the feathers down into tiny pieces. And about 15 minutes later you have something that looks like light gray baking flour.

BERMAN

Okay. I'm going to touch it. Oh, it feels like weird. It feels very soft.

BERMAN

That powder is dumped into a standing mixer, probably a lot like the one you have in your kitchen, where it's combined with glycerin.

SCHMIDT

It looks a little bit like honey, except for it's hotter.

BERMAN

The liquid is mixed in with a bit of plastic polymer and then cooled into long pieces that look like spaghetti. The spaghetti is cut up into pellets. And when Schmidt's ready to make the final product he reheats them, pipes them into a mold and there he has a flower pot. A feather flowerpot. But if you can make anything out of these feathers, why flowerpots? I asked Mark Teffeau, head of research for the Horticultural Research Institute. HRI is an association that's working with the USDA to get these flowerpots on shelves. Right now, he says, the horticulture industry is somewhat hypocritical.

MR. MARK TEFFEAU

We're supposed to be a green industry, but we have a lot of plastic pots.

BERMAN

Flowerpots are usually made from cheap plastic, Teffeau says, and thrown away to avoid cross-contamination between plant species. Biodegradable pots made out of a natural waste product could be a great way to cut back on plastic waste, plus, Schmidt chimes in, over time the keratin in the pots will be eaten up by microbes in the soil, effectively acting as a fertilizer.

SCHMIDT

Microbes see it and say, mmm, protein, and they eat it up.

BERMAN

While shopping their pots around, Teffeau and Schmidt have found other potential uses for keratin products. They could make building materials, fishing equipment, fertilizer pellets.

TEFFEAU

We really think that there's an opportunity for BBs, yeah, for BB guns. Millions of pounds of those are sold each year and they're metal. Instead of the spent shells laying all over the ground, they're something that biodegrades.

BERMAN

There's still no commercial partner who's come in to take this idea to the big time. Schmidt says he's confident this idea is too good to be ignored. There's a big, bright future ahead, he says, and it's all made out of feathers. I'm Emily Berman.

SHEIR

You can find pictures of Dr. Schmidt's feather flowerpots on our website, metroconnection.org. And hey, if you're an inventor or a scientist doing innovative research, we want to know what you're up to. Tell us all about it by emailing metro@wamu.org.

SHEIR

We end our show today by turning to music, specifically the music of this guy.

SEXTON

Songs for me are like monkey bars. I like to play on them every night, sort of differently and it keeps it fresh for me and hopefully for the audience, as well.

SHEIR

That's singer-songwriter Martin Sexton, who credits Bob Marley and Charlie Brown, yes, that Charlie Brown, as his inspirations. Sexton is coming to D.C. for a show this weekend. And our very own Bryan Russo recently caught up with the musician to talk about his musical past and future.

MR. BRYAN RUSSO

Singer-songwriters are everywhere. Go into any bar, coffee shop, train station and almost anywhere on the Internet, and you are bound to run into one. But next time you meet a singer-songwriter ask him if he's ever heard of Martin Sexton and then brace yourself for a ton of high praise. Here's why…

MR. BRYAN RUSSO

John Mayer once called Martin Sexton the best live performer he's ever seen and one of the most treasured songwriters in the world. Critics rave about him and they always start with his voice.

MR. BRYAN RUSSO

In an era when a lot of new music is made without actual instruments, Sexton uses his voice and one guitar and makes them sound like a full band.

MR. BRYAN RUSSO

Sexton says he found his sound back in the early '90s when he was just an unknown singer-songwriter playing on the streets of Boston.

SEXTON

There was always this necessity of a hole, where I needed to fill something, you know, because one guy and a guitar can get boring really fast.

RUSSO

So he would scat a solo or beat box.

RUSSO

You know, or I'd start banging on my guitar like a drum set, you know, or play it like a bass.

RUSSO

He says scatting may have been the hardest skill to master.

SEXTON

I first heard scatting and first mimicked the scat that I heard on a record, it was Bob Marley. It was (singing) we're gonna chase them crazy bald heads out of town (makes noise), you know. And I tried doing that and of course I was like (makes noise), you know, and it just sounded stupid.

RUSSO

But as anyone who's ever seen him live can attest, he got the hang of it.

RUSSO

And there are other vocal tools in Sexton's arsenal, inspired by things you might not expect, like cartoons.

SEXTON

Charlie Brown always had the teacher, you know, (makes noise), you know and I was like, wow, that's a muted trumpet with, like, a plunger, you know, and so in my shows you'll see like (makes noise).

RUSSO

But Sexton's fans will tell you he's much more than vocal acrobatics or guitar tricks. He's praised as a heck of a songwriter. One tune, called "Sugarcoating," a critique of the media's coverage of 9/11, caught the ear of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, who fell in love with the song, even though it essentially called out, well, people like him.

RUSSO

Sexton's live shows are like intimate sing-alongs with a thousand people from all walks of life. He says it's like going to church every night.

SEXTON

Some accountant from Wall Street side-to-side with some maybe guy who just got out of a tent down occupying Wall Street, and they're singing harmony with each other.

SEXTON

This is like God has entered the room when this happens. And this is the power of music. And this is what I feel so honored to be a part of, is to be able to deliver that every night.

SEXTON

Martin Sexton will be in D.C. this Saturday at the 9:30 Club in support of two new records, an EP called "Fall Like Rain," and a live record titled "Live at the Fillmore." He says the 9:30 Club is one of his favorite venues in the world to play and he holds his legions of D.C. fans in similar acclaim.

SEXTON

They're smart and they're intellectual and they're soulful and they seem to love good music. So I just give it all I got whenever I show up.

RUSSO

And don't be at all surprised if many of the passionate fans singing along with Martin Sexton on Saturday night are also singer-songwriters. I'm Bryan Russo.

SHEIR

To hear more of Martin Sexton's music, head to our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jacob Fenston, Emily Berman, Sabri Ben-Achour, Jonathan Wilson and Bryan Russo, along with reporter Sarah Ventre. WAMU's managing editor of news is Meymo Lyons. Metro Connection's managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our intern is Rachael Schuster. Lauren Landau, Rachel Schuster and John Hines produce Door-to-Door, which will be back next week. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.

SHEIR

Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts" and our Door-to-Door theme, "No Girl" are from the album Title Tracks by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. You can see all the music we use on our website, that's metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song. Also on metroconnection.org you can find our Twitter and Facebook links. You can read free transcripts of stories. And if you missed part of today's show you can hear the whole thing by clicking the This Week On Metro Connection link.

SHEIR

To hear our most recent episodes, click the podcast link or find us on iTunes. We hope you can join us next week when we'll head out in the cold. Well, metaphorically, at least, given our rather balmy temperatures of late. But anyhow, we'll visit a one-of-a-kind ski slope to see whether you can still make a buck off winter sports in our region. We'll sample the cuisine of Iceland, for the latest in our Eating in the Embassy Series. And we'll meet the woman who runs the show at D.C.'s new Canal Park Ice Skating Rink.

FEMALE

I drive a Hyundai in real life, which only cost me a couple of thousand, but for my day job I get to drive $140,000 Zamboni, bright red, bright red.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 News.
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