The Empathy Machine

Do you listen to This American Life? I don’t, and people are always shocked to hear it. Though I love the idea, I just haven’t caught on to podcasts yet, even though I am a lifelong devotee of NPR. However, Ira Glass did catch my attention this week when the Huffington Post reposted an old interview on storytelling, sermons and oral history. At least two of those are extremely relevant to my interests, and the interview makes me want to find out more of what all the fuss is about.

I think I am addicted to other people telling their life stories. When Ira Glass says, “The mission of our show [is] to take the people and present them at exactly life scale,” my heart flutters. By coincidence, this week I also finished Hard Times, Studs Terkel’s oral history of the Great Depression. I always feel like something monumental is happening to me when I read a Studs Terkel book. In this instance, the contemporary parallels are shocking — huge portions of these accounts could have been given by people alive today, even down to the details. To see that expressed so extensively, with such honesty, routinely bowled me over.

Oral histories always make me think about my own time, now. Will some dutiful student haltingly interview me someday? I was a high school freshman the day of the Columbine shootings, a high school senior on 9/11, a college senior during Hurricane Katrina, an Ohio voter when I stood in Grant Park and watched President-elect Obama give his acceptance speech. Even at 26, I’ve been alive to react to the 2000 presidential election, to the rise of the Internet, to the breakup of the Soviet Union and much more besides. Is my perspective someone’s future assignment? I dearly hope so.

Ira Glass mentions, in his interview, a woman whose contribution to the so-called War on Terror is refilling the candy on aircraft carrier vending machines. That’s her story at life scale. From time to time I worry that, despite all of the above, my story won’t have that same quality of content. “The Day I Lost Inside Wikipedia” or “How I Watched a Whole Season of Fringe in a Weekend” are not how I’d like to bore people at parties in future years. My hypothetical student deserves better too.

For someone who spends as much time on computers as I do, it is a little odd that I haven’t embraced podcasts just yet. I am old-fashioned in some particular, irregular ways. Radio shows, to me, don’t feel right unless they’re coming out of a radio. It doesn’t matter what kind, but watching the audio stream and stutter on iTunes just isn’t it. I miss NPR, though, and I would like to listen to it more. Luckily, I have some radios in my future.

That blob would be Gus, my basset hound. A magnificent view from all angles.

The process of packing up and clearing out my childhood home has been a protracted and painful one. Somehow I never imagined that I could point to pieces of my house and say I wanted it for my own. These radios have lived in our basement for years. I wasn’t even sure if they still worked, but I like the shape of them. They’re bulky and solid: they command attention, as they’re meant to. I like the raised letters of the brand, the big bakelite buttons and the stylized dial. My dad, somewhat puzzled that I would want them, nonetheless brought them upstairs and plugged them in. As it turned out, they were both totally functional, which endeared them to me even more. I liked that. It felt profoundly optimistic, for a piece of machinery with at least 50 years in it.

The last time I was home was Thanksgiving. I remember that Saturday night, without planning it, my dad turned on A Prairie Home Companion, another staple of my youth, and we all sat there, on temporary furniture, and listened to Garrison Keillor broadcast out of Cincinnati. His “News from Lake Wobegon” segment has always been my favorite — when I was little, I didn’t realize there was more to the show — and this installment was about the holiday. He had a line that resonated so strongly to me, then and now: in that voice of his, flat enough to be both earnest and wry, he described “all the exiles coming home again.” I feel like I will always remember that. And I will probably tell that story again.

My parents refuse to visit Chicago during the winter, so expect I’ll be waiting a long time for my radios to get to me. I’ve got my emotional attachment to them now, though. We have a history. In a way, that helps me be patient. Until then, I’m not averse to other changes. This week’s podcast of This American Life is sitting on my hard drive. Attention got, Mr. Glass. Tell me more.

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